Monday, 27 October 2008

On this day. . .

Today is the 86th anniversary of the 1922 publication of Virginia Woolf's experimental novel Jacob's Room which is where the inspiration for the name of this blog came from. Julia Hedges is a minor but important character in the novel and as to the importance of her shoelaces to me, well, you'll have to read the book and come to your own conclusions (footwear was always very important to Woolf - she was an avid walker). It seems fitting that this book was published a few weeks before Armistice Day or Remembrance Day as we call it in Canada - that last sentence where all that is physically left of Jacob is his old shoes, always gets me.

Above is the original cover of the book, designed by Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell. There have been so many covers over the years. I'm rather fond of this one:

But these are either ghastly or just wrong, wrong, wrong . . .

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Bookstores Around the World: Librairie Gallimard in Montreal. . .

While strolling along St. Laurent in Montreal, I came across this bookstore devoted solely to the imprints published by Gallimard. There are very few bookstores that showcase only one publisher although it's an intriguing idea. It works very well for a small press like Persephone Books that specializes in a certain type of book with a uniform look. They now have two stores and I love that they also sell books they wished they could publish; books their staff love or ones that fit in theme or period to some of the authors they do publish. They also sell a small collection of used books - again ones that fit with their vision (which more or less jives with my literary interests) and I've found a few gems there. It makes sense for university presses to run their own bookstores as well since only a scattering of their titles ever make it into the big box stores. I've been to the MIT Press Bookstore - are there any others?

Librairie Gallimard is a beautiful small bookstore and this dedication to one publisher works extremely well, mostly because one of its most prestigious imprints is Folio, which has several thousand titles in its backlist - all the French classics and a good chunk of contemporary French literature as well. The books have a bold yet simple design, dominated by a colourful photo or piece of art. They are all numbered (very classy - Persephone does this too) and the spines are all white, which gives the bookcases a striking and sophisticated look; I've always loved those older black and white French movies that involve a bookstore scene. They are irresistable pick-me-up-and-buy me books and I was happy to comply. I wanted to read something by the recent Nobel Prize winner J.M.G Le Clézio (very little of which has been translated into English which is a shame), and thought a small volume of two short stories titled Peuple du ciel would be a good place to start. Then since I loved Irène Némirovsky's Suite française, I picked up Ida - also a collection of two short stories. Finally, I couldn't resist Sur le zinc - a small collection of snippets from literature that all take place in cafes. It seemed the fitting souvenir to bring back from my mini-break to Montreal. Aren't the covers gorgeous?

Monday, 20 October 2008

Taking Care of Myself. . .

I'm spending a few days in the fabulous city of Montreal indulging in my favourite activities - walking the city streets, window shopping (and a bit of the other kind - I just can't resist the sweaters and lingerie at Simons), and drinking lots of lattes while reading in cool cafes. Today I walked down to the cobbled streets of Old Montreal just in time to catch the final day of the Sophie Calle exhibit, Prenez soin de vous (Take Care of Yourself). Calle is one of my favourite contemporary artists. Her work consists in endlessly examining the ontological aspects of people's psyches and personalities, including most often her own and it's so fascinating and clever - she's alternatively playful, thought-provoking and often extremely funny. Some of her previous projects have included following a man to Venice and photographing him; having herself followed by a private investigator; and taking a job as a chambermaid in a hotel in Venice in order to photograph the objects left in the rooms she is cleaning to create a portrait of the inhabitants. Paul Auster created a character based on Calle in his novel Leviathan attributing some of her actual art projects to his fictional artist. He also made up some projects which Calle then attempted herself and the two had an interesting creative dialogue which is recounted in the book Double Game (highly recommended - it's a quirky, beautifully designed book).

I absolutely love Sophie Calle and I was so glad to see an actual exhibit of her work (I own several of her books) which was so professionally impressive in its design and installation. In Prenez soin de vous, Calle gives a copy of a break-up letter she received from her lover to 104 women, two puppets and a parrot and beautifully photographs each recipient along with displaying or videotaping their reactions to the letter (which ends with the line "Take care of yourself"). In a nice touch the letter is also provided to visitors at the beginning of the exhibit. The women represent a broad cross-section of professions which directly influence their responses. A copy editor points out all the grammatical mistakes. A criminal psychologist does a personality profile which is definitely not complimentary. A chess player deconstructs the letter into a game. A romance author and a children's book author turn the letter into a romantic short story and fairytale respectively. Singers set the letter to music. The parrot eats it and then indignantly ruffles his feathers (absolutely hysterical). Some of the women featured are famous actresses (Miranda Richardson, Jeanne Moreau) or musical artists like Feist. The photos of the women reading the letter were varied and in some cases stunning; Calle does amazing things with lighting - in one photo, the letter seemed to glow with an energy all of its own. Not only was the exhibit visually intriguing, but it raised a lot of interesting questions about how our professions (which, let's face it, absorb the majority of our waking hours), influence how we view people and situations. Alas, there were no booksellers featured. How would that noble profession have reacted? Compared it to other great break-up letters in literature (if you liked reading this one, try. . . )? Relegated it to the remainder pile? Categorized it? (hmmm, does it belong in fiction, self-help, psychology, cultural studies, fantasy?)

The exhibit first appeared at the 2007 Venice Biennale and I read about it online. I promptly bought the accompanying book as soon as it was published in English and I'm so glad I didn't wait, because according to it now costs more than double what I initially paid for it. I'm guessing the reprint was costly - the book's production design would lend itself to that. Not only does it come with a DVD for all the video pieces, but the fairytale, for example, is sewn in as a mini-book within the book. The letter is also reproduced in braille and there's tons of colour photography throughout. It's one of the most unique and beautiful books that I proudly own.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

In which I wrongly predict the Booker Prize yet again. . .

And in the end, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger took the Booker prize. Darn. Just scanning the newspaper coverage in Britian and the blog world however, it seems to have been quite a surprise upset with various reviewers calling it the weakest book on the list. I will eventually get around to reading it - it's quite the coup for a first-time novelist in his early thirties. God, I'm jealous.

In my dream bookstore I would have an exceptions section (have to think up a more interesting name) where I would sell the shortlisted books of major prizes and of course the winners but I'd love to put a spin on the displays. For example, I'd showcase the Booker Prize shortlisted titles on a table along with 5 shortlisted books I'd nominate myself from a time that fit the mandate of my store before the Booker Prize was established, say, 1908. Which was a pretty good year for fiction. So how about Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton, A Room With a View by E.M. Forster, The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett and a possible sleeper, Lady Athlyne by Bram Stoker (hey, it's still in print). Will White Tiger still be read in 100 years, I wonder?

Saturday, 11 October 2008

My pick for the Booker - Sebastian Barry's lovely Secret Scripture. . .

I have my fingers crossed that Sebastian Barry will take the Man Booker prize on Tuesday. I just finished The Secret Scripture and the entire time I was reading it, I was in rapture and awe over the beauty of his writing. The novel alternates between two narratives - that of Roseanne, a 100 year old woman who has spent decades in a mental hospital, and her doctor, William Grene, grieving for the recent death of his wife and assigned to assess Roseanne's mental state as the hospital is closing and patients are being evaluated to see if they can be released. In doing so, he tries to dig up the original documents that chronicle Roseanne's story while his patient is herself writing her own autobiography and hiding the sheets under a loose floorboard in her room. As the novel progresses, the accounts of major events in Roseanne's life - the death of her beloved father, her secret marriage, the birth of an illegitimate child, and her initial incarceration in the asylum - differ in troubling ways. This is a novel that explores the equal challenges of constructing a human truth out of the fleeting imaginative strands of memory and the equally suspect rhetoric of possibly biased official documents. And it's about regret, betrayal and the incredible loneliness as a human condition that nevertheless has an inner self-sufficiency as its helpmate. The momentous events of Roseanne's personal life, which take place in the decades following the First World War, a period Dr. Grene calls, "the savage fairytale of life in Ireland in the twenties and thirties", is inevitably caught up in the political turmoil of that historical time. As such, this is a great follow-up to Barry's terrific WWI novel, A Long, Long Way which was also shortlisted for the Booker and darn well should have won. Hopefully Tuesday will be his day.

There's a great interview with him in The Guardian here. In it he talks about the painful secrets that reside in so many Irish families, the influence of his own family's stories on his work, and the forgotten women - such as Roseanne - who were shut away and never talked about again.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Life is a Cabaret, old chum. . .

Albert Schultz is a genius. Every city needs a visionary but one not only with a lot of ideas but the ability to make things happen. He's already been instrumental in establishing Soulpepper , one of the best theatre companies in Toronto, and has helped revitalize the Distillery District by raising funds to build the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. I was down there for three nights last weekend checking out his latest, and very successful project - the Canwest Cabaret Festival. Oh, it was so much fun. I caught a solo show by Steven Page, an amazing concert of jazz set around Duke Ellington songs (which was being taped for CBC radio - it'll run on January 1st, 2009 so catch it if you can), and my favourite - a concert devoted to the songs of Kurt Weill. One of the singers was Patricia O'Callaghan who I also saw in a solo show (where she sang in no less than five languages!) Just an amazing voice. I immediately went out and bought two of her CDs which I highly recommend. Youkali contains cabaret songs composed by Satie, Poulenc and Weill, and Slow Fox not only offers even more Weill, but ends with an awesome cover of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.

When Schultz was introducing the Ellington songbook set, he thanked his fifth grade teacher for showing Duke Ellington's funeral to her class on live television. It was his first exposure to the man and jazz music in general. It got me thinking about what I was listening to at that age. I was (and still am) a huge Julie Andrews fan - while other kids were listening to their Disney albums and Sharon, Lois and Braum, I instead knew all the words not only to The Sound of Music (the very first record I ever owned given to me by my grandfather, probably because he was so sick of me asking him to play it) and Mary Poppins of course, but also Camelot and My Fair Lady, which I thought was so clever lyrically and which would still rate highly on my list of best musicals of all time. Still, the one album that perhaps has been the most influential on my musical tastes, may well have been the soundtrack to the 1968 movie Star!. I was in my twenties before I got the chance to actually see the movie (unfortunately, it's not that good apart from the musical numbers), but I've known every song on the album since I was six. In the movie, Andrews plays Gertrude Lawrence and so of course Noel Coward's music is prominent. But Lawrence also starred in the Broadway musical Lady in the Dark, composed by Kurt Weill (My Ship remains a favourite song of mine and I still can get chills listening to it - at the Cabaret Festival it was given a wonderful rendition by Mike Ross).

Lawrence popped up again in quite a different story, in a recent DVD that I watched - Daphne - about Daphne du Maurier, who had an affair with Lawrence. In the movie, Janet McTeer takes on Gertie with a far more brash, non-singing performance than Julie. I love exploring and discovering these endless webs of connections.
And if you're kicking yourself for having missed the Cabaret Festival - fear not. Schultz also announced that Canwest has committed to a seven year sponsorship deal. Seven years! I told you, he's a genius.

Monday, 6 October 2008

The City at Night. . .

Some shots from Nuit Blanche, Toronto style. . . from inflated blue art installations in shopping malls. . .

. . . to light patterns on our City Hall . . .

. . .to the Horroridor - located in a subway station, this featured two facing video walls of clips from horror movies with the men screaming at the women and vice versa and the crowd caught inbetween. . .

. . . and shadows playing on walls and in windows.

I'd like to say that I lasted the whole night and saw the dawn come up, but nah. . . I was in bed by midnight. But it was fun walking through the city in the dark and instead of empty corridors, seeing it full of happy crowds.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

What use is sitting alone in your room? Come see the city play. . .

It's one of those perfect fall weekends when the weather forecast is favourable, there is a bit of a nip in the air and the city is full of exciting things to do. I'm out and about and going a bit European right here in little ole Toronto.

First up is the Canwest Cabaret Festival in the Distillery District. What a fantastic idea - four days of all sorts of terrific Canadian artists performing in fifty intimate concerts lasting an hour to 90 minutes each. Tonight I caught the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre (check out their cute website which even has a yummy pudding recipe listed). Two great singers, a dynamic piano player and a program of "crazy, crunchy tunes" all composed by Canadians. There was a wonderful variety - torch songs, love songs, a tango sung in French, a short haiku and some very funny numbers. How can one not laugh at a song called Asparagus Pee? I also loved two songs -Anglicismes and Injurieux - that were set to text from Raymond Queneau's very clever book Exercises in Style, in which he relates the same incident 99 times, but using a different narrative technique for each story. I have tickets tomorrow for a Kurt Weill Songbook event and then a Duke Ellington one on Sunday and a concert by the Barenaked Ladies' Steven Page. So much fun - I hope this becomes an annual event.

Tomorrow morning I'm checking out Salon du Livre de Toronto with my bookseller friend K. I've been to umpteen English language book fairs both in Canada and the U.S. and I'll be curious to see how a French one differs. And I wonder if I'll have the nerve to open my mouth. I can read French fairly well with a dictionary nearby, but I'm hopeless at speaking it and my accent is atrocious.

And then after the Kurt Weill concert, it's off to check out Nuit Blanche (well for as long as I can stay up, that is). The city at night becomes a huge canvas and stage for contemporary art exhibits, dance, and outdoor art installations - all lasting from sunset Saturday night to sunrise on Sunday morning. It's going to be wonderful to wander the streets filled with the city's art lovers. I'm looking forward to encountering the completely unexpected.