In a postmodern world we can have discussions about Keats’ maxim, but Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo shows in some small way ( or perhaps some big way) that it’s true.

It was chosen by the Ontario Library Association as the winner of the 2009 Forest of Reading Evergreen Award (celebrating Canadian writing),  and since the award will be given out at our 2010 superconference, it’s been taken on as a sort of theme book for the conference (it doesn’t hurt that one character thinks the library is “the most visible manifestation of a society he was proud of”). I had heard good things, so I picked it up.

According to the cover of my book, the Ottawa Citizen says that it’s “a galvanizing examination of the strength of the human heart”…and I suppose that’s accurate, but it could be more specific…it shows human strength because it shows us people working through their own weakness and fear: “It’s just something you do because life is a series of tiny, unavoidable decisions.”

The book is a fictionalized account of a cellist who played at the site of a mortar shelling in the Siege of Sarajevo for 22 days, one for each person who had been killed there. The sniper assigned to protect him (in the book) is also inspired by  a female Sarajevan sniper the author saw on a news report. The book follows the sniper and some other characters, all of whom have their own feelings and thoughts on the siege, their lives, and the work of the cellist.

And it comes back to a universal question of war: “Do the men on the hills hate her? Or do they hate the idea of her, because she’s different from them, and that in this difference there might be some sort of inferiority or superiority that is hers or theirs, that in the end threatens the potential happiness of everyone?”

The book shows how these big questions influence that series of tiny, unavoidable decisions, and it is beautiful because it is true and true because it is beautiful.


January 26, 2010

I started hearing about The Englishman’s Boy, I’m sure, really very shortly after it was published, which is more than 10 years ago, now. And finally got around to reading it. And I’m so very sorry I waited so long.

Vanderhaeghe writes gems of sentences, and yet the poetry of the text isn’t because he’s writing about beautiful things. Writing about trappers and cowboys in the truly wild west, and about Hays-code Hollywood, doesn’t lead to a lot of glamour, at least in the brutally honest way Vanderhaeghe does it. Something about what and the way he wrote gets right down to the essence. You know people like his characters, even if you don’t want to, and the book debunks and celebrates the reality of legends, at the same time.

So that’s 2 of my 12 TBR challenge books down, at the end of January. And that’s even with taking time off for Gaiman and LeBron James. Next read’s not a TBR book, either…The Cellist of Sarajevo. Librarians are cool. We’ve made it our official Ontario Library Association 2010 superconference book, so I don’t want to be behind.

Wild Rumpus

January 23, 2010

I’ve been told some people had mixed feelings about the recent movie adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, but I absolutely loved it.

There was one thing that bothered me, and it must mean I’m getting older. It bothered me that the adventure takes place, in the movie, while Max has run away and his mother (Catherine Keener, who is fantastic here, as usual) doesn’t know where he is (in the book he’s up in his room without any supper).

But mostly, I thought the movie captured beautifully the spirit of the book in showing the joy and sorrow and imagination of children.  The fine line between having fun and being hurt. Any time Max (Max Records) cried, my heart broke and I cried. Any time he grinned, well, my heart broke and I cried.  And it doesn’t mean it’s an unhappy story, although it could seem that way. It just means that, like Sendak’s work, Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers understand that it’s difficult to be a child. That it’s difficult to be a parent, or a family, or any person. And that imagination can be scary, but can also be the greatest help.

The Replacements

January 17, 2010

For my 2nd (now, I’m sure, of many) Met Live in HD performance, my parents and I saw the new Richard Eyre production of Carmen. Conducted by a Canadian, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music and acting had all of the elements of a great Carmen: joy, beauty, passion. Later performances have a different cast, but this performance starred a long-term replacement as Carmen, Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca. Reviews of the London production (with the same Don Jose, Roberto Alagna) were half-hearted, but the stars must have developed their charisma and chemistry, because it shone through in this performance. Garanca, in particular, was incredibly physical and passionate (she’s a gypsy, of course she should dance while she sings!). Teddy Tahu Rhodes, as Escamillo, wasn’t supposed to perform until later in the season as well, but I’m thrilled that we saw him.

The direction was fantastic, with sets that demonstrated the difference in scenes but also offered a consistent look and feel. The pas de deux before each half and the conclusion, with its reminder of the passion and violence of the bullfight, were integral to the experience. Amazing to see a vision of such a well-known story that was both new and classic at the same time.

January 17, 2010

Most people I know subscribe or listen to NPR’s Writer’s Almanac, and if you don’t, you should, but here’s the gem of a poem chosen for today:

The More Loving One

by W. H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

“The More Loving One” by W.H. Auden, from Collected Poems. © The Modern Library — Random House, 2007.

sorry, Harold

January 14, 2010

With all due respect to Prof. Bloom, I have to agree with my mom’s assessment, instead: I just can’t get into John Crowley’s Little, Big. 2 chapters in, it just seems like the kind of book I’ll need more time than I’ll ever have in my life to really enjoy.

The writing is odd, to me. I love me a long sentence, but sometimes these seem stilted. And while there are many beautiful turns of phrase (one character is described as “a streak of presence surrounded by a dim glow of absence”), there are others that…aren’t (“Her brown eyes were deliquescent in the lamplight”…deliquescent?!).



January 13, 2010

I think someone’s in cahoots with my TBR friends to slow me down…now I have two more loans: LeBron James’ memoir Shooting Stars, about his high school basketball team (an excerpt was in a recent Vanity Fair and was quite good), and John Crowley’s Little, Big, which is apparently one of Harold Bloom’s favourite books. My mother says she couldn’t get into it, at least right now, so we’ll see. I loved Stardust but it might have fantasy’d me out. While I’ve started and not finished other books, it’s hardly ever been because I couldn’t appreciate them stylistically (here’s a confession: the only one of those was The Satanic Verses…just didn’t work for me, at least at the time I tried to read it).

After these two, no more loans! I have to get back to Englishman’s Boy, even if I’d still be on schedule if I finished it in February.


January 10, 2010

So far, I’m ahead.

I started my TBR challenge with American Bloomsbury, by Susan Cheever, a gift from G. He warned that it would read like a soap opera. And it was certainly a different view of these authors and their lives (Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Fuller) than most of us went through school with, although not outrageously so considering all the biographical work that has been done on these figures in just the last few years. My mother was interested in the Transcendentals growing up and she’d been telling me since I first had to read Walden how everyone mooched off of crochety old Emerson. If one is really looking for a lit. bio. soap opera, Katie Roiphe’s Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages, mostly about the London Bloomsburys, is where one should look. Those people screwed like rabbits. There’s a big difference between 1830 and 1930, though, so I suppose American Bloomsbury does tell a tale shocking for the time it discusses, if not for ours.

I moved on to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy, and so far I’m really, really enjoying it. One choice phrase?  “He owned a face white and cold as a well-digger’s ass.” Love it.

But I’ve taken breaks for loans. Ex Machina, a comic by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, really speaks to my interests in politics and tech-based sci-fi. The characters are very well-realized, and the stories complex.

And now, Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’ Stardust. I’ve been enjoying his blog, to which I was introduced by a friend, so I knew I’d likely enjoy his writing, but I hadn’t read anything till now. And even just 2 pages in it was clear how much I was going to love it. Any book that starts with a John Donne poem is all right by me. And I loved the premise that the story takes place not exactly in a world of its own, but one that’s just another element of ours (with London down the road):

“Mr. Charles Dickens was serializing his novel Oliver Twist; Mr. Draper had just taken a photograph of the moon, freezing her pale face for the first time on cold paper; Mr. Morse had just announced a way of transmitting messages down metal wires.

“Had you mentioned magic or Faerie to any of them they would have smiled at you disdainfully; except, perhaps for Mr. Dickens, at the time a young man, and beardless, and he would have looked at you wistfully.”

Wonderful, in the exact sense of the word.