Best Book Club Books

Ouf, what a week it’s been. I won’t go into it; suffice to say there was a lot of work and I am too pooped now to consider a lengthy or detailed post. However, I was hoping to enlist the wisdom and experience of the marvelous world of book bloggers in a little project. I’m trying to figure out which are the ‘best’ book club books, in the sense of being a) good to discuss b) interesting to a wide range of readers c) available and d) not too long. I’ve been compiling a list in categories, and would welcome any suggestions. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Family Stories

Justin Cartwright – The Promise of Happiness
Carol Shields – Unless
Jodi Picoult – My Sister’s Keeper
Joshua Henkin – Matrimony

Cultural and political stories

Khaled Hosseini – The Kite Runner
Ian McEwan – Saturday
Geraldine Brooks – People of the Book

Historical stories

Irene Nemirovsky – Suite Française
Isabel Allende – Daughter of Fortune
Diane Setterfield – The Thirteenth Tale

Classics

Henry James – The Aspern Papers
L. P. Hartley – The Go-Between
Graham Greene – The End of the Affair

Personal Histories

Arthur Golden – Memoirs of a Geisha
Lorna Sage – Bad Blood
Elizabeth Gilbert – Eat, Pray, Love

In Translation

Per Petterson – Out Stealing Horses
Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Of Love and Other Demons

Crime and Thrillers

Truman Capote – In Cold Blood
Jonathon Raban – Surveillance
Sue Miller – While I Was Gone

Novels of Ideas

Yann Martel – Life Of Pi
Harper Lee – To Kill A Mockingbird
Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go

Love Stories

Zoe Heller – Notes on a Scandal
Anne Tyler – The Accidental Tourist
Bernhard Schlink – The Reader

About Education

Lloyd Jones – Mr Pip
Richard Russo – Straight Man
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I’d love to hear about books that went down really well with people’s book clubs.
Update: I have had so many good suggestions in the comments below, I’ve posted a new list here

Home Is Where…

When I found out that I was going to change my job at the university, I assumed the rather luxurious rooms I’d been working in for the past few years would have to go. In keeping with the experimental nature of the job, I thought I’d be given some little cubbyhole up the top of a daylight-pierced wooden staircase with a view over the dustbins, and I’d have to give up my spacious quarters with their riverfront location. I thought I could come to terms with this; the more pressing problem was what to do with my books. I read somewhere once that a professor collects books the way a ship collects barnacles, and that’s certainly true for me. Put down anchor somewhere and the barnacle problem multiplies exponentially. So I got some new bookcases at home (on the very last available spare wall) and started transferring my books, two carrier bags at a time, every day I was in college. For a long while I didn’t make much of a dent in my collection, but traipsing down seven flights of step with as many books as I could physically carry did make me fear for my arms. I thought I might end up with the physique of a gibbon; very attractive on a gibbon, less so on me. I roped my husband and son into a weekend trip and we carted back the motherload. Soon all I had left were the bits and pieces that I didn’t absolutely have to have in comforting proximity, but which I didn’t really want to cull, either. Theorists like Judith Butler, Lacan, and slightly out of date feminist literary criticism which I’d traveled through and out the other side; odd French books, like Edith Wharton and Milan Kundera in translation; all my German undergraduate texts which, twenty years later, I could no longer read but remain dear to my heart. This was far from rational. I ought to have invited the German students round for a free for all, but then my eye would fall on a little volume by Goethe entitled West-Oestlicher Divan, which was colloquially known as East-West Sofa Bed among the students because we had absolutely no idea what the title meant (and to this day I am none the wiser). And the memory still makes me laugh. I couldn’t really give that away.

So there I was, waiting to transfer my ragbag collection of C-list books when the college authorities astounded me by offering me the same rooms for another year. Naturally I was very happy to stay in my penthouse suite, but I couldn’t face transferring all the books back again. After all, the question of rooms would come up again in a year’s time, and I didn’t really need them there for reference. But I can’t help thinking how odd my shelves look, every time I’m at work. The main bookcase is almost empty, the others contain collapsing stacks of books; in the English bookcase Marina Warner’s Joan of Arc and Naomi Wolf’s Fire with Fire prop up Claire Petulengro’s Love Signs (and I’m not even sure how she got there). When students sit down in the main armchairs, they are at eye level with a medium sized pile of French cinema books (which I researched a little without acquiring any kind of speciality) and on the top, the only book whose title is clearly visible, a Susan Suleiman volume on art appreciation called Risking Who One Is. And that is a fair comment on my book shelving situation, as I see the students peering at my ransacked collection and figuratively scratching their heads and I want to say ‘these aren’t my real books, you know’, and sometimes I do.

It always strikes me how curious it is that books become our intimates. How they reveal so much about us, it seems. How distressing it can sometimes be when a book you love has fallen flat with a person you love, or how piercing an attack on one’s reading tastes can feel. I can still remember an undergraduate friend of mine scanning my bookcase and hoiking out a novel by an author whose name I’ve forgotten, no one famous anyway, no one canonical, that concerned a missing portrait and an old love affair. ‘Oh honestly, Litlove, he said. ‘The things you read.’ I felt momentarily, briefly, cheap, like I’d been caught out making a ghastly social faux pas. I do wonder what it is about reading a story that reflects so acutely on one’s inner world. I’ve known people judge their friends far more harshly on whom they let into their minds than on whom they let into their beds. And it rose to a crescendo when I worked in the local bookstore, amongst a young, highly literate staff who were crashing book snobs. There were so many authors who weren’t even allowed near our precious shelves for fear they would lower the tone. I don’t appreciate this sort of behaviour, which amounts to a kind of book xenophobia. I think you should read what gives you pleasure and that’s an end to the matter. But even so, I feel oddly naked and exposed in my college rooms, with a ramshackle collection of just-about wanted books. My books were my friends and companions; they backed me up in discussions, they were a material reminder of why I was there at all, what it meant to me. They were my long-view history through the winding corridors of education, the stuff my dreams of teaching and writing were made of, the ideas and insights on which I had grown up and become a woman, a mother, a critic. I felt we were in this thing together. And so every time I’m in college I feel a sharp pang of longing for my books, quietly blanching their spines in the sunny conservatory at home. But not quite enough of a pang to carry them all back again, two bags at a time.

Patrick McGrath’s ‘Trauma’

It will not surprise any regular visitor here to learn I am a big fan of shrink literature.The perspective from the psychotherapist’s chair is one I find particularly fascinating, as it manages to look long and hard at the depths of human suffering and damage, whilst having enough intellectual recoil to make such study curious and illuminating. The warped human mind becomes, if not a thing of beauty, then at least logical and pitiful in its own right, neither an object of shame nor a reason for scorn. Really good shrink-lit will indicate in unsettling ways the very fine dividing line between mental health and illness, will provoke genuine compassion for the struggles of the wounded to heal themselves and might just provide some compelling evidence for all those who would rather deny the power and impact of the darker regions of the mind. Salley Vickers’ The Other Side of You was one of the best novels I read in 1997, and Jed Rubenstein’s The Interpretation of Murder was another excellent example, even if it was a lighter version. The French authors Isabelle Hausmann and Camille Laurens also spring to my mind, but might not be well known to others. Now Patrick McGrath is an author I had never read before. I’d seen his name alongside such uncompromising-sounding titles as Asylum and The Grotesque and assumed he was a horror writer. Having read Trauma, I understand that in a way he is; he works within the shrink-lit genre but lacks belief in the possibility of orderly, viable cure. And so the cool, detached workings of the analytic process on the damaged mind reveal only the depths of a horror that refuses to respond to all manner of loving nurture – it’s what we might call evil, or as McGrath puts it better ‘ what does not kill me lies in wait in my subconscious to ambush me when I am at my weakest and most vulnerable.’ Whatever external enemies we may fear lurking in the shadows, they are nothing compared to the patient and terrifyingly efficient enemies who bide their time within.

McGrath’s novel focuses on Charlie Weir, a psychotherapist working exclusively with trauma cases. It was through his work with Vietnam veterans in the 1970s that he met his first wife, Agnes, whose brother was one of the most damaged men in his support group. And it was Charlie’s indirect responsibility that he committed suicide, thus ending that marriage in acrimony and despair. Now, almost a decade later, Charlie has started sleeping with his wife again, despite the fact she has remarried, and despite the fact that he has embarked on an intense relationship with the beautiful but far from stable Nora. If Charlie’s making a mess of his private life, it’s because his family background hasn’t exactly prepared him for love. The son of a depressive mother and an alcoholic, shiftless father who left home when he was eight, Charlie’s family conflicts get played out in his relationship to his older brother, Walt, a successful artist and a fine family man. Charlie needs his brother and he hates him at the same time. Walt was excused his mother’s bad behaviour, sent away from the worst of her depressions and told to wait until she was patched up again. In the depths of her suffering it was Charlie she leaned on and, precisely because she did so, her toxic combination of shame and guilt prevent her from ever appreciating him. ‘Oh anyone can be a psychiatrist,’ she said, in a quote that comes back to haunt Charlie. ‘It takes talent to be an artist.’ When Agnes’s brother commits suicide and Charlie is wracked with creeping guilt that he provoked him, she’s ready to dig the knife in again. ‘Ah Charlie,’ she said. ‘Always trying to help people who don’t want it.’

And so it’s no surprise that, as the novel progresses, we realize it’s Charlie’s damage at stake here, the wounds he has sustained which, as a good unreliable narrator, he has yet to let the reader see. But that’s mostly because he is not sure where the trauma in his own life is to be located. There are signs and indications, like atmospheric disturbances before a total eclipse, but what lies in the darkness will take the length of the narrative to be revealed. This is the premise of the notion of trauma. We all understand trauma to be the experience of an event so shocking, so horrific, that we have no frame of reference by which to understand it. It cannot be assimilated into the mind and so resists mental digestion, lying as a lump of undigested matter, ready to happen to us over and over again in its shocking, blinding reality, without the merciful haziness of the past. But what most people don’t know is that trauma is itself already a repetition. The experience of the Vietnam vets is beautifully handled in the novel and an excellent case in point. What happened to young conscripts out in Vietnam was atrocious and ultimately pointless; it destroyed many a man who hadn’t needed or wanted to be there. But studies subsequently have shown that there was a staggering correlation between the men who returned with posttraumatic stress disorder and those who had had troubled childhoods. Few vets returned unscathed, but the annihilating effects of trauma were almost exclusively to be found in soldiers who had already suffered hysterical mothers, drunken fathers, family violence, dislocation or abuse. It seems we can experience the worst on one occasion, but to have it happen again, to experience an event that recalls the worst in structure or form, is literally intolerable.

I thought this was a cracking book. It is absolutely beautifully written, with such clear, elegant prose that it made other narratives look florid and strained. McGrath doesn’t waste a single word and he moves from past to present with great fluidity and control. The big revelation at the end was perhaps a little bit of an anti-climax, but I mention this only out of a concern for complete accuracy, and not because it bothered me as a reader in any way. The journey getting there, like all therapeutic journeys, was always the point. This is a chilling, unnerving read, possibly not for people who want a happy ending, but a fine thriller for those who fear that it is the power of the mind that really threatens our safety, our wellbeing and our ability to sleep easy at night.

More About Us

Tagged by the Queen o’Memes.

What are your middle names?

Mine are Jane Louise, his is George. I’ve seen lots of other memes transform these names into an alternative life of the couple, but I really can’t do anything with them, unless it’s to gesture towards the characters of a Barbara Pym novel. It is in any case much more telling that when I mentioned this meme to my husband he said ‘Don’t forget you’re writing about Litlove and Mr Litlove, not about you and me. I want to be my best self; none of that reality stuff.’ I just smiled sweetly. Really, there is such delicious power in being the scribe of the family.

How long have you been together?

We’ve been together since 1987, so 22 years. We’ve reached the tipping point; I’ve been with him longer than I’ve been without him.

How long did you know each other before you began dating?

Not long at all, a few weeks? We met when we went up to university. I needed to wear my glasses but was much too vain back then to do so (in the days before contacts), so I was relieved to find a nice person I could always spot in a crowd because he was blond and 6 foot 4. There is much debate as to whether we were friends first; I say yes, he says no.

Who asked whom out?

It was a case of innocence seduced, dear readers. We were supposed to be going to a Halloween party, but when I arrived at his room I was wearing the requisite black and he was still in jeans and a blue shirt, saying ‘I thought we might open the wine here first.’ I thought, oh aye? The rest is history.

How old are you?

He turned 41 yesterday, I’ll turn 40 in a month’s time. How can we possibly have grown so old? In our heads, we’re still at college.

Whose siblings do you see the most?

Neither’s at the moment! His live scattered across the world, one in Canada, one in Brussels, one in the north of England. Mine lives a few streets away from my parents. But what with my chronic fatigue over the past few years and his commitments to work and rowing, we haven’t seen much of our wider families. We met up with everyone over Christmas, though.

Which situation is hardest on you as a couple?

We’re appalling arguers because we both avoid conflict. We have a tendency to drag things out over days of excessive politeness that could be better resolved with a brief fight. And we need to talk. When life is busy and we don’t get the chance to connect with one another we can quite quickly end up in our separate shells and regretting it.

Did you go to the same school?

I went to a local mixed comprehensive, he went to a select boys only private school. I couldn’t believe that anyone who had reached the age of 19 with two sisters could be quite so utterly clueless about women. And it seems to be a kind of default setting; years of intensive teaching have yet to remedy the lack. Still, I can honestly claim never to have lost my feminine mystique for him.

Are you from the same home town?

Despite meeting at university, we are. It turned out that our parents lived (still live) only ten minutes apart from one another. However, the border between two counties runs between us: he comes from Suffolk (typical local news headline: ‘Jam Triumph for WI at Annual Garden Fete’) whereas I come from Essex (typical local news headline: ‘Gangland Shooting Bodies Dumped Off A12’). He has never let me forget it.

Who is smarter?

Academically, me. My husband is slightly dyslexic (that’s my compassionate diagnosis) with highly creative spelling and an extraordinary memory that transforms as it goes along. Everything comes out having taken a few steps to the left of where it went in (example: Him: I hate that awful band, New Boys On The Street. Me: Would that be New Kids On The Block?). However, when it comes to practical intelligence he beats me hands down. When civilization breaks down, I’m going to be relying on him for our survival.

Who is the most sensitive?

Me, by about a million miles. It must be lovely, I often think, to be as insulated and as unnoticing as my husband. He wafts about in this delightful dream where everything is as he might wish it to be inside his head. Curiously, this means he is the only person in the world to whom I am blunt to the point of rudeness. Not that I feel good about it. ‘You made me say it! You made me!’ I will cry. ‘I’d exhausted every possibility for hinting and you didn’t pay the blindest bit of notice’

Where do you eat out most as a couple?

I’m sorry, eat out? We have a child, you know. There’s a pub in the village that does a nice thai chicken curry, and we’ve been known to go there occasionally. Then in Cambridge there’s an Italian restaurant at the back of my college, and a French one to the other side of it that does a gorgeous magret de canard. But really, it’s a rare treat.

Where is the furthest you have traveled together as a couple?

New York, for a wedding at which my husband was the best man. I discovered on this trip that my calibration with my time zone is extraordinary (see question about sensitivity). I was jet lagged for the entire four days we were there, and hadn’t altered my body clock by a second by the time we set off for home. It was so miserable being given all these nice meals and being unable to eat them, my stomach firmly convinced it was two in the morning and a ludicrous time for food.

Who has the craziest exes?

Ummm, I’m the only one with exes. And they were all rather lovely, actually. My husband does keep a list of people he has called over the years ‘my unsuitable suitors’. I don’t know what he means, but this story may be relevant.

Who has the worst temper?

Me, but then my husband has no temper at all. He has a very narrow bandwidth of emotion and only ever becomes grumpy when his blood sugar is low. I keep an eye on this because he doesn’t notice it himself (see question on sensitivity). He does this strange thing when traveling of shutting down completely, going on standby, almost, and he used to refuse to countenance food and drink. I was too malleable when young and used to go along with this, but suddenly I understood why we ended up wretched and tired at our destinations, and that it was a problem easily solved.

Who does the most cooking?

I do. I’m fussier about what I want to eat and how I want it to be, and I have serious standards of hygiene. My husband is rather blasé about use-by dates and so when he cooks I all too often fear for our lives.

Who is the most stubborn?

Alas, we are both extremely stubborn, and our poor son has received a double dose of pig-headed DNA.

Who hogs the bed most?

He does. Many a morning I will wake, lying on my side, perched on the sliver of the bed’s edge. ‘I came over to keep you warm!’ he will protest.

Who does the laundry?

When we were very first married, I spent an afternoon lovingly ironing his shirts, the perfect image of a devoted housewife. When he returned from work he looked at them with discontent. ‘That’s not the way my mother does it,’ he said. At that point I stepped away from the ironing board and never stepped back. However, the fact that laundry is my husband’s responsibility makes me very wary of what I put out to wash. It’s quite possible the seasons will have changed before I see it again. But I refuse to give in; one little slip and the years of resistance will have all been for naught.

Who’s better with the computer?

Oh him, absolutely. I cling to my technological ignorance and bleat for computer support when it all goes wrong.

Who drives when you are together?

We used to be quite good at sharing, but since chronic fatigue I let him do all the long haulage trips. However, given that I don’t drink, it’s always me who drives us back from social events. If I read this as a metaphorical question, however (which I am inclined to do), then it’s clear that we are neither of us happy to be life’s passengers. He likes to be getting places, and I perform the equivalent of obsessive map reading, and so usually, with a little bit of bickering and the odd wrong turn, we end up where we need to be.

Edited to say: tagged if you want to do this!