Dear Litlove recently posted a question about best book club books, and I decided rather than clog up her comments with a huge, long answer, I’d answer her question in a post of my own. I find it hard to believe, but I have belonged to six different book discussion groups over the past 20 or so years. I also happen to have been responsible for organizing all but one of them (which shows how desperate I’ve always been to read and discuss books with others). These are some of the books I remember inspiring the best conversations. Many of the books on Litlove’s list are ones I would have chosen myself, but I’ve decided only to include ones she didn’t already mention.
Wallace Stegner – Crossing to Safety
This one could also go under “books about education,” since it’s about professors, but I think, ultimately, it’s more of a family story, as well as a story about friendship and what that means. I read it for two different book discussion groups, and both times we had fascinating discussions about family roles and friendships and the American class system.
John Irving – The Cider House Rules
Many different types of families are explored in this one, from the lack of family, to the makeshift family of an orphanage, to wealthy families shocked by unwanted pregnancies, to the families of those who work in places like cider houses. It’s also, of course, about family planning. It makes for a very lively discussion, especially given that the “abortion issue” just never goes away in this country.
Cultural and Political Stories
Malcolm X and Alex Hailey – The Autobiography of Malcolm X
I have to admit that I had absolutely no desire to read this one when it was chosen. It turns out I was riveted from page one. (That’s a theme in my life, isn’t it?) Our discussion was made all the more interesting by the fact that we had a wide range of ages in our book group, so some remembered Malcolm X and his assassination and could give first-hand accounts of impressions and how reading the book did and didn’t affect their opinions, while others of us (hand raised here) basically knew nothing about him until we read the book.
Ayann Hirsi Ali – Infidel
I just read this one for one of my book discussion groups. What an eye-opener it was for a bunch of “do-good,” “accept-everyone-and-his/her-religion-as-is” liberals. Ali is only one person, and she has her biases, but her story is harrowing, and she raises some excellent questions about Islam and women’s rights and how much we should accept when it comes to letting people practice their faiths as they see fit, no questions asked.
J.L. Carr – A Month in the Country
A fascinating look at one man’s “recovery” from his experience in WWI, spending a month in the country restoring a medieval mural in a church. It’s a great starting point for those interested in the era and the effects of that war, which have been somewhat overshadowed by all the attention lavished on WWII, and interesting for what the reader learns not only about that era but also about the era in which the mural was painted. A very short book that inspired a VERY lengthy conversation (but maybe that's just because I didn't want to shut up about it).
Anzia Yezierska – Bread Givers
If you want to get a brutal glimpse of tenement living and family life and relations on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1920s, you can’t do much better than this. You’ve got plenty to discuss for hours, from the American class system, to different forms of racism and prejudice, to women’s and children’s roles, etc. Oh, and if you can manage to take your book group on a field trip to the Tenement Museum, all the better.
Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre
For many in my book group, it had been a long time since any of us had read this one, and most of us had read it as teenagers or when in college. I loved it as much the second time around as I had in college, and we had a great time discussing all the different levels to the book and the fact that it’s really two or three different books in one. (I’m making myself want to read it again as I type this.)
Willa Cather – My Antonia
Little House on the Prairie-for-grownups. I was convinced I was going to hate it and ended up loving it. (See? There’s that theme again.) It made for a great discussion about women’s roles and the often extremely difficult circumstances under which they have been expected to conform to them. And I’m still haunted by some of the images Cather painted so beautifully.
Jung Chang – Wild Swans
The book that made me realize I knew absolutely nothing about China and that I wanted to learn more. It traces three generations of Chinese women through a grandmother, mother, and daughter (who writes the book) and their incredibly different lives (from concubine to woman living in Great Britain). The book was so good that, despite suffering from a horrible hangover the day we met to discuss it, I was still eager to talk about it for hours. If your book group is trying to decide between Lisa See’s fiction (which I also read for a different group) or this, choose this.
Lillian Schlissel – Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journeys
More-Little-House-on-the-Prairie-for-grownups. This one’s great, because it’s actual diary pages from different women, so you get different “personal” stories and different sorts of details. I was amazed by how much we all learned from reading this book and how most of us had not put much thought into the American westward movement from a female perspective until we read it.
Gustav Flaubert – Madame Bovary
Despite the fact that I’ve never liked this book, I have to admit that it made for a great discussion (maybe because some of us disliked it so much, while others loved it, which often makes for great discussions). We had quite a lot to discuss, from why this book was such a “shocker” at the time, to what Emma Bovary was seeking, to female roles, to whether or not she was a believable character, etc., etc. I have to admit that after the discussion, I found myself thinking, “Well, maybe it’s not as bad as I think it is.” (That's what a good discussion will do to an impressionable mind such as mine.)
Isabelle Allende – The House of the Spirits
Proof that others can do magic realism as well as Garcia-Marquez can. A fabulous book that will immerse you in the culture, make you believe in the mystical, and remind you that families are the same the world over, all of which makes for great discussion. Just don’t suggest that your book group rent and watch the absolutely horrific movie version (despite the fact Antonio Banderas is in it. Even his good looks can’t save an interminably boring movie. However, you do have to admire the skill it must have taken to turn such a riveting book into such a yawn-inducing film).
Crime and Thrillers
Dashiell Hammett – The Glass Key
This one could go in the classic category, too. There are so many wonderfully mysterious aspects to this book itself, besides the mystery, that it makes for great discussion. As a matter of fact, the actual mystery is sort of incidental, and that's a good jumping-off point for discussion.
David Guterson – Snow Falling on Cedars
It is a mystery, of course, but it’s so much more than a mystery. It’s not necessarily one of the best-written books (Guterson has a tendency to over-write when it's not necessary), possibly was hyped a bit too much, but plenty of fodder for discussion is provided. For when your group is in the mood for a page-turner.
Novels of Ideas
Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day
I'm not usually one to embrace the literary darling of the day (and Ishiguro most certainly was when this book was published and has continued to be), but this mesmerizing novel is about so much more than WWII and appeasement and being a butler. It’s yet another book that can be read on so many different levels. I remember our book discussion group reading more passages out loud from this one than we generally tended to do, asking ourselves questions about specific aspects of it.
Sinclair Lewis – Babbitt
Start with how little we’ve actually changed in America since this book was written and go from there. Sinclair Lewis focuses one of the sharpest (and most painful) lenses on American culture through which I've ever stared. And he’ll make you laugh to keep you from crying.
Louis de Beniers – Corelli’s Mandolin
More proof that others can do magic realism as well as Garcia-Marquez. It’s a great love story, and it inspired us to talk about culture clashes, the human elements of war, and yes, love. Gabriel Garcia-Marquez – Love in the Time of Cholera
And proof that Garcia-Marquez can do magic realism as well as Garcia-Marquez. This one isn’t a mere love story. You’ll find yourselves discussing love on every single level and trying to define what it really is. A warning, though: this is not one to be read if you belong to a very polite, nice-nice book group, and you’re afraid of arguing with your friends.
Robertson Davies – Rebel Angels
(If my memory serves me correctly. This was one of the first books I ever read for a book discussion.) It’s a great book to discuss if you’ve got a mix of academics (or someone who grew up surrounded by academics as I did) and non-academics, as well as a good one for the “can all male writers really write believable female characters?” debate. Oh, and you’ll laugh (always a good thing).
Again, Crossing to Safety could also go in this category.