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 : meeting cancelled


Monday 21st January at Susan's: "EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU" by Celeste NG

Monday 18th February at Anne's: ??? "THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES" by Tom Wolfe.

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.


Wednesday, 31 October 2018

The Wednesday Club

By Kjell Westö (Finland)

The historical context of the story is important.
The Great Duchy of Finland, originally part of the Russian Empire, was part of the « glacis » finno-estonian between Germany and Soviet Russia in 1918. The Germans eventually lost control of the Baltic region after the war.
The new independant state of Finland was soon divided by Civil War,  with the Bolshevik-leaning « REDS » ( social democrats)  supported by the equally new  Soviet Russia , fighting the « WHITES » ( conservatives)  supported by the German Empire.
The Germans needed Finnish ressources and hence were aiming at breaking down Russia from inside by supporting the « WHITES ».
37.000  « REDS » perished in prisonners camps from malnutrition and deseases.
After the Civil War, Finland passed from Russian to German influence, leaving the country severely divided socially.
The story in the book is set in the year 1938.
The characters :
A group of men is used to meeting on Wednesdays, at a time demanding action and courage. 
« The Wednesday Club » is made up of 3 liberals and 2 conservatives, expressing their  different opinions on ideological matters.
  • Thune was  one of them, a lawyer, liberal and humanist. He seemed to be the only one who tried to see things rationnally.
  • Matilda Wiik  was  his secretary.  She had to create several identities in order to withstand the atrocities she had to endure.
  • Joachim Jary was  a Jewish actor whose mental health was deteriorating rapidly and who was already feeling what was going to happen.
  • There was also the Jewish winner at a 100 m race where the results were fixed. «  Justice is a privilege »….
  • Then , in « The Wednesday Club », there was THE CAPTAIN whom Matilda recognized immediately . It would activate an old forgotten memory and then a crual, dark light would dawn on the Captain.
We  were interested in the description  of Helsinki at the time, a raw and untamed city, a big port city in  a country  which had gone through a civil war , mostly a city of men where men like to drink, where Swedish is spoken.
Our group’s impressions :
We all found the book thought-provoking and loved it.
Practically no one knew about Finnish history, the Civil war and starvation camps.
We found the book well-written, in  a contemporary way of looking at situations.
The plot kept us interested until the end . The different characters’ reactions to the turbulent times are very well  described.
The novel is very  contemporary in the sense that it shows what can happen when a minority is persecuted and what can happen when tolerance and free spirit are subdued.
The ending was great because it  confronts  and punishes the character that is the greatest predator of all : the doctor, Thune’s best friend , he who has betrayed Thune  by stealing his wife, he who violated Mrs  Wiik in the starvation camp, he, who under the mask of friendship symbolically subdues the truth through medical means.
The actor friend , the only one who sees clearly what is happening becomes crazy.
In the end, the victim punishes the predator.
                                                                                           Anne Van Calster,  24/10/2018

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!