Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Thirtysomething and Our Lost Principles

Since the summer, I've been slowly watching old thirtysomething episodes that I bought on iTunes, a show I was too young for when it aired on TV in the late 80s. I remember that I did watch it, at least for a while, but I could remember almost nothing about it.

Not sure why I decided to watch it in the first place but part of it is remembering all the buzz which surrounded the show when it first came out and wanting to revisit it to see how well it's stood up to the passing of time. What strikes me about the show now is how so much of the angst that people in their 30s had then has just disappeared. Not that angst has disappeared but the specific fears and pathologies that people (and society) have now are radically different.

For those not familiar with the show, it portrays a married couple (Michael and Hope) and their small group of friends (another married couple, Nancy and Elliot), and three single friends (Melissa, Gary and Ellen) in the Philadelphia of the late 80s. It's not a show with exciting action or overly dramatic plot-lines (at least not in its first season): it simply traces the ups and downs of middle class life, of marriage squabbles and problems, of dating life, of careers. This is done with scenes of two or more people sitting and talking. The show is really a series of conversations and there are rarely even new characters introduced.

In 2012, I am roughly the same age as the characters were in the late 80s, though the characters at the time were roughly the same age as my parents (in their 30s at the time). In many ways, the show is dated: the roles of men and women are not questioned in the same way now that they were then. So much is just taken for granted now in terms of women and careers and family life.

But what is refreshing to me when watching it how real it is in many ways: how they struggle with money but do so in a real way. It's not like TV now where everyone lives in gorgeous apartments in big cities and dresses in Gucci and Paul Smith but complains that they don't have money or can't afford to do something. Hope and Michael's house is always unfinished, they argue about money, about things they can't do because they can't afford it. Not having money has consequences, in other words.

Though it seems like a small thing, this money issue, in many ways it gets at the core of a different set of values that we have lost: one of the central themes of the show is the fear of "selling out," of losing (or having lost) one's integrity, of holding on to one's principles at a time when it isn't easy to do so. Gary doesn't want to buy into the politics of his university just to get tenure. Michael doesn't want to go after the big overly capitalist firms (he runs a small advertising agency) because they have no principles. Having money isn't the thing which motivates these characters. And that might on the surface seem pat and even trite, but the reality is that they don't have money and it seems like it (a disconnect that is very common in portrayals of modern life: people live like rich people and dress like rich people even if they drive a bus in New York City are supposedly "working class"). Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but to me this has to do with the fact that the middle class then was bigger than it is now, so the fears of selling out was a real concern: rich people had less integrity, fewer principles, were greedy.

More than this is the central struggle between pursuing one's creative pursuits and being forced to making a living in the real world. All the characters have moments when they realize that, in their 30s, they are no longer able to dream of their futures in the same way. This struck me in a recent episode when Ellen said, "I realize that I can't keep living for some idea of how my life will be one day in the future. I have to accept that this is my life now with all its flaws and drawbacks."

The Jewish waver-chick
Today, money seems to be answer, money and fame: not only is it a sign of success, it IS success. It seems to me (in large measure) that qualities like integrity are almost quaint (has anyone else seen that car ad using Fun's song "We Are Young"? Remember when that would have been absolutely appalling: that a band sold their song to a car company just months after it was a hit? But it seems that no one has qualms any more about this kind of "selling out." It's money, right?!). Sigh, maybe I'm just getting old...

But I digress: No, thirtysomething isn't perfect. It's dated at times, the characters can seem pretty self-indulgent and whiny. They are certainly middle class people with middle class problems (and, geez, every single person that ever crosses that camera is whitewhitewhite).

But perhaps because I am a similar time in my life (not quite middle aged but not young anymore) I can relate to these characters' experiences, worries, fears, and successes. And I've been enjoying watching it (slowly). If I do move on to season 2, it'll be in a while (I watch a lot more TV and movies in the winter) but I hope it continues to present interesting shifts in our cultures to think about...

Monday, January 28, 2013

Latest Almemar Now Online

So I missed the launch by a  few days, but the latest issue of Almemar is up and there is some great stuff there this time. Highlights include:

Check it out. Make sure like the articles on Facebook (or Retweet) if you get some enjoyment out of them...

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Josip Novakavich and the Man Booker International Prize

I've been a little surprised at the reaction to the Man Booker Prize International Prize nominations. This happens almost every year with the Nobel Prize in Literature and it annoys me then, too.

When people assert that writers whose names are not household names are "obscure" it really irritates me because it's such a pejorative term. Should we only choose "famous" writers? Does fame somehow equal "good" nowadays?

Anyway, I wouldn't even say that the writers are obscure. Of course, it's my business so I have heard about most of them but do these people really consider Lydia Davis obscure? Peter Stamm? Yan Lianke? Victor Sorokin? Come on, I would figure anyone whose job it is to KNOW international literature would know these writers. Yes, there are names on that list that are lesser known but what a great opportunity to get introduced to a new writer!

Most writerly people in Montreal know writer Josip Novakovich, a real powerhouse. When he first came to Blue Met a number of years ago (for his excellent book April Fool's Day, the only book I bought that year at the Festival), long before I was ever associated with the Festival, I was intrigued with his story and background. And later with his writing. It's still on my shelf as one of the books I like to re-read every now and then (I actually like April Fool's Day better than several of Aleksandar Hemon's books, another writer I greatly admire). It's true, though, that he's not a huge name, even in Canada. But why not celebrate the idea of having the chance to read a new writer instead of revelling in how X person doesn't know him (this article is what irritated me on the topic though I read several that expressed the same sentiment the last couple of days).

As for Marie NDiaye, the English translation of her book (the ironically titled Three Strong Women) was getting a fair amount of buzz a number of months ago. It presented a nuanced and complex look at life in modern France for an immigrant, no shocking, tragic stories of overcoming adversity, but three linked stories of modern women in modern Europe who are still connected in various ways to the "old country" but in uniquely modern ways.

Israeli writer Aharon Applefeld has been on our radar for a couple of years. I haven't read his latest book (in translation) but he's not what one would call obscure either.

I guess my quibble is with the word obscure. There are obscure writers but the writers short-listed on this list, while not all famous, are hardly accurate definitions of obscure. And when journalists choose to slant their stories this way, it just says so much about how little people know about international fiction outside of the English-speaking world. (Of course, it's unreasonable to expect the average reader to know all these writers. But there is no excuse for "experts" in international writing to call these writers obscure.)

On a semi-related soapbox: I am thrilled with English-language presses (Open Letter, Biblioasis, Melville House, Dalkey Archive, Archipelago, among others) who do publish (and often specialize in) international authors precisely because it has opened doors to "the average reader" that were once closed. If only "average readers" would read one or two international writers each year, and one or two local writers each year, then read the usual stuff (big US or UK stars, crap, and genre writing), think how much more representative our publishing culture would be...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Banana Yoshimoto and Downton Abbey

The busiest weeks of the year for us as we finalize our entire programme in order to send it away for printing. So, needless to say, every detail must be established.

As a result, working long days and for a change, very little reading is possible.

I did read Banana Yoshimoto's The Lake which I found interesting though I didn't love it. The found the vague connections between the metaphysical world (or what's hinted at there) unconvincing. So much of contemporary Japanese writing does this (its literary writing, I mean, since it's not found in Japanese detective novels or crime writing that I can see): presents an alternate universe in the fabric of the story whereby odd people are allowed to run free. It's easy to rely on stereotypes about Japan here (rigid, conformist, very little chance for release of day to day stresses) - though not all those stereotypes are untrue - when bringing some analysis to a book like The Lake. So I will leave it by saying that I enjoyed the work (a short novel one can easily read in an afternoon) but I didn't particularly love it. Like the other Yoshimoto novels I've read: the lessons are simultaneously too pat and too vague. I much prefer Hiromi Kawakami (she plays with the metaphysical but in a much more intelligent and convincing way) who is just a better writer in my view.

Yeah, we get it, we get it.
Also watching season 3 of Downton Abbey and though I liked the first episode of the season, the others haven't been that impressive. And that's too bad because I liked the earlier seasons. But now it's either bad soap opera plot or the characters are overly representative of a particular ideology (old Britain vs. young America, etc.) and aren't really that fleshed out. The Shirley MacLaine character is flat, predictable and has absolutely no complexity beyond the contrast she provides to the stilted, dying world of the British aristocracy. I'll continue watching it, but sharks appear to have jumped (I wasn't even that huge a fan of the second season though the first season was really excellent).

And both Matthew Crawley and Mr Bates are irritatingly smug in their principled martyrdom. Meh. No one is that self-sacrificing, sorry. Julian Fellows sure doesn't have any sense of moral complexity though it's perhaps more a reality of TV storytelling than his specific approach.

Can't wait for the next two weeks to be over so I can actually sit down and read a book again for fun and not constantly have the programme for 2013 on my mind!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Richard Blanco

LAST NIGHT IN HAVANA by Richard Blanco

Drifting from above, the palms seem to sink
willingly into the saffron ground, all I can map
is the marble veins of rivers turning static,
the island coastline retreating like a hem
from the sargasso patches of Caribbean.
I think of you primo, huddled on the edge
of an Almendares curb last night,
El Greco shadow split across the street,
and over the tracks stapled to the weeds
below your open bedroom window.
Covered in cobwebs of humid wind,
we slapped at unreachable mosquitoes
as Havana's tenements collapsed around us,
enclosed us like the yellow of old books
or the stucco walls of a hollow chapel.
You confessed you live ankled in the sand
of a revolution, watching an unparted sea,
marking  tides and learning currents
that will carry you through the straits
to my door, blistered and salted, but alive.
You said you want silence, you want to leave
the sweep of the labor trains in your window,
the creak of your father's wheelchair in the hall
searching for a bottle of pills he will find empty,
and the slam of your eyelids forcing sleep.
The tires are ready, bound with piano wire,
the sail will be complete with the linen scraps
your mother will stitch together after midnights
when the neighbors are trying to fall asleep.
Last night in Havana, your face against your knees,
your words drowning with the lees in an empty bottle
of bootleg wine you clutched around the neck
and will keep to store fresh water.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Mighty Embattled Sitcom

Oh, the embattled, unique situation comedy.

I have long been a fan of sitcoms. But it's an art form that is often considered common or lacking in depth. We often hold up sitcoms, in fact, as art for the average Joe precisely because they often hold mass appeal. Though they can often be appallingly bad, when they are good they capture something unique about life that combines both humour and insight. It's not an easy art form to write in but it's a very uniquely American one.

Miami, you've got style
First the bad: most sitcoms are badly written. The jokes are obvious, the acting is bad, the situations become ludicrous or downright silly. The pacing doesn't work or is uneven. Nine times out of then, a sitcom is totally unnecessary. And even in good sitcoms, not all episodes or seasons are good.

But when a sitcom can overcome these issues, they can sparkle and capture a truth in the same way a sonnet can. I choose the word sonnet very deliberately because there are many similarities between the strictures that require certain formalities in a sonnet  (the rhyme, the couplet, the rhythm) and the formalities in a sitcom (the rhythm, the A/B plots, the exaggerations). But the sheer act of writing with these limitations means a writer must be even more creative and clever in order to balance his or her vision with the technical or formal necessities.

Mr Graaaaaant
A unique thing about sitcoms: while dramas tend to be about ordinary people in unusual circumstances (stock characters struck by disease, war, alien abduction, zombie invasions, historical anomalies, etc.), sitcoms tend to be about unusual characters in ordinary circumstances (stupid people in families, sarcastic people at the office, etc.). This is where the humour enters into the picture: it's precisely these unusual characters reacting in every day normal circumstances that make us laugh and see our own ways of reacting. Think about Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory or Rose in The Golden Girls.

It could be argued that most comedy operates in this dynamic - unusual people in usual settings - but sitcoms exaggerate. The stupid people are unrealistically stupid, the oversexualized people are over the top, the vain people have no sense of living in any kind of reality. And that's where the danger lies and when sitcoms cross over into being silly or vapid or badly written. It's a delicate balance between creating funny, unusual characters and creating characters in which we can see few true human qualities. And the interaction between the "straight" characters (Mary Tyler Moore, Will Truman, Leonard Hofstetter) and the quirky characters (Ted Baxter, Grace Adler, Amy Farafowler) is where the beauty and comedy can be found.

The A/B plots are another hallmark of sitcoms: there is a main A plot which drives the conflict of every episode, and then there is a minor B plot that operates on the periphery, often relating to the minor characters. Sometimes the plots are related, often they are not. But the key is that both plot points must be worked out and resolved in 22 minutes, ideally with a "lesson-learning" scene whereby characters talk about what they have learned. Again, another minefield for critical alarm bells to go off since writes must walk a very delicate line here (can't be too trite but also has to be a lesson most people can relate to).

Soft kitty
Another complication for sitcom writers is the staging and this is where many sitcoms fail: there are too many characters and awkwardness ensues since the action generally only involves two or three of them at any one time. When there are too many characters, they stand around with nothing to do and the entire scene gets awkward (Newhart often has this problem). A good sitcom keeps characters moving.

Sitcoms are only one way to communicate and can't speak to us in the same way a drama or a long series-arc that lasts nine months can. In the sitcom universe, generally we start fresh every episode and it's not so necessary to watch them in order (as a general rule though this has somewhat changed in recent years). But we also grow to love sitcom characters in a way that we love a familiar neighbour or family friend.

Classically dated
Again there are many bad sitcoms. Most, in fact (sitcoms for "the family" are the worst: Webster, Silver Spoons, most of them, in fact: that new one Broke Girls is dreadful). Then there sitcoms which are pretty good but have frequent bad episodes or even entire seasons that are terrible (Will & Grace, The Golden Girls, Rhoda, Friends). Some sitcoms are classics and represent a vanished time (Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers, Seinfeld, All in the Family). In general, I'd say the 80s was a low point for sitcoms (and TV generally) but perhaps it's a dying art. They are very much a network kind of show and as fewer and fewer people tune into the big networks and watch more cable shows (I can't think of very many cable sitcoms).

So maybe sitcoms are dying a slow death. There are some new ones out each year but with the exception of The Big Bang Theory, most are terrible and it's been a long time since a sitcom really "caught" the public's imagination (like Friends or Seinfeld or several others). Maybe they don't speak to us in the same way any more. Maybe we all prefer seeing shows about meth or pot dealers or advertising cads or OCD CIA agents. We want more flawed protagonists now perhaps and sitcoms seem to represent a more innocent time when a character's biggest flaw was that he was a womanizer or that she was too vain or he lacked social charms. Quirky is definitely out.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Man Asian Literary Prize

There is no shortage of literary prizes out there (including Blue Met's two best-known prizes, the Blue Met Grand Prize and the Arab Prize) but one prize that I pay close attention to each year is the Man Asian Literary Prize.

It's an odd prize in many ways because though it represents a huge area (1/3 of the world's population or something) with a vast number of languages, it recognizes work either written in or translated into English. The countries represented vary, as well: from Afghanistan to Hong Kong to Japan to Turkey to Vietnam, 34 in total.

The prize is only 5-6 years old and has already had a bumpy ride, though they certainly have chosen some fascinating works over its short life. After this year, the sponsoring organization, The Man Group, will move on, leaving the prize to find a new sponsor. Not an easy feat, I am sure...

Some really fascinating works as part of its 2012 long list:

Hiromi Kawakami's The Briefcase (Japan)
Orhan Pamuk's Silent House (Turkey)
Tie Ning's The Bathing Women (China)
Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists (Malaysia)

and, of course, Kim Thuy's Ru.

And this is just a short sampling of the long list. I really like this prize and I think it's necessary since so many prizes are based in the West with a handful of works nominated for several awards. I am also a big fan of promoting non-Western literature and that there is a translation component to it as well.

I've not read all the work on the long-list but I am a big fan of Kawakami (and have written about her before) whose work is lyrical and meditative, and Tie Ning has done some interesting work, too (he's been writing for 30 years). Naturally, I love Ru as well... and the Malaysian writer's work has been on my radar since the fall (though I've not read it yet).

The short list will be announced Wednesday, January 9 at 6pm in Hong Kong. Really hoping Kim Thuy, Kawakami and Ning's work all make it through to the short-list.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Been reading Paul French's Midnight in Peking over the holiday break and finding it an interesting if odd little story.

French chronicles the real-life murder of Pamela Werner in 1937 in Beijing. The adopted daughter of a well-connected (if not well-liked) former consular official, China scholar, and old "China-hand," Pamela Werner is found mutilated one morning on the streets of the capital and the mystery of who killed her and why is the card that French keeps close to his chest throughout. The book straddles the razor thin line separating fiction and non-fiction.

It's written in a novel format with imagined thoughts and feelings of individual characters, with scenes that contain details French could not possibly know with any certainty. But that's where a story like this has its limitations: if one wants to engage the reader, it's vital to suck them into the story with these details that he has to invent which means that it's no longer an historical document.

The danger, of course, is that the story "becomes" history when it is very clearly not history.   I'm not able to articulate in this limited space what exactly bothers me about this distinction but it does bother me and I kind of wish French had fictionalized more of the story, changed names, etc., and only told us in the introduction that it was based on a real case. As it is, it's imagined, fictional details that may or may not be important in between facts that are clearly historical and true-to-life.

Also, though there are some unrelated historical details noted that are not necessarily related to the case, I feel that the book could have done more with this: more about the political situation going on (which French only slightly touches on), about the uncomfortable role that the British and other foreigners held in China as it descended into civil war, about the social conditions and the very recent collapse of the Qing dynasty (again, which French notes but hardly delves into). French mentions some historical details but the fact that it's written more like a novel means that those details are presented awkwardly with 21st century hindsight.

Eileen Chang's excellent collection, Love in a Fallen City
It's readable and engaging though I don't necessarily find it to be that memorable or complex. Made me nostalgic for China, though, which I didn't mind. Still if one wants to read a story of early to mid-century China, there are many other books which I'd recommend before this one, books like The Master of Rain, Shanghai '37, The Rouge of the North, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, Love in a Fallen City, or even some of French's other books (I loved his book on Carl Crow). Read French's excellent blog for more on China.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Academia and the missing readers...

There has been an interesting debate brewing (for a number of years and involving a number of different angles) and the latest lob tossed into the fire is by Slate writer Ron Rosenbaum.

What Rosenbaum suggests is that graduate school, and graduate school in literature in particular, is a waste of time. He describes certain academics who argue that specific parts of Hamlet should be excised for various reasons that he (Rosenbaum) argues are precisely the problem which happens when one spends too much time studying literature in academia:

It's emblematic of a whole academic mindset, of the sort of tin-eared arrogance that would consign to the dustbin on no good authority 35 eloquently tormented lines of self-reflection by one of the greatest characters in world literature - a character defined by his penchant for introspection and self-reflection - on the basis of a half-baked theory.

Hyperbole aside, Rosenbaum makes an interesting point here though I certainly wouldn't suggest that academia has the market on arrogance.

What strikes me, though, is the fact that I find academics often don't even read that much. Of course, they read: they read papers, they read a handful of books on theory that are fashionable. But more often they skim: they skim papers, they skim journal articles, hunting and pecking for lines or lines of reasoning that pertain to them or their particular research. They certainly don't read novels to any large degree (excepting, of course, every single Jane Austen novel and paper and secondary source that a Jane Austen expert would be expected to have read).

The Ivory Tower: devoid of readers?
And while some academics certainly are readers, I am very often surprised at how many academics I encounter in my work or social life who simply aren't readers (even those involved in literature): they don't read contemporary fiction, they don't know international writers, they don't read The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books or Granta or a host of other publications which contribute to the discussion on literature today, they don't read essayists or poetry or graphic novels. They don't know contemporary writers or anything outside of their specialty.

Yes, some do and a quick glance at a roster of one of these magazines does show a high proportion of academics as writers.

But I talk about literature frequently (maybe almost daily) to people from all walks of life and I find no general difference between what academics know about literature in comparison to the general public. The only group of people who I can say read a lot are writers, translators, editors and some journalists.

What this has to do with whether one should study literature at the graduate level is, I think, noted in Rosenbaum's piece when he reflects on what people actually do in a graduate level literary program. And I remember from my own background, too.

When I was an undergraduate I read: I went to a small state school in a small western state. It wasn't a famous school but I had excellent teachers (and it was CHEAP at the time to study there) and what I did do was read: I read contemporary Russian and Soviet fiction, I read Victorian novels, I read Edwardian novels, I read modernist poetry and philosophy and Native American authors. Reading as an undergraduate allowed me to read Dostoevsky, William Least-Heat Moon, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo, Tatiania Tolstaya, Anna Ahkmatova, Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, E.M. Forster, Henry James, and many many others.

If Elvis can do it...
Ten years later when I went back to school to do a graduate degree, I was disappointed at how little we actually read. Or I should say, we did read but we read few novels or primary sources. Instead, we read about primary sources in theoretical books. And while theory has its place and while I can appreciate a certain amount about theory, I was never much of a theory person.

I couldn't wait to get done with my graduate work and do something else: I wanted to read again, to be involved in the discussion about contemporary literature again, and anyway, I was never much of a scholar. Thank God!

I don't know if studying literature at a graduate level is a waste of time (a professor in my graduate programme discouraged me from doing a PhD. "Study law," he used to tell me, "If I had to do it over, I never would have spent all these years studying in this field.") and I don't mean any disrespect to any of the many people I know who have studied in or are in the midst of studying in graduate schools around the world. And I'd never suggest that not studying humanities isn't important! But one doesn't have to do it in a formalized, rigid system that has little financial incentives beyond. I am also not suggesting that this applies to undergraduates because I do feel strongly that a literature degree as an undergraduate is an excellent idea and has many benefits.

But let's face it, with tenure-track positions harder and harder to get and far too many people graduating in the humanities than job vacancies could ever absorb, Rosenbaum may have a point about graduate level work in literature.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Gate by Natsume Soseki

This book has been one of the highlights of this holiday break. There is so much in it to talk about that I want to write a 4000 word post on it. Fortunately for my readers, I won't.

Suffice it to say that from Pico Iyer's introduction which praises Soseki's sparing use of plot points but ample use of details of early Meiji life in early 20th century Japan, I was off, revelling in the story and thrilled about reading the novel.

As Iyer suggests, not much happens that can be considered engaging: a man grown old before his time reflects back on his early life, his marriage and love for his wife, and is able to avoid conflict for much of his time on Earth, finally escaping into a Buddhist temple to try and find meaning and peace for his uneventful yet highly problematic life.

The book contains some of the most fascinating passages on meditation I've ever read, as well as a sweet love story that if not passionate in its waning years is the kind of love story that most people yearn for. But there are also lovely passages about Tokyo ("he walked on, puffing out cigarette smoke the autumn sunlight, the urge in him to wander afar, to someplace where he could etch vividly on his mind the sensation that the very essence of Tokyo was to be found here in this spot, then take it home as a souvenir of this day, his Sunday, before he lay down to sleep."), about Kyoto, about nature, about Oyone, his wife, and, of course, about his burgeoning interest in Zen Buddhism as the novel ends.

The bits about Tokyo made me miss that city. Though the book was written in the very early years of the 1900s, long before Tokyo was firebombed and largely destroyed by the Americans in WWII, there is something of the beauty and spirit of Tokyo still there today, 100 years later. Though I didn't live there long, I find Tokyo to be one of the most fascinating cities in the world: densely crowded but surprisingly quiet and bucolic, incredibly wealthy but terribly middle class, groomed, trimmed and controlling of nature within an inch of its life but surprisingly green with abundant trees, flowers, and green spaces.

And this book has whetted my appetite for more Soseki, an author who has influenced several generations of Japanese writers and continues to loom large on the Japanese psyche. Imagine a Canadian writer on our money (Margaret Atwood on the $20 bill? Hugh MacLennan on the $10?)...

Natsume Soseki on the back of the 1000 yen note