As summer winds down and the school year looms, it is a good time to reconsider your staple book club titles and possibly add a few to your standard list of suggestions. While the “word of mouth” phenomenon works in the world of books perhaps more effectively than anywhere else, and great books can be found that way (such as the first title below), there are other novels that may not reach buzzword status but are book club worthy nonetheless. Dig in and discover some new favorites; this short list is long on possibilities for creating stimulating conversations.
An ancient Passover Haggadah text is at the core of Geraldine Brooks’s marvelous People of the Book (Penguin. 2008. ISBN 9780143115007. pap. $16). Within the pages of a rare book, hidden away during the bombing of Sarajevo in the early 1990s, conservator Hannah Heath finds the tiniest clues to its provenance: an insect wing, a single cat hair, grains of salt, a stain of red wine. What makes this text especially rare is that it is illuminated, a practice forbidden under Jewish law. Running alongside Hannah’s personal story, the history of the book is traced backward in time to its origins in medieval Spain. A great choice for book groups looking for historical fiction written by a master of the genre.
Also set in the ruins of Sarajevo is a story inspired by a true-life example of courage and grace. Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo (Riverhead: Penguin Group [USA]. 2009. ISBN 9781594483653. pap. $15) follows four people as they struggle to cope with the relentless siege of the city during the Bosnian-Serbian war. At the novel’s heart is the former lead cellist of the Sarajevo orchestra, who witnesses a mortar attack that kills 22 people waiting in a breadline. Remaining hidden means staying alive, but the cellist decides to play music for 22 days in the bombed-out square to honor the lives that were lost. Beautifully written and conceived, this is a lovely example of thought-provoking and powerful storytelling.
What happens when good people are tempted to do wrong? The good people in this case are Chicagoans Tom and Anna Reed, a young couple who have spent a lot of money on futile fertility treatments. When they suddenly come upon a bundle of seemingly unclaimed cash next to the body of their downstairs tenant, a quick decision must be made, and the consequences are deadly. By taking the money, the couple become the target of a drug kingpin who seeks retribution at any cost. In Good People (Onyx: Penguin Group [USA]. 2009. ISBN 9780451412744. pap. $7.99), Marcus Sakey places the reader in the crosshairs of fate. His fast-paced crime thriller is tightly plotted and builds in intensity. A good choice for book groups seeking modern morality tales.
Many readers can identify with a character who reaches midlife without a sense of achievement. In Agnes Desarthes’s Chez Moi (Penguin. 2008. ISBN 9780143113232. pap. $14), this all-too-human character is portrayed in the person of Myriam, who at age 43 seeks to realize her dream of opening a small restaurant in Paris. Staying true to her habit of stumbling through life, she establishes Chez Moi in a somewhat haphazard fashion. As the restaurant slowly gains momentum, Myriam’s confidence grows. This small yet affecting book, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, may naturally open up a discussion of the pains and pleasures of taking risks in life.
The Hundred-Foot Journey (Scribner. 2011. ISBN 9781439165652. pap. $15) also involves a restaurant in Paris, although the novel’s title is something of a tease. This marvelous “hundred-foot” culinary voyage actually begins in India, heads to London, wanders through the back roads of Europe, and eventually leads to the streets of Paris as it traces the life of Hassan Haji, an unexpected master chef. Author Richard C. Morais readily evokes the aromas of the kitchen and populates his story with some very colorful, feisty, and charming characters whose lives revolve around good food, family, and love. A lovely pick for book groups wanting to savor travel and food writing.
In the art-obsessed world of Renaissance Italy, Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625) displays a rare artistic talent at an early age and thus is granted the incredible honor of studying at the workshop of the great Michelangelo. As her reputation grows, she is invited to travel to Spain to serve as a painting instructor to Elizabeth, the child-bride of King Felipe II. Lynn Cullen, in her wonderful The Creation of Eve (Berkley: Penguin Group [USA]. 2011. ISBN 9780425238707. pap. $15), vividly imagines Sofi’s experiences in this rarefied royal world where the balance of power is ever-shifting and the rumor mills are running full-time. A perfect pick for book clubs that enjoy learning more about little-known figures of history.
This column was contributed by Susanne Wells, Reference Librarian, Indianapolis Public Library.