Thursday, May 30, 2013

Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel

I finally got around to reading Alison Bechdel's latest book, Are You My Mother? Interesting read. Not quite as engaging or as emotionally appealing as her last book Fun Home but I still found it to be enjoyable.

The book explores Bechdel's relationship with her mother and the years of therapy she had
to endure in order to come to some kind of truce with her feelings about her. A few things stand out: Bechdel's social anxiety (not that uncommon in writers and something you get a real sense of when you see Bechdel on stage), her OCD tendencies and how they manifest themselves as an adult, the vibrance and intelligence of her mother and their (at times) fraught relationship.

The book is a testament to how literature can affect our lives: Bechdel reads Virginia Woolf's diaries and compares her own relationship to her mother (and father in parts) and Woolf's feelings about her own parents. I love these kinds of meditations on literature which give literature a role to play in understanding our lives. Bechdel is also obsessed with psychiatrist Donald Winicott (a contemporary of Woolf and of Freud) and tries hard, too, to see her own mother issues by considering them through Winicott's theories on subject, object,  attachment, and true self. To me this is where the book breaks down somewhat, particularly in this day and age when so much of psychoanalysis has little cultural impact or is seen as being somewhat anachronistic.

One wonders, too, about why Bechdel seems so self-absorbed at times: as if her relationship with her own mother means something to all her readers (a short riff/discussion on the personal being universal and vice versa doesn't justify what is, essentially, her need to answer questions that not answerable in relation to her mother, her own identity, her damaged adult-hood, her troubled love life, her tendency to over identify with her therapists, etc.).

But it's a great read and the kind of book whose universe I missed when I wasn't in it. Bechdel's own vision of herself is so clearly defined and articulated and her mother is a character that is fully developed.

The need to understand her relationship with her father never caused any pause in Fun Home. There was trauma, pain, and, of course, his ultimate suicide at an age when most people are vulnerable to psychological damage. But after reading Are You My Mother and witnessing similar questions turned around in an obsessive and not wholly healthy way,  I am curious now what Bechdel will do next, how she will move past these self-absorbed questions and externalize her gifts again as she did with her long-running column, Dykes to Watch Out For (though she claims that much of the action was based on her own life and the lives of her friends).

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Humans of New York

This site, Humans of New York, amazes me. It's simple, very simple: just a collection of snaps of people taken in and around New York City with a short text accompanying each. Sometimes the text is a little history of the interaction, sometimes it's a quotation, sometimes it's a response to a question the photographer asks.

But they are almost all interesting and also moving, funny, tragic, odd, annoying and surprising. Some are little gems of wisdom, like this woman:

"My town in Colombia is very beautiful. I don't travel because I want to leave my home. I travel because I need to know why I'm staying."

Though it shouldn't, it makes me feel optimistic about people when, in fact, my natural tendency is to be on the misanthropic side at times. But it reminds me that everyone has their own story, their own limitations, their own experiences, their own prejudices and what we all want out of life is strikingly similar.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

2014 Blue Metropolis Literary Festival

Great news today! First, we've confirmed a very big star for 2014. We are all very happy around here because this writer will be a major highlight for our 2014 Festival.

Mysterious writer confirmed for 2014!
Mark the dates! Our 2014 Festival will take place April 29 to May 4, 2014 and, yes, will be held again at Hotel 10 in downtown Montreal.

So far we have two writers confirmed and about 185 to go!

Hint #1 about big name 2014 writer: this writer doesn't write in English...

Friday, May 17, 2013

"If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean." - Wislawa Szymborska


The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in ever other way they're light.

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

-Wislawa Szymborska (translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh). From Poems New and Collected

Wislawa Szymborska, 1923-2012

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Lorca in New York

I discovered this amazing website where one can read all about Frederico Garcia Lorca's brief life in New York City in 1929 and 1930 (as a student at Columbia).

Yay! New York City!!
It's very interactive so you can click on a particular location of the city and find out about a party he attended or a poem he wrote based on that location or someone influential that he met. All of these experiences led Lorca to write Poet in New York which contains some of his best-known works and allows him to present some of this consistent themes in a new light: the oppression of the poor, exploitation, violence, etc.

For any afficionados of Lorca's work or life, the website and map are a gold mine of fascinating anecdotes and direct influences on his poems. For newcomers to Lorca, it's a great introduction to his most accessible series of poems (though one would hardly say that Lorca's work in general is inaccessible).

The map is part of a series of events throughout New York City this spring and summer commemorating the work of Lorca. More information on that here. These events include an exhibition at the New York Public Library which contains his manuscripts, photos and letters.

Man, there's always something cool going on in NYC.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Reading reading reading

I'm going a bit overboard with all the books I am reading lately. It's only normal, I guess. From January until the Festival, I just can't read for fun any more and because it's so quiet after the Festival and all summer, I want to cram as much reading in as I can so it gets a bit much. Since the Festival ended, I've been reading:

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki:    Almost done with this one and it's been a pleasant read. I don't know why but for reading that has nothing to do with work, I usually turn to historical Japanese fiction. It feels far away and exotic and allows me to reflect on it with absolutely no Festival angle to it...

The Rosa Luxemburg Reader:   Last fall I became very interested in Rosa Luxemburg, both in terms of her political writings but also her role in 20th century history. Käthe Kollwitz, though she doesn't mention Luxemburg directly, was very interested in the career of Luxemburg and in her assassination (though most of her images of it relate to Luxemburg's murdered associate, Karl Liebnecht). My entire adult life I have been interested in the historical role that early Communism played in forcing capitalism to change. And Luxemburg's ideas about Communism have been distorted and disrupted by just about all sides (by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, by the Vietnamese, by the Americans, the Germans, the British) without much attention paid to her actual writings. She was very much a champion of democracy and her feelings about Communism were free of all the historical baggage we now associate with the term. It's not a page-turner, but the book has been a great escape and enlightening.

Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg  I stumbled across this book in a very diffuse and chaotic way: I was watching the film Flame and Citron about the Danish Resistance during WWII and reading about one of its stars, the Danish actor Thure Lindhart who also starred in Keep the Lights On, written by Ira Sachs and based on his relationship with Bill Clegg. I usually hate these kind of confessional memoirs and the book will likely be forgotten once I put it down but it's entertaining and gives insight into a point of view I know little about (that of an addict). Sure makes my life seem dull, that's for sure...and it's very well-written.

The House of Paper by Carlos Maria Dominguez: This is one of the more obscure books on my latest list
but it's been very interesting. All about how literature has the power to influence, lift us up, or even kill us. Set in London, Argentina and Uruguay, this is my Saturday afternoon reading in the park book.

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata: I've just started into this one though I am big fan of Kawabata and his writings always entertain me. There is a minimalist quality to his writing, a simplicity that is engaging and lovely and his works stay with me for weeks after I finish them: Snow Country, The Master of Go, A Thousand Cranes, all works that I have read at some point and that I still remember happily where I was when I read them.

Once I get through this batch, I refuse to read so many books at the same time again. But let me tell you, it's so nice to just read for fun again!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Highlights of our 2013 Festival

So the 2013 Festival's been over for over a week now and I am finally resurfacing. Every year it amazes me: build up build up build up for over a year and then boom, it's over so quickly.

But we had an amazing Festival: our ticket sales were phenomenal, our events were well-attended, good media coverage.

Some highlights with the benefit of hindsight:

Introducing Colm Toibin
Colm Toibin at the Grande Bibliotheque, interviewed on stage by Eleanor Wachtel. (Sold out!)

The Walrus Talks at McCord Museum. (Sold out!)

The incredibly charming Hisham Matar on-stage with Paul Kennedy (Sold out!) and chatting with him in the authors suite over the weekend.

Janna Gur at Appetite for Books. (Sold out!)

This Really Happened! (Sold out!)

Alain Mabanckou on stage with Marie-Louise Arsenault.

And much more...

At any rate, we are putting 2013 to bed now and already well into our 2014 planning!

In the meantime, I've been reading something completely unrelated to Festival planning: Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters. Nice escape ...