Friday, March 27, 2009

Molly McCall: How to Pick a Fantastic Book Group Book, Or How I Attempt to, Anyway

Here's a view of some of our bookcases at home. These cases are mostly fiction, alphabetized admirably by my husband, the playwright Jon Brooks, but if you look closely, you'll see nonfiction titles hanging out horizontally and stacked up above. We have cases and piles of books all over our flat, including art books, cookbooks, poetry, and children's books. Was it Jorge Luis Borges who said, “I can not sleep in a room without books?” I feel most comfortable in spaces that are crowded with books.

Aggie posted a comment yesterday asking me how I pick titles for the fiction book group. That's a great question. People ask me this from time to time, and my response always comes out differently.

I'm always looking for something unique and unexpected, something that will engender a vibrant discussion and balance well with the other novels we've just read.

I look to award-winning books like “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I like to go back through old lists and find runners-up from days gone by. Last year, I spent some time lingering over National Book Award nominees from the '70s and '80s.

I also troll through reading lists from book stores or critics or newspapers. I'm especially interested, always, in The New York Times' picks for the best books of the year. I pay attention to reviews. I listen to book sellers and watch what the independent bookstores have on display – Kepler's especially, of course.

As anyone who comes to the group will tell you, we read current titles but we also spend a fair amount of time on books that are neglected or forgotten or come from real “writers' writers.” The people who come to the Kepler's Fiction Group are such amazing readers. So although I like to pick the latest Booker winner from time to time, I also know that they will find that book on their own.

Other aspects that are never far from my mind: how many male versus female voices we're reading, where the authors are from, what style they write in, what time period the books comes from, where the novel takes place, and what it's about. Plus, the book has to be available in paperback, accessible to Kepler's to get, and not too long (unless it's the January pick, which I push a little, because we don't meet in December).

Over the past 10 years, we've read a lot of fantastic books in the fiction group. Some day, I'd like to put together a really comprehensive list. Until that time comes, here's a brief gathering of titles I've always remembered as great discussion-starters.

  • The Things They Carried” by Tim O'Brien – one of my all-time favorite novels and book group books. The inventive style and complicated emotions and themes offer so much to chew on.

  • Spartina” by John Casey – Casey has too quickly become an overlooked novelist. This tale of Rhode Island fishermen won the National Book Award in 1989 and has since drifted off the literary radar. It's gorgeously written.

  • The Road” by Cormac McCarthy – hardly a forgotten book, I'm happy to say. This post-apocalyptic tale won the Pulitzer Prize and an appearance on Oprah, hah! It's a novel that stays with you for a long time, and sparks an intense conversation about humanity, our treatment of the environment, and the future.

  • The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy – we read this Booker-winner in the group years and years ago. I almost want to select it again, just to see how it's aged with us. Roy's only novel, it's a slender, masterfully done work.

  • The Man Who Loved Children” -- by Christina Stead. A lot of people hate this book, but you're guaranteed a great group, I think. It's a feral, tough, uncompromising novel. But it's worth it.

  • Desperate Characters” by Paula Fox -- a chilling, urbane novel. Fox writes with absolute surety. I recommend this one highly.

Oh man, there are so many more. If you are in a book group – or if you come to any of the groups that meet at Kepler's – I'd love to hear what books you love!


  1. Molly, take a look at Jane Gardam's OLD's quite a remarkable book. And good blog!

  2. Molly, great suggestions! You mentioned some of my favorite books. I'm so touched that you wrote about "Spartina," by John Casey. I attended his workshop at Sewanee Writers' Conference and he's not just great writer, but also one of the nicest, generous teachers I ever had. He teaches at the University of Virginia and here is something about his writing process from their website:

    Casey continues to write his books in long-hand, and recently completed the yet-unnamed sequel to “Spartina.” “I write very slowly, and I have to have a goal. Sometimes it’s very hard to get there, and when I do, it’s sort of like a hoop you burst through,” he said. He writes in a spartan shed behind his home. “My shed is a shambles, pieces of paper, pipe cleaners everywhere. I’m up at the crack of dawn — 10 a.m.,” he said, tongue-in-cheek. “Writing is a little bit auto-hypnosis: once I go down there, clean the pipe, light it and then start thinking. Then words occur, very slowly, and there’s a point where it’s over, that’s it, you’re not in the zone any more. You might as well go row.”