My friend John Henderson writes about his book group in Bangkok, Thailand.
Our Bangkok book group also read Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. Like yours, our discussion succeeded. We define successful discussions as those that provoke disagreement.
It’s not much fun when everyone says, “I really liked it,” or the opposite. When we’re considering what to read next, we often ask of a nomination “What in that book will we fight about?” Put another way, we believe that the best book to read isn’t necessarily the best book to discuss.
As the facilitator, I consciously move the conversation toward points of friction. My first question isn’t always provocative—sometimes “What do you remember most?” sets the table nicely—but if we haven’t clashed in the first 20 minutes then I don’t think I’m doing my job.
Personal connections to the book’s settings are also important to us. We often gravitate toward titles with Asian ties because many of us have lived and worked in the region for many years. So when we talked about Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, some of us were able to speak from experience about walking in Afghanistan. The common expat sense of living in a bubble came up often during our discussion of J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur. Our arguments about why the anthropologist murdered the evangelist, in discussing Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork, were based on our own time in northern Thailand. We didn’t agree about whether or not Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises still rings true, but it helped that a few of us had been posted in Europe.
Recently we’ve kicked around Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Betool Khedairi’s Absent, and Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts.
The group of a dozen or so has met monthly for at least the last eight years. We take turns hosting and providing supper. Everybody has a day job, so we shy away from titles longer than 400 pages. About half the folks have some link to the U.S. Embassy, meaning that they rotate out fairly frequently. The rest of us were either born here or have settled in Thailand from Australia, Britain, or Canada. Look us up when you’re in the neighborhood, especially if you’re in the mood for a fight!