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
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?
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.
Fall, in my humble opinion, is the best time of the year. And it's also the best time of the year to pick up books with some sinister themes! From slightly spooky to absolutely terrifying, these books will put you in the mood for Halloween.
You know the phrase, "If walls could talk"? Well, the walls of this house want to tell the Walkers something. And it's not a pleasant story.
We're pretty pumped about the resurrection of Rice's Vampire Chronicles! The first installment in a decade finds the vampire world in shambles, but your undead favorites are just as creepily flamboyant and terrifyingly unpredictable as ever.
Calhoun creates a world in which almost no one can sleep, and civilization collectively loses its mind. There is nothing I love more than sleeping, so this novel is my worst fear realized.
Dark fairy tales and historical realities twist together in this novel set in Nazi Germany.
There's something horrifying about an evil you can't see. In Bird Box, a presence is out there that drives anyone who glimpses it to destruction. And that's all the reader, or anyone in this dark and suspenseful novel, knows.
More vampires! Owen takes a traditional, Victorian-inspired approach to blood-suckers in her debut novel. But Dracula, it is not. Bram Stoker had to rein in his blood and gore for his Victorian audience, while Owen revels in the gruesome details.
A spirit haunts the halls of the Riddell mansion, and as teenager Trevor Riddell explores the massive and strange estate, it becomes clear that the ghost, and the house itself, are harboring secrets.
This Top Pick in Fiction from February is guaranteed to send chills down your spine, because honestly, I got chills just reading the review! The first sentence is enough to make you check under your bed: “The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old.”
Children are great! But is there anything more terrifying than creepy children? (The twins from The Shining, anyone?) In this chilling novel, a troubled boy's disturbing drawings seem to take on a life of their own.
One creepy child is bad enough (see above). But three?! After inexplicable, simultaneous plane crashes around the world leave just three young survivors, things get weird. The survivors' behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and people begin to wonder: Is this the end?
When an isolated town is snowed in together, a collective sense of foreboding déjà vu has terrifying implications.
A Boy Scout troop's annual camping trip turns horrific when a deranged man stumbles upon their campsite. But this isn't your usual weirdo-in-the-woods tale—this man is carrying something deadly.
Mining the transitional stage of new motherhood for all its creepy possibilities, this novel follows two mothers separated by a century. However, they are both haunted by the same spectral visions.
The sequel to 2012's Breed, this novel follows two 12-year-olds as they make the always scary step into the teenage years. Except these two's transition is even more fraught with terror, because a strange genetic disorder promises that they will slowly become violent, monstrous humans.
Any creepy reads from the past year we missed? Let us know in the comments!
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?
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?
Best-selling British author Amanda Prowse, who often draws comparisons to the beloved Jodi Picoult, is making her U.S. debut this fall. After her self-published debut, Poppy Day, took off in 2011, Prowse was picked up by Head of Zeus and has become a household name across the pond.
What Have I Done? is the second novel in Prowse's No Greater Love series, and it hits American shelves for the first time next week. The story follows Kathryn Booker, the wife of the beloved headmaster of Mountbriers Academy, a posh private school. To the average onlooker, Kathryn lives a life of domestic bliss: She lives in a charming cottage with a perfectly manicured garden; she has a doting husband and two precocious children. But Kathryn knows it's all a lie, and every day she endures abuse from her astonishingly cruel husband, until one day, she decides to break free.
Kathryn Booker watched the life slip from him, convinced she saw the black spirit snake out of his body and disappear immediately through the floor, spiraling down and down. She sat back in her chair and breathed deeply. She had expected euphoria or at the very least relief. What she couldn't have predicted was the numbness that now enveloped her. Picturing her children sleeping next door, she closed her eyes and wished for them a deep and peaceful rest, knowing it would be the last they would enjoy for some time. As ever, consideration of what was best for her son and daughter was only a thought away.
The room felt quite empty beside the blood-soaked body lying centrally on the bed. The atmosphere was peaceful, the temperature just right.
Kathryn registered the smallest flicker of disappointment; she had expected to feel more . . .
"Emergency, which service do you require?"
"Oh, hello, yes, I'm not too sure which service I require."
"You are not sure?"
"I think I probably need the police or ambulance, maybe both. Sorry. As I said, I'm not too sure . . ."
"Can I ask you what it is in connection with, madam?"
"Oh, right, yes, of course. I have just murdered my husband."
What are you reading?
Today the final National Book Award category longlist was announced. For the authors involved, that means it's time for nervous hand-wringing to commence. For readers, well, it's time to dig into those lists and start reading, dissecting the judges' motives and/or rooting for your favorite . . . which is exactly what we're doing at BookPage! Read on for the behind-the-scenes action.
I’m pulling for young, experimental poet Maureen N. McLane—third er, collection’s the charm, right? The New York University English professor blends lush natural imagery with pointed, contemporary syntax in This Blue. At once playful and profoundly sobering, these poems examine mankind’s history and our tendency to exploit and abuse the beauty of our earth. Now is the perfect time to dive in if you missed this fantastic collection during National Poetry Month.
—Hilli Levin, Editorial Assistant
Looking at the NBA’s nonfiction longlist reminds me of the old “Sesame Street” song: One of these things is not like the others. Roz Chast’s hilarious and moving graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, stands out from a crowd of traditional narrative history and biography. Could Chast emerge as the winner? It seems highly unlikely, but I’m thrilled to see her deeply personal look at the perils of aging among this year’s contenders.
—Lynn Green, Editor
One farm. One family. One hundred years. Jane Smiley is taking on a seriously ambitious literary project with her Last Hundred Years trilogy, so it doesn’t surprise me a bit that the first novel, Some Luck, grabbed a spot on the NBA longlist this year. This installment takes us through the life of the Langdons from 1920 to 1953, and if the next two books are anywhere near as marvelously executed, then don’t be surprised if the critical praise and award nominations continue to flow her way.
—Hilli Levin, Editorial Assistant
It might feel shocking to see John Darnielle, a man most famous for being the lead singer of The Mountain Goats, on the NBA longlist for his first novel, Wolf in White Van. But when you consider the fact that his lyrics might as well be poetry or short stories, it's really not that surprising. Blame it on my love of the underdog, but I'm hoping for a win for this musician-turned-novelist.
I'm also rooting for Molly Antopol and her quietly beautiful collection of short stories, The UnAmericans, because, well, wow. She's under 35 and this is her debut work of fiction. I'm under 35 and I just googled "how to handwash stuff" so I find this immensely impressive.
—Lily McLemore, Assistant Editor
As the fiction editor at BookPage, I'm starting to have a visceral reaction to the descriptor "post-apocalyptic fiction." But Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven brings a breath of fresh air to the genre with her fourth novel, a beautiful and deeply felt story that uses its dystopian setting to explore our very human need for shared culture, art and stories. Here's hoping this original and insightful work moves on to the shortlist.
—Trisha Ping, Managing Editor
It’s no surprise to see Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, on this list, and you’ll likely see it on several more award lists before the end of the year. Her accessible and poignant story shares what it was like to grow up in the 1960s and ’70s in a country “caught / between Black and White” and how writing helped her find her voice.
Also, is there any living writer who better captures the hilarity, messiness (sexual, social and emotional) and adventure of being a teenage boy than Andrew Smith? Not likely. Although I thought Grasshopper Jungle was the better of his two books that came out this year, 100 Sideways Miles is another winner—and it’s about time Smith was publicly and widely recognized for his talent.
—Cat Acree, Associate Editor