Our aim is to exchange views on the themes and meaning of topical, culturally diverse and thought-provoking books

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Meeting schedule in 2018

Monday 15th January at Christine's: "AN UNDERGROUND RAILROAD" by Colson
Whitehead (USA)

Monday 19th February at Susan's: "THE MAGICAL MOUNTAIN" by Thomas Mann (Germany)

Monday 19th March at Irene's: "THE HOUSE ON PARADISE STREET" by Sofka Zinovieff (UK)

Monday 16th April at Anne's: "THE GOLDEN HOUSE" by Salman Rushdie (British Indian)

Monday 21st May: meeting cancelled

Monday 18th June at Loeky's: "THE GINGER TREE" by Oswald Wynd (Scotland)

Monday 17 September at Paulette's: "THE RADETZKY MARCH" by Joseph Roth (Austria)

Monday 15th October at Blanka's: "THE WEDNESDAY CLUB" by Kjell Westö (Finland)

Monday 19th November at?: ?

Monday 17th December at ?: "SPEECHLESS" by Tom Lanoye ?

Thursday, 29 March 2018

An Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad is the story of 15-year-old Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia.  The book has obtained many awards, in particular the Pulitzer Prize. 

 Life on the plantation is described in very graphic terms and we all agreed that the descriptions of the cruelty that slaves endured at the hands of their owners surpassed what most of us imagined.   Cora escapes from the plantation and the book goes on to relate what happens to her afterwards.   In writing about the escape, the author introduces an element of magical realism, transforming the underground network of safe houses and hiding places for escaping slaves into an actual railroad, with stations and train drivers.    As the story continues, other elements of magical realism are woven into it, but so subtly that it is sometimes difficult to separate them from the real world in which Cora lives.  We learn about all the enormous obstacles that escaping slaves faced, including being pursued by slave catchers, who earned their living by tracking down escaped slaves and returning them to their owners.

Many of us at first were taken in by the descriptions of the underground stations that were so vivid, it took us a while to realize that they were invented.  However, the network of safe houses and the messaging system to help escaping slaves was definitely a reality and was called the Underground Railroad.   

 It was generally agreed that the presentation of life on the plantations and the system of slavery were very well depicted.   Whitehead had done an extensive amount of research about the period, including reading the testimony recorded by slaves and published during the 1930’s. To most readers, this question is largely unknown, even in the U.S., where, according to the author, very little is taught about slavery. 

In general, most of us felt that this was definitely a worthwhile book, even if some of the scenes of the cruelty the slaves experienced were difficult to read.  

March 2018

Additional comments by Anne Van Calster

It is worth noting :
The importance of education .  Some slaves made it off the plantation because of a rare gift among black people : they could read.
 Ceasar could read the stars ( useful when treading  uncharted territory) as well as letters.
For Cora, locked in an attic, reading an Almanach was like travelling round the globe : magical. 
The symbolism of building the underground railroad to reach freedom. «  Just as the surveyors Lewis and Clark explored and mapped the American wilderness », for escaping slaves «  it comes to charting a path through the wilderness when the night is dark and full of treacherous footing.
Slavery has been abolished but we are left with no illusions as to the american society nowadays :
« If you want to see what this nation  is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through and you will find the true face of America. »
The shock of words :
« Black hands built the « White House. »
Cotton required its fuel of African bodies »
Out in the world, the wicked escaped comeuppance and the decent stood in their stead at the wipping tree »
« The slave trade : breathing capital, profit made flesh »

Slavery  is still a fact today . But this book conveys a message of hope :
« If the North had eliminated slavery, one day,  the abominable institution would fall everywhere. The Negro’s story may have started in this country with degradation, but triumph and prosperity would be his one day. »

Thursday, 1 March 2018

The Magic Mountain

By Thomas Mann 1924

This book is considered as one of the most influential works of the 20th German literature and many learned to study about this book and his 
philosophical Ideas til today.

Thomas Mann is to be known as one of the best German writers.
He received the Nobel price in 1929 for his book “The Buddenbrocks”
He marries Katja Pringsheim in 1905., daughter of a Mathematics Professor and Millionaires family.
By that time it was well-known that he was homosexual but nevertheless
he fathered 5 children
All of his children became quite famous as writers, musician, artist
but lead quite troubled lives.
The family struggled with homosexuality, suicides, 2 of the sons committed suicide,and incest, his wife Katja was deeply in love with her brother,
Thomas Mann was all his life in homosexual relationships and his
children Erika and Thomas seems to have much more then a brother-sister
Katja Mann got often sick and was sent to sanatoriums.
By visiting his wife in a Davos sanatorium Thomas Mann became the Idea
for the book “The magic mountain.”
He himself contracted a , cough and was asked to stay but said
‘’No, I prefer to compose the book ‘’the magic mountain’’instead, for had I
agreed to stay I may still be there now!!
The book describes the long cumbersome road of Hans Castorps self education.
Hans Castorp, son of a bourgeois German family, travels to Davos to visit his sick cousin Joachim Ziemsen in the Berghoff sanatorium and instead of 3 weeks visit ends up staying 7 years.
The sanatorium is packed with interesting characters.
He arrives in another world where death is ever present but behind the scenes.
He is exposed to ideas of philosophical an intellectual dimensions via
meeting patients like Sembrini, who wants to introduce him to the enlightenment of humanism and tolerance and
Naphta who is a Hegelian Marxist and in constant discussion and 
disagreement with Sembrini.
He falls under the spell of beautiful Claudia Chauvrat, she represents
erotic temptation, lust and love in a quite degenerate and morbid form.
Joachim, his cousin, is full of ideas of loyalty to his status as an officer.
The whole sanatorium is packed with so many interesting characters
which come completely to life ‘’Thomas Mann at his best!””
The treatment of time is another topic and is analysing it different manifestations makes us looking at time in a whole new way.
It also portraits illness as a state of mind as well as body.
On a political level “’the magic mountain”’ portraits the sick and chauvinistic and decadent European society before world war 1.
Another theme is the difference between the Eastern mentality
‘’passivity’’ and the western mentality ‘’activity’’.
Overall it is an exceptional book to read on many levels and
Mann’s gentle humour makes it a delight to read but be aware
it takes time!


Friday, 2 February 2018

The Round House

by Louise Erdrich

Author Karen Louise Erdrich born in 1954, winner of National American book award 2012,
lives in Minnesota with her children and runs a small independent book store
Her father is of German American  descent. Her mother half Ojibwa (Chippewa) half French American.
Louise Erdrich is a member of the Anishi Nation known as Chippewa.
She is considered  as one of the most significant american writer.

The story is set in a remote Indian Reservation in North Dakota and is filled with mystical traditions and eccentric characters.
We learn from the prospective of 13 year old Joe, who is the narrator of the book, about the brutal rape and attempted murder of his mother. 
Joe and his family are Chippewa Indians.
Joe and his father, a judge, find out that the suspect is a white man.
As the brutal attack took place in the vicinity of the sacred Round House, seeking justice
becomes devastating. As it is on the boundary of tribal, state and federal jurisdiction, his father
can do nothing about it.
Joe decides to take the law in his one hands. This leads to a brutal introduction of the grown up life. 

We learn a lot in his vivid description about Indian life on the reservation and his growing up and facing deep moral questions and try to find answers about what makes a person violent and much more.
It is a beautifully written book, touching and partly heartbreaking as we follow Joe’s journey
through life.
In Erdrich’s afterword she tells us the shocking truth that one out of 3 native women will
be raped during their lifetime.
The consent of our group is: "It is a book well worth reading.”


Tuesday, 5 December 2017

War and Turpentine

by Stefan Hertmans

Longlisted for the International Man Booker Prize
A New York Times Top 10 Best Book of the Year
An Economist Best Book of the Year

Longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award

“War and Turpentine” , 
The grandfather “painted” with paint, the grandson paints with metaphorical language.

Stefan Hertmans is a Flemish Belgian writer, born in Ghent in 1951.
Author of a vast literary and essayist oeuvre. His latest novel “War and Turpentine”, an internationally-acclaimed bestseller published in August 2013, is a huge success worldwide and has won numerous prizes.
“A future classic. . . . "A successful mix of memoir and fiction: novel, biography, autobiography and history, with inset essays, meditations, pictures. . . . It is his first novel to be published in English, translated from the Dutch by David McKay.
Stefan has engaged intensely in the debates following the terrorist attacks in Brussels on last 22 March and has recently written a short play “Antigone in Molenbeek” which was performed at the Amsterdam Forum recreating Europe in June 2016.

In “War and Turpentine”,  Stefan Hertmans, recounts the life of his grandfather Urbain Martien.

Some soldiers return home and are unable or unwilling to talk about their wartime experience. Others speak about little else.
The author’s grandfather, Urbain, was born in 1891, died in 1981, a forgotten war hero who told his battle stories so often that his children and grandchildren plugged their ears. Late in his life, his family bored with him - nearly 50 years after his experiences, in 1963, five years after the death of his wife, Gabrielle -, Urbain retired to a table, started to write about them and wrote some 600 pages in three notebooks, which he gave to his grandson Stefan Hertmans.
S.H. read and reread these notebooks, and he retells his grandfather’s life in his own modern voice.
Urbain died in 1981 and Hertmans didn’t look at the notebooks until nearly 30 years later, when the imminent centenary of the first world war brought back memories of his grandfather’s stories, told innumerable times to anyone who would care to listen
“War and Terpentine” is based on those notebooks, containing memoirs of the First World War, written down when he was a man of over seventy. They also contain a breathtaking account of a youth in Ghent in the industrial era before 1900, and show a boy growing up in poverty, with a father who was a fresco painter, and an awe-inspiring mother who had a deep influence on his outlook on life. He works in the iron foundry from his 13th on, enrolls in the Military Academy in 1908, and is sent to war in August 1914. What follows is a minute account of these terrible years, haunted by an ever-present reminder of the artist he had hoped to be and the soldier he was forced to become. Hence the title:“War and Turpentine”

Mr. Martien spent much of the war in the trenches. He was shot on three occasions and was returned twice to battle after recovering. 
He returned home a decorated hero. 
After the war, Urbain meets his great passion Maria Emelia,  to whom he was engaged: the smart, vivacious, beauty of his dreams. Before they could marry, she died of pneumonia during the Spanish influenza pandemic in 1919. 
It is the moment of total catastrophe to him.
A dutiful man, Mr. Martien instead married her older sister, Gabrielle, who was apparently less wonderful in every regard. But they made a long and dignified marriage, even if it was largely platonic. (Gabrielle wore a raincoat in bed to ward off Martien’s advances.)
“What must it be like, spending your whole life with your true love’s sister?” It was a torment.
From then on, he paints! And leads the life of a silent painter, copying the great painters such as Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Velazquez, and for this he had real talent.
The entire novel evolves around contradictions, repeats, parallels and especially: copies". The reason for this is grandfather's painting. Urban copies paintings. Most tragical though is the fact that he is married to the copy of his great love: he wanted to marry Maria,but got her sister Gabrielle. This tragedy stays with him his whole life!
War and Turpentine is a unique account of a disappeared but rich history of Flanders, a novel about a hidden passion, but also a novel about what war could do with the soul of a humble, fascinating man.

Urbain Martien was a man of another time. This serious and dignified book is “old-fashioned”.

In our reading group most of us appreciated the book, 2 of us had mixed feelings about it being old-fashioned. I also had this feeling.
I first read the Dutch edition, then the English translation and happily discovered the beautiful language, metaphors and acquired more understanding for this “old-fashioned man".
A book worthwhile reading twice!


Friday, 1 December 2017

The Corrections

By Jonathan Franzen      
Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction

“With The Corrections, Franzen emerges as one of premier interpreters of American society and the American soul.”
Most of the group liked the book, though one member disliked it to the extent of refusing to finish it.
If nothing else, Franzen is an excellent narrator with a captivating style and rich language, even if the deviation into Lithuania with Chip is a bit too long. Yet it has a message:
"The main difference between America and Lithuania, as far as Chip could see, was that in America the wealthy few subdued the unwealthy many by means of mind-numbing and soul-killing entertainments and gadgetry and pharmaceuticals, whereas in Lithuania the powerful few subdued the unpowerful many by threatening violence."
The novel explores the lives of the Lamberts, a traditional and somewhat repressed Midwestern family, whose children have fled to the East coast to start new lives free from the influence of their parents. Chronologically, the novel shifts back and forth throughout the late 20th century, depicting in detail the personal growth and mistakes of each family member.
The separate plot-lines converge on Christmas morning back in St. Jude, when Enid and her children are forced to confront Alfred's accelerating physical and mental decline.
The title of The Corrections refers most literally to the decline of the technology-driven economic boom of the late nineties and the transition from an industrial economy to an economy based largely on the financial, high-tech and service sectors. 
This economic correction parallels the simultaneous "corrections" that Franzen's characters make to their own lives in the novel's final pages. Enid becomes more flexible in her worldview and less submissive to her husband's authority, and Chip begins a more mature relationship with a woman, simultaneously reconciling with his father. Gary, the only central character who fails to learn from his mistakes and grow during the course of the novel, loses a lot of money as technology stocks begin to decline.
The book addresses conflicts and issues within a family that arise from the presence of a progressive debilitating disease of an elder, with a touch of kindly humour. But as Alfred’s dementia and parkinsonism unfold mercilessly, they affect Enid and all three children, causing different and, over time, changing reactions. Medical help does not provide a solution. At the end, Alfred refuses to eat and dies, the ultimate “correction” of the problem.
Franzen has since published two other novels,  Freedom (2010), which I also found very good,  and Purity (2015), not so well received.

Monday, 27 November 2017

The House of Wittgenstein, A Family at War

by Alexander Waugh

The title is  explicit in two ways :  this book tells us  the story of this famous Viennese family  and  how they got involved in  WW2 . It  also refers to a domestic war raging among the family members themselves.
                It is also the portrait of an era in the first half of the 20th century : living in Vienna in the circle of wealthy families  with so  many opportunities,  where tradition, education, social background,  artistic life were so important. While reading , we came across Klimt, Ravel, Benjamin Britten, Prokofiev…
                The father, a very strict man , put so much pressure on his sons in order for them to make their own mark in the great steel, arms and banking business that he had founded, that he contributed to a nervous and self-destructive strain on all five of them.  Especially Paul, the musician and Ludwig, the famous philosopher developed into hardened individualists.
 Let’s focus on those two characters in the family.
                 Paul was  the one character who came out of the lot and we all felt sympathy  and admiration for him.
While fighting during the war, he, the pianist,  was severely wounded and lost his right arm.
He overcame Fate by sheer artistic heroism.  He despised self-pity. This handicap spurred his energy and courage to work up a one-handed technique to play the piano.  Each performance was a test of endurance.
He befriended Ravel who composed for him the Piano Concerto N° 1 for the left hand.
«  The sounds produced by his left hand do not betray the artist’s melancholy at no longer possessing a right hand, rather, they express his triumph at being able to bear his loss so well. »
His misfortune had turned out to be a stroke of good luck.  He got married and had children.
                  Ludwig  was the famous philosopher of logic and language , author of «  Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus » (1921).
He studied with Bertrand Russell in Britain and  was greatly influenced by Tolstoy’s book «  The  Gospel in brief »,  an anti-church  abridged version of the four Gospels.
What came out of this book about Ludwig was his ignominy and the fact that his writing was incomprehensible .
However, in Cambridge, «  To an ardent group of disciples, Ludwig was God. That they didn’t understand him was a small concern. What mattered to them was to be close to his presence, to be part of his inner circle and  to be able to witness the spectacle of his thinking »…..
                  To conclude,  we found this book an interesting read although not uplifting : this family had a dark side.
The lesson came from Gretl,  one of the sisters : «  Don’t ask life to be easier if you are capable of being strong ».
                                                                                                  Anne Van Calster