Every year, the agonising moment comes around! The moment when I must put aside dithering, stop procrastinating, and finally commit — to the book I’m going to present at my Book Club! This should, in theory, be a breeze for someone like me. I always have a pile of wonderful books that I’ve just read. And an even taller pile of books that are just waiting to be read. Plus a teeteringly high pile that’s just … well … waiting patiently in my online shopping cart.
In truth, however, choosing the book that I will share with the dearest of friends at my Book Club, always turns out to be harrowing in the nicest possible way. The same way that an arduous trek undertaken to a soundtrack of protesting muscles and laboured breathing, finally rewards the climber with a breath-taking view!
What makes a book a good choice to read at a Book Club? For starters, the book must be written in the sort of achingly beautifully prose that has you feverishly bookmarking your favourite passages till the book has almost as many bookmarks as pages. The empathy and interest the book invokes should make you want to immediately befriend or adopt or even contemplate a relationship with a character or two. Or the book should make you long to travel, or even time-travel, to the country or the century it is set in. Travel via books is always by First Class and I’ve made many a marvellous journey be it to Istanbul during the Ottoman empire (My Name is Red) or the exotic Burmese city of Pegu, (The Jewel Trader of Pegu) or to the hostile landscape of Iceland in winter (Burial Rites).
Choosing a book which sparks debate is vital too, because what fun would it be if everyone in the room is arrayed on the same side of the argument. One of our most memorable reads was a book which led to us being divided, somewhat unevenly, in an ‘ALL versus one’ split. Phew! That was the time we sure needed to talk …and a lot …about Lionel Shriver’s Kevin.
Another stirring evening was when we discussed surrogacy and the ethical conundrum of individual choice. This was when we read Gita Aravamudam’s Baby Makers. This discussion happened soon after India passed an Act banning commercial surrogacy. I started off naïvely, supporting a woman’s right over her womb. The conversation over a long evening ended with me acknowledging that it was the State’s duty to step in to protect the vulnerable and exploited.
Sometimes, choosing the book becomes needlessly complicated. You find the perfect book only to discover, to your chagrin, that several members of your Book Club have already read it. This happened with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch which left me a breathlessly excited but hopelessly late arrival to a fan-club that was on the verge of being disbanded. Tartt’s admirers had found newer authors taking the number one spot on their list of favourites.
At times, a book that seems so apt for Book Club has a theme very similar to the last book we all read together. Would we have anything new to discuss about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad I wondered after I read this marvellous book and considered suggesting the title for Book Club. Hadn’t we as a group pretty much wrung ourselves dry on the issue of race during last month’s discussion of Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me?
Then there was the time I wanted to locate a book on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Saud Amiry’s Sharon and My Mother-in-Law ( Ramallah Diaries) seemed to fit the bill in most respects. It offered an insider view by a charming and interesting narrator. It was personal and funny as stories are bound to be when you introduce your mother-in-law into the narrative. All boxes were ticked, save one: easy availability of the book. ‘Hurry only one copy left!’ was the warning on one site and a steep price was the discouraging news from the other.
Books chosen for Book Club should ideally be priced in a way that does not further stretch our hopelessly overextended book budgets.
Books that have won major literary awards are usually interesting choices and our Book Club has been uncannily prescient in this respect. We finished reading Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss just weeks before she won the Booker and Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom just prior to his Sahitya Academy award.
The delicious dilemma involved in choosing ‘the’ suitable book for our Book Club has led to us, quite serendipitously, incorporating every one of the six literary rasas (flavours) in the amazing smorgasboard of books we’ve either sampled, nibbled to leave uneaten, declared as inedible and indigestible, or devoured — depending on our personal tastes.
Books redolent with the sweetness and spice of romantic love are always popular though we are usually fiercely divided in reaching a definitive understanding of true love. Is it the more literary and intellectual love of A.S Byatt’s Possession or the obsessive passion of Lily King’s Euphoria? The sharing of ideas that takes place at book clubs often leads to shifting perceptions and new lenses with which to view society. This provides an element of surprise and humour to even the most serious and heated of our discussions. Like the time someone in our group rather indignantly chided the rest for being judgemental about a certain character who had, after all, been “faithful to two women!”
Despite the friendly clashes over matters of ideology, philosophy and when to ring the bell signalling that we’ve partaken enough of all that our host has laid out on the dining table, a few rare moments of agreement do surface at our Book Club meetings. Not too frequently – just every other year or so.
Like the time we read Amor Towles’ The Gentleman from Moscow and developed something of a collective tendre for the dashing Count.
And, of course, there was that occasion for unanimous excitement when two of ‘our’ authors (meaning authors of two different books we had read at our book club) fell in love with each other. We haven’t kept tabs on that relationship since but I remember how much joy we derived from taking some of the credit for that romance.
Coming back to the six literary rasas, we’ve included the sour and sometimes bitter aftertaste by reading books which deal with human cruelty and violence . Among these were Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and Dave Eggers’ What is the What about the lost boys of Sudan. The astringent rasa found representation with Fay Weldon and Edward St Aubyn.
But the furrowed-brow and the angst does not clear once I’ve finally located ‘The Suitable Book’. Because then, I still have to figure how best to lead the discussion. Our Book Club’s format has been that the person who suggests the book presents some information on the author and the book and then leads and moderates the discussion that follows. But more on that in my next post.
Anyway, I have just narrowed my choice down to six books. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Sujata Gidla’s The Ant among Elephants. P Sivakami’s The Taming of Women. Andrew Sean Greer’s Pultitzer-winning Less. And either one of Perumal Murugan’s two latest books, Poonachi or The Goat Thief.
I guess I’ll just have to fall back on the fool-proof method that’s worked so well for me all through these twelve years — Eeny Meeny Mina Mo.