Wednesday, December 12, 2018: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon:

This book was chosen for discussion because of rave reviews and its being on the 2018 Longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. A number of us found the writing style and rather weird characters with their intricate entanglements to be quite boring and struggled to get to the end, feeling none the wiser. What a surprise it was to discover that most attending the discussion found this book interesting, enjoyable, even exciting to read and full of powerful and profound observations and inspiring truisms that left them touched and emotional. We had a good laugh when even the usually most critical member of our group expressed how pleasurable reading this book was, like a thriller. Our differences of opinion were found to be quite amusing and the congenial discussion turned to sharing our thoughts about the indignities of old age and the inevitability of restrictions to our mobility, independence and sense of freedom, if and when Exit is the answer. This was a valuable discussion we will never forget and shows like beauty, good literature may be in the eye of the beholder. DD


Wednesday, November 14, 2018: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck: We liked for most of the book the main character in this story − Richard, a newly retired German university professor who is trying to come to terms with being alone after having seemingly lost his purpose in life. A chance encounter with refugees at Oranienplatz makes him curious and gives him the idea of passing some time on a project to figure out what is going on there. His regular meetings to interview a group of African refugees challenge all he has known up to now in his scholarly career. The author holds up a mirror to our society. Anonymous strangers in a public place become real people we care about. What’s really the difference between a migrant and a refugee? What is the symbolism of the dead man in the lake that keeps coming up throughout the book? How can the uncertainty about the refugees’ legal status and the impossibility of belonging somewhere become as unbearable as their arduous trips to get away from the devastating situations in their homelands? There are many poignant moments in this book and some of us savored the author’s distinctive style and found ourselves rereading passages for pleasure and contemplation. We laughed about how simple the process is to buy property in Ghana and how a Tuareg navigates in the desert by stars when Richard can’t find his way around Berlin by GPS. We recognized the many boundaries Richard as well as the refugees had to cross. We appreciated that the author points no fingers or even tries to come up with solutions. The last few pages of the book with some new revelations about Richard surprised us. Who is good? Who is bad? What is right or wrong? What is the purpose in life? The author succeeds in making us sit back and reflect on our attitudes and values in life. DD


Wednesday, October 3, 2018: Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth: We all enjoyed reading this famous novella and five short stories first published in 1959 when the author was only 26 years old. Most of us have read a number of his other novels and are not always so fond of his male chauvinism but in this collection we could only admire his sardonic swipes, obsessive mothers, and brilliant writing style. DD


Wednesday, September 12, 2018: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead:

I think the low turnout for this discussion can, at least partially, be attributed to the harrowing nature of the book. But for those of us present, our reaction to the book was very different. On the negative side, it was felt that the style tended to be impersonal and at times, preachy, the characters poorly developed and that the author overstepped his artistic license on two major points: making the Underground Railroad a physical thing rather than the metaphor for the escape route for fleeing slaves, and placing the scientific experiments performed on poor black sharecroppers in the 1930’s, in the pre-civil war period where this novel is set. In the positive camp, the rendering of the Underground Railroad as an actual railroad was thought to be a clever and imaginative idea. The many characters and their back-stories provided a window into the period and the prevailing worldview. The philosophy of Manifest Destiny, prevalent at the time, was discussed. It was felt that this is an important book for our times. MH


Wednesday, August 8, 2018: The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne:

The author describes the opposing worlds of locals and the westernized party-people who meet for a weekend in Morocco. We agreed that the book was difficult to read because of the story that unfolded and because almost all the people who populated this book were of a morally ambiguous character. It was therefore hard to relate to anybody. Some of us interpreted the book as a story about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. For others it was an example of a clash of cultures. On one side are the rich, decadent Westerners, on the other side are the Moroccan servants who had grown up in relative poverty and who depended on these tourists for their income. Because of the economic gap, the hierarchy, and the different value systems, the two cultures collide, even though everything seems to be taking its normal course on the surface. While reading, one always has a sense of imminent danger. The killed fossil dealer’s behavior (the murder of the woman who had helped him) raised the question of whether he had a choice to act differently. Is the poverty he grew up in and the desperation for a better life a reason to forgive him? Does it justify his actions? We found the book interesting and worth reading, though not pleasant. We did not quite agree about the narrative style. Some of us thought the description of the characters was not consistent and the change of perspectives confusing. Others found this appealing because the characters show different patterns of behavior and new facets of the situation. The title The Forgiven gave rise to speculation. Who should be forgiven? Was someone really forgiven? The difference between ‘forgive’ and ‘excuse’ was discussed. All in all, the book gave a lot of material to discuss the different behaviors and the possibility of mutual understanding between two cultures. Half of our group members would recommend reading the book, the other half was not so convinced. UA


Wednesday, July 4, 2018: The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk:

What could be nicer than sitting outdoors under a pergola in a summer breeze with friends and sharing impressions about a book that presented a philosophical tale of Turkey? Most attending had been to Istanbul as tourists and fortunately one participant has read most of Pamuk’s books. She explained his focus on East versus West, the religious versus the secular, the traditional versus the modern. We discussed the author’s handling of Oedipus from the West and of Rostam from the East. It was sometimes difficult for many of us to figure out the view of morality being presented and understand the many symbolisms woven into the story. We couldn’t warm up to the characters of Cem and his Master Mahmut nor get close to the mysterious red-haired woman with her melancholy smile and perfectly curved lips. The discussion made a few participants want to read the book again but one who had given it a second try said she liked it then even less. It was good to have had this opportunity to share ideas about why Orhan Pamuk is held in such esteem around the world. DD


Wednesday, June 13, 2018: Orphan Train by Christine Baker Kline: This was maybe one of our best discussions ever with many strong differences of opinion. Some were drawn in to the book from the first page, others turned off by it. One was left in tears at the ending, another claimed the ending made him want to gag. We discussed the discrepancies between the charitable goals of organizations dedicated to helping orphans and the horrors of child abuse that sometimes results. It was a good idea to do something to rescue the 30,000 orphans living on the streets of New York but many were placed in remote areas and helplessly exposed to the whims of foster families who were themselves at their wits’ end from poverty, disease, and domestic violence. We discussed how also other countries (e.g. Switzerland, Britain, Australia) have their dark histories of ‘rescuing’ orphans. We assumed attitudes have changed towards children but recent news of migrant children being intentionally separated from their parents prove otherwise. We talked about how well this book shows the developments over the last 70 years in the retail industry and shared our attitudes towards deciding what personal objects and possessions we need to keep or abandon. Some felt this is a book for young adults but others questioned how else an author could deal with a story written from a young adult’s perspective. As our discussion deepened, we got into some cordial exchanges about how we deal with some of life's big questions. DD


Wednesday, May 9, 2018: The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble: Several members of our group had notified us in advance that they were not coming to the discussion because they did not like the author’s style that was “like an insurmountable wall.” A number of participants could not stand the rambling of the author, frequent repetitions, and meandering plotline with far too many characters (about 50). These complaints were debated during our lively discussion since about half of those present admired the good writing, the author’s skills in observing with so much insight (and often humour) the many challenging themes that occupy even the healthy elderly today: the importance of feeling needed by someone, having time to reconnect with family and old friends, finding new interests and coping with unbearable idleness. We also shared opinions − just on the eve of David Goodall’s assisted suicide in Basel – about the legal situation of euthanasia in Switzerland. We had a very cheerful evening discussing a not particularly cheerful topic. DD


Wednesday, April 11, 2018: Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro: We all enjoyed the book very much and could have gone on for hours discussing it and its many themes. DD


Wednesday, March 14, 2018: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: Eleanor, who seemed to be an unpleasant weirdo who spent her weekends in a vodka-induced fog, put off most of us at first. The excruciating description of her bikini wax made us worry if reading this book would be worthwhile. Fortunately we all kept reading and it turned out to be an uplifting and valuable reading experience and discussion. Once we realized this is an unreliable narrator and suspected the abuse Eleanor had experienced as a child, a deeper level was exposed to show in often very entertaining ways just how difficult and complicated communication, proper behavior and making friends can be. Most of the unspoken rules for our social interaction (eye contact, touching others, posture, facial expressions, rhythm of speech, voice patterns, choices of style in our clothes and grooming, formality of language and depth of engagement with others) are picked up in childhood. How can we learn these rules as adults? Anyone who exhibits flaws in their abilities to understand these social codes is subject to embarrassment or to ostracism. Eleanor’s life changes with a fantasy romance. She takes steps to overcome her loneliness and her tragic past, seeks help to improve her appearance, manner, and behavior to fit into a group and become a ‘pal’. Our group loved her platonic friend Raymond and especially her cat Glen. The very serious lesson of this often very amusing book is the power of little acts of spontaneous kindness. Not everyone in our group would call this ‘literature’ but we all enjoyed the discussion. DD


Wednesday, February 7, 2018: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles:

Most of the group were charmed by this cleverly constructed and wryly humorous novel, one participant finding it the most enjoyable she’d read recently. One participant likened it to a kaleidoscope of characters and encounters which emerged over the decades-long imprisonment of Count Rostov in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel beginning with the Bolshevik Revolution and ending at the height of the Cold War. The Count acknowledges the sea of suffering going on around him with a few understatements and a couple of footnotes, but is otherwise cheerful and gracious, de rigueur behavior for a gentleman of his class. This attitude irked one participant in particular who found it glib. Most of the group, however, would definitely recommend this novel. MH


Wednesday, January 10, 2018: Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty:

We all thought it was a well-written novel. One participant called it “an achingly beautiful read.” However, our judgements were based on conflicting reasons. Some thought Stella and Gerry's relationship was worth saving, considering their long marriage and the way they did things out of habit and routine and could have different opinions without it causing arguments. They shared a great sense of humour and limited their daily exchanges about their health issues to an hour they called ‘organ recitals’. Gerry recognized how valuable Stella was to him even though he could not share her strong religious beliefs. This book left other discussion participants with almost the opposite impression of Stella and Gerry’s marriage. Is it a good relationship when couples avoid conflict and talking about their innermost needs and desires? Hadn’t she organised this trip to Amsterdam under false pretences, yearning to find a way to leave him and his alcoholism? Was it admirable or irresponsibly neglectful that Stella always tried to just ignore his drinking? Our personally different attitudes towards coping in relationships made this the perfect book for an enriching book discussion. DD