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.