[a reprint of Nancy Pearl's piece on March 19, 2010. Italics are mine.]

Good Books for Reading Groups

One of the questions I am frequently asked is about what I think makes a good book for discussion.  There are, of course, lots of worthwhile books that discuss this very issue and offer suggestions—including Rachel Jacobsohn’s The Reading Group Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Start Your Own Book Club and Good Books Lately:  The One-Stop Resource for Book Groups and Other Greedy Readers by Ellen Moore and Kira Stevens for two.  (And the librarian at your local library can help you find others.)


When choosing a book for a discussion, it’s important to realize that there’s quite often a difference between a book that’s enjoyable to read and one that makes for a good discussion.  The latter should be a book with enough substance to warrant a discussion longer than 5 or 10 minutes.  Many people have told me that they think every book is “discussable,” and maybe that’s true to a certain extent.  But if I’m devoting 45 minutes or more to talking about a book, I want there to be something to say about it beyond “I really enjoyed it” or “I hated the main character” or “I didn’t like that the author never used quotation marks for dialogue.”  I want a discussion that helps me understand what the author’s intent might be, why the characters made the decisions they did, and what the significance of the title is to the book, to name just a few topics a group might consider.


I think the book’s discussablity is much more important than whether people liked or didn’t like the book.  When I’m leading a group, my last question is always, “So what did you think of the book?”  You’d be surprised at how many people will talk about how their feelings about the book changed because of the discussion.  Or how people will say that they didn’t finish the book but now plan to do so, all because of how people talked about it, or what they said.  Too often, we tend to start book discussions by asking whether or not people liked the book, but that’s a dead-end question.  And, in addition, it polarizes the group so that every further statement is prefaced by “I liked it and” or “I hated it but.”  I always start off every discussion I lead by asking what the title has to do with the book.  Sometimes it’s the only question I need to ask—we’re off into a great discussion for the next forty-five minutes or so.  That happened both with A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just and Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying.


There are some qualities to look for when you’re choosing a book for your group.  When we’re discussing a book, we’re really talking about everything that the author hasn’t said—all that white space between the lines.  If the author tells you everything, there’s not a lot to speculate about.  Discussing books that are plot driven often leads nowhere, while books that are character driven frequently yield up thought provoking questions and answers.  And the most discussion worthy character driven books are those in which the character has to make a decision that will change the course of his or her life.  A good example of this is Ann Packer’s The Drive from Clausen’s Pier.


Another thing you might look for are books with ambiguous endings.  (Be warned, though, that this is going to really rile readers who want their stories tied up neatly.  But remember also, that the best discussions arise when some of the members enjoyed the book and others didn’t.  It’s too boring if everyone liked it!)  Try Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods or Tana French’s In the Woods to get a feel for these kind of books.
Some books just beg to be talked about, including the Gaines, O’Brien, and Just novels.  Here are others: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge; Lionel Shriver’s We Have to Talk About Kevin; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, for just a few examples.  One of the things that makes these books so good is also what will turn some readers off:  they’re not light reading.  They deal with big issues—death, family, politics, history, and love—but all offer them up to readers in different ways.  Just as Tolstoy said in the first line of Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Light or happy fiction tends to be all alike.  It’s in the deeper, perhaps more uncomfortable, novels that we will find the best works for discussions.
But “deep” or “serious” fiction doesn’t mean the book is impenetrable.  All the books I mentioned above are pretty hard to put down because you become so interested in the characters (although you may not like them). 


People often ask me to recommend a mystery for discussion.  There’s a great resource for this, by librarian Gary Warren Niebuhr, called Read ‘Em Their Writes: A Handbook for Mystery Book Discussions.   But if you’re choosing a mystery, I’d suggest selecting a book by an author who has created three-dimensional, interesting characters who move the plot, rather than having characters that are more-or-less ciphers and are there simply to make the plot move along at a good clip.  It’s the difference between trying to discuss an Agatha Christie mystery (what is there to say, really, other than what page you were on when you figured out who the murderer was?) and an Elizabeth George mystery, like For the Sake of Elena, in which all sorts of issues are laid out for possible discussion.  Another good mystery for discussion is Monkeewrench by P. J. Tracy.

In my books, Book Lust and More Book Lust, I made it a point to mention when a particular book, including both fiction and nonfiction, would be good for discussion, so you might want to check those out, as well.

And Dana sez, if you're looking for Christmas gifts for family and friends, remember, the book is the gift that keeps on giving.

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I don't much like reading books about time travel. Mostly it just makes me dizzy, I don't deal well with paradoxes. I loved the scene at the end of the new Star Trek film when Spock I and Spock II do the Vulcan equivalent of snicker over Kirk's gullibility as to the dangers of time travel paradoxes.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqXd6haFYqU&fs=1&hl=en_US]

There are a few exceptions, like Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp and Time and Again by Jack Finney. John Varley's Millennium is another that has taken up permanent occupancy on my bookshelves, and I've been puzzling over why.


I think it's because the premise for time travel in this novel is practical. The future is robbing/mining/harvesting/exploiting the past to save the future, to ensure the survival of humankind. It isn't a bolt of lightning or a self-induced hypnotic state, no, this time the future creates a time travel machine specifically for this purpose and none other.

The motivation is great on a character level, too. Louise and the rest of her Snatch Team are sacrificing their own lives for the sake of the rest of the human race, and FAA investigator Bill Smith's job and personal curiosity, not to mention his love for Louise, pushes him inexorably toward solving this mystery.

One of the best robot characters ever created in SF, and in the best self-referential science fiction tradition each chapter heading is a shout-out to that which has gone before, including on page 23 one to Robert Heinlein. I'm definitely feeling the love.

In fact, time to reread it again...

(The film version of Millenium, with Cheryl Ladd and Kris Kristofferson, isn't bad, either.)

# Permanent link to Time Travel

Hilary Mantel has given a wonderful voice to Thomas Cromwell in this novel of an eyewitness perspective on Henry VIII's split from the Church of Rome. All the usual suspects are present, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, along with a wonderful supporting cast of fully realized minor characters, whether fictional or historical. I don't know which is more painful to watch, Thomas More being viciously abusive to his wife and daughters over lunch, or Cromwell as a child watching a Lollard burned at the stake. Unless it's the progress of Henry's relationship with Anne.


What gives me the most writer envy is that Wolf Hall is written in third person present tense, which normally leaves me cold. This time I was so mesmerized after the first page that I barely noticed. A must read for anyone who loves good writing and/or this period in history.

# Permanent link to Wolf Hall

…and she smiles.

High up in the bough of a tree a bird, smaller than all the rest, trills out three pure, clear notes on a descending scale. The woman raises her face into the last rays of the setting sun, and she smiles.—-The Singing of the Dead You know the bird that sings every time Emaa wants…

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It's Banned Books Week, folks. Click on the link to find ideas and resources to spread the word.


Here are some of the reasons why.

Banned and Challenged Classics

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
13. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
33. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
40. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
56. Jazz by Toni Morrison
79. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
81. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
90. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
95. Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Safe to say I wouldn't have made it through childhood without some of these books. Go here to read the full list.

Letting someone tell you what you can or can't read is downright unAmerican. There is an Amazon buy link beneath each title. Please do feel free to click on them to buy a copy.

# Permanent link to It’s Banned Books Week 2010!

How the West Was Won

I’m just saying. You know how the West was won? By the federal government, that’s how. The federal government bought Louisiana. The federal government sent Lewis and Clark to Oregon. The federal government sent the US Army to invade California and steal it from Mexico. The federal government sent the US Army to kill every…

Read more How the West Was Won

I hope this is as close as I ever get to being shot at. This book is that real, that immediate. Junger follows the 173rd Airborne’s Battle Company into the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, and next to the definition of Hell on Earth in the dictionary? That’s the Korengal Valley. The weather (“Summer grinds on: A hundred degrees every day and tarantulas invading the living quarters to get out of the heat.”) and the terrain (“The last stretch is an absurdly steep climb through the village of Babiyal that the men call “the Stairmaster.””) would have challenged Atilla the Hun, except that Atilla was smart enough not to invade Afghanistan.
As if the weather and the terrain aren’t bad enough, they’re also fighting the culture. “Most Korengalis have never left their village and have almost no understanding of the world beyond the mouth of the valley. That makes it a perfect place in which to base an insurgency dedicated to fighting outsiders. One old man in the valley thought the American soldiers were actually Russians who had simply stayed after the Soviet army pulled out in 1989.”

How tough are these guys? “Battle Company is taking the most contact of the battalion, and the battalion is taking the most contact - by far - of any in the U.S. military. Nearly a fifth of the combat experienced by the 70,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan is being fought by the 150 men of Battle Company. Seventy percent of the bombs dropped in Afghanistan are dropped in and around the Korengal Valley.”

Good thing they’re tough, because everyone is shooting at them (“The bullet you dodge will pass you with a distinctive snap. That’s the sound of a small object breaking the sound barrier inches from your head.”). And that’s just when they’re staying “safe” (hah!) behind the wire of Restrepo, an outpost named for a medic who died in combat. “Restrepo was extremely well liked because he was brave under fire and absolutely committed to the men. If you got sick he would take your guard shift; if you were depressed he’d come to your hooch and play guitar.”

This is an on the ground, eyewitness account of men at war, today, this minute, our guys in Afghanistan at work. The prose is clear and sharp and while Junger is inevitably a part of the story, he doesn’t put himself forward too often and he never makes the mistake of thinking anything but the men of Battle Company are the subject.

The larger subject is, of course, war, and Junger does go there later in the book. Armies have a vested interest in figuring out what makes a man fight and fight well, and Junger cities a lot of studies and makes a praiseworthy attempt at explaining why men fight. Testosterone and other hardwired biological stimuli come into it, as you knew they would, but that’s not all there is to it. “The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly. What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless metanalyses, slowly came to understand was that courage was love.”

The men of Battle Company love combat, and this book is as close as most people will get to understanding that. “Civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up.”

But mostly? You come away from this book thinking, Okay, if it is biologically inevitable that young men are going to go to war? We should pick our fights with more care. These guys are too good to waste.

Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington filmed a documentary based on this same material, Restrepo. Already in my Netflix queue.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvUdruvbdmI&hl=en_US&fs=1]

# Permanent link to I hope this is as close as I ever get to being shot at.

Dick Francis' death in February inspired me to reread everything of his that's on the shelf in the Homer Public Library.


To the Hilt is still my favorite. Painter Alexander Kinloch, nephew of a Scottish earl, is summoned from his aerie in Scotland by his mother to tend to his step-father, whose prosperous brewery has been ripped off to insolvency by its disappeared comptroller. There are wonderful characters, contained but loving mother Vivienne, dithery but honorable step-father Ivan, proud, stubborn, hilarious uncle Himself, viperous but charming step-sister Patsy and her execrable husband Surtees, and one of the more capable and most amusing sidekicks ever, the private investigative team of Young and Uttley. Francis' villains are never that obscure, by their mark of Cane-ish behavior shall ye know them, but the creation of the portrait of Zoe Lang is mesmerizing and revelatory, both for the window on the technical side of the craft of painting and the agony it puts the artist through.

Reflex, Straight, Banker, Proof, Decider and Longshot are also wonderful. Yeah, Francis was a jockey and there is always a horse around somewhere but the books are often only peripherally about racing. Part of the fascination of his novels lies in the different worlds he explores in each of them, painting in To the Hilt, photography in Reflex, gemstones in Straight, venture capitalism in Banker, wine in Proof, architecture in Decider, and the art of survival in Longshot.


Francis writes pretty much the same character every time, first person male, young, stubborn, honest, honorable, never a whiner, always calm and cool in a crisis and on occasion astonishingly forgiving. Maybe it's always the same narrator, but it's someone you want to spend time with, and the writing is excellent. Read Proof for the telephone conversation between English Tony and French Henri, a definitive illustration in less than two pages of the differences between those two nations. You will come away a novitiate to the Church of Francis.

# Permanent link to To the Hilt is still my favorite.

Though Not Dead Playlist

I get a lot of comments here at stabenow.com and on Facebook wanting a list of all the books Kate has ever read and all the songs she has ever listened to. Okay, I heard you. While I was doing the copyedit of Though Not Dead, the eighteenth Kate Shugak novel, I kept track of…

Read more Though Not Dead Playlist