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 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...