Saturday, September 10, 2011

Look beyond the obvious in book club choices

By now, book club members know that many popular reads contain a guide offering background, author interviews and questions for discussion. They’re always helpful, but do represent a narrowing of the field of books being read. Book groups are creating best-sellers these days, but they’re also courted ambitiously by publishers, marketing agents and authors anxious to sell books. Lazy selection puts too little imagination into the choice of upcoming books, and gives marketers, rather than authors, the success they deserve.
This is not to dissuade you from these choices, but to remind you that options exist.
Remembering that variety is the spice of life, search high and low, choosing several categories as you go outline selections: biography, historical fiction, contemporary nonfiction, a classic, etc., in addition to more standard choices. Some bookstores guard against the popularity contest by trusting a well-read leader to make choices, in conjunction with members’ interests. Others consciously go beyond the best-seller lists (notorious for catering to quick reads and hot authors) to web sites for readers (there are thousands), libraries and trusted sources.
As you choose books, keep in mind the potential for companion books, or field trips to authors’ residences, geographic locations, movies or plays from the books.
Members usually have a book or two to recommend, although here again I find repetition of the most obvious books too often. Ask them to look on their shelves for hidden gems.
Before making the list final, I recommend a day at the library, sitting down with a couple dozen books for ideas, and talking with the staff. Librarians are avid readers, too, and often a source of unexamined possibilities.
On the web, check out these sites—and, again, they are among thousands:
At www.bookmovement.com you’ll find a gathering place for 30,000 book clubs, all sharing what works for them. Unfortunately, the list of top reads, updated weekly, reveals little that’s new. Yet, some ideas are there and others are linked to the site.
Publishers are happy to provide book previews, and have set up informative, enjoyable websites for readers, among them: http://readinggroups.simonandschuster.com/ and www.randomhouse.com/rhpg/rc/. For others, just google publishers and readers groups. HarperCollins comes up, along with Harcourt, Bloomsbury and others. It’s even possible to get a free book at some of these locations.
There’s an interesting bird’s eye view of Americans in the recommendations made by Singapore’s National Library Board. Check out http://blogs.nlb.gov.sg/highbrowseonline/ and click on the list of recent posts for Fiction Alert: Read Your Way Around America.
Despite its sexy name (and, hey, books are sexy too!), www.bookslut.com contains voluminous material on books and authors, making it well worth viewing. Also has links to current reviews and articles by or about authors.
The Massachusetts Library’s Associations list of “must-read books” for 2011 can be found at www.massbook.org/massbooks2011.html and it includes Massachusetts-linked selections such as Sarah Blake’s “The Postmistress,” set in Cape Cod, and Kathleen Kent’s novel, “The Wolves of Andover.”
Another way to range further is to check www.indiebound.org, which sets out new books that are being promoted by independent bookstores. It’s always a good idea to help support these smaller stores (though not all are small), and keep the bookstore thing going.
To preview emerging authors, go to http://fictionwritersreview.com/, which provides a synopsis and links to reviews of new fiction.
The Midtown Review (http://midtownreview.com/) provides author interviews, new book info, links to reader guides and lots of book talk. Some are predictable choices; others surprise.
The American Library Association’s annual list of books most challenged by the public sector is always a good source for books that have something important to say. The current Top Ten Baddies includes Aldous Huxley’s always relevant “Brave New World,” Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” an important nonfiction portrait of those who serve diners in the U.S., and—surprise—Stephanie Meyers’ “Twilight.” Find a link through http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/banned.
Finally, Mickey Pearlman, author of “What to Read,” online book club maven and an editor who reviews books for the Boston Globe, proffers unconventional choices. She recommends Andrea Levy’s “Small Island” as the best book she’s read all year, and tips the hat to Steve Almond, Kathryn Harrison, “Hester Among the Ruins” by Binnie Kirshenbaum and (especially for book clubs) Sharon Wyse’s “The Box Children.”
Ann Frantz blogs at www.readitandreeap.blogspot.com and is the author of short stories, book reviews and a novel. Contact her at ann.frantz@gmail.com

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