I joined a second book club in 2018, so I’m sharing the books both clubs read, month by month. Check them out. You might find a few to be of interest. At the bottom of the article, you’ll find links to the books my original book club read in 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. (Yeah, I slacked off for a couple of years.)
January—Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury’s internationally acclaimed novel Fahrenheit 451 is a masterwork of twentieth-century literature set in a bleak, dystopian future. Guy Montag is a fireman. In his world, where television rules and literature is on the brink of extinction, firemen start fires rather than put them out. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden.
February—The Winter of Our Discontent (Penguin Classics). Ethan Allen Hawley, the protagonist of John Steinbeck’s last novel, works as a clerk in a grocery store that his family once owned. With Ethan no longer a member of Long Island’s aristocratic class, his wife is restless, and his teenage children are hungry for the tantalizing material comforts he cannot provide. Then one day, in a moment of moral crisis, Ethan decides to take a holiday from his own scrupulous standards.
March—City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles. In a vivid narrative, Jerald Podair tells how Los Angeles was convulsed between 1957 and 1962 over whether, where, and how to build Dodger Stadium. Competing civic visions clashed. Would Los Angeles be a decentralized, low-tax city of neighborhoods, as demanded by middle-class whites on its peripheries? Or would the baseball park be the first contribution to a revitalized downtown that would brand Los Angeles as a national and global city, as advocated by leaders in business, media, and entertainment?
The Locals: A Novel. Jonathan Dee’s book, set in a small town in Massachusetts’s Berkshires region, is a story about the life of local townspeople and an outsider from New York City who settles in the town. He is a rich man, gets elected as the first selectman due to town apathy, and bails the town out of its debts. Some of the locals appreciate his efforts while others oppose him, realizing they are losing their voice in governing and having their say in the local laws.
April—A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel. Amor Towles’s novel is set in 1922. Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.
A Tale of Love and Darkness. Amos Oz’s book is the story of a boy who grows up in war-torn Jerusalem, in a small apartment crowded with books in twelve languages and relatives speaking nearly as many. As an adolescent, his life is changed forever by his mother’s suicide. As a man, he leaves the constraints of his family and community to join a kibbutz. As a writer, he becomes an active participant in the political life of his nation.
May—The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine. Historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery and shows how it was transformed by advances made in germ theory and antiseptics between 1860 and 1875. She conjures up early operating theaters—no place for the squeamish—and surgeons, who, working before anesthesia, were lauded for their speed and brute strength. At a time when surgery couldn’t have been more hazardous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon named Joseph Lister who would change the course of history.
The Philosopher’s Flight: A Novel (The Philosophers Series). Tom Miller invents an early 20th century world where magic (of a sort) works (but is still feared by many). He weaves that element into a sort of suffragette novel, even though the protagonist is a man (and a good character in his own right). Since the “magic” is seen as something exclusively belonging to women, the hero suffers a large amount of prejudice trying to join their ranks, both from the outraged women themselves and from men who can’t understand why he would turn his back on “manly” pursuits.
June—The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Mohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, explores the story of Changez, a young Pakistani. Educated at Princeton, employed by a first-rate valuation firm, Changez was living the American dream, earning more money than he thought possible, caught up in the New York social scene and in love with a beautiful, wealthy, damaged girl. Changez is in Manila on 9/11 and sees the towers come down on TV. He tells the American, “…I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased… ” When he returns to New York, there is a palpable change in attitudes toward him, starting right at immigration. His name and his face render him suspect. Eventually, his work and the money he earns are overtaken by resentment of the United States and all it stands for.
We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Bobiverse) (Volume 1). In Dennis E. Taylor’s novel, Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. So it’s a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street. Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he’ll be switched off, and they’ll try again with someone else. If he accepts, he becomes a prime target. There are at least three other countries trying to get their own probes launched first, and they play dirty. The safest place for Bob is in space, heading away from Earth at top speed. Or so he thinks. Because the universe is full of nasties, and trespassers make them mad — very mad.
July—The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family’s Search for the American Dream. Bryan Mealer’s book is a masterwork of memoir and narrative history, an indelible portrait of fortune and ruin as big as Texas itself. In telling the story of four generations of his family, Mealer also tells the story of how America came to be.
The Last Days of Night: A Novel. Graham Moore, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game and New York Times bestselling author of The Sherlockian, offers a thrilling novel—based on actual events—about the nature of genius, the cost of ambition, and the battle to electrify America. Moore tells the story of the relationships between George Westinghouse; Nikola Tesla; Thomas Edison; Westinghouse’s lawyer, Paul Cravath; J. P. Morgan; and a host of New York socialites, mega-wealthy business men and politicians. (Note: Both book clubs read this book.)
August—Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. John Carreyrou uncovered the colossal scandal surrounding Theranos, a Silicon Valley startup that lied its way to a valuation of more than $9 billion before crashing to the ground. This is a riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a tale of ambition and hubris set amid the bold promises of Silicon Valley.
There There: A novel. Native American Tommy Orange’s debut novel takes place mainly in Oakland, California, which Gertrude Stein famously described with these words: “There is no there, there.” Set among the Native American population of Oakland, the book does not shrink from descriptions of addiction, crime, suicide and family desertion. The book is divided into four parts, and some 30 chapters, each chapter named for one of the characters: Tony Loneman, Dene Oxendene, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, Jacquie Red Feather et al. At first the characters seem disconnected, but eventually you realize that they all have some connection to the forthcoming Great Powwow, to be held in the Oakland Coliseum. Some of these characters are part of the planning of the event, one has actually been hired to be the Master of Ceremony, one intends to set up a booth recording personal histories on tape, one plans to fly a drone into the Coliseum, one hopes to win prizes for dancing and drumming, and a gang of them intend to rob the place at gunpoint to pay off a drug debt.
September—Last Days of Night for one book club. The other skipped a month.
October—Leonardo da Vinci. In Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson describes how Leonardo’s delight at combining diverse passions remains the ultimate recipe for creativity. So, too, does his ease at being a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical. His life should remind us of the importance to be imaginative and, like talented rebels in any era, to think differently.
Educated: A Memoir. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Her family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent. When another brother got himself into college, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.
November—Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde & Other Stories (Trade) (03) by Stevenson, Robert Louis [Paperback (2004)]. The Halloween season inspired us to read this collection of Stevenson stories. If you’ve seen a movie version of Jekyll and Hyde, prepare yourself for a story more nuanced and complex than what you’ve seen. A delightful read, and Stevenson shows himself in this collection to be a strong writer of short stories.
The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Former economic hit man John Perkins, working to further US interests, shares details about the ways he and others cheated countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. Then he reveals how the deadly economic hit man cancer he helped create has spread far more widely and deeply than ever in the US and everywhere else—to become the dominant system of business, government, and society today. Finally, he gives an insider view of what we each can do to change it.
December— In a Free State: A Novel. No writer has rendered our post-colonial world more acutely or prophetically than V. S. Naipaul, or given its upheavals such a hauntingly human face. A perfect case in point is this riveting novel, a masterful and stylishly rendered narrative of emigration, dislocation, and dread, accompanied by four supporting narratives.
Lake Success: A Novel. Author Gary Shteyngart introduces us to Barry Cohen, a narcissistic, hilariously self-deluded hedge-fund manager who is divorced from the real world as most of us know it. He oversees $2.4 billion in assets. Deeply stressed by an SEC investigation and by his three-year-old son’s diagnosis of autism, he flees New York on a Greyhound bus in search of a simpler, more romantic life with his old college sweetheart. Meanwhile, his super-smart wife, Seema—a driven first-generation American who craved the picture-perfect life that comes with wealth—has her own demons to face. How these two flawed characters navigate the chaos of their own making is at the heart of this piercing exploration of the 0.1 Percent, a poignant tale of familial longing and an unsentimental ode to what really makes America great.