My book group has been meeting for 10 years now, and although the ladies who have attended have changed a bit over the years (due to people moving, time constraints, and even, sadly, death), we have finally settled into a reliable core group of outstanding readers who look forward to our monthly meetings of socializing and discussion.
We have read 112 books to date, and I have only missed reading 4 of those. Of those number, I have awarded 18 books with the full 5 star rating (“it was amazing”), and 51 books with 4 stars (“really liked it”). I only gave 2 books just 1 star (“did not like it”): “My Sister’s Keeper” by Jodi Picoult and “The Thistle and the Rose” by Jean Plaidy; while there were 4 books at 2 stars (“it was ok”), leaving 33 books at 3 stars (“liked it”), with a remainder of 4 unread, and thus unrated, books. That means we chose extremely well! So many good books. Of course, my opinions about a certain book did not always correspond with the group’s sentiments, but that’s just how those things go sometimes.
Our first book, way back in September 2003, was “The Princess Bride,” by William Goldman. I absolutely adored that book and I gave it 5 stars in my review, but like a handful of my other 5 star reviews on the list, I had read it BEFORE I read it again in book club, so I am choosing not to count those among my favorites in this list. Among those wonderful titles are: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale. These were all books that I considered for my top ten list, but, as I said, I had to cut somewhere, so I used the reasoning that it wasn’t book club that brought me to these stories (rather, because I liked them, I recommended them for the group).
The rubric I did use went something like this:
- I liked it well enough to give it 4 or 5 stars in my goodreads review
- The story has stayed with me or resonated in some special way
- I had not read it before book club (see above)
- It taught me to see the world a little differently
Beyond this, the book could just have had a certain je ne sais quoi that set it above another worthy volume in my memory. That being said, here are my top ten picks:
10. The Help. Books told from multiple perspectives can sometimes be distracting, however, this device, in the hands of Kathryn Stockett telling this story, adds welcome dimension, richness and perspective. I loved all three of the women who helped tell this story about black maids and the women who hire them (after being raised by them) in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. This story is full of warmth, fear, love, prejudice, injustice, friendship, dignity, heartbreak, and courage. I absolutely loved it, and admire Stockett’s own courage in putting such a compelling voice to this time period and these civil rights issues.
9. Bel Canto. I had thought about putting The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency in this spot, but I changed my mind. As I am thinking back to when I read these books, I feel like this one better represents my reading preferences. Bel Canto also has the advantage of being about music and the transcendence of art. It also helped me become an Ann Patchett fan. Her books are quirky (that’s a good thing!) but also thoughtful and resonant.
8. The Hunger Games. I remember when a member of our group pitched this dystopian novel as her choice for us to read, because in her description of its premise, it didn’t sound too enjoyable (and, at that time, it had yet to become so popular as to be a household name). But we went along with it and were all drawn into the the compelling, and thoughtful, story of these children fighting to the death for public entertainment. Chilling, but engrossing. Definitely one to stay with you.
7. A Walk in the Woods. Just say the title of this book by Bill Bryson and I start chuckling. This book was so entertaining, along with being somewhat informative. This was my introduction to Bill Bryson and it is still my favorite of his. It did not necessarily make me want to hike the Appalachian Trail, but it did make me appreciate that it exists and to vicariously enjoy its beauty.
6. Unbroken. Hillenbrand is an able researcher, she has an ear for a good story, but most of all, she has the skill to weave many facts together to make a book that is compelling, informative, and down-right riveting. I would often stop reading just to comment on how impressed I was with the writing. And then, of course, there is Louis Zamperini, who is a remarkable human being. What heroes he and his compatriots (and his family) were and are. This was an absolutely fascinating and worthwhile story. We also read Seabiscuit earlier in book club, and it was surprisingly good. This was better.
5. The Fault in Our Stars. I adored this book. It was unbelievably precocious, but I still willingly and happily went along with it: the witty writing, the perfectly clever dialogue (that could never happen in real life), and the drama of this “not a cancer book,” because “cancer books suck.”
4. A Town Like Alice. With a title like that, I was simply not prepared for how good this book was. I had not known about the Japanese led forced death-march in Malaya during WWII, and it was pretty painful to read about. But Jean’s humanity and courage has resonated with me in the years since I read the book, as well as the triumph of the love story in Australia after the war. Absolutely worth reading.
3. The Woman in White. How had I never read this book before (I was fairly steeped in Victorian literature as an undergrad)? This is a creepy mystery with a deliciously evil villain and lots of lovely descriptions and language. It is a bit of Gothic horror, psychological thriller and 19th-century romance are twisted up together. Sometimes the classics are better. I couldn’t put it down.
2. Destiny of the Republic. I never read much non-fiction before I joined my book club, but I have discovered that I really enjoy the genre. This book is a gem. It is a fascinating, excellent book that is both well-researched and well-presented. I knew almost nothing about President Garfield before reading this, and I really enjoyed learning about not only this remarkable man, but also the other characters associated with his assassination and death.
1. A Sense of the World. It’s been three years since I read this book, and I can’t get it out of my head. For that reason, it is sitting here in my number one position. Jason Roberts is a tenacious and talented writer, but the star of this book is its subject, James Holman, the Blind Traveler (1786-1857). Writer and traveler give us a remarkable glimpse into a very different world at a very different time—the many cultures, lifestyles and wonders of the 19th century; but more than that, I still think about Holman when I am feeling unwell or sorry for myself, when I would just like to curl up in my bed and ignore the demands of the world: when Holman was deathly ill and had every reason to languish in his sufferings, he didn’t complain; instead he climbed an erupting volcano! The man was fearless, courageous and resourceful. Definitely someone to admire.
I’m really grateful to my book group for getting me to read things out of my regular reading patterns. Sure there were a few that I didn’t like, but that is a small price to pay for the many wonderful and memorable books that I was also exposed to. I’m glad that we persevered through the sparse years, when only a small handful of us would show up with any regularity (sometimes only two!), because now we’re a tight group of friends with a passion for books who tend to schedule our months around book club night.