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Interviews, Recommendations, and More

Ace of Clubs Book Club Profile: The Bookies

Some of the most heated debates about books in Canada happen outside of Canada Reads: in houses, pubs, coffee houses, and backyards across the country where passionate readers unite to discuss books. In other words, book clubs. Ace of Clubs is our new series devoted to them.

In Canadian book media, we spend a lot of time profiling authors and publishers, but what about readers? Without readers, where would the authors and publishers be?

That's the reason for my new 49th Shelf profile series on Canadian book clubs, designed to highlight Canadian readers, authors, and book culture from coast to coast to coast. Every club gets the same questions and over time, we hope to get a sense of what kinds of books are interesting what kinds of readers out there—and also how much fun book clubs can be. It’s time for Canada’s readers to have a moment in the spotlight.

If you have a great book club whose mandate includes Canadian books and might want to be featured, tweet me @bookninja.

Today's club is The Bookies, based in Ottawa. Photos are of the summer meeting held at Villa Capella in Italy, at the home of Jude Rand, where the Bookies read their 100th book.


Name: Book Club (“Bookies”). When we were founded 18 years ago we called ourselves the CARE Book Club because we all worked at CARE Canada at the time.

City/province headquarters: Ottawa, but we have members in Geneva, Torre Alfina (Italy), and quite a few professional travellers who read their books elsewhere or on a plane. Comments and votes can be emailed in advance of the night for those who aren’t in town.

Date founded: November 1996. Our first book was Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

Meeting schedule: Roughly every six weeks.

Meeting places: Members’ houses, though when we’ve done a book-and-movie night (as we did for Tony Morrison’s Beloved and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain) we have met at a restaurant before the show.

Genres covered (thriller, literary, romance, spec fic, etc.): Primarily literary, mixed between Canadian and international. Our only spec fic choice was a Robert Sawyer novel about Neanderthals living in a parallel universe which one of our members is still living down. For romance, we rely on Doug Small, who falls madly in love with nearly every book chosen.

Genre most popular with members: Canadian literary novels.

Authors who have visited the club: We’ve had authors join the group by Skype, and would have them join in person but it gets a bit awkward when the voting starts. How many authors really want to know where they rank compared to Margaret Laurence (8.96 for The Diviners) and José Saramago (8.5 for Blindness)?

Favourite bookstore(s): Most of the independent bookstores in town are gone now, though if a book is an award-winner or bestseller we can get them at Books on Beechwood or Perfect Books in Ottawa. Some of us do special orders. We often get books from the library (a more popular choice if the book looks a bit “iffy”), and some of us use Chapters or Amazon and sometimes will even admit to it, but such behaviour is generally frowned upon by the Secretary-for-Life.

Three adjectives that best describe your group: Articulate Wandering Lefties.

Munchies: The host makes a meal, sometimes themed to go with the book (e.g., Indian food for Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger). Members bring appetizers, salads, dessert and of course, wine.

Biggest disagreement re: a book: Tough call. There is some generalized trauma over a Wally Lamb book (I Know This Much Is True), and Charley will never let Doug forget that he once suggested we read Paulo Coelho. We did actually read the Paulo Coelho and Doug has since apologized for it and is now permitted to select books again, with supervision by Brenda.

Most consensus re: a book: We don’t get much consensus. Opinions on one book can range from “I give it a 1 for being short and not wasting paper” to “I loved this book, 9.5.” However, we do have a lifetime commitment to never reading Paulo Coelho ever again. If you feel your book club is at risk of reading Paulo Coelho, we invite you to contact us so that we may talk you out of it.

Describe how your club works: After appetizers and catching up with one another (work, travels, the glories of the lake in the summer), the host kicks off discussion over the meal. Often we let the host speak at least two whole sentences before jumping in. Then the debate begins in earnest, with the Secretary-for-Life informally presiding. When dessert is served, we do a round-table final comment from each person and vote, giving each book a numerical ranking out of ten. We email out a summary of the discussion and keep a historical record of our books and their final rankings. In April we will read book #110.

Members: Brenda Small, Charley Gordon, Chris Duschinsky, Claire Harrison, Doug Small, Gail Steckley, Gilles Latour, Heather Rourke, Jean-Marc Mangin, John Watson, Jude Rand, Kathleen O’Brien, Kelly Crichton, Mark Fryars, Mary Lynn (ML) Lalonde, Mel Watkins, Michelle Munro, Nancy Gordon (Secretary-for-Life), Paul McCarthy (President-for-Life), Peter Duschinsky, Phil Rourke, Rhonda Douglas.

In book club discussions it is typical for various roles to be played by members. Put one member’s name beside each of the following descriptors:

We tend to share these roles around, but just for fun:

The Warrior (who is least likely to back down in a disagreement): Peter Duschinsky is more of a lover than a fighter but he will argue his point tenaciously.

The Devil’s Advocate (who will take the unpopular side to get things going): Jean-Marc Mangin, though not just to get things going.

The Peacekeeper (who is most ready to placate others): Not sure we have one of those ...

The Politician (who is most likely to sway people to their point via smooth talk): Lifetime ban on politicians due to being based in Ottawa.

The Academic or Philosopher King (who comes at things most cerebrally): Gilles Latour. In case you’re wondering, the word Manichean refers to a believer in religious or philosophical dualism. This explanation didn’t help us any either, but Gilles thought it was relevant to the discussion of a le Carré spy novel.

The Lover (who comes at things with a heart on the sleeve): Doug “I love this book” Small.

The Chair of the Board (who keeps things on track): Technically that would be President-for-Life Paul McCarthy, but the historical records are maintained by Secretary-for-Life Nancy Gordon.

The Flower Child (who is most inclined to like everything): Doug “I love this book” Small.

The Bad Influence (who is most likely to get off topic): We are not permitted to be off topic for very long. Cat-herding is one of the duties of the Secretary-for-Life.

The Party Animal (who is most likely to suggest going for drinks after): We do all of our drinking during meetings, but honorary mention to KOB also known as Kathleen O’Brien.

The Saint (who always has something positive to say): Oh my. We may have to go recruiting again—we seem to be missing one of those. In a pinch, Chris Duschinsky could cover as she always finds something relevant to say about any book.

We would add:

The Cynic (most unwilling to suspend disbelief): Heather Rourke.

The Writer(s) (most likely to feel the book needs a good editor): Charley Gordon, Claire Harrison, and Rhonda Douglas.

The last two titles you read as a group:

  • The Journey of Little Ghandi, by Elias Khoury: Layered novel of stories-within-stories taking place within Beirut during civil war. As often happens, there was no consensus position. Comments ranged from scathing critiques of the book as unreadable in its non-linear structure (some did not finish) to “profoundly significant, resonant, and mind-blowing” and “brilliant in making the reader an active participant in the confusion of war, in reflecting on what stories are remembered,  forgotten or simply made up.” Marks ranged from 2 (for being short!) to an outstanding high of 9.5 points.    
  • A Delicate Truth, by John le Carré: Spy story of a counter-terror operation in Gibraltor and its implications. Generally, the book received a mixed reception, even among old le Carré hands. Some of these felt that le Carré was returning to top form. Others thought A Delicate Truth could not begin to compete with the Smiley novels and other earlier works. The question of whether genre fiction deserved a place at the big table of literature elicited little interest. Those who discussed the question placed more of an emphasis on quality than genre. (Final score: 7.34)

The next title you plan to read as a group: 

  • The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden. This is Michelle and Mark’s choice for April. It was selected before the Canada Reads competition, based on how much the group enjoyed Boyden’s Three Day Road (among our highest scoring selections at 8.10)

Bookies contact:

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