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."








Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Meeting of November 25, 2013

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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 Munro, Jane hosting

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

Monday September 22, 2014 - Colette's book choice, Linda hosting

Monday October 27, 2014 -  Jane's book choice, Colette hosting

Monday November 24, 2014 - Louise's book choice, Beth hosting