Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Letter Opener

The Letter Opener / Kyo Maclear
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2007.
312 p.

This is a dreamy, introspective book; a story that is being told to us by main character Naiko. She's an employee at the Undeliverable Mail Office of Canada Post -- her job is to try to match up all the missing letters and items that end up in their office with claims that come in to the facility. It's a perfect set-up for musings on identity, how physical objects represent emotions and memories, and on connection. Maclear uses this to play with questions of identity in many different ways: Naiko has a coworker Andrei, who is a refugee from Romania, and we only hear his story as told to Naiko -- it's another distancing, another way of pointing out that much of what we know is a story told by someone, and how reliable are such stories, really? Naiko's mother is also suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, and becomes strongly focused on her collections, the pens and the household items she hoards which hold meaning for her.

Naiko is the main character; all the action, such as it is, revolves around her life and her viewpoint. However, she is quite a passive character, in that she watches and absorbs others' stories, allowing her own life to drift somewhat. When Andrei disappears from work and his home, she puzzles over why and how he would suddenly abandon her. She becomes rather obsessed with this 'missing item' -- as his primary 'listener' she feels she had become a part of his life, and is now adrift. Has she heard everything that he had to say? Was she missing some small clue? This fixation on knowing the truth also plays out in her own story, as she tries to recall all the minute elements of her childhood and her parent's lives, even as her mother forgets. Naiko has a sister, Kana, but Kana is an active, successful, outward looking international journalist -- basically a mirror image of Naiko. Her physical absence and the relationship with Naiko and their mother is touched upon, but there could have been so much more about the siblings -- I felt there were resentments and stories simmering beneath the surface of that relationship.

While the story is very much a Story, being told to us, with the key points of the action happening off stage (so to speak) I found this book satisfying in a meditative way. Naiko seems to want to freeze time long enough to understand, to capture the memories she feels are disappearing. I could relate to that sense of the world moving too fast, the mind lagging behind a bit. Naiko, however, is fixated on physical objects as repositories of a person's stories, of their actual presence in the world.

There are some beautiful phrases, some great characters, a unique and intriguing setting, and lots to think about. There were a few flaws: sometimes the story felt like it was moving a little too slowly or distancing the reader a bit too much, and the character of Naiko's boyfriend was very puzzling to me -- he seems preternaturally patient and sympathetic to his girlfriend's stagnation at one point of her life, and very relaxed about her obsession with another man (Andrei is gay so there is no real sexual tension for him to worry about but still)

Overall, though, I did find this a good read. It is slow, thoughtful and cool in tone, but if you are interested in seeing how physical objects and the many issues of nationality and personal identity intersect, do give this novel a try.

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Kyo Maclear is a visual arts writer and novelist based in Toronto. She was born in London, England and moved to Toronto at the age of four. Kyo holds an Honours B.A. in Fine Art and Art History and an M.A. in Cultural Studies from the University of Toronto. Her short fiction, essays and art criticism have been widely published and anthologized in North America, Europe and Asia/Australia. Her first children’s book, Spork, was published by Kids Can Press in the Fall of 2010. kyomaclearkids.ca

No more November??

What? Where did November go? I am amazed that so much time has elapsed since the last time I posted here... I have so much to catch up on. I've been reading some great books, and want to talk about them. Things just get -- really busy -- somehow.

November has been a pretty good month, even if it has gone by in a flash. First, I organized the first Wellness Info Fair here in my hometown, a day of information and interaction with 18 local businesspeople involved in wellness in some way. We had a wide variety of options, from counselling to cranio-sacral massage to cleaning supplies. It was really fun and inspiring but it did take a lot of my focus over the past few weeks. I was, of course, representing my business Four Rooms Creative Self Care, which focuses on journaling and bibliotherapy to facilitate personal wellness. I do love literature! I've also created a PDF full of suggestions on how to use journaling to create homemade, frugal and meaningful Christmas gifts...if you love journaling as much as I do, sign up for my Four Rooms newsletter and then download the pdf for some ideas. I've given many of these gifts myself.

Then, I faced one of my greatest fears head on... I gave a speech at the first Ignite event in our area. Yes, I am quite terrified of public speaking but this year I really wanted to do something that scared me. This certainly qualified! Ignite speeches are exactly five minutes long so I thought it wouldn't be too hard. And my theme was, not surprisingly, all about reading. The combination of time constraints and a great topic made it actually not too bad at all. Now that my brain has calmed down from these two events right on top of each other I can finish some of the books I had stopped reading, and post about some others that I have enjoyed but never got a chance to talk about.

Thank goodness for a little peace and quiet :)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Return to Paris

New York: Washington Square Press, c2003.
227 p.

Speaking of Paris...I just finished this book by Colette Rossant, the second of her memoirs that I've read. The first, Apricots along the Nile, I simply loved. It was about her Cairo childhood, and had that dreamy feeling of a golden childhood. In this volume, Rossant is talking about her teen/young adulthood years when she had to live with her grandmother in an uncongenial setting in France. It was an unhappy time for her, for many reasons: in Egypt she had gone to a convent school and identified as Catholic, but in France she discovered that her Jewish side was paramount. In post-war France, denying her Jewish identity was not something Rossant's grandmother was about to let her do. She was also thrown into this family that she didn't really know -- her brother and her grandmother had spent the war in France and were deeply affected. Colette had been trapped in Egypt during the war, and been largely unaffected. The clash of expectations and outlooks on life caused her no end of difficulty.

I liked this book, as it continued telling her journey from childhood to her discovery of her place in life. However, the teen years are never smooth or really ego-free for anyone, and this book suffered a little from that focus. Fighting to become an independent woman among her very traditional family made her interactions rough at times, but necessary for her development. Still, now and again I felt like I was reading Françoise Sagan, with her French devil-may-care femininity. Colette meets her American husband on his visit to France when she is quite young; they fall in love, and she waits for him to return. The next book in the series takes us to her life in New York, and I am looking forward to that one, perhaps more so than a story of adolescence.

Rossant is a food writer and a cook, so recipes are included among the stories; in the first book there were Egyptian recipes -- new to me and many vegetarian ones. In this volume, the recipes are mainly French, and quite meaty. Others could use those ones, though, and I'll stick with the simple salads! I love the way she ties food into her memories and how food plays such a major role in her relationships, both good and bad. She is proud of the meal she prepares for her future husband the first time they meet; she finally makes a kind of detente with her stepfather over gourmet meals in his hotel restaurants; the one person she has a close relationship with in her grandmother's house is the housekeeper, who lets her help in the kitchen.

The only real difficulty I had with this one was that the text jumped around a lot. I wasn't sure of the chronology in a few parts, and there were repeated elements in different chapters. Still, it is an enjoyable read, especially if you like food memoirs, or even just stories of women's lives in dramatic times. I wholeheartedly recommend the first book, Apricots on the Nile, and recommend this one if you are a fan of Paris or of Colette Rossant.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Green Books Campaign 2010: The Measure of Paris

On Wednesday, November 10, 2010, at 1:00 PM Eastern Time 200 bloggers will take a stand to support books printed on environmental paper by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 such books.

Launched in 2009 by Eco-Libris, this campaign is aiming to promote “green” books by reviewing 200 books printed on recycled paper or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using environmental paper, we want to raise the awareness of book buyers to this issue and encourage them to take it into consideration when purchasing books.

This year the campaign is supported by Indigo Books & Music, the largest book retailer in Canada, as part of its efforts to draw attention to the need for more environmental paper in book publishing.

The Measure of Paris / Stephen Scobie
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, c2010.
xiv, 340 p.

I participated in the first year of the Green Books Campaign last year, coincidentally reading another book by the University of Alberta Press. They are committed to green publishing, with this year's book being printed on Enviro Paper, containing 100% post-consumer recycled fibres and is acid and chlorine free. Plus it feels really nice ;)

This book is part of the "Wayfarer" series, a Literary Travel series. Although I found the cover a bit dreary at first, it is a photo by Brassai and once you've read the book it fits quite well.

Stephen Scobie lived in Paris with his wife on two occasions for a number of years, and knows it well. This book evokes shades of literary Paris in an interesting mix of both personal and academic studies of the literary experience of Paris, primarily through the eyes of Canadian authors.

Beginning with the trope of "Paris perdu" he threads the reactions to the re-design of Paris by Baron Haussmann as well as the arrival of the Eiffel Tower with references to Walter Benjamin, Robert McAlmon, John Glassco, Mavis Gallant and many others, including the amusing anecdote that Guy de Maupassant would often dine in the restaurant at the base of the Eiffel Tower because it was the one place where he could not see it. Scobie concludes that Paris, like most cities, is constantly changing and growing and that the initial trope of "Paris perdu" is an old one and yet is continually renewed by the nostalgia of personal experience.

He follows this chapter up with an analysis of autobiographies of Paris life, including Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas; John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse; Robert McAlmon's Being Geniuses Together (edited by Kay Boyle); and Gail Scott's My Paris. Of particular interest in this section is the fascinating topic of author/narrator appropriation.

There is also an intriguing section on the "flâneur" in the works of the above, as well as in Sheila Watson's works. The listing of street names while walking and observing, the idea of maps and metonymy, feed the creativity of these authors. Scobie covers many of the classic "Paris" authors like Stein, Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, as well as many Canadians (it is a Canadian book, after all). This focus on autobiography was quite a fascinating element, especially when he ties it in to his own personal autobiography. He discovers that a building in which he and his wife had lived had also housed the painter Paul-Émile Borduas, who had lived, painted and died there. He also reveals the serendipitous discovery that former Canadian Governor General Adrienne Clarkson had lived in the building prior to him.

Added to this is a couple of academic pieces on two writers, Lola Lemire Tostevin and Gerry Shikatani, followed by two short chapters, one about his first visit to Paris in 1970 and the second being excerpts from his 2002 journal of a later visit.

It is an excellent study, with over 20 pages of detailed notes, and a good bibliography and index. Once again, like the University of Alberta Press book I read for last year's Green Books Campaign, they have included on the publishing information page the names of the copyeditor, proofreader and indexer (Judy Dunlop - great index!) Recognition of all the publishing professionals involved is a wonderful thing to see and I really wish other publishers would follow suit with this respectful practice.

I'm glad I had a chance to participate in the Green Books Campaign again this year -- it is a great reminder that we can be green even in the littlest things like choosing a book to read. Take some time to go to their Campaign site and check out some of the other 204 books under review.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Revisiting Green Gables

Toronto: Penguin, 1981, c1908.
311 p.

Where does the time go? It seems like just last weekend that I was partipating in the Readathon, but it was nearly a month ago! But I do want to talk about my experience of rereading a very familiar childhood classic -- and eventually review all the other books I read that weekend as well.
But first things first -- on rereading tales of Anne-with-an-E. This is a book I first read when I was around ten or eleven. I still have my first copy, complete with my own spine label and card pocket I created from regular paper, writing them with pink pen for some unknown reason, and attaching with scotch tape. Now that I am a proper librarian I know never to use scotch tape on a book - it has dried up and fallen off, leaving behind discoloured strips. But I still have the pocket and card tucked in the back.

It was a funny experience rereading this book this time around. I last read it a few years ago, and this time as I began I had the odd feeling that I knew the lines so well, it was almost as if I'd written them. Not just the story, but the actual phrases and sentences are laid down in my brain so deeply!

I enjoyed following the structure of the book as Anne arrives in Avonlea: first Rachel Lynde, then Matthew Cuthbert, then Marilla Cuthbert "Are Surprised", in the first three chapters. As Anne settles in, her experiences change her and change Marilla. I think one of the things I love best reading this as an adult is the way Marilla opens up and grows through her life with Anne. Her steady, moral influence is a strong factor in Anne's development, but at the same time Marilla is not ashamed to admit when she is wrong or to respect others who do the right thing. And she has a dormant sense of humour that Anne revives.

I was also reminded how very episodic this book is. Each chapter, after the first few, takes on a separate moment in Anne's childhood, taking her right up to graduation from school. It flies by, and yet feels so rich and full that we as readers always feel like we were a part of Anne's long and dreamy childhood. To me, that shows that LM Montgomery never really intended an eight book series, otherwise she would have left more room for further tales of childhood. As she said in her own diaries, the public was clamouring for more Anne, and she became 'heartily sick of Anne'. Still, this book is a gem and holds up to multiple rereads. I do love Avonlea, and Anne, and especially Marilla.

If you haven't read it yet, do start your career of rereading it now!

Monday, November 01, 2010

November Is Here

"Why November exactly?"

"I need rainstorms and fairly cool air. I need rotting leaves and muddy roads. The kind of shivering quality that characterises November. The grey, naked landscape stripped of everything that grows and comforts us, but not yet blessed with white, icing-sugar snow. A bleak time in many ways, a brutal time. It is as if everything surrenders in November and we huddle in corners and light candles. I love November."

"But why?" he repeats.

"I was born in that month, on the sixth. It was a wild night, God-awful weather, when I saw the world for the first time. November is in my blood, a darkness, a melancholy. A permanent feeling of sadness. My hands are like bare branches, I have fog in my head and storm in my heart. ... But I love all the months, each has its own tone, its own hue. Imagine this wheel. January, for example, bright blue and white and a trumpet with clear, sharp notes. February, almost identical, with the sun a little more yellow and I hear a cornet. March, grey and white, I hear a viola, there lies a faint hope in its deep note. April, yellow and white. "

"Violins" I say, "with a hint of trapped despair. May, yellow and green. People dancing around a maypole. June, airy and sky blue, accordion. A big flaming bonfire, sparks flying off out into the night. July is a deep yellow, the colour of sand, the sound of a radio. August, the summer is fading, I hear a faint guitar. Then comes your month, September. It is the colour of earth and now I hear a cello. October," I continue, "rusty red and with a strong beat. Someone is playing an oboe. November, as I mentioned just now, bare. In November I hear kettledrums and a moaning trombone. Then we finally reach December, with candles and tinsel. And so the years pass, in an ever-recurring circle."

Karin Fossum
from Broken