The Saturday morning Bookniks bis club discussed Jenny Erpenbeck’s contemporary novel about a retired university classics professor who encounters a group of African asylum-seekers camped in an East Berlin park. In his search to find meaning in his newly retired life, he questions his own sense of belonging in this city, which was once divided.
The protagonist, Richard, is an almost stereotypical Teutonic male with little emotional awareness and a well-regulated life. While some of us found it tedious to read about his habitual daily routines, those descriptions did convey the sense of how limited his life and views are. The tenuous normalcy of his life is contrasted with the raw emotions found in the present life of the refugees as he learns more about them. In this way, the author examines issues of race, privilege and nationality, while telling a story that she researched by interviewing real-life refugees.
Richard doesn’t notice the refugees when he passes them to visit the Alexanderplatz archeological site. He first becomes aware of them while watching the TV news as he meticulously eats his dinner. As he becomes more involved in their stories and lives, Richard questions the basis of society and humanity. He studies a map to find the refugees’ home countries. He learns about the tribes and begins to understand that as humanity evolved, it has always been on the move. His long-standing social circle provides a range of reactions to his newly formed association with the refugees.
Most of us thought the writing style was well done. The dialogue and interior monologues provided the narrative. Some lovely lyrical sections brought us back and forth between ancient texts and modern circumstances. It was easy to read. The story is simple and true. It is pertinent to current issues that concern us all. We all liked it.
Janine Brimbal

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In Geraldine Brooks’ 2015 novel, we are catapulted back to the Old Testament and King David. Brooks brings David to life in a vivid way through the eyes of the prophet Nathan who, in Chronicles, is said to have recorded his history.
In interviews, Brooks explains that what excites her is the “intriguing void where the imagination has to go to work”. She likes to “take the line of fact as far as it leads”, but then she relies on the narrator to inform her. How he speaks and thinks tells her how he will act. She likes to put herself in a space where she doesn’t know what is coming. With Nathan, we enter the second Iron Age, eyewitness bloody battles, eat and drink and experience life at David’s court, and even hear him sing and compose on his harp in dramatic circumstances.
Through the use of biblical vocabulary and descriptions of daily living, we have the sensation of actually being there. Brooks says: “I was after creating a sense of distance – a …maybe you don’t know this story as well as you think you do… moment of dissonance. I did not want people to come to it with Sunday school images of Joab, Saul and Samuel – the bearded old guys in kitschy costumes – or given our recent penchant for appropriating Biblical names for our kids to have these characters sound like someone you might meet on the swing set in a Brooklyn park.” In this spirit she uses the Hebrew names: Schlomo, Schaul, Yoav and many place names such as Best-lehem, Mitzrayim, or wadi.
Geraldine Brooks draws on her experience as a journalist in the Middle East for her portraits of the women in David’s life. She gives a voice to his mother Nitzevet, his wives, and his daughter. In general, her books are attentive to the narrative of women whom history ignores.
I was completely taken by the book, but others were less so, and here is where the AAWE Bookniks are such a terrific group. The discussion was lively, informative, and stimulating. Members defended their point of view with examples, brought to light qualities and flaws, and a good time was had by all.
Julia Fainsilber

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Hillbilly Elegy, an autobiography written by first-time author, 31-year-old J.D. Vance, sparked an animated discussion on February 13, among those who liked the book and a few who did not. We started off by defining “hillbilly”. They are people from the Appalachian region of the US which encompasses West Virginia and parts of 12 other states. They have a distinct character and culture, in which loyalty to the family and patriotism are high priorities.  
The book begins in the 1950’s when Vance’s grandparents, who are “in love and dirt poor”, move from their “holler” in the hills of Jackson, Kentucky, to Middleton, Ohio, to escape poverty and find hope and job opportunities in the steel industry. J.D. grows up in a chaotic family: no father, and a mother who struggles with abuse, poverty, and alcoholism. Yet, J.D. survives and thrives thanks to his grandparents, “Mamaw” and “Papaw”, who are fierce, hard-driving battlers with a proud belief in individual honor and family solidarity. Many of us liked the devoted and loving “Mamaw”, even if she was “cussing” and harsh.  
We all agreed that it was service in the Marines that gave J.D. the discipline and structured life he needed to climb the ladder of success. He graduated from Ohio State University and Yale Law School. He worked as a lawyer in Cincinnati before joining Mithril, the venture capital firm of billionaire Peter Thiel (who co-founded PayPal) in San Francisco and marrying his college sweetheart.
Today, J.D. Vance has returned to Columbus, Ohio, in order to give back. He started Our Renewal Ohio, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing employment to the region, promoting quality education, and addressing the state’s opioid crisis. He underlines that government policies are far from perfect, and that it is only by understanding and working within the complex society itself that changes can be made. His book is his way of saying “thank you” for the opportunities he has had to make something of himself. Here’s hoping that J.D.’s story will inspire others to succeed as he has, and to achieve upward social mobility and the American Dream.
Chilla Heuser-Rousselle

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“Wow! What a book!” Swing Time elicited strong feelings, either for or against, but the Bookniks were generally enthusiastic about the fifth novel written by UK novelist Zadie Smith, and the second to be read by the Bookniks, having read On Beauty a few years ago.
Hilary Kaiser presented this highly educated, erudite, and much-prized author, whose portrayal of the narrator/protagonist may be considered semi-autobiographical. Written in the first person, this is the story of growing up mixed-race in 1980’s NW London. Two brown girls, residents of neighboring “housing estates”, meet at dance class and develop an affinity, which remains throughout their adolescence and adulthood. Similar to the two heroines of the Elena Ferrante quartet, Lila and Elena, their lives intertwine over the years. The talented but troubled Tracey becomes a dancer and single mother living in a neighboring block of flats, and the clever, but self-doubting narrator goes on to higher education and travels extensively as the personal assistant to a “celebrity volunteer” in the Madonna mold.
Hilary described the unusual structure of the novel with a prologue and an epilogue, around which the sections wind in space and time. This was difficult for some of the Bookniks, who actually reorganized the sections in reading them, to better follow the story line, as it weaves across London, West Africa, and New York.
Barbara Lévi outlined the main themes of race, gender and class, coming of age and “betterment”, relationships, and finally, acceptance, all woven throughout the various places and time periods. A lively discussion ensued in which various Bookniks cited the richness of the text in describing mundane events, referred to by one Booknik as “hysterical realism”, similar to what one finds in Foer or Bulgakov.
The ending, which left many of the Bookniks hanging on edge, literally (“the narrator is no longer on the page” as one Booknik termed it), provided for much discussion and speculation as to her eventual life course. “Does it really matter?” questioned one Booknik. “After all, it’s just a book.” A book, of course, yet one that allows the reader to “swing through” the multi-faceted life of our narrator, and perhaps Zadie Smith herself.
Barbara Lévi

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Led by special guest Philippe Auzas (husband of Kathy Auzas), the Bookniks met on December 11 to discuss The Ogre, the English translation of Le Roi des Aulnes, by the French author, Michel Tournier. The book won the Prix Goncourt in 1970.
Philippe began by stating that the book can only be understood if one reads the last ten lines! He had read several of Tournier’s books, notably his autobiography, Le Vent Paraclet, which explains the main themes found in The Ogre, and serves as its inspiration. Tournier’s parents were germanophiles, and he attended a German university, which may explain his fascination with the country, its culture, and folklore. The fact that Tournier is an avid horseman comes across in the roles of the “horse” and “rider” in the story, as well as the hunting passages.
The underlying themes outlined by Philippe were: (1) “Phoria” or the concept of man carrying a child, as St. Christopher carrying Christ, and its derivatives of “malign inversion” and “paraphoria”; (2) Eastern Prussia and references to the Teutonic order; (3) The Erl-King (Le Roi des Aulnes) – a poem by Goethe in which a father saves his son from the ogre; (4) Gémellité, the protagonist Abel Tiffauges developed an interest in twins in childhood, which carried on through his soldiering; (5) Earth and the symbolic importance of mud and excrement; (6) The Ogre (from the Latin Orcus) referencing the fairy tales of Perrault; and (7) The tall strong image of St. Christopher, personified by the figure of Tiffauges.
Tournier’s style juxtaposes realism and fantasy, which reaches its height in the final part of the book. The character of Tiffauges as the French prisoner develops into a sort of Teutonic knight engaged with the Napala, or German youth recruited to defend the Nazi cause in WWII. As the Russian army advances on the war front, the final symbol of Tiffauges carrying the child refugee Ephraim, and finally succumbing to the inevitable by sinking into the earth, is eclipsed by the symbol of the Jewish star rising in the sky.
The Bookniks were left to contemplate the meaning of all this.
Barbara Lévi

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