In honor of National Reading Group Month, we asked best-selling author Chris Bohjalian to share a story from his many book club visits. What we got was certainly unexpected—and a heartfelt tribute to the indomitable spirit of readers!
By Chris Bohjalian
It was 13 years ago this autumn that I vomited in front of a lovely reading group from Illinois. When I’m with a book club, I hold nothing back.
It was a Friday afternoon and I was on my third plane of the day, this one a Dash 8 turboprop from Denver to Steamboat Springs. The next day I was joining Jacquelyn Mitchard, Andre Dubus III and Sena Jeter Naslund for the Bud Werner Memorial Library’s annual Literary Sojourn, an all-day celebration of what words and reading and books can mean to the soul. It’s a terrific event and lots of book clubs make a pilgrimage there—including, that year, one from Illinois that was on the Dash 8 turboprop with me.
Now, I really don’t mind the Dash 8. But that day I had been traveling since about six in the morning in Vermont, where I live, and there was the usual Rocky Mountain clear air turbulence. I was on my third flight of the day. The book group on the airplane recognized me instantly as one of the authors they were coming to hear, despite the fact that soon after takeoff my skin was airsickness green. And so we chatted and I sipped a Diet Coke and set the air vent above me on “wind tunnel.” Surreptitiously I kept reaching into the seat pocket, trying to find an airsickness bag amidst the magazines and Sky Mall catalogues. Somehow I had two of each, but no airsickness bag.
The group was, like most groups, all women. We talked about books as we flew to Steamboat Springs, and the unforgettable brilliance of the first sentence of Sena’s new book, Ahab’s Wife: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” We discussed the heart that fills all of Jacquelyn’s work. And we shared the page-turning dread we had all experienced as we read Andre’s House of Sand and Fog.
At some point I reached into the pocket of the seat beside me for an airsickness bag. There wasn’t one there, either.
Looking back, I really thought I was going to make it to Steamboat Springs with my dignity intact. I fly a lot and it’s rare for me to feel like I’m going to lose my lunch. I was sure I could remain in this book group’s eyes an author they found charming and open, the sort who didn’t vomit on Dash 8 turboprops. This is called hubris—and, in hindsight, naïvete.
It was on our initial descent that we hit the bump that finally did me in. Now, I did feel it coming. And so without an airsickness bag handy, I showed an instinctive skill with origami I hadn’t known existed somewhere deep inside me: I ripped a few pages from one of the catalogs in my seat pocket, twirled them into a snow cone, and folded the bottom into a seal. Yup, somewhere around 15,000 feet in the air, I created a snow cone of vomit.
"I was sure I could remain an author they found charming and open, the sort who didn’t vomit on Dash 8 turboprops. This is called hubris—and, in hindsight, naïvete."
Now, here is why I am sharing this story with you. The woman in the book group beside me actually offered to hold my handmade Sky Mall biohazard so I could wipe my mouth and rinse with the last of my Diet Coke. So did the woman behind me. That’s support. That’s kindness. That’s the sort of heroism that is way above any reader’s pay grade.
But people in book groups are like that. I’ve been talking to book groups via speakerphone (and now Skype) since January 1999. I began because one of my events on The Law of Similars book tour was snowed out, and a reading group that was planning to attend contacted me with questions. (A lot of questions, actually.) And so we chatted via speakerphone. These days, I Skype with three to six groups a week. Some weeks I have done as many as 12.
I do it for a lot of reasons. I do it as a way of thanking these readers for their faith in my work. I do it because it helps me understand what makes my novels succeed aesthetically—and, yes, what makes them fail. (Most book group readers share with me exactly what they think of a story.) I do it because it is one small way I can help the novel—a largely solitary pleasure—remain relevant in an increasingly social age.
And, yes, I do it because once upon a time a book club member offered to hold my snow cone of vomit on a Dash 8.
Chris Bohjalian’s most recent novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, was published this summer. If you would like him to join your book group via Skype or speakerphone, simply visit his Reading Group Center.
author photo by Aaron Spagnolo
Go ahead and judge a book by its creepy cover. If you've got chills just looking at the cover art, you know you're in for a frightening treat when you crack the spine on these reads. Happy Halloween, readers!
Well, at least her hair is lovely.
Here we have a dementor on the way to the gym.
There is nothing creepier than creepy children.
. . . OK, except maybe creepy children's handwriting.
There's something to be said for the subtly sinister approach.
"Be right back, just checking on the bodies upstairs!"
If you do not think space is terrifying, you are wrong.
Oh, I'm sorry. Were you at home and feeling safe?
Have a good night's sleep, everyone!
Karen Trotter Elley has always been a writer, turning her everyday experiences into inspirational essays that have appeared in many magazines and newspapers. She has also tried her hand at writing books, in genres ranging from inspirational stories for children to paranormal romance. Formerly a production designer at BookPage, Karen has been able to devote more of her time to writing since retiring in 2011, and is now working on a memoir.
Much of Karen’s writing deals with inspiration, faith and motivation, so we weren’t surprised to learn that one of her essays has been selected for inclusion in a new Chicken Soup for the Soul collection: Touched by an Angel. This uplifting volume includes “101 Miraculous Stories of Faith, Divine Intervention, and Answered Prayers.” In powerful stories, various contributors describe being touched by strangely coincidental reminders of friends and family who have died, receiving “urgent but gentle” commands from unseen voices or finding solace in final gifts from loved ones.
In a Behind the Book essay, Karen describes for BookPage readers how pluck and persistence (and maybe a little divine intervention!) helped her achieve her goal of becoming a published author. Any aspiring writer who’s struggling with rejection notices and unreturned calls will want to check out Karen’s inspiring story here.
Looking for a darker story, but not into over-the-top horror? Try Stephen Collins' subtly menacing graphic novel, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil.
A too-perfect suburbia ("Here") and its creepily-regimented group of inhabitants attempt to live their lives free of the threat of the unknown, unseen and untidy world known as "There."
Dave—a quiet fellow with a boring office job— is happy with his routine . . . until he experiences something very strange. An ominous, rapidly-growing beard suddenly sprouts from his face: an untidy, evil beard from There.
Panic quickly spreads, and the government decides that the only way to remove the threat of untidiness and anarchy is to get rid of Dave completely.
Check out an excerpt below:
Any of you readers interested in checking out this Tim Burton-esque tale for Halloween?
From supernatural serial killers to gruesome, chilling murders, these 2014 mysteries have just a dash of horror—perfect for getting thriller fans into the Halloween spirit.
"If ever a book were tailor-made for a David Fincher movie adaptation (Se7en, Zodiac, etc.), it’s Lauren Beukes’ latest dark, genre-bending mystery. On a cool November night in Detroit, Detective Gabriella Versado comes across the strangest crime scene of her career: a dead 11-year-old boy whose lower half has been replaced by that of a deer. Their bodies have been fused together into a macabre human-animal hybrid straight out of “True Detective” or NBC’s “Hannibal,” and Versado believes the killer will strike again."
"In his first novel, The String Diaries, British author Stephen Lloyd Jones has created both an innovative storyline and a new creature to fear. . . . The String Diaries is a phenomenal read, offering readers a refreshing villain and a thrilling narrative laced with the Gothic: a woman being chased by a tyrannical male of supernatural ability in uninhabited places. Jones dazzles in his ability to make his characters' raw nerves so palpable, the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end."
"The Butcher opens with a bombshell revelation, and more and more hits soon follow. Seattle police chief Edward Shank made his reputation when he shot and killed the notorious serial killer known as the “Beacon Hill Butcher.” Shank, now retired, gives his big house to grandson Matt, who finds a box on the property that leads him to suspect his grandfather was involved in the crimes. . . . Author Jennifer Hillier (Creep, Freak) balances a grisly story with a tasty subplot involving Matt’s meteoric rise from restaurateur to celebrity chef, a burst of star power he can’t afford to tarnish with the revelation that . . . well, you'll have to read for yourself."
"Mo Hayder set the hook in me with The Devil of Nanking and then reeled me in with Hanging Hill; now she is back with the home invasion novel to end all home invasion novels, Wolf. . . . Hayder neatly splits genres with this series, borrowing in equal measure from suspense and horror, not unlike John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels or T. Jefferson Parker’s Charlie Hood books. Wolf is exceptionally original in premise and nightmarish in its rendering."
"Five hundred years ago, a young Norwegian monk took a walk on the dark side, feeding an unholy obsession with death, culminating in his creation of “The Book of John,” a text bound in human skin. This sort of thing is an aberration that appears only sporadically over the centuries. So imagine the shockwave in present-day Trondheim, Norway, when the curator of the museum holding the Book of John is brutally murdered, her skin flayed from her body. Double-down on the shock effect when the cops find that the curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Virginia has met much the same fate."
"Mayhem is a disturbingly engrossing Victorian horror with a standout, menacing villain. Never have I known a smile to be so sinister and rancid, but Pinborough’s prose proves the gesture to be something terrifyingly palpable. This genre-defying novel is a ravenous read and will have you as insatiable as the malicious mischief-maker that awaits you in its pages."
Lin Enger's second novel, The High Divide, follows a family's struggle to stay united as their way of life on the Western plains falls apart. Our reviewer writes: "Enger’s gripping story is a marvelous blend of strong characters and a brilliant depiction of a land and time now lost." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Enger has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites.
Reviews of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Good Squad focused on the novel’s postmodern qualities and its rock music milieu, and I thought, ‘Nope, this one’s not for me.’ But one day in an airport bookstore, I found myself carrying it to the register. I must have been telling myself, ‘Well, it won a Pulitzer after all.’ And then I read it! Wow. These characters, unbelievably hip and groovy though they are—rock stars, music moguls, writers—are rendered with exquisite insight and love. And the novel’s structure is both inventive and accessible, each chapter offering a seductive new beginning. The best novels conduct a tour into exotic new territory and make the reader happy to be along for the ride, and Goon Squad is a trip I’m glad I didn’t miss.
An old college friend recently told me, apologetically, that he’d just read The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. Not to be outdone, I told him I’d never read it. Then I went home and found a copy on my shelves and started in. Yes, it’s long and descriptively dense, and yes, it can be overtly sentimental. But it’s also brilliantly exhaustive in its depiction of 1930s economic forces and unabashed in its humanity. There is nothing sterile, careful or self-consciously arch about this story of one family’s journey west during the desperate dust-bowl migrations. Steinbeck is ruthlessly clear-eyed—yet at the same time he wears his heart on his sleeve. I understand now why this novel has been a staple in English classes for decades, but I’m glad I waited. This is a book for adults.
One of my favorite novellas of all time is Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall, a big wide story of the American West that he managed to tell in less than 100 pages. But I’m not writing about that one here. I’m writing about the novella I’m reading right now by Denis Johnson called Train Dreams. It’s subject is the West, of course, and its focus is the outsized, tall-tale life of a man named Robert Grainier, who works on railroad crews and lumber gangs and who suffers more setbacks than any man should. Like Harrison, Johnson is able to render in just a few pages an epic American vision. The vastness of the mountain west and the yearnings it evoked in those who were drawn there are made palpable—almost painfully so—by Johnson’s unadorned, eloquent language.
Thanks, Lin! Readers, have you read any of his picks?
(Author photo by Hope Larson)
Australian author Richard Flanagan is the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The Man Booker Prize is awarded to the author of the year's best novel written in the English language, as determined by an esteemed panel of judges. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Flanagan's sixth novel, centers on Dorrigo Evans, an Australian POW captured by the Japanese during World War II. As he struggles to survive horrendous conditions, he is haunted by the love he left behind. See who Flanagan was up against for the prize here.
As a renowned food critic and editor-in-chief at Food and Wine magazine, Dana Cowin can definitely tell you what tastes good. But she had a dirty secret: She had no culinary skills of her own. Thankfully, a few of her chef friends stepped in to help, and her new cookbook, Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen, is an ultra-accessible guide to becoming a more than passable home cook.
The three most important men in my life have one very unexpected connection: crepes. My father, whom I adored, passed away more than twenty years ago. He was a businessman, an art collector, an architecture buff—one thing he was not was a cook. But on Sunday mornings, he’d sometimes make crepes for us, an act of love. (My mother tells me he fell for crepes on their honeymoon in Nassau, where they ate them almost every day.) It was a very special family ritual.
Fast-forward to today: My husband rarely cooks, but on Sunday mornings, he’ll sometimes make crepes, because our son is a picky eater and it’s one of the only things he likes for breakfast. Three generations of love united by batter swirled in a pan.
When Barclay isn’t around or in the mood to make crepes, I’ll step in. Unfortunately, mine don’t live up to the legacy of my father’s. They are often pocked with flour and a little too thick. So I asked Joanne Chang, of Flour Bakery in Boston, to show me how to avoid these mistakes, and she revealed the secret to making the most miraculously smooth batter ever: Mix the warm milk, melted butter and the rest of the ingredients in the blender.
Total Time: 30 minutes
Makes 18 crepes
1. Stir together the chocolate, cinnamon and brown sugar in a small bowl. Set aside.
2. Put the butter, milk, eggs and sugar in a blender and blend until just smooth. Add the flour and salt and blend until the batter is completely smooth.
3. Heat an 8-inch crepe pan or nonstick skillet over medium heat and brush it lightly with melted butter. Pour in ¼ cup batter and, holding the pan by the handle, swirl the pan so that the batter coats the bottom evenly. Cook the crepe until the bottom is just lightly browned, about a minute. Loosen the edges with a spatula, carefully flip the crepe and cook until lightly browned on the other side, about 1 more minute. Transfer the crepe to a platter and roll it up like a loose cigar. Continue cooking and rolling crepes until you’ve used up all of the batter, brushing the pan with more butter as necessary.
4. Scatter the chocolate mixture over the crepes and serve warm.
The batter can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Stir well before cooking the crepes.
Chef Tips from Joanne Chang
ON SUGAR AND EGGS
Once you’ve poured sugar onto eggs, whisk them together immediately. If you leave sugar on top of eggs without whisking them, the sugar will basically cook the egg yolks and cause them to create lumps.
ON PREVENTING CREPES FROM STICKING
A nonstick pan is good here! Even so, add butter to the pan every third or fourth crepe.
ON MAKING THIN CREPES
Add the batter while holding your pan up on an angle, ladling in just a bit of batter and immediately swirling your pan.
ON CREATING EVEN CREPES
Your pan shouldn’t be too hot, or the batter will start cooking instantly when it hits the pan and not spread evenly.
From Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen by Dana Cowin. Copyright 2014 Dana Cowin. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Read our review of this book.
In celebration of National Reading Group Month, we're offering up Part II of our themed reading group suggestions! (See Part I here.) With so many fabulous books out there, picking one for your reading group can be daunting. Focusing on a category will make selecting your next reading group hit easier!
From cozies to thrillers, these books will leave you speculating with your reading group over whodunit.
Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
When an unsavory fiancé is found dead at an English seaside resort, the high-class guests are all suspects. Weaver brings heavy doses of charm and wit to this high-stakes mystery.
The girls at St. Kilda's boarding school can keep a secret, and that's a problem for Detective Moran, who believes some of the students may be involved in the death of a teenage boy.
I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy
When the unpleasant Oliver turns up dead, all signs point to the bitter wife as the killer. Well, make that three bitter wives. Detectives soon discover that Oliver was the deceitful husband of three women. Did this act of betrayal drive one of the wives—or all three—to murder?
Dead Heading by Catherine Aird
A greenhouse full of dead orchids sets the scene for this murder mystery in the English countryside. But when an orchid connoisseur goes missing, it appears that botanical exotics aren't the only thing on the hit list.
Change your perspective with books by international—and internationally acclaimed—authors.
A family's strange and tragic history is explored in this vibrant, magical novel set in the Virgin Islands. As three generations of a family navigate a changing world, tragedies and turmoil continually reveal what matters most.
The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed
The devastating Somali Civil War is viewed through the eyes of three women in this powerful novel. Mohamed and her family emigrated from Somalia in 1986, just one year before the outbreak of war.
In war-torn Chechnya, a man finds an orphan, Havaa, hiding in the woods. In an attempt to save her, he brings her to a run-down hospital and its solitary, over-burdened doctor. It's an act that will change all of their lives.
When a famous novelist is found dead, an astute detective has the strange feeling that the killer might be the writer's seemingly innocent best friend. Be warned: You might view your fellow reading group members in a different light after reading this novel!
If your reading group is like mine, it tends towards fiction. But why limit yourself to novels when some of the most absorbing, powerful books are shelved in the nonfiction section?
The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney
She may not be as famous as Cleopatra, but Hatshepsut was just as impressive—if not more so. The longest ruling female pharaoh, little is known about Hatshepsut, but Cooney effectively reconstructs a likely portrait of the fascinating pharaoh's life.
In this poignant memoir, inaugural poet Richard Blanco reflects upon his childhood in Miami's Cuban community and his journey toward understanding his identity as a gay Cuban-American.
The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills
Mills gives us a glimpse into the world of Harper Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Mills was Lee's neighbor for two years, and they struck up an unlikely friendship.
Sometimes, Civil War history can be a bit dry. But Abbot's accessible four-fold biography is an entertaining and immensely informative book about a little-known aspect of the Civil War: female spies.
These novels with a spiritual slant turn the focus toward faith.
When a sinister cloud settles over Mattingly, Virginia, the denizens of the small town must decide if they want to forge ahead together or hold on to past grudges.
A football star's charmed life goes awry when he is incarcerated for a crime he didn't commit. After his release, he struggles to reconnect with his estranged wife and the suspicious residents of his hometown.
A Cry from Dust by Carrie Stuart Parks
This suspenseful novel follows a forensic artist as she uncovers a 100-year-old mystery with present-day repercussions.
Snow on the Tulips by Liz Tolsma
When a wounded World War II resistance fighter is brought to the home of Cornelia, a young war widow, she knows that taking him in means risking her life. But her faith drives her to help the young man, and the results of doing so are unexpected.
See any books you'll be suggesting for your next reading group meeting?