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 Blanka's : "THE MORAVIAN NIGHT" by Peter Handke (Austrian)

Wednesday 15th April at Christine's: "THE HOME THAT WAS OUR COUNTRY" by Alia Malek (Syrian)

Wednesday 13th May at Anne's: "APEIROGON" by Colum Mc Cann (Irish)

Wednesday 10th June at ....?: "HOMELAND" by Fernando Aramburu (Spanish)

Thursday, 19 March 2020

The Moravian Night: A Story by Peter Handke

By Peter Handke           Time-Travelling Tale of a Europe in Flux


Despite some opposition due to negative reactions to the writer´s receiving the Nobel Prize of 2019, which, in turn were due to his public support of President Milosevic after  the Balkan wars in the nineties, the group had agreed we should read a novel by him. The Moravian Night, apparently the most important novel of his career,   had been recommended by Anne. None of us were familiar with this writer, but we discovered that he belongs to the most important German language writer after the WWII:  he had once been relied upon to de-Nazify their culture and he indeed commands one of the great German-language prose styles of the post war period. Since the first of his 100 or so books of fiction, poetry, essays and plays appeared in 1966, his talent has been inarguable, and yet it has almost exclusively been a talent for the aesthetic. No one has ever read Handke for his ideas, but for his hostility to ideas;
Longlisted for the 2008  German Book Prize , (he rejected the nomination, according to himself, out of respect for the younger writers on the list. The book was also longlisted for the 2008  European Book Prize  and received the Nobel Prize 2019 .
He was born in 1942 in Carinthia, a heavily Slavic province of Austria. After his Slovenian mother´s suicide in 1971, Yugoslavia — historic homeland of the South Slavs — became a maternal surrogate. But despite his occasional visits, he never seemed to know it as anything other than a figment of delusion. He would apostrophize the Socialist Federal Republic as “the Balkans” — a multi ethnic paradise of farmers whose hearts were filled with wine and song, untainted by the trappings of capitalism. He made this false consciousness public just as reality collapsed; in 1991, he published a pamphlet against Slovenian independence, and over the next decade of constant war other non-fiction texts criticizing the media coverage which, he claimed, refused to hold Croats accountable for the persecution of Serbs during World War II ( the Jasenovac concentration camp was an extermination camp established  by the authorities of the Independent State of Croatia during World War II. T he Ustasa facist regime killed over 83,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists in the camp between 1941 and 1945),  and raising doubts that seemed like denials of the Serbian massacres of Bosnian Muslims. 
We follow, or try to, Handke’s hero´s, or maybe rather an anti- hero´s journey across Europe and his self-questioning; the “former writer” didn’t abandon his profession to pursue a political truth, but a political emotion. "In this story, where memory and reality battle, Handke once again showcases his valuable insight and imagination." [
Here and there, the novel’s submerged plot comes up for air; namely, the ways in which the contemporary world, or the contemporary Balkans, have betrayed Handke, or just failed to live up to his imagination.
The “former writer” finds the Balkans that emerges from the fogs, toward the conclusion of “The Moravian Night,” unrecognizable: a fractious patchwork of new alphabets and towers, repopulated by strangers equipped with smartphones, whose “comportment clashed with his conception, or his will? his ideal? his idea?
Modern Serbian state has been formed in the valley of the Morava,   the longest and most significant river in Serbia. Its fertile valley is a cradle of the first, medieval, Serbian state, Moravska Serbia, with rich cultural and historical heritage, like orthodox churches and monasteries . A new artistic direction was created right here in, the “Moravska School.
The mountain ridge of Hartz was the border between East and West Germany.

Friday, 21 February 2020

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

Our group decided to read “The Handmaid’s Tale” because of the recent publication of Margaret Atwood’s latest book “The Testaments”.  We agreed that we could not read “The Testaments” without going back to “The Handmaid’s Tale” first.  Many of us had already read the first book and returned to it somewhat reluctantly, as it is such a frightening and tragic story.  However, we all felt it was important to do so.
During the discussion, there was a consensus that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is difficult to read, not by its style or structure, but by the chilling dystopian society it depicts.  We all remarked on how strikingly Margaret Atwood’s depiction of this society reflects some aspects of our world today, even though it was published in 1984.  In an essay written by the author and published in the New York Times in March 2017, she speaks about those parallels and how they have only increased.  (Thanks to Christa for providing us with this essay*.)
Another conclusion came from the discussion of this story of fertile women being used to provide babies for a society in which the population has been decimated by some unspecified catastrophic event:  how well the atmosphere and the world in which they live is rendered.  The reader is drawn into this world completely by the vivid descriptions of the physical and psychological environment.    This is what makes reading the story difficult.  Margaret Atwood points out that many historical events served as “strands” which were included in the story – group executions, book burnings, the pregnancies of Swedish mothers enforced by the Nazi regime, child-stealing in Argentina, etc.   All these events, of course, actually happened.
We all agreed that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a challenging but very important book. 


*Margaret Atwood on What “The Handmaid’s Tale” Means in the Age of Trump 

Saturday, 25 January 2020


by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko has been described as a Japanese vertical pinball machine. The goal of the game is to fire balls that fall through a maze of metal pins into a hole. The balls that go through let you play a slot machine with the chance of winning more balls. It's partially a game of skill and partially a game of chance.

Pachinko is the second novel by Korean-American author Min Jin Lee. Born in Seoul, she arrives in the USA  when she is 7. She studied law and worked in NY then lived in Tokyo for 4 years. Her husband is half Japanese.
Published in 2017, Pachinko is an epic historical novel that follows Korean characters who eventually migrate to Japan and who become subjected to issues of racism and stereotypes between 1910 and 1980, a period that includes the Japanese occupation of Korea and World War II.
It is the first novel written for an English-speaking audience about Japanese–Korean culture. Pachinko was a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award for fiction.

In a small fishing village lives a family whose beloved daughter falls pregnant by a married Yakuza (member of transnational organized crime syndicates originating in Japan.
The family faces ruin. By chance, a Christian minister, Isak, offers to marry the girl and take her to Japan. She thus follows a man she doesn’t know ito a hostile country whose language she cannot speak, where she has no friends and no home.
That is the beginning of a story of 8 decades, 4 generations. It is an epic tale of family identity, love, death and survival.
It tells us about the difficulty of integration, the discrimination against  foreign newcomers and their struggle and resilience.
One feels the empathy, the integrity and the family loyalty through the whole story.
We all thought the book was very interesting because we didn’t know of the history in that part of the world and the relationship between Koreans and Japanese people. Some of us thought it was too long but personally I was mesmerised and interested by the cultural aspects of the book and the well described duality of human nature.

Paulette Duncan 

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, 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