Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Great Book Club Choices for Spring

The Moonflower Vine:
Midwest Bookseller's Association April Pick

First of all, I must admit we don't deserve any credit for discovering The Moonflower Vine (paperback, $14.95). It even says on the cover that it's a "rediscovered classic" and a former New York Times Bestseller from 1962. It has a forward by Jane Smiley, who included it on her list of 100 great novels in her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. I also have to admit with at least some embarrassment that I'd never even heard of it before. Of course, back when it first came out, I was busy reading Dr. Seuss and playing with Barbie, Ken and Midge, but still.

Now that I've read it, I can't help but think: where's this book been all my life? This is a deeply satisfying novel. It’s nostalgic without being na├»ve, and reminds us that the early 20th century women of the Midwest were more complicated, more rebellious, and more savvy than we’ve ever given them credit for. My only regret is that my mother and grandmothers aren’t still alive to share it, because, oh! the talks we would have!

It's about a Missouri farm family in the early 1900's, and it's structured like a family portrait taken from completely different angles. Each family member gets their turn, and it gets better and more complicated with every new point of view. There are secrets, rebellions and betrayals that you never would have imagined from the surface, along with acceptance, forgiveness and intelligence. It's like going through your grandmother's things after she died and realizing that you underestimated her all your life. This would be a great pick for a book club meeting around Mother's Day.

Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff:
Beautiful Stories by a Talented Young Voice

I know a lot of book clubs prefer novels over short story collections, but don't let that stop you. This book has such a unique and interesting voice that it made every story feel like part of a larger, cohesive whole. I could see assigning one story to each club member (there are nine) to make sure each story gets the attention and discussion they deserve. They're that good.

You can enjoy this book on so many different levels. Do you like really interesting plot? Check. Beautiful prose? Got it. Same thing for the strong, complicated female characters and the fresh insights into women's lives at different times in the last century. Not to mention some fairy tale allusions thrown in for good measure. I've never actually wondered about Hansel and Gretel's parents before, but when Lauren Groff weaved that question into a story about young immigrants working at the local Chinese restaurant (Lucky Chow Fun) I was really impressed. Reading these stories feels like watching an Olympian who has that rare combination of technique and artistry. I know, I'm gushing a little too much, but I loved this book and I admire the talent it took to create it.

Lauren Groff says she was inspired to write one of my favorite stories in the book (L. DeBard and Aliette) while she was working on her MFA at UW-Madison, surrounded by Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. I'm a Badger myself, and I too spent a fair amount of time supposedly studying down by Lake Mendota. Groff explained that the Madison lakes made her think about swimming, and helped her create a character based on a real female Olympian who took swimming lessons to recover from polio. (What she doesn't say is that the beer they serve at the Union Terrace is the more likely source of all lakeside inspiration!) Read more of the interview here: http://flavorwire.com/9894/exclusive-lauren-groffs-delicate-edible-fiction.

The really interesting thing about this book is that the women in the stories are definitely not delicate little birds. They're strong and smart and independent, but not self-consciously so. They're post-Title IX girls who don't even blink about being equal to boys, they're World War II journalists who are just as tough as the guys, they're young but modern brides. And yet they're still vulnerable. They still worry about Prom dates, being single too long, or the unique danger of being a woman in wartime.
It's a book that makes you feel good and hopeful and confident about women's place in the world. It feels a little surprising and maybe a little humbling to hear this message from a younger writer, but then again, it's great to see a new generation wearing their self assurance so naturally. I feel a Virginia Slims moment coming on, but I'm not going to say it. That would be old and corny, so unlike Lauren Groff.

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