"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, August 21, 2015

End of Summer Reading: Stories

The heat broke in Montreal overnight, so this is a day that maybe be liveable, sans air conditioning. Makes reading a lot easier, too. 

Nevertheless I read during the heat wave, and not just sitting on the stairs underneath the fan. Finished Mavis Gallant's excellent Montreal Stories (edited by Russell Banks whose introduction is interesting and who did a marvelous in choosing these stories from Gallant's many, many stories.) In the book discussion groups I lead, a question often asked is "Why does an author write short stories, and not novels?" It's one that I'm sure will come up when we discuss this collection. 

The stories concern clusters of characters, and one could argue that Gallant might have made a big, sprawling novel out of them. She chose, however, to explore various facets of her people's lives, without a real narrative thread. It's up to the reader to make the connections, and in so doing reflect more deeply on their lives and times. The experience is that much richer, since the reader becomes a real accomplice in the telling of the story. 

These stories also appear to have been written over at least a 20 year period, and it's possible that Gallant saw more and more in her characters as she lived with them. That's something to be thankful for too, as her writing grew more nuanced, her tone surer with the years.

Definitely worth sitting down to read. I'd recommend not reading more than two stories at a sitting, in order to give yourself time to reflect on the stories

Monday, August 3, 2015

Novels to Accompany an Election Campaign

Now that Canada is gearing up for the longest Federal election campaign in memory, and the American Republican Presidential hopefuls are set to debate this week, it's time, perhaps, to think about what one might read while observing the parties' shenanigans.  Here are half a dozen, enough to keep you reading through all those weeks of campaign.

1. The ultimate political junkie's novel is Primary Colors, by Joe Klein.  It was originally published with "Anonymous" listed as the author, but Klein was eventually outted.  Several of the characters are clearly modelled on Bill and Hillary Clinton and their friends.

2.  Robert Penn Warren's All the Kings' Men, about an initially idealistic, but ultimately corrupt Southern politician.

3. The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon. An American POW from the Korean war is brainwashed  and programmed to kill a U.S presidential candidate.

4. Wag the Dog by Larry Bienhart.  Getting George Bush elected by staging a war.

5. The Suffrage of Elvira by V.S. Naipaul.  A slapstick, cynical novel about the first popular election on a newly independent island in the Caribbean.

6. And I'll throw one in that I did a long time ago: Endangered Species.  It  takes place in 1990 during a by-election that was inspired by the one where Gilles Duceppe was elected for the first time as a Bloc Québécois MP.  Worked a lot on the NDP campaign that summer  which was a disaster, but times change, don't they?

The book appears to be out of print, but you can still get it in some libraries, and I have a lot of copies in the basement, should anyone want one. (Price: $2 plus postage.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Corrupt and the Foolish: Becky and Emmie in Vanity Fair

This summer, as I said earlier,  I'm reading about corruption for a new fiction project. I asked friends (real and virtual) to suggest books that dealt with the topic in June and got a most interesting list. One of them was the classic, Vanity Fair, which I thought I'd read before.

But I discovered I hadn't, and I'm very glad that I decided to check it out "again." 

Two women are at the heart of this huge book: poor and clever Rebecca Sharp and poor and boring Amelia Sedley. The time is the beginning of the 19th century, roughly between 1815 and 1832, and the scene is England for the most part. Published in 1848 in installments, the novel is well over 800 pages long but the reader shouldn't be scared off by its bulk. It's full of humour, irony and sly comments about how the rich get rich and the poor get poorer, that resonant in this time of rising inequality. 

Becky Sharp, who at the beginning is just a poor orphan girl who has to look out for herself, becomes a schemer, and--we're led to suspect--someone not above a little creative chemistry in order to keep herself in the styler to which she'd like to become accustomed. Emmie is a fool for love, but luckily has protectors who keep her from "falling" into the sort of behavior that is Becky's lot. Becky is corrupt, I suppose, but it's perfectly clear why she is, and my sympathies are with her far more than with the saintly Emmie. 

It took me ten days of reading evenings to get through  the book.  The fact that I went through it so quicly says a lot about how engaging it is.