Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Mystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier

This French novella is a tasty lozenge of a book. Perfect for three hours on the plane.

Since being dumped by a girlfriend without explanation after a four year relationship the navel-gazing narrator was never able to get on with his life. Now, out of the blue, she calls and invites him to be the mystery guest at the birthday party of a conceptual artist friend of hers. Every year the artist makes a birthday party for herself and invites the exact number of guests corresponding to her age, with one mystery guest, someone unknown, like the extra candle on the birthday cake representing the year to come. He goes to the party expecting to confront the ex-girlfriend once and for all. He ends up confronting his own insecurities (seen oddly in his penchant for wearing tutleneck undershirts) and discovering that real life and fiction are more interconnected than he'd ever imagined.

To truly enjoy this novel you have to cut plenty of slack to the narrator's voice, rendered in a self-obsessed, hyper-sensitive Proustian style of prose; deeply "literate" (with a capital L, literary references play a significant part, particularly Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway), passionate, and with a tinge of snobbishness that sometimes marks books written in the "language of love."

You have to appreciate moments like this, as he screws up his courage and rings the doorbell at the strange house, a bottle of vintage wine wrapped in tissue cradled in his arm as his birthday offering: "No buzzer buzzed. No echo greeted this act, which, it seemed, set nothing in motion, as if nothing had taken place, as if - in a word - I did not exist. And for a fraction of a second the world flickered before my eyes and grew dark. How could there only be silence when everything within me cried out that I'd done something tremendous." And it goes on.

The translator does an admirable job, although some phrasing doesn't quite make it into English intact. At times it feels like the translator is figureskating in construction boots. For example, "And I thought she must have noticed certain things about me, too, which she was keeping to herself and which couldn't have been all that pretty, either - and could it be that every second of this party would be a trial and an affront and a calvary of endless disillusionment?" Calvary of endless disillusionment?!

What saves the narrator from being completely insufferable are his insights and clever observations, like when he observes that none of the celebrities at the party look to him like celebrities. "To me they looked more like little bits of bread bobbing around and sinking in a bowl of milk."

Also the book's length is a saving grace. At a 126 pages it's like meeting someone at a party, chatting, sharing a few drinks, and departing before the buzz wears off and the company gets stale.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Beaufort by Ron Leshem

"You're a different generation, a generation that asks questions. And we are obligated to give you answers."

The quote comes from the novel Beaufort and is spoken by General Kaplan, the only character that the author claims was based on a real person. No truer words are said in the book. This novel questions the sacrifice made by a generation of Israelis who fought an eighteen year military stalemate against Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists in Southern Lebanon. Lebanon has been called Israel's Viet-Nam. Until now it was a wound which was too sensitive to touch.

This bold, imaginative, raw and powerful story was a sensation in Israel when it appeared in 2006, and for good reason. Narrated by twenty-one year old second Lieutenant Erez Liberti it maps the loves, intimacies, fears and doubts of the commander and his squad of "puppies" (a dozen or so men barely out of high-school.) They are stationed at Beaufort, a real-life Crusader fortress located in the so-called "security buffer zone" north of the Israel/Lebanon border. The story covers two tours of duty ending with the harrowing withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon.

Erez calls Beaufort “a cage of ugliness right at the center of heaven.” It's a perfect description. The geography is magnificent, but just below the fortress in the surrounding villages terrorists plan ambushes, rocket attacks and plant roadside bombs along the access routes in and out of the outpost. The "ugliness/heaven" contrast also decribes the experience of the commander and his crew. War after all has its own absurd logic, breeding a kind of euphoria via a surreal co-existence of opposites; stretches of unendurable boredom and fatigue jutaposed with sudden, razor sharp life-and-death moments; love and mutual dependency between comrades juxtaposed with terrible pain and anguish when one is killed. Erez thrives on it. At least for a time. He says, “My soldiers – I was prepared to die for them, I swear it: I really was ready to die for them. That’s not just some slogan; I felt good about it. Seems to me they were willing to die for me, too, and that’s an incredible feeling.” And later, when his second in command is seriously wounded, “That’s Lebanon, you’re totally smeared in blood and the guy lying there is your best friend.” This portrait of these courageous young men is like the book itself, at once heartbreaking and exhilarating. Note: The movie on which this novel is based is up for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

It may not be Brueghel but...

if Brueghel was still around my guess is that he would be a graffitti/wall artist. My friend and co-religionist, the multi-talented Archie Fineberg (he sings opera, he davens in shul, he photographs, soon we'll find out he dances like Fred Astaire) has made a strong case for wall-art as a legitimate artform and for Montreal as being the best city in the world for viewing quality examples of it. Don't miss his exhibition at Espace les Neuf Soeurs, 1900 Wellington St., Point St. Charles, with the exhibition continuing the following Saturdays and Sundays, Feb. 16 and 17, and Feb. 23 and 24, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.The vernissage will be 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday. If you can't make the show take in this slideshow sampling of Archie's work at The Gazette online:

And if you can't get enough of Archie's work, you may also want to tune in tonight to CBC Radio "Ideas" at 9:00 pm (I'm guessing it's available online) when his lovely and talented wife, the award-winning writer and book reviewer Elaine Kalman Naves presents "Robert Weaver: Godfather of Canadian Literature." Elaine has also published a wonderful companion book of the same name. It's both an easy, flowing read in Elaine's clean style and an indispensible volume for anyone interested in the development of Canadian literature through the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Elaine does her usual thoughtful, thorough job of interviewing the man himself, as well as some majors of Canadian fiction, including Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, who were given much-needed early career boosts by the late great broadcaster, editor, anthologist and radio producer. The book has other treats too including archival material such as reproductions of correspondence with the likes of Mordecai Richler (who typically complains about money) and the ever gracious Timothy Findley.

Monday, February 11, 2008

"The Rent Collectors" by Pieter Brueghel (1618)

Ah, the good ole days when if you didn't pay your rent you went to debtor's prison. Just look at the pathetic guy on left holding his hat in a gesture of pleading shame, and the lady bringing a basket of eggs. They're actually lining up at the door to pay! Brings a nostalgic tear to my eye, I tell you.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan

When it comes to graphic novels I'm of two minds; I've never been entirely captivated and moved by one the way I have been by a novel. And yet, good ones have an indeniable quality that rises above the so-called lo-brow comic book format. I express this ambivalence in my review that appeared in the Saturday Gazette (link below). I say in the review that I think the term "graphic novel" is unfair, because it leads the reader to expect the work to possess excellence on both visual and narrative levels, which seems to me somewhat unreasonable. I've yet to read a graphic novel that manages to reach a level of storytelling that matches its obvious visual quality. Most graphic novelists are, in fact, trained graphic artists and not writers, and it tends to show. The form is actually most suitable for collaboration. Just as in film there are writers and directors and cinematographers, each bringing his/her own expertise to the artform, why do we not see more graphic artists collaborating with novelists on books? Exit Wounds is recommended. The work has depth and it's visually quite exquisite. But reading it I still could not help but wonder if more could have been done with the narrative in terms of character development and plot.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Why don't Jews like the Christians who like them

asks James Q Wilson in City Journal

It reminds me of the discussion my high-school daughter and I had the other night - At least, this is what passes for discussion these days.

It goes something like;

"So Bobby likes Emma, but she doesn't know that Bobby likes her, and Emma would like him if she knew, but instead, because she knows that Joey likes her because Dean told her so and Dean is friends with Lia who is BFF (best friends forever) with Karen who going out with Joey's best friend Mark, Emma is officially going out with Joey and by officially I mean he asked Emma, 'You want to go out with me' and she said 'yeah, okay' and poof! like magic they're going out, and they're stuck with each other, Emma and Joey, because to break up now would be too complicated and it's too bad that no one tells the truth to anyone anymore."

Follow that? Me neither. Except that last part about no one telling the truth to anyone anymore. No wonder these kids are growing up to be theoretical physicists.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

In our semi-ongoing political coverage...

Headline: Super Tuesday full of surprises! Not.

Claiming victory are:
For the Dems Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
For the GOP McCain, Huckabee and Romney.
McCain declares, oh shucks, I guess we're the front-runner.
Hillary Clinton gives speech, proves she is still a dull Washington wonk.
Barack Obama declares, I am ready for change. Supporters answer, Yes we can!
Okay, it's time to start trying on the title, see how they sound:
President Clinton. Yuck. Didn't like the sound of it the first time, don't like it any better now.
President Obama... Let's just say it would take some getting used to.
President McCain. Still sounds to me like a premium brand of Canadian frozen food.

But the big story, and what made me really ticked, was how coverage of Norman Spector's testimony before the House Ethics Committee was clipped for Super Yawn coverage on the CBC. For shame! Spector (pictured above, no wait, that's Phil Spector! I always get those two mixed up) had the best line of the day; "They weren't girl-scouts waiting in line to see the Prime Minister in his office. They were wearing suits!"

Monday, February 4, 2008

My bro - genius

When we were kids my older brother Randy would lock himself in his bedroom for hours on end playing Sid Barrett-era Pink Floyd records and listening to Doctor Demento on the radio. Back then he was a mystery to me. Still is. But one thing I knew for sure was that he was also the smartest person I knew. Now everyone knows it. At least in Montreal. Just try and figure out what he does for a living from this article that appeared in today's Gazette. Something about nomenclature, motorized toothbrushes and The World Customs Organization. I figure it's just a matter of time before he reveals that he has an associate named Q (or more likely a partner named 99).

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Dream of Birds

I may have mentioned that my latest publication is a poetry collaboration with my friend Seymour Mayne and artist/award-winning film animator Sharon Katz. It's a collection of word sonnets called "A Dream of Birds." Seymour and I exchanged these short poems (a word sonnet is fourteen lines long with one word set for each line, hence fourteen words,) and Sharon designed the book with images (really markings) suggestive of birds in flight that actually move in real time as a flip book.

Now poet and editor Maria Scala has had something nice to say about the book on her blog:
The first time I read a selection from this book for an audience it was at a Cote St. Luc book club, one of the rare occasions where the subject was poetry. The ladies were, how shall I say, underwhelmed. Mystified, may be a better description. They didn't see (or rather, hear) these pieces as poems. "Too short," they said. It's hard to blame them. Fourteen words does go by fast. The hyper-short form is challenging and approaches the very edge of what may or may not be considered poetry. Short poems can be highly evocative, as in haiku. But how short can a poem be before it ceases being a poem at all? Is there a minimum length required? Maybe it's like the difference between a song and a ditty. A few bars does not a song make. Are these poems or rather poetic moments? Some in the book, admittedly, are more like koans than poems. I had these sorts of thoughts (misgivings?) while writing A Dream of Birds. The word sonnets themselves were challenging (and addictive) to write for exactly this reason. I think where the collection may overcome some of these issues is in the exchange. Each poem essentially responds to the one before it, one voice playing off the next, so it is like a dialogue in poetry which, I think, brings the enterprise some weight.

Poem Without An End (A people without an end)

After posting on architect Daniel Libeskind, his design for a Jewish museum and the Jewish sense of our ahistorical existence, a poem by the late great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai sprung to mind. It expresses better than I can what I was trying to get at.

Yehuda Amichai
(translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell)

Inside the brand-new museum
there's an old synagogue.
Inside the synagogue
is me.
Inside me
my heart.
Inside my heart
a museum.
Inside the museum
a synagogue,
inside it
inside me
my heart,
inside my heart
a museum

Friday, February 1, 2008

Are these the new Jewish temples?

I mean, the Jewish Museum is the story of America. Immigrants coming in, doing well, contributing to the chimerical nature of culture in San Francisco. And what is interesting is that the [client] understood that so many people all over America have intermarried. They don’t identify with the synagogue any longer, nor do they identify with Zionists. So this is a new venue, it has many resonances. And it gives everybody a chance to engage in exhibitions.

From an interesting interview with architect Daniel Libeskind at

He's the architect responsible for the Berlin Jewish Museum, the extension of the Royal Ontario Museum and the design for the 1776 feet high World Trade Centre Tower (called the Freedom Tower.) His startling designs feature jagged edges, the play of light and incongruous juxtapositions of shapes, materials and in some cases, eras, cultures and traditions, like the way this new San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum abuts against St. Patrick's Catholic Church. Not sure I agree with his statement that American Jews don't identify with the synagogue anymore or with (as) Zionists. But the creation of Jewish museums does raise so many interesting questions with respect to identity, the position of a distinct community within a society, and the purpose of museums in general. I've always been slightly uncomfortable with the notion of Jewish museums. It suggests a sort of pickled, jarred, moribund existence. Something inactive, historical, to be exhibited, looked-at and pondered over. And why are there Jewish museums but not Roman Catholic museums? The creation of Jewish museums may have something to do with the fact that Jews have no sense of history, by which I mean, that culturally and theologically-speaking we have never distinguished between our historical existence and our contemporary one. They co-exist. For us, the past is everpresent and alive within the moment. It's implied in the biblical commandment "zakhor" (remember.) So can it be that the idea of a Jewish museum suggests the community's literal and figurative desire to concretize, and reposition its identity as something transforming toward the secular and historical (temporal as opposed to eternal)? And further, does this trend suggest a sort of spiritual atrophy?