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

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Reading group calendar in 2020

Wednesday 15 January  at Irene’s : “MIDDLE ENGLAND” by Jonathan Coe (British)

Wednesday 12 February at Paulette’s : ”THE HANDMAID’S TALE” by Margaret Atwood (Canadian)

Wednesday 11 March at ? :

Monday, 20 January 2020

Middle England

By Jonathan Coe
                        This is a STATE-OF-THE-NATION NOVEL, a form that has its roots in Victorian times : when  the writer attempts to chart the changes to the country at a time of crisis.
In this book, in a humorous  and very human way, Jonathan Coe grapples with the effects of politics, here BREXIT and the way people voted , inside the community and families.
Jonathan Coe shows how the seeds of Brexit were sown in those years when the self-congratulatory of a few fuelled the resentment of many. In a multilayered portrait of « Middle England » and the middle class , he shows the gulf between the different education systems and how the age of the characters and the generational reflexes have created tensions and divisions  among families, couples, friends.
What keeps coming out is also the nostalgia for the past « grandeur » of the Empire and the ingrained feeling of «  insularity ». This explains that…
Jonathan Coe is very good at describing what « Britishness » means.
                       This is an automnal novel, about the passing of time,  what has vanished, the time lost to obscure hatreds, misplaced love and the brink of old age.
                        All this is set against the symbolism of the river Severn, following, undisturbed its timeless course «  bubbling….. merrily, merrily… »
We all found the book utterly enjoyable, and very informative .
                                                                                                       Anne Van Calster


Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Reading group calendar in 2019

Monday 21st January at      : "EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU" by Celeste Ng (American)

Monday 18th February at Paulette's: "WHEN THE DOVES DISAPPEARED" by Sofi Oksanen (Finnish-Estonian)

Monday 18th March at Irene's :"THE BONFIRE OF VANITIES" by Tom Wolfe (American)

Monday 29th April at Christine's: "THE MAP OF LOVE" by Ahdaf Soueif (Egyptian)

Monday 20th May at Anne's: "THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC" by Julie Otsuka (American from Japanese origin)

There is no meeting in June. 

Monday 8th July at Loeky's: " SING, UNBURIED, SING" by Jesmyn Ward (American)

From now on, we will resume our meetings on Wednesdays

Wednesday 9th October at Anne´s: "EDUCATED" by Tara Westover (American)

Wednesday 13th November at Blanka's: "GO, WENT, GONE" by Jenny Erpenbeck (German)

Wednesday 11th December at Christine's: "PACHINKO" by Min Jin Lee (Korean-American)

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Go, Went, Gone

by Jenny Erpenbeck

This novel was published in Germany in 2015 and appeared in English translation in 2017.  It tells the story of a German academic, recently retired, who comes into contact with a group of African refugees in Berlin and how this encounter changes his life.  The bureaucratic ins and outs of the German system for asylum-seekers is one of the themes of the book, and the author skillfully presents the hopes and frustrations of the group of migrants whom the main character, Richard, comes to know.  After a first meeting, a slowly developing trust between Richard and the group occurs.  We learn about their harrowing journeys to reach Germany and their frustration about not being able to work until their status is decided.  From being a distant observer of these men, Richard becomes committed to helping them, and in the end even transforms his home into a makeshift shelter.
The whole story is told in a dispassionate and sober style that makes its message even more poignant.
Our group was unanimous in finding the book excellent.  We all felt we had learned a lot about the hardships that migrants have to endure even after experiencing extreme danger and suffering while trying to reach Europe.  We all liked the style of the book, telling these terrible stories unsentimentally but powerfully.  We agreed that “Go, Went, Gone” was definitely worth reading. 
November 24, 2019

Monday, 11 November 2019


by Tara Westover

We know the word MORMONISM ( Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Days Saints ,  founded by Joseph Smith in 1805)  but little did we know about the guidelines of life in this community.
Tara Westover’s book is a memoir, an evocation of her childhood in the midst of one diehard mormon family in Idaho. It tells us how education can change the course of a life.
She is the youngest of seven children in a family leading a survivalist lifestyle. Her parents, particularly her father, are very rigid, suspicious  of anything modern : books, doctors, hospitals, public schools, the federal government…
Tara has no birth certificate until aged 9 !
They live at the foot of a mountain « Buck’s peak » , a bleak place, quite isolated from the rest of society.
The children are home schooling ( but few books at home !) and working hard in the father’s dangerous  junkyard.
Gene, the father, is ruling over his family in a brutal and fanatical way.
Faye, the mother, is a midwife and herbalist, making a business in alternative healing.
When Tara’s  best loved brother Tyler leaves  home for good to go to school, Tara decides to give her life a new turn : she goes to school for the first time, aged 15. 
« The seed of curiosity had been planted ; it needed nothing more than time and boredom to grow. » She starts reading «  The Book of Mormons ». This is her education !
 She is encouraged by Tyler : «  It’s time to go Tara. There is a world out there Tara » he said. « And , it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear ».
In the meantime, Tara keeps being physically and psychologically abused by her brother Shawn in a way that was hard to believe. Shaws brutality is  such that it makes her impervious to pain .  She becomes used to it. But the psychological trauma is huge.
Tara eventually renounces her father’s world, passes the ACT exam in order to attend Brigham Young University.
Needless to say it is hard for her to adjust to school life and to blend in with other students !
Luckily, a professor, Dr Kerry spots the potential in Tara and makes her apply to a study abroad program for students  in Cambrige UK . And she embarks on this program.
Her meeting there with Prof. Steinberg, a former vice-master of a Cambridge college, is a deciding factor in Tara’s life : 
« … I had to admit that I had never been to school. »  Tara said. « How marvellous » he said, smiling, «  It is as if I ‘ve stepped into  Shaw’s Pygmalion.   The most powerful determinant of who you are is inside you. Pygmalion was just a cockney girl in a nice dress, until she believed in herself. »
And under the guidance of Prof. Steinberg,  Tara starts  to believe in herself  against all odds 
She gets  a Master’s degree from Trinity College, Cambridge. Then,   becomes a visiting  fellow at Harvard University and gets a PHD in Intellectual History in 2014 at Cambridge.
She confesses : «  I sneaked into the place as an imposter. I now entered through the front door. »
This is an extraordinary story of human resilience and determination.
We all loved the book although  found it hard to believe the cruelty and the domestic violence existing in this family.
Anne Van Calster

November 2019

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Everything I never told you

by Celeste Ng

This is a debut novel by an American writer of Chinese background which has become a bestseller and has been translated into 15 languages.  It will also be made into a film.  Celeste Ng was born in Pittsburgh in 1980.  Her parents were scientists who emigrated to the U.S. in 1968 from Hong Kong.  She has now published a second novel, “Little Fires Everywhere” which has also been very successful.

The book relates the story of a couple made up of a husband of Chinese origin and an American wife and their three children. It examines the relationship between these family members and traces the history of the marriage of the parents and their lives in a small community in Ohio in the 1970’s.  Two main issues are examined during the course of the story – racism,  especially as experienced by the Chinese father and his assimilation into American society, and the effects of those experiences on the marriage and the children.   The second main issue is the situation of women of that period, whose skills and ambitions were most often frustrated by being confined the role of mother and homemaker.  The dramatic event which begins the story is slowly revealed and is the main theme from which we learn about this family from various points of view. 

We all enjoyed the book.  We learned a lot about how Asians were treated within American society during that time, and found out how much prejudice and intolerance existed toward them.  We also found that the characters were all very well depicted and the secrets that each of them keeps were treated with sensitivity and subtlety.
 Many of us are married to husbands from a different culture and we compared our own experiences to the ones presented in the book.  We found many differences with Celest Ng’s characters.  Is it because we live in a Europe and not in the USA?  Of course, it is also true that none of us married someone of a different race.    

The style of writing is fluid and the writer keeps our interest until the very end.  The consensus was that it was a good choice for our book club.

June 2018

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

The Map of Love

by Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif is an Egyptian writer and a political and cultural commentator for the Guardian. She was educated in Egypt and England where she obtained a PHD in linguistics. Her sister Laila is a human and women’s rights activist. These points are mentioned because they helped us in the discussion of the book.

The Map of Love was written in 1999. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Price and was translated into 21 languages.

 It is he story of two love affairs set in Egypt. 
One takes place in the beginning of the 20th century. An English aristocratic widow, lady Anna, falls in love with an educated upper-class Egyptian nationalist. …..
The second love affair begins in 1997. Isabel, an American journalist, has inherited a trunk with many manuscripts from her mother, including letters and diaries from her great-grandmother, who happens to be lady Anna. Isabel meets Omar, a famous Egyptian-Palestinian conductor who puts her in touch with his sister Amal to help her understand the content of the trunk. Amal will become the link between Isabel’s past and her present: she will help her discover her past by translating most of the documents. 
And here the first love story repeats itself because Isabel in turn  falls in love with this Egyptian conductor 
Amal is the one who narrates the story . The two stories revolve around Egypt, its past, its political situation at the beginning of the century and again around 1997.

There are so many things to say about this book. 
For instance, the way the English considered all Egyptians, educated or not, as was the case of all colonizers of the time. The way they ignore Anna once she gets married to Sharif Pasha although he is from a very well respected old family.
The portrait of rigid Victorian society in conquered country is very well depicted as are the life style, habits and culture of the Egyptians.
Before falling in love with a man, Anna was already in love with Egypt, its art and its literature thanks to her father and her father-in-law from a first marriage. She rapidly gets bored and frustrated in the company of her expatriate companions and gradually takes sides with the Egyptians. She shows a remarkable “open-mindedness” for that time. In fact she  falls in love with Sharif because of the difference between west and east, because of the language, the culture. How do they connect? Their common language is French, a second language for both of them.  He learned French while studying in France and she knows French because it was an obligatory part of  education in  her class. 
Ahdaf Soueif is very interested in linguistics, in the formation and combination of Arabic words as I said before. She shows it very well in the conversations between Isabel and Amal or beforehand between Anna and her sister-in-law.
It was a good thing to have a family tree  to situate the different characters. There are so many flashbacks in the book that sometimes one gets confused concerning the time setting or the specific character.
The glossary at the end of the book is also helpful because it allows the author to give an exotic atmosphere to her story and to stay close to the realities of Egyptian life. 
We all thought it was a very good book with a nice romantic story and interesting cultural, social and historical background.

Paulette Duncan