Monday, February 20, 2006

Book 3: Mrs Frisby & the Rats of NIMH

By Robert C. O’Brien

Yup, following on the coattails of Olman, who was influenced by Jarrett’s review. With 2 co-habitating 50-bookers, this kind of book-sharing was bound to happen!

The book truly delivered – I was instantly caught up in the story & adventure, and read it all up in a weekend. Although the story itself was deceptively simple, I appreciated its deep philosophical themes, which of course, helped to make it an enduring children’s novel. And the adventures! The NIMH backstory was the best part (as in the film), but I especially loved how the rats discover the Boniface mansion and the toy tinker.

As with truly excellent animal stories, there are the recognizable themes of human-animal relationships, ruminations on how different species and/or groups perceive one another, how that makes us think of human society, and how that makes us wonder and hopefully respect the sentiency of other creatures. Yeah, there’s a bit of that anthropomorphizing thing going on. But how else would one deal with the usual “human” themes of love, sacrifice, friendship, honour, courage, knowledge and wisdom?

** spoilers ahead **

Here's a crazy theory of mine. On another level, the Rats of Nimh were like a spiritual metaphor and a warning for humans, especially North Americans in general. The rats were given the gifts of intelligence and longevity by a superior species. They proceed to acquire all of human knowledge and history, but with the potential “blank slate” of a newly created sentient life-form.

For instance, in his quest for knowledge, Nicodemus takes to heart the Rat Race story he read in the library of the Boniface mansion. The story teaches him the dangers that can befall a society in which the lifestyle of its citizens becomes too easy and complicit. As civilization advances, it also gets spoiled by the comforts of convenience and technological progress. Eventually, the rats themselves reach a stage where they can no longer rely on humans. They make a democratic decision to forsake their worldly comforts and possessions in order to take the next step of pure self-reliance (and enlightenment). The rat utopia in Thorn Hill is what human civilization should be striving for.

My only small and very trivial beef with the book is the lack of female rats of Nimh. Surely, out of the 20 rats that were in Group A, some of them would have been female?

But man, when Olman finds the movie-version of the book, you can bet yer bottom dollar I’m gonna be watching it again!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Book 2: The Anglo Guide to Survival in Québec

Edited by Josh Freed & Jon Kalina
Eden Press, 1983

“After the Parti Quebecois came to power, the world discovered the plight of a previously unknown minority group: English-speaking Quebecers, better known as Anglophones.”

So begins the jacket blurb of this funny little handbook…

A coworker gave TAGTSIQ to my friend Heather, who had moved to Montreal from Calgary a few years ago. Whenever she’s in a used bookstore, this coworker would always make a point of looking for a copy of the book, in case there’s a newby Anglophone to welcome to Montreal. Then, just before Heather embarked on a year long global voyage with her francophone fiancé, she lent this book to me.

Published in 1983, TAGTSIQ was a surprise hit in its day, but far as I know, it’s out of print and there were no subsequent editions, except maybe a less successful 1988 sequel. In the context of that period in history, Bill 101 had been in force for several years and the failed 1980 referendum occurred a few years ago. Tension and ill-feeling between the French and English were perhaps at an all-time high. Nevertheless, this period generated some inspiring work from English artists and writers, such as William Weintraub's The Underdogs (1979), a satirical novel about a dystopian future in which the Anglos are the "underdogs" in a sovereign Quebec.

According to an online essay I found by Linda Leith, “Quebec Fiction in English during the 1980’s: A Case of Marginality”, TAGTSIQ was “precisely to create a lighthearted satiric antidote to The Underdogs and to the cloud of anglophone Quebec gloom and doom that had been generally prevalent in the late 1970s and early 1980s.”

Since I was merely a child during that time, I wasn’t familiar with most of the book’s contributors except maybe Nick Auf der Maur (father of Melissa), Eleanor Wachtel (CBC Radio) and political cartoonist Aislin.

Though at times I found the humour to be fairly cornball, the book was nevertheless an enjoyable, heartwarming read. I already knew it was normal to have feelings of inadequacy and mild alienation living in Montreal, but the book really cemented that knowledge for me. I really haven’t felt this way since I was one of 4 chinese kids in a west side Vancouver elementary school. Although TAGTSIQ pokes fun at the awkwardness of the English and the defensiveness of the French, ultimately, it celebrates both cultures. Plus it gives props to those who remained the Guardian Anglos, “the English-speaking stalwarts that kept the anglo fires burning”. The book also encourages you to not feel threatened, but instead be positive and open-minded, because it’s exciting living in weird and wonderful Montreal.

A quick overview of the book’s contents include: the A.Q. (Anglo Quotient) quiz; crash courses in joual and cursing; the English history of Montreal street names; fitting into a francophone workplace (smoking Gitanes instead of Players, reading the right newspaper, which schools to send your children to, how to “bec” or greet one another by kissing on both cheeks); wilderness survival tips such as how to cross a Montreal street… and live, and how to survive a daytrip to East-End Montreal, an area that represented the heart of darkness to many Anglophones.

Some interesting facts about Montreal gleaned from reading this book:

- Since 1874, the official name for Fletcher’s Field has always been Mount Royal Park. The English community started calling it Fletcher’s Field when an officer by the name of Fletcher began holding military drills there in 1875.

- There was once a City of Montreal bus labeled “Nowhere” that took passengers on an all-night excursion around town, destination unknown. Popular with young couples, it was Montreal’s “Streetcar Named Desire”. Price: 2 bus tickets.

- “Je me souviens” refers to the glory of the French regime. This line first appeared in 1883 in a work by Eugene Taché.