Monday, 12 December 2016

And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier

A CBC Canada Reads 2015 Selection! Finalist for the 2013 Governor General's Literary Award for French-to-English Translation Deep in a Northern Ontario forest live Tom and Charlie, two octogenarians determined to live out the rest of their lives on their own terms: free of all ties and responsibilities, their only connection to civilization two pot farmers who bring them whatever they can't eke out for themselves. But their solitude is disrupted by the arrival of two women. The first is a photographer searching for survivors of a series of catastrophic fires nearly a century earlier; the second is an elderly escapee from a psychiatric institution. The little hideaway in the woods will never be the same. Originally published in French, And the Birds Rained Down ,the recipient of several prestigious prizes, including the Prix de Cinq Continents de la Francophonie, is a haunting meditation on aging and self-determination.

About the Author

 Jocelyne Saucier (born 27 May 1948 in Clair, New Brunswick) is a Canadian novelist and journalist based in Quebec.
Educated in political science at the Université Laval, Saucier worked as a journalist in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region of Quebec before publishing her debut novel, La Vie comme une image, in 1996. That book was a finalist for the Governor General's Award for French-language fiction at the 1996 Governor General's Awards. Her second novel, Les Héritiers de la mine, was a finalist for the Prix France-Québec in 2001, and her third novel, Jeanne sur les routes, was a finalist at the 2006 Governor General's Awards. Her fourth novel, Il pleuvait des oiseaux, won the Prix France-Québec, the Prix Ringuet, the Prix des cinq continents de la francophonie, the Prix des lecteurs de Radio-Canada and the Prix littéraire des collégiens, while And the Birds Rained Down, its English translation by Rhonda Mullins, was a finalist for the Governor General's Award for French to English translation at the 2013 Governor General's Awards.
Il pleuvait des oiseaux was selected for the 2013 edition of Le Combat des livres, where it was championed by dancer and broadcaster Geneviève Guérard. And the Birds Rained Down was defended by Martha Wainwright in the 2015 edition of Canada Reads.


Canada Reads

Here's What We Thought - What Do You Think?

Many thanks to Anita for providing us with excellent background information on the Matheson fires and for introducing us to blogger, Matilda Magtree, and her “this is not a review” of Saucier’s book which presented an insightful perspective on the work.

This slim book won France’s prestigious Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie.  Award winning translator, Rhonda Mullen, provided the English version which was short-listed for Canada Reads in 2015. What is it about this tale that has earned it respect and recognition?
Blogger Magtree lists all the things she thinks it is not about, and then says “It is… however, about dignity. How we see people, how we expect or allow them to live. How we can choose to help or hinder or judge. It’s about the kind of communities we want and the kind we build”. While, on the whole, we agreed with this premise, there were many other facets of the novel that we needed and wanted to explore.

Charlie, Tom and Ted were fiercely independent. They lived separately but provided support and comfort for each other while living by a code of noninterference.  They demanded control over their lives… and their deaths. Their tins of strychnine ensured that when life became too difficult, when they were going to lose that control, they could choose death.
The death of Ted and the arrival of Marie-Desneiges changed their community. Ted had died naturally.  Taking care of Marie-Desneiges took thought, time and effort – “the talk of death stopped.” Of course this led to a discussion of the physician assisted suicide legislation, the will to live, and the will to die.

It was refreshing to read about the lives of these people in their eighties and to actually read a tender, sensitive scene about senior sex. That led to thoughts about how society views and treats people who are different – the old, the mentally ill, the disabled. Do we try to understand?  Theirs was a very accepting community and everyone lived (and died) with dignity.

There was so much more that could be said.  Why did the photographer remain unnamed?   How did the films of the Fort McMurray fire deepen our understanding or visualization of the Matheson fires?  Not all members loved the book – did the characters have substance?  Were they believable?   We’d love to know what you think! Please add your thoughts in the Comment Section.                                                                                                                                  

Monday, 7 November 2016

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

Join us for a Skype Conference with the Author

his_whole_life_coverStarting with something as simple as a boy who wants a dog, His Whole Life takes us into a rich and intimate world where everything that matters is at risk: family, nature, country, home.

At the outset, ten-year-old Jim and his Canadian mother and American father are on a car journey from New York City to a lake in eastern Ontario during the last hot days of August. What follows is an enveloping story that spans a few pivotal years of his youth and sets out competing claims on everyone’s love: for Canada over New York; for a mother over a father; a friend over a husband; one son over another. With her trademark honesty, vivid sense of place, and nuanced characters, Hay deftly charts the deepening bond between mother and son as a marriage falters and the family threatens to come apart.

Set in the mid-1990s, when Quebec was on the verge of leaving Canada, this is a coming-of-age story as only Elizabeth Hay could tell it. With grace and power she probes the mystery of how members of a family can hurt each other so deeply, and remember those hurts in such detail, yet find openings that shock them with love and forgiveness

About the Author

Elizabeth Hay was born in Owen Sound, Ontario, the daughter of a high school principal and a painter, and one of four children. When she was fifteen, a year in England opened up her world and set her on the path to becoming a writer. She attended the University of Toronto, then moved out west, and in 1974 went north to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. For the next ten years she worked as a CBC radio broadcaster in Yellowknife, Winnipeg, and Toronto, and eventually freelanced from Mexico. In 1986 she moved from Mexico to New York City, and in 1992, with her husband and two children, she returned to Canada, settling in Ottawa, where she has lived ever since

Author Website


The National Post

The Star

Skype Conference with Elizabeth Hay
Sometimes with hope and a little bit of luck truly great things can happen.  Two members of our book club nominated His Whole Life for our 2016 – 2017 reading list. A sound choice. A fine book.
Who would have thought that Elizabeth Hay, Giller Award winner, would consent to Skype with a book club from small town Alberta or that the Skype conference would be such a magical experience? The space here is too limited, as is my skill, to reproduce all that was said. Here are some of the highlights for us:
What is the idea that inspires you to begin the novel?
Hay describes the process as a kind of emotional congestion. She lies on her bed and tries to determine what matters to her most. Something is troubling her and it is something that she cares deeply about. The crux of this novel is the exploration of the mother/son bond.
Why did you choose the time period of the years surrounding the 2nd Quebec Referendum?
On a larger scale, the situation of our country was that of the family – do we stay together?  Things are falling apart.  It was a time of strong emotion and of fear for the future, a time full of confusion and chaos.  There were strong leaders on both sides of the question – Trudeau, Levesque, Lucien Bouchard… Also, there were the contrasts between Quebec and Canada, Canada and the U.S.
What characters were particularly difficult to write and which were easy?
An author has to write not just about the characters but for them. You write characters from the outside in.
Lulu just flowed out – the book needed her burst of energy just like it needed New York.  In many ways she’s like Dido in Late Nights on Air who also brought that vitality to the situation.  Hay likes to watch people and interpret their behavior and her characters do have elements that are from her own life.  There are many aspects of her own son in Jim.

It was pure joy to spend an hour with Elizabeth Hay – to watch her think and strive for the most honest answer, to revel in her warmth and humour, to see and hear the love she has for her art…  Thanks Liz.

Monday, 24 October 2016

The Outside Circle by Patti Laboucane-Benson, art by Kelly Mellings

In this important graphic novel, two Aboriginal brothers surrounded by poverty, drug abuse, and gang violence, try to overcome centuries of historic trauma in very different ways to bring about positive change in their lives.
Pete, a young Aboriginal man wrapped up in gang violence, lives with his younger brother, Joey, and his mother who is a heroin addict. One night, Pete and his mother’s boyfriend, Dennis, get into a big fight, which sends Dennis to the morgue and Pete to jail. Initially, Pete keeps up ties to his crew, until a jail brawl forces him to realize the negative influence he has become on Joey, which encourages him to begin a process of rehabilitation that includes traditional Aboriginal healing circles and ceremonies.
Powerful, courageous, and deeply moving, The Outside Circle is drawn from the author’s twenty years of work and research on healing and reconciliation of gang-affiliated or incarcerated Aboriginal men.

About the Author and the Illustrator

Patti Laboucane-Benson is a Métis woman and the Director of Research, Training, and Communication at Native Counselling Services of Alberta (NCSA). She has a Ph.D. in Human Ecology, focusing on Aboriginal Family Resilience. Her doctoral research explored how providing historic trauma healing programs for Aboriginal offenders builds resilience in Aboriginal families and communities. She has also been the recipient of the Aboriginal Role Model of Alberta Award for Education. She lives in Spruce Grove, Alberta.

Kelly Mellings is an award-winning art director, illustrator, and designer. His work has appeared in comic books, magazines, apps, museum exhibits, and online games, and his clients include Microsoft. He is the co-owner of the acclaimed illustration, animation, and design firm Pulp Studios. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta. 


Edmonton Journal

Here's What we Thought...  What Do You Think?

For this group of lifelong readers a graphic novel posed an intimidating first and our reactions were mixed.
For many of us, the comic book appearance signaled that the book was intended for a younger audience; it was difficult not to think of it as childish or simplistic.  We knew when we chose the book that we probably needed some help in understanding the genre and Lynn kindly provided an article from the U of A, Reading Lessons: Graphic Novels 101 by Hollis Margaret Rudiger, as a basic guide. Still even with that information, the questions still niggled… “Is this serious literature?  Is this literature?”
There were several false starts – I signed the book out of the library three different times and somehow couldn’t manage to face it, while my usual daily reading continued without interruption. There were several re-reads. And many re-thinks. Those are probably signs of a good book club selection!
Our Concerns:
With the popularity of this genre, will quality of language be eroded or lost?  We found the quality of the text very poor and heavily pedantic.
Does the format of the genre force the reduction of complex issues into simplistic presentations?

Our Kudos:
This very accessible book for reluctant readers deals with serious contemporary problems.
It is emotionally powerful. The art work depicting those emotions is skillfully and sensitively done.
It presents hope to those in despair.
The power of spirituality in healing is demonstrated.

The Outside Circle led us to examine: our relationship as Canadians with our own indigenous people; what we have learned through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; and the current efforts to achieve some kind of reconciliation. Indigenous people were forced to be separate and apart from the mainstream of Canadian society. Now an understanding and a relationship that might have developed naturally will take much sensitivity, commitment and time to foster.

Check out Ben's thoughts and recommendations regarding graphic novels in the comment section

Please join our conversation by adding a comment.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Her name is Dinah. In the Bible, her life is only hinted at in a brief and violent detour within the more familiar chapters of the Book of Genesis that tell of her father, Jacob, and his twelve sons.

Told in Dinah's voice, Anita Diamant imagines the traditions and turmoils of ancient womanhood--the world of the red tent. It begins with the story of the mothers--Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah--the four wives of Jacob. They love Dinah and give her gifts that sustain her through childhood, a calling to midwifery, and a new home in a foreign land. Dinah's story reaches out from a remarkable period of early history and creates an intimate connection with the past.

Deeply affecting, The Red Tent combines rich storytelling with a valuable achievement in modern fiction: a new view of biblical women's lives.

About the Author

Diamant was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1951, grew up in Newark, New Jersey until she was twelve years old when her family moved to Denver, Colorado. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in comparative literature and earned a Master’s in American literature from Binghamton University in upstate New York.

In 1975, she moved to Boston and began a career in journalism, writing for local magazines and newspapers, including the Boston Phoenix, the Boston Globe, and Boston Magazine. She branched out into regional and national media: New England Monthly, Yankee, Self, Parenting, Parents, McCall’s, and Ms. Her feature stories and columns covered a wide variety of topics, from profiles of prominent people and stories about medical ethics, to first-person essays about everything from politics to popular culture to pet ownership to food…

In 1997, Diamant published her first work of fiction. Inspired by a few lines from Genesis, The Red Tent tells the story an obscure and overlooked character named Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob and Leah. The Red Tent became a word-of-mouth bestseller thanks to reader recommendations, book groups, and support from independent bookstores.

Author Website


The Guardian

Kirkus Reviews

Here’s What We Thought…   What do You Think?
The Red Tent met our criteria for a good book club selection.  There were many avenues open for discussion; research was detailed and thorough; and everyone learned something.  It was good for some of us to re-read the book, published in 1997, for either age or distance brought different things to the forefront for us. For a first time reader...

This is not a book I would have selected, but in reading it, I did become immersed in the story of that primitive society, foreign to my usual comfort zone of reading. After I waded through the beginning chapters, where I felt at times awash in estrogen, I found myself even wanting to read to the end.    Wayne

On the night of our meeting a young colleague asked if I had ever been to a “red tent” meeting.  I knew nothing… but learned the novel inspired The Red Tent Movement and societies of women all over the world meet at the coming of the new moon.  You can find more information on The Red Tent Movement here.

Polygamy – what about it?
Why is there such a long history of polygamy?  Even these thousands of years later, there are cultures and sects which still practice it.  Was it intended to support propagation at a time when mortality rates were high and the survival of the tribe was dependent on children to work and protect the tribe?  Was it because women without husbands would be vulnerable and so no matter how cruel a man might be, it was safer to be with him than without? What purpose might it serve today?                              This article from The Walrus provides some information on polygamy in Canada.

Have present day women lost something?
The women of the red tent had a supportive community despite the jealousies and conflicts within the group. From the time of first menstruation, being a woman was celebrated and young women were taught to be proud of their roles in the cycle of life.  Most often today young women do not have access to those supportive communities and society in general does not necessarily celebrate the onset of childbearing years. What advantages do such supporting communities provide? Are there any other contemporary groups beyond those of the red tent?

Please join our conversation by adding a comment below.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Our Best Book Club Books 2015 - 2016

by Colum McCann

Again we have chosen as our best book of the reading season one that members found both fascinating and frustrating. Here's a segment of Anita's introduction to our discussion of Transatlantic:

The story starts in 2012 in a Irish cottage by the edge of a lough (bay or inlet) as a woman wakes and listens to the gulls dropping shells on the slate roof. It ends in 2011 with Hanna in her cottage. It is implied that her guests Aoibheann and David Manyaki are writing an offer to purchase the cottage. In between, the book moves from 1919 to 1845 to 1998 to 2011 with somewhat interwoven stories of historical and fictional characters as they move back and forth between North America and Ireland.

The broad span of time encompassed by the novel as well as the interweaving of the threads of the characters' lives pose many challenges for the reader. The frustrations and rewards of reading this book were about equal in measure. All the Fireside Readers members at the meeting acknowledge McCann's command of the material and the beauty of his writing.

Honourable Mention

Close second in the choice of favourites for the year was the pairing of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravtiz, the first novel to really draw the spotlight to the writing of Mordecai Richler, and Barney's Version, considered the masterwork of the novelist. There's much to recommend such a book club pairing; we can see and compare the work of the young cynical Richler with the mature work of the much more cynical Richler. It was a great evening of discussion between those who love Richler and those who love to hate him!

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Annie Freeman's Fabulous Travelling Funeral by Kris Radish

For Katherine Givens and the four women about to become her best friends, the adventure begins with a UPS package. Inside is a pair of red sneakers filled with ashes and a note that will forever change their lives. Katherine's oldest and dearest friend, the irrepressible Annie Freeman, left one final request-a traveling funeral-and she wants the most important women in her life as "pallbearers."
From Sonoma to Manhattan, Katherine, Laura, Rebecca, Jill, and Marie will carry Annie's ashes to the special places in her life. At every stop there's a surprise encounter and a small miracle waiting, and as they whoop it up across the country, attracting interest wherever they go, they share their deepest secrets-tales of broken hearts and second chances, missed opportunities and new beginnings. And as they grieve over what they've lost, they discover how much is still possible if only they can unravel the secret Annie left them....


About the Author

Kris Radish is the author of nine novels and two works of non-fiction. A former award-winning journalist, magazine writer, nationally syndicated columnist, Radish is also co-owner of a wine lounge, the Wine Madonna, in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, where she hosts books clubs and special literary events with groups from across the globe. She calls her genre “Broads Who Have Been There,“ and it takes one to know one. Her widely popular novels include The Elegant Gathering of White Snows, Dancing Naked at the Edge of Dawn, Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral, The Sunday List of Dreams, Searching for Paradise in Parker P.A., The Shortest Distance Between Two Women, Hearts on a String, Tuesday Night Miracles and A Grand Day to Get Lost.

Author Website:


Kirkus Reviews

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravtiz and Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler

About the Author

Mordecai Richler, CC, novelist, essayist, social critic (born 27 January 1931 in Montréal, QC; died 3 July 2001 in Montréal, QC). A singular figure in Canadian literary and cultural history, Richler remained, in the words of critic Robert Fulford, “the loyal opposition to the governing principles of Canadian culture” throughout his long and productive career. His instincts were to ask hard, uncomfortable questions and to take clear, often unpopular moral positions. Born into an Orthodox family in Montréal’s old Jewish neighborhood, a community he immortalized in his work, he was from the start a complex and uncompromising figure, at once rejecting many of the formal tenets of his faith while embracing its intellectual and ethical rigour. That tension, along with an innately absurdist vision of life, a raw, bracing comedic sensibility, and a fearlessness about speaking his mind, as both artist and citizen, ensured that nearly every word he published displayed a distinctive sensibility. No one else sounded like Mordecai Richler, and few other writers in Canada have ever demanded, and maintained, such a high profile as both an admired literary novelist and a frequently controversial critic. A Companion of the Order of Canada, two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award (1968 and 1971), and winner of the Giller Prize, Mordecai Richler is without question one of Canada’s greatest writers.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, published in 1959, is a hilarious and rambunctious novel that gives little space to scenery or introspection.

It is the story of Duddy Kravitz, a smart-ass kid with ambition, a fast mouth, and little time for education. Duddy is from Montreal’s Jewish working class St. Urbain Street neighbourhood, where “the boys grew up dirty and sad, spiky also, like grass beside the railroad tracks.”

Early on in the book, Duddy’s grandfather tells Duddy, “A man without land is nobody.’’ Duddy internalizes this, repeats the statement regularly (seven times throughout the book), and devotes his life to becoming a somebody.
He starts off as a teenager selling porn and pilfered hockey sticks to classmates. After high school, he works at a summer resort and, when home, he drives his dad’s taxi during off-hours. Then he begins shooting and selling bar mitzvah movies, showing popular films at summer camps, working as a middleman in the scrap metal racket, and he slowly buys up pieces of land around a hidden lake in the countryside. His dream is to one day build a massive resort on the land and get rich. Everything he does is to that end.

Duddy is an outsider, but this isn’t a story of someone who wants to be accepted by those on the inside; this is a story of a person who wants to be bigger than those on the inside, who wants to show them who’s boss. No matter how hard he hustles, though, he can never get ahead. For everything Duddy earns, he loses something bigger, and the reek of his bitterness permeates the book.
“You lousy, intelligent people! You lying sons-of-bitches with your books and your socialism and your sneers. You give me one long pain in the ass,” Duddy says after his uncle challenges him on his ambition. “…I’m going to own my own place one day. King of the castle, that’s me. And there won’t be any superior drecks there to laugh at me or run me off.”
Duddy is mesmerizing throughout the entirety of the book, but he isn’t a likeable character. He sells out friends, he turns on people, he hits his girlfriend, and he lies and cheats as a matter of course. He thinks he’s bigger than St. Urbain Street, and he’ll do anything to prove it. His uncle fears what Duddy is becoming.

“You’re two people,” he tells Duddy. “The scheming little bastard I saw so easily and the fine, intelligent boy underneath that your grandfather, bless him, saw. But you’re coming of age soon and you’ll have to choose. A boy can be two, three, four potential people, but a man is only one. He murders the others.”
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz shows the process of Duddy murdering those others to become a man, and, at the end of it, he has to choose which version will be spared, the good man who loves his family, or the ambitious man who will climb over people to get what he wants.


The New York Times


Barney's Version

Barney Panofsky smokes too many cigars, drinks too much whiskey, and is obsessed with two things: the Montreal Canadiens hockey team and his ex-wife Miriam. An acquaintance from his youthful years in Paris, Terry McIver, is about to publish his autobiography. In its pages he accuses Barney of an assortment of sins, including murder. It's time, Barney decides, to present the world with his own version of events. Barney's Version is his memoir, a rambling, digressive rant, full of revisions and factual errors (corrected in footnotes written by his son) and enough insults for everyone, particularly vegetarians and Quebec separatists. But Barney does get around to telling his life story, a desperately funny but sad series of bungled relationships. His first wife, an artist and poet, commits suicide and becomes--à la Sylvia Plath--a feminist icon, and Barney is widely reviled for goading her toward death, if not actually murdering her. He marries the second Mrs. Panofsky, whom he calls a "Jewish-Canadian Princess," as an antidote to the first; it turns out to be a horrible mistake. The third, "Miriam, my heart's desire," is quite possibly his soul mate, but Barney botches this one, too. It's painful to watch him ruin everything, and even more painful to bear witness to his deteriorating memory. The mystery at the heart of Barney's story--did he or did he not kill his friend Boogie?--provides enough forward momentum to propel the reader through endless digressions, all three wives, and every one of Barney's nearly heartbreaking episodes of forgetfulness. Barney's Version, winner of Canada's 1997 Giller Prize, is Richler's 10th novel, and a dense, energetic, and ultimately poignant read.