Fresh Picks for Your Book Club Meeting
By Elisabeth Egan
384 pages; Simon & Schuster
Part satire of the Internet age, and part winsome, readable story, A Window Opens follows Alice Pearse, a mother of three, as she rejoins the full-time workplace while also caring for her recently unemployed husband and her terminally ill father. Her new company is called Scroll—a business determined to create a digital world beyond carbon-based books, where most of Alice's co-workers speak a language made up of acronyms and corporate lingo. "We joked about how old we were compared to our colleagues," says Alice to her similarly befuddled cubicle-mate. "They didn't write anything down! They didn't answer email, either, which could be disconcerting; were we really supposed to learn to IM?" Where Egan shines is showing the human, messy cost of Alice's attempts at balance. Despite the humorous asides, there's a core of melancholy as Alice manages the stress of her father's slow decline, a stress that takes precedence, ultimately, over her desire to help her company dominate the future of books and video games. Scroll may want Alice to be less than human, an automaton figuring out how to sell experiences to people ready to become zombies, but Egan makes sure to keep Alice's experience funny, real and relatable. A natural for book clubs.
— Elisabeth Donelly
By Lisa Gornick
320 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Why Your Book Club Will Love It: Even if you don't finish the whole book by the day of your meeting, these linked stories give you plenty to discuss about love, family and "the one who wasn't quite the one."
The Burning Questions: What does grown-up love really look like? What choices and trade-offs do we make?
What to Bring to Your Meeting: Several bottles of wine to lubricate your heart-to-heart.
At the center of these crystalline stories, which span the years 1961 to 2009, are Louisa and Bear, two lovers whose lives intersect at various times. Radiating out, are friends and relatives grappling with challenging realities—accidental pregnancies, buried secrets, affairs and family tragedies. A jilted Louisa rents the spare bedroom of a couple whose daughter was killed (by a lion); a family quarrels over whether to pull the plug on their mother; a new wife understands her marriage is over with "the sudden awareness that this, the chicken roasting in the oven, the two sets of dishes, were for her like acting in a play she'd never even wanted to see." What's most notable is the way these characters grow and move on, not always getting exactly what they want, but finding enough of what they need.
— Dawn Raffel
By Hanya Yanagihara
736 pages; Doubleday
Why Your Book Club Will Love It: This book about friendship will have you (passionately) debating how much our BFFs can—and can't—save us from our inner demons.
The Burning Questions: Does our childhood define us? How much of a difference can friends and lovers make?
What to Bring to Your Meeting: Kleenex. It's that moving.
Prepare yourself: This spellbinding, feverish novel sucks you in to the struggle of sensitive, brilliant, young Jude as he tries to survive his never-discussed childhood. That childhood—slowly, hauntingly revealed to the reader over hundreds of pages in a feat of writing that mimics how memory works in those who try to suppress it—turns out to be one long, savage nightmare of abuse. How Jude tries to create a life in spite of it, not just succeeding professionally as an attorney, but also attempting to develop trust and intimacy with a group of friends, is one of the most compassionate, moving stories of our time. Yes, you'll feel for Jude and the horrors he endured. But you will also be transformed by the efforts of his ad hoc family of roommates, professors, neighbors and co-workers who never give up on loving him, even when "proof of your friendship lay in ... turning and walking away when the door was shut in your face instead of trying to force it open again." An exquisitely written, complex triumph.
— Leigh Newman
By Cormac James
384 pages; Bellevue Literary Press
Why Your Book Club Will Love It: There's one hell of a woman on this harrowing Arctic adventure. You'll want to invite her to your next gathering.
The Burning Questions: How do you keep hope alive when all odds are against you? And what's scarier—life-and-death peril or parenthood?
What to Bring to Your Meeting: Ice, of course. And something to pour over it.
True backstory: In 1850, the English Admiralty sent several ships to try to find Sir John Franklin and his crew, explorers who'd disappeared in the Arctic. The Surfacing is the fictional story of one such rescue boat. Although the men believe their mission is futile, they're duty-bound: "We must make our very best effort, " the captain says—to which the on-board doctor adds, "The drawing rooms of London will not tolerate anything less." Soon, everything that can go wrong does: A young crew member drowns, the arrogant captain underestimates danger and a cracked rudder forces a dangerous delay as the ice thickens. Plus, there's a fascinating stowaway: Miss Kitty Rink, who'd snuck onboard after a liaison with the second officer during his shore leave in Greenland. As fate would have it, she's pregnant. Though the first 50 pages are slow moving, not to worry. The rest move so quickly, you'll be calling each other halfway through the month, just to chat about the ending.
— Dawn Raffel
By Peter Matthiessen
368 pages; Penguin Classics
Why Your Book Club Will Love It: Nothing brings book-club members together like a spiritual journey set in an exotic location. (Matthiessen wrote his classic before Eat, Pray, Love, and Wild but the messages still hit home).
The Burning Questions: How do we live in the messy, sorrowful, beautiful now? Also—will the author ever find that snow leopard?
What to Bring to Your Meeting: A big, open heart.
In 1973, Peter Matthiessen trekked through Nepal with field biologist George Schaller. For Matthiessen, whose wife had died the previous winter, it was both a physical feat and a spiritual quest. Schaller was there to study blue sheep, while Matthiessen wanted to find the Lama of Shey, and both men hoped to glimpse a rare, beautiful snow leopard—which becomes a metaphor for our deepest searching. Matthiessen records nature's splendors—luminous mornings, "sun shafts and dark ravines," heroic flowers poking through snow—as well as the heartbreaking poverty and challenge of the hike. After seeing a child "dragging bent useless legs ... like a broken cricket," he writes: "I look at paradise askance. Along the Modir, my feet are hurt by sharp rock shale, and where we make camp in the village of Gijan, we pick off leeches: while taking rice supper in a local hut, GS investigates wetness in his sneaker and finds it full of his own blood. " His examinations of life's most profound questions are equally clear-eyed. Matthiessen died in 2014 but this modern classic will never grow old.
— Dawn Raffel
By Oliver Sacks
416 pages; Knopf
Why Your Book Club Will Love It: This powerful, honest memoir may just inspire your members to confess to—and pursue—their long-deferred dreams.
The Burning Questions: How can failure and hurt put us on the road to triumph? Why are our quirks our greatest gifts?
What to Bring to Your Meeting: Your freak flag! Seriously, you'll feel encouraged to be your unique and wonderful selves together.
In his final book, published four months before his death, best-selling writer and physician Oliver Sacks looked back on his life. Sacks came from a family of doctors but always had an artist's temperament. When his surgeon mother learned he was gay, she exclaimed, "I wish you had never been born." Sacks forever carried the sting of that moment; it prompted a "need to have different selves for day and night," a "doubleness" that may explain the unique blend of scientific precision and openhearted observation that he brought to his patients and his writing. While at Oxford, he came to realize he wanted to write "essays presenting individuals with unusual weaknesses or strengths," though before pursuing that goal, he made one last attempt to gain a foothold in the world of medical research. It ended so disastrously, his bosses told him, "Sacks, you are a menace in the lab. Why don't you go and see patients—you'll do less harm," which is perhaps the nudge this eccentric genius needed to pursue his one-of-a-kind career.
— Terre Roche and Dawn Raffel
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
384 pages; Grove Press
Why Your Book Club Will Love It: This debut is a page-turner (read: everybody will finish) that makes you reconsider the Vietnam War (read: everyone will have an opinion).
The Burning Questions: What happens when political ideals conflict with personal affection? How does one live between two worlds?
What Not to Bring to Your Meeting: Preconceived ideas.
"I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces." So begins the confession of the nameless narrator, a South Vietnamese captain who is, in fact, a communist informant, and who gains passage to Los Angeles in 1975, aboard one of the last flights out of the country. In America, his heart and mind are deeply divided—he wants to protect beloved friends yet feels bound to his old political ideals. Compelled to see both sides of every situation, he finds himself caught up in an ever-thickening web of betrayals, with violent consequences. Nguyen's darkly comic novel offers a point of view about American culture that we've rarely seen.
— Dawn Raffel