The PHC Book Club
The Book Club members read and discuss with fellow participants a variety
of books about Polish heritage and/or written by Polish authors .
Here is the list of books we have explored over the years.
SECOND MEETING: 7pm on May 1, 2018
Patrice Dabrowski (Cosmopolitan Review): "Hard to put down, Freedom Climbers is expertly and engagingly penned by Bernadette McDonald, the author of a number of prize-winning books on mountaineering. This time she has painstakingly pieced together a story of the over two decades of Himalayan exploits of Polish climbers, women as well as men, many of whom she knew personally. The figures and events of the glory days of Polish mountaineering are brought vividly to life. Both story and book are fully deserving of the years of attention lavished on them. A sign that McDonald’s effort has been appreciated by more than the present reviewer: Freedom Climbers has already won three prestigious book awards, has been translated into Polish and is being translated into other languages....
Born during or following World War II, these Poles surmounted hurdles that climbers from the west could hardly imagine. Living in an unfree country – communist-ruled Poland – they surmounted difficulty after difficulty to become the dominant climbing dynasty. McDonald is sensitive to the particular circumstances that shaped Polish high-altitude climbing: the chronic shortages of food supplies and nonexistence of proper alpine equipment within Poland, the insufficient funds to cover international travel and expenses even when climbers were granted permission to leave the country, the disconnect between the communists’ penchant for control and the alpinists’ premium on freedom. The best Polish climbers were masters of the art of the seemingly impossible. Unafraid of taking risks, they bent rules back home as well as abroad (for example, engaging in black market trading on an international scale to finance their trips) in order to be able to reach the rarified realm of the mountains, where they felt truly alive."
Quill & Quire Review: "McDonald introduces readers to a cast of characters who rebelled against the oppression and poverty of postwar Poland by dedicating their lives to breaking climbing records, chronicling these climbers as they bag first-route ascents, first winter ascents, and first multiple ascents. Their daring often resulted in death, but McDonald does not condemn them for an ambition that at times seems no more admirable than a death wish. As the death toll rises, readers learn that big egos on big mountains cause big problems, infusing McDonald’s narrative with drama, conflict, and high stakes.
The book offers an unflinching examination of the psychology of risk, the extent to which one’s personality is shaped by one’s time and place, the connection between nature and spirituality, and the danger of egotism. McDonald asks big questions and does not succumb to easy answers. She shows the lengths to which these climbers went to imbue their lives with meaning, and then asks: was it worth it?"
First published in 2011, the book Freedom Climbers won the Banff Mountain Book Festival Grand Prize (2011), Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature (2011) and American Alpine Club Literary Award (2012). In 2017, Bernardette McDonald won the Boardman Tasker Prize again - this time for her new book about Polish climbers, Art of Freedom: The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka.
FIRST MEETING: 7pm on February 6, 2018
TOPIC: "The Chosen Maiden"
Dana Hansen (Quill & Quire): "Many works of fiction take as their inspiration true events and persons of historical significance, but few do so as lovingly and imaginatively as Eva Stachniak’s fifth novel. The Chosen Maiden is a fictionalized account of the remarkable life and accomplishments of ballet dancer and choreographer Bronislava (Bronia) Nijinska, sister to the legendary Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Set in the years 1894 through 1939, and told from Bronia’s perspective, The Chosen Maiden delves into the workings of an artist’s mind and reveals the resiliency of art in a time of worldwide political upheaval and war... "
As children of distinguished Polish-born dancers, Bronia, Vaslav, and their older brother, Stassik, find themselves destined for a competitive life in the all-consuming world of the ballet. Vaslav quickly emerges as a rising star in the Russian Imperial Ballet School, overshadowing his younger sister, who is no less ambitious or talented. For Vaslav, fame and accolades come easily and opportunities present themselves to dance on world stages with Sergei Diaghilev’s newly formed Ballets Russes. Bronia is swept along in her famous brother’s wake, given small roles to dance, but always dreams of moving beyond her classical training to newer, more modern and exciting ways of dancing: 'Ballet needs a revolution, we say. Of colour, of music, of movement. Russian art needs freedom from the past.'".
Hellen Heller (Publishers Weekly): "The book takes readers into the controversial 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, in which Vaslav casts Bronia as the Chosen Maiden who dances herself to death, and then follows them both into adversity. Stachniak brilliantly brings the story of Bronia, the lesser-known Nijinsky, to life. She has an excellent command of the period and the dance world, and an ability to draw characters who will enrapture the reader..."
Maria Pelletier (Cosmopolitan Review): "Chosen Maiden, a novel about Nijinska, also tells us a lot about her times, specifically in the waning days of Imperial Russia. The book ends in 1939, on a ship to America, as the Second World War begins. She is heading towards a new place, hoping to “find the strength for another struggle”, after devastating personal losses. I am not sure why the author chose to end Bronia’s story at this stage of her life, though it is clearly a turning point. I was moved to research her later life to see what happened to her in America, so I would have welcomed a postscript with additional details of her life after 1939.....
Chosen Maiden, rescuing Nijinska from her brother’s shadow, reveals an artist, one who knows that “to excel, I have to be strong, resilient, see more, understand what is hidden to others”, and also, as her brother told her, that “Art is all that matters, Bronia. Everything else is distraction."
Youtube video discussing the art and people of the time