On the “Formerly, Great American Novelist” with a special guest

On November 21, 2023 member Robin S. presented on the works of Jonathan Franzen. In 2010 Time magazine declared Franzen “The Great American Novelist”. By 2021, the BBC called him America’s most divisive novelist. Robin looked at the author’s evolution and by the end of her talk, she made a good case for picking up one of Franzen’s novels. Robin started by introducing her special guest, Coffee. Coffee is a service dog in-training.

Photo by S. Mattison

Jonathan Franzen is a prolific fiction and non-fiction writer. His novels The Corrections, Freedom, and Crossroads look at unhappy family life in middle America. He has written a memoir, The Discomfort Zone, which is really 6 essays about his life. For the speaker, Franzen’s detailing of his teenage angst was in the discomfort zone.

In addition he has authored a number of essays on a wide range of topics, frequently in a confrontational style. His essays and interviews frequently go a step to far and have landed him in controversies with Oprah fans, environmental groups, and the Audubon Society (among others). In his interviews and essays, Franzen has shown his intense personality. He is a compulsive bird watcher and has advocated for protecting birds from high-rise glass.

Robin briefly outlined Franzen’s biography and gave readings from his essays. She then went on to his fictional works, which she prefers. She descried them as big social novels – family sagas that address current trends and critique American culture and politics. His style is clean, with limited use of metaphor or simile (unkind reviewers might say a lack of style). Robin gave readings from all of Mr. Franzen’s novels to illustrate his spare style.

The Corrections (2001) is a sometimes autobiographical parody of a dysfunctional American family. It was a hit, and won several prizes including The National Book Award. His success got him invited to the Oprah show. However, his negative comments about Oprah’s book club soon got him uninvited. In 2010, his next novel Freedom (Robin’s favourite) was published, again to critical acclaim. After public apologies to Oprah, Franzen this time joined her on her show. However, the universal praise for his book was used on social media as an example of bias of the literary world toward white male authors.

Crossroads (2021) is Franzen’s latest novel, and reading it led Robin to choose this author for her presentation. Again, an unhappy American family is profiled. Critical reception has been mixed.

At the end of Robin’s talk, I was ready to dive into these family sagas. I might also check out one of Franzen’s essays (or a podcast) and see why he describes himself as “Mr. Difficult“.

At this meeting, we welcomed new member Eudy J. This was the last presentation of our fall session, but if you are interested in joining in the spring, click here. Our updated presentation schedule is here.

Marcie R. Rendon- Prairie Gothic Mysteries and More

Photo S. Mattison

Shawna’s presentation was accompanied by a slideshow, with the first intriguing image being an aged black and white photo. Shawna explained it was taken on her family farm near Richdale, Alberta. We would soon find out its connection to her talk.

While she was suffering Covid’s lingering “brain fog,” Shawna discovered Marcie R. Rendon, an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) author from the White Earth Nation in Minnesota. Seeking “lighter” reading, Shawna became hooked on mysteries and read at least forty.

Shawna has an affinity for Ms. Rendon’s Cash Blackbear Series (2018- .) Shawna related to the author’s descriptions of farm settings in Minnesota and North Dakota, which seem not unlike Alberta’s. She also related to the 1970s timeframe. A creepy atmosphere, so important to mysteries, can be found in rural landscapes that include lonely and somewhat dilapidated farmhouses, burnt down buildings, and more.

Shawna read some selections which mirrored her own rural experiences – e.g. “She lifted four fingers off the steering wheel in a courtesy wave.” However, many of the Indigenous experiences Ms. Rendon writes about would be outside our knowledge and experience. As one example of the darkness to be discovered in the books, Shawna read a disturbing excerpt describing a child tasked with collecting eggs.

Cash, the 20-year-old Ojibwe protagonist, is sometimes led by visions, and is full of spirit and grit having survived a brutal foster care system. She has fought bigotry as an orphan working hard on a farm, as Indigenous, and as a young woman who is now a truck driver. Cash and the other fascinating, well-developed characters in the novels highlight many important issues Indigenous people deal with.

Shawna briefly summarized Ms. Rendon’s other works, including poetry, plays, short stories and children’s books. They touch on the same themes, but it is the Cash Blackbear series that will reach a wider audience, heightening people’s awareness of Indigenous experiences through an intriguing mystery.

Janet H.

Next week member Robin S. will present on author Jonathan Franzen.

Curious about Calgary’s longest running book club? We would love to meet you -guests are welcome. Go to Contact Us.

Good Characters Make Good Stories

Photo by Elijah Mears on Unsplash

On November 7, 2023 member Cathy R. presented on author Barbara Kingsolver. This prolific American author produces character driven novels with a social message; her works are perennial book club favourites. Her most recent work, Demon Copperhead is set in her Appalachian home- now wracked by the opioid crisis.

Kingsolver is best known for that book and for The Poisonwood Bible. Some of her other successful books include: The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams, Prodigal Summer, The Lacuna, Flight Behavior, Unsheltered and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – a guide to growing your own food. A quick poll of the room revealed most members have read at least one of Kingsolver’s books.

Cathy gave readings from the books Pigs in Heaven and Demon Copperhead. The readings illustrated how Barbara Kingsolver builds her novels the personality of the characters. Cathy also noted that these characters show exceptional resilience in the face of life’s great challenges.

Kingsolver uses her novels to illustrate social and political themes. In 1999, the author created the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction to reward new authors who are doing the same.

Thanks Cathy for providing us with a complete picture of an author we all know something of.

Join us next week when member Shawna M. will present on author Marcie R. Rendon.

Curious about Calgary’s longest running book club? We would love to meet you -guests are welcome. Go to Contact Us.

In Memoriam

With heavy hearts, we say goodbye to longtime active member, Della Mae Wood. Della passed away on October 26 at the age of 96, less than 2 weeks after giving her final presentation. During her 12 years with the CWLC, Della Mae served as CWLC treasurer for 4 years. She presented on many authors including John Banville, Clive James, Nora Ephron, John Steinbeck, and Anne Quindlen.

For more information on the life of Della Mae, please read her obituary.

In the words of member Anita who knew her well:

Words cannot express my love and admiration for Della Mae. Her presentations-hand written on yellow paper-always lured me into the author’s  life and writing to share the  admiration she felt.

I  cherish Della Mae’s kindness and hugs, handwritten notes and special cards.

The Treasurer’s position on the CWLC can be challenging to fill from a group more interested in words than numbers. At the termination of my two year treasurer’s position in 2015 , Della Mae, from a sense of responsibility,  graciously offered to take on the role provided the retiring treasurer help.  While just marginally literate with balance sheets I agreed and had  wonderful months with awesome, funny, self-deprecating  Della Mae.

 Wednesday October 25th, 11:08 am, the day after our last CWLC meeting, Della Mae sent me a note expressing disappointment for not having had a chat as she was late and we were all in a rush to leave due to weather concerns.  I had planned a response saying while I had missed a shared hug, I had so thoroughly enjoyed observing the special relationship between Della Mae and soul mate Tom as they sat together at the meeting .

I know no other person whose whose life trajectory so closely reflects the signature  quote in her letters:

Live as if you were going to die tomorrow: learn as if you were to live forever” Gandhi”

“Embrace the Spirit of Radio”

On October 31, 2023, guest speaker Wakefield Brewster invited the members and guests to “embrace the spirit of radio-enter the Theatre of the Mind” while he performed his poetry.

Mr. Brewster is Calgary’s current Poet Laureate. His work is meant to be heard and felt. For him, his words are a gift that must come out – a blessing.

He first gave a reading from “Lunar Herstory” envisioning a cosmology where culture, lyricism, and astrophysics are the rings and his mother is the planet. “She knew more than she spoke..” – his vibrant, energetic voice filled the room. His rhythmic cadence is akin to rap music and he strode around the room while he spoke. Movement is an essential part of him and therefore an essential part of his poetry. It is kinetic- the work moves him.

Next he read from “H2O”, a poem written in 2001 in reference to the Walkerton disaster.

Finally, he presented a series of 5 poems representing 5 stages of the Covid pandemic. Covid is a Rumor, Covid is For Real, Polarized People, New Norms , and Projecting and Reflecting. Brewster ended his presentation with the encouraging words for us: “Y’all keep going.”

His beautiful voice, the rapping cadence, and his footsteps keeping time made for an electric presentation. Read his poems, yes, but see him in person. This work is meant to move and to move you.

Wakefield Brewster was born in Toronto to Barbadian parents. He now is happy to call Calgary home. Visit his website for more information and to see his video introduction to the Calgary Surge.

Next week, member Cathy R. will present on Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver is a novelist and essayist, whose recent work includes Demon Copperhead.

Interested but not a member yet? Click here to learn more.

Challenging Order and Intellect

Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed Oct. 28 2023.

On October 24, CWLC President Mooréa G. presented on British playwright and author Tom Stoppard. Mooréa has been a member for more than 5 years and has previously presented on Stephan Stephansson and J.K. Rowling. She has served as Social Chair and as Vice President prior to her current role as President.

Tom Stoppard is a British author, best known as a playwright. His work often relies on clever wordplay. The plots and dialog are not difficult to follow but challenge the listener to ask questions and to take exception to the world order. Humor is used to offset some very dark subjects.

Mr. Stoppard is a prolific artist, and Mooréa chose to discuss three of his works (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; Arcadia; and Leopoldstadt) to give the audience a sense of his wit and world view over almost 60 years.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was first performed in 1966. It highlights two minor characters from Hamlet, who are in many ways featureless and interchangeable. Mooréa gave several readings from this work that showed how Stoppard seamlessly moves the dialog from modern English to the Shakespearean lines. Clever but silly wordplay between the title characters almost gives them personality and shows up their lack of agency in the plot.

Arcadia (1993) is set around a family dining table in a British estate in two time periods: the early 19th and late 20th centuries. The early 18th century plot has a precocious teenager filled with 20th century ideas about science, her 22 year old tutor who is having an affair with the wife of one of the guests (this lady is also Lord Byron’s lover (what woman wasn’t?)), and fellow residents. The plot is second to the clever discussions between these unlikely housemates.

Leopoldstadt was first performed in 2020; it was also performed in 2022 for Holocaust Memorial Day. The play is semi-autobiographical, presenting generations of a Jewish family set in a bourgeois apartment in Vienna. Like Stoppard’s own family, some retain their Jewish faith and traditions, others are secular or converts. In some ways, this play is Stoppard’s search for his own Jewish heritage.

With 29 characters set in several time periods, the play is dense and difficult to follow. The main character, Leopold/Leonard has similarities to Stoppard. The play’s emphasis on unknown family is intended to show how we are responsible for even things we do not know.

Thank-you Mooréa for giving us a taste of this challenging author. Join us next week when we host Calgary’s poet laureate, Wakefield Brewster.

Literature with the density of poetry

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

On October 17, member Della Mae W. presented on the works of Irish author John Banville. Mr. Banville is a prolific author of fiction, who has also written screenplays, reviews and podcasts. Della Mae has been a member of the CWLC since before 2010, and this is her sixth presentation – she’s glad she has finally found a presentation category that fit for this author. Like the author and John Steinbeck, Della Mae handwrites her presentations on a yellow legal pad.

Della Mae started by saying that she is drawn in by Banville’s beautiful writing even when the story and the character’s don’t appeal to her. She has not read all of his works (he has written 26 novels), but her husband has them all. Mr. Banville’s work, The Sea, was awarded the Booker Prize in 2005.

In the early part of his career, John Banville wrote literature with the density of poetry, painstakingly crafting his sentences. Then, inspired by Georges Simenon, the author of the Maigret novels, he tried writing spontaneously. He produced a series of mysteries under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. In 2020, he abandoned the pseudonym and started publishing mysteries in his own name. These mysteries include Marlowe, written in the style of Raymond Chandler – another favourite of Della Mae.

Della Mae puts bookmarks in passages she is especially touched by in books. For Banville’s works, too many pages were bookmarked for her to read all of them to us. She did give a number of readings from his books including The Sea, Snow, The Book of Evidence, and Marlowe. These readings highlighted how Mr. Banville seduces the reader by painting a detailed picture with words.

Join us next week, when CWLC president Mooréa G. presents on British playwright Tom Stoppard.

At this meeting, we welcomed several guests and new members. Interested but not a member yet? Not a problem: click here to find out more.

More information on our 2023-2024 program can be found here:


Meticulous Research and Beautiful Prose

Photo by Les Argonautes on Unsplash

On October 10th, 2023 CWLC member Janet S. presented on the works of Katherine Govier. Janet has been part of the club since 2004. She is currently serving on the CWLC Executive as Social Chair. In her life, she has been inspired by Thesiger to travel the world boldly.

Ms. Govier is a Canadian author with ties to CWLC history. To quote from club historian Sandra E. :

“In 1980-81, Doris Govier presented to the CWLC on the topic of Women in Alberta Fiction.  The theme of the year was “Ocean to Ocean – Getting to know Canada through History and Exploration.”    From her obituary:  ‘In 1970 Doris received her M.A. in English from the University of Calgary, focussing on Canadian Literature. She was a pioneer in her support for Canadian, and prairie literature. In 1972 she founded the “Doris Govier Canadian Literature Group”, which introduced this burgeoning national book culture to hundreds of devoted Calgary followers. Doris was awarded the YWCA’s Woman of Distinction Award in Arts and Culture in 1990.’

Doris Govier had three daughters: Trudy, Katherine, and Sue.   Katherine Govier has written 10 books, and Trudy Govier is also a distinguished writer of philosophy and argument. (https://uleth.academia.edu/TrudyGovier/CurriculumVitae).”

Janet gave readings from several of Ms. Govier’s 10 works: Creation, Half for You and Half for Me, Three Views of Crystal Water, The Ghost Brush, Hearts of Flame, Random Descent and The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel. Ms. Govier is also the author of short story anthologies and non-fiction – for more information, follow the previous link to her webpage.

Janet emphasized Ms. Govier’s skill in turning meticulous historical research into prose that feels real. This was most clear in Janet’s favourite work among these books, Creation, which was based on Mr. John James Audubon‘s trip up the St. Lawrence River in 1833. Historically, the trip was documented by Captain Bayfield. (Janet noted that Captain Bayfield is perhaps Canada’s greatest hydrographic explorer). Govier used Bayfield’s journals to bring that time in Canada’s history, and the personalities of the Captain and Audobon, to life for the reader.

As she always does, Janet S. gave a lively discussion of Govier’s works, highlighted by well-selected readings. Join us next week when member Della Mae W. will present on author John Banville.

At this meeting, we welcomed several guests and one new member. Interested but not a member yet? Not a problem: click here to find out more.

More information on our 2023-2024 program can be found here:


A New Podium, A Tribute, and a Gift

Photo R. Stanford

As members may know, the speaker’s podium used in our meetings was beginning to show its age after years of faithful service. In early 2023, Ed Tickles, spouse of Lillian Tickles a long time member and former club president who passed away in 2019, offered to rebuild the podium. He supplied all materials and labour to bring us a new podium in memory of Lillian. On October 10, 2023 the podium was unveiled.

In turn, the CWLC donated the podium to the Calgary Public Library Foundation. Alexandra Runge, Donor Relations Officer with the Calgary Public Library Foundation (seen here to the left of Mr. Tickles) accepted the podium on their behalf. It will be available at Memorial Park Library for our use and for the use of other library patrons for years to come.

Thank-you to Mr. Tickles for your labour of love and your generosity. We will be reminded of Lillian every time we step up to speak.

S. Mattison

Successful Delivery!

In a follow-up to our last meeting of the spring session, here is an update from member Cecilia K. on the books collected for war refugee children.

On the afternoon of Sunday, August 13, I found myself back in the basement of The Memorial Park Library in the very same room where I had last presented Andrey Kurkov almost four months ago. This time our room was packed with recent arrivals young and old from Ukraine, all eager to learn English. With Robin’s help I unpacked the books and displayed them just as we had before.  Then we settled in to listen to dedicated volunteers in a program called, “Cookies and Conversation” teach newcomers about buying a car, finding a job and counting loose change. The newcomers were highly engaged throughout the afternoon as everyone felt comfortable in asking questions, making mistakes and revealing their own insecurities and anxieties in a new country. A few spoke English relatively well. Some a little. Others not at all. The meeting was casual. Even Robin and I were asked our opinions on finding a used car or counting change. I’m useless at either, but, we offered suggestions and laughed the whole afternoon along with everyone else. 

When I was introduced at the start of the meeting, I gave a brief history of the CWLC, then related how  our members had so lovingly donated books in order for our newcomers to feel the joy of reading once again. It was then decided it would be best if we shared our books at the conclusion of the meeting. However, while the lively meeting progressed, a little eight year old boy named David, who had been eyeing our books from afar, wandered up to our table and began opening books at random. He handled each book gently, fingering only the top right hand corner when turning a page. I could tell he was a book lover at heart. He was particularly interested in the “Curious George” book with the flip up cartoon pictures. Another young girl shyly approached our table and picked out baby books for her one year old sister, as well as herself. As the meeting concluded it was suggested that we encourage the adults to take home picture books as well, in order to  practice reading simple stories at home. This they did! Chaos reined!  One woman, about my age, eagerly reached for the “If You’re Not From the Prairie” alphabet book when I held it up. Another young woman picked out the Margaret Atwood novel and proudly showed it to me. And so on. I wish I could tell you how each of your books was so happily received, but you must know they were. And finally, Robin and I said our goodbyes, but not without receiving heartfelt gratitude and a number of bear hugs first. What an exhilarating day!

Thanks again to Cecilia for organizing this, to Robin S. for assisting with book delivery, and to all members who contributed books.

Shawna M. with italicized text by Cecilia K.