CLJ Reviews Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian


“Desolation Island”, the fourth book in Irish writer Patrick O’Brian’s naval series, set in the age of Lord Nelson. O’Brian chronicles the adventures of eccentric ship surgeon/spy Stephen Maturin and his buddy, Captain Jack Aubrey – brilliant at sea and hopeless on land. O’Brian’s writing has been compared to that of Jane Austen’s in terms of narrative style while his portrayal of life at sea and daily life in the wooden world of a man of war has been praised as the best there is or ever was. I picked this book because I was keen to expose the rest of the group to literature about the sea – something I’m passionate about, but also because “Desolation Island” is simply a rolicking good read with international espionage, chases on the high seas, maroonings and lots of funny bits as well.


Appropriately the day to discuss the book dawned with gale force winds coming off English Bay. Due to the weather we were not able to meet, as originally planned, at the Maritime museum, execute feats of nautical expertise such as knot tying, and then embark in an Aquaferry across False Creek. The storm would have capsized us and that would have meant no more Book Club. Instead, we played it safe and met at the aptly named “Pirate Pub” to discuss the book. There, each reader was asked to deliver his own diary entry about life on a two-decker from the perspective of one of the book’s characters. And of course there was a trivia contest based on ship terminology. (None of my book clubs are complete without a trivia contest). No one did particularly well at the trivia. Not at all well, actually, which made me realize that Patrick O’Brian could have sold more books had he just toned it down a little bit with all the rich sailor speak which make his novels so very authentic.


Given that this book, takes place in an entirely male world of a 19th Century Man of War, I was surprised that the most praise came from female members of CLJ. They each praised the author’s masterful language and his keen sense of character relationships and dialogue. Most of the group struggled with ‘entering’ the world that Patrick O’Brian creates, namely pre-industrial Britain, a wooden ship and customs completely divorced from those existing on land. It was nonetheless good to see that everyone appreciated being exposed to something new. That’s what makes CLJ so great after all: we often read the books we would otherwise not pick ourselves.

CLJ Reviews Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

What We Read

This month, Vancouver’s Circle of Literary Judgement read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (with Steven L. HoppKingsolver) and Camille Kingsolver. The story – a non-fiction narrative that follows the path of the Vegetannual through the seasons – chronicles The Kingolver Clan’s locavore experiment, which saw the family live from the local culinary bounty produced by their multi-acre farm (and revenue generated by two decades of best-selling novels) in Virginia. Barbara Kingsolver (BK herein) provides the – ahem – meat of the story, revealing her passion for food, her instructive advice on how to grow/raise food, and her commitment to changing the way people (specifically educated women who are over 45, have healthy disposable income, and who probably live in a rural community) think about food and where it somes from. BK’s stories of asparagus, tomatoes and turkeys are nicely supplemented by info-boxes about sustainable local food procuring from Steven Hopp and recipes from Camille Kingsolver (CK herein).

What We Did

With food at the centre of the book we made food the centre of book club! An hommage to Iron Chef was our activity of choice. Team Kitchen took on Team BBQ in a battle to build creative, delicious, local, fair, and organic dishes that reflected key themes from the book. The cooking took about 90 minutes and the final products were absolutely exceptional.

In terms of ingredients, I provided some basics (potatoes, tomatoes, herbs and spices, flour, yeast, water, milk, etc.) and then each team had to select twenty dollars worth of items from another list of options (eggs, fruit, alcohol, cheese, fish, etc.). The secret ingredients were chicken and rabbit (from my parents’ home in Merville on Vancouver Island). But enough writing, here are some photos that tell the tale:

This is the menu for Team Kitchen - written on Stew's back, for some reason...

In the end, Team Kitchen edged Team BBQ, as their pizza, rabbit stew (made by a guy named Stew) and sangria were as delicious as they were creatively presented. When dinner wrapped up, though, we sat at a table of winners; very full and satisfied culinary winners.

What We Thought

This was interesting. The table agreed that food is important and that it will become more important – and more politicized and businessified – in the future. That was about all we agreed on. One person had no time for the message or the book’s style, citing the recipes as the only piece of value in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – this person scoffed at any local food projects, too, stating that the economics of oil would eventually make our world smaller simply because of the cost and that BK got nowhere near the hardship of farming. If it was so easy, everyone would do it. Another person has actively changed her shopping habits based on BK’s insistence on eating seasonally. And many of us thought that the message was old news. Not many of us cared for BK, CK or Steve’s style, either; however, we agreed that our table was jealous that they got to the project before we did and that people don’t like our writing as much as they like the narratory trinity from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Another interesting part of the discussion came out of our material conditions and our upbringings. I am the only member of our nine-person book club who grew up in a rural community. And my parents refer to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as “the bible” for locavores everywhere. I was surprised and impressed by how passionate and opinionated a book about food – and an activity with very strict financial and menu parameters – made everyone. People chided my choice of book, complained about the Kingsolver Clan’s unabashed pretentiousness, asked to use out-of-season and non-local ingredients, and three people repeatedly warned me that we wouldn’t have enough food. Needless to say, last weekend’s book club experience was a wonderful case study of urban local food experimentation. Thanks for the inspiration, Barbara, Steven and Camille, and for the deliciously lively dinner, members of the CLJ community!

Alison Atkinson – The Teacher

Who are you?

I’m a reader, a writer, a Vancouver lifer, a pretty good veggie cook, a yogi, and depending on the day and season, a whole lot of other things.

By day, I work as a high school English teacher. This year, I have grade tens and elevens. We’re using literature and writing to explore crisis and resilience, and prejudice and stereotype.

What do you do for fun?

I have amazing friends, so I spend a lot of time with them. I do a lot of yoga. I read a lot of books. And I try to make the regular stuff, the day to day stuff, fun too.

What is your favorite community? Why?

My favorite community is Camp Fircom, which is a magical place on Gambier Island. I’ve been involved with camp since I was 16 and I’ve seen countless people get to play, make friends, connect to the earth, and fully be themselves. It’s a community that fully embraces imagination, enviromental awareness, and connection – everyone should check it out!

I should also mention my community of best friends here in Vancouver. They are spectacular human beings who have just heaved love on me over the years.

What is your superpower?

My superpower is creating and holding spaces for people to express themselves – be it in the classroom, the yoga studio, or just around the kitchen table.

How do I use it to build community?

When people can feel comfortable and confident on who they are, it’s easier to connect and form community. My dream is to help people be real, take themselves less seriously, and find ways to be creative. From there, community follows.

My Three Favourite Things About Alison Are…

1. Her Smile. It’s very reflective of her superpower. When Alison smiles she reveals her compassion, inclusiveness, sense of humour, and also that she kinda already knows what’s going to happen and/or what you’re going to say next. People who are very comfortable in their own skin have such a wonderful way of making those around them feel the same way.

2. She’s Candidly Direct. The world needs more straight-shooters. As the newest member of the Circle of Literary Judgement, it would be easy for Alison to agree with the collective opinion of what is a pretty outspoken and opinionated group of judgers – but that’s not how she rolls and it’s just lovely. Being a good teacher means being able to criticise without offending and Alison has this powerful skills in spades.

3. Sense of Adventurous Community. Her work with Camp Fircom – and how she collaborates with friends and fellow volunteers to creatively connect people to the natural environment is the best kind of stuff. The eloquence and passion with which Alison speaks of this experience is reflective of someone with difference-making abilities and I’m lucky to call her a friend.

- As told by John Horn

Header photo courtesy of m.prinke

CLJ Reviews Siddartha by Herman Hesse

Siddartha, by Herman Hesse, is the story of a life that chooses to question all ideology. The story is set in India at some point in its past and tells the story of a man’s life. Siddartha is a privileged, brahmin youth who is raised to become a priest and leader of his community, but then rejects this responsibility in order to find truth. Along the way he encounters numerous purveyors of truthiness: flagellant mystics, the Buddha, high-class prostitutes, capitalist merchants, and finally a boatman.

Throughout his journey the only truth he finds is that there is no such thing. All ideology is suspect to him. His companions and teachers gladly embrace self-denial, meditation, lust, familial love and pleasure in the pursuit of a virtuous life. Siddartha becomes fully involved with all of these actions, yet some small part of him maintains a restless search for something more.

In the end (spoiler!), he finds himself back at the river where he started, this time as a student of the ultimate teacher — the river. Like the movement of river to sea to rain to river, truth is found in the flows of existence. Truth is round. It is a narrative cycle, not the specifics of content or the final sentence.

Circle of Literary Judgement (COLJ) activities are generally competitive, reflecting the divinely-granted free market of ideas, skills and labour that underpins Canadian society. This is natural and healthy, at least so we are taught. Taking a lesson from our literary companion Mr Hesse, this book club both questioned and affirmed that impulse: a small amount of food (bodily-denial) was followed by meditation (a struggle with the ideologies of the self), a sharing of religious experiences (collaborative community-building) and finally a hilarious re-telling of the narrative through interpretative dance and acting (competitively marked by all viewers for the trophy).

The ‘winner’ of the trophy was our very own Australian walkabout, Natasha Moore.

CLJ Reviews Barney’s Version

What we read

This novel received rave reviews when it came out in 1997. To me, it is a welcome addition to the canon of Canadiana, overly populated with the dryly morose (e.g., Atwood), or the cheesy (e.g, Anne of Green Gables, Who Has Seen the Wind). While none of the fine members of CLJ could readily identify with the whiskey-swilling, cigar-puffing Barney Panofsky, everyone certainly enjoyed following his trials and tribulations in this last and funniest novel by literary icon Richler.

What we Did

The group discussed the novel over delicious pizza followed by attending the move adaptation, aptly named, well, “Barney’s Version.” To win the prize of the CLJ trophy and a mickey of pretend-Macallan whiskey, Barney’s booze of choice, people were asked to present their own “version” – some sort of autobiographical account of an event or incident in their life around for which there were conflicting interpretations, emulating Barney’s own account of the murder/accident by the lake. The stories were generally hilarious, ridiculous and improvisational. Kurt delivered a schizo tirade with an impressive southern twang, but John stole the show with his telling of a Lennoxville adventure during his Bishops days, scoring particularly high in the curmudgeon and geographically relevant (Go Quebec!) categories.

Pizza was followed by the movie at 5th Ave cinema and its delicious frozen yoghurt (!).  Amazing. The fun didn’t stop there with a splinter group heading to a 4th Ave. Hell’s Kitchen for a post mortum on the movie/book. All very good times.

What we Thought

Both the book and the movie were a big hit with the kids. There was no denying that Richler’s humour kept us engaged over 300+ pages, while Dustin Hoffman (Barney’s Dad) and Paul Giamatti (Barney) were, as usual, brilliant. No one particularly liked Barney as a character, but most agreed that this was hardly Richler’s concern when conjuring up a foul-mouthed  grump who produces second rate miniseries for a living. I think I was in the minority in complaining that the movie “Hollywoodized” / overly sanitized the book a bit. Lastly, I’m not sure this book lent itself so well to a book club only that it was thin on themes and issues, reading more like a stream of consciousness in which it was hard to get much of a foothold for discussion.

CLJ Reviews The Hunger Games

What we read

I first read the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins on the recommendation from a friend. She had told me that it was a book for ‘young’ readers but followed up that she absolutely loved it. I was intrigued!

I not only loved it but devoured it just as I remember doing with so many books when I was a ‘young’ reader.

The Hunger Games is the story of Katniss, a young woman living in a post-apocalyptic world. Each year the Capital holds The Hunger Games and chooses one girl and one boy from each district to fight to the death. Through a series of events Katniss enters the Games for her district – district 12.

What we did

The Hunger Games is, as most things are sooner or later, being made into a film. So the challenge was to create their own young readers story and then deliver it as a film pitch. The pitches were rated by other readers for creativity, delivery and overall appeal

What we thought

A really positive response from our book club readers who found The Hunger Games to be an engaging and fast paced book – even if it was written for those half our age and more! A couple went on to read the remaining two books of the series – always a good indication that the book was well liked.

CLJ Reviews The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

What We Read

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton examines the nature of and our relationship with work – something that most of us will spend a good portion of life doing. De Botton takes a long walk with a man who loves powerlines, he sits with a career counselor through interviews and workshops and follows the death and consumption of a tuna steak. His examination of work challenges us to reflect on why we do what we do – that for many of us we are engaged in something that our sixteen year old selves decided for us – for better or worse!

What we did and how we did it

I was quite unsure of what to do for this book club but one idea came clearly from reading the book. In the chapter on biscuit manufacture, de Botton talks about the way in which meaning is placed in the intangible. That a circular biscuit conveys a particular message to us. I wondered what my work would look like as a biscuit … how would I convey what I did and what it meant to me using cookie dough and chocolate chips? And so our intrepid readers did exactly that. They created a cookie that represented their work.

As I was reading some online reviews about the book and thinking of questions to as the group I though – I wonder what Alain would ask the book club? So on a whim I went to his website, found his email and sent him a note. LO! In no time at all I had a reply and a question to ask book club. What a delight!

And his question was:

I’d ask: what other pleasures are there that work can deliver that are not considered here?
For example, the pleasure of serving. In other words, the question would be about people submitting ideas for imaginary further chapters to the book.

What we Thought

So what did we think? Perhaps it’s best demonstrated in my follow up email to Alain.

Hello Alain!

Well I must say that the Circle of Literary Judgment was very excited to receive a question from you as part of our book club discussion. It prompted some lively banter and here are some ideas that we think are perfect for your next book.

Other pleasures in work include:

  • Mastery “even like a cigar roller in Cuba”
  • Camaraderie, laughter, community and mentorship
  • Ritual “the treat of having coffee at 10:15″
  • Learning, education
  • The variety in simplicity

I’ve also attached a little snapshot of our cookie-making challenge. In competition for the trophy readers were asked to create a cookie to represent and invoke their feeling around their work. Just as ‘Moments’ are for ‘me time’.

You’ll be interested to learn that the winner of the trophy did not make a cookie but rather provided an appropriate accompaniment to our sweet treats – milk of course. You see John is a Career Counselor and as so winningly explained by him, his role is to provide the support and nourishment for our cookie-making endeavors. That is his cookie.

A final note: we received a card from Yann Martel! We had asked him to recommend books for us to read and I would like to extend the same request to you. What books should the Circle of Literary Judgment read next??

Thank you for providing us with such a wonderful book club book!


And Alain recommends:

Dear Natasha,

I now have book club envy. Your club looks such fun, I wish I could gatecrash. Perhaps one day…

I’m so glad things went well. In the future, you should read some Norman Mailer non-fiction (Of a Fire on the Moon ideally) or else the whole of Marcel Proust, or else, for a briefer thing, Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal.

I’m so glad Yann was a sport – and thanks so much to you for your kindness.

All best


The Serpent and The Rainbow

CLJ Reviews the Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis

[Editor's Note: this post is by Book Club's Phil "Hashbrown" Skipper and conforms in no way to the structure that all other write-ups follow. And that is what it, like Phil, is superawesome and un-containable. Enjoy!]

Lately, as I’m reading a book, I’ll write down words whose definitions I don’t yet know, or did know and have now forgotten.  These lists of words usually end up filling an entire bookmark, usually the receipt of the book I’ve bought.  These bookmark-receipts become mini time-capsules, thermochromic records of the time and place of purchase, scribbled over with a seemingly unrelated miscellany of words.  Below is a copy of one such list, taken from the 1985 Warner Books Edition of The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis, with page numbers preceding the words (what can I say – I’m thorough).

7 unctuous 10 etoliated 13 perfunctory 47 desuetude 50 neem 50 peristyle 54 desultory 56 curanderos 57 scabrous 63 negativistic 71 quiescent 74 chromatic 78 sisal 78 calabash 80 caserne 81 canebrake 81 lakou 98 bagi 112 cabalistic 114 cako 125 urticating 126 vermifuge 183 convoi 221 undifferentiated 216 mapou 268 bathos 299 inimical

Sometimes I’ll look up a word and learn its meaning.  I rarely remember the definitions, but take pleasure in the feeling of discovery some people have when learning a foreign language.  Take “unctuous” for example:

1.  characterized by excessive piousness or moralistic fervor, esp. in an affected manner; excessively smooth, suave, or smug.
2.  of the nature of or characteristic of an unguent or ointment; oily; greasy.
3.  having an oily or soapy feel, as certain minerals
1350–1400;  ME < ML ?nctu?sus,  equiv. to L ?nctu ( s ) act of anointing ( ung ( uere ) to smear, anoint + -tus  suffix of v. action) + -?sus

If reading that doesn’t make you want to go out right now and read The Serpent and the Rainbow, then you are an unctuous dummkopf.  Dummkopf!

If still curious, it’s about swashbuckling ethnobotanical drugged-out creole slave rebellion.  With zombies.


The Zanzibar Chest

CLJ Reviews The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley

What We Read

I read the Zanzibar chest during a booze filled week in Mexico. At the time it seemed like a rollicking good read – chronicling the journeys of Aiden Hartley, a BBC journalist through African conflict zones of the late 90’s. A parallel back story is provided sketching the experience of Hartley’s father as a Lawrence of Arabia-type administrator in the Middle East of the 1920’s. The two Africa’s make for an interesting portrait of how the continent was changed and in a lot of ways, worsened by colonialism. Some of the more riveting parts of the book take place in the bombed out street of Mogadishu, Somalia, with Hartely right in the thick of marauding militia.  Hartley’s experience is typical of the privileged African British White Man who grew up with one foot in Africa and the other in Britain – ultimately at home in neither.

What We Did (and How We Did It)

The game I designed was very involved, and, dare I say, ambitious. A lot of wine flowed before we got to what was supposed to be a mish mash of Risk, Trivial Pursuit and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego [Editor's note: none of this was close to apparent during the explanation and there was also an element of Balderdash in there somewhere, except Godfrey made his lovely fiance/wife Maya judge everyone's answers, which was as awkward as it was hilarious] ….Fine, I’ll admit that I really can’t remember what the challenge was. All I know is that it was a gong show. Prizes of chocolate from Downtown Chocolatier Mink were handed out to soothe somewhat befuddled and flustered participants.

What We Thought

As I said, I loved this book as a quick read on a Mexico beach. It did not stand up well under the critical reading of the CLJ. People condemned its self-indulged lengthiness and the equally self-centred perspective of Hartley, too cowardly and removed from the horrors around him to step out from behind his journalist notepad and actually try to alleviate suffering.  Strong debate also sprung up about the soporific drug, Qaat, which is featured prominently in several chapters – chewed sullenly by local tribesmen and the protagonist himself. There was insinuation by some participants that legalized drugs fuelled conflict. Needless to say the book was a bit of a flop, but it did not disappoint in creating a raucous evening of wine, and, by association, Qaat.

As told by Godfrey von Bismarck…

Artists, politicians, and the lost art of letter writing

Last month, our book club* did something a bit different. Instead of the usual book club agenda, comprised of the reading and then discussing of a book (in addition to the not-so-usual quizzes, plays, and trophy bestowals), we wrote and shared letters. The inspiration for this letter writing was none other than Canadian author Yann Martel (of Life of Pi fame), and his book What is Stephen Harper Reading?

For those of you who are unaware of this ambitious endeavor – here’s a brief summary: In March 2007, Yann Martel and 40 other Canadian artists were invited to the House of Commons to celebrate 50 years of the Canada Council for the Arts, our national arts funding agency. Gathered in the visitor’s gallery, the artists waited patiently to be acknowledged for their collective contribution, representing all Canadian artists, to Canadian culture. And brief it was -  an address less than 5 minutes in length followed by a lackluster dusting of applause; a Prime Minister who did not even raise his head from the stack of papers sitting before him. And so begins Mr. Martel’s relentless pursuit: to find out what drives Stephen Harper. What makes him tick? What informs his soul, what type of art does he appreciate, what makes up his cultural self?

Barack Obama's letter to Yann Martel about his Book, Life of Pi. C'mon, Harper!

Biweekly since March 2007, Yann Martel has been writing Stephen Harper letters, with suggestions for books to read. And biweekly since March 2007, there has been no response from Mr. Harper – unless you count a few generic responses from his Communications Officers thanking him for his letter.

Tackling this in book club was a treat. We, of course, discussed Yann Martel at length – what continues to motivate him to write letters? Is this becoming a personal vendetta, or is it a clever, politically-driven, advocacy attempt to increase arts funding? Is it pretentious? We discussed the ideas in the letters – what role does art play in defining our identity as Canadians? Do business schools have a place in Canadian Universities? Should there be a required reading list for our prime ministers?

As interesting as the discussion was, the most  intriguing aspect of the club was the writing of our own letters: the homework assigned to each member was to write a letter to whomever they would like, with a book suggestion, and then share it with the group. Recipients ranged from, well, me, to Stephen Harper to Lindsay Lohan to Yann Martel to Australia. Each member confessed that it was pretty darn hard to write their letter – in this age of text messages and emails, where responses are fairly immediate and the process fairly interactive, having to convey all of your thoughts in one correspondence where responses are not immediate was a tough endeavor.

Our letters will be sent along to Mr. Martel. We’ll wait to see when – or if! – he responds, and how he will react to our activity, our thoughts, our book suggestions. Hopefully, he’ll see how his activities have prompted our small group to become engaged advocating art through the means of a lost art, with the people, ideas, and nations that surround us.

*Do you like books? clubs? Well, you’re in luck! Stay tuned for an up-and-coming section of the Daily Gumboot, where you will be able to read all about the shenanigans of Vancouver’s coolest and least pretentious** bookclub, The Circle of Literary Judgement
**As reported on by The Globe and Mail