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Walk a Mile for a CAMEL? Or Characteristics of Books that Generate Great Discussions

April 11, 2014

Camel.trioDear Book Club Cheerleader:

My book club is just starting out and we’re more than a bit confused about what books to choose. We see lists of “great book club books” everywhere. But what does that mean? I read in some of your reviews that you refer to certain books as being “discussable”—but why? What makes one book more discussable than another?

Book Bewildered in Buffalo

Dear Bewildered:

What serendipity! Just a couple of weekends ago, I spoke to a group of WNBAers (Women’s National Book Association, not Basketball…) about what characteristics book clubs look for when selecting their group reads.

Of course, every book club is different. In fact some clubs read only one genre. If you can name a genre, there’s probably a book club out there reading only that—such as Mystery, Romance, Faith-based, Speculative Fiction or even Southern Apocalyptic Zombie Erotica. OK, I made up that last one, but you get my point… But more mainstream book clubs have found success in following the CAMEL rule. Note that all books will not have all of these qualities, but the more they have, the better the potential for an interesting discussion with your reading group. (So be sure to pick up more wine—your gals are going to be talking late into the night.)

CAMEL – Characteristics of Books that Generate Great Discussions

C – Complex Characters:
Well-rounded, 3-D characters – They don’t have to be likable, but they MUST be interesting and/or relatable. (Think Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind or Framboise Simon in Joanne Harris’s Five Quarters of the Orange.)
Character Development – Your protagonist should develop in the book as she responds to a challenge and makes difficult choices—such as Mary Sutter in Robin Oliveira’s My Name is Mary Sutter, or Ernest Pettigrew in Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

A – Ambiguity:
Character’s motivations or actions – There is probably no better conversation than, “What was he thinking?” or “Why do you think she did what she did?”
Moral ambiguity in a topic or theme – Can you see both sides, or do you believe that one side is definitely right or wrong? And why?
Unreliable Narrator – When you cannot trust what you are being told, what are you to think? Whether it’s due to personal bias, ignorance or mental instability, this kind of narrator can really leave you wondering…When Holden Caulfield (from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye) tells us he’s “the most terrific liar you ever saw” you’re rather left to your own devices to figure out what you want to believe is true. Pi Patel’s marvelously colorful story (Yann Martel’s Life of Pi) is another wonderful example that keeps you pondering the possibilities…
Ending – When all plot lines are not tied up in a neat little bow, your group can have a great exchange about what they think might’ve happened. “What If” speculation is a great conversation spark. Carolyn Turgeon’s Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story a great example—my neighborhood book club went into double-overtime talking about this ending. And isn’t that what we loved about The Giver by Lois Lowry?

M – Meaty Issues:
Social Problems – Such as alcoholism, class conflict, and racism. (Think, James McBride’s The Color of Water or Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.)
Controversial topics – Like censorship, death and depression. For example, Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides or JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.
Relevant to current events – For instance domestic violence, feminism, and homosexuality. Robert Leleux’s Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal are a good cases in point.
Timely or timeless themes – Such as good and evil; love and relationships; inclusion and belonging, and coming of age. While Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the classic benchmark for the later, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is a more current illustration (pun intended.)
The heavier the issue, the more heated the dialogue can get, so you must remember that everyone is entitled to her own opinion, and at some point you may just have to agree to disagree. But when members can debate respectfully, it’s all good…

E -Exceptional Setting:
Other Countries and/or Cultures – When you can see the world through your reading, not only do you learn something new about another culture, but you also learn something new about yourself and how you react to the “otherness.” Discussing the differences as well as the similarities always makes for a fascinating conversation! For example, you’ll discover much about ‘the lost boys’ of Africa from Dave Eggers’s What is the What, while Jung Chang’s Wild Swans doesn’t just inform you on Chinese culture—but three generations of that culture from Imperial to Communist—giving you tons to talk about!
Unfamiliar time period – I learn more about history through reading historical fiction than I ever learned in history class. Think how much you found out about The Depression by reading Red’s point of view in Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit or about slavery from Handful’s perspective in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. Living vicariously through your protagonist gives you more of a stake in the plot. Time travel by way of books can be not only educational—with no flux capacitors needed—but also quite an enjoyable experience. Compare those discoveries in your club chat.

L – Language:
Beautiful Prose – We all can remember passages that caused us to catch our breath and required us to back up to re-read and savor the words. (I can distinctly remember not being able to get very far reading Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain or David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars without stopping a zillion times to re-read entire paragraphs.) Encourage your fellow group members to note favorite passages so they can share them with the group at your meeting.
Interesting literary devises – These could be anything we find clever such as changing Point of View, use of foreshadowing, reoccurring themes—and one of my favorites: effective use of comic relief or humor. I recently read one of my favorite passages of humor from Jeanine Cummins’s The Crooked Branch aloud to my neighborhood book club buddies: “…They told me I was brave and I was doing a great job. I didn’t have much choice. I squeezed my eyes shut so that my eyeballs wouldn’t spring free of my head. My baby would be born, and during the big, beautiful moment of arrival, it (he, she) would get hit in the head with my runaway eyeball. An inauspicious greeting.
‘Welcome to the world, baby!’ PING! ‘Oh, don’t mind that, sweetie—no, no, don’t cry. It’s just Mommy’s eyeball’.” Comic genius!
Fresh plotting – Reading groups avoid anything formulaic. There’s nothing worse than feeling as though you’ve read this story before—and only the names have changed. This is one reason that many book clubs eschew your boiler-plate Mysteries or Romance. Once you know how it ends, what’s there to talk about? Of course Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and William Landay’s Defending Jacob break these molds as there is so much more than plot to discuss—pretty much all the CAMELs above! Also, more literary mysteries such as Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series don’t follow the typically prescribed standards for a mystery and generate rich conversations.

Caveats: Of course, the CAMEL characteristics alone cannot ensure a good discussion for your book club. You must also ensure that your group changes up their reading often. You may think that three books in a row with a Chinese theme might be interesting from a ‘compare and contrast’ perspective, but many groups I coach have been driven to boredom by such strategies. Trying to achieve ‘book balance’ throughout your reading year is a much better approach.

In addition to ‘discussable’ books and a variety of selections, you should also tap a skilled facilitator to keep your discussion on track, build a group of people who feel safe discussing personal reactions to what they’ve read—and some would also say, ‘serve good food’. (I would argue ‘pour good wine’—but that’s just me.)

Your CAMEL need not pass through the eye of a needle, nor must you walk a mile for one… But following the CAMEL rules will help you and your book club choose more discussable books. Come to think of it, walking is very good for us, and it does help to counter-act our beloved but sedentary hobby of reading. So—what the heck—go ahead and walk a mile (or two) for your CAMEL! You can then laze on the couch with your compelling book club selection without any guilt, whatsoever.



Related Articles:
Book Club Cheerleader’s Top 10 Book Club Books of 2013
Book Club Cheerleader’s Top 10 Book Club Books of 2012

National Reading Group Month Selects Great Group Reads
Favorite Book Group Reads of 2013 by Reading Group
LitLovers Guides—Top 50 Book Club Books
Top Book Club Picks of 2013 by Book Movement

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McLennan permalink
    April 13, 2014 5:41 am

    I quite appreciate how to choose a good book for discussion/reading using the CAMEL method. I think it might be useful and productive to use these guidelines when writing a book. Thanks, Suzanne McLenan

  2. April 13, 2014 7:10 pm

    Marsha–This is a very thoughtful and incredibly helpful list. As someone involved in facilitating more than one book club I would say you nailed it and I would add that, frequently, our most-discussed books are those that push our comfort zones. Chevy Stevens’ “Still Missing,” (a plot line that challenges every-day views of our safety), Zoe Ferraris’ “City of Veils” series (showing a different side of Saudi/Islamic women), or the “true but offbeat/unsettling” like “The Midget’s House” and “The Nazi Officer’s Wife” that lead to discussions about lives of objectivity, compromises we make in life, and people who, if viewed through a different lens, are not what we may have presumed. Perhaps, “C” is sometimes for “challenging?”

    • April 14, 2014 1:59 pm

      Alyce: Thanks for the additional titles–I’ve read “Still Missing” (Isn’t Chevy a clever writer?) but will have to check out the rest. Love getting new titles! Continued good luck with your book clubs! Cheers! MTE

  3. April 14, 2014 9:10 am

    Marsha, this is great! I love the summary approach. For a book, perhaps expanding each item with a relevant quote from that book or from a book review would add depth. BTW, I always love reading your book reviews! All the best! Kay

  4. April 15, 2014 5:51 am

    This is a terrific guide! And, as a writer, I’m going to save this as a reminder of the great attributes of classic novels I love.

    • April 15, 2014 1:12 pm

      Thanks, Karen. I’m glad that writers–as well as readers–find CAMEL helpful. Thanks for stopping by. Cheers!

  5. Loraine Branan permalink
    April 16, 2014 10:36 am

    Brilliant! We are currently searching for a great series for our club, this guide will be helpful. We are leaning towards Letters From Love by Roberta Grimes, it seems like a great series to really bring out great discussions. is her site, if anyone needs a recommendation I will see how it goes and let you know!

    • April 16, 2014 10:42 am

      Loraine: Glad your club finds it helpful. I’m not familiar with Roberta Grimes, but will definitely have to check her out!Thanks for stopping by!

  6. April 23, 2014 1:17 pm

    Great post! I think I’ll mention this to my book club, since we’re getting ready to pick another round of books!

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