The Itsy-Bitsy Book Club 2014

The Rules

1) Choose a friend. My Itsy-Bitsy Book Club partner is college friend, Rachel Hall.

2) Choose a date. The itsy-bitsy part of this club means just once a year. The beginning of spring -- now -- is a perfect time for connecting with a friend. I see Rachel only at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference; though this book club doesn't require in-person coordination, AWP has an amazing bookfair we wander together one afternoon.

3) Choose a book. The book must be one neither of you have read. If you need a recommendation, browse your nearest physical bookstore, perhaps simultaneously, if you live far from each other, so that you can choose together. My friend Rachel Hall chooses the book, but I retain veto power.

4) As you read, exchange phone calls or email messages. You may find that an email message saying that you've started reading nudges your friend, or you may want to set a reading schedule and regular check-in days.

This Year's Book: The Necessity of Certain Behaviors

For our Itsy-Bitsy Book Club 2014, we chose The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, a story collection by Shannon Cain that won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. On our flights home to opposite ends of the country, we both read the first story, titled appropriately "This Is How It Starts." When we landed, Rachel texted, "Just read first story in our book. It's good!"

I continued reading one of the nine stories each of the following nights. I texted Rachel, "I liked the second story a lot." In it, Francis, an oncology nurse and "desperate single mother," embarks on a cross-country road trip to sell the pot she grows to pay off marital credit card debt. "Cultivation" is the story's title, and this activity means a lot to Frances: "there's nothing else in her life that offers the same satisfaction as the squat plants, the cultivation of perfect, tight, and tender buds, the recognition that she's expert at something." Yes, growing weed is illegal, but this story isn't about that as much as it is about the characters, particularly about how mothers deal with daughters who are on the verge of adulthood.

Rachel replied to my text, "I haven't found one [story] that I DON'T like yet! We picked a doozy this year." Indeed, I found myself captivated by what might happen when a mayor's wife is caught alone and off guard in the sauna at the YMCA by two teenage girls. And I was equally drawn into what might happen when an animal at the Queer Zoo exhibits only heterosexual behavior. And the final story -- the title story -- is rather fantastical, as a woman somewhat inadvertently travels to a remote village full of unfamiliar behaviors but in which she, unexpectedly, doesn't feel like a stranger.

Rachel is right. This collection is a doozy, full of realistic characters and quirky situations. Like me, she found it cohesive from story to story -- there exist overarching themes to be sensed --without being redundant. What really moved us as readers and human beings was, as Rachel put it, "the kindness with which Cain treats all her characters." Recent studies and articles have pointed out that readers of fiction develop greater empathy, and Cain's book is a wonderful example of how that happens.

The History of Our Itsy-Bitsy Book Club Books

Last year, we read Correction of Drift, an experimental, fictional recounting of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.

In 2012, we read Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, a book published by Dorothy, a press dedicated to publishing work written by women.

In 2011, we read In the House, a book of short pieces that bridge distinctions between short stories and poems.

In other words, our reading in The Itsy-Bitsy Book Club has been eclectic. We've read books that we probably wouldn't have read on our own, and we've consciously chosen books from small presses. This approach isn't for everyone, but, for me, it adds another layer of specialness to our connection as reading friends.

That said, we do think that The Necessity of Certain Behaviors will appeal to a variety of readers. We highly recommend it and especially hope that those readers who don't usually pick up story collections grab this one and see how terrific a good short story -- or nine -- can be.