JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.
New Year, new book club list. Whether your book group has been meeting for 10 years or 10 months; whether they like a quick, fun read or maybe some mental gymnastics, we thought we'd help kick-start your book selection for 2011.
Joining us is Lynn Neary. She covers books and publishing for NPR.
LYNN NEARY: Hi. Good to be here.
LUDDEN: So you have a list. You whittled it down to five top picks. How did you do that?
NEARY: Well, to begin with, I decided to do this list of books for book clubs because I didn't like the idea of choosing the best books of the year. There are so many books out there. And no matter how much I read, I know I haven't read all of them.
And my first book that I picked - I think every book club should read a book that is a big novel that you can kind of fall into. And this year, my pick for that was "Parrot and Olivier in America," by Peter Carey.
This is a novel that's based on de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" -loosely based on that, let's say. It's really about the journey, and the character of Olivier is based on Tocqueville, and his companion is Parrot. And they're very unlikely companions. They're like "The Odd Couple." And they're very funny and very endearing characters, especially - I would say - Parrot. Also, a very interesting take on American history.
Also, another historical novel that I liked - and this is one that I thought is the kind of book that, I think, gets overlooked sometimes. And so I wanted to include one of those books on the list. It's called "Wench," by Dolen Perkins Valdez. And this story takes place mostly in a resort in Ohio, where the slaveowners take their mistresses for vacation.
Just the idea of what that means for the slaves, because they're so close to freedom. So what...
LUDDEN: Up there in the North.
NEARY: Yes, and the problems that it causes because in fact, one of these young women, in fact, sees this as an opportunity for escape.
LUDDEN: Wow. So two historical novels. What else is on your list?
NEARY: Well, I chose a crime novel. And I'm not the kind of person, I'm not a big crime novel reader at all. So I chose a crime novel that is for people who maybe don't read crime novels all the time, but I think also would appeal to people who love crime novels. And that is "Faithful Place," by Tana French.
She is an Irish writer. And the device that she uses, instead of focusing on one detective in each story, she focuses on the Dublin Murder Squad. And each of her books - she's done three so far - has taken one member of the Dublin Murder Squad and focused a story on them.
So this one is Detective Frank Mackey, and he goes back to his old neighborhood to investigate a crime and gets embroiled in - with his family, who he thought he had left behind forever. And this is the story - as much about a dysfunctional family as it is about crime.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: Which, I think people always like to discuss dysfunctional families.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: So that's my crime novel choice.
LUDDEN: All right, and the others?
NEARY: And then I also think that like a lot of times - I don't know if you find this, Jennifer; I know you're in a book club - that sometimes you just want a pretty quick read.
LUDDEN: So we hit that patch. Yes, absolutely.
NEARY: Sometimes you've read a big, heavy thing and then people say: What can we read that won't be that hard to read?
So I chose for that "The Imperfectionists," which I think was a very easy read. These are linked short stories, which is a kind of genre that I really, actually, like - "Olive Kitteridge," for example, which is a very popular book right now in paperback. And I know a lot of book clubs have read "Olive Kitteridge." It has that same linked, short stories kind of feel to it.
And it's about a newspaper based in Rome - an American newspaper based in Rome. And each story focuses on a different member of the newsroom, a different person who works for this paper. And in hearing their life story - their story - you hear the life of the newspaper. You read about the life of the newspaper.
It's funny in moments, and it's very touching at moments as well.
And then the last one is "Sunset Park," by Paul Auster. And of course, he's a very well-known author. I think a lot of times, book clubs do like to pick up on a book - a new book - by a pretty well-known author.
What Paul Auster does in "Sunset Park" that I think is interesting is, it's kind of a meditation on what home means and what it means to be homeless, what it means to come home after you've been in self-imposed exile. And he sets up, in a very - sort of gentle way, the backdrop of what's really going in this country around housing and the housing crisis.
LUDDEN: Is it set in contemporary times, then...
NEARY: Yes, it is.
LUDDEN: ...since 2008?
NEARY: It's set in contemporary times. It is not about the housing crisis - I don't want to lead people astray - but he sets that up as the backdrop for this story about what home means.
LUDDEN: So there are so many groups out there recommending book club books. I mean, it feels like, you know, publishers must - and bookstores must really be counting on this whole genre it's become.
NEARY: I think it has become something of an industry. And yes, publishers -when you get press releases from publishers on different books, they might even say, this is a great book club pick. And sometimes, I think they have almost stereotyped a certain kind of book that they think book clubs might like - very often. Because I think they think of book clubs as being mostly women, and I think that's a possibility that they are. "The Help" might be an example of that, which has been a perennial best-seller now for a couple of years. And I think, probably, a lot of book clubs are picking up on "The Help."
LUDDEN: A very fun read.
NEARY: Yeah, it is. It is a good read. But also authors - and some self-published authors, even - are picking up on this phenomenon. And they're seeking out book clubs, and going and speaking to book clubs, as a way to sell their books.
As a matter of fact, Paul Harding, who wrote "Tinkers," which won the Pulitzer Prize last year, when I interviewed him, he told me that he got the buzz going on that book by going to book clubs and...
NEARY: Yeah. Mm-hmm. And eventually, the buzz got loud enough that the Pulitzer Prize committee heard about it. So now, he's got a best-seller on his hands.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LUDDEN: So Lynn, has your book club made some picks for the coming year?
NEARY: Yes, and one of the books that we're going to read early in the year is a book that's gotten a whole lot of attention this past year, and that is "Freedom," by Jonathan Franzen. And I have to tell you, it was a controversial pick because some people just felt like they'd heard too much about it. Some people are not crazy about Jonathan Franzen. But I think in the end, the group decided we have heard so much about it, let's read it, and let's decide for ourselves what this - whether this is a good book or not.
LUDDEN: All right. Well, thank you so much for all your tips.
NPR's Lynn Leary.
NEARY: Good to be here.