"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, May 31, 2013

Jane Jacobs, Bikes, and Brasilia

Bike shares hit New York last week, and Tbe New Yorker commemorated it with a cover that points up one of the follies of urban life.

Made me wonder what Jane Jacobs, that lover of New York and walkable/bikeable cities, would think.  The late urbanist, whose iconoclastic ideas turned thinking about cities on its head in the 1960s, was a friend of the bicycle: she spent hours one summer helping her son assemble bikes that he'd imported from China as part of an attempt to get people on two wheels.

As the success of bike-share programs show, her ideas are increasingly relevant. An appreciation of that comes out in the recent collection of essays on her and her legacy, called What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs. Edited by Stephen A. Goldsmith and Lynne Elizabeth, it contains more than 30 short reflections about what Jacobs meant in New York, Toronto and around the world, how her ideas have been influential, and how events elsewhere demonstrate her perspicacity. It ends with a series of questions about each essay that could serve as points of departure for discussion by community groups about their own particular problems, or as study guides in urban affairs programs.

Let me say straight up that Jane Jacobs is one of my heroes. Her ideas about cities inspired my book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, and she is a character in my  The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Street and Beyond. When What We See... came out,  I spent several evenings dipping into it with pleasure. And by chance  at the same time I was also reading James Holston’s The Modernist City, an anthropological study of Brasília which in many respects is the antithesis of what Jacobs’ stood for.

The two books go together like hand in glove, although there is no mention of Jacobs in Holston’s work. The Brazilian capitol which celebrated its 50th anniversary in April, 2010, was conceived as an egalitarian model city inspired by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier exactly at the moment that Jacobs was noting the problems the modernist idea was presenting elsewhere. Brasília features big blocks of residences, grand vistas of public buildings, wide highways for automobiles and no streets.

From the beginning, however, the people who built it and the people who wanted to live there tried to undo the modernist vision. One example which Jacobs would have appreciated is the way storekeepers given space in large buildings where the entrances were to be on verdant parkland, switched their shops’ orientation. The opposite side, facing on the walkways and parking lots intended for provisioning the stores, became the “fronts” because people wanted the bustle of a street-like setting.

It’s interesting that one of the contributors to What We See is Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of another Brazilian city, Curitiba. Beginning in the 1970s, the main commercial streets there became pedestrian, and an integrated public transportation system has developed to become a model of how to woo people away from private car and to stop urban sprawl of both the middle class and the slum variety.

Perhaps because I live in a Canadian city and because I’ve followed Jacobs’ thought for more than 40 years, I found contributions from writers outside North America the most interesting and original parts of What We See. For example, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava’s essay “The Village Inside” told me much I didn’t know about how Tokyo grew by incorporating villages into the urban fabric. The result was a rich—if sometimes “messy” looking—mix of residential, commercial and industrial uses. Dharavi, the Mumbai slum featured in Slumdog Millionaire, has several points in common with the Tokyo of the early 20th century, the authors suggest. I bet London of the 19th century did too. The lessons to draw from these examples underscore the importance of working on a human scale to integrate different elements in a growing city, and not to raze what’s there or try to build a city on a virgin site as was done in Brasília.

As for biking in Brasilia, it wouldn't seem that people do much of it.  Here's a video made last November of a group, Pedal Noturno, of night bike riders crossing a bridge in the city.  The fact that there are so few riders suggests that biking doesn't have the cachet it has elsewhere--or that it's anything but something to do on special occasions.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Why Curious George Starts in Paris and Ends in New York

Reading and the love of books can't encouraged too soon.  The Curious George books by H.A. and Margaret Rey were great favourites of our kids and Jeanne has delighted in them ever since Elin brought a jumbo book containing six tales back from a trip to New York last fall.  She went looking for our old copies shortly thereafter so ever since Jeanne's been read the old ones--now in  tatters--when she visits here.

The stories are still charming, but one of the things that goes over Jeanne's head is the way that the city George lives in changes between books.  In the first one it's quite clearly Paris, and the zoo where he goes to live is the Ménagerie in the Jardin des plantes, but the next one is just as clearly New York.

The reason why came clear this morning when the quality French language daily here Le Devoir had an article about an exhibit on George's creators.  The Reys were German Jews who met in Brazil where each had gone separately as young people.  Rey (born Hans Augusto  Reyersbach) and the former Margarete Elisabeth Waldstein founded the first advertising agency in Rio in the 1930s, but decided to go back to Europe, setting up shop in Paris.  The curious little monkey appears to have been just one of their projects.

In 1939 the French publisher Gallimard was ready to bring out the first book about the monkey, then called Fifi, but the Reys' studio was searched by the French police  on a tip that there might be material for making bombs there.  The sketches of George convinced the flics that wasn't the case, but the Reys took the hint  the following spring.  They decamped for Portugal, taking with them only their Brazilian passports, their sketches and what was left of their advance from Gallimard.  At the Spanish border their German accents raised eyebrows with Franco's Fascists, but the innocuous drawings of George and their Brazilian nationality allowed them to continue.  Their journeyed back to Brazil and then on to New York, where they started over again.

George once again came to their rescue.  Within a month they had a contract with Houghton Mifflin and the first Curious George book was published in 1941.  Since then 17 million copies of the various Curious George stories (the Reyes produced seven, and a  series has been spun off, written and drawn by others which are not nearly as good.)

The Reyes adventures are highlighted in a exhibit at the Montreal Holocaust Museum from now until June 22. The show was created by Omaha, Nebraska, Institue for Holocaust Education, and is touring North America.  Definitely worth the detour. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Water Works: Michael Ondaatje's Excellent In the Skin of a Lion

All the chit chat this morning around the water fountain (well, the gallon jug of bottled water put out by the bosses ) has been about how Montrealers are coping with a boil water order.  Seems routine maintenance at a treatment plant stirred up sediment yesterday, leading to the precautionary measure that went into effect Wednesday morning, and won't be lifted to this evening at the earliest.

 Water is such a commonplace substance that one tends to forget about it, except in times like these.  But providing safe tap water requires immense effort, and the stories connected with can take on elements of saga.

 Michael Ondaatje realized that 25 years ago when he researched and wrote  In the Skin of a Lion.  It was his second novel, following several volumes of poetry and literary criticism, so I remember being surprised when I read it at the way it portrayed immigrant life in the Toronto of the early 1900s.

 Apparently he spent days and days reading newspapers from the period, trying to get the facts right about the building of the city's water treatment plant and delivery system.  Among the many characters are Macedonians who came expressly to work on the project, most of whom ended up going back when the work was done.  Two of the characters, Hana and Caravaggio, turn up in his next, more famous novel, The English Patient.

 But the novel is far from a realistic, muck-raking exposé of the conditions of the people who worked on the project--and by extension on similar projects all over the continent.  Ondaatje is a poet, remember, and his imagery, descriptions  and portrayal of character raise the book to a very high level.  It's what John Steinbeck might have written if he'd been William Faulkne, a tough story that shimmers like reflections on water.

The original cover, by the way, shows what can happen when Socialist Realism is kicked upstairs to become High Art.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

First Long Weekend of the Belle Saison: People Think of Hitting the Road

The traffic reports on Friday told of long line of vehicles on the highways heading out of town.  This is the first long weekend of the holiday season, and the forecast is for good weather.  No wonder people are thinking of hitting the road.

Which made me think about "road" books.  They are not the same as "road movies'  which tend to be escapist viewing.  Road books, on the other hand, are usually quests of one sort of another, where frequently the most important journey is spiritual. I'll write more about them later this summer, but there is one book that must be considered right away,   Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Road.

The book has enjoyed great popular and critical success, particularly among men. I found it just terrible, though.  So did my friends at a reading circle that's been meeting monthly for more than 25 years, and those in my cousin's Cathy's book group in Reno.

The story is basically about a man and his son travelling through a post Apocalypse world  in which nothing is growing.  Their journey is threatened by hordes of humans gone cannibal.  They subsist on canned food, they have no idea if they're going toward help or not.

In short, they are in a bad way. The details are harrowing, but two of the underlying premises  seem to me to be deeply false. 

The first is the way the man's wife chooses not to live as disaster rains down on the world even though she has just given birth. The second is complete lack of growing things the man and his son encounter.  Neither one rings true: women are far more likely to fight ferociously to protect their newborns, than to give up.  And anyone who has lived in a city or seen a plaee scoured by disaster knows that within a very short time green returns against what seem to be extraordinary odds.  

But, as my friend Rolande (a woman of great artistic sensiblilty but not a writer or a psychologist) says, the whole story has something that appeals especially to men, which may account for the novel's great popularity.  Its core is a  tender relationship between a man and his son which is something many men lack and most men crave although they may be loath to admit it for fear of seeming sissy. Here, however, the context is the horrors of the  end-of-world, so liking the novel can’t be construed as liking something sentimental.  

Is this another indication that there are real differences between men and women that show up in the most surprising ways? I think not, because male reactions to the book show that tender feelings are there, it’s just that most men have a long way to go before they can admit to them openly. The Road may be simply a path they must take before they get there.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Waiting for Mary Novik's Next Book, Here's a Review of Her Last One...

Almost exactly six  years ago, I was lucky enough to have Quill and Quire ask me to review Mary Novik's debut novel Conceit.  I was blown away by it, as the following review which I've just rescued from my old files, attests.  Now I hear that her novel about Francesco Petrach will be out in August, and I'm really looking forward to reading it.

In the meantime, here's my review of Conceit:

I How to write a review in 350 words that does justice to Mary Novik’s extraordinary novel Conceit

Nearly impossible, which is probably why the publicist’s bumph veers toward  purple prose, making it sound like an overheated historical bodice-ripper.  Yes, Novik plunges us into the London of the Great Fire of 1666 as the book opens.  Yes, she makes us smell the smoke and feel the heat, just as she shows us, a little later on, the longing that Pegge Donne feels for her first love, Isaak Walton.

The book, in its baldest outline, is pretty simple, too: a family drama with passionate overtones.  Dashing young courtier-poet John Donne falls madly in love with Anne Moore, has 12 children with her, and vows to  be buried next to her. 

But when he becomes dean of St. Paul’s, he decides to be buried there.  Pegge resents this decision, yet nevertheless  when London burns, Pegge—by now the mother of 12 children herself—rescues Donne’s statue from the cathedral (photo at right.) The book ends with a kind of reconciliation between Pegge and her long-dead father, and between her and her very-much-alive husband.  .

But this is far too sketchy  Not only does Novik present us with Pegge’s thinking, she also gives us John Donne rationalizing why he won’t spend eternity with Anne, and Anne, who died at 29 after 12 pregnancies,  wailing  “I know I did not die a natural death.  I was slain by love, at far too young an age.”  This shifting of point of view can be at times confusing, but the richness of the book makes up for it. 

Novik’s descriptions are often startling but very apt: for example, she says that during their father’s long sermons, the  Donne children “lounged about in their minds.” In preparing to tell her story Novik obviously has read major texts from the period, from Samuel Pepys’ diary to Donne’s own poems and sermons.  But the book is about “my seventeenth century,” she says, adding that she has “invented joyfully and freely.” 

The result is as delightful as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and as erudite and readable as A.S. Byatt’s Possession.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Eco's Prague Cemetery is Deadly

This is the time of year when I make up the reading lists for the discussion groups I lead in several Montreal-area libraries. The groups' members suggest books, but I always have at least a full set of my own ideas.  Usually they are books I've read, but sometimes I'm tempted by books that have a particularly interesting buzz.  Given that my groups  are in English and French, if a book is available in both languages, so much the better because I can prepare the same background material for the respective groups.

Two years ago Umbert Eco's The Prague Cemetery sounded like a good one to include for these reasons and because many of the groups' members really like historical novels.  No one objected when I suggested it, but then none of them  had read it either.

Mistake!  The book is based on a great deal of research: Eco says that there is only one character invented, that all the rest is true.  Unfortunately, the story creaks under the weight of all this erudition, with the result that it is truly a chore to read.

Eco is extremely personable, funny, the kind of intellectual that you'd love to have for a prof, as you can see from the Youtube video below.  My suggestion is to watch it, and give the book a miss.  The questions the novel raises--among them, why are conspiracy theories so attractive--are worth thinking about.  But I don't know if the average reader would get far enough into the book to see the questions because he or she would be too annoyed with the narrator and the form.

The book, by the way, is not anti-Semitic, as some have suggested.  Eco shows us dreadful things--all documented--done by many sorts of people, but the Roman Catholic Church is just as terrible as anyone else.  Perhaps the fact that Il Obseratore romano, the Vatican newspaper, was the first to accuse the book of anti-Semitism should be a tip-off. If one part of Eco's research and interpretation can be challenged, so could his portrayal of greed, intellectual dishonesty and corruption in the Church.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

High Temperatures for May: Time to Read a Funny Novel about Climate Change

The weather is exceptional, spookily so. Ian McEwean's novel Solar is excellent reading for such a time. The hero (and I use the term advisedly) is a physicist Michael Beard who for complicated reasons becomes deeply involved in reseaching alternate energy sources, specifically solar power.

Beard is fat, grasping, unpleasant, and very funny. Creating him was a way for McEwan to talk about a depressingly serious subject, climate change, and not have the reader gag after 15 pages on an overdose of apple pie and mother's milk.

Thete's a lesson here to all writers: don't let your characters carry your message if you want the message to be received. Have them struggle with it as wel as their character faults. The result is a much better read than polemical fiction, and may actually reach people beyond the circle of the alrady-convinced.

That said, McEwan's cleverness when it comes to plot may turn some people off.  Those who appreciate his frequently complex plots and the masses of research that lie behind  his stories learn not to be annoyed when he trots out descriptions of the intricacies of brain surgery (as in Saturday) or, as in this novel,  scientific explatnaions of how a good alternataive energy source might be developed.  Reading his work is like being the in company of a hyperactive, extremely intelligent friend whose company you cherish, but which also leaves you tired. 

The photo was taken on an arctic expedition he took part in, and which served, apparently, as background for Michael Beard's own foray into the Arctic with a bunch of artists.   In the novel the well-meaning participants can't even keep their personal gear in order with comic consequences: one wonders if the same thing happened when McEwan spent time in the frozen North.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Let's Hear It for the Short Story: Steven Beattie's 31 Days and Other Thoughts on a Great Genre

Steven Beattie is a Toronto-based writer, editor and short story lover.  For the last several years he's spent a month commenting on excellent short stories from around the world.  This year, he started out on May 1, and it's definitely worth checking out. 

He writes: "One of the reasons I keep returning to this project is that it has yet to bore me. Another is that after six years, I still delight in the process of revisiting stories I’ve already read, and discovering new ones. The intent when I began the 31 Days was to cast a light on the breadth of short fiction globally. ... This is the spirit that drives the project forward. It is a constant process of discovery for me and, I hope, perhaps also for those who stumble across the posts."

I have not read any of the three stories he's discussed so far this year: Ray Bradbury's "Skeleton," (although at one time I thought I'd read everything that Bradbury had written)  "More Sex" by Lynne Tillman and "My Creator, My Creation" by Finnish writer Tiina Raevaara.  Next time I go to the library, though, I'll be looking for them.  It would be very interesting if some publisher came out with a collection for the year's crop, although I imagine getting the rights to all of them would be so big a hassle that publishers would run the other way.

Not so with the stories found in the various Best American Short Stories anthologies, apparently.  I look forward to them every year, a fact which my family well aware of so the current year is always under the Christmas tree.  The 2011 collection, chosen by guest editor Geraldine Brooks, was one of the best ones, I think, but I was quite disappointed by the 2012 version.  Guest editor Tom Perotta's choices are full of bling and video games, which reflects a desire to be on the edge of the next big thing, I think.

Many of the point of view characters are boys, and perhaps my cool reaction to the stories reflects that fact that I never was a boy and haven't been a kid in a long, long time. 

But there are others that seem to have been chosen simply because of their element of surprise.  An example is "What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank" by Nathan Englander, which is both precious and false, it seems to me. The author says in a note at the end of the volume that the story has it roots in two things: games that he and his sister played that explored their fears of what might happen to them in a pogrom, and in Raymond Carver's story "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love." 

In Englander's story two couples, one "culturally" Jewish and the other Hasidic get to together for an evening of catching up.  They drink and the wives, who'd been great friends in adolesence, wonder at their different paths.  Then the Hasidic couple bring out some marijuana and the four of them  continue talking, getting higher and higher..  The denoument comes when the Hasidic wife realizes that she doesn't think her husband would hide her in a pogrom.

Whoof!  That's one heck of a discovery, and I'm not saying that it might not happen.  But I just can't see any very Orthodox couple smoking dope together with friends.  I have  at least four varieties of Hasidim as neighbors. and I simply cannot imagine any of them doing that, although the men quite clearly drink a lot on festive occasions.  For a while Nathan Englander had a website where he promised to answer questions about his work, but he didn't reply when I asked if he really thought that part of the story was plausible.

Englander's short story collection by the same name has recently been published to glowing reviews.  Good for him.  But I think that both he and Perotta care far too much about surprise and shock in their stories.