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

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

One of the Best Love Stories Ever for Summer Reading: The Extraordinary Garden

Sometimes the best stories are the simplest one.

“I can sum up… in two minutes…”  Marc-André begins . “I desired her for seven years, I loved her for three days and three nights, and then I spent seven years trying to forget her."

That is indeed the bare bones of the action in The Extraordinary Garden, François Gravel’s lovely novel, which came to mind this week as the warm late spring weather:  makes me think of summer time reading.  The novel was published in 2005, but is worth seeking out because behind the simple summing up lies a story that is much more—a moral tale for a time when morals have been left behind, a meditation on the relations between men and women, a tribute to the love a man feels for his children.

With a few false moves Gravel could have plunged the story into cliché, into waves of tear-jerking sentimentality.  But by some small miracle he has written a clean, taut book that slices through emotion the way a gold medal diver slides into the water on a perfect dive.

That image is not chosen lightly: Marc-André’s daughter is a diver and it is at a big provincial athletic meet that he and Josée finally come together after years of longing.

 They have travelled to Baie Comeau, an eight hour drive from Montreal, along with Josée’s daughter who also began as a diver but who was badly injured in a diving accident.   The two girls want to hang out with the team, leaving the adults alone.  What happens is both predictable and also very moving.

The publisher’s blurb for compares it to  John Updike’s and John Cheever’s sex-in-the-suburbs work.  Gravel’s people live in suburbia, it’s true; the garden the title refers to is a big park that lies between the two families’ houses.   But this is a story about what happened after the sexual revolution was won. Marc-André, Josée and their spouses grew up with the idea that sex is a playground, but now they’ve made other choices.  The tension between their commitment to the family-centered lives they’ve chosen and their errant emotions are what make this novel so appealing.
The Extraordinary Garden

Sheila Fishman’s excellent translation deftly catches the rhythms of Gravel’s French original.  The novel is available from Amazon.ca and Abebooks.com

Friday, April 26, 2013

Biography of the Founder of the "Official Beers of the NHL" Is Good Reading before the Hockey Play-offs

 A good juicy biography is fun any time, and with hockey playoffs coming up one about the storied Molson clan, the current (and past) owners of the Montreal Canadiens, makes an excellent read for those who love (or hate) the Habs.

The Molsons: Their Lives & Times 1780-2000 is not a new book.  Published in 2002 when Molson interests had recently sold 80 per cent of its share of the club, the book says nothing about the more recent re-acquisition and active role of the current generation of Molsons.  But there's enough here to keep you reading, and to coorborate my husband's contention that there are few family histories that don't turn up a horse thief of the equivalent (that's why for a long time he held himself aloof from geneology.)

Author Karen Molson shows that it's not just us ordinary folk who have a scandal or two hidden away.  Early on she tells us that in a day when being a bastard could mean being a social outcast,  John Molson didn't marry his children's mother until the kids were half-grown.     
Sarah Vaughn had recently  fled the American Revolution when the aspiring brewer hired her to be his house maid for $4 a month in 1786.  He was 23 and she was 35, with a husband somewhere and connections to the English gentry.  Nevertheless she was illiterate, and apparently hard-up enough to need to work for her living.  Sharing a bed must have been added to her duties rather quickly, because the first of Molson's three sons was born in 1787.  It wasn't until  1801 when word came that Sarah's first husband had died that John and she married in the Anglican church and legitimized their children. 
By then John was well on his way to building the financial empire that has continued to prosper until today.   Karen Molson explains the ins and outs of its growth--the burgeoning brewing company, the steamship line begun, the railroad started, the real estate and distilling ventures successfully undertaken, and  the hockey interests won, lost and won again.  But where her book excels is in its descriptions of  complex interfamily relations set against deftly drawn vignettes of life over the decades.  These are told in the present tense, giving immediacy to her story and jazzing up what otherwise could have been a rather dry history. 

Karen Molson is a seventh-generation Molson, born to the line begun by the original John Molson's third son Thomas.  She provides a family tree at the beginning of the book which the reader will find useful since not only did the Molsons give many of their children the same names--John, William and Thomas were favorites--several of them also married cousins. 

She and her two researchers  spent years reviewing a mountain of official and unofficial documents.  Several Molsons were dedicated journal-keepers and letter-writers, and  account books and other financial records from the Molson companies have survived intact.  Thus Karen Molson is able to show us such things as just how far out on a limb  young John Molson went to start up his brewery: she quotes from his  increasingly frantic entreaties  that he get money set aside in trust for him so that he can pay for the equipment he's already bought.  We also get a sharp picture of John II through his school reports which remark that he was "a good Lad ...but the most spirited one you can imagine.  No fear of his fighting his way through the world."  To which the first John told his son:  "it will be ultimately a great advantage to you to be a man of education instead of a Blockhead."

The book was neither commissioned by the Molson family nor any of the Molson corporate interests, yet clearly Karen Molson had privileged access to many of the surviving family members and to  private letters that other researchers might find hard to see. So, while she may be frank about some of the family's sexual peccadilloes (in addition to John and Sarah's marital tardiness, she goes into detail about a Molson grandson who was caught in a hotel with a young woman of good family), don't expect dirt about how the Molsons made their millions.  In short the book is a good read for those wanting to learn about the lifestyles of the rich and famous over more than 200 years--and without a doubt  it's more interesting than a story about the horse thieves in an ordinary family, too.

By the way, please note that questionable behavior doesn't necessarily stand in the way of getting official recognition:  the picture is of a Canadian stamp issued in 1986 to honour the first John Molson.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Very Funny Descendant of Zola: Marina Lewycka's Novel about Quants, Commies and Community

Seems I spoke too soon a bit ago when I asked, rather rhetorically, where was a current novel to compare with Zola's The Kill when it comes to dealing with the causes of our economic woes.

Marina Lewycka's hilarious Various Pets Alive and Dead does just that, however,  It begins in early September 2008, ends a year or so later, and in between hits many of the high points of radical politics in Britain in the last quaarter of the 20th century.

The main characters include Doro and Marcus, a couple who fetched up in a hugh old house in coal mining country, just as Margaret Thatcher and economic forces were conspiring to shut down that industry.  Their three children--school teacher Clara, math whiz Serge and Down's syndrome sweetie Oolie-Anna--are trying to make their own lives, free of their parents' do-gooder, pacifist ways.  Other characters include Serge's comrades in the fields of finance, the other residents who passed through the old house/commune, and Clara's fellow teachers.

What they do is very funny: I laughed outloud every 25 pages or so, and I read late into the night for sheer pleasure.  Mixed in with the farce, however, is a great deal of information about the financial shenanigans that lead to the collapse of the housing bubble.  Nowhere else have I come across such a digestible exposition of the mathematical models that underlie the making of  financial "products" and manipulation of the stock market.  Bravo for Lewycka for doing what legions of business writers haven't done while telling an engaging story!

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Lewycka's first big novelistic success (she's written four in all)  also mixes fact and story.  But whereas it looks backward to the Ukraine of the 1930s and 1940s and immigrant lifein post-War England, Various Pets... is as contemporary as the latest computer hardware update.

Zola might not recognize Lewycka as working his tradition--can't think of a moment when he was funny--but they belong in the same company of writers who deal honestly with the world as they see it in books that people are going to want to read.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Tolstoy on the Cossacks and the Chechens

Here's Tolstoy on Chechens, or rather one Chechen warrior in his novella The Cossacks:

 "With his hands folded under his sword, and his eyes nearly closed, he kept looking at the distant Tartar village. Taken separately his features were not beautiful, but anyone who saw his stately carriage and his dark-browed intelligent face would involuntarily say, 'What a fine fellow!'"

The novel was written after Tolstoy served in the Russian army.  The experience may have been part of his spiritual evolution--certainly he thought the Cossacks  and their supposedly simple life had much to be admired.  Certainly it gives glimpse at the reputation of Chechens, that contrasts with the bad-mouthing they're getting today in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon attack. 

For more on the Caucasus in the literary imagination, check this out in The New Yorker 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ancient Faiults in Queen's Quarterly

Shameless self-promotion department: my story "Ancient Faults" has just been published in the Spring 2013 Queen's Quarterly, Canada's oldest literary magazine.

Here's an excerpt:

The tide is out and Rebecca sees immediately that she can walk out as far as the rock, which at high tide is a sort of tower guarding the coast. There is one place where the rushing water has cut a channel in the rock, but she knows she can jump over it. She's jumped over it before, even without holding her father's hand.
     She looks around: her mother and the carriage are still a long way away, it will take several minutes for them to get close enough for Dorothy to tell her to stop. Besides, a man is getting out of a car at the wide space at the end of the road, and her mother is talking to him. She won't notice. Rebecca will be at the tower rock, on top of the tower rock even, before she notices ...

The story will be part of a new collection of short stories I'm working on to be called Destire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Why Terroists Do It: Neil Bissoondath's Unyielding Clamour of the Night

Nobody so far has claimed responsibility for the bloody bombing at the Boston Marathon on Monday, but the supposition that it was done by a terrorist of one sort or another seems inescapeable.   Whoever did it appears to have gotten away without injury--certainly none of the dead was a suicide bomber--but events like this always raise the question of how and why someone reaches a point where he or she would kill  innocents for a cause.

Novels can offer insights here, as they can in so many other places.  One in particular, The Unyielding Clamour of the Night by Neil Bissoondath, seems to me to make a kind of sense. (The French translation by the dynamic duo of Laurie St-Martin and Paul Gagné is La Clameur des ténèbres.)

The story concerns a young man from a "good" family who goes off to teach school in a village in the south of his civil war-torn country. As an evocation of a tropical landscape and an exploration of the complicated circumstances that lead to horrendous inter-ethnic conflict, it has no parallel. The hero, Arun, is an extremely understandable and attractive young man, and his slow involvement in local causes is convincing—and frightening. While Bissoondath takes pains to say that his story takes place in an imagined place, the similarities with Sri Lanka are striking.

This is not a book by someone whose own country has suffered civil war.  For that read Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje,  who tells us a story set during Sri Lanka's 25 year war between Tamils and Sinhalese in intimate, poetic detail. 

Bissoondath, from Trinidad and transplanted successfully to Quebec, says he didn't do any research on that conflict, because he didn't want to be influenced by what "really" had happened in Sri Lanka.  Indeed, he has told interviewers that the  spark for the book  was ignited half a world away at a dinner when someone in his French-Canadian wife's family told a story of an old wood prothesis that had the man had in his garage that had belong to his great grandmother.   

From there Bissoondath says he began thinking about a  young man with a withered leg., a handicap that made him an outsider. The character  developed slowly, as did Bissoondath's take on the physical and political setting.   And when he started writing, it wasn't in a warm climate but in the middle of winter in Quebec City.  He felt compelled to go down to one of the parks along the St. Lawerence, clear the snow from a picnic table, and transport himself and Arum to a tropical place.  The first 100 pages of the book were written there. which, he says, include the novel's essence.

Yet I came away with what seemed to me to be a much better idea of why bombers do what they do than I had from reading thousands and thousands of words of news reports. 

For more novels about terrorism, here's a link to a New York Times roundup by Benjamin Kunckel.  I'd add  The Yacoubian Building by Alaa  al Aswany.  It has a character who becomes an Islamic extremists after becoming disillusioned by the disconnect in the 1970s between Egyptian rhetoric of democracy and opportunity and the harsh reality of a society where there was little of either.  And then there's Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent about an anarchist plot to blow up the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. 

But maybe the Boston explosions are the work of someone entirely different, as some obsevers have speculated. If the event turns out to be the work of someone like the UnaBomber, a very different fictional current must be explored... 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Where's the Great Canadian Political Novel?

The Canadian political congruence of an NDP policy convention and a Liberal party leadership coronation have started me thinking about political novels.

I must confess that I am something of a political junkie and have spent a good bit of my adult life, soldiering away on one campaign or another.  The nitty-gritty of political organizing fascinates me, and heaven knows there can be high drama as well as very high stakes in campaigns.

Yet there are rather few novels that use politics and politicians as  backdrops.  Primary Colors about the 1992 US Presidential election is a rare successful one, to my mind.  Written by insider Joe Klein as "Anonymous," it contains lots of steamy inter-personal relationships, but also much about the way that true-believers try to convince voters that their man is the right one for the job. 

Another, far more disdainful, look at the political process is The Suffrage of Elvira by V.S. Naipaul.  It takes place during one of the first post-colonial elections in Trinidad, and is marked by Naipaul's trademark deep skepticism about humanity.

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren depicts the rise and fall of a Southern politician very much like Louisana's Huey Long.  It is, wrote Orville Prescott in The New York Times original review: "no book to curl up with in a hammock, but a book to read until 3 o'clock in the morning, a book to read on trains and subways, while waiting for street cars and appointments, while riding elevators or elephants."  The book was published in 1946, and many of its social givens have changed (the place of African-Americans in society is just one) but the way its hero goes off track resonates today.

But where are the Canadian political novels?  There are Heather Robertson's trilogy centered on William Lyon McKenzie King, Willie: A Romance, Lily: A Rhapsody in Red and Igor: A Novel of Intrigue, all published in the 1980s by Lorimer.  The first volume, by the way, has Talbot Papineau as a character. He was a young, attractive lawyer who might have done great things, had he not been killed in World War I. 

Given the current politucal context, one should note hat Justin Trudeau played Talbot Papineau in the 2006 television movie The Great War. (That's him in costume to the right.)  Don't know if either Tom Mulcair or Stephen Harper have appeared in any film, other than a documentary or two.  And are they in anybody's novel?  Probably only time will tell.

(For those who are interested: I'll add that someone who is very much like Lucien Bouchard appears in my novel Endangered Species, while Brian Mulroney and his friends are featured in my The Violets of Usambara.)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Coming Up: Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival

Fans of Colm Toibin will be delighted to hear that the Irish writer will receive this year's Blue Met International Literary Grand Prize at the Blue Met festival's 15th version.  He's a fine writer:  I particularly like his The South and The Story of the Night. 

He's been at Blue Met before, too, and therein hangs a tale.  It was one of the first Blue Mets when the festival was being run by the visionary Linda Leith and a band of (mostly) volunteers.  A friend and I were prevailed upon to pick Toibin up at the airport, which was exciting stuff, even though at the time I'd not read anything by him.  My friend went into greet him at the Arrivals, and I stayed with the car, jumping out to open the trunk when they appeared with his suitcase.

Ever polite, he didn't seemed to be fazed by his entusiastic but unprofessional welcoming committee, and took his place in the back seat.  All went well, with my friend pointing out the landmarks we were passing until suddenly an alarm went off.  I was sure it wasn't anything to do with car--we always buy the cheapest models without frills of that sort--and since we were barreling down the freeway in heavy traffic, there was no place ot stop to investigate.

Conversation stalled as each of us trying to figure out what was going on, until finally he laughed: "My clock," he said.  "It has to be my alarm clock." 

So we continued into town, just letting the damn thing ring. When we got to the hotel, he quickly bid us goodbye, and went inside to do something about the noise.

 I've often wondered whether my friend and I should be proud of the incident: given that Toibin is gay, I suppose there aren't very many women who have been disturbed by his alarm clock. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Reading Margaret Thatcher: Two Novels on Her Era

The Iron Lady has died at 87, after, it would seem, a long illness punctuated by strokes and other calamities that destroyed her intellect and personality.  What she meant to British life has been the topic of the Chattering Classes today.  Depending on what news feed you're reading/watching she was great or dreadful.

I've never followed politics in the UK as closely as I have the North American game, but two novels came to mind today as appreciations of her and her era.

The first is Black Swan Green by David Mitchell.  Published in  2006, it is a somewhat autobiographical story of an adolescent boy caught up in his own growing pains but also swept along by jingoism during the Falklands War of 1983. His naive patriotism is a proxy for a lot of criticism of the Thatcherite dismanteling of Post War Britain.

The second is Bridget Jones's Diary, published in 1996, shortly after Tony Blair and New Labour were swept into power in a wave of anti-Thatcherism. Helen Fieldiing's immensely successful first-person account of what was happening then, told by a loveable but somewhat ditzy 30-something young woman, gives a brisk, funny look at what many in Britain were thinking then.   Bridget hated Mrs. Thatcher and loved Tony Blair, in large part because each represented part of the British persona that either she rejected or revelled in.

I'd read both again beginning tonight if I hadn't handed off my copies to friends whose names I didn't note down
.  Sharing books I like with people I think might appreciate them is a big pleasure, and, although I know I ought to keep track of who has what, I always forget.  It is as if doing so would negate the pleasure of being generous with something I've enjoyed.

Do you think Ms. Thatcher lent books?  Perhaps, but I'm sure that she kept a list, and checked to see that she got them back. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Memories of a Lost City: Baghdad and Babylon

Ten years ago  the world was in turmoil after the ill-advised invasion of Iraq by American-led forces.  Over the last two weeks there has been considerable comment on what happened--and didn't happen.  Sadly, it seems that the lot of Iraqis is perhaps even worse than it was before. 
 This kind of reflectioin always sends me looking to see what I've read in the past that might resonate with the future.  One of the most interesting is Naim Kattan' memoir Farewell, Babylon, first published in French in 1975 and in English in 1976 by McClelland and Stewart.  In 2005, Raincoast brought it out again: it seems to have disappeared from their list, but Amazon.ca insists it is available. Certainly, it is worth looking for. 

 Winner of Quebec’s top literary award the Prix Athanse David in 2004 as well as the French Légion d’Honneur, Kattan has published 32 books of poetry, essays and fiction in French since he came to Canada in 1954.  His first literary language was Arabic, however, and it still holds a part of his heart.  The nuances of Arabic dialect and vocabulary are center stage in the opening section of his memoir  and set the tone for a drama of the loss of one world and the discovery of another. Kattan’s observations also cast welcome light on Iraq: what we see today grew from the colonial, Muslim-dominated society Kattan grew up in and from which he escaped. 

Kattan begins by explaining that he and his friend Nessim are the only Jews in the group of young intellectuals who meet each evening in a Baghdad café not long after World War II.  They argue about the foreign literature they are reading and  the difficulty of  creating a unique Iraqi literature in the newly independent country. Kattan and Nessim had rejoice
d like everyone else when the British were forced to give up control, but nevertheless they feel themselves outsiders.  No matter that the Iraqi Jewish community dates back 2500  years to the times of Babylon and the Bible, or that  the best Arabic grammarians come from the Alliance Israélite school or that the best students on Arabic examinations are Jews:  Jews are different and the Jewish dialect is considered comic.  Needless to say, Kattan usually speaks classical Arabic when discussing with his friends.

One  night, however, Nessim makes a strong political statement by insisting on speaking it: “we were Jews and we weren’t ashamed of it.”  The others are surprised, but slowly the Muslims began to listen with “respect.” Indeed, Kattan says, “in the heat of discussion Janil and Said borrowed some of our familiar expressions.  They stammered over words they had heard so often but never allowed to cross their lips…Nessim's tenacity bore fruit.”

From that beginning, one might think that Iraq might be able to build a country for all its people, but the section which follows show how the book’s bittersweet ending could be nothing but the end of the Jewish community.. Kattan takes us back to the Farhoud, the vicious pogrom which began on a hot night in May, 1941.  British forces had beat back German-backed Iraqi insurgents, but before they could enter the city angry Bedouins swept in. “A wind of impunity was blowing…The Jews would bear the cost of this repressed hunger, this devouring thirst. Two days and a night.  We could hear shots in the distance…”

Luckily, the conflagration stops just short of Kattan’s house when the Iraqi regular forces take control of the city. Slowly things return to normal and young Naim is allowed to grow up precocious and loved.  His first story is accepted by an avant-garde literary magazine while he is still in short pants; he dreams of women in a society where all respectable females wear veils, he wanders the crowded streets of Baghdad, visits its many gardens, swims in the mighty Tigris.

As the book goes on, however, it becomes clear that there will be no place for Kattan in the modern Iraq, no matter how deep his roots in the region or how elegant his Arabic.  His family begins the long process of getting passports right after Farhoud.  He transfers to the Alliance Française school and starts to dream of studying in Paris.  His friends—Muslim and Christian as well as Jewish—begin their own lives.  Then he gets a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne.  The memoir ends as he leaves Baghdad on a bus headed for Beirut, and thereafter for France.  He will not see his family for five years, when he visits them in a settlement camp in Israel.

How many other Iraqi exiles are now looking for their families--or mourning them?

If anything, Farewell Babylon  is more important now than ever.  Translator Sheila Fischman has deftly captured the fluidity and charm of Kattan’s style, making it read as if had been conceived in English originally.

The illustration, by the way, is an imagined plan of the Hanging Garden of Babylon, as lost as Kattan's Baghdad is. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Beothuk Saga: A Story Whose Ending You Know, But You Hope It Won't Happen That Way

A week ago, as a group of Native Canadian young people completed a 1,600 kilometer trek from Northern Quebec to Ottawa, I was reminded  of a .book whose ending I  knew  before I started  reading, but which kept me  fascinated all the way through anyway.  It is The Beothuk Saga by Bernard Assiniwi (translated from French by Wayne Grady, published more than a decade ago, but increasingly relevant.
 People who have listened even with one ear to the sad tale of North America's First People know that there are no more Beothuks. But Assiniwi  tells their story with such interesting detail that  half way  through I found myself hoping against hope  that such admirable people would survive.

The novel, which won the Prix France-Quebec in 1997, is divided into three main sections.  The first, "The Initiate."  begins at the start of the last millennium with  Anin two years into a voyage of initiation in manhood, paddling around Newfoundland.   As the story opens, his solitary mission is interrupted as he encounters a young woman, Woasut, whose people have been massacred by enemies from another Native tribe. They continue together, taking care to make winter camp well inland from a Viking settlement they see from afar.  In the  spring they're joined by a Viking woman fleeing her violent countrymen.  Before long the woman's sister also finds them, as do two run-away Scottish slaves.

What is striking about these encounters is the way the Viking and Scots  are shown to be from societies not much more modern than Amin's.  They have metal: the Scots girl slave has run off with an metal axe whose efficiency amazes Amin.  But these outlanders also come from a world where it's important to know about  hunting, fishing, hard work and rough shelter.  If anything Amin's  society offers more than their's did, since in the Beothuks' world there is no slavery, and no God Who damns people who don't believe in Him.

When they all arrive back at Amin's village,  the people he's brought home with him are assimilated into the society, his exploits pass into the Beothuks' oral tradition, and the stage is set for 500 years, more or less, of a hard but agreeable life.

The second section, "The Invaders," jumps forward to the 1500s when the first Portuguese and French explorers arrive.  The Beothuks repel the invaders at first, gaining a reputation as being as dangerous as wolves.  But they are unprepared for life in constant contact with Europeans.  After one final, losing battle in which they try to throw out the new arrivals, they are forced to retreat to the interior of the island .
The third section, "Genocide," is the story of the 18th and 19th centuries, and is heart-breaking.  The Beothuks  struggle to survive, but don't.  We've known that all along, of course, but that doesn't detract from the poignancy.                
Born to a  Quebecoise mother and a Cree father, Assiniwi had been  a curator of ethnology and a researcher at the Canadian Museum of Civilization at Hull until shortly before his death in 2000 at  age 65.  He also was  author of nearly 30 non-fiction works   ranging  from books of traditional Native recipes  to the three volume Histoire des Indiens du haut et du bas Canada.

Without knowing Assiniwi's credentials it might be possible to dismiss his descriptions of the Beothuk Golden Age as Noble Savage sentimentalism, since the book has a bibliography but no footnotes.  But start to track his sources down, and it becomes clear  that his story is based on careful archeological and ethnological research.    Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders  (a saga of the Vikings' Greenland) and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel  (about what happens when societies collide ) also support Assiniwi's premises and make great supplementary reading, too.

It should surprise few, of course, that the day the young Cree marchers arrived at their goal--can you imagine! from Hudson's Bay to Ottawa on foot in winter!--Prime Minister Stephen Harper wasn't around to greet them.  Instead he was in Toronto, welcoming two pandas on long-term loan from China.