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Friday, August 26, 2016

Clothing in Literature

I’m not what would be called a clothes horse, but I have friends who are very passionate about clothes and style.  One of those fashion lovers is an avid reader and says she always notices what characters wear.  I seldom pay much attention, but then I came across an essay entitled “Clothes in Books and Ways to Go Wrong” by Rosa Lyster.  She argues, “Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked.  Done right, clothes are everything -- a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image” (  She makes an interesting argument; I will make a point of noticing more closely how writers clad their characters. 

This essay reminded me of a Warehouse Tour I took at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.  The Warehouse Tour allows people to see one of the world’s largest collections of costumes; costumes have been archived since the conception of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and over 55,000 pieces have been gathered.  There are over 10,000 boots and shoes pairs.  The Festival Theatre’s Backstage Tour allows people to see milliners, shoemakers, and sewers at work.  The Festival prides itself on accurately using clothing appropriate to the time period of each play so anyone interested in clothing in drama should definitely take both tours.  And, of course, see a couple of plays too!  The official website is

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


3 Stars
The High Mountains of Portugal: A Novel by [Martel, Yann]
This novel has received rave reviews, but mine is not one of those.  Perhaps I’m just not intelligent enough to fathom its depths.

The book is actually three linked novellas, though the links are sometimes rather tenuous.  In the first part set in 1904, Tomás is a grieving young man who takes a road trip to the high mountains of Portugal to search for a religious relic.  In the second part set in 1938, a pathologist, Dr. Lozora, listens to a long monologue and then performs an autopsy at the request of Maria Castro, a widow from the high mountains of Portugal, an autopsy which reveals how her husband lived.  The last part is about a Canadian senator, Peter Tovy, who moves to his ancestral home in the high mountains of Portugal and brings with him a chimpanzee named Odo. 

Each of the three stories has sections that are ever so tedious.  Throughout Tomás’ story, there is detailed information about the driving of one of the first automobiles in the country.  Dr. Lozora has a lengthy conversation about the parallels between storytelling, especially the mysteries of Agatha Christie, and religious scripture.  And Peter’s story includes painstaking detail about his developing relationship with Odo. 

What is the book about?  Most obviously, it is about death and how the living survive the loss of a great love.  All three protagonists are widowers who struggle with life after the deaths of their wives.  Tomás has lost his father, wife and son and he decides to thereafter walk backwards:  “in walking backwards, his back to the world, his back to God, he is not grieving.  He is objecting.  Because when everything cherished by you in life has been taken away, what else is there to do but object” (12)?  He sets out to find an unusual religious artifact which Tomás describes as impressive:  “’People will stare at it, their mouths open.  It will cause an uproar.  With this object I’ll give God His comeuppance for what He did to the ones I love’” (84).  Dr. Lozora loses himself in his work and in conversations with a ghost.  Peter, on a whim, rescues a chimpanzee and then realizes he needs to relocate to “a quiet spot, with lots of space and few people” so he returns to his ancestral homeland in rural Portugal with his new companion.

Martel, when asked what the book is about, replied, “’It's what I call a literary examination of faith.  It's in three parts, and each one has a different emotional tone.  So if you really want to simplify, part one is atheism, part two is agnostism, part three is belief’” (  In keeping with this explanation, it is noteworthy that the first part is entitled “Homeless”; the second, “Homeward”; and the third, “Home”.  Since Peter, in the third story, is the one who most closely heals his broken heart and achieves a sense of contentment, Martel’s suggestion seems to be that man needs to return to nature and believe in the interconnectedness between man and animals and maybe even the superiority of animals. 

In Life of Pi, a Bengal tiger is a major character; in this novel, it’s a chimpanzee.  Odo is a major character in the last story, but chimpanzees are mentioned in crucial events in the other stories as well.  (Unfortunately, Tomás’ epiphany about “risen apes” (131) made me think of Planet of the Apes.)  Martel’s message seems to be that we must stop thinking of ourselves as superior to animals; we too are animals, “random animals” (131) as Tomás identifies, and we must embrace animals as part of our lives, as Maria Castro’s arms “encircle both the chimpanzee and the bear cub” (209), and we must, like Peter, take the “movement down to Odo’s so-called lower status” and learn “the difficult animal skill of doing nothing . . . to unshackle himself from the race of time and contemplate time itself. . . . being in a state of illuminated, sitting-by-the-river repose” (300).  Martel has spoken of animals possessing echoes of the divine in their ability to live in the present moment, and Peter speaks of being “touched by the grace of the ape, and there’s no going back to being a plain human being” (300).  In that respect, salvation is indeed found in the depiction of Christ that Tomás seeks. 

Of course, I could be totally wrong.  There is a great deal of ambiguity and quirkiness so I often felt lost searching for significance and trying to find thematic links.  If I re-read the novel, I would perhaps understand the book better, but I didn’t enjoy the book enough to want to read it a second time.  I like thought-provoking literary fiction, but this book is too vague, disjointed and mystifying for my taste.  There are touches of humour, especially in the first section, but they don’t make up for the boring bits.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Best Cities for Book Lovers

I came across an interesting article about how various cities around the world stack up when it comes to the number of books stores and libraries to be found within their boundaries. 

Every year the World Cities Culture Forum collects information on how people consume culture around the world. Amongst other information, the forum asks its partner cities to self-report on cultural institutions and consumption, including where people can get books.

Hong Kong as the most bookstores - 21 per 100,000 people, and Edinburgh offers the most libraries -  60.5 for every 100,000 people. 

The one Canadian city in the survey – Toronto – has 13.9 bookstores and 3.9 libraries per 100,000 people.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Dorothy Parker Witticisms

Were she still alive, today would have been Dorothy Parker’s 123rd birthday.  A poet, short story writer, literary critic, and screenwriter, she is best remembered for her wit.  In her honour, I thought I’d list my Top Ten:

“Don't look at me in that tone of voice.”

“You can't teach an old dogma new tricks.”

"I like best to have one book in my hand, and a stack of others on the floor beside me, so as to know the supply of poppy and mandragora will  not run out before the small hours."

“Of course I talk to myself. I like a good speaker, and I appreciate an intelligent audience.”

“Never complain, never explain.”

“A hangover is the wrath of grapes.”

“Their pooled emotions wouldn’t fill a teaspoon.”

“This wasn't just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”

“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

“What fresh hell is this?”

Then there are the ones I used when teaching creative writing classes:
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
“Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.”
“I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”
“I think that the direction in which a writer should look is around.”
“I hate writing, I love having written.”

And I wish I could write book reviews as she did:
"This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly.  It should be thrown aside with great force."
"He is beyond question a writer of power; and his power lies in his ability to make sex so thoroughly, graphically and aggressively unattractive that one is fairly shaken to ponder how little one has been missing."
"I find her anecdotes  more efficacious than sheep-counting, rain on a tin roof, or alanol tablets . . . you will find me and Morpheus, off in the corner, necking."
"I know that an author must be brave enough to chop away clinging tentacles of good taste for the sake of a great work.  But this is no great work, you see."
“The plot is so tired that even this reviewer, who in infancy was let drop by a nurse with the result that she has ever since been mystified by amateur coin tricks, was able to guess the identity of the murderer from the middle of the book.”

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Canadian Prime Ministers and Reading

Yesterday's post was about American Presidents and their reading habits, so, today, I thought I’d discuss Canadian Prime Ministers and their books.

Our current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has a B.A. in English Literature, names Stephen King as his favourite author, lists reading as one of his pastimes, and would welcome a pen pal from abroad by taking him/her to the library on Parliament Hill (   He has also written a book, Common Ground, a memoir (without a co-writer); all proceeds from sales are donated to the domestic programs of the Canadian Red Cross Society.

Our previous Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was not known for reading extensively.  Apparently, he named The Guinness Book of World Records as his favourite book, though he did write one about the history of hockey:  A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs & the Rise of Professional Hockey

Harper did inspire a writer, Yann Martel, best known as the author of Life of Pi to start what he called “the loneliest book club in the world.”   From 2007 until 2011, Martel sent our former prime minister a book every two weeks – a total of more than one hundred novels, poetry collections, plays, graphic novels and children’s books.  Each gift was accompanied by a letter discussing the worth of the book and exploring the importance of reading not only as a pleasure but as an essential way of knowing the world and understanding life. 

Martel began his quest to boost Harper’s love of literature after Martel and a delegation acknowledging the 50th anniversary of the Canada Council for the Arts, which fosters the cultural identity of Canadians, were ignored by the prime minister when they visited the House of Commons in March 2007.  Martel gave clear justification for his one-sided book club:  “As long as someone has no power over me, I don't care what they read, or if they read at all... But once someone has power over me, then, yes, their reading does matter to me because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do.”  Over the duration of his one-sided book club, Martel received five responses from the Prime Minister’s Office, but none from Harper himself.

The letters were published in book form in 2012:  101 Letters to a Prime Minister:  The Complete Letters to Stephen Harper For a complete list of the books that Martel recommended, go to

Saturday, August 20, 2016

American Presidents (and Presidential Candidates) and Reading

Yesterday, I posted about books that might help people understand what is going on in the United States presidential election.  Today I thought I’d mention what those who actually won such an election read. 

Recently, President Barack Obama released his summer reading list.  There are five books on that list, totally over 2,000 pages:

The Guardian recently had a short article on the reading habits of previous presidents  (  For example, JFK enjoyed Bond, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush were Tolstoy fans, Ronald Reagan favoured westerns, and Bill Clinton loved mysteries.   I was surprised to learn that George W. Bush averaged two books per week.

As for the current candidates, Hillary Clinton, a couple of years ago, was interviewed about her reading habits.  She mentioned a number of favourite authors:  “I will read anything by Laura Hillenbrand, Walter Isaacson, Barbara Kingsolver, John le Carré, John Grisham, Hilary Mantel, Toni Morrison, Anna Quindlen and Alice Walker. And I love series that follow particular characters over time and through their experiences, so I automatically read the latest installments from Alex Berenson, Linda Fairstein, Sue Grafton, Donna Leon, Katherine Hall Page, Louise Penny, Daniel Silva, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Todd and Jacqueline Winspear” (

Donald Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t read, claiming he has no time.  “Trump’s desk is piled high with magazines, nearly all of them with himself on their covers, and each morning, he reviews a pile of printouts of news articles about himself that his secretary delivers to his desk. But there are no shelves of books in his office, no computer on his desk” (  The Washington Post article goes on:  “Trump said he has mastered the world of books; working with co-writers, he has published more than a dozen, most of them autobiographical or in the business-advice genre.”  And not reading doesn’t keep him from having strong opinions:  “Trump has no shortage of strong opinions even about books he has not read. He told The Washington Post that he has not read four biographies written about him, yet he called three of the authors of those books ‘lowlifes,’ and he sued one of them for libel.”

To the problem of being too busy, Trump might be interested in the response of Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi:  “We’re all busy.  Meditating monks in their cells are busy.  That’s adult life, filled to the ceiling with things that need doing.  (It seems only children and the elderly aren’t plagued by lack of time—and notice how they enjoy their books, how their lives fill their eyes.)  But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table.  In that space, at night, a book can glow.  And in those moments of docile wakefulness, when we begin to let go of the day, then is the perfect time to pick up a book and be someone else, somewhere else, for a few minutes, a few pages, before we fall asleep.”

A President that doesn't read worries me; I believe in what Dr. Seuss said: "The more that you read, the more things you will know."

Friday, August 19, 2016

Writers and the American Presidential Election

These days it is impossible to read newspapers, listen to the radio, or watch television news without being bombarded to the latest about the American election.  Certainly Trump’s misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic comments can’t be avoided. 

The British newspaper, The Guardian, recently featured an article in which a dozen writers recommend books which might help people understand the U. S. Election.  The article has some wonderful commentary on the Republican candidate: 

“Trump is not charismatic. He is artless and politically clumsy, and wears his egotism on his sleeve. Nor is Trump mesmerising, except in the sense that a train wreck is mesmerising. . . . Trump can’t string a single grammatical sentence together, and at the podium he is lumpen and awkward.” (Lionel Shriver)

“There is something called historical truth.  Trump is not post-factual. He’s non-factual.” (David Hare)

“A property developer who made a fortune from luxury condos and golf courses, Trump now presents himself as the voice of the silenced white masses.” (Rich Benjamin)

“The idea that someone in service to the American worship of wealth could through sheer force of will drive himself near to the top is at the heart of Fitzgerald’s morality play [The Great Gatsby]. The world that he envisioned was one in which character was increasingly sacrificed for wealth – and that is the world that Trump embodies, and which he would like to rule.”   (Sarah Churchill)

Like the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, Trump “blinds voters with sham opulence, terrifies them into submission, and promises to make their wishes come true.”   (Maya Jasanoff)

And then I came across an article from Poets & Writers magazine in which 50 American poets and writers offer advice to the next American president:   Interestingly, over a dozen of those writers address a female president!  That's probably just as well because Trump doesn't read; he has been quoted as saying he has no time to read.  "I never have," he has said.