For the second year, I had the fun of chairing the committee that reads and selects the titles for this list. We look for books that will be good for discussion, midlist books that may not get the big bucks for publicity. Since we read many titles pre-pub, we sometimes include a title or two that does turn out to be a bestseller. We’ll live with that! The list is mainly fiction, but this year and last year we picked one memoir. Here’s a link to the Great Group Reads website with all the titles, annotations, and links to reviews and publishers’ websites. The readers come from around the country and we have a great virtual conversation about the books.
Great Group Reads is part of National Reading Group Month, which is sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association, a great group that’s been around since 1917, when a group of women–ticked off by the all-male Bookseller’s League’s no-women members policy–formed their own group. Still going strong after 93 years, there are chapters in cities around the country. The NYC chapter is the founding chapter, and we host networking and educational events for our members, a great group of authors, editors, agents, publishers, librarians, and others involved in the book world.
All the WNBA chapters host events for National Reading Group Month (October); I’m moderating an author panel for the NYC chapter’s event on October 19th at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, starting at 6:30 pm. Come if you can–the event is free and there will be donations of books from publishers, refreshments, and book signings afterwards. Since Brooklyn now seems to be author central, we have a great group of authors: Susan Henderson, Sheri Holman, Rick Moody, Jackson Taylor, and Emily St. John Mandel. There’s a little more detail on the WNBA website events page; I’ll have more information as it gets closer.
I was delighted to see a post about my book on Book Group Buzz, the Booklist blog, especially since I’ve just been thinking about the qualities that make a memoir appropriate for book discussion groups. For me, it’s the relationship between character and story. If you’ve read This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, you’ll know what I mean. Wolff writes about his teenage years, when he’s trying on identities, giving in to bad impulses, hanging out with the wrong crowd but also dealing with his divorced mother and the series of wildly unsuitable stand-in fathers she lives with. His mother loves him, but she’s clueless about the appropriate way to bring up a child. His real father is a con artist who’s never on the scene. Wolff learns to define himself in opposition to his stepfather, making bad choices along the way, but he always has a dream, a core of himself that’s inviolate. Somehow he believes that despite his wildness, his acting out, he will escape unscathed into a better place; he’s somehow smarter, better, destined for other things. His memoir is far more than the recounting of abuse and bad choices that fuels so many dysfunctional family memoirs. Wolff’s self-awareness, his ability to make us understand how he fought to invent himself, and the way he uses humor to defuse and describe the most scary and poignant episodes give This Boy’s Life depth and style. It has always intrigued me that Wolff’s next book, Old School, picks up where This Boy’s Life leaves off, but the story continues as fiction. Hmm, now wouldn’t that be interesting for a book group–to read and discuss those books together.
I’ve put together the first of several reading lists of memoirs that I think book groups would enjoy discussing. It’s .pdf so you can print it off and take it with you.
At my book group, one of the best discussions we had was about the memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan. We couldn’t stop turning it around, looking at it from various angles. It’s filled with great storytelling and wonderful set pieces about family and friends that are funny and emotionally piercing. Boylan is writing about her sexuality, the way she knew from age 3 that she was trapped in the wrong body, but while there’s pain and struggle to her story, it’s a joyous, eye-opening book.
There are so many memoirs that are ideal for book group discussion. I just did a Q&A session on this topic for the blog at ReadingGroupGuides.com with Shannon McKenna Schmidt, so you’ll find title suggestions there. There’s an icon in my book, Read On…Life Stories to identify memoirs that are good for book groups. I’ll come back to this topic in the next few weeks with more titles of memoirs that are great for discussion.
October is National Reading Group Month, a good time to think about books as tools for making connections among people. My mother was in a reading group for 40 years–a dozen women who met once a month in each other’s houses. They had a paid leader at the beginning, courtesy of a foundation that was promoting discussion groups in the 1930s, but they continued for many years without her, reading great books, eating (of course), and becoming fast friends. Book discussion groups do create community, there’s no doubt about that. They teach us to consider–even honor–other people’s points of view, something we could use more of in this world, right now.
I’m a member of a small nonfiction reading group–you can see our reading list. We struggle with how to pick our books, always wanting to find a great book that will promote meaningful discussion. But it turns out that even if the book doesn’t change our lives, the act of discussing it might. Getting together in someone’s kitchen or dining room and exchanging ideas, accommodating our very different approaches to literature, and our diverse life experiences turns out to be quite satisfying. Maybe it’s the particular group members, but I suspect it’s also the exchange of ideas, even on the evenings when we don’t feel inspired or brilliant. Is that your experience too?