Thursday, December 31, 2015

Pico Iyer on Kurosawa & Japan, Harriet Tubman Madame $20, Mario Bellatin and his publisher, Orson Welles new release: last 2015 links

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Blue Met 2016

It's been a great year for us at Blue Met. Our 2015 Festival was our largest Festival yet in terms of attendance. In the five years since I've been at Blue Met our attendance has tripled. Yes, tripled. Which has, I think, something to do with the programming. In addition, our media attention has been solid, as well, with local, national and international attention.

This blog, too, has been getting pretty extraordinary traffic though it's slacked off the last couple of months since I've not had as much time to write here. But in the late summer and early fall it was booming...and that's carried over though I do blog less lately.

Still: the end of the year is a normal if rather arbitrary time to consider where we have been and where we are going.

In terms of reading, this was a great year for fiction. Some books I read that I really enjoyed included:

Valeria Luiselli: The Story of My Teeth
Elena Ferrante: The Story of the Lost Child
Drago Jancar: The Tree With No Name
Tomaž Šalamun: Woods and Chalices
Anakana Schofield: Martin John
Mary Oliver: Felicity
Jean-Christophe Rufin: The Red Collar

I also liked Larry Tremblay's book The Orange GroveNeil Smith's novel Boo, and Samuel Archibald's excellent story collection, Arvida.

It feels like 2015 had some really fascinating new things, new forms and experiments by writers that always excites us around the office.

With our 2016 Festival planning in its final stages, we've been reading and discussing many fascinating books in Quebec, Canada and around the world to bring you some great events in 2016.

Our 2016 Festival will have a lot of works relating to translation, a lot of writers from outside North America (as usual) and events in many different languages, of course (again, as usual), including Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Polish and many others.

The 2016 Festival runs April 11-17 at Hotel 10 in downtown Montreal. Mark your calendars!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Vermeer by Wislawa Symborska


So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn't earned
the world's end.

(from her collection, Here)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Meena K's new collection of poems, Ozu and his muse, Indian artist Hema Upadhyay murdered, Agatha Christie and archaeology, Lewis Carroll: Cultural Digest December 17

RIP Hara, Ozu Muse

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On Tomas Venclova and Vilnius

I've long been reading Lithuanian writer, Tomas Venclova, and his collection of essays, Forms of Hope, I've returned to again and again over the years.

I read over the weekend his book Vilnius: a Personal History which, again, I found very easy to read and engaging. Not very aptly named, though, the book is light on personal details or history and very much an objective look at the history of Venclova's native city from its founding, through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and beyond...

I first discovered Venclova through the work of another writer I admire, Czeslaw Milosz, and their letter exchanges on the city of Vilnius make up the last section of this book (and other books by Venclova and even in some of Milosz own work).

I spent a week in Vilnius years and years ago and found it one of the most interesting and beautiful cities I've ever visited. My trip there cemented my love of Milosz (who also spent many years there as a young man) but also led me to other literary discoveries.

The city of Vilnius is interesting because of its long history as a centre of cosmopolitan culture, learning and language. For years it was nearly made up of half Jewish residents, the other half being largely Polish-speaking and Belorussians. Lithuanian speakers made up just a fraction of the population for much of the 19th and 20th centuries (at least until the middle part of the 20th century) though this changed when the Soviet Union annexed the republic and absorbed it into the USSR. Almost 95% of the Jews of Vilinius perished at the hands of the Nazis during WWII and the few remaining were shipped off to Siberia under Stalin.

These vicissitudes of history also meant that the linguistic situation flip-flopped: from a primarily Yiddish and Polish-speaking city in the early part of the 20th century to a mainly Lithuanian-speaking population today. The city has long served as an antidote to the idea that language must determine nationalistic temperatures (many Poles consider themselves Lithuanian and the Jews largely did too). As has been pointed out by many historians, the notion that language somehow determines nationality is a relatively recent notion and for much of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, there was absolutely no contradiction in a state being a motly collection of all kinds of languages and ethnic groups. Lithuania generally and Vilnius particularly was an interesting symbol for that almost anachronistic idea (though nationalism in general is largely passe in most Western democracies).

Venclova explores all this and more, giving his reading a moving and more than passing glance of this city which has seen so much horror and oppression. Largely forgotten now, Vilnius exists at the edge of Western democracy (it's an EU member now), just a stone's thrown from Belarus (practically a dictatorship) and, of course, Russia. Lithuanians watch with alarm at Russia's growing dominance and assertion of power and more than one politician and intellectual saw portentous signs when Russia annexed Crimea. The West doesn't have a good track record in coming to the aid of small nations when faced with the might of a big (if corrupt) power like Russia.

Venclova, long a Slavic Literature professor at Yale, is one of Central Europe's most respected poets and it's a shame that he is so little known outside of that region, given how incredibly famous he is in the Baltics, Poland and even Germany. His collection, Winter Dialogue, is another favorite book that I take down and disappear into several times a year.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Alone by Tomaž Šalamun


One finger is the tundra,
one finger is the Bodhisattva,
one finger is mother Slovenia.
Two fingers still remain, beckoning
and with awful force feeding me
seventeen hands with this arrangement.
I'm alone on the roof of the world and drawing
so stars are created.
I'm spurting through the nose so the Milky Way is created
and I'm eating
so shit is created, and falling on you
and it is music.
I am God.
I am God and I'm dancing.
This table is a gift, this house is a gift,
this garden is a gift, these squirrels are a gift.
These human legs are murmuring mantras.
Glug glug glug I drink gulps of light
and I brush.
So I shower and put myself back, alone.
I alone am the center of the world's light, the Lord's lamb.
I alone am all animals: a tiger, an ant, a deer,
a rabbit, a porcupine (a hedgehog), a butterfly, an insect,
a piranha, a baby rabbit, a daddy rabbit,
the god of ferrets, the straw hat of a sketched
puppy and his paws.
I alone am all plants: strawberries, birch, hazel,
pumpkin, fern, dandelion, juves (juves is a plant
with thin roots, resembling the roots
of parsley, but it has a nose and head like
a porcini cap and one birch's hand,
sitting all day in a race car like a liana),
maple, oak, corn, alone.
I alone am all the people named in this book
and all the others: Joe, Janet, Agatha, Veronika,
Boris, Ivan, Italo, Pierre, alone.
I alone am the air, smoothly, the lining, two parallel tracks,
pot (to sweat), pot (the road),
the cause, the forceps, Lope de Vega, the streak,
the dot on the forehead, the dot in the air, alone.
I alone am the air and the golden butter,
linden bark, the king, the sickle and hammer,
the Dalmatian, the saw, Armenia, the key,

-  Tomaž Šalamun (Translated from the Slovenian)

Friday, December 11, 2015

Signed copies of Gloria Steinem's Life on the Road, Overrated Writers, Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken, The Tribe in LARB, Hammershøi Exhibition in NYC,

  • Gloria Steinem's event  at Rialto with Drawn & Quarterly was a lot of fun. Such a fascinating life that woman has had so far and her big lesson is simple: listen to others. Think of all the problems we might solve if we merely listened, really listened. If you missed it and want to get a signed copy of her book, you can order one on their website.
  • A really interesting discussion on one of France's best-known writers, Delphine de Vigan. Does Delphine de Vigan deserve her success? (The discussion is in French and it's all in good fun in one way though the French rather take these things rather seriously.) One critic argues she's brilliant and fascinating. The other critic argues that she's overrated. Both men, of course, but still, part of a new trend where writers and critics are starting to push back again: really taking certain writers to task and exploring the idea of the overrated writer. Personally, I love de Vigan's work but I definitely do agree with Partisan's analysis of some their writers.
  • A really interesting piece on Matthew Orr's book The Road Not Taken and his analysis of Robert Frost's widely anthologized poem, "The Road Not Taken." Orr's argument is that the poem has long been misunderstood as an anthem of individuality when, upon closer analysis, it really does not contain that kind of message at all.
  • If you're in New York next week, there's an exhibition at Scandinavia House on the work of painter Vilhelm Hammershøi which ends on the 16th. His paintings are so moving and lonely and I am reminded of Edward Hopper though from a totally different era. This writer looks at the exhibition and at Hammershoi's work in context with his time and age
  • Great long analysis in LARB of the Ukrainian film, The Tribe, that swept Cannes in 2014. I saw it at Cinema du Parc a while back and thought it was pretty revolutionary, not only in terms of the lack of spoken dialogue (the film is set in a deaf school and everyone communicates in sign language, none of which is translated, yet it's easy enough to follow the broad plot arcs), but also in terms of its squalor and portrayal of the downtrodden (death, murder, rape, accidents, it's a bleak and depressing film but one is still left with hope), things shown on screen that I have to say, I've never seen before. I walked out of that theatre in a daze...

Vilhelm Hammershøi: in New York until next week

From Eighteen Days Without You

December 11

Then I think of you in bed,
your tongue half-chocolate, half ocean,
of the houses that you swing into,
of the steel wool hair on your head,
of your persistent hands and then
how we gnaw at the barrier because we are two.

How you come and take my blood cup
and link me together and take my brine.
We are bare. We are stripped to the bone
and we swim in tandem and go up and up
the river, the identical river called Mine
and we enter together. No one's alone.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

From Eighteen Days Without You by Anne Sexton

December 2

I slept last night
under a bird's shadow
dreaming of nuthatches at the feeder,
jailed to its spine, jailed right
down to the toes, waiting for slow
death in the hateful December snow.
Mother's death came in the spotlight
and mother slamming the door when I need her
and you at the door yesterday,
you at the loss, grown white,
saying what lovers say.

But in my dream
you were a weird stone man
who sleepwalked in, whose features did not change,
your mouth sewn like a seam,
a dressmaker's dummy who began
without legs and a caved-in waist, my old puritan.
You were all muslin, a faded cream
and I put you in six rooms to rearrange
your doors and your thread popped and spoke,
ripping out an uncovered scream
from which I awoke.

Then I took a pill to sleep again
and I was a criminal in solitary,
both cripple and crook
who had picked ruby eyes from men.
One-legged I became and then
you dragged me off by your Nazi hook.
I was the piece of bad meat they made you carry.
I was bruised. You could not miss.
Dreaming gives one such bad luck
and I had ordered this.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Michael Cunningham's new one, Muji Flagship story in NYC, German photographs from 1900, Image+Nation starts this weekend: Links of Note

Germany in 1900

Elizabeth Bishop biographical documentary at Image+Nation

Friday, November 27, 2015

Que Horas ela volta? / The Second Mother by Anna Muylaert

I think it's too late to see it in theatres, but maybe it'll be available on DVD soon, this film really blew me away. I saw it a few nights ago at Cinema du Parc and I do have to admit, that I have a particular fondness for Brazil films. I don't know why exactly since I've never been to Brazil nor do I speak Portuguese (I also like Brazilian writers), but I suppose it has to do with the vast differences between a country like Brazil and Canada (the heat, the chaos of it, the warmth of the people).

This film tells the story of a wealthy family and their maid, Val, in Sao Paolo and what happens when the maid's daughter, Jessica, comes from the north to stay with her mother before she takes the entrance exams at university.

The contrasts of class are stark and it takes the daughter's presence to make them apparent: her mother is outraged that Jessica refuses to know her place as the maid's daughter, in this kind of class limbo-land, asking to sleep in the guest room, letting the teenagers drag her into the pool. The wealthy wife, too, recognizes the class distinctions and wants to maintain them but she also sees the fact that her husband is very attracted to Val's young beautiful and very intelligent daughter. A complicated arrangement results and is even further complicated by the relationship between Jessica and the teenaged son of the family.

The film exposes the lie that domestic servants are "part of the family" as they aren't, really, and it takes someone shaking up the strict protocol that is so present in this kind of relationship for everyone to feel ruffled, uncomfortable, out of sorts. Oddly, it's the men in the family who don't seem to be so affected by the class rifts, but there's also sexual attraction there to circumvent those distinctions. Sex trumps all.

It's a really lovely film, full of sensuality and pain, but also hopeful, ending in the way we all hope it ends. I somehow managed to miss the entire Montreal Brazil Film Festival this year (where was I?!) which is unfortunate because last year I saw an incredible Brazilian film there (based on a Stefan Zweig short story). Here's to hoping that Cinema du Parc will continue to show Brazilian films.

On a related note, very sad to see that Cinema Excentris has closed. Apparently it's a temporary closure but we need more repertory cinemas in this city. There's no shortage of film festivals but it's so important to have cinemas that are devoted to less huge films, and more art-house or foreign films. It's sad to see how the film world has become so concentrated on huge blockbusters and there is so little room left for other kinds of film.

But that's a topic for another day.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I don't have a lot of time for reading this time of year since I'm overwhelmed with Festival-planning and several other projects next year but I have managed to read Carlos Ruiz Zafon's novel, The Prisoner of Heaven. Because I was in Barcelona last week for a work project, I started the novel the week before I left but have still only managed to get about halfway through it.

It's interesting. Set in the 1950s in Barcelona, the novel tells the story of a young man on the cusp of his adult life, newly married with a young child and working in his father's bookshop in the city. Due to a mysterious stranger he learns about the sacrifices made by a close family friend during WWII and the Spanish Civil War. The novel skips around in time which is an interesting aspect to the way the story is presented and the dry pages of history really come alive here.

Zafon's novels that I've read are engaging and very readable (translated from Spanish) but I also struggle with their lack of depth. Sure, there are historical secrets revealed and I love the setting which he so richly captures. But I don't really find the characters that alive or that realistic. They are too extreme: either all good and saintly or pure evil. As most of us know, that's just not how people are. I prefer characters that are more complex; I prefer more ambiguous, complex questions about morality and history.

Perhaps I'm being unfair since I've only read half the novel - and perhaps I will change my mind later - but this is what strikes me so far. I'm still enjoying it but I find these kinds of novels don't stay with me. In a few years, I'll be able to read it again and will remember very little about it. I contrast this, for example, with Elena Ferrante's main characters in her Neapolitan novels who are devilishly complex: sometimes you adore them; other times you detest them. They are not easy people to understand, their motivations are complicated and deep, like most humans are.

Still, it's a book worth reading and I can see why Zafon is such a broadly appealing writer.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Dante's Inferno Lego-style, On Being consumers, Buster Keaton the master of the visual gag, Books as subway passes: Random Morning Links

The Inferno: Not quite as powerful when conveyed Lego-style

Subway pass books: I'd buy them just for the design

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Culture to Consume: W.H. Auden, James Bond boxed set, standing desks, French Jazz albums...

  • I've been kind of crazy about reading the work of W.H. Auden lately. Not sure what opened this door for me, but I've been slowly reading his Collected Works, reading a biography of the poet, and listening to an audiobook of Alexander McCall Smith about his work. Where do these literary paths come from? So many of his poems I want to write about...later.
  • After seeing the fairly terrible James Bond film, Spectre, over the weekend, I'm kind of thinking about buying this. Once, many years ago, my friends bought me the entire boxed set of all James Bond movies that had been made (this was around the year 2000) and I spent an entire week at home on vacation watching every single one of them. It was a week when I realized that most things in life can be found in a James Bond film (none of them profound). Not sure what happened to that boxed set (it was an old format that doesn't work anymore, I think) but it might be time to rewatch the entire oeuvre... at Christmas, we won't go anywhere and I can lay around on the sofa and watch all 23 films!
  • I've been listening to these Jazz albums recommended by Les Inrocks. So far I've listened to more than half of them. I am loving Panorama Circus, Eric Seva and Virginie Teychene. For me, it's classical music in the morning and Jazz in the evening (with beer).
  • I started using a standing desk a few years ago at work. Fewer headaches. More energy. No back pain at all. Also, when I have to sit for a meeting or something, it's so nice and feels so relaxing. Down side: I can't sit for more than 15-20 minutes now (anywhere) before getting restless and uncomfortable. Now that I am used to it, maybe it's time to spring for this version of the standing desk.
He's not as popular as Connery but I like Timothy Dalton as James Bond (I'm a child of the 80s)

Monday, November 9, 2015

Giller Picks: Samuel Archibald's Arvida

The prize is announced tomorrow which allows me to get one more pick in for the prize. I love Samuel Archibald's collection, Arvida.

It's unusual for the Giller to short-list a collection of stories and even more unusual to select a translation of short stories but Archibald's collection is so innovative and interesting that it's no surprise people have been raving about it.

Set in the real life town of Arvida in the Saguenay region of Quebec, the stories are loaded with rag-tag characters: criminals, chancers, posers, losers and clowns.

One story is a road-trip across Canada as three delinquents try to sneak a woman into the US. Another story echoes Faulkner and tells the story of a lonely woman whose husband has moved to Montreal to make his fortune while she waits for his return in a creaky old family home. She never doubts that he'll come back though everyone in the town is convinced he's abandoned her. This story contains some of the most beautiful writing I've encountered in French to English translation (translator Donald Winkler won the Governor General's Award for the translation of this work and it's obvious when reading this why Winkler is one of the most sought-after translators working today).

The greatest thing about short-stories is keeping them on the nightstand and reading one each night before sleep, those ditties roll around in your dreams and are there when you wake up with the sun.

I don't know if Arvida will win the prize (I'm terrible at predicting it) but stay tuned tomorrow for the big reveal.

Archibald talks Arvida

Nicolas Billon's Butcher at Centaur Theatre in Montreal through November 29

We saw Butcher at the Centaur over the weekend and wow was it impressive. I've not seen any of Nicolas Billon's plays before, but he's one of Canada's most talked-about young playwrights and I can see why.

The play, set in a police station on Christmas Eve, explores truth, justice and revenge via the lense of a suspected genocide on the other side of the world. The writing in crisp and the story moves at a quick pace. There are just four characters, each offering a different turn in the process of exposure, defense, prosecution, the past and the present.

I see lots of plays but this is one of the best I've seen this season so far both in terms of its writing but also the large questions it raises about all the things we take for granted here in Canada when we think about the rest of the world.

The acting is good but the final twist kept causing me to revisit certain scenes, certain lines said  by certain characters that rang false at the moment but opened wide after the twist was revealed.

Nicolas Billon has really made quite a name for himself in recent years, writing The Elephant Song (which was adapted for the big screen) and winning Governor General's awards for Fault Lines.

Butcher is also being produced in various theatres around Canada this year and next and several US theatre companies have also picked it up.

Whether or not you're a fan of English theatre in Montreal, I highly recommend this one. It was packed the night I went so don't wait too long.

 Butcher plays at Centaur Theatre through November 29.

Billon: an artist to watch

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Women Directors and Women in the arts, a Turin stroll in the footsteps of Nietzche, Gouin's amazing houses, On Being with Krista Tippet: Cultural Digest November 4

  • When one considers that women are highly under-represented in the arts, articles like this are very important: A Hundred Women Directors that Hollywood Should Hire. This is always such a hot topic: women in the arts. A huge proportion of women working in the arts are women: marketing people, Festival people, fundraisers, etc. Yet sometimes I have to consciously make the decision to read something by a woman as most "literary" writers are still men. Not all by any means, but if one just read what came across one's desk, it would be easy to read books by only men. And this is one thing I think we do well at Blue Met: create events with, give prizes to, promote the writing of women. 
  • A Turin stroll in the foosteps of Nietzche. I may take this stroll in the spring as I think I may try and go to the Turin Book Festival in May to meet various people. I've spent a good deal of time in Italy the last 18 months and I will again in 2016 but I've never been to Turin...I love exploring new places that are linked to literature in this way. After reading the article above, I was surprised at how Nietzche died...
  • Beautiful historical houses in Montreal along boulevard Gouin. This is an area of Montreal I don't know well but the houses sure look beautiful. Or did. (The link's story is in French).
  • I've been listening to this show on the radio (well, online) lately: it's fantastic. It can get a bit touchie-feelie on the corresponding blog (something I rarely appreciate) but the show itself with Krista Tippett is incredibly smart and thought-provoking. Some recent shows include Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain on The Dignity of Difference and another recent show on the work of American poet Mary Oliver.
Jonathan Sacks: On Being

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Fall Reading and Why it's such a challenge.

So hard to find the time to blog this time of year. Lots of events each night: readings, discussions, interviews, cocktails, going away parties, welcome to Montreal parties.

I always find the middle of autumn the hardest time of year to read. Since I've been doing this Festival for five years now (six festivals in total including the next one), I get into this "reading rhythm": I read all summer and well into September. Then in early October, time just seems to speed up and I go from 6am until 11pm every day with work stuff.

Last night three events (I made one, made an appearance at another and had to bag out of the other
one). Tonight two events. Tomorrow two events, etc until early December it will be this way.

No, I don't go to every event but I go to at least 2-3 a week. Which is a lot!

I still read at this time of year but I have to squeeze it in here and there, on the subway, waiting in line, on the weekends.

And I do manage to read, just not nearly as much as I usually do. I need to read: this is the time of year I am reading Festival authors and planning events.

Once Christmas is here, I read a lot and well into January. Then I start reading non-Festival authors after that until the Festival (I don't want to read a book by an author coming and then realize I've missed something interesting about their work, something I could have planned an event around).

From January until April I read books of interest but I am so worn out at the end of each day that even then I read much less than usual. Some evenings on the metro going home, all I have the energy for is staring into space.

After the Festival, I swear I'm going to take a vacation from reading, go 2-3 weeks without reading anything. This lasts about two days and once spring is here, I'm back to reading like mad until the autumn again.

Lately I've been reading:

Will Aitken's Realia. It's too bad Will isn't better known as a novelist because his books are so interesting. And funny. This one is set in Japan in 1980s and tells the story of an Albertan woman trying to find her place there.

Neil Smith's Boo. Odd little book. I'm enjoying it but I can't help but wonder if this was Smith's idea of "riffing" off Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. It's funnier than that book, much much funnier, and, in fact, it's a much better book, about a boy who's died and is telling his parents about life in heaven. (I've only reached about 1/3 of the way through it so that's the story so far).

Mary Oliver's Felicity. I love these poems. They are so simple and short but on the third or fourth reading, they suddenly open up and their complexity blasts you in the face.

Joseph Roth's The Hotel Years. I am a huge fan of Roth and I read one or two stories from this each night before I sleep. The little stories, newspaper articles that Roth wrote between the wars as he traveled from one European city to another, predict the calamities that waited for Germany, France, the future Eastern Bloc. But the power in these vignettes reside in the small moments: the angry German youth, the Jewish peddler, the prostitute. They are such humane and beautiful little snapshots of life.

That sounds like a lot but when you figure I can usually only find an hour or so total to read this time of year, it'll take me a while to get through the above books.

Plus I'm on a jury now and I just got a new library of five short-listed books that I have to read by the end of this month. More about that later.

I don't have any kids. How people with kids while working full time ever manage to get any reading done is a miracle.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Keret translated into Farsi, Plath reads her own poems, Gloria Steinem in Montreal, Heather O'Neill and Montreal writers: Book Digest, October 30, 2015

Translation in Farsi coming soon

  • Israeli writer Etgar Keret's latest book will be translated into Farsi, a move, he hopes, will allow Afghanis (and unofficially Iranians who have no access to works translated from Hebrew) to connect with the humanity (and humour!) in his writing. Keret was last at our Festival in 2014 when he filled two auditoriums to maximum capacity and charmed everyone present with his humour and wit. 
  • Sylvia Plath reads Fifty of her own poems. I remember having a recording of one of her poems when I was younger and listening to it (on cassette tape) so many times that I memorized it. (It was her poem "Daddy.") She had such a distinct reading style, so grave and with a clipped Northeastern accent that no longer really exists.
  • Gloria Steinem in Montreal. The writer and activist releases a new book about her life of traveling and appears in Montreal, Tuesday, December 1 at the Rialto Theatre. Tickets at $10 or free if you buy her latest book in the shop on 211 Bernard.
  • Montreal writer Heather O'Neill writes for The Guardian about some great books set in Montreal for and by Montreal writers. I am so glad, too, that she presents both Francophone and Anglophone books, part of our city's heritage and what makes us one of the most unique places in North America.
Montreal: city of staircases

Monday, October 19, 2015

Nothing Is Too Small Not To Be Wondered About by Mary Oliver

Nothing Is Too Small Not To Be Wondered About

The cricket doesn't wonder
     if there's a heaven
or, if there is, if there's room for him.

It's fall. Romance is over. Still, he sings.
If we can, he enters a house
     through the tiniest crack under the door.
Then the house grows colder.

He sings slower and slower.
     Then, nothing.

This must mean something, I don't know what.
     But certainly it doesn't mean
he hasn't been an excellent cricket
     all his life.

                                     - Mary Oliver, from her collection Felicity

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Fukushima villages re-claimed by nature, Gothic horror works, Gloria Steinem, Spending time alone, Moby Dick card game: Cultural digest October 17

Nature re-claims chunks of the abandoned towns near Fukushima

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Smug celebrations of Soviet decay, the Tunisian Quarter's Peace Prize, Si Racha factory tours, defensive critics: Cultural Digest October 10

  • Article on how certain artists wish to "dance upon the grave" of Soviet decay by looking at physical sites of abandonment or dilapidation in brutalist built spaces. It's not discussed in the piece, but yet this is another symptom of capitalism run amok with no competing ideologies (unless we can call Islamic extremism - better called plain old 21st century fascism - a "competing ideology").
  • A very good primer on the Tunisian Quartet, their role in preventing full out civil war in the country, and the reasons they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week.
  • In memory of crime-writing sensation, Henning Mankell, who died earlier last week. Mankel was one of those authors whose work I've had on my list for years and years but never got around to reading anything (though I know his reputation and have read much about him). Compiling my Christmas reading list now and he'll certainly be there.
  • You can take a tour of the Si Racha factory in California. One of my personal favorite condiments (I put it in chili, pasta sauce, soup, it livens up most dinner-time fare), I might even consider it if I were traveling out west...just to see the "truckloads of chili peppers" coming in and being unloaded.
  • I thoroughly enjoyed this article about why critics are so defensive. In particular, the writer takes down Emily Nussbaum (New Yorker TV critic) and her suggestion that lovers of TV have "won the war." "What war?" the writer asks, suggesting then that feeling proud that TV is such a culturally dominant medium does not, in itself, make it something to praise. I often think about this topic: why no one wants to "poo-poo" any piece of art in public, why there are always "intellectuals" (most usually self-defined intellectuals who don't really understand what it means to be an actual intellectual) who can talk something up, but there are, without a doubt, bad TV shows (most), bad books (many), bad artists (ahem) and bad theatre (praising something or someone because they are the only or the biggest show in town is shockingly common). Let's face it: we can't have good art without lots and lots of bad art. It's easy to find something good to say about most anything, anyone or any piece of art, but when I read a really bad book yet see 10 "this book is brilliant" quotes on the cover, I wonder to myself: does this critic really believe this or is this blurb simply done for political points which are beyond my kin? People praise something for a whole myriad of reasons (though I like Emily Nussbaum's project and some of her recommendations: her love of certain formulaic, simple-minded shows baffles me. Maybe I'm just not that appreciative of TV as an art form overall?) but takedowns can be incredibly fascinating, especially when they are artworks being consistently and seemingly universally praised (see Daniel Mendelsohn's takedown of Mad Men a number of years ago, really calling the entire series into question at a time when no one seemed to want to say anything negative about it at all).

Friday, October 9, 2015

Giller picks: Martin John by Anakana Schofield

A bit behind the game here because I've had a very busy week at work, but I wanted to write about some of this year's Giller picks which I am very happy to see on the list.

The first one today is Anakana Schofield's book Martin John which is one of the most innovative works I've read recently. Residing in the head of a mentally troubled young man living in London, we see a crisis and breakdown from the inside. It's written generally in the third person, almost as if Martin John himself is a character that he has created to narrate his own life. Yet then there are moments that are either Martin John's mother's thoughts or the thoughts that he imagines for her. This delicious ambiguity keeps one guessing, keeps one engaged in the repeated cycles, phrases, things Martin John hates and fears. This narrative play in many ways gets at the heart of what narration is and means, as well as exploring the divided nature of writing. What Schofield captures so well is this sense of what it feels like to live in the head of someone struggling with a mental illness, a sexual deviant, a very troubled man. There's fear. There are all these moments of asides that seem to circle in on themselves.

He did it. He did not do it. He could have done it. She made it up. Except there was more than one she now. Rumours and warnings were not evidence. 
She worries how it would affect all his sisters.
If he had sisters.
She worried if he got out or they came home now how could they be married in the church. She worried about the sisters he didn't have.
She worried he had done it. She began to believe he had.
She had seen enough to confirm it.

Here we see Martin John's mother agonizing over a specific moment, reflecting on the crime that Martin John may have committed. We hear the pain and helplessness, yet we also sense a bit of the mental unraveling here that we have been accustomed to inside the head of Martin John. Is his mental instability genetic?

But what she manages to pull off is doing this without a sense of foreboding, at least not from what will happen as the story progresses. There is no foreshadowing, no clumsy narrative technique, almost no acknowledgement of many standard novelistic techniques (constraints?).

It's a fascinating work which raises so many questions about the limited perceptions we have of other people's struggles, even those who are very close to us. It's also hilarious in sections that I had to read and re-read paragraphs because I found them so unnerving and also so funny.

I am very pleased to see Martin John on the list of the Giller Prize. My big gripe with the Giller Prize is how "safe" all their choices are, how little Giller works experiment or push the boundaries of genre or form. There's also a sense that they are all written for urban middle-class "old stock" Canadians and it's very encouraging to see a work on this list which challenges that. This is not your grandmother's Giller short-list.

Incidentally, Martin John, Schofield's second novel, was the name of a character in Malarky, Schofield's first novel (which won the First Novel Award), and in a footnote there, she suggests we see the novel Martin John. Yet the work, the novel, wasn't real (at the time). It was an imagined reference in a real novel. But the creation of Martin John the novel changes Malarky. I honestly didn't read Malarky until after I read Martin John but I imagine for those who liked Malarky, the novel Martin John may well change the nature of the earlier novel. I positively relish these kinds of asides, these fascinating times when works talk to one another.

There are so many other issues the novel raises: the male gaze, female vs. male power in public and private, motherhood.

I'm not predicting this novel will win (I'd be thrilled, though, and it certainly would be a coup for a major literary prize of Canada), but I am so encouraged at what this means for Canadian fiction in general, how mature it's becoming and those old days of self-gazing identity novels are long dead.

Just a note that Anakana Schofield will be in Ottawa soon for the Ottawa Writers Festival on Saturday, October 24 in the evening. Check out the entire OWF website for their entire fall lineup which looks great!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Jazz in Little Burgundy, Irish-Canadian writer Neil Smith & Boo, Margaret Atwood's end of the world...again, Hemingway and Spaghetti-Os?: Books books book October 1

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Canadaland: just what Canada needs

I'm just going to sing the praises of Canadaland for a second. This is what Canada has been missing: a fresh, intelligent and non-corporate take on Canadian news. It's not derivative of US podcasts like other existing podcasts often are; it has a unique and engaging personality behind it (Jesse Brown) and I'm really enjoying his take on events, politics and culture of interest to Canadians.

It's really well done.

Some recent episodes have featured an interview with Christine Blatchford (which, though pressing, ended up as a fairly mild piece in the end), Anne Kingston on Canada's international reputation, Margaret Atwood, and a Green Party of Canada follow-along as one candidate campaigns door to door, to name just a few.

My only gripe is their clunky website which, though workable and easy to use, is striking for its complete lack of a design aesthetic. It looks like a cross between a 1998 MySpace page and a tabloid journalism broadsheet of the 1960s.

But that's a minor quibble. They are doing solid work there that all Canadians should be listening to and supporting.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mexican sensation, Valeria Luiselli, on Eleanor Wachtel's show, Writers & Company

I saw that Eleanor Wachtel interviewed Valeria Luiselli on Writers & Company the other day and was very happy to see her there on Eleanor's show. I've been raving about Luiselli's books for some time and I'm always thrilled when other people admire writers that I like.

I happen to be reading The Story of my Teeth right now which is one of the funniest books I've read in a long time. Yet funny as it, make no mistake, Luiselli is a serious writer and her books are gems.

I wrote about Luiselli before when I read her book last year called Faces in the Crowd (an excellent novel) and I firmly believe that Luiselli has an amazing career ahead of her.

Faces in the Crowd tells the story of a young mother in Mexico City with a young child, thinking back on her time in New York when she worked at a publishing house. She becomes obsessed with a poet, a Mexican poet, living in New York in the early 20th century, and the book moves around in time and perspective. It's haunting and moving. I even passed a French translation around to a few friends and they adored it in French, too.

An earlier work, which I've haven't read though it's been on my list for a while, is a collection of essays about city life, Sidewalks, which Luiselli wrote in her twenties, a work that Cees Noteboom raved about:

"The tone of her writing is that of the flaneur and philosopher as the rhythm of "the walk" (or the bike as Luiselli explores the topic of public transportation in Mexico City in one passage) involves thinking about architecture as well as people, gaps in the city, reflections against asphalt and what remains in the background. Luiselli at the same time allies her writing with European thinkers such as Benjamin, Kracauer and Baudelaire, yet she keeps her Mexican accent all the while."

Her latest work, The Story of My Teeth, tells the story of a rough and tumble upstart and how he
came to collect the teeth of famous people. I'm only about a 1/3 of the way through it but I find myself laughing outloud while reading it, something I don't do often.

Luiselli was one of my big discoveries in 2014 and I am so glad that she's now getting the wider attention that her work so richly deserves

Friday, September 25, 2015

Architectural writing prize, Eileen Myles in Montreal WOW, Anne Carson on visual art, Miles Davis in nine parts, new collection of Czech master Bohumil Hrabal in English: Cultural Digest September 25

Myles: Coming to Montreal October 8

Hrabal: Available in English for the first time

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Oyster Book Service shutters but the future of books is looking good

When Oyster first started a few years back, it seemed like a potentially interesting model to get people reading and, more importantly, to bring buzz back to the books and publishing world.

Sadly, it wasn't meant to be. Oyster announced that it was closing up shop. Modeled on Netflix, the aim was to get people to sign up to a subscription service whereby each month a book would be e-delivered to various e-readers so you'd have a certain amount of time to read the book before it would disappear and another would re-appear.

I looked into it. It seemed complicated to arrange and I couldn't deal with it. Another issue is that I read on so many different kinds of devices and platforms that it didn't seem suitable for me (I literary read on my phone, iPad, notebook and, of course, mainly paper books).

Still. It's always a drag when someone trying to create a new idea falls flat.

That said, I think fears that have hovered over the book world for many years now, if not overstated, are starting to feel passe. After all, according to several people in the know that I've talked to, digital book sales account for only around 14% of sales in literary fiction and that number has not increased in a number of years.

So ereaders taking over the book world, those fears, have long been considered overblown. (This is for literary fiction, remember: genre fiction does have a higher rate of e-readers though even then it's not more than half of book sales and, again, doesn't seem to be increasing).

The publishing world still moves along: there are hits and there are misses. There are runaway successes that surprise and there are huge bombs. I'm much more optimistic than I was just a few years ago.

Make no mistake: it's not easy: writers rarely can make money off their art. I dislike the concentration of what gets buzzed about (the same 10 books for weeks at a time). But there's an entire industry of Canadian literature that is thriving with our own literary stars and classics. That's a great thing. Not only that, but we have to remember that artists rarely can make much money off their art: singers, dancers, painters, media artists, often have to take full-time jobs to make their art. Few make it big and very few can afford to quit and just live off what they produce.

E-reading on the beach: not a good idea
Publishers are surviving (some barely, it's true). Book culture seems alive and well. There are hundreds of literary journals, blogs, websites that explore book culture and translated fiction has even managed to eek out a small place at many of these places (and successes like Knausgaard and Ferrante show that there is an appetite for translated hits).

And a new bookstore opening around the corner seems like a positive sign, too (one bookstore doesn't prove anything but they do tell me that things are going very well over there).

All of this to say that Oyster shutting its doors is sad but it's also a sign that book lovers don't want gimmicks or revolutionary models to encourage them to read. They just want good books...and as long as publishers can deliver on that, publishing and book culture will continue to thrive.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

David Hume and Buddhist notions, Wellness and Capitalism, CK Williams' new collection, Margaret Atwood talks technology, Patrick Modiano: Books and Writers for September 22

Mags on technology

  • I really liked this long piece in The Atlantic, about a woman's mid-life crisis and how discovering that British philosopher, David Hume, may have encountered Catholics with experience in Eastern religions, mainly Buddhism, in a small town in France, which may have radically changed his entire philosophical approach. Montreal makes a cameo appearance here as it turns out Alison Gopnik is the sister of Adam Gopnik.
  • 3AM Magazine continues to amaze me with their solid roster of writers who explore all kinds of topics. This one is a review of a book about how our entire capitalist-based approach to "wellness" continues to grow at the same time that neo-capitalism continues to present us with problems that contradict our approach to wellness. "Our concern in this book is not with wellness per se. Our concern is how wellness has become an ideology. As such, it offers a package of ideas and beliefs which people may find seductive and desirable, although, for the most part, these ideas appear as natural or even inevitable. The ideological element of wellness is particularly visible when considering the prevailing attitudes towards those who fail to look after their bodies. These people are demonized as lazy, feeble or weak-willed. They are seen as obscene deviants, unlawfully and unabashedly enjoying what ever sensible person should resist."
  • Poet C.K. Williams has died. I ripped apart my bookshelves yesterday because I swear I had a collection of his (I could even picture it in my mind) somewhere, but either I've lost it or I've given it away.  In any case, he has a new collection out today, Later Poems.
  • Someone's gone and animated Margaret Atwood as she talks about how technology influences the way stories are told and created.
  • A piece on Patrick Modiano. Winner of the Nobel Prize last year, Modiano is one of the first authors I read in its original French. I found the language not nearly as challenging as in other French-language works. Not to say he's a lightweight but that his language is accessible and clear.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

New York in the 1970s, Daniel Allen Cox's new novel, Artist Idris Khan, Denzel Washington + August Wilson = HBO series, Gentrification: Cultural Digest September 20

New York City in the 1970s: not so great
Daniel Allen Cox's new novel

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Grace Paley on being a woman writer

Though it's from many years back, this exchange in an interview with Grace Paley is very interesting, on the subject of women writers and how they are perceived by the dominant culture. It's from this Paris Review interview from 1992

In your choice of subject matter, you and [early feminist and American writer] Tillie Olsen have opened the door for a lot of writers.

I hope so. Of course, that's not up to me or Tillie to say, Yes, there was the door and we opened it - we can't say that. It's not nice. I will say I knew I wanted to write about women and children, but I put it off for a couple of years because I thought, People will think this is trivial, nothing. Then I thought, It's what I have to write. It's what I want to read. And I don't see it out there.
Meanwhile, the women's movement had begun to gather force. It needed to become the second wave. It turned out that we were some of the drops in the wave. Tillie was more like a cupful.

Was there anyone on that wave before you, who enabled you to write like you did?

Well, I didn't know I was on any wave. I knew what I was writing, but I didn't think then that I was part of any movement. I didn't even think I was a feminist! If you had asked me if i was a feminist when I began writing The Little Disturbances of Man, I would have said I'm a socialist - or something like that. But by the end of the book, I had taught myself a lot and I knew more or less who I was. I opened the door to myself.

Do you feel supported by the women's movement?

I do feel very supported. There's hardly a woman writer who doesn't receive some kind of support from the women's movement. We're lucky to be living and writing now. I feel supported by lots of men, too, but I feel very specifically the attention of women, even in opposition. And they're the ones I get arguments from: they're the ones who say, Why don't you write about this kind of life or that kind of life? We like the children but why are they all boys? But on the other hand, I was at a conference in California last week, where a young woman kept saying she didn't want to be a woman writer because it trivialized her. The point is that the outside world will trivialize you for almost anything if it wants to. You may as well be who you are.

Why do you suppose she said that?

I think she said it because she feels it's true. And there is truth to it. A lot of European women feel it very strongly. They are afraid of being anything but totally universal. But we used to have a saying, "I take it from whence it comes," which is a Bronx version of sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me. So you take it from whence it comes, that is, if a certain society decides to trivialize you, it will marginalize you.

Do you think American women writers feel that way?

I think they fear being marginalized and rightly so. There's an idea that there's this great mainstream, which may be wide but is kind of shallow and slow-moving. It's the tributaries that seem to have the energy.

You've said that when you're writing you are "doing women's politics." Could you say more about that?

Did I say that? If I did I probably meant that if the personal is political - as we all say - then writing about women is a political act. Just like black people writing about the lives of blacks. It's very important to people that they have these stories. And the personal is especially political when it spreads fingers out into the world - because sometimes you find that what is most personal is also what connects you most strongly with others.

Has there been a change of climate from when you first started writing to now, in the nineties?

In 1959 it was absolutely insane for Ken McCormick [editor at Doubleday] to say, yes, he was going to publish a book of short stories. Now everybody in the writing world is reading and writing short stories - that's one thing. Another thing is that a lot more women are writing. A lot of people who wouldn't have written are writing. When a couple of black women speak, the throats of many are opened. Somehow or other they give courage and sound to their sisters.

So you didn't feel that sense of there being a community of women writers in the fifties?

I didn't think about it. I just wrote. I didn't say, Oh, there are no women writers, as much as I thought to myself, This subject matter is so trivial. Who in the world would be interested in this stuff?