winner-isA literary spat that broke out some 30 years ago tickled my funny bone after reading about it in today's New York Times Book Review section. But the article also got me to thinking about what we in book clubs read.

Thirty years ago, authors and publishers split ranks over the National Book Awards—differing on what kind of books should win.

On one side stood the panel of authors and critics who selected the winners. They championed books of high literary merit, based on prose and philosophical insight. Unfortunately, those books don't tend to be big sellers.

On the other side stood publishers who accused the panel of being elite insiders. Why not select big sellers, books that actually make money...just in case anyone forgot that publishing's a business?

I'm not taking sides here, but it got me to thinking about the books we select in our book clubs. I've taken issue on a number of occasions with those who think book clubs read drivel or those who refer to us as a gaggle of geese

While I don't think most of us tackle a steady diet of difficult "literary" works, and while occasionally we do chose lighter fare, book clubs primarily look for works that engage the reader—compelling characters, solid plotting, and some darn good writing. We also like works that take on issues that divide humanity and do harm to body and soul.

We also want books to be accessible. Finally, they should lead to lively discussions—because conversations about literature can open eyes and change minds. Actually, when you think about it, all those requirements make a pretty tall order for any author.

wow2It's easy (for me, at least) to talk about books and writers that disappoint, so maybe it's time to talk about the ones that knock your socks off, the writers that astonish you with their prose. Not just good writing, or even really good writing, but extraordinary writing.

The books I've listed below aren't necessarily my favorites, though some are; they're not always heavy on plot, and a number are interrelated short stories—not my particular structure of choice.

Mainly, they're impressive for the sheer beauty of their prose and vision—the kind of writing that elicits a shiver and a..."how did they do that?" Some are fairly new releases, others have been around for a couple of years. Here's my list...so far.

Kevin Brockmeier The Illumination
Jennifer Egan A Visit from the Goon Squad  *
Louise Erdrich A Plague of Doves
Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex
Jonathan Franzen Freedom  *
Nicole Krauss Great House
David Mitchell A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  *  and  Cloud Atlas
Elizabeth Strout Olive Kitteridge *
Zadie Smith On Beauty *
(* Click on title for Reading Guide; click on * for our Book Review.)

Of course, there are plenty of wonderful writers...really, really good ones. Some of my favorites are Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood (she probably should be on the superlative list), Anita Brookner, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Elinor Lipman, China Mieville, Ann Patchett, Richard Russo, and Colm Toibin.

Let us know if you've got some superlatives...or some all-time favorites.

bad-dog3Some books make you wonder why the author bothered...and then make you wonder why YOU'RE bothering. Do you continue with a disappointing book...or put it down?

I've done both recently. I picked up Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule on the basis of its solid reviews. But Gordon's prose felt so clogged and overworked it was offputting. It turns out Gordon is a professor of writing, which maybe is why the book feels a bit like a writing-class exercise. I love dense, rich prose, but not.... Well, anyway, I put the book aside.

Then I picked up Sara Gruen's newest, Ape House, in which a family of apes—who communicate using American Sign Language—eventually become stars in their own reality tv show. Just think of the possibilities! But Gruen's prose is thin and screen-writerish. And her apes turn out to be a lot more interesting than her humanoids.

I finished Gruen's book, though—thinking there might be a payoff. Besides it wasn't painful to read. And there is a sort of pay-off at the end, predictable but sweet.

*Added later...For a truly great read about apes and people, try The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (sorry, no reading guide)...it's brilliant, funny, and  disturbing.

Questions for Book Clubs
What do you do with disappointing books...especially if one is your book club selection? Which ones have disappointed...and why?

mars-venus-statue

Lately, I've been struck by something strange: my growing preference for male writers. I'm a little tired of Venus, which is hard for me to admit...what with being a girl.

But after reading a lot of female authors recently, I find myself bored with their focus on the intimate—the bird's eye view into relationships and family—waiting for the shoe to drop, the relationships to explode, tragedy to strike, and a general mess to be made of everything. I'm always worried how it all gets cleaned up.

I'm thinking of authors like Sue Miller, Jodi Picoult, Anne Tyler, Alice Hoffman, Jennifer Weiner, Marilynne Robinson. These are incredibly talented writers; they're wonderful. It's just that....

Men seem to write on a larger scale; even the personal is painted on a broader canvas, sometimes of near-epic proportions. I'm thinking of David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet ... Jeffrey Eugenidies Middlesex...David Wroblewski's Edgar Sawtelle......Phlip Roth's The Human Stain or American Pastoral.

After finishing one of those novels, I feel as if I've been part of something grand, something vast and far beyond my day-to-day perception of life. There's a thrill in that.

But now, in the very act of putting pen to paper (or finger to key), I'm starting think of all the exceptions: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is of an era, and Louise Erdrich's Plague of Doves is mythic. Both Richard Russo and Chris Bohjalian write with penetrating intimacy. So...well, there you go. I've proven nothing.

Still, the issue recalls an earlier post in which I asked the same question: Do men and women write differently? The question at the time was spurred by Liesl Schillinger, who wrote in a New York Times review of Domestic Disturbances:

While the voice and mood of the novel are masculine, clinical and objective . . . the book’s descriptions of colors, smells, clothing and bodies show feminine perception.

So...if Liesl can say something like that...maybe I'm not nuts.

me-bookEver get that “ah-ha!” feeling when reading? You come across a passage that practically shouts, “Hey, pal. Pay attention—this is YOU we're talkin' about.” It’s eerie, sometimes unnerving.

One of the narrators of Nicole Krauss’s Great House describes herself in a lengthy passage…and I felt an itch of recognition, a not very pleasant itch either…so I won’t quote it here.

But I love that books can do that…make us see ourselves…recall feelings and experiences…and put them into words! It’s uncanny.

Question for Book Clubs
Was there a particular character—or moment—in the book you’re reading now that gave you a sense of self-recognition? What about in other books? If you’ve come across those passages, can you recall how they made you feel?

new-zeland-fansGotta toot my own horn. When I started my LitLovers website, I’d no idea how it might be used . . . or that readers around the globe would tune in.

A library site in Auckland, New Zealand, uses LitLovers as part of their web 2.0 training exercise—and what a cool site to be listed on. Take a look.

Lots of libraries have training blogs to teach staff how to maneuvre the new world wide web (web 2.0)—which refers to the new level of interactivity on the Net—sites like Del.ic.ious, StumbleUpon, GoodReads, FaceBook, Wikipedia, LibraryThing, and personal blogs.  

LitLovers has been used on a number of library training sites in the US, but the New Zealand one is a particularly gratifying! Spend some time on it yourself—we can all learn more about this new web environment.

books-on-brainBooks on the Brain.com  Check out my guest column on one of the best book blogs on the Net. I talk about the fact that book clubs are saving the world for democracy!

Had you any idea how important you were?

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