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

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 ?: "PACHINKO" by Min Jin Lee (Korean-American)

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

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

The House on Paradise Street

 by Sofka Zinovieff 

A historical fiction about Greece’s recent history, published in 2012.
The author.
Sofka was born in Putney, studied social anthropology at Cambridge and carried out research for her PhD in Greece, which marked the beginning of a lifelong involvement with the country. She married a Greek and lived in Athens for many years. She now divides her time between Athens and England. She is also the author of “The red Princess, Eurydice Street, Mad boy, Lord Berners, my Grandmother and me” and “Putney” her latest novel, published in 2018.
Historical note.
After 400 years of Ottoman control and many rebellions, Greece’s independence was declared in 1821. Unfortunately, new wars would start again after WWI, when the Greeks attempted to extend their territory. Assisted by the Allies, they first conquered regions in the North and in the Ionian and Aegean Seas where they were successful. When they also tried to advance into Turkey they met with the fierce resistance of the New Turks under Kemal Ataturk (1919-22) which caused violent fights and carnages in the regions where Greek communities lived. Following those fights, the Great Fire of Smyrna broke out in 1922, burning down all Armenian and Greek quarters. The author stresses its major importance because it was followed by the forced repatriation of most Christian inhabitants of Asia Minor. More than a million (1.400.000) refugees arrived in Greece including Antigone Perifanis’ mother and uncle.
The Novel.
Zinovieff relates the story of the Perifanis, a family whose problems and divisions reflect the political unrest which the whole of Greece had to face from the years after WWI onwards. The house on Paradise Street, Athens, has been their home for four generations. Their story spans the forced repatriation of the Greeks from Smyrna, World War II, the Civil War and the democratic regime, up to the 2008 riots.
Two narrators tell their story.
Maud, the English third wife of Nikitas is the first one. She is a social anthropologist as well, who came to Greece to do field work like the author.
Antigone, the second narrator is Nikitas’s mother, who had to abandon her son aged three, when she fled Greece for Moskow, during the Civil War (GCW).
Maud tells the story of her first idyllic years in the house, she recounts how she was surrounded by neighbours and extended family and soon had a baby girl. She studied the language and like Sofka, she enjoyed discovering Athens and its customs.
Her husband, Nikitas, a journalist was very independent, flamboyant and rebellious, although very private when it came to his personal life. Maud did not really know her husband well. He never spoke about his mother or about her family. On some occasions though, he had alluded to uncle Spiros, his  foster fathers’ violence, a clue to future developments in the story.
After Nikitas’ death in a car crash, Antigone, returned from sixty years of exile, for the funeral of her son.
Maud, who wanted to investigate her late husband’s complicated past, approached Antigone who would gradually reveal the events that tore her family apart and caused terrible feuds.
With her reminiscences Greece’s recent history unfolds, which is cleverly intertwined with the Perifanis’ story.
The narrative follows the lives of two ancestors, Antigone’s mother and uncle Diamantis, who arrived in Greece as refugees. Antigone’s mother had found her way out of misery, contrary to most other refugees, who continued to live in miserable shanty towns.
At this point, Zinovieff plants the seeds for the ideological divisions in the family through the role of Uncle Diamantis who invited young Antigone and her little brother to the very poor “New Smyrna” shanty town. He showed them such extreme suffering that it would be impossible for them not to adopt his belief in “social justice” and the promise of an “Earthly Socialist Paradise”. The children enjoyed their uncle’s stories, especially when he took them out for ice-cream afterwards. Once indoctrinated, those communist ideas would stay with them and drive them for the rest of their lives. Those ideas were in opposition with the democratic or conservative beliefs of the other family members. Her sister Alexandra and husband Spiros stuck to their parents’ tradition.
Between the two wars, Communism did not stop growing in Greece and it became a continuous threat to all the frequently changing Greek governments.
During WWII, when the country was successively occupied by Italy, Germany and Bulgaria, a Resistance movement (EAM) and a National Liberation Army (ELAS) were created which Antigone and her brother eagerly joined.In a lively prose, Zinovieff describes how Antigone and her fellow freedom fighters, started operating in groups all over the country, from the war torn streets of Athens to the mountain caves and villages.
However, by 1944, when the communists had the upper hand in most of the country and launched terror campaigns, the English allies and the Greek democrats realised the danger and decided to violently crush the Liberation Army. This led to the bloody DEKEMVRIANA (December events) followed by the CIVIL WAR which broke out between Communists and British-backed government forces and it was more vicious than the previous war against the occupying forces with 10% of the population killed.
As a result, ELAS went underground and retreated to the mountains to continue guerrilla attacks and even started to abduct young ‘janissaries’.
The book gives a lively and realistic report of the horrors during the repression and how Antigone and Marcos continued to fight in this exploding atmosphere.
The former Resistance Fighters were betrayed by the same people who supported them in their struggle against the foreign occupation. Eventually Marcos, Antigone’s brother, denounced by Spiros, his foster father, would be violently killed in the fights. Spiros, formerly pro-Nazi, had changed sides to be informer for the British. The obstinate Antigone will eventually be imprisoned together with many of her comrades.
The role of the British, who changed policies in order to prevent the rise of another communist ‘Nation’ is personified by British agent, John Fell. He embodies their ambiguous policy, a former ally of the Resistance, he helped eliminate it during the Civil War.
Zinovieff has chosen the Perifanis family with its divisions and feuds as symbol of Greece and its fractures. The family’s history explains how the fractures came about and how they would stay for years to come. In her description of the repression and of the fractures, she is understanding and impartial.
Despite its complexity, the novel is amazingly well structured and it is not all pure fiction, as events are based on real life experiences of members of the author’s family and acquaintances. It is a gripping story which reads like a page turner.
The characters, vibrant Mediterranean types, committed to politics, as well as, the expatriated English ones, are well drawn.
Lots of themes are dealt with, from indoctrination and its origins to ideology and its disastrous effects on families to ‘shifting allegiances’, within a family.  The Greek tendency to political discussions and continuous involvement in politics on all levels of society is masterly illustrated. It even includes young flag waving schoolchildren who get involved in street demonstrations and riots as in 2008. This may be a topic for further debate as it is in fashion here, as well!
Why did the author choose another ‘social anthropologist’, Maud, as narrator? Greek idiosyncrasies have been observed in detail and all chapters are illustrated with descriptions of Greek customs, by a specialist in this field. Among the multiple examples, the lemon tree by the house, a totem, its leaves picked and chewed by the visitors, lemon syrup, a delicacy, offered to guests. Funerals and their rites are reported in detail, watching the ‘Charos’, with drinking rituals, guests and priests as ceremony masters, the importance of the highest place in the cemetery and finally the burial of Marcos, Antigone’s brother, a  copy of the well-known ‘Sophocles tragedy’.
Little spicy meatballs and other savoury delights from Asia Minor brighten up several chapters of the story, as do the sunny images of nature:
 “… an amorous spring in Athens”, “like a…bride with flowers and veils…drifts of camomile…clouds of scent… bitter-orange trees with outrageously perfumed blossoms…
Irène van Steenberge

Friday, 5 April 2019

The Bonfire of Vanities

by Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities  ( 1987)
                                                                                      Tom Wolfe  ( 1931-2018)
The writer :  
He started his career as  a journalist and became one of the best columnists in The New York Herald Tribune.  But soon, in his columns, besides relating facts , he found a way to look at the American society with a critical eye and the expression «  NEW JOURNALISM » was coined.
At some point, he decided to devote himself entirely to writing fiction. About his novels, he declared :  « I am writing non fiction novels meaning true stories ». He asserted that his novels were grounded on thorough investigations but the opposite was not true : he never invented anything in his columns as a journalist.
 When writing The Bonfire of the Vanities, he recognised having been influenced by Emile Zola ( Naturalism- 19th C.) whose works are detailed  descriptions of the French society of the time and having been  inspired by Tackeray’s  Vanity Fair .
The book :
Wolfe’s first novel  and a major bestseller worldwide.
It is a social satire of the world of the Yuppies of Wall Street in New York in the 1980s, a scathing description and an unreserved criticism of a world  plagued by personal and unscrupulous ambition and corruption,  cupidity and opportunism ,  of a system that privileges  the appearance.
« Radical chic » is the expression Wolfe used to stigmatise the Wasp Elite  and their vanities.
What is important is to keep up appearances and  to show signs of wealth :  graduating from an Ivy League University,  showing off expensive cars, suits, shoes, going to the best restaurants, having an apartment in the Upper East Side decorated by a famous interior decorator, attending  society dinners, and for women, to be « skinny » !
Sherman McCoy, the main character, has all this.  His life seems secure, he has the illusion of being important,  he  regards himself as «  Master of the universe ».
But VANITIES are by essence  transient and  can disappear in no time. 
The plot :
Sherman McCoy is embroiled in an extra-marital affair. When driving with his mistress, he knocks down  Henri Lamb, a young black man in the Bronx, leaving him seriously injured on the scene.
This is a hit-and-run accident.  Sherman thinks he can get away  with it by cowardly  keeping a low profile and thanks to his connexions with the right people at the highest level of society.
But he is soon caught up by the black community led by the Reverend Bacon.
Tension grows among the black community, gathering strenght day after day: ( incredible description of the Bronx «  a lab for human relationships » )
Sherman can non longer escape  the judicial trap  closing in, leading to his trial, crushing him little by little.
He will be ostracized by his  upper-class  friends and estranged from his wife and daugther.
Within a few months, Sherman’s life and everything he believed in will be destroyed on The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Our group’s appreciation :
We all loved the book and found it a page turner, very moralistic with a lot of humour too.
We all appreciated the different themes dealt with :  life in New York, the tabloid press («  The City light »), male power, corruption, respectability, the value of life ( black v. white). 
We got an insight into the somber world of Justice  and what it means to be part of a Jury.
Some ladies found  Sherman a  hapless man, sweetly naïve, victime of a certain model of society,  and felt sorry for him in a way.
Some found an interesting connexion between the characters and their names :  McCoy, too coward and shy to surrender to the police,  Lamb, the innocent victim, Weiss, the honest man,  the  Bavardage couple…
The Reverend Bacon was inspired by the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
A very good book indeed.

« VANITE DES VANITES ET TOUT EST VANITE »  from the Ancient Testament, Ecclesiaste, I, 2

                                                                                     Anne Van Calster ( March 2019)

Saturday, 23 February 2019


by Tom Lanoye

Tom Lanoye was born in 1958.
He was the son of a butcher in Sint Niklaas, East Flanders, where he went to school. He studied Germanic Philology and Sociology at the 
Universitry of Ghent.
Tom Lanoye is an award-winning, highly acclaimed Belgian novelist, poet, columnist, performer, screenwriter and playwright.
He became famous for his prose and drama, as well as his politically and socially engaged columns and his unique cabaret-style performances. 
He is one of Belgium's most celebrated, most popular and well-regarded Flemish authors, widely read - not only in his language area, and famous in Europe. With this book you can see why: he's a master at creating character, setting scenes, picking absolutely perfect evocative details. Since the succes of “Speechless” in 2011, French-speaking Belgium was immediately taken by the book.
Almost 135,000 copies were sold in Holland and Belgium alone.
Speechless (2009) was awarded several major literary prizes and has been voted one of the most popular 'new classics' in Flemish literature.
Tom lives in Antwerp and Capetown, South Africa.
His work has been translated into fifteen languages and performed in 20 countries.He is the author of over 50 works of poetry, drama and fiction.
Six of his novels have been filmed.

 An intimate mother-son portrait tells a universal story.
This book is translated from Dutch, but if that line were missing from the title page you wouldn't know it. Speechless is translated from Dutch by Paul Vincent, who skilfully translated Lanoye’s rich style.

On the very first page:
  “She lost first her speech, then her dignity, then her heartbeat”
With these words, Tom Lanoye compresses in only one sentence, the tragic end of his mother.
Speechless is a touching memoir about his beloved diva of a mother’s final years. After a stroke, she - an obsessive amateur actress - loses her ability to speak. Flamboyant, proud and dominant, Josée is unrecognizable after this stroke, which strips her of the ability to speak and express herself with the expansiveness for which she was known. Slowly but inevitably she deteriorates, less and less able to communicate with her loved ones.
Her son, the author, is deeply touched by her loss of speech and reconstructs her life in the abundance of language that used to be hers.
With style and grace, Lanoye weaves together autobiography, testimony and fiction to recount the last years of his mother's life and the years before her stroke. Lanoye employs rich prose to paint a colorful picture of growing up and coming to terms with his homosexuality.
This is an ‘unadorned account’, an informal, honest testimony of a mother by her son. 
Lanoye's book is often comic, as he describes his childhood home, his siblings and colorful neighbours, and above all, his parents.
Speechless is life itself, a mixture of tragedy and irresistible humour. It is a lively fresco of a generation, a period, a life style.

Our group very much appreciated this book. 
There were many scenes that reminded us so much of our families and our own stories.
Some of us have known someone who languished at the end of their life and wasn’t able to help him/herself anymore.
Of course, at one point you also think: What if this happens to me?

“Speechless" is a book that sings and shines and hums and growls and resonates and amuses and rages and smothers and hurts. It makes you love, it makes you angry, it fills you with vicarious shame”.


Wednesday, 5 December 2018

The Radetzky March

By Joseph Roth

The Radetzky March, a 1932 novel by  Joseph Roth  (1894 – 1939)
chronicles the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire via the story of three  generations  of the Trotta family, devoted subjects of the Empire originating from Slovenia, in the western parts of the Slav domain, while Joseph Roth himself was born in its easternmost reaches, in the East Galicia . Jewish culture  played an important role in his life. Roth grew up with his mother and her relatives; he never saw his father, who had drunk himself to death before he was born. (The same fate befalls Roth, at the age of 44).

The Trottas live in Moravia, in the centre between these regions...

In 1916, Roth volunteered to serve in the  Imperial Habsburg army ,  fighting on the Eastern Front. This experience had a major and long-lasting influence on his life (as reflected in this novel). So, too, did the collapse of the  Habsburg Empire , which marked the beginning of a deep sense of "homelessness" that was to feature regularly in his work. As he wrote: "My strongest experience was the War and the destruction of my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.“ This nostalgia is palpable throughout his writing, despite the many critical observations, veiled in bitter-sweet humour. It is a novel of the ironies inherent in the well-intentioned actions that lead to the decline and fall of a family and an empire; the merry-making and frivolous Austrians do not remark the wind of change (comp. with Stefan Zweig, who was a friend of Joseph Roth).
In his later works, Roth appeared to wish that the monarchy could be restored. His longing for a more tolerant past may be partly explained as a reaction against the  nationalism  of the time, which culminated in  Nazism
 He often portrayed the fate of homeless wanderers looking for a place to live, in particular Jews and former citizens of the old Austria-Hungary, who, with the downfall of the monarchy, had lost their only possible Heimat ("true home").

The title - from the  Radetzky March ,  (1848), by  Johann Strauss Sr. , which honours the Austrian  Field Marshal   Joseph Radetzky von Radetz  (1766–1858). It is a  symbolic   musical composition  heard at critical narrative junctures of the Trotta family history.
The time – several levels: the times of the Baron (memories) and the present, the life of Karl Josef, flow into each other, sometimes confusingly. The emperor lives in yet another time, foreseeing the end of the Empire.
The genre - Radetzkymarsch is an early example of a story that features the recurring participation of a historical figure, in this case the Emperor  Franz Joseph I of Austria .
The historical background - In 1859, the  Austrian Empire  was fighting the  2nd War of Italian Independence , against Napoleon III of France  and the  Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia .
During the  Battle of Solferino , the well-intentioned, but blundering Emperor Franz Joseph I is almost killed…and Roth´s story follows from here…
The novel is included  in  Der Kanon  of the most important German-language literary novels and  Mario Vargas Llosa  ranked The Radetzky March as the best  political novel  ever written.

The group´s appreciation on the whole was very positive; even if we did no learn anything really new, the book was enjoyed for itself as a brilliant piece of writing, special notion was awarded to the poetic and atmosphere-generating descriptions of nature, almost poems in their own right.