I joined the IWG book club because I like reading. I’d never had time to be part of one before. So as a newly arrived expat two years ago, it seemed like the perfect thing to join in with.
Since then, I’ve read a bunch of books I never would have read otherwise – or probably even heard of. Science fiction writers like Stanislaw Lem – I don’t generally like the genre and he didn’t convince me, although I thought the discussion of some of his stories in the light of contemporary world events was really interesting. Biographies like Radek Sikorski’s The Polish House – which I’ve since described as ‘everything you need to know about Poland’.
Pre-war works by authors like Bruno Schultz – whose words and ideas remain largely incomprehensible to me but who certainly lived a eventful life. Fellow Australian Michael Moran’s A Country in the Moon, which shed light and humour on the Polish expat experience of 20 years ago. Nobel prize winners like Izaac Singer who, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit, I’d never even heard of before, who in his collection of short stories, In My Father’s Court provides a window into an Orthodox Jewish Warsaw that, sadly, is no more.
Crime thriller Death in Breslau, one of Marek Krajewski’s series of nine, a fascinating portray of inter-war Breslau and my first ever ‘whodunnit’. Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, a historical novel that illustrates the lengths people will go to to survive – and to help others survive. And contemporary works like Dorota Maslowska’s Snow White, Russian Red, written when she was still a teenager, which no one really liked reading – yet (or perhaps because of which) generated the most interesting discussion of all to date.
I haven’t enjoyed them all. I confess, I haven’t even finished them all ! But I’ve learned so much about this country and city we live in from reading them. Izaac Singer’s words follow me when I walk around Zlote Tarasy – just south of where he lived the life he described in such exquisite detail. I see Maslowska’s models in the streetwise young people who shove past gnarled old men who fought for their freedom to get into a tram. I can’t visit Praga zoo without thinking of the people who hid there in the elephant cages.
And I can’t see Sikorski, the current Foreign Affairs Minister, on TV without smiling at his story of the holidays he took as a child, heading to Bulgaria in a Polski Fiat 125, with a load of smuggled crystal (classified on his customs form as ‘camping equipment’) and illicit photos of Pope John Paul II.
A lot of this has come not just from reading these books, but from sitting down and talking about them with a group of intelligent, interesting women from all around the world, who add perspectives from their own lives, the countries they come from, as well as the other countries they’ve lived in along the way. And who, thrown in for good measure, are also really nice people who welcomed me two years ago with open arms at a time when everything was very new and strange.
Poland through its Literature. A book club, yes. And so much more.