Monday, August 31, 2015

Elena Ferrante: The Story of the Lost Child

The 4th instalment in Elena Ferrante's Naples series hits this bookshops tomorrow and I'll be there to pick it up. I'm not writing a review of it today (not that I write reviews here really) but I did want to remind those who've read and and become fans of Ferrante to check out The Story of the Lost Child from Europa Editions.

Ferrante's books came onto my radar some time ago but after I started writing about her last year, several people picked up her books and told me that they really liked them a lot. At least eight people stopped me at the Festival in 2015 to thank me for introducing her here and on my social media.

Not everyone has raved about her: one person whose opinion I trust a lot told me that she just couldn't connect with the two young girls in My Brilliant Friend. Another person, a friend, told me that she didn't really connect with the books until about 1/3 of the way through the 2nd one, The Story of a New Name. Fair Enough. Not every book speaks to every reader. But the vast majority of people have really liked them a lot and become a bit crazy about the Naples series in particular.

We did an Elena Ferrante Breakfast at the 2015 Festival which was one of our biggest breakfast events ever. We generally try to keep these breakfast events at 10-12 but 27 people showed up to that one! And a very interesting discussion ensued (participants kept asking if the host was really Elena Ferrante which made us laugh hysterically afterwards).

Given the fact that Ferrante refuses to do publicity and is highly mysterious, when she does rarely agree to give an interview, it's a big deal. She spoke to the Paris Review several months ago and Vanity Fair managed to score an interview here as well. This one I find better than the Paris Review interview because there is so much about the friendship at the core of the books. But I wouldn't read them until you've read the books because lots is given away (not spoilers per se but one of the pleasures of reading the books is simply going in blind and discovering the world for yourself). Scott Esposito has a review here on SF Gate of the latest.

For those who aren't familiar with the series, they chart the friendship of two girls in Naples in the 1950s and each new instalment traces the women's relationships through the ups and downs of late 20th century Italian history. But that makes the books sound dry and detached and they are far from either.

The Story of the Lost Child is released tomorrow.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book-scented candles, Margaret Atwood beermeister, Film Festivals, London Ontario as serial killer-ville, Marilyn Monroe in psychiatric hospital: Cultural Digest August 28

Mags' brew

Friday, August 28, 2015

Krakatoa Changed the World

An interesting Mental Floss article here on 10 Facts about Krakatoa, the volcano that erupted in 1883 and caused massive destruction, killed 36,000+ people and affected weather patterns for a generation.

The blast was so loud, apparently, it could be heard more than 2,500 miles away.

Simon Winchester's 2005 book, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, suggests that the eruption's
Munch's sky looks downright Krakatoan
effects were so far-reaching, even contemporary Indonesian politics and society still haven't escaped the long shadow of the horrific eruption nearly 150 years later.

Oddly (I've heard this before), so much ash and so much gas was released into the atmosphere after the eruption, that sunsets were brilliant for years and years later, so much so that many have speculated that the sky in Edvard Munch's iconic painting, The Scream (first painted in 1893), shows evidence of the effects of the eruption in how the painter approached the vibrant reds and oranges in the sky.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the role that the Colonial Powers played in disseminating news of the tragedy around the world via the new fangled technological advance, the telegraph. There's racism here. There are heroes. There is tragedy and there is triumph.

Winchester's books are consistently readable, and the range of subjects that interests him is quite impressive: from the tale of the Oxford English Dictionary, about the birth of modern geology, and the history of the US.

Anyway, the Mental Floss article just reminded me about what a great book Winchester's book is and I pulled it down off the shelf and re-read most of it last night. Such a great read!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Poetry attire, David Foster Wallace on audiobook, Joseph Roth, Fictionalizing Life, Gamache is back, World Press Photo and Film Festival Opens in Montreal: Cultural Digest August 27

Thomas Hirschhorn,  Subjecter (News-poetry), 2010

Gamache is back

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Helping Syria through soup, Joseph Roth in hotels, Mona Lisa's grin, book covers in Weimar Era, Montreal's Chinatown: Cultural Digest August 26

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Drago Jančar's The Galley Slave

One of the best parts of traveling is getting to know writers and books that I might not discover otherwise. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I had been in Slovenia earlier this summer and how a few people had recommended Slovenian writer Drago Jančar to me. So I picked up his The Tree with No Name and was blown away by it.

I read several other Slovenian novels and other books in the Slovenian Series that Dalkey Archive has been doing. I enjoyed them but there is something about the voice and pre-occupation of Jančar that speaks to me. The Galley Slave tells the story of Johann Ot who in the late middle ages travels as a kind of spiritual renegade from village to village in the midst of a country-wide religious revival.

Suspicion is everywhere: villagers are suspicious of newcomers, the corrupt government is suspicious of any kind of underclass stoking revolution and uprising, and the criminal class is suspicious of the new religious temperature which sees witches and devils in every unknown action, face or mystery. Johann Ot's aim is merely to survive without being burned at the stake or being installed on one of the many torture devices he hears about.

Published in 1978 behind the Iron Curtain, many saw this as an allegorical portrait of life under the brutal Communist occupation (even if Yugoslavia, which Slovenia had been swallowed up by, had a more benign and less oppressive version compared with much of the Eastern Bloc and USSR). I think this simplifies the tale in a certain way and largely detracts from it: it may well have intended to be an  allegory but I found it alive in its portrayal of society in the Middle Ages where dogma had no basis in any kind of rational thought. And as is often the case in these kinds of tales (oddly, I kept thinking about Mad Men and how it portrayed the 60s and 70s), it attempts to tell us more about our own era than some time in the past we can never experience first-hand.

The novel starts out a bit slow and it takes a few dozen pages to really get into the story but once I was hooked, man, I raced through this book (read most of it this weekend). It's got long funny passages and moments when you have to stop and think for a while about how so much of what we worry about day to day is pointless since only the broad brushstrokes of life will be accessible at some distant point in the future. It made me wonder what people will think about life in early 21st century North America in 500 years and our religious devotion to scientific reason.

I have become a full-fledged Drago Jančar fan after this book. I still found The Tree With No Name more compelling (that one is set in WWII and in contemporary Ljubljana) but The Galley Slave was an excellent weekend read and when Jančar's latest is released in English in January, I'll definitely be adding that to my must-read list.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Elena Ferrante's 4th installment, WWB looks at Indonesian writing, Montreal's ruelles vertes in photos and maps, Wild at Heart, Walt Whitman animated and William Styron: Cultural Digest August 24

That's all she wrote: publishes Sept 1

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sheila Heti's first time, Mathias Énard in Granta, Atwood censored?, Assassination of Trotsky, Mia Coutu on Cecil the Lion: Cultural Digest, Monday August 24

Heti: amazing things happen while crashing in dad's basement

Mags gets censored?

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Friday, August 21, 2015

Marshland La Isla minima

Excellent Spanish movie Marshland (La Isla minima) is playing all next week at Cinema du Parc.

(No I have no deal with them! I just love the movies they show.)

Saw Marshland last night and was mightily impressed. Set in 1980 in southern Spain, the film is in a certain way a standard "whodunnit" but in the midst of the aftermath of a post-Franco government where nothing is what it seems and everyone has something to hide.

Filmed very beautifully with this aspect of nature that one rarely sees in Spanish film, the atmosphere is stifling, reflecting the small isolated town where it's set. When two sisters go missing, two police officers from Madrid are sent to investigate and they discover a series of young murdered women going back years. A plethora of red herrings and deliberate obfuscation part and parcel of all crime thrillers, but you're at the edge of your seat for much of the movie (and a few perfectly terrifying scenes).

The background is just as interesting though it's very understated (which seems to be the trend in these kinds of movies or TV shows where directors and writers make these broad political suggestions by simply planting a few clues about social things happening in the background): in the immediate aftermath of the death of Franco and Spain's slow transition to democracy, the past is still something people aren't willing to come to terms with and fear is a major part of the average person's response to any figure of authority. This colours, of course, our heroes' investigation and when one partner hears of the nefarious past of the other, it's not clear how this will end up.

Marshland has won a whole slew of awards and is widely acclaimed as one of the best films to come out of Spain in a few years (I love Spanish writing but their films rarely hit the mark except for the odd Almodovar film here and there). The film plays at Cinema du Parc all week next week. If you're a fan of crime thrillers, of the TV show True Detective (you can see the influence of that show on the movie), or of recent Spanish history, it'll be an interesting ride.

Montreal World Film Festival in Variety

Interesting article on the Montreal World Film Festival. Just last year it looked like it was curtains for this great Festival but, despite all odds and all the predictions that it would go down in history, the MWFF managed to pull off another year. And now this high profile (if rather surface-level) article in Vanity Fair.

I'd be curious to hear the inside story of how this article came to see the light of day. There's nothing in it that's particularly newsworthy, and I know how these things tend to work. Still, it surprises me that Variety is devoting space to the story.

It reflects what many people, including myself, have said about that Festival here: why do people assume that MWFF competes with Toronto? Toronto outspends and outperforms and has a far bigger market (audience, sponsors, government agencies, etc.) than Montreal.  We shouldn't be competing with Toronto: we have a totally different kind of audience here who are more sophisticated in a certain way, care less about the dazzle and are far more interested in the substance. And when I see the huge lines outside the theatres for some small independent Iranian or Indian or Indonesian film, I am so proud to live in this city. And no Nicole Kidmans or Jennifer Lawrences in sight...

It's the same for our Festival: Toronto is the centre of the publishing world and has far more support than we do. It's not what we do: our focus is international writers that never get a platform anywhere in Canada (or North America generally). And, of course, our Montreal writers which generally do very well for us.

There's this knee-jerk reaction from people in the entertainment, media, publishing or film world that "stars" are what makes a festival or movie or piece of art. And while it's true that we have to have a few stars each year, being famous doesn't make one a good writer or good actor or good anything. I can understand that some people become famous by being very good at their jobs, but being famous is not a value in and of itself.

Star power: a minor consideration for Montrealers
This cropped up recently when a famous daughter in a scion of American reality TV (I refuse to write the name, they don't need more publicity) had her birthday party here. The news stories annoyed the hell out of me but what really annoyed me is that a few hundred people actually went down to the riverbank and paid money to attend. She's not famous for anything except for being famous. Ugh. I was so disappointed that mainstream Montrealers gave into that crap. Who are these people exactly because everyone I know just rolled their eyes.

Because for me, I hold Montrealers to a higher standard: we don't need famous people or red carpets or $40,000 cocktail parties to make something successful. We want quality. We want edge. We want something that challenges us and makes us think. I find this year after year at our Festival too: a famous writer doesn't guarantee that an event will sell-out. It's more a question of how the event is shaped, the title it's given, the angle by which we will look at it. Local events sell out. Unknown writer events sell out. People are starved for something interesting with substance.

So I am encouraged by the angle that Serge Losique takes in this Variety piece.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

David Byrne's library, More readers reading on phones, what vacations say about us, Neil Gaiman's 17 best, Ecuador's politics, Murakami's workspace: Cultural Digest for August 20

This is not my beautiful library. And these are not my beautiful books.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Burlesque performers of colour, Ben Lerner in The Nation, Unreadable books, Raymond Carver's first published story, Yoko Tawada in Granta, and Antonio Tabucchi: Cultural Digest for August 19

Making burlesque history

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me

There are so many quotable bits from this book, one of the most buzzed about in recent months:

"All our phrasing - race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, event white supremacy - serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth...the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions, all land, with great violence, upon the body."

Excerpted in this month's Atlantic.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Cuba and the USA, Thierry Bouët photographs precious objects for sale, Two Brothers read by Michael Chabon, Hannah Arendt's personal library, 40 years of Rocky Horror: Cultural Digest for August 18

Likely has a Japanese diesel engine

40 years of doing the Time Warp again

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Writers wanted, Isaab Babel's new translation, Roxane Gay talks to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Pico Iyer on Las Vegas and Pyongyang: Cultural Digest, Monday August 17

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Bicycle Thieves

As part of Montreal's annual Italian Week, I saw The Bicycle Thieves last night at Cinema du Parc. It's one of those films that I've known about and heard about and read about but never actually seen myself (I vaguely remember renting it once a long time ago but I never watched for some reason).

I can certainly see why the film is considered one of the best films ever made. Wow. So much going on in this rather straightforward tale of a family man on the hunt through the streets of Rome for his stolen bicycle. Set in the immediate afterman of post-WWII Italy, the film is a master of understatement: the class issues are front and centre, of course, but the civil unrest and the images of authority and power and how they influence(d) the lives of ordinary Italians stand in the background and make up some of the most interesting things about the film.

I've spent time in Italy and only just returned, in fact, from a work trip there a few weeks ago and, naturally, much has changed. Yet much remains the same: Italians are not poor or living on the edge, but there is certainly poverty there (though it often remains relegated to immigrant communities). Of course, the church doesn't have nearly as much power as they did 70 years ago, but they are still front and centre in Italian society.

I'm certainly no expert on Italy or the Church or immigration to Europe, but these thoughts were ever present as I watched this seemingly simple tale, moved by the pain of an honest man sincerely trying to do his best for his family. (Incidentally, it's shocking how parenthood has changed! He lets his 7 year old son take the street car all alone and the kid actually has a job working in a gas station!)

There is little tenderness in the film, particularly between the father and the son, though in the final scene, there is a moment when all the pain and uncertainty comes together and the boy reaches for his father's hand. Rarely have I been so moved by such a common everyday gesture. The ambiguity with which the film ends is not totally unexpected or, rather, we know what the ambiguity means.

The film is one of the kick-off events for Montreal's Italian week with events through the 16th of August including other film, fashion shows, food, music concerts and more.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Tony Judt in Ukraine, Richard Blanco in Cuba, Jean-Michel Basquiat in Brooklyn, Patti Smith on Showtime: Cultural Digest, August 13

Basquiat at the Brooklyn Museum 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Kafka, a vanished Beirut, painter Paul P., creepy Edgar Allan Poe stories read aloud, Riad Sattouf's new one: Cultural Digest for August 12

Ages of Innocence by Paul P.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

New publishing house for Muslim books based in Ottawa, Murakami on stage, Brazilian brothers' new graphic novel, Luis Alberto Urrea, Storylines at the Guggenheim: Cultural Digest for August 11

Murakami on-stage

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Tribe

Now showing at Cinema du Parc, The Tribe is a 2014 Ukrainian film, written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy. The film is set in a boarding school for deaf kids but a very violent and nearly adult-less school where a small time gang runs all kinds of scams or crimes, from pickpocketing to prostitution to mugging pensioners to running visa scams.

The intriguing thing about the movie is that there is no dialogue: the entire film is done in sign-language but that takes surprisingly little time to get adjusted to as an audience member. Yes, we miss details, but the story arc is clear and easy to follow. Filmed with entirely deaf actors, the complexity of the film shoot must have been overwhelming (see a really interesting Vice interview here with one of the stars of the film).

What a bleak, depressing and dog-eat-dog world. I've been thinking a lot about the notion of power, particularly in how we (as in The West) deal with Russia, and this notion of power, physical power, being the end all beat all of respectability is one that isn't prominent in our law-based society. This thought came about because of an article I read a while back about what we don't understand about dealing with Putin, that power and how he holds on to power, is of deadly importance to him and explains all this visual imagery that is so key for him to maintain this reputation for being a strong man.  Obviously, the way we think about power is complex. But it seems to me that we approach power in a more subtle way in North America: power comes not just from brute strength but also from smarts, street smarts, intelligence and being one step ahead of one's enemy. But here power is open-faced, bloody, raw. There is no question that he who has the power is the one at the top and there is no room for things like diplomacy, intellectualism, or even just outmaneuvering one's enemy.

This is an almost operatic kind of tale, love, pain, betrayal, and murder. And there is no spoken dialogue. Quite an unusual cinematic experience on the whole. The critical reviews have been very solid, people comparing it to The Godfather and reacting to the fact that there are these long takes with very little cutting.

I have to say that this film is one that stays with you; I'm already replaying certain scenes in my mind, trying to work them out, wondering what the director was trying to do and, more importantly, how he did it.

Definitely worth seeing (I was surprised that there were so many people there) but don't see it if you're on the verge of feeling depressed or bleak. It's a dark and angry film though it's fascinating.

The Tribe plays this week and next at Cinema du Parc.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A History of Money, Toronto's waterfront investment, women of color in Hollywood, cultural activities and longevity: Cultural Digest August 8

Alan Pauls latest novel
Investment in waterfront

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The artwork in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, Le Port de tête's best-sellers, Harper Lee refunds and abandoned Queen Vic: Cultural Digest, August 6

Pieter Brueghel the Junior, Donna Tartt's a #fangirl

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Vermeer, A Little Life, Hokusai in Boston and Coming Out Stories: Cultural Digest for August 5

Vermeer and love
Hokusai in Boston

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The New Rijksmuseum

I saw this very interesting documentary last night, about the massive renovation of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

I knew very little about it so I went into it very vague about what the buzz was or even what the full scope of it was. I was almost immediately hooked.

It doesn't sound like it'd make that interesting a topic for a documentary: the ins and outs of city politics, planning officials, government officials, architects and museum staff as they go through a massive 10 year, 380 million Euro museum renovation. But the photography was so moving, the portraits of the individual staff members so compelling, the sense of the incredible bureaucracy of such a huge undertaking.

The love of the art is there, too: Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Japanese guard tower statues, Buddhas, Dutch Masters. You get a sense of Dutch society, too, the way people argue and negotiate work relationships, the varying personalities, the changes in staff (the Director quits halfway through the documentary and a new one is taken on, even though one of the other staff members hopes on camera that he'll be selected as the new Director).

Architecture takes front and centre stage and it really makes you see the complexity of creating public space for a specific public while still making other stakeholders happy (the head of the bicyclists' union is not portrayed particularly positively and this is a major them of the film, the battle against bicyclists).

It's a great film and plays the rest of the week at Cinema du Parc. By the end, when the museum opens anew, I almost teared up at the long effort and work that took place for all those years, getting the museum completed.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Montreal art mural, Iris Murdoch loved Titian, Ta-Nehisi Coates & James Baldwin, Historical Montreal walking tours and literary road maps: Cultural Digest, August 3

Iris Murdoch: Titian #fangirl