Thursday, January 27, 2011

Girl With A Pearl Earring

When I was a teenager, I went through a pretty major art phase. I was (and, to be honest, still am) fascinated by the work and the lives of the Monet, Van Gogh, Cézanne, The Group of 7, etc. I wanted to understand what made them see the world the way they did, allowing them to paint such colourful and vibrant images. Perhaps naturally, then, when my mum told me about Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl With A Pearl Earring, a fictional account of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and his painting of the same name, I was hooked. In fact, I was so intrigued that I read the entire novel in one day, on vacation, during a heat wave. 

The novel is set in Delft, the Dutch city where Vermeer lived and worked. But rather than centering her novel around the painter himself, Chevalier places the girl, Griet, at the centre of the narrative. Griet is a maid in the Vermeer household. Griet's father was a painter of tiles, so although his work was not on the scale of Vermeer's, she had grown up with an artist. This makes her aware of an artist's moods, and also their desire to work in a space untouched by anyone else. Griet, though, has an unusually perceptive eye, and is able to clean Vermeer's study and have it look as though no one has been there; she pays close and careful attention to where and how everything sits, and makes sure to replace it all just so. Griet's aesthetic eye impresses Vermeer, who invites her to work with him – tidying his study and mixing some of his paints – making both his wife and daughters jealous. 

Not much is known about the real-life Vermeer, and Chevalier works hard not to imagine him in too much detail. His family is described through the eyes of Griet, but he remains a more shadowy figure. After they begin working together, Griet, who is rather shy and unassuming, becomes more self-assured. She becomes rather like a companion to Vermeer, although to say they are friends would be a stretch because of the class and gender divide. Neither can say they are lovers, because although there is certainly tension, Chevalier is careful not to burst her beautifully crafted novel of looks and art with outright fantasy. What makes Girl With A Pearl Earring work is its plausibility.

The scenes of Vermeer painting Griet for the painting that will eventually become famous are by far the most compelling in the novel. Chevalier doesn't waste details about her characters, and she pours all of the reluctance and desire between Griet and Vermeer into the looks the two exchange and the brief moments in which they touch, mostly so he can readjust how she is sitting and how the headscarf is falling. Chevalier has said that it was the look on the girl's face that inspired her to write the novel, and that shows in her attention to all the details surrounding her version of how the painting came to be. 

Girl With A Pear Earring is not a high-brow treatise on art. Rather, it is a specific story about a specific painting, as imagined by an author who is not an art scholar. That is to say, as much as this story is about the painting it's named after, it is also about its characters. Despite all the research that Chevalier did, she didn't let it overtake the story the she wanted to tell; her characters are compelling, and she doesn't allow the story to succumb to cliché. Whether you had an art phase or not, Griet's experience in Delft, both with Vermeer and outside of his studio, make for a story that you just can't put down.

Girl With A Pearl Earring
by Tracy Chevalier
First published in 1999 (cover image shown from Plume/Penguin Books edition)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Bookies

The CBC Book Club is putting together a whole new kind of book award: The Bookies, which will honour books published in 2010, are to be modeled on the Oscars. What does that mean? Well, that means The Bookies might honour jacket design, typesetting, and book-flap descriptions as well as naming genre-specific winners.

The Bookies are still a work in progress, though, and the Book Club is taking suggestions for categories as well as nominees. 

My favourite thing about this is that it could draw attention to all kinds of aspects of books that go beyond their content. We pick up books for all kinds of reasons and this is a time to celebrate that. What if we decided to honour great title fonts, cover illustrations, chapter titles, etc.? I'm not a total Luddite, but I do appreciate the opportunity to think about what makes a book a book (and a novel a novel) rather than delighting in the content (which is what I do most of the time).

It's hard to know exactly where this will go, but for now, I'm pretty excited to see it develop.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Science fiction is not a genre I typically gravitate towards. I don't intentionally avoid it, but it there just never seems to be a science-fiction novel on the top of my to-be-read pile unless someone else puts it there. The thing is, though, when sci-fi – like any other genre – is done well, you suspend your disbelief without being asked and become totally absorbed in the story. Unfortunately, I find a lot of authors make this impossible; their worlds have too many strange rules, too many unpronounceable words, or sacrifice description for action (or vice-versa). Stanislaw Lem manages to largely avoid all these pitfalls, and in Fiasco he does what sci-fi does best: he takes a modern-day problem and allows us to see it in a different context.

Fiasco opens on Titan, one of Saturn's moons, in a kind of false start. Purvis, a pilot, has just arrived at the base to discover that two men have gone missing – they set out to the next settlement and neither arrived nor returned. Purvis volunteers to go look for them, after listening carefully to the dangerous terrain he will have to navigate through. Unfortunately, Purvis meets a similar fate to the two other men, as he becomes entangled in the ice forest (created by geysers that erupt, freeze, and then come crashing down) and, doing the only thing he can, activates the machine's cryogenic device, freezing himself until rescue.

The first part is a bit disjointed from the rest of the novel, which takes place years later. But, it isn't a throw-away by any means. The amount of detail Lem manages to pack into this first episode is incredible. Not only does he give a precise description of the various machines and how they work, but he also has a great eye for landscape. His descriptions of the surface of Titan are quite beautiful, and he manages to get across just how dangerous this moon's various terrains are without letting go of how, in Purvis' eyes, the place is totally awe inspiring. Lem's descriptions are stark in some ways – his language is in no way flowery – but they are evocative, and promise a novel of careful detail as well as purposeful action.

After this first sequence, though, the time and place of the novel shift to the spacecraft Eurydice, which is on a mission to make contact with non-human life forms on a planet called Quinta. Onboard the ship is a man who has been frozen and subsequently reanimated. He doesn't know his name or where he has come from, but he is a pilot and the implication is that he is Purvis, although that is never confirmed. On Eurydice he is given the name Tempe. Thus begins the narrative on the problem of communication, which is really what this novel is about. Essentially, as the novel's title implies, the entire endeavour is a disaster.

What I like best about Fiasco is Lem's ability to write about impending doom in a subtle way. He escalates the situation slowly, exploring the psychological reasons that people react the way they do, and as the acts of violence increase in severity, Lem is careful not to celebrate them. The humans, of course, are having trouble communicating with the Quintans. And, naturally, the Quintans don't act positively to a strange ship in their air space; they do what humans would do if the situation were reversed (that is, try to kill the perceived enemy) and, naturally, the humans don't like it. Lem's mockery of the "we come in peace, but be nice or we'll kill you" method of cross-cultural communication is both clear and effective. And in the end, the Quintans are utterly destroyed by the attempts at contact.

Fiasco is not a cheerful book, but neither is is bleak. The novel is filled with strange humour and weird side-stories, which indicate that Lem hasn't written an allegory of the how the world is today, with various characters representing world leaders or countries.  The story is both more general and more specific than that. General in that the overall message of understand is universal, and specific because this is a story about one relatively small spaceship and one relatively small planet. It is a clash of civilizations on the small scale, and it leaves you hoping that the survivors have learned something valuable they can take back to Earth with them.

by Stanislaw Lem
First published in English in 1987 (cover image shown from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich edition)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Every once in a while, I find an author who gets me excited about reading. That isn't to say I'm not excited about reading in a general way, all the time; rather, I mean that certain authors draw me into their work in such a way that makes me both want it to last for a long time and speed up so I can read something else they've written. It's very conflicting, but some authors get inside my head and make me want to read a whole lot of their stuff before moving on. Haruki Murakami was one of those authors for me (as well as for many others, I suspect) and his novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although not the first of his I read, has maintained the biggest hold on me.

Murakami is a weird writer, let's get that out of the way. His writing combines elements of stark realism with really shadowy spiritual and psychological elements, as well as a clear interest in Japanese history, especially as it pertains to Manchuria. He also tends to have lots of characters. All of these elements combine in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to create a strange, twisting, layered narrative that starts out with a lost cat.

Toru Okada and his wife Kumiko live in Tokyo. Toru is not working, because he has decided he'd rather not and they can afford it right now, so when their cat goes missing, it is his responsibility to look for it. The cat is named Noboru Wataya, after Kumiko's brother, whom neither of them like. Then, with very little explanation, Kumiko also goes missing. Or, rather, she leaves, because she says has been having an affair. With very little notice, Toru is without both his cat and his wife. Since he doesn't really have a place to start looking for his wife, Toru continues to search for the cat. Searching down the back alley, Toru meets May Kasahara, a teenage girl and pro-liar who isn't in school because she has chosen not to be. In a lesser writer's hands, the friendship between May and Toru would be fraught with inappropriate sexual tension, but as it is, Toru is too passive for that and May is too cynical. Mostly, they talk about death, and the missing cat, and Toru's missing wife.

Toru's passivity is a lynchpin in the novel, because none of the people he meets are people he has to seek out; everyone comes to him and then he follows their instructions, practically without question. He is kind of infuriating, really. Toru receives a lot of mail, often letter that continue stories he was partially told in person. One of these stories comes from Lieutenant Mamiya, about what happened to him when he was a soldier occupying Manchuria. It is a gruesome tale and results in him being tossed into a dry well in the middle of the dessert. After three days, he manages to get out, ends up in a Siberian labour camp and, eventually, makes his way back to Japan. It's a harrowing story and provokes a strange link between Toru's life and the history of Japan's occupation of China, which returns later when another character enters Toru's life.

There are really too many pieces of the novel to attempt a detailed explanation. Murakami writes rather like a someone knitting a sweater: all the pieces are so tightly pulled together, that each element ties into another, making it impossible to remove one thread on its own. In that way, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is like a well-crafted mystery novel – with strange characters and false endings – wherein knowing what happens at the end is meaningless until you understand everything that led up to that point.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is, in a lot of ways, a novel about loneliness and isolation. But it is also about finding a way out of that isolation into relationships and the wider world. Toru Okada, for all his annoying traits, is the perfect character to build this sort of novel around because he forces the reader to slow down and take in all the weird sights. In this novel, Murakami constructs a life so rich in its strange and mundane details that you can't help but sink into it, making it a great read for this time of year – one the one hand isolating you in your chair, on the other giving a novel you will want everyone to read, if only so you have people to talk about it with.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
by Haruki Murakami
First published in English in 1997 (cover image shown from Vintage edition)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Le Petit Prince

It's the first week of the New Year and, for many people, New Year's resolutions are still somewhere near the front of their mind. Their desire to get fit, or save money, or travel, or whatever, is still jostling for space with their grocery list, work to-do list, and the million other things that will eventually crowd out their resolutions. But the thing is, if resolutions were more interesting (or seemed like they would be more fulfilling) they might be easier to follow-through with. What if we decided to see the world the way children do? For starters, I would suggest revisiting Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince.

I didn't read Le Petit Prince as a kid, so I'm not sure how I would have viewed it in the context of a children's story, but as an adult reader it stunned me. The story is, on the surface, a simple one. Adults, the narrator tells us at the beginning (he is an adult, himself), are boring because they need everything explained to them. The implication here is that children, despite their constant repetition of "why," just get stuff. The narrator sees himself as the grown-up version of these children; he is bored by adults and their lack of imagination and as a result lives alone and only makes cursory efforts to interact.

The narrator is a pilot, and after crashing in the Sahara, he sets about to repair his plane before his water supply runs out. But he is interrupted by a small voice saying (in one of the story's more famous lines) "dessine-moi un mouton" (draw me a sheep). After several failed attempts – one that's too sick, one that's actually a goat, one that's too old – the narrator gets a bit frustrated and draws a box; the sheep, he says, is inside. Of course, the recipient is delighted, because now the sheep, no longer constrained by outward appearance, can be exactly the sheep he wants. Of course, this small-voiced recipient is the Petit Prince himself. 

The Petit Prince has come from another planet – asteroid B 612, the narrator guesses – and wants the sheep to keep him company when he returns. His only friend there, he says, is his flower, which he will protect from the sheep. The Petit Prince tells the narrator all sorts of details about his planet, about the baobab trees, about the volcanoes he has to deactivate, about how lonely it is to be the only inhabitant, despite all the maintenance work the planet requires of him. The Petit Prince tells the narrator about harnessing a flock of birds to visit other planets, where he discovered numerous personalities: a king, a vain man in search of an admirer, a drinker, a businessman, a lamp-lighter, a writer, and finally the Petit Prince found his way to Earth, where he encounters the narrator, a pilot.

The Petit Prince's story is a strange one and, although the narrator fancies himself quite imaginative, I always got the impression that as he listened to the Petit Prince he did so with that kind of indulgent, wide-eyed look adults sometimes have when listening to children. But, as the Petit Prince's story takes him farther and farther away from his beloved flower and his little planet, the tone shifts from the excitement of adventure to anxiety and sadness over a home he can't get back to. By the end, the narrator is quite as serious about the Petit Prince's story as the Petit Prince himself.

There are a lot of ways to interpret Le Petit Prince –  is the Petit Prince the representation of the narrator's childhood self? Does he represent all childhood on the inevitable, and irreversible, path of growing up? Is it just a bedtime story to delight children and open up their dreams to new possibilities? Is he a hallucination of the recently-crashed pilot, our narrator? – but the nice thing about this sort of literature is that you don't have to decide what it means in order to enjoy it. Rather, like the narrator, simply allowing yourself to be taken into the world of the Petit Prince without that adult, indulgent smile is enough to prove that beyond all the day-to-day stuff you deal with, your imagination is still happily alive and waiting to be exercised.

Le Petit Prince
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
First published in 1943 (cover image shown from Folio edition)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Art of Bookbinding

Image from maydaystudio's Etsy shop
The art of beautifully-bound book was in the news quite a bit toward the end of 2010, thanks to The Sentimentalists' Giller win. The novel, written by Johanna Skibsrud, was originally published by Gaspereau Press in Kentville, Nova Scotia. (I say "originally" because, although Gaspereau is still printing the novel, they also made a deal with publisher Douglas & McIntyre for a larger print run, as Gaspereau can only handle 1,000 books per week at maximum capacity. The Douglas & McIntyre version is not as aesthetically pleasing as Gaspereau's original vision). Gaspereau is a small press that takes particular pride in their bindings and the use of letter-press and/or handprinted book jackets. I was lucky enough to received a Gaspereau edition of The Sentimentalists for Christmas, and let me tell you, it is quite something to behold. Not many soft-covers come with a dust jacket, letter-pressed title and heavy-weight paper. 

Most books do not receive this kind of attention any more (and haven't for quite some time), but the crafters over at ohdeedoh have step-by-step instructions for how to improve the longevity of loved paperbacks. Their method is to create a new "hardcover" for the book, with a cloth cover, which gives is a nicer profile on the shelf as well as the chance at a longer life. If that sparks your interest (I'm quite tempted to give it a try), I suggest reading through the comments below the instructions; there are some good tips about glue and card-stock down there,

But, if your New Year's resolution is about more than aesthetics, take desktop publishing a step further and create and bind your own book from scratch. Instructions for making a casebound book are here, along with step-by-step photos. Many art shops sell book-binding tools and materials.

With the (well-deserved) interest surrounding The Sentimentalists' story and design, perhaps 2011 will be the year the beautifully-bound and designed book makes a comeback. At the very list, it could be the year of artisanal DIY.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

My Bookshelf, 2010 edition

I'm not sure how I managed it, but somehow in 2010 I worked my way through thirty-four books. To be fair, some of these titles were lighter than others, but still, I think that's a pretty good number. I'm not really someone who goes for those year-long reading challenges (a book per day or a book per week, etc.) because I expect it would make me a less attentive reader, more concerned with the number of pages left than the page I'm reading. 

Anyhow, here's what I read last year (excluding, of course, magazines and newspapers). Of the thirty-four titles on the list: 11 are rereads, 8 are non-fiction, 2 are poetry, 23 are novels, and 12 are Canadian. Clearly, I need to improve my poetry and short-fiction reading in 2011. All in all, though, those numbers indicate a reasonably balanced bookshelf.

Just like the last time I did this, the stars indicate rereads – can you believe that until this year I'd never read a novel by Margaret Atwood or Kurt Vonnegut? Consider those holes filled.

What I read in 2010:

Abel’s Island by William Steig*
American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center by William Langewiesche
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
How Soccer Explains the World: An [unlikely] theory of globalization by Franklin Foer
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
The Adventuress by Audrey Niffenegger
The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden*
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
Fiasco by Stanislaw Lem
The Dog Who Wouldn't Be by Farley Mowat*
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman*
The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
Summer Sisters by Judy Bloom*
Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald*
The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White*
The Princess Bride by William Goldman*
Bloom by Michael Lista
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Annabel by Kathleen Winter
February by Lisa Moore
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson*
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

This year, I'm looking forward to lots of new reading (and some rereading as well). At the top of my list are:

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud
Storyteller: The authorized biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock
Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut
Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant
Tiger by John Vaillant

Here's to another great year of reading!
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