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

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Out of Character: Maureen Forrester's Autobiography

The life of a great artist is never easy, particularly when he or she must fight for training.  The Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester is a brilliant example, and she also had the wit to write an engaging autobiography about how she succeeded.

Out of Character was published in 1986, 
when she was at the height of her career.  Funny, frank and full of insights into what it takes to forge a musical career, the book details her struggles at the beginning, her marriage to violinist Eugene Kash, the birth of her five children and her distingished international presence.  She lived another 24 years, dying in 2010 of dementia-related problems. 

When I first read this book well before she died, I was impressed by how determined she was to sing, and how she tried to balance her career with her personal life.  Ten years ago when I started thinking about writing a book with a concert pianist as the principle character, I returned to it.  Forrester's autobiography gives much  insight into what it's like to build a world-class career--and how hard it is for a woman to balance passion for an art and love in all its forms.

If my novel River Music is any good, I owe a lot to Forrester's generous sharing of her life in this most entertaining and insightful autobiography.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

River Music Countdown Begins

All right, it looks like everything's a go.

Monday I signed off on the copy for the cover of River Music, and Alessandra Ferrari, Cormorant's publicity director, just wrote that copies of the book will be shipped to arrive in Montreal May 13.

That will be perfect for the Words and Music even the Atwater Library is planning for Thursday, May 14.  That's when I'll present the book at 12:30 p.m., and pianist Jana Stuart will play some Debussy that is very important in the novel. 

Then we'll have an official launch party at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 27 at the Librairie Drawn and Quarterly, 211 Bernard West, in the Mile End district of Montreal. 

And to whet your appetite, here's an excerpt from the publicity bumph:

"Set against a backdrop of war, economic changes, and social upheavals, River Music explores the sacrifices that women make to fulfill their destiny, the wildcards of sex and passion, and the complicated relationships between mothers and their children.   

After an adolescence playing in churches and hotel lobbies, Gloria Murray  prepares to study in post-World War II France, but tpassion intrudes and, halfway through her year abroad, she finds herself forced into a hard choice that she shares with no one. Back in Canada, her career blossoms, she marries and has two children, and her secret seems best forgotten — until, thirty years later, her past and her career collide."

Friday, April 24, 2015

The End of Empires: Thoughts on the Armenian Genocide

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Turks, as the Ottoman Empire entered its death throes.  There are a number of articles and programs about the event, but here are a handful of books that give a wider
context to what happened.

1. The Ottoman Empire began in the heyday of the Mongols: its dates are usually given as 1299-1923.  To understand who the Mongols are, read Jack Weatherford's excellent Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.  The great Khan was a Mongol chieftain who believed that he and his people were chosen by heaven--The Great Blue Sky--to conquer the world. By the end of his lifetime he and his four sons held sway over the greatest empire the world knew until the Britania ruled the waves 400 years later. They and their mounted followers went as far as the grasslands of Eurasia extended. Only the forests of Europe and the heat and humidity of southern India and Southeast Asia--both unwelcoming to mounted warriors--limited their advance.

Cruel in the extreme to those who refused to surrender, they searched talent wherever they went, and, Weatherford writes, produced a body of law that was relatively egalitarian and allowed considerable religious freedom.

2. Ali and Nino  by Kurban Said. The Romeo and Juliet lovers of this novel set in Azerbaijan are Georgian and Muslim, but the uneasy relation between Armenians and their neighbors is in the background.

3.  The Goodtime Girl by Tess Fragoulis. The Armenians were not the only victims of Turkish agression in the early 20th century: the Greeks of Anatolia also were chased and kill.  In this novel, the main character is a young woman who was her father's darling in the early 1920s in Smyrna.   When Greeks were driven from the city by Turks in 1922, she escaped to Pireaus and Athens where she ended up singing other people's songs of distress and love.

The worst of the story happens off stage.  Kivelli has wiped part of it from her mind.  It resurfaces in her dreams and in an abbreviated version told about half way through the book.  But we know always that a number of people were beastly to a number of others for reasons which in no way justify what happened.

Kivelli is a survivor, and sings her sorrows so movingly that she is able to escape. That she sings the songs of other people is also poignant, because Fragoulis makes it clear that while many people may have stories to tell, not all of them have the voice to tell them.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Novels about Art and Artistic Vision

The informal French language reading goup I belong to--called the Durochères because when it began more than 30 years ago all its members lived on avenue Durocher--just finished reading and discussing La beauté m'assassine, a novel about Delacroix (self portrait to the right.)  Written by Michelle Tourneur, it is told from the point of view of a young woman dying to become an artist, and who figures out a way to work in Delacroix's studio at a time when no woman could study painting seriously.

The book hasn't been translated into English, but those who read French will find it fascinating.  A good companion that deals with the artistic temperment and process is The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa. Translated from Spanish (in French it's Le  Paradis, un peu plus loin), the novel tell two stories, that of Paul Gauguin (self portrait below) and his proto-feminist grandmother Flora Tristan. 

The painter, who deserted his wife and children to go print in Tahiti and environs, comes off as a thoroughly unpleasant, irresponsible person who (nevertheless? because of which? inspite of this?) painted some marvelous pictures.  His grandmother, married off when a teenager to a terrible man, escapes to South America, but ends up fighting for the independence necessary to rear her children away from her violent husband.  Along the way she writes a couple of muck-raking books about the conditions of the working class in England and Franc of the 1830s, and about the condition of women. 

Delacroix, at least in Tourneur's fiction, comes off as a more sympathetic character by 21st century  standards.  Both artists revel--frequently too much--in the flesh of young women, though.  Where to draw the line between artistic vision and lechery, beween beauty of form and colour and obsession with the flesh?  Don't know.  But these two books are good places to start a reflection on the topic.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Two Novels by North Americans That Shine Spotlights on Africa

The news yesterday was full of images from Nigeria, where people were marking the sad anniversary of the kidnapping of 132 girls and young women by Boko Haram a year ago.  What is going on with fundamentalist groups is extremely hard for me to understand.  The BBC recently did a piece on the Nigerian group, which gives some context.  The aim is a caliphate where Sharia law rules, it seems.  Everything Western should be forbidden.

But Muslims are not the only terrorists in the world, as witness Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group operating on borders separating Uganda, Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ostensibly motivated by Christian revelations, it uses child soldiers with impunity.

Inter-ethnic violence also is a curse, and probably to date conflicts like those which have pitted  Hutus against Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi have killed and displaced more than the Muslim groups have.

How did things come to this?  Two novels I read recently give a little insight.

The first is Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. It tells the story of Jean-Patrick Nkuba, a Tutsi in Rwanda who wants to run.  He has a chance to represent his country in the Olympics, but is caught up in the 1994 genocide.  Much of his family is wiped out, but he escapes.  The frenzy that led up to killing spree--estimates are that at least 500,000 people were killed in three months--is portrayed in terrifying detail.  The story is not all horror though because it ends with a certain hopefulness that forgiveness is possible.

The subtext is that competition for land can be manipulated to profit the self-interest of individuals, and that vestges of colonial domination have exacerbated things.

The second is Three Weeks in December   by Audrey Schulman  takes place in Rwanda and Kenya. There actually are two "three weeks," the first at the end of the 19th century and the other at the beginning of the 21st.  In  alternating sections, Schulman tells the story of an engineer from Maine who heads up the team building of a railroad from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast to what would become Nairobi, and of a brilliant woman ethnobotanist who has Asperger's Syndrome and who is searching for a medicinal plant in the mountains where the last mountain gorillas live.  

There's an O. Henry-like ending that ties things up which I won't spoil, but I think it's fair to say the two stories point out what colonialism has done to the people and ecosystems of  Africa.  The dignified, wise hunter-gatherers of the first period contrast drastically with the drugged children's army, the Kuti, that Shulman has invented, who thrash about, trying to recreate a pre-colonial state. Similarly, the starving lions who ravage the railroad workers in the first story presage the sorry state of the gorillas that the ethnobotanist hopes to protect.

Both novels are good reads.  The Schulman one, however, is plagued by sloppy editing that casts doubt on the background research that she's done.  The two that bothered me the most were the reference to iced tea being drunk in 1899 on a ship in the Indian Ocean (where'd the ice come from?) and the repeated reference to jerricans, those useful metal containers that weren't invented until the 1930s. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Book List Time

When you lead book discussion groups in libraries, this is the time to think about what is going to be read next season.  This week I've promised to come up with the dates for 2015-16, and also to begin looking to see which of the suggestions are available in sufficient quantity to provide a copy for the group members.

So far here is what I and my bookie friends have come up with:

Cain by José Saramago:
"In this, his last novel, Saramago daringly reimagines the characters and narratives of the Bible through the story of Cain. Condemned to wander forever after he kills Abel, he is whisked around in time and space. He experiences the almost-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, the Tower of Babel, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Joshua at the battle of Jericho, Job's ordeal, and finally Noah's ark and the Flood. And over and over again Cain encounters an unjust, even cruel God. A startling, beautifully written, and powerful book, in all ways a fitting end to Saramago's extraordinary career."--

A Beautiful truth by Colin McAdam
This is an edgy, epic, and heartfelt story about parenthood, friendship, loneliness, and conflict, about the things we hold sacred as humans and the facts that link us inevitably to a nature we often ignore. Told simultaneously from the perspective of humans and chimpanzees, and in a way that only a literary master such as Colin McAdam can, A Beautiful Truth is a novel of great heart and wisdom that exposes the yearnings, cruelty, and resilience of all great apes.

Caught by Lisa Moore Fresh out of jail, Slaney sees the world with pin-bright clarity. As the plot tightens like a pair of pincers, Lisa Moore's prose is worth lingering over"

The Narrow Road to the Deep North  by Richard Flanagan
The book tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a wartime love affair with his uncle's wife. Post war, he finds his growing celebrity as a war hero at odds with his sense of his own failings and guilt.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick Dunne’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River.

The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared  by Jonas Jonasson
Allan Karlsson is about to celebrate his hundredth birthday, and a birthday party is planned at his retirement home. Allan is alert despite his age, but not so interested in the party. Instead he steps out the window and disappears. He gets hold of a suitcase of drug money and becomes chased by both drug dealers and the police.

The good luck of right now by   Matthew Quick
            When his mother dies, 38-year-old Bartholomew Neil, who doesn't know how to be on his own, discovers a letter in his mother's underwear drawer that causes him to write a series of highly intimate letters to actor Richard Gere, while embarking on a quest to find out where he belongs.

The Husband's secret        by  Liane Moriarty
            Discovering a tattered letter that says she is to open it only in the event of her husband's death, Cecelia, a successful family woman, is unable to resist reading the letter and discovers a secret that shatters her life and the lives of two other women. By the author of What Alice Forgot.

Before I go to sleep   by  S.J. Watson
            Without her husband's knowledge, Christine, whose memory is damaged by a long-ago accident, is treated by a neurologist who helps her to remember her former self through journal entries until inconsistencies begin to emerge, raising disturbing questions.

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels
Us Conductors takes us from the glamour of Jazz Age New York to the gulags and science prisons of the Soviet Union. On a ship steaming its way from Manhattan back to Leningrad, Lev Termen writes a letter to his “one true love”, Clara Rockmore, telling her the story of his life. Imprisoned in his cabin, he recalls his early years as a scientist, inventing the theremin and other electric marvels, and the Kremlin’s dream that these inventions could be used to infiltrate capitalism itself. Instead, New York infiltrated Termen – he fell in love with the city’s dance clubs and speakeasies, with the students learning his strange instrument, and with Clara, a beautiful young violinist.

And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini  
Khaled Hosseini's novels have sold more than 38 million copies worldwide. Now, six years after A Thousand Splendid Suns debuted at #1, spending fourteen consecutive weeks at #1 and nearly a full year on the hardcover list, Hosseini returns with a book that is broader in scope and setting than anything he’s ever written before.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence,
The Stone Angel, first published in 1964 by McClelland and Stewart, is perhaps the best-known of Margaret Laurence's series of novels set in the fictitious town of Manawaka, Manitoba. In parallel narratives set in the past and the present-day (early 1960s), The Stone Angel tells the story of Hagar Currie Shipley. In the present-day narrative, 90-year-old Hagar is struggling against being put in a nursing home, which she sees as a symbol of death. The present-day narrative alternates with Hagar's looking back at her life.

Montreal Stories by Mavis Gallant,
Mavis Gallant is the modern master of what Henry James called the international story, the fine-grained evocation of the quandaries of people who must make their way in the world without any place to call their own. The complexity of the very idea of home is alive in the stories Gallant has written about Montreal. Montreal Stories, Russell Banks’s new selection from Gallant’s work demonstrates anew the remarkable reach of this writer’s singular art.

The Best Laid Plans by Terri Fallis,
“This is a funny book that could only have been written by someone with firsthand knowledge of politics in Canada, including its occasionally absurd side. This is a great read for anyone thinking of running for office, and especially reassuring for those who have decided not to.”

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
Set during the Japanese occupation, The Garden of Evening Mists follows young law graduate, Yun Ling Teoh, as she seeks solace among the plantations of the Cameron Highlands. Here she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the secretive Aritomo. Aritomo agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice “until the monsoon” so that she can design a garden in memorial to her sister. But over time the jungle starts to reveal secrets of its own…

Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttr.  From the Icelandic writer who brought us The Green House. "Anyone who’s fallen inexplicably in love with a European road-trip story will be vulnerable to this fictional journey around Iceland’s Ring Road."

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguru. The Remains of the Day is a profoundly compelling portrait of the perfect English butler and of his fading, insular world postwar England.

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam. The author takes full advantage of the inherent suspense as the fall of Saigon looms and Chen finally realizes that he and his family may not survive the violence of the Viet Cong.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Reading, Not Speeding: What a Good Story Deserves

This is book discussion week, and I'm rereading Anne Enright's The Gathering and François Gravel's Adieu, Betty Crocker.  Both of them I enjoyed on first reading, or I wouldn't have included them in the book lists for the discussion groups I lead.

Sometimes when I do a re-read I find myself struggling with the book which I now find less interesting than I did when I was setting up the lists.  Occasionally I've been so un-enthralled this second time that I've resorted to reading every other page, or even just the final 40 or 50 pages.  This lack of enthusiasm doesn't mean the discussion won't be good, since often the best ones are about books that at least some of the people in the group don't like.

But this time I'm taking my time, really enjoying the story.  These are two books which are quite different, but each has layers of language and meaning that delight. And while I sometimes bewail the fact that there are "so many books, so little time," I'm not at all sure that speed-reading is what one wants to aim for.  Better to savour what you read, taking your time to think.