Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Jonah Campbell and the Profane

Jonah's Campbell's interesting collection of essays on food has been following me around the last week or so and I've pulled it out of my bag at odd times, just enough time to read one or two essays and consider them carefully.

What I find interesting about this book is one that represents a trend that has been happening the last few years in the gastronomie world: pairing the sacred and the profane. For example, a restaurant I recently went to in Toronto, The Gabardine ("Fine Grub and Libations!"), or dishes at Joe Beef in Montreal which include spam and foie gras on one plate, just two of many examples.

When one picks up a book "about" food, one expects a certain kind of gravitas but Campbell subverts this almost instantly (even in the title with its nod to Kiekegaard) in his first essay by exploring the condiments required to make a perfect BLT (his point: the bacon isn't really necessary). And throughout the book he takes obscure French culinary terms and defines them in practical, humorous and even irreverent terms. Anyone who walks around representing "the old school" (if such people actually exist) would hate this book.

    It is a fixture of my insufferableness that if, when embarking publicly on an analysis of some  quibbling feature of language or social reality, I am met with skepticism and (supposed) indifference so fervently avowed as to border on the venomous, I take it as an indication that I am on the right path, and my resolve is strengthened  accordingly.
    You know, I'm like "Hey, you ever think about how blah blah blah?" and they're all like "that's stupid, who cares, please shut up," and so, inevitably I'm all "Whoa ho, methinks thou dost protest too much!" and I become even more interested in whatever the fuck it is--cabbages or something ... more specifically the currency and polysemic richness of chou (cabbage) in the French language...

He then goes on to consider the word chou and all its significance to the French language in idiom and turn of phrase and how its use in the language reflects the reality of class distinction. Again, this pairing of the sacred and the profane allows Cambell to explore language and class and cuisine with serious intent in his sometimes stiff and sometimes loose prose without coming across as stuffy or dowdy. An interesting technique if not wholly original.

A few months back in the summer when that children's book Go the Fuck to Sleep was making the rounds, I heard a very interesting analysis of why it had suddenly hit a chord with parents and society generally (I forget where I heard this) which basically was that parents today want to be parental yet still subversive. They want to be parental with all that implied authority but they want to be the "cool" kind of parents who use the word fuck and have a sense of humour about the shared experience of being a parent. As if the very tradition of reading a child a story itself required some kind of rebellious shakeup.

Step off, Grandma.
So, too, with much of the writing about and general approach to food culture. Julia Child was a genius in her green cupboarded kitchen with her upper class East Coast accent but she doesn't exactly jive with our modern sensibilities in terms of her style. She's not cool, in other words, and god knows we all need to hang on to our cool at any cost. Perhaps she's not the best example and this trend in subverting food culture has more to do with some reaction to the highly formalized and stiffly ritualized French cuisine traditions, but the point is the same.

Cambpell's book is funny but with serious intent holding it up. Significantly, the book is a collection of blog posts from his site Still Crapulent After All These Years and often the writing feels "bloggy" (lots of parenthetical inserts which I am also guilty of indulging in, I am often told) and though the tone is relatively consistent, the writing gets a bit loopy at times. But I have to say that I quite enjoyed reading it: in addition to being funny, it's insightful, intelligent and interesting. In my view, one of the only unforgiveable crimes is taking yourself too seriously and I can tip my hat at what Campbell has done in carving out this defiant niche for himself in a world that often does take itself (or has taken itself) deadly serious.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Amazon ousts its competitors: ouch.

This new proposal that Amazon has been bandying about has bookstore owners up in arms: basically it works like this: Amazon has created an app by which one can scan any book in a brick and mortar bookstore and get the USB code, then go home and upload that information to get a discount on the book.

Naturally, people are crying foul and being quite vocal about the fact that Amazon is now overtly trying to force out any and all competitors. Fair enough. I have to admit, though, that I do use Amazon from time to time.

Irked Readers Unite
My problem with Amazon is mainly theoretical: they are too big and have too much power. But theory means little when I don't see the practical side of avoiding them. And on the whole, I'm happy when I buy a book from them. It arrives promptly, it's not usually too expensive (though it irritates me when amazon.ca charges 40% more than the US site) and, of course, I know they will have whatever book I need or want.

I do try and get books from Indigo whenever possible (though trading one huge US corporation for a huge Canadian corporation seems a bit short-sighted and I'll save for another day my reflections on Indigo's huge Dundas Square store in Toronto and what it means for the future of books). But because I am almost never a browsing shopper (I always know which book or specific author's works I am looking for and I never go bookshopping just for something interesting to catch my attention), I find that when I go into small independent bookshops in Canada (when I can find one, that is), they just don't have the books that I want. And my dislike for supporting a big competition-busting corporation isn't as strong as my desire to just read the book I want to read. I'm certainly not going to radically overhaul my reading practices to 'save' independent bookstores. So everyone calling for a boycott or encouraging people buy their books at a local independent store are living in a cave, perhaps. Yes, it's unfair what Amazon is doing but boycotting just seems to be another step towards irrelevance for small bookshops.

When I do encounter an independent bookstore that has a very good selection (Nicholas Hoare, for example, or Paragraph) it's just a matter of time and convenience: should I put on my coat and boots, ride the subway for 25 minutes, walk 5 minutes in the hopes that they will have the book I want? Or am I more likely to search click and order and have the book here in a few days? It's not that I won't buy books at small places: if I am there for another reason or happen to find myself in the neighborhood, I am very conscious of the fact that buying books from them is good for the intellectual livelihood of Canada and Montreal, etc. But this is the exception: I do most of my bookshopping online (often I use Powell's though shipping to Canada is pricey and it takes a month sometimes) and in second-hand bookstores (more about that in a second).

I realize, of course, that my problem magnified to 500,000 consumers is precisely why independent bookstores are failing across North America. But unless an independent bookstore sets up shop a block away from my house and has an amazing selection, I don't see myself radically altering my behavior in order to attempt to "save" independent shops. Yes, Amazon is too big. But until someone else comes up with a way for independent booksellers to sell their books (in Canada) more conveniently, I'm not too optimistic. (Maybe some kind of independent internet site which aggregates the stock of independent bookshops all across Canada where people can order and/or pick up?)

The best bookstore in Montreal
I do love The Word and the other second hand bookstores (and I buy more books from these shops than others, perhaps more than even online purchases) and I occasionally go into these shops when I can only to browse (which means I end up buying something that catches my attention). But when we say independent bookstores, I don't think these are the shops we mean. There may always be a market for small second-hand bookstores...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Expozine: The Best of Small Presses

I am such a huge fan of Expozine and this year's edition only underscored my affection. Located in a church basement off St-Laurent and St-Joseph, the exposition brings together some of the most innovative and creative writers, publishers, book producers and printers in the Montreal area. And that's why I like it: not all the writing is stellar (but some of it is excellent) but the artistry involved is on the whole super impressive.

From bigger presses like Invisible Publishing (everything's relative, mind you: this press isn't actually big though one should see some of the presses Expozine includes), to established magazines like Maisonneuve along with newcomers like New Escapologist, to tiny presses that do innovative work like B&D, who does an awesome series called The Life and Times of Butch Dykes, to calendars, t-shirts, tote bags, all done by people who do it simply because they love it.

May it continue to grow and prosper (all while keeping its bohemian and sub-culturey vibe, of course).

Friday, November 25, 2011

Poem by the late Vermont poet Ruth Stone

At Eighty-three She Lives Alone

Enclosure, steam-heated; a trial casket.
You are here; your name on a postal box;
entrance into another place like vapor.
No one knows you. No one speaks to you.
All of their cocks stare down their pant legs
at the ground. Their cunts are blind. They
barely let you through the check-out line.
Have a nice day. Plastic or paper?

Are you origami? A paper folded swan,
like the ones you made when you were ten?
When you saw the constellations, lying
on your back in the wet grass,
the soapy pear blossoms drifting
and wasting, and those starts, the burned out ones
whose light was still coming in waves;
your body was too slight.
How could it hold such mass?
Still on your lips the taste of something.

All night you waited for morning, all morning
for afternoon, all afternoon for night;
and still the longing sings.
Oh, paper bird with folded wings.
                                          -Ruth Stone (1915-2011)

What Love Comes To, Copper Canyon Press, 2010
More on Ruth Stone:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Book covers: Foreman to Salinger to Orwell and Gallimard

Since hawking books is part of my livelihood, we often find ourselves discussing book covers around our offices, which ones work and which don't. Which surprised us and which we think fit perfectly with the spirit of a book.

Once summer evening I was walking with some friends across the Plateau and we came across a box of old books that someone had discarded on the street. For some reason, we started a little game where each of us would pick out a book and then try to guess the year by looking only at the cover. It was actually pretty easy and I had some kind of knack for it. Generally I got my books right on the nose or within just a year or two of publication. And when everyone seemed impressed I couldn't really articulate what it was about the design exactly (the colors? the font styles?) which clued me in.

Gabe Foreman's A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Kinds of People
Take this book: it actually won an award last night at the Quebec Writers Award Banquet (which, sadly, I  had to miss). It's an excellent book and uproariously funny. And while Coach House does have some talented and creative designers in house, this one misses the mark in my opinion. I can see where they were going: it's clearly supposed to echo some an encyclopedia cover to fit with the title (and overall theme) of the book. But instead it looks stuffy and recalls some dry academic book that one reads once in graduate school and never touches again...

J.D. Salinger: Franny and Zooey
I have no idea if something about this cover screams out 2011 necessarily but the idea that good book design somehow overrides tastes and current trends is clearly wrong. Take Franny and Zooey, one of my favorite books when I was a teenager. Here is the cover of the edition I read (and re-read and re-read). I still recall so many details about the story when I see this cover (and I have no idea where my copy of this ended up: probably in a box somewhere that got lost in all my moves).

Recently I came across this cover from an online post about re-imagined book covers. I really find this one interesting and it represents a real shift. For so long, book covers seemed to be more about just titles and text rather than details from the story but this one clearly bucks that trend.
J.D.Salinger: Franny and Zooey
Clearly the artist knew about or wanted to allude to the story in the cover chosen which I think makes the book cover far more interesting. The earlier cover recalls French book covers which often (though it's changing, particularly in Quebec) have very simple covers (all those Gallimard editions with the same color, design, font and size). There are exceptions: those Folio editions (2 Euros for a paperback!) are beautiful often and only allude to the book's content with subtlety.

I tend to be the kind of reader who, when I am really enjoying the book, will stop every few pages or so and flip the book around, really examine the book cover and read every single thing on the cover again and again as I consider what I'm reading. The cover becomes an intimate part of the experience of reading the book and like the J.D. Salinger cover above, become intertwined with my experience of reading it. All it takes is for me to find an old edition of a book I once read to recall a thousand details: where I read it, where I was living at the time, what the weather was like, etc.

A Folio edition: Jean-Jacques Schuhl:
Entrée des fantômes
J.D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye

George Orwell: 1984

Artie Gold's Winter

When it becomes cold
and cold flies through my window like a white bird
or an ice necklace the seasons

tired of fire in August
spilt on my chest;

I rise like smoke
on any winter day

photo bursts, or series
each so clean
distinct from the other

caught up by its strong pulse
as tho

there were no mistakes
never another Spring
would it suffer
if it had its way -

                                   -Artie Gold

November 23, 2011

The Collected Books of Artie Gold

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Murakami conquers the world

So I was in the bookstore the other day (despite the huge pile of unread books I have in my office), eyeing Murakami's newly published 1Q84. I flipped through it. Picked it up and turned it around. Read the blurbs. Read them again. Then put it back and down and carried on. I decided to wait or perhaps it was just a thought that Murakami no longer says much to me. On the one hand, having written a fair amount about contemporary Japanese fiction and being very interested in Japanese culture generally, Murakami is a writer I should be reading. On the other hand, in the sea of buzz which has surrounded his work and career the last number of years, my critical alarm bells go off, making me question the hype. Haruki Murakami and his work have reached a frenzied pitch allotted usually to rock stars or certain athletes.

Though I did enjoy Norwegian Wood and a few stories from After the Quake, his later work hasn't really done much for me. In Japanese, Murakami writes in a rather informal style but when the translator tries to mimic that style in English, it often doesn't work. I remember getting irritated in Kafka on the Shore about the use of language. I'm not sure how this operates in his new work but it's something I've had difficulty with generally in his work. My biggest gripe, though, is perhaps personal: I get highly annoyed at all the Western cultural references. But I imagine that this is what precisely speaks to Western readers and critics and makes Murakami so accessible. And if we write what we know, then it's simply the writer reflecting his own experience: Murakami studied Western literature and then owned a jazz bar for many years so naturally the cultural references aren't put ons.

But any writer (from anywhere) needs to use these kinds of references very carefully and a very few go a long way. When a writer refers to a song playing on the radio, it helps him create an atmosphere. But it also seems like a shorthand way of connecting to the reader without really doing the work necessary. To me as a reader, it's also distracting because listening to music is a different experience than reading and even if I know the song or composer or musician he's referring to, I still feel compelled to open youtube and listen to the song to get a sense of the scene in which the piece (or musician, etc.) figures. When there are references constantly to composers, other books, other writers, cultural figures, etc., I start to get irritated...

What I love about contemporary Japanese fiction is precisely what Murakami generally doesn't do: create a soporific and meditative atmospheres using images or almost incantatory language; or explore how one individual fights against the strictures of conformity and shame (which isn't unique to Japan by any means but is something individuals often struggle against in real life). Writers like Yoko Ogawa or Kenzaburo Oe (to use two contemporary examples) or older writers like Yasunari Kawabata open a door to me that helps me understand Japan or Japanese people in a way that I find difficult with Murakami. I have also long been a reader and fan of Yukio Mishima though in some ways, Murakami feels like his heir in terms of style. Mishima didn't write with the same informality that Murakami does but there is a certain tendency towards long and detailed passages that lack the passion of other writers' works. Yet for me, this works in Mishima and doesn't work in Murakami. I also find Murakami's dialogue unnatural and stilted.

Though I've never been the world's biggest Murakami fan, I will still eventually read 1Q84. Though I get annoyed (as I'm sure he does!) with all the hype surrounding him and his work, generally this bodes well for fiction. I do wish that the general public had a larger appetite for international (particularly Asian) fiction. And this leads me to my biggest gripe against the buzz around Murakami:

It's perhaps cynical but much of the Western love of Murakami stems from, it seems to me, the opportunity to see our lives and cultures reflected back to us through the eyes or words of an outsider. It's all about us, in the end, and not about Japan or another culture at all. If this is true, it's a mildly depressing fact and makes me pessimistic about the ability of "international" writers to appeal to broad audiences in North America (or, indeed, Europe).

Monday, November 14, 2011

Emily Hahn Finds her Congo Legs

A new book out by McGill-Queen's Press has been enthralling me the last few days, that kind of book that you have constantly in the back your mind, finding it hard to wait until you have a few extra minutes to sit down (today, mid November, it was warm enough to sit outside on a park bench!) and read at lunch.

The book is a "re-edition" of a book originally published in 1931, but which was so censured and cut that it lacked a real narrative integrity. Apparently (according to the introduction), the writer and mainly publisher were worried about living people suing about certain portrayals (factual portrayals, nothing acrimonious) so cut out certain passages which made the original edition much weaker.

I knew a bit about Emily Hahn before I encountered this book, from a few of her books about China. But I had no idea that she was such an engaging (and funny!) writer.

Hahn traveled in 1931 to what is now Congo (and what was then the end of the Belgian occupation of the country) and she writes about her experiences there, a single female traveler, encountering the locals in a clinic where she assisted a doctor for several months. She is very much a woman of her time in many ways though she is also quite modern in other ways.

The difficulty in reading this comes with the knowledge that the Congo is actually poorer and less developed than it was 80 years ago, a result of colonial betrayals, corrupt leaders, violent civil war, and general government incompetence (despite being wealthy in resources). It's a terribly sad tale, what happens after 1931.

But here is one of the joys of reading: in our violent-saturated, "Africa the basket-case" media worlds that forego complexity and humanity for overly simple (or total lack of) analysis, it takes a book like this to make the Congo (for me, who's never made it to Africa so far) come alive: its rivers and jungles, its children, its wildlife, its struggles, its humour.

It's been a while since I came across a book I was so engaged in. I have no idea how (or even if) this book distinguishes itself in terms of something "new" (it's not really clear what was cut out of the earlier edition) but it's lovely to just have the opportunity to discover a new writer, a writer who has largely been forgotten. And to hear her in her own words.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Maisonneuve Magazine and Lone Frank

In pre-publicity for her public event tomorrow (Wednesday) night at Paragraphe Bookstore, Maisonneuve Magazine has published a very revealing interview with Danish writer, Lone Frank, about personal genomics and the dangers inherent in overly enthusiastic interest in genetic profiling generally. Frank asserts,

"I think it’s really important to show that development [in genetic science] is ongoing. There will be people that try to rip you off, and sell you products that don’t work. Not everything genetic is great and scientifically based. It’s a development that you see in any new kind of industry. It’s good to get critical journalists looking at it, so that you will perhaps get authorities to clamp down on the worst examples. It also helps getting more knowledge out to consumers, to keep them vigilant."

It's a very interesting interview and the rest of it can be read here.

Intrigued? Come see Lone Frank tomorrow night, Wednesday, November 9, 2011, at Paragraphe, 2220 McGill College Avenue in Montreal at 6:30pm. She'll be speaking about her book My Beautiful Genome, answering questions and signing! The event is free so come on over and spend your Wednesday evening engaging in one of the key debates of our time.

My, what a gorgeous genome you have!

Bad Habits


It does not know it glitters
It does not know it flies
It does not know it is this not that.

And, more and more often, agape,
With my Gauloise dying out,
Over a glass of red wine,
I muse on the meaning of being this not that.

Just as long ago, when I was twenty,
But then there was a hope that I would be everything,
Perhaps even a butterfly or a thrush, by magic.
Now I see dusty district roads
And a town where the postmaster gets drunk every day
Melancholy with remaining identical to himself.

If only the stars contained me.
If only everything kept happening in such a way
That the so-called world opposed the so-called flesh.
Were I at least not contradictory. Alas.

                                       --Czeslaw Milosz

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Next Generation and Occupiers

Coming from an educational background, it's common to hear teachers and administrators bitching about "today's" students, how entitled they are, how pushy and demanding about things like grades and assignment dates. I've often been dubious about these complaints because it's something that has happened since time immemorial: older generations complain about younger generations (and it happens everywhere: in China, Japan). It's not that generations aren't different in key ways but that these differences are overplayed and given too much weight.

While it's probably true that young people today have a different relationship with authority than I did when I was very young (I'm only 40 so it's not like I'm a grumpy old man. Yet.): we bitched and moaned about being told what to do, when we thought something was unfair, but we didn't tend to do it confrontationally. We did what was asked of us but did it begrudgingly, bitching about it every step of the way.

Pushy upstarts, the lot of 'em
But what has struck me about the Occupiers is their ages: as I walk to the subway in the morning or drop my things on the floor of my office in the evening, I wonder to myself why I'm not there, at least just standing there sipping coffee on the sidelines and offering moral support. (It's time like these when I do start to feel like an old man!) I broadly agree with much of their concerns and though there isn't one consensus about an overall "aim," I have to admit that I admire them for being willing to schlep out there in the wind and rain and noise to make a point, as diffuse and vague as it is.

And maybe that's what makes some generations game-changers: yes, I've bitched about big business over dinner with friends or griped about how my bank is ripping me off, etc., but I've never been willing to really do anything about it. But finally voices are being raised in a way that's more confrontational and perhaps it took this generation and their relationship with authority to put to task all the things my generation (and those before me) just accepted. Maybe what I've heard people say about "today's" students is true and now we're seeing the flip side of their arrogance and pushiness.

Of course, not all protestors are 23 and it's obvious that one has a lot less to lose at 23 than at 53 or 70. And certainly not all 23 year olds are out there. But perhaps these protests, if or when they fizzle out, will simply serve as a reminder to the "powers that be" (as well as to older generations) that they can't simply continue with the same old practices that have gone un-noted in the past, that there is a new generation of "consumer" (for lack of a better word) or taxpayer who won't stand for such unfair treatment.

And it could be that the economies will slowly recover, people will go back to working again, and the game of getting ahead will just reboot, these protests ending up just a blip on the historical map. I hope not. People need work and incomes, but we also need major changes in our societies and I'm crossing my fingers that these up and comers will be the spark which starts that change.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lone Frank and her beautiful genome

Danish writer Lone Frank has written a fascinating and compelling story that blends a scientist's objective inquiry with personal memoir. Starting with the depression that has long been a part of her family's history, Frank attempts to come at a scientific conclusion as to what role genes play in determining her own mental health.

Teasing out personal anecdotes with a scientist's scepticism, Frank's book, My Beautiful Genome, explores a genre that's been done many times in the past but puts a new spin on it by balancing it perfectly with the personal and the objective.

And Lone Frank is coming to Montreal. She will be doing a talk, reading, and Q&A on November 9, 2011, at 6:30pm at Paragraphe Bookstore, 2220 McGill College Avenue. Hosted by renowned science writer, Bruce Lourie, writer of Slow Death by Rubber Duck, the evening promises to be a fascinating discussion of some of the most cutting edge issues involving science today.

The event is free and open to the public. For more information call 514-845-5811.

This event is sponsored by The McConnell Family Foundation, Paragraphe Bookstore, Maisonneuve Magazine and Blue Metropolis.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Mark Rothko and Triple Canopy

I came across Triple Canopy recently, a really interesting website on the arts (visual arts, music, literature). There is a lot to see and read and listen to here but a piece which I found fascinating traces the history of the trial that ensued after the death of American painter Mark Rothko. There is a personal connection though only indirectly but the piece raises very interesting questions about what it means to be a "master." It's also slightly revisionist and though I only knew vaguely about the case prior, it's fairly convincing.

Another aspect to this is the innovative way that Triple Canopy formats a long written text for online readers: just a large + sign to expand to the next paragraph which means one isn't faced with 57 paragraphs all at once, something that most likely appeals to modern readers of online magazines. The entire layout and navigation of the site is quite impressive.

And the content! Music podcasts, interviews, one-person reportage, short stories, essays, photos. A real treasure trove of the modern arts.
Master work by an American genius or soppy sappy pretty bunk?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Quebec Writers Federation Literary Awards on CBC

An interview with the uber-smart Katia Grubisic, coordinator of Atwater Poetry Project, and me with CBC's Jeanette Kelly on Cinq a six.  I can't seem to link the podcast here directly but if you go to this website and click on the QWF Literary Awards segment, you can hear us.

We discuss the various nominees for the QWF Literary Awards, including Gabe Foreman, Madeleine Thien, Merrily Weisbord, David Homel, Asa Boxer and many others...

Oh one question she didn't ask which occurred to me later: books that should have been on the list but weren't: Brian Busby's biography of John Glassco, A Gentleman of Pleasure. Though now that I think about it, it probably is off the list because Busby isn't a Quebecker!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Eugenides' The Marriage Plot

Finishing up The Marriage Plot and I have to say that I really enjoyed this book. It traces the lives of several young Brown University students during the last few months of their graduation and the year or two which follow. What strikes me about the book is the empathy that Eugenides has about those who suffer from manic depression (which I guess today is called bipolar disorder). I've never really been around someone who suffers from this disorder but reading the portrayal of Leonard and how he suffers was eye-opening, not only for him but for those around him. It has made me consider depression in a new way. I always had this underlying belief perhaps that people who are suffering from manic depression just need to get their act together, quit their job, move to a new town, and that would solve their problems. But I can see from reading this that my lack of experience or knowledge of someone suffering really gave me mistaken notions about what it means to be clinically depressed.

But it's not a depressing book.

Eugenides is also very interested in religion: not in some pedestrian Bible-thumper sense but in true spiritual questions: what are good works? What is morality? How do historical events detailed in religious texts have to say about modern life? But Eugenides does this with skill and, again, empathy. He never has simplistic answers to these complex questions.

There are things which feel dated: the upper class east coasters and their adherence to social conventions. Though the book is set in the early 80s, it feels like it could be from the 60s or even earlier in the way these people move through the world, their obsessions and the language and interests which distinguish them from the rest of the world. Particularly nowadays given all that's going on in the world (Occupy Wall Street, etc.) the rich here seem sheltered and cut off from much of what happens in the world. Rich people today, I think, aim to blend in with the "common folk" in a certain way. No one wants to appear to be out of touch with modern life. Think about the casual style of Bill Gates or famous Hollywood actors. Sure, they are rich and live like rich people, but there is a kind of acknowledgement that one should still be OF this world (our world, the non-rich). But there isn't such a distinction in Eugenides world which says something about what it means to be rich today (as opposed to 30 years ago).

Another thing which struck me is how little parents or parental figures play a role in the lives of these young people. They are almost dismissed in every case except for Madeleine's parents (who really only serve to represent the barometer of society really, a foil against which the actions of the young people can be measured). Parents are either totally out of touch, out of "it" or just unaware of what is going on in the minds of their kids. Maybe that has a ring of truth to it but there is little conscious attempt by the characters at undoing what their (our) parents do and though we all want to be independent at a young age, it works in a more complex way than is portrayed here, I think. Still, Eugenides isn't interested in inter-generational conflict but in other issues...

I've not read any of Eugenides other works but getting through this really makes me want to give Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides a try.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Blue Metropolis at the Brattleboro Literary Festival

Came back Monday from the Brattleboro Literary Festival and was impressed. It's a small festival, no doubt, but what excellent audiences. The Mark Doty event was packed and it had probably close to 350 people in there, all laughing and hanging on every word. And he's so great, too: an excellent reader and really funny.

Mark Doty at the Centre Congregational Church in Brattleboro
photo by Beowulf Sheehan
The event Blue Met produced was on Quebec Writing and involved Monique Proulx and Kathleen Winter. It wasn't as full as the Mark Doty event but it was on Sunday morning so not really a surprise there. Still, there were probably 100-125 people there and, again, they were incredibly enthusiastic. On Saturday morning I heard Teju Cole (fascinating young writer of Open City) and American writer Anthony Doerr, a new discovery since I wasn't familiar with him. It turns out he lives in Idaho (where I'm originally from) and that in itself is interesting to me and was hoping I'd run into him later since in the entire time I've lived out east, I've never met a single person from Idaho (randomly I mean). But he had to leave due to twins with the flu...

Kathleen read from her novel Annabel and then Monique did a reading from two of her earlier works (including Wildlives, French title Champagne) and then from a more recent piece. Again, she's an excellent reader: she had everyone laughing and generally just charmed the pants off the entire crowd (not literally!). Great questions from the crowd and afterwards, many came up to me to thank me (?!) personally (as if I had done anything nearly as interesting as write and read from a novel!) and rave about Montreal.

Beautiful Brattleboro
A lot of the time I just wandered the little streets of the village and took long drives. Since it was a long drive, I bought a copy of Jeffrey Eugenides' new book The Marriage Plot on CD and I've never before listened to a book on CD while driving. But, wow, did the time go by fast. I found myself parked outside of the hotel before I checked in, listening to just "one more chapter." After driving nearly four hours! Looking forward to the drive this afternoon to Ottawa (for Ottawa Writers Festival) so I can get through another few CDs!

One of the best things about festivals like Brattleboro is the social side of it: we all had a nice dinner with authors and Sandy, the top-drawer festival lady there as well as the other festival organizers where we simply laughed and drank wine until late. That's where real relationships are established. Also, Brattleboro is a charming little town with a great pub, nice cafes and bookstores everywhere! And all kinds of art events going on. What more could I ask for?

Friday, October 14, 2011

National Book Awards and Relevant Irrelevance

Interesting article in Salon.com from a few days ago, arguing that the National Book Award has become irrelevant by choosing irrelevant books, particularly their fiction selection.

The writer, Laura Miller, expects to see "observers pointing out the absence of two widely praised novels - "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach and "The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides - and the fact that four of the five shortlisted titles are by women."

Great book. Everyone says so.
But there's so much wrong here in this kind of assertion. First of all, I hate it when writers are coy: if SHE thinks that Eugenides and Harbach's absences from the list is some indication of a "frustrating impasse with the press and the public" then she should come out and say it instead of attributing the gripe to hypothetical future observers. I realize writing a piece griping about two books you like being left off an awards list is petty and whiny, but be petty honestly instead of hiding behind intellectual smoke and mirrors.

More worryingly: why is the tendency to avoid works present in the public consciousness (i.e., the North American media circuit which typically focuses on the same five books for cycles of a few months every year) some sign that the awards are irrelevant? She asserts that, "The NBA for fiction often comes across as a Hail Mary pass on behalf of 'writers' writers,' authors respected within a small community of literary devotees but largely unknown outside."

In other words, if the book isn't covered on NPR, in the New York Times or the New Yorker and a select few other outlets, the work is not appealing to the "mass market." I guess her overriding point is that the NBA selected books are irrelevant because they don't go on to make bestsellers lists or then get accepted into the media cycle along with the other handful of books that make that cut. It's true that, as she claims, "People who can find time for only two or three new novels per year (if that) want to make sure that they're reading something significant," but I'm all for opening up the market and consciousness as widely as possible to as many different books as possible. I'd rather have the market allow for a million copies of 10 titles (as unevenly spread as it may be) than a million copies of two titles.

The assumption seems to be that money and sales and 2 minute interviews with the author on the Today show equal "relevance" but as we all know, what's relevant today is often forgotten in two years. I mean, the last ten years of NBA winners - Peter Mathiessen, Susan Sontag, Dennis Johnson, Richard Powers, William Vollman, Shirley Hazzard - there is hardly an example of an irrelevant nobody.

We often hear this argument in regards to the Nobel Prize for Literature. As problematic and complicated its selection process is, as unexpected as the selection of some of the Nobel laureates are, this argument, "I've never heard or read anything by X author, therefore the awards are irrelevant and elitist," is childish and the only distinction between that argument and Laura Miller's argument is that hers lacks the nationalist tone underlying it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Miyuki Miyabe and Japanese Noir

So since I've been on an international crime writing fix lately, I couldn't read far without encountering the work of Miyake Miyube. I've read one of her earlier works but this weekend I picked up the 2005 translation of her 1995 novel (originally published in Japanese), Crossfire.

Despite the pop-fiction cover and title, the work is complex and gripping. I started reading it yesterday afternoon and haven't been able to put it down. It chronicles a young woman with the power to start fire and it's the story of her killing spree (she only kills criminals) as she is chased down by a female Japanese detective, one of the only women on the Japanese police force.

It's like Dexter meets Firestarter meets the dark seedy side of Tokyo life.

And that's one thing I appreciate about Miyube's writings: they show a side of Japan rarely seen in fiction or TV or even movies: the underbelly of small time criminals and others who fall through the cracks. I recently read another Japanese noir writer, Natsuo Kirino's Real World which I am much less enthusiastic about. Where Kirino focuses on a small band of nihilistic (and rather superficial) high-schoolers, Miyabe is much more interested in Japanese society as a whole, as well as in what it means to seek vengeance, what is a "justifiable" murder, and how being a woman in Japan is both an advantage and a disadvantage.

Miyabe is a prolific writer and has written many novels and stories though only a handful have been translated into other languages. Born in 1960, she was trained as a mathemetician and taught for many years before devoting her life to writing. She's written in a number of genres including criticism, science fiction, and she's even written a children's book.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Open Source Interviews Blue Met's 2011 Grand Prize Winner, Amitav Ghosh

The other side of the story from the other side of the world...

Nothing about his latest work, but a lot of interesting discussion about of Sea of Poppies.

If you're not familiar with Open Source, Christopher Lydon does amazing work. He just finished a long series on writers from Another Pakistan. He really keeps abreast of what's happening in the literary and cultural worlds and is an intelligent and insightful reader...

Friday, September 30, 2011

Maurice Sendak

The elderly author has a new book coming out, the first that he's written and illustrated in nearly 30 years.

Two of his recent interviews that I've come across really strike me as reflecting his unique and down to earth personality (this in spite of or perhaps because of his fanciful and fantastical writings). In the Globe and Mail interview, this charming exchange that seems to suggest that he doesn't have time to waste on stupid, banal questions:

You must have faced a lot of pressure to write kiddie books over that time.
No. Out of sight, out of mind. This is America.


Do you still feel dangerous?
No. I’m old, Anybody who wants can push me over.


I notice there’s no iPad edition of Bumble-Ardy on its way.
And there never will be, if I have anything to say about it. When I’m dead, I won’t have much to say about anything.

Some of his answers strike me as a man who is very conscious and accepting of the end of his life not being far off. Sad but this also allows him the rare opportunity to say what he thinks without worrying too much about the consequences.

The recent interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross really hit an emotional chord with me and in a few spots, I caught myself starting to tear up at how raw his emotion is.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Spacing, Montreal and the gentrification debate...

This video is a  very interesting discussion about gentrification and what it means for certain Montreal neighborhoods. Not being a native Montrealer, I am often surprised at the knee-jerk response to terms like development and gentrification. I certainly understand that gentrification changes a city radically and there are many negatives. But there are also many pluses to it, as well.

What I appreciate about this documentary is that it looks at the issue with complexity and doesn't rely only on cliches or overly emotionally laden terms like gentrification to do the arguing. It shows different assumptions about what a "gentrified" neighborhood might mean to various people.

This issue is on my mind after the ELAN conference last week. One comment that was frequently heard was that Montreal was no longer as good a place to be an artist or writer as it once was. That it has simply become too expensive and one can't work part-time to pay rent, buy food (as humble as this life might have been) and then write or paint or dance or whatever the rest of the time. It's just not possible, the argument went. And it's probably true. Certainly it's not as easy to do that unless one wants to live far out in the suburbs or the real working class areas of town.

But I guess that's part of this discussion: it is possible to live in Montreal and be a struggling writer. It's just that poor artists don't generally live in Westmount or the Plateau or Outremont or the Village or even downtown. One has to live out in Cote-Vertu or East Montreal where rents are affordable. I don't know if a writer or artist can easily work part-time and afford an apartment out in these areas, but the point is that it is still possible. And there are other options as well (anyway, almost all of the writers I know live in the central part of the city and manage to survive, some even flourish. That doesn't mean it's easy but whose life is "easy"?).

One of the central questions, of course, is whether it will still be possible in the future. After all, it's probably nearly impossible to be an artist and live in Toronto or Vancouver or New York unless one has some independent income or teaches full-time.

That's why documentaries like this and the organizations it features are so key to Montreal's future and future development. I am not of the mindset that development is automatically bad nor do I think that gentrification is a horrible word (there is something about the "us vs. them" implicit in that word that I don't think reflects reality, as if developers were these monsters who live in glass towers: I live in the Plateau and I'm not rich). We need people to ask these questions, we need to people to make sure we question our assumptions. We don't want to give power over to big condo developers who have no interest or stake in how they change a neighborhood long-term. We should have a place for writers and artists to live and create work, and we should be a city that is open to this and encourages it. But we shouldn't stand in the way of things which make our city better and stronger. Investment is good. New housing is good. New retail can even be done well. Development and, yes, even gentrification can be done well if it's done properly...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Major Novels and Major Novelists: Jonathan Franzen, Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon

This NYT piece by Dwight Garner has been raising the rafters on Twitter this afternoon as Tweeters both rail against his argument and wholeheartedly support it.

Garner's premise is rather straightforward: the tendency for "important" novelists to spend eight or nine or more years writing their next big masterpiece is a reflection of the diminishing role that the novel plays in modern life. If nine years passed between Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and Freedom, Garner suggests, then perhaps this has as much to do with Franzen's individual style and approach to writing as it does to the fact that we expect writers to hole up in their writing rooms and write huge tomes commenting on shifting cultural tides. We expect masterpieces, in other words. Garner writes:
Suddenly our important writers seem less like color commentators, sifting through the     emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today, and more like a mountaintop Moses, handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace.
It's a provocative argument and certain one that is fraught with exceptions and evidence to the contrary. Garner cites Michael Chabon's work as an example, indicating that he hasn't produced an "important" work in a decade though Chabon has written several other works since his 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (one novel but several other shorter works of non-fiction, books for young people, and some genre fiction). This case itself seems to contradict Garner's entire premise.

Donna Tartt - 300 words a week?
Yet other cases like Donna Tartt do seem to suggest that we've moved to a new kind of publishing reality for today's serious novelists. Since her novel The Secret History (an excellent book) was published in 1992, Tartt has published only one other novel (in 2002, The Little Friend). Interviews with Tartt, though, suggest that she simply writes slowly. This has much less to do with some cultural or societal shift and much more to do with Tartt's refusal to be rushed or to just crank out books for the sake of cranking out books.

And let's face it: prolific writers such as Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates and Saul Bellow certainly have put out their share of shlock or intellectually soul-less works. Perhaps today's novelists are simply better at gauging when to just shut up when they are faced with nothing to say.

Also, if writers like Chabon can be used to illustrate again, perhaps not everything needs to be so seriously inclined. If one argues that his book Manhood for Amateurs doesn't have the intellectual heft of his better novels, that really misses the point of the work in many ways. Engaging with the culture (even low brow pop culture) doesn't have the same eyebrow raising necessity (whether from academia or professional reviewers in the media) as it once did. We have the gradual disappearance of the gulf between high and low culture to thank for that.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


The City Where I Want to Live

The city is quiet at dusk,
when pale stars waken from their swoon,
and resounds at noon with the voices
of ambitious philosophers and merchants
bearing velvet from the East.
The flames of conversation burn there,
but not pyres.
Old churches, the mossy stones
of ancient prayer, are both its ballast
and its rocket ship.
It is just a city
where foreigners are punished,
a city quick to remember
and slow to forget,
tolerating poets, forgiving prophets
for their hopeless lack of humor.
The city was based
on Chopin's preludes,
taking from them only joy and sorrow.
Small hills circle it
in a wide collar; ash trees
grow there, and the slim poplar,
chief justice in the state of trees.
The swift river flowing through the city's heart
murmurs cryptic greetings
day and night
from the springs, the mountains, and the sky.

                               --Adam Zagajewski

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Land Marks/Paysage

There's a very interesting interview here with Patterson Webster, an artist whose exhibition in the Eastern Townships explores the relationship between the natural world and the place that development plays in it. The interview is done by Linda Leith, who really excels at getting right to the heart of the tension in Webster's work. As Patterson explains:

"Land does mark the people who live on it, as much as people mark the land. The Eastern Townships had more open space a century ago when most of the land was farmed. Now, threes have grown up on old fields, and it isn't hard to find barbed wire that has become part of a tree ... For me it is impossible to ignore these traces of the past. The walls and sap buckets and paths trampled in the woods are like ghosts - constant, haunting reminders of people who lived here before me."

I was thinking about some of this over last weekend as I was camping in the Laurentians up north. Most of that area, too, was covered by farms 100 years ago and the dense forests and bucolic countryside just barely hides the traces of the touches of humans. The trees are smaller than one might expect and even deep in the woods one comes across huge old stumps or stone walls that are crumbling, gentle reminders that the seeming permanence of our development - our cities, our homes, our driveways - is an illusion when one considers the power that nature really holds.

What interests me about Webster's work is her melding of the business side of development with deeper questions of our place in the natural world, given the fact that so much of it seems to be vanishing around us (at least in our age, who knows in 100 years what will  become of all this development). Unfortunately, today is the last day of the exhibition though Webster's website give some more details about the display...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reading habits...

In the most recent Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris, the story's pat and rather cliché  moral is that it's easy to romanticize time and place - that the distance we experience between our world in the 21st century and, say, Paris of the 1920s contributes to an artificial view of that time and place. We romanticize something, in other words, that we don't know enough about...

I have this tendency, too, and though I occasionally romanticize about a time and place in the past (I went through my Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre and Paris of the 1940s and 50s while I lived in China many years ago and certain streets and buildings still remind me of that bleak and meaningless period!), what turns on the daydreams and nostalgic longing are books set in a contemporary setting of a particular country. Often it's because I've recently travelled there and reading a book set in that land is a way to learn more about it or, less nobly, to consider refashioning my life there.

So I've gone through spells where I read books from Poland, Japan, China, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Lithuania, Vietnam, etc., etc. But it's not just picking up a novel set in Warsaw or Buenos Aires: it's doing hours & days & weeks of research, finding the country's most famous writers, ordering everything I can get my hands on by them and reading obsessively for months, sometimes years.

There are huge chunks of American (and Canadian) literature I've not read - nothing by David Foster Wallace, Saul Bellow, Robertson Davies, Studs Terkel, Thomas Pynchon, for example - but I've read huge swathes of modern Japanese fiction or contemporary Chinese poetry or countless essays on the development of nationalism in Lithuania and Poland. Good thing I work for an International Literary Festival!

All this said, I've read more American and Canadian and American literature in the past 9 months than I have in the past 9 years which means I am trying hard to catch up. I read Philip Roth for the first time (shocking!) and Mordecai Richler, Alice Munro, Michel Tremblay, Joyce Carol Oates, not to mention all the writers who aren't on the international stage.

Yet during our down time (as the summer was for us), I revert back to my old ways: from late June to mid August I read books set in Uruguay, Colombia, Mexico, Japan and Thailand.   A mini-vacation, perhaps...

Friday, August 19, 2011

Endorsements: Literary Podcasts

All of these are available on iTunes or the organization websites.

Open Source from the Watson Institute. Hosted by Christopher Lydon, this podcast is often focused on literature and the connections between literature and politics and society. His recent series on Pakistan was fascinating as was his recent interview with Nigerian/American writer (Open City). In the past, he's interviewed Helen Vendler on Emily Dickinson and Lila Azam Zanganeh on Nabakov.

I also like the Open Books podcast from the BBC. In this 30 minute weekly program, host Harriett Gilbert interviews two well-known (usually British) novelists or writers who talk about the book which has influenced them most. The guests and Harriett all read the book(s) and then discuss why it has been so important or influential. Recently they've discussed Jean Rhys, Thackeray, and women crime writers.

Of course, there's Writers and Company. No way one can mention literary podcasts without mentioning Eleanor Wachtel's highly influential program which has been available on podcast for many years now. If you only have time for one literary program a week, this is it.

I also like two not necessarily literary podcasts but programmes which often mention or discuss literature, namely NPR's Fresh Air (interviews with writers and hot political or social topics of the day: this programme truly is a key part of the "conversation" happening around culture and politics today and host Terri Gross has her finger on the pulse of contemporary life like almost no other personality) and Slate's Culture Gabfest (discussions of who's or what's in the news including writers, books, movies and personalities: again, a major player in shaping and determining the conversations we have around the water coolers in North America though the personalities and general banter of the hosts can get a bit irritating at times. The Endorsement title is a usual feature of their programme).

Finally, I can't forget about New Yorker Outloud, New Yorker's monthly Fiction podcast (a New Yorker writer reads a short story published in the magazine by a different writer), The Moth Podcast (stories told live on stage) and The Monocle Weekly (design, art, politics, social innovation, and, yes, occasionally literature).

Brûlé's weekly podcast - not just for rich people anymore (since the Recession)!
I'm sure there are others I'm not aware of. Endorse one of your favorites, either here or on our Facebook page.

Monday, August 15, 2011

We're back!

After a nearly two month hiatus, the Blue Met engine got fired up again today and we were all back in the office, talking 2012. Some really exciting stuff planned and we're really happy about what we are doing for our next Festival.

In the meantime, some excellent news on the new book horizon. All these authors have announced new books for the fall:

A.S. Byatt (the 2009 Blue Metropolis International Grand Prize) has a new novel called Ragnarok, the End of the Gods (Knopf Canada).

Anita Rau Badami has a new novel, Tell it to the Trees, coming out in September (Knopf Canada).

In addition, Jeffrey Eugenides, Russel Banks, Chuck Palaniuk, Amitav Ghosh (2011 Blue Met Grand Prize winner), Christopher Hitchens, and Joan Didon all have new books coming.

The books editor from The Gazette, Edie Austin has a complete list is here. Lots of reading to get through!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Rita Dove

The Secret Garden
I was ill, lying on my bed of old papers,
when you came in with white rabbits in your arms;
and the doves scattered upwards, flying to mothers,
and the snails sighed under their baggage of stone...
Now your tongue grows like celery between us:
Because of our love-cries, cabbage darkens in its nest;
the cauliflower thinks of her pale, plump children
and turns greenish-white in a light like the ocean's.
I was sick, fainting in the smell of teabags,
when you came with tomatoes, a good poetry.
I am being wooed. I am being conquered
by a cliff of limestone that leaves chalk on my breasts.
                               --Rita Dove

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dog Days...

Not much going on and many of us at Blue Met are on extended leave for the summer.

Reading a bit but just for fun! Nice for a change. Mainly still on my Simon Bolivar and Latin American history generally kick.

Happy July, everyone! We're all back in the office full-time in August though I still may post now and then in the meantime.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

From Peter Cameron's "The City of your Final Destination":

"Violence is terribly underrated," said Adam. "It's so - so expeditious. I'm always asking Pete to smack me. 'Just smack me,' I tell him."

"Pete would never smack you," said Arden.

"Yes, I know, said Adam. "Yet I think we would be so much happier if he did. Did you ever smack Jules?"

"Yes, in fact," said Arden. "Once or twice."

I should be taking notes or something, Omar thought. I should have brought a tape recorder. Suddenly it seemed exhausting, impossible: How do you write a biography? he wondered, when there is so much, when there is everything, an infinity, to know. It seemed impossible. It was like compiling a telephone book from scratch. He sipped again from his martini.

"You often had that smacked-about coital glow," said Adam.

"Oh, Jules never smacked me," said Arden. "You're mistaken if you think he did."

"Oh, I never thought he did. I assumed the smacking was all yours. What about you, Mr. Razaghi? I understand you are affianced. Does your fiancee smack you? Or you her? Although you don't appear to be the smacking type. Or perhaps you are above all that?"

"I am not engaged," said Omar.

"Pardon me," said Adam. "I have been misinformed. My sources err."

"There is something so repellingly Victorian about any couple," said Adam. "The smugness, the sense of sanctity and safety and superiority; it's why God invented smacking. I am sure the Victorians were constantly smacking one another. It's why they wore all those hideous clothes: to hide their bruises."

It's not a great movie; but the book is very readable and entertaining...

Friday, June 24, 2011

Jaime Manrique - Our Lives are the Rivers

The novel tells the story of Manuela Saenz, the mistress and lover of Simon Bolivar. Bolivar is one of the most interesting historical figures and he was a complicated man who life was punctuated by loss: by the time he was 20, he'd lost his mother, his father, and his wife yet he still was able to maintain (later in his life) a passionate affair with Saenz, a woman who was both his saviour and his doom.

The book isn't great but it's good, a fast-paced story which isn't easy when tracing the arc of a character's life. The passion is a bit overwrought in places and I don't quite buy Saenz's absolute devotion to Bolivar or to his cause, but there is a sense of true entitlement that she has which feels genuine, particularly in her complex relationship with her slaves.

Also makes me wish I could get my hand on a good biography of Bolivar: there are a number of them out there.

Curious to read other works by Jaime Manrique. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hisham Matar: compelling interview

I listened to this on the metro on the way to work this morning: Eleanor Wachtel interviewing Libyan novelist Hisham Matar.

I read In the Country of Men when it came out a few years ago. Fascinating read. Haven't read Matar's new one but this interview sure makes me want to run out and find a copy.

At one point, I was tearing up with Matar was talking about his father and the letters he received while he was imprisoned in Libya. No word has ever reached Matar about his father's fate and the last sighting was in 2002 by another prisoner who said he saw him in a Libyan prison. He was kidnapped in 1990.

We really wanted him as part of our 2011 Festival but it didn't work out timing-wise (as is often the case) which was a shame.
Luckily Writers and Company is on top of it. Listen to the very engaging and moving interview here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Books discovered in our library that I wish I had time to read!

Tomas Eloy Martinez: The Tango Singer. I love his novels and have never read this one...

Catherine Mavrikakis: Fleurs de crachat and A Cannibal and Melancholy Morning. A Francophone writer that is quite well-known in Montreal though I'm not familiar with her work at all.

Edward O. Phillips: A Voyage on Sunday. A detective novel set in Montreal.

Madeleine Thien: Certainty. I loved her second novel, Dogs at the Perimeter.

One of the tricks of my job is prioritize reading. I could read 40 books a week and still just scratch the surface so it's easy to imagine how far behind I feel. And that would only be books for work--I do have my own personal list, too.

Still. Of all the problems to have in a job, that's not a bad one!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Alex Epstein and "flash fiction"

blue has no south
A participant at our 2011 Festival, I've only recently had a chance to get through Alex Epstein's entire 2010 collection, blue has no south (Clockroot Books).  Each little story takes up just one page and like Lydia Davis, Epstein's stories are largely self-contained and thought-provoking. Unlike Davis, though, Epstein's work is less cerebral and has a more pragmatic bent to it. Also, his fiction explores themes related to angels, mysticism, books, journeys, geography and mysterious animals.

Further Observations on the Small Bang Theory

For more than eight years they've been sleeping in separate bedrooms, but it cannot yet be determined with complete certainty if the distance between their dreams is expanding , or, looking back, shrinking.


The Crippled Angel

The crippled angel sat in a wheelchair especially designed for winged creatures of his kind and chain-smoked. From his usual spot in the plaza in front of the museum, he observed with concern those coming in. He tried to guess which of them intended to hang himself in one of the exhibition halls.

Born in St-Petersburg, Epstein moved to Israel at 8 years of age. He writes in Hebrew and the above collection was translated by Becka Mara McKay. His latest work, Lunar Savings Time, published by , Interlink (Clockroot is an Interlink imprint) was published in the spring.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Alfonsina Storni


Tonight I look at the moon
white and enormous.

It`s the same as last night
the same as tomorrow.

But it`s foreign, because never
was it so huge and so pale.

I tremble like
lights tremble on water.

I tremble like
tears tremble in my eyes.

I tremble like
the soul trembles in the body.

Oh the moon has opened
two silver lips

Oh how the moon has spoken to me
these three ancient words:

"Death, love, and myster..."
Oh my flesh is nearing its end.

Above the dead flesh
my soul becomes confused.

My soul - a nocturnal cat -
rises up over the moon.

It travels through the enormous sky
crouched low and sad.

It travels through the enormous sky
up over the white moon.

     --Alfonsina Storni (1892-1938) Translated from the Spanish by Jim Normington

Monday, June 13, 2011

Jane Bowles

She didn't write much in her short and troubled life, but what she did write still seems fresh and fascinating nearly 70 years after it was published. Married to Paul Bowles (another one of my favorite writers), they had and at times distant, loving, drinking and very tumultuous relationship.

Jane and Paul Bowles
After publishing her most famous (one of her only published works, in fact), Two Serious Ladies in 1943, she and Paul Bowles traveled the world: Sri Lanka, Latin America, France and finally, Tangiers. At the age of 40, she suffered a serious stroke which left her incapacitated and she was institutionalized for the next 15 years. She passed away at the same institution in 1973, aged just 56. Her husband continued living in Tangier until his death in 1999 (aged 90).

Her most famous work has a memorable and solid opening three paragraphs:

     Christina Goering's father was an American industrialist of German parentage and her mother was a New York lady of a very distinguished family. Christina spent the first half of her life in a very beautiful house (not more than an hour from the city) which she had inherited from her mother. It was in this house that she had been brought up as a child with her sister Sophie.
     As a child, Christina had been very much disliked by other children. She had never suffered particularly because of this, having led, even at a very early age, an active inner life that curtailed her observation of whatever went on around her, to such a degree that she never picked up the mannerisms then in vogue, and at the age of ten was called old-fashioned by other little girls. Even then she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being.
     Christina was troubled horribly by ideas which never would have occurred to her companions, and at the same time took for granted a position in society which any other child would have found unbearable. Every now and then a schoolmate would take pity on her and try to spend some time with her, but far from being grateful for this, Christina would instead try her best to convert her new friend to the cult of whatever she believed in at the time.

What strikes me about this opening passage (I've read these three paragraphs probably fifty times in my life) is the tone and playful use of language which is ironically old-fashioned, as if the writer herself is mimicking how Christina, her character, might have spoken. Yet it's also deadly serious, as well, and Bowles is very deliberate in her use of this tone and its effect on her reader. But more than all that: one just gets such a strong sense of Bowles' protagonist from this opening passage.