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
Here's some timely news as we approach Halloween: Mary Downing Hahn's spooky 1980s classic, Wait Till Helen Comes, is heading to the big screen. The story of two fractious stepsisters, Molly and Heather, who move to an isolated old home where one of them is befriended by a ghost is deliciously creepy, and contains real emotional heart. Eight-year-old me must have read this book a dozen times—each time, I was scared by but also sorry for Helen, whose loneliness allows her to connect to the similarly isolated and unhappy Heather. Wait Till Helen Comes is a true classic—it's been in print since it was first published in 1986—and Hahn is still writing today.
The sisters will be played by real-life sisters Isabelle (Mama) and Sophie (The Book Thief) Nelisse, and Maria Bello has been cast as the mother/stepmother.
In spite of the fact that it's directed by Jennifer Love Hewitt, I'm still hoping this adaptation turns out better than the one for another of my childhood favorites, Betty Ren Wright's The Dollhouse Murders (aka Secrets in the Attic). Now if someone will just make a movie of Christopher Pike's Remember Me, Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Cupid series or some of Richard Peck's Blossom Culp novels, I can relive my childhood ghost story addiction in full . . .
What's your favorite ghost story?
Author Kimberly McCreight had a hit on her hands with her suspenseful 2013 debut, Reconstructing Amelia, the story of a grieving mother trying to figure out what made her teenaged daughter leap from the roof of her exclusive private school.
McCreight's second novel, Where They Found Her, which Harper will publish on April 14, also starts with the discovery of a body. But this time, instead of a teenager, it's an unidentified infant. Freelance journalist Molly, a new local resident, is hired to cover the story, but her search for answers uncovers some dangerous small-town secrets.
The publisher describes the book as "another harrowing, gripping novel that marries psychological suspense with an emotionally powerful story about a community struggling with the consequences of a devastating discovery."
Sounds like an intriguing follow-up to an Edgar- and Anthony-award nominee to us! And that's not all: McCreight also has a YA trilogy in the works, set for a 2016 release, so fans have a lot to look forward to.
So you're a fan of Jojo Moyes' best-selling, tear-jerking 2012 release, Me Before You. (Who isn't?) This story of the relationship between down-and-out Louisa Clark and the wealthy, quadriplegic she becomes a caregiver for is as touching and warm as it is thought-provoking, making it a perfect fit for book clubs.
Other than tearing through Moyes' backlist (she's published 10+ other books, including a new one out this summer) what's a Me Before You fan to do next? Not to worry: BookPage has some ideas.
(Warning: minor plot spoilers; after all, this is for those who have already read Me Before You!)
OK, so this one might not be much of a surprise, but no one does the ethical dilemma novel™ better than Picoult, and My Sister's Keeper is one of her most controversial. If debating right to life/quality of life issues was what turned you on about Me Before You, give this one a whirl. Read it already? Go for the not-yet-adapted-for-film Second Glance.
Speaking of medical ethics . . . best-selling author Gawande may not write novels, but his essays on the challenges of medicine, especially when it comes to drawing the line between treatment and quality of life, certainly make for compelling reading. Anyone who came out of Me Before You with questions about the medical issues involved should pick up this sensitive and smart new colllection that will leave you wiser.
One of the most compelling storylines in Me Before You was Lou's journey of self-discovery—the way she realizes there's more to who she can be. Shortridge's fifth novel offers a more extreme version of that theme. It's the story of Lucie Walker, who awakens in the San Francisco Bay with no idea who she is or how she got there. She doesn't recognize the handsome man who shows up claiming to be her fiancé.
If the "odd-couple" dynamic between Louisa and Will was your favorite part of Me Before You, don't miss The Rosie Project, last year's word-of-mouth hit that chronicled the romance between a professor who is logical to a fault and a whimsical, fun-loving bartender who comes to him for help finding her biological father.
So you liked Me Before You because it was a tear-jerker? Try Maria de los Santos, especially the poignant Belong to Me, which follows a 30-something who is dying of cancer.
One of the themes of Me Before You is appreciating the joy to be found in life, no matter what your situation might be. In Jackson's compassionate sixth novel, Someone Else's Love Story, her heroine Shandi has to do just that, even as she uncovers some uncomfortable truths about her life and meets the equally wounded, but less resiliant, William.
Readers, what do you think of these picks? What did you read after Me Before You? Tell us in the comments!
RELATED CONTENT: Read our previous "Read it Next" posts.
Novelist John Boyne has written a dozen novels—perhaps the best known of which is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a YA novel about the Holocaust that was adapted for film. He'll be back in 2015 with A History of Loneliness (FSG), which will be published on February 3.
Boyne is writing about his native Ireland for the first time in this powerful story. It begins in the 1970s, when young Odran Yates dedicates himself to the priesthood. Flash forward to the modern day: Odran, somewhat disillusioned by the scandals and suffering the Catholic Church has gone through during his time in the pulpit, must also confront a personal tragedy that means he can no longer deny the corruptions of the institution he has spent his lifetime serving.
Will you read it?
Is it me, or is 2014 the year of the essay? I've raved in previous posts over The Empathy Exams and Bad Feminist; On Immunity is another essay that moved me, entertained me and made me think. Biss, who teaches at Northwestern, won a Guggenheim Fellowship and used it to support her work on her third book, a combination of mythology, morality, medicine and mortality that is like nothing you've ever read before.
Blending personal experience with social history and myth, Biss takes on the thorny topic of immunization—moving from the story of Achilles, whose dip in the water was perhaps the first documented attempt of a parent to innoculate their child against harm, to modern-day anti-vacciners in a meditation on the concept of immunization and what it means on a personal level as well as a societal one.
Though this is a short book, it's not something to be read quickly. Biss' thoughful writing contains levels of meaning and plenty to ponder on every page.
When my son asks me about his belly button, I describe the near-mythological umbilical cord that once connected us. I point to my belly button and tell him that all of us were once contained within another body on which our lives depended. Even a three-year-old, who is still wholly dependent on me but already accustomed to thinking of himself as independent, finds this perplexing. Speaking from a moment just before the Enlightenment, Queen Elizabeth expressed a paradox that eludes us to this day—our bodies may belong to us, but we ourselves belong to a greater body composed of many bodies. We are, bodily, both independent and dependent.
What are you reading this week?
Everyone's favorite self-deprecating lad-lit author returns next February* with his first novel since 2009's Juliet, Naked. Nick Hornby's Funny Girl (Riverhead) is something of a departure for the author: It's set in the swinging '60s, making it his first historical novel.
Sophie Straw is a beauty queen from Blackpool who heads to the big city of London and becomes a TV comedy sensation. The story goes behind the scenes of her hit sitcom, where writers Tony and Bill, director Dennis and Sophie's male co-star, Clive, are enjoying the success—until some of the scripts start to bear too much of a resemblence to real life. Will fact and fiction's collision sink the show's stars?
During an early reading from the book in England, Hornby said that the novel is an "attempt to re-write history and create a British Lucille Ball." But Hornby knows a little something about screenwriting as well as sitcoms: He adapted Cheryl Strayed's Wild for film, and his novel About a Boy is now the basis for an NBC sitcom. These real-life chops should provide plenty of fodder for Funny Girl. Will you read it?
*in the U.S., at least—the book will be released in Britain on November 6. The cover shown is the British cover.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our 2005 interview with Nick Hornby about A Long Way Down.
I've seen a LOT of mash-up book descriptions in my time at BookPage. "Eat, Pray, Love meets A Year in Provence!" "The Da Vinci Code meets Gone Girl!" Etc.
And just when I thought I was far too jaded to be sucked in by one, along comes a debut novel whose "meet" comparison is truly something I've never seen (and would be extremely curious to read). Are you ready?
"The Crimson Petal and the White meets Fight Club: A page-turning novel set in the world of female pugilists and their patrons in late eighteenth-century England."
Say what? Yes, that's right, Faber + Palaniuk = Anna Freeman's debut, The Fair Fight (Riverhead, April 2015). When a lifelong female street fighter born in a brothel meets a manor-born lady eager to escape the confines of her sheltered life, both women might have a chance to fight their way to the top. Best of all, this is based on a true story: The author has worked as a bartender at the Hatchet Inn in Bristol, England, the city's oldest pub—a hotspot for pugilism in the 18th century.
I've put a BOLO on the galley for this one! Will you read it?
As someone who loves both curmudgeons and cats, I was delighted to see that grammar grump Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots & Leaves) had gone feline with her first novel, Cat Out of Hell. Already on sale in Britain, it will be published in the U.S. in March, by Melville House. (Listed in the catalog selling points: "Cat on the cover!" This is certainly a draw for me.)
However. Truss' opinion of our feline friends is characteristically skeptical. She launches her horror spoof with the premise that cats have the potential for evil. In fact, some cats are so human-phobic that they don't trust cats who get along with humans . . . and are intent on destroying them. Can one widowed academic foil this plot? And what did his wife have to do with the mystery?
It seems that the summer 2015 season is off to a good start: We've just heard that Sara Gruen, who made her name with Water for Elephants, will release a new book on June 2—and it's a return to historical fiction.
Though few plot details are available, At the Water's Edge is set in 1942 and follows three Americans who travel to Scotland on a quest to find the Loch Ness monster. Sounds like quite the adventure! Will you read it?