Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Journeyman to Grief

A delightful Victoria Day weekend was had in these parts - sunny and warm, hot even. Saturday was an incredible 29°C and sunny! But is was unseasonably coolish in the east, with Toronto only hitting 19°C on Saturday. Perhaps this explains the mildly grumpy column by Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe and Mail on the weekend: "Why this Victoria Day should be our last." It begins:
Let's all enjoy the Victoria Day weekend - and resolve that it will be the last. Not the holiday, of course, but the name: Victoria Day. Let's grow up, Canada, and take pride in what is Canadian, rather than glorifying an English monarch who died in 1901 after an admittedly stellar reign of almost 64 years.
I heartily disagree. I like having a link to Canada's monarchical, colonial and British past. It is a reminder that this country was a creature of the British Empire, and was born as a nation state during Victoria's watch. And perhaps it is especially useful to remember the Grand Old Dame here in a in a province named after her daughter (Alberta), with a lovely place like Lake Louise (also her daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta), where every second person is from Regina (named after her Latin title, Regina) or Prince Albert (her husband Prince Albert), and everyone retires to Victoria (yes, her!), British Columbia (name chosen by Victoria over New Caledonia)!
Besides, it gives librarians an opportunity to haul out all those great old Victorian tomes for displays. Here's some suggestions of neo-Victorian reads this year:

A Journeyman to Grief by Maureen Jennings.
The latest (7th) in the entertaining Detective Murdoch mystery series, which poke holes in the reputation of “Toronto the Good.” The Detective Murdoch character is the basis for the TV series that airs on CITY-TV locally. The latest novel is set in grimy, violent 1858 Toronto, and is a tale of slavery, addiction, violence and revenge. The Library has the entire series:
6. Vices of My Blood (2006)
5. Night's Child (2005)
4. Let Loose the Dogs (2003)
3. Poor Tom is Cold (2000)
2. Under the Dragon's Tale (1998)
1. Except the Dying (1997)
Another fictional look at the Upper Canada of the 19th century is Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. This is one of Atwood’s very best novels - winner of the Giller, nominee for the Booker. A brilliant imagining of the real story of an infamous Victorian-era murder in 1843 Upper Canada. Atwood tells the intriguing story of Grace Marks, barely 16 when she was charged with the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


There is something pleasingly off-kilter about the film Blindness opening the Cannes Films Festival. The glorious sun of southern France bathing the glamorous and glittery people next to the shining waters of the Mediterranean before everyone troops into the dark of the theatre to see a bleak film about the thin veneer of modern civilization giving way so very easily.
Even the film's director, Brazillian Fernando Meirelles has remarked that opening Cannes is an honour, bien sur, but "I still don't think this is the best film to open a festival. It's a harsh story. But it's a beautiful film." And star Julianne Moore noted it was "kind of odd."

The film is based on the 1997 [English] / 1995 [Portuguese] novel by Jose Saramago. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, Saramago has the reputation of a prickly pear - he remains a staunch Portuguese Stalinist! Several filmmakers interested in the book were turned away until he accepted the offer of a Canadian-Brazilian-Japanese co-production.
Here's what Kirkus Reviews noted in 1998:
The embattled relationships among the people of a city mysteriously struck by an epidemic of blindness form the core of this superb novel .... A driver stalled at a busy intersection suddenly suffers an attack of "white blindness". The "false Samaritan" who helps him home and then steals his car is the next victim. A busy ophthalmologist follows, then two of his patients. And on it goes, until the city's afflicted blind are "quarantined" in an unused mental ward; the guards ensuring their incarceration panic and begin to shoot; and a paternalistic "Ministry" runs out of strategies to oversee "an uprooted, exhausted world" in a state of escalating chaos .... Blindness never feels like a lesson, thanks to Saramago's mastery of plot, urbane narration, and resourceful characterizations. All the people are nameless ("the girl with the dark glasses," "the boy with the squint"), but we learn an enormous amount about them, and the central figure--the ophthalmologist's wife, who pretends to be blind in order to accompany her husband--is triumphantly employed as both viewpoint character and "the leader of the blind." Echoes of Orwell's 1984 and images hinting at Holocaust experiences enrich the texture of a brilliant allegory that may be as revolutionary in its own way and time as were, say, The Trial and The Plague in theirs. Another masterpiece.
Sadly, the initial reviews of the film version are pretty dismal. With a Canadian producer and writer (Don McKellar), filmed partially in Toronto, with some Canadian actors (Sandra Oh, Maury Chaykin) the film has been described as a Canadian film. But if the reviews continue in this vein perhaps we'll blame the Brazilian director and call it a Brazilian film!
Regardless, pick up the book, which is excellent. It isn't an easy read as there is little punctuation, paragraphs and the characters aren't named. But it is worth the effort.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Savage Detectives

St. Patrick's Day evolved as a day for expat Irish to celebrate their Irishness - it was never much of a holiday in Ireland. And giant beer companies like Guinness saw the fabulous marketing opportunity and have helped push the day forward in the public mind. Cinco de Mayo (the Fifth of May) is evolving the same way. It began as an unheralded Mexican holiday, celebrating the Mexican victory over the French army in the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862. But Americans of Mexican heritage began using Cinco de Mayo to express pride in Latino heritage. Nowadays the day is a mainstream American holiday, celebrated by many non-Latinos, and certainly co-opted and encouraged by food and beverage corporations (the start of the summer beer-selling season!).

But one needn't drink mojitos or Corona beer to get in on the fun. There are many, many excellent, entertaining novels by Latino writers available. [Edit.: Don't have fun and imbibe pitchers of caipirinhas? Read a book? Okay, perhaps too grimly Marion the librarian. Have the tequila, sing "La Cucaracha", then on May 6 crack open the novels. Alright?] Oprah helped kick Gabriel Garcia Marquez to another level of popularity, choosing his 1967 masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude for her Book Club. But it has been a "must read" for many years. Novelist William Kennedy wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "One Hundred Years of Solitude is the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race....Mr. García Márquez has done nothing less than to create in the reader a sense of all that is profound, meaningful, and meaningless in life. To boil a complex novel down absurdly: the story is the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondom, as shown through the history of the Buendía family.

Recently there seems to have been a renaissance in Latino writing, with several writers taking on the challenge of Marquez as Important Hispanic Novelist. Chilean-born novelist Roberto Bolaño was one of the greatest Spanish-language writers before his early death in 2003. His 1998 novel, The Savage Detectives, was translated into English and published to wide acclaim in 2007. The novel follows the lives and loves of two Mexican poets from Mexico around the globe, from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Junot Díaz is a young American writer, born in the Dominican Republic, who grew up in New Jersey. He comes out of the academic creative-writing stream, with a MFA degree from Cornell University. But his writing is a tumultuous stew of salty street slang, big thoughts and "eggheaded urban eloquence" (Jabari Asim, Washington Post). His 2007 novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is described as "darkly funny and at times heartbreaking", a novel that mixes "Díaz's unlikely hero (an obese Dominican Trekkie terrified of dying a virgin) with a rich narrative voice that compels sympathy over pity as the inner workings of both Oscar and his native Dominican Republic are laid bare." (Ann J., Powells.com). And the mantle of VIP novelist was handed to Díaz when he won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.