Thursday, 25 December 2008

Wholly gorgeous. . .

My nicest Xmas present (especially since I rarely get books as gifts). The Half by Simon Annand is a beautiful photography book of theatre stars, shot in the half hour before they go on stage. They've been taken over twenty-five years and so there are shots of a very young Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth and Jude Law among many. A really beautiful book. Thanks K! Hope everyone is enjoying a wonderful meal today with loved ones and everyone got a great book from Santa.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

All recent roads lead to Berlin. . .

I've been on a bit of a blogging break but I have a good excuse - I've been absorbed by several rather all consuming projects in addition to getting a lot of work done so that I can enjoy the holidays guilt-free. (And life after all, is for living first, and then blogging afterwards). But I'm now off for a couple of weeks and outside my cozy apartment the wind is raging and there's a lot of snow piled up. Time for cocooning, knitting, reading and watching movies.

My first big task over the last two weeks was to tackle Alfred Döblin's 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. According to the blurb on the back of my copy, he was apparently the first German writer to write in the style of James Joyce although I found Döblin a much easier read. There are certainly a lot of similarities with Ulysses - the evocation of everyday, urban working class life and references to classical mythology and religious imagery - though not the sustained retelling of the Odyssey that is found in Joyce. And Döblin also plays with interior monologues, experimental language and different narrative techniques.

Essentially the story revolves around Franz Biberkopf who at the beginning of the novel has just been released from prison after serving four years for the killing of his girlfriend Ida. The story follows him over the next few years (we're in the late 1920s) as he tries to rejoin society, first by vowing to go straight and only work at honest jobs, then after subsequent betrayals by people he trusted, a return to a life of petty crime, pimping and alcoholism. We follow his relationships with several women, including Eva, a high class prostitute from his past who remains in love with him, and Mieze, a seemingly naive, young girl who comes to a horrific end. Franz also forms an unlikely friendship with the sinister Reinhold with tragic results, not once but several times. This is a world where everyone is just trying to survive and though politics does intrude (Franz at one point sells Nazi party newspapers and wears a swastika armband), it's not the heart of the novel, which essentially revolves around Franz accepting responsibility for his own actions instead of blaming an elusive "Fate". Though there is an eerie presentiment towards the end of the novel when Franz is watching a party parade out of his window and vows not to join in: But if I march along, I shall have to pay for it later on with my head, pay for the schemes of others. That's why I first figure out everything, and only if everything's quite O.K., and suits me, I'll take action. Reason is the gift of man, jackasses replace it with a clan. . . If war comes along and they conscript me, and I don't know why, and the war's started without me, well, then, it's my facult, it serve me right. Keep awake 'mid the strife, we're not alone in life.

I read this novel in preparation for watching Rainer Werner Fassbinder's fifteen hour plus 1980 adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Called the "Mount Everest of Cinema", I convinced my good friend K, to accompany me - we sherpas of celluloid - to Cinematheque Ontario's screening. Fortunately for our butts, the 13 parts plus epilogue were spread out over three days. Now that I have some distance in time from the experience, I can write about it more calmly, but I will admit to exiting the theatre raging with indignant irritation and cursing Fassbinder. Why? His bloody, bloody epilogue! There is much about the film that I really enjoyed - basically the first 13 parts. The acting was superb, in particular Günter Lamprecht as Franz and Hanna Schygulla as Eva. The sets, costumes, lighting, camera shots, musical score - all beautifully done. Then came the epilogue which is completely jarring in style, both visual and aural. After 14 hours of realism and attention to historic detail, all of a sudden we're hearing Elvis and Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack and visually we're being subjected to a messy melange of horror film, bad B movie melodrama and porn. And it goes on and on and on and on and on. Honestly it felt longer than the previous 13 parts put together. And this is where I got angry - because after enduring fourteen hours of a film - who is going to leave at this stage? It seemed like a completely self-indulgent insult to the audience who were now basically held hostage until the bitter end. I have no problem with Fassbinder acknowledging hindsight and showing glimpses of the future (the epilogue takes place mostly in the hallucinations of Franz while he is in an insane asylum) with references to the Holocaust and the atom bomb, and upon reflection I realized that he was probably paying tribute to one aspect of modernism which is to shock one out of complacency and narrative expectations (and he certainly succeeded in getting me all riled up) - but did it really have to be so incredibly cheesy? And so darn long? And now I can never think about the whole film without shuddering at the ending, whereas I certainly would like to watch some of the episodes over again. A very odd film-going experience to say the least.

And so back to reading and tackling the 900 page novel that has made so many Top 10 lists of Best Books of 2008 - Roberto Bolaño's 2666. This is the first novel I've read of his but I will definitely be seeking more of his work, especially as so many of the excellent reviews it's received from critics and bloggers alike, point out recurring themes and preoccupations from previous work. I loved the scope and ambition of the novel - told in five parts - each concentrating on a different narrator/subject and each told in a different style. If I had all the time in the world, I would have immediately started re-reading the book moments after turning the final page to absorb all the connections and allusions I had missed the first time around. For a novel that deals with some very serious issues - the murders of over 200 women in Mexico, the horrors of fighting on the Eastern front in WWII - there is also a surprising amount of wry humour. I particularly loved the first section, The Part About the Critics, which follows four academics who become complicated friends through their mutual obssession over an allusive German writer named Benno von Archimboldi. It is very, very funny. And then, lo and behold, when I get to the final part - The Part About Archimboldi - should I be surprised that Archimboldi comes across a notebook that proves greatly influential, and in this notebook the writer expresses a great admiration for Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz? Which come to think about it makes sense, as society's indifference to the fate of murdered women is also prevalent in 1928 Berlin. I can't recommend 2666 enough - it's definitely worth the time and effort.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Where Literature and Politics mix. . .

Canadian politics is getting very interesting (yes, really). Our next Prime Minister may just be a Booker short-listed author!

To recap briefly for my international readers (where Canada hardly makes front page news) - we've had an interesting few weeks to say the least.

In our recent federal election, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was re-elected with a minority government. His lacklustre proposals for dealing with the economic crisis have angered the three main opposition parties who threatened to form a coalition government and vote against his budget (effectively ousting the Conservatives from power). Canadians have been quite divided over their support for a coalition government (which would include members of the Bloc Quebecois - the separatist party) questioning whether it's really democratic or not. Harper then went to our Governor-General and invoking a rarely used constitutional clause (more heated debate), got her to suspend Parliament until January, thus avoiding a non-confidence vote and buying some time for his party. In the midst of this, and under severe pressure from his party, Stephane Dion, the Official Leader of the Opposition, resigned as leader of the Liberal Party, leaving two main candidates in a race to replace him - Bob Rae and deputy leader Michael Ignatieff (who were once college room-mates). Then this week, Rae dropped out of the race leaving Ignatieff as the new Leader of the Opposition. He has been cautious and cagey about his support for the coalition government, so when and if the budget vote goes against Harper at the end of January, either a new election will be called and of course if his party wins, Ignatieff becomes the new Prime Minister. Or this coalition government may be called upon to form the government and he would be the head of that. A lot can happen between now and then.

Still with me? And who is Michael Ignatieff? Well, he's an academic, historican, journalist and author of numerous books. His novel Scar Tissue was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993 (losing to Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha). I haven't read that novel, but I have read and enjoyed The Russian Album, his biography of four generations of his family. It won the Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction, one of our top literary prizes. He's also written a critically acclaimed biography of Isaiah Berlin. I met Ignatieff many years ago when I was still a bookseller and we hosted a reading for one of his books. I found him charming and very intelligent. He gave a fascinating talk and insisted on engaging with the audience and taking multiple questions even though his frantic publicist was trying to get him to stop, as he had a plane to catch. If Ignatieff becomes Prime Minister, he will almost certainly give Bob Rae a prime Cabinet position. Rae has also written several books and most recently was a judge for the prestigious Giller Prize (he had to read 90 plus novels this year). Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party (one of the parties that would make up the coalition) is a staunch environmentalist and socialist, and has also penned a number of books, including one on homelessness.

What's going on here? We have prominent and powerful politicians who actually read! (As opposed to Harper who thinks the arts are just for elitists and has severely cut arts funding). And with world leaders (and ordinary citizens too) looking to emulate Barack Obama (another reader and author) this can only be a very, very good thing. I have to believe it's going to make a difference in terms of funding for libraries (particularly school libraries which are just absymal in terms of their collections and the lack of full-time librarians), literacy programs, and an overall heightened awareness and attention to the societal importance of books and reading.

I have this vision of Ignatieff and Obama meeting officially for the first time and exchanging gifts of signed first editions of their books. And then the conversation would go something like this:
"Mr. President, before we tackle the economy and NAFTA and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, I really have to know - what are you currently reading?"

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

New on my shelves. . .

Here are a bunch of mostly new, mostly non-fiction books I've recently acquired for the "era shelves" and that I hope to dip into over the holidays.

Survivors' Songs: From Maldon to the Somme by Jon Stallworthy. I like the premise of this book - setting WWI poetry in the context of historical war poetry and I think this will prompt some new thinking about Owen, Sassoon, Brooke etc.

Because You Died: Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After by Vera Brittain, edited by Mark Bostridge. I once had high hopes of doing a PhD on Vera Brittain, but alas, I had a reality rent check/cheque. I still try to read everything I can on her and while I've never thought her poetry particularly strong, this volume has some excellent essays and a lot of photographs that I'd never come across before. And because the Stallworthy doesn't discuss women poets at all.

West End Women: Women and the London Stage 1918-1962 by Maggie Gale. I first got interested in female playwrights during the early part of the 20th century when I was studying the suffrage movement and the work of writers such as Cicely Hamilton. Clemence Dane is another playwright whose work I enjoy and whose play Wild December I encountered while writing a paper on how plays about the Bronte sisters' lives was all the vogue in the 1920s. Dane was also a good friend of Noel Coward and is said to have inspired Madame Arcati, in his play Blithe Spirit (I love it when all my various interests come together). So I definitely need to know more about this time and I'm sure this book will have me scurrying to find copies of plays now relegated to dusty obscurity.

Her Naked Skin by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. This is a contemporary play about British suffragists imprisoned in Holloway in 1913. The play got mixed reviews when it was running in London but I still want to read it. It will be interesting to compare it with the text of a play that I did see in Toronto - Linda Griffiths' Age of Arousal - loosely based on George Gissing's The Odd Women.

And finally, keeping with the theatre theme, I've also got a copy of Michael Holroyd's A Strange Eventful History - his new biography of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their various troubled offspring. I love Holroyd's writing; his biography of Lytton Strachey really made an impact on me about fifteen years ago when I read it. I'm particularly interested in learning more about Terry's daughter Edy Craig who was a member of the Actresses' Franchise League along with Cicely Hamilton and who founded the feminist Pioneer Players theatre company.
One book leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another. . .

Monday, 8 December 2008

Awed at the AGO. . .

Now that the crowds have died down somewhat, I recently went and spent a few hours exploring our newly renovated Art Gallery of Ontario. What a transformation! With a new design by Frank Gehry, the space seems enormous and the building is so airy with twisting staircases like this one, and hidden nooks and so much more wall space for its art. I wandered through the rooms, got lost, and found myself entering rooms I'd already been in, but from a different entrance, which somehow made the art look fresh again. It was really nice to see some extra space devoted to their large photography collection - there were some display cases that had German family albums of WWI photos that I'd never seen before - and I loved the many themed rooms where contemporary art hung side by side with older pieces to create many interesting dialogues. And it was fun to greet old friends, now hanging in new places. In particular, I was happy to see my favourite painting - Florence Carlyle's 1902 The Tiff - back in the burgundy salon, although now on a different wall. This painting has always seemed to sum up male/female relationships for me. What have they argued about? Is the young woman bored, tapping her fingers on the table, waiting for him to stop gazing out at the window/world? Or is she pissed off, all dressed up with nowhere to go? And I love that tiny, little bit of her skirt's underside peeping out - all fiery red, pointing to deeper passions lurking under her apparent demure nonchalance. I can gaze at this beautiful painting for a very long time; to me, there's a whole novel in it. I wish I could get a poster, but as with the work of so many lesser known female artists, obviously no one has thought a reproduction is worth selling.

Back to the building - one of the striking features is this jutting staircase pictured below (that silvery bit that looks like an eye sticking out of the back) which offers a wonderful view of downtown Toronto which I can't show you as I couldn't take pictures from within the gallery.

The AGO has also expanded their store which has a good selection of beautiful and unusual items that come in all price points. There's also a very nice cafe in the basement that has organic food and eco-friendly packaging. I had a very hearty chicken pot pie and they sell really delicious pastries. The expresso bar on the top floor wasn't yet open when I was there, but I'll definitely be checking it out when it is. I left completely inspired and feeling creative and most of all, very proud that Toronto truly has a world-class art gallery now. I'll be visiting many times, especially since every movie ticket I have from my Cinematique membership gets me in for free. Here are a few more photos of the front and side:

It now fits right in with the rest of the neighbourhood. The Ontario College of Art and Design's quirky and fun building designed by Will Alsop is just down the street.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Celebrating My Favourite Publishers of 2008. . .

The internet and blogworld are buzzing with year end lists of top books and favourite reads - all of which I enjoy browsing as I inevitably end up noting down a new title or two. I've kept a reading journal for years and will blog about my top 10 favourite reads of 2008, but not until January 1st. I get a lot of reading done over the holidays - to pick now would just be premature.

So instead, to inspire all those shoppers planning to give books as gifts, I'm going to list my 10 favourite publishers of 2008. I've bought and read books from all of them this year but they get my vote not only for their interesting and unique lists, but also the care and attention they take in terms of covers and design, editing, websites and blogs - they all have a distinctive and eye-catching look. Not surprisingly they are small and independent presses. Do spend some time exploring their websites - there is some amazing publishing going on here. In my fantasy store, they'd all be well represented. In my private library, they are.

My Top 10 Favourite Publishers of 2008 (in alphabetical order)

Coach House Press. Lots of great Canadian writers got their start with this press and I still discover new talent every year. One of my favourites is Sean Dixon's The Girls Who Saw Everything, about a very unusual type of bookclub. The books always have a savvy design and they use beautiful paper.

Dalkey Archive Press. A publisher that keeps classics alive and introduces all sorts of interesting international literature and literary criticism. They publish one of my favourite contemporary novels of all time - Janice Galloway's Foreign Parts. This year on a trip to Seattle, I picked up one of their newer books that was calling out to me from the tables at the famous Elliot Bay Book Company - Olivier Rollin's Hotel Crystal. And started reading it (where else) but in my hotel room.

Europa Editions. I love the bold covers and French flaps of these trade paperbacks and they have a quirky selection of interesting European crime novels sprinkled among their literature. They had a big hit this year with The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson. It's on my to-be-read pile.

Gaspereau Press. This tiny press in Kentville, Nova Scotia designs the most beautiful books. They are works of art. Their mission statement says it all:

At the core of our philosophy is a commitment to making books that reinstate the importance of the book as a physical object, reuniting publishing and the book arts. Many of our covers are letterpress-printed, feature original artwork by artists like Wesley Bates and George Walker, and are printed on fine paper, in some cases even handmade. Most of our books are smyth-sewn & bound into card covers and are then enfolded in letterpress-printed jackets. Our house paper is Rolland’s Zephyr Antique Laid, a creamy, sensual book paper. Overall, the result is strong, flexible, attractive books that are comfortable, attractive and durable.

My favourite Gaspereau book is The Logogryph by Thomas Wharton. And I'm definitely going to pick up one of their newest - Eva's Threepenny Theatre by Andrew Steinmetz.

Melville House Publishing. A small press that combines all the best of what I love - literature in translation, the classics and interesting, current non-fiction. They have a wonderful Art of the Novella series that republishes classic shorter works, sometimes for the first time in English as with this fall's The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust, translated by Charlotte Mandell. A companion series is The Contemporary Art of the Novella which celebrates current international writers. I recommend Customer Service by Benoît Duteurtre as a prime example. And the book I am most excited about is coming out next spring - Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone, which Primo Levi called, "The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis. " It'll be part of a Fallada revival as his previous work, The Drinker and Little Man, What Now? will also be reissued. Their famous blog MobyLives was also resurrected this year after quite a hiatus.

New Directions. I'm always excited to see what is coming next from this publisher. They consistently discover new and long-forgotten innovative writers from around the world and their book jackets are always edgy and cool - especially their black and white covers. This year I bought The Way It Wasn't - an autobiography (of sorts) by the founder James Laughlin. I also have many books by Javier Marias sitting on my shelves that I just haven't found the time to read yet. I do have one tiny beef with them - they have a great website for alerting readers to new books and events, but their online backlist catalogue gives no descriptions of the books and since many of their authors are not recognizable names, I think they are losing a lot of potential sales here.

New York Review of Books. Just a perennial favourite. I've enjoyed several of their new books this year, most notably Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge, The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson and The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig. I can honestly say that I've never picked up an NYRB classic and regretted the time I spent reading it. Impeccable editorial eye. Plus they also re-released one of the funniest children's books ever - The 13 Clocks by James Thurber.

Open Letter. This is a fairly new publisher out of the University of Rochester devoted to literature in translation and I love that their books are boldly designed hardcovers with no dust jackets. One of their unique marketing ideas is to offer a monthly subscription so that you can receive a new book in the mail each month. You can choose between a six or twelve month subscription and start with any book you like. The website only allows for U.S. orders, but if you e-mail them directly, they will set up an account for you to ship anywhere in the world (they will re-calculate shipping costs). A great idea and I'm rooting for this press big-time. One of their new releases this month is Marguerite Duras's The Sailor From Gibraltar, translated by Barbara Bray. Do also check out their terrific blog Three Percent.

Other Press. This press is great at publishing contemporary international fiction and two of my favourite reads of 2008 came courtesy of their editorial eye. The Open Door by Elizabeth Maguire is a fictional account of the life of bestselling American author Constance Fenimore Woolson, including an interesting take on her relationship with Henry James that becomes more fascinating if you've also read (as I have), Colm Toibin's The Master and David Lodge's Author, Author. I was also introduced this year to Chilean writer Elizabeth Subercaseaux with her moving novel A Week In October.

Persephone Books. Another favourite and a press that I collect . I'm always intrigued by what gem they will discover next. And they publish the most beautiful catalogues and newsletters - collectibles on their own. I feel my bookcases straightening their spines and holding themselves just a little more proudly whenever I add a new Persephone to their shelves. This year I was thrilled that they republished The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby and A Very Great Profession by founder Nicola Beauman.

There's been a lot of doom and gloom about the publishing industry lately and the economic downturn is definitely going to affect the larger publishers and chain stores. But readers needn't feel depressed - there are still a lot of exciting new authors to discover. Buy lots of books this season for your loved ones and support your independent bookstores!