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The best discussions of 2011

The majority of my reading during a year is for book groups. I manage three regularly scheduled groups and guest facilitate for community groups, local businesses and area libraries whenever asked. As Mary K. Chelton likes to say, “Have mouth, will speak.” I’ll add this addendum, “Have eyes, will read.”

At the end of each year, I review my log and I pull out the few titles I managed to read between book group discussions for the annual favorites list. But as I peruse the list, I also pull out those books that produced the most lively, engaging, and insightful conversation. As usual, it’s always a surprise. Some of the books that I thought would resonate with the groups fell flat, and others that seemed less appealing had readers closely examining the characters, themes, and their own opinions. Of course, these make for the best and most memorable discussions.

Here’s a list of what got the tongues wagging in Kansas City Public Library’s book discussions.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood—this dystopian futuristic novel was tied into the KCPL Winter Reading Program theme Altered States. It also drew in some new readers and generated a great deal of talk about relationships, reproductive rights, and government control of society.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke—as Neil stated, if you want the group to read a hefty tome, start them early. I gave out this lush fantasy novel two months before discussion and almost all of the group finished it. Readers enjoyed the complex story and the marvelous world building best of all. At least half were not too happy with the ending, but all agreed it was satisfactory.

Paper Moon by Joe David Brown—I did a Read It/Watch It program with this novel set in Depression Era Kansas for the Bonner Springs Library’s celebration of the state of Kansas’s sesquicentennial anniversary of entering the union. The movie and novel are very different and attendees liked discussing the themes of family, loyalty, and truth.

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor—This is one of those books I thought would fail and the crowd went wild. A slim memoir of a neuroscientist’s experience with stroke and the recovery process turned out to be more than a journey through the medical and insurance field. It became a heartwarming story of a mother’s love for a daughter and an inspiring tale of overcoming negative thoughts.

So Much for That by Lionel Shriver—I followed up the previous title with this one and reactions were decidedly different. It actually made for a nice pairing. Readers did not find any of the characters likeable but did feel their situations were realistic. All attendees had their own medical insurance horror stories to connect to the central story line. Conversation concluded with most of the readers stating that while they didn’t like this book, all were glad they’d read it and appreciated it more after the discussion.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot—if it looks like there was a theme to the book groups’ selections, it wasn’t intentional. This book was part of a special discussion held for the social workers and counselors department at Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy hospital. Every year this department has a book discussion for their staff in-service. This past year’s selection had the counselors talking frankly about the cultural and economic divide in health care, dispelling myths about medical professionals, and discussing the challenges they still face regarding privacy and ethics.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain—This year’s Big Read selection was Mark Twain’s classic of childhood. I lead over 12 book groups reading Tom Sawyer and every one found something different to discuss. That is the beauty of including a classic title in the book group line up.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave—A book group favorite from 2010, this novel had the attendees talking about the characters and the many choices made in this novel of two women from vastly different backgrounds who come to love and depend on each other. Readers made special note of the memorable secondary characters and appreciated the author’s ability to flesh out all of them.

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard—Another title that garnered great conversation in a group gathered for a specific purpose. I wrote about this historical nonfiction book here. Definitely one of the best books discussed this past year. It was such a hit, that I have it scheduled for another book group for 2012.

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff—All my book groups have a hankering for biographies and I thought this one would be a great fit. Not so much. While the two groups who read it enjoyed learning more about Egypt’s legendary queen and especially liked the dispelling of all the myths surrounding her, they did not care for the overly academic writing in some spots and felt the book dragged in the middle.

In case your book groups haven’t made all of their selections for 2012, perhaps there’s a couple of titles above that will make your list.

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About the Author:

Kaite Mediatore Stover refuses to give up her day job as director of readers' services for The Kansas City Public Library to read tarot cards professionally or be the merch girl/roadie for her husband's numerous bands. Follow her on Twitter at @MarianLiberryan.

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