Sometimes it’s just too much. Muriel Fitzsimmons connects so closely to characters in the novels she reads that she must, at times, set a book aside. “I find that tragic, heart-wrenching stories are the most difficult for me to read. For example, I found Purge by Sofi Oksanen extremely shattering. I read it for Johanne’s Book Club in Bury and I had to skip certain parts in order to finish it.”
There’s no question that Purge is a difficult read emotionally. It’s set in Estonia, under the Soviet occupation, which began in 1940 during the Second World War. Two modern women – one older, one younger – look back at how they survived the violence, both sexual and emotional, of their lives. The book has won multiple awards, and was originally written in Finnish in 2008, and translated two years later. Find it on Lennoxville Library shelves in Adult Fiction.
Fitzsimmons calls herself an omnivore. “I will read almost anything as long as it’s well written.” But would she again read a book as emotionally difficult as Purge? “Yes, I’m always game to read anything, but I do tend to avoid real downers.”
Of course tragedy steps into every life, and often unexpectedly. Johanne’s Book Club is named in honour of Bury’s Johanne Guimond, who suggested the founding of a reading group back in 2001: “The idea was enthusiastically received, but Johanne died tragically that summer.”
The 10 members meet every five weeks. “The hostess choses the book to be discussed and provides a meal. I think of this group as our gourmet book club! In spite of being situated in the wilds of Bury the club boasts an amazingly eclectic membership. Three are teachers, one is a farmer (beef and maple products), one a professor at MacDonald College (not long retired), one teaches at the Sherbrooke Cegep. Our German member speaks and reads four languages and owns the general store in Bury. We have an artist from Finland, a librarian, and an international trainer who travels all over the world training teachers. You can imagine the diversity of their book selections!”
Fitzsimmons enjoys books that burble with humour. “If I had to choose a favourite genre I’d say comedy. I’ve been a devoted fan of Jane Austen’s novels ever since I first read them as a teen-ager. I think that Pride And Prejudice is one of my all time favourite novels.”
Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, first published in 1813, follows efforts to marry off five daughters. For her part, Elizabeth Bennet sniffs at the haughty Mr. Darcy… (find the novel free online, on Lennoxville Library shelves in Adult Fiction and in Easy Reads, and you can laugh along with, and be enchanted by, various film versions available on DVD at the library; run a database search and you’ll find even more Austen-inspired novels written by contemporary authors).
Fitzsimmons grew up in Montreal but would visit her grandfather and aunt in Lennoxville in the summers. “When I was 9 years old, my aunt enrolled me in the Lennoxville Library, then located in the back of the Town Hall, with Mrs. Baker as librarian.
“It was here at the Lennoxville Library that I developed a lifelong interest in reading after discovering the books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I learned that every good book takes you to another world and introduces you to new friends. I swung through the trees of the African jungle with Tarzan and I adventured across Mars with John Carter.”
Burroughs was an American, born in 1875, whose creations continue to capture the imagination. He is buried in the small California community of Tarzana. (Tarzan’s tales, and other Burroughs works, are available online free, because copyright has long expired.)
What does Fitzsimmons recommend these days?
- I loved The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (an autistic scientist seeks a wife, 2013, in Adult Fiction and in Audio)
- I highly recommend the quirky detective novels of Colin Cotterill. Start with the first one called The Coroner’s Lunch (2004), set in Communist Laos
- Read I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (2014). It’s an exciting thriller with a plot that’s relevant to today’s ongoing battle against terrorism
- The Millennium Series by Stieg Larsson is a must read thriller trio. Again start with the first one called The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009, in Adult Fiction and in Audio Books). The death of Larsson did not end the series; David Lagercrantz wrote a fourth, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, in 2015 (“I was disappointed; Lagercrantz tried but he wasn’t Stieg Larsson”).
And all of these books are in the Lennoxville Library.
Fitzsimmons presented one of the CBC Canada Reads books at this year’s Lennoxville Library foreshadowing event in March. “Birdie by Tracey Lindberg presents the trials and tribulations of starting a new life in a way that brings to life Indian women and the continued discrimination that they face. We follow Birdie on a painful journey as she comes to grips with homelessness, mental illness, rape, sexual exploitation, abandonment (loss of home, family and friends). And through it all Birdie emerges as strong, funny and smart.
“I chose Birdie because I had just finished two books that tell the hard reality behind the life of indigenous peoples here in Canada, The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King (filed at 970 in the Lennoxville Non Fiction shelves), and Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese (available via interlibrary loan). While these were excellent books, Birdie touches our hearts in an unforgettable way. She truly conquers her past, and starts over. I loved this book!”
Given this kind of enthusiasm, you may be unsurprised to discover that Fitzsimmons is herself a former librarian. Fitzsimmons and husband Bob lived in Bury for 42 years, lobbying for a public library. She eventually became the library’s first volunteer librarian. “In 2008 we decided to downsize and we have been living in Lennoxville for eight years now. Naturally I joined the Lennoxville Library and continued to volunteer here.”
She has served on the Lennoxville’s Library’s volunteer board of directors, and continues to sit on the Adult Book Selection Committee. And of course, there’s Books And Brown Bags, the casual bring-your-lunch-and-a-book get-together held every second Wednesday.
“I was introduced to the Brown Bags book group at the library by Ivy Weir and I have loved attending ever since. I think the format of the group is inspired. There is absolutely no pressure. You can present any book that you’ve read or you can just listen to others. I find this a brilliant way to find good books to read!”
You could, too. Their next gathering will be held at noon on Wednesday, May 18 (and there will be one more, on June 1, before the group breaks for the summer). Or just start here with this column, and Fitzsimmons’s fabulous collection of good reads.
— Eleanor Brown, May 6, 2016