Welcome back to In The Club, a newsletter of resources to keep your book group well-met and well-read. Let’s dive right in.
After Gone Girl: It seems like every book group in the country — nay, the world perhaps? — read The Girl on the Train and/or Gone Girl, and are desperately looking for read-alikes. After all, unreliable/unlikeable narrators tend to be polarizing, and book group is always better when there’s something to fight about. (Always.) Author Sarah Pinborough put together a list of 10 unreliable narrator reads, including those two, and there’s a lot of potential here. And if you’re willing to do a hardcover, The Girl Before is being touted as the next heir to the throne.
Taking book club to the streets: The folks at Little Free Library have launched the Action Book Club initiative, encouraging groups to bring together “good reads and good deeds.” The basic idea is to pair whatever you’re reading with a group project in your community, be it a food drive, a letter campaign, etc. I love this idea, especially since there are so many books that can get you fired up about the real world. Anyone want to read Infomocracy with me and then organize a voter registration drive?
Read like Obama: Our 44th President recently talked about the books he read in office and The Bookseller pulled together a book list from the broader article. The breadth of his reading is excellent — seeing Cixin Liu, VS Naipaul, Colson Whitehead, and Doris Lessing (among many others) on the same list makes my heart grow several sizes. You could do a whole year of discussions just from the suggestions here-in.
A recipe and a recommendation: I love a group that includes snacks, I love reading graphic memoirs, and therefore I love Lucy Knisley’s Relish. May I recommend doing an “orange foods” theme á la Knisley for your next meeting, and that you pick Relish the next time you’re looking for a foodie focus, a memoir, and/or a graphic novel/comic? I can pretty much guarantee that you will have things to talk about between the art, the narrative itself, and the recipes that bookend each chapter.
Which brings us to some Read Harder Challenge-friendly picks!
For: Read a classic by an author of color, and/or
Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.
The Living is Easy by Dorothy West
This one doubles up quite nicely, if you’re looking to maximize your reading efficiency. I picked it up because it was described somewhere as “gossipy,” and I was hoping for a vibe similar to Austen’s snarky social commentary. I love a good, dishy classic, what can I say? And The Living Is Easy is that and more. Dorothy West takes a close look at black culture in Boston pre- and during WWI. While we primarily follow Cleo, an ambitious woman battling against the restraints of her gender, class, and race, we also get a look inside the lives of those she interacts with.
Cleo definitely falls into “unlikeable narrator” territory. She’s demanding, she’s headstrong, and she’ll manipulate anyone and anything around her to get what she wants. The results, as you might expect, do not always go to plan and there were definitely moments when I found myself on the verge of yelling at her through the pages. This is also the charm of the novel, because Cleo is so compelling in her desires. Through Cleo’s machinations, West skewers class consciousness, colorism, and the strictures of women’s lives in the early 1900s, as well as painting a complex portrait of sister- and motherhood.
In conclusion: there is a TON to talk about here, and I have no doubt your group will have very different opinions about Cleo, so get reading.
Even more picks (many international!) for this task, courtesy of Rebecca Hussey
For: Read a superhero comic with a female lead.
“But Jenn,” you might be saying, “that is TWO books.” It is! You are correct. However, having done Ms. Marvel with not one but two book groups, I know whereof I speak. The thing about collections of comics (as opposed to graphic novels, which are written to be one complete story) is that they often end mid-arc, and this can make it a tricky and/or unsatisfying reading experience.
A little background, for those not familiar with the comics scene: Ms. Marvel is amazing and wonderful and ground-breaking for many reasons. Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, is Marvel’s first Muslim superhero to get their own comic. In addition, Kamala is a Pakistani-American teenager written by G. Willow Wilson (a Muslim woman) and co-created/edited by Sana Amanat, a Pakistani-American Muslim woman. And “Ms. Marvel” is a mantle/identity that’s been held by several other women, all white. That combination has never happened before in comics, and is not likely to occur again anytime soon. Do yourself a favor and watch Amanat’s TED Talk (I’ll wait!).
No Normal is a great introduction to comics in general, because Kamala is a normal teen who is also a giant geek (seriously, so adorable). As they introduce her, Wilson also introduces you to the general world of superheroes. Whether you’ve never read a Marvel comic or ever plan to again, you get the info you need. And then we get Kamala’s transformation into Ms. Marvel, in which she’s forced to reckon with trying to understand her identity as a teen, a Muslim, a Jersey girl, and now someone with superpowers! No Normal spends most of its time on this reckoning, with a few villains thrown in. It’s a great story, but the action really picks up in Generation Why, and The Inventor is one of my favorite villains of all time. Add to that that even combined, they’re less than 300 pages of mostly pictures; you’ll finish in no time!
Even more picks for this task, courtesy of Ardo Omer
This newsletter is sponsored by Homesick For Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh.
An electrifying first collection from one of the most exciting short story writers of our time.
There’s something eerily unsettling about Ottessa Moshfegh’s stories, something almost dangerous, while also being delightful, and even laugh-out-loud funny. Her characters are all unsteady on their feet in one way or another; they all yearn for connection and betterment, though each in very different ways, but they are often tripped up by their own baser impulses and existential insecurities. Homesick for Another World is a master class in the varieties of self-deception across the gamut of individuals representing the human condition.