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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Novel Bookstore

 by Laurence Cossé
translated from French by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions, English translation 2010, original French publication Éditions Gallimard, 2009

Here's a book that simply must be read and then talked about among my reading pals. Get on it please, everybody!

The idea is that two mismatched loners start a bookstore for people who are, like them, uninterested in all parts of popular culture, and passionate about interesting books. They will stock only good books, and they call it THE GOOD NOVEL. This mission comes very close to my ideas about reading, and culture generally. They organize a secret selection committee, a group of writers who choose books with their identities shielded, to avoid unwelcome pressure and/or attention from publishers and media and prize committees, so they can work from conviction only, without any commercial considerations. Ahh!

In fact, Cosse writes on p. 385 "...if...The Good Novel was so successful that it brought about the unexpected rebirth of a practice you would have thought was timeless–the appreciation of talent as its just value." Isn't that just the problem with contemporary culture?

Apart from the novel's value per se, and despite it's slightly shaky translation, it offers a fabulous reading list for someone who would rather be offended (or anything other) than bored. As soon as I finished it, I went to look to see if someone had created the list of books mentioned as a stand-alone document, and what I found, to my pleased surprise, is that, as described in the book, exists with (at least a partial) book list available. Now the book I was hoping would be captured there was not: El pintor de batallas by Pérez-Reverte. I do not own (or even know of this book) but I was attracted to Captain Alatriste by Pérez-Reverte, don't know why and it was probably a delete, which I bought for my reading pile. Gratifying and motivating. Must pull it up to nearer the top. Must look for El pintor, in English.

Here in Italy I know from the beach two very cultured sisters, from Prato, and they chase down art shows nearby, and go to the opera, and they finish each others' sentences like: "Well yes, of course,..." "...Stendhal." Is that cool, or what? Now Stendhal is on my list anyway, as an all-time star of literature, and in one of those delightful connections of life, he wrote a biography of Rossini, which I would also like to read, for the usual reasons (ie opera and Pesaro) and of course he in stock at The Good Novel. Again, gratifying and motivating.

And very much in line with part of the ideal position of The Good Novel: to create a community of readers, recommending and suggesting and exploring and enjoying. Next job: print out the list and check off the titles I have read. I keep a file of interesting reading lists, lists that are as quirky as I can find, of course.

Funnily, when I was looking for the reading list from A Novel Bookstore, I found the Time Magazine book critics Top 100 since 1923, Here on the beach I recently read Codex by Lev Grossman, Decent beach reading, in the books-about-books category, mashed up with a story about video games. I was puzzled that there were no biographical notes about the author, of whom I had never heard. Turns out, he is a book critic at Time magazine, perfectly illustrating EXACTLY the other way of book publishing: connected, eye on the prize, hitting the current cultural memes with precision, an author with a foot in a few camps within the industry. Little to do with "...appreciating talent as its just value". Still, I think I will print this list too, and check it off, but all the while I will be thinking cui bono (who benefits?).

I also found that Wikipedia (my beloved Wikipedia, I should have said) has a list of reading lists! Quite long, but I see I will have to add a few items, like the best reading by country, math fiction, art fiction and, of course, the list from A Novel Bookstore.

The marigold is wondering nervously: How much time can I spare from reading to consider and compiling reading lists? So compelling....

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Canadian in Italy

People who know me know I prefer not to read the newspaper. The biggest events in current history I get from the unavoidable chitchat that surrounds us. Everything else I find to be noise, and unpleasant noise at that: crimes, transgressions and the inevitable idiotic bureaucratic bumbling at all levels of government, reported from every corner of the earth. I even say that the more I hear of the news, the more I long to read Jane Austen. (Substitute any other author from the past according to your own taste.)

However, this policy does not hold while I am here in Italy on vacation. Part of the reason for my change in policy is that here I have reading time to spare (see my prior post). In my normal life I save all my reading time for books, not newspapers, not even book reviews, and I watch virtually no TV to boot (although I would if I had more time for it). But even more, the variation in my habits is due to the charm and interest of the papers I can get here.

The local paper,  called Il Resto del Carlino, (adorably meaning it costs only the change from an old coin: the Carlino) covers the world, of course, but it also has about 4 or 5 pages covering Pesaro, plus 1 or 2 covering each of the smaller nearby towns we also know well, like Fano and Urbino. The stories are of genuine local interest: lost cats, dogs improperly brought to the beach, numbers of people admitted to the local hospital during a heat emergency, events in the piazza, a daily feature on “the cute girl under the next umbrella”. I always look for people I know, or know of, and I often find someone. 

I also love, but LOVE to read the weekend edition of the International Herald Tribune. The news of the world is presented thoughtfully and yet the paper is kept short not by shortening the articles or making them graphic (in fact, the exact opposite of USA Today, which I enjoy reading when I am in the US for those differentiating reasons), but by lengthening the analysis on only the most important stories. Plus, I love the arts coverage, which always makes me long to catch the current big show in Bruges, or Tokyo. And, best of all, it carries the Sunday New York Times Crossword puzzle, to my mind the only crossword puzzle worth doing. None of this is stale-dated, so if it takes me until Wednesday to get to it, all 20 or so pages are still of deep interest.

Can you tell I am writing this on Saturday morning, just waiting to pick it up and start reading it? I am just finishing an article from last week about the divide between opera and musicals and attempts made to bridge the gap. Isn’t that something I could easily think about and write up myself? Ahhh! Vacation bliss.

Thanks for the idea, Rob!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Notes from Italy - Good and Bad - 2011

 Good - Food, of course! Burro di Bufala (butter made from buffalo milk [as in the mozzarella]) is awfully good. I think it might be a new product even here, as I have never noticed it in the stores here before. I had read about it in a magazine not long ago, and possibly it is available all over the world by now. It takes a lot to get me to pass up my beloved Burro Sorresino, which comes in an adorable old-fashioned yellow tin, but I had to try it, and it was worth it. Even the butter, on toast, has that slightly “farm-y” taste that I love in mozzarella di bufala. I am keen to try making a spaghetti alla carbonara with it. I love butter with the eggs and bacon of carbonara, even if olive oil might be more authentic.

I am always impressed with the care given to every part of food here. I live in a more northerly climate, in the middle of a big industrial city. Everything is grown elsewhere and shipped in, except for a very few precious items, which can be found in a very few precious restaurants. Food pleasure is available, and must be taken where you find it, but fresh and local, it mostly ain’t.  On the other hand, here everything is fresh and local, and that actually can be so extreme as to limit the menu. It makes me laugh (on the inside) when people are asked to describe what is served at a new restaurant in the area, because the local menu is already set. 
BUT, when you shop at your  little local grocery, the farmer picked the figs (ficchi bianchi - white figs in this case) this morning, and brought them in to his friend at the store (in a kind of gray market transaction). The shopkeeper asks if you are eating the melon right now, because she wants to sell you one that is PERFECTLY ripe right now. The different plums have different seasons a few weeks long and different names, and the nearby town of origin is indicated (or the province of Italy, if they happen to come from that far away – which is still only something like identifying peaches from Niagara in Toronto). The bread has to be eaten today, and all milk is only sold by the litre, and lasts only 3 or 4 days. That’s pretty fresh, and unpreserved.

Bad - Internet access. Will the torture never end???? Somehow trying to arrange for internet access showcases the worst of Italian organization. So much potential, so much openness to new technologies, so much bureaucratic bungling and delay. The past couple of years I have really been excited by the prospect of mobile internet access, and I even bought a device that not only receives a mobile internet signal, but broadcasts to its own little wireless network. Isn’t that awesome for a family of tech users – one little mobile key, powering the internet on a number of devices, and portable to boot? Last year we arrived in mid-July. By the time I purchased the device and tried my best to set it up, fruitlessly, it was already August, the Italian vacation period (yes – all of August) and no qualified help was available. I limped along, at least, with one wireless connection to my device. OK. This year we arrived good and early. I went in good and early to get help setting up the network. No problem. Bought a new sim card, loaded in unlimited data for 30 days. 36 beautiful hours of a mobile wireless network. Then…it died. And the bill had gone home to Canada, and there is no recourse. Now I am in the midst of trying transfer of the sim to my iPhone, in order to take advantage of the access I have paid for, but it does not seem to like it. Of course - the is phone locked! Should I try putting the sim in my old phone, in case unlocking an iPhone buggers it up for use when I return to Canada? Another visit to the stupid store, to figure it out; I almost can’t face it. Many of our favourite bars offer free wi-fi, but…access is complicated and many of the baristas don’t know how to sign you in, and…there are unexplainable periodic interruptions in service, and…we don’t usually go around with computers, for writing, but rather iPhones for jotting. However…

Good – Opportunity to read! I don’t know if it is the heat, or the freedom from the school schedule or the small town pace we are forced to adopt, or our lack of access to TV during all this spare time, but I feel such a sleepy torpor here (is that redundant?) that I spend a lot more time reading than I usually can. I find I am totally able to read whatever I want, no matter how challenging, or silly for that matter. Shout out to Gil here: I finally understand how to enjoy reading an e-book.

If you read an e-book in bed, when you are tired, and you stop touching the screen to turn pages because you are falling asleep, the BOOK SHUTS ITSELF AND TURNS OFF THE LIGHT, so you don’t have to! Oh yes! I had a some books that I was waiting to get at: a couple of LibraryThing early review titles, and I had bought an indie book from Amazon, on principle, from a girl who wanted to share her writing at the price of a tune on iTunes. You go girl! (This is a screen shot of Amanda Hocking's book on my phone.) And then the book turned out to be fun enough for summer reading, when I got around to reading it last week, that I went ahead and bought the 2nd book of the trilogy. Then I uploaded a couple of sample books from my desktop into iTunes to sync over, and I plan to grab a couple of public domain classics if I can. Now all of you nay-sayers that say “Oh, it’s too small” and “I could never get used to it”: nonsense. Self-shutting-off-reading-light-and-book in one? Doesn’t get better than that at 2:00 a.m. (Said by a person who has always envied insomniacs their extra reading time.)

Bad – No bird watchers among our acquaintances. I think that Pesaro might be quite a diverse mini-eco-system? bio-zone? –sea and shore and rivers and hills, with quite a large nature park nearby. I feel that the birds have multiplied in number and kind over the years I have been coming, probably due to deliberate action to preserve the biosphere, and possibly by the dwindling of the fashion for hunting and eating them. I have a guidebook, but I find I like to look at a few guides to compare for identification purposes, and I can hear lots of birds that I can’t identify through a book. I need a knowledgeable person to tell me which bird makes that trill I am hearing and what bird makes that croak, and whether those large black-winged gulls that I see, which seem to really be northern birds, do in fact range down here now. On fish and shells, a lot of people are pretty good. Birds – still looking for someone.
(PS This is a Blue Tit, the local chickadee, and I have actually seen and identified one this summer, as I usually do. It is just that my list here is so short, darn it!)

Good – The local art shows look promising this year. I plan to attend an opening at the civic museum on Friday, and I have an acquaintance who told me about a small kind of private museum of works restored on behalf of the city by a local business association, and the "new art" museum in town, Centro Arti Visive Pescheria, which is the old (ancient) fish-market is closing a show of documentary photos (yawn) and opening something to do with Rossini that looks fun (yay!)

Bad – None of the music on offer looks like it will offer the thrill of the new that we have enjoyed other years. The Rossini Opera Festival seems to be scaling back (I imagine it’s all about the money). The ancient music series that we have loved in other years is all out of town, so less amenable to impulse. I might try to catch a performance of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solonelle, which is beautiful, and is usually offered several times by several different performance bodies. I've already missed one, but we’ll see,