Tuesday, 19 December 2017

You're Invited to My Fantasy Tea Party

I've often wondered what it would be like to sit down for tea with some of the women whom I've long admired. Whose words and ideas have sustained me at difficult times in my life. And to whom I have often looked for wisdom, for some sort of guidance on how to navigate through life. Not surprisingly most of these women are writers. And most of them I have never met, and now never will, since they are no longer living. Still. The thought is intriguing to me. 


So, if I were to dream up a fantasy party, it wouldn't be a glittering cocktail party, or a Jane Austen style ball, or even  Mitford-ish coming out party. 

My fantasy is that I might be able to conjure up a gathering of the wise women I admire, bring them together in one room, with a big pot of tea, cucumber sandwiches, cranberry scones, Victoria sponge, and my mum's fruitcake. And chat.

Now, how amazing would  that be?


a table set for high tea with sandwiches, sweets, and champagne
Tea at the Hotel Café Royal in London
My tea won't be a sumptuous and stylish tea such as I recently enjoyed at the Hotel Café Royal when I was in London. It will be a much more homey affair. But I'll worry about the food later. First comes the guest list. Who should I invite? Since this is a fantasy tea party, time, distance, and even death cannot prevent my guests from attending. 

Of course I cannot imagine tea and conversation without thinking of Barbara Pym. She is one of my favourite writers. I imagine her as kind, congenial, and self-effacing, with a wry wit. And a sharply ironic view of the world. Much like Mildred Lathbury in Excellent Women. I wonder if, like Mildred, she'll arrive with a string bag containing a few bits of shopping, her knitting, and the library book she's currently reading. 

woman in doorway of stone cottage
Barbara Pym
I will invite Margaret Drabble whom I have long admired. I was introduced to her books when I read Radiant Way, which I adored. I remember I bought it as a birthday present for a friend who had just turned fifty, thinking all women her age should read it. I love how, in her books, Drabble seems to map out a plan for facing middle age, and then in later books, old age. I know she's terribly clever, and I might be slightly intimidated by her, but we have some things in common. She enjoys travel; she said in an interview that she loves being a tourist in unfamiliar places. And like me, she's also become converted to e-books. She says she loves that she can "buy a book at midnight, or on a train to Taunton," and read it in "the glare of the sun on a beach in the middle of the Atlantic, or in the darkness of [her] hotel room." "Gone is the panic of running out of reading matter," she says. I imagine we'll probably talk about that.


woman sitting on a sofa surrounded by bookshelves
Margaret Drabble
I'll send an invitation to Anne Tyler, who so inspired me with her book Saint Maybe, when one character advises another: "This is your life. Lean into it." And to Penelope Lively, of course, whose books are fascinating, and so varied. I've written about her book Consequences and the line that "books take you out of yourself and put you down somewhere else from whence you never entirely return."  Lively wrote a lovely article a while ago on the solitary woman, more specifically on twenty-first century widowhood with which she is well acquainted having been widowed several years ago after forty-one years of marriage. Lively says that "today's solitary woman is likely to be robust, significant, a voice to be heard." And I'll invite Kate Bollick. I can just imagine how famously Penelope Lively and Kate Bollick will get along. Bollick's view of twenty-first spinsterhood mirrors Lively's view of widowhood, and her book Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own was one of my favourite books of 2016. I wrote about it hereI like how all of these women look at life. It heartens me that such smart and utterly sensible women exist in our crazy world.


shots of three women

Of course P.D. James will be invited. I can't wait to talk to her about her detective novels and about detective fiction in general. And about her passion for Jane Austen. She's a great friend of Penelope Lively. Won't it be fun to see them together? 

woman in front of book shelves  woman signing a book and looking up

My last guest is Helen Humphreys, a Canadian writer whose books I have long read. In fact her novel Lost Garden is one of my all time favourites. I met Humphreys recently when I heard her read from her latest book of non-fiction called  The Ghost Orchard, about the history of the apple in Canada. It sounded an unlikely subject at first. But she said that she started wondering about apples when she was walking her dog near where she lives, through abandoned farm fields and apple orchards. She picked an apple from an old tree, and finding it the most delicious one she'd ever tasted, decided to try to find out what kind of apple it was. That was when she "disappeared down the rabbit hole," she said, embarking on a journey of exploration that resulted in this book. I love that she said that about rabbit holes; I've been known to disappear down a few of those myself. Humphreys says she's fascinated by the natural world. The book is about her research, and what she found out about apples, but also about her process as a writer, and about a close friend who was dying during her writing of the book. I bought a copy for Hubby for Christmas. But don't tell him, okay? 

There are so many wonderful writers and thinkers out there; I had to be firm with myself when I was drawing up my guest list. My sun room isn't very big. I had to make tough choices. 

My mum will be joining us. As I've written here many times, Mum is a voracious reader. And although she really likes P.D. James, having been converted to mystery novels and detective fiction a few years ago, Mum's guest will be Donna Leon. She loves Leon's Commissario Brunetti series of detective novels set in Venice. She wants to talk to Leon about Venice. Of course Mum will be bringing her famous fruit cake with the marzipan layer and buttercream icing, and her whipped shortbread. Bring lots Mum, so there's some left over for Hubby. 

Victoria sponge on a plate
Victoria sponge from the article Cooking with Barbara Pym by Valerie Stivers in The Paris Review
And I'm inviting my good friend Susan Webb with whom I worked for many years. And with whom I share a love of Barbara Pym, mystery novels of any stripe, books in general, and tea. Susan is really smart, and has much better hostess skills that I do. I'll be relying on her to talk to the people who scare me just a little, like Margaret Drabble. I'm also relying on Susan to bring the Victoria sponge. And her silver tea service. Susan's guest is Canadian historian and writer Margaret MacMillan. Hubby read and loved MacMillan's book  Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. Her latest book The War That Ended Peace was recently cited at the NAFTA* talks. Apparently our Minister for Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland and her staff think that MacMillan's examination of the past, and the extreme nationalism leading up to 1914, can be a lesson for these troubled times. 

So... let's set the scene. The sun is shining brightly on the snow-covered river, and the lights are twinkling on our small Christmas tree. I've been baking scones and making sandwiches all morning. Mum and Susan arrive early to help set up. Mum cuts the fruit cake and lays out the shortbread. Susan slices her Victoria sponge and gets the tea pot ready. Hubby lights the fire and shovels the back step before he heads out for the ski trails. When everyone gets here we can tuck in. I'm so excited. Maybe even a bit "flappy" as we say in my family. 

And then the guests arrive. Introductions are made, coats hung up, tea poured, plates passed. Conversation is a bit stilted at first. But soon everyone is sipping and munching and yakking. Spoons clink on tea cups. Laughter erupts. We're all in sweaters, jeans, and sock feet, or woolen skirts and embroidered slippers. I refill the tea pot umpteen times. Susan and Mum refurbish the plates more than once, with more of everything. And the conversation... the conversation is wonderful. 

We talk of books. The ones our guests have written, and those they've read and loved. We talk about life. Where ideas come from. How it feels to grow older in a youth crazed society. Coping with spouses, lack of spouses, loss of spouses. Children and grandchildren for those who have them. I remember to ask Penelope Lively what we should call P.D. James. Phyllis? 

I see Barbara pull out her knitting. Helen plumps down on a cushion on the floor next to Margaret Drabble's chair; they launch into a discussion about gardens. Mum asks Donna Leon about Venice. I ask Anne if she's ever read Laura Lippman who also sets her novels in Baltimore. Kate and Barbara talk, to Barbara's delight, about the changing view of "spinsters." Phyllis and Mum talk of Jane Austen, and Death Comes to Pemberly, and I join in with the story of Mum's and my love for the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice, and the famous (in our house anyway) story of "Mistah Bennet and Mistah Eccles." Penelope and Margaret MacMillan (too many Margarets) and Susan begin to talk of history, and the spectre of the past repeating itself. We all eventually listen in on their conversation, and things get a bit solemn. Then I jump up to refill the teapot, trip on my own feet, and end up in Helen Humphreys' lap. We all laugh and the solemn mood is broken. 

It's dark, now. I turn the lights on and notice that it's been snowing for a while. I can smell fresh bread baking in the kitchen. Hubby has returned from his ski. He comes in, meets everyone, and then announces that the roads are terrible, and the plow won't be coming by for hours. But there's a huge pot of chili on the stove that's been simmering all afternoon. He's made the bread, opened a couple of bottles of red wine to breath, and has started on a salad. Everyone will stay for supper. The two Margarets set the table; Susan and I finish the salad. Kate piles bowls on the kitchen counter and then, when Hubby has filled them with chili, she and Donna ferry them into the dining room. Anne and Helen pour the wine and set glasses of water on the table. Everyone sits down, and Hubby lights the candles. He proposes a toast: to good books, good food, and good friends, new and old. 

Then, we eat. We drink. And we talk long into the night. 


Sigh. That's how every tea party would be if I had my way. 

You probably noticed that even though it's been snowing and Hubby has been skiing in my story, there's no snow in the shot above. Or maybe you wonder how in heck we squeezed all those people around our dining table that only seats six. 

Ah, but you must remember... it is a fantasy party after all.  And you, my friends, are invited too. 

If you want to play along just let us know in the comments who you will bring as a guest to our fantasy tea party, and why. And if you want to bring something to contribute to our feast, well, that would be lovely too. 








*For those non-Canadians, NAFTA stands for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is in jeopardy. And is currently being renegotiated. 

50 comments:

  1. Loved joining you on this flight of fantasy and all the little details right down to checking with PL whether you should call PD James Phyllis. Wonderful guest list. What a party that would be. Iris

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    1. I just imagined meeting her at he door and calling her PD. Ha. But I can't find anywhere what her friends call her. Hope I'm right and it's Phyllis.

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    2. Many years ago, a friend and I visited London where we had dinner with her "aunt", who had enjoyed a long career in publishing. As we chatted about our lives she made several references to "my friend Phil". Much later I learned that she was talking about PD James. Susan, also from Ottawa

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    3. Oh... wow. Thank-you for sharing that.

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  2. Oh you like Barbara Pym also. I adore her books. Talk about books where nothing happens. I love them. I'm very excited about your list of writers and books you've loved. We seem to be on the same wave lenght. May invite myself to your tea party? I adore tea and those little sandwiches. I promise to behave and will not gush over these fantastic writers.

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    1. I think we're definitely reading kindred spirits, Sandra. And of course... you must come to the party. Feel free to gush.... I'll be doing lots of flapping and tripping over my own feet:)

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  3. Lovely writing . Can I bring Diana Athill please ? She writes wonderfully about all stages of life & her own experiences . It is her one hundredth birthday this Thursday so she has had LOTS of experiences & , having worked in publishing for most of her life , will fit in well with your other guests . I’d really like to have thrown Alan Bennet into the mix but he’ll have to wait for the men’s get together .
    Wendy in York

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    1. Sorry Alan , that’s Bennett
      Wendy

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    2. Oh, I thought of Diana Athill as well -- I would love, love, love to meet her, having admired her for so long and you're right, her experience with books on both sides of the desk, writing and editing, would make her a perfect addition. But she's your country's contribution, and you got here first, so fair's fair. And at least if you bring her, I'll get to meet her, right?

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    3. Of course Frances & nice to see you up so early . You are normally in bed at this time . Good to tell you are on the European clock at the moment .
      Wendy

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    4. I thought the same thing about our clocks being synchronised for a change. . .

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    5. I love Alan Bennett... he can come even if he is a man. Maybe he'll bring as HIS guest his "uncommon reader." Ha. I was thinking that you might bring Max; he would love to talk to Margaret MacMillan about history and World War I. Stu says she is a brilliant historian. Now... I must go see if the library has anything on Diana Athill.

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    6. I’ve just put Margaret MacMillan books on his secret wish list . Too late for Xmas but great for his birthday . Thanks Stu .
      Wendy
      PS Wonder if the Mitford gang will gatecrash ?

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  4. Since Wendy's got in first with Diana Athill, I think I'd bring Eden Robinson, not only for her gripping storytelling skills, but also for a wicked, if subversive, sense of humour -- and her laugh!! If you've ever heard her interviewed (and I've had a chance to hear/see her in person at a reading/interview), you'll know what a mean -- it's raucous and rollicking and infections. And she would introduce a whole new topic of conversation -- First Nations' lives, colonialism, etc., which I suspect all the writers you've invited would find relevant and fascinating as well. Oh, what a good time we'll have -- I'm going to sneak my toothbrush and pjs into my (large) purse, and hope we get snowed in. ;-)

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    1. Such a good choice, Frances. There were so many writers I had to leave off my list. Women whose books I love but who I don't think play well with others. Like Edna O'Brien who says she doesn't have women friends because she prefers men. My friend Nancy H will love that you're bringing Eden Robinson. Good thing you're bringing your toothbrush and jammies... it's still snowing here!

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  5. How fun Sue! I’m admiring your conversation details and the menu! I’d love to be at this party. Miss you, and happy holidays to you and Hubby.

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    1. Thanks Nancy. And happy holidays to you and Don and Audrey. Did you notice that Frances is bringing Eden Robinson to the party?

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  6. Thank goodness I'm invited, too! (Phew. This is a tea party I would be heartbroken to miss.)

    Who might I like to see there? Hmmm. Poet Marge Piercy, poet (and novelist) Margaret Atwood, poet Adrienne Rich, poet Cathy Song... (Are you seeing a trend?)

    Like Frances, I'd be up for getting snowed in!

    xo
    D. A.

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    1. I'm not familiar with Marge Piercy, but I really like Adrienne Rich. Not sure that Margaret Atwood plays well with others, though. I adore her, and think she's clever and funny, and a wonderful writer. But she can be a bit acerbic. We'll have to ply her with wine.

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  7. Hi Sue
    A Tea Party...lovely. I'll sit quietly, listen, eat cake and thoroughly enjoy myself! I'll bring the flowers!
    Love that evening view!
    Robin T

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    1. Welcome, Robin. You will enjoy my friend Susan's wonderful Victoria sponge. Fresh flowers in winter...lovely.

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  8. What a party!
    Thank you very much for your invitation! I think I'll sit quietly,together with Robin,ovewhelmed with admiration-but,I'd like to meat Sue's mother,so I'll have to talk with Donna Leon as well :-)
    As a guest to your party,I would bring Ivana Brlic Mazuranic,croatian writer ,four times nominated fpr Nobel prize,who has created wonderful fairy worlds, what earned her comparison to Andersen and Tolkien. Ivana,although was born 1874,was very well educated and her first stories were initially written in French,so she could comunicate in a couple of foreign languages,and tell us, how it was to raise six children and put her longing to write and create on hold-not an easy,but very painful decision for her
    I would bring a "falling" chocolate cake,too
    Dottoressa

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    1. What a wonderful addition to our guest list, Dottoressa. And how great for more modern women writers to hear what it was like for those that went before. Mum will be so excited to meet you.
      P.S. Is a "falling" chocolate cake a flourless one? My friend makes those and they're delicious.

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    2. Thank you :-)
      Yes,exactly,just 120 g dark chocolate,separate 6 yolks and 6 whites ,little bit of baking soda and 120g of sugar -after baking,the middle "falls"-I spread blueberry (or strawberry or raspberries or whatever I have )marmalade and whipped cream on it-delicious!
      D.

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    3. Paul and I were treated to this cake after a sumptuous meal at Dottoressa's last June, and i can attest to its delights. SO good!!!

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  9. I'd like to invite Alice Munro (for in fantasy she would be in robust good health and eager for a visit). I first thought Margaret Drabble, I re-read her frequently (her pragmatism comforts me). Also Margaret M.

    I started thinking about writers from the past...what would Virginia Woolf think of this gathering? Or Jane Austen? I think the cut-off is about 100 years. Beyond that, the culture shock would be too great :)

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    1. Alice Munro... what a good idea. I've always loved her work. And she's so modest about it. I would love to ask her about her stories set in the Ottawa Valley and tell her how one such story inspired me to start playing around with writing many years ago. I think she would sit quietly and chat with Robin and Ali who are nervous to be in such celebrated company. Ha. As if I wouldn't be!

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  10. What fun! I would suggest Agatha Christie as a guest and since this is a fantasy, why not invite her characters, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Sue - you are such a good story teller you should write a book.

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    1. Oh. Good thinking. She could talk archeology with Penelope Lively, and Miss Marple could compare knitting patterns with Barbara Pym. Now Poirot... might he be out in the kitchen with Hubby polishing spots off my wine glasses?

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  11. What with chugging through snow-bound Europe on Frances' fantasy train ride and now this fantasy tea party, the winter is going to be busy. Thanks for the invitation; I shall bring my mother's coffee and walnut cake and a big box of scones - plain, fruit and cheese. And I think I shall ask Nancy Mitford and if Margaret Atwood gets a bit acerbic the pair of them can either head off to natter in peace or N will put her in her place. I am quite happy to help clear up afterwards and bring the makings of martinis for later on.

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    1. Ha. I think that Nancy M will be a match for our Margaret. That would be fun to watch, wouldn't it?
      Thank-you for the scones..and the walnut cake. I've never had walnut cake.
      P.S. Good thing that the plow hasn't been by, with the wine and the martinis, nobody will be driving!

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  12. I'm both enthralled and excited to be a part of this Sue and like Frances I've packed a toothbrush and my pj's, just in case. Hoping that this party may continue well into the early hours!
    Wondering about inviting J.R.R.Tolkein and hoping he won't feel too overwhelmed by the predominately female group ...perhaps he'll help Stu with the chilli! I'm keen to ask him if his inspiration for Lord of the Rings really came from visiting the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland ? Keen to hear more about Gollum too! Also I'm happy to take any acerbic comments from Margaret in return to hearing her discuss Handmaidens Tale...If she feels we're worthy of her time! I'd love to bring my mum too as I'm sure she would get along so well with your mum ...both strong,independent women. Looking forward to all the edible goodies, especially as nohatnogloves is bringing my very favourite cake! ...see you all soon:)
    Such a great post Sue and so beautifully written. I can picture the scenario as clearly as if I was actually there ...such fun!
    Rosie

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    1. Thanks Rosie. I think that Tolkein has enough confidence to handle a room full of women. And wouldn't that be fun to introduce our mums!
      P.S. Saw a post on FB today from a site that posts beautiful pictures of Britain. It was of Broadway in the snow. So lovely to be able to say that I was there.

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  13. Meant to add I'll make a Swiss cheese fondue and some gluhwein. Perfect with the snowy weather!!

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  14. I’m not certain whether you are known as Sue or Susan, but this post is just the loveliest! I really really enjoyed it. I am going to share this post with my bookclub. Happy Christmas!

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    1. Hi Susan,
      I'm a Susan on everything official. But usually Sue to my friends, Susie to family, and Suz to my husband. So I pretty much answer to everything:)

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  15. What an absolutely delightful post and the comments are almost as entertaining! So happy to be invited to your party. Your guest list is wonderfully intriguing and as each commenter adds their guest it becomes increasingly so. Who can I add to that illustrious list? Perhaps I'll invite Kate Morton to pop over from Australia. I've enjoyed several of her novels this year and I'd love to chat with her about her involvement in community theatre, a shared passion of ours. I'll bring some of my homemade antipasto. I only make it this time of year and it's always a hit with our crowd. Of course, I'll bring an assortment of crackers to serve with it. See you there!

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    1. Thanks, Elaine. Yes...do bring Kate Morton. I love to talk to native Ozzies about a country Hubby and I both love. Excellent idea to bring a snack to tide us over until supper!

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  16. What fun this will be! Could we set up some extra tables and also invite Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Laurie Colwin, Carol Shields, Ann Patchett, Zadie Smith and Kate Atkinson?

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    1. Extra tables? Sure. Why not? Jane Austen might be a little shell-shocked by Kate Bollick's view of spinsterhood. I would love to chat to Carol Shields; I met her once at a reading and she was lovely. And Kate Atkinson... simply love her books.

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  17. I’m a bit nervous to be tagging along. These are women that I’m in awe of. I think I will make a list of questions because I will quite frankly go completely blank. Should we each bring our own cup and saucer and flute for the bubbly? That way you don’t have all the dishes to do at the end of a perfect day....
    Ali

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    1. You'll have to make yourself some cheat-notes, Ali:) Extra cups and saucers and plates and wine glasses...I didn't think of that. What's great about a fantasy party is that there is no actual baking to be done... and no dishes either. I should have these all the time.

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  18. Tea, scones and great books...sounds like my kind of party! Happy holidays to you and your family!

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  19. What a wonderful tea that would be. To have your favourite people all together ... you can't get better than that can you ? A brilliant take on our BIO subject this month. XXXX

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  20. Just wondering: is Margaret Laurence totally forgotten? I love The Diviners for so many reasons and she'd definitely be on my guest list.

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    1. Not forgotten by me. I taught The Stone Angel for many years. But love A Jest of God the best.

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  21. I'd love your table scape as the beginning of a second marriage wedding brunch.

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All comments, ideas, commiserations, questions, complaints... are most welcome.