“We read to know that we are not alone,” is a phrase often misattributed to the British writer CS Lewis. But that doesn’t take away its relatability.
Book clubs are the truest manifestation of a reading community, one that Bollywood actor Sonali Bendre Behl understood all too well. “Reading was always my first love, and somewhere in the hustle and bustle of life, I felt like I’d lost that connect,” she told Quartz. A cancer survivor, mother, and entrepreneur, Bendre Behl decided the only way she could rekindle this habit was by sharing it with others. She set up Sonali’s Book Club, an online community of readers and authors, in March 2017.
She selects a book and it is announced on the club’s Facebook and Instagram pages. The members then read it, and a discussion ensues—either as a Facebook live session with the author, comments from readers to which the author responds, or a textual discussion between the followers and Bendre Behl. Currently, the club has 18,000 followers on Facebook, and 10,000 on Instagram.
In 2019, Bendre Behl chose an eclectic selection of books about love, ethics, mythology, and family. Here are 11 books her club read this year:
- Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel: This fantasy novel about a war between birds and beasts was chosen by Bendre Behl’s son Ranveer, and was the first mother-son collaboration for the book club. In the Facebook live conversation, Bendre Behl and her son spoke about ethics in science, animal rights, and animal research/experimentation, humanity, and the meaning of a family.
- The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Bendre Behl discussed the book with Divakaruni over Facebook, talking about the various forms of love depicted in the Ramayan, not just the romantic love between Ram and Sita, but also the love that the brothers had for each other. They spoke about the author’s inspiration for the book, the research that went into it, and the challenges she faced while rewriting mythology from another character’s perspective.
- Jet Lag by Ann Birstein: This was a little novella that influenced Bendre Behl tremendously. “What I love about this book is that it spans multiple genres—it’s a slice of Birstein’s life, and a mix of travel, history, and psychology,” she said. “It was, at times, painful to read given that it’s a book about the Holocaust. The sheer statistics are heartbreaking. It is impossible to truly understand what life was like for the Jewish community at the time, but this book gives us a teeny tiny glimpse into that,” Bendre Behl added.
- The Familiars by Stacey Halls: This novel, according to Bendre Behl, was “unputdownable,” and she led a conversation with the debutante author on Facebook. They discussed witch hunts, patriarchy, the various relationships that the women in the book shared, and their relevance today.
- Educated by Tara Westover: Bendre Behl stumbled upon this memoir at the Granth Bookstore in Mumbai while looking for the next title for her book club. “I loved the book. It’s amazing how a girl, without any formal education, studied by herself and aced the entrance exams and got herself into college,” Bendre Behl said. “It made me wonder if education is overrated, but it was also through education that she finds herself. But what is education? Is it the formal system of rote learning that we engage in? Or is it understanding different concepts, different perspectives, different points of view, and learning to respect that?,” she said.
- The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith: “I absolutely loved its quirkiness and the ‘Swedishness’ of the detective, and I found his character and moral compass to be very endearing,” Bendre Behl noted. “As with other books by the same author, I loved the writing style and how the seemingly random conversations among the characters all seem to tie together so beautifully,” she said.
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: Pachinko is a bestselling, critically acclaimed novel that had been on Bendre Behl’s to-read list for a while. She spoke to the author on Facebook live about the dynamics between the Koreans and the Japanese, their turmoil, and thought processes.
- Love in The Time of Affluenza by Shunali Khullar Shroff: This selection led to a heart-to-heart discussion with the author on everything from marriage to feminism to the trials and tribulations of a working mother. The book is a witty satirical take on the rich and famous of Mumbai. Though overtly a light read, Bendre Behl thought it to be layered with many subtle, thought-provoking themes.
- The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal: This book is a poignant story of three Punjabi sisters who embark on a pilgrimage to India to lay their mother to rest. “This is a sweet story that explores the relationship between sisters, and the relationships that they share with their respective families (and careers). I loved that it touched upon the themes of family, tradition, gender inequality, standing up for what you believe in, and standing by each other,” Bendre Behl said.
- The Carpet Weaver by Nemat Sadat: October is LGBTQ History Month, and this book was apt for the time. It is set largely in the Afghanistan of 1970s, and is a coming of age story of a young gay man and his struggle to find love in the face of brutal persecution. The author was the first Afghan national to come out, and he’s been bravely campaigning for LGBTQ rights in Muslim communities worldwide.
- The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: For Bendre Behl, this is a book for all ages, one that led Gaiman to become the first author to win both the Newbery and Carnegie medals. It’s heart-warming, filled with magical creatures, amazing illustrations, and stories of love and farewells.