Tara Westover was born to Idaho survivalists and grew up canning food, salvaging metal, and creating homemade remedies from herbs. Her family didn’t believe in traditional doctors or schooling, so Tara was 17 when she set foot in a classroom. Motivated in part by watching her brother leave and gain a college education, Tara taught herself enough math, grammar, and science to take the ACT and was accepted to BYU, where she first learned about the larger world outside her family compound. She later went on to Harvard and Cambridge, though she never forgot where she came from. This memoir is inspiring, tear-jerking, and insightful, and one you won’t forget.
This sweeping tale begins with two sisters born in different villages in Ghana in the 1700s. One goes on to marry an Englishman and live in comfort in a castle. The other is seized in a raid and imprisoned in the very same castle, then sold into slavery. The narrative follows the family trees that branch off from each sister, stemming for eight generations, as we see the stain of slavery irreparably change a family.
The Binewskis are not your average, run-of-the-mill family. They’re comprised of “circus freaks,” bred this way intentionally by mom and dad with the help of a few strong narcotics. One child has flippers, one is an albino hunchback, there’s a set of conjoined twins, and one boy who looks ordinary but definitely isn’t—perfect for when the family takes the act on the road. You’ll be dazzled by this novel and find yourself talking about what it means to be beautiful or ugly, normal or freakish, loyal or jealous.
A Little Life
Does your book club want to cry? This moving novel follows four friends from college as they move to New York City after graduation. Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude are broke but fueled by ambition. Their relationships ebb and flow over the years, with Jude acting as the connective tissue. A Little Life is an ode to brotherly love of the highest order and should be read with tissues nearby.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Lovers Ifemelu and Obinze are torn from each other as they depart military-ruled Nigeria. Ifemelu heads to America, where for the first time, she must deal with being a minority and what it means to be Black in the U.S. Obinze can’t get through customs in a post-9/11 world so instead goes to London and lives a dangerous, undocumented life. When the two are reunited 15 years later in democratic Nigeria, their love for one another is sparked for a second time.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads
Clemantine Wamariya was only six when her mother shooed her and her 15-year-old sister out of the house and told them to go, and not return. She and Claire fled the Rwandan genocide, moving throughout Africa for six years, from refugee camp to refugee camp, and finally ending up in America. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive. This memoir of war is harrowing and simultaneously uplifting, and sheds much-needed light on the Rwandan crisis.
Never read George Eliot’s study of provincial life? Though it’s set in the 1800s, readers will find similarities to today: there’s political change looming as well as advancing technology, scientific discovery, and—of course—good old-fashioned scandal. The drama between Dorothea Brooke, Dr. Lydgate, Fred Vincy, Will Ladislaw, Mary Garth, and the sinister John Raffles is as easily digestible as Real Housewives.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks was a poor Black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine. HeLa cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance. It’s is a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith-healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s also a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of.
What makes for the best book club books? Read It Forward readers told us they’re stories that have some real meat to it—ones that deal with issues ripe for discussion and that can be interpreted in multiple ways. The best part of reading in a group is getting to dissect the book with other smart people after you’re done reading. So much better than reading a book alone, then wishing someone else you knew had read it so you could unpack it!
RIF readers told us these were their favorite books they’d read in book club, so next time you need a guaranteed good read for your own book club—one that will fuel lots of discussion—pick one of these. And don’t forget to choose a bottle of wine to pair with the read!
Featured Image: Kate Gavino