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Dead Book Club Walking
October 24, 2005 5:05 PM   Subscribe

I went to a first meeting of a book club tonight, and it was an utter failure. We need, at the very least, a great book with broad appeal to discuss at our next meeting.

So, only two of us showed up--which was a bad start. To add to our troubles, the book we had chosen in hurry turned out to be a dud. It was too short and predictable and so we had to struggle to find something to talk about. After twenty awkward minutes, we called it quits.

We need a book that:
1) can be read in about two weeks
2) would be engaging to a wide variety of people (all women, in this case, but with unknown personal preferences)

It doesn't have to be a recently published book--we're open to classics and other older books, as long as it is something that an average person can plow through in two weeks.
posted by divka to Media & Arts (31 answers total)
 
This is the book you are looking for. Don't worry about the two weeks thing, most people won't be able to put it down for two minutes.
posted by Lotto at 5:09 PM on October 24, 2005


The usual way of doing this is to have a members of the book club nominate books they've already read that they loved and would like to share with the rest of the group. If that's not a possibility, my book club has recently enjoyed:
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenneger, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (currently an Oprah pick, too!), and a book called The Effects of Light by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore.
posted by bonheur at 5:11 PM on October 24, 2005


It's kind of an obvious answer, but what about The Jane Austen Book Club? It's basically about a book club made up of all women (and one man), of different ages, lifestyles, and tastes.

In the book they all read Austen, but with different perspectives. It might be a good starter book for your group; it could inspire you as a group to discuss your personal preferences and tastes, and develop some ideas for future reads.

Another idea is to take turns choosing books and then have the person whose choice it is lead and/or host the discussion of that book.
posted by padraigin at 5:11 PM on October 24, 2005


Jinx with Lotto! We also enjoyed Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. It's a brilliant read and there's lots to talk about. That said, the ladies in my mom's book club ignore the book, eat snacks and talk about their kids the whole time instead. They love it! Each to their own.
posted by bonheur at 5:13 PM on October 24, 2005


Read abything by Richard Russo except "Mohawk". Great characters, fantastic dialogue, hilarious and touching, and there's a ton of interpersonal stuff/relationships to discuss.

I personaly found Time Traveller's Wife about 100 pages too long and rather tedious, and can't frankly think of anything to actually discuss about it.

My group years ago had good luck with Anna Karennina, believe it or not.
posted by tristeza at 5:34 PM on October 24, 2005


Don't worry about a rough start to a book group. My wife and I founded on in November of 1996. We invited many people, but only one other couple showed up. The second month featured only the four of us. Now, nine years later, it's all we can do to keep the group at a manageable level (8-12 regular people). There are times when the membership waxes and wanes, but we've got a handle on it now, and when we drop down to six (or sometimes even four still), we know how to get more people to participate.

As far as books: you don't necessarily need something quick to read; you need something interesting. My wife is currently reading the aforementioned Time Traveler's Wife for pleasure, and she loves it. She chooses the next book for our group, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if she chose it.

Your best bet for getting people hooked are engaging works of any genre. Great discussions come from all sorts of books, but the best discussions come from the best books. Seriously. We've read a variety of stuff over the past decade, but only a handful were books that stick.

I think the group's consensus "best book of the decade" would be The Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy by Nordhoff and Hall. Seriously. You wouldn't believe it, but this is a fantastic adventure book, filled with all sorts of stuff to discuss. However, this may be less attractive to a group of women (though the women in our group loved it as much as the men).

On easy-to-read book filled with discussion fodder was Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, a nonfiction account of a disastrous Everest climb. That would make a fine candidate for an early pick in a book group.

The key to making a book group work, especially at the start, is to persevere. Read the book, twice if possible. Know it. It really helps if you have one person who can be an informal leader, but it's not a requirement. (For the first five years of our group, my former high school English teacher was essentially our tacit leader, and it really helped us, I think.) A leader is merely somebody willing to goad the conversation along and to keep the discussion on topic.

It also helps if people are relaxed around each other. Our group has become rather food-centric over the years, and every few months we partake in wonderful feasts. It keeps people interested.

Don't despair! Keep at it! A book group can be a wonderful experience. (My wife and I are atheists. We call book group our "church".)

On preview: our group also loved Anna Karenina, but it's very long. Note that the Jane Austen Book Club suggested above not only sounds lame, but garners only three stars on the always too-high-rated Amazon system. (Which I convert as follows: 5 stars = A, 4.5 stars = B, 4 stars = C, 3.5 stars = D, 3 stars or fewer = F.)
posted by jdroth at 5:37 PM on October 24, 2005


The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time is great, and can certainly be read in well under two weeks.

I've really enjoyed Possession every time I've read it, and everyone else I know who's read it seems to have plenty to say about it.

I also think Atonement's an amazing novel, but everyone would have to be committed to reading the ending, as it raises significant questions about the whole narrative preceding it.
posted by scody at 5:38 PM on October 24, 2005


Reviewing the list of books we've read, and considering what you've said about your group, I'd recommend the following: Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, Brain Sex by Jessell and Moir, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, or My Antonia by Willa Cather. The latter is one of my favorites.
posted by jdroth at 5:41 PM on October 24, 2005


Wow, my first thought was The Time Traveler's Wife. I guess I wasn't the only one!
posted by amro at 5:51 PM on October 24, 2005


Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons is a fun, light read, with lots to talk about. IIRC, it includes book club discussion questions.
My short-lived book club tried to read The Fountainhead and died a quick but painful death.
posted by clh at 5:59 PM on October 24, 2005


Note that the Jane Austen Book Club suggested above not only sounds lame, but garners only three stars on the always too-high-rated Amazon system. (Which I convert as follows: 5 stars = A, 4.5 stars = B, 4 stars = C, 3.5 stars = D, 3 stars or fewer = F.)

It may have been "lame" to suggest it, but I did offer a reason for having done so.

I happen to have enjoyed it, but maybe that's because I'm a huge Austen fan--and she hasn't come out with anything new in years.

My book club has always read a dizzying variety of books of all genres. We try and make a point of not being snobbish about what we or other people read--it's a nice rule of thumb.
posted by padraigin at 6:14 PM on October 24, 2005


I was actually about to suggest Anna Karenina. It's the best novel I've ever read.

I've never been in a book club, but my suggestion (which I'll go ahead and give) is that you should read good books. For example, instead of reading The Jane Austen Book Club, how about reading Emma or Persuasion? And I'll second Atonement and add Willa Cather's The Professor's House and J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. Or how about Henry James: The Turn of the Screw or Daisy Miller or The American.
posted by josh at 6:18 PM on October 24, 2005


I'd recommend William Golding's The Inheritors.
posted by nomis at 6:22 PM on October 24, 2005


I'm a huge Austen fan--and she hasn't come out with anything new in years.

And I would certainly not hold your breath that she will anytime soon.
posted by amro at 6:33 PM on October 24, 2005


Man, my book club read Time Travelers Wife, and every page was agony until I finally decided to pretend I finished it. Why does everyone love that book?

Successful books in my club: Candyfreak, by Steve Almond, which led to a great discussion of regional candy bars (some of which were consumed at the meeting).

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls. Jeannette is a friend of mine, but her incredibly honest memoir got us all talking about what the focus of our own memoir would be if we wrote one.

And one week we were all asked to bring our favorite children's or young adult book from our childhood, to discuss what it meant to us and why. The room was filled with "Oh, I LOVED [Harriet the Spy, Ramona, Boxcar Children, fill in the blank]."
posted by GaelFC at 6:51 PM on October 24, 2005


My husband and I really enjoyed The Dante Club.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:00 PM on October 24, 2005


And I would certainly not hold your breath that she will anytime soon.


Yeah, I was kidding.

You knew that, right? You didn't think all my un-good literature had whupped the smartitude out of my hat-holder?
posted by padraigin at 7:03 PM on October 24, 2005


One thing that our book club has discovered is that anything with a moral aspect (Life of Pi, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Billy Budd, etc) makes for a good discussion. Frankly, we all meet for the socializing as much as to discuss the damn book. In fact, I think most of us get more out of discussing what book we'll read next than actually discussing the book just read.
But maybe start out thinking about what unites the group (for us it's law) and make choices accordingly.
posted by johngumbo at 7:13 PM on October 24, 2005


here's a list of books from my former (back in Austin, sigh) book club. Not all the books were winners, but there are some great ones in that list: Blindness, Life of Pi, Lovely Bones..
Typically, the person who recommended the book was supposed to lead the discussion (usually not the person who is hosting). With the internet, there are plenty of forums to find questions about the book you're reading. Some books, like Oprah books, often have discussion questions in the back.
Food and wine help loosen up the group as well.
posted by j at 7:17 PM on October 24, 2005


Yeah, I was kidding.

I know, me too :)
posted by amro at 7:19 PM on October 24, 2005


May I suggest my wife's novel?
posted by muckster at 7:38 PM on October 24, 2005


I recommend Kate Christensen's The Epicure's Lament, which I just read and thoroughly enjoyed.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:43 PM on October 24, 2005


How about something light and non-misogynisitic, like the elementary particles?

Or light going, done in a day, really, like Foucault's Pendulum, Gravity's Rainbow or Infinite Jest.

Or how about a recently eviscerated work of historical fiction, like this

Sorry. Bitter and twisted after a day of grading.

Let's see: amsterdam by ian mcewan is a nice morality tale and a short book. michael pollans book the botany of desire is guaranteed to get everyone talking.
posted by lalochezia at 7:46 PM on October 24, 2005


Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, a very very funny novel that should get everyone talking.
posted by patrickje at 8:04 PM on October 24, 2005


yup--Life of Pi, or Lonely Bones or something like that.
posted by amberglow at 9:25 PM on October 24, 2005


Margaret Atwood seems like a good book club choice, I recently particularly enjoyed "Oryx and Crake", it has *plenty* of interesting themes to discuss.

As an aside from amberglow's suggestion, and speaking as someone who has recently lost a close family member, I personally would not want to suddenly find that something like "Lovely Bones" was required reading for my new book group (as good as this book is). If you have a large group you are bound to offend someone somewhere if you want to read interesting stuff, but if you have a smaller group perhaps you have an opportunity to be sensitive to individuals tender spots?

Good luck, and have fun with you new club!
posted by ancamp at 3:20 AM on October 25, 2005


As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem. Short, sweet, with discussions on love and sigularities.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:28 AM on October 25, 2005


My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult. Actually, most of Picoult's books tend to foster discussion among my friends when we read them. And we're not even in a book group. My Sister's Keeper is my favorite of hers, though.
posted by INTPLibrarian at 9:21 AM on October 25, 2005


Keep trying. Sometimes less than wonderful books provide great discussions. We take turns hosting Book Group. The host chooses the next book, with a fair amount of discussion from the group, and leads the discussion of the current book. It's nice to read some reviews and get biographical notes, if you're leading the discussion.

jdroth - How does your group find new members?
posted by theora55 at 10:39 AM on October 25, 2005


jdroth - How does your group find new members?

See #5 in this braindump...

How our book group works (off the top of my head):

1. First of all, there are no formal rules. Seriously. Sometimes members want to make rules like "you can only pick a book you've read" or "you can only pick a book you haven't read" or "you can't come if you haven't read the book" or "you can't invite new members unless the group approves", but we've intentionally avoided these sorts of rules because they're really just expressions of personal preference and do not lead to better discussion. Though we have no rules, we do get cranky at certain things. Perhaps the most egregious sin is to choose a book and then not even complete it. This is especially bad if your choice sucks and everyone else in the group slogged through it.

2. We meet once a month in a member's house, usually for brunch or for dinner. (Dinners are more popular.) We rotate houses. The meals are potluck. The host(ess) provides the core food (generally entree and beverages), and the rest of the group brings whatever. When certain members host, they need to know what everyone is bringing (and for everyone to RSVP). When other members host, it's just random what will appear. (We once had an all-dessert debacle, but that has only happened once in nine years. And all-desserts is better than all salads.) Sometimes the book will lend itself to certain foods. When we read Nine Parts of Desire, for example, we had Middle Eastern food.

3. Our meetings are scheduled to last three hours. Often they end sooner. Less often they run longer. We do our best to stay on task, discussing the books or the issues it raises. Some books are less interesting than others, though, or have less to talk about. These meetings turn into general free-for-all discussions, which is fine. My favorite meetings feature about 2-1/2 hours of book time followed by an hour of shooting the breeze.

4. We rotate book picks. At the end of each meeting, a member announces her pick for two months later. We used to pick only one month in advance, but that didn't work as well. Some members are slower about acquiring the books than others. If one member has to wait for a library hold, for example, he might not get the book until a few days before the meeting if we pick only a month in advance.

5. Membership waxes and wanes. I concede that about eight members makes for an ideal discussion, but I prefer groups of ten to twelve for the diversity. When we have more than twelve, things can be unwieldy. We try to refrain from adding to membership when we regularly have twelve people attending. When we're regularly at eight (or fewer), then we begin to recruit. Even when we're not adding members, we're cultivating potential members. Perhaps my wife has a friend at work who has expressed interest in a book group. Maybe a new member has a brother-in-law who loves to read. We keep a mental list of all potential recruits, and when the group dwindles, we invite people to give us a try. Some stick, some don't.

6. As I mentioned above, our group does not have a leader, and that is one of its weaknesses. An informal leader can provide direction when the discussion is wandering. There's never been any sort of turn-taking in our group: we each speak our minds when there's an opening in the discussion. This has advantages and disadvantages. Quieter members can feel sometimes feel squished, I think. (Sometimes one of us will say, "What do you think, X?" in an effort to draw out a quiet member.) And we've had certain members in the past who dominate the conversation. But, in general, our method works for us.

These six techniques work for us. There are millions of other ways to make a book group work.
posted by jdroth at 11:27 AM on October 25, 2005 [2 favorites]


The Life of God (as Told by Himself), but it's translated from the Italian original. but you can discuss that for hours.

otherwise, I'd suggest Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, very possibly the greatest American book of the last 25 years:


See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.
He stokes the scullery fire. Outside like dark turned fields with rags of
snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a last few wolves. His folks
are known hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his was father
was a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from the poets whose names
are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.
Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God
knows how the stars did fall. I looked for dakrness, holes in the heavens.
The Dipper stove.
The mother dead these fourten years did incubate in her own bosom the
creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the
child does not know it. He has a sister in the world he will never see
again. He watches, pale and unwashed. He can neither read nor write and in
him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in
that visage, the child the father of the man.

posted by matteo at 12:29 PM on October 25, 2005


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