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

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Why Real People Read Real Books

Now I know that some of my best friends read their books on one of the various electronic readers and are ecstatic about how easy it is to carry around a ton of books this way.

But Elin was by today, and as she left she asked if she could borrow my hard copy of Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue.  Sure, I said, and then I asked "Why?"  A couple of weeks ago, right after I'd spent several days enjoying it, she told me she'd bought a Kindle copy and was reading it on her iPad. 

"Because it's so hard to read," she said.  She went on to say that she found the Kindle format, at least, not really conducive  to easy reading and had given up on her e-copy  But my paper back was someting that she wanted to plunge into.

Yes, indeed, I thought.  There's nothing like a real book.  Right now I'm getting ready to take up The Horse, the Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony, a fascinating book about how the Eurasian steppes were home to both the proto-language that eventually evolved into English and a host of other languages, and to teh horse and wagon.  I'd found the book referred to a couple of times as I did research for my new book on roads, but I couldn't easily find it in Montreal.  No library but the Grande bibliothèque du Québec has it, and then only in an electronic version that you must read on-line.  After spending two days trying to make my way through the pagination which kept jumping around I went looking for a real book: Amazon.ca had it and delivered it within two days.

So tonight, as Elin presumably settles down to read Telegraph Avenue, chez elle, I'm returning to where I left off in Anthony's fascinating work: page 99, which I think I've tried to read four time on-line.  How nice it will be to hold the copy in my lap and turn the pages!

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Warm Welcome 30 Years Later: Kim Thúy's Ru

We are in the middle of a provincial election campaign here in Quebec, where two of the big issues are whether the province should hold another referendum on separating from Canada, and whetherto adopt  a new "Charter of a Lay Society" which proposes banning public employees from wearing "ostentatious" religious symbols. 

Both of the issues are divisive but the first one has been around for as long as I can remember.  The other, though, is playing into a  current of xenophobia that I thought Quebec had grown out of.When we arrived at the end of the 1960s, the province was full of great ideas for building a better society, open to the world where Quebeckers would be the master of their own house, maîtres chez nous.   In recent weeks, I'd been wondering where all that has gone.

Then this week, I re-read Ru by Kim Thúy in preparation for leading a book discussion at the Atwater Library and I had my hope somewhat renewed

After the end of the various conflicts in Vietnam, 110,000 "Boat People" were settled in Canada between 1975 and 1985. Because Vietnam had been a French colony and many of the refugees spoke French, Quebec took in a large number. As a result Kim Thúy's family from cosmopolitan Saigon was settled in the small town of Granby in 1980, and therein lies a tale.

Her novel is dedicated to "gens du pays," the affectionate name for the people of this province.  Short and  lyrical, the book novel tells of the experiences of a family with strong resemblances to her own.  Trained as  a lawyer and for a decade the owner of a restaurant, she took up writing at the suggestion of her Quebecker husband when she was exhausted from throwing herself too enthusiastically into her projects.  The result won the 2010 Governor General's Prize for French fiction.  Two year's later Sheila Fischman translated it into English and has been winning prizes right and left ever since.

Don't expect a straight-ahead immigrant saga if you pick up the book.  Do be prepared for  some brilliant images of life in a refugee camp, disconcerting glimpses of family dramas begun in Vietnam and continued in Canada, and amused but affectionate memories of a welcome in this strange cold country. 

This is a book to savor, and to hold up as a shield against despair.  People can overcome immense obstacles, whether they be refugees or those who welcome them.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Latest Books News from Montreal: Launch Party Tonight

The Montreal Review of Books has been around for perhaps 15 years, and has become a major cultural institution.  Started as a way to get some attention for Quebec writing in English, it has gone far beyond its beginnings as a quasi-promotional publication.  It features some tough reviewing and some in depth interviews, and the Spring 2014 issue (included in this morning's Globe and Mail in the Montreal area) is no exception.

It will be launched tonight at Librairie Drawn and Quarterly, 211 Bernard West in Mile End with readings by several of the writers featured this time around: Evelyn Kalman Naves (the cover interview), Christopher Di Raddio. and Ann Charney.

And there are also reviews of books by David Homel, Arjun Basu, Trevor Ferguson, and  Mark Lavarato plus one of a graphic novel about feminist and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger by Peter Bagge.  A great line-up from a vibrant literary scene!  Think I'll drop everything this afternoon and read.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

It's a Pity: Stephan Zweig's Novel Isn't Read More

My current afflictions--shingles--have led me think about stories where the protagonists conquer or succumb to malady.   Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain comes immediately to mind, but it is a huge book and not one that I'm likely to pick up again. Canadian writer Timothy Findley also delves into illnes in his Pilgrim, which is heavy on Jungian psychology and its physical manifestations.

But as l Iimp around--the nerves involved include one of the motor ones in my left leg and foot--I begin to understand the special problems of people with "mobility problems," as they say politely now.

Stephan Zweig's Beware of Pity has a title which sounds very un-politically correct.  Shouldn't pity be something any sensitive person brings to a friendship with someone who has health problems?  Advocates for "differently abled" people might say "no" because pity undermines  dignity, but that won't stop them for fighting for more wheel chair access and non-discriminatory hiring policies.  

Zweig, however, is not talking about good intentioned condescension.  His hero allows himself to become involved with the crippled daughter of a rich landowner.  His intitial motivation is a more or less genuine pity for the girl, but he soon is in over his head, in large part because he can't stop himself from taking advantage of the situation. 

This means, I think, that the title is to be taken ironically, that the narrator ( in one translator it is the protaganist, although in another the framing narration is deleted) is as unreliable as the one in Ford Madox Ford's "saddest story" The Good Soldier.  Zweig, a German Jew, was poised on an escape to Brazil when he published the novel in 1938, so it's tempting to read political commentary into it.  Doing that, though, robs a fascinating tale of its subtleties.  Better to read it without a political manifesto in mind, and ruminate on ambition, disability and love.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Anna Gavalda: Running out of Steam?

One of the most delightful books I've read in the last 10 years or so is Anna Gavalda's Hunting and Gathering, Ensemble, C'est tout in the French original.  As recently as last moth, I was delighted that one of my library reading groups--nearly all over 50, and Anglophone--almost unanimously found the story set in present day Paris amusing, encouraging and, yes, at moments profound.

In the novel Camille (a near-anorexic young painter), Franck (a chef with a grandmother he loves but can't see very often,) Philo (a rich, stuttering "failure" whose family has charged with squatting in an apartment they think they ought to inherit, and Franck's grandmother form an unlikely ménage à quatre.  There are many ups and downs, but in the end together the four of them create something very fine.  (If you want  to know what, run find the book at Amazon.com or in your library.)

So when I received Gavalda's latest Billie I looked forward to having a few nights of uninterrupted reading to enjoy it.  But what a disappointment!  The story is told by Billie, a young woman from la France profonde (think Dellarobia in Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior) who finds herself pleading with the gods  as she and her buddy Franck lie trapped at the bottom of a crevasse in a French national park.  Seems she and Franck were outcasts at their secondary school.  Their one moment of glory came they performed a scene from a famous short story by Alfred de Musset for a French class.  In it Billie plays Camille (yes, hard as it to believe) and Franck, Perdican who have their hearts broken. The experience was illuminating, casting shadows 10 years later.

There should be a sub-genre called "saved by  a book."  You know, all those Dead Poets Society, Mr. Pip, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog where a book or books make the difference for a poor/misunderstood/ struggling character to find sense in his or her life.  While it's true that books really can make a difference in one's life, reading one of these stories frequently makes me grind my teeth.  The world is more complicated than that, and there are times when the stories seem designed for a specific school market.

That is the case with Billie: I can imagine  teachers all over France putting the book on reading lists even though the language is pretty rough in places.  But what eally annoys me is the way Gavalda recycles elements from her truly excellent earlier book (the characters names, a father who leaves a small inheritance, a girl struggling not to become the preyof rapacioius men).  ended with a marriage and a big party and  new book  ends in a promise of that kind of celebration, even though  Franck really prefers guys.
Hunting and Gathering

So I think that Gavalda has run out of material.  She's begun repeating herself, which is a shame, because with her powers of observation I'm sure she can find other stories to tell.