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

(and if possible "THE RADETZKY MARCH" by Joseph Roth (Austria))

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. »

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!


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

Saturday, 11 November 2017

History of the Rain

by Niall Williams

“History of the Rain” was written by Irish author Niall Williams and was long-listed for the 2014 Booker     prize. Williams is a prolific author, having published eight novels, several plays and screenplays.  He has lived most of his life in County Clare, and this novel is situated in that very rainy area of Ireland.  

The discussion began by an apology from Christine, who suggested the book, because she felt that it was too typically Irish to appeal to our group.  However, surprisingly, most of the group seemed to have actually enjoyed reading it and discovering the life of rural Ireland and the colourful cast of characters living in the village (referred to as a parish) which serves as the backdrop for the story.  

There was consensus on the rich and poetic language of the book (present in anything written by an Irish writer). 

Christine was especially taken by the humour in the book, despite many elements of sadness, including the illness of the narrator. Others remarked on the presence of water constantly running through the narrative, as well as the other main element – the urge to leap toward the sky as a metaphor for the constant striving by the narrator Ruth’s father (despite being completely unsuited to it) to be a successful farmer.  This striving is described as the Impossible Standard by the author.  The urge to leap up to the sky represents the entire process that Ruth’s father experiences while doing what he really is meant to do, that is, to write.  

Despite its sometimes difficult passages for a non-English speaker, the group agreed that “History of the Rain” was worth reading.


November 2017

Saturday, 7 October 2017

The noise of time

by Julian Barnes

Our Meeting took place in February, a long time ago. As far as I remember, we were all present and we all liked the book.
But I am unable now to write down who said what. So I have to resort to the general impressions, as they were more or less shared.

The book is an inquiry into the nature of personal integrity. Shostakovich made his accommodations with “Power”, and survived. For some people that damns him unequivocally. For Barnes, the matter is more complicated: a question of artistic survival, which he weighs carefully. 
He is unsparing in his presentation of the case against Shostakovich, noting his most shameful acts, but at the same time his sympathy with his protagonist is never in doubt. If anything, the more mired in shame Shostakovich becomes, the more Barnes makes us likes him. He achieves this mainly by the clever way he tells the story as if from Shostakovich´s head, without using the “ich form”.

Quite admirably, for a person never having lived under a dictatorship, Barnes evokes the atmosphere of fear and general mistrust prevalent in such regimes and influencing everyone´s behaviour. 

Does great art, by redeeming us from “the noise of time”, (“art is the whisper above the noise of history.”)  override everything and excuse cowardly behaviour, making compromises with one´s conscience and values, and in Shostakovich case - even with his music? 
Shostakovich, in order to survive and to be able to continue to devote himself to his music, makes a deal with the devil (Stalin, in his case).

One question was asked by most everyone: “Why didn’t Shostakovitch leave the Soviet Union?”
Based on Barnes’ story, we reached the conclusion  that Shostakovitch was caught  in a web of his lack of courage (and knowledge of foreign languages), his love and inspirational need for the Russian culture and homeland, his difficult relationship with his mother, his intense need and desire to compose music and to hear his music played, and his wish to have a “quiet” life with access to his family, women, and friends.

A few of us recalled the tale of the triad of the 3 glasses of vodka told at the book’s start and end, preceded by the inscription: “One to hear, One to remember, And one to drink.”
We were not very sure about the meaning of this, but Shostakovitch had been the one to hear.

A quotation to conclude:
"Instead of killing him, they had allowed him to live, and by allowing him to live, they had killed him".

But not quite and not at all his music…