The PHC Book Club

The Book Club members read and discuss a variety of books
about Polish heritage and/or written by Polish authors.
Here is the list of books we have explored over the years.



THIRD MEETING: 7pm on August 3, 2021

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Professor Wacław Szybalski on Lwów, Genes, the Essence of Life, and Nobel Laureates

2021 Szybalski

Jarosław Abramow-Newerly

Polish title:
Profesor Wacław Szybalski o Lwowie,
genach, istocie życia i noblistach

Many people have contributed to the publication of this book: its protagonist, Professor Wacław Szybalski, who has amazed us with his splendid memory and his concern for detail, both when describing people — members of his family and his many friends and colleagues in science — as well as places and events; Jarosław Abramow-Newerly and his wife Wanda, who conducted and recorded many interviews with members of the Professor's family and his friends; and Irena Frączek — the colleague and friend of Professor — who supplemented the recollections recorded by the book's author and supplied photographs and notes.

The idea of the book, which dates from 2010, and the proposal that Jarosław Abramow-Newerly write it, came from Dr. Jerzy Barankiewicz, founder and president of the Polish Arts Salon in San Diego. The Professor Wacław Szybalski Foundation undertook to publish the book, which describes the full life and enormous scientific achievements of one of the most outstanding Polish scientists. Professor Szybalski left Poland in 1949, but as a Pole and a citizen of Lwow he has always supported Polish science. For his services to science, he has received honorary doctorates from five Polish higher-educational institutions, and in 2011, the President of the Republic of Poland, Broniscław Komorowski, awarded him the Grand Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta.

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SECOND MEETING: 7pm on April 14, 2021

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by Maryla Szymiczkowa

Polish title: Tajemnica domu Helclów

Translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

From the Publisher's Weekly: " Set in 1893 Cracow, this exceptional debut and series launch from Polish author Szymiczkowa (the pen name of writing duo Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynski) introduces Zofia Turbotynska, a 38-year-old professor’s wife, who finds household management, novel reading, and the search for social prestige insufficient outlets for her prodigious energy. At a nursing home run by nuns that she visits to promote a charitable cause, she becomes involved in the search for a missing resident, Antonina Mohr, a judge’s widow."

From GoodReads: "Drawing on Agatha Christie and filled with period character and charm, Mrs Mohr Goes Missing vividly recreates life in turn-of-the-century Poland, confronting a range of issues from class prejudice to women's rights, and proving that everyone is capable of finding their passion in life, however unlikely it may seem."

From Historical Society: "The tone of the book reminds me very much of the society fiction of E.F. Benson, with its wry and camp humour – Zofia is very like one of his social climbing hostesses and is a crashing snob. The topography and milieu of late 19th-century Cracow are depicted, as is Poland’s overall subordinate position within the ruling Viennese-based Hapsburgs. Towards the latter half of the story, the narrative is occasionally rather difficult to follow as all sorts of new threads and directions in the story open up, but Zofia does successfully bring them all together at the end in a traditional golden-age detection conclusion and unveiling of the culprit."

From the Crime Review:"The appearance of several real historical figures, whether in passing comments or in the background of events that occupy Zofia, adds to the authentic feel of what of course is the fictional atmosphere of Kraków at the time. I especially enjoyed the strong characterisation of the peculiar universe inhabited by diverse society. .... The intricacies of the Polish language and the flowery flowing narration, beautifully translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, will appeal to anyone who enjoys an ingenious mystery featuring a larger than ordinary restricted life heroine, and an evocative feel of a turn-of-the-century country which did not exist on the political map of Europe, yet managed to thrive through various artistic and cultural areas"

Check also this pdf file for lots of additional information

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FIRST MEETING: 7pm on January 26, 2021

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2021 Warsaw  Conspiracy


by James Conroyd Martin

The author will attend the meeting

From GoodReads: " Engaging and opulent, THE WARSAW CONSPIRACY unfolds as a family saga set against the November Rising (1830-1831), partitioned Poland’s daring challenge to the Russian Empire."

From the Amazon website: "Brilliantly illustrating the psyche of a people determined to reclaim independence from Russia in the face of monumental odds, The Warsaw Conspiracy features two brothers and their fates in love and war. Michał is a seasoned veteran soldier, cautious of the evolving conspiracy; Józef, his much younger brother and impassioned cadet, finds himself caught up in the vortex of a daring plot to abduct the Grand Duke of Russia. With Siberia or emigration to France looming as heart-rending contingencies, matriarchs Anna and Zofia stay steadfast in their resolve to steer the clan through ever-muddying waters.."

From the Am-Pol Eagle: "....The novel also seamlessly blends the real lives of Chopin, Prince Adam Czartoryski (president of the Polish National Government during the November 1831 uprising against imperial Russia), and Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich of Russia, among other notables...."

From the Cosmopolitan Review:"Poles and lovers of Central European history will recognize in this trilogy about the Stelnicki family the familiar story of Poland’s struggles against oppressive regimes, specifically the 1794 partition of Poland by Prussia, Austria and Russia (Push Not the River), the 1813 Napoleonic wars (with their implicit promise of freedom for Poland) (Beneath a Crimson Sky), and this volume, The Warsaw Conspiracy about the November Uprising of 1830 (the “cadets’ revolution”). Readers in Northern California might be interested to know that quite a number of Polish veterans of the 1830 Uprising found their way to San Francisco, among them Aleksander Zakrzewski (who drew the first plan of San Francisco), Rudolf Korwin Piotrowski (the prototype for Sienkiewicz’s Zagłoba), Feliks Paweł Wierzbicki (physician and publisher of the first book in English in California), Aleksander Bednawski (friend of Piotrowski), Jan Teofil Strencel (whose daughter married naturalist and preservationist, John Muir), engineer and surveyor Józef Truskolawski, and Kazimierz Bielawski (founder of the Polish Society of California)."

From the Bookshop website: "James Conroyd Martin is in every way a modern day Henryk Sienkiewicz, weaving history and stories together in an accessible and thrilling manner." Dr. Donald Pienkos, Political Science Professor Emeritas, UW Milwaukee."

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FIFTH MEETING: 7pm on November 10, 2020

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2020 Crimson

by James Conroyd Martin

From the Amazon website: "A magnificent epic... an unforgettable tale of love, valor, and the enduring strength of the human spirit, set against the backdrop of war-torn Poland at the cusp of the nineteenth century... The year is 1794, and the beautiful and resilient Countess Anna Maria Berezowska has narrowly escaped death amidst the chaos caused by the violent dissolution of Poland."

From the Publishers Weekly website: "....entertaining sequel that follows Anna through the chaotic years of the Napoleonic wars. These are trying times for her beloved Poland ("Europe's plaything")..."

From the author's website: "With Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated campaign to conquer Russia as a backdrop, Against a Crimson Sky manages to turn the wily emperor’s exploitation of Polish patriotism into a classic read that lovers of Push Not the River will devour. James Conroyd Martin brings back the characters that made his first novel so compelling, deftly weaving their daily lives into the panorama of war and turmoil that consumed Poland in the early nineteenth century. What’s remarkable about Martin’s work is its authenticity, rooted in the actual diary of a Polish noblewoman. Martin creates a romantic canvas of epic proportions, bringing vividly to life seldom-invoked events in European history. He portrays a world of hardship and heart in marvelously rendered ‘little pieces of happiness stolen from a tapestry of turmoil, war, and separation.’” ~Leonard Kniffel, Editor-in-chief of American Libraries and author of A Polish Son in the Motherland: An American’s Journey Home "

From the Bookshop website: James Conroyd Martin is in every way a modern day Henryk Sienkiewicz, weaving history and stories together in an accessible and thrilling manner." Dr. Donald Pienkos, Political Science Professor Emeritas, UW Milwaukee."



FOURTH MEETING: 6:30pm on September 29, 2020

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2020 Bones

by Olga Tokarczuk

Polish title: Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych

Translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

From the Amazon website: "In a remote Polish village, Janina devotes the dark winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake, and taking care of the summer homes of wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans"

From the NPR review: "The friction generated between Janina and the hunters powers the entire narrative. When one hunter reassures an irate Janina that he and his friends are "simply" shooting pheasants, she feels "a surge of Anger, genuine, not to say Divine Anger ... For Janina, the killing of innocent creatures is murder, and even if you don't quite share the depths of her anger, you are likely to understand it. How could one not sympathize with a woman so thoroughly thwarted in protecting animal life?"

From the Amazon website: " A deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate. Whom do we deem sane? it asks. Who is worthy of a voice?"

2020 Bones map
The story takes place in Kłodzko Land (Ziemia Kłodzka), a south-jutting part of the Lower Silesia (Dolny Śląsk). Janina resides in a village located between Kłodzko and Lewin Kłodzki. In this beatiful area, the Table Mountains (Góry Stołowe) rise statuesquely above the Kłodzko Valley (Kotlina Kłodzka). Not far away, Tokarczuk lives in Krajanów (Krajanów), a village at the foothills of the Owl Mountains (Góry Sowie).

Below: The view of Table Mountains via Wikimedia Commons.

From the NPR review: " And there is a polemic — or at least a lament — hidden in the subtext: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a sort of ode to Blake (whose verse opens each chapter, and whose verse Janina translates — in one hysterical sequence, three different ways: "a complicated form of Scrabble"). Blake: the philosopher and poet so preoccupied the respecting the innocence of the natural world. And in tying Janina with Blake so closely, Tokarczuk manages to link Blake's sharp indictment of human encroachment into nature with Janina's horror at the hunting and killing of animals, and the creep of human corruption into the Polish wilderness"

From the LA Times book review: "Janina’s impassioned and polemical turning of the tables on industrialized farming — “concentration camps,” she calls them — feels overdone, and one wonders at her neglect of the vegan issue (i.e., the imprisonment of female animals to capture their secretions). Then again, this Polish novel cannot be blamed for falling a little flat in the Anglophone context, where the discourse around vegetarianism has shifted away from animal welfare toward concerns about the long-term survival of the planet."

2020 Bones

About SPOOR (pl. Pokot), a film based on Tokarczuk's book
(dir. Agnieszka Holland, 2017)

"Full of spectacular nature shots of deer and boar scampering through snowy virgin forests, the film could find art house audiences on the sheer beauty of its production. Animal rights groups might well embrace it as a landmark.... Well aimed, but ultimately off-target. " - The Hollywood Reporter

"Beautifully photographed and aurally matched by a magnificent score, Spoor is let down by its far-fetched premise of a woman who values animal welfare over the humanity of ‘evil’ men" - desistfilm

"The hunt is quite often the place where important political decisions are made. It’s like a boys’ club.....They can execute their power in a very direct way, by killing living creatures" - The Guardian

"... as far as mood, tone, and ambience, Spoor takes a progressive, liberal stance on animal rights and makes both sides so bleakly extremist it either provides its more gullible, non-questioning audience members with a clearly constructed diagram of who and what to cheer for, while others may be left merely with a cynical, bitter aftertaste from a narrative too quirky to take serious and too belabored to instill tension" - ioncinema

Visit Rotten Tomatoes for links to more reviews



THIRD MEETING: 7pm on July 21, 2020

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2020 Dewajtis

Polish title: Dewajtis

by Maria Rodziewiczówna
translation by S. C. De Soissons

From website: "Dewajtis is an escape from everyday life, troubles and fears, into the world of fairy tales and dreams, into a world that's distant but still heart moving. Dewajtis is a novel about great love - for people, land, nature. It is filled with forests, meadows, marshes, herbs, honey, smells, songs... And the eternal oak Dewajtis, a witness to Polish identity, symbol of the nation's vitality, an observer of human fate and profound, good feelings.”

Czesław Miłosz in "Search of a Homeland": "In none of the novelists I find so many realities regarding the eastern lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the second half of the 19th century or at the beginning of the 20th century.”

For the epic On the Niemen (pl. Nad Niemnem), Eliza Orzeszkowa was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature along with Henryk Sienkiewicz and Leo Tolstoy in 1905. The idea of spliting the prize between the two Polish writers was ultimately rejected and Sienkiewicz emerged a winner.

From "We like to read" (pl. Lubimy czytać) website: "The best of Maria Rodziewiczówna's novels, an award winner in the 1888 Warsaw Courier book competition. Taking place in Žemaitija (pl: Żmudź), this provincial manor style story is similar in climate to the published almost concurrently epic On the Niemen (pl. Nad Niemnem) by Eliza Orzeszkowa. Likewise, the characters' lives revolve around one matter only: maintaining the land, heritage and national identity; and the only measure of person's value is their attitude toward work. The main character type emerging in the book recurs in other works by Rodziewiczówna. Like a romantic poet, he is lone, self-contained and misunderstood by the world. Like a positivist ideal, he is strong, hardworking and persistent. Like everyone, he longs for love and only against love he cannot defend himself."

The book is available for reading on Google Books and other websites




SECOND MEETING: 7pm on MAY 12, 2020

Robert Hass reads Czesław Miłosz
(the actual reading begins at 12:20)

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April is National Poetry Month in the United States (in Poland, poetry related events peak around the UNESCO-declared World Poetry Day on March 21st) and we join celebrations through sharing our favorite Polish poems and stories about Polish poets. 

Herbert's most iconic poem
"The Envoy of Mr Cogito"
(original in Polish)

There is perhaps little doubt that some of the best known faces of Polish poetry around the world include two poets awarded the Nobel Prize In Literature: Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) and Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012). But in opinion of many (including Robert Hass, the great American poet and translator of some works by Miłosz), Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) is "... one of the most influential European poets of the last half-century, and perhaps—even more than his contemporaries Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska." Needless to say, Herbert was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize since 1960. Two other Polish poets nominated for this award include Tadeusz Różewicz (1921-2014) and Adam Zagajewski (born 1945)."

Adam Zagajewski reads his poems (above)
and talks about the power of poetry (below)

"If asked to name any Polish female poets, many foreigners would only be able to mumble Wisława Szymborska's name." So begins a introduction of "Scattering the Dark: An Anthology of Polish Women Poets" (a good book to explore if still looking for a poem to present at the meeting). In similarity to over thirty poets featured in the anthology, Szymborska was not internationally known before receiving the Nobel Prize (1996). But her story has some startling twists and turns. After clinging to the communist ideology through the late 1950-ties, she started distancing herself and even disavowed her earlier books ... only to support the communists' return to power in 1995. Still and all her poetry was wildly popular in Poland. Brisk sales of new books kept matching those of the best-selling prose authors and her poems inspired jazz compositions (Wisława) and two movies.

Poles also love to hear their favorite poems sung and some examples are featured on the front page of this website. They are not exactly typical of sung poetry genre because these poetic gems were never meant for singing at the time of writing. Also, some of them are about 200 years old and this speaks volumes about their staying power. Here are some details:

  1. Reminiscence (Wspomnienie) by Julian Tuwim (1894-1953), one of Poland's best-known poets (also for the fabulous poetry for children). Great Polish composers (e.g. Szymanowski and Lutosławski) set music to his poems. Arthur Rubinstein was his uncle on the mother's side.
  2. Nothing Twice (Nic dwa razy się nie zdarza) by Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012). The song became a pop hit in 1965 (singer Łucja Prus) and then again in 1994 (rock singer Kora).
  3. Uncertainty (Niepewność), first published in 1827, this poem was written by Adam Mickiewicz (1799-1855), the national poet of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus. Singer: Marek Grechuta.
  4. I Will Open For You a Golden Sky (Niebo złote Ci otworzę), poem by Krzysztof Baczyński (1921-1944) killed in the Warsaw Uprising, one of the best known authors of the Generation of Columbuses. Singer: Ewa Demarczyk
  5. A Funeral Rhapsody in Memory of General Bem (Bema pamięci żałobny rapsod), set to the poem written in 1851 by Cyprian Norwid (1821-1883), this song achieved cult status behind the Iron Curtain. Singer and composer: Czesław Niemen.
  6. Love From the First Sight (Miłość od pierwszego wejrzenia) by Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012), the poem that inspired Krzysztof Kieślowski's film Three Colors: Red (Trzy kolory. Czerwony). Singer: Zbigniew Zamachowski.
  7. Grande Valse Brillante by Julian Tuwim (1894-1953). Part of the "Polish Flowers" poem making frequent connections to Frédéric Chopin. Singer: Anna Czartoryska (originally Ewa Demarczyk).
  8. Love (Miłość) by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska (1891-1945), the "queen of lyrical poetry" of the interwar period. Singer: Ewa Demarczyk.
  9. One Heart (Jednego Serca) by Adam Asnyk (1838-1897), a "master of verse" writing in the Positivist Era. Singer: Michał Szpak (originally CzesławNiemen).
  10. Oranges and Mandarins (Pomarańcze i mandarynki), another enchanting love poem by Julian Tuwim (1894-1953). Singer: Marek Grechuta
  11. Ecstasy (Upojenie) by Edward Stachura (1937-1979), the rebel of the post-war generation. Singers: Anna Maria Jopek & Michał Żebrowski.
  12. In the Raspberry Thicket (W malinowym chruśniaku) by Bolesław Leśmian (1877-1937), a poet dubbed "almost untranslatable" by Czesław Miłosz and for this reason, the greatest Polish poet that perhaps you would never read (that is unless you learn Polish). Singers: Krystyna Janda & Marek Grechuta.



FIRST MEETING: 7pm on January 28, 2020

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2020 Lala
by Jacek Dehnel
translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

From the Polish Cultural Institute website: "Lala (OneWorld, 2018) is a lyrical and moving Polish family saga set against the turbulent backdrop of twentieth-century Europe. Lala has lived a dazzling life. Born in Poland just after the First World War and brought up to be a perfect example of her class and generation - tolerant, selfless and brave - Lala is an independent woman who has survived some of the most turbulent events of her times. As she senses the first signs of dementia, she battles to keep her memories alive through her stories, telling her grandson tales of a life filled with love, faithlessness and extraordinary acts of courage. Sweeping from nineteenth-century Kiev to modern-day Poland, Lala (in a superb translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) is the enthralling celebration of a beautiful life."

From the Kirkus Review: "Though she was born in 1919, Lala’s stories begin with the childhoods of her grandparents, Polish aristocrats who inhabited a “mythical land…beyond an impenetrable wall, in the bizarre world that we agree to call the past.” The author himself is a character here, appearing first as a 14-year-old who, toward the end of the 20th century, delights in writing down and relating to friends his Granny’s tales of the way of life ended by World War I. Both Lala and her mother have complicated love lives involving multiple marriages and children not necessarily the offspring of their husbands at the time, but Granny also branches off into chronicles of the peasant brigands and thieving servants who made the family’s home turf in Lisów “the greatest bandit village on earth.” Jacek is fascinated by it all, but readers may be more restless. It’s difficult to keep track of everyone wandering in and out of Granny’s fragmented recollections, particularly during the grim World War II years, when surprisingly decent Germans, roving partisans, and then triumphant Soviets come and go in droves.”

Anna Baillie-Karas for GoodReads: "The writing is delightful - light, whimsical and poetic. He captures Lala beautifully: a charming woman - happy, strong-willed with a sense of mischief. ...  it’s like having tea with a poet & his iconic grandmother. She’s such a great character and I loved Dehnel’s respect and love for her, and efforts to keep her stories alive - poignant thoughts of the ephemeral nature of our lives.”

Lucy Popescu for RivetingReviews: "Astonishingly, Dehnel (born in 1980) started writing down his grandmother’s stories when he was 14 and had completed Lala by the time he was 24 (it was originally published in 2006). In the final section, Dehnel interrupts Lala’s recollections and takes over the narrative, because, tragically, she had started to suffer from memory loss. Suddenly the focus becomes less about memory and more about saying goodbye to a loved one. Dehnel is similarly fond of digression, ‘putting out shoots and proliferating into whole thickets of words and punchlines; unrestrained…’This rambling creativity appears to be a trait of contemporary Polish literature. Writing in the TLS, Dehnel observed: ‘Modern Polish fiction is often amorphous and untidy, replacing traditional order with linguistic inventiveness and the poetics of the dream.’ ”