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Books for a Book Club

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Oct 07, 2015
Category: Fiction

A book club asked me to help them choose between “The Goldfinch” (771 pages), “All the Light We Cannot See” (551 pages) and “Go Set a Watchman” (a rejected first draft) — three books that could kill any group.

I sent along a year’s worth of what I’d call better suggestions. Now, as a public service, I’m sharing the list with you.

You’ll see very few “recent” books here. That’s because 1) I haven’t liked the ones I’m supposed to like. 2) Because almost everything ever published is available, I don’t feel constrained to choose new books. As I’ve written: “If it’s new to you, it’s new.”

Some other biases: l) For book clubs, I weigh heavily toward fiction. 2) For book clubs, I energetically oppose books over 350 pages. Because they just don’t get read.

Here you go.

Alice Munro: Dear Life
When I love a book, I like to say that I started reading and didn’t stop until I was done. Not with these stories. You can’t. One a day is a full meal, and then you have to go away and process it. Because these aren’t really stories — they’re compressed novels, entire lives told in 30 pages. Others writers do something like this, but I can’t think of another who does it within the apparent frame of a traditionally told story.

James Salter: Last Night
Some find Salter’s writing overly mannered. Yes, there are crumpled napkins on tables uncleared from last night’s dinner party: “glasses still with dark remnant on them, coffee stains, and plates with bits of hardened Brie.” Privileged women pine for love — or sex. At a man’s funeral, there are women the widow has never seen before. A married man is having an affair with a male friend. A hill is made from a pile of junked cars. A romantic opportunity is missed. 132 pages. Ten stories. They may read like trifles, like exercises, like parlor tricks — but you can’t forget them. Could it be because they are small masterpieces?

Denis Johnson: Jesus’ Son
One of the ten funniest books I’ve ever read. A guy has a knife stuck in his eye; a drugged-out hospital orderly saves him without quite knowing what he’s done. Another guy gets shot in a farmhouse, for no reason. A third guy overdoses. Prison looms for everyone. You sputter: This is a bummer. Indeed it is. And if you think heroin addiction is tawdry (and it is, it is) and the people who use hard drugs are losers (and they are, they are) and there is Nothing Funny about an overdose, then these eleven stories are so not for you.

Somerset Maugham: Cakes & Ale
It’s been fashionable for decades to dismiss Maugham as a mere storyteller, as if the ability to tell stories is a second-rate gift. But unless you are a snootball critic, stories are what you read fiction for. In “Cakes and Ale,” Maugham juggles half a dozen characters without breaking a sweat. The novel seems formless and weightless, a tale told by a friend over drinks. You cannot imagine how hard it is to do this. Of all his books, Maugham considered “Cakes and Ale” his favorite. Read it and you’ll see why.

Alison Jean Lester: Lillian on Life
The most enjoyable novel I’ve read this year begins like this: “Whenever I wake up next to a man, before I’m fully awake, I think it’s Ted. Of course it never is.” Ted’s absence isn’t cause for regret or nostalgia, it’s just a fact of life. Lillian has no bandwidth for weepy emotions. At 57, she’s alone. And she doesn’t have much interest in figuring out how it worked out like that. That refusal to tell her story in beautifully crafted prose or as an indictment of some societal wrong is the welcome surprise and great strength of Alison Jean Lester’s novel.

Jesse Walter: Beautiful Ruins
What’s it about? Italy in the 1960s, Hollywood in the 1960s, Hollywood now, World War II, the set of “Cleopatra,” the Donner party, Seattle, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Idaho — but this long list is scaring you, yes? If the locations aren’t daunting, the massive cast might make you nervous: the proprietor of “The Hotel Adequate View,” a six-room, three-table nothing of a resort in an Italian coastal town only accessible by boat, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, a Hollywood publicist turned producer, a novelist who can’t get beyond the first chapter, an unproduced screenwriter, a singer-comic, an assistant film executive whose boyfriend can be found at strip clubs, and — I almost forgot — the woman who seems to be at the center of all this, a young American actress named Dee Moray, who was briefly in “Cleopatra” and has come to this nowhere hotel because she’s been told she’s dying of cancer.

Guy de Maupassant: Bel-Ami
In the 1870s, de Maupassant contracted syphilis; by the 1880s, as he was writing “Bel-Ami,” he knew he was doomed. So he poured everything into this book about a man who rises to the top through the women who love him. Caution: This novel contains some of the hottest romantic scenes in 19th century fiction.

Jesse Kornbluth: Married Sex: A Love Story
Only because the NY Times loved it.

Michael Arlen: Exiles
Michael Arlen — author of a novel called “The Green Hat” — was more successful than his friends F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. But Michael Arlen isn’t who he looks like; he was born Dikran Kouyoumdjian, an Armenian. In London, he won’t fit in. Ditto in New York and the South of France. And his wife isn’t exactly who she looks like either. Exiles. So their son, Michael J. Arlen, thinks of them. Exiles? How can that be — they had it all.

J.H Moehringer: The Tender Bar
His father, a noted disc jockey, was out of his mother’s life before J.R. was old enough to remember that he was ever around. (“My father was a man of many talents, but his one true genius was disappearing.”) His mother, suddenly poor, moves into her family’s house in Manhasset, Long Island. In that house: J.R.’s mother, grandmother, aunt and five female cousins. Also in that house: Uncle Charlie, a bartender at Dickens, a Manhasset establishment beloved by locals who appreciate liquor in quantity — “every third drink free” — and strong opinions, served with a twist. A boy needs a father. If he doesn’t have one, he needs some kind of man in his life. Or men, because it can indeed take a village.

Mary Karr: Lit
She married a tall, Harvard-educated poet. They had a son, and, right there, when it looked as if she had everything, she started downing a bottle of Jack Daniels a day. It wasn’t as if she didn’t recognize the trouble she was in. Alcohol flowed through her family history — her father, she’s written, could start a fight sitting alone on the front porch. But she was desperately afraid her husband would divorce her and win custody of their son. “Lit” is about many things: the resolution of her relationship with her mother and father, her struggle for recognition as a writer, her inability to unfreeze her marriage. But mostly it’s about alcohol and faith — about an intellectually arrogant woman who’s too proud to surrender and too smart to believe. In the last half of her book, she does both.

Alan Furst: The Foreign Correspondent
Furst is a master of a genre that is pretty much his own invention: historical fiction set in a thriller frame. This time out, the main character is Carlo Weisz, who has fled his native Trieste and is now a reporter for Reuters in Paris. He’s also on the editorial board of Liberazione, a Resistance newspaper edited in Paris and distributed in Italy. In the beginning of the book, the head of the paper is assassinated; Weisz is his logical successor.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World & Me
His book is a 155-page letter to his teenaged son, “Here is what I would like for you to know,” he writes. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” If he’s obsessed with the body — especially the bodies of black men — it’s not only because he’s been reading history ever since he went to Howard University, but because the vulnerability of his own body is the first life lesson he learned as a kid growing up in Baltimore.


This may also be useful in the future: my 100 favorites The 100 Essentials
You’ll see some “classics” here, but not because I want you to care about the kind of culture you were assigned in school — for me, a classic is a bestseller that never stopped selling. There are no “political” books. There are oddball choices, like a book about Buddhism by a surfer and a memoir by a man who sells Birkin bags without, as Hermès does, making you wait as long as a year. There are glaring omissions — no Rolling Stones, no Beatles — and only one Dylan record, and the Dylan CD isn’t one of his acknowledged masterpieces.