Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco

Life’s been a whirlwind lately and in addition to catching up on sleep, I’ve been trying to catch up on some reading. A few months ago I passed a table with a “for free” sign, a stack of science textbooks and Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco. Of course I snatched up the memoirs and left the textbooks behind. Unfortunately I couldn’t read Glassco’s work right away as I was bogged down by schoolwork but, having wrapped up the semester on Friday, I ended up taking yesterday’s rainy day to curl up in bed and read, or, rather, devour Glassco’s memoirs.

They were exactly what I’d been missing in life as of late and they examined many of the topics I’ve been contemplating over the past few months, namely hedonism, chaotic youth and the extent to which we rely on fiction to portray “the truth.”

Memoirs of Montparnasse epitomizes the 1920’s and the Parisian literary scene. Glassco is, of course, his own main character, and I say “character” because even Glassco admits to straddling the line between fiction and non-fiction. While the book is a collection of memoirs, three quarters of the work was produced some thirty years later. In fact, before it was published Glassco admitted to his friend Kay Boyle that: “It has the form of fiction- i.e. with lots of dialogue, speed, rearranged and telescoped action; never a dull moment- and is more a montage of those days than a literal truth.”

The book begins with eighteen-year-old Glassco in Montreal. It is clear from the offset that Glassco is set on pursuing a literary career despite his father’s lack of support, thus he and his friend Graeme Taylor set off to Paris to become writers.

Nowadays, the 1920’s are highly romanticized. Of course we read books like The Great Gatsby or watch movies like Midnight in Paris and are exposed to an era seemingly defined by partying, an abundance of tightly knit literary figures and beautiful women. In essence, we are exposed to excess. The argument most commonly raised in regards to why the 20’s were so “fun” is because the decade was preceded by World War I and followed by the Great Depression. This is frequently touched on by Glassco, who often comments on the impacts of the Depression and the number of expats living in Paris during the 20’s.

What struck me, however, was the way in which Glassco himself romanticized the era, the city, its writers, the women, the food etc… This led me to ask myself: how are the writer’s preconceptions reflected in the writing? To what degree can I trust this work? This, of course, is a question we are most likely to ask ourselves when reading a work of non-fiction. When I started university, I began by enrolling in creative non-fiction workshops and initially believed that I wanted to portray “the truth and only the truth.” Said every young writer ever? Perhaps. Nowadays I am beginning to gravitate towards an acceptance of more “representative truths”- perhaps less adherent to specific events or dates but work that nevertheless offers a truthful rendering of some identifiable human experience.

Meanwhile, Glassco’s experiences are certainly identifiable. They come off as almost cliché: rebellious youth set off to Paris wherein they meet a myriad of literary figures, drink too much, attend parties, are introduced to the world of prostitution and pornography, write the occasional chapter whilst hungover, gorge on food and smoke too many cigarettes. This brings me to question something I’ve been thinking about over the past few days… Hedonism.

Halfway through the book Glassco writes that: “the important thing in life was to have a good time.” This thought is then interrupted by a section of italicized writing (Glassco is awaiting a critical surgery and writing his memoirs in the hospital- he occasionally interrupts the memoirs with commentaries from his older, wiser self.) He goes on to write: “it is hard to say now whether I regret this reiterated choice whole-heartedly. Considering where it has led me- to the breakdown of my health, the failure of my hopes, the frightening prospect of an early death [….] and all I can promise myself at the moment is to be a little more careful in exploiting the resources of pleasure in the future…”

To me, “exploit” is the key word. To enjoy life is important, but then again it depends on the lens through which one views life, how wide it is, how much is captured. I personally spend a great deal of time considering the future and feel I can learn from Glassco’s sense of careless abandon… but this only goes so far, as he’s made clear in his later ruminations. Thus, the study of hedonism is perhaps most fascinating when the subject’s thoughts are contrasted. To compare those self-indulgent years with years to follow offers a depiction of hedonistic behaviour with its ensuing consequences.

Overall Memoirs of Montparnasse was a pleasure to read and I plan on seeking out more of John Glassco’s work in the future. I would certainly recommend this book, though the subject matter may appeal to a somewhat narrower audience than those following Heather’s Picks. As Michael Ondaatje writes: “Memoirs of Montparnasse is one of the most joyous books on youth- the thrill and the gall and the adventure of it. It is also one of the best books on being literary in Paris in the 1920’s.”

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Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

If you don’t believe in the philosophical potential of dogs, you must begin by reading Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis. The novel is currently short-listed for the Canada Reads 2017 contest and will be defended by Humble the Poet in the great Canadian book debate that unfolds March 27th to March 30th. The novel is sure to please even the greatest of canine skeptics. As Alexis works to distill the relationship between contentment and intellect, he offers the page a pensive whimsy that is at once unique and traditional in its treatment of philosophical matters.

The story begins in the Wheat Sheaf Tavern in Toronto where two Greek Gods, Hermes and Apollo, wager a bet. Apollo claims that dogs would be just as unhappy as humans if they were given the same level of intelligence. Fifteen kennelled dogs in a nearby veterinary clinic are thus subject to the Gods’ experiment. Rousing suddenly in their kennels, the dogs become aware of a strange and new sensation. At first, the story appears to support Apollo’s sure claim as the dogs begin their intellectual journey in a pool of melancholy.

Despite the parable’s long history, Alexis has written a surprising and noteworthy tale. The dogs themselves are memorable characters who must learn to negotiate a world burdened by the emotional pain associated with their newfound intellect. The narrative therefore provides an in-depth analysis of the origins of pain and its impact on both inter and intra-personal relationships. A myriad of relationships are depicted, including that of Majnoun, a black poodle who is spotlighted as Fifteen Dogs’ most developed canine character, and the Torontonians who adopt him. The ensuing alliance highlights both the initial agony of linguistic barriers and the importance of doggedness. Meanwhile, a mutt named Prince develops a similar fascination with language and begins to write poems using a language invented by Majnoun. But although the dogs discover an ability to convey abstract ideas, Alexis continues to infuse the text with smells of fish, urine and socks, smells that remind the dogs of their instincts and of what they cannot help but love.

Alexis’ 160 page novel is transformative in its exploration of linguistics, power structures, violence, inevitable change and, ultimately, in its analysis of the human condition through the lens of fifteen dogs. Fifteen Dogs was published in 2016 by Coach House Books and the novel won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2015 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

On a personal note: I haven’t loved a book more than Fifteen Dogs in several years so it’s currently my top book suggestion! I read it while wild camping in Alaska and did not move from my tent until I’d finished. Meanwhile, I’m hoping (considering I have a million other books to read for school) to get around to reading some of the other Canada Reads 2017 contender books, but we’ll see! I’ll keep you posted. Happy reading!

Mãn: A Novel by Kim Thúy

[Less than a week ago I said: “I’m not going to buy any more books until I’ve finished reading all the books I already own.” Well, I already failed. Yesterday evening, after watching the movie Genius, I felt inspired to visit my local bookstore and I found Kim Thúy’s second novel, Mãn. Earlier this year I read her first novel, Ru. It is one of those rare novels I find myself returning to, flipping through the pages to glean inspiration. I was immediately drawn to Thúy’s exquisite stylistic choices and poetic language, so to not buy Mân (used nonetheless) would surely cause my bookshelf a great deal of grief. So Mãn came home with me and I’ve spent the greater part of the morning devouring these 139 pages.]

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Mãn: written by Kim Thúy and translated by Sheila Fischman

This is a story that moves between worlds. It moves as fluidly as the water that exists between them. A patchwork of flashbacks introduces the reader to Canada and to Vietnam, and to Thúy’s newest protagonist, Mãn, whose identity is shaped by her attachment to these two countries. At once delicate and wistful, Mãn is replete with zeal and potent imagery.

We are immediately introduced to Mãn’s Maman, a woman who seeks to find Mãn a husband and who, in her attempt to provide Mãn a better life, encourages Mãn to forget. Thus the story begins with a question that seeks to unveil the relationships between duty, love and stability, between the meaning of family and location.

They only promised not to forget. Unlike other Vietnamese mothers, who counted on the loyalty and gratitude of their children, Maman wanted me to forget, to forget her because I now had a chance to start again, to go away with no baggage, to reinvent myself.

As the story is propelled forward, the reader witnesses Mãn become exposed to the layers and complexities associated with love, a love she does share with her husband but rather develops upon meeting a Parisian chef. The novel opens with Mãn’s introduction to her husband, a man to whom she dutifully and respectfully offers her body and services but to whom she cannot offer her heart. Void of the clichés so commonly found in love affairs, Thúy has navigated Mãn’s emotions and engagements carefully and masterfully, evoking in the reader a sense of empathy and perhaps, even, longing.

Thúy’s novel is one to be savoured. Each page appeals to the senses, is luscious and demanding. The details are embedded with exactness and Thúy manages to infuse the narrative with the smells and sights of Vietnamese dishes, meanwhile her details are far from distracting. Instead, they contribute to Mãn’s growth and contemplation, evoking memories and emotions that speak to Mãn and Maman’s pasts. Thus, the present and the past are woven together delightfully. At times, one becomes lost between the slender country of Vietnam and the turbulent city of Montreal, suspended by the smell of baguettes stuffed with bananas, soaked in coconut and cow’s milk.

Mãn is an exploration of the limitations of obedience and memory. Can one’s history, one’s desire to preserve harmony, become a something of a carapace? Protective and a part of one’s self? By adhering to one’s ideal, is one’s identity further developed or does it become restrained by choices that are calculated and prudent? Thúy considers these questions in what is, ultimately, a book that begs to be read.

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kimthuy

About Kim Thúy: Thúy has worked as a seamstress, a lawyer, a chef and a restaurant owner. She is an award winning novelist whose first novel, Ru, won the Governor General’s Literary Award, the GrandPrix RTL/Lire, the Grand Prix du Salon du Livre de Montréal and was short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize among others.

Thúy left Vietnam when she was ten years old and is currently living and writing in Montreal.

Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment

Described as a “simple yet moving parable,” Flight of the Hummingbird tells the story of a great forest fire. The animals of the forest flee and from the forest’s edge they watch the devastation unfold. One small bird, a hummingbird named Dukdukdiya, flies to a nearby stream and gathers a single drop of her water in her beak. She then flies over the fire and lets the water fall into the flames. She flies back and forth and each time she carries a new drop of water to help quell the fire. The animals cry out to Dukdukdiya, warning her of the perils. The smoke. The heat. It’s all too much, they say. But she persists.

The parable is a commentary on inaction. Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas teams with Wangari Maathai and His Holiness the Dalai Lama to provide a compelling analysis of contemporary idleness in regards to environmental initiatives.

Before reading this book, I was at my friend’s house doing homework and asked to print off some of my readings. She scrounged to find scrap paper so as not to be wasteful. I realized, then, that I’ve never in my life bothered to print on scrap paper. Meanwhile, in Wangari Maathai’s foreword, the Kenyan activist outlines her insistence that government offices use both sides of papers in order to halve the amount of paper used. Needless to say, I was immediately struck with guilt and an ensuing desire to change.

What I first noticed about Flight of the Hummingbird was the welcoming yet insistent style of writing. The narrative invites the reader to consider environmental issues, encourages them to contemplate without coming across as condemnatory. In the parable’s last line, Dukdukdiya says: “I am doing what I can.” This gentle reminder of our humanity, of both our capabilities and limitations speaks to the book’s most prevalent themes: collaboration and commitment.

The book explores stories whose origins can be traced back to the Quechan people of South America and the Haida of the North Pacific. In an age where we must carefully analyze how cultures interact and share information (for example, considering the meaning of cultural appropriation) Flight of the Hummingbird acts as a reminder that while every culture has a story to tell, a rich history of its own, some stories have no geographical limitations. The stories of our environment ultimately affect a shared planet and in these stories are relevant lessons, lessons that shed light on the human condition and not solely on the deterioration of various environments. Thus, Flight of the Hummingbird is an appeal to the human heart as much as it is to the mind. The story evokes empathy and rumination.

The hummingbird is an important figure to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The parable was inspired by a story that belonged to the Quechan people (of modern day Ecuador). A symbol of optimism, wisdom, beauty, agility and the celebration of life, the hummingbird infuses this parable with hope. The contrast between hope and urgency certainly adds dynamism to the narrative. Meanwhile, the Haida Nation of the North Pacific calls the hummingbird dukdukdiya, an imitation of its sound.While the hummingbird has been celebrated by numerous cultures, what the stories of hummingbirds all hold in common is the consensus that even the smallest creatures can contribute meaningfully.

Rather, those who are not afraid to act, and who are aware of what is at stake, can make the biggest difference.

Biographical Information:

Wangari Muta Maathai: Born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1940, Maathai was the daughter of farmers in the highlands of Mount Kenya. She founded the Green Belt Movement, which works to engage rural women in tree planting operations and in 1986, she established a Pan-African Green Belt Network. She has worked with the United Nations and various campaigns. Her aim is to direct attention towards democracy, human rights and environmental conservation.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama: The head of state and the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. He was born in 1935 into a farming family in northeastern Tibet. At the age of two, he was recognized as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. He has received over eighty-four awards, honorary doctorates and prizes in recognition of his advocacy of peace, nonviolence, compassion and universal responsibility. He now lives in exile among numerous Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, India.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas: An artist trained in Haida design, Yahgulanaas is Flight of the Hummingbird’s brilliant illustrator. He developed a genre called “Haida Manga” that attempts to connect his colonial and indigenous heritages. He is from Haida Gwaii, Canada, and his work is inspired by his long career in social and environmental justice issues. You can visit his website at: http://www.mny.ca

 

A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton

It’s been a wonderful morning. Today is a stat holiday so I’ve stayed in bed with coffee and a book, basking in sunlight. Last week, rather serendipitously, I wandered past the University of Calgary’s sidewalk book sale and found a copy of A Week at the Airpo41lm9p1s8zl-_sx323_bo1204203200_rt by Alain de Botton, a book I was assigned to read for class and that is everything the Daily Mail claims of it: “Funny, charming, and slender enough to pack in your carry-on.” I have to say, I’m quite taken by this book.

I would consider myself a regular traveller and though I’ve not travelled nearly as much as I’d like, I can at least say that my experiences in airports are numbered and varied. For this reason, I was immediately drawn in by de Botton’s first sentence:

While punctuality lies at the heart of what we typically understand by a good trip, I have often longed for my plane to be delayed- so that I might be forced to spend a bit more time at the airport.

I, too, love airports. They are strange places. Places where connections are made… perhaps a human connection… two readers exchange a glance as they wait, their flight delayed by a snow storm in Toronto or perhaps a traveller is forced to dash from one end of the airport to the other in an attempt to catch a connecting flight.

International best selling Auther Alain de Botton is appointed writer-in-residence at Heathrow

I will begin by detailing what I loved most about this book. When we consider stories, whether a story is reflected through film, writing or music, we so often pair our understanding of stories with our understanding of conclusions. In writing, for example, we consider denouement, the importance of resolution, conclusion, the finale that bursts into existence as a result of certain cumulative events. To witness the tidy ending of a love story in a Hollywood film rarely shocks us. Instead, we are trained to expect it. But this is not life. Not really. Rather, we are more commonly exposed to what, in film or writing or song, would be considered a “cliff hanger.” In everyday life, however, we don’t consider the people at bus stops who step onto buses only to disappear as “cliff hangers.” This is because we so rarely stop to consider other people’s stories. A woman, carrying a bunch of white tulips, hair slightly astray, missing, perhaps, the top button on her coat, steps onto the bus and stares silently out the window. She gets off near a dentist’s office, enters the building, a smiling tooth pasted to the door and she disappears. The bus carries on. Perhaps she is an employee, a dental assistant. Perhaps she has developed a cavity, or maybe her daughter, a teenager in the throes of puberty, is having a tooth removed after falling from her skateboard only to meet, with a loud crunch, a paved ramp near the local skatepark. Such mundane questions and yet when given proper thought, these questions become about more than cavities or skateboarding, they become essential to human life. We exist together, share a planet, share dreams and hopes, all the while existing in our own, private spheres.

A Week at the Airport reminds us of these stories. de Botton leaves us with cliff hangers. I want to know, desperately, why the couple he so eloquently describes, stood in the airport sobbing together until, at the last moment, the woman he claims was a beautiful brunette, checked her watch and left, careening through the airport until de Botton lost her in a shuffle near SunHut. What happened to the woman? The man? Did she cry as she stepped onto the plane? I’m forced to fill these gaps as I read. Thus, de Botton provides a work that both engages and challenges the reader, infuses every story with truthfulness.

Taking a poetic but also conversationalist approach, de Botton reveals the turbulence and restlessness of Heathrow Airport through his own observations, detailed vignettes and the stories of airport staff. Whether you love to travel, dream of travel or simply enjoy considering how people interact, A Week at the Airport is a must read, a careful collection of stories woven together through one commonality: the airport.

About the author:

Born in Zurich in 1969, Alain de Botton, now a Londoner, is a renowned writer. As a prominent essayist, he offers his readers what has been described as “philosophy of everyday life” and has written on topics ranging from love and architecture to travel and literature. He started “The School of Life,” which is “devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture.” Meanwhile, de Botton’s works have been bestsellers in some 30 countries.

The Best Books I Read in 2016

 

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

My favourite read from 2016. Fifteen dogs kicks off in Toronto with a bet between Hermes and Apollo. Following the bet, 15 dogs suddenly gain human consciousness and must explore the relationship between instinct and emotion. A truly philosophical fable, this short novel wields multi-dimensional characters like none other.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is simply amazing. She is a master when it comes to character development. The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo, the passing of his mother and his relationship with his estranged father. Utilizing a number of settings and introducing a great number of distinct characters, the Goldfinch is a mystery that takes the reader on a truly immersive journey.

Grayling by Gillian Wigmore

After battling an illness, Jay sets out to canoe the Dease River in Northwestern B.C. and soon meets a mysterious woman who joins him on his journey. The writing is poetic yet succinct. Grayling is a sensual tale that explores the complexities of human relationships. I enjoyed every moment.

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Updike is, of course, a renowned storyteller. Rabbit, Run left me with both immense sympathy and immense hatred of the protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. This novel will certainly speak to those who yearn for the past. Written in 1960, Rabbit, Run is a timeless piece.

On Writing by Stephen King

For years I’ve been reading books about writing and whenever someone suggests a new book on writing I tend to nod my head, feeling less than hopeful. After reading King’s book I am assured that some books about writing are priceless. On Writing is funny, true, gritty and incredibly helpful to anyone interested in the craft of writing. King’s description of working late nights, raising a family and supporting his wife while managing to cram in time for writing was deeply moving. 

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

If you hate the gym and want an abdominal workout nonetheless, fear not! Simply read In a Sunburned Country and you’ll be laughing until it feels like you’ve done a hundred sit-ups. Bill Bryson is a favourite of mine. When life gets rough he’s my go to guy. In a Sunburned Country is Bryson’s account of exploring Australia’s many facets. He brings his usual wit and sarcasm to the pages.

Beauty of the Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

I read this book after hearing Camilla Gibb speak at the University of Calgary. The story of old man Hung who wheels his cart of Pho from location to location each morning is a stunning account of how stories weave between generations. Gibb’s use of Vietnamese history made for a delicious read that was both entertaining and insightful.

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys

The Frozen Thames is a series of vignettes about the Thames freezing over. Each vignette is poetic and captures details that distil larger historical events, making them feel personal and alive. The book itself is beautiful and definitely worth owning.

The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates

Glimpses into Joyce Carol Oates’ life as a writer is a reminder that even the most renowned, well versed writers struggle with their craft. From advice to new writers to Joyce’s obsession with running, the Faith of a Writer may be short but it’s a book that refuses to abandon the reader after they’ve put it down.

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys

First published in 2008 by Mcclelland & Stewart Ltd, The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys’ is a gem of a book. Humphreys’s chilling prose is at once bewitching and insightful, making this magical collection a must read.

Due in part to the Little Ice Age and further impeded by the Old London Bridge, the River Thames has frozen over forty times throughout British history. Through a series of vignettes and period art, The Frozen Thames chronicles the events accompanying the Thames solidification.

th.jpgEach of Humphreys’ forty vignettes contextualizes British history in a way that seamlessly enters the reader’s mind. Humphreys’ writing is vivid and engaging. The images she provides are powerfully photographic and will linger in the reader’s mind long after they set the book down. In their poeticism, each sketch deftly illustrates a spectacularly beautiful world, touched by frost and sufferance. From the Frost Fairs erect on the frozen river to lovers cursed by the Black Plague, The Frozen Thames takes its readers on a journey from 1142 to the river’s last freeze in 1895.

To frame the River Thames unique history, narrative shifts exist between vignettes, further illuminating life in London prior to the 20th century. The writing draws on both first person and omniscient narration. The omniscient narration casts a spell over the writing and yields a more haunting experience. The first person, however, provides a more intimate experience by allowing readers to interact with Humphreys’ myriad of characters.

The Frozen Thames is the kind of book that you’ll want to read over and over. It is a short and compendious read but manages to encapsulate years worth of research. Get cozy because this book will lure you into a frozen world you won’t want to resist.

About Helen Humphreys:Helen Humphreys.jpg

Helen Humphreys’ is the award-winning author of five novels, four books of poetry and one of creative non-fiction (The Frozen Thames.) She was born in London, England in1961 and now lives in Kingston, Ontario with her dog, Hazel.

Note:

Feature Image: View of the Thames off Three Cranes Wharf when Frozen, Monday 31 January to Saturday 5 February 1814, on which a Fair was held, attended by many Hundred Persons by Charles Calvert (1785-1852).