Category Archives: Book Group

On Lists. And How Very French.

I confess to a list obsession. I make lists, I read lists, I check things off lists. The list I try very much to NOT get too obsessed with is Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. First published in 2006, the list – and book – was compiled by Peter Boxall, a professor of English at Sussex University. The original list was extremely Anglocentric, and has been revised twice, with adjustments to the list to include more world literature. This list is very easy to find – there’s a listology list,  a goodreads lists via listology where goodreads users can vote for their favorites, and even an app you can purchase from the iTunes store. And of course, there are blog posts to read, spreadsheets to download, and pinterest boards to follow.

I confess to another thing: I purchased the 1001 books app. And according to the app, if I really, truly, want to finish the list before I die (at a projected age of 81), I need to get cracking. In order to finish the list by my anticipated death, I need to read 3 of the 1001 books per month. No pressure.

2967752This month, I can check one book off the list: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. This French novel was first published in 2006, and the first English edition was released in 2008. The novel received a number of awards in France, and was well received internationally. The New York Times reviewed it very favorably in 2008. (read the review here.) I found a copy at my favorite used book sale, and it has been sitting on my shelf of “to read” books for almost a year. When it came my turn to choose a book for my Awesome book group, I seized the opportunity to check this one off the list.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog first struck me as being very, very French. Firstly, the main characters live rich internal lives without a lot of drama. Renee, the concierge of a Parisian apartment building, is a closet intellectual that hides her true self. Renee camouflages herself by blaring television programs and wafting the scent of boiled cabbage into the lobby of the building, while she enjoys tea and Tolstoy behind the door of her loge.

Paloma, the other main character, is a twelve year old genius, also hides her true self from her family and schoolmates. Paloma tells her story through her journal of Profound thoughts, and in the reader’s first encounter with Paloma, she reveals that she intends to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday.

The novel is told in alternating voices, Renee and Paloma taking turns with the story. The two characters make observations on class and culture, art and beauty, and skewer most of the world around them for their hypocrisy and stupidity. Their essays continue in this vein to the point where I started to get a bit bored, frankly. There’s only so much free standing philosophy I can read without becoming impatient.

Finally, Renee and Paloma meet. On page 244. Again, how French to have a lengthy narrative on parallel paths, finally connecting the two characters well into the action.  Finally, the reader starts to see the glimmerings of a plot. Connecting Paloma and Renee is the character of Ozu, an older Japanese gentleman who moves into the apartment building.

I loved the mutual admiration of French and Japanese culture in this novel. Renee enjoys Japanese film, Ozu obviously is enmeshed in French culture. Ozu is able to see past Renee’s self imposed peasant facade, and befriends her. He introduces Renee to Japanese cuisine, and more importantly, gives her permission to be herself, which is a lovely message.

I won’t reveal the ending here. I will just say that it was a surprise, and while disappointing in terms of character development, it resolved the plot.

I was very satisfied,  checking this novel off  the list in my 1001 Books app. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to read all 1001 before I die, but I’ll enjoy trying!

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Filed under AMBC books, Book Group, Book Review, Fiction, Uncategorized

Book Group Picks 2014


Next year’s books, beautifully wrapped.

I love my book groups. I’m proud to count myself a member of three – two face to face groups, and one online. I love the interaction with other readers, and I love the book choices that are often out of my comfort zone. Choosing books in a book group is also a fun part of the book group experience, and each of my book groups makes their picks differently.

My online group votes via Facebook poll for a book. The leader of the group selects the genre, and members of the group submit choices or vote on a book that another member suggested. It’s a very democratic and fun way to pick books. The only drawback to this method is that I find myself adding all the books in the poll to my reading list, not just the one chosen for the group read.


Unwrapping next year’s first book. And wine.

My Awesome Book Club is very lucky to have an Awesome Maven. Our Maven maintains a rotating list, letting each of the members know when it is their month to choose a book for the group. She does a terrific job keeping us straight, even when members swap months or change their minds about their book choice. This is also a very democratic method, and every member has a voice in the choices of the group. For the past few years, another member has created a lovely bookmark that lists all the books we read throughout the year. It’s a useful and creative souvenir of our year in books.

My PTA Refugees also uses the one member = one book approach, but the methodology is different. Each year, our December meeting is the designated annual book exchange. Each group member chooses, and purchases, a book they would like the group to read. We wrap our books in the most tantalizing way we can, hoping to entice another member. Some members adorn their wrapped books with little gifts for the receiver.


We all brought a dish to share, and this was dessert. Yes, it tasted as good as it looked – delicious.

Then we sit down with the wrapped books, and the evening’s host makes the first pick. Whoever wrapped the book that was chosen is the next person to pick, and so on, until all the books are unwrapped.  We read the books in order through the year.

In 2014, The PTA Refugees will be reading:

1.      The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
2.      A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
3.      In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
4.      Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
5.      Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
6.      The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch
7.      The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
8.      Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Does your book group have an interesting way to choose books? 

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Filed under AMBC books, Book Group, PTA Refugees