One of the biggest benefits of a book club (book clubs) is that you don’t get to always pick the books, other people do. Now, let me tell you, as a teacher and librarian it’s not easy giving up that control or the power, but if you do, when you do, you may discover some happy surprises.
The books I have read because I have had to as a reviewer, or as a book club member, are too many to list. As a reader, my tastes lean to historical fiction, literary fiction, Canadian fiction and memoir. I tend to really favour female protagonists. As a secondary school librarian, I read social justice (diverse literature) and YA. For my beloved SUCCESS program at school I also include picture books. I read widely. And here is the rub, even after all these books and all this time, I still get it wrong.
For example, when I joined The Authors’ Book Club, David Albertyn, our co-founder, sent me a copy of his novel Undercard as a thank you. He even wrote a lovely dedication inside. I read the blurb and the synopsis, thought, “that’s nice” and filed it on my book shelf. To be fair, I did think I would show it to my husband or middle son, because it might appeal to them. I mean boxing? Vegas? A thriller? Not exactly my cup of tea.
And here we are. Six months later, a global pandemic, David’s U.S. release and an Authors’ Book Club event where I am moderating. I can’t exactly show up when I haven’t read the book. And you know what? I love it. It is a story of friendship, intrigue, passion, history, boxing, racism, policing, military and so many other issues all woven in. Mostly though, it is a well-paced story with likeable characters who you want to follow on their journey. And really, isn’t that it? Characters we care about, on a journey we can relate to. Isn’t that the essence of good storytelling and what readers want in a book?
I don’t like boxing. I have never been to Las Vegas. I am not a supporter of the police, or the military, and on the surface that is what this book is about. But dig beneath the surface and it is a fast paced, rewarding read with relatable, interesting characters, and that is what readers want.
So, if someone in your book club picks a book that doesn’t appeal. Or, if you get a book as a gift that you would never pick for yourself, take a chance, dive in and actually read it. Take it from me, a seasoned reader, it could be worth the chance. Just read.
Fiona Ross is teacher librarian and book club consultant with The Authors’ Book Club. From the time she read her first novel, Bimbo and Topsy by Enid Blyton at age 6, she was hooked on fiction. Fiona is an avid reader, a teacher librarian, a current member of two book clubs and past chair of the Secondary Fiction Review Committee at the Peel District School Board. She also serves on the planning committee at the Festival of Literary Diversity, (FOLD). Although her job demands lots of YA she occasionally tries to read a book aimed at adult readers.
In Curry,Naben Ruthnum grapples with novels, recipes, travelogues, pop culture, and his own upbringing and depicts how the distinctive taste of curry has often become maladroit shorthand for brown identity. Curry is a dish that doesn’t quite exist, but, as this wildly funny and sharp essay points out, a dish that doesn’t properly exist can have infinite, equally authentic variations.
Get a taste of Curry in the following excerpt, and read Naben’s thoughts on the passage below.
The second curry of note I’ll mention is Homecoming Shrimp Curry, which has become the staple meal I associate with Christmas in the Ruthnum household. It’s shouldered aside kleftiko and a Persian fish dish with a walnut stuffing as the go-to son-pleaser for my annual returns home, and my parents like it just as much as I do. It’s a deep greenish-brown, a shade you don’t often see in Indian restaurants outside of perhaps a saag: while Westerners may like brown food, they don’t like it to actually be brown. The sauce has a density earned by its ingredients and process: Mom makes the masala with large, motherfuckering onion chunks that would be the star of the dish if the sauce didn’t take a midmorning whirl through the food processor before being returned to the pan. The huge shrimp, decanted frozen into a colander from a frozen bag, like chilled practical effects from a 1980s alien-invasion movie before the sauce catches up to them and they’re subsumed into the curry, white and pink peaks in the murky simmer.
Time and varying heat are key to this dish’s success, a daylong process of heating, settling, cooling, and boiling whose alchemy seems beyond science. That’s often part of curry narra- tives, too: the ineffable, inexplicable Eastern magic performed on electric Western stoves. Top British chef Heston Blumenthal, on his television show In Search of Perfection, where he sought to make perfected versions of classic dishes such as hamburger and steak by seeking out their ur-versions and distilling histor- ically successful processes into a measured, modern method, had scientists do a study on the use of yogourt in the marinade for chicken cooked in a tandoor for his tikka masala episode.
While it was proven that yogourt vastly aided the marinade’s absorption, they couldn’t figure out why. It just did. While this made for an irresistible y[ moment, and I don’t doubt Mr. Blumenthal’s standards or the BBC’s scientist-hiring resources, it strikes me as odd that what seems like a simple matter of chemistry and biology should be insoluble.
There’s no magic or formula involved in the time and heat factors of Homecoming Shrimp Curry, but there is particularity. As in many immigrant households, one of my parents prepared food in the morning and reheated it throughout the day, the knobs on the stove and eventually the button on the microwave enduring twists and pokes as mealtimes came around. In the case of this curry, the multiple simmerings are what elevate it to Christmas dinner and my first off-the-plane meal. The basics are simple, and as I can’t think of a good reason not to include the recipe, I’ll give it to you. Here’s a direct paste of the email that Mom sent me so I could botch the making of the dish:
I called to inquire about the accuracy of this recipe, and it turns out my recall was wrong: Mom does food-process the onions before the cooking starts, not after. The pureeing-of- the-completed-sauce thing comes, I realize, from a Gordon Ramsay chicken tikka masala recipe I used to make all the time when I lived in Montreal, with a roommate who had a Cuisinart. Mom also leaves out the bit about time lapses and reheating throughout the day, but that’s hard to quantify on the page. I don’t follow the turmeric-fry step of the recipe-seems to me that the shrimp cook so fast, they should do it in the gravy where they belong. Then again, my dish somehow isn’t a patch to Mom’s: this is a trope, yes, but it remains true here – I know I can fix it if I master the timing.
There are some moments in this recipe that an Indian- cuisine purist would find harrowing. For example, the ‘fish curry powder from Superstore.’ At the popular food blog Foodàó, Bay Area food writer Annada Rathi rails against these concoctions: ‘That’s when I feel like screaming from the rooftops, “Curry is not Indian!”; “Curry powder is not Indian!”; and “You will not find curry powder in Indian kitchens!”’ She’s certainly been in more kitchens in India than the zero I’ve entered, so I’ll take her word, but I’ll tell you this: every dias- poric kitchen I’ve opened cupboards in contains curry powder, even if it is a home blend of dry spices tipped into an old Patak’s screw-on glass jar. Rathi isn’t a hardliner – she goes on to note that ‘in the course of this article, it has dawned on me that “curry” is the most ambiguous and therefore the most flexible word, a broad term that conveys the idea of cooked, spiced, saucy or dry, vegetable, meat, or vegetable and meat dish in the most appropriate manner available.’ The spectacular imprecision of the term speaks to its ability to encompass centuries of food history, cooking, misinterpretation, and rein- vention: it’s truly the diasporic meal, even when it stays at home. Curry is only definably Indian because India is a country that has the world in it.
There is a truth to the tropes of cooking and homeland and curry, but it can’t possibly contain the entire truth: the overlaps in this conversation between writers like Lahiri, Koul, and me are vast, covering our relationships to our parents and a land we barely know compared to the countries where we wake up every day. In the details, the distinct efforts to set personal experience apart – my insistence that Mom has no kitchen secrets and that cooking was never meant to be a key to the exotic but a passage to adulthood, Koul’s universal reflections on whether there is a point when one ever stops needing one’s mom, Lahiri’s foray into cookbook learning – are there, but I wonder if they are present for readers who are drawn to and receive these pieces. Are the brown, diasporic readers looking for commiseration? And are the non-brown ones looking for an exotic, nostalgic tour of a foreigner’s unknowable kitchen? The short answer, I believe, is yep.
This recipe comes at the end of a section of Curry where I discuss the homeland-authentic-magic of the cooking of brown mothers, in reality and in writing. I recall having a tough time with this part, in that I was pointing to a repetitive trope that I found confining, but with the awareness that I was also talking about the lived truth of many diasporic eaters and writers.
That’s why I chose to discuss a curry that had a particular significance to the patterns of my life and to my literal homecomings–home for me being not India, not Mauritius, but rather unexciting Kelowna, B.C. The recipe, pasted verbatim from an email of my mother’s, gave me a chance to talk about curry powder, which is commonly targeted in food writing as being inauthentic and something that no real Indian would ever use. If that’s true, then my family is even further from India than time and geography would suggest, and I’m fine with that. The movements of diaspora and food culture, and the different labels that are appended to spice mixtures ground in Indian factories to be placed on Western grocery shelves are more interesting to me than enacting an authenticity that may have little to do with me, a Mauritian-Canadian whose family cooked with what we could access.
There is an accidental mother’s-magic-trope in here that I’m embarrassed to have missed at every stage of publication, except when I was asked to excerpt this recipe section for a magazine: Mom didn’t include any amounts next to the ingredients. This is a recipe you have to freehand and make several times before you can get it exactly right.
Naben Ruthnum won the Journey Prize for his short fiction, has been a National Post books columnist, and has written books and cultural criticism for the Globe and Mail, Hazlitt, and the Walrus. His crime fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Joyland, and his pseudonym Nathan Ripley’s first novel appeared in 2018. Ruthnum lives in Toronto.
Queen Solomon, by Tamara Faith Berger, chronicles the erotic awakening and mental disintegration of an intense young man who meets Barbra, an Ethiopian Jew, when she is brought into his home by his father for the summer. Terrified of Barbra and drawn to her in equal measure, our narrator finds himself immersed in compulsive psychosexual games with her, as she binge-drinks and lies to his family. Seven years later, as our narrator is getting his life back on track, with a new girlfriend and a master’s degree in Holocaust Studies underway, Barbra shows up at our narrator’s house once again, her “spiritual teacher” in tow, and our narrator finds his politics, and his sanity, back in question.
Get a taste of Queen Solomon in the following excerpt, and read Tamara’s thoughts below.
Ariane worked with me during sex to change my ‘bad thinking.’ She actually called it ‘traumatized thinking’ – a need to smother all my bad thoughts with sex. Ariane said I had textbook sex addiction, that my shame from Barbra and the failed way it ended meant, in fact, that I hated myself.
For two years, okay, this is what me and Ariane talked about. I mean, this is what we worked on during sex. I didn’t tell Ariane that it was not always therapeutic. In fact, some- times it even made me feel worse. Like, Ariane would tell me in sex to go slower and why, and then harder and why, how to lick her, how to suck her and why and why. I secretly did not always subscribe to her method, even though I did like that we had a lot of sex.
What Ariane ﬁxated mostly on about my relationship with Barbra was that she thought that I thought that Barbra wanted to be submissive because Barbra explicitly told me to hurt her.
‘I was mistaken about that,’ Ariane deduced. ‘Barbra was obviously not a submissive.’ Ariane said that what we did was s/m 101. She said what Barbra did is called ‘topping from the bottom.’
Uh, does ‘topping from the bottom’ mean you make up all the rules? I wanted to ask her. Does ‘topping from the bottom’ mean that the knife is always truly yours?
I did not tell Ariane about our speciﬁc scripts. I did not tell Ariane about what truly happened at the ending. I told her my scar was from surgery when I was fourteen after I broke my collarbone. I told her, in general, that Barbra asked me to do something and I did it. I told her that we didn’t really have to say yes or no. It was a system, I explained, of complicit synchronicity. Ariane scoffed. She continually tried to school me. In sex, she said, the woman must lead.
‘This is ancient knowledge. Stuff the Tantrics believed.’
Did the Tantrics believe that a turned-on and traumatized woman could be actually violent? Tantric is outdated, I thought. What did they know about consent?
Ariane assured me that my true self was not chauvinistic.
She said that all real men worshipped cunt.
Ariane said, ‘If you love cunt, you actually have to know how to treat it. If you love cunt, you have to know your way around its complex abyss.’
Sometimes I thought Ariane only liked me because I made her feel worshipped. I loved Ariane’s body. She was long- armed, big-nippled, bluish-skinned. When we had sex, I usually licked her pussy for an hour. Between Barbra and Ariane, I’d practised cunt-licking. Girls always said that they loved my way of licking. I always signed my name on their thighs. I licked them and tricked them, massaged them and slapped them. Pussy foam, pussy oil. I liked period pains. I got off being smothered. I liked to see girls get really wild. Licked-open cunts liked to get really wild.
I told the cunt to sit on my face.
I said to the cunt, please hump my whole head.I loved cunts lodged with matter. I loved a maw full of cunt on my pillowcase.
I would like readers to get a rise out of this section, to get a little dizzy between the head and the crotch. At first, the terms are flipped around victimhood, setting up a guy who has been sexually traumatized while Ariane, his girlfriend, is the dominant sexual presence. As this section progresses, the reader learns that the narrator had an S/M relationship with Barbra years ago where he was clearly in over his head. He is thus stuck between two dominant female lovers, while he remains linguistically in charge. I actually wrote this section as an ode to cunnilingus, and that’s how I would love to have it stand, yet I’m also aware that there’s some pretense in my narrator’s braggadocio.
What I’d like readers to take away from this section is that sex gives us knowledge. Ariane says that if you love cunt, you have to know your way around its “complex abyss.” While Barbra, the hidden character in this fragment, seems to have taught the narrator everything he knows: how to ‘top from the bottom,’ how to play mind games in sex. Mind games go with cunnilingus.
I hope that readers can overcome any aversion to a male narrator synthesizing his lovers with the word cunt. I love the power of this word. I think it consistently grows in erotic and syntactical meaning. Cunt is hot and “lodged with matter,” as my narrator understands.
Tamara writes fiction, non-fiction and screenplays. She is the author of Lie With Me (2001), The Way of the Whore (2004), (republished together by Coach House Books as Little Cat in 2013), Maidenhead (2012) and Kuntalini (2016). Her fifth book, Queen Solomon, was published by Coach House Books in October 2018. Maidenhead was nominated for a Trillium Book Award and it won the Believer Book Award. Her work has been published in Apology, Canadian Art, Taddle Creek and Canadian Notes and Queries. She has a BFA in Studio Art from Concordia University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.
As everyone struggles to make sense of the COVID-19 outbreak and how to stay safe, a Toronto-based writing group, The 11th Floor Writers, held its March meeting using Google Hangouts. This allowed its members to still “meet” face-to-face and engage in a productive meeting without leaving home.
Virtual book club meetings with a “visiting” author might be one way for authors and book clubs to connect during these uncertain times. They allow book clubs to invite authors from across Canada. There is an abundance of technology that makes this possible. The key is to figure out which works best for individual book clubs and authors. With the exception of calling the author using a telephone, a virtual author visit requires an Internet connection, audio (speakers and microphones), a webcam, and a projector/computer so that the book club and the author can interact with each other.
To use Google Hangouts, one book club member (the host) needs to sign into a Gmail/Google account and go to Google Hangouts. There, hosts can invite members to be their contacts on Hangouts. They can only invite Gmail email addresses. Once the contacts are added, hosts can start a video chat and invite as many as 25 people to participate.
Tip: Hosts can also create a group of contacts to make inviting online book club members more efficient. While they can do all this through the web browser, they can also download the Google Hangouts app on any device and use the service that way, all of which is free. The drawback is that everyone involved in the chat must have a Google account, including the author.
Other options that most of our authors use include Skype, FaceTime, and conference calling.
Group Video Chat via Skype:
What you will need: The Skype app on a smartphone or computer.
Benefits: Easy for group chats; (up to 50 participants); free.
Cons: Video connection depends on your Internet connectivity (a slow or intermittent connection can lead to frozen screens or glitches).
Benefits: No need for any other technology/tech set–up.
Cons: Book clubs and authors cannot view each other; long distance fees may apply.
Etiquette for virtual meetings:
Test all technology before the meeting
Introduce everyone at the book club meeting to the author
Select a quiet area, free from distractions
Ensure all cell phones are on silent
Stick to your predetermined author visit time
Some final tips for book clubs:
Select one person to be the author’s key contact. Prepare for the virtual visit. Predetermine how long the visit will be (30-45 mins). Take into account any different time zones. Pick a format (e.g., do you want the author to read? Key talking points? Q&A?). Find out about any author fees or requests. Check the quality of your Internet connection, as well as the camera and sound. Have fun!
Some final tips for authors:
Check the quality of your Internet connection beforehand. Confirm your meeting times and the length of the online visit ahead of time. Discuss any author fees if applicable.
If this is your first virtual book club, practise! Look at the camera and not the screen. This will allow you to look out at the book club members. Ensure the space is quiet with minimal background distractions. Avoid interruptions. Turn off your cell phone and let others around you know that you are working. Have fun!
We’d love to hear from you!
Share your virtual book club meeting experiences! Tag us on social mediausing the hashtags #theauthorsbookclub and #inviteanauthor, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our book club met on a Friday evening in a lovely country home in Caledon. We planned to connect with Jesse Thistle, author of From the Ashes via Skype, a process that was simple in concept but proved to be a challenge! But we overcame it together. Seated around a large television screen, our author appeared in a hoodie surrounded by darkness. We learned he was on his way home from a spa day and was Skyping from his car while his wife, Lucie, drove them home.
We jumped right in with questions for Jesse, almost as if he was sitting in the living room with us. He answered personal questions about the editing process, his mentors, family members, current work and future projects. We were able to share some of our own personal connections to the book. He was gracious with our praise and admiration of his perseverance.
Jesse explained how the book began as a part of his steps towards sobriety and how the editors made choices about the material that became the final manuscript, choices he didn’t always agree with and shared a pivotal moment of his life with us. While he was living in Ottawa he begged on the streets for money to buy food. There was a man he saw often who finally introduced himself. He was a podiatrist and offered to get Jesse shoes that would help with his gait. Jesse would not accept the shoes, knowing he would sell them for drugs and wouldn’t allow himself to take advantage of the man’s kindness.
Overall, the experience of speaking directly to the author of a book that resonated with all of us was powerful. It is due to Jesse’s generosity with his time. We probably spoke to him twice as long as originally planned. His willingness to share his time and insights with us allowed us to experience a special evening beyond compare.
Toni Duval is a member of the Caledon Women’s Book Club.
Jesse Thistle’s memoir, From the Ashes, was published by Simon & Schuster Canada. He lives in Hamilton, ON, and is available to meet with book clubs via Skype and FaceTime. Learn more about Jesse.
When our website launched on January 1, 2020, we set 15 authors as a goal (including the two of us!) for the month. We ended with 40! Forty amazing authors from across Canada.
As Canadian authors and readers ourselves, we wanted to support Canadian book publishers and authors who worked and lived in Canada. We wanted to create a community that was welcoming and inclusive with authors from big and small publishing houses, and authors at different stages of their professional writing careers.
As we continue to welcome authors, we will now focus on increasing our visibility amongst privatebook clubs. We remain committed to creating a vibrant online community for author and reader engagement.
Hello, my name is Fiona, and I am a book club addict.
I am currently the member of two book clubs, but I have also been part of book clubs at work and review committees for work and book magazines. I started reading novels at age 6 (Enid Blyton) and have never stopped since. Full disclosure, I am an English teacher, drama junkie, teacher librarian and a member of the planning committee for a wonderful literary festival called the FOLD (Festival of Literary Diversity). I adore the printed word.
One of my greatest joys as a book club member and organizer has been actually meeting Canadian authors. Hearing in person the behind the scenes stories makes everything more vivid and alive.
The wonderful Ann Y.K. Choi was the first author to attend our book club, it was advice she received early in her career from fellow author, Terry Fallis. So, thanks to Ann, my book club met her in the spring of 2016 and Terry in the fall to discuss Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety and One Brother Shy respectively.
This past fall we also hosted Uzma Jalaluddin to talk about her romantic reworking of Pride and Prejudice called Ayesha At Last. It was yet another very successful meeting with fantastic conversations and insights. When organizing with an author I have reached out via Twitter for a contact email and have found authors surprisingly forthcoming. Our book club has met with authors at a restaurant and we cover their meal as a thank you for their visit, although Terry chose to meet us at one of our homes.
Canadian authors have so much to offer us. They can entertain and instruct while using art to hold up the proverbial mirror and let us see our strengths, weaknesses and follies. They deserve to be supported and promoted and book clubs, those gatherings of voracious readers and purchasers of books, are an ideal place to combine both of those passions. Please read and buy Canadian, and if an author is available to speak with your book club, take them up on it. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.