Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Meeting of November 24, 2014

This month's book choice was  Annabel  by Kathleen Winter.  Beth  hosted and was present along with Beth, Betty, Carla, Janet, Jolene, Linda, Michèle and Shirley. Beth had some wonderful smoked salmon hors d'oeuvres, cheese, olives and very interesting marinated green beans. She served an upside-down apple cake with whipped cream along with coffee and tea.

Annabel is a story about an intersex child born in Labrador to Jacinta, a teacher from St. John's, and a trapper, Treadway.  The couple decide to raise the child as a boy and name him Wayne.  When Wayne is a young child Treadway works hard at raising him as a boy but Jacinta and a close friend Thomasina, the midwife, quietly nurture his female side.  When Wayne reaches puberty a medical emergency forces the parents to tell him about his birth.  As a teen and young adult, Wayne lives a conflicted life and his move to St. John's and events that happen push him to face his dilemma and he makes a decision of whether he will live the rest of his life as a male or a female.

The definition of true hermaphroditism is a medical term for an intersex condition in which an individual is born with ovarian and testicular tissue. There may be an ovary underneath one testicle or the other, but more commonly one or both gonads is an ovotestis containing both types of tissue.

While most members thought the book was well written and that there were many interesting aspects, it is not a book that anyone particularly enjoyed or would recommend to others. Almost all mentioned that it was a sad story with little hope. All appreciated the descriptions of life in Labrador and Ms. Winter's description of the landscape allow us to visualize how the land is beautiful and desolate. 

There are several themes that are developed in the book, from the isolation from what trappers experience when they spend the winter on their trap lines, to the women who find themselves alone while their husbands are away, to the isolation Wayne feels as he is shunned by other boys, classmates and bullies in St. John's.  There is also the theme of gender identity and the roles of men and women in society.  There is a defined difference between the roles of the men and women especially in the 1970's when this story is situated. There is the internal conflict that Wayne feels even before he is told about his birth.  He wants to please his father Treadway but has more affinity with his mother.  When he and his father build the bridge, he with his female friend Wally decorate it but Treadway destroys it, feeling he has not managed to build a bond with his son.  

We also discussed how the different characters in the book changed and developed.  Treadway, who was not particularly sympathetic at the beginning, comes to understand and support his child. He was especially supportive when Wayne as a young adult had to make difficult decisions.  Jacinta, Wayne's mother, though she agreed to raise him as a boy as Treadway wanted, secretly longed for the daughter she would have wanted.  Jacinta however, seem to disappear as she became depressed and isolated. 

Bridge could be seen as a metaphor. Thomasina, Jacinta's good friend and midwife sends Wayne postcards in her travels, always of bridges. Is there a message in these bridges that Wayne must find a way to build a "bridge" between his male and female sides of his body and mind? 

As is usually the case, with a book that not all particularly enjoyed, it created a very good discussion.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Meeting of October 27, 2014

This month's book choice Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese was Jane's choice. Colette is hosting and present were Beth, Colette, Jane, Janet, Jolene, Linda, Michèle and Shirley.  Colette had some wonderful hors d'oeuvres, meatballs, cucumber slices with herbed yogurt and smoked salmon, puffed pastry squares with caramelized onions and a wonderful raspberry pie made by Dan.

The story is about a 16 year old boy Frank of aboriginal descent who lives on a small farm with an "old man". Frank's father Eldon left him at the farm when he was one week old. The "old man" raises Frank as if he was his own son also taking care to teach him as much as he can of the traditions coming from his aboriginal roots. Throughout Frank's young life, his father appears every once in a while, always disappointing him. When Frank is 16 his father sends for him.  He is dying and he wants to be buried as an Objibway warrior sitting upright facing east and he has a particular place on a cliff overlooking a valley where he would like to be buried. He asks that young Frank take him there. Frank sees this journey as his responsibility and as they journey towards the cliff, his father tells him the story of his life and the circumstances of Frank's birth.

Jane begins the meeting by explaining to us the four sacred medicines, sweetgrass, sage, cedar and tobacco, their significance and their use.  Jane also gave us a graphic of the The Seven Grandfather Teachings  that is often used to teach the traditions and ways of aboriginal people.  We each left with a small pouch of tobacco that she prepared for us.

Richard Wagamese is Objibway originally from Northern Ontario.  He now lives in British Columbia. He is a journalist, having written many articles and books.  Medicine Walk is his 11th book. He has recently written an essay Speaking My Truth  in which he explains the impact Residential Schools has had on his life.

Everyone enjoyed the book and found it very well written.  The descriptions allow us to "see" the scenes, "smell" the woods, the farm, the taverns and the description of the journey toward Eldon's final burial allows you to travel with them.  The landscape becomes a character, it is a part of everything in the story. The prose is beautiful, with a rhythm that is not rushed. We sense and understand the ravages that Eldon's alcoholism has on his life and on Frank's, the complications it brings to their father/son relationship.  Those of us who have recently lost a parent, found Frank's observations of the ravages of illness on his father particularly poignant and sad.

This was an excellent choice, thank you Jane.

Books and Meetings in 2015

The list will be updated as members choose their books.

Monday January 26th - Betty's book choice, The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, Betty hosting at Colette's

Monday February 23rd - Carla's book choice,  The Pearl that broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi, Janet hosting

Monday March 23rd - Jolene's book choice, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything, Chris Hadfield, Carla hosting

Monday April 27th - Michèle's book choice, Ru by Kim Thùy, Jane hosting at Colette's 

Monday May 25th - Linda's book choice, Tell by Frances Itani, Michèle hosting

Monday June 22nd - Beth's book choice, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, Linda hosting

Monday September 28th - Colette's book choice, Us Conductors by Sean Michaels. Jolene hosting

Monday October 26th - Jane's book choice, All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Colette hosting

Monday November 23rd - Shirley's book choice, The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. Beth hosting

Friday, October 17, 2014

Meeting of September 22, 2014

The first book of our Fall season is The Orenda by Joseph Boyden, Colette choice.  Jolene is hosting and present are Carla, Colette, Jane, Janet, Jolene, Michèle and Shirley.  Jolene prepared salmon roll-up sandwiches with quinoa, maple cheddar cheese and a wonderful bison and foie gras pâté among other goodies, wine of course, coffee and tea.

Each year CBC has a Canada Reads competition to determine the Book of the Year. This year the theme was "One novel to change our Nation" and The Orenda that was defended by Wab Kinew, a journalist and aboriginal activist, won.

Joseph Boyden, born in 1966 in Toronto is of Irish and Métis descent.  He was educated at York University and now teaches part time at York and at the University of New Orleans. The Orenda is his third novel. His novel Through Spruce Black won the Giller Prize in 2008.  The Orenda is set in the 17th century in what is now Ontario and Québec and recounts the beginning of French colonization and the downfall of the Wendat-Huron Nation.  The story is told through the eyes of three people, Bird a Wendat warrior, Snowfall a Haudenosaunee girl adopted by bird and Christophe a Jesuit missionary (character based on canonized martyr Jean-de-Brébeuf).  The novel details the interactions of these three characters with the French.

All who read it found that the book was well worth reading.  Not only was it very well written, it also had well developed characters and a rhythm between the three voices thoughout the story.  All thought that there are some very violent scenes described in the book and some read quickly through those passages finding they were hard to read, but none felt that the depiction of the violence was an unnecessary part of the story. The novel also chronicles the impact of disease on the tribes brought by the colonizers and the impact of droughts on crops and the survival of villages.

The Orenda received some very positive reviews, touted as a classic and must read to understand part of Canada's early history.  Some however have criticized it saying that it gives a skewed vision of aboriginal nations as savages.  We all felt that it is certainly worth reading and an important book in English Canadian literature.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Meeting of June 23, 2014

We are discussing Linda's choice this month A Man called Intrepid by William Stevenson. Linda is hosting at Shirley's home. Present are Betty, Carla, Colette, Jane, Jolene, Linda, Michèle and Shirley. Pinwheel sandwiches, British cheese and a wonderful chocolate cake with ice cream and strawberries is served with of course wine, coffee and tea.

It is important to distinguish between the author of this book, Bill Stevenson and the Intrepid himself, William Stephenson. William Stephenson was born William Stranger in Winnipeg and took his adopted parents' name Stephenson.  Bill Stevenson was a British born author who met the Intrepid while training as a pilot in Canada.

The book, published in 1976 is a bit of a biography of William Stephenson but much more an account of the creation of the world's first coordinated Secret Intelligence Service by Winston Churchill and how its first chief, William Stephenson, operated.  It documents how the BSC (British Security Coordination) was able to get from Poland the German's Enigma Coding machine and was then able to obtain information about the German tactics and many other operations that eventually helped the Allies win WW II.  It also documents the creation of a training centre in Ontario near Oshawa.

We learn about campaigns such as Dieppe that Allies knew would be a massacre but that it was a means to an end. We learn about how so many people at first did not understand what Hitler was doing.

Everyone enjoyed the book especially since we learned a lot about World War II secret campaigns and the connections between Britain and Canada during the War and also the connections between British and Canadian Secret Intelligence Services after the war.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Meeting of May 26, 2014

On this fine Spring evening we gathered to discuss Betty’s book choice, Call the Midwife by Jennifer Lee Worth. Present at the meeting were Beth, Betty, Colette, Jolene, Linda, Louise, Michèle and Shirley.  Our host Shirley had some wonderful British cheese, pigs in a blanket and a very nice pâté with gluten free crackers. She had also prepared individual English trifles, all very nice.

Jennifer Lee Worth was born in Essex and left school at 15.  She  trained as a nurse and later as a midwife in a convent. When she retired, she tried several ventures including singing. She was encouraged late in life to write a memoir of her time as a midwife in the East End of London. Call the Midwife was published in 2002 and was later developed into a series. Ms. Worth did not however live to see the series; she died in 2011.

All who read the memoir enjoyed the book very much. It  provided a historical background, how midwifery began and came from, and how it evolved. It provided a good description of the conditions in which women in East London lived.  It gave graphic details about births, problems that could occur. It was noted that midwifery has been accepted in Europe for many years and is only beginning to be accepted in North America.

Ms. Worth, in a well-written memoir, provided a lot of information about the lives of the Protestant nuns and even though she did not share their faith, came to respect their lifestyle and the dedication they had to midwifery and the women of the East End of London.  Many of the women who came to train as midwives were well-educated, middle class women who knew nothing of the difficult lives of East End women but learned to respect them. 

We had a discussion about the television series that was based on Ms. Worth's trilogy.  Many enjoyed the televised series more because it focused on the persons.  It was more a story about the people involved, Miss Jennie, Sisters Julienne, Evangelina and Bernadette and two other midwives, Trixie and Cynthia. There are several other characters. It is more of a drama than the book that is a recollection of Ms. Worth's career as a midwife.  

This was an excellent choice that gave us a chance to learn more about post-war London and the profession of midwifery.  Thank you Betty for an excellent book choice. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Meeting of April 28, 2014

It is the end of April and still rather cool outside but there is a hint of Spring and Janet and her family have opened the pool!  In attendance this month are Beth, Carla, Colette, Jane, Janet, Jolene, Linda, Michèle and Shirley.  Our book this month is Beth's choice The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Janet has some lovely cheese and dips and vegetables, very nice.  We were also treated to a lovely tarte aux pommes et pâte d'amande made by Janet's daughter Julia.

Graeme Simsion, the author is an Australian who has written mainly screen plays, The Rosie Project is his first novel.  Beth chose the book because of her familiarity with Asperger's Syndrome. She is not the only member of our Bookclub who knows someone with this syndrome.

The novel is about a professor of genetics Don Tillman, who by the description of his life and how he lives it has evidently Asperger's. He decides to find a woman to marry and to ensure she meets all the requirements that suit him, he creates a questionnaire for the Wife Project.  One of his friends refers him to Rosie who is looking for her biological father. As a geneticist, he is intrigued and creates the Rosie Project.  The book has several very funny situations and scenes and as the two projects evolve the plot changes and the two projects intersect.  It is funny, witty and we find Don endearing.  We want him to suceed and find someone with  whom to share his life.

Those who are familiar with Asperger's Syndrome thought that Don had very identifiable traits but was also highly functional. He was, for example, able to step back and analyze why Rosie refused his mariage proposal and he is able to analyze his own emotions.

Beth suggested another book about Asperger's Syndrome, The Journal of Best Practices by David Finch who suffers from Asperger's.  He describes the problems it has caused in his family and marriage and works hard to try to keep his marriage together.

All of us found the book very enjoyable.  Any book that can get you to laugh out loud and read sections of it to others is worth reading.  Thank you Beth.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Meeting of March 24, 2014

Despite the continuing winter weather even if Spring has officially arrived, we had nine of our eleven members present ; Beth, Betty, Carla, Colette, Jane, Janet, Jolene, Michèle and Shirley attended the meeting.  The book choice this month was Longbourn by Jo Baker, Jolene's choice.  Jolene also hosted and we were served wonderful British cheese and "bangers" in pastry with mustard.

Jolene, who is a big Jane Austen fan, gave us all bookmarkers she had made herself with quotes from Jane Austen books and from Ms. Austen's letters to her sisters and cousins.

It is unusual that we all agree on a book.  Longbourn was enjoyed by everyone and again contrary to previous discussions on a book when everyone has a similar opinion, a considerable amount of discussion was generated by this storyline. Jo Baker is a British author who has a Ph.D. in English literature. She did her thesis on the author Elizabeth Bower.

 There have been several books written by others that have tried to continue the Bennet Family saga or given another perspective on the story of Pride and Prejudice. Not many have succeeded. Longbourn tells us the story of those who served the Bennett Family in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. We were pretty well all in agreement that Ms. Baker did excellent work in creating a credible story.

The story has a very good plot involving most of the servants, Mr. and Mrs Hill, the butler and housekeeper, the housemaids Sarah and Polly and James the footman.  The focus of the book is on the chores the servants must perform to meet the needs and demands on the Bennett Family.  And the descriptions are fairly graphic letting the reader understand that cleaning silk dresses that have been worn walking through wet fields and mud is difficult, that emptying chamber pots is not pleasant work. It was obvious through Ms. Baker's descriptions that serving a family was hard physical work for all the servants.

Ms. Baker's plots were based on the lives and adventures of the servants. Though she did refer to some of the Bennett girls' activities, the stories were in large part about the characters downstairs, the love affair of James and Sarah, Mrs. Hill's relationship with Mr. Bennett, etc.

Some of us found some revelations a bit shocking and maybe incredulous, I will not go into detail to not give away some of the surprises.  Several of us found the conclusions and what happened to some of the servants to be far-fetched. For example, could someone of Polly's social stature really become a teacher?

The book was very much appreciated by all members present, a good read, thank you Jolene.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Meeting of February 24, 2014

A selection of her books
Alice Munro

We tried a different format for this meeting and decided since Alice Munro is the 2013 winner of the Nobel prize for Literature to each read different collections of her short stories and discuss the short story format and Ms. Munro's style. Michèle presented the author.

It is the middle of winter and several of our members have escaped the wind, snow and cold so we were only six. Beth, Colette, Jane, Jolene, Shirley and Michèle were present. Jane prepared a nice feast using almost only Ontario products, cheese, cheeseballs, a lovely meatloaf with Ontario meat and Chapman's ice cream that is made Markdale, Ontario not 100 km from Wingham where Alice Munro was born.

Alice Munro was born Alice Laidlaw in July 1931. Her father was a mink farmer and her mother a teacher. She was raised in Wingham, Ontario, and in 1949 won a two year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario where she studied English and Journalism. She met both James Munro and Gerald Fremlin at University.  While at university she published three stories in the University magazine Folio. In 1951 when her scholarship money was finished, she left university marrying James Munro. They subsequently moved to British Columbia.  During this time Alice sold several of her stories to CBC radio for the Robert Weaver program Canadian Short Stories.  She published her first collection of short stories in 1968 - Dance of the Happy Shades and went on to publish a total of 14 collections along with many short stories in the magazine The New Yorker and other literary magazines.

In 1972 Alice Munro left her marriage and British Columbia and moved back to Ontario.  She married Gerald Fremlin in 1976 and lived in Clinton until his death in 2013.

Alice Munro won three Governor General's Awards, two Giller Prizes and several other awards, the most prestigious being the Nobel prize for Literature in 2013.

The great majority of her stories take place in small town Ontario and she has been able to describe in concise prose small town life and the Ontario landscape allowing us to easily imagine the surroundings in which a story takes place.  She has often taken her own and other family member experiences as the basis of her stories. Some people in her hometown of Wingham, sometimes felt that her characters and stories were a bit too similar to reality and she was sometimes criticized in local newspapers.

Many of Ms. Munro's stories have dark story lines and linger on the unsavory parts of her characters leaving them with few endearing qualities. A couple of her collections, notably Runaway have stories that are brighter. Several of our members decided they preferred a novel to short stories.  They sometimes felt as if there wasn't quite enough in a story to satisfy them. However all were pleased to have had the opportunity to read and discover Alice Munro's works.  The short story format pleased some who have a very busy life, allowing them to read completely one story in a sitting.

Several Canadian authors began writing short stories, Margaret Atwood, Morley Callahan, Roch Carrier, Lyn Coady, Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence and most notably Mavis Gallant who died recently. Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant both wrote exclusively short story collections and have an international reputation.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Meeting on January 27th 2014

This is our first meeting of the New Year and we have started with a French classic The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Janet's choice.  In attendance were Betty, Colette, Janet, Jolene, Michèle and Shirley. Betty served lovely cheese, pinwheel sandwiches and a lovely fruit crisp with ice cream.

First on the agenda for this meeting was the selection of the best book of 2013.  A testament of the quality of the books we read was evident in the votes. No one book received a large number of votes. Still Alice by Lisa Genova that was Betty's choice, received the most votes.  Deafening by France Itani, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and The Help by Kathryn Stockett all received the same number of votes.  Congratulations Betty, second year in a row!

Janet chose this book when we read Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.  If you remember, the two young men in this story are obsessed by the french classics of which one was The Count of Monte Cristo.

Alexandre Dumas was born in 1802 to a French Nobleman and a black woman in St. Dominique (now Haiti).  He wrote plays for the theatre and several novels that were published as serial stories by several newspapers.  The Count of Monte Cristo was published weekly over 18 months from August 1844 to January 1846.  It is said that Dumas had the help of a ghostwriter Auguste Maquet. To accommodate the serial format of the novel, the chapters are short and almost always ended dramatically.

The Count of Monte Cristo is an aventure tale that spans several years in the 19th century during France's 2nd Empire with numerous characters and plots.  The main character Edmond Dantès has several alias as do other characters in the story.  It is a story of love, perseverance, revenge and redemption.  Edmond Dantès a young merchant sailor comes back to Marseille and becomes captain of his own ship.  Because of his stop over on Elba where Napeleon Bonaparte is in exile, he is accused of treason and jailed at the Château d'If off the coast of Marseille.  He eventually escapes his captors and with the knowledge acquired from a priest who was also a prisoner, finds a fortune in gold on the Island of Monte Cristo and begins to plot his revenge against his enemies who wrongly accused him of treason and jailed him.

There are several plots within this story, many similar to Shakespearean like Romeo and Juliet. The length of the novel defeated some of our members. However several enjoyed the book, found it riveting, the drama, the melodrama, one member compared it to Downton Abbey, though not many agreed.  There were a couple of quotes that stood out and one in particular : "Moral wounds have this peculiarity, they conceal themselves but never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart."