Wednesday, August 9, 2017: Charlie Chaplin by Peter Ackroyd:

Two participants in our discussion were not fond of Charlie Chaplin before reading this book and liked him even less afterwards. While reading this biography, most of us had looked on YouTube at many of the short sketches of Chaplin’s films that Ackroyd referred to in the book. We admired Chaplin’s genius for creating humor from often rather sad stories. We discussed several aspects of Chaplin’s personality. Was he a genius? A tyrannical narcissist? Was he always acting? Was he cold to the crises of his private life? Ackroyd brought out many fascinating aspects about Chaplin’s life we had not known before – his human failings as well as why he is still known in the film business as a genius. Here’s an unforgettable man and an unforgettable biography. We recommend a visit to Chaplin’s World in Coursier above Vevey. DD



Wednesday, July 12, 2017: Lab Girl - a story of trees, science and love, by Hope Jahren:  We are fortunate to have a number of scientists in our group so critical comments from participants were expected. But everyone enjoyed reading this unusual memoir because the author is able to explain in such beautiful prose just how fascinating scientific research can be and how miraculous trees are. Some of us thought a few of the author’s personal experiences (being bipolar, the detailed story about the birth of her son) could have been left out but one of our scientists said that it was precisely the personal issues in her story that were most appreciated. The author’s relationship with her unusual assistant Bill was endearing but was it necessary to detail the profanity in their conversations? We liked the way the memoir is structured to relate the growth of plants from seeds, roots and leaves, wood and knots, to flowers and fruit all in relation to the author’s own life.  Her ‘humble bragging’ about her career was at times inconsistent with her frequent lack of self-esteem. One of our scientists in particular praised the author’s portrayal of the real struggles of curiosity-driven scientists and the unusual people and relationships to be found in a research lab. Many of us would not have picked up this book on our own but everyone was glad to have read and discussed it. Now we all intend to go out and plant a tree. DD




Wednesday, June 14, 2017: My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout: Our group enjoyed reading Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge several years ago but we were divided over My Name Is Lucy Barton. Some readers felt that the book has no clear plot or resolution, that the dialogue is slow and repetitive. It was difficult to understand Lucy’s motivations or her relationships to her parents and husband. For other readers, the book is a rich, subtle depiction of a woman who gradually outgrows her rural background and finds her identity as a writer, running in parallel to the story of the reconciliation between Lucy and her mother. We also had different opinions about the strong autobiographical elements: some felt that this distracted from the novel, while the Strout fans felt that this enriched their understanding of her other novels. Despite these differences of opinion, we had a lively discussion about other topics such as the difficulty of living in a farming community, the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the responsibilities of parents towards their children. ML



Wednesday, May 10, 2017: Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry:

Thomas McNulty escapes the Irish potato famine, only to arrive in the United States during the darkest period of its history. He is soon inducted into the army and takes part in the massacres in the Indian Wars and later in the Civil War. It is his colorful voice which carries the reader along, vividly describing the atrocities, the hunger, the tedium. It was like sitting at an uncle's knee listening to a great story. We were touched by the tender relationship between Thomas and John Cole and Winona, their adopted Sioux daughter.  Even after witnessing and taking part in such horrific events, Thomas and John still keep their humanity and love of life. But it was often painful reading made bearable by the moments of humor and the narrator's endearing voice. MH


Wednesday, April 12, 2017: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty:

Almost everyone found this book to be difficult reading. Some had given up in frustration and anger at the profanities and dense prose. One participant enjoyed it and felt it points out some realities most of us don’t want to see or understand. Another defended the author and pointed out some well-written parts. We tried to figure out how this book could win the prestigious Booker Prize for Literature for 2016 and receive so many raving reviews. Listening to an interview Claire Armistead had with the author (see link below) helped many of us to appreciate this book more. Regardless of our opinions about the book we all agreed that our discussion of The Sellout was indeed interesting and worthwhile. DD


Wednesday, March 15, 2017: Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford:

This novel, set in 1750 New York, begins with a daunting first sentence of 17 lines in an 18th century voice that made some of us dread the thought of slogging through such a cumbersome work. But once accustomed to the voice and style, most of us found it completely engrossing: brilliantly plotted with fabulously original characters, it describes New York when it was still a small, raucous colonial town. It's a swashbuckler but with a dark secret which is only revealed at the end of the novel. Not surprisingly, the non-native English speakers in our group found the writing, with its vocabulary and cadences of that period, almost impenetrable. MH


Wednesday, February 11, 2017: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain:

Rose Tremain's research for her latest novel, which begins in post-war Switzerland and jumps to the 1990's, was for one participant all too obvious, something the author herself says should not be apparent to the reader. Another participant felt that the ending was too abrupt. The two boys at the center of this coming-of-age narrative were well drawn but we wanted to know more about some of the minor characters. On the positive side, we agreed that the author was successful in bringing out a few significant characteristics we can recognize in our Swiss friends and families - a high regard for self-mastery and neutrality. However, we didn't feel that the author was completely successful in her rendering of the overarching themes: the idea of neutrality embodied by Gustav. Some of us enjoyed reading the novel, a couple of us, not at all, but, on the whole, we felt that this was definitely not one of Tremain's best.  MH


Wednesday, January 11, 2017: Stoner by John Williams:

Rescued from oblivion a few years ago (it was written in 1965) this novel went on to become a European bestseller solely by word-of-mouth. Beginning in 1910, it chronicles the undistinguished life of William Stoner from his humble farming beginnings through his career as a Professor of English until his death in 1956. Along the way, he soldiers on through a disastrous marriage and a vicious university feud, kept from despair by his passion for English literature and his calling as a teacher. In an exquisitely moving deathbed scene, a joyous calm descends upon him as he takes stock of his life. Is Stoner a passive loser or a reluctant hero? Did his life have meaning? While not of one mind in our conclusions, we were unanimous in our praise of the quiet, spare prose. For most of us, this novel was deeply moving. MH