Once every month, we’ll share the motivation and passion that drives one book club — it could be yours! — from across the globe. These are the people who have combined the solitary pleasure of reading a book with the joy of sharing, discussing, and debating it in a social setting. For August’s Book Club Spotlight, we heard from our first Asia-based group: Rachel Joseph, who moved from London, England to Malaysia, started the Bangsar Book Club, which features a mixed membership of locals and expats. At one meeting, Rachel sneakily invited the book’s author to attend undercover and hear valuable feedback about his book!
What was the inspiration for starting the Bangsar Book Club?
When I moved to Malaysia I wanted to join a book club, as I enjoyed attending my previous one so much. But I couldn’t find one, so I thought I’d start my own. It’s a random and transient membership, which was what I intended. I have a group Facebook page which gives details of the books we are reading and when we are meeting, but I never know who will be there until the night.
It was initially expats, but now we have more of a mix with locals and that’s what I had hoped. I have definitely made new friends through book club, as it broadens my awareness of what is out there to read — sadly, though, it is usually all-female, which I didn’t intend and don’t know how to change. My last book group was more of a mix.
How does your group select each book? It there specific criteria?
We take turns in choosing, and the criteria are as follows:
· Under 400 pages;
· Easily available;
· Something you haven’t read, want to read, and are willing to turn up for;
· Has not been featured on Richard & Judy/Oprah — no “chick lit”;
· No books that have been made into films;
· A preference will be given for new(ish) books and those by Asian authors;
I also do not accept nominations from people who haven’t been to meetings at least twice. I have to admit to basing these rules on those of my former book club as that seemed to work pretty well, though I have added my own touches.
Your group’s Facebook page mentions that you give a preference to Asian authors in choosing books. Can you tell me why that is?
I came to Malaysia with my family for my husband’s job. I think reading Asian authors will give me a better understanding of the countries around here, and I hope that by living here, I am better placed to understand them. When I was living in London, England, I used to recommend books by, for example, Will Self and Martin Amis to my best friend back home in Newcastle. She never enjoyed them as much, and she thought it was because she wasn’t living in London — she called them London-centric. I think I am ideally placed to enjoy Asian literature now.
Do you incorporate food, films, field trips, or other bonus features into your meetings?
No. It’s generally all about the books, though we don’t always stick with the book that has been read. It’s sometimes these forays into extra-curricular reading that are the most interesting and give our “heavy” readers some new ideas.
If you could invite any author (or even just any person) to join one of your meetings, who would it be and why?
Will Self — he’s one of my favourite authors and incredibly intelligent and opinionated, so he would be an ideal person to join our club. I’d probably take him for a drink afterwards, too…
I really enjoyed Ghostwritten by David Mitchell. It has stayed with me since I read it, as it’s very quotable, and it’s one of the few books I can see myself going back to read a second time. It has a lot of depth, and I think I’d get something new out of it the next time. It encouraged me to read his other books, too. It’s a book of nine short stories, but all are connected. They are all radically different with different narrators and settings but he manages to write them all convincingly and brilliantly. The ending is bizarre and leaves you with a lot of questions — but I like that.
The best book we have ever had for discussion is We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. This still comes up when we are discussing other books! It’s a brilliant, stay-up-all-night kind of book that everyone has a different opinion on.
However, the best book club night was when we discussed 21 Immortals: Inspector Mislan and the Yee Sang Murders by local author Rozlan Mohd. We were mainly keen on the book and it was a good one to discuss, as it had a real local flavour we could all identify with and we had a lot of unanswered questions that we pondered. But the big surprise was that the author got in touch with me and asked if he could attend to get pointers on his writing. I told him I thought it would inhibit discussion, but he could come incognito, which he took me up on. I was the only one aware of who he was and was cringing with any criticism, but fortunately it was mainly positive stuff. Everyone loved the surprise when he outed himself at the end and signed our books, and he found the feedback valuable. He has just had his second novel published.
My personal favourite books are How The Dead Live by Will Self and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.
To be featured in a future Book Club Spotlight, email email@example.com with a brief description of your club and what makes it stand apart from the rest.