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

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Summer Reading: Next Installment

This seems to be the weekend for two of the main Canadian newspapers to give a little space to books.


The Globe and Mail, which disbanded its seasoned book beat  team of Martin Levin and Jack Kirchhof last January, has some interesting reading suggestions. The idea was to ask a number of Canadian writers what they would suggest as reading to explain/describe/celebrate the Canadian province where they live.

The whole sheebang got big headlines on the front page (although not on the web edition,) not usually placement that books get in the Globe and Mail these days.  Doing that is a lot of  Canada Day hoo ha, but when we'll take what we can get these days, won't we? There also is a list of "the editors' picks" of  best best-sellers.   The editors, by the way, are Jared Bland and Lisan Jutras, who took over in March. 

Over at the Toronto Star  Emily Donaldson and Alex Goode come up with a list with a little more substance.  Their choices include The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer and Once We Had a Country by Robert McGill.  I particularly like the short synopsis: "Set during the Vietnam War, the protagonist of McGill’s long-awaited second novel is an American schoolteacher who is abandoned by her draft-dodger boyfriend after the two come to Ontario to establish a commune."

The National Post did its summer reading list a week ago, it seems.  Heading the list put together by Mark Medley is Pure by Andrew Miller.  We read this historical novel--a real page turner--in one of my reading groups, and while I enjoyed it at the time, I've been worrying about it as I continue my reflection on historical fiction in general.  The basic question is: would the story work if it weren't for the detailed description of pre-Revolutionary Paris?  Haven't decided.

And what am I reading at the moment on this lovely summer Sunday afternoon?  Something decidedly not current: Origins Reconstructed: In Search of What Makes Us Human by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin.  It's 20 years old, but contains a lot of still accurate information--and it's told as an adventure story. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Insects As the Canaries in the Coal Mine of the World: Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior

Just as I was finishing Barbara Kinsolver's latest novel, Flight Behavior, the news of the strange deaths of thousands of bees in Oregon. It seems that pesticides used on the trees around this parking lot have left residues that kill the bees on contact.

Ecologists tot the event up to just another terrible indication of what a mess we are making of the world.
Kingsolver would not disagree, nor would she hold out any false hope that there might be a quick and easy fix.

In this novel, she tells the story of a young woman--bright and stuck in a dead-end marriage and a dead-end town--who comes across a glorious manifestation of things gone wrong: millions of Monarch butterflies who should be wintering in Mexico but who have turned up in Tennesee. As the months pass, this amazing phenomena becomes world famous, attracting a handful of dedicated researchers as well as scores of curiosity seekers.

For the first 50 pages of the novel, I was annoyed by Kingsolver, who may live in Tennesee but who is far from an uneducated hill person, purporting to tell us what her heroine Dellarobia Turnbow was thinking.  But Kingsolver has an excellent ear, and Dellarobia's voice comes through loud, clear, and funny.  Kingsolver also shows great delicacy in depicting the pride of people who have hardscrabble lives.  In the end, she weaves together the many strands of the story into a convincing tale of personal awakening on the part of Dellarobia and public recognition of the damage we've done and are doing to the earth.

One very large quibble, though: the scientist-in-chief who comes to study the wayward butterflies is a handsome, intelligent and very black man from one of the US Virgin Islands.  That he is accepted so immediately by Dellarobia and her family seems to me to be very unlikely.  After the initial description of him, very little is made of his colour until toward the end of the book when a group of kindergartners come to see the butterflies.  One of them asks if he's the president, and he asks back: is it because of the colour of my skin?  No, the child says, because you're wearing a tie.

That's cute, maybe too cute.

But the novel is worth reading until late in the night: I finished it well after 1 a.m. because I had to keep going to see what happens.  Hint: the ending is almost Biblical.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Book Lists, Round Two: What My Book Groups Will Be Reading Next Season

This is the first day of summer, officially, and also the beginning of the long St. Jean Baptiste weekend in Quebec.  The holiday, Quebec's Fête Nationale, is always big stuff here.  Usually  good weather has set in, schools are out and people are in a good mood.  This afternoon downtown Montreal was filled with smiling faces in spite of dreadful traffic, so I guess it's time to celebrate summer.

It's also the season when many people indulge their thirst for reading.  The following are books that the varioius book discussion groups I lead will be reading in the 2013-2014 season, but the list makes good summer reading.  I've thrown in some other suggestions at the end, as a bonus.  Sitting in the shade reading a good book is a great way to start a holiday--or to continue one.

 1. The Greenhouse by Ava Audur Olafsdottír
A coming of age story by an Icelandic writer that has become a word-of-mouth best seller.
2. Distantly Related to Freud, by Ann Charney
Ellen is the daughter of a Polish immigrant, growing up in Montreal in the 1950s.  " With its winsome protagonist and the palpable interplay between innocence and the shadows that encroach on it, Charney has written one of the most endearing novels of the season." Montreal Review of Books

3. Ru by Kim Thuy
"Literature at its most crystalline: the flow of a life on the tides of unrest and on to more peaceful waters." Amazon.ca Editors Pick Best Books of 2012

4. Hunting and Gathering, by  Anna Gavalda
Three young people (an artist, a chef and the scion of a great French family) and a grandmother face the world in Paris:  Gavalda casts her immensely appealing story in such a sunny albeit sentimental light, readers will find it nearly impossible to resist."  Booklist

5. The Cossacks  by Leo Tolstoy
One of Tolstoy's early stories, The Cossacks sheds light on Russia, the cultures of the Caucasus and Tolstoy's artistic development.

6. Caleb's  Crossing by Geraldine Brooke
" Bethia Mayfield is a restless and curious young woman growing up in Martha's vineyard in the 1660s amid a small band of pioneering English Puritans. At age twelve, she meets Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a secret bond that draws each into the alien world of the other."

7. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewyck
"Drawing on her own family, Lewycka has created a funny, tender, and intelligent novel that is as much social history as family saga." Publishers' Weekly. "A classic Viagra comedy."  Booklist.
 Also good: Various Pets Alive and Dead , her latest book which does much to explain what happened to the economy in 2008.

8. The Meagre Tarmac  by Clark Blaise
 Shortlisted for the 2011 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize Nominee
Longlisted for the Frank O'Connor Short Story Award
" An Indo-American Canterbury Tales,"

9. He Who Laughs, Lasts  by Josh Freed
The latest collection from Josh Freed, winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour,  From the publisher's blurb: "Studies show laughter adds several years to your life, Freed recommends that readers take two pages of this book each morning—and live longer."

10. In the Country of Men  by Isham Matar
By the young winner of the Blue Metropolis Al Majidi Ibn Dhaher Arab Prize,

11. Solar by Ian McEwan
A story of climate change and scientific shenanigans from one of the world's most inventive storytellers.

12. Cloud Atlas  by David Mitchell
Six nested stories that take the reader from the remote South Pacific in the nineteenth century to a distant, post apocalyptic future.  Short listed for the Booker Prize and winner of the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award.

13. No Great Mischief by Alistair McLeod
A tale of Cape Breton that is far more than that. International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2001

14. The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht
In a Balkan country mending from years of conflict, Natalia, a young doctor, arrives on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea... 2011 Orange Prize winner.

15. A Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rawlings
The creator of Harry Potter tries her hand at an adult novel, and succeeds in keeping the tension up even when writing about town councils.

Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
 In the Skin of the Lion by Michael Ondaatje
Italian Shoes, by Hemming Mankell
Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan
The Tinflute by Gabrielle Roy
Pure by  Andrew Miller
The Long Song by  Andrea Levy
 The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
Americanah by Chingmanda Ngi Achiedie
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Wolf Hall by Hilary Martel
The Poisonwood Bible  by Barbara Kingsolver
Partitions by Amit Mujmudar
My Antonia by Willa Cather
Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan
Wutheirng Heights by Charlotte Bronte
The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam
We Have to Talk about Kevin, byLionel Shriver
Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
The Tinflute by Gabrielle Roy

Plus some thrillers/mysteries suggested by Howard Shrier, the author of Miss Montreal
Elmore Leonard: LaBrava , Glitz, Stick, Swag.
Ross Macdonald: The Blue Hammer, Sleeping Beauty, The Chill
Dennis Lehane: A Drink Before the War, Darkness Take My Hand, Prayers for Rain
Robert B. Parker: Looking for Rachel Wallace, Early Autumn


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Coming in the Fall: New Stories of Love and Geography

 A head's up, everyone: Oberon Press will be publishing my new collection of short stories in November. Called Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography, it's my third short collection and 13th book.

A word about the title: Desire lines, urbanists say, are paths that people take when they want to go some place.

Frequently they bear no relation to the formal layout of roads and sidewalks.

Sometimes they lead to new places, and often they are maps of the heart.

The collection was born during the awful winter when we were out of our house because of a fire.  All my books and notes were in storage and I found I couldn't think in blocks of more than 45 minutes at a time. So I started reading short stories again, and then began writing short stories again. 
 At the end of the winter I had a plan for a book and five stories that I thought I could show to someone.  Quebec's Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec gave me a generous grant in June 2011 on the strength of what I written: it was encouragement that came at just the right time.

This spring I finished putting the stories together, and submitted it several small publishers.  Oberon immediately made an offer, which pleases me a great deal.  It will be fun to work again with Dilshad Engineer, a very good editor and a very sympathique person.

Post-Soviet Grrrrls: Protests and Prostitution

Purge, by Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen is one of the hardests novels I've read in a long time.

Spanning 60 years of history from World War II through the break up of the Soviet bloc in the 1990s, it is a tale of deception, brutality and home-grown hate. The Nazis and the Soviets come in for their share of blame, but the post-USSR world is still pretty bleak.  One of the two main characters is a young woman who has been ensnared in the underground of brutal prostitution as the story opens, the other is a woman old enough to be her mother who is bitter and mean, through and through.

I couldn't help think of the book when I saw the story in The New York Times this week about the radical feminist movement Femen, which had its origins, apparently, in the Ukraine.  These group whose members protest topless, "now has chapters in nine countries, on four continents...calls its tactics “sextremism” and its hundreds of mostly volunteer members “shock troops” — frontline soldiers in a global war against patriarchy, and for women’s rights. Its sworn enemies are dictatorship, organized religion and sexual exploitation."

The story focuses on one very pretty young woman Sasha Shevensko (shown in the picture with her mother)  who explains her involvement: “I decided for myself to be a woman, to be a girl who will open eyes for other women, for other girls,” she said. “Because I know myself — Ukrainian girls are stupid. We don’t have sexual education in schools. In universities, we don’t have feminist education. We don’t know even what feminism is.”

With more of that attitude around the girl in Purge might not have ended up being brutalized.   Nor would the villainess in Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian be so keen on getting out and to the UK where she entraps an elderly Ukrainian widower to the dismay of his fully-assimilated daughters. 

Lewycka has taken a tack completely opposite of Oksanen's.  Her novel is extremely funny, and, while there is ugliness under the surface, the reader only glimpses it.  I have no idea if Lewycka has had any contact with Femen--she's more than a generation older--but I'm sure she would appreciate the way they use convention and shock to get their message across.

So take your pick: one novel that will shock you or another that will make you laugh.  Both are worth reading. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Notes from the Writing Life: Sally Koslow on Fiction and Non-fiction

The New York Times has an intersting essay by Sally Koslow, former editor of McCall's and author of three novels and a new book of nonfiction about the difficulty some parents and young people have cutting the umbilical cord, Slouching toward Adulthood.  Writers will find the whole thing worth reading, as will any reader who wonders "how it's done."  Here are some particularly interesting bits:

"Researching a work of nonfiction...results in inevitable discord that must be sorted, coded and mobilized at the end of an investigation...(The nonfictionn writer must sift) through file..a veritable LEGOLAND of research blocks that not only must I snap together, but mold into a flowing narrative saturated with a consistent voice.

"A novel, on the other hand, must be true primarily on a gut level. Facts can become an impediment. In my case, the editor of my first book shared that she liked everything about its story line except that the protagonist, the editor of a women’s magazine, was a Jewish girl from North Dakota. “No reader will buy this!” As I assured her that this detail was ripped from my résumé, I learned that even in fiction — especially in fiction — you have to persuade readers that the truth is real.

"In fiction, creativity is the glue that holds the work together, and an author sells herself on the idea that a sense of childish make-believe will pull her through. In nonfiction, curiosity becomes the cement."

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Writers and Company: Great Interviews with Writers You May Not Have Heard of--But Should

Rainy afternoon with a pile of mending that I've put off forever.  The CBC's Writers and Company hosted by Eleanor Wachtel comes on at 3 p.m. but I had a chance to start the domestic task earlier.  What to do to keep my mind occupied while my hands sewed?

Listen on-line!  Don't know why I hadn't thought of it before, but not only can you listen whenever you want to this series of extremely intelligent and often amusing interviews, you can listen to more than one.

Today's original broadcast was of Wachtel talking to James Lusdan about his memoir  Give Me Everything You Have.  A poet and novelist, his recent fame comes from his account of the five years during which he was stalked by a former student.  Stated baldly, it doesn't sound like much, but obviously it's a lot more, including many references to  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the 14th century poem in Old English that many of us were supposed to have read, but didn't.  The interview made we want to read both: I have a copy of the latter kicking around here somewhere, and I'll be on the look out for Lasdun book.

Then, not having finished my nending, I turned to the interview from the previous week, with Mia Couto, a poet, novelist, biologist and former freedom fight from Mozambique.  The child of immigrants from Portugal, he was a featured guest at last May's Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal.  I'd wanted to hear him, but couldn't so it was wonderful to listen to this writer whose work Doris Lessing says is "Quite unlike anything else I have read from Africa."  His The Tuner of Silences has just been published in English by Biblioasis.

The juxtaposition of the interviews is interesting, not  least because of the references each makes to myths and stories that don't have straight forward explanations--a green knight whose head is chopped off but who continues living, and a boy who has been told that crying and praying are the same thing, and that both are forbidden.

The Writers and Company archives are a treasure trove.  How nice to have them on line.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Suggested Reading from the Mother of All Book Groups

 The first book discussion group I joined was one that was based in the Women's Associates of McGill University.  That was decades ago, and the group, the association and the whole idea of getting together to talk about books has evolved.  We're now a lot older, many don't have any link to McGill (if they ever had) and we find that there are many, many other groups who enjoy books and the opportunity they offer for intelligent conversation, along with a little gossip.

Each year, the members spend one evening in May composing a list of suggested reading. Some of the titles are selected for summer reading, while others may (or may not) be chosen for discussion at the bi-weekly (yes, every two weeks, imagine how many books that adds up to!) meetings between September and May.

The first three titles for the fall have already been chosen: Matar's In the Country of Men, Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club and Russo's Elsewhere: A Memoir.   Here's the list in its entirety.  Most are in paperback even though recently published.  "NF" indicates non-fiction.

Aciman, Andre        Harvard Square
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi        Americanah
Albright, Madeleine        Prague winter: A personal story of remembrance and war NF
Atkinson, Kate        Life after life
Auslander, Shalom        Hope: A Tragedy
Ayed, Nahlah        A Thousand farewells NF
Badami, Anita Rau         Tell it to the trees
Bakker, Gerbrand        Ten white geese
Barbery, Muriel        Gourmet rhapsody
Bemrose, John        The Last woman
Buchanan, Cathy Marie        The Painted girls
Chabon, Michael        Telegraph Avenue
Chabon, Michael        The Amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Cole, Taju        Open city
Cowell, Stephenie        Claude and Camille
Dion, Lise        The Secret of the blue trunk
Dobson, Kathy        With closed fist: Growing up in Canada’s toughest neighbourhood
Erdrich, Louise        The Round house
Erdrich, Louise        Plague of doves
Ferguson, Will        419
Fitzgerald, F. Scott        The Great Gatsby
Follet, Ken        Fall of giants; Winter of the world
Ford, Richard        Independence Day
Fragoulis, Tess        The Goodtime girl
Gardham, Jane        The Man in the wooden hat
Hedges, Chris        The Empire of illusions NF
Hill, Susan                        Howard’s End is on the landing  NF
Hill, Susan        The Betrayal of trust (a Simon Serrailler crime novel)
Hosseini, Khaled        And the mountains echoed
Kanon, Joseph        Istanbul Passage
King, Thomas        The Inconvenient Indian
Kingsolver, Barbara        Flight behavior
Lackberg, Camilla        The Hidden child (Mystery)
Lively, Penelope        How it all began
Maathai, Wangari        Unbowed : a Memoir
MacNeal, Susan Elia        Mr. Churchill’s secretary
Marias, Javier        Infatuations
Matar, Hisham        In the country of men
Mathis, Ayana        The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
McCann, Colum        Transatlantic
McEwan, Ian        Sweet tooth
Messud, Claire        The Woman upstairs
Nesbo, Jo        The Bat (the first Harry Hole thriller)
Nikiforuk, Andrew        The Energy of slaves: Oil and the new servitude  NF
Ozeki, Ruth        A Tale for the time being
Petterson, Per        It’s fine by me
Ralston Saul, John        Dark diversions
Richler, Nancy        The Imposter bride
Roy, Gabrielle        Windflower
Russo, Richard        The Risk pool
Russo, Richard        Elsewhere: A memoir
Saramego, Jose        Cain
Schwalbe, Will        The End of your life book club NF
Selasi, Taiye        Ghana must go
Shrier, Howard        Boston cream (Crime novel)
Smith, Zadie        NW
Swift, Graham        Wish you were here
Toibin, Colm        The Testament of Mary
Vaillant, John        The Tiger NF
Vassanji, M.G.        The Magic of Saida
Winton, Tim        Cloudstreet

I'll be posting the reading lists for the book groups I lead in libraries soon.

Friday, June 7, 2013

English: That Bastard of Language and Other Linguistic Thoughts

For my next non-fiction project, I'm been rummaging around in  paleolinguistics and paleohistory: I'll tell you just why in a future post.  Suffice to say that my most recent reading has led me back to the delightful Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter.

His unstated thesis is that English is a Creole language, with nothing pejorative intended in the phrase. What happened to English is that it was transformed when a prolonged wave of newcomers struggled to communicate with the people already living in England, dropping grammatical niceties right and left.

The result of this simplification is a Modern English that does not routinely give gender to nouns the way every other language in Europe does, has eliminated the case markers that make German, Latin and Ancient Greek such chores to learn, and picked up some interesting features found only in Cornish and Welsh.

McWhorter is a youngish  linguistic scholar who has spent much time researching creoles, the new languages which people create when invaders, immigrants or people otherwise thrown together must figure out how to talk to each other and to a larger community. He argues that what has happened to English (and perhaps to an ancestor language, Proto-Germanic) over time is not a simply borrowing of thousands and thousands of words, but more fundamental changes in the way sentences are structured.

Languages and how people express themselves is something I find fascinating. This year I also had the pleasure of reading Mark Abley’s books, Spoken Here and The Prodigal Tongue which also deal with the history of language and where language, particularly English, is going. Abley tells a good story, but there is more here than well chosen anecdotes and some remarkable little known facts. Spoken Here has an important political question as its subtext. Abley is an Anglohone Quebec writer and Spoken Here was written against the backdrop of Quebec politics. Francophones think their language is in danger, while Anglophones here jealousy guard theirs, but nowhere in this book does Abley mention this, I think.

Nor does McWhorter, an African-American, talk much about Black English even though he has been criticized for comments he’s made elsewhere. While Abley’s and McWhorter’s books can be read with pleasure by language buffs of whatever colour or place of residence, a careful appreciation of them requires a little parsing of them for their political grammar. Speaking (or at least understanding) the same language is essential for determining where we go from here.

By the way, McWhorter- has nothing against heading toward a more electronic culture.  He recently gave a TED lecture in which he called text messages "a linguistic miracle."  Because the short, abreviation-filled communications bounce back and forth, they are much closer to how we speak than written communication has been up until now. 

This "fingered speech" is far from being the end of the world.  Language has always been changing he says.  In his talk he cites :a passage from 1956 bemoaning the decline of language in young people … and then three more, all the way back to 63 AD when a pedant lamented everyone’s terrible Latin. (That “terrible Latin” eventually became French.) "  McWhorter says, “Being fluent in spoken language, written language and writing-like-speaking language is an unconscious balancing act that allows each “speaker” to expand his or her linguistic repertoire."

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Further to the Search of Genghis Khan...

I can't resist posting this. When Tim Severin was riding across Mongolia in 1990, boiled mutton was about the only thing he and his comrades ate.

Last week Kentucky Fried Chicken opened its first franchise in the country. Is this the up side or the down side of the fall of the Communist bloc?

Three for the Road: Non-Fiction for the Summer

Earlier I said I'd be posting about road books: at the time I was thinking of novels of quest and self-discovery.  But in the last few weeks I've also read three entertaining, informative (and in one case extremely thought-provoking) books about road trips.

The first is relatively recent: Taras Grescoe's Straphanger.  Published in 2012, its subtitle might seem in conflict with the idea of a road book: "Saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile." But Grescoe roamed the world to look at the way cities are organized in terms of transporation. His reflections on how that organization affects the everyday lives of millions--to say nothing of the future of the planet--suggest a road map for what we ought to do.  His adventures in Shanghai, Moscow, Tokyo, Bogotá and places in between are great fun to read about, and enough to set you to planning your own trip around the world to ride subways, bikes and buses.

The second road book is much older: In Search of Genghis Khan  by Tim Severin.  In 1990, just as the Soviet bloc was beginning to crumble, he went to Mongolia to ride with the descendants of Genghis Khan.  The idea, inspired by Severin's graduate work in history,  at first was to go from the capital Ulaan Baator to Europe, retracing the conquests of the great Khan.  Not surprisingly Severin got only about 500 miles, but the picture he paints of the Mongolian countryside and people is fascinating.  It is also a record of a time lost, since the country has since been transformed by, among other things, the automobile.  For a more recent look, check out Graeme Lachance's blog "The Skies We Share", written while he taught recently in UB.  For one thing, the great blue skies have been replaced by a pall  of pollution, it seems.

The third was written a few years ago, but has as its background travel and expeditions even older than the Mongol invastions of Europe.  It's Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists by Tony Perrotttet.  The Australian travel writer and his American wife decided to follow the trail of Romans travelling for pleasure as a last adventure before becoming parents.  "Minimal squalor," she insisted, and mostly that's what the found.  They followed the counsel of Roman and Greek writers, gleaned from the 30 pounds of books they carried with them. The result is a delightful account of a journey taking place simultaneously in the far distant past and in the 21st century present.