Real Simple readers share favorite reads.
Speaking in Tongues
Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris. Our book club consisted of military wives all stationed overseas. We related to Sedaris's struggles to learn a foreign language and converse with the locals. We each had our own moments of "What the heck did I just say?" so it really helped with our struggle to adapt to a foreign country.
Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. The easy storytelling and unique setting reminded me of the books I used to devour on summer evenings. Who didn’t think about joining the circus as a kid?”
Middletown, New Jersey
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. On page one, you find out that a clique of college students at a small Ivy League university has murdered a member of the group. The rest of this engrossing read, narrated by one of the murderers, reveals why and how they did it. This is the only book I started reading all over again immediately after I had finished it. (I then gave it to my husband and read it over his shoulder.)
Julie van der Zeeuw
I would have to say Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre. Nobody finished it, and hardly anyone liked it, but in 12 years of book-club meetings, it actually inspired one of the best discussions we’ve ever had.
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore―I’ve never ever laughed so hard, out loud, reading a book before. Even after we had read the book and discussed it, passages would come to mind and I would just burst into laughter, much to the chagrin of my 13-year-old daughter.
The BFG, by Roald Dahl. My “book club” (my boys, ages five and seven) would meet each night eager to discuss the hilarious effects of “whizzpoppers” or their distaste for “snozzcumbers.” In fact, the story was so captivating that my book club would also meet at the breakfast table to reflect on the horrific “Fleshlumpeater” or to discuss whether we might actually meet the queen of England.
Kamloops, British Columbia
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Some hated it, others loved it, but we were all affected by it in some way. Its story of nuclear devastation and the end of the world as we know it made us think about what we would do and what we might be capable of doing. The ending made us wonder if there was a glimmer of hope. Of all the books we’ve read, this one caused the most intense discussions before, during, and even after our official meetings.
South Haven, Michigan
Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, had a profound effect on me. I have always felt that war is not the answer, and this book made that point perfectly clear. Imagine trying to bring about change through education, specifically the education of girls. What a wonderfully novel concept.
Same Kind of Different as Me, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. The real-life story of a husband and wife and their relationship with a homeless man touched each of us in a lasting way. Our only regret is that the book didn’t have a “Do not read in public” label―most of us were brought to tears as we read, usually in inconvenient places, like an airplane seat or the deck of a pool.
A great read for the book club doesn’t necessarily mean I will like it on a personal level. Little Heathens, by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, won’t make my top 10 anytime soon, but the author’s simple, sometimes harsh, sometimes humorous descriptions provoked deep discussions in our group. We’ve learned to value books that engage us on emotional levels, not just books that find a place on our bedside tables.
Ghost Story, by Peter Straub. I couldn’t put it down. Read it in one day. Told my husband, “No dinner tonight―help yourself to whatever. I’m busy. And could you please take care of our daughter until I climb out of this book?”
The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. It wasn’t that everyone loved the book (in fact, some people had a hard time with it and others didn’t quite understand it), but everyone had something to say. And by the end we had all discovered something new that we hadn’t necessarily “caught” while reading it ourselves. Even those who didn’t particularly care for it admitted that they were still thinking about it days after.
None of us knew what we were getting into when we read Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn, but we all experienced the insanity together and are better for it. There’s nothing like incestuous carnies to get the conversations rolling.
A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. It’s a book about everything we thought we already knew regarding U.S. history―and the shocking truths and findings that we were not taught in school.
North Kingstown, Rhode Island
The Quality of Life Report, by Meghan Daum. For anyone who has ever wanted to slow things down (waaay down) from fast-paced city life and has wondered what things would be like in Middle America, without rush-hour traffic commutes and shark hunting for parking spaces, this is the book. It’s also great for those living in small-town America to see just how appealing their life can be to city women.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. My friends from book club and I were all living in New York at the time, and the book, which is about a little boy who lost his father on September 11, opened up an avenue for us to talk and reflect on an event that had forever changed our lives.
Brooklyn, New York
My book club has been meeting once a week for four years―and we’ve been reading the same book. It’s full of murder, mystery, lust, hate, love, trust, jealousy, power struggles, hope, forgiveness, and advice on life and death. Our book? The Bible.
The Woodlands, Texas
A club member recommended the graphic novel Maus, by Art Speigelman, and it really opened our eyes and hearts to the horrors of the Holocaust.
Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, was our best book-club pick. I never imagined reading something written by an economist. I usually have a hard time reading nonfiction, but I raced through this book in two days. Most of all, I appreciated how I grew as a reader.
Although we usually read fiction, the choice of this book was unanimous, which had never happened before: Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. The writing is incredibly engaging, and the book is thought provoking to say the least. It allowed us to let down our guard and talk about more intimate topics, such as politics and religion, than we would normally have done.
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. This novel tells a story of a group of very different people from different walks of life who are thrown together under difficult circumstances (held hostage by terrorists). Despite the adversity they all experience, the situation brings out the best in each person. It’s a story of how friendship and love evolve in the most unusual of settings―a real inspiration when discussed in the context of today’s chaotic world.
Hartsville, South Carolina
My book club loved the wonderfully developed Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl. The title alone had us talking for hours. The bourbon we sipped helped, too.
Blindness, by Jose Saramago, sparked so much discussion of so many topics, including Saramago’s style of writing, government response to disaster, and even a comparison to Camus. As a bunch of 40-something professional women living in New York City, we usually have wildly varying strong opinions about whatever we read―love it or hate it. This was the first (and last) book we read that everyone liked―for wildly different reasons, of course.
New York, New York
A favorite read of my culinary book club was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. It truly made us think about the processed foods we consume and how we can better support local food producers.
My mom, my sisters, my nieces, and I started the Three Generations Book Club. The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan, about survivors of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, was the best book because my mom grew up during the Depression and shared her insights.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel. We sat on our host’s porch as a storm rolled in. We felt rain on our faces, heard thunder, and then ate cookies by candlelight. The book is about senses, and all of ours were touched that night.
Looking for more book suggestions? Check out The No-Obligation Book Club.