Monday, December 24, 2012

Poem by Carl Sandburg

At a Window

by Carl Sandburg

Give me hunger,
O, you gods
that sit and give
The world its orders.
Give me hunger, pain and want,
Shut me out with shame and failure
From your doors of gold and fame,
Give me your shabbiest, weariest hunger!

But leave me a little love,
A voice to speak to me in the day end,
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness.
In the dusk of day-shapes
Blurring the sunset,
One little wandering, western star
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow.
Let me go to the window,
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk
And wait and know the coming
Of a little love.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy holidays!

We have started our holiday break and our offices are closed until January 3. I'll be working during the break, far too much to do in the next few months to take much time off but it's not bad work in the end so I'm not complaining. Plus something about working on the floor  of the living room in between bouts of wrapping Christmas gifts and drinking eggnog makes it feel less like work...

I have several books to read for work but this week even have a few non-work books on my list including novel translated from Japanese, a murder mystery set in early 20th century Beijing, and a contemporary German novel.

Though none of these are really Christmas-y, every year we watch the following movies during the holidays:

The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Alice, The Double Life of Veronique and this amazing old Chinese animated feature called Princess Iron Fan. It's got the most unique and memorable animation (done in the early 1940s and one of China's first animated features ever made). Not sure how this list of non-Christmas Christmas movies developed but it's become a tradition around our house to break out the Christmas films and have them playing all week.

Best wishes, happy holidays and all the best for 2013!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

John Cheever. The Past. Seinfeld.

I came across this book the other day in a bookstore downtown and it brought back happy memories.

I've owned this edition at least twice in my life, one as an undergraduate where I read each story slowly and methodically, almost as if I could break them apart to understand how Cheever's stories worked. His narrators are cool observers, part of the action but also one stepped removed from the emotional core of the plot. Lots of family relationships, suburban New York landscapes, angry conversations. And lots and lots of drinking. Anyone who wants to be a writer should spend time encountering these stories as a young person, I think.

Years later, I came across the same edition of this collection in Asia somewhere. I recall one winter in my 7th floor apartment, staying in bed for a weekend (it was unusually cold and the heating systems don't work that well in Shanghai), re-reading this book again and experiencing the stories as an older reader. They hadn't lost their charm.

This was China in the very late 90s where books were not always easy to get, so good ones tended to make the rounds (along with DVDs and CDs): a friend borrowed this Cheever collection and on more than a few occasions we sat with beers in a bar and discussed various stories in it. Then the book travelled around our little circle of friends. I remember finding it odd that men connected to the stories more often than women (a woman I remember complained that the stories were about old white drunk men who would be the same age and generation as her father).

I didn't buy the book that I saw downtown the other day (I have no idea what happened to the two earlier editions of it I have owned, I suspect I loaned them to someone and they vanished into someone else's life). I didn't buy it because this time of year I simply have too much that I have to read for work and I don't need more distractions. But also, part of me likes the fact that the stories represent a time from my past(s), that the memories I have of them are associated with a very specific part of my history and for now at least I don't want to interfere with that. It's like coming across an album you used to like from high-school or college: you can still appreciate it but that music represents a different time and place.

You don't hear terribly much about John Cheever these days. I vaguely remember references to him on Seinfeld (he had exchanged love letters with George's uncle, I think...?) and I know that the Library of America did a great edition of his works a few years back.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Almemar Issue Three

Three stories of interest in the latest edition of Almemar.

First, Dinah Zeldin talks to GG-winning poet Julie Bruck about how she connects to the world through her writing. It's a highly readable piece about an innovative and thoughtful poet, a self-confessed "bad member of the tribe" who originally hails from Montreal.

Ernest Hoffman interviews international writer (though he hails from Holland) Arnon Grunberg about writing for different audiences. He also discusses a recent translation into English of his excellent 2006 novel, Tirza, and the controversy surrounding his novel The Jewish Messiah.

Finally, we have a piece on the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Jewish Public Library of Montreal, at a critical time in this history of libraries generally as they are being asked to change what they do in many key ways. The Executive Director considers the library's past and its future.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Animated Shorts of Literature: Kafka, Dostoevsky, Dickinson

I've been very interested lately in the idea of how image and word come together in a single work. Mainly this has been a result of my fascination with graphic novels the last several months, but even online I am noticing a trend: a lot more animated versions of classics of literature. 

This version of Emily Dickinson's "I Started Early - Took My Dog," is a perfect example. It's a poem (not even that well-known of a poem, actually) but it's also an animated short and the animation both adds to and detracts from the poem. The animation is dreamlike, simple, not rooted in the fundamentals of the poem necessarily but allusive. 

The animation of Piotr Dumala
Then I came across this, an animated short (though this one is nearly 30 minutes long) of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment by Polish animator Piotr Dumala. It's creepy, dark and scary and lacks the intellectual rigour that the Dostoevsky novel contains (though that's not a bad thing: a novelist can do a lot of interesting things with intellectual rigour, but that's not something we expect from a "cartoon.")

Still others:

An animated version of Kafka's "A Country Doctor." (This one in Japanese which gives such an unusual flavour to Kafka).

Incidentally, Open Culture is amazing. I never fail to find something there which is fascinating.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Last Days of Stefan Zweig

Crazy busy week and no time to blog. In the meantime, been reading two very interesting books.

Les derniers jours de Stefan Zweig has some of the most beautiful illustrations that I've seen in a long time. The story, too, is one that hooks the reader almost immediately: on a ship leaving New York harbour as Stefan Zweig and his wife leave what will be their last voyage abroad, on their way to Rio de Janeiro. The graphic novel is based on the book by Laurent Setsik (an influential book, it also inspired a play being shown in Paris while I was there back in the fall).

Only read about a third of the graphic novel so far, trying to revel in it and not read it all in one sitting which is what I want to far the tension between the Zweig character and his young and nervous wife is one of the book's pulls, but so is the fame that Zweig had at this point in his career. All the boat passengers keep approaching him and making conversation or ask him for an autograph. One forgets how incredibly famous Stefan Zweig was at the height of his career so nearly forgotten was he a number of years back (in the Anglophone and Francophone worlds at any rate).

Also been reading Aya de Yopougon by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by Clement Oubrerie. This one tells the tale of a young girl growing up in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, of being a young girl and the tension which comes from this in a traditional family. It's a funny book and the illustrations are also funny and charming. It's a book geared at "young readers" but I still find a lot in here that's interesting, particularly the portrayal of contemporary urban African life.

I hear from a few sources that Marguerite Abouet's book is now being made into a film (such an old stories with French writers: a movie is made of their work and suddenly they are impossible to confirm for our Festival, case in point David Foenkinos, Delphine de Vigan, among others...) which is an exciting development for the author and illustrator of her book.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Charles Taylor Prize and other Literary Awards...

A bit swamped in literary prize season this year: QWF, GGs, Giller, Cundill, and now the Charles Taylor announces their long list. The last couple of weeks it's been all about non-fiction. Though I try to read as much as I can, I have to admit that I read less non-fiction than novels or graphic novels. That said, I have read some books noted in some of the latest long or short lists. A few highlights:

Montrealer, Julija Šukys
Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaite by Julija Šukys. This one has been nominated for a few awards and I am really happy to see it on the CT list this year. The book is haunting, told with grace and skill, and is interesting formally: it's part biography, part memoir, part historical document. The core of it, though, is the life story of this fascinating woman who helped save many Jews during the Holocaust but ended up dying impoverished in a Paris apartment, nearly completely forgotten. By re-reading and reflecting on her letter, Šukys gives voice to an important individual, a lover of books, a multi-lingual and opinionated woman.

The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca by Carol Bishop-Gwyn. This book has received a good deal of attention since its publication (also nominated for several awards) and tells the story of the founder of the National Ballet of Canada. Franca had an extraordinary life and reading about it only underscores the influence she had on the Canadian arts.

Actually there are several other books of note there: Noah Richler's, the book on P.K. Page, and Ross King's book, Leonardo and the Last Supper.

I know from talking to some of the people there that the Charles Taylor jurors get well over 130 books each year to choose from and it's certainly not easy to sort through so many in order to come up with that list.

On a semi-related non-fiction note, I was at the Cundill Prize ceremony the other night and saw Stephen Platt win for his book Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, a book which traces the history of the Taiping Rebellion in the middle of the 19th century in China, a rebellion which (even conservative estimates suggest) killed 20 million people and late had a major influence on the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the subsequent years of civil war (and, one could argue, the founding and establishment of the Chinese Communist Party). I thought for sure Stephen Pinker would win for his book on violence, The Better Angels of our Nature (he's a Montreal boy, after all), but was also happy to see a book on Chinese history being so widely recognized.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Exciting news: Edmund White at Blue Met 2013

This is great news for us. Not only will Edmund White be one of our featured authors in 2013, he will be part of a larger programming track of GLBT writing generally.

Edmund White is a writer who many people have told me they discovered while young. For me personally, it was reading A Boy's Own Story when I was about 14 or so (I think I came across it in the Eli M. Oboler Library in southern Idaho), a book which opened up an entirely new world to me: of cities, of gay life, of coming to understand oneself in a way that back in the 80s in small town America felt revolutionary.

It's hard not to overstate the way that the Internet changed our entire relationship with the rest of the world: growing up in a small town in the US, the only connection to the outside world was TV and the library. And it's something that gay men of a certain generation often talk about: discovering books while young that significantly altered our view of the world. Today with the Internet, all that's changed, it seems to me though I haven't lived in small town America for 20 years.

After reading A Boy's Own Story, it was The Beautiful Room is Empty (which chronicles Edmund White's early youth in the 50s and 60s up until the Stonewall Riots of 1969), I moved on to other books throughout my teenage and early adult life (though many of his books would have been impossible to get in small town Idaho: The Joy of Gay Sex? Forget about it!).

There have been two reactions to Edmund White's coming to the Festival in the spring. Gay men (of all ages) have raved, many have talked about the books I've noted above and how fundamental they were in influencing their own feelings and coming out. A few women I've spoken to (straight women) have also been enthusiastic. Francophones tend to know Edmund White because of his biography of Genet, perhaps his best known "mainstream" book (he also lived in Paris for many years and speaks French beautifully). A few gay women, particularly younger gay women, have shrugged and wondered why this should be of interest to them.

I can't say enough on this point: in his early works, White captures that sense of what it is to be young and questioning oneself, not just in terms of sexuality but also in terms of identity, understanding our relationship with the world, and challenging many of our assumptions about different ways of living. In that sense, he fit in with the beatniks (though he came later) and the hippies (though he has more of an intellectual's gaze on the world of non-conformity), presaging punks and hipsters and all the other things that define our modern age.

I am often surprised at this attitude on the part of some who think that a "feminist" writer has nothing to say to him or a "gay" (male) writer has nothing to say to her. One can understand what it means to be a man by reading The Second Sex or Backlash or The Feminine Mystique in addition to understanding the limitations that our society places on women and the different kinds of challenges women face as they make their way through the world.

And the same can be said of a writer like Edmund White: his tales are both specific to a time and place but with universal applications (with so many resonance to issues of today): what it means to be different, to challenge others around us, to hide our true selves, to be afraid of opening up.

Mainly, though, I just know Edmund White's events will be memorable because he hasn't come to Montreal often as an author and it's a rare chance to hear in the flesh one of the premier voices of the last two generations of American literature.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Meena Kandasamy: a poet for today

I'm a big fan of Indian/Tamil poet Meena Kandasamy. I keep up with her Twitter updates and read and re-read her work.

Earlier this year, she got in somewhat of a scrap when she championed her point of view after weighing in on a festival associated with a university in April. Organized by the traditionally "low-caste" Dalits, the festival which featured beef dishes being served, outraged some right-wing Hindu nationalists who threatened violence.

When Kandasamy tweeted her happiness at the ultimate success of the festival, the reaction was violent and fierce, many people making horrific threats against her. As one organization put it:

It appears that Meena Kandasamy has been singled out for abuse at least partly because she is a bold and outspoken woman who expresses her opinion freely in the public sphere. The fact that she is a Dalit, especially one whose work focuses on caste annihilation, linguistic identity and feminism, clearly makes her even more of a target.

It's eerie how universal this impulse is: that radical religious fundamentalists (no matter which variety) use violence or threats of violence to any point of view they deem threatening to their outlook.

Though things seem to have blown over for now, I have been meaning to write about Kandasamy anyway for a while and praise her passionate and powerful poems, her bravery in writing what she wants to write (despite threats and criticism), and her general intelligence and creativity. Some poems feel positively ancient in their reliance on imagism and straightforward language:


Morning Song

Wet pink
And dusty grey
The sky begins to blush.
Some sleepy careless charm welcomes

Even Song

And pink gold hues
The smug sky at twilight
A final flush of fulfilment
Night falls.

I am almost reminded of Tang Dynasty poets, Du Fu or Li Po: bursts of images and colors which stand in for a vague emotional absence. Her book Ms Militancy contains some fascinating poems that reflect and refract the history of her caste and gender but they are highly personal and evocative as well.

On a highly personal note, when Kandasamy was in Montreal a couple of years ago for the Blue Met, we hopped a train out west and hit Ottawa and then Regina (together with two other writers including the charming and elegant Mr. K. Satchidanandan). I remember hitting a bar in Regina with them, a quiet (and chilly) Tuesday night in downtown Regina, drinking a beer in a gay bar because we were all curious what a gay bar in Regina, Saskatchewan would be like (answer: quiet). It was a nice trip and Meena and Satchi were both very likeable and down to earth.

In all three cities we traveled to, Kandasamy was raved about, people thrilled at her readings, her poems, and her quiet intelligence.