Fiction Worth a Listen for Book Clubs

Of course, an audiobook is a “real book.” Don’t let anyone try to shame you with their belief that listening to a book isn’t “real” reading.

I’ve been reading books with my ears since the 1980s. First, I listened to them on cassettes, then CDs, before joining the Audible digital subscription service circa 2000. I always listen to a sample of the narration before downloading and have been known to give an audiobook a try if it’s read by a narrator I love—even if it’s out of my favorite genres.

Give both fiction and nonfiction a try—you might have a different preference for your ears than for your eyes. Free audiobooks are available through most public libraries.

“Cheating” with an abridged audiobook

Sometimes your book club decides on something not quite to your taste; sometimes you don’t have time to read the whole book but still want to attend your book club meeting.

When faced with either of these socially-awkward situations, look for InstaRead Summaries. Some are pure summary in less than half an hour, others are chapter-by-chapter summaries. I’ve never seen one run over an hour.

Circe by Madeline Miller, narrated by Perdita Weeks

US cover of Circe, by Madeline Miller

The audiobook “Circe” is pure perfection in story and narration.

Of the hundreds (thousands?) of books I’ve listened to, one stands alone: Circe, written by Madeline Miller and narrated by Perdita Weeks.

Since this is a post on audiobooks, I’ll start by raving about this narrator. It’s one thing to accurately read the text and pronounce the words (not all narrators accomplish this low bar), but Perdita Weeks breathes life into every syllable. Honestly, I could listen to her draw breath.

It’s the perfect book club book no matter how you read it. Here’s an online readers guide.

From the Publisher: In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Ayiti, written and narrated by Roxane Gay

Audiobook Ayiti

Not all authors are good narrators, but Roxane Gay is both. This audiobook can be read in about three hours; the perfect follow-up to a saga on your book club’s lineup.

You may be familiar with her work as a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, or her essay collection, Bad Feminist.

Ayiti is her first book. It packs emotional wallop after wallop as Gay explores the Haitian diaspora experience in a unique blend of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

The stories alone will make your club’s facilitator’s job easy, even without a reading guide. They touch on sexism, racism, capitalism, American values, and so much more.

From the Publisher: In Ayiti, a married couple seeking boat passage to America prepares to leave their homeland. A young woman procures a voodoo love potion to ensnare a childhood classmate. A mother takes a foreign soldier into her home as a boarder, and into her bed. And a woman conceives a daughter on the bank of a river while fleeing a horrific massacre, a daughter who later moves to America for a new life but is perpetually haunted by the mysterious scent of blood.

The Paris Architect, by Charles Belfoure, narrated by Mark Bramhall

Audiobook, The Paris Architect: A NovelThis year I read a good deal of historical fiction since I’m writing a novel set in 1943 and 1967.

The Paris Architect, by Charles Belfoure, as narrated by Mark Bramhall, helped me well exceed my daily 10,000 step goal. The narrator personified each character beautifully, and with the polyglot’s command of pronunciation and inflection. This is where an audiobook outshines its printed counterpart.

Summary: A gentile in Nazi-occupied Paris, architect Lucien Bernard detests Jews. But he can’t resist the challenge of designing concealed hiding spaces—behind a painting, within a column, or inside a drainpipe—that are invisible to the average eye.

Of course, inevitably, one of his clever hiding spaces fails horribly and the immense suffering of Jews becomes incredibly personal.

Here’s an online Reading Guide for your book club.


Be sure to check out Charlotte Lit’s Tips for Building A Better Book Club.

Tips for a Better Book Club available on this page

Recommended Memoirs for Book Clubs

There are times I’m suddenly aware that I’m not as well-rounded a reader as I’d wish. The curation of this list was one of those moments. I read the way I do most things––intuitively and deeply. I’m a poet, so my memoir preferences lean toward beautiful writing as much as to dramatic storytelling. I’m a student and teacher of depth psychology, so a memoirist’s ability to reflect upon the inner journey is just as important to me as funny anecdotes about crazy relatives. I’m a feminist, which leads me more often, though not exclusively, to women’s stories.

As a writer, I also adore craft books, which is why I’ve included one by Mary Karr. I promise, it’s as much fun as her first memoir. And, if you aren’t yet a writer, by the time you finish The Art of Memoir, you’ll be ready to pick up a pen.

Composed: A Memoir by Rosanne Cash

Not your typical celebrity tell-all. Sure, there’s enough industry-insider intrigue to keep fans of Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash turning pages. But Rosanne is a sage, often lyrical, writer. Hers is a story of the ties that bind her to her family, her music, and her soul. 

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Didion became famous for pioneering a form of writing that seamlessly marries journalism and personal essay. She is a keen observer of the tense relationship between the outer world and inner experience, nowhere more so than in this acclaimed account of the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death. 

Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

Delightful, and delightfully short, this genre-defying collection of personal reflections marries the best things about poetry (intensity of compression) and memoir (radical, sometimes raw truth-telling). Plus, Fennelly’s observations about marriage, children, and the writing life can be uproariously funny. Fennelly currently serves as Poet Laureate of Mississippi.

There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

I fell in love with Casey Gerald when I heard him speak at last year’s library fundraiser, Verse & Vino. His wasn’t the only book I bought that night (no surprise there), but it’s the one that keeps me thinking. He writes in breathtaking detail and with lots of good humor about his dramatic and impoverished upbringing, the searing pain of surviving adolescence as both black and gay, and becoming a man within a duplicitous society that both promotes and limits him in his journey into adulthood.  

I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory by Patricia Hampl

This memoir is a beautifully written exercise in the art of discovery. Though it’s not a craft book, Hampl consciously demonstrates the means through which she reflects on her inner and outer life experience, explores the misty landscapes of memory, and explains what most memoirists are only vaguely aware of—the reason for writing one at all.

Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo

Harjo was named U.S. Poet Laureate this past June. Yes, this memoir is written in prose—gorgeous, lyrical, mythic prose. After you’ve read it, you’ll likely want to read her poems, too. And, afterwards, you’ll want to find recordings of her music. And, after that, you’ll want to meet her, which you can do next April when Harjo visits Charlotte to headline CPCC’s Sensoria festival and (lucky us!) teach at Charlotte Lit.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C. G. Jung

As I admitted in the introduction, I’m a Jungian, so there’s no way I could leave this classic off my list. Yes, it’s one of the more difficult books (and perhaps the strangest) on the list. But readers will be rewarded for their efforts with fresh understanding about the roots of modern psychology and an experience of its founder’s rich imagination. MDR, as it’s known, is a classic—deservedly so.

The Liar’s Club and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Yes, these are two separate books. I’m fighting against the limits of the list. Besides, my hunch is that avid readers have already come across Karr’s famous first memoir, The Liar’s Club. If not, read it before any of these others. Then sometime in the middle of your reading year, take up Karr’s equally compelling craft book, The Art of Memoir. Even if it doesn’t make you want to take up your pen, it will make you a better reader.

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine by Sue Monk Kidd

Kidd is known for her best-selling novel, The Secret Life of Bees. This is an altogether different kind of book—part memoir, part study of feminist spirituality. Kidd weaves the two threads seamlessly, not only finding her voice in the process but helping readers do the same. As she writes, “The hardest thing about writing is telling the truth. Maybe it’s the hardest thing about being a woman, too.”

Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith

This memoir is also written by a U.S. Poet Laureate. Smith served in the role from 2017-2019. By now, you might be wondering about the relationship between poetry and memoir. All I can say is that the best memoir writers have a style of consciousness, a tendency for and pattern of reflection, that is poetic in essence. And no one does this more lyrically or powerfully than Smith.

Since many book groups meet every month of the year, I’m throwing in a few more titles to choose from. These books are no kind of runners up; I just ran out of room!

  • Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
  • Bluets by Maggie Nelson (another slender micro-memoir volume)
  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Tips for a Better Book Club

Book Club Recommendations: An Eclectic Mix

When I can’t decide what I want to eat, one of my favorite meals is what, in my family, is called a “Continental Plate.” The reason for this designation is lost to me, but it conjures up a degree of sophistication and worldliness. In reality, it’s just a fancy term for bit of this and that in the face of indecision. A smattering of spiced nuts, a bit of good cheese, some grapes. Or another day, hummus and carrots along with salty sesame crackers. A effortless, varied assemblage that is nevertheless satisfying.

Lately, I’ve been craving the same in my reading queue. While I’m still sucker for a page-turning novel or a stellar collection of poetry, among that mix there are also oddball, hard to classify works that have made their way to the stack on my bedside table. They might be listed as micro-memoir, essay, flash fiction, or maybe they defy classification. Either way, I’ve appreciated their creativity and variety.  Here are a few of my recent favorites:

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis Can't and Won't

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk 

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Heating and Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly

Image result for heating and cooling book cover

Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl

Sing to It by Amy Hempel

Sing to It

Check out Charlotte Lit’s recommendations for Building a Better Book Club.

Tips for a Better Book Club

Genre Mystery Recommendations for Book Clubs

If your book club reads exclusively mysteries, or if your book club wants to try a year of mysteries, it can be a good idea to mix up the types of books you read. But how to categorize?

Within the larger category of crime are sub-categories: thriller, suspense, and mystery…and within mystery are more than a dozen ways to slice and dice (excuse the pun) the offerings. Here’s one way to think about it.

Classic Noir: The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

There are so many great choices from the golden age of hardboiled detective—Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett, SOMEONE ELSE—that it’s hard to go wrong with any of them, but for my money it’s Chandler, and this is my favorite of his not-extensive library. Bonus: The Annotated Big Sleep.

Private Detective: Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley

There are many great PIs, including Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. But the ones you have to read are Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels. Bonus: Robert Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss.

Traditional: Southern Fried, Cathy Pickens

Traditional is often conflated with cozy, but I’m here to argue that Agatha Christie is traditional; cats and cookies is cozy. (I won’t be recommending any cozies.) Pickens—who teaches at Charlotte Lit—won the prestigious St. Martin’s Press Best Traditional Mystery with her first Avery Andrews novel.

Forensic: Death du Jour or A Conspiracy of Bones, Kathy Reichs

Two choices here out of 20 Temperance Brennan novels for Charlotte’s Reichs: a classic and her latest (out in early 2020). If you like the television series Bones, you’ll love the books.

Literary: Case Histories, Kate Atkinson

There’s something compelling about the enigmatic Jackson Brodie and his mysteries, in which seemingly unconnected events all come together in the end. In less sure hands than Atkinson you might fuss about the neatness of the weave, but instead you’ll marvel. Bonus: anything by Allen Eskens.

Police Procedural: In the Woods, Tana French

It’s cheating to call French’s work police procedural, although there is police work at the center. French could qualify as literary, or character-driven, or atmospheric, or whodunnit doesn’t actually matter, or just read this. Bonus: Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels.

Suspense: The Day She Died, Catriona McPherson

It’s difficult to select one McPherson, but this creepy psychological thriller is as good a place as any. Bonus: for some lighter McPherson, try her Lexy Campbell novels Scot Free and Scot Soda.

Futuristic: The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters

With six months until the end of the world, what’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway? This Edgar winner is the first book in a fantastic trilogy, with Countdown City and World of Trouble. Note that if you’re in for one, you’ll have to read all three. Bonus: Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.

Female Detective: Styx and Stone, James W. Ziskin

You’ve no doubt heard of Sue Graton’s alphabet series (from A is for Alibi to Y is for Yesterday), and Laura Lippman’s Baltimore-based Tess Monaghan novels, and you can’t go wrong with these. But if you want something different, try Ziskin’s fun Ellie Stone series.

Read the Book Instead: Fletch, by Gregory McDonald

Many people loved the movie version with Chevy Chase as reporter I. M. Fletcher, but only if they hadn’t read the novel—which was fast and funny, and also dark and deceptively deep, and with a twist you wouldn’t see coming. Bonus: read the first three in this order: Fletch, then Confess, Fletch, then Fletch’s Fortune.

Be sure to check out our Tips for Building a Better Book Club.

Tips for a Better Book Club

Six Tips for Getting Started Writing: Kathie Collins & Paul Reali on Charlotte Today

Thanks to WCNC’s Charlotte Today, with Colleen Odegaard and Eugene Robinson, for having us on the show. (If you can’t see the video, try it here.)

Writing Prompt: What do they do when…

Occasionally we’ll post the writing prompt from our free weekly Pen to Paper session. Today’s prompt comes from Megan Rich.

To describe characters more richly, consider how their actions and reactions change under different circumstances. For a character you’re writing about, think about the character’s:

  • facial expressions
  • movements/gestures
  • things they say

When they are experiencing:

  • regret
  • nostalgia
  • conflict
  • injustice
  • anger
  • contentment
  • etc.

Use what you’ve discovered to write a scene with this character.

Charlotte Lit and Pedestal Magazine Partner on New Poetry Reading Series

Poetry readings connect us to the oral roots of expressive language, a lineage as old as the human story itself. I imagine that as soon as humans developed the capacity for utterance, they began to use it – rhythmically, musically, eventually reflectively and aesthetically – to voice or attempt to voice the essential nature of being: what it meant, in any given moment, to be alive.

As editor of Pedestal Magazine, I’m excited to launch the Pedestal Magazine Reading Series and to partner with Charlotte Lit. The mission of Charlotte Lit (“to celebrate the literary arts by educating and engaging writers and readers through classes, conversations, and community”) is ideally aligned with Pedestals mission (“to support established and burgeoning writers … to promote artistic diversity and celebrate the voice of the individual”). For more than four years, Charlotte Lit has hosted and sponsored energized readings, workshops, and discussions. In addition, their facility on Central Avenue is a stimulating hub, a locale that naturally fosters enthusiasm, engagement, and curiosity. I’ve always wanted Pedestal Magazine to be a hub of sorts as well, one primarily engaged in the process of publishing, but one also complementarily involved with other related ventures, including workshops, mentoring/outreach opportunities, and a reading series.

Our first gathering will be held at Charlotte Lit on Wednesday, October 16 at 6:30 p.m., and feature current NC Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green and Heart of Pamlico Poet Laureate for eastern NC Malaika King Albrecht. Throughout her work, Jaki offers relatable narratives and potent imagery, offering wise insights into human nature and historical patterns. Malaika’s work merges confessional tones with surrealistic imagery, also commenting on the culture at large. Both poets adeptly integrate the emotional and the intellectual, forging a unity of music and meaning. I encourage anyone who is interested in current poetry to familiarize themselves with the work of these vital poets. (Also, Jaki will be teaching a master class at Charlotte Lit on Thursday, October 17, The Poet Witnesses: The Poet as Documentarian, Historian, and Agitator.

Life these days feels precarious, replete with injustices, displacements, and environmental crises, including the extinction or impending extinction of numerous species and the degradation of natural resources in many parts of the world. Furthermore we seem to be witnessing a deterioration of ethical standards and a devaluation of communication skills. It’s easy, given these complex and pressing problems, to question whether poetry has a place in a world such as ours. How can we be concerned with the poetic process during a time that seems so urgently pivotal?

I’d suggest that we need eloquent poetry more than ever. We can be moved by the honesty inherent to skillfully rendered poems. We can be elevated by that particular blend of the personal and universal that well-crafted verse can strike. We can be clear that the discipline, vision, and expansiveness required to bring the creative impulse to fruition is indeed highly relevant; the very practice, perhaps, that is egregiously missing or at least depreciated in our current world. We need to be and remain inspired, to celebrate our perennial inquiry into what it means to feel, think, live, and face the inevitability of death. Please join us on October 16 for what will be, I’m certain, an evening to remember.

John Amen is the author of several collections of poetry, including “strange theater” (New York Quarterly Books, 2015), a finalist for the 2016 Brockman-Campbell Award. He is co-author, with Daniel Y. Harris, of “The New Arcana.” His latest collection, “Illusion of an Overwhelm,” work from which was chosen as a finalist for the Dana Award, was released by New York Quarterly Books in 2017. His poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in journals nationally and internationally, and his poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. He is a Staff Reviewer for the longstanding music publication No Depression.

“Just What I Needed” – Remembering Ric Ocasek

I discovered music when I was 16.

Mike Lochner came into the boys locker room at Bishop Gibbons High School before cross country practice, bearing a giant silver boom box. He set it down on a bench, and reached for the Play button. Then he stopped.

“You have to hear this,” he said.

The button clicked, and a crisp synth beat came out. There were about a dozen of us, and we stood silent, waiting to understand why we had to hear this.

let the good times roll / let them knock you around
let the good times roll / let them make you a clown
let them leave you up in the air / let them brush your rock and roll hair
let the good times roll / let the good times roll / let the good…times…roll…

And then we got it. We’d never heard anything like it. It was the first time I heard something and thought: I have to own this. “The Cars” debut was my first album. Within a year I also owned Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” The Cars’ follow-up record, “Candy-O,” and a few more.

The man responsible, Ric Okasek, died last week.

If you’re old enough to remember 1978 and were listening to music when “The Cars” hit the streets, you might have felt something like what I did. “The Cars” changed the way I listened to music. Hook, melody, lyric – I knew that before but didn’t quite understand it. In that album it gelled. Joy, sorrow, I’m going to live forever, I might die tonight. I wrote their lyrics on my school desk. I can’t really sing, but I had to sing these. And a few years later, in 1984, I heard the song “Drive” (from the great album “Heartbeat City”) and realized that I finally understood heartbreak.

Should you decide to take a trip back to The Cars, make a detour for some of Ocasek’s best work, his solo records. Start with “Beatitude,” and give it more than one listen.

Commemorate 9/11 at Wednesdays@Lit Staged Reading

America Bound CoverThe events of September 11, 2001 changed our nation––and the world––forever. This year, in commemoration of the day, Charlotte Lit will host the first-ever dramatic reading of David Radavich’s “America Bound: An Epic for Our Time,” a poetry collection that explores the physical and emotional impacts of our nation’s history since World War II.

Radavich’s book is set in the eponymous town of Troy, USA, and features 24 monologues by a diverse group of everyday Americans who try to build meaningful lives in the midst of a world that seems constantly at war. Over the course of three generations, these Troy citizens get along, sometimes by changing and sometimes by staying the same, as the nation undergoes one dramatic transformation after another, from the post-World War II boom through the Iraq War and beyond. Multiple voices offer intimate, sometimes searing perspectives on American culture over the past sixty years.

– – – – –

David Radavich is a socially committed author and scholar. His latest narrative collection is “America Abroad: An Epic of Discovery” (2019), companion volume to “America Bound: An Epic for Our Time” (2007). Other recent poetry collections are Middle-East Mezze (2011) and The Countries We Live In (2014). His plays have been performed across the U.S., including six off-Off-Broadway, and in Europe.  He has served as president of the Thomas Wolfe Society, Charlotte Writers’ Club, and North Carolina Poetry Society and currently oversees the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series.

This performance is part of our monthly Wednesdays@Lit series. Admission is free and open to the public. Light refreshments available.

6:30 pm, Wednesday, September 11
Charlotte Lit
Midwood International & Cultural Center
1817 Central Avenue, Studio Two (Room 208)

September 4X4CLT Featured Poet: Jennifer Chang

Charlotte Lit’s programming year kicks off with the release of the September edition of 4X4CLT poetry + art poster series on Friday September 6. We’re celebrating at The Light Factory from 6:30 to 8:30 pm. This series features poems from Jennifer Chang paired with paintings from Tom Thoune and photography from Cordelia Williams. At this event, which is free and open to the public, Chang will read her poetry and Williams will speak about her art.

Jennifer Chang, the featured poet for September 4X4CLT, is the author of two books of poetry, The History of Anonymity and Some Say the Lark. Lovers of poetry may have seen her work in The New Yorker, The New York Times, American Poetry Review, and other national publications. She co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, an organization that works to nurture Asian American literature. She teaches at George Washington University and the low-residency MFA writing program at Bennington College.

I can’t say for sure which of her poems I first encountered, but two that fully captured my attention might be called a pastoral and an anti-pastoral. The first, actually titled “Pastoral,” comes from Chang’s debut, The History of Anonymity. The collection is full of fairytale and describes a place where nature is beguiling and unknowable. In “Pastoral,” the speaker observes a field she perceives to be full of mysterious activity that she does her best to describe: “Something in the field is / working away. Root-noise. / Twig-noise. Plant / of weak chlorophyll, no / name for it.” But whatever is “working away” feints from focus and sure definition: “Has it roar and bloom? / Has it road and follow?” Yes, there is a field, fences, and meadow flowers, but this pastoral is no shepherd’s idyll. What it is and what it’s doing, exactly, remains in question.

“Dorothy Wordsworth,” from Chang’s 2017 collection Some Say the Lark, keeps the trappings of a traditional ode to springtime but splices it with a rage-induced rant. Of daffodils, the speaker says: “I’m tired of their crowds, yellow rantings / about the spastic sun that shines and shines / and shines. How are they any different / from me? I, too, have a big messy head / on a fragile stalk. I spin with the wind. / I flower and don’t apologize.” The spring season is now “the dark plot / of future growing things” where the usual tropes are upended. The poem dispatches the flowers’ “boring beauty” and ex-boyfriends with equal disdain. Of this collection of poems, Natasha Trethewey says “Some Say the Lark is a piercing meditation, rooted in loss and longing, and manifest in dazzling leaps of the imagination—the familiar world rendered strange.” Chang’s poems tend toward the lyrical with swerves and dashes of narrative.

On Saturday September 7 from 9:30 am to noon, Chang teaches a master class at Charlotte Lit, “On Fragments.” Participants will look at how “brokenness, irresolution, brevity, and rupture are integral to meaning” and how fragments operate as poetic form. We hope you’ll join us in welcoming Jennifer Chang to Charlotte and look for her gorgeous, lyrical poems on the 4X4CLT posters all over Charlotte in the next few months.

Lisa Zerkle is an award-winning poet and the curator of Charlotte Lit’s 4X4CLT.