The Best and the Worst Book Club Selections

October 31, 2016 Whitney Top Ten Tuesday 22 Comments


Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

Over the past 9 years I have been in several book groups and to be honest the majority of the selections were not to my taste. Just last month, I finally bowed out realizing that I should be reading books I actually want to read. For this Top Ten I decided to share the best and the worst book for discussion I’ve exhibited in the past ten years.

The Worst

The Best and the Worst Book Club SelectionsWench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

An ambitious and startling debut novel that follows the lives of four women at a resort popular among slaveholders who bring their enslaved mistresses

wench 'wench n. from Middle English "wenchel," 1 a: a girl, maid, young woman; a female child.

Tawawa House in many respects is like any other American resort before the Civil War. Situated in Ohio, this idyllic retreat is particularly nice in the summer when the Southern humidity is too much to bear. The main building, with its luxurious finishes, is loftier than the white cottages that flank it, but then again, the smaller structures are better positioned to catch any breeze that may come off the pond. And they provide more privacy, which best suits the needs of the Southern white men who vacation there every summer with their black, enslaved mistresses. It's their open secret.

Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet are regulars at Tawawa House. They have become friends over the years as they reunite and share developments in their own lives and on their respective plantations. They don't bother too much with questions of freedom, though the resort is situated in free territory–but when truth-telling Mawu comes to the resort and starts talking of running away, things change.

To run is to leave behind everything these women value most–friends and families still down South–and for some it also means escaping from the emotional and psychological bonds that bind them to their masters. When a fire on the resort sets off a string of tragedies, the women of Tawawa House soon learn that triumph and dehumanization are inseparable and that love exists even in the most inhuman, brutal of circumstances–all while they are bearing witness to the end of an era.
An engaging, page-turning, and wholly original novel, Wench explores, with an unflinching eye, the moral complexities of slavery.

Wench was a trashy version of Cane River, that mainly involved the slave holders taking their “Wenches” back to the cabin for anal. As a book the group gave this mixed reviews but as a discussion book, it was hard to come up with a topic that went further than the sexual aspect.

The Best and the Worst Book Club SelectionsFrench Lessons by Ellen Sussman

A single day in Paris changes the lives of three Americans as they each set off to explore the city with a French tutor, learning about language, love, and loss as their lives intersect in surprising ways.

Josie, Riley, and Jeremy have come to the City of Light for different reasons: Josie, a young high school teacher, arrives in hopes of healing a broken heart. Riley, a spirited but lonely expat housewife, struggles to feel connected to her husband and her new country. And Jeremy, the reserved husband of a renowned actress, is accompanying his wife on a film shoot, yet he feels distant from her world.

As they meet with their tutors—Josie with Nico, a sensitive poet; Riley with Phillippe, a shameless flirt; and Jeremy with the consummately beautiful Chantal—each succumbs to unexpected passion and unpredictable adventures. Yet as they traverse Paris’s grand boulevards and intimate, winding streets, they uncover surprising secrets about one another—and come to understand long-buried truths about themselves.

The group I was in had a bad habit of choosing books that tried to pass themselves off as literature. French Lessons was trying to be a sophisticated trip to France but the great part of the tour involved BJs. Disappointing to say the least.

The Best and the Worst Book Club SelectionsThe Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Hailed as “a classic. . . . humorous, full of warmth and real invention” (The New Yorker), this beloved story -first published more than fifty years ago- introduces readers to Milo and his adventures in the Lands Beyond.

For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only because he’s got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different. Milo visits the Island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason! Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it’s exciting beyond his wildest dreams. . . .

A member picked The Phantom Tollbooth due to her love for it as a child. I’m sure it was a very cute story to grow up with but unfortunately it did not make for enlightening adult conversation. The book is too simplistic to and not of the right reading level for adults who didnot read it as a child.

The Best and the Worst Book Club SelectionsMiddlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret, and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.

Our group read this at least 8 years before transgenders were a mainstream thing. It was just a very strange book, not because of the subject matter — we all found it thought-provoking but it was not very well written and went off on tangents about the protagnoists grandparents being cousins and thrir sex lives. There were too many sub-plots that seemed irrelevent to the story.

The Best and the Worst Book Club SelectionsCleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.

Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnet, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world.
She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and--after his murder--three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.
Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra's supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff's is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

Cleopatra took an interesting subject matter and turned it into a textbook. This made for a bad discussion because we had trouble keeping out eyes open.

The Best


The Best and the Worst Book Club SelectionsThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak

It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .

Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.
This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.

The Book Thief, while young adult is a very mature topic and led to lots of discussion and allowed members to get off topic while still on relevent issues.

The Best and the Worst Book Club SelectionsMudbound by Hillary Jordan

In Jordan's prize-winning debut, prejudice takes many forms, both subtle and brutal. It is 1946, and city-bred Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband's Mississippi Delta farm—a place she finds foreign and frightening. In the midst of the family's struggles, two young men return from the war to work the land. Jamie McAllan, Laura's brother-in-law, is everything her husband is not—charming, handsome, and haunted by his memories of combat. Ronsel Jackson, eldest son of the black sharecroppers who live on the McAllan farm, has come home with the shine of a war hero. But no matter his bravery in defense of his country, he is still considered less than a man in the Jim Crow South. It is the unlikely friendship of these brothers-in-arms that drives this powerful novel to its inexorable conclusion.
The men and women of each family relate their versions of events and we are drawn into their lives as they become players in a tragedy on the grandest scale. As Kingsolver says of Hillary Jordan, "Her characters walked straight out of 1940s Mississippi and into the part of my brain where sympathy and anger and love reside, leaving my heart racing. They are with me still.

Mudbound was a very disturbing novel that stayed with you and created a lively discussion, although while some people found it too depressing it created a good conversation starter

The Best and the Worst Book Club SelectionsPeony in Love by Lisa See

“I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn only regret.”

For young Peony, betrothed to a suitor she has never met, these lyrics from The Peony Pavilion mirror her own longings. In the garden of the Chen Family Villa, amid the scent of ginger, green tea, and jasmine, a small theatrical troupe is performing scenes from this epic opera, a live spectacle few females have ever seen. Like the heroine in the drama, Peony is the cloistered daughter of a wealthy family, trapped like a good-luck cricket in a bamboo-and-lacquer cage. Though raised to be obedient, Peony has dreams of her own.

Peony’s mother is against her daughter’s attending the production: “Unmarried girls should not be seen in public.” But Peony’s father assures his wife that proprieties will be maintained, and that the women will watch the opera from behind a screen. Yet through its cracks, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man with hair as black as a cave–and is immediately overcome with emotion.

So begins Peony’s unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow–as Lisa See’s haunting new novel, based on actual historical events, takes readers back to seventeenth-century China, after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed.
Steeped in traditions and ritual, this story brings to life another time and place–even the intricate realm of the afterworld, with its protocols, pathways, and stages of existence, a vividly imagined place where one’s soul is divided into three, ancestors offer guidance, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth. Immersed in the richness and magic of the Chinese vision of the afterlife, transcending even death, Peony in Love explores, beautifully, the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, Lisa See’s new novel addresses universal themes: the bonds of friendship, the power of words, and the age-old desire of women to be heard.

Lisa See is a very engaging writer with several persons being interested enough to research that time period and added a demension to the meeting.

The Best and the Worst Book Club SelectionsRoom by Emma Donoghue

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it's where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it's not enough...not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son's bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.
Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

Room is such an amazing book that tares your heart and left the group with a “wow” atmosphere. We all thought the voice of Jack was done well too. Also, due to the likes of Jaycee Dugard it created a sparking conversation.

The Best and the Worst Book Club SelectionsSarah's Key by Tatiana De Rosnay

Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

Paris, May 2002: On Vel' d'Hiv's 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.

Sarah’s Key was actually my first forray into book clubs and while like The Book Thief it is not as deep but is still incrediably heart-wrenching. What made this a good selection and set it apart from other books set in that era is that the majority of the group had not heard of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ and created a enlightening discussion.



22 responses to “The Best and the Worst Book Club Selections

  1. This is a great topic, and to be honest I’ve thought it would be fun to be in a book club, but there is always the question of- would I like the reads? So I can see your issue, definitely. The Phantom Tollbooth is certainly an interesting choice for an adult reading discussion! Sarah’s Key on the other hand sounds like a very compelling discussion starter.
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    • Book clubs can be really fun if you find the right group. What to read is the hardest question because you have to appease so many palates. Although don’t get me wrong they are great, and at the very least you discover new books you may have not tried otherwise.

    • Both Sarah’s Key and Mudbound were so disturbing and made me a little sick to my stomach at the horrificness of it. Sadly, “happy books” never have the same impact or ability to start a good book club discussion (in my opinion) and I have no idea why, perhaps there is just more depth to novels with tragedies.

    • Book clubs are without question all about the discussion.

      I had to use toothpicks to hold my eyes open when I read Cleopatra. I was sorely tempted to read her novel on the Salem witch trials but feared it would fall to the same fate so opted to pass instead.

  2. What a great way to address this week’s topic. It’s funny, but I’ve read all the books on your best list and loved them (especially The Book Thief), and the two I’ve read on your worst list, I also didn’t care for!

    • Room actually left me breathless. It such a deep topic but Emma Donoghue conquers it brillantly through the eyes of a child. I have to second your mother’s encouragement.

  3. I had not read any of your worsts except the Phantom Toll Booth, and coming to it as an adult on my own, I was, like you, not particularly impressed.
    Would you believe I have read and loved all of your bests except the Hillary Jordan one (She is a new author to me.), so I quickly copied the title and the author.
    My we think alike. No wonder I enjoy your reviews and think them “spot on.”
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    • Mudbound is incredible however, you have to prepare for your heart to be ripped for a tragic conclusion. Hillary Jordan also wrote When She Woke, a futureistic political novel inspired by The Scarlet Letter which I thought was just as good if not better.

      The Phantom Tollbooth isn’t the right fit for an adult book group. I’m sure the word play was clever as a child (the person who picked it claimed it as her favorite childhood book) although, as an adult it just didn’t translate for a cross-over. Juster’s book was a little too Doctor Seuss for me.

      Also, thank you so much for the compliment on my reviews, it is nice to hear. I think we have similar tastes as well and it is wonderful to converse with like-minded people.

        • I have Vinegar Girl waiting patiently on audio. I hope to get to it before the end of the year but I’m not sure if that will happen, too many books too little time…

    • Middlesex was great for discussion but the relationship between her grandparents was a little too out there for me. The Book Thief is wonderful I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  4. My favorites for a book club are The Book Thief and Sarah’s Key. We did the latter for PWR, our on-line book club. We also have a copy were passing around. I would love people to realize that sometimes YA novels speak to us all. Deb at Readerbuzz had our Third Tuesday Book Club do Wonder, a book that is near to my heart, even now.
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    • I think young adult books are a little underappreciated in book clubs. There are some really great cross-overs. Although, I think The Phantom Tollbooth proves that isn’t always the case either. I have Wonder on my kindle, the synopsis has such a universal message — acceptance and being treated fairly.

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