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?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Kung-fu Film Festival, Alice Munro to music, Roxane Gay in Montreal, Anthony Bourdain looks at how books are made: Cultural Digest September 18

Buy this at D&Q and get a free ticket to her show, Oct 22

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Richard Ford on Frank Bascombe

The other day when I was stuck in a small town in Northern Italy due to a train strike, I ended up having time to attend Richard Ford's event.

These translated events are something we don't typically do in Montreal and I find the rhythm of them hard to deal with. It was an interesting conversation but something he said, really stuck with me. It was this:

Ford: Frank Bascombe would be nothing without him
People ask him all the time if he learns from his character, Frank Bascombe. What Frank is doing while Ford isn't thinking about him. How Frank speaks to him, the writer.

Ford said something to the effect of: Frank is a made up character. He says what I want him to say. He does what I want him to do. He teaches me nothing. He says nothing to me. All he is and all he does is because I give him life.

I found this so refreshing and honest. Writers often want this to be a magical experience, writing, creating characters. But it's not. Characters are simply figments of writers' imaginations and that's how it should be. Why mystify it? Why make it seem more romantic than it is?

Another writer during the Festival Letteratura said something along these lines: I don't choose my themes or subjects, or even my characters. They choose me.

Nonsense. That kind of statement is something that people like to hear but it means nothing. Writers have something to say and they write books to say it. That's how it should be.

It's a simple idea but for some reason this bold and honest statement that Ford made is something I've been thinking about for several days now. Good on him.

(It actually made me think of a story I read in the latest New Yorker special edition on True Crime Writing, an article about Sherlock Holmes and all the fanaticism he has always created around his personality and the fact that many people do want to believe that he IS real and ISN'T made up.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Stéphane Mallarmé: often cited, rarely read; Valeria Luiselli's teeth, Twitter fiction; another Holocaust book; write for 3am magazine: Cultural Digest for September 16

  • The new edition of The Quarterly Conversation is out and includes pieces on Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, frequently cited but rarely read author Stéphane Mallarmé, and a review of Mexican sensation, Valeria Luiselli's latest book with the fascinating title of The Story of My Teeth.
  • Mental Floss article on what they call the "latest trend": Twitter Fiction. Mmmmm I'm skeptical...it's out there, no question. But a trend? Nah. More like a flash in the pan, I'd say.
  • Adam Gopnik asks: Why do we keep studying the Holocaust? "Do we really need one more book on the Holocaust? The facts are in and clear...while so many other horrors demand our historical understanding and get so much less: how many new books have been published this year on the Belgian genocide in the Congo? Doesn't endlessly retelling the same story ... let us give ourselves the appearance of moral seriousness while immunizing us to the urgencies of actual moral seriousness? Piety is the opposite of compassion, which is better directed toward those who need it now than those who were denied it then."
  • The Millions asks: "Why do we care about literary awards?" The writer doesn't really explore the question in much detail though it is an important question and one we ask ourselves around our offices a lot. The answer: it's less about "literary merit" and more about marketing, communications and selling a book/writer/event to the public and the media. Literary quality is part of it, no question. But it's only one factor in deciding who to give an award to.
  • Want to write reviews on culture, literature, art, music? 3AM is looking for writers.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Paul Bowles: The Cage Door is Always Open

Paul Bowles was one of the first writers I was kind of obsessed with as a young man. I first discovered him after seeing the movie The Sheltering Sky and then reading the book immediately after. The film is dull but still has interesting things in it but the book was a revelation to me. It was complex, beautiful, horrifying, and painful. It tells the story of a married couple, traversing across Northern Africa in the late 1940s and the breakdown of their marriage, illness and mental instability.

It's one of those books I re-read every few years and I still love it intensely.

I've read just about all of Bowles' other works, too: The Spider's House, Let It Come Down and, of course, his short stories (his collection The Delicate Prey is phenomenal).

His wife's novel, too, Two Serious Ladies, is another really amazing novel that I've read and re-read several times over the years. It has a different kind of complexity to Paul Bowles: the style and tone are almost bizarre and she has a sense of humour in a way that is not immediately accessible in her husband's work.

So when I saw that Festival Letteratura was playing this documentary, Paul Bowles: The Cage Door is Always Open, I was first in line.

The documentary got tepidly positive reviews though with many qualifications. In one way that mattered almost not at all since I tend to want to make up my own mind about a piece of art. But I went in skeptical...

The film is worth seeing, especially if one is interested in Paul Bowles' work, in Jane Bowles' work, or in the host of other writers that make appearances: William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Jack Kerouac, among many others.

Born in New York, Bowles traveled Europe in the 1920s and 30s (he was a great darling of Gertrude Stein's set in Paris), then returned to the US, married Jane, and spent much of the war there and in Mexico. He then returned to Tangiers in Morocco where he lived the rest of his life, holding court there with some of the most famous writers and personalities of his day.

Gore Vidal has some great one-liners: that alone is worth seeing
The film is highly biographical and focuses as much on Bowles' music as his writing (he was a prolific composer before he turned to fiction). I wish there'd been more about his writing, in fact. The only work which was really explored in detail was The Sheltering Sky which is, no doubt, his best work. But it would have been nice to have more about his development as an artist, as a writer. There is a bit about Jane Bowles' work, as well, though the film is very much about him (she wrote very little and died in mental asylum in Spain in the early 1970s). We also learn about his very valiant attempts at recording Moroccan tribal music and writing down oral histories and tales of Moroccan rural life.

Critics said that the film lacked a unified voice and that there wasn't a strong enough perspective to hold it all together. But one thing that emerged for me was just how messed up Bowles, and particularly Jane Bowles, was. The drinking, the drugs, the alienation from society and oneself.

Lots of talking heads interspersed with crazy Bowles-inspired animations that are visually interesting (though border on irritating at times).

But I love that the filmmaker used so much of Bowles' music in the film.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Cinema, fiction and Kazuo Ishiguro

I saw Kazuo Ishiguro on stage as part of Festival Letteratura in Mantova on Friday (at least 800 people there by my estimation, possibly more than 1,000) and the subject was Telling Stories: Cinema and Fiction.

The conversation started about memory and what film does well and what it doesn't do well. According to Ishiguro, memory is one thing that film, so far, hasn't managed to crack in a satisfying way. True, characters have flashbacks or memory is used as a plot device (they talked about Hitchcock's Marnie and the final reveal where the entire motivation and secret's she's harboured is exposed with an image), but the act of recreating a memory is one that is difficult, if not impossible, to weave in with the present narrative. If we jump back in time, it becomes a realistic portrait, it's part of the movie, it's no longer really a memory in a certain way.

I want to think about this because it might be argued that fiction, too, has a similar limitation. When one thinks about the work of Ishiguro, memory is key to the characters and their motivations. But the memories can reside quietly in characters on the page, we're not necessarily pulled out of the action of the present to reflect on or remember the memory.

To me what makes this interesting is the question of trauma. How does the memory of trauma operate in fiction vs. cinema? After all, trauma is a flash, an image, not necessarily an entirely constructed narrative. And in cinema, trauma can operate on a more "real" level in a certain way: it has the emotional punch that trauma can have in real life (or some approximate emotional punch). Think Taxi Driver and all the stark shocking images. Or Twelve Monkeys and its frenetic moments of emotion.

After memory, the conversation drifted to what cinema can do well vs. fiction: and according to Ishiguro, one thing that cinema does well is action. He claims, aptly, that we tend to dismiss action in film because we think it's simple and that it lacks complexity (we, being, deep thinkers, I guess). But that action actually can be quite complex and done for a variety of reasons. He cited the Bourne Movies (I, too, am a huge fan of these films) and how the action operates on a defensive level from beginning to end. This as opposed to other movies where the action is offensive. According to Ishiguro, this distinction is key to how we as the audience react to and identify with the characters.

All of this is very interesting for me since I am just as interested in movies as I am in books. And,
A++ defensive action: why we love Bourne
happily, the conversation ended with a statement that I had to consider: the writer ended his talk by asserting that movies and books (cinema and fiction) are linked together creatively in a way now that they never have been before. They are vital to one another. People have been predicting the death of the novel since the beginning of the novel but as an art form it continues to be incredibly important in how stories are told and, more precisely, in how movies are told. After all, a movie can bring an enormous amount of publicity to a novel (too many examples to note here) but movies and movie makers need novels to create new and original stories. Without novels we have merely Hollywood formulas repeated an infinitum (we are almost there already and are well beyond there in Hollywood).

This is a particularly positive way to end a talk about movies in the midst of an important literary festival. Obviously I think a lot about books and the role that books play in public life. It's easy to get pessimistic. It's easy to feel that books are more and more relegated to the margins. Books and literature are niche occupations, no question. When I'm out in the world and talking to people who aren't necessarily readers or thinkers, I'm often shocked at how little they know about contemporary writers. Even huge stars that every reader must know, in the world of non-books, they mean little to nothing. And I forget that this is the majority of the world, of the US, of Canada. Most people don't read.

Tippi Hedren as Marnie: bad at memory
But, that said, books and literature have a wider berth than we give them credit for. They are used in movies. They are read on subways in the mornings and on lunch hours. They are stashed into beach bags on summer holidays. They are tossed into the back seat of cars on the way up to the cabin for the week. But because books and the act of reading doesn't "photograph" well, they aren't represented easily on screen (think about, for example, how rarely people watch TV on TV: it's not a cinematically pleasing thing to watch), they exist on the margins of all that. In the end, reading is a solitary act and one that's hard to discuss or share in the same way the TV is or movies can be. (Not that we can't discuss books but it's so personal and individual what people choose to read.)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: everyone should read. It makes smarter people even smarter. It makes not so smart people more interesting. It helps us see worlds and ideas in a way no other art form can. We can empathize, sympathize, imagine other ways of living, thinking about new ideas. Without exception: every single person who reads regularly that I know is more interesting because of it.

So turn off the Internet and go read a book. Without the phone at the fingertips.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Cult of J.T. Leroy

As part of Festival Letteratura, I saw this film on Saturday, about the writer J.T. Leroy. Interesting story. The writer was the darling of the New York/San Francisco literary circuit, coming out of obscurity when he released a novel detailing his life growing up in an abusive home and his own struggle with drugs and prostitution.

When Sarah was released in 1999, many big name writers praised it (Mary Gaitskill, etc.) and because Leroy was painfully shy, celebrities came forward and did many of his readings in public. Suddenly, he was everywhere: Paris Review, New York Times, Vanity Fair.

I don't think I'm giving too much away when I write that it was a big hoax and many big names were sucked into it: Sandra Bernhard, Rosario Dawson, Ben Foster among many, many others including literary big names like Dennis Cooper & Sharon Olds (one of the guys implicated in the hoax: "The celebrity part was easy: once you had one or two celebrities involved, all the others wanted to be involved, too."). It was all a big fabrication, all the abuse, the entire persona of J.T. Leroy was a fiction (it was played on the phone by one woman and in person by another woman).

This isn't a terribly big shock when it comes along in the film. But then the film takes an interesting turn, raising many questions: most people are furious about this woman, Laura Albert, who perpetrated and orchestrated it. People call her evil, almost like a cult leader, severely mentally ill, etc. Others are more sympathetic, suggesting that a 30-something woman has a hard time getting attention for her work, her writing, and she worked the system in a way that brought attention to her work and forced people to pay attention.

In any case, it's a very interesting film and one that raises all kinds of questions about what we expect from writers: is it their story that is part and parcel of why we like their work? Or is it the work and only the work that should be part of the mix? I think about this a lot since we are living in a day and age when the writer's biography is seen as so important to the creation of their work: we are fascinated by writers with painful histories, who suffer abuse, mental illness, drug abuse, and any writer who claims to have lived a model life without any major traumas dooms herself to obscurity (maybe I'm overstating this slightly but only slightly).

But why shouldn't a writer's work be the only thing that matters? Whether it's real, whether it's true, isn't that really irrelevant (if one calls oneself a fiction writer that is: it's different for a journalist or someone who is writing a non-fiction memoir). Shouldn't the work just be the thing?

I really recommend this film which will be one of the headlining films at Montreal's International Documentary Festival in November.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Regarding Susan Sontag

Documentary last night here at Festival Letteratura on the life and work of Susan Sontag was interesting. A few people I know said it felt a bit too much focused on her love life but I thought it struck a nice balance between her work and her life. After all, not much was known about her life while she was alive. So it’s a good chance to learn more. She was a fascinating character in so many ways.

I know many academics poo-pooed much of her work though I honestly believe this came from jealousy: she was one of the rare intellectuals that didn’t have to rely on the university system in order to work and be a voice and be relevant. Name any other public intellectual in the last 50 years who can claim that (French writers excluded since this tradition has existed widely in parts of Europe for a long time). Yes, she was highly inspired by Roland Barthes but inspiration is the bread and butter of most writers...(plus her essay Against Interpretation pretty much dismissed entire careers of academics whose life work had been built on precisely building, enhancing and creating a world for interpretation).

Personally, I encountered her work in the early/mid 90s when I read Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors. I don’t remember why I read this or how I came across it, but I have such a strong memory of being in a bathtub while my roommate pounded on the door, telling me to get out because I’d been in there so long. But I just couldn’t put this book down. I was only around 21 or 22 but her work at that time opened so much of the world to me, things I never knew about, thought about. The premise of this double work (the first volume of which came after her own cancer diagnosis in the late 70s; the second volume came around in the late 80s in reaction to the AIDS crisis) is simple in hindsight: we attach meaning and metaphor to illness. But cancer, AIDS, other illnesses are not metaphors and this kind of thinking is dangerous and unfair (and damaging). She starts with cancer and all the things I remember hearing about it growing up: that too much stress is the cause, that type A personalities suffer more often from it, etc. She breaks all that apart by comparing the reaction of society to TB which also had all kinds of social beliefs and metaphors attached to it. And the obvious way that society attacked AIDS sufferers and attached all kinds of stigmas to their disease.

After I read this work, I was off: I, etcetera was a collection of “short stories” (though somehow that feels like a limiting term when one really knows this work) considers the life that her parents had, living in China in the 1930s and there is more personal here than in many of her works. Her earlier works on French New Wave cinema (something I had no idea about: I honestly thought New Wave had something to do with all the “waver” haircuts on people in high-school…I guess indirectly it did), on photography, on fascism and, of course, on “Camp” (the term of which she practically invented or at minimum made mainstream). I do believe I read just about everything she published with the thrill and excitement that a young person feels when discovering the world for the first time.

When she wrote that piece for the New Yorker in the weeks after 9/11 I felt fiercely protective of her and all the attacks on her (which were unfair; she had only suggested that we can't understand 9/11 unless we have a bit of historical memory and understand the source of much of the Middle East's rage at the West and the US particular: nothing particularly revolutionary in that). So far to the right had the US slanted by then that even this relatively tepid article landed her in hot water (she seemed oddly defensive to me). It's even more slanted to the right by now.

I never could get into her novels. In America I managed to finish but with effort. The documentary also shows us that she had a difficult side, was ego-tistical, was terrified of death. This was all very eye-opening for me only have known her very public side.

I suppose that she was a creature of her time and place. High culture was falling apart and merging with low culture into what we call today pop culture. There was as a place publicly for someone who could write about Kant and Mussolini and then about Invasion of the Body Snatchers. She was present in the culture, she was a personality and had a voice.

Yes, she died over 10 years ago but I do sometimes wonder what she would think of the way our society is now: the world of Facebook or selfies, the refugee crisis in Europe. The world is a much starker place without her intelligence and insight...

Friday, September 11, 2015

Martin John and others on Giller list, new Michael Moore on US war-mongering?, Gianrico Carofiglio, real-life locations of Rabagliati's Paul à Quebec, largest mural in the world in Norway: Cultural Digest, September 11

Martin John: I like the US cover version better

  • Michael Moore's new documentary opens at TIFF. The director and writer has been very secretive about this project but the speculation is that the movie explores the fact that the US economy is dependent on war-making. Not exactly a new argument but it'd be interesting to see his take on it.
  • The Scotiabank Giller Prize releases its long list. I have to say this list frequently underwhelms me because the works on it are often humdrum Canadian urban novels without anything particularly interesting to say. But this year, a few really great choices there, including Anakana Schofield's Martin John. Schofield is one of those writers who has built a small but growing fan-base on the sheer force of her powerful writing and intelligence.  I'm very glad to see the mainstream literary media paying attention to her work. Well-deserved. Michael Christie's book (If I Fall, If I Die) is also very interesting. And Samuel Archibald (a best-seller in French). Actually, there are a number of very interesting works here this year (I haven't read them all).
  • To celebrate being in Italy, I will sing the praises of crime writer, Gianrico Carofiglio. He was out our Festival a few years back and every event was packed full. He has the persona of a rock star, that guy. Anyway, his works feature the same lawyer cum detective and are mainly set in Bari. A former anti-mafia judge, Carofiglio turned to crime writing many years ago and has never looked back. His books are highly readable novels that give an interesting glimpse of contemporary Italian society. He's doing several events today in Mantova though I don't know if I'll have time to see him! In any case, stay tuned to see him at a future Blue Met.
  • This mural in Norway may be the largest rooftop mural in the world.
  • L'actualité looks at the real-life locations used by Michel Rabagliati in his best-selling graphic novel Paul à Québec (now a feature film). Link is in French.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Festival Letteratura in Mantova, Italy

So I'm at the Mantova Letteratura Festival the rest of this week. They very kindly invited me and I am very much looking forward to seeing a number of amazing events that they have on their roster.

Mantova is a smallish city about two hours north of Bologna and the Festival takes over the entire centre of town with five days of events, hearing from writers and artists from all over the world.

Some things I am looking forward to:

Mantova, Italy: 
Paul Bowles: The Cage Door is Always Open is a 2012 movie about the life and career of Paul Bowles. Both Bowles and his wife (Jane Bowles) were writers I was crazy about when I was in my 20s and 30s (still re-read them both occasionally) and the film charts their relationship and how they journeyed to Northern Africa. It didn't get rave reviews but being such a fan of both of these writers works, I will be there without any hesitation.

Frank Zappa concert! (link is in Italian)

Another film is at the top of my list, Regarding Susan Sontag. I think I may have seen half of this documentary at a friend's place earlier this year. It was playing in the background but the entire room was dead to me as I scooched in close to pay attention to nothing else. A few people asserted that the film was a bit scandalous and less focused on her work than it might have been but I didn't notice that at all (and, again, I only saw half of the film).

Some other writers I am looking forward to seeing: Andre Dubus III, Kazuo Ishiguro, Massimo Carlotto, Joseph O'Connor, and others.

To me, one of the best things about my work is being able to travel to other Festivals, not only to see writers I know and whose work I admire, but to see new writers, to see other ways of organizing events, get ideas and see how different Festivals put together their programmes.

Mantova's Festival is a big one and something I've been looking forward to for some time.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Interviews of note: Richard Ford, Danny Glover, Luisa Valenzuela and David Wellington

Danny Glover: a true Hollywood artist

Richard Ford: charmer

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Her Kind by Anne Sexton

Her Kind

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Jean-Christophe Rufin: The Red Collar

This small novel, The Red Collar by Jean-Christophe Rufin (translation of Le collier rouge) was a great little book. Had a very busy week so I wasn't swimming in free time, but I did manage to crank it out in a couple of evenings. Had it been a summer day, I could have read it in a single sitting most likely.

Set in a small town in France immediately at the end of WWI, the book opens with a jailer reflecting on the oppressive summer heat and the young soldier he has imprisoned deep inside the jail where it's cooler and danker.

When the commanding officer arrives to interrogate the prisoner, the point of view shifts suddenly and we are in Lantier's head for the rest of the novel. He is tasked with getting the "whole story" from the prisoner, a local man who'd been feted as a war hero but then almost immediately locked up after for a capital offense.

There is a young beautiful woman, a child, a village full of those who feel the young man has received a rotten deal. It's Lantier's decision to decide his fate: firing squad? Long prison term? Release?

In the midst of all this a dog sits in the town square barking incessantly: the prisoner's dog who has refused to leave his side throughout the war and even during his imprisonment. The dog is the key to the entire tale.

I won't go into detail about where the story goes or what the crime is that the man is accused of. It would spoil the story, but it was an interesting and engaging read, this novel. The language describing the natural scenery around the town is lovely as is the atmosphere that Rufin creates of life in this small provincial town.

In typical fashion for much contemporary French literature, the commander has a rather patronizing if not disdainful view of the locals and this in one way reflects the time and place and the stark class divisions that were such a part of French society. But it also is a convenient way to write a novel for contemporary middle and upper class French people without having to explore issues of class (something French novelists rarely seem interested in though I would argue that France as a whole is kind of secretly obsessed with ignoring how class operates in contemporary French society).

This book is something of a departure for Rufin whose books tend to be long and unwieldy, if full of interesting views of France in history.

Lots of Anglo readers tell me that they have little interest in contemporary French literature but that's a mistake. The thing about many contemporary French novelists is that they tell good stories and the idea that French literature is chock full of "novels of ideas" or writers who only seem to want to experiment with form or write highly symbolic treatises is rather passe (though not completely so).  Rufin does use symbolism at times in a rather high-handed way, but the fact that he can tell an engaging story mitigates this, I find. French writers are often very interested, too, in the rest of the world (Rufin himself has written books set or partly set in Cairo and Brazil, among other other places).

In any case, it's a book worth reading.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Germany & Canada, differing roles towards migrants, jailed Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, the Silos in the Old Port: What to do?

An idea for the silos in the Old Port

  • A writer with a very personal reflection of how he left Germany because of their anti-immigrant stance and all the xenophobia he experienced, particularly after the wall came down and the two Germanys reunited. Lately, though he's had his eyes opened at how welcoming and friendly Germany has become in the 20 years since his absence, being one of the first countries to welcome refugees from Syria and accepting (so far) more than any other country (Germans out welcoming refugees at train station with gifts and toys and water). Conversely, he looks at how Canada has changed in those years, too, going from a country that is a model of peace keeping to one that bombs other countries. 
  • Jailed Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, releases a translated book of the blog posts that got him into trouble (merely calling for separation of church and state), 1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think. PEN World has an excerpt here.
  • For those who live in Montreal, here's a list of various ideas with photos/designs for what to do with the Silos along the canal in the Old Port (the site is in French though some great graphics there). Some are great ideas (a huge museum complex, wow, though it'd cost a fortune) and some are standard capitalist fare (Turn them into condos yawn). Honestly, I live not far from them and I'm in the park alongside the silos several times a week. I hope they do nothing with them, at least for now, because that park is one of the best green spaces in the city (and not very busy). 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Brooklyn Book Festival schedule released, memorizing poems, Jean-Étienne Liotard in Edinburgh, Between the Pages looks at language, Reading makes you smarter, Henry VIII was a true baddie: Cultural Digest September 5

Liotard exhibition in Edinburgh

Henry VIII: it's official

Friday, September 4, 2015

On Prolific Writers: from Joyce Carol Oates to Junot Díaz, from Colm Tóibín to Heather O'Neill

An interesting piece in The Millions, reflecting on a piece by Stephen King that defends prolific writers.

There is this tendency in the literary world to look askance at writers who produce too much. A young Quebec writer I know who only published his first novel a few years ago, is already publishing his fourth book. More than one person has remarked to me that he must not be that great of a writer if he can crank out four books in less than four years. (In all fairness his books aren't terribly long).

Stephen King mentions Joyce Carol Oates (who won our Grand Prize in 2012) and the fact that no one, perhaps Oates herself even, is completely sure how much she's written and published because she's written and published so much. And that for most prolific authors, only a handful of books tend to stand out, even if they've written 30.

I recall people seeming a bit frazzled when they were talking about Oates that year, that she'd written so much, they didn't really know where to begin. Some people knew Blonde and some people knew The Falls. But people kept asking me "Where should I start?" with a slightly desperate lilt to the question. I think that people simply felt overwhelmed, that to be an Oates "expert," was a half a lifelong undertaking.

Keep in mind that at a literary Festival, there's always an implied heap of time and work beyond sitting for an hour listening to a writer. If you go to a concert, you might  return home, fire up Spotify and find the artist's album online to play while you roast your broccoli. If you see a movie, you walk out after two hours and are plunged back into the normalcy of your life. You might mention the film to a friend, you might think about it a little. But chances are, that's it. Dance, theatre are the same. But when you see a literary event, often the idea is that you will somehow find the writer's book or books and then read it (or them). So in a certain way, the literary event is simply the introduction to a whole host of time beyond the event. True, a number of people go to an event having already read a writer's work, but even then: if they were completely closed off to the possibility of re-reading or reading a new one, they probably wouldn't be there. Also, not every person attends a literary event with the plan to buy a book, but that's always the goal: of the producer, of the writer, of the publisher. An interesting event is one goal, but getting the public to buy the book is the main goal.

Oddly, I find that the writers who often do very well for us (sell out events, get lots of media attention) tend to be writers who've written 2-3 books maximum: Junot Díaz, Amitav Ghosh, Heather O'Neill, or who might only have a small number of books in translation (Carlo Lucarelli, Bernard Schlink, Olga Grjasnowa, etc.).  And I think it's partly due to the fact that this is what we often do at Blue Met: introduce new writers to our public. But I think it's often due to the fact that there is simply less of a time commitment implied.

That said, there are writers who have written many books that do well: Richard Ford, Colm Tóibín, Russell Banks, and others, but it's not exponential: if we can fill a room with 100 people who've written one book, it doesn't meant the author who's written 8 books will attract 800. Quite the contrary. And I can think of several authors who've written many books who can only attract a few dozen people maximum.

For any literary Festival, an author like Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch) would be a major draw: not only has she only written just a few books (three, to be exact), she doesn't do many public events. Win-win.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Canada refuses invitation to be country of honour at prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair

This story has been making the rounds on social media for the past 12 hours and it's a bit shocking.

Apparently, the Canadian government refused the invitation by the largest book fair in the world, citing budget problems. There is generally a cost associated with this honor, but it translates into book deals for authors, publishers, rights agencies, translators and bookstores, and the roughly five to six million dollars it would have cost is minimal.

There's a link to the story here but for some reason, only the Francophone media, Radio-Canada specifically, is reporting on this so far. The link's in French.

Obviously, I don't know all the ins and outs and there could be some other angle or some other information the journalist wasn't privy to, but if this is true, it's really depressing and frustrating. There aren't enough ways to describe how important this kind of honour would have meant for Canada and the Canadian publishing industry in particular. Instead of Canada, the fair then turned their sites on France who them become the country of honour. They ended up spending more than the amount required and are now reaping the benefits.

Canada to Frankfurt: "Naaaaah, we'll pass..."
For the uninitiated, these fairs are terribly important because everyone from the industry is there making deals: publishers meet writers who talk to translators and book chains and libraries and rights agencies and distributors, all with the idea of facilitating book deals all over the world. If your book's been translated and published in Turkish, in Chinese, in French, in Spanish, chances are the deal happened (or the contact was made) in Frankfurt. It's the biggest and most prestigious book fair in the world (by far) and attracts 275,000 visitors and 9,000 journalists.

So the thought that the Canadian government said no for a measly $6,000,000 is appalling, especially when one considers the fact that after years of essentially being one of the main drivers in creating an identity for Canadian literature inside Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts (funded by the Federal government) has for a couple of years started spending (a small amount of) money trying to promote Canadian literature outside Canada, to put Canada on the map internationally in terms of our artists, writers, musicians, dancers, etc.

I'm sure Canada Council had little to no involvement in the above decision since they have a specific mandate and the Frankfurt Book Fair would have fallen outside it, but it just goes to show how one branch of government can often be undoing what the other hand is trying to accomplish.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Rare chance to take part in a Michel Hellman atelier in Montreal, Herta Müller interviewed by the Paris Review, Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, Terrance Hayes in Toronto: Cultural Digest September 2

  • Comics artist Michel Hellman (Mile End, link in French) is doing a workshop at Drawn & Quarterly. Don't miss this. It's $150 but there are only 10 spots available and it's a rare opportunity to work with one of the masters of the genre but also to walk away with a beautiful notebook that you've created yourself. I'd do it myself but I'm out of town that day. For those who remember, Hellman did an event at the Festival this year, a discussion about Mile End in books with Sigal Samuel (The Mystics of Mile End) and Guillaum Morissette (New Tab). It was a packed event with excellent questions from the audience. Hellman's workshop will be bilingual.
  • American poet Terrance Hayes will be in Toronto on September 17 to read his work and be interviewed onstage. Hayes is one of the rising stars of American poetry and represents one of the new voices of our era. With allusions to everyone from Gwendolyn Brooks to race riots to the quiet beauty of domestic life with his family, there's something in his work that melds the personal and the political in very accessible ways. He's really a great performer, too. It costs $60 but it includes a copy of his latest book and a "special gift" as well.
  • Herta Müller, winner of the 2009 Nobel prize for literature, talks about her history, her past and her writing with the Paris Review. I've tried reading her work a few times and have yet to gain a foothold into it, but reading this interview makes me want to try again.
  • Many hours of lectures by the amazing Joseph Campbell have made their way online. Campbell was a hugely influential teacher and scholar and one of my first youthful obsessions was his series on myth, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which was very prominent and read often by people coming of age when I did. Bill Moyers' series of interviews with Campbell and subsequent book, The Power of Myth, was also something that every smart person I know read and talked about when it came out.
Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell: highly influential series of interviews