Suggestions for Next Year’s Book Club

unknownLooking forward to next year, some books clubs have already finalized their monthly reading list. Others are having parties to discuss possibilites, or desperately asking their members to host a book – any book.  As I reviewed the books I’ve read in 2017, I thought about those I would be willing to reread for a discussion, and which would offer some value for expanding knowledge, nudging introspection, or just be fun to revisit.

 

With its inherent possibilities for comparison to what really happened, historical fiction is strong on my list.  Requiring the host to research (but google is so easy), the fictionalized lives imagined by the author compared to facts recorded in history could make for a lively discussion.  Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life adds the possibility of comparison to the popular PBS series “Call the Midwife,” based on its own memoir.   Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate opens a hornet’s nest but also addresses foster care.  News of the World by Paulette Giles, set in post Civil War Texas and nominated for the 2016 National Book Award, with its “True Grit” flavor, is an easy and direct tale of a young girl and her gritty escort but with surprising twists.  All four books are easy to follow and carry the weight of information worth knowing.  Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is another of my favorites based on historical fact and is well worth reading, but may be too ambitious for some book clubbers (there – I’ve thrown down the challenge).

Meeting new authors, especially if the book is short, a little frivolous, but with a smattering of philosophy, is always good for mixing up the list.  Joanna Trollope, an author new to me but who many already have read, has a new book – City of Friends.  Lisa Allardice describes Trollope’s books as “tales of quiet anguish and adultery among the azaleas; Trollope created the original desperate housewives.” Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk will be welcomed by readers who enjoyed The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.  Rooney adds a dash of New York City as she reminisces on her New Year’s Eve walk through the city.

Not a big fan of nonfiction, I still feel compelled to include one on my list.  Alan Burdick’s Why Time Flies offers enough scientific inquiry with relatable anecdotes to  be readable.  The National Book Awards recently published their longlist for best nonfiction, but they seem too political for me.  You can decide for yourself – National Book Awards nominees for Nonfiction.  I have yet to read Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris, but I expect to like it – more a memoir, but could fit the nonfiction category.

When bestsellers are not in the library system, classics are usually available, and this year I reread Edna Ferber’s So Big – with an amazingly contemporary message.  Wallace Stegner’s books Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose should be required reading for everyone, but this year I read one of his earlier, shorter books – Remembering Laughter – a good book to start a discussion of this famous author.

For my final two, I nominate a coming of age story – Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, and a story about an abandoned child – Leaving Lucy Pear.  

My list has 11 books, one month off the year for the annual luncheon or decision-making party.  If you click on the title, you will be directed to my book review.  What books are on your book club list for next year?  What books would you recommend?

MY LIST:

  1. My Notorious Life
  2. Before We Were Yours
  3. News of the World
  4. Lincoln in the Bardo
  5. City of Friends  
  6. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
  7. Why Time Flies
  8. So Big
  9. Remembering Laughter
  10. Ordinary Grace
  11. Leaving Lucy Pear

Books from 2016:

I have not included books from earlier years, but, if not yet discussed, I would point to:

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Ordinary Grace

9781451645859_p0_v4_s192x300    A coming of age story with power and sentiment, William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace follows the summer of a thirteen year old boy as he reflects on the circumstances that formed his character as an adult.

Frank Drum, and his brother, Jake, romp through the summer days in the Minnesota countryside, jumping into the cool quarry waters, playing ball with their friends, dangling their feet over the railroad trestle, and surreptitiously listening in on adult conversations.  Their carefree summer suddenly turns into drama, when they find a an old Sioux leaning over a dead body below the railroad tracks.  As Frank tells the story, he warns of more deaths to come that summer in the early 1960’s, yet the flavor of the plot and dialogue remains unexpectedly normal as everyone continues with their uneventful lives.

Krueger, the author of the Cork O’Conner series about a former Chicago cop living in the Minnesota woods, is a master of mystery, and he does include three deaths and a murder with red herrings to distract from the real killer, who is eventually revealed.  With a mix of anticipation and tension, Krueger paces the story with the evenness of the boys’ lives as they live through the idyllic summer that forces them to grow up.

Krueger has created a cast of compelling characters (young and old), each in his or her own way searching for something, including the narrator’s father, the town’s Methodist pastor.  Frank’s father,  having changed careers from being a promising trial attorney after he survived the horrors of war, carries the novel’s theme of basic goodness despite the world’s misery and genuinely bad things happening to good people.  But Krueger is never preachy, and his minister’s thoughtful comments seem more philosophical than religious.  Frank and his brother grow up with him as their model, facing life and death with his perspective:

“Loss,” says Frank toward the novel’s end, “once it’s become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand … you can use it to beat yourself or you can throw it away.”

Despite its moral compass constantly pointing North and its tangential bucolic descriptions of the Minnesota woods in summer, Ordinary Grace is a compelling coming-of-age novel, exploring events propelling its characters from childhood to adulthood.  Although the ending is somewhat predictable, some of the characters’ words will stay with you:

“My heart had simply directed me in a way that my head couldn’t wrap its thinking around…”

“It’s hard to say goodbye and almost impossible to accomplish this alone and ritual is the railing we hold to, all of us together, that keeps up upright and connected until the worst is past.”

I found this book on a friend’s book club list for next year.  The author of Ordinary Grace includes a a few topics for book club discussion at the back of the book, but one seems to summarize the book’s intent:

How do small moments help deal with larger-than-life trouble?

 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

225x225bb     In telling the story of a small community overrun by gossip, prejudice, and secrets, Joanna Cannon humorously reveals the dangers of obstinate righteousness through the voices of two ten year old girls.  In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, a series of mishaps and strange occurrences threaten to upset the quiet row of British country houses in a small neighborhood – small enough that every knows every one else’s business, and if they don’t, they are willing to create their own versions of reality.

The driving focus of the story is Mrs. Cleasy’ s sudden disappearance.  As the search for her continues throughout the story, Cannon introduces a series of related incidents as possible clues to the mystery through the voice of ten year old Grace.  Mrs. Cleasy’s disappearance could be simply escape from her life or something more sinister.  The neighbors fear she may have uncovered a secret that could expose their past shameful action.  Ignorant of the adults’ trepidation,  Grace, a resourceful 10-year-old convinces herself and her loyal friend, Tilly, that everything might go back to normal if only they can find God.

Posing as Brownies seeking badges, Grace and her friend Tilly, pursue their own investigation, and as they interview each neighbor they slowly uncover the neighborhood’s secret – an insidious plot against one resident that happened nine years earlier.

The title refers to a biblical verse:

“…He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left…he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire…”

The trouble, Grace discovers as she interviews her neighbors,  is deciding who are the goats and who are the sheep.  Under the guise of a quiet existence, each has a secret misery:  Dorothy, bullied by her husband, Eric; Brian, who cannot escape his overbearing mother; John Creasy, husband of the missing woman, who fears his wife has discovered what he has done. Each character is concealing a secret, but not necessarily the one you suspect.  In addition, two unexplained scandals lurk in the air – a kidnapped baby and a house fire – as well as the neighbors anxiety and anger over two who do not fit into their expectations – an Indian family newly moved in and a bachelor with long hair who likes to take photographs.

With so many diversions, the story may seem overwhelming.  Cannon’s wry humor, however, manages to expose human frailty while cautioning the reader to beware of making assumptions.  Her diversion into a creosote stain on a drainpipe that looks like Jesus is hilarious, with the neighbors keeping watch and fighting over the placement of lawn chairs to keep vigil.   In her review for the New York Times last year, Samantha Hunt noted:

Jesus’ manifestation births a driveway vigil, a Chautauqua of folding chairs and a struggle. Who sits closest to Jesus? This caldron of neighbors grows hot. At what temperature will community boil over into mob violence? Fear is contagious in small spaces… What belongs where? Who owns what? And what hollow treats will be developed to distract us from the real crimes committed in the name of safety?

Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist, privy to many secret fears; she has said her book was inspired by her patients and by the story of Christopher Jefferies,  the retired teacher and landlord who was falsely implicated in the murder of Joanna Yeates in Bristol in 2010, and later won libel damages for the way he was portrayed in some newspapers.

In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Cannon may be sharing her insights about inner miseries and hypocrisies,  and their manifestations on others – and perhaps, cautioning that we may not know our neighbors as well as we think.

Although a friend recommended this book a year ago, I returned my library copy unread – just could not get to it.  I was reminded of it recently from an interview on By the Book, and glad I read it – a book full of humor and profound moments worth thinking about and discussing.

Cannon has another book due to be published in January – Three Things About Elsie.  This time I’ve preordered it.

 

 

The Excellent Lombards

If I hadn’t read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, I may have missed Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards. Patchett recommended the book as “the book Hamilton was born to write.” Like Patchett’s Commonwealth, The Excellent Lombards focuses on a family, and has some biographical references from its author. Coincidentally, both books also have a character named Frances.

Since Hamilton tells this coming of age story through the voice of twelve year old Mary Frances Lombard living with her family on a small Wisconsin apple and sheep farm at the end of the twentieth century, the rhythm of the narrative is hard to follow at first. Ownership of the farm lands has been passed down through generations and is now shared by Jim Lombard, Frankie’s father, his cousin Sherwood, and an elderly aunt May Hill. Everyone from old May Hill to the children, Frankie and her brother, William, work the farm, except Nellie, Frankie’s mother who is the town librarian.

Frankie is determined to stay on the farm forever, imagining a long life there with her brother, but the small farm struggle against land development and innovative crops, as well as inner family rivalries, threaten her dream. Change is hard, especially when you don’t want to grow up.

Hamilton, of course, has a message for the reader through tense moments at town hall meetings or around the dinner table, but the novel’s humor, cleverly flowing through Frankie, kept my attention – from her pushing the library carts through the halls in a synchronized dance routine to being locked in the old lady’s bedroom while she was sharpening her spying skills.  Frankie will go to extremes to keep everyone happy, purposely losing the geography bee to her younger lispy cousin to make her feel better.

Hamilton touches on historic moments such as the terrorist attack on the New York City Towers, but only as placements in time. The real terror is the developing history noone can stop. The story ends with Frankie facing her own possibilities, opportunities, and obstacles – some seem inevitable. With grace and wit, Hamilton delivers her perspective on the difficulty of letting go.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

9780812989885_p0_v3_s192x300  I wasn’t sure I wanted to read this story of guns and violence but its author Hannah Tinti wrote The Good Thief, one of my favorites, and in her interview for National Public Radio (NPR) she compared her main character in The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley to Hercules and his twelve Labors.  The first lines – “When Loo was twelve years old her father taught her how to shoot a gun.  He had a case full of them in his room, others hidden in boxes around the house” – sounded like an ad for the National Rifle Association, but I persevered and found a moving story of a young vulnerable girl and the father who would protect her.

The story unfolds in layers, moving back and forth to reveal Samuel’s life and the cause of each of his scars – bullet holes marking major events, hurdles he overcomes.  Samuel is a crook but not a villain.  He makes his living moving merchandise for other criminals as well as stealing cars and money.  His circle of friends include only one who is true, Jove, another comrade in arms, and he moves constantly from place to place to avoid the law.

When he meets Lily, he finds true love and his reason for living, but after her death by accidental drowning, he is left with Loo, not yet one year old, and the responsibility for her life.  The story is as much about Loo as it is about Samuel.  Feisty and determined, Loo knows about her father’s guns, his drinking, his nefarious way of life, and accompanies him from motel to motel, wondering what it would be like to stay in a school longer than a year.  When Loo becomes a teenager, Samuel decides to try to give her a steady life in the town where her mother grew up.  He stashes his substantial savings in a licorice jar hidden in the toilet and becomes a fisherman.

Lily’s mother lives in the town and knows all about Samuel.  At first, she rejects Loo, but as the story unfolds, reasons for her attitude become clearer – more than the obvious one of her daughter marrying a crook.  The author never gives too much away, holding back information, teasing the narrative, until slamming an event into the reader’s head – where did that come from?

As Loo grows into a woman, the author uses the coming of age theme as a way to understand those around her.  Loo’s boyfriend, Marshall, may not be the hero Loo imagines, but she tries to help him and win the approval of his bitter mother by forging signatures on a petition for saving the shore from overfishing.  The specter of a whale emerges, literally, in the story, a few times – marking another possible allusion to the author’s penchant for myths.  It would be easy to connect mythological heroes and villains to each of Tinti’s characters, given her admission of Hercules as her inspiration, but the tale stands on its own as a forthright modern saga of guns and roses. Book clubs would find so many possibilities for discussion but my favorite might be Samuel’s first aid kit, complete with stapler.

The story has a wonderful and powerful ending, but getting there is just as much fun.  Following the trail of Samuel Hawley and Loo is like watching a spaghetti western – thrilling, suspenseful, poignant – with lots of guns.