Book Discussion Basel

 You are welcome to join us for informal discussions in English on mostly contemporary English literature. The meetings take place once a month on a Wednesday evening. It is expected that all participants have read the book being discussed in advance. Participants are asked to contribute a token fee of CHF 5.- at each meeting.


Our next discussions will take place in Basel at

Treffpunkt Breite / next to Hotel Breite, Zürcherstrasse 149, 4052 Basel (Tram 3 Breite or Bus 36 Breite)

between 7.00 and about 8.30 pm.


Wednesday, November 16, 2016: The Shepherd's Life - a tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks

Wednesday, December 14, 2016: Refugee Tales as told to Ali Smith, Patience Agbabi, Abdulrazak Gurnah and many others

Wednesday, January 11, 2017: Stoner by John Williams


Let us know if you have a book to recommend.

If you have any questions or are interested in participating, contact Mary Hogan. You can request to be kept informed regularly by email of the scheduled meeting dates and the books chosen for discussion.


Books we have discussed in the past:


Wednesday, October 19, 2016: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: Expectations were high for this much-ballyhooed novel but the majority of those present were underwhelmed. 'Boring', 'banal', 'couldn't stay awake', 'didn't care for the characters' were some of the comments. However, we did find some positive points: the complicated friendship between Lina and Lena, the detailed description of the rough neighborhood, family interactions, Lena's reaction to seeing the sea for the first time,  the scene where Lena bathed Lina before her wedding. None of us regret having read the novel, but only two participants consider reading the next three in the series. MH DD 


Wednesday, September 14, 2016: Old Filth by Jane Gardam: ‘Failed in London Try Hong Kong’ - FILTH, is the nickname of Sir Edward Feathers, an international lawyer and judge in the Far East, now retired in Dorset. When old age and the death of his wife compel him to confront the scars of his childhood, we gain a glimpse into the complex, emotionally stunted man underneath the elegant, fastidious façade. The non-chronological narrative bothered a few of us, but here again, as in Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins, which we discussed in June, the memories triggered in the protagonist are not chronological. But mostly we were delighted by this moving and wonderfully funny tragi-comedy by an author who, amazingly, we had never heard of before. We read out loud several passages of high comedy and bittersweet scenes written in economical, sharp prose. The large cast of characters was confusing but we managed to sort them out during the discussion. Among the themes: loss of empire, quality of friendship, stiff upper lip ethos. MH

Wednesday, August 17, 2016: A Handful of Honey by Annie Hawes: This travelogue is about the Irish/Ligurian author’s recent trip with two Frenchmen for a few weeks through Morocco and Algeria. Most of us had difficulty getting into their adventure since the book starts with the horrifying experiences the author had in Portugal several decades earlier.  But glad we all were that we continued reading and could accompany them on their spellbinding journey. They get rides with various local drivers and stay with the ‘locals’ - cannabis farmers, sheepherders, and wine growers. The author is a spunky and fearless traveller whose writing shows her formidable intelligence, language skills and knowledge of the misunderstandings that occur between Western and Arab cultures. She has compassion for the people offering their hospitality and fascinates us with their personal stories that bring out the multifaceted history of intercultural encounters in this hardly inhabitable region throughout the past centuries among the People of the Book. We learn about Arab food, customs, family life, their pleasures as well as their work, hope, worries and ways of getting along and coping with their own growing conflicts with extreme Islamists. Her style is non-judgmental, packed with excellent research and descriptions that make her readers feel the heat and smell the food. The book is often hilarious, always thought-provoking, highly recommended by all. DD


Wednesday, July 13, 2016: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:Although our group normally discusses recent fiction, we decided to read To Kill a Mockingbird in view of the death of Harper Lee this year and because we had recently read another book about racism in America, The Time of Our Singing. Most of the readers were captivated by the depiction of life in a sleepy Alabama town in the 1930s as told from the point of view of Scout, a young, precocious girl. The novel works on several levels: as a coming-of-age story, an indictment of racism, but also a story about love and friendship. The novel weaves together the town’s everyday events--ladies’ tea parties, school gatherings, and children’s games—with a study of the workings of bigotry in its many forms. Some of the readers felt that the book was too contrived: Scout is too young to be able to understand these events; the father, Atticus, is too idealized; and certain parts of the plot seem unbelievable, for example the children stopping the lynch mob at the jail. Other readers accepted this as artistic license. Despite these differences of opinion, we felt it was valuable to revisit this novel that many of us had read as teenagers or to experience it for the first time. ML


Wednesday, June 8, 2016: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson:

This is another novel set during WWII, and like the Flanagan novel we read in March, shows the effect war has on the lives of even subsequent generations. Teddy Todd is a RAF bomber pilot who survives the war against enormous odds, marries his childhood sweetheart, has a daughter and grandchildren. Throughout the book, Teddy's memories constantly trigger other ones, and the novel jumps forwards and backwards in time, irritating some of us, while others felt it deepened the significance of what's going at any specific time. We appreciated the wry humor and well-drawn characters, particularly the unassuming and kind Teddy. One participant felt the novel was a homage to Teddy and the unfashionable traits that he represented:  his sense of duty, his emotional restraint and decency.  But most of us were flummoxed by the book’s ending and much of the discussion was spent interpreting it. MH


Wednesday, April 13 and May 11, 2016: The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers:
We discussed this 600-page book in two sessions, the first half in April and the second half in May. Even at this pace, the book is not easy reading: it is densely written, with frequent references to classical music and quantum physics; the plot switches back and forth between decades and is narrated from different points of view. But most of us felt that our efforts were well rewarded. The Time of Our Singing, written in 2003, gives a multi-faceted and incisive depiction of race in America from the 1940s up to the 1990s. The book centers on the marriage of an African-American woman and a Jewish man who decide to raise their three children 'outside of race', to create their own world that can stand as a counterpart to the racism around them. The parents are united in their love of music, and singing together becomes the focal point of their family life. The oldest two children, Jonah and Joseph, are educated at home and later go to a music school, where Jonah stands out as a brilliant tenor and Joseph becomes his accompanist. The youngest child, Ruth, attends public schools and is more aware of racism, rejecting classical music as a symbol of white culture and oppression. The first half of the book takes us up to the 60s as Jonah is in the early stages of his career, singing lieder in concert halls across America; in parallel, race riots explode in America cities, and hundreds of thousands of people take part in the March on Washington to demand full equality for African-Americans. The family dissolves as the brothers become absorbed in achieving perfection, the sister devotes herself to the Civil Rights movement, and the father remains fixated in the world of mathematics.In our discussion of the second half of The Time of Our Singing, we expanded our discussion of racism and stereotyping to other countries besides America. Most members of our group were impressed by Power’s sincerity and sympathy for his characters and felt they had been enriched by the book. He skillfully weaves together several stories and periods, and his use of dialogue is brilliant, from the fractured English of the German-Jewish father to the street slang of the young men. In contrast to some of the other authors we have discussed, Powers uses these techniques to deepen our understanding of the characters and not purely for effect. ML


Wednesday, March 9,  2016: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan:

This book won the Booker Prize in 2014 and is considered by many as a masterpiece, also by several members of our group. Dorrigo Evans, the protaganist, is a war hero, a famous surgeon, a chronic philanderer and lover of poetry. The central subject of the novel is the building of the Thai-Burmese railroad by Asian civilians and Allied POW's during WWII. The reader gains insight into the Japanese psyche during this time, which demanded unconditional devotion to the emperor's will overruling any sense of humanity. Human sacrifices were of no issue when a military goal was to be achieved. We were impressed by the descriptions of the POW’s comradely endurance of appalling cruelty. Readers were both fascinated and horrified and this turned out to be one of the most interesting book discussions we’ve had in a long time. DD & MH


Wednesday, February 10, 2016: Rainforest Hero - the life and death of Bruno Manser by Ruedi Suter:
We were honoured to have this book’s translators with us - Alison and Franz Metzger who shared their views about Bruno Manser and told how they worked together with the author Ruedi Suter. They stuck very close to the original German to turn the special writing styles of both Bruno Manser and his biographer into highly readable and naturally flowing English. We compared several German and English texts in detail. We admired Bruno Manser and his extraordinary dedication to the Penan, his broad range of skills and talents as well as his charismatic, soft-spoken and dare-devil spirit. At the same time he was naïve, egocentric, hardheaded, and wildly reckless to the point of sometimes betraying his own mission. His campaign to ‘leave the forest dwellers alone’ prompted discussion. Do indigenous people really want their children to be away from the educational and medical progress of a modern world? Sometimes it was hard to follow the frequent switching of tenses, going back and forth in time and Bruno’s happy-go-lucky jaunts here and there in the world. How Bruno with his Tao-like non-violent style could so skilfully bring so many diverse people to his cause is in itself an extraordinary legacy that perhaps explains why so many young people today still want to know more about him 15 years after his disappearance. DD


Wednesday, January 13, 2016: The Love Song of Miss Queenie by Rachel Joyce:

Seven Berglians were present plus some outside comments by mail. Only two, both from absentees, expressed enjoyment.  The rest were more negative: this companion to Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry came too late and was not as enjoyable / ...too long drawn out / plot forced / some of us skipped through / some only persevered because of the prospect of the discussion / ...boring / maudlin / the title inept / old-fashioned tinge of Victorian fiction. On the positive side:  some magnificent prose / first class descriptions of landscapes and scenery / sensitive presentation of hospice life and TLC there / the nursing sisters were shown as empathetic and concerned, dealing with difficult emotional situations / clever creation of the contrasting patients, building up an amusing and touching inter-active group (then someone said no to that too forced, and Finty was too vulgar) / the new book expanded appreciation of Harold's wife Maureen and son David / differentiated portrait of Harold. Questions arose which led to good debate.  Was Queenie's text real shorthand or just illegible scrawl?  What had Harold felt for Queenie in their earlier life and then after arriving and seeing the havoc the cancer had wrought in her face? Did he at any point realise that she loved him? What was the role in the plot played by Sister Mary Inconnue? How far did her imaginary presence inspire Queenie's creativity, or how far was she conjured up by the morphine, like the woman with the pineapple, the horse and the dog? All this kept us going ding-dong with our comments and exchanges. ES


Wednesday, December 9, 2015: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler:

The discussion group, for the most part, enjoyed reading this book, although there were some dissents. Most enjoyed the conversational / dialogue style of the writing and found it real and engaging. The book tells the story of an ordinary family who believes itself to be extraordinary and the dysfunction they live. The story takes place in Baltimore and centers on the lives of Red and Abby Whitshank and their four children, Amanda, Jeanne, Denny and Stem. Denny, the prodigal son, seemed to enjoy wreaking havoc and destabilizing his parents although he seemed to care about his family. The group discussed several themes including the complexity of spousal, parental and sibling relationships, the ambiguity embodied by individuals, and the secrets and power dynamics in family life. The group spent a fair amount of time discussing Linnie Mae and Junior, the house as a character itself, the significance of the color blue (blue swing / blue spool of thread), and Denny. Many felt they knew the characters, they know people like the Whitshanks. Although the book was lengthy, most were glad they read it, would definitely recommend it but would not read it again. GS


Wednesday, November 11, 2015: Outline by Rachel Cusk:

Our discussion group was polarized over this book. Many of the readers felt that the novel has no clear theme or narrative thread, and it was difficult to empathize with the protagonist, a woman who travels to Greece for one week to teach a writing course. The book centers around her encounters with a variety of people — aspiring students, a has-been writer, a thrice-divorced elderly man, a socialite turned feminist — without revealing much about her own feelings. Some readers were also frustrated by the first-person technique and the detailed descriptions. On the other hand, some readers felt this is a truly modern novel, one that breaks the norm with new techniques to depict some of our deepest problems: alienation, the difficulty of maintaining a marriage or relationship, the danger of defining oneself through another person. Many of the characters are suffering the consequences of lying to themselves or to their partners; this seems to be a unifying outline for the book. ML


Wednesday, October 14, 2015: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd:

Based on the lives of the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina (Nina), The Invention of Wings tells the parallel stories of Sarah and the slave girl Handful, called Hetty by the Grimké family.  Sarah is growing up in a privileged slave-owning family in South Carolina and is given Handful as a eleventh birthday present.  Unlike the rest of her family, Sarah finds the idea of people as possessions appalling and attempts to free and befriend Handful, suffering the wrath of her mother as a result.  In the process she discovers that being a woman also classifies her as a second-class citizen, and the frustration she feels at being unable to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer helps shape her path in life. As her younger sister Nina grows, Sarah finds an ally in her.  Nina is, in fact, more outspoken than Sarah, who suffers periodically from a severe speech impediment. Eventually the girls leave home to campaign both for the liberation of slaves and for the liberation of women. Meanwhile Handful is herself fighting battles, both within the household against the tyranny of Mrs. Grimké and, once she finds ways to escape, outside its walls in the city of Charleston.  She takes great risks as the treatment of rebellious slaves is horrific. Although this was, at times, a challenging book, it provided many different topics for a lively discussion, from the way the book was structured with alternating chapters for Sarah and Handful, to the extent to which the sisters’ campaign for women’s rights was an impediment to their campaign for the rights of the slaves. JH


Wednesday, September 9, 2015: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald:

Our discussion covered a wide range of topics, reflecting the complexity and multiple layers of this book. Structured as a memoir, H is for Hawk is also a meditation on the relationship between animals and humans, on history and the creation of myths, on death, on the conflicting needs for freedom and security. Some members thought the book did not progress and was too repetitive: dozens of scenes focused on the author taming and walking with the hawk. Other members read these as stages on Macdonald’s path to recovering from the death of her father. Everyone agreed on the beauty of the author’s intense, poetic writing and her ability to depict the English countryside in all its variety. Another pleasure of reading the book was discovering the traditions and specialized vocabulary of falconry. We ended the discussion evenly divided between those who would read another book by Macdonald and those who would not. For more information about the change curve and the grieving process:



Wednesday, August 12, 2015: Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant: Not one of the most successful books but a good discussion.  Here is a selection of views expressed. The characters, apart from Bobby and the narrator, were not sufficiently differentiated and so numerous that it was often a struggle to remember exactly who was who. There was much gloom and negativity and a bleak lack of any kind of humour. Grant's depiction of life in a provincial university during the seventies was excellently observed, as were the consequences for the characters through later life. The students show a touching mixture of self-confidence and naïvety. The story covers very many aspects of contemporary thought among students during this period, touching on morality, politics, economics and sociology. The writing is skilful, perceptive, observant of physical surroundings and with sudden turns of phrase which were electric jerks to animate our flagging attention. ES


Wednesday, July 8, 2015: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin:

We had a very incisive negative review from one participant and though most of us were more lenient, we agreed that what he wrote was pretty well justified. What was positive among our comments? Well, it is a gentle novel pleasant enough to read on the level of a fairy story that would appeal to a teenager or an elderly (Victorian-style) aunt. Let’s sit back with a cool drink to hand and relax. Someone asked about the book’s possible message. Perhaps the most valuable message that ought to influence every category of reader is to stress the value and often the transformative power in our lives of positive interaction with our fellow human beings, of human relationships, of friendship and of love. ES


Wednesday, June 17, 2015: Wild from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed:

Apart from a little relatively minor criticism, we found this book worthy of all the hype.  The PCT provides a clever framework for a well-constructed story and within this frame she has three intricately interactive areas; 1) the geographical account of the hugely spectacular trail itself, for example the beautiful and stirring Crater Lake of Mount Mazama in Oregon; 2) the starkly physical agonies she suffered in completing the thousand-mile journey; 3) her own spiritual struggle through her turbulent emotional life full of painful inconsistencies and self-deception and, centrally, her pathologically obsessive devotion to her mother, which distorted her whole existence. Yet her self-analysis is often perceptively clear-sighted. She presents herself with the expertise of a practised writer. Unwittingly she also comes across as a hard, self-satisfied, and as a manipulator who is professionally cunning at selling her wares and exploiting her alluring physical charms. However, she portrays delightfully her cast of her fellow travellers.  She is also outstandingly courageous, generous, wise, perceptive, sensitive and doggedly intrepid about conquering her (very justified!) fears. A highly enjoyable read. ES


Wednesday, May 13, 2015: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris:
Would it be wrong to say that only two of the many characters are firmly anchored in their lives: the immovably dedicated Roman Catholic Betsy Convoy and the enigmatic Uncle Stuart Plotz, who adroitly combines atheism with remaining a practising Jew to enable him to keep fully connected with his Jewish family and their circle. The despondent search for belonging, coherence and meaning in life is best exemplified in the main protagonist Dr. Paul O'Rourke. This outstandingly good dentist has reached the height of his profession in material success. But he is at once comically and tragically floundering in his unhappy search for integration into a loving and accepting relationship with his fellow human beings. It is therefore a paradox that his own obsession prevents him from taking a close interest in his fellows and so cuts him off from the very sense of belonging he is craving for. Paul the ‘hero’ is thus like most of the main members of the lively and intriguing cast of well-developed lesser characters whose lives we follow through the book. Unfortunately, the plot gets out of Ferris's control and cutting many of the over-developed sections would have given the book more muscular power. Many of us were bored by this work - some had skipped through it or given up before the end. The early promise of high comedy was not maintained although it was often very funny indeed. There were nine members present and only two of us, while agreeing with the need for pruning, were unequivocally in favour. Although this had not been planned, the latest book developed further the theological aspects discussed by several other recent choices of books and so stimulated our contacts with ‘the vast concerns of an eternal theme’ which do not often crop up among the chats we exchange in our daily lives. ES


Wednesday, April 8, 2015: Religion for Atheists - a Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton:

This glitteringly articulate composition touched a chord in each of us. In a major key was our general appreciation of a good read.  In a minor key we had melodic variations on the theme in the form of our members' personal anecdotes. De Botton's fertile mind is working on a grand scale throughout the book. Admittedly he sometimes finds it difficult to co-ordinate his multiple insights. The layout is a complicated system of divisions and sub-divisions and there are some tantalising gaps and some repetition. One of us regretted there was not more on music and someone else would have liked the comments on the three chosen religions to be more evenly distributed. However, the book as a whole provided a constant supply of striking and original ideas that sparked our imaginations and encouraged us to look up unfamiliar references. The illustrations too are very apposite. De Botton wears his erudition lightly so there is plenty of wit and humour. This book choice was an informative extension of the four or five previous books on unusual aspects of religion we have read over the years, and it gave rise to an exceptionally inter-active discussion. A good way to get acquainted with this author and this book is at:


Wednesday, March 11, 2015: Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey A. Ndibe:
Only one of the seven present had enjoyed the book from the start. The rest of us expressed dislike of almost every aspect of this novel and admitted that we had only persevered so as to get together for a couple of hours to talk about it. However, yet again the discussion proved valuable. It brought into focus many aspects that we had rather under-rated:

    - the quality of the writing and the subtle depiction of the numerous (mostly unpleasant) and often complex characters in the story.

    - the magnificent prose of the prayers to the local god Ngere, contrasting with the rendering of the harangues of the obsessed missionary Stanton and the ranting of the disgustingly bombastic evangelising of Pastor Uko who so shamefully exploited his congregation of starving and naive villagers

     -  the divide between such different cultures as urban USA and a rural Nigerian village

     -  the abyss between ancient pagan and modern western religious traditions

     -  the ironic and satirical humour that helped to lighten the depressive mood the book created

     -  the concept of money as a commodity to provide anything from average comfort (taken for granted by so many of us) to the outrageous, compared with having money as a necessity for just staying alive. Money too encouraged corruption and greed and utterly unrealistic dreams.

As you see, some of our opinions got somewhat refined, and the varied contributions helped to form a more discriminating judgment. We agreed and disagreed and contradicted each other's views with great enjoyment. Very stimulating! ES


Wednesday, February 11, 2015: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks: The first comments were rather censorious: "The modern episodes were contrived." "The mother/daughter relationship was psychologically unrealistic." "The mother's reticence about the family background was inexplicable." "The two-year gap in writing the book was bad for the structure of the novel." As the discussion progressed, more positive aspects became evident and the final judgement was in the majority favourable: a vote revealed that out of a maximum of 5 points, two voted 3, one voted 3 1/2, four voted 4 and two voted 4 1/2. Nearly everybody found the subject interesting and informative, throwing light upon Christian, Jewish and Moslem inter-relationships down the ages. ES


Wednesday, January 14, 2015: Solar by Ian McEwan:
Nine of us gathered to discuss this somewhat demanding but successful book. Only one was a bit negative but even she admired the writing skill, the subtly biting humour and the creative power behind the characters. The theme is largely the contemporary problems of energy shortage, global warming, and the blindness and greed of those in financial or political power who stand to lose if coal, gas and electricity are replaced by alternative sources such as what could possibly be supplied by the sun. Professor Michael Beard is a typical McEwan anti-hero, here expanded to quite horrific proportions. This brilliant prize-winning young scientist was content ever after to capitalise on his early success, using his status to exploit the groundwork of his colleagues and subordinates. He is gradually and dexterously revealed as a selfish, irresponsible, self-serving charmer, an obsessive womaniser devoid of empathy and concerned only with himself.  He is vain, a cheat, a liar, luxuriating in self-pity and self-satisfaction, a self-indulgent glutton and alcoholic, a slob. We long for him to get his come-uppance and yet when Nemesis strikes, we are not as gratified as we had expected because somehow some of his charm works retrospectively upon the reader too. McEwan has also done untiring research to present the scientific background. He comes across as being rather smug about his hard-won erudition, which is too overpowering for the average lay reader and creates a certain imbalance in the structure of the book. He has, however, written an excellent novel and the group's judgement was that Solar is well worth reading. ES


Wednesday, 10th December, 2014: Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen:
The 61-year-old protagonist has sublet her apartment overlooking central Park and rented a dilapidated cottage in the countryside to solve the problem of her dwindling income as an artist to cope with the increasing costs of supporting her parents and her son. Her lonely life is brightened by the chatty Sarah at the coffee shop, the roofer Jim who gets rid of the raccoon in her attic, the dog who moves in to take care of her, and the mysterious objects found in the woods that reawaken her passions as a photographer. We all admitted that we had enjoyed reading this novel even though many of us found elements of ‘chick lit’ in this story about a modern, independent woman. Our lively discussion went back and forth between our criticism of the sometimes ‘too neat’ development of the plot and our admiration for many of the author’s poetic passages and very readable scenes. ES


Wednesday, 19th November, 2014: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou:
This book is the first volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography, covering the years from her birth in 1928 until she was sixteen. It is a frank and scorching account of life for poor blacks in a small backwater of America's deep south.  She makes us movingly aware of the poverty and the persecution but also of the courage and the power of a profound and sincere if sometimes bigoted and naive faith in religion. In a confrontation with some taunting ‘white trash’ teenagers, Maya's grandmother, Momma, really lives her Christianity in the face of physical danger and emerges dignified and triumphant. The large cast of contrasting and colourful characters is presented in a variety of settings, keeping us interested and responsive. The necessity for the black population to submit  to  overweening, despotic and unfeeling  white supremacy is fiercely exposed but so is the simmering resentment against subjection and injustice. Maya herself was later to play a significant role in the liberation movement at the side of Martin Luther King Jr., and her charm and humour are part of her success. The book does not always make for comfortable reading but is very much worth while. ES

Tuesday, 21st October, 2014: We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Fowler: One reason for choosing this book had been that it could provoke discussion and in this it certainly succeeded. The subject matter: bringing up young chimpanzees together with human children to test the chimp's cognitive powers. Whatever comment someone made was instantly countered by someone who opposed it. For and against using animals for scientific experiments, the book's mixture of detailed laboratory work and human interest fiction was praised and negated. The heroine Rosemary was a boringly superficial creation or a touchingly sensitive and vibrant character. Her brother Lowell was an irresponsible terrorist type who would stop at nothing to achieve his ends or an altruistic hero who sacrificed career and liberty in defence of deeply-felt convictions. Karen Fowler is enthralled by words and uses them evocatively. In a plane "the white clouds were a rolling mattress beneath us." The mother expressed her exasperation "in a voice that could pickle fish." Inside a deserted farmhouse: "in the silence the empty room closed about me like a hum." She also has gleeful fun via the precocious child Rosemary, giving her deliciously arcane words to drop into the conversation, such as "hypnopomic" (dispelling sleep), "frugiferous" (fruit and seed eating) and at five or six years old enunciatimg "illyphallic" (with erect penis). No, I didn't know what it meant either. ES


Tuesday, 16th September, 2014: Easter Parade by Richard Yates:  A variety of opinions  - for, against and in between  -  led to an active but mutually tolerant exchange of opinions. The opening lines are ominous:  "neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life..." In this tragic novel Yates tells the story of two sisters, both of them pretty, talented and charming, who would seem to have a brilliant future ahead, symbolised by the photograph of one of them during the Easter Parade of the title. However, their life choices, their career development, their sibling rivalry, their problematic sex lives, their family relationships and omnipresent alcoholism all come together in a sensitively written novel with subtle dialogue and deep insight into the personality of everyone in the large cast. ES


Tuesday, 19th August, 2014: The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris: Sixteen people turned up for a lively discussion of this fascinating book about ultra-orthodox sects in Judaism. The narrative combined some very moving passages with some satirically amusing episodes. There are two women, Chani and Rivka, whose lives intertwine as their human-interest stories bring them together. There are two sons, Baruch and Avroni, who have to struggle against paternal inflexibility and maternal intrigue. There is the destruction of one marriage through the older husband's fanatical adherence to doctrine combined with his weakness and his selfishness, and there is hope for the other marriage through the tolerant attitude of the younger husband. Our romantic natures urge us to be optimistic! A number of us were somewhat irritated by the frequent use of Hebrew and Yiddish terms but others accepted these as adding local colour. The subject matter offers an insight into the daily lives, beliefs, and rituals of a very enclosed community not known to the general public and it is for this, as well as for its narrative qualities and character studies, that most participants felt the book is well worth reading. ES


Tuesday, 15th July, 2014: The Evolution Man or How I Ate My Father by Roy Lewis: There was a good turnout for this cheerful evening.  Roy Lewis's wacky humour is combined with his light-hearted erudition to present a picture of a developing humanoid society. Countless millenia are compressed into a fast-moving story of a single (horde) family group of forceful characters, each of which is differentiated to illustrate aspects of progress towards Homo (self-styled) Sapiens: Alexander and his thriving business in Interior Decoration for Caves and Wilbur's  successful Tool Factory, William's not so successful method of training dogs and horses to serve mankindand Mother's introduction of zebra-skin handbags which started a whole movement among the women for jewelleryand fashionable designer clothes made out of animal skins ("Darling, just look at this! It’s the very latest!")  There is of course also a moral and a historical dimension to all this and we debated comparisons and values in modern society. For example, either sharing discoveries with other communities (Father)  or selfish monopoly and exploitation to gain power and money (Ernest).  Nowadays Ernest would be an industrial baron or a top financial administrator. Lewis's strength also lies in the juxtaposition of primitive humanoid life and modern scientific and historical know-how, as with Father's comments on different epochs  -  Pleistocene, Pliocene, Holocene etc.  He found that the animal he hoped was a horse turned out to be a three-toedHipparion after all, setting his calculations backwards in time.   Father made a sophisticated speech to the horde on the occasion of the triumphal barbecue. We talked about the concept of boredom and when and where it came from and we chuckled over sly insertions of literary quotations and modern dialogue and metaphors along with clichés from modern society.  Examples:"Tiger, Tiger burning bright" and "A woman's place is in the cave." This is an old book published in the sixties but re-discovered to become a modern best-seller. ES


Tuesday, 17th June, 2014: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout: This book had been selected for discussion because many of us recalled the pleasures of reading and discussing several years ago the author’s previous Pulizer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge. Reading The Burgess Boys left us with a different impression. Her plot touched on (too?) many themes – brotherly relationships, an outcast teenager, guilt, marital and family conflicts and mutual support in times of crisis, legal and immigration issues for a small community coping with a stupid insult to immigrants, and more. We all enjoyed her storytelling but missed more focus and depth from this accomplished and well-respected author. Our lively and interesting discussion will most likely be remembered longer than this book. ES


Tuesday, 20th May, 2014: The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuk: Like Still Alice (see report of 17th March) this book is presented as a novel but is in fact the result of painstaking research assembled by Otsuku. The seven sections display different aspects of the hard, repeatedly tragic lives of the Japanese ‘Picture Brides’ and their families on the US west coast through the war years. The short sentences written in the 1st person plural created an unusual prose style which irritated some of us. The discussion revealed, however, that this enabled Otsuka to build up a densely compact, multi-contoured human mosaic, a tessellated pattern of the interplay of relationships, emotions, individual dramas, problems of integration, misunderstandings and conflicting cultures and beliefs. The reader is tempted to judge harshly the terrorist acts perpetrated by the locals and the McCarthy-like paranoia of the American authorities and their ‘internment’ (a euphemism for concentration camps) of Japanese immigrants. But in the further discussion it became clear that these unhappy reactions to the situations can be found throughout history and on a global scale, which morally excuses nobody but sadly is an integral part of human nature in society. ES


Tuesday, 15th April, 2014: Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi: However bewildering to the lost people wandering in it, a maze has not a haphazard but a carefully constructed pattern. Perseverant readers of this convoluted book with its complicated and maze-like presentation are finally rewarded for their efforts. Selasi's penetrating insights into people's emotional lives are partly gained from her own personal experiences. The Nigerian and Ghanaian fictional family is the subject of the novel and she portrays brilliantly the psychological complexities of this already highly complex family who appear in all sorts of combinations and settings. The effect is dazzling. Her prose can have as many layers of meaning as the fine poetry it often resembles. A good example was found in a passage Deirdre read out loud to us. (Paradoxically the text that was read to us both added to and detracted from the written text where the punctuation helped to ‘hear’ it.) Pointillistic and arresting words and phases are to be found throughout the book. A few participants at the discussion intend to enjoy reading this book again some day, others often got lost in the author’s maze and were just glad to get out of it again. ES


Monday, 17th March, 2014: Still Alice, by Lisa Genova: A good turnout  - 13 of us, and this time every single one made a contribution. In response to Howard's very apposite question as to how many had had direct experience with someone with Alzheimer's, a startling majority of 10 put their hands up. So the discussion was well-briefed not only with the book's factual information but also by personal involvement. The author's original aim had  been, through her intense research and her expertise, to help sufferers who developed the disease at an early age.  However, she then decided to personalise the story by creating a fictional family around Alice, illustrating the tensions and the psychological interplay of the widely differing characters and thereby immensely enlarging her public. This ploy did not meet with everyone's approval and many had not really enjoyed reading the book, but it appears that all of us have gained valuable insights from reading it. ES


Monday, 17th February, 2014: The Bells, by Richard Harvell. This Bergli meeting held at Bider & Tanner bookstore had a very special dimension due to the much-appreciated presence of Richard Harvell himself.  We were not only able as usual to express our views on the book under consideration but we also benefitted from valuable extra information and anecdotes recounted by the author ‘live’. This many-facetted novel presents a wide spectrum of intriguing characters and evocative settings combined with an intricate plot which subtly propelled us on by artfully initiated elements of suspense. The comments made from the floor were full of praise for a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. ES


Thursday, 9th January, 2014: Behind the Beautiful Forevers - life, death and hope in a Mumbai slum by Katherine Boo: This harrowing book is an unflinching indictment of the appalling slum conditions and the merciless all-compassing corruption that prevail in a suburb of the luxury resort of Mombai. It is extremely painful to read but is made worthwhile by the author's objective and detailed study of her subject. She spent over three years of on-the-spot direct observation, coupled with meticulous research into public records and with the collaboration of skilled interpreters and with careful double and treble checking of her often sickeningly graphic material. A vibrancy and animation is gained by her method of personalising her story with a representative cast of vivid individual characters presented with compassion.  Already specialised as an investigative journalist, she is utterly convincing but without pathos. We decided we want to DO SOMETHING about this hopeless situation. Good references were given for the charity work of BASAID. For more information


Thursday, 12th December, 2013: The Testament of Mary, a novella by Colm Tóibin: Our waiting room was full of participants. The provocative presentation of the Virgin Mary and the unadmirable methods of her guardians in their interrogations are described in beautiful and evocative prose. The guardians were ready to falsify the evidence of witnesses to create, as someone remarked, a better PR version of the foundation and tenets of the Christian church and this version has become the incontrovertible truth for believers through the millennia. Opinions about the book varied from ‘excellent’ to ‘didn’t care for it’ but it was unanimous that this was a fascinating and unforgettable discussion. ES


Thursday, 14th November, 2013: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: Rarely have we seen such completely opposing views. "I HATED  IT !!" and "It's a marvellous book!"  The two camps were about equal in strength, although a few slight concessions were made on both sides. We disagreed on the prose style, the characters he created with their good or bad morals, the construction of the book, the success or failure of the many re-writings over a long period, the juxtaposition of time and place from one chapter to another - in short, pretty well everything. We spoke with vehemance and commitment but also with tolerance and good humour. ES


Thursday, 10th October, 2013: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence: This new author immediately impressed all but one of us with his originality and creativity. The strikingly dramatic first scene is explosive and mysterious, leaving our minds reverberating with questions which are only later cunningly brought into focus. The story line is broadened by Extence's use of sometimes surreal but very human figures to explore insights into such diverse subjects as meteorology, bullying, obscenity, education, the work of Kurt Vonnegut, morality, epilepsy, friendship, tragedy and comedy, spiritism, terminal illness and its psychological effects, euthanasia, and more. All this gave us plenty to talk about with considerable animation and a great deal of laughter. It was a most enjoyable discussion and evening. ES


Tuesday, 10th September, 2013: Transatlantic by Colum McCann: Most of us were irritated at first by the staccato sentences characteristic of his prose style but generally these became more easily accepted and sometimes no longer noticed. We appreciated the technical and historical research involved and how small, insignificant details gradually fit into place as the book advanced. The individual stories and their dates were placed in an apparently haphazard sequence. However, more careful attention revealed that they were forming a subtle mosaic, blurred at first and only coming into full focus right at the end of the story. The interactive discussion produced comments and quotations which illustrated and clarified a lot of  points  -  and that of course was what we were there for in the first place! ES


Tuesday, 13th August, 2013: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson: Negative: A re-hash of the multi-media success of Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. Her writing is obsessively narcissistic and she panders to the media-fed public appetite for sensationalism, pathos, horror and tragedy (see daily news).  In this book she Byronically trails "the pageant of her bleeding heart" on highly profitable promotion tours. While admitting mental derangement and emotional instability, her frankness is untrustworthy. She is disproportionately voluble about her problems. She always viciously and wilfully destroys those whose love and friendship she yet craves including that of her readers. Positive: A brilliant presentation of individual personalities / excellent analysis of the social conditions and the philanthropic work of the Victorian benefactors  in the northern industrial England of her childhood / valuable study of religious fanaticism and its effects /  skill in storytelling / insightful reflections on happiness and unhappiness, on love , on creative writing, on the enriching power of literature / a chuckling delight in human absurdity and a redeeming sense of humour /  gifted prose / and (I quote) "a dramatic and revelatory inquiry into the forging of the self." Most of us agreed with these negative and positive points. ES


Tuesday, 9th July, 2013: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner


Tuesday, 11th June, 2013: The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth: Were the characters just dummy figures on which to hang the main theme of the book? A very pertinent proposition. Their emblematic attributes and the happy-ending plot which so neatly smoothed out obstacles did support this idea. Interest in these individuals then deepened during further examination to reveal them as more differentiated and more subtly presented than had first been supposed. Unsworth is always a brilliant storyteller and this gift, combined with his profound knowledge of the period, enables him to bring the setting to vivid life. As so often happens, we tended to go off on tangents, but this time they always led us back happily to the book under discussion. It became possible to draw captivating analogies between the moral values and the conflicts of interest in modern global society and those central themes of justice and mercy which form the essence of the book. ES


Tuesday, 14th May, 2013: True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey: Everyone had some reservations at the start and those who stuck with it got used to the unusual language (traps, cobe, punch fives, duff, fizgig), punctuation (lack of), wonderful similes until the style was maintained so effortlessly that the reader was pulled in. Some were interested in the tensions between England and the Irish that were transported to Australia and how land selection was made. In Australians' eyes, the Kelly gang epitomizes the image they like to have of themselves. Kelly does not come across as a thug, his fate seems to be decided for him and the reader feels sympathy for him even if the author does not glorify him. Once treated like an outlaw, Ned Kelly seemed to have no choice but to act like one. ES


Tuesday, 9th April, 2013: The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell: Already in the first couple of pages Daniel Woodrell takes his readers well out of their comfort zone. It is a tragic story in which the characters range from infinitely sad to monstrously evil, and the pressure never relents, not on the last page, not in the last foreboding sentence. The question was asked, "Would you recommend this novel?" In relation to the night-marish subject matter, the answer was negative or with great reservations, but positive with respect to the way that Woodrell develops the story line, his brilliantly presented characters, the setting in which he places them and the high quality of the prose. ES


Tuesday, 12th March, 2013: Nothing to Be Afraid Of by Julian Barnes: 'Rambling’ was a good adjective which someone used to describe this occasionally rather taxing book. There were opposing opinions, one passionately positive, two distinctly negative, the rest at various degrees in between. However, the enthusiasm of the one and the negativity of the two provided a discussion which led to interesting modifications of opinion. ES


Tuesday, 12th February, 2013: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy: There was vociferous objection about the book from the majority of those present! We welcomed with pleasure a newcomer who hadn't had time to read the book but who took an active part with his questions and comments. This was good, because our explanations of the characters and the story line were often a help to the rest of us to clarify our ideas about many enigmatic points and about symbolism. ES


Tuesday, 8th January, 2013: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos: This non-fiction book full of fascinating information about translating was a challenging choice indeed to start the new year. Seven of us responded to the challenge with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  Not everybody had actually got through it but everyone thought it had been worthwhile. The author seemed undecided as to his target readership: language specialists or non-specialists. If primarily to attract the ‘common’ reader, the book was too detailed and contained too much specialised jargon about translating. The neatest summary came from one member of the group who said it was "good, interesting stuff, but very much in need of energetic pruning.” ES


Tuesday, 11th December, 2012: How It All Began by Penelope Lively. One thing you can be sure of at the Bergli book discussion evenings is animation! All seven of us joined in vigorous discussion with sufficient divergence of opinion to keep it spicy. We thought we had covered the ground quite well and then fresh impetus came when Mary came out with an excellent questionnaire which raised all sorts of new aspects to talk about.  Great fun! ES


Tuesday, 13th November, 2012: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce:Six Pro: one Contra. The one against was the only male among us and that fact alone could be significant! The approval of the women varied in its intensity and the second-time readers confirmed that, as so often, a re-reading revealed some previously unappreciated subtleties. One of the Pros used the word "life-enhancing" and then apologised for sounding pretentious but the adjective was a good choice because in spite of some implausibilites, this parable-book is often enriching, sometimes moving, and the huge cast of characters is highly entertaining and full of well-observed details. ES


Tuesday, 9th October, 2012: The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje: There were nine of us attempting to thresh out the complexities of this intriguing book. Thanks to our exchange of impressions, the confusing interactions of this cast of large and highly-colourful personalities and the to-and-fro switches between past and present became less bewildering and revealed subtleties of construction that had not been obvious at first. Not easy reading, but worth the effort. ES


Tuesday, 11th September, 2012: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. No consensus this time! 5 Contras against 1 Pro. The 1 defended the book vociferously, unfortunately without the support of the person who had advocated the book in the first place and then did not appear. Of the 5s, three did admit that they had actually not read more than parts of it.   However, the 5s' reasons for being Contra were so varied that the discussion was really very active. There were a number of assessments about Patchett's skill as a writer, with reference to the character credibility, the re-creation of the appalling local conditions round a sophisticated lab, the social interactions, and the profound moral issues involved in the work of the researchers (share-holders’ profits against humanitarian ideals.)   While we were naturally for the humanitarian aspect, Robert contributed a very perceptive and sobering comment pointing out the possible adverse effect on global population if the ideal were realised  -- and that set us off again .... ES


Tuesday, 14th August, 2012: Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro: Unlike Before I Go to Sleep, this book received universal approval. We were all intrigued by her insights into the complexities of the human mind and her subtly-layered probing into the motives and reactions of her characters. Each one of us was able to contribute a useful comment helping to unravel one or other of the obscurities and so gaining better understanding but there remained puzzling aspects and the discussion was really inter-active. We finished up getting very involved with a definition of happiness and what was the meaning of the "too much" in the eponymous story. ES


Tuesday, 10th July, 2012: The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. The book and the discussion were enjoyed by all.


Tuesday, 12th June, 2012: Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson: This time there was much (good humoured) disagreement, which kept the discussion animated. Views varied from unmitigated rejection (Dave) at one end, to enjoyment and support (Elizabeth and Bernhard) at the other. There was a range of opinions from the rest of the group, admittedly more negative than positive, but it made the get-together worth while and enjoyable. ES


Tuesday, 8th May, 2012: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.


Tuesday, 3rd Aprul, 2012: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Wedidn't agree on every point (how do you define ‘contrived’ with reference to plot construction? - Leslie and Howard exchanging opinions very entertainingly). We did agree, however, in appreciating the skill with which he creates a rich array of characters, the humour, the descriptions of the dark side of poverty and crime in theLondonof the period, his passionate concern with social conditions and, as a story-teller, his gift for creating high suspense. ES


Tuesday, March 13, 2012: The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany: What a contrast of cultures and human predicaments!  It was a good discussion with lots of different perspectives. ES


Tuesday, February 14, 2012: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize for Literature) - it was a lively discussion. Each of us had topics in this book that we were eager to discuss and could relate to. ES


Tuesday, 10th January, 2012: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin: Everybody enjoyed this book immensely and could relate to the situation of the changes of perspectives that living in another country invariably brings. ES