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April 23, 2008

Discussion Books Beyond the Bestsellers

Posted by carol
Some novels like The Kite Runner and Middlesex have become book club phenomenons because of the rich and varied material they provide for discussions, but contributor Esther Bushell shines the spotlight on some lesser-known titles that can make for conversations that are just as compelling.

The hue and cry from book groups is consistent: isn't there another Middlesex
out there for us to discuss? My answer is that we're waiting for Jeffrey Eugenides' new book, but then I always remind them about books that no one ever expected to be hits and that they really loved! It's not just Khaled Hosseini or Lisa See whose provide fodder for lively discussions; there are some fine pieces of literature, some riveting stories, and some just plain terrific novels that have also captivated my book groups.

Imagining Argentina, written in 1987 by Lawrence Thornton, is the first in a trilogy that takes place in Buenos Aires in 1977, when women, wearing white scarves, began walking in the Plaza de Mayo to protest the "terrors of the disappeared." Between 1976 and 1983, there were 8,900 cases of people picked up and never heard from again. The terror that pervaded Argentina at the time was psychological as well as physical, for there were no trials, no charges, and no records of the missing. The title refers to the protagonist who has the gift of imagination; he comes to believe that his "gift" is just another tool to be used to keep hope alive. This novel offers both the embodiment of and a manifesto for the memorializing power of literature and the moral force of the imagination transcribed. It reminds us that bearing witness matters because it rights the balance of power.

Do not overlook Abide with Me, Elizabeth Strout's second novel and one that generated discussions about its many layers. Strout has the gift of omniscient narration, and the novel takes place in a small Maine town where all of the residents have a secret, including the Rev. Tyler Caskey, the protagonist. When Tyler's young wife dies of cancer, he is left with two very young daughters and a town full of casserole ladies. He is also left with a faltering sense of self and an emerging sense of inadequacy at the same time that the townspeople converge to become a Greek chorus, self-righteous and hypocritical. If you like this, and I know you will, look for Strout's new novel, Olive Kitteridge, that's just been published. It's another gift for book groups.

William Trevor is no stranger to readers of literary fiction because he's always being referred to as a modern Chekhov, aware of the emotional undercurrents of his characters' lives. The Story of Lucy Gault can be read as an allegory, for Lucy and Ireland are one and the same: the place defines the characters' actions and lives. The superb intrusion of the past and the present, the paradox between our inner and outer lives, shows us how Lucy, like Ireland, is permanently maimed. This is also an elegy for a vanished world, and we in post-9/11 America can relate to this, for it's one of the illnesses of our time. Crime and punishment; forgiveness, redemption, and salvation; silences and secrets; and blame are areas to discuss and explore. Trevor's writing is spare, economical, and terse; the tension of waiting in this novel is almost unbearable.

Julie Chase, a long-time friend who works at Just Books, Too, an independent bookstore in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, recommended Old Filth by Jane Gardham. (Julie's recs never fail.) Old Filth is the major character; his name is an acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong. Did you know about Raj orphans? We didn't, and Rudyard Kipling was a Raj orphan as was Filth. Gardham is concerned here with the child's or adolescent's eye-view and the relationship between the interior life, built up from buried memories and fantasy, and the public faces we adopt to get through our everyday lives. Reading this book reminded us all of rubbernecking, for Gardham is a master of observation. The book is built anecdote upon anecdote, with descriptions of Hong Kong that are right on. Old Filth reminded me of Lear --- all briskness on the surface and all turbulence underneath. I suspect that if you read and discuss this novel, you'll continue to explore Gardhams' other books.

Don't hesitate to let me know what you think of these recommendations --- or if you need more recommendations --- and of course, I'm also eager to hear what your book group loved.

---Esther Bushell