The Cellist of Sarajevo

cellist_fp“It is a rare gift to understand that your life is wondrous and that it won’t last forever.” (The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway)

Throughout The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway we are constantly reminded that life always ends. Galloway underscores the perverseness of war and death in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovnia during 1992 to 1996 by telling his fictionalized story through three characters: Kenan, Dragan, and Arrow.

Kenan is a middle-aged man living with his family in Sarajevo, struggling to get water for his family and neighbour every four days. Dragan, an older man whose family left at the beginning of the siege, now risks his life to trade bread for shelter. Through these two characters Galloway highlights that even small tasks, like crossing the street, have become epic challenges due to the ‘men on the hills’ shooting at those in the city. In contrast to these two characters, Arrow is a young, adept sniper who fights according to her own morals, shooting only soldiers, not civilians. In the midst of them is the cellist of Sarajevo: a man who memorializes a bombing which killed 22 people queueing to buy bread by playing his cello in the open one day for each of the dead. We only hear briefly from his character but the cellist is central to the story, prompting the characters to analyze their own actions during the siege. Once the 22 days end so does the story, and the audience is left to contemplate a book that celebrates the good in small but heroic acts, and mourns the depths of human hatred.

There actually is a cellist of Sarajevo – his name is Vedran Smailović and he did play in Sarajevo for 22 days to commemorate the bombing of 22 individuals. Unfortunately, Smailović did not appreciate the book’s attention or Galloway’s fictionalization of his story. As Smailović said:

“I didn’t play for 22 days, I played all my life in Sarajevo and for the two years of the siege each and every day. They keep saying I played at four in the afternoon, but the explosion was at 10 in the morning and I am not stupid, I wasn’t looking to get shot by snipers so I varied my routine. I never stopped playing music throughout the siege. My weapon was my cello. But if I do not get justice now I will burn it back in Sarajevo.”

As you might have guessed, this became one of the subjects of our discussion and we wondered if Galloway’s behaviour was moral. Was basing a creative work off a public act ethical? Is Galloway exploiting someone else’s misery? What about consent from the subject of art? One of our members aptly questioned if this story was similar to attending a graveyard, observing a family deeply in mourning, and then turning around writing a book about it. While it could be done, it feels a distasteful to intrude on someone’s very personal act of grieving. Smailović questions this himself, asking “How can somebody steal your work, my, my sadness, my, my tragedy?”

No matter where you stand on the topic, it’s worth seeing Smailović play Albinoni’s Adagio, the song he played in honour of those 22 dead.

If you would like some background information on the Bosnian war, check out this (graphic) ABC news video from the middle of the conflict.

Lastly, this meeting was shortly before Alicia moved to New York so we presented her with a photobook of our times together – something that made all of us tear up!! I’m sure she knows this, but just in case she ever doubts it: Alicia, all of book club is so proud of you and your accomplishments!


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Summertime…and the Reading is Easy…

summer readingSummer reading…is there such a thing? According to many schools and libraries: yes! Summer reading lists are produced each year to ensure that time is occupied, nobody gets into trouble and that kids practice their reading skills attained that school year.

Even as we get older, we still distinguish summer reading as something different. We never exclaim in mid-July, “Well, I’m off to curl up with a good book!” That’s reserved for winter reading- a whole other beast!

I would argue that there is a particular book reserved for a summer setting that I would not dream of reading in any other season. While normally I scour Pulitzer prize winner lists and Man Book long-listed candidates, in the summer my usual requirements involve the words: “Romance” or “Mystery”, or how about this: a romantic mystery!

Perhaps summer reading is meant to be light to enjoy the outdoors as much as possible. Instead of sitting under a tree and philosophizing over deeper meanings of books you can read a simple, mindless story and still hear the birds, feel the sunshine and smell the grass.

So, wherever you are, pop in your summer soundtrack, crack open a cold one, dig your toes into grass or sand and embrace that breezy, perhaps smutty read because autumn is here soon and you can’t be caught with that book!

patio_view_summer_readingabby_summer_readingMy favourite reading views: my patio and our weekly lake spot
(with my favourite 4-legged friend!)

- Kathryn

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The Bluest Eye

bluest eye“Thrown, in this way, into the binding conviction that only a miracle could relieve her, she would never know her beauty. She would see only what there was to see: the eyes of other people.” (The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison)

Although I wouldn’t say that there is pressure to pick a “good” book for our meetings, we all aim to select something that is both enjoyable and evokes meaningful discussions. I know for a fact that some of us spends weeks, if not months, researching what book we will choose. And, to make it even harder, some of us have even added the challenge of trying to select a book that no one in the group (ahem – Jill!) has read before! With these challenges in mind, I decided to pick a novel written in 1970 in the hopes of finding something “new” to the group that would lend itself to a good discussion.

I wouldn’t say Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, is an enjoyable read. In fact, in her afterword Morrison admits that it is a “terrible story about things one would rather not know anything about”. But this book was amazingly well-written and led to a very passionate and thoughtful discussion at our meeting.

For those who have not heard of it, The Bluest Eye is set in Ohio in the 1940s and tells the story of the life of a young African American girl named Pecola who wishes to have blue eyes. By having blue eyes, she believed that her whole experience of the world would be improved.

Morrison uniquely tells each chapter by sharing the stories of characters who come into contact with Pecola, rather than focusing the narrative solely from Pecola’s perspective. This was impeccably done, and by doing so, Morrison was able to demonstrate the complexity of human beings by making it very difficult for the reader not to have some compassion for characters who commit horrible acts.

The novel raises important issues around rape, incest, poverty, and racism – it makes the reader really think and reevaluate society and our social interactions. This led to interesting and heated discussions on sexism, racism, poverty, censorship, beauty, and psychology. Additionally, since this book was so beautifully written, members throughout the evening would stop to read a specific quote that really stood out to them.

If you haven’t read this one yet, and you are up for a difficult, but thought-provoking, read I would highly recommend The Bluest Eye.


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LitLovers feature!

Just a few weeks ago, our bookclub was featured on LitLovers, an online community for those who enjoy literature and discussing books with others! Very quickly, a few of our members posted the link on Facebook to share with all of our friends who didn’t really know what our bookclub entailed… to be honest, several of our friends and partners just tease us that we are more of a wine club with a reading problem than a bookclub.

Yesterday though, I was chatting with a guy friend of mine and he mentioned that he had read the feature. Apparently, before reading it, despite knowing several of our members closely, he had no idea what our bookclub involved! He said he was surprised to learn how organized and passionate we are for reading and getting together regularly!

So, if you feel so inclined, please head on over and check out our feature. Be sure to explore more of the links on LitLovers – they highlight several other really awesome bookclubs, reading resources, and other interesting things!


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What the hell’s a yachting shoe?

haroldfryI read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce last summer. I loved it. I read a lot last summer but this book really stuck with me though it’s not full of non-stop adventure, or particularly riveting conflicts. The setting, however, becomes a primary character, one that does everything character should do. You care about it. You develop a relationship with it. When it came time for me to choose a novel, I easily selected this one, as I wanted to introduce the setting, the glorious English countryside, to my gals. I also wanted to ply them with summer picnic foods and a potent white wine punch which resulted in some lively conversation later in the evening.

Pilgrimage is about a man’s journey through England (literally from the southern tip to the Scottish border) to visit a dying friend to whom Harold has always felt he owed a great deal, while his wife sat at home, worried by this impromptu trip. While separated, both reflected on their long suffering marriage and sought comfort in helpful strangers (Harold) or their son, David (Maureen). Our discussion focused a lot on the novel’s spoilers, so I’ll keep this brief, if vague.

We concluded that the relationship between Harold and Queenie was strictly platonic, but was something more than friendship. Harold’s heartbreaking feelings that, so long as he walked, Queenie would live, propelled him through beaten-down yachting shoes, body aches and pains, and a period of reflection which he hadn’t really done before. Most notably, Harold considered himself a distant father and unfeeling husband and wondered why he hadn’t fought harder for his family throughout the years. It takes more than one person to destroy a family though; enter Harold’s wife and son. We were frustrated with both partners – How does one simply go through the motions of marriage for years – years – without talking about it?! It reveals a lot about the generation before ours who maybe didn’t talk a lot about feelings, and that sometimes pain can be so great the only way possible to deal with it is by ignoring it.

Rachel Joyce is a tremendous author who beautifully landscaped the country and took secondary characters – the boss. Ew. – and made them come alive. She has an exceptional ability to be descriptive without flowery, to take the saddest or simplest of things and make them beautiful. We did, however, lament the slow start to the novel …but loved the rapid succession through events near the end.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is best described as a tragic tale which makes you want to reach out to loved ones near and far and always keep band-aids in your back pocket.


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I Have Accidentally Travelled Back In Time

outlander“Have you read Outlander?  You should read Outlander.  Here, take this copy I carry in my bag for emergencies.”  These sentences may be familiar to any of you with friends who have read this historical fiction series by Diana Gabaldon.  So far it includes 8 books including ‘Written In My Own Heart’s Blood’ which is released this month.  Our journey begins with the protagonist Claire Randall being transported 200 years back in time from post-war Britain to 18th century Scotland just a few years before the Scottish uprising of 1745.  She promptly runs into an ancestor of her husband and is kidnapped by some clansmen.  Suspected of being an English spy, she is taken to the local Laird and the story unfolds from there.

The books are extremely engaging, partially due to Gabaldon’s attention to detail.  Whether it’s through the descriptions of the local landscape or the herbal remedies used by Claire, who was a nurse during the war, in her role as a healer in the 18th century this makes for an immersive world.  However, it is the strong characters that really make these books come alive.  There are no supermen who brush off setbacks like they were nothing, and Claire knows herself in a way that’s refreshing when reading a book written from a female perspective.  The characters get bruised, flustered, make mistakes and are changed in a believable way by their experiences.  They are also not guaranteed a safe escape, which helps keep the momentum going and I found made me more invested in the characters as the series progressed.

Having just finished the second book of the series, Dragonfly in Amber, I would readily recommend these books to about 90% of my friends.  The books are long – at 640 pages Outlander is the shortest of the collection – making them potentially off-putting if you’re used to 300 to 400 page reads but also a great holiday read option and a superb starter if you’re interested in epics but haven’t yet made the leap.  I hope you’re hooked as quickly as I was.


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Penumbra’s and mimosas

mrpenumbras_bookcoverWhen I read about Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan I was immediately hooked, and wouldn’t you be? “A gleeful, exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, code-breaking, high-tech visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life – mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore.” It’s an adventure story for book lovers, and it delivers. We all really enjoyed this one and it was fun to share why when we met for Sunday brunch a few weeks ago.

It was refreshing to find a book that celebrates both techno-modernity and traditional arts / “old knowledge”. Our hero Clay, for example, solves some of the first clues by writing a data visualization computer program and falls for a spunky genius who works at Google. Yet he’s also someone who loves the printed word and what can be made with one’s hands. Clay’s friend Mat is a special effects artist for a movie studio by day, “part of the dwindling tribe of special-effects artists who still make things with knives and glue” rather than computers, and in one elaborate scheme, the two work for weeks to construct the perfect prop. The end product is a thing of beauty. This uncynical view of technology and the future, whilst looking to the past as a source of enrichment, offered a counterpoint to some of the more dystopian literature we’ve read.

Several of us really enjoyed Sloan’s writing style. We found it very fluid to read, and funny. There are lots of laugh-out-loud moments and turns of phrase, which adds to the fun of the plot. We also relished how fully he drew his descriptions of the characters and settings. We could clearly imagine each place, from the dusty shelves of the bookstore to the gleaming campus at Google HQ, and the impulses that drive the characters we meet.

In discussing the themes of the book our group had an interesting theological debate (Was that tomb actually empty? What is eternal life??) and also talked about other central themes including friendship and collaboration. If there was one weakness in the book, we felt it was in the character of the love interest, Kat. Several of us felt that she was a bit too ego-driven and narrow minded. While this served the story in some ways, it was also hard to sympathize with her and to really get behind the love story angle.

In short, if you like adventure stories and the idea of “James Bond with a library science degree,” and are intrigued by the notion that “the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults,” you’re sure to love this book.


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