Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Thursday, September 21 discussion moved to Earth Fare cafe

Due to Hurricane Irma, the West Ashley Branch Library will remain closed until further notice. The Not Fiction Book Discussion scheduled at that branch for Thursday, September 21, 2017, will be held at the Earth Fare cafe at the regular meeting time of 11:00 a.m. We will be discussing The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History by Thomas Harding.

We hope you will join the discussion!

Monday, September 4, 2017

September Not Fiction Book Discussions

The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History by Thomas Harding is the story of Harding's attempt to reclaim a family home in Germany lost during the Holocaust. Along with the house itself, Harding also recovers a century of history in the lives of five families who lived in the house through the First World War, the collapse of Imperial Germany, The Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, communism, the physical and political division of the Berlin Wall, and reunification.

Harding first visited his family's house by Gross Glienicke Lake in the suburbs of Berlin in 1993, four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He traveled there with his grandmother Elsie, who had loved the home built by her father, Alfred Alexander, Harding's great-grandfather, as "a soul place." The family lost the house when they fled Germany and Nazi persecution of Jewish people in the 1930s. Harding resolved to return to learn more about the house and its history, and in 2013 arrived to discover that the house was soon to be demolished. His efforts to preserve this modest house by the lake result in "the story of a building that was loved and lost by five families. A story of the everyday moments that make a house a home . . . It is also the story of Germany over a turbulent century. . . . Above all, it is a story of survival, one that has been pieced together from archival material and building plans, recently declassified documents, letters, diaries, photographs, and conversations with historians, architects, botanists, police chiefs and politicians, villagers, neighbours and, most importantly, its occupants." Ultimately, due to Harding's efforts, the house has been saved, and readers can follow its future at www.AlexanderHaus.org, the website for the nonprofit that will transform the property into a Centre for Education and Reconciliation.

What do you think? Do you live in an old house? Do you know about--or perhaps wonder about--its history? Does your family have a home, "a soul place," that is central to its history and identity? Harding uses a place, his family's house at Gross Glienicke Lake, to anchor a larger story about Germany over the last century of its history. What unique perspective on this complicated history does this focus on a single house provide? Of the many people who lived on the property and in the lake house, whose story was most interesting to you? Why? After returning to visit the house in 2013 and learning that the house is slated for demolition, Harding wonders not only if the house can be saved, but whether or not it should be saved. Is there value in preserving a modest structure like the Alexanders' house by the lake? How do you explain Harding's family's resistance to his desire to reclaim and restore the house? How do you think acknowledgement and reparation should be made to Jewish families who lost property and loved ones during the Holocaust? In his Epilogue, Harding says that "Whatever the outcome, The House by the Lake is a story of hope. It demonstrates that while we humans can experience terrible suffering, in time we are indeed able to exercise our capacity for healing. And if we manage that, a century of pain, joy, and dramatic change will have had a positive outcome. One thing is clear: a new chapter in the story has just begun. It will be fascinating to see what the next hundred years will bring." Are you as hopeful as Harding about the future?

We hope you will join the conversation: Tuesday, September 5, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, September 21, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

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

If you enjoyed A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations by Juliet Nicolson, then you might also enjoy these other books and television shows recommended by our discussion group members:

Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson by Nigel Nicolson
Portrait of a Marriage Masterpiece drama with Janet McTeer, David Haig, and Cathryn Harrison
Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
The Land, The Garden, and the Your Garden books by Vita Sackville-West
Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden by Virginia Nicolson and Quentin Bell
Them: A Memoir of Parents by Francine Du Plessix Gray
The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
Downtown Abbey Masterpiece television series
Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates PBS television series

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

August Not Fiction Book Discussions


A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations by Juliet Nicolson explores the nature of time and memory in the life of a family. It is a reflection on the experience of being a woman and a daughter. And it is an ode to place and the importance of a family home.

Juliet Nicolson presents what at first appears to be a straightforward chronological history of the women in her family, looking back to her great-great grandmother Pepita and forward to her own granddaughter Imogen. Nicolson, a descendant of an upper-class British family of writers and publishers that included Bloomsbury novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West, notes that "The habit of writing down the story of our lives has long been a tradition in our family. . . . Having reached a middle point in my life when I began to find it as tempting to look backwards as forwards, I, too, wanted to explore those generations that preceded me." What she discovers is that the collective stories in a family may reveal complicated patterns and truths that can offer past generations forgiveness and future generations hope as they learn from the mistakes of their predecessors and find the courage to change.

Nicolson discovers patterns of dependence imposed by history on the lives of women, but also patterns more personal and familial. She documents a history of secrets, jealousy, fear of intimacy, lack of self-worth, addiction, and infidelity and how these behaviors are learned and repeated within the family. She also explores the nature of privilege and is curious "to see how they would respond to the charge of privilege. . . . I wondered if wealth and class always amounted to privilege in a broader sense." Throughout the generations, the solace of home, in the form of two great British houses, Knole and Sissinghurst, remains constant. Nicolson acknowledges the impossible task of the writer of memoir and history, that "In part, this book is an attempt to overcome the fugitive nature of time and, in many cases, the transitory nature of love."

What do you think? Considering how much has already been written about Nicolson's family, why did she want to write her own memoir? What does it add to the history of this family, class, and culture? Which of the women, and especially their mother-daughter relationships, did you find most interesting? And what about the men in these women's lives? What role did they play? To what extent were the unfortunate patterns in these women's lives the result of their time and place in history, and to what extent were they the result of their own personalities and choices? How did their wealth and class affect their lives? What is it like to be a daughter? Is it unique and different from being a son? What do Knole and Sissinghurst represent to the women who loved these great houses? Have you done any genealogical research about your family? If you were going to write a history and memoir about your family, what would you choose for your focus and organization?

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

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

If you enjoyed The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar, then you might also enjoy these books about "exile and estrangement" recommended by Hisham Matar in an interview with John Williams for the New York Times:


  • The Day of Judgement by Salvatore Satta
  • Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
  • Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys


You might also like these books recommended by our discussion group members:


  • The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon
  • Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
  • Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  • Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig
  • Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View by Stanley Milgram
  • Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt
  • One Generation After by Eli Wiesel
  • House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid
  • The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz


Friday, July 7, 2017

July Not Fiction Book Discussions

In his memoir The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, Hisham Matar tells readers the intertwined stories of his father Jaballa Matar, a leading dissident in Libya under Muammar el-Qaddafi, and his fierce love of country and culture; his father's kidnapping and imprisonment in 1990 for his political activities; and his own return to Libya in 2012 after the fall of the Qaddafi regime to try to discover his father's fate. Jaballa was kidnapped when Hisham was only nineteen years old, and Hisham would never see his father again. The narrative takes readers simultaneously both back in time to Libya's past and Hisham's childhood memories of his father, and forward in time as he makes the journey to Libya, reunites with family, and pursues the answers to his questions about his father's fate.

His memoir attempts to answer the question, "What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?" It is both a narrative history of Libya and a personal statement of loss, love, grief, and the possibility of consolation. In an interview for the New York Times, John Williams asked Matar, "You spoke to former prisoners, including your own uncle, as part of your research. What was the most surprising thing you learned from them?" He replied, "I learnt something about the power of stories, and how through them we can travel through time and share, at least in our imaginations, former aspects of ourselves. Most of all, I learnt that we can endure great suffering and survive, mostly intact yet altered."

What do you think? Why did Hisham Matar write The Return as a memoir even though he had already written two semiautobiographical novels, In The Country of Men, from the point of view of a nine-year-old boy, and Anatomy of a Disappearance, from the point of view of a teenaged boy, about these same events? Describe his organizational structure in The Return, his use of time and place. What is the effect on you as a reader? And what about his tone, his attitude toward his subject and toward us as his readers? Matar alludes to many other writers who address the experience of exile and to classic literary examples of father and son relationships. What do these references add to Matar's story? In a review of The Return for The Washington Post, Tara Bahrampour notes, "In a book that does not shy away from painful details, the event it hinges on--his father's arrest--is strikingly absent." Why do you think that Matar made this narrative decision? Why did he delay his return to Libya after the fall of the Qaddafi regime, even contemplating the "immaculate idea" of never returning? Why does he ultimately decide to go?  In an article for the New Yorker June 6 and 13, 2016 Issue about childhood reading titled The Book, Matar tells of the book that most influenced him, one that he has never read and of which he does not even know the author or the title: 
I don’t remember what the passages read aloud were about, exactly. What I do remember is that they relayed the intimate thoughts of a man, one suffering from an unkind or shameful emotion, such as fear or jealousy or cowardice, feelings that are complicated to admit to, particularly for a man. But the honesty of the writing, its ability to capture such fluid and vague adjustments, was in itself brave and generous, the opposite of the emotion being described. I also remember being filled with wonder at the way words could be so precise and patient, illustrating, as they progressed, what even the boy I was then somehow knew: that there exists at once a tragic and marvellous distance between consciousness and reality. Given the books that had been read to me, this couldn’t have been the first time that I encountered such writing, but, for some reason, on this occasion I registered its full impact on me. What struck me, too, was the new silence that the passages left in their wake. They created, at least temporarily, among these political men, who seemed to me to function under the solid weight of certainty, a resonant moment of doubt.
Do you see any correspondences between Matar’s description of this influential book and its effect on him and his own writing choices in The ReturnCan his title, The Return, be read in several different ways? What did you learn about the Arab world, its history, culture, and current political situation, from reading The Return?

We hope you will join the discussion: Tuesday, July 11, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, July 20, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Reminder: Main Library July Not Fiction Book Discussion date

Just a friendly reminder that the July Main Library Not Fiction Book Discussion of The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar will be Tuesday, July 11, at 6:30 p.m.. All Charleston County Public Library branches will be closed for the July 4 holiday.