Scouting Report: Great Book Group Reads for 2016


veblen crop

One of the marvels of book publishing is that every season brings a fresh bumper crop, presenting a challenge to find the volumes that pique your interest and are most worthy of your limited time and attention. But, as those of us who have spent time in book clubs know, the challenge is even greater when you’re looking not just for books that help pass the time on a train or a wintry weekend, but the sort of writing that makes you want to talk to other readers about what the book sparks in your head and how the author has managed to pull this off. Whatever your preferences, there’s plenty to look forward to in 2016. Below, divvied into rough categories, I’ve cherry-picked some particularly discussion-worthy books coming out in the first half of 2016 that you’re going to want to read, think about, share, and throw into your book club’s mix:

I. Two Cozy January Reads

January has already gotten off to a happy start with a terrific lineup of enticing domestic fiction. An early standout is the ever-elegant, deservedly popular Elizabeth Strout, who once again takes on mother-daughter relationships and social class issues, but this time she adds a metafictional dimension. My Name Is Lucy Barton is on one level about an estranged daughter’s belated acceptance of her imperfect mother, but it’s also the story of how the narrator found her literary voice and wrote the very book we’re reading. Book groups will enjoy teasing out how Strout manages to fold so much emotional complexity into such a restrained, seemingly simple tale.

Elizabeth McKenzie isn’t yet the household name that Strout is, but her quirky romantic comedy, The Portable Veblen, puts her squarely in the company of smart charmers like Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House. Her oddball lovers, Paul and Veblen, are an ambitious research neurologist on the brink of commercial success, and a champion of Norwegian culture who espouses the anti-materialist values of her namesake, economist and social critic Thorstein Veblen, best known for his phrase “conspicuous consumption.” They discover how different their values and families are only after they become engaged. They also diverge on their attitude toward squirrels: He says rodent, she says cute furry critter. Should they call the whole thing off? This is a moral tale couched in madcap social satire.

II. Sequels: The Return of Two Old Favorites

With Everybody’s Fool, Richard Russo revisits North Bath, New York, after more than two decades with a follow-up to his much-loved third novel, Nobody’s Fool. When Donald “Sully” Sullivan, the ornery ne’er-do-well (played by Paul Newman in the movie version) learns that he has at most a couple of years to live, it’s information he’s determined to keep from his nearest and dearest. Readers can look forward to more of Russo’s appealing mix of local color, likeably flawed characters, sharp social observation, and wry humor. (May)

Louise Erdrich concludes the trilogy begun with The Plague of Doves and The Round House with LaRose, in which she again explores themes of justice, retribution, and reparation on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation. When an Ojibwe man out deer hunting on his property accidentally shoots what turns out to be his best friend’s five-year-old son, he decides to give his own five-year-old son, LaRose, to the bereft couple. (The boys were close friends, and the two wives are half sisters.) LaRose becomes a healer in more ways than one. Intertwining realist and mystical elements, LaRose is sure to raise plenty of questions about the limits of justice. (May)

III. Meaty Nonfiction

Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails takes us back to 1933 Paris to trace the birth and impact of existentialism in the twentieth century, with its liberating focus on authenticity, rebellion, freedom, responsibility, and purpose. Bakewell lucidly explicates the web of ideas underpinning this philosophical school of thought and lays out its historical relevance. But she also gives lively play to the fascinating philosophers behind these ideas, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Martin Heidegger. This is intellectual history at its most engaging. (March)

Warning: If you pick up Joanna Connors’s blazingly well-written memoir, I Will Find You, you won’t be able to stop reading. Twenty-one years after she was raped at knifepoint while on assignment for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the reporter revisits the event that has cast a long shadow over her life. Her assailant was caught and sentenced, but she never felt completely safe again. When her daughter goes off to college, she decides she needs to tell her children what happened to her. She also decides to investigate what became of her rapist. What she uncovers is a riveting and disturbing story about race, poverty, and violence that raises plenty of issues worth discussing, including how we tell our children about evil. (April)

Siddhartha Mukherjee, the oncologist/medical writer who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for his “biography” of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, follows up with what promises to be another authoritative, accessible biological tour through a subject that is both familiar and mysterious. The Gene, billed as an “intimate history” of the building blocks of human heredity, illuminates science as well as social and personal history in a compelling, cogent narrative that poses important questions about a future in which we learn to manipulate genetic information. Reading Mukherjee is like taking a much-needed remedial science course taught by a brilliantly engaging professor. (May)

 IV. Keenly Awaited

The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes‘s first novel since The Sense of an Ending, his 2011 Man Booker Prize winner, promises to be another deceptively slim but potent ethical tale about the choices we make. In 1936 Soviet Russia, thirty-year-old composer Dmitri Shostakovich fears being sent to Siberia or becoming another victim of the Great Terror after Stalin denounces his latest opera. Although he’s miraculously spared, it’s at great moral and artistic cost, as he’s forced to toe the Party line in his music and his life. Count on Barnes for a powerful inquiry into the interplay between art, politics, and ethics. (May)

Don DeLillo once again zeroes in on our modern zeitgeist with Zero K, a tale about a billionaire who hopes to defy death by preserving his gravely ill young wife’s body until medical advances can return her to full health. Sure to raise searching questions about the future of science and our desire to use wealth to exercise the ultimate power – over mortality.

Adam Haslett’s third book of fiction, Imagine Me Gone, takes on depression and the “in sickness and in health” aspect of marital devotion in a family drama that spans forty years. Heartwarming or harrowing? You decide. (May)

Cathleen Schine has written what promises to be another sparkling novel, They May Not Mean To, but They Do, about grown children who have to accept that their recently widowed mother, ardently wooed by an old flame, is not ready to throw in the towel. (June)

V. Intriguing Debuts

Lynne Streger Strong’s Hold Still is a compassionate family drama about a mother and daughter who must rebuild their relationship under the cloud of shared guilt over a devastating, unretractable mistake. Sparely written, but sure to pull heartstrings. (March)

Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers won major accolades when it appeared in England last year. It’s about a father of two small boys who is sucker-punched by his wife’s sudden death. At his lowest point, he’s visited by a terrible, feathery sort of angel of death called Crow, who refuses to leave until the family no longer needs him. The result is a surprising tour-de-force, a compact, powerful, uncategorizable fable and meditation on grief that wields language in startlingly visceral new ways. Plenty for readers to discuss about the nature of grief and healing and Porter’s unusual flights of fancy. (June)

Steven Rowley’s Lily and the Octopus also approaches themes of grief and loss, albeit through a sometimes magical tale of a beloved, talking dachshund who dies of a tumor, which is likened to an octopus that’s latched onto the dog’s head. The book, compared with canine-centric bestsellers like Marley and Me, has received a lot of buzz, not least for its unlikely path to publication. (June)

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I have one final tip for book groups: Do not miss Helen Ellis’s hilariously deranged story, “Hello! Welcome to Book Club,” from her sardonic new collection, American Housewife. Reading groups have been featured in contemporary literature with increased frequency, a reflection of their growing significance in our culture. But I have yet to read a take as deviantly funny as Ellis’s. In a poisoned-honey monologue that gradually escalates from the bizarre to the alarming, her Upper East Side book club maven introduces the group’s newest member to its rules, regulations, and nefarious raison d’être. Along the way, she delivers wonderfully snide jabs at the various members’ culinary and literary preferences. Read and discuss. And — not least — share a laugh.