Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Three Day Event by Barbara Kay

Barbara Kay knows a thing or two about good writing. As one Canada’s most widely read columnists in the National Post, she’s expressed herself forcefully and cogently for years, never mincing her words, garnering the applause of readers and sometimes their ire. Anyone approaching her debut fiction may understandably ask themselves, is Kay as compelling at crafting narrative as she is at opinionating? The answer is an emphatic yes. Many of the strengths evident in her editorials also feature robustly in her fiction. A Three Day Event is, at first glance, a crime novel set at an equestrian center in rural Quebec. The reader is steeped in the high stakes (and elitist) culture and politics of equestrian recreation and sport. But it’s the manner in which Kay employs the backdrop of heightened political, linguistic, and cultural tensions that provides this novel with added dimensions. The action pivots on the murder of a widely loathed groom, a crime complicated by anti-Semitic vandalism and the bizarre mutilation of a prized stallion. The equestrian center is owned by a Jew married to a Quebecoise. It is immediately apparent that Kay is set on exploring much more than the evil deeds perpetrated by a lowly disgruntled bigot. The insular, monied world of horse sport frames an intricate tapestry of relationships weaving together hidden agendas, professional ambitions, resentments, grudges, secrets and love affairs. The protagonist is Polo Poisson, who, although born in a stereotypical Quebecois family on the wrong side of the tracks, has been intriguingly, raised by upper-crust Jews to become a champion horseman. Polo is an unprecedented ethnic creation in Canadian fiction, a melding of immigrant Jewish and pure laine Quebecois; a tortiere pie baked in a poppy seed bagel crust. It’s a wonder that Kay can pull off such a character successfully, which she does, and the story of how Polo arrived on the steps of his adopted family is as touchingly believable as it is unusual. It’s up to Polo to solve the murder, and it’s his mixed background that provides him with the intellectual and emotional tools required to tease out the convolutions of the crime. If there is a flaw to the novel it’s one of ambition. Kay’s reach sometimes exceeds her grasp and there is a lot to digest with so many characters operating at cross purposes including the equestrian center staff and members of the ownership family, a champion rider, a veterinarian, the horse owning clients, and committee members from the equestrian federation. Some characters get short shrift, like Toronto journalist Sue Parker who shows up investigating illegal practices in the international sale of sport horses. But this is ultimately Polo’s story and Kay wants us to consider the way his fractured personal history has affected his present and future. It is apparent that Polo is emblematic of our multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-faceted nation. He embodies multiple influences and loyalties that cannot easily be reconciled. In creating Polo, Kay has a point to make and she does is with nuance and grace: The key to personal reconciliation is found in family responsibility.                 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Junk Email

Junk Email 

It arrives whether you want it or not,
slips in through an unseen slot,
like so much else in life,
and you've learned how to set-up a filter that strains
the unexpected and unwanted
from the desirable,
identifies and files it in a separate folder
for eventual deletion. 
Junk email reminds you of the forces at work behind the scenes
and that there are no real boundaries in this world.
Junk email tells you that ultimately there is nothing you can do
to stem the flow, 
no power exists to make you impervious
to the tap, tap, tap of certain leaks; 
the girls named Charlene and Celina who want to meet, 
the offers of discount Viagra and Cialis, 
the secrets of penis enlargement,
and how to earn $500/week in your spare time. 
Junk email teaches you to read between lines, 
and that, more than anything, what you really want, 
is to believe, because there is a hole in the center
of the universe, oh and your hotmail account 
needs updating. Junk email is a fortune cookie,
open it at your peril.
Junk email reminds you you're an addict.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A prayer for the new PM

A prayer for the new PM

Lord, may we enjoy this honeymoon.
Lord, give us some time 
To find pleasure in our new PM,
His charm, his wit, his family,
His energy, his hair, his all-around handsomeness.
May we enjoy his smile that betrays
His youthful optimism, his lack of cynicism.  
Give us some time to bask in the radiance
Of his hopefulness, his sincerity 
In believing that in ethnic diversity 
There is strength, in gender equality
There is principle, in giving refuge to those in need 
There is justice, and in acknowledging the traditions
Of our indigenous forbearers there is necessity.
Let us enjoy this moment, without doubt or questioning 
Because, as he said quizzically, it’s 2015.
So let us enjoy Lord
Until the next session of Parliament, at least.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A little love for Mordecai Richler

A recent panel discussion in which I participated.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Steel yourself - stand above - laugh at your critics : An appreciaton of Harold Heft

All writers face self-doubt on an ongoing basis. It just comes with the territory and is something that unavoidably sticks with you, the way a fishmonger has to accept smelling bad. It's even worse when you're an aspiring writer who hasn't the slightest clue what he's doing, as I was back in the mid '90s. Is my writing any good? Does it have value or merit? Does it mean anything? Do I continue? Is the effort even worth it? Will anyone care? At every step of the way you're besieged by semi-paralyzing doubt. Writing is an arduous, painstaking, solitary task and the writer's greatest enemy is often him/herself. I eventually came to realize that the completion of any work, regardless of how well it turns out or is received publicly (if at all), is a monumental victory because so many mortal battles have been waged along the way. And as in warfare, there is no more important element - even, I think, more important than the personal resources one has to marshal to fight the daily fight to create - than the allies one makes. The disinterested outsiders who, for whatever reason, find merit in what you're doing, somehow understand it, and decide to encourage you, assist you, and guide you through your journey. I'm not talking about close family and friends who will (should) by definition support what you're doing because they love you. I'm talking about artistic allies, like-minded sorts, who share a vision or passion or sense of meaning of the world and who, when it comes to your work, 'get it.' The writer/artist often has the sense that finding such an ally, especially at the right time, is as unlikely as winning the lottery. Harold Heft, who passed away last week at the age of 50, was an acquaintance (and a distant relative). He was also my literary ally and 'got it' exactly when I needed it most. Initially, Harold and I became friends and allies when we discovered that we shared an appreciation of the late great Montreal poet and novelist A.M. Klein. Harold was a Klein scholar having written his PhD dissertation on him, while I was merely a fan of Klein's poetry, fiction and essays. It was a bit of an obscure basis for a friendship, and yet it would be a connection that would forge a strong and enduring bond between us. I can only surmise that the thread of understanding and sensibility that connected us through Klein's writing, was the reason Harold 'got it' when I sent him a first draft of the manuscript that would eventually become my debut novel The Rent Collector. Klein's only novel The Second Scroll was the single most important literary influence on the writing of my novel. This was immediately apparent to Harold, as it would have been to few others. With a characteristic baseball metaphor he wrote "You've hit a homerun, Glen," in an email after reading a very rough early draft. Whether homerun or bunt-single (probably closer to the truth in terms of artistic achievement), without those words, without that seal of approval from Harold, someone whom I respected greatly for his literary discernment, I don't know if I would have had the courage and fortitude to continue writing and editing my novel, let alone seek publication, which is its own special form of self-flagellation. Harold guided (and warned) me about the tortuous process of seeking a publisher. He'd already published two non-fiction books with respected publishers and was seeking a publisher for his first book of poetry at the time. Once he found a 'taker' for his poetry, the release date was pushed back several times and the publisher wasn't responding to his communications, which is not uncharacteristic for financially-strapped small presses. Harold warned me that, if his experience was anything to go by, the relationship between the small literary publisher (like the one I was likely to find for my debut novel) and their author was sadistic. The problem was, of course, that like most poets about to release their first collection, Harold cared deeply and was besieged by an admixture of excitement and anxiety. He wanted his book to be beautiful, to be meaningful, and to matter. (Eventually, I was fortunate to have VĂ©hicule Press accept my novel, a decidedly gentler, more nurturing outfit than Harold's poetry publisher.) The launch of Harold's exceptional only collection of poetry "The Shape of This Dying: Remembering Alexander Bercovitch" in his hometown at the Jewish Public Library was an unforgettable evening of celebration. I'm proud to say that I was both instrumental in organizing the event and served as host, introducing the newly-minted poet to minions of hometown admirers, family and friends. Harold was dressed in a blazer and dark turtleneck, playing up the part of the distinguished poet a la Leonard Cohen, another Montreal Jewish poet. This isn't to say that Harold put on airs. On the contrary, he took poetry seriously, but never took himself too seriously. The reading that evening was quintessential Heft; joyful, warm, witty and unpretentious. Harold's book was well-received. It was appreciated for what it is: an original, innovative, expertly crafted, richly layered work of literature that stands up well to scrutiny and is enhanced by multiple readings. It employs the poet's imagination to shed light on the life of a marginalized artist (one deserving greater mainstream attention and praise) from a variety of personal perspectives, and offers insight into the artistic process, the enduring value of art and mortality. Harold was justifiably overjoyed to see it in print. I think he wanted me to share in his excitement at the publication of his book with the publication of one of my own. He remained my novel's biggest booster. So much so that when it was finally on the cusp of coming out and it was time to look for a cover blurb, he volunteered his service, thrusting himself into the challenge (an understatement) wholeheartedly. Finding a recognizable name who might be willing to recommend (let alone read) the work of a nobody debut novelist is akin to shopping for bacon bits at a kosher supermarket. Harold must have called in a truckload of favours, because I still can't fathom how else he managed to succeed. This time it was Harold who hit the homerun. He snagged Paul Quarrington to blurb my book. I hadn't known this, but since moving to Toronto, Harold had become well connected to the town's literati. He called many of the country's most successful authors personal friends. I suppose it was to be expected since Harold was an incredibly personable guy, maybe the most likeable person I've ever known. He had an uncanny knack for bringing people together with his open, easygoing, positive manner. He was a pleasure to be around and lots of people loved being around him. It should not have surprised me then that so many well known authors thought highly enough and trusted him enough to read the manuscript by a debut novelist friend when he asked them to. Turns out Harold had many many literary allies, not just me. Harold forwarded Quarrington's blurb in an email with three simple words in the subject line: "Quarrington blurb - PERFECTION!" The blurb was perfect, almost unfairly effusive in its praise but not overblown. I knew that the subject line of the email was as much Harold's declaration of victory, a vindication of his literary judgment, as it was a recommendation of my fledgling literary offering. Harold took pleasure in fighting the good literary fight and making allies in that fight. He delighted in the success of others and enjoyed the spoils of victory when art succeeded against all odds and against the quotidian, the humdrum, the mediocre and the passionless. Of course, I sent Harold one of the first copies of The Rent Collector when it came out in print. Then I anxiously awaited his judgment on the final product. I didn't hear from him for a while and wrote back to him nervously. I needed to know if he liked the novel. Regardless of how readers or critics responded, his verdict would mean the most to me, I told him. I'll let Harold's own words in response end this too-brief appreciation, because they are words to live by:

Toss your insecurities out the window. Honestly, you are now a real artist, and as such you stand above the rest of society, in the sense that you have put something into the world that transcends - at the end of it all, it is art that makes life worth living. At the end of it all, it is the artists who live on. Some people may try to judge - they are gnats, to be swatted. You are better. Your piece is better and belongs to a higher cause. You've created art, so it's your right to feel like an artist. Anyone who doesn't get that doesn't deserve your attention, and certainly not your insecurity.

Steel yourself - stand above - laugh at your critics!

All best, h

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The fundamental contradiction of the religious terrorist

By nature, the terrorist is the very definition of idol worshiper because, even as he/she espouses religious/ spiritual motives, his/her approach mistakes the physical being for its essence. Terrorism, is an act that, by destroying a building (ie. World Trade Center etc.) or murdering people, expresses a conviction that physical existence takes precedence over spiritual essence, and is therefore tantamount to a denial of God (hilul Hashem).

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Is Amazon all BS?

There is no doubt that more people are reading than ever before. They are buying more books too, in a variety of formats. But are they reading crap? Is the reading public being dumb-downed by the tidal wave of literary garbage that book purveyors like have made cheap, available and convenient? Has it changed how we define books and what we expect from them? Can it be that literature is being sacrificed on an altar of BS (the Best Seller)? Is the situation analogous, as Ursula K. LeGuin says, to the promotion of fast-food: The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food. Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is. I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese.

My take on whether Amazon is to blame for dumbing down books is in agreement with this writer's when he says, The mass culture has been convicted of killing off serious writing for about as long as there has been a mass culture. I don't agree with LeGuin that just because McDonalds sells more burgers and fries than any other restaurant, people think that that's what food is. In fact, people got tired of Big Macs, which is why McDonalds is selling salads these days. Mass marketing changes things for a while, and then they change again. People have always bought books in a variety of new formats and controversy has typically ensued with the introduction of each new format to the marketplace. For instance, when the mass market paperback was first produced and sales of pulp fiction skyrocketed, purists made the similar arguments about the decline of the literary novel. And yet great novels continued to be written and sold. Like the advent of pocketbooks, ebooks have made reading more affordable and convenient. When it comes to the book market, the general rule has always been that there is no general rule. 
Tastes change. People read books for a variety of reasons including enjoyment, education, escape, entertainment, and enrichment. The beauty of books is that they can satisfy all these needs. There are books that cater to the largest segment of the reading public (Harlequin romances etc.) and there are books that cater to smaller, more refined segments. What I will say about books in the digital era is that there is a lot more of them, and there is much more choice and variety, which is about all I'm willing to pronounce about the fate of literature. 

But from the point of view of this author, I think Amazon has been, on balance, positive. Yes, there is a lot more crap out there, which means it's more difficult to garner attention for any particular book. People have to be more creative in this highly competitive, crowded marketplace. But as a publishing, marketing and selling platform, Amazon has empowered authors in a game-changing way, and that's significant, since authors were so powerless before. 

Here, for what it's worth, is my experience a nutshell. My debut novel was published by a small respected independent publisher nine years ago. It garnered quite a few good reviews in local and national newspapers, and was shortlisted for a respected national first novel prize. It sold relatively well in the national market, relatively, that is, for a first novel by a completely unknown writer, and in a national market that is relatively small. There were no sales whatsoever internationally. My royalties, at the standard rate of 10% of the cover price were pretty paltry. 

Almost eight years after it first appeared I decided to re-issue my novel myself in ebook format (in the contract with my original publisher I had not signed over the digital rights - it was still early in the game.) Amazon enabled me to make the novel available, quickly and easily, and to reach an international market. In the eighteen months since making the book available it has sold steadily and one hundred percent of new sales have been international. Copies sold have not yet reached the number of the previous eight years of the print edition - which benefited at the outset from some mainstream media attention and the sheer luck of having been nominated for that aforementioned national prize - but it's getting close, and with absolutely no marketing investment to speak of. Since the author's royalty from the ebook is seven times higher than that the royalty I received from the print edition, even though the cover price is half, the revenue from ebook sales will shortly surpass the print edition in a fraction of the time. On top of that, I retain complete control, no waiting for sales reports from a publisher or agent, no waiting for payment (the royalty cheque arrives on time and regularly). Admittedly, the main challenge remains marketing, how to get the book some attention, but Amazon provides a number of tools that make marketing, on a small, economical and highly selective scale, possible and simple, even for a doofus like me. Amazon has enabled the author to be an entrepreneur with his own product, and that's no BS. I like to think, though its unprovable so far, that the reason my book has sold almost a decade after it was published, is that Amazon gave it a chance to find its readership and that the quality of the work has prevailed. Unlike many good books that are abandoned by their publishers and go out of print if they have not found their readers within the allotted time, ebooks have an indefinite lifespan, which is about as much time as any author can hope for.