Great Books for Book Groups
Looking for suggestions of books that are great for your next book club meeting? Here are some that we here at Main Point Books think would make for great reading and fruitful discussions.
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
The conflicts and upheaval of the Middle East can feel overwhelming, but in Salt Houses, Hala Alyan goes to its essence -- wars irrevocably scald people and mold their characters. Home is a mutating concept for the members of the Jacoub clan as exile -- from Jaffa to Nablus, Nablus to Kuwait City, then to Amman, Beruit, and beyond -- reverberates through succeeding generations. No matter your stance, this book will enable fruitful discussions of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict since it wears its politics lightly, which isn't to imply that Alyan trivializes the complex politics of the region, but rather that while politics and conflict are always present, the reader will experience them only as the characters experience them. Her characters are simply trying to figure out how to survive, and find a modicum of peace, in a volatile region.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
This newly anointed Man Booker Prize winner is at once formally innovative and at the same time comfortable, funny, scatological and, for a book set in a cemetery, life affirming. Narrated largely by a cast of spirits caught between life and death, the Bardo of the title, we witness President Lincoln’s grief for his youngest son Willy, who died of typhoid fever in 1862, and his worry for the nation. It is Saunder’s evocation of faith in shared community and the power to change (even after death), as well as his humor, that transform what should be a sad book into one that emphasizes the joy of living a life, even in times of strife. Don't be put off by the odd look of the narrative style. The audio version, with 166 different voice participants, is stellar and highly recommended.
Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans
Noel Bostock is an orphan, and a bit of an odd bird. Vera Sedge is a widow struggling, not always legally, to make ends meet and support too many dependents. Thrown together because of the Blitz the two together find they can use her desperation and his cool head to seize the opportunities the disruptions of the war provide. With it’s cast of oddly appealing characters and it’s look at the underbelly of the mythic days of WWII, this appealing novel is the exception to the rule that if everyone loves a book there won’t be anything to discuss. It’s a Main Point favorite that sparked a fabulous book club discussion earlier this year.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
Turtles All the Way Down refers to the infinite regress problem in cosmology and from the title you know immediately that John Green treats young adult readers with respect. The novel tells the story of Aza Holmes, a 16-year-old with anxiety and OCD. She can’t leave her thoughts alone and Green makes her entrapment palpable to the reader. Aza does have a good friend in Daisy and together they go on a quest to rescue a rich businessman. When his son Davis enters their friendship, the novel builds in a fraught and true love story. While Green’s books are targeted to teens, his smart, emotionally evocative coming-of-age stories are well worth reading and discussing no matter your age.
A Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon
Two military wives -- two completely different women in Jordan in the time of the Arab Spring confront the strange world they are asked to inhabit. After impulsive Margaret heads off to the local police station in the wake of a minor traffic incident, rule bound Cassie is forced to confront what she knows of her friend, and of herself. Close because of circumstances, yet strangers, as the book unfolds, it is clear that both women struggle to make sense of the culture around them, their marriages and each other. This compelling and page turning novel etches each woman poignantly and irrevocably into your memory. A great book for book groups to read as it will force everyone to examine how you engage with the world – recklessly or timidly, with openness or with respect for the rules.
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
My Absolute Darling’s protagonist, Turtle is described by her friend Jacob as a "chain-saw-wielding, shotgun-toting, Zen Buddhist, once-and-future queen of post-apocalyptic America.” She is also the victim of horrific abuse at the hands of her father in every way. When she forges a friendship with a slightly older boy she begins to imagine, and then to craft an existence free of her father’s orbit. My Absolute Darling was one of the hardest books Cathy read this year but she found it was impossible to stop reading. Turtle is a survivor, as well as a survivalist, and a character that will stick with you.
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel Laureate in Literature for 2017, first came to US prominence with the publication of this Booker Prize winning novel in 1989. Even if you read it years ago, it is well worth revisiting now for it’s exquisite structure and use of an unreliable narrator, and for it’s look at a moment of political upheaval. The story of a self-denying and utterly proper butler who goes on a trip to reflect on his former employer and the household he served in the 1930s. Even almost 40 years later this novel is still immensely affecting and filled with undercurrents that are worth exploring.
Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
It’s long, yes, but so filled with fabulous characters, questions of identity, sly looks at religion, history, and women’s lives that it is well worth reading. The story starts with an academic, nearing the end of her career, being called upon by a former student to examine documents found in the midst of renovations of his 1660s house. With the help of a young American stalled in his dissertation on Shakespeare, the cache begins to give up the secrets it’s held for centuries. Intermingled with the modern intellectual treasure hunt we are privy to the story of the documents’ author – Esther Velasquez, a young Sephardic Jewish woman. Filled with illuminating historical tidbits and rich characters that evolve over the course of the novel, this is a truly stunning book, one you can sink into and only reluctantly leave behind.
The Long Haul by Finn Murphy
Cathy was reading passages of The Long Haul out-loud to her husband, and he was so intrigued that he took the book from her -- a testament to what a great storyteller Finn Murphy is. The Long Haul immerses you in a different life – one you wish you had stumbled upon, so-called “other-life porn.” Finn’s stories involve an unlikely polygamist, a client who dies mid-move, and an obnoxious customer who ends up with his sculptures installed upside down but is too unobservant to notice. Through it all, Finn waxes philosophical about the class lines between customer and trucker, and between himself and truckers in general. An added bonus, Finn and his rig will be at Main Point Books on Thursday, November 2nd at 7pm.
Pandora’s Lab by Paul Offit
Sometimes scientists get it right but not always, and the consequences can be terrible. Yet, Pandora's Lab is a pro-science book. Science fails, Offit believes, when it falls short of its own standards. For science to work, it needs to base its claims on data, and the studies need to be replicable. Pandora’s Lab has been chosen as “The One Book, One Lower Merion” please join us at the Lower Merion Township Building on Sunday, November 19th, 2pm to hear Paul speak about this provocative look at the history of science.
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
Trees communicate! They are social. They can change how they taste to chase off predators and they take care of their families. The Hidden Life of Trees might not be new news to biologists but it has changed the way many urbanites look at the world and how we might redefine the environmental movement. While this is a short book, it will lead your book group to many avenues of conversation.
Hero of the Empire by Candace Millard
Winston Churchill has been impressed upon our imaginations as the venerable leader of Britain through the dark days of World War II, but that version of the man came nearly a half-century after he first burst onto the consciousness of the British Empire. Candace Millard brings to life the young journalist covering the Boer War, the man certain of his own importance and hungry to prove it to the rest of the world. His feats of daring and bravado, pure physical will are amazing in and of themselves, but as Millard so deftly relates, the far-reaching lessons of this brief period were felt in Churchill’s actions throughout his long career in government. As in her earlier works about Theodore Roosevelt and James Garfield, Millard writes elegantly and compellingly about someone we think we know, but come to realize was so much more.
Born A Crime by Trevor Noah
In the apartheid era of South Africa, unions like the one that produced Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, were illegal. Half-white, half-black his life was formed by the proscriptions of Apartheid and the changes that followed its ending. These autobiographical essays are engaging, funny, moving and horrifying, but always buoyed by Noah’s keen power of observation and alive to the humor and absurdity that marks his life, whether dealing with near starvation, kidnapping or just the everyday travails of high school. Celebrity memoirs do not usually feature in our book club recommendations, but in this case, you will discover why this is an exception.