"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Books That Live on: The Saga of Robert Nelson

Had the very pleasant experience last night of arriving at an event marking the opening of an exhibition about Wolfred Nelson (that's him in the image,) doctor, mayor of Montreal and Patriot, at the Maison des Patriotes in St-Denis-sur-Richelieu and finding a stack of my biographical novel of his brother Robert Nelson prominently displayed in the museum's store.

My book was published 15 years ago in English and in French, and I've been told that it still is read with interest by those interested in the history of the Rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada.  This episode in 1837-38 was the closest Canada ever came to revolution, and set the stage for responsible government, and the establishment of Canada as a separate country 30 years later.

The Nelsons were among the many Anglophones who took up the cause of independence.  Unfortunately their contribution is frequently forgotten in Quebec: the rebellions are more often glossed as a fight between the British and French Canadians.  In Upper Canada, the Patriot leader was William Lyon MacKenzie, who also made his mark later in the new nation of Canada, and who, famously, was grandfather of William Lyon MacKenzie King, prime minister for 22 years.

Last night the Nelson family was there in force: Wolfred's great grandson Richard Nelson, M.D. was the driving force behind the exposition.  It seemed that everyone of them had read my book and enjoyed it!  What a nice thing to have happen so many years after the publication of the book!

It remains one of my favourite projects, as it involved much research which I ended up folding into a novel.  My initial idea had been to write biography of Robert Nelson, but there wasn't enough information about his later life, so I opted for a truly "creative non-fiction" approach.  There are 198 footnotes, but the story itself is told as just that: a story.   Perhaps this new exhibit will lead to new readers. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

New Web TV Literary Program from Montreal

For those of you who like to read, check this out.  It's a new web TV literary program called Between the Pages from Montreal, hosted by Dimitri Nazrullah.  There are four programs in the can already, with four more to be filmed next week.

Tuesday I'm going to be talking with Taras Grescoe, author of Straphanger, among other things, and Avi Friedman, McGill architecture  prof and one of the men behind The Grow House, about The Future of the City.

Will post when the discussion is ready for broadcast. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Conínbriga, Portugal: Not the Inspiration for Margaret Atwood But Who Cares?

It's been nearly a month since I posted here--too much interesting travel and not enough internet access to blog.

But I thought about books a lot.  One of the most striking was the echo of Margaret Atwood's short story collection Moral Disorder I heard in Conínbriga, Portugal. 

Atwood's stories are about the best she's done in a couple of decades, in my opinion.  She opens herself up as she has rarely, writing about people who are very much like herself and her family.  At first the reader may think the stories are unrelated, but each one throws light on some rather important concerns: what will become of the world we live in?  How to love?  Is there a connection between the concrete everyday world and something that transcends time and space?

This last lies at the center of the first story "The Bad News." An aging couple, Nell and Tig, struggle to deal with the bad news that awaits them every day in early Twenty-first Century newspaper headlines.  But Nell finds herself slipping into another time and place when the news was equally bad, Southern France in the Third Century C.E.   The barbarians are outside the gates, Romans like this other Nell have reason to be afraid.  The question Atwood poses is: should we prepare for the end of the world as we know it, too?

Conínbriga in central Portugal is very much like Glanum, the French ruined town that starts Nell's musings.  A thriving place for a couple of hundred years at the crossroads  of Roman thoroughfares on the Iberian peninsula, its people retrenched in the Third Century apparently out of fear for the advancing Barbarians.  They effectively abandoned part of the town, tearing houses down and  building a defensive wall five meters high inside of which they hung on for a couple of more centuries. 

The extent of the town was forgotten until the late 1920s when a Portuguese archeologist began excavation of the site.  Since then off a good portion of the town  has been uncovered.  The mosaics are extraordinary, and the House of Fountains, one of the houses left outside the wall, a dream of a Roman villa (see photo.)

Visiting ruins like this (or the medieval part of nearby Coimbra) invites speculation who lived there and what their lives were like.  Just as Atwood's collection suggests connections between incidents and people, so wandering through the vestiges of the past summons up reflections about human nature, strife and survival.