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

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the model for this collection of anonymized stories of individual migrants, all written by professional writers. Reading this book made us all aware of how little we hear about migrants as human beings even though we try to keep up with the almost daily reports of statistics about their collective numbers and whereabouts. This book makes it all too clear that the migrants still have to suffer through the procedures in the detention centers once they are safe. We were shocked by what we learned is normal procedure in detention centers in Britain (and around Europe). We checked an overview of the asylum procedure in Switzerland (see link here). We realize now how difficult it is to imagine the huge number of individuals in these desperate situations and have great respect for the many people and institutions trying to help them. Migrants are so vulnerable and are often being demonised. We discussed ‘The Appellant’s Tale’ and the ‘Interpreter’s Tale’, ‘The Deportee’s Tale’ and enjoyed most of all ‘The Lorry Driver’s Tale’ which is so good you have to go back and read it again (you can read it here). We found it interesting to see the many different styles of writing used to capture these migrants' stories. The one without punctuation demanded too much from us. DD

 

 

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

Almost everyone in our group fell under the spell of this book. The author’s passion for the Lake District and his dedication to his calling come through in every page, and we enjoyed his detailed descriptions of the cycle of the seasons, the passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next, the raising, shearing and bartering of sheep. The book had a special meaning for those who had visited the Lake District, but the rest of us could find parallel experiences of a simpler, rural way of life. Some readers found the writing unpolished and disjointed, and Rebanks sometimes ‘puts it on too thickly’ in speaking out for fading traditions, but this adds to his authenticity. Our discussion of this book also led us to a broad range of topics − to ‘modern’ life over ‘traditional’ farming, genetic engineering, globalization, tourism and consumerism. ML 

 

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 / ...an 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