I was told to expect a book group. Am I in the right house? Ten guys in their 50s are seated around a coffee table in a lounge in suburban Christchurch. On the table: wine, beer, snacks, the occasional non-alcoholic drink.
The common image of a book group in New Zealand would replace the 10 men with women of roughly the same age. You expect glasses of chardonnay or pinot gris, more gossip about jobs, lives and kids than worthy discussion of the month's title. It's a homogenous middle-aged and middle-class group.
Actually, the cliche is pretty much the reality. Of the 1000 book groups registered with the Book Discussion Scheme, the vast majority are all-female and there are only three all-male groups in the country. This Christchurch group is one of them.
One of the better post-9/11 novels, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is related as a long monologue by a Pakistani man named Changez. He tells an American in Lahore about his experiences in the United States, studying at Princeton and working in the financial sector in New York before the September 11 attacks changed everything.
The book appeared in 2007 and has been translated into more than 25 languages. Some compared it to The Great Gatsby, particularly in its early passages, when Changez, with his American job and American girlfriend, is eager to belong. But the author also plays a clever trick: it is not just the 9/11 Islamists who act according to fundamentals, as fundamentalism is also in the language of the New York corporation that employs Changez. Hamid is making a point about cultural relativism and perception.
Five years later, in suburban Christchurch, there is still plenty to discuss. As in any group, some of the 10 men talk with greater openness than others. Some are more earnest, but all find something valuable in the book's obvious challenge to American self- righteousness and fundamentalism. One goes further into the symbolic than others, noting how close the name Changez is to "changes" and that his all- American girlfriend was called Erica, as in "Am-Erica".
If the last time you were called upon to talk about a book in public was a nerve-racking university tutorial, you might be surprised by the ease and friendliness of this scene. There are glances at provided fact sheets and questions, but the talk flows without them. Someone cites the movie The Corporation, without naming it, and its argument that corporations have personalities and could be considered psychopathic. Another wonders whether fundamentalism is essentially a lack of empathy.
Full story at The Press.