Hard-to-Find Book Club Selections Part II
Yesterday reading group members shared stories of hard-to-find books. Today some RGG.com readers offer advice on how to avoid the book-finding dilemma.Book Club in a Bag
Our book club, The Pageturners, has been in existence for more than 18 years, so we've had a few occasions where we've had to search for multiple copies. But I have to say it hasn't been much of a problem because we try to keep availability in mind when we make a selection. Some of us are book-buyers, some are book-borrowers (from the library) and others are book-listeners (books on tape). We usually share the books when we need to.
Our library in Port Washington, New York, recently began a new program. They offer "Book Club in a Bag." They give 10 copies of a book with discussion questions and other materials. There are nine books to choose from, that they think are good choices for a book club. Year of Wonders
by Geraldine Brooks, Loving Frank
by Nancy Horan and The History of Love
by Nicole Krauss are some of the choices. We're trying to make arrangements to use the system for the first time next month with The History of Love
, and we are looking forward to NOT having to find copies of the book on our own. ---Eileen SpinelliAsk a Librarian
The Metropolitan Library System in Oklahoma City provides the books for our Southern Plaza Book Discussion Group in Bethany, Oklahoma. Anita Roesler, the outreach librarian, is a member of our group as a result of this project and she brings 15 or so copies of each book we are going to read the month before we discuss it.
We deliberately choose titles that have some large print and some books on tape so the needs of all of the people in our group. The books are assigned to two people, so they can share it and trade midway through the month.
At the book discussion group meeting, we all return our books to Anita and she hands out the books for the next month. We choose our titles three months in advance so we'll know that the books will be available in the quantities we need (sometimes a bestseller today will be off the bestseller list by that time, but the multiple copies have not been discarded yet).
Oh --- and did I mention --- there's no charge for this service. Check with your public library and see if they can offer this service to your book discussion group. ---Dr. Arlita HarrisDouble Check
My book club voted to read only books that were out in paperback. This way we didn't have to spend $25 or more if the library's copies were unavailable. We also try to stay a few months ahead in the choice of books.
Never the less, somehow the next book we are to read, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter
, is NOT out in paperback and our excellent library has zero copies! I sent a memo to the hostess who chose it and she will try to get her copy back in time from the other member who borrowed it. In any case, I will not buy a hard cover copy.
My advice is to just make doubly sure the book is readily available before even suggesting it! We are reading for fun, not for a class. ---Lesley Fry, Scottsdale, ArizonaIf you have any words of wisdom to offer on the topic, please post it in the comments section.
Hard-to-Find Book Club Selections Part I
In last week's newsletter to RGG.com registered book clubs, I wrote about a friend who had been all over Manhattan trying to get a copy of his group's next pick:
The Invention of Curried Sausage by Uwe Timm. It came out 10 years ago. No bookstores stocked it, not even the Strand, which has an astounding 18 miles of new and used books. Also, the entire New York City library system has only three copies of it, all of which were checked out and with a 35-person waiting list. He ended up buying it online after hours of searching at bookstores and libraries.
This story inspired us to ask readers to what depths they've gone to get their hands on a book club selection. Here are some of their answers. And tomorrow we'll share some advice from reading group members on how to avoid the book-finding dilemma.
After reading a couple of "heavy" books we decided that we wanted something lighter. We had read Blessed are the Cheese Makers
by Sarah-Kate Lynch
several years ago and liked her fun and entertaining writing style. While at book club we searched on-line and came across a list of her books, and after reading a summary of each one chose Finding Tom Connor
. The next day one of the members sent out an email saying the book was no longer in print and we might need to choose a new book. Not to be deterred I started looking on line to see how many I could find. There are 12 of us in our book group so we needed to find quite a few.
While searching the Internet I ended up on the author's website and contacted her to ask if she knew where we could find her book. She emailed back the very next day and told me that the book had only been published in New Zealand. A member of our book group had a friend that lived in New Zealand so she made contact with the author and the author's agent and got a box of the books and sent them to us. We are currently waiting for the book. Talk about Finding Tom Connor! ---Susannah, West Linn, OregonInternational Intrigue
The tale of the hard-to-find book club selection in the newsletter really hit home for me, so I thought I'd send you a mail to share our ongoing struggle with this problem.
I'm part of a fledgling 6-month-old group in Oslo, Norway, and choosing book club selections is always an adventure. We try to stick with popular contemporary titles to simplify the process, but even then, the bookstores in town rarely stock more than one or two copies of an English title. Thankfully we meet only once a month, so usually we can hand off a single copy to two or three club members before our end-of-the-month meeting. We've also started choosing books two months in advance, giving us one month to find the book, and one month to read it!
But when we each want our own copies of a book, it usually mans finding a "book mule." Anyone who has a trip to the US or UK planned suddenly finds themselves with a pile of requests for the next book club selection. I wonder what the Norwegian authorities would think if they ever stopped one of us at customs only to find half a dozen copies of the same title! Thankfully no one has been arrested as an illegal book importer so far! ---Meg NatrajDo you have a story about a hard-to-find book club selection? Please share it in the comments section. We'd love to hear about it.
Joshua Henkin's Book Club Adventures: The Latest Chapter, January 2009 Part II
Yesterday Joshua Henkin, author of the novel Matrimony, answered some of the questions he's frequently asked by reading group members about the writing process. Today he weighs in on another question he was recently asked during a book club gathering... Another Question that Came Up in January: What do you think of book group facilitators?
I've been thinking about this question in the context of a broader issue that comes up when I meet book groups. Sometimes a book group member will say to me that they appreciate Matrimony
more now that they've talked to me, that they understand things about the book they didn't understand at first.
I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, I'm glad meeting me has enriched their understanding of the book, but on the other hand, I think a book needs to stand on its own. In the writing workshops I teach I don't allow the writer to explain or defend what s/he wrote because if only we could do that in real life --- stand over our readers' shoulders and explain things to them. The fiction itself has to do the work. At the same time, we all know the experience of having taken a literature course in high school or college and having our appreciation of the book enriched by that experience. In that sense, a good book group facilitator plays the role of a literature professor. They point the group in the direction of certain interesting themes and can get the members to move beyond the question of whether they liked the book and to focus on questions that are potentially more interesting.
A couple of months ago, in the Style Section of the Sunday New York Times
, there was an article about book groups
and about book group facilitators that featured, among others, my fellow guest blogger here at RGG.com, Esther Bushell
, who's a wonderful book group facilitator from Greenwich, Connecticut. One of the things Esther and other book group facilitators do is manage some of the complicated interpersonal dynamics that come up in a book group (a facilitator is a psychologist as well as a professor!). They can also help choose books that the group might like but that the members haven't necessarily heard of. In addition, the simple fact that book group members pay a facilitator may make the members more inclined to take the meetings seriously and to make sure they've read the book (it's strange what paying money does to you!).
Of course, facilitators aren't for everyone, and a bad facilitator is worse than no facilitator at all (I once spoke to a book group whose facilitator was so intent on proving to me how smart she was that she didn't let anyone else in the group speak. She barely even let me speak!), but I've been struck by the number of really good facilitators out there. In the last month, I talked to two book groups led by Julie Robinson of Literary Affairs
in Beverly Hills, and Julie did an amazing job of guiding the discussion, keeping everyone involved, and offering important insight into Matrimony
. So did Susan Boyar, a book group facilitator in Connecticut and New York, whose book group meetings with me have been consistently terrific, thanks in no small part to Susan's work as a facilitator.
And there are lots of other excellent facilitators out there. Judith Palarz and Penelope Saltsburg are two that come to mind. They both facilitate quite a number of book groups out of Los Angeles, and they both have excellent reputations. Between the two of them and Julie Robinson, I'm beginning to get the sense that L.A. is unfairly pegged as a movies-only town. Might it be a center of book culture (and book group culture) too?
Previous RGG.com Posts by Joshua Henkin:Book Club Adventures, January 2009Book Club Adventures, December 2008Book Club Adventures, December 2008 Part IIBook Club Adventures, November 2008Book Club Adventures, November 2008 Part IIShouting Matches and More
Joshua Henkin's Book Club Adventures: The Latest Chapter, January 2009
It's a new year of book club visits for novelist and creative writing professor Joshua Henkin. He speaks regularly with reading groups across the country about his novel Matrimony, and each month he shares behind-the-scenes stories with us. One of the groups that Josh met with in January is ReadingGroupGuides.com contributor Shannon McKenna Schmidt's book club. Click here to read her re-cap of the meeting. Check back tomorrow, too. Josh will be answering an intriguing question he was asked in January: What do you think of book group facilitators?January's Condensed Statistics
Number of Book Groups I talked to: 10
Number in Person: 3
Number by phone: 7
Number of states represented: 6 (New York, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois)
Total Number of Participants: 102January's Writing Process Question Number 1: Do you write every day?
I certainly try to write every day, though with teaching and raising two small kids (and meeting with book groups!) it isn't always possible. I certainly don't wait for inspiration, largely because I don't believe in inspiration. Sure, there's writing that's inspired and writing that's uninspired, but I don't think the quality of your writing correlates to how you're feeling when you sit down to write. If anything, I think the relationship is inversely proportional. Often when I'm feeling most inspired I produce my worst work (perhaps because I've fallen in love with the sound of my own voice), and when I'm feeling least inspired I produce my best work. In any case, I think writers do best when they demystify the writing process, when they treat their work as a job. And it is a job. You pack your lunch pail and go to work like everyone else; you tie yourself to your chair every day. You don't write a novel. You write a page a day or however much; only looking back do you have a novel.
In that sense, a novel is like life. It's only once you've taken a certain path that you realize you've taken it; you look back and realize, This is the job I've been at for the last ten years, this is the person I've married, this is the life I've chosen to lead. I don't mean that it happens haphazardly, or that people don't make decisions. But I do think that our lives come most into focus as we look back. And the same is true of a novel. You look back when you're done and realize this is what you've written. When you're in the actual process of writing, you can't see the forest for the trees.
As for how often to write, I tell my students that even if they have next to no time to write, it's better to write as often as possible. Better, that is, to write ten minutes a day six days a week than to write for an hour on a Sunday. Now, obviously, if I were writing only an hour a week, I'd never get my novel done, but the same principle applies. Although it's important for a novelist to have big chunks of time in which to write, what's even more important is to be constantly engaged with your characters. If I go several days without writing, it's like I'm starting over when I come back to the book. But if I'm writing every day, then I think about my characters even when I'm not writing. They stay alive for me, and that's a crucial thing. You need to check in on your characters. They're like plants that need to be watered.January's Writing Process Question Number 2: When you started Matrimony, did you know where it was going?
Absolutely not. I never know where I'm going, and to the extent that I have some sense of where I'm going, I'm relieved to learn that I'm wrong. When I started Matrimony
, I thought it was about a love relationship and that it was taking place at a college reunion. Well, it is about a love relationship, but it's about other things too (friendship, class, health and sickness, betrayal), and though there is a college reunion in the book, it doesn't come until around page 270 and it lasts for all of six pages. So pretty early on I realized I had no clue. Which is as it should be. When a writer has too much of a clue, that's when s/he gets into trouble. Of course, you want to have a clue eventually, but for the first draft, certainly, you want to proceed much more intuitively; you want to be writing in a dream-like state.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but chief among them is the fact that if you want your characters to come to life, you need to give them room to surprise you. That's because the relationship between plot and character is complex and symbiotic. Think of our own lives. We both create our plots and are created by them. Things happen to us, and we become different from who we were when we started. The same is true in fiction. If you're too determined to make your characters do something, then they're not going to be the complex people you want them to be. As a writer friend of mine said, if you inject your characters into a predetermined plot, you end up with Lipton-Cup-a-Story. Another friend of mine wrote her undergraduate psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how kids group objects. The adults group the apple with the banana, and the kids group the monkey with the banana. This is another way of saying that kids are more natural story-tellers than adults are. One of my jobs as a writer and as a teacher of writing is to teach myself and others how to think like a child again --- albeit like a smart, sophisticated child. And the way to do that is not to plan things out too much --- to allow your characters and your story to carry you on their sails.
In any case, planning out a book never works, in part because the writer changes as s/he goes along. When I started Matrimony
, I was 33, single, and living in Ann Arbor, and when I finished Matrimony
, I was 43, married, the father of two daughters, and living in Brooklyn. I wasn't the same person as I was when I started. But the book needs to feel seamless. And in order to do that, you have to make so many adjustments as you rewrite and revise. Often it means cutting scenes that you love but that don't belong in the book. At the very least, it means throwing away all those plans you had and looking at things afresh.
Previous RGG.com Posts by Joshua Henkin:Book Club Adventures, December 2008 Part IIBook Club Adventures, December 2008Book Club Adventures, November 2008Book Club Adventures, November 2008 Part IIShouting Matches and More
Labels: Joshua Henkin, Matrimony
Oscar Worthy Reading
I love Oscar night. I get into the evening from the fashions to the acceptance speeches. Last night I was watching one of the endless pre-Oscar shows and I was thinking I wish there was a category called Books Into Movies. I know there is one for screenplay adaptation, but I would love one that looks only at movies that were based on books. Since so much great material can be found in books, I would love to have a moment for this to be acknowledged.
Sure many times I do not like the movie as much as the book, but I would love to encourage more studios, directors and producers looking to books for inspiration. And I would like viewers to be sure to note what movies were based on books.
One of my favorite movies based on a book this year was The Reader;
the book was by Bernhard Schlink. I had not read the book before I saw the movie, but wanted to go back and read it afterwards. Also, as I previously wrote
, the short story that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
was adapted from was something we enjoyed noting around our house. And Slumdog Millionaire
was based on Q&A
by Vikas Swarup.
How do you feel about this?
Owen Sheers: The End
How important is the ending of a novel, for both the writer and the reader? Guest blogger Owen Sheers explores this question and shares how the conclusion of his novel Resistance has led to some lively book club discussions.
I always knew how Resistance
would end before I sat down to write the first word of the story. Not necessarily to the same extent as the author John Irving, who apparently has known, before writing them, the exact syntax and wording of the last sentences of his novels long before he reached them. But I did know what would happen, if not how I was going to get there. My map and compass were both unsure at the start and at times remained so throughout the writing of the novel. My destination, however, was never in doubt.
The story of Resistance
was shaped by many influences. The memories of the old men who would have made up Britain's insurgency had the Nazis invaded; the geography, history and myths of the Black Mountains in South Wales, where the novel is set and where I grew up; the need to create an alternative --- but within the covers of the book, a totally believable --- World War II. How the story would end, though, was what decided many of the narrative decisions thrown up by these influences. I know that many writers write a novel allowing the story to take them towards an unknown conclusion and maybe I'll write like that one day too. But somehow I doubt it. To me it makes perfect sense to know the ending of a novel before you begin. Everything in the book is, after all, heading that way. The personal arcs of the characters, the arc of the story and, of course, the reader. For me, it was only by knowing my ending that I could decide when and how certain pieces of information would be released, what prophecies could be made, what clues dropped. This was especially important in Resistance
as one of my main motivations in writing the novel was to try and situate or manipulate a reader into a position where they desired the main character, Sarah, to make the objectively "wrong" moral choice. For this to work many intricate and intimate foundations would have to be laid hundreds of pages before she made that choice and a reader, hopefully, found themselves wanting her to go another way....
The other element of the ending of Resistance
I knew I wanted was a note of ambiguity. But only that --- a note, a scent, not ambiguity itself. Careful reading of the pages leading up to the ending leave no doubt, I think, as to what happens. Or so I thought. One of the most interesting things to happen at reading groups and book clubs I've attended has been some readers asking for confirmation of what happens at the end of the novel. At first this worried me, but then it turned out that it only took a few questions from me to reveal that nearly all these readers did in fact know what happened. They just hoped that maybe it didn't. One woman hoped this so much that she actually refused to agree with me, insisting I'd got it wrong and that actually what I thought happened at the end of the book, didn't at all! An important reminder of the extent to which, as readers, can we take ownership of a story once it has left the author's hands.
I soon stopped worrying over these questions I encountered at reading groups about the ending of Resistance
, mainly because of the discussions we had as a result of them. From those last lines we'd find ourselves ranging back through the rest of the novel looking again at individual characters' actions, at how scenes related to each other, even to the very opening paragraph. And this is exactly what I hope a good ending should do --- turn on a light not previously present in the novel, however subtle, that casts the whole in a slightly different shade, throwing new shadows over known ground. In such a way a single line can minutely re-calibrate your experience of the book you've just spent days and weeks of your life with in such a way that it will resonate in the months to come with even more penetration. I had this experience myself just yesterday when I finished Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road
. Now there's a great last line....
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: "What Made You Write Something So Different?"
Today's guest blogger, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, talks about what inspired her to write her most recent novel, The Palace of Illusions, and some of the challenges she faced in re-telling a 5,000-year-old Indian epic.
Recently I was invited to a book club to discuss my latest novel, The Palace of Illusions
. I accepted happily. I love book clubs. Unlike bookstore talks where you are introducing a new book to people unfamiliar with it, the members of a reading group have generally gone through a book carefully. Of course, this means you have to be prepared for in-depth questioning. ("The color red appears 41 times in this novel, but it doesn't always mean the same thing. What exactly did you want it to symbolize, and why?") But it also means they liked the book, otherwise they wouldn't have invited you. Plus there's usually food. Good food.
After we had all helped ourselves to samosas and chutney (yes, when they read my books, clubs often decide to go for Indian food), one of the members said, "This book is not at all like your other work. What made you write something so different?"
Another member added, "Was it difficult to do? Were you nervous?"
Let me answer the second query first. Yes, I was nervous. So were my agent, my publisher and my husband! We were, however, each nervous for a different reason.
My agent reminded me that readers have come to expect a certain kind of book from me. Novels such as The Mistress of Spices
or Sister of My Heart
are tales of protagonists who find themselves challenged by a new world order. They focus on the transformations catalyzed by immigration, and they are all set in contemporary India or the United States. Now I wanted to write a novel which would be a re-telling of a complicated Indian epic set 5,000 years ago.
My publisher was concerned that not as many people would be interested in the subject matter, the saga of the feud between two princely families, ending in a devastating war.
My husband was worried because the original epic on which my novel would be based, the Mahabharat, is considered one of our sacred texts, and many Indians might be less than happy if I changed anything. (And if I didn't, what was the point of writing the novel, then?)
I was anxious because I knew that I was setting myself a big writing challenge. I would be moving out of my comfort zone in trying to bring alive a completely different world. For the first time, I would be focusing on the terrible cost of war. And yes, it would be difficult.
But this discomfort was crucial if I wanted to grow as a writer. Unless I pushed myself into trying something new, I knew, sooner or later, I would stagnate. My writing would become formulaic and repetitive. I took on the challenge of The Palace of Illusions
to prevent that.
I knew I would have to do a whole lot of research about this world, analyzing the original text and reading novels which had already been written about the Mahabharat. I'd have to discover the lifestyle of the period: the kinds of houses in which the rich lived --- and the poor. What people ate and drank. The kind of underclothing (this becomes very important in the story!) that women wore.
I wanted to learn how to be respectful of an original text and yet create an exciting human adventure, with enough twists to perk up even those who were familiar.
And I wanted to shift the focus from the warriors to the women --- wives, mothers, sweethearts --- who lived on the edges of the manuscript, because I believe the lives of women are important.
How was I going to do it?
I think what saved me was my heroine: the Princess Panchaali, who became the narrator of the story.
Princess Panchaali has the distinction of being unique in Indian literature for being married to five men --- five brothers, at that --- all at the same time. Her domestic arrangements, as you might imagine, are somewhat complicated!
Soon after I decided that I would begin my book with her birth and end it at her death, she took over the telling of the story, as characters sometimes do when we are fortunate. She spoke in a clear, strong voice, arguing and cajoling and complaining and inspiring (and sometimes bullying) the people around her. As she went from being the most powerful queen in the land to a servant maid, as she plotted a terrible revenge, she revealed to me her fetishes and fears --- and the forbidden love that would dog her all her life. She delighted in breaking barriers and rules --- and gave me the courage to do the same. She reminded me that literature could be magical: If a writer managed to bring a character to vibrant life, a reader could reach across the chasms of time and culture, no matter how immense they were, to clasp her hand.
Did I succeed in doing that? You'll have to let me know.
---Chitra Banerjee DivakaruniReaders can leave comments about Divakaruni's works on her Facebook wall.
Read Along with THE NEW YORKER
Under the headline We Read to Know We Are Not Alone,
aptly taken from a quote by C.S. Lewis, The New Yorker
has announced the launch of "The Book Club." The online book club is a spinoff of The Book Bench, its excellent and entertaining blog "on all matters literary."
The first communal reading selection is Richard Yates' 1961 novel --- and Oscar-nominated film --- Revolutionary Road
. A different book will be chosen each month. Said the magazine's staff, "The selections will be eclectic, but will share one main criterion: they resist easy answers." It sounds like there are going to be some great discussions going on.
to find out more about The New Yorker'
s book club.
ReadingGroupGuides.com contributor and book club facilitator Esther Bushell recommends some page-turners that will make for great discussions...
I've just returned from my annual ten day reading marathon in the sun, sort of. I park myself on a chaise, under a huge umbrella, with a small heated pool and a small Jacuzzi right there as well. I'm lathered with #30 sunblock, and I wear earphones, of course, so anyone passing by thinks that I'm connected to something. This cuts off all conversation, which is exactly my intention, and I just sit and read, all day, every day. No one has ever noticed that my earphones aren't connected to anything. In fact, I had that pool area to myself for ten days!
Here is what I read this year:Brooklyn
by Colm Toibin (May 2009)The Cleft
by Doris LessingCutting for Stone
by Abraham VergheseExiles in the Garden
by Ward Just (July 2009)The Good Thief
by Hannah TintiA Happy Marriage
by Rafael Yglesias (July 2009)The Last Summer of the World
by Emily MitchellTo Siberia: A Novel
by Per PettersonSongs for the Butcher's Daughter
by Peter Manseau
Peter Manseau's book, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter
, is by far my new favorite, possibly because there's a human story to it, on more than one level. Last fall, I received a notice about its publication from Simon & Schuster, but I never responded to request a galley. Then I got a very sweet note from Thackeray Seznec, a woman who used to live here in Old Greenwich, to ask if I might be at all interested in reading her son-in-law's new novel. I suspect I never answered because shortly after Thanksgiving I received a dear note from a former student, Gwen Seznec, asking if she could send me a copy of her husband's novel. It was serendipity that Manseau's book ended up in my book bag --- and I adored it. It's very visual and vivid; I know all of the characters. Manseau's writing has a lovely rhythm, and his plot is fast-paced and clever. Now I'm absolutely itching to have him come to Greenwich for an event. Read this brilliant book by this brilliant young man --- you won't be disappointed.
I had never heard of Doris Lessing's The Cleft
, but it was both rewarding and provocative. It's Lessing's feminist tract about the creation of humans; her thesis is that women came before men. It has its origins in ancient Greek literature, so now I'm looking forward to a day of research.
I also really liked The Last Summer of the World
, a novel by Emily Mitchell. It takes place in France during WWI, and it's populated by photographer Edward Steichen and other ex-pats during that time period. It's a layered, nuanced book, and I learned so much from reading it. We like books that take us to another time and place, and this one certainly does.
In other news, a book group I faciliate recently had a phone chat with Garth Stein
, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain
. I met Garth at BookGroupExpo in San Jose last October, and Carol Fitzgerald and I were quite taken by him. Now he has his groupies here as well.
Another group discussed The Story of a Marriage
by Sean Andrew Greer. There w
as so much to talk about, and what's surprising to me about this book is how it covers so much material and so many layers with such eloquent economy, a rarity these days.
I'd love to her what your groups are discussing. I'm the woman who interrupts readers to ask, "What are you reading?" --- just the way everybody asks me that, too.
Katherine Center: Fictional and Real-Life Moments
Katherine Center is no stranger to reading groups, having visited "tons" of them to talk about her novel The Bright Side of Disaster. Along with some memorable book club moments, Katherine shares her thoughts on motherhood --- one topic that will likely strike a chord with reading group members who discuss her new novel, Everyone Is Beautiful, which is on sale today.
I have never visited a book club that I did not want to join. And I've visited tons: dinner book clubs, Sunday afternoon book clubs, breakfast book clubs, new mom book clubs, new grandma book clubs, wine-and-chocolate-cake book clubs. I've been to book clubs that gave me a podium and expected a detailed analysis of plot and character, and I've been to neighborhood book clubs --- my own included --- where nobody ever read the book. Even mine.
But every single one has been a delight. And that's not what I'd expected. I'd expected to like some more than others, to connect better to some than others, to have some stand-outs in my memory. Instead, I remember a haze of good food, warm people, and lots of laughs.
For my first novel, the same topics have come up over and over at book clubs: the craziness of the early months with a new baby; bad boyfriends versus good ones; breastfeeding gone awry; and the value --- when your life is veering off course --- of a good, strong, sassy mother to tell it like it is.
For my second novel, as it goes on sale, I find myself wondering what we'll talk about when I go to see those clubs again. Everyone Is Beautiful
is in part a love story about married people, and I know we'll talk about the challenge of keeping romance alive when you are knee-deep in parenting small children. I know we'll talk about all the crazy things toddlers do --- the heartbreak and hilarity of life with little kids.
And I know we'll talk about what all the moms I know seem to be discussing right now --- the amazing tension you face as a mother between taking proper care of your family and taking proper care of yourself. Because there are only so many hours in the day, and whether we want to or not, we all have to make choices. The baby's asleep! Do you: A) Walk on the treadmill? B) Load the dishwasher? C) Put away the toys? D) Take a shower? E) Scrub the grout in the bathroom with a toothbrush? F) Take a nap?
So far, I have always picked the nap. But any day now I'm going to start picking the treadmill.
It's not easy. The stakes are so high. You love your children so fiercely. You feel the weight of the rest of their lives on your shoulders. You want to do the right thing. And yourself? You can get something to eat later. You can go to the gym tomorrow.
I've always believed if I thought about a problem hard enough, I could figure it out. But with motherhood, the answers are never clear. There are always too many important things going on and too little time. There's always more you could be doing. There's always a chance you'll make a mistake you can never take back. And there's always, always those impossibly soft cheeks and those plump little bodies, wrapping their arms around you and saying your name over and over --- that name that you have to earn and cherish every day. Mama
Labels: Everyone Is Beautiful, Katherine Center, The Bright Side of Disaster
Therese Fowler: Book Movement
Today's guest blogger, Therese Fowler, talks about what she expects from the fiction she reads --- and how she strives to give her readers the same thing in her stories. Her novel Souvenir is now on sale in paperback, and her latest, Reunion, arrives in stores next month. And along with her insightful post, Therese also has an enticing proposition for book clubs...
In these tough economic times, I'm looking for two things: escape, and value. It's very cool that something I already love offers both. Yes, of course I'm talking about books.
This escape-and-value desire has been a constant in my life for as many years as I've been able to read. I won't say my early years were miserable, exactly, but they weren't wonderful, and things got progressively worse as I got older. Books provided what real life did not, and libraries provided those books --- so I'm thankful to the early Romans for pioneering the truly public library, and to Andrew Carnegie for his modern contributions; there's no better value than "free."
These days I'm able to buy books regularly. But since I have a lot less time to read, I have to be more discerning about which books I take home with me. For the money I'm spending and the time I'm about to invest, I want stories that succeed in primarily one thing: engaging me in what writer and professor John Gardner called the "vivid and continuous dream" of well-done fiction. I want to be drawn in by the characters, the setting, the drama unfolding page by page. Whether sweeping saga or intimate inspection, historical or contemporary tale, fantastic or realistic, tragic or humorous or sweet, a story needs to leave me feeling enriched in some way. Entertained, or enlightened --- and certainly encompassed by the situation I've watched unfold. I like a story to make me think, but more than that, I like a story to make me feel what the characters are feeling. I really want to connect.
And I especially enjoy a book that gives me something new every time I read it. I like layers.
Given that I have this sort of standard as a reader, you're right if you've guessed that I have the same standard as a writer. You're also right if you've guessed that this is an "easier said than done" affair. But as I tell my sons, you never get there if you don't try. So with Souvenir
, I've tried to give you a story that is a great deal more than it may seem at first look.
As consumers, we have an easier time evaluating whether we want to buy something when it's compared to something else. Souvenir
has, in the year since its hardcover release, been described as a book that will appeal to readers of Jodi Picoult, Barbara Delinsky, Anna Quindlen, Kristen Hannah, Nicholas Sparks, Luanne Rice, Sara Gruen, Anne Rivers Siddons, Cecelia Ahern, Danielle Steel and Ann Patchett.
Well. I certainly can't complain about the company! I wonder, though, where the bull's eye is --- or whether there is one at all. My aim is to bring to you a style and view that is entirely my own.
Given that we're gathered together here in the interest of marrying book groups to books, and given that the Random House Reader's Circle edition of Souvenir
is out now, complete with discussion questions, an author Q&A and an excerpt from my upcoming release, Reunion
, I'm going to propose a survey and a contest. If your group chooses to read Souvenir
, once you've done it, survey each member as to which author-comparison he or she thinks is most accurate and why, and then share your answers with me at email@example.com
. On June 15th, 2009, I'll conscript a neutral party to draw a name at random, and that reader's book group will enjoy a leisurely lunch at a favorite restaurant, my treat.
A discussable book, an interesting survey and a chance to win a free lunch --- now that's escape, and value! I'm making time to chat with book groups whenever possible, so if you'd like even more value-added features, you can schedule a chat
. It's hard to imagine a better way to pass the time --- during good times or bad --- than talking about books.
Labels: Souvenir, Therese Fowler
Laurie R. King: Book Clubs and Bees
Laurie R. King has reason to celebrate: February 1 marked the 15th anniversary of the publication of
The Beekeeper's Apprentice, her first Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novel. The ninth book in the series,
The Language of Bees, hits stores on April 28th. To commemorate these two events --- along with the 150th birthday of Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on May 22nd --- Laurie is hosting "Fifteen Weeks of Bees." The extravaganza includes two new Mary Russell short stories, weekly contests and much, much more.Laurie is also the author of a series featuring San Francisco homicide investigator Kate Martinelli, as well as several stand-alone novels. We're extremely pleased to have Laurie guest blog with us today. Read on for her take on bees and book clubs, including a virtual one hosted on her website.
In early 2007, when I realized that for various reasons I would not have a book out that year, I asked a friend if she would consider starting an online readers' forum for me, so my presence in the world of publishing would not go completely unmarked during the year. Some years earlier, Vicki had invited me to take part in a Readerville YA discussion of The Beekeeper's Apprentice, so she was the one I thought of to put together and run a single-author forum.
In the two years since then, we have worked our way, month by month, through most of my books, as well as discussing several related works of fiction and non-fiction. The Virtual Book Club, as we call it (VBC for short) has a solid core of active members and grows steadily.
Now, real-life book clubs are famous for being largely an excuse to get together over food and chat, with the book itself briskly dealt with and often only half-read. So I expected that its virtual equivalent would be somewhat the same, with many excursions into side-topics while the moderator valiantly worked to drag attention back to the book itself.
Readers continually surprise me. The VBC is made up of as disparate a group as you might expect, women and men of all ages, locations, interests, and levels of leisure time, from white-collar workers and at-home mothers to retired people and high school students. The one common denominator? They love books, especially the Russell novels.
But even then, they come at the novels from all different corners of the reading map. Some of them are devout Sherlockians, who welcomed Russell as soon as they realized that the author honored Holmes as much as they did. Others wouldn't recognize Doctor Watson if he walked in with his stethoscope in hand --- or, wouldn't when they first began to read Russell, although sooner or later such die-hards generally yield to the pressure to read the original Holmes stories, and fall in love with them, too. For others, Holmes is always a secondary character, and it's Mary they follow.
For some members, the VBC is a game (one thread finds inveterate Russell readers pelting each other with quotes, and guessing where they're from. I rarely can figure it out...) Others seem to enjoy the opportunity of being in touch with the writer. Many of the participants in the VBC discussions, however, are interested in history, or at least historical fiction. They discuss the British presence in India and Palestine, they recommend background reading and often trade hard-to-find titles. They ask for further information and, although often I find it hard to respond when the research for that particular book has long faded in my own memory, there is generally some PhD candidate or interested amateur historian who can suggest a source or solution.
Having watched the VBC grow over the months, I can see that its chief aim is to nurture a community. People can drop in and get involved as much or as little as they like, they are welcomed, differing opinions invariably treated with courtesy, and often friendships form (we've yet to have a wedding, although I'm sure Vicki is on constant lookout for a matchmaking opportunity.) I was fascinated to see, at the mystery conference BoucherCon last October, how easily this virtual sense of community translates to the real world. In the meet-ups held by the VBC and a Russell fanfiction group, I witnessed a wide variety of individuals sliding instantly into friendship, with common interests that reached far beyond an appreciation of the Mary Russell tales.
Over the years, I have heard any number of stories from people who met the Russell books at a time of great need, when a loved one was in the hospital or at a rough patch in their personal life. I never fail to be moved, and humbled, by these narratives, just as I am moved and humbled by the creation of a community online who meet and interact under the auspices of my novels.
An author's job is to entertain, and perhaps occasionally make her readers think. I do this by writing books that entertain me and then, after I'm finished, I turn them over for others to enjoy. Only recently have I come to realize that one of the larger functions of what I do is to offer a social umbrella against the storms, where readers can go and relax into conversation with their fellows.
Earnest, informative, substantial, or frivolous, in a book club --- especially a virtual book club --- it's the conviviality that counts.
--- Laurie R. King
Laurie R. King is the bestselling author of 18 novels, from the Edgar Award-winning A Grave Talent to 2009's The Language of Bees. She is a third generation native to northern California, holds a BA degree in comparative religion and an MA in Old Testament Theology, and has spent much of her live traveling, raising children, and renovating old houses. She now lives a genteel life of crime, back again in northern California. For more information, visit her website at laurierking.com.
Labels: Fifteen Weeks of Bees, Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, The Language of Bees
THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett
Debut author Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help
--- which I have written/raved/obsessed about over the past two months --- went on sale this week.
Set in 1963, it's the story of three women --- two African American maids in the Deep South and a young white woman who sees a story in the world that they live in. It's just brilliantly written. You hear the voices, see the houses and truly feel like a voyeur in their world. Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter are strong characters, and the stories they tell speaks volumes about the time. Stockett closes the book with a piece about her family's maid, which shows why she could write this book with such insight and honesty. And yes, reading it I could not help but think about how much has changed in our country in recent months. No matter what your political views, reading The Help
and seeing the world 46 years ago when the right to vote was something that was fought over, and not taken for granted, is interesting.
to listen to a podcast of Kathryn Stockett
talk about The Help
and how her experiences growing up in the South inspired her to write this story.
Labels: Kathryn Stockett, The Help
Susan Rebecca White's Strawberry Pie Recipe
Yesterday Susan Rebecca White, whose debut novel Bound South is on sale this week, revealed how, for her, being a member of a reading group goes way beyond talking about the book selections.Now she shares with us her recipe for Strawberry Pie. Perhaps you can pair it with a discussion of
Bound South, which unfolds the multi-generational story of three Southern women whose lives intersect.Susan Rebecca White's Strawberry Pie
I hesitate to give this recipe in the dead of winter, because you really shouldn't make it until strawberry season, which in Atlanta usually starts in late spring. But hold onto it until then, dreaming of the day when the weather is warm and the air at the farmer's market smells of ripe berries.
1 baked and cooled pie shell (I use the recipe in Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis's The Gift of Southern Cooking
. Also, the pre-rolled Pillsbury dough found in the freezer section of the grocery store is pretty good.)
1 quart organic strawberries
1 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons corn starch
For whipped cream:
1 cup whipping cream
2-4 tablespoons sugar (to taste)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Wash and hull strawberries. Divide berries into two halves, picking the prettiest berries for one of the halves.
2. Place the prettiest berries, small ends pointing up, in the baked and cooled pie shell. Arrange in a single layer. They should fill the shell.
3. In a separate bowl, mix together 1 cup sugar with 3 T. corn starch.
4. In a large bowl, crush remaining berries with a fork, add sugar and corn starch mixture to them, stirring to combine.
5. In a saucepan, cook berry mixture at medium-low, stirring frequently. Mixture will at first be cloudy and opaque. Cook until mixture turns bright and clear, about 10 minutes. (Stirring the entire time so as not to scorch berries.)
6. Cool slightly. Spoon berry mixture over strawberries in shell. Cool pie in refrigerator for a couple of hours to set.
7. Beat whipping cream, sugar and vanilla until soft peaks form. Spoon over each slice of pie.
Labels: Bound South, Susan Rebecca White
Susan Rebecca White: The Stuff of Novels
Today's guest blogger, debut novelist Susan Rebecca White, talks about both sides of the reading group experience --- as a visiting author and as a book club member. The Atlanta resident used her native city as the setting of Bound South, a multi-generation tale told by three women whose lives intertwine. And check back tomorrow --- Susan is sharing her recipe for scrumptious Strawberry Pie with us.
The first time I attended a book club was last summer, months before the publication of my debut novel, Bound South
. One of the club members (who knows my mother) had read a short story of mine that was published in Atlanta magazine. She asked if I might visit her club to discuss it. Of course I said yes.
When the day arrived I showed up at a stately brick house in Atlanta's tony Buckhead neighborhood, where I was warmly greeted by a cadre of tastefully dressed women in Talbot's sweater sets, blazers, and smart little silk scarves. They served chicken salad and iced tea and later, after we finished eating lunch, they asked questions about my writing.
I love the way that older southern women listen. They look straight at you while you talk, nodding along, leaning forward in their seats. As interested as they seemed to be in me, in all reality I was probably more interested in them. Several of them reminded me of the main character in Bound South
, Louise Parker. Same as these ladies, Louise looks every bit the southern matron. But deep down she has a somewhat subversive nature that belies her polished appearance.
Surely the women in the Buckhead book club have their own secret natures, and surely they have revealed at least some of their hidden selves to each other. After all, this particular book club has been around for more than thirty years. Most of the current members are also the founding members, which means that these same women have been getting together since the time that they were new brides.
Imagine: They knew each other when their faces were entirely free of wrinkles, their diamond engagement rings sparkly, their children just babies. Now most of these women are grandmothers. Just from spending one meeting with them I learned that some have lost husbands to death, some to divorce. Some have found new love late in life. Some have surprised themselves by liking their careers, careers they didn't expect to need or to have. Others have stayed on a more traditional course, remaining homemakers and helpmates.
Since that first book club visit, I have become a regular book clubber. Not because I've been visiting clubs to discuss Bound South
(though I'm looking forward to doing that this spring), but because I joined a book club myself. The club has been meeting for years and is called, for reasons I don't quite understand, the Bed Pillers. We meet once a month, rotating from home to home, unless someone who is supposed to host is overworked or pregnant, in which case we go out for Mexican food.
Most of the Bed Pillers have spouses and young children. Some are stay-at-home mommies, some work outside the home. One is a corporate lawyer whose husband is a stay-at-home dad. As a group our look --- in general --- is put together though a little offbeat. Take Kim, who dyed the tips of her short, spiky hair pink after leaving her job to stay home with her kids.
We get together to talk about books, but we also talk about our lives. We organize meal drop-offs after someone has had a baby. We exchange gifts at Christmas. We take a weekend trip once or twice a year. This spring we are going to a vacation home in the mountains where there will be a hot tub. Those who are still breastfeeding will bring along their pumps.
As a writer, perhaps the fact that we Bed Pillers don't spend our entire meetings discussing the book should bother me. It doesn't. To read a book is to take an interest in a life, or lives, outside your own. And we are interested in the lives found within the pages of a novel. But we are also interested in each other's lives, in the plot twists, the unexpected joys, and the inevitable heartbreaks that --- as humans --- we are destined to encounter.
We Bed Pillers may look a little different from the women in the Buckhead book club, but we actually share a lot in common. All that really separates us is age and the era in which we were born. But in thirty years, if we are lucky enough to still be alive, we too will have grandchildren and more wrinkles. We too will have lost loved ones, perhaps to divorce, or to death. And maybe we will find new love later in life.
One thing is certain: Change is inevitable.
Throughout the change and upheaval that life will bring, we will read books and we will get together to talk about them and to talk about us.
And why shouldn't we? Our lives are the stuff of novels.
---Susan Rebecca White
Labels: Bound South, Susan Rebecca White
Kelly Simmons: RUI: Reading Under the Influence
Novelist Kelly Simmons has a guilty pleasure when it comes to visiting with book clubs, and she reveals it in today's guest blog post. A former journalist and advertising creative director, Kelly is the author of Standing Still, which is on sale in paperback today, and coming soon,
The Bird House. She visits as many book clubs as she can --- there's a great article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about her visiting clubs --- and she's now offering an exclusive Book Group DVD to those she can't. For more information, visit her website: bykellysimmons.com, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the past year, I've visited book groups all over the East Coast, and I have come to the conclusion there are two basic types: those who drink, and those who don't. The difference is apparent as soon as I walk up the driveway: if they're drinking, I hear laughter. Voices talking over one another. Sometimes, outright mirth. And if they're not drinking, it's eerily quiet. Low-pitched conversation, a teakettle on the verge of whistling, the rhythm of a hand-crafted rocking chair. (Of course, you don't expect to find any reading group, even a group of longtime friends, drinking at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. But I did, once --- and I will forever remember them as "The Bloody Marys." It was fun --- a little scary, but fun. Any other brunches-gone-wild out there?)
Though I've had lively, inspiring conversations and debates with groups at libraries, community centers, country clubs, nursing homes and private homes over tea and muffins --- and god knows I prefer traveling long distances during the day --- I confess the evening drinkers are kind of a guilty pleasure. Because they're not afraid to talk. Since Standing Still is about fear, paranoia and a rocky marriage, I've been told funny anecdotes about panic attacks on bridges and airplanes. I've heard heartbreaking memories of stalkers and break-ins and husbands leading double lives. My next novel, The Bird House, is about family secrets, and people have told me amazing tales they uncovered about their own families.
Occasionally, wine flowing like it does, somebody says something so, ahem, honest it makes the host cringe. (Oh, you know it happens --- let's hear your confessions!) I've been chastised for my use of "lie" and "lay" and told my author photo (right) looks like Stevie Wonder. One woman said she didn't like my main character but really liked me --- but thought I should stop wearing glasses and put on a little more eye makeup.
All things considered, it's still one of the benefits of visiting reading groups I never anticipated: that people would not only allow me to speak, but allow me to listen. What an honor --- even when they're ever-so-slightly slurring their words.
Labels: Kelly Simmons, Standing Still
2009: A Year of Change
Is your reading group doing anything different this year? RGG.com contributor Shannon McKenna Schmidt shares several changes her book club has already experienced this year --- and how they came about.
2009 is turning out to be a year of change for my book club. Last month, for the first time in our almost-fifteen-year history (that milestone takes place in September), we had an author join our discussion.
When RGG.com contributor Joshua Henkin
suggested meeting with my book club to discuss his novel Matrimony
, I was a bit nervous about the prospect of trying something new. I had similar anxieties that come along with, say, a first date. What if we don't like each other? What if there are awkward silences? I threw the idea out to the group and left it up to them to decide. They responded enthusiastically, and plans for the get-together were soon under way. It turned out to be the first of several New Year changes.
We held the gathering at one of our member's apartments on New York City's Upper West Side. I know this might sound unbelievable to many book clubs out there, but it was the first time that we've ever convened at a member's house. Given that the six of us are scattered throughout the NYC area --- New Jersey, Westchester, Queens, and Brooklyn --- we do what's most convenient for everyone and meet at various restaurants in Manhattan.
We deemed the event a "literary potluck," and our host asked each of us to bring a dish from the What Can I Bring? Cookbook
by Anne Byrn. Along with each recipe, Byrn shares tips for toting the dish with you. That night we dined on Italian food (like some of the characters do in the book): bruschetta, baked ziti, Caesar salad, garlic bread and braised white beans with rosemary. For dessert there were luscious lemon bars and a divine Chocolate Buttermilk Sheet Cake, made by yours truly. (I whipped up a test cake the week before the event to try out the recipe and to have an excuse to eat homemade chocolate cake and chocolate frosting twice.)
The food was delicious, the wine flowed freely and the discussion was lively. Meeting with an author really does add a new dimension to the experience of discussing a book (and there were no awkward silences). There's no speculating about why he might have done something in particular with the characters or the storyline. He's right there. You can ask him. Josh shared some interesting insights into the process of writing Matrimony
and his thoughts on the novel. The story touches on many different topics --- marriage, friendship, parent-child relationships, how upbringing influences adult behavior, breast cancer and betrayal to name a few --- and our 11-way conversation went on for two hours. We had invited some other bibliophile friends to join us for the evening, another first.
The biggest change to come from last month's soiree is that we've gained some new members for the first time in more than five years. Two people who were at the gathering are joining our book club. I can't wait to see what the rest of 2009 brings.
---Shannon McKenna Schmidt
If you'd like Josh to join your book club discussion, you can contact him through his website here
Adriana Trigiani on the Today Show
Yesterday on the Today Show
, Adriana Trigiani
--- who will be guest blogging for us soon --- talked about her new novel, Very Valentine
, which is the first in a trilogy. She discussed her trip to Italy to conduct research for the book and who she took with her as a traveling companion.
After host Hoda Kotb commented on how the opening lines of Adriana's novels tend to be attention-getting and read the first three sentences of Very Valentine
--- "I'm not the pretty sister. I'm not the smart sister either. I am the funny one." --- Adriana discussed why she wanted her story to follow a female character from the ages of 33 through 40. She also revealed which actress has been cast to play the part of Ave Maria Mulligan in the big-screen version of Big Stone Gap
to watch Adriana on the Today Show
. Tune in to see her on Weekend Today
this Saturday, February 7th.
Interpreting INTERPRETER OF MALADIES
Today Heather Johnson talks about her book club's latest pick: the short story collection Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri...
Ten members of my book club met last month to discuss Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies
. This was first time we've chosen a collection of short stories, and I'll admit I was a bit nervous about it. I mean, how exactly do you discuss short stories? Story by story? As a collection? Do you go over each one or just focus on a few? As the organizer, these are the thoughts I was stressing over prior to the meeting.
How did it go, you ask? Here's what a couple of club members said:
"I really enjoyed myself and felt that was one of our best meetings yet."
"Short stories are great --- we should do this again!"
I think that about sums it up!
This really was one of our best meetings, and it had a lot to do with both the quality and format of this book. First off, the book is extremely well written. The language is simple yet powerful. And second, we realized that short stories (at least, good short stories) lend themselves very well to group discussion.
We ended up not discussing each individual story but rather focusing on the few that impacted us the most. Lahiri wrote about what one gal called "slices of life and not the pleasant slices either." These are the things that you would be least likely to tell someone else about you but that strongly influence who you are. During our discussion we touched on the themes that bring these stories together, the immigrant experience, the idea of culture shock, and the fact that all the stories seemed so real, so human.
We closed our discussion by asking a few questions from the book club edition
of Table Topics' conversation cards. One question asked each member to sum up the book in one word. Some words chosen were: human, powerful, heart-wrenching, and realistic. I thought that was a great way to end the meeting.
You Could Dine with Sara Gruen
Would you like to meet Sara Gruen
and discuss her novel Water for Elephants
over dinner? Parade
magazine is inviting readers to "join the circus" and enter the Water for Elephants Book Club Sweepstakes
, which runs through March 6th.
The winner receives a trip to Asheville, North Carolina, and can bring up to four book club members with them. Along with the chance to dine with Gruen, the prize includes round-trip airfare, two nights of accommodation at the luxurious Inn on Biltmore Estate
, a Biltmore guidebook and signed copies of Water for Elephants
. Winners must be available to travel between May 1st and May 3rd.
Good luck to all entrants!
Labels: Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants sweepstakes