Monday, May 30, 2011

Youtube Poetry

I've been fascinated by this Youtube channel whose moderators set poetry to jazz soundtracks. It's mesmerizing, I find, and the site contains a small handful of poets (Neruda, Rumi, Sandburg). Juxtaposed against images or old stock film footage, the words and music and images create a hypnotic new work, perhaps even a new genre of literature...

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Poem by Anne Sexton

The Balance Wheel

Where I waved at the sky
And waited your love through a February sleep,
I saw birds swinging in, watched them multiply
Into a tree, weaving on a branch, cradling a keep
In the arms of April, sprung from the south to occupy
This slow lap of land, like cogs of some balance wheel.
I saw them build the air, with that motion birds feel.

Where I wave at the sky
And understand love, knowing our August heat,
I see birds pulling past the dim frosted thigh
Of Autumn, unlatched from the nest, and wing-beat
For the south, making their high dots across the sky,
Like beauty spots marking a still perfect cheek.
I see them bend the air, slipping away, for what birds seek.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Short short stories....Lydia Davis

I've recently developed an appreciation for the short short story. It's a specific kind of reading pleasure for me: when I'm waiting in line, when I'm on a short subway ride. It doesn't really require deep immersion (unless I'm engrossed in a particularly riveting novel, it's often difficult for me to read longer form fiction while public transporting: in the morning the metro is too crowded and in the evening, I'm worn out), and this shorter form also allows a bit more interaction, it seems to me (read one, think about it for a while, read it again, read a new one, think about the connections between them, etc.).

Lydia Davis is probably one of the more famous practitioners of the short short story. I heard her interviewed about her piece on Glenn Gould's love of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and what it means to us when someone we admire likes something we like and how it enables us to underscore our beliefs in our own judgements. If Glenn Gould likes MTM then clearly we have something in common and maybe I am slightly touched by genius, too. (The other side of the argument we ignore: all the fools who like MTM have nothing in common with me!). Her collection Varieties of Disturbance has some gems. From "Television":

It's partly my isolation at night, the darkness outside, the silence outside, the increasing lateness of the hour, that makes the story on television seem so interesting. But the plot, too, has something to do with it; tonight a son cames back after many years and marries his father's wife. (She's not his mother).

Lydia Davis
It's very simple, but perhaps misleadingly so. Here is how my mind reacts to a short straightforward piece like this: Remember when television seemed the antithesis of an engaged intellectual mind? I am suspicious of writers (or others) who claim to never watch TV: how can one understand what's happening in our culture without at least some interaction with TV? And aren't writers supposed to reflect on our culture? As for me, after reading and thinking about writing and talking to editors or writers all day, I like nothing more than to turn off my brain and watch something mindless that requires little to no critical analysis or deep reflection. Like a chef who orders pizza after working all day long...some plost are universal and even though we've encountered the story countless times (prodigal son, Oedipus, etc.), when translated into modern life, they seem renewed...I wonder if most people are aware of the provenance of a plot such as this one...

Another one, titled "Lonely":

No one is calling me. I can't check the answering machine because I have been here all this time. If I go out, someone may call while I'm out. Then I can check the answering machine when I come back in.

This one is slightly dated, given the fact that many of us don't have "answering machines" anymore. The mere idea seems terribly archaic: that we leave messages that someone may listen to today or tomorrow or later. No, today, we need immediate gratification (if I text someone and they don't answer within 15 minutes, I often start to get worried). Yet the universality of this is still very relevant and who hasn't had a thought like this at some point?

Some are just funny: "Idea for a Short Documentary Film":

Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging.

Others in this collection are quite beautiful, haunting and even moving. Many writers wonder if this form could possibly take off in this hyperly-succinct world we live in though I am less than optimistic about this idea. Still: I do wish that the short story generally would become more relevant to the average guy on the street....maybe short short stories are one route to relevance...?

Varieties of Disturbance

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Interview with Gore Vidal

Recorded on stage at the Blue Met 2011.

As part of Michael Enright's program, The Sunday Edition, Enright talks to Vidal about his long career, his who's who of friends and associates, and what it means to have outlived so many others...

Interview here.

Starts at 25:25.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Crime Fiction

When I want to read in order to relax and escape the pressures of life, I read crime fiction. Ever since I was a kid and was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes (before the Internet was anything, I joined this club, The Consulting Detective, where we`d investigate cases and then `send away` for the solutions), I`ve been a huge fan of detectives, crime writing, and murder mysteries. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (set in 19th century Melbourne) was an early favorite as was Wilkie Collins and Father Brown.

Without exception, contemporary crime writing is largely forgettable and the form is so firmly established now that though there are lots of great crime writers, there are few who do anything really fascinating with the form.

The last few days, I`ve been reading Elena Forbes and her 2010 novel Evil in Return. It`s a good read and I`ve enjoyed the pacing and the general timbre of the story. It`s forgettable though and in six months I could pick it up and read it again since I won`t remember many details.

To me what sets good crime novels apart are the settings: Sue Grafton`s books are all set in Santa Barbara; Louise Penny`s in Montreal and the Eastern Townships; Anthony Bidulka`s in Saskatoon. Reading a crime novel set in an unusual location is a good way of capturing the atmosphere of a city or region. Ernesto Mallo`s book, Needle in a Haystack, set in 1970s Argentina is a very interesting portrait of a city under the confines and fears of the Dirty War. In that sense, then, crime writing can serve as a kind of travelogue, introducing a location to a reader with the ability to show the real inner workings of a society: different classes, societal conflicts, personal conflicts, political changes, etc.

When I was in New York a couple of weeks ago, I met Teresa Solana, whose crime novels are set in Barcelona; her husband is the main English translator or Leonardo Padura, a novelist whose works are largely set in Havana. Been trying to get my hands on works by these writers, not only because they are translated (another interesting aspect of crime writing) but because the locations are interesting and make an otherwise set form slightly unusual.

I find Stieg Larsson highly overrated. The first in his Millenium trilogy is a good read. But beyond Lisbeth Salander, his characters are flat, underdeveloped, and stock to a large degree. The last two of this series, and particularly the last one, is just about unreadable in my estimation (the last two could have been cut by about 30-40% and improved). Not really sure why he has become the darling of the crime writing world as he`s simply not that great of a writer. Much ink has been spilled on this new wave of Scandinavian crime writing but the influence of this region on the genre have been minimal, it seems to me.

There must be thousands more fictional murders committed every year than real murders. Particularly since most murders are far from compelling and don`t make good fodder for a crime novel.

For a really interesting approach to crime writing, try Miyuki Miyabe. Her books, all set in Tokyo, show a segment of Japanese society that we rarely see: the underbelly, black market, characters off the grid. Her books don`t even all contain murders yet they are still highly readable and entertaining. Fascinating stuff and I wish her work were better known in the West.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

2011 Festival put to bed: THANKS everyone!

Thanks, everyone, for your support and for making our 2011 Festival a rip-roaring success. We sold 50% more tickets in 2011 than in 2010, despite the smaller venue. In fact, we sold out 1/5 of our events and probably close to half were almost sold out.

Highlights: Eleanor Wachtel and a standing room only for Alaa al Aswany; Gore Vidal and Michael Enright; Amitav Ghosh's opening cocktail (receiving our 2011 Grand Prize) and his onstage interview with Noah Richler; touring Canada with three Indian writers and very enthusiastic crowds in Regina.

We are in the thick of our 2012 planning, believe it or not, and we have some really amazing things planned for our next Festival.

In the meantime, I will continue to post here, writing about authors, books, publishing trends and other topics related to literature and art generally, so stay tuned....