Thursday, 22 January 2009

Easy on the ears. . .

Feeling a little blah this January? Tired of all the dull, cloudy, cold days?
Well, while waiting for the movie to be widely released, get a copy of the Easy Virtue soundtrack. Based of course on the Noel Coward play, the CD is full of upbeat, toe-tapping songs from the era, many of course by Coward. There are also more contemporary songs such as Tom Jones' Sexbomb and Billy Ocean's When the Going Gets Tough, that are orchestrated as though they had originated from the 1920s. The CD opens with a not-bad rendition of Mad About the Boy sung by Jessica Biel who stars in the film along with Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, and Kristin Scott Thomas (the latter two don't sing, but Colin does have a speaking line in the last song). One of the tracks is the instrumental tango that Colin and Jessica dance to near the end of the movie. I saw (and really liked) the film at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, and let me tell you - that tango was very hot. Lots of female sighs in the audience.
I'll definitely be seeing the film again when it opens - in the meantime, listen to the soundtrack. I guareentee an immediate mood improvement.

Monday, 12 January 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog. . .

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson is the first book completed in my Lost in Translation reading challenge and it is as stylish as its title.
The "Hedgehog" is Renée Michel, a fifty-four year old widow who works as a concierge in an apartment building made up of wealthy, snobbish people. To them she's a dull, slow and shuffling servant who is easily ignored. And Renée is happy to project that image to the tenants to divert their attention from her real passions. Once her door is closed however, she escapes to a world of books and foreign films in an ongoing attempt, not only to educate herself, but to engage with the beauty of art and life. Her world changes when two of the apartment dwellers - an introspective and intelligent 12 year old named Paloma, who is planning to commit suicide by her next birthday, and the newest tenant, a middle-aged Japanese businessman named Monsieur Ozu - suspect that Madame Michel is not who she is and set out to prove it. As Paloma writes:
Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant.

The narrative alternates between Renée's story and excerpts from Paloma's two journals which inscribe her "Profound Thoughts" and "Movements of the World". In the latter, she dissects everything from synchronized diving to the spectacle of two women fighting over the last pair of panties at a lingerie sale as "masterpieces of matter" that constitute examples of art and beauty as she searches for reasons to continue living. A bonding moment with Monsieur Ozu in the elevator occurs when they realize they've both been closely observing their secretive concierge, and the three form an unusual friendship - Ozu and Madame Michel initially connecting over a shared love of Anna Karenina. Ozu's friendly overtures in particular, initiate some big changes in Renée's life and allow her to confront a painful episode in her past.

But this novel is far more than just a modern day Cinderella story (Madame Michel doesn't go to a ball, but does get invited to a fancy dinner). It explores and celebrates so many things we often forget in the craziness of daily routines, such as the importance of really appreciating - and in fact creating - those tiny little moments of life, as simple as luxuriating in the taste of a delicious pastry, or looking closely at a beautiful flower. Reading a wonderful book. Paying attention to the placement of commas. Or truly taking the time to connect with another person, whatever their age or background. It illustrates how art and literature transcends all cultural divides and is the most universal entity that we have. And it makes you think. Have you ever negatively judged a person by their occupation? Or alternatively have you ever dumbed down your own abilities (or reading passions) to fit in at a party or even at work? Even if you work in the book industry? Guilty on both counts. As such, this is such an inspiring novel (I love Proust, Tolstoy and foreign films, okay, and I'm proud of it.)
This novel will make you smile, laugh, grimace, and weep. It will make you feel. I absolutely loved it.
And now if you'll excuse me, I need to make myself a cup of green tea and find some films by Yasujiro Ozu.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

The Human Factor. . .

It's been a horrible day weatherwise in Toronto - snow, freezing rain, ice pellets, more snow, blowing wind - I was so glad to have the day off and not have to venture out into it. Instead it felt like a lazy Sunday. I spent the day taking intense, grateful pleasure in the warm, cozy things that are part of my apartment, such as these two pillows:

I found the material - which has a soft velvet texture, lovely to rest one's head against - in a sale bin at a fabric store. It only cost $3.00! and there was just enough in the remnant to get two pillow covers out of it. I sewed these over the holidays and I just love them - they pull together all the colours of my living room.
Today I needed to read not only something enjoyable but aesthically beautiful as well. Folios have always been my weakness. I've belonged to the society for some years now (you only need to buy four books a year) and I just love their selection, the bindings, the paper, the illustrations -these are truly beautiful books to hold and behold. And the volume calling to me today was Graham Greene's The Human Factor.

I've read about five books of his (The End of the Affair is my favourite) and he never disappoints. He's the type of writer I turn to when I have the time to sit and read a book straight through in one or two sittings. And I'm partial to spy stories. The Human Factor follows a group of ordinary men who work in an office of the British Secret Service, and the investigation that follows when a leak is suspected. As with all of Greene's work, morals, loyalty, politics and love are all individually questioned, defined, and debated. The cover, designed by Bill Bragg who also illustrates the interior, is absolutely perfect, capturing not only the utter loneliness and anonymity of doing this type of work, (and the insomnia that goes with it) but re-enforcing the recurrent theme of knowing your particular "box" in life and staying within it. Here's a wonderful passage in which one character uses an abstract painting by Ben Nicholson containing squares of different colours to articulate a certain cold, bureaucratic philosophy:

Percival pointed at a yellow square. "There's your section 6. That's your square from now on. You don't need to worry about the blue and the red. All you have to do is pinpoint our man and then tell me. You've no responsibility for what happens in the blue or red squares. in fact not even in the yellow. You just report. No bad conscience. No guilt. . . Nothing to keep you awake. Do just try to understand that picture. Particularly the yellow square. If you could only see it with my eyes, you would sleep well tonight."

But of course that yellow square isn't just paint but contains a human being. And the reader, perhaps is also bathed in a yellow square of their own, cast by their reading lamp. Delicious chills abound. A used bookstore - Halliday & Son - also plays a large role in this thriller, as does the incessant rain. Here is one of the interior illustrations by Bragg.

Yes, it really was the perfect book to read today.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Lost in Translation Reading Challenge. . .

One of my many New Year's Reading Resolutions - along with trying to read 125 books this year, to re-read all of Virginia Woolf's novels, (some of which I haven't dipped into in over 20 years) and to finally tackle Dante - is to participate in this very interesting Lost in Translation Reading Challenge which is not only a great way to get tons of reader recommendations, but also to discover some very interesting blogs. Bloggers sign up and agree to read at least six books in translation this year, and then blog about them. Frances at Nonsuch Book who has put the challenge together, then links to reviews and reading suggestions as well as blogging about books she has also come across.

I'm going to put my own individual spin on the challenge though, incorporating another of my reading resolutions which is to read more of the books already sitting on my shelves. I already rather voraciously read literature in translation - I took a count in my 2008 reading diary and I read 29 books last year in translation - so reading six won't be a problem at all. But as I was browsing my shelves to pull out potential titles, the pile just got bigger and bigger. So instead of just six books, I've devised six different categories of reading in translation - my personal challenge will be to read at least 3 books in each category. Here they are and I hope they also offer some good reading suggestions for others participating in this fun challenge.

1. Books that mirror the (admittedly loose) literary aims of this blog (i.e. books that were written in the period of Virginia Woolf's lifetime (1882-1941):

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, Jenny and Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke, Shoot! and The Late Mattia Pascal by Luigi Pirandello, Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig, The Last Days by Raymond Queneau and The Pure and the Impure by Colette. I also want to read more of Iceland's Hallador Laxness since I recently read and loved his most famous book, Independent People. Iceland's Bell, World Light and The Fish Can Sing keep staring at me from the shelves.

2. Books by contemporary writers:
There's so much to choose from in this category, but these are the ones on my shelf demanding immediate attention:

To Siberia and In the Wake by Norweigan writer Per Petterson (I loved his novel Out Stealing Horses)
After tackling 2666, I need more Roberto Bolaño- The Savage Detectives and By Night in Chile.
All Our Worldly Goods and Le Bal by Irène Némirovsky
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
New Lives by Ingo Schulze
Beijing Coma by Ma Jian
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
The Sailor from Gibraltar by Marguerite Duras

3. Writers from Quebec:

I really should be reading more in my own backyard; I'm horribly ignorant about Quebecois literature and definitely need to read more. These are some of the books I've picked up over the years:
The Cashier and Windflower by Gabrielle Roy, Charles the Bold and The Years of Fire by Yves Beauchemin, Birth of a Bookworm by Michel Tremblay, Mauve Desert and Yesterday at the Hotel Clarendon by Nicole Brossard and Spring Tides by Jacques Poulin.

4. Mysteries:
I currently have many unread mystery and crime novels sitting on my shelves by Henning Mankell, Fred Vargas, Georges Simenon, Arnaldur Indridsson, Leonardo Sciascia and the one whose title I absolutely love (so it really should go to the top of the pile) is Carlo Emilio Gadda's That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana. Also, I just finished Roseanna, the first in the series of Martin Beck mysteries by Swedish couple Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and I want more. The Man Who Went Up in Smoke is the next in the series.

5. Classics:
This is probably being overly ambitious but two big classics in translation that I've always wanted to read are The Tale of the Genji by Murasaki and Boccaccio's Decameron. Then there is Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, Goethe's Faust, and oh, I really need to tackle Dante's Divine Comedy sooner rather than later. And does Sir Gawain and the Green Knight count as a translation? I certainly can't read the original Middle English. Plus I've always wanted to tackle Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and for the winter months, I think Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov would be the perfect choice (about a guy who spends an inordinate amount of time in bed).

6. Children's Books:
For fun!
Emil the Detective by Erich Kästner, Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson, Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter, Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, The Killer's Tears by Anne-Laure Bondoux, and The Pull of the Ocean by Jean-Claude Mourlevat.

Whew! This should keep me busy for awhile.

Friday, 2 January 2009

My Favourite Reads of 2008. . .

Happy New Year!
I spent the day tidying up my apartment, ostensibly because my mother was coming for lunch, but also to start the year somewhat fresh and clutter free. And it was time to dust the bookshelves. Then I went through my reading diary for 2008. I finished 109 books last year, somewhat shy of the 125 I had hoped to complete but several of the books were over 800 pages so I'm not going to beat myself up about it. As I look over the list, I realize I've read mostly contemporary and new fiction (nothing wrong with that, I enjoyed most of it) but didn't tackle anywhere near the number of classics, books about Woolf, books set in the period of Woolf's life, Viragos, Persephones, and books about WWI that I've been madly collecting over the last few years. And they're now glaring at me from their shelves. So these are what I'm determined to focus on in 2009.
But I read some terrific books last year and here are my top 10 favourites (in alphabetical order by author - I just can't pick the best of the bunch)

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
This should have won the Man Booker prize. One can quibble about the ending, but I didn't see it coming and I was so enthralled in the story that I didn't even think to question it when it did arrive; I was completely caught in a narrative spell the entire time.

2666 by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer
One can't help but admire the immense writing skill behind this - a very long, but entertaining, thought-provoking and original novel.

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
Probably the most beautifully sustained writing of any novel I read this year.

A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their Remarkable Families by Michael Holroyd
One of the last books I read this year and I'll blog about it in more detail soon, but these lives were fascinating and I can only remain awed and grateful for the years of research this book must have entailed.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal
Just a perfect little gem about the wonders of childhood, the experience and wisdom of aging, and everything in between. This is a book I know I'll return to many times in the future.

Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance by Lloyd Jones
Two interconnected love stories spanning the world and decades. I am now hooked on Argentinian tango music.

In Spite of Myself by Christopher Plummer
What a storyteller - this book made me laugh and laugh, sometimes with an almost prudish horror and ultimately with delight. Plummer is a great writer as well as being a terrific actor.

Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge, translated by Richard Greenman
I've always been fascinated by the interwar years, spies and the complicated relationships - political, personal, and ideological - that people had with communism, especially during the 1930s. This powerful novel was horrifying and unputdownable.

Between Each Breath by Adam Thorpe.
Thorpe is one of my favourite British writers who has a real ability to make readers feel morally uneasy about the smugness of our comfortable lives. This novel is about a frustrated composer and his guilt over sponging off his wife's money; his problems only escalate when he has an affair while visting Tallin, with an Estonian waitress. It's a novel about creativity and music, and the re-evaluation of one's life and values, and the writing is just so beautiful. Here is one of my favourite passages:
It's as if walking without looking where I was going - walking backward, heels first, virtually improvising - I have suddenly turned my head. I very much like what I see stretching out in front of me. It was always there too, I just didn't realize it. It just needed a turn of the head.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
2008 was definitely the year to finally read this masterpiece as I also managed to watch Sergei Bondarchuk's 7 hour plus 1968 film version all in one day at Cinematheque, and I also saw the Canadian Opera Company's production of Prokofiev's opera this fall. I was surprised by how immensely readable and gripping this was.