Thursday, May 17, 2018

Readalikes: If you enjoyed May's selection . . .

If you enjoyed Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova, then you might also like these books and films suggested by our discussion group members:


  • Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West
  • Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History by Robert D. Kaplan
  • Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson
  • The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon
  • House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid
  • The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History by Thomas Harding


  • The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric
  • Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning and the film with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson
  • The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Fiction by Janette Turner Hospital
Nonfiction and fiction by V. S. Naipaul

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

May Not Fiction Book Discussions

With Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova  we take a journey to the liminal land between Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Kassabova and her family emigrated from Bulgaria in 1973 after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. She  returned in 2013, making three trips altogether, and Border is the tale of travels.

The narrative alternates between brief chapters of definition, folktale, myth, and history, almost like border markers, and longer chapters telling the stories of the people she meets and the places she visits. Kassabova says,
. . . the initial emotional impulse behind my journey was simple: I wanted to see the forbidden places of my childhood, the once-militarised  border villages and towns, rivers and forests that had been out of bounds for two generations. I went with my revolt, that we had been chained like unloved dogs for so long behind the Iron Curtain. And with my curiosity, to meet the people of a terra incognita. . . . As I set out, I shared the collective ignorance about the regions not only with other fellow Europeans further away, but also with the urban elites of the three countries of this border.
What she discovers is a land of blurred boundaries between East and West, North and South; between ethnos, religion, and culture; between myth and history; and between loyalty to a political entity and the shared experience of living in world riven for centuries by deep political unease--most recently, the exodus of refugees from Syria and Iraq. What she discovers is that "There are beautiful places on earth where no one is spared." And yet, when asked by Jeffery Gleaves of  The Paris Review, "What was the most surprising thing you learned about the people of these borders?" Kassabova replied, "They seem to define themselves by what they love rather than by any political identity, or by any labels."

What do you think? Have you ever made a pilgrimage to a place from your childhood that you hadn't visited in a long time? Why did you go? What were your thoughts and feelings? What did you find? What do you think Kassabova was looking for on her travels through the borderland between Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey? Did she find it? Which of the people and places, myths and histories that Kassabova describes was most interesting to you? What is the role of myth and folktale in the communities Kassabova visits? What do you understand about the current migration crisis in this area after reading Border? What purpose do her short chapters of definition and explication serve in the narrative? Are they successfully integrated into the longer narrative of conversations with people living in the borderland today? What does a border represent? What do you think accounts for the humor and perseverance with which the people of the borderland live their lives?

We hope you'll join the discussion: Tuesday, May 1, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, May 17, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Readalikes: If you enjoyed April's selection . . .

If you enjoyed Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich, then you might also enjoy these books and films suggested by our discussion group members:

  • Dead Souls and others by Nikolai Gogol
  • Notes from Underground and others by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • War and Peace and other by Leo Tolstoy
  • Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
  • The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
  • The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History by Thomas Harding
  • Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union by Conor O'Clery
  • Red Notice: A Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice by Bill Browder
  • The Death of Stalin, a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin--and the movie it inspired with Michael Palin, Steve Buscemi, and Jason Isaacs.
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles--Soon to be a television series starring Kenneth Branagh!

Monday, April 2, 2018

April Not Fiction Book Discussions

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich offers readers an intimate look through the genre of oral history at the collapse of Soviet-era communism and the rise of Vladimir Putin and state-run capitalism.

In her Nobel lecture in 2015, Alexievich said,
I do not stand alone at this podium . . . There are voices around me, hundreds of voices. They have always been with me, since childhood. . . . Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think--how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven't been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don't appreciate it, we aren't surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk . . . I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion. 
Secondhand Time is an orchestrated chorus of voices from 1991-2001, from the dissolution of the Soviet Union to Vladimir Putin's election to President of the Russian Federation, and from 2002-2012, the years of Putin's consolidation of power. They range from young to old, staunch supporters of Soviet socialism to advocates of capitalism, majority ethnic Russians to the multitude of minority ethnic groups comprising the many states of the Russian Federation. Writing for The New York Times, Dwight Garner noted, "You can open this document anywhere; it's a kind of enormous radio."

Alexievich's intention is that the larger contours of history and the essence or truth of this history will emerge from this chorus of voices. In her Nobel lecture she explained,
It always troubled me that the truth doesn't fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There's a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world . . . So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I'm interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history. . . . I'm interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way.
Echoing the title of her book, she ends her lecture by asserting,
I will take the liberty of saying that we missed the chance we had in the 1990s. The question was posed: what kind of country should we have? A strong country, or a worthy one where people can live decently? We chose the former--a strong country. . . . A time full of hope has been replaced by a time of fear. The era has turned around and headed back in time. The time we live in now is second-hand . . . 
What do you think? Which of the many voices Alexievich records were most interesting to you? Do the voices blend into a meaningful chorus? Do you have a new understanding or appreciation of the history of the U.S.S.R. and the Russian Federation after reading Secondhand Time? What "big history" emerges from these voices? How would you describe the Russian soul as presented by Alexievich's interviews? What do you think Alexievich means by "secondhand time"? In a critical review for The New Republic, Sophie Pinkham argues that "Alexievich's apparent reliance on other people's voices doesn't mean that she has removed herself from her books; she has only made herself less visible. She edits, reworks, and rearranges her interview texts . . . In doing so, she reduces the historical value of her work, effaces the texture of individual character, and eliminates the rhythm on which drama depends." Would you agree or disagree? Why?

Read Alexievich's Nobel lecture here.

We hope you will join the discussion: Tuesday, April 3, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, April 19, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Readalikes: If you enjoyed March's selection . . .

If you enjoyed War and Turpentine: A Novel by Stefan Hertmans, then you might also like these books, films, and television shows suggested by our discussion group members:

Books and films about war
  • The Red Badge of Courage by Stephan Crane (also a film 1951)
  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (also a film 1930)
  • Gallipoli by Alan Moorehead (also a film 1981)
  • Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb (also a film 1957))
  • Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain  (also a film 2014)
  • A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations by Juliet Nicholson
  • Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
  • The Good Soldiers and Thank You for Your Service (also a film 2017) by David Finkel
Fictionalized autobiography
  • Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls
Autobiography/Memoir in two voices
  • The Color of Water by James McBride
Other films and television shows
  • Joyeux Noelle (2005) directed by Christian Carion
  • Downton Abbey (2010-2015)

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

March Not Fiction Book Discussions

War and Turpentine: A Novel by Stefan Hertmans  explores how well we can really know another person, especially an older relative with whom we are very familiar.

Stefan Hertmans inherited two journals written by his grandfather, Urbain Martien, that provided a glimpse into the three great influences on his life: love, war, and painting. In these journals, Urbain wrote about his deep affection for his father, Franciscus, a sensitive and fragile church muralist, and his mother, Celine, a proud, beautiful woman. He wrote about his father's art and craft and his memories of the many long, quiet days he spent assisting him. He wrote about the horrors of hard labor in an iron foundry and of trench warfare in Flanders during World War I. And he wrote about meeting the great romantic love of his life, Maria Emelia, only to lose her to the influenza epidemic of 1918 and make a marriage of convenience to her sister Gabrielle. After thirty years of contemplating how best to understand and write about his grandfather, Hertmans decided to write this story as fiction--a detective story of sorts--and as a contemplation of the relationships between generations of a family, with someone very much like himself as the narrator framing the grandfather's story with memories and reflections of his own. He says, "This task confronted me with the painful truth behind any literary work: I first had to recover from the authentic story, to let it go, before I could rediscover it my own way." What he learns shakes him to his core, confronting him with the transience of life and its many personal dramas as well as the mystery of personality and character: "Clues like these turn out to have been present throughout my childhood, invisible to me, and only by drawing links between my memories and what I read could I begin work on a modest form of restitution, inadequate reparations for my unforgivable innocence in those days."

What do you think? Why does the narrator say that at first he "didn't even dare to open the first page [of his grandfather's journals], in the knowledge that this story would be a farewell to a piece of my childhood"? Do you remember when you first realized that your parents and grandparents had complex lives of their own? As you have grown older, have you discovered or realized a truth about an older relative whom you thought you knew very well? What were your thoughts and feelings upon making this discovery? Upon seeing a naked woman for the first time, the young Urbain "cannot believe [she] is real, a figure that opens the door to a whole new world inside him, a door he had taken great pains to keep shut, out of Christian piety and the repression it entails." When the narrator goes to visit the spot, now an urban wasteland, many years later, he thinks, "Never before have I been so deeply struck by the transience of human life." Why is this a pivotal moment in the novel? The narrator asks himself many questions about his grandfather's idealized attraction to Maria Emelia and his long marriage to Gabrielle (p. 236). What do you make of these relationships? What does the novel seem to say about love? Scholars of modernism have noted the effect of the mechanized violence of World War I on the ethics and worldview of people living at the beginning of the twentieth century. How does the novel portray this effect, and what does it seem to say about war? What do you think of the way Hertmans has divided his novel into three sections, the first and third in the narrator's voice and the second in Urbain's voice? Why do you think he chose to write the book this way, as a novel, rather than as a biography or memoir or transcription of his grandfather's journals? What is the effect on you as a reader? What do the many illustrations and photographs add to the story, and why do you think Hertmans does not include photographs in the middle section? There are many descriptions of painting in the novel, from the great-grandfather's technique of painting a mural in wet plaster, to the grandfather's very controlled and precise painting style and the effect of his partial color-blindness on the colors in his paintings, to the fact that the grandfather often included original portraits within the context of reproductions of great masterpieces. How are painting and writing similar? What does the novel seem to say about art? Why do you think Hertmans wrote War and Turpentine? What was his purpose for his readers? For himself?

We hope you will join the discussion: Tuesday, March 6, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, March 15, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Readalikes: If you enjoyed February's selection . . .

If you enjoyed The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams, then you might also like these other books, articles, and television series recommended by our discussion group members:

  • Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life by Edward O. Wilson
  • "The Wildest Idea on Earth" by Tony Hiss, Smithsonian, September 2014, an interview with Wilson and an overview of his plan. 
  • This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
  • The Monkey Wrench Gang and other works by Edward Abbey
  • The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson
  • A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
  • The Yosemite and other works by John Muir
  • The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring by Richard Preston
  • Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors
  • The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings and other works by Wendell Berry
  • A Good Day to Die and other works by Jim Harrison
  • An Outside Chance and other works by Thomas McGuane
  • The National Parks: America's Best Idea PBS television series directed by Ken Burns