THE BLOG
10/23/2014 08:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Book Club Read 200 Books. These Were Our Favorites

One of the great pleasures of my life is my book club.

We call ourselves the Absentminded Book Club because... well actually none of us can remember. And no, I'm not kidding. You can see how the name fits.

For the last 17 years now, I've gotten together with this group of smart, funny women to talk about books while eating good food.

Though goings on around town come up, we don't talk much about other people, except for the ones in our books. Those characters and their relationships are the ones we dissect and defend, and sometimes even despise.

That's the point of books. You can get immersed in someone else's life in 300 pages or so without the stigma of being called a gossip. And by the time you're done, you know more about the world, and yourself, than you did when you turned the first page.

After reading 200 books together, I have some favorites to share with you. Some of them have turned out to be books I wouldn't have picked up on my own, which is another reason to love a book group.

For this list, I didn't just choose books I liked, they also had to make for great discussion. Surprisingly, those two things don't always go together. There have been well-written books that we finished talking about before we'd even gotten to dessert, and a few bad ones that were actually great for discussion. If a book didn't make for a good read and a good discussion, it didn't make the cut.

Ready for the ones that did? Here they are, listed in no particular order.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

At first, you think the only thing these characters have in common is the address to their apartment building, but there is so much more. This translation from a French novel is funny, insightful and an overall delight. I read this book and loved it so much, I gave my copy away within days. And then I had to get another one.

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham tells stories so intimately, you feel like you're is sitting across the table hearing him talk about someone you both know. This 1925 novel, revolves around Kitty, a self-centered woman whose demise you can see coming a mile away. But the story isn't that simple. Great book and great discussion.

Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

I suppose I could have put the book down and spared myself the humiliation of sitting under a hair dryer in the beauty shop, sobbing loudly. But as I read about Marie trying to protect her son from the inevitable, a boy who happened to be the same age as mine when I read this book, I reasoned that, with a head of silver foil jutting off the top of my head, I already looked silly, so why not plow on with a great book?

Readable, fascinating and a much truer picture of the French queen than her frequent tagline "let them eat cake" tells you.

All the Living by C.E. Morgan

In 2010, The New Yorker selected Kentucky author C.E. Morgan as one of their 20 best fiction writers under 40. That selection came on the heels of this gem of a novel. It's a short book, but so multifaceted, it led to one of our best discussions of the year when we read it a couple of years ago. That she hasn't written a follow-up novel yet means we have something to look forward to soon.

The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

We lost Lydia Wells-Sledge, one of our founding members suddenly in January 2012. She was the genius who insisted we keep our group as stress-free as possible, meaning no one ever has to read a book or cook more than they feel like cooking. Our no gifts policy was her idea, too, which has reminded me countless times of the significance of simple, but heart-felt words like "congratulations" or "I'm so sorry."

I took over for her as group secretary and inherited her list of books we'd read. Early on, she kept her own notes column, with her take on our selections. For this book she didn't say much, but what she said sums it up perfectly. "A good highbrow murder mystery," she wrote. That about covers it.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith My philosophy about traveling is "why visit someplace twice when there is so much to see?" The same is true of books. I don't often re-read books because there are so many places to go and people to meet. But this book is an exception. It's a sweet tale, well told by Cassandra Mortmain, a 17-year-old girl author J.K. Rowling described as the "one of the most charismatic narrators I've ever met."

So I make an exception for this book (and a couple of others on this list). I also make exceptions for Paris and Florence when it comes to travel. Just so you know. So what are your favorites?