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

Friday, 30 July 2021

Reading group calendar in 2021

No meeting in January.

Wednesday 10th February on Zoom:"HALF OF A YELLOW SUN" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigerian)

Wednesday 11th March on Zoom: "REBEL HEART: The Scandalous Life of Jane Digby" by Mary S. Lovell (British)

Wednesday 14th April on Zoom: "NEWS OF THE WORLD" by Paulette Jiles (American)

Wednesday 12th May on Zoom: "THE MYSTERY OF CHARLES DICKENS" by A.N. Wilson (English)
or "CHARLES DICKENS, A LIFE" by Claire Tomalin (English)

Wednesday 9th June at Loeky's: cancelled

Wednesday 14th July at Loeky's : "THE VANISHING HALF" by Brit Bennet (American)

Wednesday 1st September at Paulette's: "THE MAN IN THE RED COAT" by Julian Barnes (English)

Wednesday 13th October at........: ?

The Vanishing Half

 by Brit Bennet

Who are we ? Who do we want to be ?

This can sum up the subject of the book which is about racial and gender determination, segregation, education, life opportunities.

It is a multigenerational novel, set in a southern state of the USA in a town lived in only by coloured people, « in a town where people are hidden among themselves ».

Two twins, Désirée and Stella, aged 16, suddenly disappear together from their hometown.

We learn afterwards that they drifted apart, each going their own way and eventually lost contact with one another.

Désirée got married to a black man , left him at some point and came back to her mother with her black daughter Jude. Life will be tough for her.

Stella married a white man. Their daughter Kennedy is white with blond hair.Their life will be a privileged one.

Stella has decided to obliterate her past and her origins. She has built her life on secrets and lies.

Kennedy, the spoilt child, will squander away her life while Jude, the one with few opportunities, will find her place in the world and climb up the social ladder.

Are Désirée and Stella going to reconnect later in life? 

What happens with Jude and Kennedy?

We found the book gripping and thought provoking with insights into the social and cultural history of PASSING.

We did appreciate the way the writer always dealt with delicate issues with a lot of restraint.

                                                                                                      Anne Van Calster, July 202

Christa found in a review some interesting sentences.

The Vanishing Half is a brave foray into a vast and difficult terrain.

It is about racial identity and the tension between personal freedom and responsibility to a community.

The novel raises thorny questions about the cost of blackness. The answers are complicated. Desiree and her daughter emerge intact. Desiree has a sense of belongiCng to a place and people, and a fully developed identity.

Stella fares better by every possible socio-economic measure but she and Kennedy, her daughter, are shipwrecked, bobbing in open water, even if their life rafts are bejewelled. It would seem that it is not quite possible to stop being black in America no matter how hard you try....

This ""passing"" conflict  was completely new to me and I hope it makes for a interesting discussion.

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Charles Dickens, A Life

By Claire Tomalin

Dickens’s books are known all over the world and have been translated in every language. But what do we know exactly about the man himself , the novelist, the journalist, the playwright, the reader of his own works, the supporter of charitable organisations , the man who raised awareness about the social problems in London in Victorian times ? The man whose personal family life was his darkest side ?

Dickens was a creative genius : 

He drew his inspiration from his own poor childhood, storing up impressions of what he saw in the squalid and overcrowded streets of London to use in his novels.

He raised himself out of poverty, with an exceptional determination and maintained his dignity, never allowing any one to see his distress. He was a child-labourer, who got little academic instruction, who then worked as an office-boy in a law firm. The law, in its many ramifications fascinated him and lawyers figures are to be found in almost all his novels.

He was then a reporter at the House of Commons.

When starting to write his novels, it was as weekly sequels, meaning that there was  no way back to alter the course of the story, before reaching the point of being published as books.

He became immediately successful and the money he earned made his life easier. He took up  supporting charitable organisations and set up an ambitious enterprise to help young prostitutes  to start a better new life.

What struck us was his restlessness :

Walking the streets of London for hours during the night, moving home all the time with the family in tow. When he started giving readings of his books, he became an incessant traveller ( UK,US),which eventually led to his exhaustion.

As a human being, although his was a love-marriage in the first place, he has been a poor and unfaithful husband and a poor father ( of 10 children).

What is most important about his work is his social message :

His  aim as a writer was to draw attention to abuses, to the plight of women. He celebrated  the small people living on the margin of society, alerting those who might do something to help.

His formidable energy never flagged and until the end, he believed that working through his writing was more effective than any political action.

This book by Claire Tomalin was very long and detailed but worth reading !

                                                                                           Anne Van Calster  May 2021

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Rebel Heart: The Scandalous Life of Jane Digby

by Mary S. Lovell

I read this book when living in Damascus and I thought it would be an amusing diversion from our present restricted life and our usually serious reading…

There are two paintings of Lady Jane Digby (born in 1807): one, by the court artist Josef Stieler, hangs in Ludwig the First Gallery of Beauties in his Munich’s Nymphenburg Palace. The other, 28 years on, is a watercolour by the German artist Carl Haag of her in Arab dress, with the ruins of Palmyra as the background. Even if you knew nothing of their sitter, looking at these two paintings together you would probably assume she was rarely at home playing a good house wife. And you’d be right - she pursued a life for which there were few precedents among her gender, class or nationality, and her exploits sent waves of indignant uproar throughout Europe. Her first divorce occupied the front page of newspapers, with a verbatim transcription of the divorce proceedings. She had had many lovers, been married thrice and divorced twice when, at the age of 50, she embarked on her fourth and happiest marriage, to bandit Chief Sheikh Medjuel of Arabia, 20 years her junior. She adopted her husband's culture, spent part of each year with the Bedouin nomads in the desert and in her Damascus home entertained Western visitors. An original spirit to the last, Jane Digby died in 1881 in Damascus, where her grave can (could?) still be visited at the Protestant cemetery.

In the discussion (on Zoom), the members of the group gave an overall favourable opinion, appreciating the background and historical facts of the various places where Jane lived and travelled, but mostly preferring the last part of the book, where Lovell provides vivid descriptions of her lavish existence in Damascus and, more importantly, of the tribal life as Jane experienced it: "My heart warms towards these wild Arabs," she wrote. "They have many qualities we want in civilised life, unbounded hospitality, respect for strangers or guests, good faith and simplicity of dealing amongst themselves, and a certain high-bred innate politeness." I “stole” this quote from Loeky´s mail (she could not participate in the Zoom), where she adds, “it is now lost”. Yet, in our time in Syria, before this terrible war started, it was still very much present among the “civilised” inhabitants of Damascus.


Saturday, 27 February 2021

Half of a Yellow Sun

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Half of a Yellow Sun” is not an easy book.

It captures your attention and doesn’t let go; so maybe not the kind of book to quickly read before bedtime.
However, Adichie is a very talented storyteller, so don’t be deterred by the prospect of a complex story.
Her writing is clear and full of dialogue, which expresses more clearly the fact that much of human behaviour and feelings are universal.
Adichie masters the art of bringing to life not only specific people or characters, but an entire nation.
Most of us will not have a clear image of what Nigeria is really like, but after “Half of a Yellow Sun” it does feel a bit like you’ve been there.

In 1996 Chimamanda goes to study in the USA where she discovers that much of the world outside Africa has a very limited knowledge about this continent: war and poverty we all know, but Africa cannot be limited to such notions.
Her own biography is the background which allows her to make it clear to the reader that there also exists a middle class, that people study at universities, and cities have their museums, writers and scientists.
She writes about the Nigeria/Biafra civil war for her ancestors. It is about her family and about what they went through. Both her grandfathers and an uncle died in detention camps. Most of what she knows about the period 1967 to 1970, she learned from her father’s stories, all of which went into the book.

The parts printed in italic is the book written by Ugwu. Only at the end you realise the book is dedicated to his “master”.

There is no real end to the book:
what happened to Kainene?
what becomes of Ugwu?
how do they organise their lives after the war?
what happened to Biafra after te war?

I think this is because there is still no end to their sufferings, they cannot yet forget what happened to them.
The Biafra conflict remains a problem in Nigeria.
!!History has recently been removed from the secondary school curriculum!!

Interesting sentences
- p.62: Discussion about the world’s philosophers’ thoughts on Africa:
Hegel: Africa is a land of childhood!
Hume and Voltaire and Locke all felt the same about Africa (says Odenigbo)If Europe had cared about Africa, the Jewish holocaust would not have happened. The world War would not have happened.
They started with the Herera (Namibia) and concluded with the Jews (says Odenigbo).
- p.129: The real tragedy of our postcolonial world is not that the majority of people had no say in whether or not they wanted this new world; rather that the majority have not been given the tools to negotiate this new world!!
- p148 Nigeria’s position is a delicate one. With the Huasa-Fulani in the pleasantly dry heat in the North, mostly muslims, and the Yoruba and Igbo’s in the humid South, mostly Christians, and the numerous other tribes, the basis for unity does not exist (p198)
- p209 The hatred between the North & the South has been caused simply by the informal divide-and-rule policies. These policies manipulated the differences between the tribes and ensured that the unity would not exist, thereby making the easy governance of such a large country practicable.
- In 1914, the governor-general joined the North and the South, and his wife picked a name. Nigeria was born!!
- Besides, the discovery of oil makes Nigeria dependent on foreign interest.
- p322 Molière: “Unbroken happiness is not a bore; it should have ups and downs”
- p538 “Grief was the celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were so lucky to have loved!!

Adichie gives a lot of facts on politics, colonisation and decolonisation, but never gives any judgement.
There is much more about the book, but then we have to tackle politics, colonisation and decolonisation issues we decided not to discuss.
“Half of a Yellow Sun opens a window upon a torn African nation, left aside by the rest of the world.
The Biafra/Nigeria war went on simultaneously with the Vietnam war. Hence little attention from the world!!

A book that will benefit everyone who is concerned with Africa.


Friday, 18 December 2020

Where The Crawdads Sing

by Delia Owens

The book had been sent to me by an English friend and I thought it would be a good read to take our minds away from the enduring pandemic.

The author is a 70+ years old zoologist and wild life scientist, a co-author of 3 bestselling non-fiction books about her 25 years of life in Africa, and had many articles published in prestigious scientific journals. This is her first novel and it topped The New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2019 for 25 non-consecutive weeks.

 She took 7 years to write it, using her own experience of living in isolation from humans, though hers, contrary to her novel´s character of Kya, was, and is, voluntary.

Watching the interviews with her, gives, I think, a new perspective of the story.

The place: Barkley Cove in North Californim

The mystery plot: The “Marsh Girl”  Kya Clark is suspected of the murder of the handsome and popular youth Chase Andrews.

The novel has a bit of everything –  mystery, romance, survival, loneliness, love and evocation of the marshlands´ fauna and flora, but the theme of survival and loneliness are the main ones, based on the author own experience, though, as mentioned before, her life in isolation was of her own choice and not, as in Kya´s case, because of  family circumstances and prejudice.

I take the liberty of including Loeky´s comment, as she could not participate in our zoom meeting:

“I read "Where the Crawdads sing" and loved the book. Thanks Blanka for suggesting it. 

It is obvious that Delia Owens knows nature as no other, having always lived close to nature, becoming later a wildlife zoologist and working most of her life with animals. Delia's mother used to tell her "go as far as you can where the crawdads sing". Where I think animals still behave like animals. 

Delia's description of Kya's life as an outcast in a small community and her life in and from the nature is beautiful. 

Kya's life teaches us how to deal with being deserted by all, living in isolation and with loneliness. And that we all can achieve more than we think we can. 

I liked how the author kept up an amazing tension until the end. 

The poetry is also important when Kya became knowledgeable about language and the power of reading. It changed her life! 

And do you know "whodunnit"? Even knowing that one cannot take the law in one's own hand, I do understand if it is Kya "whodunnit". It was for her own survival; Chase would never have left her alone.” 


Thursday, 26 November 2020


by Maggie O'Farrel

We had our first group meeting by video conference to respect the Covid related restrictions.

Maggie O'Farrell (born 27th May 1972) is an Irish-British novelist.

Winner of the 2020 Women’s prize for fiction, “HAMNET”, her latest book, is simply magnificent. Her immersive writing makes you live the story through her characters. One member of our group said “Maggie O’Farrel has a way with words.

Of course, everything turns around the death of a child and that fact on its own is very affecting. But there is so much more in this book. The beautiful and poetic description of nature, an essential element in the story, the perfect rendition of the customs and ways of life in the countryside and in London in the 16th century (one of us made a link with Jordaens’s painting of a scene of everyday life at the time) and more than anything the art of making the reader feel what each protagonist feels. In fact, it is all about feelings, the feelings between twins, the bond that links them, the feeling of falling in love and of being in love, the feeling of being different and last but not least the timeless feelings of the mother and the father, so differently expressed, when faced with the heartbreaking tragedy of the loss of a child.

The group agreed on the fact that Agnes, the mother of Hamnet, is the main character of the novel. She is an indomitable free thinker. She is considered as wild, more in her element when in nature where she is able to establish contact with any animal, any plant. She is so sensitive that she can read into people’s hearts. She also is a healer and because of her empathy and her knowledge of plants, she is able to help people in pain. She is different from everybody around her but when faced with the loss of her child, she crystallises the suffering of all mothers. 

“The most famous character in the novel goes unnamed; he is variously “her husband”, “the father”, “the Latin tutor” and this deliberate omission frees the narrative of all the weight of association that his name carries”. As a young man, he was considered as a good for nothing by his family. Again he is different from the other country boys, he is more like a thinker and he knows that he can only find himself if separated from his family circle. Although he really loves his wife a lot ( she is the only one who can read his heart), he has to leave the countryside and his family in order to find his own identity and later on to survive the death of his son.

Maggie O‘ Farrel tells you a story based on fact (one of Shakespeare’s son did die at the age of 11) but still this is fiction. She tells us a very touching story of a man and a woman who although very much in love with each other get separated by the death of their son because each one has to find a way to survive it. The end will see them reunited because both understand that neither of them ever forgot their lost son, reincarnated in the play “Hamlet”.

Everyone thought it was also interesting to learn how a plague virus on a flea boarded a boat in Alexandria and arrived in England on people and merchandise carried on different means of transport. And what is surprising is the fact that the book was written before the actual pandemic began.

The story goes back and forth which made things confusing for some of us but all recognised that the book was simply superbly written.

Paulette Duncan