Discussion Reviews for 2019


Wednesday, June 12, 2019: The Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak:

The author introduces us to three young Muslim women who meet during their studies in Oxford. Peri, from Istanbul, the protagonist, grew up with her father, who identifies strongly with Atatürk’s Kemalism, and her mother, a religious Muslim. Shirin, an atheist, had fled from Iran and has since adopted a ‘Westernized’ lifestyle. Mona, with Egyptian roots, is a believer, a feminist and wears a headscarf. They were brought together by a seminar they attended of Professor Azar about ‘God’. About half of our group found this an interesting novel focussing on an important topic of our time. The other half thought the story was too implausible and too constructed and felt that the characters became mouthpieces for the idealistic concepts of the author. Ideas about humanity, religion and philosophy strewn throughout the book were considered by some of us to be too didactic and also banal since they are – or should be – a natural part of everybody’s correct and respectable behaviour. The book goes back and forth in time, showing us in the first chapters a middle-class and married Peri who could be angry, violent and fighting for her life. Throughout the book however, this character is a girl/young woman who is insecure and full of self-doubt. For some of us it was difficult to understand what caused this change in Peri’s character, leaving us with many open questions: Why did Peri try to commit suicide? What happened after she left Oxford? Where did she meet her husband? Some in our group thought the character of Peri was being used as a bridge between opposites. Then finally in 2016 she came out of her shell, did not tolerate being pushed around anymore and bravely faced life. The dinner party of the wealthy provided an interesting glimpse into the political and social situation of this class in Istanbul although one participant found this scene to be full of clichés. We touched the topic of religion in general: What determines one’s choice for a certain religion? Is it defined by where and into what culture you are born? Why do so many people leave churches nowadays? Why are the evangelical movements getting stronger? Unfortunately, there was not enough time to deepen these threads of the discussion. UA


Wednesday, May 8, 2019: The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham:

This novel was an ideal choice for our reading group and we had one of the liveliest discussions in months. Most of us felt that Maugham’s depiction of his characters is very even-handed, critical but not sarcastic; even Elliott, the social climber, is sympathetic. We particularly enjoyed Maugham’s technique of having the narrator interject himself, which gives the characters a sounding board and makes them more believable. We had different opinions about Isabel and Larry, but we agreed that some of the minor characters were more interesting, including Suzanne, the French professional 'companion' who develops into a painter, and Sophie, the idealistic young woman from Chicago who becomes an alcoholic and drug addict. Most of the readers found the writing style clear and enjoyable; however, the structure of the novel is loose and episodic, and the ending seems like it was pulled together quickly. Written in the 1940s, the novel’s themes—the search for a meaningful life, the meaning of love, the vanity of riches—are still relevant today. ML



Wednesday, April 10, 2019: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: One participant would have preferred a straightforward biography to this fictionalized version of the Russian composer, Shostakovich. The rest of us felt the author succeeded in conveying the terror, shame and even heroism of the composer’s accommodations with “Power” and this knowledge affects the way one hears his music. The question of whether you can separate the artist from his art was argued. As a non-musician, one participant was glad that there were not any detailed musical descriptions to be slogged through. The Marx quote “when tragedy becomes farce” came up several times in the novel, and we tried rather unsuccessfully to understand it. We had other unanswered questions, for example, who was the “the one who remembered”? MH



Wednesday, March 13, 2019: The Order of the Day by Éric Vuillard: How does one describe evil? In this slim book, Éric Vuillard describes the greed, arrogance and megalomania that fueled the Nazi’s rise to power in the 1930s. The book focuses on a few crucial events to show how politicians and industrialists, out of fear, weakness or complicity, allowed the Nazis to systematically chip away at democratic ideals. As one member of our group said, the book is more effective at depicting the evils of Nazism than many of the gore-filled World War II novels. Our group struggled to define the genre of the book: it combines historical facts with the techniques of movie-making and poetry, and the author’s voice is constantly present, sometimes sarcastic and joking, other times moralistic and condemning. We found the book especially appropriate now, with the rise in populism and the use of the Internet to spread nationalist and racist propaganda. ML



Wednesday, February 13, 2019: Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart: Our discussion group was split into two groups: the “ayes” who thought the book was a brilliant satire, and the “nays” who thought it was boring and unrealistic. The ayes enjoyed Shteyengart’s sense of humor, his huge cast of characters and his ability to describe an entire social class in just a few words. The nays thought that most of the characters were poorly developed and that the extensive dialog was little more than a movie script. Despite our differences of opinion, we had a lengthy discussion over the main themes of the book, including the role of greed, capitalism and consumerism in American society, the increasing divide between rich and poor, and the immigrant experience. ML


Wednesday, January 9, 2019: A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr: We met during the first snowfall of the season to discuss this short novel set during the idyllic English summer of 1920 where a damaged WWI survivor finds healing in nature, community and art. For much of the discussion, we read out passages of masterly prose, both poignant and humorous. Most of us found this quiet novel moving and beautiful but also challenging with its many unfamiliar words and Britishisms (for the non-British among us). What luck, discovering that the film based on the novel is available on YouTube! MH