From The Novel Nine: Euphoria by Lily King

Our November book was Euphoria by Lily King, a novel inspired by, but not based upon, the lives of the famous anthropologists Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Ruth Benedict. King’s main characters are three anthropologists conducting research in New Guinea in the 1930s. While the primary tension stems from the love triangle between Nell Stone, her husband Fen, and Andrew Bankson, there is also considerable conflict over the different ways in which each of them conducts research and what each feels is the worth of that research.

Nell, for example, describes “euphoria” as that “moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion—you’ve only been there eight weeks—and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.” Bankson, on the other hand, questions whether anyone can ever be objective or truly understand another’s culture. Meanwhile, Fen, jealous of his wife’s accomplishments, does almost no research, but instead, plots to do something that both Nell and Bankson find reprehensible.

All of us liked the book, some far more than others, but we were left somewhat puzzled by Nell. Many of us thought that the author hadn’t given us quite enough information to understand why a woman who had broken nearly every social convention of the 1930s would stay with an emotionally and physically abusive husband. One of us suggested that perhaps the author was making the point that these researchers, whose lives were devoted to understanding the lives of others, had very little insight into their own lives. Someone else suggested that perhaps Nell stayed with her husband to try to undo what she saw as the grievous act he had visited upon the people they were studying. Many of us also would have liked more discussion of the meanings of the rituals and customs ascribed to the tribes being studied — even if they were the author’s invention.

All in all, we found Euphoria to be a compelling read, but a novel that left us with a number of unresolved questions, which did make for a great discussion.

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The US Election

The US election. It’s been two weeks now. I didn’t want to write about it, but I can’t stop thinking about it. For the first several days, I felt shock and tears, then came anger. As a dual citizen, I voted. Of course, I did. My sadness and anger are not about my candidate not winning. I’ve been on the losing side of elections plenty of times. And family and friends have been on different sides — we’ve argued, and yet we’ve always managed to find some common ground, a way to be together and to laugh again.

But this election feels qualitatively different from any other in my lifetime. I am left trying to make sense of the fact that some people I love dearly — family and friends — voted for a man who is openly a white supremacist, a misogynist, and a bigot, a climate-change denier. I don’t know how to bridge that gap, or even if I want to try. The gulf between them and me seems unimaginably deep and broad. For the first time in my life I find myself questioning what lives in their hearts. Laughter seems impossible.

I am terrified of the havoc this president-elect could wreak upon the world. A man so ignorant of world geopolitics that he can praise Putin. A man so thin-skinned that he must tweet in response to every insult, real and imagined. Are we really going to allow this man to be in control of nuclear weapons?

I am distraught at the hate his election has already unleashed, world-wide, upon people of colour and those in the LGBT community. He has emboldened the haters among us. We now know, to our dismay, what many of his supporters meant by “feeling muzzled by political correctness.”

To the extent that this new president-elect actually tries to help people who are impoverished or just barely making a living by working several jobs, I will support him. To the extent that he seeks to undo environmental protections, withdraw from action to curb climate change, undo civil rights protections for minorities, women’s rights, or persecute people in the LGBT community, I will do everything I can to oppose him.

From The Novel Nine: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

All of us enjoyed The Bone Clocks, and we had a very lively discussion at our October meeting. The novel raised a number of questions, many on the order of “What do you think the author meant by …?” We were fascinated by the novel’s structure: five interrelated sections beginning in 1984 and ending in 2043, each of which could stand alone. Many of us felt like the novel, especially its metaphysical aspects, was provocative and optimistic, especially by the end of the fourth section. A few of us weren’t convinced that the last section – dystopian and apocalyptic – was necessary, although it does, perhaps, provide a vision of the trajectory of the human race in the near future.

The discussion led most of us to conclude that a single reading of The Bone Clocks is not enough. The novel has such an intricate, finely structured plot and is so filled with complex characters and so rich with allusions and imaginative metaphysical dimensions that you can’t comprehend it all during the first reading when you’re focused primarily on plot and don’t yet know which characters should receive careful attention. Two members of the group had read the book twice — as well as other David Mitchell novels — and their comments were enormously helpful for the rest of us.

I think everyone in The Novel Nine would recommend this book, as well as others by David Mitchell, all of which are interrelated and include many of the same characters. Most of us will be reading The Bone Clocks again.

From The Novel Nine: Favourite Children’s Books

Our book group has a name! The Novel Nine. There are nine of us, and although we read non-fiction, poetry, and children’s books as well as fiction, we are uniquely brilliant, wonderful women – novel.

This month we discussed our favourite children’s books: the books that turned us into readers and the ones we loved reading to our own children. Although there were far too many to list, a few of the stand-outs were Winnie the Pooh and House at Pooh Corner by AA Milne, Charlotte’s Web by EB White, Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, Uncle Wiggily by Howard Gars, The Dead Tree by Alvin Tresselt, Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, The Olden Days Coat by Margaret Laurence, the Madeleine books by Ludwig Bemelmans, the Doctor Suess books, and The Secret Garden by Robert Louis Stevenson.

We shared nostalgic moments when we remembered how much we enjoyed being read to as children (and as adults), how much we all loved our childhood libraries, and how important those libraries were to our lives and to our children’s lives.

As we became better readers ourselves, we moved into books like Little Women and Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, the Nancy Drew mysteries, the Hardy Boys’ adventures, the Narnia series by CS Lewis, the Anne of Green Gables novels by LM Montgomery, The Famous Five books by Enid Blyton, and of course, the recent Harry Potter series by JK Rowling and the Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman.

We agreed that there is no better gift to give or to receive than a new book.

From the Nightstand: The Outlander by Gil Adamson

The Outlander by Gil Adamson was our book club choice for August. To discuss this novel, we sat around a lovely campfire (even roasted marshmallows) beside Katchewanooka Lake, under a gorgeous, star-filled sky.

Set in the wilderness of western Canada at the turn of the last century, The Outlander is about a young woman widowed by her own hand (perhaps for good reasons), who is trying to escape her dead husband’s vengeful brothers.

Our discussion raised a few questions about plausibility and predictability – and whether the romance was entirely necessary – but in the end we agreed that this was an enjoyable and compelling story with engaging and interesting characters, many of them archtypal and worthy of lengthy discussion. We particularly enjoyed “The widow,” who begins her journey as a nineteen-year-old, incompetent at nearly everything, but who, with help from a few key characters, hones her survival skills along the way. This is a well-crafted novel, written with beautifully  inventive and thought-provoking language by a novelist who is also a poet.

From the Nightstand: New Lakefield Book Group continued . . .

The book group was back in January 2016 to discuss Ru by Kim Thuy, a short novel about life in Vietnam during and following the war and about immigrating to Canada. The book is written in a lovely poetic style; the most common comment at the meeting was that each page should be read slowly and savoured.

February’s book was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a novel set in France and Germany during World War II. A few of us had a bit of difficulty at the beginning with the brevity of the chapters and quick changes in time and place, but that difficulty was quickly overcome, and all of us agreed that the novel was beautifully and imaginatively written, with wonderfully complex characters and a horrifying depiction of war and Nazi Germany.

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman was our March book. (We were going for all the light we could get during the long Canadian winter.) The novel, set in Australia in a region between the Pacific and Indian oceans, is a complicated story of loss, longing, and the catastrophic consequences of one impulsive decision. Most of us liked this book as well, but perhaps not quite as much as All the Light We Cannot See.

In April, we discussed The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, a quirky novel set in an opulent apartment building in Paris. The characters are intriguing and evolve in interesting ways. The dual narrators’ observations are wise and thought-provoking. We enjoyed this novel and agreed that it deserved another read, just for the wisdom of the observations.

May’s book was The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. This non-fiction book about the Chicago World’s Fair reads like a novel. The characters are compelling. (The psychopath is compelling in a gruesome sort of way.) All of us found the story behind the fair to be fascinating and far more interesting than we had expected.

For June, we decided to discuss a classic: The Awakening by Kate Chopin, a novel set in Louisiana. When first published in 1899, the novel shocked and scandalized many readers. For us, it was interesting to discuss why, as well as to consider what has changed for women and what has not. A few of us were frustrated with the passivity of the main character, but most of us enjoyed the novel and came away from the discussion with a deeper appreciation for both the writing and the story.

In July, we met to choose books (and activities) for the upcoming year. Our August book will be The Outlander by Gil Adamson. We’re also hoping we can decide on a name for our little group.

Stay tuned …

From the Nightstand: A New Book Group

I cannot live without books … or book groups. I joined Over-readers Anonymous in northern Wisconsin in 1983, shortly after I completed graduate school. (Does anyone have time to read novels in graduate school?) We read scores of books — far too many to list; some were great, others not so much, but nearly all were worth the read. I remained a member of that wonderful group until 2004 when I moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland. There, I found another book group and was a member until I moved to Lakefield, Ontario, in April 2015. One month later, I joined a fabulous group of book women.

Our first meeting was May 19, 2015, at the Canoe & Paddle. We managed to organize ourselves, to discuss what we wanted the group to be, and to choose our first book: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King. At our June meeting, we agreed that the book was entertainingly written, which made King’s historical account of the appalling treatment of indigenous people in the US and Canada all the more affecting and shameful. We also agreed that everyone in North America should read this book.

July’s book was Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, the story of a good man gone wrong (an oversimplification of a very complex novel). There was a consensus that the book was well written and intelligent, but we held decidedly different opinions about the story and the characters. Some of us loved the novel and all its complexity; others thought the characters were unengaging, unlikeable, and, in some cases, unbelievable, which made for a lengthy and difficult read.

In August, we read All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews for our September meeting. AMPS is a deeply affecting novel about suicide, not only the devastating loss, but also the mix of emotions — fear, sorrow, anger, frustration — experienced by family and friends. We loved this book and agreed that it was beautifully and imaginatively written. Well worth a second read.

Our October book was Sweetland by Michael Crummey, a novel about the resettlement of outport communities in Newfoundland and one man’s choice of solitude. For many of us, it was our second time reading the book, and we agreed that we could easily read it again. A multi-layered novel, beautifully written, imaginative and intriguing. We loved this book too.

In November, we discussed The Confabulist by Steven Galloway. The consensus was that this was a disappointing novel, especially for those who’d read The Cellist of Sarajevo and loved it. Our expectations were high, but we found the writing in The Confabulist to be a bit clunky and the characters and story not all that engaging or interesting.

We took a break for Christmas. 2016 books yet to come …