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Les trois mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) by Alexandre Dumas

Being francophone, I can say I’m a little ashamed I haven’t read this book earlier in my life. It’s not like we don’t know the story; their motto, “all for one, one for all” (yes, that’s how it goes in the book, actually), is part of our language. There have been several movies and TV series based on it (I have memories of animated dogs) and the book itself remains a favourite classic.

It’s easy to see why this story has remained popular for over 150 years. It is a gripping story of adventure, male friendship, court intrigue, coming of age, love and courtship, and many other things that would take a long time to list. But in its heart, this story is about simpler times and simpler lives.

1894 illustration by Maurice Leloir for the Appleton edition

Throughout the novel, the narrator keeps mentioning how manners and expectations were without artifice and without guile. Men cry freely and accept money gifts graciously. They shamelessly entertain love for married women and use sex to obtain what they want. For 19th century readers, it must have been a breath of fresh air against the stifling mores of their time.

I’m starting to think of Dumas as the French Walter Scott: the same sense of nostalgia for the past, the same kind of chivalric adventures and the same kind of popular success in his country. However, contrary to Scott, Dumas has this way of skimming over tragedy and loss in a way that left me a bit unsatisfied. I thought that maybe the end of the Count of Monte-Cristo was a fluke, but this one also left me wanting more: more consequences, more acknowledgement of death and of pain. The ending basically says that D’Artagnan is young and will forget everything in time. It is, in the end, a joyous celebration of the soldier life in the 17th century, which our modern sensibilities might find slightly unnerving.

But I think the long-lasting appeal of the book resides in exactly that: its carefree adventures, foiled villains and the triumph of friendship. The unfailing loyalty of these four men calls, even today, to our sense that if people stick together, they can achieve great things. In our increasingly individualistic and independent culture, I think this kind of story calls us back to our childhood, when friends were there in thick and thin, when we made pacts about not telling our parents what bad thing we had done, and when we shared our pack of gum without expecting anything in exchange.

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Happiness Now! by Robert Holden (review)

Happiness Now!: Timeless Wisdom for Feeling Good FASTHappiness Now!: Timeless Wisdom for Feeling Good FAST by Robert Holden

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve always looked at self-help books with a bit of suspicion. Either they are blindingly obvious and don’t deserve their asking price, or they are useless to anyone other than the person who wrote it, in which case we end up with the same result: you spent money, and quite a bit of time, for something that is definitely not helpful.

Robert Holden avoids both pitfalls with Happiness Now!: Timeless Wisdom for Feeling Good FAST… if you’re ready to listen to its message.

The book’s core idea is most elegant in its simplicity: happiness is within your grasp, now. The title is actually a bit misleading: “now” is not about “feel happy right now because you are reading this book”, but rather about how the secret of happiness is in the “now”. The book won’t make you feel happy, but it may, in Holden’s words, encourage you to happiness.

Throughout the book, Holden uses personal experience, writings from philosophers, poets and religious figures from around the world (and not just the Bible, which I appreciated), and examples from past clinical work with clients to show that deep down, everyone knows how to be happy. Most of us have simply forgotten.

The book takes you through the many facets of happiness: realizing that we already are happy, giving up the search for happiness, the curse of “not being good enough”, accepting yourself, letting go of conditional love, the healing process, the importance of love, and lightening your burden.

After reading this book, I had the strangest, yet most familiar feeling: that I knew all of this all long. How easy is it to forget, in our frenzied search for more money, more possessions, more success, more love, that each of us has something inside that makes all those things optional at best.

Have you ever felt a part of you resisting the nature of modern life? Looking for a slower, more meaningful way to relate to the world and to others?

Listen to it. It’s happiness knocking at your heart’s door.

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You Are A Writer by Jeff Goins (review)

You Are A Writer (So Start Acting Like One)You Are A Writer by Jeff Goins

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Given the reviews on Amazon and the personal recommendations I received about this book, I was expecting much, much more.

If you’re looking for a motivational primer to get you to write, it’s a good 3$ spent.

However, if you’re looking for direction as to how to get yourself read or self-marketing tips, well, you’re out of luck.

I started this book rather hopefully, but I lost interest quickly. Good thing the book is really short, because it was starting to get repetitive.

Among things that annoyed me, at the beginning he tells you how to never have to send a pitch again… and then tells you how to send a pitch. Confusing.

At least, Goins doesn’t promise you instant fame or money. He doesn’t tell you to quit your job to become a full-time writer/blogger/internet marketing bullshitter. I can appreciate that kind of honesty.

So, if you are a writer, you probably already know it. If you don’t write, no amount of books can convince you otherwise.

So sit down in your chair and write, if you think this is what you are meant to do.

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The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins — Review

A few weeks ago, when I got really sick, I decided to give The Hunger Games a try. Sure, it’s young adult literature (so is Harry Potter, actually) and some of the comments I’d heard vilified its bad use of punctuation, but the general hype and mostly positive reviews convinced me to give it a try.

And if you haven’t yet, you should too.

If you haven’t heard about the books yet, here is a very short summary of what they are about (or you can always just watch the movie trailer).

In the country of Panem, every year there is a “reaping”, where one male and one female between 12 and 18 are randomly chosen in each of the 12 districts to participate in the Hunger games, a sadistic game of survival where the last person alive wins comfort for themselves and glory for their district.

Katniss Everdeen lives in the poorest district, #12, that relies on coal mining. In order to save her younger sister from the reaping, she volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games along with Peeta, the baker’s son. From this fateful decision begins an adventure that will bring Katniss to the heart of Panem politics, and involve her in a plot to overturn the dictatorship of the Capitol.

I have a soft spot for science-fiction. I may have studied Victorian literature, but I admire the ability of science fiction to imagine whole new social systems and technologies and turn them into believable worlds. I will break my review down in three parts for each book.

Book 1: The Hunger Games

It didn’t take very long for the story to grip me. The dystopian world, the sympathetic characters, the quick-moving plot: everything works to make this book in a page-turner.

We meet Katniss as she prepares for hunting in the woods, which is illegal  but widely accepted by the authorities of the district, as they also gain from it. Katniss is responsible for her mother and her little sister, Prim, since her mother suffered a breakdown after the death of her father. She hunts with Gale, her best friend, and they share skills and resources to feed both their families.

The book begins a few days before the Reaping. We get Katniss’ point of view as she reflects on the consequences of the reaping and its injustice. At their core, the Hunger Games are a version of Roman gladiator shows: a way to control the outer provinces and provide entertainment to a blasé, luxurious capital population. In the book, the history of the Hunger Games begins with a war, after which the Hunger Games are implemented to “remind” the people, every year, of the Capitol’s power over them. Attendance to the reaping is mandatory, and so is watching the Games. Think “Gladiator” meets “Big Brother” in a dictatorship.

I felt instant sympathy for Katniss. In a world where living illegally is the only way to eat enough, where social injustice is rampant (and in fact institutionalized) and where children are held hostage against rebellion, her struggle to act morally despite the cruelty around her is heroic.

As soon as the Games start, the plot picks up its pace and keeps you turning the pages all the way to the end. Her true/fake love affair with Peeta, which keeps both of them alive, is particularly fraught with teenage anxiety around relationships and desire. But ultimately, this is about survival. Who do you live for? What are you willing to do to survive?

The writing, despite its slight faults, is gripping and evocative. Collins has a way to describe horrific scenes in a way that retains the violence, but maintains respect for the human victims. The book left me hungry for more.

Book 2: Catching Fire

Given the way the story of The Hunger Games ended, it was obvious that a second part was in Collin’s mind. The second book explores Panem society a bit more in depth, and still includes everyone’s favourite part, another round of Hunger Games.

The book begins as Katniss and Peeta get ready to go on the customary Panem-wide winner’s tour. They are paraded throughout the country to, mostly, twist the knife into the wound of all the losing districts. But she also realizes that her act of defiance against the Capitol has spurred a spirit of rebellion in Panem. Ambivalent as to her involvement and desire to be part of such a difficult entreprise, Katniss is ready to move on to a more peaceful and wealthy life in her District. But a forced wedding between herself and Peeta forces her to remain in the spotlight, until the new round of Hunger Games are announced, with all the rules changed. Katniss and Peeta are forced to participate in the Games, once again.

In Catching Fire, the main focus is Katniss’ growing anxiety at her feelings for both Peeta and Gale. Collins artfully captures the flightiness of teenage desire, which remains constant despite a world torn by trauma and pseudo-slavery. In this second round, the rules of the game also change drastically, increasing Katniss’ sense of loss of control over her life.

Although there is less attention given to the actual Games in this book, we are given ample time to see Katniss suffer from PTSD. I think that Collins’ depiction of the effect of PTSD on teenagers, which she deepens in Mockingjay, is the highlight of this book. Katniss’ heroic act from The Hunger Games takes its toll, and Collins has no problem depicting her heroine as capable of breaking down and being weak.

The writing also gets better in Catching Fire. Collins shows a stronger mastery of the craft and, while still addressing teenagers, is capable of drawing in adults on her own merits. The senselessness of violence and the consequences of repeated trauma are definitely major concerns of Catching Fire.

My only gripe with this book: I wish I had learned more about Panem society. Collins kind of opens up the topic by providing an interesting description of one district, and then drops it completely. We do learn from other districts through their competitors in the Games, but it really isn’t the same. Somehow I was expecting something a bit more complex, but Collins decided to keep the focus on Katniss herself rather than expand the world she so convincingly sketches, even if lightly.

Book 3: Mockingjay

This is where I started losing my interest a bit. This book reminded me of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, in that the main character, supposedly the heroine, spends most of the book disabled by PTSD  and medication. Even though the final heroic act is hers again, it’s hard to see her as the strong character in this last installment. She spends most of her time in a medical haze, or crying, or hiding in a closet.

Katniss, now living in discreet, long-lost District 13, has to deal with the trauma of two Hunger Games and the weight of the liberation of Panem on her shoulders. Through her actions in the first book, she has become a symbol of rebellion used to rally the Districts against the Capitol. Much less happens in this third book than in the first two. There are a few battle scenes, and the final one, but otherwise, this book is much more introspective than the other two.

But at the same time, this book is among the strongest example of the mental and physical consequences of war and violence on people. It is introspective because Katniss has reached her breaking point. She is exhausted, emotionally and physically, and cannot sustain more trauma. So the book becomes not so much about the liberation of Panem, but about Katniss’ eventual, slow liberation from PTSD.

The end, although satisfying on a character level, left me wanting on the world-level. We don’t know what has happened to Panem, in the end. Is is better for Katniss’ intervention, or has it remained the same? I think we’re supposed to make a link between Katniss’ and Panem’s healing, but it’s not as obvious as it should be.

General thoughts

These books are rough. Brutal. They don’t pull punches and describe war and violence without euphemisms. It’s refreshing, in a sense, because it stands in stark contrast with the official-speak so condemned by George Orwell, back in the day. Collins, I’m sure, sees teenagers as able to handle the truth. She doesn’t sugar-coat the horrifying acts of violence in both Games and the war.

Although the books do live up to their hype, somehow, they don’t live up to their potential. The world of Panem deserved much more development than it did. Maybe it’s the fan of complex fictional social systems, à la Middlemarch, in me speaking, but I do think that the world of Panem could have been the site for a much deeper critique of the current state of power and capitalism. It’s dystopian–we get it. But how did it become that way? What happened between now and then that the site of American power moved to possibly Colorado (I suspect Denver) and its social structure turned back to medieval times? I’ve read a lot of anticipatory science-fiction that gave enough information to infer how the world might crumble. Not so with The Hunger Games.

All in all, it was a mostly satisfying read. It took me 3 days to read all of them, which makes them a quick and entertaining read. And I must admit I did cry at the end (or that might have been how tired and sick I felt. You’ll never know, hah :p). My desire for a more complex world aside, considering the audience, I thought they were excellent examples of what the best YA literature can do.

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The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung (review)

In translation theory, there are two main factions: the “naturalizers” and the “foreignizers” The naturalizers think that literature should be translated in a language that feels natural to the reader, as if it had been written originally in their language. The foreignizers, on the other hand, think that the best way to honour a text is to keep the translation as close to the source language as the target language will allow. In other words, the first group would have the English sound English, while the second would have English sound as Chinese as it can.

The Fat Years is definitely a case of foreignization, and I think the bad reviews of this book don’t really take into account that this was written in Chinese. Not only is there the strange rhythm and sound of Chinese echoing through the English, but Western readers are probably also unaccustomed to the foreign structure of a Chinese text.

I don’t know much about Chinese narrative structure–all that I know is that it’s different, very different, from our Western conception of a story. Despite the definite Western influences of this novel (mystery narrative, science-fiction), the novel feels as foreign as, I expect, visiting Beijing would.

Yes, it has a lot of exposition and not much action. Yes, the last part of the novel, the long speech by He Dongsheng, seems to go on forever and ever. But there’s a pleasure in reading this–a pleasure of, somehow, listening to another tongue, another culture, and hearing it in English in your head.

The Fat Years is the story of Taiwan-born writer Lo Chen who, one day, sees an old female friend, an ex-judge and now career activist Little Xi, who doesn’t seem to be as happy as he is. Because everyone in Beijing is very happy. She, and another old friend, tell him that there’s a month missing in China: 28 days in 2011 that disappeared from collective memory, and that only a few of them can remember. Chen’s doubts are aroused, and he seems to lose the happiness that he sees all around him. There begins a quest to find the missing month, among political intrigue, elite ultranationalist student shenanigans, underground Christian churches and, eventually, love. It’s the conflict between choosing to live “in a counterfeit paradise or a real hell”. Which one would you choose?

This is definitely a novel for the intellectual-minded. Koonchung presents a lot of political and economic analysis–either to educate the Western reader or to wake up the Chinese one, I’m not really sure. But, according to the translator, it’s not that farfetched, except for a few details. If you know nothing about China, you’ll be illuminated. If you know a little, or a lot, you’ll probably find the point of view interesting.

The Fat Years asks a lot of difficult questions that even Westerners should grapple with. How much freedom do we really have? Is the government really working in our interest? Is democracy a political system doomed to failure because it cannot achieve anything “big”?

If you like non-stop action, stay away from this book. You’ll get bored. However, if you enjoy a text that plays with high political stakes and isn’t afraid to call a dog a dog, I strongly suggest you grab a copy.

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Svengali by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (review)

As promised, here is Julian Gunn’s review of Svengali. Enjoy!

***

Go to see Svengali, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s new production, currently at the Royal Theatre. It’s a perfect work of art.

…not really. It’s kind of all over the place. Go anyway. I’ll explain why.

I was drawn to Svengali by its connection to Victorian literature – Svengali is a character from the George du Maurier novel Trilby, the literary blockbuster of 1894 – and by the association of Guy Maddin, the Canadian post-modern filmmaker who provided the concept for the ballet. I even started reading Trilby in preparation.

This was unnecessary, since apart from the names of its leads (Trilby and Svengali) and the central concept of hypnotism, the two stories are completely different. The ballet’s setting is a fantasized Weimar Germany abstracted into fairy-tale elements. There is a Wicked Queen: Svengali’s controlling Mother. Trilby herself, as the subject of Svengali’s hypnosis, becomes a Snow White figure.

In Act One, I knew that the ballet was a fairy tale because everyone kept biting from a giant apple held by Mother. Later, as I was watching the final pas de deux, I caught myself thinking: this is so beautiful. And it would be even more beautiful without the giant plastic heart.

You see the problem. Is Svengali an artistic success? Well, as Tom Paine had it, “one step above the sublime makes the ridiculous, and one step above the ridiculous makes the sublime again.” Svengali takes many such steps. The music, for example, is a patchwork of styles and eras, sometimes arresting, sometimes ill-fitting or clichéd. The ballet opens with Svengali in solo, discovering his powers. This is performed to Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. You may know it as the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Yet this awkward beginning is followed by a delightful number in which the corps, as Mother’s Acolytes, perform playfully with a barre—acting as each other’s reflections, then breaking up the barre and dancing with individual segments. Another scene involves both an eerie shift between fantasy and reality, elegantly performed, and the capital-S Symbolic Act of repeatedly dropping a heart into a trash bin.

And this is the problem with Svengali, only it’s not really the ballet’s problem—it’s ours. The arts are threatened in Canada. Everyone knows this. We’re a country with a small head count. We need both popular support and federal funding to enable a serious pursuit of the arts. Ballet is threatened by the loss of both.

Dance struggles because its storytelling isn’t verbal, or even visual: it’s physical. Dance communicates emotively, evocatively, somatically. The dancer’s body tells and is the story. Gesture becomes character, and also action, and even setting. In Svengali, characters show us the restrictions of their world with their bodies. They make convulsive attempts to flee and are dragged back. We watch, our mirror neurons fire, and we, too, flee, or march, or falter, or fly. We feel that weightless moment at the top of a jeté and our stomachs drop. We dance too.

All this, though, requires attention and the willingness to engage. You have to sit still and you have to really look. How can a dance company capture our gaze—our fickle, flickering, screen-habituated gaze?

So ballet companies are doing everything they can to get our attention and keep it. Alberta Ballet’s new work, Love Lies Bleeding, takes this strategy to an extreme, coupling virtuosic dancing (and it is splendid) with Vegas-style visuals (and they are absurd). They also take the risk of staging, in Alberta, a gay ballet based on the life of Elton John. For that alone I would adore them. The flaw in Love Lies Bleeding is the flaw in Svengali: second-guessing dance’s own mode of storytelling. If you can’t trust your audience to pay attention, you have to use whatever you can to hold them. Sometimes this means resorting to mawkishness and heavy-handed symbolism.

Yet for those who haven’t seen very much dance, and are intimidated by what they perceive as a coldly classical art, this might well be the perfect hybrid of entertainment and artistry. Svengali has something to say about the eroticism of power and the danger of moral rigidity. It is critical of male sexuality and female complicity in treating women like mindless dolls – the hypnotism of ideology. If this is a little muddled, well, is the final message of Swan Lake all that clear? I would have liked stronger signs of autonomy from Trilby, but I didn’t write the ballet.

If we want choreographers, designers, and dancers to keep trying and failing and finally succeeding in creating transformative works of art, we have to support them even when the results are only partly successful. We have to be active participants, not passive consumers. Dance needs to transform itself for a new audience, but we are still discovering what this means.

So go see Svengali. Think about it. Puzzle over it. Decide what you liked and what you didn’t, and what you want from the next work of dance you see. If it acts as a gateway to more engagement with the arts, then Svengali is a success.

***

Disclaimer: Julian saw Svengali out of his own pocket. I keep control of all the content on my blog. You can follow Julian on Twitter at @radiantfracture.

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Pizzeria Prima Strada, Burnside

I work in a rather industrial area of Victoria, in between a junkyard, the City of Victoria roadworks depot and the fancy Selkirk Waterfront. The (few) restaurant options nearby are: Glo, Sol Foods, Fresh Café, Subway, Tim Horton’s, Golden Gate and, hidden in a corner of Bridge near Garbally, Pizza Prima Strada.

I usually only have 30 minutes for lunch (I know, too short, right?), but this time we took a bit longer as we bid a colleague goodbye. So we went to the best option around: Prima Strada.

I’d never really taken the time because I’m always too rushed during lunch time, but I’ll be sure to stop by more often from now on. Going to the Burnside Prima Strada is an interesting experience: you enter an industrial space with an open kitchen behind the counter, you order at the counter, they give you a number and you go sit wherever there is space.

Lampshades recalling the industrial area

The restaurant is filled with big, heavy oak tables that give it a communal cafeteria feel. You can sit alone at one of the small tables or bar tables near windows, or you can join a group at the big, 12-people ones. You can make new friends or stay on your own; it’s your choice.

Prima Strada has a set menu of pizzas, as well as two daily pizzas, one daily pasta and one or two daily sandwiches. The day I went, the pasta was mussels with a wine sauce. I don’t often have the chance to eat seafood, so I jumped on the occasion.

Lots of mussels!

The pasta was fresh made, there were plenty of mussels and the sauce was nothing short of delicious. It was a tomato sauce with wine and garlic… lots of it. And I love garlic. The portion was perfect for lunch, not big enough to make you sleepy but big enough to fill you up for the afternoon.

An empty plate and a happy Ana!

The prices are quite decent: around 10$ for the pasta, and between 7 and 12$ for pizzas, depending on the size and flavour. I haven’t tried the pizza, but I heard it’s amazing. It’s on my must list now, because just reading the ingredients on the board made my mouth water!

Happily, you don’t have to be in Burnside to eat at Prima Strada. They also have another one down in Cook Street Village, a short walk from downtown.

Pizzera Prima Strada

2960 Bridge Street
Victoria, BC Canada
250.590.4380
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230 Cook Street
Victoria, BC Canada
250.590.8595
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