Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Got a story to tell? THIS REALLY HAPPENED at Blue Met 2014!

We are still accepting submissions for the next TRH at Blue Met on May 2nd!

The theme of the evening's stories is LOST IN TRANSLATION: stories about misunderstandings, miscommunications, and good ol' broken telephone. We want to hear about when you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, when you misheard the most important word in the sentence, or when you thought your neighbour was flirting with you when he was just being friendly.

All stories are told without notes and are meant to be told in an intimate and casual way. Stories should be a maximum of 6 minutes long.

If you are interested in participating, please submit a short summary of your story to: by February 28th. And listen to past stories on!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Alena by Rachel Pastan

Was up late last night finishing Rachel Pastan's excellent novel, Alena, which is a kind of retelling of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (which is itself a kind of retelling of Jane Eyre).

The book is almost immediately engaging: from the opening line which echoes Du Maurier's ("Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again...") to the entire frame of the characters and plot. Pastan has updated it in ingenious ways (Rebecca's husband because a wealthy gay art museum owner and Mrs. Danvers becomes the "missing" Alena's assistant, Agnes). The isolation is there, the timidity and insecurity (and youth) of the protagonist is there, the haunting gothic setting, the missing character which the book centers around.

The novel starts in Venice where the main character, the assistant to a horrid Midwest art museum curator, meets Bernard, a jet set art dealer and gallery owner whose institution in The Cape near Boston has suffered the mysterious disappearance of its own curator, Alena (who disappeared two years ago, her body never recovered). When Bernard hires the (unnamed) protagonist to be the new curator, she must adjust to life in this claustrophobic and mysterious small village along the coast. In many ways, Pastan is a better writer than Du Maurier, at least in terms of getting at truths of characters' emotions and psychology. That said, some of the scenes do feel quite forced and one does certainly have a sense of an earlier telling throughout.

This is the second book I've read in the last few months that has really delved into the world of visual art (the other being Donna Tarrt's The Goldfinch). It's an interesting if maddening world that Pastan captures beautifully (its overly developed aesthetic language, its silly trends and impulses, its total domination by upper the classes).

It's a really lovely novel and one that makes me want to re-read Rebecca while this retelling is still so fresh in my mind.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

National Forum on the Literary Arts

So this weekend I've been holed up in a basement conference room near McGill University, attending the National Forum on the Literary Arts which Canada Council for the Arts is putting on.

What an incredibly rich gathering of literary professionals from all over the country: poets, writers, festival organizers, publishers, booksellers, storytellers, librarians, publicity agents, probably over 200 people. We've all come together to discuss the future of the literary arts in Canada and what a conversation it's been.

One thing I have to say that I have really appreciated about the forum is the intentional variety that's been a core part of how it's been organized. I've been in rooms with only writers or only festival organizers and so often individual groups involved in the literary arts have specific sets of problems. But talking to different kinds of stakeholders in the literary world makes us all aware of the entire eco-system.

Yesterday we heard from Richard Nash of who was snowed-in so stuck at Laguardia but still beamed in to give us his funny, thoughtful and provocative take on the last 1000 years of literary history (in 50 minutes). I didn't agree with everything he said but he certainly got the audience talking.

The best moments, though, of these conferences, are the moments in between sessions: sharing a coffee in a corner with one of the country's best literary magazine promoters, being irritated at an off-hand comment by a major Canadian publisher, seeing old friends I've known for years and shaking hands with people I've never met but sent 500 emails to, traipsing through a blizzard with three major west-coast Festival directors, a writer, and a poet, and discussing writers to avoid (yes, we share notes, writers so behave yourselves!), writers who are a gem to work with, companies, themes, problems, personalities, venues, etc., etc.

We're very lucky in Canada that we have the Canada Council who does so much to promote the arts but then also takes the time to listen to its artists. Working in the arts isn't easy and though it has its perks, is not something someone does unless they love it. And the fact that the government of Canada is willing to invest in supporting and promoting its arts is one of the most amazing things about living here.

This said, mind you, from someone who only became a Canadian citizen less than a month ago...

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs. Oh, and Marquez

I read The Woman Upstairs a few weeks ago and it's odd how I've almost completely forgotten it. The novel is set in a suburb of Boston and tells the story of a "failed" artist (to put it bluntly) who becomes infatuated with this exotic family, the child and parents of a boy in her class.

Messud famously reacted to an interviewer who noted that her main character was rather unlikable by asserting that main characters shouldn't be likable and that the criticism was a way of "gendering" writers. After all, Messud suggested, do we "like" Jonathan Franzen's characters or Martin Amis' characters? Jennifer Weiner took this argument to the extreme in an article by Slate, suggesting that "likable" was the  new code word for "bad" or "pop" writing. Of course literature is filled with likable and unlikable characters a like and I agree that a main character shouldn't need to be likable. But then something else has to appeal to the reader: the book's ideas, the plot, the writing itself. Unfortunately, The Woman Upstairs lacks anything else which might engage the reader.

Yes, the main character is angry but I didn't necessarily react to this. I reacted to her misplaced and seemingly unreasonable anger. She's angry at everyone just about: she is angry that she is a school-teacher and not an artist. She's angry at other middle-class people (she's especially biting towards other women in her school), at her aunt, at her father. But her anger is the anger of the middle-class. Anger is understandable but unreasonable anger just seems childish and petty. Yes, she's angry at the center of the book for a particular action of one character, but anger is the only constant we get from Nora from beginning to end.

In terms of likability, I think that if her character had been likable, it might have mitigated the anger or bitterness that she feels. We might have come to forgive her or at least be able to look past her anger. But because she's not particularly likable and angry/bitter, I asked myself over and over: why am I reading this book? I don't think the questions Messud raises about art or the role of the artist or how to live an artistic life are particularly original or fascinating. Nor should they be necessarily. But even with an unlikable character, some innovative ideas about art might have helped make me appreciate this novel.

I try hard not to write reviews on this site. That's not the role nor is it my role. So I will just wrap this up by suggesting that there are certain kinds of writers that we "want" to like but can't. Messud is that kind of writer for me. She's a fine writer but I don't understand her characters. I don't particularly want to understand them. Her last book, The Emperor's Children, I remember, made me feel the same way: spoiled, whiny east coasters who seem to expect privileges for being rather ordinary. Naturally, she's a writer who'd get a lot of attention at the Festival and we'd jump at any chance of having her since no doubt our devoted audience would fill rooms if she were there.

As I was passing out of Cartagena last week, I picked up Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The General in His
Labyrinth. He's a writer I've been reading off and on almost my entire life. And every time I pick up one of his books, I find it such hard work to get through. I can look at his words on the page and appreciate their beauty, his voice, the tone. But I just find them hard to engage with. Anyway, I finished the novel but it was work.

For me, it's almost the opposite problem as Messud: his characters are likable, his ideas are rich. He is such a funny writer in parts. But I find the lyricism gets a little irritating, as does the way the narrator jumps around constantly. If I could read Spanish better, I might try and read it in the original language to see if I can deal with it better...

The novel tells the story of the last few months of Simon Bolivar's life as he travels across Colombia trying to avoid assassination. Bolivar is a figure I have long been interested in and I've read a few biographies and a few novels inspired by his life. Maybe I need to force myself to read a few more Marquez books while I'm in this frame of mind, now that I'm accustomed to his style.

So my latest reading hasn't been a treat. I've been forcing myself to read authors I should read. This is always a question for me: because I am surrounded by books and have to read constantly, I select very carefully the books I read that aren't work-related. I don't expect them to be easy or happy reads. But I also don't want to have to work hard when I read to escape from all the work reading I am forced to do...

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Joe Sacco & Alfonso Zapico

People keep asking me if I`m "scouting" here in Cartagena and though that's not the reason I came, I have to admit, it's one of the things that draws me personally to literary Festivals.

Today I discovered a writer whose name I've heard but whose work I didn't know very well: Joe Sacco. Born in Malta, Sacco was raised in the US and originally trained as a journalist. His love of comics, though, eventually overrode all the journalism he was doing and I'd say now he's one of the few graphic journalists working today.

He insists on calling himself a cartoonist first but there's no denying that his work has important journalistic elements.

He has written about Russia's Chechnyan problem, Sarajevo, Palestine, and US poverty. His latest work is called The Great War and is at the top of my list next week...

I love how detailed his art is: you can look at a page and study it for the longest time, seeing something new with each scane of the panels. When you consider, for example, the work of Guy Delisle (another excellent cartoonist who flirts with non-fiction subjects), it's like comparing a pencil sketch to a painting.

At any rate, Sacco is an author I definitely envision at Blue Met at some point in the future.

Another graphic novelist whose work I do know is Alfonso Zapico, a high profile translation of his La ruta Joyce which traced James Joyce's Dubliners is excellent. I also found a copy of Cafe Budapest and leafed through it a few months back. I love his blend of true life stories with the highly fictionalized panels of characters. Zapico is an interesting figure and represents, I think, a burgeoning comics industry in the Spanish-speaking world. Unfortunately, not much gets translated into English (more into French). I guess that's a good reason to improve my Spanish...

I love this blending of genres with cartoons: journalism, history, biography, politics, war: it's a hopeful sign at this time when journalism is going through such major transition throughout the world. A new way of telling stories, true or otherwise, a new way of exposing, of praising, a new way of enlightening.