Monday, November 2, 2015

Meeting of October 26, 2015

Our host this month was Colette. Present were Carla, Colette, Jane, Janet, Linda and Michèle. Our book this month was Jane's choice All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

The story takes place in France and Colette served some delectable french cheese and mini-omelets inspired by a passage in the book "Eggs crack. Butter pops in the hot pan................all of Marie-Laure's attention is absorbed by the smells blooming around her: egg, spinach, melting cheese."  Colette also served a peach cheese cake again inspired by what Madame Manec served Marie-Laure "....Marie-Laure can hear a can opening juice slopping into a bowl. Seconds later, she's eating wedges of wet sunlight." 

Anthony Doerr is an American author who has written many short stories and published two collections of short stories, a memoir of his time in Rome and two novels.  All the Light We Cannot See is his second novel.  It took him 10 years to write it.  He first started with the idea of telling a story about radio transmission and the wonder of being able to hear someone speak who could be very far away. In a visit to France he visited the walled town of St. Malo and decided to use it as the setting of his story.  He also became interested in all the treasures and art in Paris that were hidden away before the German invasion and incorporated these three subjects into the story. It won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The story has two main characters, Marie-Laure who is a young blind french girl whose father is the locksmith at the Paris Museum of Natural History and who finds herself with her father escaping to the town of St. Malo.  The other character is a young German boy Werner who with his sister are orphans. Werner because of his talent for fixing radios finds himself in a military school for talented boys run by the Nazis. He also finds himself in St. Malo with Nazi officers.

Everyone enjoyed the book. All thought the characters were well developed and that there was no stereotypes, for example, not all Germans are villains. We learn to understand and like both Marie-Laure and Werner. Marie-Laure's relationship with her father is touching.

One of our members summarized the writing and what is encompassed in the story very well. "The writer brought together many currents underlying the war in an original way: industrialization and technology; human talent and creativity; art and historical treasures; love, compassion, bravery and sacrifice, etc. " Thank you Beth.  Also though we all enjoy a happy ending, everyone agreed that the tragic ending of this story was realistic and appropriate.  All in all, a very well written story.

We also discussed the meaning of the title All the Light We Cannot See.  There are references to light and the lack of light in many places in this book.  First of all, Marie-Laure's blindness and in one of the broadcasts about light that Werner and Jutta listen to, there is a revealing description. "What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible." 

Thank you all for an excellent discussion.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Meeting of September 28, 2015

Muse & Views Bookclub was hosted by Jolene.  Present were Betty, Colette, Jolene, Linda, Michèle and Shirley.  Jolene served smoked salmon and cheese on crackers, wonderful little meatballs and a quite wonderful vodka Mojito in honour of Russia.

The book this month, Colette's choice was Us Conductors by Sean Michaels.  Colette chose it because it won the Giller Scotia Prize in 2014 and the story has a historical significance.  Sean Michaels who now lives in Montreal, grew up in Ottawa and attended Glebe Collegiate. Mr. Michaels created a well-known and well regarded mp3 blog called Said the Gramophone that tracks the rise of new musicians and bands and is credited for opening doors for bands such as Arcade Fire and singers such as Basia Bulat.  Mr. Michaels has also written music reviews for The Globe and Mail, The Wire, The Guardian and the National Post among others.  He has also written travel articles and short stories. Us Conductors is his first novel.

Us Conductors is historical fiction inspired by the life of a Russian Inventor Léon Theremin and a musician Clara Rockmore. Among the many inventions credited to Léon Theremin, his most famous invention is the musical instrument the theremin.  The theremin is considered the first  electronic musical instrument.  It is often used as background music in series such as Midsomer Murders as it's sound can be eerie and project doom.

All members enjoyed the book especially because though the story is fiction, it gave us the opportunity to learn about the Theremin as a musical instrument, about Léon Theremin himself, though as a fiction not everything was true. We also learned about Clara Rockmore and her music and in the second half of the novel, about the Russian prison system.

The book was very well written, as a letter to Clara.  The writing style reminded some of us of a book we read previously Rules of Civility Amor Towles. The first half of this book takes place in the 1920's in New York, in bars and dance clubs as in Rules of Civility. 

We wondered about the title and Jolene as she often does found us a good explanation. To play the theremin you stand in front of the instrument with your hands in air and you move them through the electric current to make the musical sound, as a conductor. As to the "Us" it could be that in our lives we are all conductors.

We all felt it was a positive read and all of us looked up information about the theremin, about the New York Jazz era and about Russia, Léon Theremin and Clara Rockmore.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Books and Meetings 2016

The list will be updated as members choose their books

Monday January 25th -  Janet's book choice One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Betty hosting

Monday February 22nd - Carla's book choice, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, Janet hosting

Monday March 21st - Jolene's book choice, The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion, Carla hosting

Monday April 25th - Michèle's book choice, The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt, Jane hosting

Monday May 30th - Linda's book choice, No Relation by Terry Fallis, Michèle hosting

Monday June 27th - Betty's book choice, A House in the Sky : A Memoir by Amanda Lindhout & Sara Corbett, Linda hosting

Monday September 26th - Colette's book choice, The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel, Jolene hosting

Monday October 24th -  Jane's book choice, The Reason you Walk, by Wab Kinew, Shirley hosting

Monday November 28th - Shirley's book choice, The Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, Beth hosting

Monday, July 27, 2015

Meeting of June 22nd 2015

Muse & Views was hosted by Linda at Shirley's home. Present were Beth, Carla, Colette, Jane, Jolene, Linda, Michèle and Shirley. Linda served some very nice English cheese and a wonderful dessert.

We discussed a classic novel, Beth's choice, The Prime of Miss Jeanne Brodie by Muriel Spark.

She was born Muriel Sarah Camberg in Edinburgh in 1918 and was educated in private schools in Edinburgh. She married Sydney Oswald Spark in 1937 and they moved to Rhodesia shortly after their marriage.  They had a son, Robin, in 1938.  Muriel soon realized that the marriage would not work and left to go back to the United Kingdom in 1944 leaving her son with his father.  She worked in intelligence during the war.  She began writing after the war, beginning with poetry and literary criticism. Her first novel was The Comforters published in 1956.  She published 22 novels. The Prime of Miss Jeanne Brodie published in 1961 was her most successful novel. It was presented as a play and a movie starring Maggie Smith in 1969. Ms Smith won an Oscar for her role as Miss Brodie. After living some time in New York she moved to Italy where she met an artist Penelope Jardine. They lived together in Tuscany until Ms Spark's death in 2006.

Since many of our members are or were teachers, the discussion was mainly about Miss Brodie's teaching methods and the influence she had on her students.  She was a charismatic person, who influenced a particular group, The Brodie girls, and excluded others.  She was able to get away with many indiscretions. It was interesting how much she could manipulate and influence her pupils in comparison with what is possible in today's society.  Miss Brodie had her definite preferences in her pupils and those not in her close circle clearly suffered.  She also more or less ignored the curriculum and taught using her own experiences as examples.  She talked about how she was in her prime and the experiences she had as a woman in her prime.  Some of the sections when she talks of her prime are entertaining and even hilarious.

In the end, one of the book's theme is betrayal.  She betrayed many of her students ignoring some and unduly influencing others to their detriment. And she was betrayed by one of her students. She never discovered who betrayed her.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Meeting of May 25, 2015

Muse & Views was hosted by Michèle. Present were Beth, Betty, Carla, Jane, Janet, Jolene, Linda, Michèle and Shirley.  Michèle served two dips, a guacamole and a salmon mousse with crackers and vegetables, wine, red, rosé and white.  We had a lovely Strawberry Cloud for dessert with coffee and tea.

The book discussed this month was Linda's choice, Tell by Frances Itani. She was born in Belleville Ontario and grew up in Montreal where she trained as a nurse.  She has lived in several countries such as Croatia, Germany and Austria.  She speaks English of course, French, German and some Japanese.  She presently lives in Ottawa.

This book, Tell, follows several of the characters of her former book, Deafening, that we read and discussed in September 2013. In Deafening the main character was a young girl, Grania, who is deaf. She is present only through correspondence in this book.  The main characters are two couples, Maggie and Em who have been married 25 years and Tress and Kenan a young couple. Tress is Grania's sister.  Both couples are grappling with marital problems in silence.  There are secrets untold and secrets to tell in this novel.

Kenan has come back from the ravages of World War I with both physical and psychological scars. He refuses to talk to Tress or others, refuses to go out of their home because of the physical damage to his face and body. Ms. Itani gives us an excellent account of the way Kenan's horrific physical injuries are markers for his wounded heart and soul. Tress turns to her aunt Maggie to try to find solutions to Kenan's uncommunicative behavior.

But Maggie has problems of her own with her husband Em.  There are secrets between them not discussed that are revealed only near the end of the novel. Their relationship has withered over the years. Late in the novel we find out that Maggie and Em had a personal tragedy that they have never discussed.  Maggie finds solace in other activities and in the director of the local choral society.

Most members really enjoyed this novel. They enjoyed her writing style, the attention to period detail, the discussion of a new author L.M. Montgomery for example. She describes well life in a small town, what is important to people, how they cope with winter.  There is a good flow to her writing. Some were a bit frustrated by the slowness of the novel at the beginning and some felt the end was a bit rushed.  However all felt that character development was excellent; we know the characters well by the end of the book.

Linda corresponded with Ms. Itani and learned that there will be a third book set after WW II with the same characters. There were several questions that are not answered in Tell that we hope will be answered in the last novel of  the trilogy.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Meeting of April 27, 2015

Muse & Views Bookclub was hosted by Jane at Colette's home. Present were Carla, Colette, Jane, Janet, Jolene, Michèle and Shirley.  We had a nice array of hors d'oeuvres, sausage, vegetables and cheese.  Jane served a very nice lemon tart.  

This month's book is Michèle's choice,  Ru by Kim Thùy. 

Kim Thùy was born in 1968 in Saigon. She left on a  boat with her family for Malaysia in 1978 and spent 4 months in a refugee camp before coming to Québec.  Her family was sponsored by a group from Granby in the wave of Boat people who were given refugee status in Canada.  After a year in Granby, her family moved to Montreal. She studied literature and law and practiced law for a few years. She also owned a restaurant.  

Ru was first written in French in 2009 and then translated in to English. It has since been translated into 15 different languages. It has won several awards including the Governor General Award for best french language fiction in 2010. It also won the CBC Canada Reads competition in 2015 as the book that can break barriers.

Comments from members were both positive and negative.  The writing style can be difficult to follow. There is no plot or development of characters. It is a journal of recollections, experiences of boat people from Vietnam – Each page recounts a memory of an incident.  In each, a word or phrase brings up another memory that is recounted on the next page.  Some of the recollections are personal, some are stories she heard from others in her family or other boat people she met.   

Several found the writing style difficult. They felt that the stories were not complete, that we could not get a good grasp of the persons in the story.   It almost felt as if you were sitting with a person who was telling you small doses of their experiences and going from one story to another without quite finishing the last.  Others found the style interesting, a bit like telling a person's life in almost Haiku style.  It is certainly a book that does not have to be read sequentially but could be opened almost at any page and read here and there.  

Until next time...

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Meeting of March 23, 2015

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth 

Muse and Views met at Carla’s to discuss Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Jolene’s choice. Beth, Betty, Colette, Jane, Janet, Jolene, and Shirley were in attendance and Carla hosted the evening. She served shrimp cocktail, an array of lovely cheeses and hors d’oeuvres, and some gluten-free desserts that were out of this world. She even had a depiction of the solar system on her table!

Much of Colonel Hadfield’s life is portrayed in the book itself, and Jolene added details about his present ventures. He is currently working as adjunct professor at Waterloo University, where he uses his experiences as a pilot and commander of the International Space Station to lecture students on such topics as the historical and scientific importance of photos from space (many of which can be found in his book You Are Here), the usefulness of advanced remote sensing techniques, and for upper-year aviation students, technical notions such as lift vectors and landing distances. Quite an accomplishment for a farm boy from southern Ontario, who knew at age 9 that he wanted to become an astronaut!

He is also a musician, and Jolene suggests that we check out internet videos - see chris hadfield song. It is no surprise that Hadfield seems to have been able to promote the space program better than any other astronaut to date, using social media and the help of his techie son Evan. Hadfield’s wife Helene says of her husband, “He just thinks everything is so great and cool and wonderful and he wants people to feel it too.” (The Ottawa Citizen, November 30/13, p H1). 

We all thought Helene was pretty cool too. She and the couple’s children have had to take a backseat to the astronaut’s educational and professional life. Most of us did enjoy the educational insights of the book, particularly the emphasis on servant leadership, excellence, and perseverance. There was a debate about whether Hadfield was actually humble or just trying hard to overcome his lack of humility. Because high achievers are not always team players, we found it interesting that nurses and others were contacted to see how potential candidates for the space program interacted with people at every level. 

Although reviews of the book were mixed, many of us found personal and family connections because of backgrounds in education, military service, and even the aerospace industry. The book’s style was not well liked, described as choppy, and ‘the writing of an engineer’, with events compartmentalized and sometimes oft repeated. 

Two other interesting side items were discussed. Apparently, one of Hadfield’s blue flight suits was found and bought at a Toronto Thrift Store. Also, Chris Hadfield said on CTV’s Canada AM on October 20, 2014, ( that Warner Brothers and ABC are developing a pilot for a sitcom loosely based on his life as father and husband with the added complexity of the technology and jobs he has handled. 

Till next time…stay grounded.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Meeting of February 23, 2015

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell

The February meeting of Muse and Views was held at Janet’s home to discuss Nadia Hashimi’s The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, Carla’s choice.  Janet served delicacies to celebrate the Afghanistan setting of the book—dates and pistachios, chicken kabobs with a smoked paprika marinade, Afghani spinach dip, and rosewater cookies for dessert.  In attendance were Carla, Colette, Beth, Shirley, Jane, Betty, Jolene and Janet.

Carla introduced the author as an American pediatrician of Afghani descent, with a degree in Middle Eastern studies and biology.  Ms. Hashimi’s parents left Afghanistan in the 1970’s.  Her mother pursued a Master's degree in civil engineering in Europe while her father sought the American dream.  This book is the author’s first novel.  Her second is entitled When the Moon is Low, again about issues in Afghanistan, this time following the story of people who flee the Taliban and end up in the dark world of the undocumented.

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell deals with gender identity and a male-dominated society.  Ms. Hashimi introduces the notion of the bacha posh, a cultural tradition in which young girls dress like boys in order to help their mothers with marketing and other responsibilities.  Only as boys do these girls seem to achieve a degree of freedom and education in villages dominated by oppressive warlords who routinely take young brides and beat them into submission (often with several older wives already under their control, who may choose to augment the abuse).

Club reviews were mixed.  All were appalled by the violence suffered by women, particularly in smaller settlements.  Even in the capital city, the book depicted democracy as a veneer, with puppet wives in Parliament often voting only as their husbands command.  While many felt the story riveting, others were disappointed with the writing style, where western expressions and unrealistic plot twists to move the story along seemed to betray the author’s lack of experience.  Possibly due to translation difficulties, no one was able to satisfactorily interpret the poem that inspired the book’s title.  We did enjoy the fact that the central character, Rahima, was finally able to courageously break out of her shell and escape, helped by a western woman and two other modern thinkers.  Interestingly, Janet added insights from her travels to Hawaii, where pearls in broken shells are often better than those drawn from in-tact oysters. 

Several noted connections to previous reads.  Annabel dealt with gender identity, and books such as The Kite Runner, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and 1000 Splendid Suns addressed related cultural themes.  Lest we feel morally superior in the West, we also commented on our own society’s issue of objectifying women through pornography.  All in all, we had a very interesting discussion of a book with educational value about a culture often in the news. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Meeting of January 26, 2015

The Light Between Oceans 
For our first meeting of 2015, we met at Colette's, with Betty hosting.  Under discussion was The Light Between Oceans (Betty's choice). She served yummy pinwheel sandwiches and cheese, a pineapple upside down cake, and Australian wines, in honour of the book.   Beth, Colette, Shirley, Carla, Janet, Jolene, and Betty attended, with Linda and Michèle joining us from Florida via Skype.

Betty told us a little about the author, M. L. Stedman, a London lawyer who researched details for the book at a British library. She began her writing career in 1997.  This was her debut novel, set in her native Australia.  Ms. Stedman commented that the novel almost wrote itself as the characters unfolded in her mind; she even found herself having to stop protecting Tom as she wrote.
The book wrestles with complex moral dilemmas and various forms of mental illness and grief.  The two central characters, Isabel and Tom, decide to secretly claim as their own a baby washed up in a boat on their isolated lighthouse island.
Reviews were mixed, but all of us had strong reactions--we ached for many of the people and felt anxious and upset at the decisions being made; the ending would have been so different, and perhaps more appealing, had Isabel and Tom notified authorities and returned the baby to her grieving birth mother early on.  From a writing point of view, we commented that the setting was beautifully painted, but many found the dialogue stilted and coincidences forced.  The life lesson was that deception is harmful.  There is nothing better than the truth, however painful.
Other news--Linda's friend Norma spoke to us via Skype, telling us about a neighbour of hers who worked at Bletchley Park, famous for its code-breaking and prominent in one of our 2014 books--A Man called Intrepid.  We also awarded a prize to the 2014 winner of best book club read The Rosie Project, Beth's choice.  We had such good club selections last year that the race was very tight. May that be the case as we move forward in 2015!

Happy reading.