Friday, October 30, 2015

Keret translated into Farsi, Plath reads her own poems, Gloria Steinem in Montreal, Heather O'Neill and Montreal writers: Book Digest, October 30, 2015

Translation in Farsi coming soon

  • Israeli writer Etgar Keret's latest book will be translated into Farsi, a move, he hopes, will allow Afghanis (and unofficially Iranians who have no access to works translated from Hebrew) to connect with the humanity (and humour!) in his writing. Keret was last at our Festival in 2014 when he filled two auditoriums to maximum capacity and charmed everyone present with his humour and wit. 
  • Sylvia Plath reads Fifty of her own poems. I remember having a recording of one of her poems when I was younger and listening to it (on cassette tape) so many times that I memorized it. (It was her poem "Daddy.") She had such a distinct reading style, so grave and with a clipped Northeastern accent that no longer really exists.
  • Gloria Steinem in Montreal. The writer and activist releases a new book about her life of traveling and appears in Montreal, Tuesday, December 1 at the Rialto Theatre. Tickets at $10 or free if you buy her latest book in the shop on 211 Bernard.
  • Montreal writer Heather O'Neill writes for The Guardian about some great books set in Montreal for and by Montreal writers. I am so glad, too, that she presents both Francophone and Anglophone books, part of our city's heritage and what makes us one of the most unique places in North America.
Montreal: city of staircases

Monday, October 19, 2015

Nothing Is Too Small Not To Be Wondered About by Mary Oliver

Nothing Is Too Small Not To Be Wondered About

The cricket doesn't wonder
     if there's a heaven
or, if there is, if there's room for him.

It's fall. Romance is over. Still, he sings.
If we can, he enters a house
     through the tiniest crack under the door.
Then the house grows colder.

He sings slower and slower.
     Then, nothing.

This must mean something, I don't know what.
     But certainly it doesn't mean
he hasn't been an excellent cricket
     all his life.

                                     - Mary Oliver, from her collection Felicity

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Fukushima villages re-claimed by nature, Gothic horror works, Gloria Steinem, Spending time alone, Moby Dick card game: Cultural digest October 17

Nature re-claims chunks of the abandoned towns near Fukushima

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Smug celebrations of Soviet decay, the Tunisian Quarter's Peace Prize, Si Racha factory tours, defensive critics: Cultural Digest October 10

  • Article on how certain artists wish to "dance upon the grave" of Soviet decay by looking at physical sites of abandonment or dilapidation in brutalist built spaces. It's not discussed in the piece, but yet this is another symptom of capitalism run amok with no competing ideologies (unless we can call Islamic extremism - better called plain old 21st century fascism - a "competing ideology").
  • A very good primer on the Tunisian Quartet, their role in preventing full out civil war in the country, and the reasons they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week.
  • In memory of crime-writing sensation, Henning Mankell, who died earlier last week. Mankel was one of those authors whose work I've had on my list for years and years but never got around to reading anything (though I know his reputation and have read much about him). Compiling my Christmas reading list now and he'll certainly be there.
  • You can take a tour of the Si Racha factory in California. One of my personal favorite condiments (I put it in chili, pasta sauce, soup, it livens up most dinner-time fare), I might even consider it if I were traveling out west...just to see the "truckloads of chili peppers" coming in and being unloaded.
  • I thoroughly enjoyed this article about why critics are so defensive. In particular, the writer takes down Emily Nussbaum (New Yorker TV critic) and her suggestion that lovers of TV have "won the war." "What war?" the writer asks, suggesting then that feeling proud that TV is such a culturally dominant medium does not, in itself, make it something to praise. I often think about this topic: why no one wants to "poo-poo" any piece of art in public, why there are always "intellectuals" (most usually self-defined intellectuals who don't really understand what it means to be an actual intellectual) who can talk something up, but there are, without a doubt, bad TV shows (most), bad books (many), bad artists (ahem) and bad theatre (praising something or someone because they are the only or the biggest show in town is shockingly common). Let's face it: we can't have good art without lots and lots of bad art. It's easy to find something good to say about most anything, anyone or any piece of art, but when I read a really bad book yet see 10 "this book is brilliant" quotes on the cover, I wonder to myself: does this critic really believe this or is this blurb simply done for political points which are beyond my kin? People praise something for a whole myriad of reasons (though I like Emily Nussbaum's project and some of her recommendations: her love of certain formulaic, simple-minded shows baffles me. Maybe I'm just not that appreciative of TV as an art form overall?) but takedowns can be incredibly fascinating, especially when they are artworks being consistently and seemingly universally praised (see Daniel Mendelsohn's takedown of Mad Men a number of years ago, really calling the entire series into question at a time when no one seemed to want to say anything negative about it at all).

Friday, October 9, 2015

Giller picks: Martin John by Anakana Schofield

A bit behind the game here because I've had a very busy week at work, but I wanted to write about some of this year's Giller picks which I am very happy to see on the list.

The first one today is Anakana Schofield's book Martin John which is one of the most innovative works I've read recently. Residing in the head of a mentally troubled young man living in London, we see a crisis and breakdown from the inside. It's written generally in the third person, almost as if Martin John himself is a character that he has created to narrate his own life. Yet then there are moments that are either Martin John's mother's thoughts or the thoughts that he imagines for her. This delicious ambiguity keeps one guessing, keeps one engaged in the repeated cycles, phrases, things Martin John hates and fears. This narrative play in many ways gets at the heart of what narration is and means, as well as exploring the divided nature of writing. What Schofield captures so well is this sense of what it feels like to live in the head of someone struggling with a mental illness, a sexual deviant, a very troubled man. There's fear. There are all these moments of asides that seem to circle in on themselves.

He did it. He did not do it. He could have done it. She made it up. Except there was more than one she now. Rumours and warnings were not evidence. 
She worries how it would affect all his sisters.
If he had sisters.
She worried if he got out or they came home now how could they be married in the church. She worried about the sisters he didn't have.
She worried he had done it. She began to believe he had.
She had seen enough to confirm it.

Here we see Martin John's mother agonizing over a specific moment, reflecting on the crime that Martin John may have committed. We hear the pain and helplessness, yet we also sense a bit of the mental unraveling here that we have been accustomed to inside the head of Martin John. Is his mental instability genetic?

But what she manages to pull off is doing this without a sense of foreboding, at least not from what will happen as the story progresses. There is no foreshadowing, no clumsy narrative technique, almost no acknowledgement of many standard novelistic techniques (constraints?).

It's a fascinating work which raises so many questions about the limited perceptions we have of other people's struggles, even those who are very close to us. It's also hilarious in sections that I had to read and re-read paragraphs because I found them so unnerving and also so funny.

I am very pleased to see Martin John on the list of the Giller Prize. My big gripe with the Giller Prize is how "safe" all their choices are, how little Giller works experiment or push the boundaries of genre or form. There's also a sense that they are all written for urban middle-class "old stock" Canadians and it's very encouraging to see a work on this list which challenges that. This is not your grandmother's Giller short-list.

Incidentally, Martin John, Schofield's second novel, was the name of a character in Malarky, Schofield's first novel (which won the First Novel Award), and in a footnote there, she suggests we see the novel Martin John. Yet the work, the novel, wasn't real (at the time). It was an imagined reference in a real novel. But the creation of Martin John the novel changes Malarky. I honestly didn't read Malarky until after I read Martin John but I imagine for those who liked Malarky, the novel Martin John may well change the nature of the earlier novel. I positively relish these kinds of asides, these fascinating times when works talk to one another.

There are so many other issues the novel raises: the male gaze, female vs. male power in public and private, motherhood.

I'm not predicting this novel will win (I'd be thrilled, though, and it certainly would be a coup for a major literary prize of Canada), but I am so encouraged at what this means for Canadian fiction in general, how mature it's becoming and those old days of self-gazing identity novels are long dead.

Just a note that Anakana Schofield will be in Ottawa soon for the Ottawa Writers Festival on Saturday, October 24 in the evening. Check out the entire OWF website for their entire fall lineup which looks great!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Jazz in Little Burgundy, Irish-Canadian writer Neil Smith & Boo, Margaret Atwood's end of the world...again, Hemingway and Spaghetti-Os?: Books books book October 1