Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Javier Marías: The Infatuations

Spanish writer Javier Marías: is one of those writers whose name I've known for years but I've never had the occasion to read his work until last week when I read The Infatuations. Wow, I was really blown away.

The novel has a fairly simple premise: a woman sees a couple at a cafe regularly, imagining their lives, noticing them, considering them a dream couple. But when the man is murdered under bizarre circumstances, she befriends the wife and a kind of intellectual murder mystery commences.

It's not your typical kind of murder mystery but it's very entertaining, cerebral, and with long flowing sentences that you have to read and re-read since they are so densely packed.

Along the way, I was at times reminded of Joan Didion's treatise on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking. Yes, they are very different works (Didion's is not fictional) but they both look at grief from a stripped down point of view, not glamourized or romanticized. But Marías' work delves into the process as an outsider on the perimeters of grief of pain.

I read this over a few nights on the sofa as Christmas music played in the background and rain poured down outside, melting all the early snow we've had this year.

It makes me very interested in getting my hands on some of his other works.

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I don't know Maureen Corrigan but this attitude that only American writers matter is so out of date and, in fact, dangerous.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.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Brazilian Film Fest starts this Friday! Stefan Zweig film adaptation one major highlight

I love film fests and Montreal has so many unusual and interesting ones to be proud of. Sure, our film festivals aren't Toronto's: we don't have Nicole Kidman or Channing Tatum walking the red carpet. We don't have photographers snapping photos or $300,000 cocktail parties.

But Montreal's not that kind of town. And this makes me proud, actually: we're not about Hollywood glamour or red carpets. We're not about simply spending a certain amount of money to make something "good." We're about interesting, creative programming for intelligent sophisticated art lovers. We should embrace this fact about our city.

I've been probably every year to see something at the Brazilian Film Fest since its inception, and every year I've seen something to knock my socks off. One film that I am really looking forward to this year is "The Invisible Collection," based on a Stefan Zweig short story.

The short story is set in post-WWI Europe when a young man, financially ruined by the war, sets out to find some art that an elderly aristocratic man has in his country estate. By touring the countryside at this pivotal moment in history, Zweig shows us the huge disparities between classes in Europe at this time and in hindsight, we can see all the signs of the looming bitterness that eventually leads to WWII.

Brazilian Bernard Attal's film version is set in contemporary Brazil and again considers the inequality that is rife in Brazilian society with the same rough storyline: Beto, whose family antique store has fallen on hard times, travels to the countryside in search of rare drawings that will change his future.

Though Zweig didn't set his story in Brazil, he was connected to Brazil at the end of his life, fleeing with his wife from the Nazis ascension to power, and settling in a small city just north of Rio. He has a huge reputation in Brazil and a museum has been made at the site of his former home. It was there, in 1942, that he and his wife committed suicide, despairing at the rise of Nazi Germany and pessimistic about the future of humanity.

The final period of Stefan Zweig's life was beautifully captured in a best-selling book by Laurent Seksik, Les dernieres jours de Stefan Zweig (this piece was itself adapted into a hugely successful French play in Paris) and then made into a gorgeous graphic novel (with some of the most beautiful illustrations I've seen in recent graphic novels) with Seksik and the French artist Guillaume Sorel.

The film as part of the Festival du film Bresilien plays on Monday, December 1 at 5pm and then again on Thursday, December 4 at 7pm. Tickets here.

A lot of excellent stuff worth seeing this year including a documentary about the hugely successful film City of God, called City of God - 10 Years Later. The film looks at the actors and others associated with the 2002 film to explore how their lives have changed after the international phenomenon that the film created. This weekend they play The Way He Looks, Elena, and Meeting Sebastião Salgado (about the Brazilian photographer).

Check out the entire schedule on their website and be sure to like their Facebook page for updates.

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 Amazon.co.uk (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.

Sometimes...it 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.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Poetry at the Enpuki-ji Zen Centre and a new theatre piece

I love going to readings at different kinds of spaces: former bath houses (St-Michel, where Infinitheatre  has their main space), strip clubs, drag bars, gardens outside, brunch places, even metro cars. The space itself informs the readings in very key ways and the audience relates to the readings in very different ways as well.

Before the reading: the Enpuki-ji Zen Centre
The other night I saw a reading at the Enpuki-ji Zen Centre in Montreal. The space is amazingly simple and very beautiful. And I've seen events here in the past though this was the first reading I've attended here.

The readings were by writers I know and whose work I know as well. Asa Boxer, Gabe Foreman, Darren Bifford. And a writer I didn't know: Talya Rubin. What a wonderful evening! Each poet read a mix of older published work along with work which they are still developing. What stands out for me is the simple uniqueness of each voice: Boxer is a confident, incredibly intelligent reader whose work needs to be seen to appreciated, where one can linger of his images and the juxtaposition of language he excels at. Despite his play with language, he's a physical poet in many ways, focusing on tangibles and the concrete. Foreman is funny, also intelligent, but with a view of the world that is uniquely his own (his collection from Coach House a couple of years ago, A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Kinds of People is one of my favorite most recent poetry collections). Bifford's work I am less familiar with though I've seen him read in the past (a great interview with him on his work here).

Talya Rubin's collection comes out in the spring from Signal Editions, Véhicule Press's poetry imprint. But more immediately, Rubin has a theatre piece about to take the stage at La Chapelle. The piece is called Of the Causes of Wonderful Things (see a trailer here). The show toured all over Australia and Rubin is bringing it to Montreal for the first time (the first time in North America, in fact).
The premise is this (from the Theatre La Chapelle site): when five children mysteriously disappear in a small town in the American South, their aunt begins a search to find them that leads her underground, literally. The work is an installation theatre piece for a limited audience of 50. Immersed in a noir atmospheric world, Of the Causes of Wonderful Things weaves dark comedy with tones of Faulkner and the Southern Gothic. This deeply human, visionary solo work examines the redemptive power of confronting darkness.

I love theatre and the last few years, it's become a major part of my exploration, both in terms of possible Festival events but also personally. So this piece is definitely a  must see for early November. It shows at La Chapelle from November 4 - 9, each performance limited to only 50 seats.

Yet again, Montreal shows its amazing innovation and variety of events and artists. I travel a lot and see artists (writers, dancers, performers) all over the world, and Montreal is up there with some of the best cities to see art. We should all be out taking advantage of it whenever we can!

YidLife Crisis: new web series set in Montreal

I can't remember how, but I came across this YouTube video a few weeks ago for a new web series called YidLife Crisis. It was in my bookmarks for weeks but when I finally got around to watching it, I was really surprised and entertained.

The episodes are short, around five minutes each, and they are very simply an interaction between two men. Around food: poutine, smoked meat sandwiches, bagels. In Yiddish. Yes, in Yiddish. With English subtitles. Starring Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, the show is a rare convergence of all kinds of talent.

What I found interesting is that when I watched the first episode of YidLife Crisis, I assumed it was set in New York and done by New Yorkers and I had the thought: Damn, everything is in New York. For a moment I reacted to it in a very specific way (I was ready to simply move on after watching the first episode). Then the waitress walks by and starts speaking French and I realized: oh, this is Montreal. This a Montreal show! And my entire relationship with it changed.

The third episode is really these guys getting into their stride: all about Montreal (via the famous Montreal bagel), our diversity, our neighborhoods, and it has some lovely summer shots as they walk around in Mile End discussing the ever-present argument about which bagels are better: Fairmount or St-Viateur. By the fourth, they are on a roll.

What I love about our city is, naturally, the amazing diversity of cultures and languages here. We have one of the only remaining Yiddish theatre companies in the world, and artists from here (as well as artists who come here) do innovative and interesting kinds of work: from circus performers to writers to singers to producers. But this is the first time I've seen a good web series set in Montreal.

So far only four episodes are posted but I hope more are in the works.

Mile End still from web series YidLife Crisis

Monday, October 20, 2014

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

I held out as long as I could but I read all three of the books so far (in English) starting in July.

So now I have to wait an entire year to read the next installment. Which hurts a bit. I just finished the 3rd one, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, over the weekend and now my hands feel idle and empty. I need another book to adore!

The fourth book in Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan novels comes out in September 2015!

Wow, they are so worth reading...I've also turned several friends on to them and a few people I know were reading them pretty much at the same speed that I was.

I can't recommend these books enough. But start with the first one, My Brilliant Friend.

If you haven't been paying attention (I've written about the books before), the novels trace the friendship (and sometimes "enemy-ship") of two girls growing up in 1950s Naples. They are full of pain, humour and psychological meanderings that are fascinating. They are highly readable and the two main characters are some of the most memorable characters I can recall in recent memory. As the 3rd book ends, it's the late 1970s and something momentous happens (though I wont' spoil it) involving a different character who runs through all the books and our protagonist. It's both surprising and kind of expected. But emotionally one can relate to her pain, her passion, her longings and her fear for the future.

I could go on. But if you find yourself in a bookstore or online, get My Brilliant Friend and be prepared to disappear into a world like none you've ever experienced.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Live Nude Writers

A busy season of literary events and one interesting event I saw last week was Live Nude Writers. The evening was held at Stock Bar, also known as one of Montreal's most popular gay strip clubs.

Peter Dubé reading from his work
The readings started with Jordan Coulombe who's the editor of Crooked Fagazine (one of the few magazines today that can't be read online). He read a segment from a book that he is currently working on. Next up was Christopher DiRaddo, author of The Geography of Pluto, a fascinating novel set in 1990s Montreal about a young gay man coming of age. Chris read a funny segment he wrote a few years back from an anthology, a piece about being hairy(!). Then my friend Peter Dubé read from his forthcoming collection of short fiction pieces, Beginning with the Mirror. Peter is always a treat to read, not just for his eyebrow-raising subject matter (lots of sex scenes) but for his very unique timbre of reading and inflection. Also I'm a huge fan of his writing, including The City's Gates and Subtle Bodies. Indeed, whenever I hear someone complain about the dearth of Canadian fiction that pushes the boundaries of form, I always bring up Peter whose work is always a revelation and always unpredictable.

Poet John Barton rounded out the evening with a reading from his most recent collection, Polari,
Christopher DiRaddo reads about being hairy
which explores the coded language which gay men used to communicate about their lives with each other. I'm not terribly familiar with Barton's work but his collection is one that is definitely at the top of my list.

All in all it was an entertaining evening full of solid writing in a space that hinted at sexiness (though there were no strippers to be had on this particular evening). A stroke of genius to hold a reading at this space and I hope to see others here in the future.

Saturday, October 11, 2014



     It usually begins innocently enough with an acceleration, unnoticeable
at first, of the turning of the earth. Leave home at once and do not bring
along any of your family. Take a few indispensable things. Place yourself as
far as possible from the centre, near the forests the seas or the mountains,
before the whirling motion as it gets stronger from minute to minute begins
to pour in towards the middle, suffocating in ghettoes, closets, basements.
Hang on forcefully to the outer circumference. Keep your head down.
Have your two hands constantly free. Take good care of the muscles of
your legs.
                                      --Zbigniew Herbert

Friday, October 10, 2014

Scenes from a Marriage at New York Theater Workshop

I was in New York over the weekend and saw a very interesting production of Scenes from a Marriage done by the New York Theater Workshop. Based on a 1973 Swedish television series written by Ingmar Bergman, the adaptation was fascinating. Not 100% successful but it certainly had me interested.

The premise is relatively simple: a couple at three crisis points in their marriage decide whether it's worth
continuing or not, a younger couple, a middle-aged couple and an older couple. The innovation in Ivo van Hove's version (the Flemish director who staged this NYTW version; the adaptation was written by Emily Mann) was that all three scenes were going on at the same time: though on three different stages with three different audiences. So the audience was divided up into three groups and each group saw a different scene first.

That's unusual enough but the way the set was done allowed each audience to see the other scenes going on at the same time. We couldn't necessarily hear them (only the loud parts where characters were shouting) but we could see the actors both on-stage and off-stage (in fact, the "off-stage" area was part of the set so we could even see the actors off-stage in between). This approach was fascinating and innovative. (Though I could see what they were doing by allowing the sound from other scenes to echo into whatever scene we were currently watching, often this was intrusive and distracting.)

The part that didn't work for me was that the interaction between each couple (played by different actors, so six main actors in total) was vastly different. The presence of each character varied radically depending on the actor portraying them: the young man had a vastly different persona than the middle-aged man, etc., and this naturally affected the way we reacted to each couple's interaction. Perhaps this was intentional but what I was left with was the sensation that each scene was really the iteration of a different couple's crisis, not the same couple at different points in their lives. Not the same crises, in other words. But that's kind of key to the Bergman story: crises evolve, shift, but at the core, they are the same crises and we repeat the same patterns over and over in a couple.

Scenes from a Marriage
The film series has been highly influential (and many, in fact, suggest that the popularity of the series caused Sweden's divorce rate to tick up in the early to mid 70s) so it's daring to take on something this important and well-known (despite this being some of Bergman's lesser known work). This version is available at Criterion.

So the first act is all three scenes going on at the same time and then after each scene, the audience moves to a different part of the room and sees the next scene and the actors all do it again. Then once more: so by the end of the first act, we've seen all three scenes but not all the audience has seen the scenes in the same order (and the actors repeat each scene three times).

Where I felt unsure was the second act: all six actors come out on to the stage and they act out a scene together: all six of them saying their lines. So the women will speak (all three of them) with the men responding (all three of them). It was confusing and complicated and a bit overwrought emotionally, I thought. Hard to follow and hard to crack the notion that we were right in the middle of a production. The artifice was very apparent, in other words (one thing I love about good theatre is that ability to just forget that you're seeing a theatre piece). That said, it made me think about how vital the actor is in portraying a role. Whereas in the first act, the different actors meant a different kind of relationship each time, in the second act, you could really see how each actor put their own individual stamp on the part in a really immediate way (the way each one performed the lines, right after one another). It was also here that I felt that it was becoming overly long (the entire piece is 3 1/2 hours long!).

It's the first production I've seen at NYTW though I've heard other friends talk about this company before. I'd definitely recommend them to anyone who happens to be in New York for a few days. The acting was superb. I'm not a huge fan of Broadway, to be honest, and when I'm in New York, I am often struck with how bland and mainstream most of the crap is that Broadway. I don't care about famous actors: I just want to see a well-written show with good acting that's interesting. So I generally avoid Broadway and try to visit productions at these smaller off-Broadway companies (with varying quality). It's also the first work I've seen by stage director Van Hove.

Now I really want to revisit the Swedish television series while it's fresh in my mind. But with all the books I have to read, no time right now...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Daniel Mendelsohn in Montreal: November 3

As part of their ongoing 100th anniversary celebrations, the Jewish Public Library has invited American writer, Daniel Mendelsohn, as one of their key note speakers in early November. I'm looking forward to this.

Mendelsohn is one of the most engaging and fascinating non-fiction writers working today, and his oeuvre is as varied as it is intellectually rigorous.

New Yorker writer, Daniel Mendelsohn
He is perhaps most recently known for his skewering of Mad Men a few years ago, an essay that is funny and incredibly insightful. (Though I was a fan of the show, I also found it frequently irritating and clumsy and so I appreciated hearing his opinion and judgement since no one seemed to be willing to say anything negative about it. Many people mentioned this article to me when it came out.).

But the book of Mendelsohn's which I really love is his translations of C. P. Cavafy. The Greek poet's words have rarely felt so immediate, so vivid and so moving. This is one of my most treasured books of poetry.

Mendelsohn has also written memoirs and treatises on popular culture. Most recently, he wrote a very interesting piece in the New Yorker about his pen-pal relationship with the writer Mary Renault and how she "mentored" him in a certain way and inspired him to become a writer.

I have no doubt that Mendelsohn will have a lot to say at the Jewish Public Library on November 3 at 8pm. (Tickets here).

Saturday, September 13, 2014

To Go to Lvov by Adam Zagajewski

To Go to Lvov

To go to Lvov. Which station
for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew
gleams on a suitcase, when express
trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave
in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September
or in March. But only if Lvov exists,
if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just
in my new passport, if lances of trees
- of poplar and ash - still breathe aloud
like Indians, and if streams mumble
their dark Esperanto, and grass snakes like soft signs
in the Russian language disappear
into thickets. To pack and set off, to leave
without a trace, at noon, to vanish
like fainting maidens. And burdocks, green
armies of burdocks, and below, under the canvas
of a Venetian café, the snails converse
about eternity. But the cathedral rises,
you remember, so straight, as straight
as Sunday and white napkins and a bucket
full of raspberries standing on the floor, and
my desire which wasn't born yet,
only gardens and weeds and the amber
of Queen Anne cherries, and indecent Fredro.
There was always too much of Lvov, no one could
comprehend its boroughs, hear
the murmur of each stone scorched
by the sun, at night the Orthodox church's silence was unlike
that of the cathedral, the Jesuits
baptized plants, leaf by leaf, but they grew,
grew so mindlessly, and joy hovered
everywhere in hallways and in coffee mills
revolving by themselves, in blue
teapots, in starch, which was the first
formalist, in drops of rain and in the thorns
of roses. Frozen forsythia yellowed by the window.
The bells pealed and the air vibrated, the cornets
of nuns sailed like schooners near
the theater, there was so much of the world that
it had to do encores over and over,
the audience was in frenzy and didn't want
to leave the house. My aunts couldn't have known
yet that I'd resurrect them,
and lived so trustfully; so singly;
servants, clean and ironed, ran for
fresh cream, inside the houses
a bit of anger and great expectation, Brzozowski
came as a visiting lecturer, one of my
uncles kept writing a poem entitled Why,
dedicated to the Almighty, and there was too much
of Lvov, it brimmed the container,
it burst glasses, overflowed
each pond, lake, smoked through every
chimney, turned into fire, storm,
laughed with lightning, grew meek,
returned home, read the New Testament,
slept on a sofa beside the Carpathian rug,
there was too much of Lvov, and now
there isn't any, it grew relentlessly
and the scissors cut it, chilly gardeners
as always in May, without mercy,
without love, ah, wait till warm June
comes with soft ferns, boundless
fields of summer, i.e., the reality.
But scissors cut it, along the line and through
the fiber, tailors, gardeners, censors
cut the body and the wreaths, pruning shears worked
diligently, as in a child's cutout
along the dotted line of a roe deer or a swan.
Scissors, penknives, and razor blades scratched,
cut, and shortened the voluptuous dresses
of prelates, of squares and houses, and trees
fell soundlessly, as in a jungle,
and the cathedral trembled, people bade goodbye
without handkerchiefs, no tears, such a dry
mouth, I won't see you anymore, so much death
awaits you, why must every city
become Jerusalem and every man a Jew,
and no in a hurry just
pack, always, each day
and go breathless, go to Lvov, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. It is everywhere.

          - Adam Zagajewski from Without End: New and Selected Poems

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

New Elena Ferrante out today!

I am crazy about this Neopolitan tetralogy by Italian writer Elena Ferrante.

The novels chronicle the friendship between two girls growing up in Naples in the 1950s and through the 60s (I just finished the 2nd novel which ends in the late 60s). They are fascinating books and they detail a world that has vanished: a violent, rough and tumble neighborhood of working class kids in poverty who rarely, if ever, have the chance to get out and improve their lives.

Lina, the best friend, is from a desperately poor background and her best friend, Elena (the novels' protagonist), is no better. They are connected through their intelligence (it's never clear who "My Brilliant Friend" is supposed to refer to exactly: at times Lina seems the more brilliant one, though Elena is the one who manages to "get out" of the neighborhood through her intelligence and hard work) but their relationship is complex and contradictory, full of betrayals and resentments.

Anyone who's ever had a lifelong friend will relate to these books: the complex ways we love someone, the ways in which we compete, even if we don't want to.

I kept thinking of my first few years in Montreal: I was working at a community centre in Verdun and so many kids (people) who were born there never leave: they get pregnant at 16 or 17, get married, move a few doors down from their families and just stay. Once when some kids asked me where I lived and I said near McGill, they almost acted amazed that I lived "so far away," and only one had ever been there (once). I hardly ever go to Verdun nowadays and I wonder if things have changed much...

Of course, Verdun isn't nearly as violent as Naples of the 1950s but it reflects a similar kind of mentality: never put on airs, never try and forget where you come from. How place (poverty, dialect) is both a mark of identity and a limitation. How place is as much a badge as gender or race (maybe more so). It's something that North Americans, perhaps, don't quite understand in the same way as Italians which is so regional. In Verdun I witnessed a small aspect of it though perhaps it is something Canadians can grasp in a more limited way.

Another thing which struck me was the simple fact that violence is impossible to get away from: all the kids are beaten by their parents and then they get married and their husbands beat their wives and the wives beat their children. It's just the way life is. But that's not to say that the books are depressing or self-pitying, not at all. They are funny, moving, intelligent and the kind of book where you have to stop now and then and just reflect on what the author's doing or trying to communicate.

I raced through the first two novels and wanted moremoremore. The 3rd novel in the series (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) is out today but I am battling with myself: I want to read it but I also want something to look forward to reading over the Christmas break. So we'll see how long I can hold out.