Friday, January 23, 2009

The Optimists

I wouldn't say I loved the Optimists by Andrew Miller, but I found it interesting. It's an oddly visual novel, as the protagonist is a photographer and his sister writes about painters - many of the names I looked up. The photographer was in Rwanda during the genocide and the novel is a story about how he tries to process his experience.

Theodore Gericault, The Raft of the Medusa

There are quite a few references to Greek mythology as well, which I must admit to liking in a novel. When she leaves the mental hospital, Clare refers to three of the nurses as the Three Fates: Clotho, the "spinner" who spun the threads of life with her distaff to bring a being into existence; Lachesis, the apportioner, who decided how much time for life was to be allowed for each person or being, measured the thread of life with her rod and chose a person's destiny after a thread was measured; and Atropos, the "inflexible" or "inevitable" who chose the mechanism of death and ended the life of each mortal by cutting their thread with her "abhorred shears." After swimming in a quarry, she references Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness, and Acheron, River of Woe.

One of my favourite parts was Ray handing out the postcards with good news written on the back of them. Clem, the protagonist, joins in on a trip to help Ray buy a suit for a wedding.
"People do what they can," said Ray. "I find it helps to think of them as slightly better than they are."
Later in the novel, when Clem goes to Brussels with his photographs and interviews a man responsible for the genocide, he also makes postcards of one of his photos and distributes them around the city. Public art like this has always struck me as something I'd love to get involved with, I just don't have the slightest idea of where to start.

Many of the settings were incredibly familiar - I've taken that train ride between London and Edinburgh, through Berwick. I've been to Dundee and down the Arbroath Road. I've been to Brussels. The descriptions of Toronto - Chinatown, Union Station, Yorkdale - call up lots of memories. The product names were also very familiar - like Habitat furniture and Bialetti coffee machines. I loved when he described a library of books "more furniture than literature." The references to Chiang Kai-shek glasses reminded me of my trip to Taiwan, just this time last year for Lunar New Year.

Plus I googled to figure out what the hell a fish kettle is. It's worth a read.


Dorothy Lange

Don McCullins

Don McCullins


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