“Vanishing into books, I felt held.”

famBooks on Tap read Family Life  by Akhil Sharma at  Champion Brewery on May 4.  This highly-autobiographical novel describes the aftermath of an elder son’s accident shortly after the family migrates from India to suburban New Jersey in the 1970s. Birju, the teenaged son, nearly drowns and remains in a vegetative state for decades. To cope, his mother seeks out religious healers while his father slips deeper into alcohol abuse. His younger brother Ajay, the narrator, focuses on his academic success and turns to writing as a way to both escape his current circumstances and to create order in his own world.

While none of us quite understood why this novel won multiple awards, we were intrigued by its structure. Some found it stilted, while others thought that it accurately reflected Ajay’s personality. Sharma, who took over 12 years to finish the book and produced 7,000 pages, ultimately removed extra sensory description, what he called the “sensorium issue,” partially influenced by his early obsession with Ernest Hemingway. The tightness of the prose in the 224 page novel propels the reader along in what is essentially a plot-less story. While the lives of all the family members are defined by Birju’s accident, the story explores the full range of human emotion, not just sadness, isolation and anger.

The family had high expectations for their lives in America and Birju had just been accepted into a prestigious exam high school when he was found at the bottom of a pool. While the family’s expectations of may have been met if Birju hadn’t gone swimming that day, the parents may have divorced and Ajay may not have pushed himself so hard academically. Instead, the family narrowly focuses on Birju’s immense physical needs, bringing him home after he’s neglected in a nursing home early on. Providing in-home care was seen as a means of control, a expression of love, a reflection of shame and a type of trust in the family unit by readers. It also allowed the mother to deny Birju’s brain damage by referring to him as “sleeping,” inviting other Indian migrants in to venerate him and to bring  in various religious healers. While religion is frequently referred to, we readers didn’t get a full sense of what that entailed. While the mother can be compared to a Catholic martyr, one reader pointed out that in a crisis you do what you must day after day to survive but you don’t see how it shapes your life until the years have passed. We compared the scene in which the family, still living in India, receives their plane tickets to America to the isolated life that is their reality in New Jersey.  The entire community celebrated their migration, with constant visits and well-wishes. After Birju’s accident, their visitors are holy men or parents who bring their children to see Birju as a warning. The family not only made a leap in space, but also in time, coming from rural India to suburban America. The family, like other immigrants mostly knew about the United States from American films, which over-promised a perfect life.

Both the accident and the isolation leave Ajay as the second best son, and he has no close adults to mentor him or offer respite. He tells lies to gain attention and escape reality. On Christmas, he complains that “this shouldn’t be his life” and that he at least deserves a pizza. However, the teasing way Ajay talks to his brother shows real affection.

The book ends with Ajay thinking “I got happier and happier . . . That’s when I knew I had a problem.”  Earlier in the novel, his father stares out the window at snowfall, saying  “I’m so happy.”  While we believe both men were happy at the time, we wonder if they don’t know how to deal with happiness. It seems that Ajay has never been happy before and may have survivor’s guilt. We think he can, now that he realizes he can and has created sense of self.

The author wanted to make a “useful” book, so we discussed bibliotherapy. Some members of our group shared that reading a specific book helped shed light on their personal issues. Some found that they had no use for a book upon first reading but found solace in it when they came back to it years later. At the library, we strive to put the right book in the hands of the right person  at the right time. Test us out with JMRL’s personalized recommendation service.  

More Information:
About the author
Other works

Interviews with the author:
Irish Times
The Guardian

Lion(film) – place a hold on JMRL’s copy or come see it at Central in June
Green Revolution in India
The Reivers by William Faulkner  

Similarities to Birju’s care can be seen in the Audrey Santo case.

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“Takes longer to read than the events depicted.”

the20dinner20-20finalBooks on Tap read The Dinner by Herman Koch at Champion Brewery on November 4.  A suspenseful novel told over the course of one evening from a single perspective by an unreliable narrator, it examines racism, mental health, parental influence, politics, self-deception and the self-satisfaction of the bourgeoisie. Paul (former history teacher), along with his wife Claire, meet his brother Serge (a politician under consideration for prime minister) and wife Babette for dinner in Amsterdam. The couples each have a teenage son whose crime has been captured on a security camera and is now online, although neither teen has been identified. Both sets of parents must now decided on a public course of action.

Paul’s unreliability as a narrator launched our discussion of the likeability of characters. Some readers found it hard to care because this family was so off-putting. However, others thought that the issues raised rendered likeability irrelevant.  Writing the novel as satire, Koch pushed the characters and situations so far past plausibility and reality to force the readers to examine their culpability in the ethical quandaries. The food descriptions, instead of dull interruptions, are signifiers of the characters pretensions, which may have been more original when the book was published in 2009.

Paul’s mental state colors the reader’s perception of events and motive. Paul claims to have been diagnosed with a mental illness that could have been passed to his teenage son, but refuses to read the results, further turning his back on reality. Would that diagnosis matter as much as the amoral environment in which Paul and Claire have raised him? Would Paul have taught him to be a bully regardless? Claire is just as willing to rationalize his brutal behavior and it is unclear if she is a Lady Macbeth-figure or if events truly spiral out of her control. Teenage boys can do terrible things in small groups without considering the consequences – Serge’s son goes along with Paul’s despite not being raised by a psychopath. As far as we know: the entire story could be a figment of Paul’s delusions, Serge may not be the ethical politician who offers to step down, Claire may not have bashed a glass into Serge’s face.

Koch’s craft and skill as a writer was respected. The ambiguity builds tension for the slow reveals, which kept some readers engaged during otherwise boring descriptions of the meal. We wondered to whom the Paul is relating his account and if Koch believes that his readers share Paul’s delusions (albeit on a smaller scale). A few book club members read the book twice, appreciating it more the second time, especially on audio, where any boring bits passed by faster. In all, The Dinner was a taut tale of (self) deception and responsibility.

More Information:
Author biography
Author interview
Other works

Defending Jacob by William Landay
We Need to Talk about Kevin by  Lionel Shriver
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
Siracusa by Delia Ephron
The God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza

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December 1:  “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote (pdf version)