Re-Tweet to win The Blue Notebook!

51rkxj2gqbl_sl500_aa240_Do you Twitter?  I’m sorta new to the whole thing.  At first I thought..  why?  But now I find it’s a really cool way to keep up with others in the book blogging community and to see what publishers are up to.  

On Twitter, you say what you’re doing in 140 characters or less, and that is called a Tweet.  I’ve learned that there’s also such a thing as a Re-Tweet, which is tweeting what someone else has tweeted.  See, sounds silly doesn’t it?  But you just have to trust me that it’s cool.  (Is the word ‘cool’ still cool??  Eh- it sux getting old!)

Random House and Books on the Brain are teaming up to give away two copies of The Blue Notebook (reviewed HERE), which I absolutely loved!  All you need to do is Follow Me on Twitter (click on the little birdie in the left sidebar and hit “Follow”).  Then, re-tweet the following  “I want THE BLUE NOTEBOOK! Read the review http://tinyurl.com/c7vrhw #giv2”   between 7 and 8 pm EST for a chance to win!  

If you’re not a Twitter-er but would still like a chance to win an advance reader copy of The Blue Notebook, leave a comment here.  I’ll pick a winner on Friday, April 3rd, at midnight.

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Review and Giveaway: Hope’s Boy by Andrew Bridge

cover1“Love may not be enough to wake a child in the morning, dress him, and get him to school, then to feed him at night, bathe him, and put him to bed.  Still, can any of us imagine a childhood without it?”  from Hope’s Boy by Andrew Bridge

Hope’s Boy by Andrew Bridge is a memoir of a childhood spent in foster care.  There are approximately half a million young people in foster care in the United States.  They are removed from their homes when the court decides that they’ve been abused or neglected by their parents, or when poverty, death, illness or other circumstances beyond their control make it impossible for their biological parents to properly care for them.  Such was the case with Hope’s boy, Andy.  

When the book opens, 5 year old Andy is living in Chicago with his grandma Kate, who is struggling financially but doing the best she can.  One day her daughter Hope calls from California, insisting Kate put Andy on a plane and send him out to her.  Andy barely remembers his mom, but Kate, feeling she has no choice, says goodbye to Andy and sends him to Los Angeles.

Life with Hope is unpredictable and chaotic.  She means well and loves her boy but isn’t prepared to take care of a child.  In their two years together Andy witnesses his mother’s rape at knifepoint, is woken up at 2am to burglarize a house with his mom and her friend, and eats from dumpsters.  Hope, plagued by voices in her head that tell her they are coming to take Andy, becomes paranoid and protective, insisting Andy not go to school for fear they will ‘get him’.  They are evicted from their apartment for nonpayment of rent, but Hope refuses to leave, smashing the front window so they can enter after the locks have been changed.  They briefly live with a pastor’s family who try to help, but eventually they wear out their welcome and move to a motel.  Finally, in a heart-wrenching scene, Andy is pulled away from his mother by a social worker as police shove Hope to the ground.  

Life with Hope is hard, but life without Hope is hell.  Hope’s Boy shines a light on the harsh realities of a broken system.   Taken to MacLaren Hall, more like a prison than a juvenile facility, nothing is explained to this frightened little boy.  After several months in that horrible place he is placed with a family that offers stability and food but lacks any semblance of nurturing, encouragement, or love.  He stays with the Leonards for the remainder of his childhood, hanging onto the scraps he has from his mother (“You are my boy”) and finding solace in school.   There is no effort to reunite his family, and the abuse and neglect in his foster home goes on unchecked.  He sees Hope only a handful of times, in one hour increments under the watchful eye of his foster mother.  But then the visits stop completely for nearly a decade, leaving Andy to worry and wonder.  Andy remains ever hopeful that she will somehow come back for him.  Like a child lost in a big department store, Andy believes that if he stays put, she will find him.

bridgeAgainst staggering odds, Andy goes on to college, later graduating from Harvard Law School and becoming a Fulbright scholar, without any assistance from family of from the foster care system.  This is miraculous as the majority of foster children never graduate from high school, let alone college.  In fact, 30-50% of children aging out of foster care are homeless within 2 years.  They crowd our shelters and prisons. Without the memory of his mother’s love to hang onto, who knows what might have become of Andrew Bridge.

In an impassioned plea for reform, Bridge wonders:  

“Did Hope’s visits to the Leonards’ house have to be so hostile?  Did she have to be limited to one visit a month for an hour?  Could someone have asked her what she needed to assume more of motherhood’s responsibilities, to assure her son that she was there for him, to ease her son’s unyielding loneliness?  Was it necessary to leave her boy to think that she had just disappeared?”  from Hope’s Boy by Andrew Bridge, page 295

You can check out the author’s website for more information about the book and the foster care system.

Thanks to Molly at Hyperion for sending me this emotional memoir and for offering a copy to one of my readers.  If you’d like a chance to win a copy of Hope’s Boy, please leave a comment here by Monday, March 23rd. 

Interview and Giveaway: Laura Fitzgerald, author of One True Theory of Love

images-1Recently I had the opportunity to interview one of my favorite authors, the wonderful Laura Fitzgerald.  Laura is the author of the bestselling book Veil of Roses, and a new novel, One True Theory of Love (reviewed here), which just came out in February.  Even though she is really busy promoting her book and going to book signings and festivals, she took the time to give me very thorough and thoughtful answers to my questions.  Please enjoy this interview, and leave a comment if you’d like a chance to win her new book!  

BOTB:  If you had to describe your new book in one sentence, what would that be?

Laura:  One True Theory of Love is a story about the redemptive power of second chances in life and love.

51svuaqeq5l_sl500_aa240_BOTB:  You mentioned your very own book club recently read and discussed One True Theory of Love.  What was that like for you? 

Laura:  It was incredibly fun, because it was such a celebration of a big goal achieved and these are great women with whom to celebrate. It was also a great discussion of the book’s themes of second chances and the changing nature of relationships. All in all, it was a fun night of much wine, great discussion, and laughter.

It was also a bit weird, because everyone was asking me about my husband’s forearms and are they as sexy as Ahmed’s in the book…That’s been the one big difference between Veil of Roses and One True Theory of Love. With the main character in Veil of Roses being from Iran, no one suspected there was anything of me in her. But with this second book, I’m being asked that question a lot: How much of Meg is you? And, of course, there’s a lot of me in both Tami and Meg, as there is a lot of me in every character I write. I’m all over my books, hiding in plain sight. 

n225748BOTB:  I’ve read on your website that the idea for the book came from a book club meeting you attended for your first book, Veil of Roses.  Can you tell us about that?

Laura:  Well, I was quite far along in my writing of this other story that just wasn’t working out – I couldn’t get the main character to be likable, and the story itself was so different from Veil of Roses in tone and temperament that I was coming to the sad conclusion that it wasn’t the right “next book” for me. This realization was confirmed as I met with three book clubs in Wisconsin in the course of a week. 

The clear message was they like the “make you laugh, make you cry” flavor of Veil of Roses. The book I’d been working on was a straight “make you cry” type of book. Also, in each book club, members were going through huge life changes, falling in or out of love, mourning the deaths of loved ones, and just in general fighting the good, hard fights that life presents us. And it just struck me how much courage it requires to build yourself back up after life has knocked you down. We like to believe our happy ending is out there, waiting for us – that no matter how bad things are, if we just try harder, or try AGAIN, good things will happen and we’ll be happy. That’s not always how it works – but this deliberate optimism is what helps us move forward. 

I hate to sound existential, but I believe the happiness can be found in the struggle. Life is richer for going after what you want when there’s no guarantee of a positive outcome. It just is. 

BOTB:  What has been the most exciting thing that has happened to you since becoming a best selling author?  How has it changed your life? 

Laura:  I can’t and won’t downplay how nice it is to forevermore get to be referred to as “national bestselling author,” but the life-changing part of it comes down to the fact that I had a hard-to-achieve goal and I achieved it – writing a novel good enough to be published at a time when no one cared whether I did it or not. I now get to spend my days doing what I love, in a way that is perfectly suited to my skills, wants and personality. I am figuring out how to tell great stories, and after years and years of work learning my craft, I am almost at a point where I feel I’m hitting my stride with my writing. It’s exciting for me personally to feel with some confidence that the next few books are going to be a culmination of a lot of work on the backend, and that the best is yet to be. 

To repeat: Life is richer for going after what you want when there’s no guarantee of a positive outcome. I feel like I’m walking on a tightrope and to stay on it requires every ounce of skill I have, plus some luck. It’s a position I love to be in. 

BOTB:  Do you write with a particular audience in mind, or do you just write what you like?  

Laura:  Pretty much all my stories center around women who have to summon the courage to do something that is hard for them to do in order to get their shot at happiness — it’s a proactive approach to life and ultimately very affirming. We save ourselves, and we find ourselves in the broken pieces. I firmly believe that. My audience is any woman who needs that message. 

BOTB:  What is the writing process like for you?  Do you treat it like a job- writing for a certain number of hours a day- or do you wait until inspiration strikes?  How do you manage to get anything done with two young kids at home? 

Laura:  Writing is my job, absolutely. I have an office that I go to Monday through Friday while my kids are at school. I’m at this phase in my life where I’d spend twice as much time on my writing if I could – seven days a week, probably, but I’m acutely aware that my kids won’t be this age forever. My top value at the moment is maintaining balance and it’s a constant struggle. So I leave my writing at the office and spend the rest of the time with my kids. And husband. And friends. (And on facebook.) 

BOTB:  Can you tell us about your workspace?  Do you have interesting things on the walls or on your desk to spark creativity?  

Laura:  I rent an office a few miles from my house, and it’s mine, baby – all mine. No phone, no internet connection, no husband, no kids. I don’t like clutter, so I keep my desk clear, with only a great view of the Catalina Mountains in front of me. I’ve got Ethan Allen furniture – desk, reading chair and bookshelves. I have three prints on my walls – two simple and artistic photographs, one of a book with its pages spread open and one of a cup of coffee shot from above (I love both coffee and books). I also have a print of Mark Twain with one of his quotes: I find it usually takes me three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech. This has significance to me because I believe in doing a ton of work behind the scenes to make my writing come out smooth and easy. I’m a big planner and thinker and having my office – which I think of as my “pretty little prison cell” allows me the space and time to do both. And then to write, of course. 

BOTB:  You mentioned that you’re writing a sequel to Veil of Roses.  I’m so excited about that!  What will it be called, and when can we expect to see it in stores?  

Laura:  I’m working very hard to make this sequel even better than the first book. In addition to learning what happens after Tami and Ike’s wedding, I’m delving into the lives of two other characters from Veil of Roses – Tami’s mother, and Rose. 

As yet, it hasn’t been titled. I’m calling it GONE TO PICK FLOWERS, but that’ll likely change. It should be in stores by next summer (2010).

BOTB:  Laura, THANK YOU for your time and generosity!!  I loved your book and am so thrilled to be able to offer a copy of it to one lucky reader!

If you’d like a chance to win a copy of Laura’s new book, One True Theory of Love, leave a comment here by Tuesday, March 17th.

Guest Post and Giveaway: Sheri from A Novel Menagerie says, “Yeah, I’d Praise Book Clubs!”

My book club met on Sunday and we had the great pleasure to welcome a new member, Sheri from A Novel Menagerie!  She and I met through our children last summer, who by sheer coincidence were not only in the same unit at Girl Scout camp, but in the same cabin 2 years in a row.  The chances of that are so slim- one year they went in August, the next year June, one year they were in a sampler unit, the next year a horse unit- all with hundreds of other kids.  It almost seemed that fate was pushing us together.

At first Sheri was kind of stunned that we hit it off, because she says she “never gets along with other women”.   We bonded over our children (we each have two wild preteen girls- hers are twins, mine are “Irish twins”), we both have one brother named Bill (who, by yet another coincidence, attends our church), complicated relationships with our sisters, experience with insomnia (hers, and my husbands), our OCD tendencies, and of course, BOOKS!   I showed her my blog and told her about the book blogging community.  Sheri asked a million questions.  I sent her on her way with a few extra books I had hanging around.  She went home and started her amazing new blog, A Novel Menagerie, that very day.  If you haven’t seen it, you must go check it out.  She hosts memes, challenges, contests, and reads about 5 books a week (and I’m not even exaggerating!)  She also started an online business called BookCharming.com and makes these adorable floss book marks.  She has so much drive and energy and honestly, I don’t know how she does it all!

So when she asked me about my book club, I sadly told her that it was “full”.  We had what seemed the right amount of people (12) and the club had agreed that we wouldn’t be inviting any more.  But then, in January, someone dropped out.  I mentioned it to Sheri and before the words were out of my mouth, she was saying YES!  So here she is, with impressions of her first book club meeting.  Welcome, Sheri!

Yeah, I’d Praise Book Clubs!

My constant whining about not being in a book club was more than Lisa could bear.  Month after month, the nagging became like nails scratching on a chalkboard.  She had no choice.  Find a spot for me or listen to 11 more months of “poor me.”  I think she chose wisely…yes, she is indeed a smart girl!

So, after finagling me into the book club, I immediately purchased every book on our reading list.  I was bound and determined to know each book inside and out, be ready for any question, and be worthy of the book club.  The books arrived:

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Sarah’s Key

The Invisible Wall

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Our first meeting:  Oscar Wao.  Now, this book is a Pulitzer Prize winner.  Of course, then it must be good.  And, it was.  But, the book was somewhat of a grueling read.  It was not an easy book to get through.  As I spewed out of my mouth in the book club meeting:  

It’s like childbirth; you are not really enjoying it when you’re going through it.  But, once it’s over with you’re glad you did it.  

That’s it.  They’re giving me das boot.  No.  Wait.  Ellen agreed.  Whew!  Let me go back in time to explain.  

So, like a little Nervous Nelly, I walked down the street with Lisa to the book club meeting.  They aren’t going to like me.  I won’t fit in.  I didn’t read the Reader’s Guide questions thoroughly enough.  I wasn’t even sure how I completely felt about the book.  I walk into Ellen’s home.  Immaculate.  Oh, I am such a sub-standard mother.  Ellen would never even sit on my couches.  I’m going to have to host my meeting at Lisa’s house.  There were a few people to meet and… (can you hear the angels singing?) WINE!  I thank God Jesus was into wine!  It’s a goodie that God makes sure is around for me!  Everything looked great.  There was food, wine, the immaculate house.  I was making conversation with whoever would talk with me.  Let’s see if I can remember all of their names (whoever I forget, please forgive me):

bc-bluebirdEllen

Diane

Elaine

Sara

Lisa

Sheri (that’s me)

Orchid

Maggie

Valerie

Tammy

So, Lisa thankfully sat by me during dinner and helped me to remember who’s who, names, etc.  The meeting soon started and Orchid (and her amazingly cool hair) led the meeting.  She read aloud.  But, she read a passage that was written in partial Spanish.  When she said the passage aloud, she said it entirely in English.  <Enter my big mouth> 

bc-sunset“Do you speak Spanish?  I mean, I can read it, but not speak it.  And, well…” (God, Sheri shut up!)

Yes, she did.  And, my inappropriate outburst led into a discussion about the foreign language in the book.  (Thank God!)  The conversation continued and it seemed like we all had something to say. 

My SELF observations:

1. I am the only dumbass who didn’t know that the splotch on the cover was the face of Oscar with a wing coming out of the back of his head.

2. I am the only idiot who thought that Oscar shouldn’t have quit on Yunior when Yunior was trying to help him lose weight.  

3. I’m the only deranged person who didn’t feel sorry for Oscar.  

4. I talk too much.

5. I don’t know enough.

6. Maybe I’m the only one who thinks my thoughts are “spot-on.”  No, that’s not a maybe.  It’s a for sure!

9780312370848My GROUP observations:

1. They were lovely women who really enjoyed this opportunity to get together and discuss their love for books. 

2. These were some INTELLIGENT chicks!

3. There is a common, invisible thread that ties them together.  They appreciate this book club and each other.

4. If I bribe them with my AWESOME Key Lime Martinis, they may let me come back again.  I hope so because I’m almost done with Sarah’s Key.

5. Lisa is my friend!

If I could only talk to intelligent women about the books I read ALL DAY LONG.  It would be like Heaven.  I wonder if I should try to find a job in the book industry.  I’m turning into a one-dimensional person… BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS.  Maybe I need to be in 4 book clubs… one for every Sunday.  Yes, that might cure my itch!

Thank you to Lisa for letting me smuggle my way into the group and share my neurosis with her readers.  

Sheri is donating 2 beautiful BookCharming.com Book Marks to my 100K celebration.  The first one is the Bluebird design, and the 2nd one is Sunset.  Gorgeous, right?  She’s so flippin’ talented!  This chick has skills!!  I’m going to throw in our book club’s next selection, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay to go along with the beautiful book marks.  Leave a comment by Friday, February 20th for a chance to win.

To read Sheri’s review of Sarah’s Key, click HERE.  I had to skim it because I haven’t read the book yet.  Hope I finish it before next month’s meeting!!

Queen of the Road Giveaway!

 “Trailer for sale or rent, rooms to let fifty cents..”  Why is this song stuck in my head, you ask?? Well, because I’m reading “Queen of the Road” by Doreen Orion, a romantic travel memoir of when the author and her outdoorsy husband decided to chuck it all and spend a year traveling the country in a converted bus.  Yes, a YEAR in a bus, with 2 cats, a poodle, and lots of shoes! I’ve barely started the book, but so far it’s fun and funny- I love her sense of humor. Here’s more about it from Broadway Books:

Summary: A pampered Long Island princess hits the road in a converted bus with her wilderness-loving husband, travels the country for one year, and brings it all hilariously to life in this offbeat and romantic memoir.

Doreen and Tim are married psychiatrists with a twist: She’s a self-proclaimed Long Island princess, grouchy couch potato, and shoe addict. He’s an affable, though driven, outdoorsman. When Tim suggests “chucking it all” to travel cross-country in a converted bus, Doreen asks, “Why can’t you be like a normal husband in a midlife crisis and have an affair or buy a Corvette?” But she soon shocks them both, agreeing to set forth with their sixty-pound dog, two querulous cats—and no agenda—in a 340-square-foot bus.

Queen of the Road is Doreen’s offbeat and romantic tale about refusing to settle; about choosing the unconventional road with all the misadventures it brings (fire, flood, armed robbery, and finding themselves in a nudist RV park, to name just a few). The marvelous places they visit and delightful people they encounter have a life-changing effect on all the travelers, as Doreen grows to appreciate the simple life, Tim mellows, and even the pets pull together. Best of all, readers get to go along for the ride through forty-seven states in this often hilarious and always entertaining memoir, in which a boisterous marriage of polar opposites becomes stronger than ever. — Broadway Books

Want to win your own copy of Queen of the Road?  Just visit the Queen of the Road website and click on the “share a thought” link on the roadsign on the left.  Once you are there, leave a comment by Monday, July 28th, about anything!  You can talk about your own travel experiences, your love of shoes, a trip you took with your spouse, your pets, how much you enjoy my blog (hee hee), the author’s website, or ANYTHING AT ALL!  It’s entirely up to you. Just leave a comment along with your email address, and mention that you got there via Books on the Brain.  Ms. Orion will be selecting a winner and will forward the info. to me so that I can send out the book.  This contest is open to US and Canadian residents only (sorry!)

This book is everywhere right now.  It was the featured book club selection in June at Borders and is the Adventure at Every Turn book club July selection at Celestial Seasonings!  In fact, Celestial Seasonings is running an awesome Iced Tea Drink recipe contest inspired by this book, which starts each chapter with a cocktail recipe.  The prizes are pretty spectacular, so I suggest you check it out.

Doreen Orion’s website can be found HERE.  She is more than happy to visit with book clubs via speaker phone.  Here’s a reading guide to help with discussions.

And you can check out reviews of Queen of the Road HERE and HERE.  Good luck!

Review: Matrimony by Joshua Henkin

Matrimony by Joshua Henkin is a calm, quiet novel without a lot of flash or fuss.  It’s strength lies in the writing. 

**WARNING!  SPOILERS AHEAD!  PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK!!

What is this book about?  Well.. hmmm.  Matrimony is about marriage, sort of.  It’s more about friendship, college life, and writers. 

Two guys- Julian, who is rich, and Carter, at Graymont College thanks to a scholarship- are the most talented students in a writing workshop and soon become best friends, although money is always an issue between them.  Carter has a bit of a chip on his shoulder and seems to resent Julian for his family’s wealth.   But they remain friends and move through their college years together, each finding love (first Carter with Pilar, then Julian with “Mia from Montreal” who the friends first discovered in the school’s facebook). 

The story centers on Mia and Julian, who are serious from the start.  In their senior year, Mia’s mom is diagnosed with cancer.  She asks Julian to marry her so that her mother can attend the wedding before she dies.  I really wanted to attend the wedding too, but the reader doesn’t get to be there.  It is skipped right over, which I found odd considering the title, Matrimony!  We do hear a little bit about it later in the book, thankfully.  Carter and Pilar get married too, but the reader finds out after the fact and the wedding is not written about. 

One thing this author does very, very well is write about grief.  The scenes with Mia and her mom are poignant, touching, and raw but not melodramatic.  We feel Mia’s suffering acutely. 

The novel picks up three years after the wedding in Ann Arbor, where Mia is in grad school to become a psychotherapist.  Julian is teaching and working on his novel (and will be for years) and feels he doesn’t quite fit in with Mia and her friends, all students.  On the occasion of his graduation from law school, Julian visits his old friend Carter in California, where he learns he and Pilar have separated.  A long buried secret is revealed which threatens their friendship and Julian’s marriage.

I felt like this secret needed to be discussed, but Mia and Julian shut down and many things are left unsaid, which I suppose happens a lot in long term relationships.  But I wanted there to be more emotion, more talking-yelling-negotiation-FEELING than what was there.  I also felt that in a real marriage, this sort of 9 year old secret, after years of a seemingly good marriage, could have been forgiven.  Marriage is about compromise, isn’t it?  But Mia and Julian separate with almost no discussion about it, and when Julian returns 18 months later, there is very little discussion about that either. 

Matrimony is well written, honest and appealing.  We follow Mia and Julian through nearly two decades.  We watch them grow and mature, and witness their love, laughter, families, friendships, sadness, grief and anger, in other words- their marriage.  So I guess Matrimony IS about marriage after all. 

Joshua Henkin frequently makes himself available for author chats with book clubs.  His website can be found HERE

For a chance to win a copy of Matrimony, see author Josh Henkin’s guest post HERE and leave a comment by May 15th.

Matrimony was also reviewed by Dewey here, Care here, Heather here and Julie here.

 

Booking Through Thursday: MAYDAY!

Mayday! May 1, 2008

btt button

Quick! It’s an emergency! You just got an urgent call about a family emergency and had to rush to the airport with barely time to grab your wallet and your passport. But now, you’re stuck at the airport with nothing to read. What do you do??

And, no, you did NOT have time to grab your bookbag, or the book next to your bed. You were . . . grocery shopping when you got the call and have nothing with you but your wallet and your passport (which you fortuitously brought with you in case they asked for ID in the ethnic food aisle). This is hypothetical, remember….

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

If it was a true emergency, I’d probably be too distracted by it to enjoy a good book anyway.  More than likely I’d hit the gift shop and pick up People magazine or US Weekly- something mindless that I could flip through and look at the pictures would probably be enough if I was anxious about whatever was happening. Maybe I’d pick up a Sodoku or a crossword puzzle book.  Maybe I’d pick up USA Today.  I might also watch the in-flight movie, assuming there was one.

If it was a work emergency, or family drama that didn’t involve anyone being sick or hurt, I’d seek out a book.  Most airport gift shops and book stores are limited in their selection to the blockbusters, the mass market fiction, the stuff I typically pass over or have already read.  But I’m sure I could find something to read in a pinch.  And I’d be really pissed that I left my bookbag at home!  What would you do in this situation?

***NOTE*** If you haven’t already signed up for the giveaway for Matrimony by Joshua Henkin, click HERE and leave a comment by May 15.  *****The link works now!!

Guest Blogger: Author Joshua Henkin Talks about Book Groups

In conjunction with a giveaway of a signed, first edition hardcover copy of Matrimony, author Joshua Henkin is sitting in as a guest blogger at Books on the Brain.  Leave a comment on this post by May 15th for a chance to win!

These days, when my four-year-old daughter sees me putting on my coat, she says, “Daddy, are you going to a book group or just a reading?”  My daughter doesn’t really know what a book group is, but in that phrase “just a reading” she has clearly absorbed my own attitude, which is that, given the choice between giving a public reading and visiting a book group, I would, without hesitation, choose the latter.

I say this as someone who has never been in a book group (I’m a novelist and a professor of fiction writing, so my life is a book group), and also as someone who, when my new novel MATRIMONY was published last October, never would have imagined that, seven months later, I’d have participated in approximately forty book group discussions (some in person, some by phone, some on-line), with fifteen more scheduled in the months ahead.  And this is while MATRIMONY is still in hardback.  With the paperback due out at the end of August, my life might very well become a book group.

Part of this is due to the fact that my novel is particularly suited to book groups.  MATRIMONY is about a marriage (several marriages, really), and it takes on issues of infidelity, career choice, sickness and health, wealth and class, among other things.  There is, in other words, a good deal of material for discussion, which is why my publisher, Pantheon/Vintage, has published a reading groups guide and why MATRIMONY has been marketed to book groups.

But I am really part of a broader phenomenon, which is that, as The New York Times noted a few months ago, publishers—and authors—are beginning to recognize the incredible clout of book groups.  I recently was told that an estimated five million people are members of book groups, and even if that estimate is high, there’s no doubt that book groups have the power to increase a novel’s sales, often exponentially.  I’m talking not just about Oprah’s book group, but about the web of book groups arrayed across the country that communicate with one another by word of mouth, often without even realizing it. 

I make no bones about this:  I participate in book group discussions of MATRIMONY in order to sell more copies of my book.  But there’s a paradox here.  On several occasions, I’ve driven over four hours round-trip to join a book group discussion of MATRIMONY.  You add enough of these trips together and it’s not surprising that my next novel, which was due at the publisher last month, is nowhere near complete.  I have spent the last year publicizing MATRIMONY as a way of furthering my writing life (writers need to sell books in order to survive), and yet what I love to do most—write—has had to be placed on hold.

I say this without a trace of resentment.  I lead a charmed life.  I get to write novels and have other people read them, and if I, like most writers, need to do more than was once required of us to ensure that people read our books—if writers now are more like musicians—then so be it.  And in the process, thanks to book groups, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting far more readers than I could have imagined and have learned a lot more than I expected.

So I want to speak up on behalf of book groups, and to offer a few cautions, and a few hopes.  First the good news.  From coast to coast and in between, I’ve found a huge number of careful readers from all ages and backgrounds who have noticed things about my novel that I myself hadn’t noticed, who have asked me questions that challenge me, and who have helped me think about my novel (and the next novel I’m working on) in ways that are immensely helpful.  I’ve certainly learned more from book groups than from the critics, not because book group members are smarter than the critics (though often they are!), but because there’s more time for sustained discussion with a book group, and because for many people the kind of reading they do for a book group marks a significant departure from the rest of their lives, and so they bring to the enterprise a great degree of passion.

Speaking of passion:  I don’t want to give away what happens in MATRIMONY, but something takes place toward the middle of the book that has, to my surprise and pleasure, spawned shouting matches in a number of book groups.  I haven’t been one of the shouters, mind you, but I’ve been struck by the fact that MATRIMONY has proven sufficiently controversial to make readers exercised.  I’ve been trying to determine patterns.  Sometimes the divisions have been drawn along age lines; other times along lines of gender—on those few occasions when there is another man in the room besides myself!

Which leads me to my hopes, and my cautions.  First, where are all the men?  True, my novel is called MATRIMONY, but men get married too, at more or less the same rate as women do.  Yet my experience has been that women read fiction and men read biographies of civil war heroes.  And women join book groups and men don’t.  Yet those few co-ed book groups I’ve attended have been among the most interesting.  And if, as seems to be the case, book groups have led to an increase in reading in a culture that otherwise is reading less and less, it would be nice to see more men get in on the act.

Second, if I were allowed to redirect book group discussions, I would urge the following.   Less discussion about which characters are likable (think of all the great literature populated by unlikable characters.  Flannery O’Connor’s stories.  The novels of Martin Amis.  Lolita.), less of a wish for happy endings (Nothing is more depressing than a happy ending that feels tacked on, and there can be great comfort in literature that doesn’t admit to easy solutions, just as our lives don’t.), less of a wish that novels make arguments (Readers often ask me what conclusions MATRIMONY draws about marriage, when the business of novels isn’t to draw conclusions.  That’s the business of philosophy, sociology, economics, and political science.  The business of the novelist is to tell a story and to make characters come sufficiently to life that they feel as real to the reader as the actual people in their lives.)  But this is all part of a longer and more complicated discussion—perhaps one we can have in a book group!

Finally, if I were a benign despot I’d make a rule that no book can be chosen if over half the members of the group have already heard of it.  This would take care of the biggest problem I’ve seen among book groups, which is that everyone’s reading the same twelve books.  Eat, Pray, Love.  The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.  Water for Elephants.  Kite Runner.  I’m not criticizing these books, some of which I haven’t even read.  I’m simply saying that there are a lot of great books out there that people don’t know about.  There is a feast-or-famine culture in the world of books (just as in the world of non-books), such that fewer and fewer books have more and more readers.  This is not the fault of book groups but is a product of a broader and more worrisome problem, brought on by (among other things) the demise of the independent bookstore and the decrease in book review pages.  For that reason, it has become harder and harder for all but a handful of books to get the attention they deserve.

Joshua Henkin is the author, most recently, of the novel MATRIMONY, which was a 2007 New York Times Notable Book, a Book Sense Pick, and a Borders Original Voices Selection.  If you would like Josh to participate in your book group discussion, you can contact him through his website, http://www.joshuahenkin.com, or email him directly at Jhenkin at SLC dot edu.

Thanks, Josh, for a great post!  Hooray for book groups!

If you are interested in winning a copy of Joshua Henkin’s 2nd novel, Matrimony, please leave a comment here by May 15th.  Good luck!  Lisa, Books on the Brain