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

Sunday, 23 December 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 Christine's: "SPEECHLESS" by Tom Lanoye

Monday 17th December at Loeky's: "WHEN THE DOVES DISAPPEARED" by Sofi Oksanen


Monday 21st January: "THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES" by Tom Wolfe

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

The Golden House

by Salman  Rushdie

Reading following timeless questions on the human conditions made me choose to read the book!!!
Can a person be both good and evil? Is family destiny? Does the past always catch up to us?
In a time of extremes, can we find common ground? Will despots and their supporters be forever with us? Will humankind ever learn? Can story and art enlighten us?
The Novel
The Golden House is the Daumus Aurea from Nero in Rome!
The Golden House” is a: 
  • Social Novel: what kept people busy the last decades?
  • Distopia: 
    • cfr. George Orwell: “1984”.
    • cfr. Aldous Huxley “The Brave New World” (°1935)
    • cfr. Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451 (°1953).
 Realism: the readers recognise the circumstances they live through.
Think about Jane Austen examining Regency-era social mores in “Pride and Prejudice” and John Steinbeck depicting the Great Depression in “The Grapes of Wrath”.
- But, writing about the present is much more difficult.
Salman Rushdie has been doing this for decades.
A lot of allusions is made to literature, film, mythology and politics, and the information overload of the internet. The result is a rich epic of the immigrant experience in modern America, where no amount of money or self-abnegation can truly free a family from the sins of the past.” 

  • Today’s issues all get play in this novel: gender transition, autism, free speech and nationalism ..…
  •  Freedom, democracy and individualism are losing out to oppressing  regimes. 
The core of the novel: 
  • Reinvention of IDENTITY  (Museum of Identity is an invention of Rushdie;
  • IMMIGRATION. Salman Rushdie says he has always been an immigrant, first in the UK, then in the US.  He has always been in the Minority and is not against immigrants: “It’s a creative place to be!!!
India & the US.
Problems in the US:.
  • gender
  • race
Problems in India:
  • religions: islam/hindouism. The nowadays racist President Prime Minister Narendra Modi.would be elected again if he came up. 
  • Cfr. the election of Donald Trump in the USA!
  • TRUMP 
  • *critical news = fake news . Riya: “We are living in a moment that reality itself its questionable, has been attacked. Not only in America, but all over in the world”.
  • *fear of other races: America First”.(Every American is an immigrant, so..)
  • *The Joker: Trump: a comic character living in the “City of Gotham” (New Jersey - bordering New York City)

  • Rushdie’s (and the protagonist’s) biggest frusration is:
    • how could 60 million Americans elect this horror (Trump)
    • and how could  90 million shrug their shoulders and stay home!!!
  • !!!!!!!! Only in this kind of society a Trump can become a President
The protagonist
The main character (the protagonist) in the book is: René, son of Belgian Academics.
  • René is a filmmaker.Cfr.: Tintin and Hercule Poirot: both Belgians.
  • Salman Rushdie has an enormous knowledge of films. Bombay (where he was born) = Bollywood ( Now: Mumbai)
 The Author
Since late 1999, Rushdie has lived in New York City, leaving behind the U.K. after living there for four decades. With the impending Brexit, he says, “I feel about England right now that it’s like a family having a picnic on a railway track. ‘What’s the problem? What’s that hooting noise?’ 
— I mean, they don’t seem to understand what’s about to happen to them.”
But he’s far more concerned about his native India.
Rushdie is troubled by the shunning of secularism that defined his youth and the turn toward tribalism and sectarian violence that has flourished under Modi.“What is worse is that the regime there, which is in many ways as worrying as what’s happening here (in the States), is very popular … If [Modi] called an election tomorrow, he’d win!!
Rushdie became an American citizen last year, and a big part of the draw for him was the nation’s culture of free speech 

There are countries in Europe where Holocaust denial is a crime.
Because it seemed to me you don’t get rid of rotten ideas by forbidding their expression, and in some ways you make them more powerful because you give them the power of taboo.”
He’s concerned that young Americans today seem too censorious, too willing to give up their freedom of speech in order to avoid offense. 
The Golden House tackles this issue while flirting with giving offense by depicting a character with autism and another who might be transgender.

    • He, is anti-“Social media - e.o. twitter, like Franzen and others,  they do not like the Internet very much.
    • Internet is full off garbage!
Salman Rushdie’s Golden House” can be compared with “The Great Gatsby”.
  • the same American problems. Nothing changed in all these years!!:
  • - - - everyone is implicated, no one is innocent, and no one comes out unscathed….” 

“The Golden House” ends with an enormous fire destroying the Renaissance family house. What else could you expect with a main character called Nero.
The three sons of Nero are already dead. Dead of the burden of today and of the past.
The Novel could have been shorter, but on the whole a powerful, timely story told with the daring that makes Salman Rushdie the standard-bearer of our dark new age.

In our reading group the book was appreciated. Some liked it some did not.
But…: You do not read Salman Rushdie because you like him, but because you want to know what he wants and has to tell us. 
As the young Algerian writer Leila Slimani says: 
“Je n’écris pas pour plaire et d’ailleurs il ne faut jamais écrire pour plaire”

!!!!Salman Rushdie finished this book before the election of Donald Trump!!!!

Loeky Borloo

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

The Ginger Tree

by Oswald Wynd

The author was born in Tokyo to Scottish missionaries. He spent his formative years in Japan then went back to study in Edinburgh. During the war, he was a prisoner in a Japanese camp where he served as an interpreter because of his understanding of the language and the culture. He began to write books after the war.

“The Ginger Tree” is the story of a young Scotswoman, brought up in a rigid Victorian milieu in Edinburgh in the  1900s, who marries a military attaché based in Peking. This is an arranged and loveless marriage, as was very often the case in those days. The restrictions and confinement of embassy life in Peking become quickly insufferable for her.The change of lifestyle, the discomfort and the strange customs of the new foreign land weigh on her so much that she becomes depressed and frustrated.
One day she meets a Japanese count and falls in love. Their love affair will change the course of her life. Being with child, she is rejected by her husband, her mother  and  British society. Since she doesn’t want to go back to  Britain, she decides to flee to Japan where she tries to live as an independent woman.  She is all alone in a country where she has no friends and cannot speak the language. Moreover, her lover will take their son away from her, adding to her unhappiness and suffering. 
With time she will adapt to the new situation. As her understanding of the Japanese mentality grows, she comes to realise the count is guided by a rigid sense of duty, which is the most sacred thing in his life. For him therefore, his son must be brought up by a Japanese family. ( Let’s notice that the Japanese culture of the time was as conventional and rigid as the Victorian one).
Her resilience is admirable. She never stops fighting in the hope that her son will be restored to her. Her strength of character forces admiration.
Through her story, we learn many historical and cultural facts we are not so familiar with like the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, the ceremony of the tea party by the Empress-dowager, the war in Manchuria between Russia and Japan, the death of Emperor Megi followed by the suicide by harakiri of general Nagi ( old discipline of the warrior code), Japan taking side for the French and the British during the  1st WW, the sinking of the Lusitania….
She lives through a tsunami and two earthquakes, the second one being a catastrophe for the country, and is impressed by the stoicism of the Japanese who instead of complaining put their efforts in reconstructing everything.
Then there is the rape of Nankin, Pearl Harbour and the 2nd WW which will put an end to her life in her beloved chosen country because of the hostility towards the British and the Americans.
At the end Mary sees herself similar to the ginger tree, an alien plant which has taken root in Japan in spite of not being suitable for a Japanese garden. She realises that she will never truly be accepted by the Japanese despite her love for their culture and her attempts to conform to their traditions which are against everything Western.
It is interesting to follow her evolution from a young fresh naive girl to a mature woman. Thanks to her character and strength, she becomes an independent businesswoman who can fight for herself, a real feminist before our time.
We also notice that she is very true to herself, realistic and aware of her limitations and errors of judgements. She never describes her private emotions ( which probably comes from her Scottish upbringing). She is a real survivor. 
Let’s mention that the end is very moving, delicate, subtle.
This book, written through letters and journals, hits home. The dry Scottish sense of humour is very present throughout the story.
The description of nature is beautiful.  Life in China and Japan is well documented.

All the ladies who read the book loved it
Paulette Duncan

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!