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

Saturday, 27 February 2021

Reading group calendar in 2021

No meeting in January.


Wednesday10th February on Zoom:"HALF OF A YELLOW SUN" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

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

Wednesday 14th April?: A biography of Dickens

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.” 


Blanka

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Hamnet



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



Thursday, 29 October 2020

Apeirogon

 By Colum McCann



Colum Mc Cann is Irish. He knows what it means  violence and war between communities .

His book is a beautiful, remarkable and important novel, a profound prayer for peace.

« APEIROGON » is based on a real-life Israeli-Palestinian friendship forged in grief.

McCann himself met both men :

Rami, the Israeli, whose 14-year-old daughter Smadar was killed by two Palestinian suicide bombers in Jerusalem.

Bassam, the Palestinian, whose 10-year-old daughter Abir was shot with a rubber bullet fired by an Israeli soldier .

In this book, never sad, the writer analyses the nature of violence and cruelty and the random nature of death.

McCann quotes  Einstein ‘s moving letter to Freud asking whether it would be possible to deliver humankind from the savagery of hate and war. Freud’s answer is quite pessimistic : «  There is no such likelihood …..to suppress humanity’s most aggressive tendencies. Humanity has an active instinct for hatred  and destruction. »

How true those words sound nowadays !

McCann explores the lives lived on both sides of the divide between Israel and Palestine, a divide created by geography, politics, religion.  He has managed in this book to create empathy for the characters and understanding of their situation.

In a narration full of humanity, he tells us how Rami and Bassam will eventually find their way to forgiveness and understanding.

« Anything  that creates emotional ties between human beings inevitably counteracts war, hence this book » says McCann

This book is also rich in the many ways it refers to History, sciences, music, literature, poetry. It is also threaded through  by a long meditation on birds and  their migration routes fraught by peril and obstacles. Culminating with the description of Philippe Petit ‘s walk on a tight rope between East and West Jerusalem in 1987, when a white dove settled on his balancing pole. What a symbol !

The structure of the book is complex and even puzzling in the beginning : small paragraphs with seemingly no connexion between them eventually connect little by little.

The title itself refers to a complex geometric shape with a countably infinite number of sides. A metaphor for the complex Israeli-Palestinian question. So many stories of tragedies, of wars, of frustrations and despair, stretching back into the past, through the present and off into the future.

How did we feel about the book ?

We all found it beautiful, thought-provoking, full of humanity and very instructive in many aspects.

For some, it was a bit like Utopia : how can we really reconcile waring factions through understanding ?

But the world definitely needs  some kind of idealism to drive us forward !

                                                                                     Anne Van Calster

                                                                                                October 2020


Wednesday, 15 April 2020

When the Doves Disappeared

By Sofi Oksanen
                                     


 translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers

About the author :

SOFI OKSANEN was born in 1977 to an Estonian mother and a Finnish father.
She is author and playwright. Her novel ‘PURGE’, based on her theatre play,
Puhdistus, has received numerous domestic and international awards a.o. the French ‘ Prix Femina étranger’. It has been translated in more than forty languages and sold more than two million copies.
‘When the doves disappeared’ has been published in 2012 and translated in English in 2015. A year later the novel has been adapted for the theatre and shown in Finland.
‘NORMA’, her latest novel has been published in 2017.

Historical note:
Having been part of tsarist Russia for three centuries, Estonia’s independence lasted scarcely two decades after the end of WWI. The tiny Baltic country was soon to be invaded again by Stalin in 1940, and a year later by Hitler.
By the end of WWII the Soviets returned and stayed there until the end of their regime in 1991.

The story recounts how three members of an ordinary Estonian family survived in times of foreign occupation, in the forties and the sixties when the country was invaded in quick succession by the Red Army, in 1940, a year later by the Nazis, and again when the Soviets expelled the Germans in 1944. The book covers the triple invasions, twice in wartime between 1940 and 1944, and in the sixties, when Estonia was a Soviet Socialist Republic, behind the ‘Iron Curtain’.

Oksanen’s is very engaged with a particular period of the recent history of her mother’s country and chose to identify with it in her books. Her fiction is based on extensive research of this period. She collected a lot of material for her study in books and publications but also through spoken records of her mother’s relatives and other Estonians, thanks to her fluent knowledge of the language. (cfr. interviews in The Economist 2015).
In her various interviews and lectures, one can feel her wholehearted loyalty to the country, where her maternal family came from. She is very critical of the ‘colonizing’ role the Russians played in the Baltic region. As a Finnish citizen she is familiar with the history of Russian interferences, more particularly since Finland has also been annexed to the Russian Empire during the XIXth century.
  
As a result of the occupations in Estonia, collaboration was widespread, this is why Oksanen devoted a substantial part of her fiction to those depreciating historical details. 
 Hence, the main character, Edgar, is a collaborator and his actions have been inspired by a true Edgar Meos, who lived in Talinn during the wartime (cfr. Interview 2015). 
Edgar, Roland and Edgar’s wife, Juudith, drive the story forward during the triple episodes of occupation.  All three of them mirror the ambiguity of the circumstances and the dilemmas, the whole country was facing.

As Roland and Edgar are very different, they will move in contrary directions.  Roland will remain determined to fight for a free homeland, while Edgar, a weak and twisted mind, becomes an opportunistic mercenary and traitor, successively Nazi servant and Soviet apparatchik.
Juudith, is the helpless wife of a misogynous Edgar and will get involved in a love affair with the German enemy. Furthermore, doves play a role in this novel, as the German occupiers snatched and ate them, thereby wiping away the peace symbols and hope for independence.
The author used subtle psychological descriptions and lively dialogs to explain what went on in the minds of her protagonists.  What could they do to adjust to adjust to these frightening circumstances? Will their survival instincts take over?

Through their behaviour and their changing identities, we enter inside the Nazi and Soviet regimes and we are pulled so deep inside them that we wait breathlessly for the next revelation!
Furthermore, most chapters manage to reflect the fear which reigns in totalitarian systems.

Oksanen has observed that when survival instincts come in, most peacetime values do not hold anymore and complicity and collaboration replace them.
The generalisation of collaboration with totalitarian regimes, results in treason and denunciation, even among families. Many scenes denote crimes. While one actor accepts to work in a German concentration camp, another one writes fraudulent Soviet propaganda. The hated subject of Soviet propaganda, systematically distorting the facts, is another recurring theme in the scenes of 1965.                                               

Like in a theatre play, all the occupation episodes are described in fifty short chapters with the action packed in different scenes, each time with a change in place, time and narrating voice. As the storyline is not linear, the fifty different scenes rock the reader back and forth through time, with forward-and backward flashes. This dizzy-making structure, makes it rather hard to follow and often requires a second reading, especially in the chapter where the Germans are still occupying Reval, (the old German name for Talinn) in 1942, and the action moves abruptly to Talinn 1965, buried under Soviet occupation.

It is her exquisite style that makes the novel enjoyable to read! 
Oksanen’s lyrical and poetic prose enhances most chapters when she depicts enthralling scenes of  rural life in the countryside where small farming still provided for the daily needs.
The focus is often on women with lots of responsibilities providing food by heavy work when their husbands were being drafted or in hiding. I liked the descriptions of their daily lives in the village.

An important addition to this novel is the murder mystery ‘WHO MURDERED ROSALIE?’ an enigma that runs all along the episodes, woven into most chapters.
Roland’s fiancée, Rosalie, has mysteriously disappeared and Roland is going to track the killer!
This intrigue keeps the story alive and fuels it with suspense, since the truth will only be revealed at the end.
It adds another dimension to the story and introduces other aspects from the sphere of romance, marriage relationships, deception and sexual orientation through gripping descriptions of feelings and sufferings.

In one of her interviews, Sofi Oksanen told the press that very few people would be ready to study the complicated history of the tiniest of Baltic countries unless it would be presented through a novel, in order to capture the interest of the public.

 I am convinced she succeeded to do so in this powerful novel.

‘…a pair of doves took off flying. He turned to look at them… the sky as white as the white of Rosalies’s flesh’.
‘…Rosalie’s neck was slender as an alder twig. Like the twigs she would have used a few months later, tied into a broom to sweep the walls before they were whitewashed…with fingers as thin as cigarette holders, fingers that Roland so loved.’

Irene Van Steenberge

Thursday, 19 March 2020

The Moravian Night: A Story by Peter Handke

By Peter Handke           Time-Travelling Tale of a Europe in Flux (NY Times)



                                                   

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.
Blanka
  
THE MORAVIAN NIGHT 
                                                                                                          
This novel  is essentially a tale,  told by a former-writer to guests he has convened for a whole night  on board  his boat ( his refuge) « The Moravian Night » . The boat is moored  on the Morava in the enclave of Porodin, the last Serbian enclave.
There is a symbolism of the word « night », name of the boat  and time of day.
The former writer is going to tell his guests about his long bus-trip through Europe .
Why is it  so important for him  to tell  them / us about it ?
 I think it is because the story is first and  foremost an  exploration of his  inner self. And we understand that there is a lot of P. Handke himself in the main character. 
This trip has been spured by an attempt to flee from some « danger » ( lurking  everywhere in the book), from a woman who tried to  reduce him to silence, from the trauma of fatherlessness, and from the horrors of the war.
During this trip, the former-writer  also retraces his steps to places he had been to  in Europe in the past,  before attending   a symposium about « Noise »  in  the most  godforsaken  and desolate place in Spain, Numencia.
While going back to his homeland , he assesses the changes in the world  and tries to make sense of   what has happened. 
We were puzzled by the fact that P. Handke  mixes real places with imaginary ones, always bare, lonely , desolate places where he meets weird people .
Realism alternates with day-dreaming.  In the end of the story, life is just a delusion.
Whether we call this magic-realism or surrealism or «  merveilleux » in French, doesn’t matter.  It is a novel and there is no need to find  it rational.
I really did appreciate the elegiac description of many places steeped in loneliness.
P. Handke has also used an incredibly rich  vocabulary to describe «  noises », all of them.
It was a very good read, not easy but worth the effort.
                                                                                                            
Anne Van Calster