Guest Post: Author Robin Maxwell Talks About Book Clubs

It is my pleasure to welcome Robin Maxwell, author of the new historical novel Signora da Vinci, as a guest blogger today!  Robin, a veteran of many book club meetings, shares here how book groups keep her on her toes.

robinmaxwellscan9smThe world of book readership has changed dramatically since I started back in 1997 with Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn.  That was the period of ascendancy of the chains, Borders and Barnes and Noble, and for Diary I went on an old-fashioned national author tour, speaking at more than 100 venues from coast-to-coast.   Now with  my seventh historical novel, Signora da Vinci, I’m on my first “virtual book tour,” reaching out online, with an emphasis on book clubs.  Not only did I sign up for two book clubbing promotions, but my publisher (who had me include a “Readers Guide” in the back of the book) did a third, and very large promotion geared to their list of book clubs.


coversignorafrontEveryone in publishing is well aware of the strength and importance of readings groups.  They are, along with literary blogs, the most vibrant aspect of the book world today. It means so much to me, as an author, that book groups are reading and discussing my novels.  I see the groups as modern-day “salons” that perpetuate culture and ensure that literature continues to survive and thrive in such uncertain times. I’ve done a number of in-person book club events, and a few remote ones — on a speakerphone from the comfort of my own home.  It’s amazing to be able to feel the warmth and excitement of the women exuding through the wires and the cold machinery.

I never feel nervous or intimidated in these situations because, first, I know my subject so well.  By the time I’m sitting down for a chat about a book, I’ve been living with it for at least two years (between research, writing, editing, publishing and promotion).  I know the characters, the period, the politics and the aesthetics like the back of my hand.   And since I’m not afraid to say “I don’t know the answer to that,” it’s rare to be caught with my pants down.  Of course, if I’ve been invited to speak, I can pretty much assume the group liked my book enough to have me there in person.  I can’t imagine getting an invitation from a club that couldn’t stand what they’d read.  I just expect that I’m walking into a sympathetic situation — six to twelve intelligent women who love to read and discuss literature, at ease in a comfortable living room.  And usually there’s a wonderful meal afterwards!

At one event —  it was a mixed group, men and women — a man, in a rather confrontational tone, challenged me to defend the actions of my protagonist, Grace O’Mally, of The Wild Irish.  She was a 16th century Irish pirate, rival to  Elizabeth I, and “Mother of the Irish rebellion” against England.  He demanded to know why, as a writer, I was sympathetic to Grace, even though after her historic meeting with Elizabeth, she had gone back on her word to the queen to fight on England’s behalf against all the world.  Grace had, indeed, agree to help Elizabeth in exchange for the release of her son from an English prison.   

This was a legitimate question, and not a simple one to answer.  I really had to think on my feet, because not only did I not want to look foolish in front of these readers, but I didn’t want to let down one of my favorite heroines of all times.  I offered the thrust of my defense — that Elizabeth was the first to go back on her word — on another crucial promise she had made to Grace.  But the man parried, refusing to back down, calling Grace a liar, and not worthy of the readers’ respect.  I thought to myself “This man may be a raging Anglophile who simply has no sympathy for the Irish, a people who had been invaded, colonized, enslaved and murdered by the English,”  but that was no defense for the question at hand.  So I went for the emotional argument.  I asked him if he was parent.  He said he was.  I asked “If it was your child locked unlawfully in a tyrant’s prison, wouldn’t you say or do anything to secure his release?  Would you make promises to that tyrant?  Would you go so far as to lie?  Grace O’Malley was one of the great patriots of Ireland, but at that moment she was a mother first.”  Maybe it wasn’t a perfect argument, but the man thought about it and backed down.  Thankfully, somebody asked another question and we moved on.

In the last book group I attended face-to-face, while we were having our lunch afterwards, and everyone was at ease, I learned something interesting about how some readers feel about the questions put forward in the “Readers Guides.”  There was quite a bit of complaint that some of the questions were either irrelevant or obtuse, or that they were only answerable by the author.  These women took pride in devising their own questions for discussion if they didn’t like the ones offered in the guide.  I think that’s wise, and if you do find yourself with an author in your living room or on the other end of a phone line, it’s all right to put forth challenging questions.  It keeps us on our toes.  That man’s question challenging Grace O’Malley — it may have been the most difficult one I’ve ever had to face, but it certainly was the most memorable.

To learn more about Signora da Vinci, which is about the mother of Leonardo da Vinci, check out Amy’s review at My Friend Amy, or this terrific review at Passages to the Past.

Robin Maxwell is the author of 7 historical novels, with an 8th on the way!  Her website can be found HERE.

Discussion questions for Signora da Vinci can be found HERE.

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Guest Review: Without a Map by Meredith Hall

Meredith Hall’s “Without a Map” is a memoir about the life of a woman who, at 16, got pregnant and was shunned by her parents, friends and community.  She gives the baby up for adoption, and cannot return to her former life.  As a result, the course of her life and her inner struggles take on a sad and unique journey. 

While Hall tells a sad, interesting story, I found myself struggling to get through the book.  Undoubtedly, she was treated abysmally by her parents and friends when she became pregnant at 16 years old.  This family and community “shunning,” along with giving up her baby for adoption, stays with her through the course of her life.  Very sad, poignant stuff.  But, Hall reminds us, practically every paragraph, over and over, that she is in pain, sad, alone, detached, etc.  Hall needs to trust her readers more, that once she explains her pain, we “get it,” and that as she continues the course of her life, her actions tell us that she is dealing with something internal that drives her on her strange path.  We don’t need to be told over and over and over again. 

There are very interesting, meaty parts of the story.  She buys a fishing boat with a boyfriend and fishes through a storm, she walks through Europe to the Middle East with no money, and she cares for her mother through a terrible terminal disease.  But these moments are dragged down by the over emphasis of her feelings.  Meredith also chooses to ignore chronology again and again, and also leaves huge holes in her story – just when we are riveted by her story, she jumps to a whole new part of her life.  For instance, one chapter ends with her in the Middle East, broke, practically naked, when she decides to go home.  The next chapter starts and she has two children.  How did she get home?  How did she meet and fall in love with the father?  What changes in this empty person’s life to open up to another human and decide to create a new life?  It is a mystery. It is like she ignores her own story to tell us again and again how she feels.

While there is some good stuff here, and Hall is a talented writer, I found this to be a tedious attempt.  I needed more meat, less gravy.

Visit Meredith Hall’s website HERE

Blogger Bio:  Elaine Legere is stay-at-home mommy and part-time marketing consultant, after years of working for Disney, Palm (aka Palm Pilot), Los Angeles Times, and Details Magazine.  She received her BA at UCLA in English Literature and an MBA from University of Colorado. She is an avid reader, loves movies, and all things outdoors.

Note from Lisa/Books on the Brain:  Elaine is a friend from my real-life book club. Thanks, Elaine, for an insightful review!

Guest Post: In Praise of Book Clubs, Volume 20

WOW!  This is the 20th installment of In Praise of Book Clubs!  I can hardly believe it!  Today we hear from Laverne at the very fun Redhead Fangirl blog, which you must check out if you like comics or graphic novels.  Here she talks about her Adult Book Discussion group at the Ewing Branch Library, where she is the reference librarian.  

While I was attending library school and working full time, I was drafted to be the book club coordinator in 2005.  We host a once a month adult book discussion, and this group has been one of the most rewarding parts of my very busy reference librarian schedule.   

Our book club reads fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, poetry and short stories.   I love the diversity of the styles we read, and the group is extremely democratic on bringing suggestions to the table.  We only ask that the title be available through our library system, so it promotes our collections and there is no expense for any patron.

We have a group of regular patrons, but always have an influx of new participants.   The group is led by a now retired Corrections Officer, who told me he only knew of one other guard who was a reader in all his years working in corrections.    There are several current and retired teachers who bring witty classroom stories to the table. 

One of our favorite yearly discussions is the “Short Stories for a Short Month”, where every February we read 4 or 5 short stories.   I make copies for the entire group, and then we share our thoughts and feelings.    It has turned us on to T.C. Boyle, Jeffrey Archer,  and more– many times we like a short story enough to want to read more by that author.

The biggest hits of this year are the nonfiction The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, the memoir Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Skinny Dip by Carl Hiassan.   This fall I’m looking forward to our discussions of the Benjamin Black (John Banville) mystery Christine Falls and the historical fiction novel People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.   I saw her speak at ALA, and thought she was so wise and funny that it even propelled me to read historical fiction- usually my least favorite genre. 

Mostly it has allowed a deeper connection with patrons through years of telling our stories and tidbits in the book group.  Some patrons have gotten ill, or moved, and we miss them.  But I’m always recruiting new readers to tell their stories by reading the stories of others.   

Redhead Fangirl 

(A librarian, redhead  and fangirl’s commentary on comics, graphic novels, and libraries)

Blogger Bio:  Laverne loves graphic novels and writes at the popular Redhead Fangirl blog.  She is a reference librarian in New Jersey, where she lives with her husband, cat, and turtle.  You might find her there playing guitar or WiiFit or drinking Irish beers. 

***Would you like to share about your book club here at Books on the Brain?  If so, leave a comment and I will get in touch with you about a guest post!

For previous volumes of In Praise of Book Clubs, click HERE

For more info on starting your own book club, click HERE

For fun ways to make your book club better, click HERE

Blog Stop Book Tour featuring Susan Woodring

This is my first time hosting an author on a blog tour (thank you, Mary Lewis from Blog Stop Book Tours, for arranging this!), and I’m so excited to welcome Susan Woodring, author of the brilliant short story collection, Springtime on Mars (reviewed HERE). I mentioned to Susan that Books on the Brain focuses on book clubs, and she suggested she write about why a short story collection is a great choice for a book club. Here’s what she came up with!

Coming into This Planet Again and Again: The Case for Short Story Collections
By Susan Woodring

“A story collection?” The woman, drifting amid a crowd of authors and book fair browsers, gives me a look of uncertainty: wrinkled brow, a moment’s hesitation. I touch the cover of my book, channeling words of comfort to it like a mother speaking to a distressed child. It is my child, my baby, caught now under the glare of this stranger’s scrutiny. Then, brightening, the woman says, “Say, don’t you also have a novel?”

As a novelist-turned-short-story-writer, I face this kind of thing all the time. Most people prefer non-fiction, but if they are going to read fiction, let it be a novel. They want to get cozy with a group of characters, live with those characters for a bit, follow them across a stretch of narrative time, all the while hoping for some happiness—or at least resolution—at the end. They want reading fiction to be a full-blown relationship, not a date; a home, not a glitzy hotel. They want to settle in, hunker down, and read.

I don’t blame them. I love novels. There’s nothing like moving into a fictitious world, getting to know its inhabitants, making friends, staying for dinner. Even better: I love it when a novel is so good, I come to the end with reluctance; I want it to go on and on. I completely understand the attraction. Yet, there are days when a girl needs a night out on the town. She needs a romp, no strings attached. To be dazzled, drawn close, given a glimpse of the funny, the ironic, the poignant, the wild. A girl needs a short story.

I wonder why fiction-readers often shy away from short story collections. You would think, with how limited everyone’s time is these days, a person would be thrilled to depart on a literary adventure that she or he can begin and complete in thirty minutes’ time. If coming to the end of a novel is satisfying, then wouldn’t a short story collection—with ten or more endings—be even more satisfying? Why wouldn’t a reader who finds joy and companionship with a few characters over the course of three hundred pages be all the richer for a series of quick but intimate encounters with dozens of characters?

The short-story form, I suppose, has a reputation for being hyper-literary. There are a fair number of scholarly journals out there publishing rather dry, pointedly confusing and—dare I say it?—boring stories. It is true that the short story is the purest, most artful form of fiction. While some writers do blatantly misuse the form, only wanting to show how smart they are—how elite—most short story writers simply love the art of short fiction. Short stories are, at their best, quirky, humorous, searching, true, and smart. The short story is able to crystallize a single, breath-catching moment in a character’s life—a moment that will, for that character, change everything. You can liken a well-written short story to a brilliant gem held under a light, the writer turning it just so until it glints brilliantly for a breath-taking instant. These extraordinary glimmers of truth, depth, and nuance flash again and again in a good collection.

I think a short story collection is the perfect choice for book clubs. For starters, there’s the obvious advantage of each story’s being self-contained. If you’re not smitten with a story in the first few pages, if it’s about dogs and you loathe dogs or if something about the narrative voice or the central character irritates you, fine. Move on to the next. The beauty of a short story collection is its variety; you’re almost guaranteed to find something you’ll like. Even the most eclectic mix of individuals can find something to love in a book of stories. More: a collection of short stories written by the same author is the best of both worlds. Sure, there’s the variety, but there’s also a common thread running through the stories. A collection of stories contains recurrent themes, situations, and life-questions. Each story offers a new way of seeing a common theme or motif. This makes for a lively, insightful, and challenging book talk. Also, a short story collection can be as comforting as a novel since you’re in the hands of the same author throughout. The scenery might change, and the people are different, but it’s a familiar voice speaking the story to you; you can be assured this writer will guide you through this story just as skillfully and as faithfully as he or she guided you through the last.

I don’t know if I’m able to convince the doubting woman at the book fair or how much success I’ll find in my mission to turn the world into short-story readers. As a novelist and a short-story writer, though, I can say which is the hardest to write, which demands the most from me in terms of talent, restraint, and insight. When you write a novel, you reinvent the world. When you write a short story collection, you reinvent the world ten times over. Reading a short story collection, then, is as big, as triumphant, as satisfying as coming into this planet again and again, each time seeing something new.

Susan’s Bio (from her website): Susan Yergler Woodring, an award-winning short story writer and novelist, grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. She also lived in California, Alabama, Illinois, and Indiana as a child. Upon graduating from Western Carolina University, she spent a year teaching in Vologda, Russia before moving to the foothills of North Carolina to teach middle school. Susan is a graduate of the Creative Writing MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte. She is the author of one novel, The Traveling Disease. Her short fiction has earned many honors, including the 2006 Elizabeth Simpson Smith Short Fiction Award and the 2006 Isotope Editor’s Prize. Her work has appeared in Quick Fiction, Yemassee, Ballyhoo Stories, Slower Traffic Keep Right, The William and Mary Review, Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing, Passages North, turnrow, and Surreal South (Press 53). Susan currently lives, writes, and home-schools her two children in Drexel, North Carolina.

Susan Woodring’s website can be found HERE

Susan has agreed to give away a copy of her book to one lucky winner. Leave a comment HERE by midnight PST, Friday, June 6th. Thank you, Susan! Wishing you all the best of luck with your short story collection, Springtime on Mars!

Review: A Curious Earth by Gerard Woodward

As I mentioned in this review, I have been blessed with many books from publishers and authors, so many that I can’t read them fast enough.  My wonderful book club friend and guest blogger, Elaine, was kind enough to read and review three of them for me.  Here is her 3rd review for Books on the Brain:

Aldous Jones is an old man, a widower and retired art teacher, who is content to sit in his house, drink whiskey, and watch potato vines grow from within his kitchen cabinet from long forgotten potatoes.  This is where the novel “A Curious Earth,” by Gerard Woodward, begins.  After becoming mesmerized by a painting of Rembrandt’s mistress, Hendrickje, and then a brief stay in the hospital, Aldous is re-energized to become a social being and he begins to have goals and purpose to his days.  

The people in his life are few.  His wife and oldest son are dead.  Of his two remaining sons, one is abroad in Belgium attempting to become a writer, while another is studying in the Amazon – sadly, they seem to almost ignore him until they need favors, like a place to stay.  His daughter is the stereotypical dutiful offspring, who stops by his house for brief visits (to check up on him), berates him for drinking too much and not bathing enough, and invites him over for Sunday afternoon dinner.   Upon urging from his daughter and his son’s girlfriend, he travels to Belgium to visit his bohemian writer son, where he meets a famous “sexologist” and becomes obsessed with a beautiful, young artist.  When he returns home to England, his quest for a new life continues, as he desperately tries to create friendships with an old, dull acquaintance from art school and a lady he meets in a night class. His attempts at creating human contact are desperate and sad, and Aldous frequently ends up crying or drunk when he fails.    

While these ingredients do not seem to be the recipe for an enjoyable novel, Gerard Woodward’s prose is rich and he keeps the reader enticed with hope that the pathetic Aldous will eventually find a connection in the people he meets.  The picture that Woodward paints is sadly familiar – readers will no doubt think of an elderly person close to them who may have “given up,” or settled into lonely complacency.  The story’s beautiful ending succeeds in reminding us the importance of human contact and a sense of purpose, and the ease at which we can either keep up with the world around us, or let a respectful and productive lifetime slip away unnoticed.       

Blogger Bio:  Elaine Legere is stay-at-home mommy and part-time marketing consultant, after years of working for Disney, Palm (aka Palm Pilot), Los Angeles Times, and Details Magazine.  She received her BA at UCLA in English Literature and an MBA from University of Colorado. She is an avid reader, loves movies, and all things outdoors.

To read Elaine’s other reviews:

Click HERE for The Space Between Before and After by Jean Reynolds Page

Click HERE for Free Style by Linda Nieves-Powell

Guest Post: In Praise of Book Clubs, Vol. 4

The 4th installment of this series is from the fabulous, big-hearted Trish at Hey, Lady! Whatcha Readin’?  Trish became one of my first online friends after starting this blog.  She is a passionate, caring person who is currently organizing love and support in the form of a care package for a fellow blogger undergoing cancer treatment.  Here she talks about her book club journey!

I don’t remember the first book I read, nor do I remember when reading became an obsession. However, I do remember the first time that I wanted to be in a book club so badly I could taste it. 

I was 22. I was working at a restaurant as a server when one of my tables got sat (that’s not bad English, it’s restaurant lingo) with four ladies. I noticed right away that they all had a copy of Reading Lolita in Tehran as well as a copy of Lolita. I’m sure that I brought up something about reading because I spent almost 10 minutes talking to them about books. They recommended books to me and I recommended books to them. We’d read many of the same books and had similar feelings about those books. My heart was beating with the excitement of a first kiss. It was as if I’d found THE ONE (name that movie). THIS was the book club for me! The ladies were nice! We liked the same books! I was sure I must have something meaningful to contribute!

I learned they met once a month and usually went out to dinner. Being somewhat of a food snob, this sealed the deal for me: combine two loves in my life, books and food, and how could this not be a happily ever after?

After being totally jealous of the four ladies and wishing with all my heart that I was in their group, I approached the group as they were leaving the restaurant and got the attention of the lady I’d talked to the most. “If you ever have an opening in your book club, I’d love to join. Here’s my email address.” I handed her a card from the restaurant that had my email written on the back.

My co-workers thought I was crazy, but this was almost like approaching that cute boy you’ve been admiring from a distance who you know you’ll never see again. What does it hurt to say, “Here’s my number, give me a call sometime.” Maybe he’ll call, maybe he won’t, but at least you’ll never have any regrets.

The lady never called and I was left book club-less. Not to be deterred, I started my own book club. We met a few times but it fizzled quickly. The people I’d asked to join were avid readers, but discussing books with other book lovers wasn’t quite as easy as I anticipated.

Fortunately, I’ve found a few women that I work with who are avid readers. We’re bumbling through the first stages of a book club like a first boyfriend; it’s clumsy, awkward and guiltily fun. We’re starting to get into a groove that works for us, especially now that we’ve realized wine makes our discussions a little livelier. 😀 I have my fingers crossed that I’ve finally hit pay dirt on the book club. If not, there are plenty of other readers in the sea. 

Blogger Bio:  Trish lives in California and is getting married in June. She can’t wait to have more free time to read, and plans on instilling a love of reading in her (future) children.  Trish has been blogging at Hey, Lady! since October 2007.

***Would you like to share about your book club here at Books on the Brain?  If so, leave a comment and I will get in touch with you about a guest post!

For other volumes of In Praise of Book Clubs, click HERE

For more info on starting your own book club, click HERE

For fun ways to make your book club better, click HERE

For a chance to win a copy of Matrimony by Joshua Henkin, click HERE by May 15th.  Josh would be happy to do an author chat with your book club!

For a chance to win a copy of The Next Thing On My List by Jill Smolinski, click HERE by May 15. You can contact Jill at her website about setting up an author chat. 

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