Thursday, May 29, 2008
On literary festivals that I can't get to and a recommended reading list of authors that I can . . .
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
While the design has had its critics, I quite liked it. It certainly stands out among its neighbouring buildings (I never have a problem if a library wants to draw attention to itself, architectually or otherwise). and once inside, all the floors are flooded with natural light which allows for very comfortable reading. The chairs are extremely comfy and well-padded, and though there is a lot of open space, the acoustics are such that you don't hear a lot of echoing voices or computer tapping. The third photo with the Dewey Decimal numbers on the floor is part of their four floor spiral system. You can follow the gentle ramp continuously through all the non-fiction sections, leading to the magazines and documents. The red stairs lead up to the fourth floor which contains meeting rooms - the walls, ceilings and floors are all painted different shades of red.
And there's a great view of the city high up on the tenth floor.
Monday, May 26, 2008
I have to say that it was the title that first drew me to this novel, although I've read and enjoyed Stefan Zweig's novella, The Chess Story, and definitely wanted to explore more of his work. But many years ago, I was a post-office girl. This was a time when Canada Post, in order to save money started leasing postal outlets into drugstores and in my case, a university bookstore (no more government salaries - you could pay part-time clerks half the wages). I remember my boss coming up to me on a Friday afternoon with two huge binders and saying, "here you go, you'll be opening the post office on Monday." I was petrified with the huge responsibility of handling people's mail (this was in the pre-email days when letters were actually written, bills paid by cheque, grad school applications that needed to be couriered by a certain time etc.) But after multiple frantic calls to Canada Post's helpline, I quickly got the hang of it and actually started to enjoy the challenge. For one thing, you meet everyone in your community. And it was fun to weigh packages, order pretty commemorative stamps and find a use for all the geography I'd learned over the years (it's not like that now - postal clerks just pop a letter on an automatic weighing machine and type an address into a computer - back then, we had to know which delivery zones each country fell into, all the delivery districts in Canada, and had to measure and weigh each package on scales that were not attached to computers. A fair bit of math was involved too). I still remember arcane postal regulations from those grim binders; the fact that live baby chicks are not allowed to be posted through the mail, is one of them. I still am amazed that someone felt the need to make it official in the rulebooks. The rest of the animal kingdom was not mentioned.
In Zweig's The Post-Office Girl , translated by Joel Rotenberg, our heroine Christine is not having as much fun. She's in charge of a small postal outlet in a tiny Austrian village in the mid-1920s. The town has still not recovered from the emotional and economic ravages of the First World War. Christine lost a brother fighting, and her father lost his business. She now lives with her dying mother in a dank one-room attic, anticipating a life of dreariness that will never change. One day, she receives a telegram from her wealthy aunt Clara, who has not been in touch with the family for decades and she is invited to visit at a swank, Swiss resort. Christine is dazzled by this new life. Clara buys her new clothes and gets her hair cut. There are sumptuous meals and dancing and two men start showering her with attention. But just as she is reveling in her changed fortunes, she makes a series of mistakes that threaten to uncover secrets about her aunt's past life, and Christine is suddenly sent home. And now the boredom and tediousness of her former life becomes unbearable. She meets Ferdinand, a bitter war veteran who took years to get home after being stuck in a labour camp in Siberia. He is struggling to get a job, to get his papers sorted and is tired of fighting the endless bureaucracy of his country. The two begin an awkward and uncomfortable affair until Ferdinand comes up with two possible plans for escaping their unhappy lives - but both are fraught with irreversible consequences.Zweig is wonderful in his descriptions of the mundane and inescapable minutiae of these characters' lives. Their sadness and desperation seeps through the pages like the remnants of a discarded teabag. This is a lost generation indeed, but not one that is sipping champagne and dancing the Charleston (although Christine certainly gets a glimpse of that life and yearns for it). As with so many others in those post-war years, they feel their youth and lives have been stolen from them through no fault of their own. This novel has never been published in English before; it was found with Zweig's papers after he and his wife committed suicide in 1942, and only published in German in the 1980s. But thanks to NYRB, it is now available to English readers, and it can take its rightful place in the canon of WWI fiction. Also highly recommended for Patrick Hamilton fans.
Cleverly using the story of Pinocchio (Carlo Collodi's original version, not Disney's), as a framing narrative for his talk, Manguel insisted that it is not enough for Pinocchio (and our society) to just learn the basic mechanics of reading. Pinocchio learns his alphabet and the rudimentary skills of reading, but he never becomes a true reader because of the obstacles that society (in this case, his school) put in his way. His fellow students mock him with the insult, "You talk like a printed book" and throw heavy tomes at him. There are constant temptations to veer him away from books. His "moral guides" are continually telling him that books won't feed an empty stomach and neglect to instruct him on the true value of reading - that books can not only be sources of revelation but that one can see one's own life reflected in them and the literary traditions that all books cull from. All Pinocchio is left with is the ability to parrot the words without digesting them; he is trained to repeat society's propaganda, but not to question it.
"In Canada, the intellectual act has no prestige whatsoever," Manguel said. "Most of our leaders are barely literate; our values purely economical." He pointed out that it is very easy to become superficially literate but that time and a deliberate effort are the two essential requirements of the act of reading (what the Slow Reading movement is all about). Reading, unlike so much of what the contemporary consumer desires, is never obtainable with the least possible effort, and schools and libraries need to continue to be advocates for the printed word. He is by no means anti-internet which he recognizes as an invaluable tool, but he warns that we have to be careful not to privilege the "container over the content". Judging from the number of librarians who, during the Q & A session lamented the greater allocation of budgets towards computers at the expense of books, and the mentality that makes them slaves of circulation numbers, Manguel hit quite a few nerves. But as he pointed out, it's not just about providing the public with what they want, but to also provide them with what they don't yet know they need.
Hear, hear! It was a terrific talk. You can read the crux of it on his website here. Just click under "Notebook" and then "Essays". You can also check out his recommended reading suggestions (with a real international flair - Manguel is fluent in six languages!). His favourite books for 2007, for example, include My Uncle Napoleon by Iranian author Iraj Pezeshkzad, Hungarian writer Sándor Márai 's The Rebels (I concur - all his books have been Dewey picks for me - Esther's Inheritance will be out this fall), a Spanish classic, Nada by Carmen Foret, and the latest collections from two Canadian poets - Margaret Atwood's The Door and Lorna Crozier's The Blue Hour of the Day.
And if you are inspired to read the original Pinocchio, NYRB books is publishing a new translation this fall by Geoffrey Brock, with an introduction by Umberto Eco. Don't you just love the cover?
I took Alberto out to lunch following his very long signing session, and he was so delightful to chat with. We talked non-stop about books from the bread rolls to the dessert. These are the days when I truly, truly, love my job.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
"123 and 4 more makes 7
And 6 is afraid of 7. . .
Cause 7 ate 9"
"Once upon a time in our solar system
We couldn't make do without 9
But Pluto's not a planet now,
so 8'll do fine."
And there's an enormously fun and very sophisticated alphabet song called "Crazy ABCs" where all the words phonetically sound as if they start with different letters than in their written form, for example: "M is for Mnemonic" or "P is for Pneumonia, Pterodactyl, and Psychosis". Crazy indeed, but I love it. They should think about turning this song into a picture book.
I sense a sing-along coming on a future Dewey Diva road trip. Definately recommended if you want to find your inner child or just want to have an excuse to do silly dances around your hotel room.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Monday, May 19, 2008
Sunday, May 18, 2008
The novel combines a modern story with a fictionalized account of the period of Daphne du Maurier's life when she was writing The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte, her biography of the tormented, alcoholic brother of Charlotte, Emily and Anne (being Bronte obsessed myself, this was a book I HAD to read). Daphne is going through a rough patch in her personal life. Her husband is having a mental breakdown and she's just discovered he's also been having an affair. She is being haunted by the presence of her own famous literary creation, Rebecca, and also thinks she's being watched by sinister men in trilby hats (her grandfather was George du Maurier who wrote the bestselling novel Trilby, after which the hats were named). She is also engaged in a strange and strained correspondence with J. A. Symington, the former librarian and curator at the Bronte Parsonage who was dismissed in disgrace after several important manuscripts went missing. Now a bitter, failed scholar who believes that Branwell was a neglected genius, Symington warily sees Daphne as a possible ally in the rehabilitation of Branwell's literary legacy. Part of the story involves a mystery surrounding a missing notebook of Emily's poems. There is also a modern component; the novel is partly narrated by a young woman trying to write her PhD dissertation on the Brontes' juvenilia but becoming increasingly fascinated by the influence of the Brontes on Daphne Du Maurier's own work, and her correspondence with Symington. She is married to a much older professor whose research interests center on Henry James, and who sneers at du Maurier's work as too popular and lowbrow for serious academic attention. To complicate matters, he's not yet over his ex-wife Rachel, an academic and poet who is also a fan of the Brontes and Daphne du Maurier, and whose presence in the couple's house is palpable and causing tension in the marriage. Our modern narrator has to decide whether to continue living in this uncanny pastiche of a du Maurier novel or to find her own reality and come to terms with her literary demons.
There is so much to cut your teeth on in Daphne (librarians and archivists in particular will love it), and at its core the novel is really about the relationships and inevitable influences - obsessive, spooky, unconscious and yet necessary - between readers, writers and the written word. It certainly makes one want to go back and reread all of du Maurier's novels. Like the members of the Bloomsbury Group, the connections - personal and literary - between du Maurier's family and other writers is widespread and fascinating and has been explored extensively in contemporary fiction. So if you are intrigued by this literary period, which among other things, examined sexuality in all its permutations and the ever present and lasting impact of the First World War (which may be a clue to a continued contemporary interest), here are some suggestions for further reading (with less than six degrees of separation between them):
Both the Lodge and Toibin novels cover James' friendship with the bestselling commercial American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson. But for a very different take on this relationship, you must read Elizabeth Maguire's moving novel The Open Door which will be published in June. This is Constance's story and is very much the tale of a woman writer trying to survive in a man's world and also about finding herself in Europe after years of looking after an elderly mother. It would make a terrific bookclub pick alongside The Master.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Friday, May 16, 2008
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
If you would like to download a countdown clock for Breaking Dawn for your own website, you can do so at the official Twilight Saga website.