Tuesday, June 28, 2011

From Peter Cameron's "The City of your Final Destination":

"Violence is terribly underrated," said Adam. "It's so - so expeditious. I'm always asking Pete to smack me. 'Just smack me,' I tell him."

"Pete would never smack you," said Arden.

"Yes, I know, said Adam. "Yet I think we would be so much happier if he did. Did you ever smack Jules?"

"Yes, in fact," said Arden. "Once or twice."

I should be taking notes or something, Omar thought. I should have brought a tape recorder. Suddenly it seemed exhausting, impossible: How do you write a biography? he wondered, when there is so much, when there is everything, an infinity, to know. It seemed impossible. It was like compiling a telephone book from scratch. He sipped again from his martini.

"You often had that smacked-about coital glow," said Adam.

"Oh, Jules never smacked me," said Arden. "You're mistaken if you think he did."

"Oh, I never thought he did. I assumed the smacking was all yours. What about you, Mr. Razaghi? I understand you are affianced. Does your fiancee smack you? Or you her? Although you don't appear to be the smacking type. Or perhaps you are above all that?"

"I am not engaged," said Omar.

"Pardon me," said Adam. "I have been misinformed. My sources err."

"There is something so repellingly Victorian about any couple," said Adam. "The smugness, the sense of sanctity and safety and superiority; it's why God invented smacking. I am sure the Victorians were constantly smacking one another. It's why they wore all those hideous clothes: to hide their bruises."

It's not a great movie; but the book is very readable and entertaining...

Friday, June 24, 2011

Jaime Manrique - Our Lives are the Rivers

The novel tells the story of Manuela Saenz, the mistress and lover of Simon Bolivar. Bolivar is one of the most interesting historical figures and he was a complicated man who life was punctuated by loss: by the time he was 20, he'd lost his mother, his father, and his wife yet he still was able to maintain (later in his life) a passionate affair with Saenz, a woman who was both his saviour and his doom.

The book isn't great but it's good, a fast-paced story which isn't easy when tracing the arc of a character's life. The passion is a bit overwrought in places and I don't quite buy Saenz's absolute devotion to Bolivar or to his cause, but there is a sense of true entitlement that she has which feels genuine, particularly in her complex relationship with her slaves.

Also makes me wish I could get my hand on a good biography of Bolivar: there are a number of them out there.

Curious to read other works by Jaime Manrique. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hisham Matar: compelling interview

I listened to this on the metro on the way to work this morning: Eleanor Wachtel interviewing Libyan novelist Hisham Matar.

I read In the Country of Men when it came out a few years ago. Fascinating read. Haven't read Matar's new one but this interview sure makes me want to run out and find a copy.

At one point, I was tearing up with Matar was talking about his father and the letters he received while he was imprisoned in Libya. No word has ever reached Matar about his father's fate and the last sighting was in 2002 by another prisoner who said he saw him in a Libyan prison. He was kidnapped in 1990.

We really wanted him as part of our 2011 Festival but it didn't work out timing-wise (as is often the case) which was a shame.
Luckily Writers and Company is on top of it. Listen to the very engaging and moving interview here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Books discovered in our library that I wish I had time to read!

Tomas Eloy Martinez: The Tango Singer. I love his novels and have never read this one...

Catherine Mavrikakis: Fleurs de crachat and A Cannibal and Melancholy Morning. A Francophone writer that is quite well-known in Montreal though I'm not familiar with her work at all.

Edward O. Phillips: A Voyage on Sunday. A detective novel set in Montreal.

Madeleine Thien: Certainty. I loved her second novel, Dogs at the Perimeter.

One of the tricks of my job is prioritize reading. I could read 40 books a week and still just scratch the surface so it's easy to imagine how far behind I feel. And that would only be books for work--I do have my own personal list, too.

Still. Of all the problems to have in a job, that's not a bad one!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Alex Epstein and "flash fiction"

blue has no south
A participant at our 2011 Festival, I've only recently had a chance to get through Alex Epstein's entire 2010 collection, blue has no south (Clockroot Books).  Each little story takes up just one page and like Lydia Davis, Epstein's stories are largely self-contained and thought-provoking. Unlike Davis, though, Epstein's work is less cerebral and has a more pragmatic bent to it. Also, his fiction explores themes related to angels, mysticism, books, journeys, geography and mysterious animals.

Further Observations on the Small Bang Theory

For more than eight years they've been sleeping in separate bedrooms, but it cannot yet be determined with complete certainty if the distance between their dreams is expanding , or, looking back, shrinking.


The Crippled Angel

The crippled angel sat in a wheelchair especially designed for winged creatures of his kind and chain-smoked. From his usual spot in the plaza in front of the museum, he observed with concern those coming in. He tried to guess which of them intended to hang himself in one of the exhibition halls.

Born in St-Petersburg, Epstein moved to Israel at 8 years of age. He writes in Hebrew and the above collection was translated by Becka Mara McKay. His latest work, Lunar Savings Time, published by , Interlink (Clockroot is an Interlink imprint) was published in the spring.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Alfonsina Storni


Tonight I look at the moon
white and enormous.

It`s the same as last night
the same as tomorrow.

But it`s foreign, because never
was it so huge and so pale.

I tremble like
lights tremble on water.

I tremble like
tears tremble in my eyes.

I tremble like
the soul trembles in the body.

Oh the moon has opened
two silver lips

Oh how the moon has spoken to me
these three ancient words:

"Death, love, and myster..."
Oh my flesh is nearing its end.

Above the dead flesh
my soul becomes confused.

My soul - a nocturnal cat -
rises up over the moon.

It travels through the enormous sky
crouched low and sad.

It travels through the enormous sky
up over the white moon.

     --Alfonsina Storni (1892-1938) Translated from the Spanish by Jim Normington

Monday, June 13, 2011

Jane Bowles

She didn't write much in her short and troubled life, but what she did write still seems fresh and fascinating nearly 70 years after it was published. Married to Paul Bowles (another one of my favorite writers), they had and at times distant, loving, drinking and very tumultuous relationship.

Jane and Paul Bowles
After publishing her most famous (one of her only published works, in fact), Two Serious Ladies in 1943, she and Paul Bowles traveled the world: Sri Lanka, Latin America, France and finally, Tangiers. At the age of 40, she suffered a serious stroke which left her incapacitated and she was institutionalized for the next 15 years. She passed away at the same institution in 1973, aged just 56. Her husband continued living in Tangier until his death in 1999 (aged 90).

Her most famous work has a memorable and solid opening three paragraphs:

     Christina Goering's father was an American industrialist of German parentage and her mother was a New York lady of a very distinguished family. Christina spent the first half of her life in a very beautiful house (not more than an hour from the city) which she had inherited from her mother. It was in this house that she had been brought up as a child with her sister Sophie.
     As a child, Christina had been very much disliked by other children. She had never suffered particularly because of this, having led, even at a very early age, an active inner life that curtailed her observation of whatever went on around her, to such a degree that she never picked up the mannerisms then in vogue, and at the age of ten was called old-fashioned by other little girls. Even then she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being.
     Christina was troubled horribly by ideas which never would have occurred to her companions, and at the same time took for granted a position in society which any other child would have found unbearable. Every now and then a schoolmate would take pity on her and try to spend some time with her, but far from being grateful for this, Christina would instead try her best to convert her new friend to the cult of whatever she believed in at the time.

What strikes me about this opening passage (I've read these three paragraphs probably fifty times in my life) is the tone and playful use of language which is ironically old-fashioned, as if the writer herself is mimicking how Christina, her character, might have spoken. Yet it's also deadly serious, as well, and Bowles is very deliberate in her use of this tone and its effect on her reader. But more than all that: one just gets such a strong sense of Bowles' protagonist from this opening passage.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Goodbye Angel by Brazilian writer Ignácio de Loyola Brandão

Here is my latest Quarterly Conversation review.

This magazine just gets better and better: a great feature series on David Foster Wallace this issue and  an excellent article on the legacy of Grace Paley. Some provocative reviews, too: Adam Zagajewski,  Juan Jose Saer, and an anthology of Latin American poetry.

A great distraction over the weekend...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Alison Pick & David Sedaris? When fictions collide....

I love it when you pick up a book and read the entire thing in one sitting or one short period. Yesterday I was feeling a bit under the weather so I opened up Alison Pick's novel Far to Go at about 8am, started reading it on the sofa and finished it last night at 11.30. It was excellent! Set in Czechoslovakia of the 1930s, the novel tells the story of the Bauer family and the upheavel that Hitler and the Anschluss caused them and their entire nation. Told mainly from the perspective of Marta, the Czech maid, the book is tragic, haunting and memorable. The final scenes, set in Montreal, give the book a real tangible sense of reality for me, given that the Holocaust and 1930s Europe seems so far removed from life today...

I'm not sure if the tone will be interred in my memory exactly in the way it should be though: in between reading, I talked on the phone and got distracted for a few hours by a collection of David Sedaris stories (my mom was telling me about reading one of his stories on a plane and how she had to put it away because she was laughing so hard, she had tears coming out of her eyes and people were starting to look at her nervously), so intermixed with this uber-serious tale of wartime atrocities and tragedy were snippets of Sedaris' hilarious renderings of his life in France with Hugh, buying marijuana in North Carolina, and losing a throat lozenge on a fellow-passenger's clothing during a flight and his attempts to recover it without being discovered.