Wednesday, October 31, 2012

10 Thoughts on Woody Allen

1) The opening of the film Manhattan - that horn-blowing chord progression which announces the opening bars of the song "Manhattan" - is iconic. But I never think of Woody Allen when I hear that song. I think of Ella Fitzgerald or Blossom Dearie.

2) I've seen Husbands and Wives so many times there are scenes I can practically recite by heart. Sydney Pollack is such a lovable cad. And Judy Davis' character is so neurotic, really the standard "Woody Allen" character turned around (with added viciousness).

3) I remember being in my early teens when my mom and aunt returned from seeing Hannah and Her Sisters and complaining that it was one of the most boring films they'd ever seen. This prejudiced me for years against that film but when I finally did see it in my late twenties (on a pirated DVD in Shanghai), I thought it was really wonderful. And who can hate anything that has Dianne Wiest in it?

4) Paris at Midnight got great reviews and I have some friends who love it. Me: meh. Definitely one of his weaker films in my view. Hackneyed cliched 'writerly' writers and the girlfriend has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Plus Owen Wilson pffffft. And the nice little moral which he practically assaults us with at the end. Please. Don't preach, Woody.

5) The Purple Rose of Cairo is about dreaming when you're not a kid anymore.

6) One of his most underrated films is Alice: with Joe Mantegna (the loveable bear who loves Edna St-Vincent-Millay) and William Hurt (a big New York type prick). Plus turning invisible and listening in on an ex's therapy session: cinematic gold.

7) Manhattan Murder Mystery is about marriage (duh) but the focus is off somewhat so it becomes about murder. It's not really about murder, one has to keep reminding oneself. Even the director seems to forget it at certain points. The imagery of the city always watching, of always having witnesses, of never really being alone is both creepy and comforting. Anjelica Huston is such a smooth operator: as a kid, I wanted her to be my mother (an exotic writer with a facade of never-ending confidence). Now I'd want to be her best friend.

Don't Speak!
8) Dianne Wiest's character in Bullets Over Broadway can make me laugh so hard, tears can well up in my eyes ("Don't speak!") and John Cusack plays that role with the perfect blend of naivete and deception. Plus Jennifer Tilly is spot on.

9) I love Annie Hall  but feel the scenes in Los Angeles are inauthentic and over-reliant on a New Yorker's shallow conception of life out west. Also, though I like the film, I'm not very sure I like the character Annie Hall. How can Diane Keaton play her so ridden with neuroses but then play Carol (so ready for a dangerous adventure) from Manhattan Murder Mystery so convincingly? A good actress...

10) Good Woody Allen films (in addition to the ones noted above): Vicky Christina Barcelona, Broadway Danny Rose, Mighty Aphrodite.

Decent Woody Allen films: Melinda and Melinda, Match Point, To Rome With Love, Interiors, Radio Days.

Awful Woody Allen films: Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Whatever Works, Scoop, Cassandra's Dream, and several others...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation

Jenny Erpenbeck's novel Visitation is one of the more interesting books I've read lately. It's unusual in form and tone, telling the story of a small country house on a lake near Berlin. The home is the only consistent character in the book and we hear about its Jewish owners forced to leave as WWII grips Germany, we hear about the architect who buys the home (at a cut-rate price in the chaos) from the Jewish family, we hear about the gardener who plans each square foot of the grounds meticulously, and we hear from several other key people as the story of the house and its occupants unfold. In the end, it's a history of Germany, of Europe, but on a micro-individual level.

It's a dark novel in most ways, but the writing is simply gorgeous. Everything seems one stepped removed from the dramatic tension we come to expect in a novel, particularly a novel which explores the dark side of history, but the story isn't moved forward by confrontation or painful scenes.

At certain points the novel seems more like a collection of short-stories, even essays, with titles like "The Wealthy Farmer and His Four Daughters," which catalogues a list of superstitions associated with marriage and young women seeking a husband.

I love history and books on history but one question that always nags at me when I read history is how this war or that calamity affected the individual lives of those involved: not the men in back rooms, smoking cigars and being chauffered around, but the average urban worker, the farmer, the migrant, the teacher. Visitation takes this notion and delves deep into how the outside forces of history invade the "average" person's life in personal and individual (and almost non-political) ways.

It feels like an important book and though I know little about Erpenbeck's story (she was born in East Berlin in 1967) or other work, she is definitely on my radar now with this lovely little novel.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Carte Blanche #15

For years, Carte Blanche, one of Montreal's best-known literary magazines, has been cranking out issue after issue of interesting, provocative, and funny issues chock full of some excellent poetry, stories and creative non-fiction in addition to artwork. In the spring, they began printing paper issues on demand and the latest (#15), too, is available in print.

The talented Gillian Sze
This has been a real treat the last few days: hanging on to this book on the metro, in line at the bank, reading pieces (and Q&A) by Gillian Sze, a visual tale called "The Wrecked Woman" by Kara Sievewright, poem by Tom Wayman, and many other pieces. It could be a tad smaller (it's printed beautifully though it's A4 size and I'm the type who prefers volumes that can be stashed in a pocket whenever possible) but I've really enjoyed this issue.

The magazine is one of the Quebec Writers Federation's funded ventures and the editors of Carte Blanche also produce a series of spoken word/storytelling events called This Really Happened (one at Blue Met 2012 and another one being planned for 2013). The online issue, in fact, discusses the This Really Happened event they did at Wordfest in Calgary a couple of weeks ago.

They are still working on distribution, it seems, and I can't seem to find the way to receive  the magazine in print online but I think all writers in Canada who want to see small magazines improve and continue to thrive should try and get a hold of it (or ask to see it stocked in your local bookstores while they last!).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Peter Kirby: The Dead of Winter

I've long been a big fan of crime fiction, particularly crime fiction that is connected to a city I know. I like how crime writers can act as a kind of travel guide, showing us a city or even neighborhood through the lens of its underbelly: Natsuo Kirino and Miyuke Miyabe in Tokyo, Leonardo Padura in Havana, Jo Nesbo in Oslo, and many others.

Linda Leith Publishing has recently published Peter Kirby's The Dead of Winter, a fascinating novel, a chronicle of a series of crimes which rock the church and business establishments in the middle of a bleak, dark, and cold Montreal winter.

I read the book in the space of two days a few weeks back while visiting Berlin and it was one of the best crime books I've read this year: with a detached but intelligent protagonist, a cast of characters that are eminently familiar to most Montrealers, and it made me homesick though I'd only been away a week or so. In fact, oddly, it made me crave winter. It's chilling, creepy, and terribly engaging...

A book which makes me miss a cold Quebec winter while hanging out in a funky European late that's an engaging novel...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Collum McCann's Dancer

Collum McCann's novel Dancer is one of those books which has sparked my interest in another subject. You know how you can sometimes read a book and be perfectly happy to remain in the world that the writer creates? It wasn't the case here and I have found myself several times in the last week, finding other sources of information on the subject online, in bookstores. The novel tells the story of the life and career of Rudolf Nureyev through various narrators who were close to him throughout his life. McCann writes with lyrical beauty and some passages are simply gorgeous, particularly passages about dance itself, about St-Petersburg, about the protagonist and his larger-than-life personality.

The hitch with books of this form is a niggling one that I can't get away from as I read: the constant question of what is made up, what is based in fact, and whether that's even important. After all, a life story is not a life. I can see that McCann must have done an enormous amount of research because the story is definitely grounded in facts which span Nureyev's life. The people are real. The experiences reflect the arc of the dancer's career. It's much more like a novel, of course, with invented scenes, dialogue, thoughts and feelings. But McCann doesn't change names, re-imagines real stories from Nureyev's life to move his plot along. In that sense, it's like a biography.

I find the book so interesting that I stayed up late watching a Youtube video about Nureyev's life, his Russian years, and this only piqued my interest more in this enigmatic indvidual. Though his life ended tragically, we should all be so lucky to be able to do what we want in our lives, to focus all our energies to one consuming, passionate goal and then reap its rewards.

It's the first book I've read by McCann but it definitely makes me want to read more of his work.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"If you think about it, it turns into words..."

Always on the Train

Writing poems about writing poems
is like rolling bales of hay in Texas.
Nothing but the horizon to stop you.

But consider the railroad's edge of metal trash;
bird perches, miles of telephone wires.
What is so innocent as grazing cattle?
If you think about it, it turns into words.

Trash is so cheerful, flying up
like grasshoppers in front of the reaper.
The dust devil whirls it aloft: bronze candy wrappers,
squares of clear plastic - windows on a house of air.

Below the weedy edge in last year's mat,
red and silver beer cans.
In bits blown equally everywhere,
the gaiety of flying paper
and the black high flung patterns of flocking birds.

-- from Ruth Stone's In the Next Galaxy

Friday, October 19, 2012

Powell's Booty...

So back from my trip out west and here is my booty from Powell's. I had to limit myself to one short trip so I wouldn't go crazy! For those of you who don't know Powell's, I'd say any trip out to the Pacific NW requires a trip to Portland in order to see the place, what has to be one of the largest bookstores in the world. One unique and excellent thing about this place is that they put the used and new copies of the books on the same shelves so it's always your choice which to buy. There are countless rooms on several floors and stacks all the way to the ceiling. Anyone who reads is in heaven!

At any rate, here is what I nabbed:

Alison Bechdel: Invasion of the Dykes to Watch Out For

So I've written twice recently about Alison Bechdel and because they didn't have her latest memoir, I decided to stock up on one of her cartoon strip anthologies. This will be a fast read...

Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation

Several people have recommended this book to me and I've had it on my list of books to buy for weeks. I plan to hole up this weekend and read this one cover to cover. It's a book about Berlin which should fit in nicely with a lot of the reading I've been doing lately.

Colm Tóibin: The South

One of my favorite writers. I've read just about all of his novels (The Master is one of my all time faves) and all were interesting in their own way. But this one I haven't read which means I have something new to look forward to next week!

So, yes, lately I've been reading a lot of international (i.e., non-Canadian) fiction. That's not by choice! Well, I guess in a way it is, but the truth of the matter is that I read Canadian writers' works most of the year, particularly starting in mid to late October when we start programming the Canadian literature part of our Festival. And that continues throughout the spring when the reading is done to catch up on all the writers coming (or as many as I can, at any rate).

Late summer to early fall is my time of year to read international fiction since it's the time of year when I am most aware of what international writers are doing.

Meanwhile, I am still reading Colum McCann's The Dancer. It's a great read so far but no time to read really (I have a hard time reading on airplanes...).

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Portland, Wordstock and our 2013 Grand Prize Winner selected!

Wordstock was great! One reason I wanted to attend was to see the book fair aspect of it, a balance between literary events and publishers presenting their new catalogs.

Saw Peter Zuckerman talk about his book Buried in the Sky about the individual Sherpa trekkers who have been such integral partners in the development of the trekking `industry` in Nepal. He`s a compelling storyteller, too, and the audience was on the edges of their seats this afternoon as he told anecdotes from the book.

I then talked to people from several western presses and magazines and met some really great people.

Also saw Daniel H. Wilson in discussion and his book could be a real gem, as well. Haven`t read it but it seems interesting. Read a summary of it here.

Made it over to Powell`s and bought Jenny Erpenbeck`s Visitation, an Alison Bechdel anthology, and Ruth Stone`s In the Next Galaxy.

But the best news: got an email confirming our 2013 grand prize winner. It`s a great one, folks, and stay tuned until our press conference in March, 2013 where will announce this, some other exciting confirmed guests and exciting news about our upcoming Festival.

For those who don`t know yet: the 2013 Festival is scheduled for April 22nd until 28th at the OPUS Hotel.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Portland and Wordstock...

Headed out first thing in the morning for Portland, Oregon, a city I once knew quite well. Because I grew up in southern Idaho, when I was younger, driving to Portland or Seattle or Salt Lake City was what we did for fun so we did it often. A real difference between living in the west and living in the east, in fact: westerners don't think a thing about getting in the car and driving for 8 hours to hang out somewhere for the weekend. Now doing something like that would seem arduous and even slightly ridiculous. Plus, I don't have a car...

quirky portland
I am going to Portland to see some events at wordstock, an interesting Festival that does all kinds of compelling stuff without big huge stars or major headliners. I like that approach. Or I should say, it's nice to be able to balance headliners with simply interesting, challenging, entertaining literary events.

I've always had a soft spot for Portland: its people, its weather, its architecture.  But it's literally been probably 20 years since I was there last or close to that. A lot has changed I imagine. Things I know about Portland:
  • Large chunks of Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot is set there.
  • Esmeralda Spalding is from there.
  • Never seen Portlandia but I love Fred Armisen so will be on the lookout for him at all times!
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is set there I believe.
At the Festival, I am hoping to catch Peter Zuckerman who published a book this summer about Sherpa trekkers on Mt. Everest that looked interesting a la Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.

Also want hear adventure writer Peter Heller talk.

Their highlight this year, though, has to be Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus which has been getting a ton of buzz.

Doesn't look like much but it's a kind of paradise...
Also looking forward to being in a fun, vibrant city that I used to know fairly well.

And, of course, there's Powell's. That place is worth a trip to the west coast alone!

The downside is that going out west means I have to miss the Brattleboro Literary Festival this year, one of last year's highlights for me. What an amazing little Festival: great authors, amazing audiences, cool venues and in this adorable little town where beer is easy to find and people love to talk about writers (there has to be the highest concentration of book stores there compared with just about anywhere I've ever been). I was there last year with Monique Proulx and Kathleen Winter. What a fun weekend!

Nobel Prize for Literature: 2012 Mo Yan

So Chinese writer Mo Yan has won the Nobel Prize for literature. A good thing. I'm not terribly familiar with his work though I have read Red Sorghum and enjoyed it (many years ago, it was....) There are definitely other Chinese writers whose work I like better, but Mo Yan probably has the widest appeal (Wang Anyi is too Shanghai-centric, Wang Shuo is too weird, Yan Lianke is still a bit obscure, Yu Hua is too...meh). Mo Yan is definitely a comfortable choice.

I do wish I could be in China and hear the reaction of the Chinese people about the win. When Gao Xingjian won in 2000 (I was living in China at the time), it was treated with a shrug ("He's not really Chinese" I heard which is absolutely idiotic) and the government didn't report on it widely at all (except to say that it was some anti-China statement on the part of the reactionary Nobel Prize Committee or some such nonsense). Also, he was slightly on the obscure side perhaps when he won (living in France, better known in most circles as a playwright than a novelist). Though he is often criticized for being on the misogynistic side, I really admire the work of Gao. It's mystical, dreamlike, dense, and really moving in parts. Soul Mountain is beautiful.

At any rate, the Chinese don't have a great relationship with the Nobel committee: not only because of Gao Xingjian; Lu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace prize in 2010 which caused a minor tantrum in those sacred halls of Chinese government and is still reverberating as we speak.

The movie's good, too
There is no denying that Mo Yan is Chinese. But it'll be interesting to see how his win is treated in the Chinese press (i.e., how the government wants the story to be shaped). He has a tenuous relationship with the government and (sorry to say) in China as a general rule, people tend to go along with whatever way the government shapes an international news story like this one, particularly when it has to do with China. Of course, intellectuals and artists can see through the haze of government subterfuge but the average Chinese can't or won't (with almost no access to other points of view, it's no wonder).

(It's fascinating to me that you can ask almost all Chinese people and they will say the government lies about everything, that one shouldn't believe the government, etc., but then they buy all the spoon fed propaganda they're given about so much. All that said, North Americans are only slightly more aware of the world and if it's not the government shaping every opinion here, it's whatever news channel one watches).

It also can't be denied that this is a bit of mud in your eye on the part of the Nobel Committee: if the Chinese government criticizes them, they have it in just as much for the Chinese government. In that sense, Mo Yan is a very political choice. But politics shouldn't detract from the fact that he is, essentially, a very good writer that the world should know better.

And I am glad that a non-Western writer has won, the Nobel doesn't often do well on this score (though generally I like the writers they select). To me it's the best thing about the Nobel prize: a slew of works will suddenly be translated into English and available in book stores (consider Herta Mueller, for example, and how accessible she has become since her win), and the diversity of writers (despite the fact that they are generally Westerners) is very appealing.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Homophobia: an online platform launches in Montreal's Gay Village THURSDAY, 2pm!

In Montreal on Thursday? If so, come on down to the village (1000 Grammes Bistro Glouton, 1495 Ste-Catherine Est, the former site of Cafe Kilo) at 2pm tomorrow and help us launch our online platform in the fight against homophobia. Free cake, coffee and tea!

With writing exercises, book recommendations, and information for both young people and their parents, our online platform aims to break down barriers and use the power of words to effect change in the lives of those who may be the victims of homophobia.

Almemar: a Jewish Arts Digest

Today we launch Almemar*, an online journal that will explore the Jewish arts in Montreal.

"Womanned" by literary woman-about-town, Ingrid Bejerman, Almemar's Editor-in-Chief, the online magazine promises to shine a light on the arts of the vibrant Jewish community of Montreal: from writers and editors to musicians, dancers, and visual artists, we are excited to offer this new community-based focus page to bring together those interested in the Jewish arts.

This month we kick off our inaugural issue with a letter from Ingrid, our Editor-in-Chief, but Ernest Hoffman also checks in with a fascinating interview with Yael Perez on Photography, Burlesque and Loving Yourself (oh, yes, that kind of loving yourself!).

Check it out, like us on Facebook, join the Twitter feed (@AlmemarArts) and send us story ideas to this email.

*Almemar is an ancient Hebrew word which means "pulpit"

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Natural History of the Senses

I've been thinking about this book today, a book I read many years ago (probably around when it first came out) and was blown away by.

What Ackerman excels at is writing about science and statistics and dry factual information with such flourish and charm. Take this passage, for example:

Breaths come in pairs, except at two times in our lives -- the beginning and the end. At birth, we inhale for the first time; at death, we exhale for the last. In between, through all the lather of one's life, each breath passes air over our olfactory sites. Each day, we breathe about 23,040 times and move around 438 cubic feet of air. It takes us about five seconds to breathe -- two seconds to inhale and three seconds to exhale -- and in that time, molecules of odor flood through our systems. Inhaling and exhaling, we smell odors. Smells coat us, swirly us around, enter our bodies, emanate from us. We live in a constant wash of them. Still, when we try to describe a small, words fail us like the fabrications they are. Words are small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world.

This paragraph is basically here to communicate some very basic information about breathing and smelling, but it's cloaked in such poetic language: smells coating us, a wash of smells, the gorgeous chaos of the world. It's writing that's certainly not to everyone's taste, but given the topic matter, Ackerman's poetic style makes her work highly readable and fascinating.

After A Natural History of the Senses (the best work of hers that I've read), she did A Natural History of Love which was far weaker. The Moon by the Whale Light was good and, again, a nice balance of science and poetic language, but it's Senses which really has stayed with me all these years: how each of our five senses evolved, how they develop in children, and all the evocative (and provocative) arts associated with each one. It's rare that you finish a book and feel that you've learned a good deal while being entertained. I haven't read One Hundred Names for Love so if anyone has anything to say on this one, let me know...

It's literally been at least 15 or 20 years since I read A Natural History of the Senses. Maybe it's time to break it down and read it again tonight...

Monday, October 8, 2012

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Read this memoir last night and this morning on the plane flying back from NYC (though it's only a short flight, I managed to get through almost all of it).

It's lovely: moving, funny, and containing all kinds of fascinating literary allusions and references to Fitzgerald, Proust, Hemingway, and Wallace Stevens, to name just a few.

What emerges is a highly complex man (Bruce Bechdel, Alison's father) who is loving, stern, distant, manipulative, and conflicted. I have rarely felt that I understood a long-dead character from a book as I do now about him. His death at 44 seems doubly tragic in the consequences it has on a young girl, a traumatized family, and a man who never had the chance to live his life the way he needed to.

And as Bechdel herself noted at her performance Saturday at The New Yorker Festival, the book is as much a book about gender non-conformity as it is about twin tales a man who never has the chance to come out of the closet and a young girl's acceptance of her own lesbianism.

I highly recommend this book: even for those who don't think you enjoy graphic novels, there is a real insight here that the form allows Bechdel to delve into in a very unique way. Not only is her internal life presented here but "archival" evidence from her past, recreated here in graphic novel form: diaries, letters, police reports, telegrams, old photos. It's highly readable and immensely moving.

OK off to Thanksgiving dinner now. Happy holidays, everyone.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Alison Bechdel and Judith Thurman

As I noted a few posts ago, I am a big fan of comics (or graphic novels; I have such a hard time with which term to use). This afternoon I had the great opportunity to see two personalities I admire in conversation.

I came to Dykes to Watch Out For late in life: far after it had been syndicated across the country and just before its run ended in the late 2000s. I never read it regularly but I did end up finding an anthology a few years after its run that I quite enjoyed. It`s got a soap opera quality to it: like Will & Grace and Queer as Folk and R Crumb all rolled into one. It`s got a normalcy that easy to relate to yet for me it contains a distance that makes it compelling and exotic.

Are you my mother
Bechdel`s two post-Dykes memoirs are tales of her family: Fun Home about her father and the latest, Are You My Mother, about her relationship with her mother. Bechdel really pushes the limits of what graphic novels can and should do. As she noted in her discussion this afternoon, she is interested in how comics can represent the internal lives of characters (as they have so long been focused on action or external lives). And her works do what good movies do: tell stories in a way that you forget the form or the attractiveness of the medium and just let the story overtake you.

Thurman is an amazing writer though I wonder how well-suited she was to Alison Bechdel`s on stage personality. Bechdel leans toward being an introvert, it seems to me, and Thurman likes the cerebral idiom frequently: lots of questions that seemed to be to esoteric and far too psychological for the subject herself to address (questions of `the other`etc etc don`t seem to be very instructive when discussing comics with the artist. That`s not to suggest that Bechdel isn`t amazingly charming and bright but there is a highly pragmatic aspect to her approach as an interview subject).

Excellent questions from the audience: about color choices, about comics a form geared at a society becoming less (traditionally) literate, about the presence of Dykes in today`s queer culture.

Great show overall and I definitely have Bechdel`s two memoirs at the top of my reading list for the fall.

from Dykes to Watch Out For

Literary Adventures

New York`s one of those places that most of us get to know from books, movies and TV before we ever set foot here. This always causes an odd kind of sensation when I walk around: so many buildings and streets and corners have something associated with them. If and when the city doesn`t conform to our expectations we have to shake it off and remind ourselves that the New York as portrayed in art is not the same as the New York in reality.

Something Hisham Matar said last night stuck in my brain and won`t exit: that for certain cities (like New York, like LA perhaps, like London or anywhere that we encounter extensively in a literary context before visiting), we have to remain longer to really `be` there. Though I have been to New York many times, I have never stayed for more than a few days at a time and this means it is hard to shake off the preconceived ideas I have about the city. It`s hard to really `get at` New York unless one can talk to many people, spend enough time here for the city to develop as a character independent of all that`s written about it.

Hassam`s Washington Square Arch
Another interesting concept discussed was how reading certain books is like visiting a city: the example was Joyce`s Ulysses (which figured widely in last night`s discussion). Just as we don`t visit every neighborhood in a city when we visit, we hit a few spots, meet a few people, sit on a few park benches, eat a few restaurants, we still feel that `know` the city in a certain way. And we can also do this with books: pick it up, read a chapter, put it away and feel confident that we know that book in a certain way without having to read it all.

I think about many writers as I walk around New York: Henry James especially around Washington Square. Theodore Dreiser (I love Sister Carrie). Pete Hamill (who, in his novel Forever, is granted eternal life as long as he never leaves Manhattan.

And, of course, Woody Allen. I probably know far more about New York from watching Woody Allen films than I do from anything I`ve ever seen here with my own eyes.

I keep looking for Diane Keaton

Friday, October 5, 2012

New Yorker Festival: Friday

I`m an idiot. But sometimes being an idiot can have certain benefits.

I had a ticket to Marilynne Robinson and Nathan Englander`s show on FAITH as part of the New Yorker Festival. I got into the right lane for theatre two (I was a bit late though the show hadn`t started), rushed into the nearly packed theatre and found a seat. Five minutes later the show began. All men entered and walked up on stage, five men. I had gone into the wrong theatre but there was no way I was going to get up and cause a major spectacle in order to get out and into the right theatre. So I shrugged and leaned into my seat.

Aleksandar Hemon, Orhan Pamuk, Hisham Matar and Colum McCann. Hey, not bad.

Three of these writers have work I know very well. One less so though I`ve heard his name. So suddenly I felt it was synchronicity.

(Sidebar: I had tried to get tickets to this show initially while in Berlin but was told it was oversold and there were no tickets available. I sure hope I didn`t cause anyone to miss out!)

Great conversation: about the city as character, about the importance of cities in modern fiction (and journalism), about city life vs. pastoral life (particularly in a modern text since, as Willing Davidson, the moderator, suggested, there are few examples of modern pastoral novels from the last 30-40 years.

The biggest surprise was running into someone I wasn`t expecting to in the theatre later and getting confirmation that they are coming to our Festival in 2013! Someone I`ve been working on for a while who formally told me that they are in! Yes! Can`t say who it is and won`t be releasing any names until March, 2013, but it`s a good one, I promise...

Aleksandar Hemon: militantly urban
So much to be said on this topic of cities, particularly since I have been thinking a lot about The City lately in terms of Berlin. A man stood up, in fact, and referenced Joseph Roth, a writer I`ve been writing and thinking a lot about the last several weeks.

It`s a shame I missed Marilynne Robinson and Nathan Englander! Damn! I was looking forward to hearing them. But, hey, good show anyway.

And on that note, I`m out of this hotel room now: it`s Friday night in New York City, baby. Time to get wicked!

New Yorker Festival

So I am off to New York this weekend for a few meetings and to catch a few events at the New Yorker Festival. They do some very interesting shows and, naturally, being in New York, get some of the best writers in the world.

I am looking forward to Faith: a conversation with Nathan Englander, Marilynne Robinson and Chris Adrian. I'm a big fan of Nathan Englander and I love his book The Ministry of Special Cases. And Marilynne Robinson's work is always raved about though I've only read Gilead. Home has been on my list for a few years now but I've still not managed to read it. There was such an interesting conversation going around about her work when Home was published: about faith today, about being an older female writer with a best-seller today, about being a literary writer in today's climate. At any rate, the three of them in conversation about Faith today.

Also looking forward to seeing Alison Bechdel and Judith Therman. Bechdel was all over the literosphere in the summer for her new memoir, Are You My Mother. She lives just across the border in Vermont (or has a place there, at any rate) and has been on our radar for a few years now. As noted in my last post, I'm a big fan of the comic/graphic novel, but I fear Alison Bechdel is a tough writer to land at this point in her career.

For those wondering why we don't always have writers like Bechdel and Robinson and Englander (though we try), as usual, it's a matter of $$. Writers who are currently being buzzed about are highly in demand and can get upwards of 60 invitations a week! A friend of mine (a well-known writer) says that after a while, one starts to feel a bit depressed and overwhelmed at so much attention so raising prices of speaking fees is the only way to determine which invitation is priority. I guess I get that...then agents get isn't pretty!

Unfortunately, what it means for a Festival like ours is that inviting big name writers with buzz in the literosphere can be pricey! Every year we try to bring at least a few if we can...

There are a few more shows on my list for the next few days and a few I wanted to see but couldn't make work because of other things going on in New York this weekend. But glad to have the chance to hang out in one of most favorite cities in the world for a few days.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Graphic Novels: some of my favorite titles

I developed a taste for comics (or graphic novels) later in life. As a young person, I didn't really read comics. Not sure why: no one that I can recall did as a matter of fact, not my brothers or cousins or classmates. It just wasn't part of our lives growing up.

But in my early 30s I started reading books by writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller and others. I started reading the classics but soon branched out into personal favorites. I still read comics frequently though I try to just read for 30 minutes or an hour each day because 1) they go so fast and 2) I am too interested in too many other kinds of writing.

Jason Lutes' Berlin
Lately, coming back from Berlin, I've been reading non-stop about the city and that has led to other kinds of connections: Christopher Isherwood, Joseph Roth, Käthe Kollwitz, Robert Walser, and others. I was up at Drawn and Quarterly recently and discovered Jason Lutes' Berlin which is fascinating. Set in the years between the end of WWI and the start of WWII, his book explores the political turmoil in the city through the eyes of a cast of characters from all walks of life.

The work is beautifully drawn, compelling, tragic and funny. Apparently Lutes is only halfway through his story though he hasn't published a new one in a number of years. For some reason, this makes it even more appealing to me (nothing's worse than starting a series that's already over).

The End of Men?
A couple of years back, I was really into the work of Brian K. Vaughan. His series Y: The Last Man took inspiration from a nearly forgotten Mary Shelley novel, The Last Man. In Vaughan's version, a deadly virus hits in the Earth and every male mammal on the planet dies suddenly. All except one man, Yorick, and his pet monkey. The series traces the end of the world as we know it as Yorick crosses the US in search of the cause or a cure for the disease in order to start life again. Along the way, he encounters lesbian terrorists, Israeli spies, Russian agents, and every woman wants him for various reasons. Unfortunately, as they are want to do, Hollywood is now adapting this for film which I'm sure will make the series popular but also ruin it slightly.

Brian K Vaughan's other work (later than Y: The Last Man) is a more traditional super-hero tale: Ex-Machina, about a NYC politician who is a retired superhero but has been called back into active duty reluctantly. This series is an interesting exploration of the media, what it means to be "good" or moral, and what power actually means.

I tend to prefer graphic novels that are set in the "real" world. I don't like science fiction series or alternative universes (that's true of fiction, too, for the most part). The only exception to this is The Walking Dead which is great though I haven't seen any new issues in a long time.

Some other series I like include Matz's The Killer, and Jay Faerber's Near Death (set in the noirish streets of modern Seattle).

As I write this, I have to say that though I never liked comics growing up, I did love graphic illustrators and early graphic novelists like Frans Masereel were some of my favorite artists. I had (and still have) several of his "novels in woodcuts" that tell a story with only images. Frans Masereel himself was a fascinating figure and deserves an entire post himself.
Frans Masereel

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Last work of a great talent: Joseph Roth

When writer Joseph Roth was dying in Hopital Necker in Paris in 1939, none of his nurses or doctors knew that he was perhaps one of the 20th century's best writers. To them he was just another poverty-stricken drunk with the tremors and an incoherent babble. But in the space of just over half his life (he was 44 when he died), he had written more than a dozen novels and hundreds of journalistic pieces for some of the best newspapers in Europe. For a time he was the highest paid journalist working in Europe. He predicted the rise of Hitler as far back as 1922 and knew in his bones that it would end badly. When Hitler was appointed chancellor, he left Germany for good and settled (off and on) in Paris. This was a challenge in terms of his writing career and money was always a problem for Roth.

His last story "The Legend of the Holy Drinker" , published in Three Novellas, captures the struggle that Roth was experiencing in his last few weeks of life. It's a stunning achievement, I think, and captures both the spirit of the secular city man of the early 20th century and the religious nature and superstition he can't quite let go of. The story is tragic, wry, ironic and hilarious. It features dishonest women, a famous football star, a Polish chancer, lots of waiters and little St-Therese, the one action the protagonist can't quite complete. It's one of those rare stories that as soon as I finished, I flipped back and re-read the entire thing again.

One thing has struck me since I started re-reading Joseph Roth: in every single bookstore I've been inside in North America, the shelves are full of Philip Roth but none has had a single work by Joseph. His books include The Radetsky March, Job, The Anti-Christ, What I Saw, and many others. He lamented for a past that would never be again: for the fall of the Hapsburg Empire when he suddenly found himself a subject of Poland, a newly created country which was cobbled together from the rubble of a collapsing Europe; for his mentally ill wife who was institutionalized in Vienna (and would later be "euthanized" by Hitler's henchmen as many mentally ill people were); for a future that he knew he would never live to see.