Bookclub: How do you choose your next read?

A while ago, I brought up our bookclub’s biggest dilemma: what’s the best way to choose a book that everyone will want to read and discuss?

We tried using Survey Monkey list for a brief time, where everyone ranked their picks and an algorithm chose the winner. We were surprised to find that no one liked this as much as letting each month’s host choose the next month’s book (with input from everyone, of course). It seemed to ensure a wider range of book types—from page-turning thrillers and funny memoirs, to serious dramas and provocative nonfiction. Another theory is that by choosing books with online votes, we weren’t discussing the options and sharing the reasons why the book might be the right choice. It like going to a movie without having seen any previews.

In fact, one of you noted that the pitch is crucial: “I’ve been in my book club for more than 15 years! We meet every third Tuesday of the month. We only choose fiction books and the host is responsible for selecting about four books for us to check out and then we vote for one.”

But it recently came up that a lot of us would prefer to know what’s coming ahead—at least two or three titles at a time. So one poor friend of mine had the unlucky task of translating our wish-list (a giant excel spreadsheet of 36 titles!) back into Survey Monkey, from where we ranked our top ten. Then, from the shortened list of desirables we ranked our top three.

Of course, now, I want to read all 36! They all sounded so good. (In case anyone’s curious, I’ll share our results below.)

How do you choose what to read? Any thoughts on or additions to our ever-growing list? 

One thing that’s funny: our first book, back in the spring of 2013, was Gone GirlAnd like every editor in the world, there’s always someone who, when this topic comes up, says “I’d like to find another Gone Girl.” My other favorite reads with the group were Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (incredible), All the Light We Cannot See, and And the Mountains Echoed. On the more fun side, I enjoyed Where’d You Go Bernadette and Big Little Lies.

For this month we read Hillbilly Elegy and—in lieu of a regular meet-up—will be going to hear him speak on campus at the Mondavi Center tomorrow night.

P.S. Okay, for the curious (and for helping my memory), here were the 36 books and the synopses the nominators shared from online…

The three picked for reading next: 

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives.

The Ninth Hour, Alice McDermott
Did you ever read Colm Toíbín’s novel Brooklyn (or see the movie)? If you liked it, you will love Alice McDermott’s eighth novel, which, like many of her books, focuses on New York’s Irish Catholic immigrant community at the turn of the 20th century. The story follows an order of Brooklyn nuns, The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, as they help their needy neighbors. It sounds like a small frame on the world (and it is a very intimate and focused novel, named for the nuns’ quiet afternoon prayer), but you’ll quickly realize that McDermott is taking on some of the most universally consequential aspects of life — guilt, redemption, sin, joy, secrets and death, to name a few — in the most engrossing way.

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen*
From Amazon: The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. The narrator, a communist double agent, is a “man of two minds,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship. (*I’m especially excited about this one. The author was a professor in my department in graduate school!)

Others that made it to the second round of voting:

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opioid Epidemic, Sam Quinones
From a small town in Mexico to the boardrooms of Big Pharma to main streets nationwide, an explosive and shocking account of addiction in the heartland of America.

Into the Water, Paula Hawkins
“A single mother turns up dead at the bottom of the river that runs through town. Earlier in the summer, a vulnerable teenage girl met the same fate. They are not the first women lost to these dark waters, but their deaths disturb the river and its history, dredging up secrets long submerged. Left behind is a lonely fifteen-year-old girl. Parentless and friendless, she now finds herself in the care of her mother’s sister, a fearful stranger who has been dragged back to the place she deliberately ran from—a place to which she vowed she’d never return.”

Tangerine, Christine Mangan
A woman unexpectedly encounters an old friend upon arriving in Tangier, Morroco, in this thriller prepare for lush landscapes and lots of edge-of-your-seat suspense.

You’re the Only One I Can Tell, Deborah Tannen
Best friend, old friend, good friend, bff, college roommate, neighbor, workplace confidante: Women’s friendships are a lifeline in times of trouble and a support system for daily life. A friend can be like a sister, daughter, mother, mentor, therapist, or confessor—or she can be all of these at once. She’s seen you at your worst and celebrates you at your best. Figuring out what it means to be friends is, in the end, no less than figuring out how we connect to other people.

Idaho, Emily Ruskovich
“Ann and Wade have carved out a life for themselves from a rugged landscape in northern Idaho, where they are bound together by more than love. With her husband’s memory fading, Ann attempts to piece together the truth of what happened to Wade’s first wife, Jenny, and to their daughters. In a story written in exquisite prose and told from multiple perspectives—including Ann, Wade, and Jenny, now in prison—we gradually learn of the mysterious and shocking act that fractured Wade and Jenny’s lives, of the love and compassion that brought Ann and Wade together, and of the memories that reverberate through the lives of every character in Idaho.
In a wild emotional and physical landscape, Wade’s past becomes the center of Ann’s imagination, as Ann becomes determined to understand the family she never knew—and to take responsibility for them, reassembling their lives, and her own.”

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
Named one of the 10 best books of the year by the NYT and San Francisco Chronicle, this novel is about a young couple who live in an unnamed city undergoing a civil war and finally have to flee, using a system of fictitious doors that lead to different locations around the globe.

Sourdough, Robin Sloan
Robin Sloan’s latest is a beautiful, small, sweet, quiet book that takes a deep dive into the world of food, underground restaurants and markets, and the magic power of a good sourdough starter.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
The 30-year saga of the Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who is placed under house arrest inside the Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922 when the Bolsheviks spare him from death or Siberia because of his 1913 revolutionary poem written in university. The relationships he forms with staff and guests, his handling of twists of fate, his moral rectitude and his perseverance to go on in the face of his lifelong imprisonment for being a Former Person make for a compelling tale, told beautifully by Towles.

And the other nominees that all sounded amazing, too, but got cut in the first vote… 
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Operating Instructions, Anne Lammott

The Monk of Mokha, Dave Eggers

Text Me When You Get Home, Kayleen Schaefer

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening Manual, Manal Al-Sharif

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, Alice Waters

I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This, Nadja Spiegelman

My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout

Good as Gone, Amy Gentry

The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah

Dept. Of Speculation, Jenny Offill

Today Will Be Different, Maria Semple

Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel

Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Option B, Sheryl Sandberg

Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich

Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate

Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney

What Alice Forgot, Liane Moriarty

Catastrophic Happiness, Catherine Newman

Brunch is Hell, Brendan Francis Newnam and Rico Gagliano

[Photo by Emily Nathan/SOLAS; from our 5 Things Oakland travel guide]

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