I’ve already written about the general rules I’ve used in choosing which books are good for a book group, based on my years of leading the Field Notes group here at the library. Now I have the fun of sharing some of what I consider to be the best books we’ve read in the group. I am NOT saying that everybody in the group loved all these books; as I mentioned in the last book group post, you are never going to find a book that everybody loves, or even that everybody likes (by the same token, you’re unlikely to find one that everybody dislikes). These are the ones I personally enjoyed most, which provoked some of the most interesting discussions among our people, and I hope they’ll give ideas to other book groups looking for good reads.
The first book I chose for the group is still one of my favorites, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. This book won the National Book Award in 2009, and this is one instance where I feel the award was absolutely earned. The thread around which all the different stories in the book spin is the 1974 walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center by Philip Petit (though he’s not named here), but don’t for a minute think it’s all about his daring acrobatics. No, this is a book about people, and it’s a book about New York City at a particular time, and McCann brilliantly brings both his characters and his setting to life, as the stories interweave and connect in unexpected ways. What could an Irish monk living among prostitutes have in common with an upper class woman who lost her son in Vietnam? What could both those characters have in common with a Bohemian young woman who’s involved in a hit and run accident that results in death? Not all the storylines tear at your heart, but several of them do, and the deep sympathy McCann shows for all his characters, the skill with which he brings them together and then separates them, the clear love he has for New York City in all its flaws and dangers, makes this a magical book and a great spark for discussion.
Not all the books we’ve read are novels, and one of my favorites is a nonfiction book, H Is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald. I’m not a fan of memoirs in general, and I think a memoir is a particularly difficult kind of book to pull off well, but MacDonald seemingly effortlessly combines a memoir of her grief over her father’s sudden death, her efforts to train a goshawk, Mabel (it’s a quirk that the most dangerous and fearsome raptors are often given the most non-threatening names — really, can you imagine being scared by someone named Mabel?), and a reflection on the life and work of T. H. White (author of one of my favorite childhood books, The Once and Future King, but also the author of The Goshawk, which is MacDonald’s focus here) into a seamless, beautifully written reflection on nature and grief and our role in the natural world. There’s a lot about falconry, and a lot about her father’s life and death, but none of it seems excessive or unnecessary, and one of the things a good book group book can do is illuminate subjects you might not have paid attention to otherwise.
One of the books that surprised me was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. On the surface, it looked like the kind of feel-good book that would become a best-seller just because it’s about personal growth, a man discovering how to feel again, etc. And if you just read the description of the plot, that’s what it sounds like: Harold Fry is a middle-aged man stuck in a job that’s meaningless to him, in a marriage that has turned dull and possibly dead, when he finds out that Queenie Hennessey, a woman who once meant a great deal to him, is dying in a hospice hundreds of miles away. Instead of mailing the note he wrote to her, he finds himself walking from his home to her hospice, calling the hospice along the way to tell her not to die until he gets there. It is a tale of transformation, but not at all the way you expect it to be, and Harold is not the only one transformed. His road trip is really a pilgrimage, and he suffers not only the obvious strains of someone who hasn’t done any real exercise for years suddenly trying to walk the spine of England but the spiritual pains of facing his life and all the things he didn’t do that he should have done, for Queenie, but also for other people. The ending is earned and unexpected at the same time, and it’s the characters who make the book wonderful. One thing I applaud the author for is the map she helpfully provided at the beginning of the book, for those of us who are not English and/or only have the vaguest idea of English geography, so we can keep track of where Harold is and where he’s going. This was a poignant read, full of heart and soul.
And, speaking of soul, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is an incredible read, its subtitle, Medicine and What Matters in the End a very accurate description of what the book is about. Gawande is a surgeon, but also a terrific writer, vivid and clear, expert at choosing just the right anecdote to illustrate the points he’s making, and what points they are! Basically he talks about aging and death, how we deal with them in our culture (spoiler: not well at all), how they are treated in other cultures, and how we might be able to do better, how some people and institutions are already doing better and what we could learn from them. He talks about his patients and his family (most poignantly about his father’s decline and death), and about his own experiences as a young doctor and a more experienced doctor who’s learned from his past mistakes. It’s a short book, but there’s so much in it, not just information (though there’s plenty of that, and eye-opening information for the most part) but insights and ideas and questions.
One of the pleasures I’ve had as leader of the book group is the opportunity to push books that I love, and sometimes I’ve been able to persuade the group to read one of my personal favorites (which has its potential downsides; when I love a book, it’s hard for me to hear other people disparaging it, but that’s part of the job). A book I have been recommending to people for years, which our group read just last year, is The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. What a fun book that is! Set in Barcelona in 1945, when the scars of the Spanish Civil War are still fresh and people are just beginning to recover from the war, the story centers around a book, or rather a series of books, and their mysterious author, and someone who is apparently trying to destroy all the copies of all the books this author ever wrote. Our protagonist, Daniel, is a young man, the son of a bookseller, who has fallen in love with this particular author’s book and determines to find out who’s trying to eliminate the author’s work so completely. He is surrounded by a cast of amazing, vivid characters, villains and heroes and heroines, and his quest takes him through all levels of Barcelona’s society, through some wonderfully described settings, and through murder, madness and doomed love. It is everything you could want from an adventure novel, and while I try not to be judgmental in general, I have to say that I would wonder about someone who could read this book and not enjoy it. Just getting the group to discuss the various characters will lead to a fun and scintillating discussion, before you even get into the plot and the history and the rest of the wonders of this book.
Obviously these aren’t all the good books we’ve read over the years, just the ones that stand out in my memory as having been great reads and having produced great discussions. Here’s to the years we’ve already spent reading and discussing (and sometimes arguing) about books, and the years and books ahead of us!