by Heather Wood
This is Part Two of my post about good book club picks. As I mentioned in Part One, a successful book club discussion requires a book that divides rather than unifies your group. Choose a book that some people hate and others love. Choose a book that will generate a diverse range of opinions. Don’t search for the book that everyone will love (or even merely like). Rather find a book that people feel passionately about. What kinds of book am I talking about? Here are a few more categories.
Books Comprised of Intertwining Stories
One kind of book that always promotes a lively discussion are the books made up of multiple points of view that appear on the surface to be unconnected. This style of writing creates a mystery: what’s the common thread? How does each story convey something new about a character or situation?
A perfect example of such a book is the superb Disappearing Earth by Julia Philips. Set in far eastern Siberia, the novel is ostensibly about the abduction of two sisters. But an otherwise familiar plot is made surprising and complex by Philips’ storytelling. Comprised of overlapping short stories, Disappearing Earth slowly reveals the tenuous connections each character has with the sisters — and with their cultural heritage as a whole. Some characters are likable, others less so, which also can generate vigorous discussion.
Another example of a novel made up of multiple individual points of view is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. Here we have voices from all walks of society, each of which illuminate different aspects of modern life in India. There’s a feisty transsexual woman searching for a family; a former intelligence officer slowly succumbing to alcoholism and nostalgia; a fanatical possible-terrorist and numerous other seemingly unconnected characters. Will all the stories eventually converge and if so, how?
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is not only a collection of interwoven stories, it is a must-read contemporary classic and arguably (yay! argument) one of the best examples of innovative storytelling ever written. Told from the points of view of several soldiers in a platoon fighting in Vietnam, the mystery at the heart of O’Brien’s book is whether any one person can know the truth — including the ostensibly omniscient reader.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is not only comprised of numerous narratives, but it’s told in varying styles and tones. The question is what or who connects all these points of view and how. No one in your group will agree, but everyone will enjoy making the arguments for their interpretations.
Lastly, there is The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. Set in Russia and Chechnya, at its heart, Marra’s novel is almost not a novel at all but rather a collection of short stories that range widely in time and place. Of all the books I’ve mentioned this one has the greatest mystery at its heart. The connection between each story is so delicate it’s like a thread in a spider’s intricate web.
Books that Shock
Bookending (yes, I know, a bad pun) my post about successful book club books is a more controversial suggestion. Choose a novel that will shock — and maybe even disgust — some members of your group.
A good example of such a book is The Vegetarian by Han Kang. This is a book that is almost guaranteed to generate strong feelings. (Disclosure: I almost couldn’t finish it). Disturbing and graphic, Kan’s novel is about a young Korean woman’s descent into madness. Not only does The Vegetarian have shocking content, its ending is surprising in its ambiguity. Who exactly is crazy? Who is sane? Few people in your group will agree on the answers to those questions.
Another book that is likely to shock some in your group is the well-regarded Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Set on the western frontier, McCarthy’s novel is about a gang of marauders that massacres native Americans for bounty and sheer bloody-minded pleasure. That said, Blood Meridian represents, at its heart, a powerful critique of the Myth of the West and state-sanctioned genocide.
As haunting as it is shocking, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find is a must-read for everyone interested in the evolution of the short story and American literature in general. Let’s just say that in O’Connor’s fiction nothing good ever happens. Your book club will enjoy shuddering and squabbling over her thoroughly (and delightfully) despicable characters. There is also a beautiful new edition coming this December from HMH, just FYI!
A Little Life
Before I disappear again into War and Peace (seriously), I would be remiss in not mentioning A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Perhaps the penultimate book club book, A Little Life will destroy your members emotionally, and it will be the job of your group meeting to console one another. Have a box of tissues and a pot of soothing chamomile tea on hand. In case you haven’t heard already, Yanagihara’s novel is about four close friends, one of who has suffered unimaginable trauma — a fact he grapples with every day of his life.
That’s all for now folks. Enjoy your book club reads. Feel free to thank me (or blame me) for all the arguments. May that be passionate and unrestrained.