Meet the Muse & Views book club of Ottawa, Canada - a group of ten women who meet monthly for good conversation about a wide range of books.
Michèle Dextras chats with BookBrowse's editor, Davina, about Muse & Views...
Hello Michèle, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Please tell us a bit about Muse & Views
Muse & Views, is in its 13th year of existence. We have ten women members who meet the 4th Monday of every month from September to June, excluding December. There are still two members from the original group in 1998.We have high school English literature teachers, primary school teachers, a University professor, government employees and members who are retired. The atmosphere is very collegial and warm. As one of the newer members, I feel very lucky to have been invited to this club.
With just two members from the original group, it sounds like there's been a lot of change over the years. How did Muse & Views get started and how did it evolve into today's group?
The group took shape when two former members happened to be attending a service club meeting at the same time and began discussing their love of books. They invited friends from other circles to come out once a month and give a new book club a try. The group has grown and gradually evolved as people have joined and left because their lives have changed (our numbers have varied from six to ten for most of the Club's existence). Family moves, health issues, and priority shifts, rather than difficulties within the group itself, account for departures. New people have been welcome to attend, although from a practical point-of-view, most of our living rooms could not accommodate more than ten at a time, and I think the opportunity to hear everyone's opinions would be difficult with more than ten members.
Is Muse & Views the first book club you've been in?
No, it's the third but it's been the best experience overall. The mood is relaxed, collegial but sufficiently serious so that we expect members to have read the book being discussed and there is almost always a good discussion. There is also an excellent atmosphere of respect amongst the women.
Tell us about your meetings
Because we meet nine times each year, each member has the opportunity to host once a year with one of our ten members "sitting out" on a rotational basis. The host provides light refreshments such as cheese, a dip, finger foods, a dessert, wine and coffee or tea. Sometimes the food provided will refer to the theme of the book. When we read Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, Beth has some lovely French cheese and "petits gateaux" in honour of France where the story was situated. When we read Joanne Harris' Five Quarters of an Orange I prepared an apple and apricot clafoutis that was featured in the book.
We normally begin the meeting catching up on news, about 20 minutes and then the member whose book we are discussing will give a short biography of the author and sometimes, why she chose that particular book. Then we go around the room and talk about what we liked or disliked about the book. Some of our members take careful notes as they are reading and some prefer to discuss liberally. We discuss the characters, the plot, the writing style and sometimes compare the book to others that we have read individually or as a club.
What about reading guides? Do you ever use them?
As long as I have been a member we have not used reading guides.
How do you choose your books?
Normally in September we determine who will host and recommend the books by month for the following year. Books are chosen by club members, with each picking one book a year and, again, one "sitting out" on a rotational basis. When choosing books we each try to take into consideration, as much as possible, the availability of the book.
As much as possible, members try to choose books that are available at our local library. Since Ottawa has a population of almost one million, we have quite an extensive available choice. Members will pick up the hardcover or paperback, whatever is available to them. Sometimes we share a bought copy.
How do you organize yourselves outside of meetings? Your blog is impressive, who manages that and how much time does it take?
We have a Club secretary - which is me at the moment. Previously, Jolene, one of the senior members, had been secretary for almost 10 years. I suggested creating the blog in 2008 and I maintain it most of the time. When I am absent, there are two other members who are able to post the summary after a meeting. It doesn't take much more than an hour per month and I enjoy it.
A blog is easy to create and maintain. You can keep it as simple as you want or make it more elaborate. For example, I've added sidebars that link to lists of books we've previously read, book websites and so forth. Previously the secretary would summarize the meeting and send it to all the members via e-mail. Now any member can refer to the blog to see what we discussed and what books we have read. It also allows members to add comments, especially if they were absent at the meeting or if they want to add to the summary published on the blog. The blog was private for the first two years with only those who had the exact URL able to access. Since we have made it public, few people have actually looked at it besides members. We never publish family names or addresses of members to ensure privacy.
Do you pay anything to host your blog on BlogSpot? If not, do you have to display advertising or have any other restrictions? Would you recommend BlogSpot to others?
Blogspot is free software so a blog can be created by anyone without the requirement to pay or advertise. It is a google service at www.blogspot.com . There are several other blogging software services but I am most familiar with this one. It is very easy to use, and there is no requirement to learn html language.
Tell us about the sort of books you read?
Each member chooses a book. There are no restrictions. The majority of the books that we have read are fiction. However, we have also read biographies and autobiographies such as Unbowed by Wangari Maathai who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. We almost always read at least one book a year written by a Canadian author but this is not by design, simply because we have some wonderful Canadian authors. A couple of great Canadian authors that might interest your readers are Mary Lawson who wrote Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge or Ian Brown who wrote the heart felt account of his journey with his disabled son called The Boy in the Moon.
Have there ever been times when you've been frustrated by picking books a year ahead? Perhaps because you've wished you could leap into read a book that everyone's talking about, or found too many books of a similar type in a row because you've each been free to choose the title of your choice without looking at the schedule as a whole?
Actually, we determine a year ahead of time who is responsible to choose a book for each meeting but we do not require that members give us the title of their chosen book until three months before - which gives those of us who like to read ahead of time the chance to get the books. You will see on our blog, if you pull up the Books and Meetings in 2011, that we now have the books until June but not yet for the Fall meetings.
As to leaping into reading a book that everyone's talking about, we always share books that we have read outside of the Muse and Views Book Club readings with our members. The only one that I can think of that was a "book that everyone's talking about" that we read was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows, which Colette chose in March for June.
Please name some of the books that have generated the most interesting discussions
The books that have a theme that touches some of us have generated the most discussion. Charles Martin's Where the River Ends developed into a discussion about personal struggles with illness some of us have witnessed or lived. The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown brought the discussion to the challenges and impact special needs children have in the classroom and the lack of support from the health and education communities.
Perfume by Patrick Suskind, which was the first book I recommended, was not at all enjoyed by the great majority of members. It, however, generated a lot of discussion about well-written stories and the power of the written word on our emotions. There was considerable discussion also about the symbolism in the book.
What books have been the group's favorite books?
Each year in January we vote on our favorite book of the previous year and give a prize to the person who chose it. The prize might be a book, a journal or a bottle of wine. In the past 4 years The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (US title: Someone Knows My Name), The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, and City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre have been the favourite books. As you can see, there is quite a variety.
Are there any books that bombed? If so, why do you think they did?
The book Summer Sisters by Judy Blume was not a big hit. It's been so long that it is hard to recall details, although the theme and writing quality did not seem to be popular. The chooser was unable to attend that night, so perhaps she would have been able to defend the novel and cast it in a better light. Other book choices have sometimes polarized opinion: for instance, Perfume by Patrick Suskind and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver were either "best" or "worst" reads for members, depending on taste.
What types of books tend to make for good discussions in your group; are there any that haven't worked?
The polarizing effect of books such as those mentioned above often generates the best discussion. We tend to learn a lot when members defend their opinions, particularly about books we may have disliked. I really can't think of any that did not generate good discussion or that everyone found uninteresting. It is unusual that a member will choose a book that she has not already read, so we tend to choose books that we enjoyed and that we feel will be enjoyed by other members or at the very least, generate animated discussion. That was definitely the case with Perfume. It is one of my favourite all time books but I knew there was a chance that several members would not like it, but even though they didn't, they still read it!
What books are coming up on your reading schedule soon?
We've just read Half a Yellow Sun by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In March we will read Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson and in April In the Skin of the Lion by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje. Wouldn't you say that these are quite varied?
Indeed, they are varied choices but there is a common theme in that they are all books that expand a reader's horizon - the sort of book that when you've finished you know something new about the world, or perhaps yourself, that you didn't before (which is just the type of book will look for at BookBrowse).
Yes, our members particularly like books that allow them to learn something new about an era or country. Tatiana de Rosnay's book Sarah's Key and autobiographies such as Unbowed are good examples.
Do you feel the type of books chosen over the years has changed?
Book choices have changed somewhat over the years, as members have departed and new people have come on board. At the start, we had some quilters and philosophical ladies who brought books with themes that reflected these interests. As they have left, new ladies have contributed choices out of different passions.
The way we approach our discussion has likewise changed. In the beginning, members did not tend to bring notes to meetings, keeping discussion light, though still animated. Members now, many from academic or political backgrounds, often bring written materials, to jog memory or highlight important passages. We have become somewhat more serious in our discussion, yet just as friendly in our relationships. In fact, friendships have deepened over time, as people have gotten to know each other well. Interestingly, this has not seemed to prevent newcomers from feeling welcome because we all have a love of reading and discussion in common. And we also all love a good hors d'oeuvre!
And who doesn't! Any special events you've held, visits taken, activities and so forth?
In 2001, the Book Club read Whelan, an autobiography of Eugene Whelan who was a member of our parliament and was at the time a Senator. Since one of our members worked in Parliament, she arranged a meeting with Mr.Whelan. In 2008 we discussed the film The Last King of Scotland based on the book by author Giles Foden. We also met with a prominent member of our Senate who is originally from Uganda and who was able to tell us about her family's exodus from Uganda. This year we read The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Benyon Rees.Our host that month, Colette, invited a friend who worked at the Canadian Embassy in Israel who had prepared a slide show and gave us a lot of very interesting information about the region.
Looking back over the years, do you have any nuggets of wisdom for other book clubs, especially those who are just starting out?
Try to be flexible, within reason. We have had members who have missed several months for family reasons or illness; others, especially the retired members, are sometimes away for two or three months. So we organize the schedule so they can take their turn hosting and choosing a book. A couple of time we have had a member who does not show up. After a few months, we simply remove their name from the e-mail notices of meetings.
It's important that all members respect each other and that book choices, no matter what, are accepted without complaint. One of the reasons I joined a book club was to force me to read books I would not normally pick up. The Muse & Views Book Club, because it has no particular theme, allows for a good variety.
Thank you very much Michèle. I'm sure I speak for everyone reading this in wishing you and the other members of Muse & Views many more happy years reading and discussing great books!