Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Fiction and Friends

How nice - an article about our book group in the NST. The evening we did the interview (ending up at American Chillis) was a totally hilarious evening which we all enjoyed very much.

There are book groups all over the civilised world, but ours is one of the first and most successful in Malaysia, and I hope that this article gets more and more people thinking about starting one up for themselves and their friends. Malaysians generally don't read, and I think if we are encouraging readership, we're doing something very valuable indeed that goes far beyond whether we ourselves enjoy talking about the books or not.

I'm a lady with a book crusading mission!
The members of Fiction and Friends are a jovial lot who enjoy one another’s company as much as sharing a good book, RUHAYAT X learns.

A BOOK is a machine to think with,” Ivor Armstrong Richards proclaimed in 1928. His Principles of Literary Criticism helped kick off the age of modern literary appreciation, in which a book becomes like a loom “to re-weave some ravelled parts of our civilization.”

And suddenly, you think, the idea of book clubs and why the members seem to be predominantly female makes a bit more sense. In days of old, women in villages would congregate around a particular activity-like weaving, for example-which becomes the vehicle for bonding and keeping the fabric of society together.

With the coming of industrialisation looms went out of fashion, but the need to bond remained. So perhaps suitably contemporary ways of passing the time constructively, like dissecting books, stepped in to fill the void?

Who knows? Ask the people at Fiction and Friends and they don’t have a ready answer, either. You get the sense it does not really matter to them anyway.

“Why are our members mainly female? Maybe it’s because men don’t like to share their feelings about things as much as women do,” offers Sharon Bakar, 49, a writer and teacher.

She joined the book club in the second week of its inception and is acknowledged, by common consensus, as the main driving force whose enthusiasm has been keeping it alive.

“Men don’t read as much as women,” is the cheeky response from Animah Kosai, a 37-year-old legal counsel for a multinational.

“Or they are slow readers,” Uma Sivengnandass shouts out, to howls of laughter from the group.

Whatever the reason may be, the club has seen its membership rise and fall since it was formed in 2001, and although there is a nice mixture in terms of age and occupation, in those three years there have only been four male members, two of whom joined only recently.

“Well, those men who have not joined don’t know what they are missing,” says Krishna Kumar, the only male who turned up that night, with a hoot. “Why not? You are surrounded by all these lovely ladies and you have their attention for two hours.”

The engineer joined the club a couple of book readings ago with his wife, Uma, 33, a strategic sourcing manager. Sharon adds with a wink that Uma probably tagged along just to keep an eye on hubby.

This kind of easy banter is pretty much how it is most of the time, she says.

There have been the heated argument or two, but by and large they tend to respect each others opinions as readers.

But why discuss books at all, in the first place? Reading is a solitary activity, so what can you possibly get out of sharing what you feel about a particular book with a group? Is it the terribly modern need for validation? The desire to impose your thoughts and opinions on someone else, perhaps?

The answer is somewhat more benign.“We find out what other people think about a book,” replies Jessica Sidhu, 33, a paralegal. “We can compare our ideas and see more details than we would have if we read it on our own.”

“I think for a lot of us it is the act of reliving the enjoyment we had when reading the book,” says Kumar.

“Sometimes someone says something we haven’t thought about,” Shamala Palaniappan jumps in. The 29-year-old technical specialist is the most recent member, having just joined one book ago. “Something that makes you look at the book in a new light.”

Shamala did not have any expectations when she turned up for the session last month she says, but is now hooked enough that she is eagerly looking forward to the next one.

She had found out about Fiction and Friends through her friend Sandra Soliano who, with housewife Muntaj Begum, are the other two long-time members of the club.

Sandra credits Muntaj, 54, as another big reason why Fiction and Friends is still chugging along when a lot of similar gatherings typically disappear after four or five months. She is the de facto secretary for the club, volunteering to keep records of the members and their meetings. And, together with Sandra, she provides strong moral support for the group’s activities.

Through the grapevine is pretty much how the club has been picking up members as it rolled along after it got started by Caris Lim, a Swiss woman married to a Malaysian. She has since left the country, but three years on her legacy lives on and has even been picking up strength recently.

The original members had been wives of expatriates working in the country. As the years went by they have steadily dropped off and the core group is now local. Sharon is the only odd Mat Salleh in the group, as she puts it, but she is actually very much a local, having been in the country for more than 20 years and married to a Malaysian for much of that.

When Sharon tried out another recruiting method by advertising the club at an online literary website, they got such a good response that the regular members are now facing the possibility of having to turn people away.

“We have 38 members in our database but usually only eight would turn up at the meetings. But after I placed a classified advertisement in Kakiseni.com, 17 people came for the last meeting,” she declares. “But that could also be because of the book we were going to do, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, which is a very popular book right now.”

While they were surprised and happy with the response, the group agreed that 17 proved to be too unwieldy. Eight would be the optimum number, Sharon feels, and 12 the ceiling. So if the crowd remains large for the next meeting they may have to advise people to start up their own clubs with friends instead.

“It’s a lot of fun having a book club. People can get together and chat about a book they like and enjoy the friendship. It’s become like a social outing for us. We’d like to encourage other people to start their own book clubs. We are more than willing to help with advice on how to get it started and keep it running,” she says.

Fiction and Friends meets once a month, on a Tuesday, to discuss a book that has been assigned the month before. Sometimes they are given three months to finish it, if it is a particularly long book or difficult to get. There is no specific place for the meeting-usually it takes place at someone’s home or a quiet spot in a restaurant.

“Every book that is recommended by a member must be something they have already read,” says Sandra, although there were one or two exceptions, Corelli’s Mandolin that Sharon had suggested even though she had not read it.

Members take turns to recommend the titles to be discussed and the eventual choice is chosen by popular vote. This democratic method extends to their meetings as well, which is regulated by someone designated to lead the session to ensure that everyone will have their say.

The eight who turned out tonight are more or less the core group who turns up each time. What do they get out of the club that keeps them coming back for more?

“Friendship,” says Shamala.

“Satisfaction of reading a book that you don’t want to read, or one that we might not have read out of our own choice,” replies Jessica. “Sometimes I would start reading a book and I would think, ‘My God, what have I gotten myself into?’ But then at the end of it I couldn’t put it down because I’ve enjoyed it so much.”

Not that they always enjoy what they have to read.

“Sometimes we all mutually agree on a book we like, like Anil’s Ghost by Michael Oondatje and Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. Or what we don’t like. But we won’t mention what they are,” says Animah.

To date they have done 36 books, ranging from serious literature like John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, through classics like Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

But they are not so snooty as to decline popular bestsellers such as The Da Vince Code or even below-the-radar stuff like The Merlion and the Hibiscus: Contemporary Short Stories from Singapore and Malaysia. Usually, Sandra says, they spend about two hours discussing each book.

Two hours? Wouldn’t they rather be watching television, or just watching the film adaptation instead? That gets an enthusiastic, “No!” from around the table.

“I would never, never, ever want to watch Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (the film starring Nicolas Cage),” Sharon says, and you almost expect her to burst into sobs. “I am so in love with the Captain Corelli I have in my head.”

This is one group that definitely enjoys reading, and the friendship that the books bind them with is the icing on the cake.

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