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, (http://canadaam.ctvnews.ca/video?playlistId=1.2061551) 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.

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, Jolene hosting

Monday October 26th - Jane's book choice, Colette hosting

Monday November 23rd - Shirley's book choice, 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.