Thursday, November 29, 2012

Deadlines Looming for our Blue Metropolis 2013

Things are moving along: our Grand Prize Winner has been chosen and has accepted. Our Arab Prize Winner ditto. We have writers from more than 10 countries confirmed plus many Canadian and Quebecois writers as well.

Now comes the final push: several more authors to invite, start putting the schedule together, start writing event descriptions, coordinate details with the hotel and other local partners.

For me, the big looming deadline is the Christmas break because we basically need to have most of the important details settled before then so that as soon as we are back, we can start creating the printed (and online) programme which, believe it or not, takes several weeks to put together.

Nothing is public yet and we will announce our lineup at our press conference which will be in late March. Lots to do in the meantime...

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Lazy Bastardism, Fed up with Hans Fallada, 2013 Programming, Poetry & Graphic Novels

Since I constantly have to change my routines or I start to get a bit batty, I've been "off" getting up early and writing here in the mornings. Instead, I get up early and take a long walk with the dog. Which means I have no time during the day to write here.

Almost finished with Hans Fallada's book (Every Man Dies Alone) and last night for the first time, it started to get to me: so much death, so much violence and mayhem and terror. It is a very large book and I have been reading it for three weeks at least. Only 50 pages to go but I may just drop it and try to find something more uplifting or funny to read. It's all clear how it's going to turn out anyway. And violent WWII novel combined with the usual pre-winter blahs is not a good combination.

Been slowly reading Carmine Starnino's Lazy Bastardism which I am really enjoying. My relationship to poetry is odd (or maybe not) in that although there are certain poets I read often and I return to their work again and again (Czeslaw Milosz, Adam Zagajewski, Wiszlawa Symborska, Marie Howe, Mark Doty and many others), I don't feel like a poetry expert in any way shape or form (my poetry reading is very sporadic and highly personal) so as I read Starnino's book, I am struck with how well-articulated his thoughts are on the work of so many Canadian poets. It's a great introduction to poets whose work I don't know at all and, of course, his very fluid and intelligent writing makes it even more appealing.

Working on a project with a local cultural institute which is kind of exciting. It's about graphic novels and I've been discussing with several publishing houses the feasibility of getting some "stills" in order to project images onto some public screens to promote this art form. This part of my job is really fun. So many graphic novels to explore, too!

Programming update: just about finished with our international programming for 2013. Been working for a week or two on Canadian and Quebec programming (and watching my budget drain away waah) which is a lot of fun and can see the overall programming plan really starting to take shape and have a personality. Still a lot more work to do but it is definitely coming along...for anyone who has submitted a proposal, I am moving high gear into these this week and next.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Kim Thuy's Ru

Just doing some housework this morning and put on NPR's All Things Considered and I hear Kim Thuy's voice.

So glad to hear her being interviewed on NPR on the occasion of her book's release in the US.

Ru is an excellent book, of course, one of the best reads this year (though I read it way back last winter). It tells the tale of her family's leaving Vietnam and coming to Canada on a cold winter's morning. And Kim is such a fascinating woman: kind and bubbly and very entertaining.

What I appreciate about the book's success in our country is how it's Canadian literature at its finest, no one questions this, no one calls it Vietnamese though it's about a Vietnamese family. In Canada, that's less of a surprise, but the fact that it's been so widely embraced in Quebec is an excellent testament to how far Quebeckers have come in embracing the stories of those who come from other places. Yes, it's written in French so that helps but I am still happy to see this (and other) story from a "new" Quebecker.

I really hope her book is a booming success State side, matching its success in Quebec and Canada.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Every Man Dies Alone

Been reading Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone, a bleak if not reflective title of a highly readable and exciting novel.

The book is set in Berlin just during the Nazi years and chronicles the lives of various individuals as they resist, acquiesce, escape, persecute, rob, manipulate, or love in the tumultuous period of the war. The book received a great deal of attention when it was first published (back) into English a couple of years ago but I can understand now why so many critics and readers raved about it. The pacing is excellent, the characters run the gamut from the downtrodden to the drunks to the powerful and the powerless.

The main protagonists are based on a real-life couple Otto and Elise Hampel who resisted Nazism in the only way their station in life allowed them. Without giving too much away, what they do is incredibly brave and terribly foolish. And it's not a voice we've heard too often on this topic: how Germans themselves fought against the Nazis, stood up to brutality, protected the persecuted. Though, all that said, there is nothing heroic about anyone here. And much tragedy. But it's also quite funny in many parts.

It's a great novel and a very easy read. I'm not quite finished with it yet (at this time of year I can only manage to read a few chapters a day in a book that's not directly Festival-related) but I look forward all day to the 30 minutes or so I can devote to it most evenings.

Hans Fallada is an intriguing author who struggled with mental illness, alcoholism and other afflictions during his short life. He wrote a good deal and though he had one big hit outside of Germany in his lifetime (translated as: Little Man, What Now?), his international reputation faded and he was largely neglected until Melville House re-translated several of his works in the last few years. Definitely adding some other of his works to my must-read list this holiday season.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

QWF Awards: 2012

The QWF does such excellent awards banquets: last night they proved the rule with their 2012 awards banquet, held at Lion d'Or on Ontario (which host Josh Freed had couldn't help noting as a sign of how far Anglophones are willing to extend into Francophone territory to exert our waning influence). A few highlights:

Rawi Hage won for Carnival which wasn't a surprise. His books balance urban grit with his idiosyncratic humor and quirkiness. No doubt his books will stand the test of time (his book DeNiro's Game from 2006 continues to loom large over our city as a literary capital). I am glad that Hage took home the prize (and his speech was charming and adorable) but I was also disappointed that I didn't get a chance to see Anita Rau Badami up on stage, an author I adore. Also, I haven't read Hage's Carnival yet so I didn't have a connection to the work in a way I should have.

Taras Grescoe won for Straphanger, a book that I found absolutely riveting. Full disclosure: I was on the jury for this prize, so I am hardly objective (and there will several excellent and worthy books on our long list)  but Grescoe's book has altered the way I look at cars and cities. When certain journalists or writers in Montreal gripe about this road construction project impeding traffic or that new freeway exit ramp, I can just shrug and be thrilled that they're problems I never have to deal with (and I pay absolutely no attention to the price of gas). More than that, the book traces the history of the car on various cities around the world and makes one SEE cities in a new light. I suspect that in 25 years we will look back and know that Grescoe's book was the beginning of the end for the dominant role that the car has played in city life (though that said: even Grescoe admits that cars are important in certain places and at certain times).

Alice Petersen won the Concordia First Book Prize for her short-story collection All the Voices Cry, an excellent collection which contains several lovely little gems. Oana Avasilichioaei won the AM Klein Poetry Prize for her collection We, Beasts.

But the most heart-warming moment all night was when Eric Fontaine won the Cole Translation Prize for his translation of Doug Harris's (excellent) You Comma Idiot (titled T'es con, point). Fontaine's eyes were teary as he got on stage and his list of thank yous was funny, moving and entertaining. He is an excellent storyteller himself, it seems...

And a great evening was had by all!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Space, Imagination, Memory, Mortality: Charles Simic in NYRB

Charles Simic rarely disappoints me. And I'm not talking about his poetry necessarily but the pieces he writes for the NYRB. Yes, he veers dangerously close to old man nostalgia at times but more often he presents a provocative starting point and then attempts to create a universal experience from a series of personal details.

In this piece, for example, he considers how memory and physical space are tied together, most specifically, how certain buildings in New York are associated with memories from his past: scenes from his early marriage or a disastrous first date. In the end, the piece is about Aristotle's pronouncement that memory is nothing objective or static but resides in the same place as imagination does. But I take it one step beyond perhaps.

I've never lived in a city long enough to have long-standing associations with buildings. When I return to the place where I grew up, too much time has passed and space doesn't have the emotional resonance since there is absolutely no connection to my life today. The two cities I know better than any others - Montreal and Shanghai - represent different times in my life, but one is a living breathing city for me (Montreal) since I live here and experience its changes on a daily basis, while the other (Shanghai) is frozen in my memory. Though I've been back there several times since leaving, I always end up comparing what I see with what I remember.

A familiar corner: I lived right behind this building for years. 
This all leads me to a particular fascination of mine: how physical space and literature intersect. I love knowing that in this building here, a novel was set, that the author spent time thinking about this particular spot or front door or window sill. The Binerie on Mont-Royal where much of Le Matou is set. The Bagel shop on Fairmount where Mordecai Richler characters have stood. Mavis Gallant's Sherbrooke Street. Perhaps this is my way of creating memory in a city where I didn't spend my youth (I had the same tendency to connect space and literature in Shanghai and wrote for a magazine there on a similar topic).

Simic ends his piece with a tiny impression, the lack of any noise, as he considers a building in which he once lived. Fire seems to have been fated to destroy it. But, no, all these years later, there it stands, still reeking of his past though he sees no trace of himself there. This is a sign of our modern condition: for it is in Nature that we like to feel our mortality. In a forest, looking up at a mountain range in order to feel the sense that once we are gone we will be completely forgotten. (For some this is a terrifying feeling; for some, it's oddly comforting). Yet for modern urbanites like Charles Simic, one can sense this same sensation by standing in the shadow of an old brick walkup with rusted out mailboxes and dilapidated fire escapes.

It's a much more humane route to revelling in our mortality and one that doesn't feel as bleak and lonely as considering the same idea in nature, away from the masses of people where we so rarely find ourselves these days. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Urban Irony: yech

There is a very interesting piece over the weekend in the NYT blog about contemporary irony as a generational style and it aligns with so much that I've thought about in the past few years. I am struck particularly when I am in Mile End or parts of the Plateau: the girls with oversized 80s eyeglasses, the men with handlebar moustaches, odd posters on the wall (like the one below that I Tweeted about a couple of weekends ago: Lionel Richie on the wall at Flocon Espresso), high-waisted mom jeans on 18 year olds. Francophone young people seem less enamoured with this tendency than Anglophone young people do but the NYT writer captures perfectly an analysis of how it might have come about and why it's potentially damaging or if that's an overstatement, so pointless and banal.

Hello, is it me you're looking for?
What irks me about the whole urban irony thing is the sense that sincerity is almost subversive. Everything is one step removed from intention. Do the people who run Flocon really like 1980s Lionel Richie? Or is this a pose, an affectation? What would a poster of some funky cool new band on the wall communicate? Sincerity, so it's something you'd never see.

I think about when I was in my 20s, the kind of music and style I abhorred was anything that parents would have liked (now, of course, I appreciate Carole King and Neil Young and early 70s film) but now it's like certain allusions to the past allow young people to communicate that they are somehow capable of knowing everything that is cool now (which was how we measured how cool someone older was when I was in my 20s: if he knew Depeche Mode and the Violent Femmes and Erasure, then he was OK; if not, then he was old), not only are they aware of contemporary music and film and style, they know about everything that came prior particularly my generation's icons though it's always people who were terribly "uncool" in the 1980s: Lionel Richie (when I was young, this was middle-aged people's music), Barry Manilow (ditto: my grandmother adored Barry Manilow), etc.

This kind of ironic style isn't that new but the ubiquity of it is: in Montreal, in New York, in Portland, many cities where I have spent time recently, all have young people who look identical. I suppose that's been true for a while but I have to say that going to a new city where there is a unique kind of style is so refreshing. And it happens so infrequently...

It's odd that irony only relates to pop culture or fashion. This demonstrates the shallowness of the tendency: never do you see young people clutching paperback copies of Danielle Steele ironically.  Why aren't hipsters ever ironic about Billie Holliday or Coltrane or Henry James or Thomas Hardy? I guess that's too far away...? It's the contemporary link that contains all the resonance...? And it would require too much thought and analysis? I don't know but the piece linked above is certainly thought-provoking...

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Weekend by Andrew Haigh

Saw a great movie yesterday afternoon on Netflix, Weekend by Andrew Haigh. It's not a new movie, maybe a year old or so, but it was lovely, about two young men who meet in a bar in Notthingham and have a weekend together. It reminded me of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise in some ways, that 1995 film (and its subsequent sequels) where two young people explore what it means to be themselves, to be looking for someone else, to be young (or in the case of Weekend, gay) in the world today. Andrew Haigh's film is better, though, and lacks the self-consciousness that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy need to make their characters convincing. (That said, Before Sunset, the second of Linklater's movies has one of the most amazing final scenes of just about any movie I've ever seen.)

As is my habit, I then read several reviews of the Haigh film which confirmed to me all the lovely complexities that the film explores. But mainly it's that final scene which stays with me and the light-handed touch of the director who never lets it drift into melancholy or cliche (though he does play with cinematic cliche in interesting ways). The emotional core of the film, which all comes together at the end, is terribly honest and moving.

What struck me, too, is how life is shown in such a realistic way: life as a series of conversations, some pleasant, some emotional, some tense, some banal, some irritating. And isn't that how we all get through life, drifting from one conversation to another? There are no "lessons" here, nothing didactic about playing witness to these two men falling in love and the limitations that are imposed on their relationship.

At any rate, it's a beautiful little movie with solid acting and writing, one of those movies that stays with you for days afterwards.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Walking Dead

So I was kind of obsessed with the graphic novel series, The Walking Dead for a few years and avoided the TV show until relatively recently. Now coming up on the end of the 2nd season on Netflix (I know the 3rd season is running on AMC now but I never watch TV on TV and am always behind!) and though they changed the plot in many key ways, the producers have somehow managed to capture the angst and themes from the books (not to mention the terror and creepiness).

Basic premise for those unfamiliar: guy wakes up in a hospital bed after being shot and the entire world has changed as he has been in a coma. Some strange disease has taken over the world and now the "dead" are no longer dead but zombie-like, hungry for flesh, terrorizing the few humans who have managed to avoid getting the disease (which seems to be caused by bites or scratches from the walking dead). Society, needless to say, has broken down, and the cities are uninhabitable as the zombies crowd every street and residence. Small bands of humans escape and live in hiding, ready to move at any minute.

OK on the surface kind of hokey. True enough. But what the series does is explore what our society means by showing us a society with extreme violence and where the sense of right and wrong is completely up-ended. In a sense, it operates like Mad Men (which, again, is much more about our society than the world of 1960s misogynistic advertising executives) but turns it over: what does it mean to be a "man" to be brave or a protector when the world is turned upside down? Why do we automatically revert back to these old paradigms of man as protector, woman as sweeper of the hearth and nurturer when things become drastic? Also themes of being a leader, being "the odd man out," conforming, and, of course, what it means to be human.

It's not a perfect show: sometimes the dialogue is god-awful. The southern accents are appalling (the story is set in Atlanta and rural Georgia). It gets a bit soap-opera-y at times. And there is almost no point in the show when you feel like laughing. It's heavy, deadly serious.  But it's worth watching. And as The Tyee suggests: perhaps it fulfills some kind of primordial need to explore our worst fears (which used to be filled by stories of Armageddon, the end times, hell, etc.)

Sidebar: Netflix Canada: only $8 a month and yes if you want something that's just been released or something very specific, forget about it. But there is plenty there worth watching...I haven't rented a movie in years (and now only download a movie occasionally from iTunes when it's something new or very very specific).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Innovative Interview with Gary Shteyngart

Here's an interesting interview between Rabbi Harvey at Jewish Books and writer Gary Shteyngart

In graphic novel form by Steve Sheinkin.

Interesting approach and you can check it out here.

t's all about Shteyngart's 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story.

The book is excellent and the interview with the writer though it's text-heavy (hard to avoid in an interview!) contains some interesting information about Shteyngart's approach and research on "the future".

I wish I could draw because I'd love to make my interviews this interesting.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thoughts on Governor General Award winners for 2012

Linda Spalding: her GG fiction prize wasn't a shock because she is a great writer (though mainly for non-fiction), but I haven't read her novel, The Purchase. Her speech was lovely and she talked about coming to Canada in 1982 with an unpublished novel in her suitcase and feeling valued as a writer and artist, tapping into a vibrant and amazing community of artists and writers in the Toronto area.

I also haven't read Ross King's book Leonardo and the Last Supper though I've heard it buzzed about here and there. Definitely going to check that one out.

I was really happy that Nigel Spencer won for his translation of Marie-Claire Blais's book Mai at the Predator's Ball. Blais continues to do amazing, innovative and hard-to-categorize work though she's in her mid 70s at this point. I had forgotten that he'd translated this work. He's won twice before for translation for translating Marie-Claire Blais. For anyone who's not read Blais or who wants to start with an excellent Quebecois francophone writer, she's where it's at. Blais and Dany Laferrière are the two best-known names (after Michel Tremblay, of course) on the international scene from Quebec.

I was surprised that France Daigle won for Pour sûr. It's a great book (and she was in attendance at Blue Met 2012 for this book) but Catherine Mavrikakis got a great deal of buzz for her book Les derniers jours de Smokey Nelson and was short-listed for a couple of prizes for it. So it surprised me. Then again, it is nice to see a non-Quebecker win for a francophone novel (Daigle is from New Brunswick).

At any rate, when I got back to the office, two publishers had already emailed or faxed me proposals for the next festival with their just-crowned GG 2012 winners.

So many books! I feel like I am reading constantly but even so, I can't possibly keep up with everything I should read. Now off: I should spend an hour reading (Eric Dupont's La Fiancée américaine) and I should get myself to the office at some point today, too!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

CanLit: Off to the Governor General Awards!

Banquet in a couple hours' time to announce the winners of the Governor General's awards. I have to say that I really like the GG's. The books they pick are a broader representation of what Canadian writers are doing than other prize committees; they recognize genres that don't get as much attention in Canada or internationally (drama, illustration) and it's one of the rare times when French and English titles are put down alongside one another given there is a great deal of segregation in our language communities nationally (and even locally to some extent, a Festival like Blue Metropolis is one of the only places in the world where English and French are allowed to be in dialogue with one another!).

Some of my faves are (these are not necessarily my pics to win since I haven't read all the long-listed books. Plus I feel like I should remain relatively unbiased!):

ENGLISH (but only the categories I feel qualified to assess!):
Vincent Lam: The Headmaster's Wager (fiction)
David McGimpsey: Li'l Bastard (poetry)
James Pollock: Sailing to Babylon (poetry)
Nahlah Ayed: A Thousand Farewells (non-fiction)
Sheila Fischman (Kim Thuy): Ru (translation)

Catherine Mavrikakis: Les derniers jours de Smokey Nelson (Romans et nouvelles)
France Daigle: Pour sûr (Romans et nouvelles)
Hélène Dorion: Coeurs, comme livres d'amour (poesie)
Pascal Riendeau: Méditation et vision de l'essai: Roland Barthes, Milan Kundera et Jacques Brault (Essais)
Lori Saint-Martin et Paul Gagné (Miriam Toews): Irma Voth (Traduction)
Lori Saint-Martin et Paul Gagné (Ann Charney): La petite cousin de Freud (Traduction)

I love David McGimpsey's book. And Nahlah Ayed's. And Catherine Mavrikakis is one of the most innovative writers working today.

Good luck to everyone! :)

Monday, November 12, 2012

"Light" Reading, Part I

From our Facebook page:

Can you recommend short (200 pages), amazingly good novels available in paperback? I have to be able to hold it and turn the pages with one hand while nursing!

Yes, naturally! For me the trick is the "amazingly good" part since one person's amazingly good might be another's snore-fest, but here is what I'd suggest today:

The NYRB classics line are often short novella-sized novels, always paperback, and generally fairly light (physically). These issues are very international in focus, usually translated from other languages and often contain introductions from some of the best-known contemporary writers working today. Also, the authors are generally no longer living so these are not as contemporary as some prefer.

Stefan Zweig was one of the best-known German writers of the 20th century. He never really had a huge following in the English-speaking world until NYRB started re-translating (and translating for the first time) some of his better known works: Confusion, Beware of Pity, Chess, The Post-Office Girl are just a few of his titles. He is not a writer without controversy but he definitely presents a specific time and place in European history that is long gone.

A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor (the introduction is by Karen Armstrong, win-win!). One of the greatest travel writers, Fermor chronicles his travels through Europe at some well-known monasteries in search of silence and respite from our modern, chaotic lives.

Tove Jansson has some really lovely books that are fascinating portraits of Scandinavian childhoods spent on seashores and in forests. They are almost fairy-tale like (Jansson was the author of the very popular Moomin series of kids books). Two of her that I've read and enjoyed include The Summer Book and The True Deceiver.

For crime-writing lovers, there's Georges Simenon. The NYRB almost single-handedly brought him back from (relative) obscurity in the English-speaking world and his works are dark, foreboding, psychologically complex and highly entertaining. Some good books by Simenon: Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Dirty Snow, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan.

Finally, there's Albert Cossery, a writer whose work I find to be highly influential and interesting. Born in Cairo of Greek and Lebanese extraction, Cossery lived most of his life in Paris and wrote novels, graphic novels, stories, journalistic pieces and many other forms of writing. Two of his books done by NYRB include Proud Beggars and The Jokers. I've written about another of his works before here.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the excellent work the NYRB does in issuing and re-issuing some of the best of international literature.

For more contemporary books that can be held with just one hand, stay tuned later this week.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The South by Colm Tóibín

It's Colm Tóibín's first novel, dating from 1990, and it was a lovely read. The South tells the story of a young Irish mother living in a village outside Dublin in the 1950s who suddenly decides to leave her husband and young son from whom she is disconnected.

She goes to Spain, sets up with a Spanish painter and begins painting herself, becoming marginally embroiled in the politics the new Franco regime. Michael, the Irish man who lives there at the edges of the arts scene in Barcelona at first unsettles her (he claims to be from the same village she is from), acts almost as an internal voice in sections, mediating the exotic, passionate and often chaotic world of these artists who had put so much effort into defeating Franco. But Michael also acts as a foil for her Spanish artist, Miguel, in that he represents the constrained and restrained emotion that the Irish aren't given license to express (as openly as the passionate, fiery southerners). That said, Michael is more open than Katherine. He allows himself to be carried away by passions, by love of art and beauty in a way that's new to her.

What I like about Tóibín as a general rule is how straightforward his story-telling is. He doesn't get bogged down with long, lyrical passages or ornate descriptions of scenes or feelings. He tells the story in a very matter of fact way, though there is inordinate beauty in this as well. The beauty of Tóibín comes from small details. In a scene set at Katherine's mother's place in London after she has left her family, her mother (who many years before had left Katherine and Katherine's father, too, to follow her own identity) has some friends over, friends who've never been told about Katherine (or that she had any children):

     As they stood in the kitchen when the guests had gone, Katherine asked her mother why she had told her friends that she had no children.
     "I put that all behind me."
     "It feels funny being written off like that."
     "Yes, like walking out of the cinema, leaving it all behind, the big picture."
     "Don't make jokes."
     "Katherine, don't tell me what to do."
     "Did I ever exist for you?"
     "I got out of that place, and I put it behind me. It's what you're going to do, isn't it? Your father wouldn't come. I don't think you've consulted your spouse. Incidentally, he telephoned twice today."
     "He'll telephone again tomorrow. I told him I had been in touch with you and I would tell you."
     "Tell him I've left," she said, and turned away.

It's such a simple scene on the surface: the emotion is very controlled. Neither wants to acknowledge the pain they have inflicted on others but both want their own pain acknowledged. Another writer would have dealt expressively with how Katherine was feeling, what she needed to get from her mother. But we get that only under the surface, only be reading between the words. The beauty is in the way they talk past each other, in that final detail when Katherine "turns away," which sounds almost biblical in its ability to both be understated but be quivering with emotion just under the surface.

In his more recent works, Tóibín still avoids dramatic scenes (and when there is something dramatic happening, it's often something that happens on the edge of the details we are given). In this day and age where every feeling and emotion is catalogued and analyzed, I love reading this kind of restrained sense of personal feeling.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Richler and Valenzuela: two very different writers

First there's Nancy Richler, whose Giller-nominated novel, The Imposter Bride, from earlier this year I've been reading this week. It's an engaging story about surviving trauma and learning to forgive the past. When a young woman arrives in Montreal just after the war, it's clear to everyone around her that she has come out of something horrific. What struck me about these passages is how much the characters keep to themselves. I think today we have more impulse to share what we are feeling and thinking in order to help those around understand why we do (or don't do) the things we do.

But this mid-20th century family still guards their thoughts and feelings preciously and, as a result, the novel's plot moves forward. It veers towards the overly poetic at times (the sending of stones to Ruth every year on her birthday seems like a highly novelistic flourish) but it's a story which reminds us of the individual horrors that WWII brought to so many lives. Mothers who leave, secret traumas from the past, starting a new life and a new identity and the things we can't leave behind: all these themes are explored by the writer but in the end, we are left with a story that is hard to put down, hard to forget. Certain images have stayed with me for days and the shifting points of view created an important effect in that we never sense that feeling of claustrophobia we might have if we were only in Lily's head.

Though the book was nominated for the Giller, it didn't get as much buzz as it might have which is surprising since it's such a powerful story. She's a new writer to me but I am excited about having the chance to read her earlier work.

The other writer I've been thinking about is Argentine Luisa Valenzuela. She's getting on now in years but I find her work so unique and thoughtful. Though she might be called a "difficult" writer (see yesterday's post) her almost stream-of-consciousness narration is highly disciplined and very tightly woven into the fabric of history, particularly the recent history of Argentina.

She breathes in huge gulps of her city's air, the verb a lie at the time, because the air had become unbreathable. With vandal-like delight she is disemboweling her library. Some books will have to disappear - the word alone produces goosebumps - others are simply dismantled in order to preserve this story or that essay or those three chapters that she knows she'll need for her course, or that she wants to keep with her in spite of the weight limit on planes. Get rid of everything to be able to leave as lightly as possible. She knows that if she stays in her own country, she won't write anymore. She can't show her latest work to anyone. She's afraid of putting those readers in danger (from "Getting Ready to Jump," in the collection Dark Desires and the Others).

What strikes me about this passage is how openly she references the politics in one way but how cloaked her allusions are in another way. Valenzuela has said that she avoids writing about "the message" of politics and this to me seems like a fair way to approach this topic. (It also reminds me of a Slate article over the weekend on the work of Barbara Kingsolver. Is the writer - either Kingsolver herself or Michelle Dean the Slate writer - confusing the issue with the message?) Otherwise, writing (or any art) becomes dated very quickly.

Valenzuela's work is fascinating and a writer I'd love to see in person sometime.

A great interview with Luisa Valenzuela here from the Paris Review Writers Series.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

German Crime Series: screening at the Goethe Institute

Thursday night (tomorrow, the 8th of November) at the new Goethe Institute in Montreal (St-Laurent and Ontario, just a block north of St-Laurent metro station) there will be a screening of a German television series that caused quite a sensation when it was screened in Germany as part of the Berlin Film Festival a couple of years ago. The series is comprised of 10 episodes and entitled In the Face of Crime (Im Angesicht des Verbrechens). Many critics called it a masterpiece though the director's name, Dominik Graf, isn't widely known outside of Germany. According to several articles and critics' responses (including this one here) that's largely because Graf writes for television which naturally has a much smaller international audience and often falls off the circuit for international film festival screenings.

But let's not forget that even cinematic geniuses like Kieslowski started on television (if you haven't seen his 10 episode series, The Decalogue, made for Polish television in the 1980s, you are missing out!) and today the talk around the water cooler is much more often around television than it is about movies. (I'm always amazed at how much of my conversations with friends relates to TV when almost none of us actually watch television shows on TV but instead on DVD or Netflix or iTunes or the PC: talking about Breaking Bad,  Downton Abbey, The Big C, Weeds, Treme, The Wire, etc., etc.).

As I noted earlier this week, it used to be that television was looked down upon and I remember when I was an undergraduate, there were no television shows that were considered even halfway decent for polite society! Nowadays television is, by and large, much more interesting and engaging than big American movies.

Be all that as it may, In the Face of Crime, the German series, shows the lives and work of two Berlin police officers as they navigate the German underworld, spotlighting Russian gangs, sex trafficking and other issues major urban centres around the world are forced to deal with today. I've not seen it but definitely going to go check it out.

It plays Thursday and Friday nights at the Goethe Institute in downtown Montreal. It's $3 to get in (free to friends of the Instiute) and each episode is about one hour long (so two episodes per evening). The screening is in German with English subtitles. Bring some friends. Might be a new show to discuss around the water cooler!

QWF 2012 Awards: Readings

QWF awards event was last night and I saw some excellent readers feature their own work: 

Taras Grescoe read from Straphanger which is a fascinating book on the role that the automobile has played in our cities for far too long. In the book, Grescoe travels to 14 cities around the world and explores what they are doing right and how they could make their cities better, more egalitarian and more people-friendly. It's a hard sell, particularly to North Americans who are so largely attached to their cars and driving. But for those of us who don't own a car (I haven't had a car since I was 20 years old and at the time I sold it because I never drove it), Grescoe's thesis is so intuitive: the car has its place but cities would be better if the car had a diminished role in them.  More than the above, Grescoe is just an engaging and intelligent writer and the book was one I had a hard time putting down.

Also heard Julija Sukys reading from her book Epistophilia, a biography in letters of a librarian who saved countless Jews from extermination while quietly working at a library in the Lithuanian capital, smuggling food and supplies in and out of the Jewish Ghetto. I really enjoyed reading this book, not only because I think the city of Vilnius, Lithuania is one of the most fascinating cities in the world (small, not much happens there, but a rich history and incredibly beautiful) but also because I am all for books which bring an unknown person's story to light, show us someone who should be remembered.  

Tom Abray read from his book of short stories, Pollen, several of which I still recall though I read the book last year (or very early this year). His characters are engaging and find themselves in situations that we can almost all relate to (trying to find a daycare for their kid, doing some half-ass renovation project while spending the weekend alone at home). He's a good reader, too, and I wish writers of short stories generally could make a living at their craft because Abray, though young, seems to have a real gift for the short story.

I heard Alice Petersen read from her collection, All the Voices Cry, though I'd heard her read maybe 18 months ago from her book before it was published. Her stories are simply amazing: Petersen comes from New Zealand originally and she has this exotic distance in her language that is quite distinct and unique from other Canadian writers. Her stories are rich with humour and wit. I see a bright future for Petersen.

There were several writers there whose readings I missed because I came late (TD Children's Literary Award Banquet) but the entire roster of 2012 QWF awards can be found here (PDF). Some excellent work being done by our local Quebec Anglophone writers and very happy to be a part of the booming and successful community of creative and intelligent writers.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On Difficult Books

I had a professor once in graduate school who used the word "accessible" to insult a writer's work. This tendency in certain circles that books must be dense, difficult to read, complex was one of the most annoying things, in fact, about graduate school. This doesn't refer to advanced vocabulary or overly complicated plots, but to works that, in fact, may have no plot. Or that intentionally obfuscate. It used to irk me when he'd dismiss a book by simply asserting that it was "simplistic" as if complexity made for a good read. This was true of not only fiction but of literary criticism or theory. And, let's face it, a big chunk of literary theory that has been so fashionable in the last generation is simply bad writing. Perhaps the writer has some novel or fascinating idea but the idea should be clear.

Not difficult.
I am of the school of straightforwardness. I don't have any issue with books that have unusual form or where the author's ideas on a topic are integrated into the plotting. But I detest books whose soul aim is to show off how smart the author thinks he is. Or "creative." A novel should essentially be a good story in my view and that doesn't mean the author can't take risks (he should, in fact) or can't play with form or style or do something new or unusual. But that should always be in service to the story, in my view. And there certainly are "simplistic" books (the story has no dimension to it, the themes or ideas are pat or trite).

That said, certain popular critics often dismiss a writer's work as "unreadable" or a "hard read" which I often find curious. When people call Kazuo Ishiguro's "hard" I don't see it. Though some of his books (like The Unconsoled) don't really have a straightforward plot, the language is fairly clear and straightforward. Virginia Woolf is another author often put in this camp. Or Borges.

I was very surprised that some people called Jenny Erpenbeck's book Visitation "undeniably difficult" which I definitely deny. Again, if one sits down with every book and excepts a straightforward sort of plotting arc, perhaps that's where one senses the challenge. But having read enough German literature (another author called difficult is Herte Mueller, and though that word might cover one aspect of her, it doesn't cover her writing!), I guess one comes to except a certain kind of approach. Same with Argentine writers.

I wonder if the rift between what academics find "good" and what the public find "good" has to do with the breakdown of high vs low culture. When I first started my undergraduate degree, I think, the remnants of this distinction were still visible but just barely: TV was still widely treated with disdain, popular writers were totally ignored (you'd never be caught dead with any living author who'd ever had a best-seller and, in fact, "best-seller" was an insult), but slowly this distinction has blurred. That's not to say that there aren't popular writers who are ignored in academia or "respectable" literary institutions: many are. But popular success doesn't necessarily mean a work is instantly trash. In fact, I've heard many people, many serious readers, say that they read Twilight or Fifty Shades simply because they wanted to see what the buzz was all about, they wanted to understand what these books' popularity said about our culture today, etc. Yes, they ultimately trashed the books but the assumption was that even trash should be part of the conversation in understanding where we are as a society of readers today...

I guess I wouldn't go so far as to read that kind of work mainly because I have so many other books vying for my attention. Good books. And difficult ones.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Reading and Concentration

A few weeks ago I heard two authors on-stage, lamenting the fact that readers today expect more than just words on a page. That images help, that readers' attention spans are shorter and can't sit for too long without some kind of distraction or alternative interaction to help manage so many words.

This may or may not be true but I found it a fascinating assertion. I have to admit that long books are slightly intimidating (though they didn't used to be). I still read them but I have to break them up so that they are read like different books (Murakami's 1Q84 too me about six months to read, not because it was a particularly difficult book but because I read about 2-3 books in between each major part of the novel).

Biography: easier with pictures
I am not sure if this is just a natural extension of having a lot to read or if my brain has been rewired because of so much online reading. I do read a lot more graphic novels than I used to (a teacher of graphic novels told me once that he loved teaching this genre because he never had to convince his students to do the reading, that he never had to suggest reading was "good for you"). And I have to admit that I can certainly appreciate the interaction between image and text that this form allows. I never feel that I have to read a graphic novel (and sometimes I do feel that X book is a chore I wouldn't read if I didn't need to for work).

But reading with links on the page or pop-up windows with factoids is annoying. It's not that I am not tempted to follow the chain from these additional bits of information, but I don't want to be tempted. And it breaks my concentration in a way that is hard to recover from. Yet I do it. I do it when I watch movies, too (keep a device handy, read about the director, the main actors, the reviews of a movie: WHILE I'M WATCHING IT!).

I also find that authors who write 50 page chapters with no breaks annoy me. Sometimes I can sit for an hour straight without getting up but it's rare. Generally, I read in 10-20 minute spurts because I often read on the metro or with a phone next to me, etc. Shorter chapter breaks or natural dividing points keeps me moving but I find I read these books faster, too.

I have no idea what this means in terms of future readers, but the two authors I alluded to earlier on both suggested that the tendency to have images or illustrations in books will continue because people expect this now and readers need this now. I don't know if that's true but an illustration every once in a while certainly doesn't hurt!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Random Sunday Thoughts

*It's snowing. I guess winter really is going to happen again this year. Every year, I hope that winter just forgets to show up. It'll be fine once it starts but the transition is a challenge.

*There is little distinction between "work" and "life" in some professions. I notice this, for example, when I am reading a book for work on a Saturday afternoon or blogging for work on a Sunday morning. But more than this, I have many events to attend for work which almost always figure into my weekend at some point: readings, launches, performances, openings, cocktails. Not complaining, but a good reason why I need so much time off during the summer.

*Reading Nancy Richler's The Imposter Bride. Only just 30-40 pages into it but it's highly readable at this point (beyond that initial confusion when one has to sort out all the different characters' names). Nominated for the Giller, it's a book that landed on my desk almost a year ago (before it was published) but, as is often the case, it got a bit lost in the sea of books. When I read about the nomination, I recalled having it and rounded it up.

*It's odd how few novels there are about elections when we are all so gripped by them a regular intervals. I know about a few, of course: The Manchurian Candidate (which I read a long time ago, great movie, too, though I mean the old one with Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury), Primary Colors (which I've never read), and a few others. When I search for "novels about elections" a list pops up of 10 or so. I've almost no interest in reading any of them, particularly at this time of year when I am so sick of election noise. I've absolutely given up watching the US news at this point but it's even a big part of the Canadian news cycle now.

*Still working my way through Jason Lutes' Berlin, on the second book, City of Smoke. Reading it slowly because I try hard to only read one chapter every few days so I can revel in it. That's the problem with most good graphic novels: I race through them in 45 minutes, but I'm trying to train my brain to enjoy this one slowly, pay close attention to the illustrations and, more importantly, the interaction between the illustrations and the text. Book three has not been anthologized yet (the author is still writing the series) so now the question is do I wait or do I start buying single issues/chapters once I am done with Book 2?

* The last few days I have been doing lots of research: on German novelists, on Chinese poets, on Italian journalists, on African cartoonists. This is one part of my job that I like a lot.

*My first day of winter tradition (which means the first day it feels like winter): make a big pot of chilli and watch an old movie on DVD.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

50 Shades of Insanity: the Publishing World in Freefall

All these changes in the publishing world are something worth watching closely. A merger between Random House and Penguin will really shake up publishing in many ways, even in Canada, where they are the two biggest US-based publishers with whom Canadians work.

I have to admit that it makes me somewhat nervous. And for more than one reason. Remember many years ago when people were complaining about Barnes & Noble and Borders having some huge over-concentrated chunk of the US book-distribution market? At the time, the worry was that there was too much intellectual information in the hands of two organizations and without a "deal" from one of these book stores, a small publisher or even writer had no chance at survival. Distribution is key, as many people began to understand. That problem is still ever-present but the other problematic issue which arose from that much concentration was that when Borders went belly up, the concentration became even more acute (now we have B&N and Amazon and even less chance for small publishers...).

I've said it before, but I hate the fact that there are "super" or "mega" hits which affect 5 or 10 authors at any one time, but hundreds of thousands of authors just scrape by (or, in fact, don't scrape by) and this is one extension of having so much of the publishing world and book distribution world done by so few. (Having travelled so much lately, I've been shocked to see versions of Fifty Shades being read by young women -- always young women -- and translated into French, German, Dutch, Spanish and even Swedish! I just want to take these young women and shake them, "Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?") Why are, as it seems at certain key moments, all the world's women in the West reading the same book? It's depressing.

And don't even get me started about men and what they (don't) read. And don't even suggest that it's "the market" that decides because it's not a free and open system where people (i.e., authors) can play fairly.

Why not spread all the money being spent on that silly book to 100 books and authors instead of all concentrated onto one author and one publisher, particularly when that book will be utterly forgotten in 20 years (it's already widely available in bargain bins and every used bookstore owner I know turns copies away because they are swimming in them). Hell, it will be utterly forgotten in 10 years (except, most likely, as a minor note in how it made S&M something mainstream for a brief period of time). Give a hundred writers a decent chance to make a living instead of making one author and one publisher obscenely rich.

I know, people don't think about it that way when they want to read the book and see what the hype is all about. But pfffffft.

Then there is the possible demise of D&M, one of the best presses in Canada. This point is truly depressing. One of the best things about Canada is its vibrant publishing scene in terms of diversity, regionalism, and genre but in a very limited Canadian context. More and more, Canada takes its cue from the US in terms of "the market" and there is less government support for publishers (and more competition). Is there too much being published in Canada? Probably. But without government support, we wouldn't have big Canadian hits (Johanna Skibsrud, Esi Edugyan, Kim Thuy, Will Ferguson, etc., etc.) and our market would come to resemble more and more the big behemoth to our south (that certainly publishes too much without government support and still manages to produce so little diversity).

That's not to say that the Canadian publishing world couldn't use a dose of something because there are often I find too many of the same kinds of novels being produced, rarely is anything innovative in terms of form (I'm talking about novels here), and though there are some excellent smaller publishing houses in Canada, where is our New Directions or Open Letter or Dalkey or Melville House or Archipelago?

I guess what I am building to is that the government restriction that Canadian presses focus primarily on Canadian books means that the work being done is less diverse than it might be otherwise. The small US presses get little to no government funding and because of that can publish writers from all over the world and do beautiful translations of writers in Latin America, Europe, and Asia. To me as a reader, diversity is always a good thing. We need less of the modern urban novel about life in a contemporary Canadian city and more of other voices: more Edem Awumeys and Esi Edugyans and Anna Porters and Kim Thuys and Josip Novakoviches and Goran Simics.

But to circle back: what all this means to Canada, I fear, is more of the same. More publishers unwilling to take risks, more necessity to seek out "a hit." Literary prizes seem to be help to some extent though even that seems to produce a certain "kind of" writer (a different topic for another day) and favour certain "kinds of" novels. If D&M can pull out of this difficult period, it's all the better for Canadian writing...