Friday, December 19, 2014

Maureen Corrigan is a magician who makes the world disappear

I tend to listen to book critic Maureen Corrigan on NPR's Fresh Air regularly. I don't always agree with her recommendations but overall I respect her opinion and feel strongly that she has her finger on what people are talking about in terms of books. She does tend to value cloying works at times, works which are not always my personal cup of tea. But that's fine. We can't always agree with other book lovers (and, in fact, we shouldn't always agree).

Is there a world outside of America, Maureen Corrigan?
But when  I listened to her Best Books of 2014 the other day, I found myself getting more and more irritated at how narrow and myopic her focus is. Of all the 12 books she put on this list, all but two were American (the stand outs were Sarah Waters, British, and Tara French, Irish) and all without exception were written in English.

I don't know Maureen Corrigan but this attitude that only American writers matter is so out of date and, in fact, dangerous. Why no writers from Mexico? Or France? Or Russia? No Germans or Spaniards or Egyptians. Where is the Italian? Or the Portuguese? God forbid a Chinese or a Japanese writer should be worthy of reading!  No Elena Ferrante? (True, if I remember correctly, she has reviewed Elena Ferrante in the past so maybe Elena Ferrante just didn't make the cut from her point of view.) What kind of criteria is she using? No Patrick Modiano? (Not even venturing to mention non-fiction writers who aren't American or don't write only in English). Again, I know that occasionally (very occasionally) Corrigan does review the odd translated work. But to put this kind of asterisk next to works by almost only Americans really bothers me. Today? In this world? Come on.

We are well past the stage where it's strange to see a huge number of women writers on these kinds of lists. If anyone wrote a list of the best of 2014 that included only men, people would be (rightly) outraged. So why is it OK to exclude every other language on Earth except English? Why is it OK to only value (or overly value) writers who are American? Do Americans really write the best fiction in the world?! Even if the argument can be made that she is recording her segment for Americans, can't Americans deal with foreign fiction or ideas or ways of looking at the world?

Get with the program, NPR: the market in the USA for translated works is growing (albeit at a much slower rate than just about anywhere else on the planet) but taste-makers should lift their blinders and consider works beyond their small little worlds of East Coast Ivy Leaguers.

A 2014 list is by its creation going to exclude many many writers and countries. But to include almost only Americans and to include only works written originally in English is short-sighted and patronizing.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Cuba and Literature

I am so happy to hear about the US finally getting their shit together and opening up to Cuba. On one hand. It's great for the world's cultural scene, naturally, because Cuba hits way above its population and status in terms of culture: its writers, musicians and painters have enormous cachet in just about all corners of the world except the USA.

On the other hand, good-bye Cuba. In a way. No, it'll still be Cuba, but with US trade and business
deals and given its close proximity to Florida, in another 10-15 years, it'll be a pricey tourist stop with million dollar colonial remodels and beach resorts like no other (it already has the resorts full of Quebecois). That's a shame, I guess, in a certain way (maybe good for Cubans though)...

When we did a Cuban Writing Series at Blue Met a few years back, we did it precisely because we knew that in just a matter of years, Cuba would be changing. I'm also gratified to know that many of the writers we featured went on to gain even more acclaim: in The New Yorker, at other Festivals around the world.

Once again, I will give a shout out to some Cuban writers whose work I love: Leonardo Padura and Reynaldo Arenas. Arenas died ages ago but his book Before Night Falls is one of those books I re-read every few years and find new things to think about. He was an extraordinary talent. There was a great piece about him in The Paris Review from earlier this year which prompted me to pick up his book again and read through it just before the Festival. Again, I'm amazed. The book tells the story of Arenas escape from Cuba (in dramatic fashion), his childhood prior to that, and his life in New York as he lay dying. I think this book is out of print now which is a huge shame.

And Padura's star continues to rise: he's one of those writers who has managed to create crime writing to a new level: making it both mysterious and engaging but also literary and highly intelligent. That's not an easy feat to pull off. I wrote just a couple of weeks ago about The Man Who Loved Dogs (about the final days of Trotsky). And I really like his novel Havana Fever. Though his books are often set (his crime novels anyway) in contemporary Havana, there is something very 19th century about them: no texting, no email, people have actual face to face conversations. Oh, and books are a huge part of his characters' milieu.

Oh, and one passing recommendation: Alejo Carpentier. Probably Cuba's best-known writer, his works are hard to call novels in a certain way and they are also rich in ideas, symbolism and sheer intelligence. This book The Lost Steps is another one of my favorites, the kind of book you dip in and out of over years, every once in a while going back and reading long passages for their beauty and all that they invoke. It tells the story of a NYC composer who escapes from his empty life with his mistress and journeys into the heart of South America: the rough and tumble jungle where no humans have made their mark:

(Friday night)
Death was still at work in that house with its eight grilled windows. It was everywhere, diligent, looking after all the details, making the necessary arrangements, placing the mourners, lighting the candles, taking pains to see that the whole town should find place in the vast rooms with deep window seats and broad doorways, the better to contemplate its work.

(Translated by Harriet de Onis)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Grez by Niall Campbell


There is the red-lit desk and wooden chair,
so now for evening's stove smoke, mothwork,
sun-in-the-leaves of the yard's birch. The quiet
that is Edith Piaf on a record player
a neighbour always lets turn at this hour --

and since that is my suitcase by the door
I'll drag it, as though it were an errant child,
to the stairwell, then the town limit, then
the short road of an empty railway platform.
There is the bending river by the hill
that I always saw - but, now, let me say
I saw it once, the hundred times the once.

          - from Niall Campbell's Moontide

(Grez, adj., Hot, better than reem. best thing created. fresh peng-a-leng.
woah. look at that guy. he is grez.
via urban dictionary)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Blue Met's A Year in Reading: from Ferrante to Adelstein, Luiselli to Benedetti

Since everyone else seems to be doing it, I thought I'd weigh in on my personal favorites for 2014:

Best 2014 comfort reader: Eileen Chang's Half a Lifelong Romance: I've long been a fan of Eileen Chang, but this novel, which dates from the middle part of Eileen Chang's career, was a new one for me. It appeared in serial form in the 1950s but is set in 1930s Shanghai and tells the story of a doomed love affair in the tumultuous period leading up to the Chinese Civil War. It's a tale of a young woman trying hard to live life according to her own terms in a society where women are diminished and dismissed. It's not a perfect novel but it's engaging a fascinating tale of power, love and fate.

Best  2014 binge-read: Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan novels: in 2014 I read the first three books in a few months and was absolutely riveted by them. They tell the story of a friendship (sometimes enemy-ship) of two girls growing up in 1950s Naples (the first book starts then, the third book ends in the late 70s) while one girl manages to pull herself out of the neighborhood through study and hard work, the other relies on pluck and street smarts. It's the story of an Italy that's long gone, but also romantic & violent.

Best 2014 discovery: the work of Valeria Luiselli. One of Mexico's most promising up and coming Faces in the Crowd is still with me months after I read it. It is a fascinating novel that looks at time, art, writing and fate/choice. This is a writer who I will be watching for years to come because everything she's written so far is interesting.

Best 2014 shocker: A True Novel by Minae Mizumura: this novel is a retelling of Wuthering Heights set in post-war Japan. But that really diminishes the book in a certain way because it's only a tiny fraction of what's interesting about this book: it's fascinating formally and one keeps asking oneself throughout the book: is this the novel or the story on which the novel is based? Is this real? Then one wonders what real actually means: is anything real? But I'm making the book sound pedantic or possibly boring. It's anything but. It's an excellent novel that I highly recommend.

Best 2014 Guilty Pleasure (and best 2014 book by a man?!): The Rest of Jungle & Other Stories by Mario Benedetti: I loved this book. It's a collection of stories by a Uruguayan writer whose work is hard to pin down: it's about middle class love affairs, about jungle adventures in the bush, it's about office workers stuck in bureaucratic hell, it's about animals who are bitchy and judgmental.

Best 2014 non-fiction journalism: Tokyo Vice: an American Reporter on the Police Beat by Jake Adelstein: Adelstein is one of the only foreign reporters ever hired by a Japanese newspaper and he tells the tale of his work for one of Tokyo's biggest daily newspapers, including his involvement in writing stories about Yakuza and other sordid Japanese adventures.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Leon Trotsky by Joshua Rubenstein

Trotsky is a figure who fascinates and has for a long time. There are movies about him (including one that alludes to him consistently since Jay Baruchel's character believes he is Trotsky reincarnated). And many many books. I was in a bookshop the other day and this biography of Trotsky called out to me so since I was in between books, I nicked it off the shelf and started reading it on the metro that afternoon.

As biographies go, it's OK. It's hard work as a biographer, particularly of someone like Trotsky, when so much of his life and career were wrapped up in causes that today seem obscure and rather pointless. I'm not saying they were pointless, but that they seem pointless in their minutiae: how many details, for example, do we need about all these long ago dead parties that wanted to change the world, parties that even at the time the vast majority of people didn't even know or care much about.

(One thing occurred to me as I read this, though: we often hear about this segmented society we live in today where we all get our news or read the feeds from points of view that we largely agree with. So conservatives watch Fox or Sun news and liberals watch MSNB or read Bill Moyers Twitter feed, etc. so we only hear opinions that reflect a point of view we already accept. And that this is a bad thing. But back when newspapers were king, particularly in the early part of the 20th century, newspapers often had very myopic views and biases and they fed into these large social movements. So there were left-wing radical workers newspapers and traditional papers that maintained the status quo and what paper you read determined your political outlook and makeup, etc. (or vice versa which was probably more likely the case).

This occurred to me reading this biography of Trotsky because he wrote a lot and if Trotsky is remembered today for one thing, it's the fact that he was a real writer, not just an agitator or political upstart who wrote on the side. And the papers and journals and reviews he wrote for all had very specific political leanings and points of view: even literary journals championed certain writers who championed certain causes. None of these were "mainstream" (at least not in the way we understand that term today) but there were countless ways to get news from all levels of society.

When we hear about the death of journalism or how journalism has changed so much that it's hardly recognizable, we forget that journalism, really, is a very new kind of art and even 70 years ago was radically different than it is today (or, indeed, than it was in the 70s which is often considered the "height" of journalism). Ideas of free speech are radically new but the powerful influencing how the message is distributed and/or shaped are not new at all.

Who knows how journalism will continue to change and evolve as society (and technology) changes and evolves.)

Back to Trotsky: he was a champion of causes that many would find admirable today: he really did
seem to want to fight for the rights of the poor, the downtrodden, those without any rights. At least early in his career. (Later, things became more complicated).

But to me, the most fascinating part of Trosky's life is his final years in Mexico City before an assassin cut him down. It's an amazing story that, again, has been told and retold so often that fact is not longer that distinct from myth. But despite this being an adequate biography, fiction often seems a more interesting way into a larger than life figure's life story. I'm thinking about (Blue Met 2012 author) Leonardo Padura's book The Man Who Loved Dogs which chronicles the final years of Trotsky's life in Mexico (as be befriends artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera) and other political revolutionaries. It's an excellent novel and I think I'd re-read that before I read another dry biography about his life.

Friday, November 28, 2014


As part of Image+Nation, I saw Lilting last night, an excellent little movie starring Ben Whishaw. I can't remember how, but I saw a trailer of this film a while back and had my eyes out, waiting for the chance to see it in Montreal and I was really happy when I saw it on Image+Nation's lineup for this year.

I used to go to Image+Nation frequently and see many films but it's been a while because November and December are loaded with busy days and events several nights a week. But since the film was only playing once, I blocked off the entire evening, had dinner with a good friend (even so, I escaped from our offices in a cloud of chaos and unfinished work). It's probably been three years since I saw anything at the Imperial, that lovely old theatre downtown, and the evening didn't disappoint.

"Lilting," directed by British director Hong Khaou, is set in contemporary London and tells the story of an unlikely bond between a Chinese woman in her 60s and her son's boyfriend. Her son, Kai, has died, though we don't find out until almost the film ends how he died, and there was so much opportunity for schlock or melodrama, but Khaou keeps the emotion very tightly wound throughout much of the film. We laugh, we feel irritation, we feel nervous, but we don't yet feel loss or the pain that the characters are experiencing until the end of the movie when it comes at us all at once in the final denouement.

The film starts with Richard, Kai's boyfriend, hiring a young translator to serve a "go between" for Kai's mother (who doesn't speak English) and a British man she has been seeing, Alan. They both live in an old folks' home and it is here and in these scenes that the film gets its humour: there are such huge culture clashes between the elderly English man and the older Chinese woman, everything filtered through the young Chinese translator. Richard lurks there in these scenes, both trying to be inconspicuous but also trying to get information, to connect to Kai's mother, ostensibly so that he can help her (which is probably partly true) but also so that he can simply connect to this last remaining individual from his lost Kai's life. He wants to experience the loss together in an odd way and this human need, to share loss, is where the film's humanity becomes so vital.

The scenes with Kai are all flashbacks and the dialogue between them is limited, we get very little sense of Kai, actually, and the film is really about this clash of cultures, of generations, and of two people dealing with their loss in very different ways.

It's a really lovely movie. There are a few long (for a movie) soliloquoys by the characters that are complex and beautiful. Like this one, said by Kai's mother at the end of the movie, speaking about her loss:

Through plenty of crying, I've learnt to be content that I won't always be happy, secure in my loneliness, hopeful that I will be able to cope. Every year on Christmas Day I get very lonely. An incredible feeling of solitude. On this day, everything has stood still, even the trees have stopped rustling, but I'm still moving, I want to move, but I have nothing to move it, and nowhere to go. The
scars beneath my skin suddenly surface and I get scared. Scared of being alone.

This poetic moment is filmed so beautifully and what I appreciate about this kind of approach is that the writer/director uses language in such a real way: it's not beauty just for the sake of beauty. We learn about this character, about her hidden passions and all the things we don't have access to because she is different or because she can't speak English.

I found this film to be incredibly moving and complex, meditative in language and image.

There is a lot to see at Image+Nation and I especially love their Latin American focus this year.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century

When Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, first appeared on my radar a while back this spring, I knew I'd have to read it. I think Slate did a segment on their Culture Gabfest several months ago (maybe longer?!) and I had read several reviews of it before this even.

It's rare that a book on economics, on income equality, gets so much buzz. It was on the New York Times best-seller list and was also a best-seller in France (it was written in French and translated into English by Arthur Goldhammer). I've been reading it the last while and really finding it fascinating. So much of what Piketty suggests (so far) is counter-intuitive:

"It does not appear that capital mobility has been the primary factor promoting convergences of rich and poor nations. None of the Asian countries that have moved closer to the developed countries of the West in recent years has benefited from large foreign investments, whether it be Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan and more recently China. In essence, all of these countries themselves financed the necessary investments in physical capital and, even more, in human capital, which ... holds to be the key to long-term growth."

Having spent much of my young adulthood in Asia, particularly in China, this came as rather surprising news to me, especially since it seemed to me that China opening up precisely meant opening itself up to foreign investment and capital exchange and that was what led, at least in part, to China's extraordinary development. But Piketty provides ample evidence that this wasn't the case.

Later Piketty goes on to provide more detail about this "human capital" angle which he sees as the key to economic development. And the entire discussion is fascinating. There is so much else here that is worth exploring and relating but it all ends with an appeal to get this book and read it if income inequality interests you. This is not "pop" political writing or economics. It's graphs, charts, historical trends, hardcore statistics. But it's pretty readable (so far, I'm only about 1/3 of the way through it).

One of his main thesis ideas is that the world may be moving into a period of slow economic growth and, in fact, that this level of slow growth may be the more "normal" rate that economies grow. He suggests that the extraordinary growth of Europe, and then later in the Americas, from the Industrial Revolution until about a generation ago was a historical blip primarily and overstated secondarily.

I don't have a background in economics though it interests me as a discipline very much. Because I read mainly fiction, I do find I have to read this in a different kind of way: slowly, methodically, going back and re-reading certain passages when my attention wanders for a moment. This process has been interesting, too. I tend to read fairly quickly but that kind of reading doesn't work with this book. It's not that the ideas are terribly complex or hard to understand (it is, as I said, very readable, and the translator, Arthur Goldhammer, has sure made these concepts are accessible) but that the ideas and sentences require precision and patience.

I shouldn't be reading this book right now. I have about 10 others book on my office shelf that are crying out to be read before Christmas since they all involve Festival authors (or potential Festival authors), but it's good to take a break from Festival reading and just delve into something that I enjoy. Anyway, I have a terrible habit of reading too many books at the same time (also reading Ian Hamilton, Nancy Huston and Shigeru Mizuki) out of sheer necessity.