Book club is just as much about logistics as it is about literature. It begins with the not necessarily harmonious discussion of which book next. Determination beats hushed thoughtfulness every time. What really irritates me is that the determined suggestion is usually a good one. (We never get as far as evaluating the hushed one.) There’s an odd tendency for the suggester to be elsewhere the night their choice reaches the table.
Then there’s acquiring the book. I’ve taken an oath to borrow rather than buy – usually I’m glad to have read the book but I don’t want to own it. So I need to make a fine judgement. If I read it too early in the 2-month period, I’ll forget it. If I leave it too late, the book will be out on loan to a series of people until well into the next century. Usually I manage to get it right. If I borrow too early, I make brief notes – character, theme, key events, nice turns of phrase, things I like best, things that drive me nuts (like the green eyes of the woman in Shantaram –which I did buy, since it was my first book club and I had a strong sense of proper behaviour.)
Occasionally there’s a dilemma of modality and courtesy. Judith Lucy’s Lucy family alphabet soup is abysmal. How do I express the level of my dislike without offence? As it happens, no-one else likes it anyway. We spent discussion time that night reassessing the way we do things.
When I stopped teaching, I thought I’d finished with the fine discriminations required by marks out of ten. Not so. We start our discussion with a round-table numerical assessment, so we can see how the land lies. Is it a 4.5 or a 5? And what can I say to justify that rating when everyone else has struggled not to give it 10/10, because it wasn’t quite perfect?
After the scoring we take it in turns to talk about our response. That’s to circumvent interruption and domination. I enjoy this time. It offers an insight into the minds and preoccupations of these quite amazing women, most of whom I meet only at Book Club. Even when I’m in wild disagreement with an interpretation I know it will provide me with food for thought as I drive home the next morning.
Then there’s the alternate video nights. I’m dumb in the face of choice here mostly, because I’m not a big video consumer and I’m usually part of an audience of maybe three in the small Kinema at Narooma. So I’m almost hesitant to complain when we watch Ben Kingsley don his medals and suffocate in a plastic bag in The house of sand and fog. However, I become vocal about dismemberment after The lovely bones, all the more a seed-bed for nightmares because it is suggested rather than actual butchery. I practise appropriate modality in less-than-strident insistence, and the next video night we watch Babies. To put the record straight, I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed, against all expectation, Mama mia and (with no expectations) Black Orpheus.
I haven’t mentioned food. Food takes as much thought-space as the most demanding book. I can’t take fruit salad every month, but it’s about all I can think of to cater for the fish-allergic, the gluten-free, the dairy intolerant and the vegan. That accounts for 70% of us. My limited repertoire, lovingly accumulated over 60 years, has to be ditched and I struggle to replace it. Curried vegetables. Fruit salad. Lentil and lime soup. Fruit salad. Fruit salad. And today orange almond cake, which needs, I’ve just discovered, food processing – and my food processor is broken.
None of this matters at all when I think about the life of Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, whose book I shall not hate we read tonight.