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 jewellery and 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-toed Hipparion 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 http://basaid.org/en/donate.