For almost 10 years, Janet Cowan has been going to lunch meetings at the Lennoxville Library, although without actually having lunch. Every two Wednesdays, on and off, she attends Books & Brown Bags. But instead of breaking bread, Cowan breaks open books. “I don’t actually bring a lunch,” she laughs. “Usually I have a quick bite before the meeting.”
No one minds. “Attending the Brown Bags meetings is like chatting over the kitchen table about books we have read,” says Cowan. Each person takes a few moments to recommend their latest favorite, while chowing down on the sandwich they’ve brought (or not!).
“There is absolutely nothing intimidating about the get-togethers. If we haven’t a book to suggest we simply listen to others talk about their book. It is very relaxed. There are no pressures!”
Cowan reads a wide range of books, refusing to commit to a single genre. And that’s why the biweekly kitchen klatsch is so much fun. “Members describe the books they are reading and this gives me ideas of what I would like to read next.”
It’s where she heard about The Rosie Project, which she enjoyed. She calls it a “light romantic comedy, entertaining, and gives a perspective of Asperger’s syndrome, which I knew little about.”
The Rosie Project (2013) is Graeme Simsion’s debut novel, and tells the tale of Don Tillman, who’s unaware that he has Asperger’s, “although his symptoms are obvious to friends and colleagues,” notes the New York Times in its review. “He flinches from physical contact and cooks all his meals according to an unvarying schedule; his approach to courtship consists of handing women a detailed questionnaire to test their suitability.”
And then the disorganized and impulsive Rosie comes into Don’s life. She is the most unsuitable mate imaginable.
She’s looking for her biological father, and Don, a genetics professor, offers to help. There is much secretive swabbing of the DNA of the daddy candidates. (The Rosie Project is available in print in Adult Fiction, and as an unabridged audio book on seven CDs.)
But Cowan gets more than just ideas for her next read. “The presentation by another person of a book that I have read, it is an eye-opener to hear another perspective. Unlike a book club where everyone talks about the same book, at Brown Bags each person talks about their own experience with a book. Some enthusiasts recommend more than one book. I always bring a pen and paper to note down books that are recommended. Each member has different likes and dislikes so there are always doors open to new reading experiences.”
Cowan is a retired dietitian-nutritionist who’s lived in the Sherbrooke area since 1970, and in Lennoxville proper since 1980. Her library membership, she says, “is probably as old as the length of time I have been living here. The library is an important institution in the neighbourhood.”
As for Brown Bags, “At retirement a friend of mine invited me to join her…. It was so interesting and enjoyable that I have continued for the past 10 years to attend meetings occasionally.”
The group saw the light of day some 11 years ago (the anniversary arrives in February).
Books & Brown Bags was started at the suggestion of Lorraine Codère, who was president of the Bibliothèque Lennoxville Library Board from 2002 to 2006. The group was to meet every second week to share a book that they had enjoyed, fiction or non-fiction. Books could be from the library shelves or not. One of the first that Codère suggested was the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (1998) by Alexander McCall Smith.
McCall Smith’s Botswana-based private investigator, Precious Ramotswe, was well on her way to best-selling status by then (and the library has multiple books in the series, filed in Adult Fiction and in the Large Print section). Mma Ramotswe is hired to investigate small things that hinge on character and a bit of snooping. There is a focus on the domestic and a pragmatic and loving approach to solving problems. She is charming, and so are the books.
Sheila MacLean is another long-time Brown Bags attendee. She recalls that “each week participants wrote down the title of the book that they presented.” That’s a historical record of a decade’s-worth of favorite books, as chosen by those at the library’s heart – its patrons.
“We still write down the names of books that we suggest,” says Cowan. Her latest recommendation is the 2001 novel Clara Callan, by Richard B. Wright (filed in Adult Fiction). Clara is a single woman in her thirties, living in rural Ontario in the 1930s, and her story is told through letters and journal entries.
“It is difficult to answer the question of ‘What is enjoyable about reading?’ Like any similar activity, it is entertaining and often educational. I like to be taken to new places or be offered a new perspective on an issue.”
Books & Brown Bags holds its first meeting of the New Year from noon to 1 p.m., on Wednesday, January 14, 2015, at the Lennoxville Library (and every two Wednesdays thereafter). All are welcome! Bring a book you enjoyed and your lunch. Or just bring your love of books.
– Eleanor Brown, January 9, 2015