Conversation Starters: 2011's Top 5 Book Club Picks

Illustration: Best Book Club Books
Priscilla Nielsen for NPR

From what I know of book clubs, I would wager that no two are exactly alike. There are the groups who take their books very seriously and frown on regulars who have failed to read that month's selection. Then there are the ones where members might be more interested in sharing the latest gossip than discussing the book.

Still, people who join book clubs usually do like to read, and they are always looking for that perfect book that will please everyone or, at the very least, get both the very rigorous and the somewhat frivolous on the same page. Here are five fascinating books that will be sure to catalyze serious and lively conversation.

State of Wonder

by Ann Patchett

Hardcover, 353 pages, HarperCollins, $26.99, published June 7 2011 | purchase

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In her latest novel, Ann Patchett, author of the beloved Bel Canto, takes her readers down the Amazon and deep into the rain forest in a book that is part adventure story, part morality tale. Marina Singh, a research scientist at a pharmaceutical company, sets out for the Amazon to investigate the sudden death of her colleague Anders Ekman, who had been working with the eccentric scientist Dr. Annick Swenson. Marina has her own past with Dr. Swenson, who (unknowingly) had a profound effect on Marina's career and life. If intimidated by the brilliant Swenson, Marina is nonetheless determined to uncover the true nature of the doctor's research into female reproduction — and the longer Marina stays, the more she falls under the spell of the rain forest and its people.

This book may be on a lot of book club lists already — but with good reason. Dr. Swenson, who has probably been in the rain forest just a little too long, is pushing the ethical boundaries of science with her research. The moral questions that Patchett raises, the revelations about the research that seep out gradually, the relationship between these two women, the choices they make, and the ramifications of those choices are ripe for endless discussion and debate. Combine that with Patchett's vivid and voluptuous descriptions of the mystery, beauty and dangers of the rain forest, and you have a practically perfect book club book.

The Sense Of An Ending

by Julian Barnes

Hardcover, 150 pages, Random House Inc, $23.95, published October 5 2011 | purchase

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This is a book that reveals itself gradually. You think you know what it's about, only to realize you've been mistaken — just like the narrator. What's curious is that you'd think he would know. After all, it's his life you're reading about. The narrator, Tony Webster, has led an ordinary life. He had a group of friends back in his school days who seemed to mean a lot to him. And he had a serious girlfriend while in university. But he moved on, got married, had a child. Now divorced, he's on good terms with both his wife and daughter. Suddenly, an unexpected inheritance forces him to reinvestigate his life. Along the way he finds that his memory has betrayed him. Or did he simply fail to remember what he wanted to forget?

"Did you read this book?" my friend asked. "I can't stop thinking about it." That about sums it up. The Sense of an Ending is the kind of book that when you finish, you want to read again just to sort out what clues you missed the first time around. And it makes you think: If one man can get his life so wrong, can shape his memories to fit his own self-satisfied image of himself, doesn't that open the possibility that we all do the same thing to some degree? Oh, this is a great book to talk about.

We The Animals

A Novel

by Justin Torres

Hardcover, 128 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18, published August 30 2011 | purchase

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This novella is a work of fiction based on the author's own childhood. The animals of the title are three brothers, wild and funny, rude and uncontrollable. Trying to control them is their mother who was much too young when she first gave birth and is now too overworked and tired to care for them. She is a white girl from Brooklyn; their father is a Puerto Rican who tends to disappear and keeps his family on edge with his terrible rages and unpredictable actions. They live in upstate New York where the parents eke out a hard living. This is a family on the edge, and Torres is unflinching in his depiction of unforgivable anger and violence. Yet somehow he manages to create a family that is also filled with passionate loyalty and fierce love.

Don't let the brevity of this book fool you. It is dense with emotion and filled with wonderfully written stories that delight one moment and terrify the next. To me, this work of fiction is more revealing and truthful than any of the hundreds of memoirs that have been written about abusive parents and dysfunctional families. In fiction, it seems, Torres has been able to transcend the facts of a family where kids go hungry, mothers succumb to depression and fathers disappear. From the pain that can't be conveyed by a mere recitation of those facts, he has created something beautiful. Writing, like love, does have redemptive power after all.

Caleb's Crossing

by Geraldine Brooks

Hardcover, 306 pages, Penguin Group USA, $26.95, published May 3 2011 | purchase

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In Caleb's Crossing, Geraldine Brooks has created a lovely heroine in Bethia Mayfield, a young girl living on Martha's Vineyard in colonial times. Bethia longs to break free of the restrictions of her strict Puritan community. Smarter than her older brother, who is destined to get the education she wants and deserves, Bethia finds comfort in exploring the wilds of the island with a young Native American named Caleb. It is a secret friendship and remains so, even as the two end up in Cambridge: Caleb to study at Harvard, Bethia as an indentured servant who takes care of the students.

When I first heard about this book, I wasn't sure I wanted to read it. I knew it was about the the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. That sounded pretty academic to me, not to mention elitist and politically correct. But it is by Geraldine Brooks, a writer I admire. So I plunged ahead and was quite delighted to get swept up in the kind of story I loved as a kid: a headstrong, rebellious young girl in a wild, untamed place defies all the rules and finds love. Actually, scratch that last part. This is a book for grown-ups written by Geraldine Brooks, who not only respects history, she loves it. So while she sets up a story that's easy to fall into, she doesn't shy away from the realities of those times. And Bethia and Caleb's lives take some unexpected turns. The result is a satisfying but sobering look at the early days of this country. This is a great pick for lovers of historical fiction.

The Sojourn

by Andrew Krivak

Paperback, 191 pages, Consortium Book Sales & Dist, $14.95, published April 19 2011 | purchase

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This is the story of Jozef Vinich, a young Slovak shepherd who was born in America but returned as baby to his father's homeland in rural Austria-Hungary. Jozef's life as a shepherd is interrupted by World War I. He is trained as a sniper, a deadly talent that brings him face to face with the worst that war has to offer. Eventually he is forced to fight the war in the trenches along with the rest of the infantry. Bedraggled and disillusioned, he is taken prisoner and wants nothing more than to get home. And you don't need to know history to know that the home Jozef returns to will never be the same.

This book begins with the death of a character I really wanted to get to know better. That was only the first of many moments that came as a shock yet kept me wanting more. Andrew Krivak, nominated for a National Book Award for The Sojourn, has created a gripping and harrowing war story that has the feel of a classic. Jozef evolves convincingly from an eager young soldier indifferent to the lives he takes, to a wreck of a man who fully understands all that has been lost in the endless fighting. Like all classic war stories, this one can't help but make you wonder about the futility of war and the devastation it leaves in its path.

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