Monday, 30 May 2011

Vargas Llosa, Mario „Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter“

Vargas Llosa, Mario „Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter“ (La tía Julia y el escribidor) - 1977

After having read “The Storyteller” by this fascinating author, I had to look for more of his books. In this novel which is based on Mario Vargas Llosa's life, at the age of 18, he meets a sister of his aunt who is 14 years his senior and falls in love with her. At the same time, he works for a Peruvian radio station where a Bolivian scriptwriter adds a lot of excitement to everyone's life.

While telling his own story, he manages to insert quite a few of the novelas the scriptwriter has produced. The book is both funny as well as exciting, a very interesting view on the life of an author. Apparently, Julia Urquidi (Aunt Julia) wrote her own story later “Lo que Varguitas no dijo” (What little Vargas didn't say). Sounds quite interesting, too.

Anyway, I loved this book, great read.

In 1990, a film was made based on this book. The title "Tune in tomorrow" sounds like a very good one.

Mario Vargas Llosa received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010 "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat".
Mario Vargas Llosa received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis) in 1996.

Vargas Llosa, Mario “The Storyteller”

Vargas Llosa, Mario “The Storyteller” (El Hablador) - 1987

When the latest Nobel Prize winner for Literature was announced, I was quite excited because I had read a book by him recently. A young man leaves Western civilization and lives among the Machiguenga Indians in the jungle of Peru. He becomes their storyteller, a person who passes on their culture's history and belief. The author has a very unique style, quite different from anything I know, the story is both mystical and mythical. A highly interesting novel. I definitely wanted to read more of this interesting author and added “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” to my list of books recently. Just as fascinating.

Mario Vargas Llosa received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010 "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat".
Mario Vargas Llosa received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis) in 1996.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Steinbeck, John "Of Mice and Men"

Steinbeck, John "Of Mice and Men" - 1937

No wonder this author is so highly regarded by so many. He can make a short story, alright, a novella,  into an epic tale, one that will never leave you.

This book is so full of everything, it touches so many subjects, it's amazing. Of course, as in all his works I have read so far, the story takes place during the Great Depression, this time he talks about migrant workers. In just a few pages, he pictures the life they lead and you are right in the story. You can take this story as an example for so many bad parts of society, prejudice, racism, the poor and ugly side of the world and people dreaming of a better one.

Steinbeck is the best author to explain what has gone wrong with the American dream, he describes the downside of it, the people who don't fit in, even if they try hard. His phenomenal writings cast a shadow into the next century. Nobody describes people and situations better than he did. Nobody draws an image of society as well as he did.

"Of Mice and Men" is certainly one of the gems of world literature that should be read by everyone. You know what is going to happen but you desperately don't want it to happen. Simply beautiful writing.

From the back cover: "The tragic story of the complex bond between two migrant laborers in Central California. They are George Milton and Lennie Small, itinerant ranch hands who dream of one day owning a small farm. George acts as a father figure to Lennie, who is a very large, simple-minded man, calming him and helping to rein in his immense physical strength."

Also read “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden”, they are phenomenal.

John Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962
"for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception".

Wisner, Franz „How the World Makes Love"

Wisner, Franz „How the World Makes Love: And What It Taught a Jilted Groom" - 2009

This was the worst read this year, probably of the last couple of years. Two facts should have warned me. 1. There is hardly any information available about the book or the author. 2. The bright colours on the title, it usually wants to make up for the lack of something, most often the author's brain. But I try to give every book a chance.

I tried to find the humour advertised. Sorry, couldn't find any, I just was too bored. Information - even inspiration? Nothing new or elaborate. There are dozens of other good travel books around.

I did find quite a few mistakes in the book, assumptions he just made but were not exactly correct, that was another spoiler. Towards the end I thought there might be people who could like this book, if they want just a brief outlook on life somewhere else. It grew more and more into a threepenny (or dime) novel. When I went through the annex I found several books he mentioned as his sources, for example, in Egypt I found he had rewritten "The Yakoubian Building". Quite a few of our members had either been to the places he talked about or even lived there for a while, nobody could find anything remotely interesting.

His writing style was awful, he didn't seem to be able to concentrate, stay with the topic. The whole story was rather shallow, flippant, superficial, poorly written. Someone even called it icky. He seemed to talk the whole time about his first book where his bride left him at the altar and I guess if I had read that one, this sequel would have even been more boring. My conclusion: Chick Lit at its worst!!!

The only people who liked it wanted a "lighter read". Granted, some people might enjoy this when on holidays but there is nothing to talk about in a book club.

One last comment, one of our members mentioned it reminded her of Woody Allen who once said he took a speed reading course and read "War and Peace" in twenty minutes. On questioned about it, he said "It involves Russia". So, he missed out on a fantastic read. That's about the impression this guy gives you.

We discussed this in our book club in June 2010.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Greene, Graham „Brighton Rock“

Greene, Graham „Brighton Rock“ - 1938

I quite liked this novel, probably not one of my favourites but really not bad. I also liked "The End of the Affair" in a similar way. A journalist gets killed in Brighton, the police declares it natural causes, a woman who just met the guy decides she wants to find the culprits. I liked the way Greene described the characters, how you really love to hate the protagonist, try to understand the women and all the other people in this novel. Being Catholic myself, I found the religious part quite interesting. The main character used the prayers almost like a mantra without even knowing anything about the background except for the fact that he was "doomed". I liked the seaside atmosphere, however, I can imagine it giving a great background for a movie (which I would love to watch now). All in all, I am glad I read this book and would recommend it.

Greene, Graham “The End of the Affair”

Greene, Graham “The End of the Affair” - 1951

This looks like a simple love affair between a man and a married wife. They live their affair quietly witout being caught until something terrible happens. Greene describes a life of misery for both protagonists and the novel is quite depressing at times. But the writing is wonderful and  the characters seem very real. They are jealous and obsessed, the relationships perfectly described. The story takes place in London during WWII but I think it could happen any time anywhere. This was my first Greene novel and I have now read “Brighton Rock” which I also quite enjoyed.

I read this with my Dutch book club.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Boyne, John "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas"

Boyne, John "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" - 2006

I read this book on my own before we discussed it in the book club, so I read it again.

There were quite a few mistakes, a few too many to my liking, the whole story seemed unreal because it couldn't have happened that way. Most of our members criticized the book much harsher than I did. First of all, if you base a book on facts, the facts have to be right, no matter what you call it.

We didn't find it easy to warm or connect to the characters because the description was very inconsistent. Bruno, the main character, would sometimes be very naïve, and the next minute he had adult views. The story was very predictable. The friendship portrayal was unbelievable, not just the setting. You can tell, this was written fast.

However, as one of our members pointed out so wonderfully, history is here to be discovered and therefore it is important to make history accessible on all kinds of levels. And therefore, it was certainly worth discussing the book.

We discussed this in our book club in June 2009.

If this has been the only book you read about the holocaust, you should try some more.
"Night" by Elie Wiesel and "Fateless" by Imre Kertész, both written by survivors, are some true accounts of how young people lived and survived the terrible life in a concentration camp.

Eliot, George "Daniel Deronda"

Eliot, George "Daniel Deronda" - 1876

"George Eliot's final novel and her most ambitious work, Daniel Deronda contrasts the moral laxity of the British aristocracy with the dedicated fervor of Jewish nationalists. Crushed by a loveless marriage to the cruel and arrogant Grandcourt, Gwendolen Harleth seeks salvation in the deeply spiritual and altruistic Daniel Deronda. But Deronda, profoundly affected by the discovery of his Jewish ancestry, is ultimately too committed to his own cultural awakening to save Gwendolen from despair."

I like the style of the 19th century. I especially like George Eliot's style. She describes the characters extremely well, the problems between the different people are very interesting and everyone seems so alive. There are people whom you will like and others whom you will dislike. The novel gives a lot of information about life at the time, a lot of history, the problem the Jews had all through the centuries. A very interesting book, a lot to read, about 750 pages.

George Eliot said herself that she expected a stronger resistance to her book because of the Jewish element. She wanted to depict the Jews with sympathy and understanding and felt that her readers would dislike this. Throughout the whole book I was amazed how much George Eliot knew about the Jews and the problems they were facing, she almost predicted WWII.

I loved this book.

We discussed this in our book club in June 2003.
We also read "Middlemarch" by the same author.

Eliot, George "Middlemarch"

Eliot, George "Middlemarch" - 1871-72

"One of the classic novels of English literature and was admired by Virginia Woolf as one of the few English novels written for grown-up people. A critical introduction, and historical documents, pertaining to medical reform, religious freedom, and the advent of the railroads."

Next to Jane Austen, George Eliot alias Marian Evans is one of my favourite classic British authors. I love classics. English is not my mother tongue but I just could read English classics all the time. I've been reading classics with my various book clubs, one of them in England. And I was usually the one finding it easy whereas my British friends thought it hard. Someone thought it might be that the sentences are so long and it's not like that any more in contemporary English whereas German is full of them.

I think "Middlemarch" is more difficult than, let's say, a Jane Austen. There are more people, for a start, and more people are important to the whole book. But it's also the language. So, while I really loved "Middlemarch" and would recommend reading it, I wouldn't consider George Eliot to be the easiest of writers.

Maybe that's why I love her novels so much, and "Middlemarch" is probably my favourite. Dorothea Brooke, the main character, has been wonderfully described. There is so much she has to deal with.

She could have been a great woman in our time (as the author) with the possibilities we have today but had to fight all her life to be heard. Almost every subject relevant for the time is touched, medical reform, industrialisation, religious thinking, women's rights, a great description of the change of society from the old times to our modern world. There is everything in this book, good and evil, guilt, affections, love, loneliness, hope, happiness, envy, doubt, you name it … A great read!

I thought Dorothea was the best character, not just because she also happened to be the main one. She was so ahead of her time and so strong. And she knew what she wanted. I really admired her and felt sorry for her at the same time. Most of the choices in her life were well tought of, she knew what she was doing, yet, nothing turned out the way she expected it, mainly because the time was not ready for such an incredible woman like Dorothea. Apparently, there's a lot of Marian Evans in Dorothea Brooke.

All in all, a wonderful book, a must for anyone who loves classic novels. Most of our book club members agreed with me, just some found a little too difficult.

The BBC made this into a nice mini-series in 1994.

We discussed this in our book club in June 2007.
We also read "Daniel Deronda" by the same author.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Du Bois, W. E. B. "The Souls of Black Folk"

Du Bois, W. E. B. "The Souls of Black Folk" - 1903

"'The problem of the twentieth-century is the problem of the color-line.' Originally published in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk is a classic study of race, culture, and education at the turn of the twentieth century."

This book was a recommendation by a friend who read it for her studies. A very thorough and interesting study of black culture in the United States, the achievements and problems of the African American society. Highly recommendable even if you are only remotely interested in this kind of subject.

Lukas, Michael David „The Oracle of Stamboul“

Lukas, Michael David „The Oracle of Stamboul“ - 2011

Istanbul, or rather Stamboul, at the end of the 19th century. A young Jewish girl is born in what now is Romania, her mother dies in childbirth and the girl ends up in Muslim Istanbul. She is extremely intelligent and  has extraordinary gifts which is not overlooked by important people in the town.

An amazing story like from 1001 Nights, it makes you dream of faraway shores and days gone by. The times are not better, on the contrary, but the life, oh, the life seems so much more exciting.

Fantastic read.

From the back cover: "A magical historical novel about an astonishing eight year old girl in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. 

It is 1877, on the shores of the Black Sea, and the omens for the newborn Eleanora Cohen are hardly promising. Not only does her mother die in childbirth, but her village is being attacked by the Tsar's Royal Cavalry. However, despite this bad beginning, a sour stepmother and a traumatic journey in the hold of a ship, young Eleanora grows into a remarkably clever but very engaging child. And when a heartbreaking tragedy leaves her marooned in Istanbul, where spies and boarded-up harems and sudden death are as much a part of life as delicious spices, Paris fashions and rosewater, it is Eleanora's extraordinary courage and character which lead her straight to the Sultan’s court, and to her salvation.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Fredriksson, Marianne "Hanna's Daughters"

Fredriksson, Marianne "Hanna's Daughters" (Anna, Hanna og Johanna) - 1994

"Hanna. Johanna. Anna. Three women, three generations, one family.
…. this luminous, heartfelt novel spans more than a hundred years in the lives of three remarkable women - a daughter, mother, and grandmother - lives shaped by the epic sweep of history and linked through a century of great love and great loss."

I actually discussed this with two different book clubs, first my English one in England in September 1999 and then with the international book club.

A remarkable story about the life of women and how it changed during the last century. The story is situated in Sweden but it could have happened anywhere in Europe.

Everybody really liked this book. Comments went from "I liked this book very much; I enjoyed the book; it's honest and tells the situations truthfully; the story of Hanna is very impressive; it's good she could write about this." to "There are three different books."

The book was considered a good, easy and amazing read, the three characters are quite believable, they were well described. Marianne Fredriksson has a way to tell the story, has you feel you know the person or situation, you can identify with them. It's a gift to write like the author. There is so much in this book though it is quite short. Some books are much larger and don't contain as much. It's honest, you can only talk to friends like this.

However, there were a lot of people in the story, some had to keep track of who is who, some made a list (always a good idea as soon as you realize there are too many people in a novel to remember).

Most people also enjoyed the descriptions of the landscape. The original title (Anna, Hanna og Johanna) was confusing, since they mention the granddaughter first, then grandmother, then mother. Maybe they changed it because it sounded better. Or because it was Anna who told the story.

This is definitely a woman's book (though men would benefit from reading it), it made us think about sisters, mothers and daughters. It could even be called a feminist book. There were a lot of stories, wife-beating, alcoholism, angst among women. A woman in the novel remarked you can only be a whore or a Madonna. Good to read during a sunny week (rather than in the gloomy winter months).

We are lucky today to have choices. You can also call this a burden of choice, it made us more self-centered. Johanna had all the opportunities, she chooses to be a homemaker. We then had a discussion how difficult that choice is. Being "only" a homemaker is a social downfall. Johanna and even Anna has to defend herself for staying at home.

It was interesting to see the large development from farming to city life. Also, there were a lot of superstitions, magic, people still think like that.

The novel touched two centuries. We all lived through the change of a century and realized that life keeps going on.

We discussed this in our book club in June 2006.

Lewis, Oscar "Children of Sanchez"

Lewis, Oscar "Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family" - 1961

As so often with our book club readings, this was suggested by one of our members who knew a little more about the background than we did, a member who grew up in Mexcio herself.

This is not a novel but an anthropological documentary about a family from a slum in Mexico City, a father and his four children who grow up in poverty. An interesting study that tells you so much about the way a lot of people have to live - and not just in Mexico.

As I always like books that teach me something, I did like this one a lot.

We discussed this in our book club in June 2005.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Gavalda, Anna "I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere"

Gavalda, Anna "I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere" (Je voudrais quelqu'un m'attende quelque part) - 1999

The title sounded very nice, like a dream somehow. I was a little disappointed that it was a book of short stories but they read very nicely, were interesting, quite different each one from the next, all in all an enjoyable read.

Krakauer, Jon “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith”

Krakauer, Jon “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith” - 2003

This had been one of our book club suggestions a couple of years ago and I finally managed to read it. I had read “Escape” by Carolyn Jessop earlier and although that is a later book it did help in understanding this one a little better.

The writing style wasn't very inviting, it was a non-fiction book that tried to be written like a novel. But it wasn't. The author jumped around a lot and it was hard to follow him at times when he continued a story he had started several chapters before. Many many names which I usually don't mind that much. Maybe it's harder because I'm not American or maybe I was expecting a report more than just a citation of facts, I don't know, it just wasn't what I expected.

This book hasn't answered any questions anyone might have about Mormons and especially the fundamentalists who live in polygamy and listen to God, e.g. he talks about these brothers who go out and kill a woman and her baby after a revelation they received from God. This is where he could have started, well, this is where he started but then he jumps back and forth to the Book of Mormon, to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, to massacres between the Mormons or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Paiute Indians, just to name a few examples.

A book that promised to be so interesting, yet I didn't find it so.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Hirsi Ali, Ayaan “Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations”

Hirsi Ali, Ayaan “Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations” - 2010

After having read “Infidel. My Life” in December 2009, we couldn't wait for the next book about Ayaan Hirsi Ali's life. We thought, she was an intelligent and courageous woman. One of our members said, everyone who has something to do with Islam should read this and she would like to read another book that brings this in balance. Any suggestions?

The author writes in a clear way, some thought, her life in Somalia was the most interesting part, the different views and culture. We were all glad to have read this.

We were surprised that she says Christians should convert Muslims even though she is an atheist. For her, the God of Christianity is preferred to the God of Islam (even though we do talk about the same God here). In her regard, Islam is only black and white. It was interesting to see the problems she addressed that a lot of refugees have when coming to Europe. She says, if you don't accept the views here, don't come. There is one thing, the people in the Western world don't want, that is to be called racist or intolerant. Ayaan Hirsi Ali says by giving in we enable the refugees to carry on what they turned away from in the first place. We have to get over this. A US American member said, their whole country is built up with immigrants.

We addressed some of the problems that occur in the various countries, compared a little from what we knew, all in all, we had a very interesting discussion and surely will want to read more about this.

Also read Ian Buruma “Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance

We discussed this in our book club in May 2011.

Clinton, Hillary Rodham "Living History"

Clinton, Hillary Rodham "Living History" - 2003

Everybody knows Hillary Clinton, well everybody knows the wife of former US president Bill Clinton. But there is a lot more to her than just being the wife of a successful guy. They always say behind every successful man there is a strong woman. They must have talked about Hillary and Bill Clinton.

We read this book a long time ago, long before Mrs. Clinton ran for president herself, more or less between her candidacy and the Lewinsky scandal.

Whether you like her politics or not, this book is an account of a woman who is very strong and who managed to get to a certain point through studying and hard work.

We had an interesting discussion, our members were from the United States, Canada, Italy and Germany at that meeting, so we had a view from different perspectives. Not everybody liked it but I put that down to political differences. I am glad I got to read the book and learn more about American politics and the American dream.

We discussed this in our book club in Jun 2004.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Lewycka, Marina “Two Caravans”

Lewycka, Marina “Two Caravans” - 2007

After having read and enjoyed “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian”, I was interested in reading the next book by this author.

As in her first book, Marina Lewycka describes the life of Ukrainians (and Polish) citizens in England, this time they are no immigrants but seasonal/migrant workers. Again, an easy read, interesting and quite enjoyable. A lot of information about those cheap workers that most Western European countries import to do their dirty or hard work, the dreams they have when they come to our countries, the way they are treated and how they find their way - or not.

The characters are described very well, you meet them in a setting that makes it easy to follow their lives, wanting to help or sometimes kick them, depending on the situation.

As with her first book, I didn't really find it funny but a very good read.

Tóibín, Colm “Brooklyn”

Tóibín, Colm "Brooklyn" - 2009

What a boring book, an Irish girl goes to Brooklyn in the 50s. Sounded promising but was just so superficial, unbelievable. I think the only reason I carried on was that I hoped there would be more, couldn't believe it would be so "cheap".

From the back cover: "Hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking, Colm Tóibín's sixth novel, Brooklyn, is set in Brooklyn and Ireland in the early 1950s, when one young woman crosses the ocean to make a new life for herself.
Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America -- to live and work in a Brooklyn neighborhood 'just like Ireland' -- she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.
Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love with Tony, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.
By far Tóibín's most instantly engaging and emotionally resonant novel,
Brooklyn will make readers fall in love with his gorgeous writing and spellbinding characters.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Proulx, Annie “The Shipping News”

Proulx, Annie “The Shipping News” - 1993

This book was recommended to me several times and the only excuse I had to not pick it up was that there were a lot of other books waiting to be read.

I really enjoyed this book. The story centers around Quoyle, an ordinary guy, you might even call him a loser. After his cheating wife dies in an accident, he moves with his aunt and his daughters to his ancestral home in Newfoundland where he works for a local newspaper.

Here he meets a lot of people who have been living in this remote small community all their life.

The life of these ordinary people are described in such a loving way that makes reading so much pleasure. Of course, life isn't easy, the problems a lot of small communities face when their major bread-winning jobs disappear lurks around the corner all the time, the characters have problems with each other as well as with the outside world but as the history of the family unfolds, we meet some wonderful loveable people.

A great read. - You also learn a lot about knots.

Annie Proulx received a Pulitzer Prize for “The Shipping News” in 1994.

Şafak, Elif “Araf"

Şafak, Elif “Araf aka The Saint of Incipient Insanities" (Araf) - 2004

A suggestion by one of our Turkish members, a book about foreigners living in the United States. We wanted to read this, alas the original English edition was sold out. We could only get the novel in Turkish, German or Dutch. I was lucky to find a used German copy and started reading.

An interesting book. Three roommates from Turkey, Morocco and Spain in Boston, one has  a Mexican-American, another an American girlfriend. All of them have to fit into the society they are in, they struggle in their own different ways. The author managed to describe these diverse characters in such a way that you could feel with them. I loved the way the various stereotypes and prejudices were dealt with, or not.

Anyway, great read, quite humorous at times but definitely a good way of describing the way someone wants to fit into their surroundings, belong somewhere. A wonderful story about friendship, as well. I am glad I read it, even though we had to strike it from our reading list.

In Feburary 2011, we also read „The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi“ by Elif Şafak.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Falcones, Ildefonso “Cathedral of the Sea”

Falcones, Ildefonso “Cathedral of the Sea” (La catedral del mar) - 2008

One of the best historical novels ever. Barcelona in the 14th century, in the middle of the time of the Inquisition. A church is being built. The story of the people involved with the building, especially the story of Arnau, the son of a runaway serf.

As to our discussion, we all really liked the book, the writing style was captivating, there was a lot to learn about that time, the historical background was great,  the author did a profound research. It was a sad book but that was the life back then. We talked about the middle ages, religion, inquisition, the plague, the Virgin Mary, women's rights, Spain and Catalonia, what has and hasn't changed.

We loved the description of their dedication of building the cathedral, it would be nice to see it.

One question that cannot be answered even today: How is it possible that peoplel can be so cruel in the name of Christianity? And the Jews were closed up in ghettoes back then already. Yes, history hasn't changed much.

We discussed this in our book club in August 2010.

If you liked this, you will also love "The Hand of Fatima", Ildefonso Falcones' second book.

Stone, Irving “The Agony and the Ecstasy”

Stone, Irving “The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo” - 1961

A book about the life and art of Michelangelo. What a book! What a man! His life was his work and his work was his life. He just seemed to know and be able to do anything. How interesting it must have been for someone like him to live in such an age where you have to find out for yourself and can't just look it up on the internet. Even though there was a lot of agony, didn't the ecstasy more than compensate for it?

It took must of us longer (up to six months) to read the book than we thought.

It was not what we expected, some thought there was too much detail, we liked his approach, how he got into it, the concept of the family, how he still had to support them and couldn't escape. Of course, there were different times, the children were the life insurance.

We enjoyed the parts where he was painting, studying the people, his work is just lovely.

It was interesting to see how he had to worry about his art when a pope died, his relationships/friendships were a great factor. The problems between church and state, well, you have them anytime you mix religion and state, you have a theocratic regime. But the author put a lot of thought into that and described it very well. We received a great insight into that time, religion, power, interests.

He lived in a world where a lot of interests were everything, both Michelangelo and da Vinci were acknowledged in their own time (doesn't happen very often). During his apprenticeship, he was also taught about life in general. According to da Vinci, sculpture is inferior to painting, this was a lifelong battle. We all agreed that everything is so easy in our time, and that doesn't create great people. This was a chance to talk about our children and what their future looks like. Kids used to have more competence.

The question came up whether the area of writing a major piece is gone. Whether this is also only possible in desperate times. We couldn't find an answer.

We have a recommendation if you haven't read the book, yet. Look at the chronological lists in the back before (and while) you read the book.

Definitely a very worthwile and deserving book.

We discussed this in our book club in August 2008.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Becker, Jurek “Jacob the Liar"

Becker, Jurek “Jacob the Liar" (Jakob der Lügner) - 1969

I have known the author of this book through other works, e.g. his television series in Germany. His stories have always been good but this is the best work of his life. An occupant of the Warsaw ghetto tries to help his fellow Jews sustain life by telling them lies about the Russians being almost there to liberate them. The way this ordinary guy who has just as much to lose as everyone else is motivating people in their most desperate moments is so captivating.

Anyway, the book is really great, the attempt of the author to describe the people's very soul in times of challenge is unique and he does a superb job with this. There is a movie which I haven't seen but it's supposed to be good, as well.

They have made this into a movie with Robbin Williams as Jacob but I haven't seen it.

Austen, Jane "Mansfield Park"

Austen, Jane "Mansfield Park - 1814

Another one of this wonderful author's books. The life of Fanny Price, a poor girl growing up with rich relatives. I really liked the heroine and the way she stood up to all that pressure. The difficulties women had to face in that day and age were immense already. But here it was added. Fanny didn't get to experience the financial burden as so many other women at the time but she had to pay a huge price for this.

Not my absolute favourite of her novels but certainly one of my favourite books overall.

From the back cover: "At the age of ten, shy, vulnerable Fanny Price leaves behind her impoverished family in Portsmouth to go and live with her rich relatives at Mansfield Park.
Growing up with her cousins Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia, she is aware that she is different from them and that her place in society cannot be taken for granted, although she is not treated unkindly. A dashing couple from London, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry, enter this stable, rural world. They succeed in dazzling everyone at Mansfield Park, except for Fanny, who sees through their shallow veneer. Throughout the dramatic events that follow it is she who is able to bring back some stability to the ruptured lives of those around her.
One of the great novels of the nineteenth century, Mansfield Park echoes Jane Austen's fears and awareness of the dawn of a modern age, which was to bring about a complete break from the old country traditions and way of life.

I have reviewed "Mansfield Park" a second time  as a member of The Motherhood and Jane Austen Book Club.  Find that review here and a list of all my "motherhood" reviews here.

I read a lot of novels by or about Jane Austen. Find a link to all my reviews here.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Mann, Thomas "Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family"

Mann, Thomas "Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family" (Buddenbrooks) - 1901

I have read "Buddenbrooks" a couple of times and think this is one of the best books of German literature. It is usually described as Thomas Mann's masterpiece. The author is definitely one of Germany's most famous and best writers. The novel, an epic story, dates from 1901 and describes the life in a wealthy merchant family over several decades from the 1800s until the beginning of the twentieth century. The story is based on the author's own family who lived in Lübeck, the town where this novel takes place. It belonged to the Hanseatic League which "was an alliance of trading guilds that established and maintained a trade monopoly over the Baltic Sea, to a certain extent the North Sea, and most of Northern Europe for a time in the Late Middle Ages and the early modern period, between the 13th and 17th centuries" (an early European Union, if you wish). Quite an interesting part of the history of that part of Northern Europe.

A wonderful novel, rich expressions, perfect detailed writing, also about some important history that isn't described very often. If you enjoy history and would like to learn more about Germany at the beginning of the last century, this is the book for you. But even if you are not interested in history, this is also a great family saga, one that will never leave you again. A family that was so rich and important and had so much influence on the politics and economy of a whole town and region and who can't to cope with the changes into modern life. Read it. You won't regret it.

From the back cover: "Thomas Mann's first novel, Buddenbrooks, is drawn from his own life and experience.
The Decline of a Family, his story of a prosperous Hanseatic merchant family and their gradual disintegration is also an extraordinary portrayal of the transition from the stable bourgeois life of the nineteenth century to a modern uncertainty. "

We discussed this in our book club in August 2007.

I also read "The Magic Mountain".

Thomas Mann received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 "principally for his great novel, 'Buddenbrooks', which has won steadily increased recognition as one of the classic works of contemporary literature".

I contribute to this page: Read the Nobels and you can find all my blogs about Nobel Prize winning authors and their books here.
I was lucky to be able to visit the Buddenbrook House in Lübeck, you can read about my experience here.

Mosse, Kate “Labyrinth”

Mosse, Kate “Labyrinth” - 2005

A story about history and architecture, a story that spans over 800 years. Historical events from the 13th century are described.

A much discussed book, some of our readers loved it, others didn't. They either couldn't get into it or they didn't like the mixture of fact and fiction or thought there was too much violence, the details too descriptive. The contrast was too big, everything was black and white.

However, the people who like it thought the author is a good storyteller, our memory of history was refreshed, the side subjects like reincarnation, genetic memory and the fact that several characters that resurfaced eight hundred years later was interesting.

Quite a few of us always loved historical novels. We thought the life of ordinary people was described very well. The plot seemed logical (though not always believable) which isn't always the case in these semi-fantasy novels. Even though some of us thought the story had a slow start, we liked the history very much, especially the characters in the past. We also thought, the turbulent times the Cathars went through, should be considered.

Some of our members had been in that area of France and especially Carcassonne is a great place to visit but also the church Notre Dame of Chartres where the labyrinth is situated. Kate Mosse has done a lot of research, and she has done that very well.

We also discussed the "Da Vinci Code" briefly. Several of us had read this novel and since it is about a similar subject, the comparison was there. We didn't like all the fuss that was made about that book. Some didn't really get the story at all. Also, he mixes up facts to create a story. Then he mentions some facts at the beginning, and tries to convince readers that everything in his book is true.

Anyway, we liked "Labyrinth" a lot better. I think this would make a great movie.

We discussed this in our book club in August 2006.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Berg, Elizabeth "Open House"

Berg, Elizabeth "Open House" - 2000

I actually had to go and read some of the websites again before I even remembered what this book was about. I did remember that I didn't like it because it seemed so superficial, a "nice" beach read, as some people would put it, exactly the kind of literature I really despise.

This novel is about a woman who is divorced and takes in boarders into her house to pay for her mortgage. They are very different, first an older woman, then a young student, but I really don't remember anything eventful that stuck with me.

I also read "What we keep" in the meantime, I think this was the last Elizabeth Berg novel I read.

We discussed this in our book club in July 2003.

Kidd, Sue Monk "The Secret Life of Bees"

Kidd, Sue Monk "The Secret Life of Bees" - 2002 

The story of Lily from South Carolina, an abused child who lost her mother, and three African-American beekeeping sisters who help her growing up. A very interesting novel about different kind of people who come to terms with different kinds of troubles. All the really strong characters of this story are women who have to get through their struggles with life.

Even though this novel is probably more typical for the southern part of the U.S., it is a good portrayal of women and their possibilities. I liked the warmth of the novel, even the descriptions of the bad parts left you with a comfortable feeling in the end.

This was also turned into a movie. I'm not sure whether I see Dakota Fanning (though I quite like her) as Lily, the main character, I had pictured her completely different.

We discussed this in our book club in August 2004.

Book Description: "Lily has grown up believing she accidentally killed her mother when she was four. She not only has her own memory of holding the gun, but her father's account of the event. Now fourteen, she yearns for her mother, and for forgiveness. Living on a peach farm in South Carolina with her father, she has only one friend: Rosaleen, a black servant whose sharp exterior hides a tender heart. South Carolina in the sixties is a place where segregation is still considered a cause worth fighting for. When racial tension explodes one summer afternoon, and Rosaleen is arrested and beaten, Lily is compelled to act. Fugitives from justice and from Lily's harsh and unyielding father, they follow a trail left by the woman who died ten years before. Finding sanctuary in the home of three beekeeping sisters, Lily starts a journey as much about her understanding of the world, as about the mystery surrounding her mother."

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Woolf, Virginia “Mrs. Dalloway”

Woolf, Virginia “Mrs. Dalloway” - 1925

This is supposed to be Virginia Woolf's greatest novel, a book about the life of a woman, a single day in the life of a woman. A “higher class” woman at the beginning of the last century preparing a party and seeing it through.

This novel shows how much women had achieved since Jane Austen's days - and how much they hadn't. It's about halfway between Ms. Austen's lifetime and today and if you consider how slow women's rights progressed, you can guess how long it is still going to take until women and men are going to be equal, have the same chances, if ever!

I also read "To the Lighthouse" with the book club which I enjoyed immensely.

Findley, Timothy “Dust to Dust”

Findley, Timothy “Dust to Dust” - 1997

"Is it the dust of death, blowing across a Mediterranean island, and etched by the footprints of a small boy who seems to be a disturbing emblem of his parents' unhappy marriage? Or the fine, but offending dirt that is dealt with so tidily by a diligent hausfrau - almost as tidily as her fellow neighbors rationalize a brutal crime? In Dust to Dust, Timothy Findley is a master of mortality and the powerful, yet often imperceptible bond it forges with memory and reality."

Knowing that I don't like short stories very much, a friend of mine gave this to me and said "You have to read these, they are great." What can I say? They were very interesting. I enjoyed reading them, there were quite a few different stories. The author succeeded to stay with his stories for long enough so you didn't have the feeling something was missing which is usual the feeling I get.

Quite a good collection of short stories.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Woolf, Virginia "To the Lighthouse"

Woolf, Virginia "To the Lighthouse" - 1927

The verdict on "To the Lighthouse" was similar to that of many classics. Those who love classics enjoyed it. Those who don't didn't even give it a try. Some of them were glad they forced themselves to read it.

I loved this book. It was almost like poetry. The style was wonderful. Virginia Woolf describes the people most beautifully, the feelings, the thoughts, the way she describes the changes, the atmosphere, how they looked at each other, you can recognize it in your own life. Her descriptions are very detailed. She really understands people, thinking about that they don't say much to each other, it's even more amazing how she can write about this. Some found it difficult initially but were able to get through the first part. Some parts were extremely moving.

We talked about following the research first, I think that is very helpful here. You have to go back in time and put the author and what she wants to discuss into context. A great book about the beginning of the feminist time.  It is not an easy book but definitely worth the effort.

It was a creation of Victorian period.
This book also brought us do talk about the stream of consciousness and Henry James. Very philosophical.
The difference between mind and brain, the brain is the physical organ and the mind the psychic one. The mind pulls away, the brain draws to, there is a continuous pulling and drawing in the book.

We also discussed Virginia Woolf briefly, her bouts of marital instability, her anxiety. Her mother died when she was 13, it is just amazing how she internalized the relationship of her parents at that young age. She was a very smart lady.

According to Publisher's Weekly, "To the Lighthouse" also belongs to the Top 10 Most Difficult Books.

We discussed this in our book club in May 2010.

I also read "Mrs. Dalloway".

Haddon, Mark "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time"

Haddon, Mark "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" - 2003

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a murder mystery novel like no other. The detective, and narrator, is Christopher Boone. Christopher is fifteen and has Asperger's, a form of autism. He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human beings. He loves lists, patterns and the truth. He hates the colours yellow and brown and being touched. He has never gone further than the end of the road on his own, but when he finds a neighbour's dog murdered he sets out on a terrifying journey which will turn his whole world upside down."

This was one of our most discussed books - because of its contents. We all agreed that we liked the book, it was well written, the style technique was very good, you could really feel with them, understand the issue now, some shed a tear at the end. The author tries to highlight that autistic figure/feel and accomplishes it very well. The book was written very discreetly, you could notice that he worked with children.

One would have thought Mark Haddon had the syndrome himself. Someone read it twice and noticed different things as the first time.

We also admired the ability the British have to take these families and put that into perspective, make a dysfunctional family seem funny at times and so make them look "normal". The author made it easier to read about these problems with his comical side.

It was interesting to discuss this with people looking at the situation from so many different levels, members with experience or no experience with autism, social workers, nurses and members who never worked with children. One of our members studied early childhood education and could explain a lot to us.

Some of us were surprised that we liked it because we didn't anticipate that. Someone said she wasn't prepared to enjoy it. But we all did.

We agreed that every child is so unique and has different needs. It's rewarding when they trust you and so disturbing if they can't get close. If there was a solution to heal autism, should we use it? These people see the world with other eyes and can contribute a lot if we let them.

We discussed this in our book club in May 2008.

From the back cover: "'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' is a murder mystery novel like no other. The detective, and narrator, is Christopher Boone. Christopher is fifteen and has Asperger's Syndrome. He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human beings. He loves lists, patterns and the truth. He hates the colours yellow and brown and being touched. He has never gone further than the end of the road on his own, but when he finds a neighbour's dog murdered he sets out on a terrifying journey which will turn his whole world upside down."

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Waltari, Mika "The Dark Angel"

Waltari, Mika "The Dark Angel" (Johannes Angelos) - 1952

After having read "The Egyptian" by the same author, our book club decided to read this one a year later as long as our Finnish member was still here, especially since this was the one book she has read more often than any other book. A lot of Mika Waltari's novels have a religious background, there is always an issue of faith in his books. His language is great and he teaches a lot about churches and the background of their history. His books are very detailed and accurate, especially this one is so well drawn together. Most of his books cover different cultures, different religions, powerful, greedy people, but they also show that love conquers all. All the different human qualities were represented in the different characters.

"The Dark Angel" is situated in Constantinople during its fall in 1453. The whole dilemma is explaiend through the eyes of a guy with Greek and Latin ancestors who has lived among the Turkish. A very interesting history book, interwoven with a love story.

We were amazed to learn that the character Anna existed and lived, she emigrated to Venice, and some of the other characters lived, as well. If you visited Istanbul, you might have visited Aya Sofia, it reminds a lot of the Christian and Muslim differences and similarities.

There were so many layers in the book, as usual in historical novels. We thought we learned a lot about the history and the difference between both the Christian and the Islamic faith but also about the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic denominations. One of the causes for the big split between the two Christian churches was the "Filioque clause", the Orthodox don't believe the Holy Spirit derives from the son, so they don't have the sentence "and the son" in their creed.

We discussed this in our book club in May 2007.

Waltari, Mika "The Egyptian"

Waltari, Mika "The Egyptian" (Sinuhe Egyptiläinen) - 1945

A book suggested by one of our Finnish members. She told us that the author studied ancient cultures and theology and the facts in this book are accurate. He couldn't print war books at the time, so instead he wrote this one. We all thought it was wonderful even though none of us was really that much into that kind of history. A very detailed and informative account.

The book covers not only Egyptian history but also everything about the human nature, its goodness and its cruelty. The author writes about love and war, intrigue, victory and defeat, about the role of religion that was very important at the time. It was interesting to compare the ancient way of looking at the world. It's amazing how the pharaoh Akhenaton at the time tried to create a Christian-like religion.

This novel gave a lot of discussion material. The life of Sinuhe, an Egyptian doctor, is wrapped around the history of quite a few famous and impressive pharaohs. I have actually enjoyed it so much that I started reading more about Egyptian history.

We discussed this in our book club in May 2006.

We read "The Dark Angel" by the same author a year later.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Lamb, Christina “The Sewing Circles of Herat”

Lamb, Christina “The Sewing Circles of Herat: A Personal Voyage Through Afghanistan” - 2002 

I have read quite a few books about Afghanistan over the years since there seem to be a lot available right now. This was by far the best one of them. (All the others were fiction.)

Christina Lamb is a journalist who knows her job. She had been in Afghanistan before 9/11 and then went back straight after when almost no western correspondent was able to get there. She met a lot of people from all sides - politicians, Taliban, normal people, especially women. And she gives a great insight into this tormented country. You almost feel like you're there with her.

Great book about this topic.

From the back cover: "Ten years ago, Christina Lamb reported on the war the Afghan people were fighting against the Soviet Union. Now, back in Afghanistan, she has written an extraordinary memoir of her love affair with the country and its people.
Long haunted by her experiences in Afghanistan, Lamb returned there after last year's attack on the World Trade Centre to find out what had become of the people and places that had marked her life as a young graduate.This time seeing the land through the eyes of a mother and experienced foreign correspondent, Lamb's journey brings her in touch with the people no one else is writing about: the abandoned victims of almost a quarter century of war.
‘Of all books about Afghanistan, Christina Lamb’s is the most revealing and rewarding…a personal, perceptive and moving account of bravery in the face of staggering difficulties.’ Anthony Sattin, Sunday Times‘As an account of how Afghanistan got into its present state, and of the making of the grotesque regime of the Taliban, this book could not possibly be bettered. Brilliant.’ Matthew Leeming, Spectator‘Lamb’s book combines a love of Afghanistan with a fearless search for the human stories behind the past twenty-three years of war…Her book is not only a necessary education for the Western reader in the political warring that generated the torture, murder and poverty, but also a stirring lament for the country of ruins that was once better known for its poetry and mosques.’ James Hopkin, The Times

We discussed this in our book club in May 2005.

I have also read “The Africa House: The True Story of an English Gentleman and His African Dream”, just as interesting.

Landvik, Lorna "Welcome to The Great Mysterious"

Landvik, Lorna "Welcome to The Great Mysterious" - 2000

A successful stage actress has to look after her nephew who has has Down syndrome. During the course of the book, she comes to realize how special he is and changes her life.

I don't think the author had anything else in mind than writing a “nice little story” and that she did. It was quite superficial and I couldn't help but thinking that the end only turned out the way it did because she wanted to create a happy ending, not because the story led there.

I didn't care very much for this novel.

We discussed this in our book club in May 2004.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Fuller, Alexandra "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight"

Fuller, Alexandra "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" - 2002

Another book club read that I really didn't care for. A British family spends their life in Africa, Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in the middle of a civil war. They are not just poor but destitute, lose children there, they just go from one misery to another, an alcoholic mother, having to sleep with a gun, teaching their children not to come to their bed at night because they might be shot accidentally, and in addition to all the violence around lots of dangerous animals everywhere. I didn't understand why they didn't go back home. They might have been poor in England, too, but they would have been safe. I would have understood it better if they would have liked their life in Africa but they didn't, they hated everything about it.

Somewhere I read a review: “'Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight' is a courageous memoir about complicated times and an equally complicated family. You may not want to know them, may even despise them at times, but you never doubt that they're real.” I agree with that. If anybody wrote this as fiction, people would say “too much imagination”.

We discussed this in our book club in May 2003.

Ishiguro, Kazuo “When We Were Orphans”

Ishiguro, Kazuo “When We Were Orphans” - 2000

A famous British detective goes on a quest to find why his parents disappeared mysteriously in Shanghai when he was still young.

I read this book with my book club and didn't like it at all. I don't normally like crime stories but this was just a weird trial of writing one, too confused and confusing.  If it hadn't been a book club read, I wouldn't have finished and I vowed never to read an Ishiguro again. Some of my friends mentioned that this was not his best book, I should try “Remains of the Day” but as long as I have a huge TBR (To Be Read) Pile, I don't think I'll try this any time soon.

From the back cover: "England, 1930s. Christopher Banks has become the country's most celebrated detective, his cases the talk of London society. Yet one unsolved crime has always haunted him: the mysterious disappearance of his parents, in old Shanghai, when he was a small boy. Moving between London and Shanghai of the inter-war years, 'When We Were Orphans' is a remarkable story of memory, intrigue and the need to return."

Kazuo Ishiguro was shortlisted for the Booker Prize ” in 2000.

We discussed this in our book club in May 2002.