October is National Reading Group Month. While there are plenty of wonderful options, such as Louise Erdrich’s The Round House and Domenica Ruta’s With or Without You, this list suggests a bit of counterprogramming. Why not read books about book clubs? Here are six titles that shine a light on reading in company, as well as a literary cookbook to provide sustenance to those gathered to share the joys of the discussion.
Moving from Boston to the backwater town of Naples, FL, in 1962, Jackie Hart decides to start a literary society. This Yankee, who doesn’t know the “rules” of the South, attracts a group of outsiders who meld as they explore books, open their hearts and lives to one another, and share their inmost dreams. They also get into a lot of trouble with the law. Set against the turbulent times of the 1960s, Amy Hill Hearth’s Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society (Atria: S. & S. 2012. ISBN 9781451675238. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781451675269) is a heartwarming and poignant tale.
In Hilma Wolitzer’s reflective and smartly drawn Summer Reading (Ballantine. 2007. ISBN 9780345485878. pap. $14; ebk. ISBN 9780345500304), Angela Graves, a retired professor, is hired by Lissy Snyder to lead a reading group of five women from various walks of life. Set in the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island, the novel explores the concerns of the club’s members, most notably Lissy, the second wife to a wealthy man with two kids; Michelle, Lissy’s housekeeper; and Angela. The story weaves together the books Angela selects for the club with the personal struggles of its members as they each question and reevaluate their pasts, presents, and futures.
In Beth Patillo’s sweet and gentle read, The Sweetgum Knit Lit Society (WaterBrook: Random. 2008. ISBN 9781400073948. pap. $13.99; ebk. ISBN 9780307499066), Hannah Simmons is caught ripping a page out of a library book about knitting. The teenager’s punishment is to work at the library after school and to join a knitting/book club. As a member Hannah is expected to engage in discussions of childhood classics such as Heidi and A Little Princess and to learn how to knit. What she actually does is act as a catalyst that causes the rest of the members to take stock of their lives.
Traveling to six different Latin American countries, Amy Elizabeth Smith leads book discussions of Jane Austen’s novels and their film adaptations to see if the themes of the novels and the behaviors of the characters resonate with, and are meaningful to, people of different cultural backgrounds. In All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane (Sourcebooks. 2012. ISBN 9781402265853. pap. $14; ebk. ISBN 9781402265860), Smith recounts in fascinating detail her book club experiences and shares the insights she gained.
In a fictional take on all things Janeite, Jocelyn handpicks five women and one man to join a newly formed book club devoted to the works of Jane Austen. Set in California’s Central Valley thousands of miles and several centuries removed from the 1800s English countryside, Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club (Putnam. 2005. ISBN 9780452286535. pap. $14; ebk. ISBN 9781101213261) focuses each chapter on one of Austen’s six novels. The ensuing conversations blend insightful discussions of each work with revelations from the 21st-century lives of the club members. This delightful and fun tale of love, change, and friendship will captivate fans of Austen’s romantic novels as well as reading group members everywhere.
In Will Schwalbe’s beautifully rendered and heartwarming memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club (Knopf. 2013. ISBN 9780307739780. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780307961112), the author and his mother, Mary Anne, discuss their reading while they sit in hospital waiting rooms and during her chemotherapy treatments to combat pancreatic cancer. Their two-person book club explores works by authors as varied as Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Bishop, Russell Banks, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anne Lamott, Dennis Lehane, and John Updike. Their thoughtful, revealing, and intimate exchanges on books keep Mary Anne engaged in life as she copes with her approaching death.
Reading groups looking for meals to match their selections will find plenty to inspire them in The Book Lover’s Cookbook (Ballantine. 2005. ISBN 9780345465467. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780307482372). Shaunda Kennedy Wagner and Janet Jensen link each of their nearly 200 recipes, often directly but sometimes in imaginative leaps, to a particular work, including fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. The recipes inspired by children’s books are especially delightful, such as “Not Violet, but Blueberry Pie,” from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
This column was contributed by freelance writer April L. Judge. She lives in Morris Plains, NJ, and is Director, West Caldwell Public Library, NJ