Book Club Update: Nonfiction Spree

Book club commuter… my new role! Previously, I lived in the same town as most of our book club members. Now I’m 45 minutes away — a totally worthwhile drive to spend time with friends, discussing books. But still: a change. And most recently, I got to host, so the good people of book club made the long trek south.

In recent months, another interesting shift: it’s been all about the nonfiction. And I love the nonfiction.

Here’s how it’s gone…

 

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown

Discussibility Score: 4

Because: While we didn’t love the book (and I thought at least two of us would love the book — me because of my adoration of Brown’s The Boys in the Boat and my fondness for true tragedy, and my good friend because of her ghoulish tastes), we had a solid discussion of what we liked and didn’t. And how the writing and the structure of the book led us to those conclusions. I expected to feel a little bit more than I did, but I can’t fault an author for restraint, especially when writing about cannibalism.

 

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

Discussibility Score: 3

Because: Our book club loves discussing sociological trends, so this book opened up a good line of conversation about what’s going on with the middle class and the former middle class. And also about alternate lifestyles (people living in campers and traveling to seasonal jobs) due to reduced economic circumstances.

 

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

Discussibility Score: 5

Because: We actually discussed the book for more than an hour. And we were only discussing the first half of the book! (We split it into two meetings, because the thing is 600+ pages long.) We were fascinated by the way Laura’s early years make up so little of this biography. And how itinerant she was as a young adult. We’d just gotten to the part where Laura’s relationship with her daughter was getting kind of weird, to our minds. And now we can’t wait to read the rest. (Thanks to Bybee for the rave review on this one, which strongly influenced our decision to read it.)

 

So… for our next book club: more Laura Ingalls Wilder biography reading, as we finish the book. And for me… a real-life trek across the prairie to book club.

Perfect for book discussion

Montana 1948 by Larry Watson

3 words: riveting, quietly dramatic, haunting

 

There’s a reason this book, first published in 1993, is still flying off the shelves today. Actually, there are lots of reasons.

I’m pretty sure we can consider it a modern classic.

Here’s why…

First, this story is sadly timeless. A doctor from an influential family has been molesting Native American women, and it’s only when he commits murder to cover it up, that his brother–the sheriff–discovers this horrific misconduct. In these days of #MeToo, this novel’s narrative is timely in a way that just hurts. But Watson’s treatment of the subject is sensitive and honest. For a book group, this is one remarkable book to discuss, because while there’s a villain, there are no true heroes. It’s complex and messy and sadly real to life.

Second, Watson’s writing style perfectly fits the story. It’s clear from the length of the book (fewer than 200 pages) and the power of the prose that he’s also a poet. Every word is carefully placed, which a reader only realizes upon reflecting later–because while you’re reading this book, you’re gonna be turning the pages fast. Watson pulls you right into the story from the start and makes you care about the characters.

David, the narrator, is a preteen boy at the time of the story’s events. But he’s telling the story from the perspective of his adult years, which adds some nice complexity to the narrative.

If you’re looking for a great book discussion book, or a fast-moving work of literary fiction, or a modern Western, or just a remarkable book to fall into… this one’s a winner.

Give this book a whirl if you like… an adult perspective reflecting on a traumatic event witnessed as a child, succinct and powerful writing, coming of age stories, #MeToo, Native Americans, modern Westerns

 

What’s the best book you’ve discussed with someone recently?

 

Book Club Update: Summertime and the living is gory

It’s book club in the summertime, and in the past sometimes that’s meant short stories or children’s books or novellas. This year it means nonfiction about unpleasant topics. Plus a small dose of time travel.

 

Kidnapped: The Tragic Life of J. Paul Getty III by Charles Fox

Discussibility Score: 3

Because: While none of us liked this book, and all of us were frustrated by its style and structure and the intrusion of the author all over the place, we had a reasonably spirited discussion of how much it irritated us.

 

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

Discussibility Score: 4

Because: Yowser, the discussion! The key point: Was this book a time travel story or a cautionary tale about the psychedelic drug scene of the 1960s? This part of the conversation was extremely lively and thought-provoking. While we adored Rebecca, this book didn’t do it for us. (I flat-out despised it.) But the discussion made the reading displeasure worthwhile.

This weekend we meet to discuss The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown. And man, do I have thoughts about this one… Stay tuned.

 

In the meantime, for more book club goodness, check out the Unruly Book Club Central for a list of our most discussible books ever.

 

And please tell me… What books have you read lately that you’re aching to discuss with someone?

Book club update: eclectic!

Sometimes our book club reads by theme. But lately, we’ve been about as random as humanly possible: a classic British novel, a self-improvement book, a horror/alt-history mash-up, and a romantic memoir.

 

Here’s how it went…

 

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Discussibility Score: 4

Because: We had quite the lively discussion about why the dude was in love with the weak, ailing sister instead of the strong, smart, interesting one. We also talked about the writing style–how it felt rather modern. And the pacing (so slow, but so building).

 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Discussibility Score: 4

Because: We had different responses to Kondo’s approach, from full embrace to strong skepticism. So: lively conversation. I think this one is gonna crop up in future discussions of ife, if not of books.

 

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

Discussibility Score: 3

Because: We none of us liked this book, despite the fact that one of us is drawn to novels that are quirky and violent. This meant we had a fine time ripping into it. For reasons. We disliked the cardboard characters, we disliked the holes in the plot, we disliked the unbelievable motivations.

 

Fifty Acres and a Poodle by Jeanne Marie Laskas

Discussibility Score: 3

Because: We just plain liked this book too much to really fully discuss it. And some hadn’t completely finished reading it. I loved the book too much to do anything other than extol its virtues. I’m not sorry.

 

What’s up next: true crime! We’re reading Kidnapped: The Tragic Life of J. Paul Getty III by Charles Fox.

 

Great book discussion book: West with the Night

West with the Night by Beryl Markham

3 words: lyrical, understated, adventurous

You know that thing when you re-read a book and it’s even better than you’d remembered? That happened with West with the Night.

I kept thinking: my high school self was reading some intensely good writing.

The writing, people. The writing.

Markham (or whoever wrote it — there’s a juicy authorship controversy) had some serious talent as an author. There are sentences like this:

“I never knew what their digging got them, if it got them anything, because, when I set my small biplane down on the narrow runway they had hacked out of the bush, it was night and there were fires of oil-soaked rags burning in bent chunks of tin to guide my landing.” (p. 4)

I mean, that’s some gorgeous writing, and that’s some serious romance.

And this paragraph that I remembered from my reading of the book in my teens*:

“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep—leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late.” (p. 131)

Lovely, right?

Not only is the writing lush, but the storytelling is incredible and nuanced and delightfully incomplete. (Memoir, you’re a book discussion’s best friend.)

Markham is attacked by a lion and nearly attacked by an elephant, she trains derby-winning horses from her teen years on, and she flew an open cockpit biplane in Africa. And she had multiple affairs (not alluded to in this book, but legendary).

It was not a typical life.

There’s just something enticing about stories of growing up in Africa. This book evoked Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and William Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

Except Markham’s book contained some allusions to race that made me frankly uncomfortable. We can see these comments as typical of the time the book was written (1942), but that doesn’t mean a modern reader won’t squirm a bit. And that’s yet another topic of discussion: how do the treatments of race and colonialism affect our reading of the book?

Well worth reading—for the writing, the stories, the discussibility.

Give this book a whirl if you like… memoirs of a woman leading an unconventional life, the Golden Age of aviation, ex-pats in Africa in the early 20th century, reading about free spirits, sympathetic narratives about animals, tales of daring

What’s the book you re-read and found it better than you remembered?

*I might’ve even copied it into my Quotes notebook (such a dork)

October is National Reading Group Month

It’s October, and that means: book clubs!

This is the month we specially celebrate book groups, though some of us celebrate every month with a gathering and a book and food and drink and lots of talk.

Our book club’s theme this summer was Humor.

Since one of us has a rather grim sense of humor, one of my friends said, “If we choose Humor, the books have to be generally accepted as funny…  not MK funny” — which totally made me laugh.

And we achieved it. Here are the ratings of the books we chose, plus the completely non-humorous book we read before the Humor spree.

Pre-humor…

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

Discussability Score: 4

Because: Our conversation went on and on, and I have a feeling we’re going to harken back to this book in the future. Even when we started talking about other topics, we returned to the book. That’s a good sign.

 

The Humor trilogy

(because we’re talking Humor, and this photo cracks me up)

We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

Discussability Score: 4

Because: We talked a good long while about the fact that we all liked the book, and why. And also about character development and believability.

 

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Discussability Score: 4

Because: We talked about sexism and culture and generational differences, and we talked about writing style and differences in tone among essays.

 

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

Discussability Score: 4

Because: We all liked Nora Ephron very much, and we wish she were alive so she could join our book club. At least I know I do, and I think the others would agree. We liked and remembered the same essays, which we discussed at some length. And then we debated whether early Ephron is more zingy than later Ephron. Opinions were mixed. Discussion ensued.

 

For more of all things Book Club, check out Book Club Central.

 

Readers, does your book club ever read by theme?

The Leavers left me wanting to discuss it

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

3 words: sympathetic, character study, emotional

Wow. This book packs a serious emotional punch.

I first saw it on the “Penned & Picked by Patchett” shelf at Parnassus Books in Nashville. Ann Patchett had written a shelf talker about it, and I took note.

And then she wrote about it in an article about summer reading books, so I hustled it to the top of my TBR.

And I'm here to tell you: the story is pretty darn heart-wrenching. It’s about a pregnant teenager from China who comes to America, and her life is hard. I kept wanting her to catch a break, but the hard times just kept on coming. But the book felt realistic — none of the false happy coincidences that a lesser writer would offer.

There are two storylines here: the back story of Polly, the mother, and the current-day story of Deming, her son.

When working at a nail salon, Polly was swept up in a raid and sent back to China because she had arrived without the proper documents. And her 11-year-old son never knew what had happened to her. She simply vanished.

Deming was adopted by a white couple who renamed him “Daniel,” and they tried hard to give him a good life.

Everyone is trying, but usually they’re not succeeding. There are so many dashed hopes here, yet everyone’s doing the best they can.

After reading this book, you’re going to want to discuss it. (If you can’t find someone IRL, come back here and leave a comment, and we’ll chat!)

Give this book a whirl if you like… reading about cross-cultural adoption, complicated and troubled lives, immigration, the Chinese-American experience, musicians

What book are you aching to discuss?

We’re All Damaged… and that’s kind of OK

(Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash)

We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

3 words: wry, funny, open

This summer, our book club’s theme is Humor. And this is our lead-off book, and it was a home run.

Funny? Yes. In the things are really terrible but that makes them funnier way.

It’s set in the Midwest, so: bonus points. Living here in flyover country (don’t get me started), it always does my heart good to read a book with a solid Midwestern setting.

Andy had fled to New York after his wife left him for another man, but now his grandfather is dying, so Andy’s returned to Nebraska.

And his family’s hatched all kinds of (hilarious) new dysfunctions since he’s been gone, and he’s alienated from his best friend (aka his ex-wife’s brother), and basically his life is an unhappy mess.

Then a quirky young woman with a mysterious history pops onto the scene, and things get way more fun and way more complicated.

While his parents pursue their obsessive interests (his mom’s aiming to become a new talking head on Fox and he barely recognizes her, and his dad is preoccupied with an illegal motorcycle… and maybe something more), Andy bumbles around, trying to make things right.

Here we have a bunch of mostly good-hearted characters, all struggling in their own ways and crashing into one another and then trying to figure out the forgiveness thing.

It reminded me–in a good way–of This Is Where I Leave You. They both deal with loss and love with wry humor, and they both have the potential to make a person laugh out loud.

Give this book a whirl if you like… novels about returning home, post-divorce recovery, cringe-worthy gallows humor, quarter-life crisis, the Midwest

OK, if I’m looking for more books like this… funny about non-funny topics… Go!

Alas… that I hadn’t read it earlier

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

(Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash)

3 words: character-driven, unfolding, storytelling

Wow. I never knew I’d like this book as much as I did.

I know post-apocalyptic novels have been all the rage for a decade or more, but I kind of struggle with them. I mean, real life is hard enough, you guys! So tossing in a “this is the end of the world as we know it” scenario seems so freakin’ grim.

But I know: good drama makes a good story.

And in this book, first published in 1959, there’s some amazingly strong storytelling. It’s that good old Midcentury style, with a big story and well-drawn characters and an earnest social message.

I liked it so much.

Here’s what surprised me most: The characters really come first in this novel, even though obviously the plot’s drama is going to try to suck all the air out of the room. But the characters and their responses to a nuclear attack are believable and relatable. And while a person could dissect the story and describe each character as representing a different response to the nuclear winter, I didn’t feel like the characters were merely there to represent types. They felt too real.

So, the plot is basically this: the US and the USSR fire nuclear missiles at each other and lots of cities are destroyed, and outside the cities, people try to figure out how to survive. It’s actually pretty terrifying. If I’d read this book in middle school, back when we actually feared this crap would happen, I think I would’ve wanted to hide under the bed.

Though, ultimately this book offers some hope. There’s plenty-o-trauma, but in the end, some people actually survived.

Give this book a whirl if you like… post-apocalyptic stories, contemporary classics, Mid-Century novels, solid storytelling

So… anybody wanna talk me into tackling another post-apocalyptic book because: characters?

Audiobook so good it ruins you, doggone it

(photo credit: By Bea A Carson [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Nix by Nathan Hill

3 words: wry, family, storytelling

So this happened…

After finishing this book, I drove around resolutely dissatisfied by three audiobooks I tried to begin. Nothing worked (I will never be satisfied) because The Nix had totally spoiled me with its splendor.

As the Dear Man’s dear nephew said, “Magnum opus. That is all.”

Except: here we’re not gonna let that be all. More words!

This book is one of those big stories you just fall into, and it carries you away. I kept feeling surprised by each new turn the narrative took, but it all worked.

The tone captured me right away. When describing the way the media responded to a middle-aged woman hurling pebbles at a politician, the wry sarcasm completely delighted me. When I’m smiling out loud during the first five minutes of an audiobook, that’s a good sign.

We start with Samuel Andresen-Andersen, then meet his pebble-throwing mother, his mother’s lawyer, his worst student, his literary agent, a gamer who lives in the video game where they both spend too much time, and people from his mother’s brief (accidental) foray into the 1968 protest movement.

And there are even characters from Iowa. What more can a person ask for?

With a nicely balanced blend of cynicism and hope, this story unfolds through flashbacks and interspersed storylines.

And just when I thought I had it figured out… it surprised me one last time.

Big, literary, entertaining, and immensely satisfying.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… literary novels with a modern tone and sense of humor, complex family stories, narratives that interweave the past and the present, stories of 1960s counterculture, the past coming back to bite you

 

What book was so good it ruined other books for you?