Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Meeting of November 25, 2013


We had a lovely time discussing Carla’s choice, Little Bee by Chris Cleave. In honour of the Nigerian theme, Beth treated us to African cassava and plantain chips, samosas, banana cake and coconut macaroons, along with Canadian cheeses and Mediterranean olives. The house was decorated with African photos, including one of a beach, so important to the story. Carla, Betty, Colette, Jane, Linda, Janet, Jolene, and Beth were in attendance.

Carla explained that Chris Cleave is 38 years old and works as a journalist in London, England. The character Charlie was loosely based on Cleave’s young son. Incendiary was Cleave’s award-winning first novel. Little Bee was published under the title The Other Hand in the UK. Cleave’s writing is based on real-life events that have impacted him personally, including the story of an Angolan refugee who hanged himself to save his son from deportation from England in 2001, and also Cleave’s student work in a detention camp. He explains that he tries to write about serious matters in an accessible way, incorporating humour when possible. He is not trying to treat dark subjects lightly, but hopes instead to expose darkness to the light.  

Almost all the ladies said that they would not have picked this book up originally had it not been a club choice, but in the end most appreciated it for its educational value. The “Greek chorus” of girls back home in Nigeria was one interesting aspect of the author’s writing style. On the other hand, the beach scenes were very disturbing, even causing nightmares. The book did provide insight into the plight of many refugees and caused us to think about how insulated we are in our democratic society, where environmental issues are discussed long before people and natural resources are severely impacted. We also commented on the contrasts: two worlds, two English dialects, two points of view.  Sarah and Lawrence were unpopular, though the moral choices of all of the characters made for interesting discussion. There was disagreement over the ending. Most felt that Little Bee would not survive, though the author (and Carla and Jolene) were more optimistic.

For homework, we decided to try an idea from the author himself. He suggests that we make up proverbs of our own, and come prepared to recite them gravely next book club. As Little Bee says, “I have noticed, in your country, I can say anything so long as I say that is the proverb in my country.”  (page 180)

January will also be our “Academy Awards” night, so get your votes to Michèle, using the list at the side of this blog. While you’re looking at the 2013 titles, be aware that the order of 2014 choices and houses is under review. One other assignment:  Beth suggests discussing the first line of every book club choice in the coming year. Good ones should generally not begin with a discussion of weather (the “dark and stormy night” idea).  

Merry Christmas, and happy reading.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Meeting of October 28th 2013

Michèle hosted this month's meeting. Beth, Betty, Carla, Colette, Jane, Janet, Jolene, Linda, Michèle and Shirley were present.  Since our book this month Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie presented by Jane had a Chinese theme, we were served appropriately themed food.  Michèle indicated that she had fun preparing Fire and Spice nuts,  Lemon Chicken, Asian style Cabbage rolls and Almond cookies with green tea ice cream.

This book generated a lot of comment and discussion.  Most of us enjoyed the book and found that it gave us a better understanding of China's Cultural Revolution and its impact on what could be considered China's elite in the late 1960s.  The two main characters in the story are two young men, Luo and the narrator in their late teens who are sent to the countryside to be "re-educated".  Both are from families of professional parents who had access to books by foreign authors such as Balzac, Stendhal, Dumas, Flaubert and many others.  All of these authors, any literature that was not Chinese was banned. The story revolves around the discovery that a young man in another village has a suitcase full of banned books and the two young men's desire to obtain the books.  They are hungry for the diversion that such literature can bring for them. They have met a tailor who has a beautiful young daughter, the little Chinese seamstress, and Luo who is infatuated by her, wants to "re-educate" her by reading to her from these books.

We all found that the author was very good at describing the surrounding countryside, giving us vivid description of the mountain scenery.  He was also very good a depicting the atmosphere when Luo and the narrator told stories to the chief and the villagers after viewing movies in a nearby town.  We discussed extensively, Luo's relationship with the seamstress, his desire to "re-educate" her and the parallel between what was happening to them and what Luo was doing to her.  We also found that there was a fair amount of humour in the book, the chief's rotten tooth incident, the buffalo they pick to sacrifice, the scene when Luo and the narrator are hidden under the beds as examples.

Beth gave us the title of a book Life and Death in Shanghai that is a memoir written by Nien Cheng about her experiences during and after the Cultural Revolution. Those who want to know more about the impact on the elite might want to read this book.

Jane, in introducing this book, gave us some information about authors such as Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert among others.  She also talked about Bernard Pivot's program on French television, Apostrophe.  Mr. Pivot's program was very popular in France and Québec and he interviewed Dai Sijie in 2001. Those who understand enough French might want to take a quick look at this video of the interview.  In the interview Dai Sijie admits that this novel is partly biographical.  The video is a little over 7 minutes.

Some of our members have seen the movie that was directed by Dai Sijie and said that it is very similar to the book with the exception of an ending that has the two young meet 20 years after their "re-education".  It is well worth watching.

Thank you Jane for a great read!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Meeting of September 23, 2013

Janet hosted this month's meeting.  Present were Beth, Colette, Janet, Jolene, Linda, Louise, Michèle and Shirley.  We were served a nice healthy dip with vegetables, a variety of cheese,  a wonderful pastry with cheese and caramelized onions and of course a chocolate dessert.  Wine and coffee and tea were also available.  We discussed Shirley's book choice, Deafening by Frances Itani.

Frances Itani is a Canadian author who presently lives in Ottawa. She trained as a nurse and then completed a Master's in English at the University of New Brunswick.  She met and became friends with W.O. Mitchell and Rudy Wiebe.  She has written 13 books, poetry, short stories, children's books and novels.

Deafening is the story of Grania a young girl at the turn of the century who becomes deaf after a bout of scarlett fever at age five.  The novel tells of Grania's struggles to understand and be understood in her family, her experiences when she is sent to the Ontario School for the Deaf in Belleville and her mariage and relationship with her soldier husband Jim who is a stretcher bearer in World War I.

Most of us enjoyed the book though some found the beginning slow. As many of us enjoy a novel that allows us to learn something new, this book, gave us an insight into the world of the deaf, the controversy within that world between sign language, lip reading and teaching the deaf to speak. We also learned, through Jim's correspondance while on the battle fields of WWI, about the horrible experiences in the trenches and the difficulty of re-integration for former soldiers after the war.

Most found that Ms. Itani writes well and we found the book very narrative, almost like two stories within the book.  Some found that the story lacked drama.  For some of us who enjoy descriptions of everyday life, the imaginative childhood life of Grania and her sister Tress were well described and the bond between the sisters is very evident.  Mamo, Grania's grandmother was a favourite character and we learn to love her pragmatic outlook on Grania's future and what was needed to ensure she had the most  normal life possible.

Thank you Shirley for an enjoyable read.

Over the summer, Linda gave us some homework to do for this meeting.  After learning about the BBC radio program Desert Island Disc , she challenged us to come back with three favourite pieces of music and what one luxury we would bring to a desert island.  We spent quite an interesting half hour discussing our favourite music and what luxuries we would treasure.

Books and Meetings in 2014

The list will be updated as members choose their books.

Monday January 27, 2014 - Janet's book choice, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Betty hosting

Monday February 24, 2014 - Michèle book choice, discussing the author Alice MunroJane hosting

Monday March 24, 2014 -  Jolene's book choice Longbourn by Jo Baker, Jolene hosting

Monday April 28, 2014 -  Beth's book choice The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, Janet hosting

Monday May 26, 2014 -  Betty's book choice Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth, Shirley hosting

Monday June 23, 2014 -  Linda's book choice, A Man Called Intrepid by William Stevenson, Linda hosting

Monday September 22, 2014 - Colette's book choice, The Orenda by Joseph Boyden Jolene hosting

Monday October 27, 2014 -  Jane's book choice, Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese, Colette hosting

Monday November 24, 2014 - Louise's book choice, Annabel by Kathleen Winter, Beth hosting

Friday, June 28, 2013

Meeting of June 24, 2013

Linda hosted this month's meeting at Shirley's home. Present were Beth, Colette, Jane, Janet, Jolene, Linda, Michèle and Shirley. We were served excellent cheese, a vegetable dip with a wide variety of veggies and a ring of nice pink shrimp with sauce, along with of course wine.  Linda served us a wonderful gluten free carrot cake and fruit with a chocolate sauce, wonderful for those of us with a sweet tooth.  We discussed Beth's choice, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry a first novel by Rachel  Joyce.

Ms. Joyce developed a career writing radio plays and working as a stage actress.  This first novel won the "Writer of the Year" of the National Book Awards 2012.   She developed this novel from a radio play To Be a Pilgrim that won the 2007 Tinniswood Award.  Her second novel Perfect, will be available July 4, 2013.

A pilgrimage has it origins in religion and in spirituality.  There are many reasons why someone will head out on a pilgrimage. It can be connected to a person's faith, some will walk a pilgrimage to seek forgiveness for wrongs done, to reconnect with their inner self, to begin a new stage of their life.  Harold's was an "unlikely" pilgrimage since he started out just to mail a letter and just continued.

There have been many books written about pilgrimages and pilgrims, The Pilgrim's Progress from this World to That Which is to Come was written by John Bunyan and published in 1678.  The Canterbury Tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 14th century is a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims. The most famous pilgrimage is the Camino de Santiago in Spain and has resulted in many books, the most famous, from the Brazilian writer Paul Coelho The Pilgrimage and The Alchemist.  

Everyone enjoyed the book very much and found it a quick and easy read. It had elements of mystery, a love story and is in a travelogue format. The map at the beginning of the book allows you to follow Harold's journey. The character development is excellent.  All three of the main characters, Harold, Maureen and Queenie are easily imagined and their actions and thoughts give us a good notion of who they are as persons. The relationship between Harold and Maureen is also well described and the changes they go through as Harold walks, each separately and then as they begin to communicate gives this novel a positive story line.  You cheer for them more and more as Harold progresses on his walk.  There are sections of the story when Harold or Maureen are discouraged and as you read about their son David it tugs at your heart strings.  However, the positive story line wins out. Harold's pilgrimage helps him heal and rediscover a self-worth and rediscover his love for Maureen as she also, alone in their house, begins to live again, to open up and see a better life with Harold.

There were many other references that were brought to mind in reading this story; Robert Browning's poem Love Among the Ruins, Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson.  It was also noted that men in British novels are often described as repressed such as in Major Pettigrew's Last Stand or the Rector Mr. Michael Mompellion in Year of Wonders.  We could even include Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. 

Often when we read a book that everyone enjoys, our discussion is shorter and less animated.  However, it is a testament to the quality of the writing and the story of the book that we had a very lively discussion.  Thank you Beth for an excellent choice.

Have a great summer everyone!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Meeting of May 27, 2013

We met at Michèle's home.  In keeping with the fancy atmosphere of Academy Awards night in the book, we were served a pâté and cheese ball covered in caviar and a nice avocado herb dip with vegetables.  A refreshing fruit salad with lime, lemon and orange sugar cookies was our dessert.  Of course wine was served as usual.  We discussed No Time to Wave Goodbye by Jacquelyn Mitchard presented by Linda.

This story continues the saga of the Cappadora family that begins in Ms. Mitchard's novel The Deep End of the Ocean.  Linda mentions that she had not realized when she picked up this book and chose it for us that it was a follow-up.  Some of our members had read The Deep End of the Ocean but many had not.  Ms. Mitchard has written several novels both for adults and young adults.  Linda, Shirley and Michèle had the opportunity to speak with her via Skype and had an interesting and very pleasant conversation about the extensive preparation and research she does before writing a novel. We also talked about how she arrives at the ideas and plots for her books.  She indicated that she draws many of her ideas from real-life stories related in the media or articles she reads.

The Deep End of the Ocean, the first book about the Cappadora family was critically acclaimed and became the first book of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club.  No Time to Wave Goodbye, the follow-up and the story we read this month received more mixed reviews.  As most of us had not read the first book, we found that we were not able to relate as well to the characters and found some of the issues in the book confusing.

Many found the beginning of the book slow but eventually found that it was a page turner, suspenseful and the happy ending pleased all of us.  Linda, who has now read several of Ms. Mitchard's books recommended we read The Deep End of the Ocean. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Meeting of April 22, 2013

We met at Colette's home with Jane hosting.  She offered wonderful cheese, sausage with chutney, small white onions, olives and french cornichons and a lovely chocolate mousse.  Present were Beth, Carla, Colette, Jane, Jolene, Linda, Michèle and Shirley.  We discussed Rules of Civility by Amor Towles presented by Michèle.

We welcomed back our "snow birds" Linda and Michèle who enjoyed the Florida sun for the last three months.

Michèle was very pleased that all enjoyed the book and found it to be a page turner!  The plot rolled along very well and we had a good feeling of the atmosphere of New York in the 1930's, the classes, how people dressed, restaurants, club such as the Russian jazz club.  With short descriptions such as katey's polka dot dress, the flapper coat that ended up Eve's closet, Towles manages to give us a picture of the styles from the era.  With just a couple of scenes of Katey meeting up with friends from her neighbourhood we get an impression of class difference.

Many thought the story had the flavour and atmosphere of books such as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerlad, Breakfast at Tiffany's the novella by Truman Capote.  There was also reference to many books in the story.  Katey reads a lot of  Agatha Christie that pleased one of our members in particular and Tinker had a copy of Walden by David Thoreau at his cottage.

Several members felt that the characters were not particularly sympathetic.  Certainly Eve's character created tension in the story.   Many of us thought that Katey took advantage of opportunities she had to improve her social status. She aspired to belong to the "all American" Manhattan life.  Tinker Grey however, lived by the 110 Rules of Civility  written by George Washington.  It is the reason that he took care of Eve after the car accident.  It is interesting that the men such as Tinker Grey, Wallace, and the man Katey eventually marries, Val, are the only characters that give an impression of sincerity.

Everyone agreed that the story is about life choices we make that can easily change the course of our lives.  On his website, Mr. Towles in a reading guide asks the following question:
Please don't answer this last question until the wine glasses are empty and the waiters are waiting impatiently to clear your table: In the Epilogue, Katey observes that "Right choices are the means by which life crystallizes loss" What is the right choice that you have made and what did you leave behind as a result?
It is certainly worthwhile to consider the question and if any of you care to share, you may wish to add a comment.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Meeting of March 25, 2013

The Help

We met at Carla's to discuss Kathryn Stockett's The Help, Jolene's choice this year. To set the scene, Carla greeted us in uniform...with a long white apron covering a black dress. Her chicken-cucumber appetizers and brie cheese with edible flowers were wonderful, and she topped the evening off with some "terrible awful" chocolate pie. Carla, Beth, Colette, Jane, Shirley, and Jolene were in attendance, with other members all vacationing or working out of town.
According to a CBS interview in 2011, Kathryn Stockett began writing the book in the wake of 9/11 as she was homesick for her native Jackson, Mississippi. She calls the story a love letter to Demetrie, the maid who helped raise her. Originally, Ms. Stockett received 60 rejection letters, which she has kept in order to encourage other young writers to edit and persevere when trying to have a novel published. The book has now been produced in French and Spanish as well, and has been made into a feature film by her friend and director, Tate Taylor. While there are differences between the movie and the book, the author was on set every day and was satisfied that the movie felt like the book, remaining true to its essence.
While both the film and the book have become wildly popular, there has been some controversy surrounding the story. Stockett's brother's maid Ablene Cooper filed suit, feeling that her identity had been appropriated. The case was dismissed because the Statute of Limitations had run out. Dr. Duchess Harris of Macalester College and William Mitchell College of Law also has harsh criticism for Stockett. Dr. Harris laments, for instance, the fact that the protagonist championing the cause of black domestics is white Skeeter, just as Atticus Finch was the white hero in To Kill a Mockingbird. Skeeter is dealing with her own issues and leaves the black domestics in the south at the book's end. Despite negative press like this, The Help has sold upwards of 10 million copies since its publication in 2009.
The Muse and Views ladies in attendance liked the book, without exception. The characters and relationships were well developed, with Celia Foote being a particular favourite. Minnie was likened to To Kill a Mockingbird's Calpurnia. The heat, food, and atmosphere of Mississippi were brought to life as well, as was background history such as Rosa Parks' stand for civil rights. Several ladies also saw indirect connections to their own lives or to literature, some having had family members with nannies, or having read stories such as Jane Eyre, where class structure and the mistreatment of governesses figured prominently. We also briefly touched on racial, religious and linguistic tensions in Canada's history.
Stockett is apparently working on a second novel about life in the Roaring 20's and the Depression years, but she has missed deadlines in an effort to write it well and not risk being a one-hit-wonder. Coincidentally, next month we will discuss Rules of Civility, similar in time setting to Stockett's new story in the works.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Meeting of February 25, 2013

Muse and Views met at Colette’s home, with Betty serving lovely pinwheel sandwiches, cheeses and other yummy hors d’oeuvres.  Present were Janet, Carla, Beth, Jane, Colette, Betty and Jolene.  We discussed Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay.

Janet had originally chosen the book because of its setting, with both Saskatchewan and Eastern Ontario figuring in the story.  It was clear from a look at the author’s biography that she often connects events in her stories with those in her own life.  She is now based in Ottawa, but has travelled widely and has lived in such diverse places as Owen Sound, Wiarton, London (England), Guelph, and even Latin America and the Queen Charlotte Islands.  She has written several books, most notably Late Nights on Air, a Giller Prize winner, inspired no doubt from her days as a broadcaster.

Alone in the Classroom received mixed reviews from our group.  Even Janet said that the book didn’t live up to expectations.  She admits regret at having gifted it to her mother-in-law, who during her lifetime had been a teacher in a one-room classroom.  The book does, however, show that people with a dark past sometimes cover up their problems by moving to small towns in need of professionals like the character Parley Burns.   

Most of our group agreed that the book had some good moments, with description and characterization being its strengths, rather than plot.  The influence of teachers struck a chord.   (The author likened good teachers  to people who may dip grey pebbles—children --into water to bring out their beautiful colours.)  References to Thomas Hardy, mustard gas, the dust bowl, and the Great Depression were also appreciated.  Jane did note inaccuracies regarding monarch butterflies, and others commented on how contrived the story seemed to be, with characters coincidentally crossing paths too often.   The biggest criticisms were that the narration jumped around a lot from Anne to Connie and that there was little resolution to the mysteries in the book.  For most, the story had a promising start but a disappointing finish.  Several ladies did say, however, that Hay’s writing was strong enough that it might prompt them to read another of her novels.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Meeting of January 28, 2013

Still Alice

Despite the snow and cold, we had a warm reception at Janet's home, with a roaring fire, lovely wines and juices, carrot cake, great cheeses and dates, and cocktail wieners wrapped in pastry (I'm sure even they wanted to snuggle up in a blanket on a wintery evening.)  In attendance were Janet, Colette, Carla, Shirley, Beth, Betty, Jolene...and Michèle and Linda via Skype. Michèle and her husband had invited Linda and her hubby over for dinner in Florida, so it was wonderful that distance did not prevent their participation in our Book Club.

The votes were tallied, and the prize for the favourite book club read of 2012 went to Betty for The Book Thief.  It was a tight race, which shows just what great books we read as a group last year. 

Betty gave us a little insight into the life of Lisa Genova, who wrote Still Alice, the book under discussion this month.  The author's background is in bio-psychology and neuroscience.  She self-published the book because publishers were apparently not interested in the beginning.  Our group had previously discussed Left Neglected, also by Lisa Genova and very popular, but everyone enjoyed Still Alice better because of its readability.   We are not alone in our high opinion of the book since Still Alice has garnered several prizes and was popular on the New York Times bestseller list.   For those who wish to read more by Genova, her newest book is Love Anthony, about autism.

To say that we "liked" Still Alice would not be the right choice, almost too light a word. A better description would be to say that everyone appreciated it. The book was moving and insightful, but at the same time, anxiety-producing as it hit so close to home.  We all related stories about friends and family afflicted with various forms of dementia, though not at such an early age as with Alice.  We enjoyed the way the author was able to relate the story from Alice's perspective, rather than from an outsider's point-of-view.  The book was well written, with good characterization, and even the Alzheimer's Society has endorsed it.  The relationships between Alice and her husband and children were discussed at length.  The feeling was that it is hard to build a strong relationship between spouses once a disease such as Alzheimer's sets in, if the foundation is not there beforehand.  We were all pleased that the daughter Lydia and Alice ended up as close friends, though we felt that the book's ending was a little unrealistic.  Would someone with such a debilitating disease really be able to set up a support group and make profound speeches the way Alice did?  Betty commented that she had spoken to an Ottawa librarian dealing with a loved one with Alzheimer's.  The librarian could not read the book and said there is never a happy ending with Alzheimer's.

Linda suggested a couple of other books to read with respect to Alzheimer disease:
Alzheimer's Disease: What if There Was a Cure? The Story of Ketones by Mary T. Newport, M.D.
Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words - Travels with Mom in the Land of Dementia by Kate Whouley

All in all, a great choice, Betty.  We would highly recommend the book to others.