Thursday, March 29, 2012

Irma Voth

Not that long ago, it seemed I was unconsciously being drawn to books about Paris, now it seems the draw is to Mexico. This may be my subconscious telling me to take a holiday, but until that happens, I'm rather enjoying the different approaches authors take to writing about similar places. With Paris, I read a novel set in contemporary Paris and then one set in 1920s Paris. With Mexico, I did things the other way around, although I certainly didn't plan it that way. The strange thing, though, is that even if I hadn't started with Dr. Brinkley's Tower, I would have had a kind of window into early Mexico because Irma Voth by Miriam Toews is about a Mennonite family.

In particular, Toews follows her titular character, Irma, a Mennonite woman who rebels against her strict father and secretly marries a Mexican. As a result, she is simultaneously shunned and shackled. Her family is forbidden from making contact with her; however, she is forbidden from leaving, and her father gives her and her husband the house next door, in return for which they will milk the cows for free. Then her husband leaves, without offering much of an explanation, and Irma is alone in her dark house. Naturally, this is when everything in her life changes. A film crew moves into the house next to Irma's. They are making a movie about Mennonites in Mexico and need a translator; Irma speaks English (she was born in Canada and lived in Manitoba until her family abruptly moved when was 13), Spanish, and Low German, so she is hired to work with the film's female lead, a Mennonite from Germany who doesn't speak Spanish. For a society adamantly against photographs, a movie is extremely controversial, and Irma's father forbids her to work with the crew. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Both my mum's parents fought in the Second World War. My grandmother read radar screens for the British and my grandpa Hunter fixed radios for the Canadians. And yes, this was fighting, even if it didn't involve guns – they were both on the front lines, working on air bases that made desirable targets for enemy bombers. They met while on leave, corresponded, were married, and then, when the war was over, my grandmother emigrated to Canada like so many War Brides. With that kind of history, it is impossible not be enraptured by Coventry, Helen Humphrey's beautiful slip of a novel, but I think even without a family connection to the war you would be hard-pressed to put it down.

The novel is set, as the title suggests, in Coventry, a city in the West Midlands (north and west of London). Rather remarkably, the entire story takes place – aside from some memories – on one night: the night the Germans bombed the city on Nov. 14, 1940. When the novel opens, Harriet is heading to the Coventry Cathedral to work as a fire watcher. She is going on behalf of her neighbour, who fell when she mopped the foyer and hurt his leg. Don't worry, he tells her, nothing ever happens. Once she's at her post, though, it doesn't take long before fire starts to rim the city: Luftwaffe bombers targeting Coventry's automotive factories. But the bombing isn't confined to the factories, and soon firebombs are raining down on the city – lighting fires, Harriet is told, helps them see where else to bomb – and soon the cathedral is hit. When it becomes apparent they cannot put out the fires, the fire watchers evacuate the important items – chalice, cross, Bible, etc. – and then abandon the burning building. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dr. Brinkley's Tower

A few years ago I wrote an essay about the early evolution of newspaper advertising (it was for my History of News class, taken in the context of a journalism degree). Anyway, most of the essay looked at formal aspects of advertising, so in the process of researching it I looked at many, many ads from the 19th century, which is why I now know that snake oil was a real thing. Or, rather, that it really was advertised as a miracle cure. For a long time. That kind of early, charlatan medicine is fascinating, as is the way that industry grew, and the 1930s version of it is at the centre of Robert Hough's latest novel Dr. Brinkley's Tower.

Set in 1931, Hough's novel focuses on the (I'm pretty sure fictional) Mexico border town of Corazon de la Fuente. Corazon has suffered greatly since the end of the Mexican revolution, having lost a huge number of its young men to the fighting and its confidence to the fear it endured during those years. It has no industry, no resources, and not much hope – it's only successful business is the House of Gentlemanly Pleasures, a brothel patronized by gringos from across the nearby border. Then very suddenly, this all changes. An American named Dr. John Romulus Brinkley contacts the mayor of Corazon because he wants to put a radio tower in the town. The U.S., it seems, has restrictions on the size and power of radio towers built on its land; Brinkley wants a tower so powerful that it can broadcast to every state all the way to Alaska, so he's going to build it just over the border in Mexico. Why? Well, Brinkley wants to advertise  his new "compound operation," a procedure that purports to cure impotence by replacing the prostate with a goat teste – or something (he's quite vague).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Paris Wife

Something must be in the air, because I have encountered more references to 1920s Paris in the past, say, six months than I think I ever have. Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is probably the most high profile of these references, but "Paris in the Twenties" is also used in Lynn Coady's The Antagonist as a kind of shorthand for a debaucherous, productive, rollicking good time. That these references are coming to us at more or less the same time must mean something triggered the artists at a similar moment, although I can't for the life of me think what. Anyway, although Gabe does get to visit 1920s Paris in the Woody Allen film, it is an idealized version that services his nostalgia –  and the boys in The Antagonist don't even make it to France – Paula McClain's latest novel The Paris Wife is not only set mostly in 1920s Paris, but also in the heart of its artistic movement, as seen from the perspective of Ernest Hemingway's first wife Hadley.

I know some general stuff about Hemingway from having read a few of his novels, a great New Yorker profile, and (embarrassingly, perhaps) having watched Love and War, the Sandra Bullock, Chris O'Donnell movie about Hemingway's First World War service, injury, and subsequent romance and heartbreak at the hands of his nurse. The movie is not good, but the basic biographical information is fairly sound. All of this is to say that, while I know a little, I'm no expert or superfan, and you don't need to be either to enjoy McClain's novel.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

This is quite a woe-is-me thing to say, but I miss France. I lived there for a year five years ago and I've never fully recovered. Oh sure, dogs poop on the sidewalks, but that's a minor inconvenience when you consider that good wine costs €3 and delicious breads and pastries are available from nearly every street corner in a city, and that it's France. That being said, there are things about France that can be quite problematic. For all the government aid (as a student, I got half my rent back every month), there is still a quite an entrenched class system, and although it's shrinking a bit, it is certainly felt among the older generations. That divide is one of the most intriguing aspects of Muriel Barbery's novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and although I didn't quite buy how she dealt with it at the end, I very much enjoyed getting to spend some time in Paris.

The novel is comprised ostensibly of two diaries. The first is written by RenĂ©e Michel, the widowed concierge at 7, rue de Grenelle, and an autodidact in hiding. The second is kept by Paloma Josse, the 12-year-old daughter of a wealthy family living upstairs. Paloma has decided to kill herself on her 13th birthday because she doesn't want to grow up to be an adult caught in the fishbowl of life; her diary entries consist of self-described profound thoughts, based on various events she witnesses or is involved in, as well as an attempt to document the "masterpieces of matter" through their movement. I realize this makes Paloma sound kind of intolerable, but really, think back to when you were 12 – didn't you think you had it all figured out, could see everything clearly? Then, of course, puberty kicks in and all that certainty disappears, but for a brief time things are clear, and Barbery captures that really beautifully.

Real Time Web Analytics
Powered By Ringsurf