Book group food is a conundrum, too little and readers are left dissatisfied, too much and it extends into dinner party territory. My book group’s journey through good reads and the accompanying food traces its nervous beginnings with a bowl of crisps and a few dips and slowly but surely veered off into 3 course dinners and has now come full circle to bring a bowl simplicity.
The books are as varied as the readers, from the imaginary world of Timbuktu (Paul Auster), to the fantastical Cloud Atlas (David Mitchel) and on into Scandinavian life inf The True Deceiver (Tove Jansson). We dallied in Pakistan with A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Mohammed Hanif) were taken on a Caribbean journey in Guerrillas (VS Naipaul) and were divided by Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
The Secret Life of France (Lucy Wadham) added a French twist and not much French accord. We were brought back together by The Leopard (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) applying liberal doses of Sicilian sumptuous feats serving to make our mouths water, only to enter the dark stark brilliance of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 and paired down simplicity of Murakami’s After Dark .
And on our bookish journey went to a gem of a story – of life seen through the eyes of a child refugee settling down to life in London, with it’s beauties and horrors in Pigeon English (Stephen Kelman) and into the complex other worldly but autobiographical Sexing The Cherry (Jeanette Winterson) and diving into the magical lives of The Tiger’s Wife (Téa Obreht) and the Life of Pi (Yann Martel).
Only to emerge into the streets of London in The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes), Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question and London Observed (Dorris Lessing ) – a city we have all lived and worked in, loved in, and moved on from – a city with lives known well enough to tell our own stories.
We have dipped our toes in the sci-fi thriller The City and The City (China Mieville), hooted and guffawed with When You Are Engulfed in Flames (David Sedaris), but not all equally!
We have traversed the ice flows of Greenland in Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow (Peter Hoeg), returned to Scandinavia thanks to Tove Jansson with her short story collection Art In Nature and discovered that short stories are tricky to discuss.
The Great Gatsby (F Scott Fitzgerald) provided us with a classic debate and the latest offering Mister Pip (Lloyd Jones) – a story within a story using the classic Dickens novel of Great Expectations to tell a tale through the eyes of a thirteen year old girl living on a war-torn Pacific Island – a resounding book group success, although maybe not the ending!
We read, we agree and disagree, we learn from others perspectives, we are still learning to listen to each other and not have several conversations going at the same time. We are still learning about food too. What works and what doesn’t. Who is a vegetarian, who eats fish, who will frankly eat anything? And invariably our generosity gets the better of us, as do the bottles of wine we bring.
We need a book of substance, one that will generate a discussion where we can interpret, question and of course disagree. A good book group book needs to challenge, yet tell a story we can equate to, leave some questions unanswered so we can fill in the blanks.. There is no joy on just agreeing that we all liked the book, or we all thought it was ok, or even worse, nice. The book needs some oomph and schbang! It needs a flame to ignite our imaginations and talk.
Equally we need the confidence to share our thoughts and the words to express ourselves. Books give us a way to learn, a means of appreciating and understanding a little bit more, they can take us to other cultures, other times, enable us to wander off into magical realism only to return to contemporary struggles. And as we read, talk and listen I hope we have grown in confidence and maybe even appreciation. But I’m sure we’d all disagree as to what extent!
The universal art of story-telling is never lost nor are the commonalities of humankind from the minutiae of daily life to the momentous moments of history, simultaneously giving us fodder for our brains and enticing our emotions. We all read the same words yet see them differently. We all react and respond to the words but will take away personal pieces.
We provide food, food made by busy workers for busy lives, shared around a common interest in stories and a desire to explore the world through its stories. Often confusing and confounding – the stories not the food! The books we read and the book group evenings provide us with a diversion from real life. It brings a group of friends together to share their thoughts, their passions and no doubt foibles that no other evening can.
Ultimately the element that brings the evenings together is the food and wine, it provides the glue – whether it’s a bag of crisps and a dip or two, a carefully presented salad or a hastily thrown together cake. We are united around the dinner table, regardless of what we think about the book!
And about the cake? I sometimes opt to make a sweet treat; it’s a chance for me to try out a fellow bloggers recipe and a chance for me to bake. Rhubarb cake turns out to be a perfect sweet-sour treat especially when served with a coffee at the end of a busy and chatter filled evening. And it couldn’t be simpler. A batter with fruit – in my case all you have to do is have a friend who has a surplus to requirement supply of rhubarb to slice up and plonk in. The recipe is here, I’m sure it would work with any fruit – be it plums or cherries, grapes or apples, whatever your allotment or garden gives you. But Rhubarb is in season and it’s a sweet-sour short season, so get your fill!
The photos are from Great Dixter (where else?!) taken on my trip to the nursery. The Magnolias are stunning and interestingly 10 miles inland still in full bloom, here on the coast they have all but been replaced with the acid greens of newly emerging leaves, Spring is progressing into Summer my friends.