“The Unwinding is a unique take on American history told through the eyes of multiple people. We loved because it walks you through the past sixty years of American history through personal stories, behind-the-scenes details of major events (e.g. the recent economic and housing crisis), and profiles of iconic American figures, from Colin Powell to Sam Walton to Oprah to Jay-Z. Underlying the book is the theme of ‘the unwinding’ — the dismantling of social structures that held America up in the early/mid 1900s. We spent a lot of time talking about what ‘the unwinding’ means, and whether the author feels it’s positive or negative. It’s a unique nonfiction book.”
“This novel is about Victoria, a girl who has grown up in many foster homes. She is emancipated from the foster care system at age eighteen and the book is about how she tries to make her way in the world on her own. Those of us who are teachers were struck by this book because we have all come across kids who have lacked a caring family or adult in their lives. In addition, the book is interesting for anyone who likes flowers because the symbolic meaning of flowers is a central theme in the book. We discussed the choices Victoria makes, the people who try to help her, and the various meanings of the flowers. We had lots of good conversation about this book!”
“The title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah refers to a term used by some Nigerians to describe immigrants who have traveled to the United States and returned to Nigeria with American pretensions. The Americanah of the novel, Ifemelu, must navigate between her Nigerian cultural inheritances and her newfound American ideals. As Ifemelu struggles to find her place in the world, the reader is pulled into this journey with her. I, too, found myself examining my own cultural preconceptions. Who are we and what cultural signposts define us? What I love most about Adichie’s third novel is her clarity and honesty as an author. Her insightful eye is unflinching, revealing an author who has become, with each book, more and more courageous. I urge you to read this book.”
“This novel is about a mother who is a helicopter pilot in the National Guard called to active
duty in Iraq. She is devastated about leaving her daughters and yet feels it is her duty to go. Her husband does not want her in the Guard and is not supportive of her going on active duty. When she returns wounded and suffers from post–traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), her family has a hard time adjusting. Her husband discovers a lot about himself and his wife as he struggles to take care of his daughters.
“The book made us more aware of our world today and the suffering our military families are going
through. We discussed whether the government was giving our veterans the care they need for PTSD. We also discussed how PTSD has occurred after every war although it has been called by different names, and wondered why society is so reluctant to accept mental illness as something we need to address. There was much discussion about how society reacts to a woman leaving her children to go to war and a father going to war. We discussed how this couple, who had no close parents or relatives, could manage in this situation. And we discussed how we feel about women in combat zones as this is a whole new concept for our generation.”
“The Rathbones tells the story of Mercy Rathbone, the latest in a long line of a once thriving family of whalers that is now dwindling. After having to flee her crumbling home, Mercy and her uncle Mordecai go on an adventure of Odyssey like proportions which rapidly becomes a journey to uncover the truth about her family’s mysterious past. Along the way, Mercy uncovers many secrets spanning one hundred years, from the family’s founder to Mercy herself. Told with vivid details and imagery, it is easy to get swept up in this gothic story and envision yourself on the stormy, New England shores alongside Mercy and Mordecai. A dark and mysterious family saga, this novel is perfect for anyone who’s ever dreamt of a seaward adventure or wondered what skeletons are lingering in their own family’s closet.”
The Bookends Book Club of Wakarusa, Indiana, recommends:
Sweet Salt Air by Barbara Delinsky (St. Martin’s Press, 2013),
Fiction, 416 pages
“This is a sweet summer love story, one full of many different types of relationships. Friends from childhood, Charlotte and Nicole come together after years apart to write a cookbook full of recipes from the island of their youth, Quinnipeague. Being back on the island stirs up their memories, both good and bad, as many things were left unsaid during those earlier years, and some secrets kept hidden. An intriguing island man captures their interest, and Nicole is dealing with troubles from home.
“Our group had a lively discussion about many topics, including: Is it ever right to keep a secret from a loved one? How about bottling up your emotions and never letting your feelings out? Forgiveness doesn’t come easy, and there were many characters who needed it from each other. We discussed whether we would have forgiven these characters. We also loved discussing memories that came to light at the mention of a specific food item, and sharing memories of special summer locations and/or vacations.“
Paired With: “Clam Chowder, Passion Flower Tea (grown on Quinnipeague), Molasses Indiana Pudding, and of course, pie! You could choose any seaside recipe or item mentioned in the book (plenty to choose from)! Dried Lavender Sachets were also handed out to each member, and the room décor was ocean/whaling themed.”
Cyndy Cook’s Book Club of Tampa, Florida, recommends:
Mary Coin by Marisa Silver (Blue Rider Press, 2013), Historical Fiction, 336 pages
“The book centers on the iconic Depression-era photo of the migrant mother with her children. The story is told in the voices of the mother, Mary Coin, the photographer, Vera Dare, both based on real people, and a new, fictional character, Walker Dodge.
“Silver takes an image that is part of our historical memory and creates a back story. The story comes to life over the course of ninety years, between 1920 and 2011. Mary and Vera’s stories, along with Walker Dodge’s, are blended together to create a perfect storm of historical fiction. The storm begins with the death of Walker’s father and how he comes to learn of a family ‘secret.’
“We all agreed that the use of multiple storytellers added substantial layers to our understanding of the story. Our book club is made up of current and retired English teachers and librarians, and we were all very surprised with the direction of the story. Silver’s plot twists were able to fool a group who feel as though they are sophisticated readers. We never saw the ending coming, and no one regretted having fallen for Silver’s perfect, but unexpected ending.
“This book is beautifully written; it is complex storytelling, yet very accessible. We rated this book 8/9 on a scale of 10, so it definitely ranks as one of the best we’ve read.”
“In this first book of a trilogy, the author regales readers with stories of the life and times of people in Dublin. A very quick read sure to spark book club conversation. I have passed this book on to many of our members. Most started with the first book and then went on to read the other books of the trilogy. There is so much discussion potential in these little books.
“Themes in the book that have sparked discussion include the simple acceptance of things, the strength of the people, and the unity of family and community. A favorite, yet sad part of the book was about a friend of the main character dealing with breast cancer. The pair go out to get the friend a driver’s license before she dies, a scene that leaves you laughing and crying at the same time. Another discussion point is how the mother can accept the faults of her (you think) favorite son while another son does so much with less appreciation.”
“Cheryl Strayed’s memoir provoked one of our favorite discussions to date. At age 26, following the sudden death of her mother, her own divorce, the scattering of her once close-knit family, and a run of reckless behavior, the author decides to hike more than one thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from California to Washington state, alone. She is inexperienced, over-equipped, and desperate to reclaim her life. Wild tracks Strayed’s personal journey on the trail as she comes to terms with devastating loss and her unpredictable reactions to it. Her journey is intense at times, at times humorous and is where she ultimately finds peace and healing.
“We discussed in depth her relationship with her mother (was it healthy, was she obsessed with her mom or did she simply love her deeply), her promiscuity and what that stemmed from (probably the lack of a father figure in her life), and the scary encounters she had on her hike. We all agreed the book was well written, and loved the theme of personal confrontation and self-willed healing.”
Paired with: “Food for our discussion all came directly from things the author thrived on in the book: beef jerky, Snapple (her most desired drink while on the hike), candy bars and potato chips, nuts and berries (just to keep hiking in the wild authentic), and a beautiful fresh salad, which was something she often craved.”
“This book changed the way we thought about the qualities of a good leader and how to get people to bring their best ideas to the table. It applies to interactions in the office, school, and family. People found the examples of introverted leaders including Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt to be empowering.
“We met over dinner at a vegetarian restaurant. Though the book does not have vegetarian themes, we wondered if the sensitive introverts described in the book as quick to react to violence and with a strong social conscience might be more likely to go vegan.”
The VSDC Book Club is 21 years old, and reads fiction and nonfiction in alternating months, about any topics. About 1/4 of the books have had vegetarian or animal themes. The group’s recommendations are posted here.
“Taking place in modern Bombay, The Space Between Us explores the bond and separation between two women — a wealthy home owner and her slum-dwelling servant. “Despite their difference in class, the story demonstrates the many ways in which they are both victims of a male dominated society that deprives each of them of control over their lives and destinies. Our group found the book beautifully written, and spent much of our discussion
pondering whether the author was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the protagonists.
“As a member of France’s literary group Oulipo, Hervé Le Tellier has long played with form
and style to create surprising and unexpected new works. His latest novel, Electrico W,
takes as inspiration Homer’s Odyssey. In the book, journalist Vincent Balmer moves to Lisbon
to escape from a failing affair. During his first assignment there, he teams up with Antonio
—a photographer who has just returned to the city after a ten-year absence—to report
for a French newspaper on an infamous serial killer’s trial. While walking around
the city together to take notes and photos for the article, they visit the places of
Antonio’s childhood, swap stories from their pasts, and confide in each other. But the more they learn about each other, the more their lives become inextricably intertwined. Book clubs will be able to pick apart the structure of the story to see parallels between it and The Odyssey, discussing how Vincent and Antonio explore Lisbon the way Odysseus and his crew explored the Mediterranean on their long journey home. The two men’s linked lives also make for an interesting discussion of how strangers can be connected in strange and unpredictable ways.”
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday, 2011), Fiction, 392 pages
“This atmospheric story about a fierce competition between two young magicians, is a book about the senses. It is beautifully written, bittersweet, wonderful and cruel all at the same time. Each of us felt as if we had smelled the scents and heard the sounds of the Circus.
“We tried to interpret the actions of Poppet and Widget – twins born on opening night of the Circus, who eventually had their own act. One had the ability to read the past and the other the future. The creation of each circus tent and the meaning behind it was very interesting to discuss and it was fun to learn each group member’s favorite. There appeared to be a level of cruelty as well as beauty involved in each relationship, whether it was Celia and Marco’s, the lovers who are kept apart, or Celia andher father’s. Did her father love her at all? Or too much? The relationship that each character had with the Circus seemed as complex as any, and we all agreed that the Circus itself was the main character.”
Paired With: Baked Salted Caramel Popcorn, which was offered at the concessions. The Circus goers seemed to always be munching on it.
“The book introduces us to Paloma, the precocious twelve-year old daughter of a rich Parisian family, who has decided to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday; and to Renee, the building concierge, a middle-aged woman who does her best to blend into the woodwork and appear to be the stereotypical ‘superintendent’ — uneducated, unread, and uninteresting. Renee knows she is mostly unliked –not disliked, just not really thought of as a person at all. When a new mysterious neighbor, a Japanese businessman, moves in, lives change and Renee discovers herself.
“The story primarily takes place in and around the elegant apartment building in Paris. The author is a philosopher and the story is laced with philosophical considerations. We enjoyed the mix of mundane details, rich vocabulary, and well-developed characters. The book started slowly but soon captured all of us and no one wanted it to end.”
Best Book Group of Los Angeles, California, recommends:
Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love from
His Extraordinary Son by Tom Fields-Meyer (NAL Trade, 2011), Memoir, 256 pages
“The book is about a father’s search for how to parent an autistic child. Our group was inspired by Tom Fields-Meyer’s love of family and commitment to discovering his son’s best self. He reminds his reader to enjoy the simple encounters and cultivate the best in our children. We were most impressed with how engaged this father was in rearing his children, demonstrated by the amount of time he spent with them, his involvement in Ezra’s education and therapies, and the entire experience of preparing for Ezra’s Bar Mitzvah. We reflected on how our own relationships with our husbands were affected in raising our children. Fields-Meyer’s tender and humorous descriptions allow us to look at our own children and grandchildren through a very different prism.”
“It’s 1945. Young Elsie has just returned from a party on Christmas Eve. Her family owns a bakery in Garmish-Partenkirchen, a very Tyrolean town in Germany. She hears a knock on the door and it is an eight-year-old Jewish boy begging to be saved.
“Elsie’s story and that of her family is then woven into a modern tale that takes place much later in her life as she is interviewed by Reba, a young writer for a magazine in El Paso, Texas. Like the young reporter, we, too, are swept up into Elsie’s story. The characters are real and vivid and tug at your heart. Our group felt that it was especially interesting that the author brought several points of view of the war into her writing. Her point that not all Germans were Nazis, and that many Germans risked their lives to help Jews escape, was particularly important. Very often we read books about World War II or the Holocaust, but rarely have we read such an engrossing story about what life was like for those Germans who did not agree with the Nazi philosophy.
“We were extremely fortunate to be able to chat with author Sarah McCoy via Skype. Sarah graciously shared with us her process for writing, how she developed the idea for the book and how she even tasted some of the pastries that Elsie bakes and sells in her bakery. We discussed the possibility of the book being made into a film and who we would cast in the leading roles.”
Paired With: Delicacies from a local German bakery, including Black Forest Cherry Cake (Schwartzwalderkirchtorte), Gingerbread Cookies (Lebküchen), German cheese pastry (Quark gebäck), cinnamon buns, and Streusel, along with German coffee and tea and glasses of Riesling wine.