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.