i-laughed--criedMy 3rd post* on Josh Henkin’s excellent essay about book clubs.  Henkin (author of Matrimony) speaks with book groups all over the country, and here’s what he would like to see happen when we talk about books:

    • Less discussion about which characters are likable: (Think of all the great literature populated by unlikable characters.)
    • Less of a wish for happy endings: (Nothing is more depressing than a happy ending that feels tacked on, and there can be great comfort in literature that doesn’t admit to easy solutions, just as our lives don’t.)
    • Less of a wish that novels make arguments: (The business of the novelist is to tell a story and to make characters come sufficiently to life that they feel as real to the reader as the actual people in their lives.)
                                   Books on the Brain, April, 29, 2008

Dear reader, we’re up a creek. Henkin’s points are well-taken, but since we’re not professional critics, and if we shouldn’t talk about characters, endings, or themes—then what do we talk about when talking about books, especially when it’s our turn to lead the discussion? (Me? Lead the discussion? Please, I’d rather have the flu.)

If it’s high anxiety for you at your book club—give the discussion resources a try on our main website. You may find they help.

Reading Guides for specific titles and discussion questions.
Discussion Tips
Generic Questions for Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk —a guided-reading chart.
LitCourse—our 10 short, free online courses.

See all my posts on Josh Henkin’s book club essay:

  1. Book Clubs—smarter than critics?
  2. So … where are the guys?
  3. Echo Chambers—Are we all reading the same books?

owl-smart-bookclubs1An intriguing blog post by Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony, raises some interesting issues about book clubs. I’m using only a brief excerpt here, but there’s so much more to his article that I plan to refer to it in future posts.

Henkin speaks with book clubs around the country, and here’s what he says about the many clubs he’s talked with:

From coast to coast and in between, I’ve found a huge number of careful readers . . . who have noticed things about my novel that I myself hadn’t noticed, who have asked me questions that challenge me, and who have helped me think about my novel (and the next novel I’m working on) in ways that are immensely helpful. I’ve certainly learned more from book groups than from the critics, not because book group members are smarter than the critics (though often they are!), but because . . . they bring to the enterprise a great degree of passion.           —Books on the Brain, April 28, 2008.

Be still my heart! Henkin’s experience refutes a disheartening blog discussion I came across a while back. The blogger and her guest were disparaging Oprah and her book selections, as well as the entire book club movement—because they didn’t meet certain standards of literary sophistication (apparently, their standards). Ouch.

Well, I love Josh Henkin’s remarks—they certainly put that ugly assertion to rest. Yea, Josh!!

See my later posts on Joshua Henkin’s book club essay:

  1. So … where are the guys?
  2. I Laughed! I Cried! — how do we talk about books?
  3. Echo Chambers—are we all reading the same books?

chick-litHas your book club read any chick-lit?  If so, is there enough meat, or gum, for a good discussion? 

What is chick-lit?  Think young urban women obsessed with men, sex, possessions, travel, and partying. Think Sex in the City, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, or Chasing Harry Winston

The title of a recent New York Times article, “On the Beach, Under a Tiffany Blue Sky,” situates chick-lit smack in the middle of a beach towel—as escapist summer reading.

Beach reading or not, you can imagine older feminists yanking at the bottoms of their bathing suits in disdain.  Is this what all the fuss was about—so daughters could end up as boy-crazy, status-seeking materialists? 

But maybe chick-lit is more serious?  Maybe it’s a reaction against the earnestness of the previous generation.  Here’s author Melissa Banks in a 1999 Salon interview:

The women of my [younger] generation were brought up to think of themselves in terms of what they did rather than of being married or unmarried, and it took on this huge weight.  Work was suddenly supposed to be a much bigger thing than work can ever be. You’re supposed to give your soul to it—and ... to be as dedicated to your work as you would be to another person.

Questions for book clubs:

  1. Is chick-lit a rebellion:  “not-your-mother’s-feminism”?  Or is it a second-generation taunt at men: ”Anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better”?  (If men can take charge of their own sexuality, careers, dreams and desires, why can’t women?)
  2. Should chick-lit be taken with a grain of salt (or sand)?  Or does it offer an interesting insight into a post-feminist era.

venus-marsA book review this summer got me to thinking about the differences between male and female authors—whether men and women write differently...and whether book clubs prefer one gender over another.

Here’s Liesl Schillinger on Atmospheric Disturbances, a new work by Rivka Galchen:

It’s unusual—in fact, (why be coy?), it’s extremely rare—to come across a first novel by a woman writer . . . in which the heart and the brain vie for the role of protagonist, and the brain wins. 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.

New York Times Book Review, 7/13/08

My favorite part of that quote is “why be coy?”—an implicit acknowledgement that what follows is going to shake up some shibboleths. But do men and women write differently?

This is hard for me to acknowledge, but I think Schillinger is right. Works like Absurdistan, The Brief Wondrous LIfe of Oscar Wao, The Road, even The Corrections seem to display a distinct masculine sensibility. Reading them, I’m decidedly aware they were penned by a male. And there are books written by women that I feel are distinctly feminine: authors like Jody Picoult, Sue Miller, Sarah Gruen, Sarah Addison Allen. But that, I think, is a subject for another blog entirely.

Questions for Book Clubs

  1. Do women clubs read “masculine” works like Absurdistan, Oscar Wao, or The Road? And do men read books that have Schillinger’s feminine perception—say Interpreter of Maladies or The Memory Keeper’s Daughter or The Secret Life of Bees?
  2. Overall, do masculine works like The Road or The Corrections get taken more seriously than feminine works? Or does NONE of it matter.

readguide-girl-blogWriter Joe Queenan thought he might earn a few extra bucks by trying his hand at writing some discussion questions—the ones publishers issue for book clubs. (See our Reading Guides.)

Queenan decided to take a look at what others had done, and what he found surprised him—quirky questions that “force readers to think outside the box.” He refers to them as "off-the-wall questions.” Here’s a sample:

Off the Wall Questions

Anna Karenina—If Anna had lived in our time, how might her story have been different?

Ethan Frome— Is this novel just too grim to be enjoyed? [ For real! ]

Pride and Prejudice—  Have you ever seen a movie version in which the woman playing Jane, as Austen imagined her, was truly more beautiful than the woman playing Elizabeth?
                              “There Will Be a Quiz,” Joe Queenan.
                                New York Times (4-6-08).

Queenan loves
these questions because they “shake up the musty old world of literature.” And that’s great, because I think book clubs have been doing that all along. In fact, hasn’t the role of literature always been to shake things up, to challenge comfortable assumptions? (See our free LitCourse 1—Why We Read.)

But I’ve got some questions of my own:

Questions for book clubs

  1. Do you use book discussion questions? If so, how Do you try to answer them—or use them as a more general way to help you focus on some aspect of the book?
  2. What about Generic Book Questions? Do you ever use them? Do they help? To me, they seem to get to the core of a book more quickly than the publishers’ questions—which have a whiff about them of a really, really tough English exam.

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