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.

The Good Earth

CLJ Reviews The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

What We Read

The Good Earth was published in 1931 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Generally regarded as a classic, I chose the book for two reasons: 1.) It’s my mom’s favourite book and I promised her we would read it for Book Club, and 2.) Yann Martel – out of all the books he could have recommended to us in his letter to the CLJ – recommended this one (which of course led to numerous claims of “I told you so!” by my mother). Turns out, it really was a great book suggestion. The Good Earth tells the story of a simple, farm family living in pre-revolutionary China who encounter many trials and tribulations throughout the course of the protagonist, Wang Lung’s, life. Facing not just drought, pestilence, and floods, Wang Lung must learn to grapple with conflict within his family, and his own feelings of lust, greed and entitlement.

What We Did (and How We Did It)

One of the major themes within the novel is the importance of being connected to the Earth – when Wang Lung leaves his land, hurt and despair seem to follow closely behind. Within the novel, the cultural belief that various Gods are responsible for the fortunes or misfortunes of the family is also evident. Tying these two themes together, the activity asked CLJ members to spend some time planting seeds of their choices into small pots. They were then asked to take on the persona of a character in the novel and pray to the Gods for their seeds to grow and flourish –with the best depiction of character and plea to the Gods, our newest CLJ member Alison Atkinson took home the trophy.

What We Thought

The group talked a lot about the relevance and appropriateness of a privileged American woman telling this story from the perspective of a Chinese peasant. Given the year of publication and popularity of the novel in America (and around the world), we also talked a lot about this book’s probable impact on how many Americans viewed China, as this book was arguably one of the earliest and most realistic depictions of Chinese life that many Americans would have been exposed to. The underlying themes of greed, the social order, and the treatment of women were also explored. Most members of the CLJ thoroughly enjoyed the book – or at the very least, appreciated the opportunity to read a thought-provoking piece of literature they otherwise would not have read.

As told by Michelle Burtnyk-Horn

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.


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

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

CLJ Reviews What is Stephen Harper Reading? by Yann Martel

What We Read

What is Stephen Harper Reading? is a compilation of letters, written biweekly from Yan Martel to Stephen Harper. Each letter suggests a book for Harper to read that Martel claims will, in one way or another, expand stillness. The impetus for this incessant letter writing campaign? A slight towards Canadian artists in the House of Commons back in 2007, and a subsequent obsession with finding out what Stephen Harper reads, what makes him tick, and how (or if) culture informs his soul. For a full compilation of the letters and a more detailed version of events leading up to this project, click here.

What We Did (and How We Did It)

This bookclub came with a unique homework assignment: to write a letter with a book suggestion, and 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 a letter was a tough endeavor. Our letters will be sent along to Mr. Martel. We’ll wait to see when – or if! – he responds.

What We Thought

We, of course, discussed Yann Martel at length – what continues to motivate him to write these letters? Is this a personal vendetta, or is it a politically-driven attempt to increase arts funding? Is it pretentious? We also 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? While we disagreed about the motive behind the project and the ideas in the letters, we all agreed that Mr. Martel’s role as advocate for the arts is so very important to our society – and in this role, he is doing a fantastic job.

As told by Michelle Burtnyk…

The Stone Carvers

CLJ Reviews The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart

What We Read

The Canadian Novel is a theme the CLJ picks up every now and then with varying degrees of enjoyment by all involved. Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers was one of the better ones.

Spanning centuries, the novel examines the relationship between what you want and what you do once you get it through multiple intertwined narratives centred on a small town in Ontario. The story opens with the complex tale of Catholic priest Father Gstir’s journey from Austria to the small town of Shoneval. Upon arrival, he builds a brewery and church, receives the bell he worked so hard to acquire, and promptly dies. Fast forwarding a number of decades we are introduced to the main characters of the book: Klara, Tilman, Eamon and Refuto.

Klara and Tilman are siblings, born to the wood carver who helped Father Gstir construct his church in the wilderness. As a young woman, Klara tragically falls in love with the poetic Irish-Canadian neighbour Eamon, who then leaves to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force and fight in WWI. As a boy, Tilman is unable to stay in one place, and ends up (literally) breaking the chains of family to travel the road as a hobo, also ending up in the trenches. Kindly Refuto provides comic relief as well as space for Tilman’s strange wanderlust to grow into with his cryptic, reverse sentences and double negatives; “Refuto does not make those sentences.” Eamon is killed in the fighting, and Tilman’s leg is wounded, making his wandering existence difficult.

Ultimately Klara and Tilman end up in Vimy Ridge, carving the Canadian war memorial and in doing so find what they always wanted: healing, love and closure from the various traumas they had suffered. Klara, pretending to be a man, secretly falls for Giorgio, an Italian-Canadian carver. Tilman meanwhile discovers his sexuality in a local French chef, Recouvrir (hilariously translatable as ‘to recover’). Happy endings are in store…

The use of the Vimy Ridge Memorial is an interesting one. The mass psyche of Canadians was supposed to find solace for its collective sacrifice at this memorial. Perhaps Klara, Tilman and Giorgio represent a particular demographic within that mass; the ex-soldier, abandoned lover and talented artist.

What We Did (and How We Did It)

Passionate discussion was followed by flying soap chips. The trophy was awarded to the most interesting or entertaining bar-of-soap monument to the novel’s innermost soul. Unsurprisingly, the trophy was awarded our resident storyteller and overachieving book clubber, John Horn, for his multi-dimensional cloud structure. The soap has subsequently been used in our daily showers. Fun, efficient, and sustainable? That’s the CLJ spirit!

What We Thought

Overall the novel was enjoyed by most, with particular mention going to the character development of Klara and Tilman as well as the curiously successful narrative device weaving multiple time lines and generations. Frustration was expressed at the seemingly boundless prose frequently employed by Jane Urquhart to describe quite ordinary moments. Further annoyance was centred on the sheer stupidity of some characters, most notably Eamon, but what is a good read without some outright distain for a fake person?

As told by Stewart Burgess …

All the Pretty Horses

CLJ Reviews All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

What We Read

Have you ever gone on a road trip? What about camping? Well, these are more or less the subjects of All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. Except that the road trip – obviously – involves horses and the camping is done by cowboys – Rawlins and John Grady Cole – in post-WW2 Texas and, mostly, Mexico. The tale is an adventurous, romantic, beautiful, tragic, and heroic one. And it’s told with an eloquence that is rarely seen in American literature. In this humble blogger’s opinion, All the Pretty Horses is a true American classic.

What We Did (and How We Did It)

Book Club participated in “The Trial of John Grady Cole” – this was a hypothetical mock trial, which built on one of the novel’s threads: John Grady Cole was accused of stealing a horse (among other things). Members of The Circle of Literary Judgement were asked (at random) to play different characters from the book. The better they acted, the more points they got. Kurt Heinrich won the trophy for a simply uncanny portrayal of Jimmy Blevins.

What We Thought

We all agreed that John Grady Cole and/or Lacey Rawlins are dudes that you would want on a road trip, in a rainstorm or in a gang fight in a Mexican jail. Some members, I won’t say who, have named this as their all-time favourite Book Club book. Some people struggled with the writing – short, curt and the Spanish isn’t translated. The story is gripping and more nuanced than any of us thought while reading it. Because, hey, you just get distracted by the simple, manly dialogue, the breathtaking scenery, and the horses…since they’re so darn pretty. It was a great read, you sumbucks!

As told by John Horn…

The Time Traveler’s Wife

CLJ Reviews The Time Traveler’s Wife

What We Read

The Time Traveler’s Wife was written by Audrey Niffenegger. This book is for anyone who was ever fascinated in time travel, romance and potentially creepy situations involving a young girl and her older spouse who’s flipping in and out of space time. It follows the lives of two people, Henry and Clare. Henry is a time traveler (by birth) and both of them are in love with each other almost from the start. Through a number of key points in the narrative Henry influences the life and love of his future bride. In the meantime, older Clare pines for Henry and worries about his safety as he frequently disappears. Oh and they have sex – a lot of sex. This is a pretty spicy book, a love affair from both points of view with a sci-fi twist reminiscent of the Terminator (though sadly sans beefy Arnold).

What We Did (And How We Did It)

The Circle of Literary Judgement likes to change things up from time to time. When my book club choice fell right around the premier of the film, The Time Traveler’s Wife, I decided to host a movie date as part of the discussion. It started out strong. Almost everyone in the group enjoyed the story. Unfortunately, after seeing the movie, our memory of how much we loved the story began to fade and was slowly replaced with script and character mis-use. It really is true: most of the time, the book will always be better than the movie – except for Contact, with apologies to the late Carl Sagan. That movie rocked, unlike The Time Traveler’s Wife.

What We Thought

We loved the book and hated the movie. The end. Well, not quite. There was enough plot development to keep even the hardest sells in our group interested and Niffenegger is undeniable in her ability to take the reader on an emotional roller coaster. To bad the movie was so horrible and we are a co-ed book club and not one comprised only of women. Although some of the guys found the story somewhat tedious and overly focused on the romance of it all (not to mention occasionally morally questionable nature of Henry), the book remains an all-time favorite of mine, one I hope to return to again and again.


CLJ Reviews Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

What We Read

Persepolis is the story of a young girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Told from her perspective in graphic novel format, we follow little Marjane as she attempts to make sense of the political, cultural and personal changes that are happening around her and within her – why was her uncle taken away for questioning? Why is it required that all the girls in the school need to wear veils? What’s so bad about listening to Michael Jackson anyway?

What We Did (and How We Did It)

Book Club was asked to create their own graphic novels, using images and scenes from the book. CLJ was split into pairs, and each group presented their reconstructed graphic novel to the group, with points given for creativity, presentation, and how well they integrated themes and ideas from the actual book. CLJ rose to a climatic summit of anticipation as two pairs battled out a tie, with the trophy being awarded to Theodora Lamb for her flair, style, and knowledge of the book.

What We Thought

Many members in the group had never read a graphic novel before, and felt it was a new and satisfying experience. The group talked about how the book read differently as a graphic novel, and also talked about the adaptation of the book into a movie – how did the tone, feel and message of the story change as it was told through different channels? With elections taking place in Iran just three short weeks before book club, followed by protests and claims of electoral fraud, CLJ discussed similarities to the Islamic Revolution and how Iran had changed over the past 30 years.

As told by Michelle Burtnyk …

Oryx and Crake


CLJ Reviews Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

What We Read

Every decade or so Margaret Atwood produces a novel hyperperbolizing some aspect of contemporary society which ultimately will end in a dystopic future. Oryx and Crake is this decade’s version. Set in a post-apocalyptic near future in which seemingly the only survivors are Snowman and his flock of genetically engineered humanoids, the novel unfolds through the slow exploration of Snowman’s memories from the before-times. These memories are centred around a curious love triangle between his childhood friend/mad scientist code-named Crake, Snowman and the mutual object of their affection: former child porn star Oryx. The before times were a hyper-corporatized world where genetic modification has become the norm, ultra-drugs and sexuality are common, and there are deep social divisions between the exclusive ‘Compounds’ and the surrounding pleeblands. 

Atwood reveals a world that is at once seductive and terrifying through her exploration of ‘Jimmy’  (Snowman) and Crake’s adolescence and the development of their friendship. Crake is a genetic genius; Snowman is more of the semi-talented ‘everyman’. As they grow up their paths diverge, but ultimately converge when Crake invites Snowman to join him in his very special project: Paradice. In the pursuit of utopia, Crake proposes that the world needs a tabula rasa, a fresh start, and consequently creates a new race of beings that he believes will be genetically unable to cause the immense problems that their (and our) world faces. He believes Snowman is the only one he can trust to guide his new race, the ‘Crokers’ into the future. 

How does it all end?  We tell no secrets here at the CLJ. 

What We Did (and How We Did It)

Much respect was gained as the majority of the CLJ biked from Vancouver to Victoria, where we met for a lovely afternoon and evening of good times. In the spirit of the book, teams created genetically modified creatures, then fought it out using words, drawings and hand-to-hand combat.  We also reenacted Snowman’s guidance of the crokers with a version of ‘Snowman Says’ based on parts of the book. The discussion was mediated by delicious, unmodified picnic food.

What We Thought

Heated topics of debate ranged from the present-day sources of Atwood’s dytopic future to the relative moral strength of Snowman. The final word was, and will be granted to a certain social-media maven and redhead extraordinaire Theo Lamb.  She described the book as: “the best book so far..” Read it! 

As told by Stewart Burgess …