Monday 31 May 2010

T for Terrorist or H for Hero?

I'd been meaning to read V for Vendetta for a long time, mostly because a friend lent it to me and I hate being that guy - you know, that guy you lend books to who either takes ages to give them back or who never returns them at all. I sat on the damned thing for at least a year, and I would say that makes me officially guilty of one count of book neglect. However, I've already returned it so hopefully that somewhat mitigates my lameness.

As for the reading was pretty good. But I have to admit to something shocking: I preferred the film to the original graphic novel. And the movie's not even entirely good; Natalie Portman is so completely disappeared just by Hugo Weaving's voice that the film is a bit of a disaster when she's on screen. But Hugo Weaving! He's never out of his crazy Guy Fawkes mask and yet he's so nuanced and compelling...which is what I think V in the book is supposed to be.

Here's the problem: visually, V is, of course, compelling. Unfortunately, he says (especially near the denouement) some really cringe-worthily earnest things about What Things Mean. On screen, when spoken by Mr. Genius Man Hugo Weaving, they make sense; in the book, they read like the spiritual musings of some drunk 18-year olds I remember hanging out with when I was, er, drunk and 18. Just pretentious and annoying., in other words

And another thing. Having also read The Watchmen, which has Alan Moore in common with V for Vendetta, I am going to making a damning comparison: Moore is as unable to write female characters who aren't annoyingly 15-years- old-seeming as Guy Gavriel Kay is. They're all the same, and they're all whiny and immature teenagers, even when they're supposed to be in their 20s or 30s or 40s or older. They exist on only two registers: shrill and...okay, maybe just shrill.

Poor female characterization aside, and capital E earnestness in V aside, V for Vendetta nonetheless says some very interesting - and frighteningly timely - things about how easily humans will allow their own, and especially others', freedoms to go out the window in exchange for "safety". The violent jingoism and localized racism, homophobia, and general intolerance to criticism which defines the dystopic England against which V rebels is horrifying; just as disturbing is how so many individuals who don't share the ruling party's hatreds still not only don't resist, but also actively participate in their vicious work because they either see no other option or fear the repercussions if they aren't seen to agree.

Whatever V's "deviance" is - be it race, sexuality, or political affiliation - it is never revealed. The point, I guess, is that that shouldn't matter - that fighting for freedom is something that transcends all of these things. Yet, it also speaks to the fact that if we knew this about V, he wouldn't be capable of standing for freedom symbolically - because someone (reader and/or other character) would identify against him and dismiss what he stands for.

He does wear the mask of a white man - Guy Fawkes - but a white man who's not only been dead 400 years, but who also died directly for his cause. V is a symbol using another, already established symbol to serve his purpose - and that purpose is to both transcend current definitions of the human so he may critique them, but also to establish historical precedent and validation for blowing up the symbols of those who oppress those who are different. Which leads me to what is, obviously, the most interesting thing about V: He is a terrorist, precisely in the way we would define it now, and yet everything he does is made to make sense in the context. Not easy sense, mind - except when Hugo Weaving is doing the talking and the blowing up, when it does.

I'm surprised there was no great outcry about this, and yet maybe what it comes down to is a simple and horrifying failure to identify: By reading the comic or watching the film, we know precisely what V is resisting and can easily imagine that we would want to do something - potentially, anything - to change things, too. But when others, in situations we can't comprehend because we have no real insight into them, do the same things, we condemn them as monsters.

So, while I didn't entirely either enjoy or admire V for Vendetta, I really appreciated Moore's insights into the less admirable aspects of human psychology - for that's what he's best at, I think.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Why this is hell, nor am I out of it

Summer has arrived in the big city and with it, this past weekend, performances of the entire 23-play Chester cycle. The Chester Mystery plays are a set of interlinked short dramas chronicling the entire span of Christian history as it has and must occur, from Creation to the Harrowing of Hell and the Last Judgment. Such plays were traditionally put on annually in any number of towns in England, with each piece being performed by a different guild; each guild had their own costumes and carts depicting the key scenes of their play. The players were not, of course, professional actors (which came later and helped push the mystery plays firmly out of fashion), but rather guild members.

That the Chester cycle was being shown, in its entirety, this weekend in downtown Toronto was a huge deal and one which I almost didn't know about, until two history profs from NYC came into the shop and mentioned it approximately one hour before the start of the first show! Luckily, I was able to spend part of Saturday and Monday watching plays (in this case, each play was performed by a different company of players, often university-affiliated, from around North America). This may have been a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I'm really happy I was able to drop a great deal (not everything) and spend some time in the audience.

Of the 23 plays, I managed to see only 6 but all were worthwhile, even if quality of performance and production did vary fairly widely. I was lucky to be there for the commencement of the whole event, the play The Fall of Lucifer. The God in this play created the world (what he's doing here) and was disobeyed by Lucifer and Lightbourne, who he casts into Hell.

I really liked the way this actor played God as both benevolent and pleased with his work, but also immoveably unforgiving of his angels' disobedience to his edict to not try to usurp his power. God, at least in this cycle, has a taste for forbidding things and then hiding 'round corners to see if angels or people will feel tempted or not; he's a bit of a jerk that way.

Lucifer, of course, hearing from God how awesome he is, believes it - and goes for the throne when God does said hiding. The other angels know their place - and engage in a fairly substantial discussion about remaining there, which would have had immediate social, never mind spiritual, resonance as class was so deeply and visibly ingrained in everyday social relations in medieval England.

God and Lucifer were both really good in The Fall of Lucifer and I regret not managing to get a better photo of Lucifer. Besides being quite talented, she was really beautiful and her costume the same - as Lucifer should be (to God's stage right here, in the mask with the giant black feathers).

What I think I liked best about Lucifer is how the actress played his fall in a way which would be quite familiar to those familiar with Renaissance tragedy - specifically, with Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. It's not Faustus I'm thinking of though when I say this; rather, Mephistophilis, the devil Faustus summons to do his bidding, speaks of a tragedy more profound than Faustus can conceive of, and makes the latter's pride and desire look absurd:

  Faust. Tell me what is that Lucifer thy lord?
  Meph.  Arch-regent and commander of all spirits.   
  Faust.  Was not that Lucifer an angel once?   
  Meph.  Yes, Faustus, and most dearly lov’d of God.   
  Faust.  How comes it then that he is Prince of devils?   
  Meph.  O, by aspiring pride and insolence;
For which God threw him from the face of Heaven.   
  Faust.  And what are you that you live with Lucifer?   
  Meph.  Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,   
Conspir’d against our God with Lucifer,   
And are for ever damn’d with Lucifer.
  Faust.  Where are you damn’d?   
  Meph.  In hell.   
  Faust.  How comes it then that thou art out of hell?   
  Meph.  Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.   
Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,   
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,   
In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?   
O Faustus! leave these frivolous demands,   
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul. (iii.60-80)

And, indeed, Marlowe was influenced by Medieval dramatic history when writing his most famous play. Lucifer, in the Chester cycle, has no competition for title of tragic figure. Jesus's death is criminal and heart-breaking but not tragic, in the literary sense, for he doesn't bring it on himself.

One of the things I love about mystery play cycles is that the tragic and awe-inspiring exist quite comfortably in close proximity to the comic and even slap-stick. In the second play in the cycle, The Fall of Man, the comic dominated as, even though expulsion from the garden is awful, Adam and Eve are simply too child-like (in both good and bad senses) to be capable of either tragic action or reflection.

They follow the dictates of their bellies and cower in gutless and abject fear when confronted with their wrong-doing; Adam and Eve's naivety are thus easily played almost slap-stick, even if the consequences are horrifying.

The cart each play is staged on can make a notable difference in what will make performance sense. For The Fall of Man, the key is, I think, in highlighting the innocence and beauty that precede the fall and this cart did this perfectly. Also, there's no way to make nakedness look un-silly unless it's real nakedness (which it wouldn't be, either now or in the Middle Ages), and so playing up the ridiculous is easiest and makes sense really - for after all, how foolish to lose everything for an apple! (Photos: above is God as imagined by this group of players; to the left is Eve entering the garden after being created from Adam's rib).

Nonetheless, by the play's conclusion, the irreversible nature of Adam and Eve's transgression becomes terrifyingly clear as the same actors (some seen in white here) who baaaah-ed like sheep when God was making the world plentiful, become angels of doom and vengeance wielding swords of fire.

And that's the thing about masks - they allow individuals to become secondary to the roles (both literal and dramatic) they play, which is part of the Mystery plays' larger conflation of the history of real, individual people with the history of God's world.

This dramatic conflation of the individual and the historical is nothing less than a playing out of medieval England's dominant mythology of its identity within the continuum of religious history. The personal nature of history (and future, as the cycle nears completion) is crucial to the effectiveness and power of mystery cycles for it shows us precisely what we're up against, both in terms of past transgression and future trials. On Monday morning, I began the day in the 0800's with The Harrowing of Hell, in which Christ opens the gate of hell to pick out those who deserve salvation, etc.

The hell mouth seen here, which is very nicely reminiscent of the hell mouths known to have been used in medieval drama and into early Renaissance drama, is meant to focus audience attention precisely on where they will be when the harrowing begins. Besides seeing people on stage with whom they would have interacted normally in their everyday lives, the fourth wall of the stage is constantly being crossed as demons creep up from out of the audience (one hissed quite loudly in my ear, to make me think on the state of my soul) - in other words, the gate to hell, through that gaping and toothy mouth, is not very far away at all and maybe more importantly, not metaphorical.

This emphasis on the personal and immediate aspect of the history of the world is best emphasized, however, by the structure of the cycle as a whole. The carts used are moveable and as one performance finishes and its cart is rolled away, the next is moving inexorably forward to take its place; further, while watching one play you can hear the voices, screams, music (often ominous drums, as the cycle winds down) of the cart that follows which, while its play is being performed simultaneously not 100 feet away, will come forward and be performed again in front of you.

Way back in the day, I wrote an undergraduate paper on three of the final plays in the York cycle (all the mystery play cycles tell the same basic story of creation to judgment but show really interesting local differences). As I recall (like I said, waaay back), I focused on the staging of The Last Judgment, put on by the butchers and staged near their shops so that as audience members watched the final word on God's judgment of them and the world, random animal body parts would be floating by on a river of blood! Really, there's no wonder I ended up focusing on drama in grad school, is there?

Being able to sit outside (on Saturday, in the rain; on Monday, in the glorious sunshine) is something that really should inspire me not only to get outside and read more there but also to take in more outdoor drama, of which there is no shortage here. Now that I know I can read Shakespeare, I'm sure watching some Shakespeare in High Park wouldn't kill me - unless the acting is atrocious, of course; but then, that would give me lots to write about...

Sunday 23 May 2010

It is not the job of the novelist to tell us how to read, or why

Ladies and gentlemen: Gustave Flaubert. I read Madame Bovary about 10 years ago and didn't enjoy it much; not because I thought Emma Bovary was a "slut" or something, as I've heard so many early 20-something members of the earnestocracy call her since. No, I just didn't think it was a very engaging book. Flaubert (and/or his translator) failed in the case of Emma Bovary and her very real plight to make me give even one tiny bit of a damn, either emotional or mental, about her, never mind any other character in the novel.

I'm sorry to say that, older and hopefully more mature as I am, I've found myself to be equally uninterested in every character of Flaubert's A Sentimental Education. Published in 1869 after Flaubert spent 5 years working on it, this novel is apparently one of the most influential of the 19th century, and was adored by George Sand, Emile Zola, and Henry James. I haven't read Sand yet, but I really disliked the one Zola novel I've read so far; as for Henry James, everything and anything is forgiven in someone who could write like that. If I weren't doing my French Literature Project, I would have taken Zola's approbation of Flaubert's book as a warning not to read it.

A Sentimental Education tells the story of one Frédéric Moreau, a young man from the provinces come to Paris to study and make his name and fortune. He's got some talent, but he's not brilliant; he's charming but prone to make social blunders which others nonetheless forgive him for. He's not stupid but he is remarkably flighty and shallow and generally unlikeable - and yet, his fortune ultimately comes to lie in the way of making advantage "alliances" with women with power and money. Mind, he always holds a flame for one Madame Arnoux, who does eventually fall for him, but won't ultimately go there.

First of all, all these women who either love or want Moreau - why? I never once got a sense of what could possibly be attracting any of them to him. And this is not a simple case of taste - Flaubert completely fails to indicate where the attraction might lie. One thing I really loved about Dangerous Liaisons was that while most of Choderlos de Laclos's characters were essentially despicable, his writing was sophisticated enough to make them incredibly compelling as well. There's nothing I hate more than a boring villain or cad, and I'm sorry to say that I Flaubert writes nothing else in A Sentimental Education.

Besides penning a tale peopled by the incredibly dull, Flaubert also fails to make the historical context in which he set his tale - the 1848 revolution and creation of the French Second Republic - seem anything but a dry exercise in listing historical details. I haven't read many historical novels - or, more likely, I haven't engaged with them enough as such - but having recently read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, I have a sense of what a really good author can do with history, and Flaubert doesn't do it. History itself can come to seem so real as to have a pulse and a heartbeat, or it can seem so real as to cause claustrophobia - but not, I'm sorry to say, in A Sentimental Education.

In the end, this novel read to me like an intellectual exercise rather than as art; in my view, art should savour somewhat of the mystical if only in the execution (Henry James!). That Flaubert had an intellectual agenda in mind when writing this novel seems pretty clear both from the book itself and from translator Douglass Parmée's introduction to this edition. Parmée begins his intro with a series of aphorisms of Flaubert's describing both what he wanted this novel to do and how people ought to read it. I think it's Flaubert's instructions on how to read A Sentimental Education that caused me the most irritation, however: "Don't read A Sentimental Education like children, for diversion, nor for instruction, like ambitious persons; no, read it in order to live."

Eh? Every single character in this novel is either an idiot, a dullard, fatally spineless, or as selfish as a spoiled child - how are we supposed to use such things in our daily living? And how are we supposed to use it to live without taking it as instruction anyway? It is not the job of the novelist to tell his or her readers how to read, or why - and it's a doomed effort anyway. The thing about committed readers is that we will have our own experiences of each book we read, and I'm surprised when authors so completely fail to remember that. It makes me want to punch Flaubert (and maybe Harold Bloom) in the neck a little.

Now, I know it's too late to say this and be believable, but I will nonetheless try: in spite of the above, I didn't hate this novel. I didn't like it much, no, but there were substantial chunks of time in which I found myself reading a pretty good novel rather than a badly executed pamphlet, and those were enjoyable, engaging, and thought-provoking times. In spite of such  moments, however, I doubt I'll make time for Flaubert in the future - such moments were too much the exception.

To redeem my experience of 19th-century literature, I've already launched myself into the second of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels, Phineas Finn - and so far, so good. But now, I'm off for Sunday brunch in the sunshine with friends.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

It is a new world

It is a new world!
In the film Shakespeare in Love, Gwyneth Paltrow opens the door to her maid and tells her, upon hearing that "It is a new day", that it is, in fact, "A new world!" Having just made the beast with two backs with Joseph Fiennes, I don't doubt she had good reason to say so. I have not created said animal with Joe Fiennes, more's the pity, but I can still say, with a great deal of glee, that for me it is still "A new world!" Why, you ask? I have just read a play by Shakespeare, my first Renaissance play in 18+ months, and it was extremely enjoyable because totally void of the remembered pains of grad school. You know what this means? It's not too soon anymore. Bliss. Oh Shakespeare, I've missed you so much!

The play I chose was The Winter's Tale, which is one of my favourites, and it's one of my favourites because it remains in many ways baffling even after repeated re-readings. (I believe I've read it approximately 10 times now.) The two primary areas of bafflement are: 1) Leontes' deadly jealousy of his wife, Hermione, and his best friend, Polixenes; and, 2) the structure - this play begins as a tragedy, turns into a pastoral comedy with the unique stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear", threatens to turn back into a tragedy, and then concludes as a romantic comedy with the marks of grief from the preceding fading but still very present.

Linguistic power, royal power
When I've taught or spoken about this play in the past, I've focused on Leontes' inexplicable and sudden sexual jealousy at the friendship between his wife and friend in terms of linguistic prowess. Specifically, I've noted that while Hermione and Polixenes are fluent and well-versed in the complex social dance that forms the politeness and playfulness of courtly interaction, Leontes is almost functionally illiterate in this regard. He can't distinguish the flirtatiousness that defines courtly banter from an imagined reality involving treasonous adultery and malicious, even murderous, hood-winking.

This leads to Polixenes fleeing for his life, Hermione being tried for treason, their young son dying from the stress of it all, and their new-born daughter Perdita being banished to a far shore to die from exposure or hungry, ravening beasts. I won't tell you the whole plot, for as one of Shakespeare's less read plays, you might actually be able to be surprised by what you find there; I will say that by the play's conclusion, Leontes' hold on courtly language has become fit for a king and order is restored.

Re-reading the play, however, I began to think there was more to Leontes' jealousy than a hyper-paranoid sense of exclusion and therefore social vulnerability. I noted more closely this time how his jealousy of his wife in the first 3 acts is thematically and structurally mirrored in Polixenes' jealousy of his son's attempt to chose his own wife in the final 2 acts. In Polixenes' case, his anger doesn't arise out of an ability to comprehend social rituals surrounding language; rather, it arises out of a profound desire to control his domain, and as he is king and father, his son Florizel is quite clearly in his domain.

This particular lack of control over this particular subject drives the normally pleasant Polixenes to distribute widely and without restraint threats of banishment, torture, and cruel death. It's not that he doesn't understand his son's reasons for choosing the woman he does - he admires her beauty and even admits she appears to be by nature far superior to her nurture - but that he isn't interested in what his son is saying. In this way, he is like Leontes, for royal control is closely tied to the exercise of linguistic control.

The king's prerogative
But there's something deeper going on, and I believe it is this: simply, jealousy (or any other emotional or mental whim that strikes a king) is, without qualification or explanation required, the king's prerogative. Leontes may - and does - pay a very large price for his misplaced suspicions of his wife's fidelity, but that price does not include his crown. Leontes' royal position is never threatened, regardless of how tyrannical he becomes; his line is threatened, certainly, but his position in life is not. Thus, it doesn't matter whether or not we can comprehend where his jealousy comes from, it only matters, really, that Hermione and Polixenes miss the warning signs and don't adapt or respond.

And there are warning signs in Leontes' words, from the very beginning (check out all of Act 1, Scene ii). Thus, not only is the linguistic breakdown here a two-way street and not simply the failure of the king to speak and listen as he should; it's also a failure by Hermione and Polixenes to remember that in Sicilia, it is the Sicilian king's privilege to make things mean what he wants them to mean - just as Polixenes may do, and does, at home in Bohemia.

In a courtly world, where conversation is a sort of elaborate game, there is (to quote David Mitchell) a game beyond the game - and that is, to constantly be deciphering the king's unspoken, badly spoken, barely formed, etc desires and thoughts. To fail to remain attuned to both games at once is dangerous indeed. Now, I'm not saying that Hermione is, because she doesn't notice her husband's vicious paranoia early on, partially to blame for the death of her children; I'm not interested in apportioning blame at all, and I don't think that's what Shakespeare was aiming for here either. Rather, this play, for all its structural confusion - nay, because of and reflected in its structural twists and turns - is a meditation on the difficulty in managing social  relations in the highly stratified but ever-changing world of early 17th-century England. More importantly, I think, it's a meditation on the linguistic conflict between the personal and public, the interior and the social. When kings cannot comprehend their own and their wives' meanings, what hope can others possibly have to do the same?

Blogger's prerogatives
There's so much more I could say here, but this is getting too long already. I love this play, and have more questions than answers still. And for me, having more questions than answers always lead, back in the day, to my best academic work. Whether or not I write more about The Winter's Tale in the coming days will be determined entirely by my mood. If you haven't read this play, though, I highly encourage you to do so. It's good fun and will give you lots to stew over.

The other blogger's prerogative I'm exercising here is that I'm not going to check to see which scholars have said all this already. I'm sure it's all been said, but I'm just going to take pleasure in my impressions without worrying about inserting myself into a formal academic conversation; and maybe this, ultimately, is the best part about it not being "too soon" anymore. :)

Monday 17 May 2010

The past is a palimpsest

The Eye in the Door is the second book in Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, which tells the story of the effects - mental, emotional, physical - on young men in the midst of the first world war. Like the first novel, the second is well-written and the characters - this time, primarily, Billy Prior and Dr. Rivers, although Siegfried Sassoon shows up near the end - are just as compelling, if not more so as Barker reveals more about them. But I think Barker has tried to do just too much with this short volume and the result is a novel lacking unity, as unfortunately, I think a lot of middle novels in trilogies often do.

I think the unifying idea Barker was going for was how history is a multi-layered, unknowable, ever-changing and highly personal phenomenon; as she writes early on,
The past is a palimpsest, Prior thought. Early memories are always obscured by accumulations of later knowledge. (p. 55)
Fair, especially in what is essentially an historical novel addressing the most personal aspects and consequences of the war. The problem is, Barker tries to integrate too many of these aspects, attempting to layer and connect: various forms of mental illness including disassociative identity disorder, homosexuality, scientific experiments on patients, the history of psychiatry, class struggle, national security versus personal rights, and war resisters. And she attempts to do all this while situating Billy Prior, the protagonist and one of the only fully fictional characters in the novels, firmly within the general historical context of the war.

It's not that I think this was a bad book; generally I enjoyed it but, to borrow a neologism from Rohan over at Novel Readings, its aboutness was scattered over too many topics. I think to do justice to all these issues, and to make meaningful connections between them, The Eye in the Door would have had to have been at least 2-3 times longer than it was. I'll be interested to see how the third novel, The Ghost Road, plays out and if it can tie together the myriad threads begun in the first two. But not now. Now, I'm deep into Flaubert's A Sentimental Education which, at this point, is sadly reading like the deformed love child of a poor man's Dangerous Liaisons and a homeless man's Old Goriot.

Friday 14 May 2010

If you're in Montreal and need good reads...

In contrast to my previous post, which was somehow both maudlin and dramatic, I thought I'd better provide some good news re: bookstores; luckily, I still had my photos from Montreal's bookstore awesomeness to share.

I hadn't planned on actively seeking out English bookstores in Montreal but besides not picking up as much in Ottawa as I'd thought I would, I think I finally began accepting, in a holistic and spiritual way, that I'm the kind of scorpion who asks someone to help me cross the river and then I sting them when we're in the middle and we both drown - I can't help it, it's in my nature.

Deepness behind me now, I can move on to pure bookstore appreciation. The first shop we visited was on rue St. Catherine. Westcott Books is your classic dusty, cluttered, old book smell sort of used shop. The owner has his entire inventory in his head, which is something I both fear and admire. It's the kind of place where you can really lose track of time, and not just because of the crazy amounts of books.

He also has two bookstore cats, Emma (from either Austen or Flaubert) and (T.S.) Eliot, and Eliot decided that while he liked me just fine, he really found my husband to be very much more attractive.

Eliot spent a lot of time rubbing himself all over Brook and the result was that both were happy and Brook ended up with a very furry shirt, just as though he'd been rolling around in an entire pile of long-haired cats just coming down with the mange. It was so bad, actually, that he went to the dollar store and got one of those rolly things just to deal with it.

This is sort of what my bookstore looks like, except for the cute cat business. We do have cats (scads of them, actually) but none are quite nonchalant enough to be bookstore cats. Also, I like to keep the front door open in the spring and summer and they'd die on the road, which is full of people who like to speed and run the stop signs.

I got one book at Westcott Books: Anthony Trollope's Rachel Ray, but I doubt I'll read it. For the same reason I'll never be able to read Janette Turner Hospital's Borderline - the pop culture references the titles makes me think of are much too distracting.

Further along on rue St. Catherine, we found a lovely little (and I mean little) new shop featuring English books - Argo Books. The owner, even younger than self, which is nice to see as older booksellers have frequently lamented to me that no young people are getting into the trade, could curate good literature like a superstar.

I could have purchased his entire literature section just for myself. It was like something from a '70s SF novel in which the bookstore is sentient and adapts to meet the needs and desires of each person who comes in. And says, "I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that," when you ask for a little Maeve Binchy break from the heavy stuff.

Also he used the space well, as you can see. Apparently, the closing of The Book Room in Halifax (which had been open something like 160 years) made Argo Books the oldest bookstore of new English books in Canada. Or was it eastern Canada? I forget, but it's been open since 1966 and that's significantly older than self, which is also nice to see.

That said, I don't want you to think I feel anything but theoretical pain at the demise of The Book Room. I grew up in Halifax, and I never once purchased a book at that store. It was so dull and predictable. It blamed big box stores for its death but part of the problem must have been its refusal to stock interesting or unique books. As the Book Mark up the street had no such fear, I shopped there, and last I heard, it was still thriving. Before you begin to condemn me for heartless, though, please understand that my theoretical pain is profound. Profound, I tell you!

Now, I really like Westcott and Argo, but I found my Shangri-la of used bookstores in Montreal near McGill University - The Word Bookstore on rue Milton. It's also small, and it also uses its space well, and it also could easily bankrupt me. I had only 10 minutes to browse there but in that time, I found 3 books which were in great shape and incredibly affordable and that I really wanted.

Also, the shop just looked so bookstore-ish; it was hyper-bookstore-ish. Here are two photos: one of the exterior, and one of the interior; you should be able to see the proprietor hiding behind a stack of books in the second.

I love that he doesn't even bother to have a sign outside his shop. Besides being hyper-, it's also kind of meta- - it requires no signage. It just is and everyone knows it (it was quite busy while I was there).

As I mentioned, I got three books here within 10 minutes and here they are, looking stylish on the table of a nearby veg restaurant that served me a curry that was so obviously full of veggies from a freezer bag that I can only laugh...and wonder why people love the place so much (it was also quite busy).

As for French language books stores...friends, they were everywhere. And in abundance. Montreal doesn't seem to be suffering from the same poison that kills used bookshops in Toronto. The man from The Word told me there used to be 17 used shop on Queen St. West in Toronto alone...and now there's one. In my relatively short time here, I've seen 5 or 6 disappear.

Kids, in case you're real dense, the moral of the story is: if you live somewhere that actually has indie and used bookstores, support them. Or burn in hell. Whatever.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Sometimes the only thing you can do is re-read your favourite YA fantasy novels

Friends, it's been a fucking atrocious few days. Hubby and I returned from our vacation a week and a half ago all refreshed and in love with life. On Saturday afternoon, almost a week after our our return, we had to close the shop early because sewage was flooding the basement. We're re-opening tomorrow. In the meantime, we've:

1) Called the landlord, who told us to call the city;
2) Called the city, who told us to wait while they got someone else to call us;
3) Waited 2 hours for the city to return our call;
4) Called an on-call (yes, just like a doctor) plumber when the city said it was the landlord's issue;
5) Waited a few hours for the plumber to arrive;
6) Cried (not we, just me on this one) upstairs while the plumber tore some wall down using a sawzall while my husband held him up on the wobbly boards keeping them out of the sewage on the floor;
7) Informed by plumber that my assessment of all this as a "shit storm" is pretty accurate, actually, and that there would be no using any water until things got fixed;
8) Cry more when also informed by plumber that no one can come back till Monday;
9) Sunday until approx. noon today: wake up and get dressed quickly to go to the bathroom in the hospital across the street; eat out for every meal because cooking without sending water down the drain is possible but washing up after isn't (but I should have thought of using a twig, like the guy in Cold Comfort Farm; silly me!); smell bad and look rumpled; make a painful decision about part of my non-bookish life and cry much more; alternate between manically doing laundry at the laundromat (because they have a pretty good washroom there) and struggling to stay awake; and
10) Temporarily abandon Pat Barker's The Eye in the Door for the familiar and dependable words of Garth Nix, specifically the first book in the Abhorsen trilogy, Sabriel, which represents him at his best; those Keys to the Kingdom books sure are repetitive, bleh.

(Also, please be advised that I am aware that the above likely holds a very loose relationship to grammar; I am too tired to care, frankly.)

I believe I first read Sabriel about five years ago but as it's of the pre-blogal era, I'm not certain. I do recall reading it with great attention and excitement on an aeroplane, either to or from Halifax. Sabriel is seriously good times: walking Dead (but not zombies per se), necromancers, magic, talking cats...really, what's not to love?

Sabriel is a yarn of the sort I like best and so when I found myself full of despair on the weekend and hubby and I facing the real possibility that in one way or another, we may have to move the shop when our lease runs out in the fall - because our landlord will do anything to not spend money, including allowing the whole thing to fall down - I decided I needed something reliable, and when I think of really reliable I think of something I've read and loved already.

It came down to Sabriel, The Golden Compass, and The Diamond Age but Sabriel won because it's the easiest of the three reliables I could think of. And easy was really important too.

So, as much as other people can do has been done for the basement. The source of the problem is fixed. The smell seems sufficiently under control. We've gotten rid of about 200 ruined books (sob) and there are many, many more to go...My soul hurts, yes. Did Sabriel help? Yes. There was and continues to be a lot of gruesome work to do, but between such events...bookish refuge. Which, along with my hubby and our sweet catties, has helped me not really flip the hell out.

Back to work and the grimness of Pat Barker on WWI tomorrow.

Friday 7 May 2010

The book of my heart is a private book

When Wolf Hall won the Booker last year, Hilary Mantel registered on my radar for the first time - because, of course, people were all of sudden coming into my shop every day looking for her books. I don't make a point of reading prize-winning novels; indeed, sometimes, I avoid them for did not Yann Martel win the Booker? It's a prize that holds no currency for me.

But later, Rohan Maitzen briefly reviewed Wolf Hall and that piqued my curiosity; still, I resisted, for I feared reading a historical novel about a period of which I have a fair bit of knowledge. I worried, a little, that it would cause me some "too much like school, too soon!" pain; much more, I worried Mantel would botch it. Later, my thesis supervisor, if she were the type of person to gush, which she is not, gushed about it to me and so I bit the bullet and read it. And you know what? Wolf Hall really is a remarkable novel.

Generally speaking, it's achieved something I've rarely encountered - it's both a page-turner and quite dense, so while I read it in long stretches, it was impossible to read quickly. It was both fraught and full of happenings, yet it was also thoughtful and full of passages that seemed simple on the surface but gob-smacked me with the subtle complexities they revealed about Thomas Cromwell's personality. This book is involved in a way that I can only compare to Victorian novels, but really only to Victorian novels penned by George Eliot. It's not that Mantel's and Eliot's writing is similar, it's that they're both so intelligent. Neither resorts to the literary equivalent of jazz hands as some of my other Victorian favourites do.

The quotation I've used for this post's title is from a section near the novel's conclusion, when Cromwell is recovering from a serious fever. For once, people are speaking about him in his presence. Speaking about Cromwell within his range of hearing is something not many are willing to do, for as Mantel highlights, he was both feared and held in awe for his remarkable ability to insinuate himself into the good graces of those both in power and with power to bestow, not to mention his talent for ferreting out those who threatened either his or his masters' positions. But he's laid out, he hears people discussing him, and he reflects:
They talk about his heart; he overhears them. He feels they should not: the book of my heart is a private book, it is not an order book left on the counter for any passing clerk to scrawl in. (p. 613)
In Wolf Hall, books are dangerous things, containers of knowledge and potential sedition that, if found in your presence, might well result in you being strung up by your heals and slowly disemboweled. This is not all books we're talking about - but at the nexus between the disintegration of Rome's hold on England and the rise of the English church, religious books occupy a strange position insofar as simply reading or possessing them is a political act. Yet, to not be aware of the contents of the most influential books in circulation is to be made very vulnerable. Cromwell is astute at keeping track of all the important books out there, both real and metaphorical.

As for Cromwell's conflation here of his own physical heart with his metaphorical one, in the late middle ages and Renaissance, this was a common thing. Traitors' hearts were often displayed to crowds at executions; if you haven't read John Ford's play 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, do so - one character's heart lies, literally in the end, at the heart of all the other characters' desires. Indeed, before even getting to the above passage in Wolf Hall, I found myself wondering if Mantel had read my supervisor's book, which is all about the Renaissance subject. In particular, this quotation kept coming to mind:
When Hamlet rails that Guildenstern, formerly a school friend, now a spy recruited by the king, "would pluck out the heart of my mystery" (3.2.356-7), he assumes the position, of a resistant object of another man's scrutiny, within a scenario that recurs insistently in the discourses of Renaissance England. (Elizabeth Hanson, Discovering the Subject, p. 1)
Cromwell's ability to keep himself close is what makes others fearful and anxious about him, but it's also what facilitates his rise to power. He is able to appear to conform his desires to the desires of the powerful men he serves - but only he knows what really motivates him for his heart, or book, or whatever you want to call his soul, is something he keeps beyond the reach and comprehension of others. Indeed, even Mantel doesn't entirely know what moves her character, a fact repeatedly highlighted by her consistent referral to Cromwell simply as "him", never actually as "Cromwell." I don't think that Cromwell feels vulnerable per se in the passage quoted above; I think, rather, that he's noting the unnaturalness of the most close scrutineer of others' mysteries being made, even briefly and mildly, the object of such speculation.

I really appreciated that Mantel didn't over-use her power as novelist to create more of a character out of Cromwell than the history could support; at the same time, she has done something new with him, making him infinitely more likable than the previous literary "last word" on the subject, Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons. Mantel's Cromwell is no less frightening for his humanity, though; indeed, in some ways, it makes him more so because the ruthless and cruel things he does don't seem so alien anymore - even if they remain mysterious.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

If you're in Ottawa and need good reads...

My friend Andrew was kind enough to send me a list of his favourite bookstores in Ottawa so that my trip could be as bankrupting as possible. I didn't get to every bookstore on his list but of the ones I did visit, one really stood out for me: Patrick McGahern Books on Bank St.

The day we ventured over to the Glebe was a good day insofar as because of this bookstore, as well as a "hippy meets yuppy" veg restaurant nearby, I decided Ottawa was pretty fly. But of course, we also got snowed on in Ottawa that day. Yes, at 1:41 pm, on April 27, 2010, we got snowed on, and we weren't in either the Yukon or Nova Scotia. I shook my fist bitterly at the sky; a friend advised me to blame Harper and drink more coffee. I did both, and I felt better.

Patrick McGahern books has been around a long time, since 1969 in fact; such durability is a phenomenon in indie and used bookstores that I find socially and psychologically comforting.

Also, I admire the bookseller that just goes for it and puts their name on the store, instead of creating some clever but anonymous name. It seems sweet, kind of neighoury, in the right way and not in the weird Uncle way. It also bespeaks a willingness to dive in head-first with all one's powers of commitment in play in a way I find terrifying.

Now, before you expend all your enthusiasm on this shop's sign, let me show you a very important pic of the interior. Is this bookstore a win because of its location, it stock, its age, and its name? Yes, but it's a LeBron James sort of win because it has rolly ladders for its high shelves!!

I love it. If I had a house that had a library that needed rolly ladders, I would literally never leave the house. Really, what would be the point? Someone would feed me, I'm sure of it.

I would spend my time getting books from the top shelf, and replacing them with others. And looking down at my books below. And falling into a good read while standing on the ladder; I've fallen into good reads in elevators, while cooking dinner, while waiting to see the doctor, while walking down the street - the ladder read would happen and it would be transcendent, or at least ascendant. Ah har har.

So, yes, I did, of course, buy myself some books at Patrick McGahern Books. I haven't begun any of them yet because I only finished Wolf Hall last night. I was hoping to get more reading done during this vacation, not simply because we had a super-amazing balcony on our B&B room in Ottawa. But it turns out there was a great deal of sleeping to be done. Also, some eating, but that wasn't as successful. I think the abundance of white women in saris at veg restaurants dedicated to gurus who can bench-press 500 lbs aren't necessarily doing good things for the the general public's perception of vegetarians. Maybe Wodehouse isn't entirely to blame after all.

Now back to the topic at hand. Our place was really just a B because apparently they've never heard of food that doesn't contain eggs or cheese or milk or bacon. Also, the coffee was undrinkable. But the balcony was really bloody awesome so breakfast be damned. So what if I sometimes had to wear a coat and wrap myself in a blanket to read out on the balcony? It was good for my soul to be able to stare at the top of the Loblaw's when I wasn't deep into Hilary Mantel's vision of Thomas Cromwell's tricksy brain.

Wolf Hall was really good, which is all I'll say for now...okay, except also that, see that plant to my left? At one point, I was reading outside and after awhile I noticed that the plant was half in my lap, on its side. I was so absorbed that I failed to notice this happening. Niiiiicccce.

And, finally, here are the books I picked up in Ottawa. Because I didn't end up spending nearly as much money in the capital as I thought I would, I made a point of searching out English shops in Montreal, which I'll tell you about soon.

Monday 3 May 2010

Curious/Creepy: edition (Québécois) Française

I have returned from my forays into the wilds of Ottawa and Montreal and have several posts to write about them. Today, I'm going to begin with the most recent past, during which Bookphilia crept about on the Montreal Métro peering over people's shoulders in French. I assure you, creepiness is a universal language. As, thank goodness, is reading.

A lady in, I guess, her early 40s was perusing this instructional manual. I wanted to point out to her that if one wants to learn French with any sort of speed or commitment, Montreal is not the place to try to do it. Everyone spoke English as easily as they spoke French and the minute either your (i.e., my) terrible accent or look of confusion revealed you weren't a native speaker, they'd switch to the Queen's English. Freddie Mercury Queen, not Elizabeth Queen.

Montreal is probably my favourite city in Canada and I'd pack up and go if I could. I found great bookstores there, one in particular, but more of that later this week. I would be well-read and fat as hell if I lived there - the veg food is also outstanding.

Le sigh. When I saw someone reading the French translation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which is much less true to the original title than the French one is - apparently Larsson called this novel, simply, Men Who Hate Women), I despaired a little. It may be a good book; it may be the show-stopping number everyone swears it is. But it weirds me out a little when everyone, everywhere is reading the same damned book(s)!

I want my spying to yield the kind of diverse, obscure, and fascinating results that a deep browse in a super-fantastic secondhand bookshop yields. Selfish of me, perhaps, but there you are.

In spite of my chagrin about this one (and the next!), I am inordinately pleased with this cover. Why is Christina Ricci as Tuesday Addams sporting a lovely necklace of severed heads gracing the cover? Is there something about this book I don't know? Whas she was the inspiration for the main character? Yes? Why, thank you, Thing!

Elizabeth Gilbert, guru of the yoga and non-fat latté set, has a new book out and it's called Committed. It has very recently been released but several people have already come into my shop asking for it.

The lady on the Métro had the English version in hand; it's so new that I doubt it's been released in other languages yet. Anyhow, she was deeply absorbed in it and was thus oblivious, but I noted that I wasn't the only one spying on her. Her book, with its clear display of the Precious on its cover, was eliciting a great deal of interest and perhaps some hissing and rubbing of bony hands. I could also feel the icy stare of Sauron on my back. *Shudder*

AGAIN, with the reading what everyone and their dog is reading, but in French. The Gospel According to Albom is, like most religious texts, translated into many languages and distributed amongst the heathens for their instruction and delight. You may also find it in the drawer next to your hotel bed, along with the Gideon Bible.

I'm curious though: does the book reveal how his revelations came to him? What is the mystical significance of the number five? Will this book teach me how to attain salvation without my having to do anything uncomfortable, like get up early at weekends, be nice to people, or give homeless people spare change? Are there non-fat lattés in heaven? What about Wholefoods?

Such mystical queries are likely unanswerable. However, I'm glad to know that at least two of the five people to be met in heaven will be dressed stylishly in bowler hats and well-cut coats, not to mention wielding posh walking sticks. That sounds like my kind of social club.

Oh, but look! A real French novelist represented on the Montreal underground transit system! The Wikipedia tells me that Levy is the "most read French novelist in the world". Really? Had you heard of him before? I hadn't. No one has ever come to the shop looking for his stuff. Maybe Canada is too small fry to make appreciable differences in world book sales numbers.

I like the cover of this novel. It looks like it might both Deep and True, as well as feature gigantic ninja sharks that silently dive out of the water to grab you and munch your bones. You know, the kind of book that can sit comfortably on both HIS and HERS bookshelves.

And another French book! Have I mentioned that transit riders in Montreal are more readerly overall than they are here in Toronto? Also, maybe it's just a more book-friendly place. I saw just scads of people reading while walking down the street and on transit; and there were oodles of bookshops, mostly French. Did I mention that Montreal is the coolest city in Canada?

Guillaume Musso is another French from France writer. He is also one year older than I am and has published 7 books. Somebody should talk to him about reigning it in a little; he's making me feel like a useless bump on a log. If I felt like a useful bump on a log, I suppose it wouldn't be so bad, but...

Zadie Smith used to make me feel bad for the same reason but I hear nothing she's written since has lived up to her first novel, White Teeth, so I probably won't have to send the ninja sharks to get her after all.

And finally, a real classic writer, also French. My hubby spotted this one; he's apprenticing in creepiness these days and I'm very proud of the progress he's making. I read Guy de Maupassant's short stories a number of years ago and thought they were just fine; however, I can't remember them at all. I do recall reading them in poor lighting and getting headaches. Nothing says classic literature like eyes that feel like they're slowly being pulled out of your head, hey?

I'm disappointed that I didn't see anyone reading any French-Canadian lit. Gaetan Soucy, Marie-Claire Blais - they need to be better represented by the tired 9 to 5ers of the beautiful city. Yes, that's a challenge. But no, I won't be reciprocating with the Toronto writers; they win the big prizes no matter what schlock they barf into their publishers' hands and so don't need my help. (Dear B. Gowdy: I loved Mister Sandman and We So Seldom Look on Love and The White Bone, but I will never forgive you for that pile of shit you titled The Romantic.)

Next, a little tour of my favourite bookshop in Ottawa, because I'm all post-modern in my messing with the chronology of my trip. That's just the way I roll.