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Book Group Buzz

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Book group tips, reading lists, & lively talk of literary news from the experts at Booklist Online

Tuesday, April 22, 2014 10:53 pm
Race in America: Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
Posted by: Misha Stone

Nigerian born author Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie has written a powerful, politically-charged novel in Americanah, and book groups should take note.

Americanah is the story of a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who moves to the United States to further her education and spends her years abroad analyzing and processing what it means to be a “Non-American Black.” Ifemelu starts a blog where she ponders and probes issues of identity and race, the racism African-Americans experience and what it feels for her for the first time to be constantly aware of the color of her skin. Adichie infuses Americanah with the kind of intelligent dialectics that a college course would enjoy dissecting while making these complex questions intrinsic to her compelling storytelling.

When Ifemelu leaves Nigeria for America she leaves behind her love, Obinze. The novel traces their lives apart and the deep connection that remains between them even as they navigate separate lives. Ifemelu has several relationships in America but her heart is still in Nigeria, with Obinze, and she returns partway through the book to find herself and her country again. She returns to find herself and Nigeria changed and she tentatively treads new ground.

Americanah floored me with its richness, its detail and intimacy, its sensual mastery of the inner lives of its characters and the truth-telling it reveals in not looking away from issues of identity, race and cultural assumptions and intersections. It is a stunning achievement.

Adichie deserves more attention and is sure to gain it when the film of one of her previous novels, Half of a Yellow Sun, is released. A book group also should make some time to watch Adichie’s amazing TEDTalk speech on how we all, men and women, should be feminists.

Pick up Americanah and get ready for a spirited conversation.

Thursday, April 17, 2014 12:21 pm
The Basic of Thematic Book Groups Pt. 2
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Book TalkMy last post gave hints on how to prepare for a thematic book group and get the meeting started. Let’s continue by examining how discussion at the meeting plays out and why this format is advantageous for many groups.

After the introduction to the theme described in the previous post, it’s time for your readers to take center stage. Proceed around the table and ask each of them to give a brief book talk about what he or she read. These book talks are the core skill of the thematic book group. If they’re incomprehensible or full of spoilers, the group will be unhappy. If they’re well executed, the group will have a wonderful time and everyone will go home with more authors to try. So develop a brief set of instructions about how to give a book talk and distribute it at your first meeting. Have it available for new members thereafter, and occasionally redistribute it to the whole group if the quality of book talks is starting to decrease.

As the facilitator, your main job will be to ensure that time is distributed fairly and that everyone gets a turn. Divide the number of participants into the time available and let readers know approximately how much time they can take at the start of the meeting. Allow digressions–they’re one of the charms of this format–but be firm when necessary about moving discussion on to the next presenter with a gentle reminder that everyone deserves their turn. Some presenters will not say enough about their books, and you’ll need to draw out what you can with a few gentle questions. Often, multiple readers will select the same book. Group their discussion together. Leave time at the end to distribute the list for the next meeting and allow readers to recommend titles that others might enjoy for the new theme.

What are the advantages of this format? The tone of the meeting is less academic, more democratic. Many book groups prefer the more social, less confrontational kind of discussion that the format creates. The thematic format allows readers (and group leaders) more freedom in controlling their reading schedules, and if the lists of suggested books that you prepare for the meeting are generous, readers will often find books they intended to read anyway that they can now read for book group. In my experience, the thematic book group allows readers who don’t have common tastes to co-exist happily, while in a common-book format, they’re often forced to compete for whose preferred books will get the most discussion. The format also alleviates all of those complaints about the selections being too depressing, or too complicated, or too similar. Since your readers are picking their own titles within the theme, they have no one to blame but themselves when the selections fail to please.

While you won’t get the depth of discussion created by a common-book discussion, you’ll learn about a broad range of titles and reveal the personal tastes of each reader more clearly. The thematic format works for a larger number of readers in the same time frame, and encourages members to attend even in months when they don’t finish a book. There’s less risk that a meeting will fail because of a bad book choice or because of an awkward disagreement about a particular title. If you’ve got a difficult participant who tends to monopolize the conversation, this format also makes it easier to limit his or her input: Just politely but firmly move on to the next reader’s book talk. The thematic format also alleviates the ongoing nuisance of finding enough copies of a single book in a small community. Finally, this format works better for a lot of great books that are plot- or subject-driven, all of those titles that don’t leave participants with enough to say when they’re studied for an hour or more.

Because the quality of book talks is so crucial to the success of a meeting, I’ll be back next week with a basic set of do’s and don’ts for preparing a thematic group book talk.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 5:52 pm
Discussing Saladin Ahmed’s “Throne of the Crescent Kingdom”
Posted by: Misha Stone

Last week my book group, Other Realms, discussed Saladin Ahmed’s Hugo award nominated novel, Throne of the Crescent Kingdom. I was excited to discuss Ahmed’s book with the group because I enjoyed the book myself and think Ahmed is brilliantly funny and astute on Twitter.

We started by talking about the characters. One reader expressed appreciation that the main character of the book, Doctor Adoulla, is an older protagonist where fantasy generally features young heroes and heroines. Others agreed that a more mature hero was refreshing. He went on to say that he felt that required a little more backstory to which another reader retorted that the book basically starts with a mass murder so it’s no shakes on plot or pacing. Readers thought the other characters were less well-developed but still absorbing and that the tension and perspective set up between Adoulla and his young apprentice, Raseed, provided a dynamic interplay between old and young, moderation versus extremism. The young shapeshifter, Zamia, was, as one reader noted, not any less actualized than Raseed  but not perfectly feminist. Still, Ahmed seemed to differentiate between the characters, there was enough nuance to keep things interesting for some while others found some of them one-dimensional. The Falcon Prince provided some interesting side discussion as our notion of him may change depending on what Ahmed does with the subsequent books in the series; the Falcon Prince starts as a dashing, puckish type of character but then his motives become slippery and suspect at the end.

We spent time talking about where Throne of the Crescent Moon fits and the world it creates. While Ahmed rests his story in the sword and sorcery tradition he infuses it with a Middle Eastern setting without making direct parallels to any one country or political situation. One reader did say there were loads of “Islamic Easter eggs” throughout the story that some history buffs might catch. Most readers felt that Ahmed created a living, breathing place with a poetic albeit pulpy style, in keeping with the subgenre.

Diversity in the genre is a part of any discussion these days–readers should be asking where the women, people of color, less binary representations of gender and sexuality are in the genre–so we talked about the potential for a voice like Ahmed’s, where his unique perspective worked and where it didn’t go far enough. Some readers wanted him to draw more obvious parallels to time and place while someone mentioned that maybe Ahmed wanted to avoid Salman Rushdie’s fate. I asked the group if we were harder on writers of color and expect more from them whereas we overlook faults  with more typical, Western representations in the genre. One reader thought Ahmed wrote for a Western audience so it worked well in making the world and characters relatable.

Throne of the Crescent Moon provided a good discussion. Some readers really enjoyed it and said they would read the next books in the series, others wanted a more literary tone in the language, but we all seemed to agree that Saladin Ahmed is a writer to watch.

Saturday, April 12, 2014 12:59 am
The Basics of Thematic Book Groups, Pt. 1
Posted by: Neil Hollands

In my last post, I made the case that for many book groups, better formats are available than the everyone-reads-the-same-literary-novel format that is so common. The most useful of these is the thematic book group, in which each meeting is based around a theme, and each reader talks briefly about the book she or he chose to read from within the meeting’s larger theme. Here’s how to prepare for such a group:

Put together a schedule of themes. This is true whether the group reads everything or focuses on a particular genre (this format works especially well for mystery, fantasy, science fiction, romance, or nonfiction groups–any genre or subject that reads books that don’t always Around the Tablework well in a  common book format.) The groups I work select a calendar of themes each year from a ballot of potential topics, but you don’t have to be that formal. At minimum, the theme should be announced at the meeting before the theme discussion. Themes might include the works of a particular author, a genre or subgenre, common plot devices, kinds of characters or relationships, historical settings, geographic settings, the work of a related set of authors (such as the Beats, or authors from a particular city or country), books made into films, or the books of a year or decade. Look for themes that are big enough to allow different kinds of readers to pick different kinds of books, but still cohesive enough to create a common ground for the discussion. Be creative and mix it up.

As a group facilitator, you’ll get better results if you create a list of books that fit within the upcoming theme. My lists range from a short bibliography if the theme is a single author to a sheet of paper filled front and back for broader themes. Distribute the list the month before the meeting (at the end of the meeting so participants don’t get distracted by it). Bring more copies of the list to the meeting itself. The list will help readers identify appropriate titles, but also has the wonderful secondary benefit of giving new members or readers who come to the meeting without finishing a book something to talk about. They can identify books or authors that they’ve read in the past on the list and talk about those.

At the meeting, you can jump right into reader book talks or start the discussion with a short presentation about that month’s theme. If you use some kind of opening talk, consider spreading the work between different presenters each meeting. They might talk about early works that explored the theme, what led to the theme’s popularity, about common elements in the literature represented by the theme, or about the biography of the authors in question. Keep presentations brief, you don’t want to steal the thunder of the readers who are waiting for their turn to talk.

I’ll share more next week about the potential benefits of using this format and how to facilitate the thematic discussion as it moves around the table.

Friday, April 11, 2014 9:07 am
Heart-Shaped Box
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr

This month’s library staff book discussed surprised me.  Our genre of the month was horror which does not seem on the surface to be my staff’s favorite type of literature to read.  We also do not see a lot of customers reading horror outside of the bestseller types like Stephen King.heart-shaped box

Speaking of Mr. King, the title we selected this month was a book by his progeny, Joseph Hillstrom King, or as he is known professionally, Joe Hill.  The title we selected was Joe Hill’s first novel, Heart-Shaped Box (2007).  Whenever a discussion of this author comes up, it has to deal with the issue of primogeniture.  After all, Joe Hill could have written space opera or even a bildungsroman that dished on his family.

I can testify that he did write a horror novel.  The basic idea behind Heart-Shaped Box is that aging (54) rocker Judas Coyne gets talked into buying a ghost from the Internet.  Darned if the goods aren’t delivered.

What made this novel work for me, and our staff, was manifold.  It is a scary story, full of the revulsion that makes horror fiction so attractive.  But it also has a complicated lead character with bad boy tendencies and, perhaps–a heart of gold?  As Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack, a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”

The added bonus to this book is that we get another “cracked” character in Marybeth “Georgia” Kimble who has latched onto Jude and will not let go.  Even more than the haunting by the evil Craddock James McDermott (who is really creepy), the relationship between Jude and Georgia drives the book.  Well developed minor characters are bounced off of by these two in both the past and the present, turning a genre scare into a theme oriented character study.

We discussed but we also liked.  Most of us were surprised by that.  We learned once again that the worst thing to do in reader’s advisory is make judgments.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014 6:41 pm
Rethinking the Model for Library Book Groups
Posted by: Neil Hollands

BookPileWhen this blog began several years ago, coverage was split about evenly between descriptions of books appropriate to book groups and the best practices for running book groups successfully. We worked through most of the major topics of book group management, and discussion of best practices dwindled. For the last couple of years, Book Group Buzz has focused primarily on authors and titles.

A session at the recent PLA convinced me that it is time to look at book group procedure again. I want to start with something fundamental: what kind of format should you choose for your group.

The tradition of book groups is quite entrenched. Although there are exceptions, the model for the vast majority of book groups is somewhat similar to a college literary seminar: For each meeting, we select one common book, which we ask all of our members to read, and then we hold a shared discussion of that title. Because the book has to stand up to thirty minutes, an hour, or even more discussion, we tend to select a certain kind of book, weighty–although perhaps not too weighty, we don’t want this to be too much like a literary seminar. We’ve even standardized the rather awkward construction “book group book” to describe the kind of title likely to make an appearance.

Is this the best model? For many groups, it is. But I would estimate that if we were to measure, we would find that over 90% of groups uses this model, and for many of them, it isn’t the best choice. It’s simply used because it’s familiar, because it’s expected.

If your group likes to read “book group books,” if your members are good at finishing the book and attending consistently, if you enjoy the kind of focused, deep, and sometimes confrontational discussion that one book meetings inspire, then by all means choose the traditional model. If part of that description doesn’t fit your group, or if your group has become stale, it might be time to rethink the most basic elements of practice.

Here’s a list of groups for which the one book model might not be best:

1) If you have a hard time sustaining adequate membership.

2) If you have difficulty finding enough copies of the titles you discuss.

3) If you have several members who don’t always finish the book, and either don’t attend or even worse, attend and make the discussion awkward by asking others not to “spoil” the book or by trying to talk about a book they don’t really know.

4) If your group has problems with overheated disagreements or is awkward when a debate occurs.

5) If your group pulls in too many different directions about which titles are desirable to read.

6) If your group would like to read in a genre that is more plot driven and doesn’t stand up well to long, deep discussions.

7) If your group doesn’t enjoy heavy literary discussion and would prefer more emphasis on book discovery, side topics, or socializing.

8) If a few of your members are continually disgruntled about book selection, even though they remain loyal attendees and have interesting points of view.

9) If your group is getting too large to allow all of your members to participate in a deep discussion adequately.

10) If your group would benefit in general from more flexibility to accommodate each reader’s moods and schedule.

11) If the organization that supports the group, such as a library or bookstore, would like to see larger participant counts and circulation  or sales numbers connected with the group, or can’t support the expense of obtaining enough copies of the book for all the readers.

12) If the group has many members such as librarians, teachers, or booksellers for whom knowing a little bit about a lot of books might be more useful than knowing a lot about a few titles.

If more than two or three of these descriptions apply to your group, if your existing group needs to be refreshed, or if you’re starting a new group with goals different than that of the literary seminar, it’s time to rethink the model for your group. I’ll be back later this week to discuss a new model, what I call the thematic book group.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014 7:59 am
Short Stories for Men
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr

I just read three different short story collections that would work for a book discussion or two plus could attract male authors with their subject matter.

fatherhoodFirst off is one of my perennial favorite novelists, Thomas H. Cook. His short story collection Fatherhood and Other Stories (2013) contains 11 stories, most of which deal with themes based on the title of the book. Two strong things run through the stories: crime and responsibility. There are no happy outcomes in most of the stories which should make discussing them rather easy. The characters are challenging and on occasion, disappointing in their behaviors. The best story in the book is “What Eddie Saw” in which the sins of the father are visited upon the son. Another real winner is “Rain” which has an odd but pleasing structure and is essentially a big “pass it on” story.

legendLegend of a Suicide by David Vann (2008) is the same note played over and over. In the Acknowledgements, the author explains why: “Finally, I must thank my family, because it was an uncomfortable topic I was writing about—my father’s suicide—and there’s exposure in these stories.” There is also an incredible amount of talent as well. Eerily, the same tidbits keep appearing throughout the collection, making the reader feel as if the characters are familiar. The name Roy is used over and over for the affected character of the son yet each circumstance in each story is a different spin on the relationships. One of Vann’s strength is incorporating a strong sense of place in a limited amount of time with Alaska being the main resting point. The reality is that Vann is very dexterous in making each story unique and fulfilling despite one central theme: the sins of the father are visited upon the son. Every story in this collection raises multiple issues that could form that basis of a successful discussion. The most powerful and painful work to read is the novella “Sukkwan Island” which splits its two parts into the descent of the son followed by the descent of the father. (This collection also won the 2007 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction).

corpseWhat more powerful legacy of the sins of the father being visited upon the son are the remnants of war? In The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim (2013) the stories are so painful to read that a reader feels almost compelled to set the book down before reading another. Each tells the tale of the nation of Iraq in disarray with conflicting entities within that are unable to define any kind of normality thus making each day another theater of the absurd performance. There is a sense of magical realism to many of the stories except the magic is all bad. Leadership fails, religion fails and common sense is missing. The younger generation looks for some guidance from somewhere but often ends up in total survival mode. While this book would be a very disturbing title for any group to read (warning: some parts are very graphic in their description of the violence being inflicted on individuals in the country of Iraq) it would also benefit any reader to contemplate the definitions of rational behavior within the definition of a modern nation in the world. It should come as no surprise after reading this collection to find that Blasim lives in Finland and his writing has been banned in many Arab nations. Every story in this collection is a winner and I would suggest the entire work be discussed if you feel your group is up to it.

Monday, March 31, 2014 5:32 am
Howdy, Pilgrim
Posted by: MaryKate Perry

harold fryIt is not down on any map; true places never are. – Herman Melville

Sometimes I read a book with such memorable and delicately honed prose, such surpassing charm, that the less said about it, the better.  These are books where I miss the characters when I close the cover for the last time, and find myself wondering, now and again, how they are getting on.  I think of dropping them a Christmas card.  I felt that way after I read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and, decades ago in college, A Prayer for Owen Meany.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, was just such a book for me.  I feel duty-bound to admit that this book won’t work for everyone.  A quick look at some reviews showed me that a plot twist revealed late in the story left some readers feeling unfulfilled.  One reviewer described the novel as “twee,” which surprised me.  Okay, you might not, like me, find yourself wishing you could ring Harold and his wife Maureen up for a chat.  But this is a book that offered that rare “Yes!” to life that I never encounter often enough in literature, in film or (when I venture out there on occasion) in actual life. This story left my book group - to a person – touched, enchanted and provoked to ponder the deeper questions the narrative brings up. This isn’t a sticky sweet story, Joyce explores the anguish of loss, guilt and self-loathing.  As Harold walks forward through the English countryside – a land Joyce researched meticulously and describes gorgeously – we walk with him back through the pages of his heart-rending tale.

And that is all I will say. I picked this up without any prior knowledge of the story and I hesitate to burden you with much more than I went in with.  No need to be forewarned and forearmed; allow yourself to be disarmed by Joyce’s bittersweet story of our lifelong need for love and redemption. I hope you enjoy it as I did. This novel has been immensely popular in England, where it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 5:39 am
Mothering and Daughtering
Posted by: MaryKate Perry

mothing and daughteringI have recently developed an interest in adolescence. Until now, I was just trying to forget it ever happened to me.  I am not alone in thinking back on those years of hormone-fueled drama with regret and bewilderment. Just the word “puberty” makes people shudder.  Try it; bring it up in a group and there will be eye rolling and a collective sense of “What was that anyway?” Since I have a daughter on the cusp of her teen years, I decided that I have to reframe my middle and high school years to come up with a better story to tell her about the long walk that lies ahead. Culturally, could we offer young women and their haggard mothers a more meaningful message than, “Hunker down for six years of Hell?”

Sil Reynolds teamed up with her daughter, Eliza, to write, Mothering and Daughtering: Keeping the Bond Strong Through the Teen Years, a book that I am clinging to like the last floating log after a shipwreck. The hope she holds out for her readers is that we will not be so paralyzed and fearful as mothers that we’ll accept our daughters’ teen years as an endless series of battles.  Through her work as a nurse, a student of Jungian psychology, and a mother, Reynolds claims a cooperative, loving relationship is possible during this tumultuous time. This is a nifty flip book with Sil as the lead author on the mothering side and Eliza taking the lead on the daughtering half.

The other day I was at a loss for something to say to my daughter and stammered, “Puberty is a great time to write poetry!”  This is true, it isn’t poetry that anyone would want to read, but that’s not the point.  It’s the feelings that matter; experiencing them rather than denying them, and using them in ways that aren’t destructive. Our brains don’t fully develop until we are 25.  If ever there is a time in our lives to learn something (basketball, physics, a front flip – just to scratch the surface of my unfulfilled dreams) as quickly as possible, the teen brain is a marvel of plasticity. It’s a challenge to love a teenager the way they need to be loved.  They keep switching the rules; hold me close, let me go…another person is truly a mystery always, and perhaps never more than in her adolescent years.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 11:34 am
A Reprint with a Revival: “Stoner” by John Williams
Posted by: Misha Stone

166997About two years ago was the first time that I heard about John Williams’s novel Stoner. Like many New York Review of Books reprints, it was mentioned in reverent tones. “You have to read this,” people said, “it’s a masterpiece.”

In the Guardian, author Julian Barnes called Stoner the “must-read novel of 2013″ and went on to talk about how Stoner, originally published in 1965, has become a word-of-mouth success 50 years after its publication in Europe.

Williams was an American writer and academic and Stoner follows the life of a farm boy, William Stoner, who becomes unexpectedly seduced by literature and academia when his parents send him to college to enroll in agricultural classes. Stoner leaves his destitute, dusty upbringing behind to become a teacher, disappointing his parents who must toil out the remainder of their days without him. But Stoner has found the key to a richer life and makes his own way without so much as a backward glance.

The novel delves into his personal life, his marriage, his life as a father. Stoner is both an apathetic and a take-charge character, and his oscillation between these two poles describes the contradiction and catastrophic ruptures that occur in his life. A drama unfolds early in his ill-fated marriage to the mercurial girl he meets at a university party. Much is taken from him, he withholds much, but he finds and even enjoys those bursts of sweetness that life affords him.

When I reviewed the book at, I wrote:

I have grown weary of novels that simply portray lives of quiet desperation and disconnection and little more. I was afraid this was going to do the same, and it does, but unlike a lot of contemporary novels of its ilk it retains an emotional core. At the end, I cried for this character that I didn’t particularly like. Williams breathes life into poor, striving Stoner. It reminded me a bit of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth–which is more layered and nuanced, really–that also features a character I would not like or relate to in real life but whose life on paper moved me beyond words.

Stoner moved me. It is gratifying to know that a novel of its kind can gain success so many years after its publication. It is also the perfect book for book groups to discover and discuss. I will leave you with part of Julian Barnes’s assessment of the book:

I think Williams himself got it right: it is “substantially good”. It is good, and it has considerable substance, and gravity, and continuation in the mind afterwards. And it is a true “reader’s novel”, in the sense that its narrative reinforces the very value of reading and study.

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