Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mãn by Kim Thúy

câu hỏi

In south Vietnam, we never talk about the weather. We never make comments, perhaps because there are no seasons, no changes, like in this kitchen. Or maybe because we accept things as they are, as they happen to us, never asking why or how.

Once, through the little square opening for serving the plates, I heard some lawyer clients say that you should only ask questions to which you already know the answers. Otherwise, it's better to be silent. I will never find answers to my questions, and that may be why I've never asked one. All I did was climb up and down the stairs that connected my oven to my bed. My husband built the stairwell to protect me from the cold in winter and the vagaries of life outside at all times.
                                                                          - Mãn by Kim Thúy

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The October Crisis in Fiction

I've been reading Louis Hamelin's October 1970 which has been a fascinating history lesson. Naturally, I know about the October Crisis but reading about it from a fictional point of view is a really different take on the dry historical accounts that I've read. Hamelin's myriad of accounts (real historical characters given new names though very easily decipherable) gives us an interesting take on the emotional lives of these (to us) dry historical figures that have little to say in a history book.

Claire Holden Rothman, too, revisits the same time period in her recent novel My October (long-listed for the Giller Prize, the winner of which was announced last night: Congrats, Sean!).

Both books are excellent ways to revisit a precise historical moment in Quebec's past with the hindsight of 20/20. Hamelin's book shows what happens to radical youth once middle age sets in and Rothman's book shows, too, how the ordinariness of growing old has the ability to tame even the most violently revolutionary spirits. Hamelin's book is more akin to the "real" story (if such thing exists; this, in fact, gets at the heart of Hamelin's project: determining what the "true" story really means) and Rothman's is, in a certain way, more readable. But both books I found to be solidly interesting reads for different reasons despite the similar historical focus points.

I often think about how age softens one's political ideologies. It's not necessarily that everyone becomes more conservative as they age (though that's often the case) but that revolution and radicalism is often a young person's game. There is less at stake for young people, after all, and less to lose. Whereas once one has a family, a mortgage, a safe if rather dull circle of friends, it gets harder and harder to put these materials things on the line for the sake of an ideology. In this way, perhaps, the books show us the same story from different angles: Hamelin's from the radicals' points of view; Rothman from the middle-aged parent's point of view as he reflects back on his life and career (he's a writer).

Hamelin's book hops around a lot in time and it's not always easy to keep track of the chronology. Rothman's book is more straightforward, though hers does skip back and forth in time a bit. What struck me about Rothman's book, though, is the fact that it's an Anglophone writer, creating a protagonist who's a Francophone nationalist. (I also liked Rothman's book because, given my fascination with place, it's set in a house just a few blocks from our offices in an area I know very well).

Hamelin is a master of little memorable quips that practically leap off the page. ("Even exceptionally creative people launch their little fictions into the world," which the writer at the National Post also noticed).

Now that awards season is starting to wind down (always a bit of relief in my world when it means fewer launches, prize ceremonies and cocktails to attend in the evenings), it's a nice chance to take a closer look at some of the various prize nominees to revel in them: why even being on the long-list of a prize means something (Rothman's book was also nominated for QWF awards; Hamelin's book was also on many awards list including the Giller prize long-list in 2010 for Wayne Grady's translation into English).

Though I live in Quebec, I am certainly no expert on Quebec history so it's also a good opportunity to learn more about the place where I live...

Friday, November 7, 2014

Eileen Chang: Half a Lifelong Romance

For some reason, this edition of Eileen Chang's Half a Lifelong Romance isn't available in North America though it should be.

I'm a huge fan of Chinese writer, Eileen Chang, who was at her writing peak in the early 1940s in occupied Shanghai. I've read just about all of her fiction and non-fiction and when she has a new piece translated or re-issued, I am compelled to read it.

So I ordered this UK edition of this novel. It's really wonderful. Though Chang wrote in both Chinese and English, I prefer her work in English translated by a native English speaker (this book translated by Karen Kingsbury) where the language is more fluid and natural.

Plus, as was the custom of the day, Chang herself chose English-equivalent names for her Chinese characters and it's very difficult to read a novel with characters named "Good luck," "Gold Root," "Gold Flower," etc. Most contemporary translators just use the Chinese equivalent (which if one isn't familiar with Chinese can be a bit daunting at first but one gets acclimated to it quickly enough).

Half a Lifelong Romance is classic Eileen Chang: embedded in the deep emotion, pain and psychology of her characters, China and all its political upheavals linger in the background, never making up more than hints or flavours in the story. It's all about human affairs: love, duty, commitment, betrayal. I've written before about the fact that during her lifetime in China, Chang was severely criticized for writing non-politically (when being non-political itself was a terribly politically charged stance), and this novel, too, shows us Chang's deep interest in love and families.

Though it has to be ordered from (possibly some aggregator site can find second-hand copies of it somewhere closer), it's well worth it. It's a really fascinating novel and I've enjoyed it immensely.

It tells the story of a doomed romance and all the complexities of early 20th century Chinese families, the pressures that class and morality forced upon smart hard-working women.

Eileen Chang is a very interesting figure. One of the most popular contemporary writers in 1940s
Shanghai, she was forced to leave her beloved city in the early 1950s (the Communists disliked her for a whole host of reasons) where she moved to Hong Kong and then the US, never to return to her homeland. Yet for the rest of her life (she died in 1995), she set all her books there, longing, perhaps, for those streets and familiar smells that were lost to her forever. Towards the end of her life, she was revered, particularly in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and her career got back on track soon after her death. She continues to be one of the most famous writers in the Chinese-speaking world to this day.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Blue Met 2015: The Mile End Series

We are very happy to announce a new series as part of our 2015 Festival (which runs April 20 - 26, 2015):

The Mile End Series!

This series of literary events in both French and English with innovative and bold writers from all over the world will be at select venues in the Mile End district of Montreal from April 20 - 26, 2015.

We can't say more just quite yet about which authors or which venues or events, so stay tuned for more. But for those who live in or go out in Mile End, April 2015 will be a great opportunity to get involved and see some fascinating events without having to come down town (to our regular venue hotel, Hotel 10, where we'll also be hosting some fun and interesting events at the same time).

More details to come!

We look forward to seeing you in April!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Gianrico Carofiglio: Temporary Perfections

So I've had this book, Temporary Perfections, by Italian writer Gianrico Carofiglio, on my bookshelves since May, 2013, when Italian writer Gianrico Carofiglio was at the Festival. I read his other work available in English but I never made it around to this one until this week. After finishing Elena Ferrante and craving something Italian, I zipped through my (many) unread books on my shelf and found this one. Ah, why not?! I liked the other one I read, Reasonable Doubts, so I thought I'd give this one a go.

This was at around 5pm. By 9pm, I had nearly finished it, so absorbed I was in the story that I didn't even get up from my chair except twice briefly.

Typical crime writing in many ways: a mysterious disappearance, a family in grief, a hesitant and reluctant detective/investigator (in this case, lawyer) asked to look into it after the police have failed to make any headway.

But what makes these books stand out is the sheer uniqueness of Carofiglio's hero, Attorney Guido Guerrieri. He's funny, insecure, kind of whiny at times. But still someone you root for.

This is one of the best things about my job, in my estimation: discovering all the writers I wouldn't otherwise discover. Carofiglio's events were all sold out and he was quite the star during those few days here: tall, handsome, more than one person confessed to me they had a crush on him and would ready anything of his based solely on his personal charm and attractiveness.

Though it's not Elena Ferrante, Carofiglio's book did bridge that gap by giving me a noir-ish, atmospheric Italian novel (set in Bari, not far from Naples) that was a good afternoon read.

Now back to Festival reading! More information coming soon!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Gary Shteyngart in Montreal!

One of America's best-loved writers will be here in Montreal very soon!

Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and the memoir Little Failure, will be on stage at the Jewish Public Library on Wednesday, November 5 at 7:30pm. Shteyngart will appear with Eleanor Wachtel from CBC's Writer's and Company. This is really exciting because he doesn't get to Montreal very often so see him while you can!

Shteyngart wrote a really funny piece last week in the New Yorker about his current book tour for promotion of Little Failure. 

Tickets are $15 ($10 for members of the library or students) can be purchased by calling 514-345-6416.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg

Though social media can irritate me at times, one of the benefits I find with its use is the conversations it can inspire about books.

A few weeks ago, someone was asking about Rosa Luxemburg on a friend's site. Since I had written about Luxemburg in the past, I started thinking about her again and last week I picked up a copy of her letters put out by Verso Books.

The book is very interesting. There is some that's dull (the ins and outs of the various communist and socialist parties of Germany, France, Poland, Russia, etc.) but Luxemburg was such a humanist and her sympathies are so often with the working people she sees around her. She's an intellectual, no doubt, but it comes from a place of passion. The letters span European centres of influence: from Paris to Zurich, from Berlin to rural Poland, from Russia to Italy. Luxemburg truly was a vagabond...

It's easy to forget with hindsight and nearly 100 years of (corrupted) Communism, but Luxemburg simply wanted better lives for the mass of humanity that suffered terribly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her collection of letters is one of those books that I keep next to bed and I read a few letters each night. She is such a good writer. When she's not pontificating on social class in Europe pre-WWI, she's focusing on nature and the birds she hears in her garden or the flowers that bloom in her window-sill. seems to me that I am not really a human being at all, but like a bird or a beast in human form. I feel so much more in the meadows when the grass is humming with bees than -- at one of our party congresses. I can say that to you, for you will not promptly suspect me of treason to socialism! You know that I really hope to die at my post, in a street fight or in prison...I seek refuge and find repose in nature. 

She's rather forgotten today though I think I came to her work via a German artist who I love, Käthe
The Funeral of Karl Liebknecht by Käthe Kollwitz
. Kollwitz, a committed social activist herself, was a close friend of Karl Liebknecht, who was a close friend of Luxemburg's (and many letters in this collection are addressed to him). When Liebknecht (and Luxemburg) was kidnapped and murdered, Kollwitz dedicated much of her work to commemorating him and the causes he stood for.

Luxemburg, kidnapped, shot in the head and dumped into a canal in Berlin, fell out of fashion after her death at age 47. Hated by both Communists and capitalists, her political writings have mostly been untranslated (she wrote in Polish, German, and Russian) and this letter collection contains many letters translated for the first time. What I appreciate most about Luxemburg is her voice, the vast knowledge she had on so many topics. I love, too, the window her letters allow us into a 19th century woman as she went about her life, falling in love, battling with various editors and political agitators, suffering in prison, writing about nature, politics, love, and history. Also, despite the historical period, so much of her concerns, so much of what is happening politically mirrors our own concerns and politics today. From prison in 1917:

How I deplore the loss of all these months and years in which we might have had so many joyful hours together, notwithstanding all the horrors that are going on throughout the world. Do you know, the longer it lasts, and the more the infamy and monstrosity of the daily happenings surpasses all bounds, the more tranquil and more confident becomes my personal outlook...these are the only possible lines along which history can move, and we must follow the movement without losing sight of the main trend. I have the feeling that the moral filth through which we are wading, this huge madhouse in which we live, may all of a sudden, between one day and the next, be transformed into its very opposite, may become something stupendously great and heroic.