Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The new website is launched!

The blog will move over to this site here (apologies if it's wonky the next several hours) but I will try to occasionally repost here.

Check us out and happy reading!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

New Website, new blog, new 2012 lineup!

Crazy last few weeks and no time to write here. We are finalizing our programming for 2012 the last two weeks and tomorrow we launch our new website!

I wish I could reveal all the exciting authors and events we have on our docket for 2012, but our Communications Director runs a tight ship and hates loose lips and all that!

So suffice it to say: STAY TUNED. We release our entire lineup in late March and the Festival runs April 18-23, 2012. We're at the OPUS Hotel this year, a funky little boutique hotel downtown, right at the heart of French and English Montreal.

And I will start blogging on our new site as well. I'll post the link to the new blog tomorrow and may occasionally update this site here though it'll be easier to have everything all on one site.

My desk is only slightly better than this...

Monday, January 16, 2012

When Murakami becomes too heavy.

I came across this very interesting article here about ebook readers and I couldn't help reflect on my own experience. Though it's an old debate and there isn't much new that can be said on it, since I was just recently informed by Kobo that I got my ebook reader a year ago, I can write about it from a personal point of view.

Not a good thing?
I like how easy it is to carry around an ebook reader, I must say. For my birthday this year, some friends gave me a copy of Murakami's new one (hardcover) and while I'm not a huge fan of Murakami necessarily, I'm enjoying it immensely so far. The bit that gets on my nerves though is the fact that it's so big and heavy. I'm certainly not bringing it to work every day to read on the metro or on my lunch hour because it's just unwieldy. So Kobo definitely wins on that score. It's also slightly on my mind that once I'm done reading it, I have to DO something with it: add it to the shelves of books I already have which just collect dust in my office, lug it downtown to The Word to resell (though I've never actually done this and in fact doubt they will be interested in it since it's probably a book they get thrown at them weekly).  I've been trying to get rid of some of my books the last few months (never an easy task) and having another big book is slightly disheartening.

But I can think of few other benefits to having the ereader. When I'm into a book, the fact that it's being read on a reader or being read on a paper page is irrelevant. I feel that I am more likely to finish a book on a reader, too, at least for now, because I have less competing for my attention on the virtual shelves of my reader.

I think, too, that one of the joys of reading is sensing how far you've read and how far you still have to go. A sense of accomplishment comes with finishing a big 900 page novel that just isn't part of the experience of reading a book on a reader. Yes, the little screen indicates how far you've read and how far you have to go but it lacks the physical sense of accomplishment. But I imagine that this sensation isn't really a key part of reading: it's just incidental to reading a physical book. I'm also not sure how I will "incorporate" ebooks into my reading history in the same way. Since I do have so many shelves of books, I find I re-read certain books over and over (just before and during the Christmas break I was re-reading all of Eileen Chang's books which were really enjoyable). That hasn't happened yet on the ereader. Maybe that will change once I have more books on it?

Searching on the Kobo is a HASSLE. Maybe the new Kobo Touch is easier (I haven't seen one yet) but the version I have makes searching or browsing for books absolutely arduous. The selection of Kobo is lousy, too. They have one book by Yukio Mishima (probably the best known Japanese writer after Murakami) and very little by any contemporary Japanese or Chinese writers and very few by contemporary Latin writers (or even European writers). Most of what they promote is shlock. I definitely associate crap with the Kobo catalog. Maybe this will change (the single Mishima book they have was added in the past couple of months) but if all they are hawking is garbage, they won't ever be taken seriously by the establishment (critics, literary magazines, etc.).

I've been using an iPad, too, though not for reading. I just can't: I'm hard on books and I read them in the bathtub and knock them off my nightstand in the middle of the night. I treat the iPad too gingerly, it's too expensive and reading on the sofa on the weekend when you might nod off and drop a $800 device on the floor is not really do-able. The Kobo is sturdy and small and if I drop it, it wouldn't be the end of the world (it cost $99 to buy it). Not true for the iPad. Certainly true for the book (I've "broken" a few book bindings through the years and once even dropped a book into the tub: still readable!)

The final point, I guess, is that for now, I have a place and a role for both physical books and ebooks in my life and I can imagine using both into the future.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The post where I reminisce about dodgy hotel rooms I've known...

This blog post got me happily reminiscing this week. Not only thinking about what a brilliant and insightful writer Witold Rybczynksi is (I love his book Home, about the history of the concept of home) and how he doesn't update his blog often enough, but about the topic of this post. He writes very aptly about how for him the most memorable hotels he's ever stayed in are the dodgy ones.

The Philippines: with this kind of scenery who cares about the hotel
Goes for me, too. When I think back about memorable trips, it's always the adventures of roughing it that come more quickly to mind: a tiny mint green room in Manila that had geckos crawling all over the walls, a single fluorescent light, and a wobbly ceiling fan which kept me awake, worrying it would pop off its attachment and come slicing down onto my face in the middle of the night. Needless to say I didn't sleep well.

Once in Costa Rica, I stayed in this hotel suite that looked like some super swanky 70s Vegas lounge singer had designed it and then dropped dead so not a single thing had changed in 35 years. It was top of the line (in its heyday), smoky mirrors, shaggy brown carpeting, macrames of sunsets on the walls, but utterly frozen in time, like an apocalypse had taken the singer and his entire family in one instant. It was a three bedroom suite (I was staying with two friends) with almost no windows (even the view of the pool was totally blocked out) and each night we'd change rooms just so we had a chance to take in as much of the 70s vibe as we could while we were there, comparing detailed notes about the subtleties of that groovy style.  Why were browns, rusts and oranges (and BULKY and HEAVY furniture) so de rigueur in that decade?

Beehive of backpackers, watchmakers, sari exporters and camera shoppes
For years when I was younger, I'd stay in Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, this amazing maze of tiny backpackers hostels in this massive beehive of a building along Nathan Road in Kowloon. The rooms would often be literally 4 feet wide by 6 feet long, just wide enough to get in a small bed and absolutely nothing else except a tiny TV crammed into a corner above the bed. You'd slide your backpack under the bed or on a shelf above it, and literally, once you were in your room, you were in your bed. Once you stayed there, you never forgot it. But it was fun: I'd meet other backpackers from all over the world and always end up doing something exciting and even slightly dangerous...

The only "nice" room that really stands out is a room I splurged and paid for after roughing it in NE China for two weeks (train traveling with friends, etc.). I was so sick of boiling water for noodles and drinking lukewarm tea. Once we arrived in Dalian, I booked a room in the nicest hotel in town (at the time, I think it was a Marriott back in those days) and just reveled in the thick terrycloth bathtub, room service (with real Western dishes), a bathtub and HBO. I literally didn't leave the room for three days.

Rybczynski's travels are much more exotic than mine but his post gave me a short few moments of happy memories this week in the thick of the January rush. Things coming together and sometimes it's good to not think about books for a few hours!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Emotional vs Logical Readings

I've been thinking about how there are countless ways to react to a book. We can love people in our lives though we find them loaded with faults and we can know someone who seems to be a saint but find them insufferable. So it goes with books.

Two weeks ago I read Lisa See's book Shanghai Girls. While reading this novel, a rational list of faults kept getting checked: overuse of cliches, oversimplistic historical analysis, often flat one-dimensional characters. Yet I was completely transfixed by it. I read the book in just two days and was fascinated by the sweep and scope of the story. But my rational mind kept yelling at me to STOP and that the book was a waste of time. And in many ways it was.

The novel tells the story of two sisters, born and raised in Shanghai, and how the civil war and Japanese invasion in particular, change their lives forever. From a wealthy and influential family, they soon realize the harsh realities of life when their father loses all his money and they are forced to flee the city. Eventually, they end up in Los Angeles where they have to adjust being at the bottom of the heap both economically and culturally. They experience 1940s prejudices and live under the watchful eye of an authoritarian patriarch who keeps all their money and gives them very little control. Yet slowly they flourish in their forced marriages, both breaking out and learning to adjust to their lot if not quite happily then with some resignation.

The characters do change and develop and the relationship between the sisters is really the emotional glue that holds the story together. But the book is clearly written from a modern-day point of view and the author puts words and ideas into Pearl's head that are clearly her own early 21st century perspective. This is galling and irritating at times. There are other problems as well, but the overriding issue was that I continued to read and, in fact, enjoyed reading, though I was having so many critical issues with the book. Why?

While reading this book, I came across Ruiyan Xu's 2011 novel The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai. As soon as I started into this book (immediately after finishing the See novel), I had the opposite reaction: my list of critical check boxes were all flying through without a hit, excellent character development, complex, multi-layered story, believable dialogue, etc. And acknowledging the complexities of life and trauma. The story opens just before a huge explosion in a Shanghai hotel severely injures Lijing, a successful (and wealthy) stock broker. As he comes to in the hospital, his wife is told that he has lost his ability to speak and soon it becomes clear that it's his ability to speak Mandarin which has been compromised. He can still speak English, minimal and difficult though it is. Soon an American brain specialist is sent to China to work with Lijing to recover his Chinese and this is really the heart of the story: the interaction between the doctor and the patient.

Even in a brief description the Xu novel is apparently more interesting and more complex. Yet I had such a hard time connecting to this work. I did, and I ultimately finished the book though it took me a good week to do so. But it made me think about this reaction which should be (a loaded phrase, I realize) the opposite. Shouldn't the critically complex and more interesting work be more appealing to the one that got my back up? Or maybe should misses the point.

One interesting aspect to both works: Shanghai Girls is told from the perspective a Chinese woman but it's told by an American writer who's only distantly Chinese (her grandfather was half Chinese or something). Lost and Forgotten is told (largely) from the point of view of a white American (and the fact that she's white is important) though the author herself is Chinese American and came to the US as a young girl. This is something I've noticed a good deal of the last few years: authors telling a story through the guise of someone who may not reflect their background or culture. Of course this has always been done to some extent but I think of Daniel Allen Cox's book Krakow Melt which s told from the point of view of a Pole (though Cox is a Montrealer) and Clark Blaise who wrote an entire collection of short stories (The Meager Tarmac) from the points of view of Indians or Indian-Americans. It seems to me that this would have been quite difficult 15 or 20 years ago since writing about "other" cultural points of view on the part of Western writers would have been seen as terribly colonial. 

But the bigger question is why we can connect emotionally to works that critically we react against? This doesn't happen all the time (or perhaps often even) though when it does, it underscores the fact that reading (or watching a movie, etc.) is at its heart an emotional experience and no matter how much rational thought we bring to the experience, emotions win out.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Carmine Starnino in excellent ELAN video interview

A great feature video piece on one of Montreal's most widely-respected English poets, Carmine Starnino.

Never having shied away from controversy in this small community where everyone in the writing/literary world is somehow connected to one another, Starnino is refreshingly honest in his reviews and on the subject of poetry generally. This has made him a voice worth listening to...

Great ELAN feature piece on the poet here.

What I started reading in 2012....and what I will read soon...

So it's been awhile since I last wrote anything here. The holidays wore me out! And we're back now after closing up shop for a couple of weeks. I couldn't stand the thought of another "best of 2011" reading/book list, so I decided instead to start 2012 with a list of books I am reading or soon to read. Always better to look forward!

The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai: This novel, set in Shanghai in 1999, tells the story of a high-powered Shanghai business man who is injured in an explosion and loses his ability to speak Mandarin. Having spent his very early years in the US, he returned to China at age 10 and managed to forget his English, only to have it return after he is severely injured. Screaming allegory aside, the book is an interesting exploration of the frustration that is a part of losing the ability to speak, not only for the victim but for all those around the victim. The US doctor sent to work with the patient, Lijing, complicates the frustration and Lijing's recovery. The setting captures the mood of late 90s China and Shanghai in particular.For me personally, since I lived in Shanghai at this time, the references to some of the sights and sounds and places of the city in 1999 really made me nostalgic!

The Beggar's Opera by Peggy Blair is the story of a crumbling marriage, a murder in Havana and a Cuban detective who is losing his grip on reality. The flavor of Havana figures solidly in this interesting tale and the Canadian suspect is the ultimate innocent abroad. This one makes me crave Cuba in January...

Some other books:

Dirty Feet by Edem Awumey. From the mRb review: The short but dense novel recounts the story of an unlikely and undefined relationship between two migrants in Paris, both haunted by memories of their respective homes. The protagonist Askia suffers the somewhat typical fate of many immigrants: though he is well educated, he drives a cab and lives in squalor. He is also on a mission to find his lost father, who is believed to be living in Paris. One day, he meets the mysterious Olia (who happens to be his fare) – a Bulgarian fashion photographer who claims that she has photographed Askia’s father and offers to help locate the missing man.

Mister Blue by Jacques Polin. From the press release: This tender and perceptive tale explores the textures of solitude, compassion, language, fear, and the imagination. Meet Jim: a writer suffering from vivid dreams and bouts of writer's block. Meet Mister Blue, a dignified and prophetic cat and Jim's sole companion that spring on the Ile of d'Orléans...until the day they discover a copy of The Arabian Nights in a cave along the beach.

These are just the tip of the iceberg, of course, but the books I'm either halfway through or have on my nightstand to read in the next couple of weeks. I did surprisingly little reading over the break: mainly I watched movies, Japanese anime (which I'm kind of obsessed with lately), walked the dog and hung out with, time off is just what I needed before our final push to Festival time!