Monday, December 29, 2008




SNOW ANGELS

The snow fell and fell and I only thought
Of the dreaded shoveling to be done,
Counted the seconds as flakes piled-up, fought
With myself, asked how long should I wait? One
Two, three, four hours, or more before we’d got
Too much for my unsteady heart - a ton.

While I fretted, from up and down the street
Hooded faces exploded through doorways,
Like rebels from dark forest hideaways;
Kids with their mouths double-bound in scarves, feet
Booted; they lined up along my walkway
Straight as a firing squad, counted to three,

And all at once fell backward, dropped flat, played
Dead: Arms and legs flapped like convulsing geese
Blown clean from the sky (but not quite deceased);
Then they lifted themselves like spirits, gazed
Down at the shadow imprints they had made
Where their departed bodies had once laid.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Christmas favourite...


The Rent Collector? Apparently. At the Westmount library anyhow. The staff came up with the inspired idea to spruce up the old tree creatively by inviting library patrons to help decorate it with miniatures of their favourite books. As mentioned in this article from The Westmount Examiner my novel is now hanging from an evergreen bough between loops of tinsel. It's deliciously strange to think that a story about a deeply religious orthodox Jew is hanging as a Christmas ornament. But it wouldn't be the first time that the book was chosen as a Christmas holiday favourite (more specifically "Best book to give your Jewish in-law trying to navigate Christmas dinner with the goyim.") Oh holy night!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

ZOO by Arleen Solomon Rotchin

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I'm very excited to announce the publication of ZOO (Shoreline) the debut novel by Arleen Solomon Rotchin who is well-known in Montreal and Palm Beach Florida as the author of a bestselling memoir titled Sam's Will (Shoreline). She's better known around my house as 'Mom' and 'Granny'. In Sam's Will, Arleen told the story of her ten year battle (personal, financial and legal) to settle the estate of her late father, Montreal garment-pioneer Sam Solomon, who was also, not coincidentally, the model of a character in my novel The Rent Collector. Sam's Will made the non-fiction bestseller lists in both Palm Beach and Montreal. Zoo is somewhat of a departure, though not really. It will be enjoyed by the same folks who loved Sam's Will (and there were plenty) because it also tells a story about money, greed, excessiveness and human failing, and does so with the same quirky, funny style and sharp observation that Arleen has become known for. In Zoo, a photographer named Chela tells the uncanny, timely story of her neighbour and friend Geena who's just been convicted of tax fraud and stock manipulation. Meanwhile, as Rome burns Nero plays; Geena throws extravagant parties for her Palm Beach cohort and they behave like the sky isn't falling. Ultimately, Geena can't avoid jailtime and from prison writes letters to Chela declaring that she has had a revelation that she is the victim of The American Dream. During the summer Chela returns to Montreal to teach a group of kids in crisis how to use cameras (the old-fashioned kind with f-stops and shutter speed settings) and the two stories begin to shed light (photography-lingo pun intended) one on the other. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

FAD
by Tamar Black-Rotchin (age 9)

It was popular.
Children everywhere had it.
And later it died.

BULLY
She is a bully.
'Loser' is my new nickname.
I will get her back.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Chip off the old block

HALO
by Tamar Black-Rotchin (age 9)

What a sweet angel
A halo above her head
But then she grew up.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I don't think this is what Pink Floyd meant

by their vacation-titled album Wish You Were Here. If I'm not mistaken, a Pink Floyd themed cruise was one of Nostradamus's signs of the apocalypse. That creaking sound you hear may very well be late Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright turning over in his grave.(Thanks Beth)

Monday, November 17, 2008

He was to football what Babe Ruth was to baseball...


and Bobby Orr was to hockey: He was Benny Friedman. Who? According to a new book Friedman revolutionized the game by passing the pigskin downfield (notwithstanding his orthodox upbringing I guess he wasn't kosher) and saved the fledgling National Football League in the process.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Sobering perspective on Obama

1. He is the first US President of my generation. He's born in '61, me '64.

2. He's inheriting arguably the worst global conditions of any American President.

3. On the day of his election nothing mattered more than the fact that he's an African-American. On the day after, nothing matters less.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A new (ish) story from The Rent Collector


I am thrilled to announce that a new(ish) story of mine called Salesmanship set on Chabanel (of course) is published in the 100th anniversary edition of LWOT magazine. It's quite a privilege to have been selected for this milestone issue of the finest literary magazine on the net. And while you're there check out the other stories! Especially the winner (if you can call it that)of the Most Mediocre Canadian contest.

A farting dog meets the Jonas Brothers in Hollywood

When they said that Canada was the United States' largest supplier of gas they might have been speaking about a farting dog.

This is what happens when two titans in the pantheon of US culture come together, like nitro and glycerin. The result is a gastric explosion of marketing genius. The secret... don't tell... is that one of them is Canadian and it's not the Jonas Brothers. In my humble opinion we should give Walter the Farting dog a star on Canada's maple leaf Walk of Fame between our two greatest cultural exports to the States, Celine Dion and Jim Carrey. What further proof do they need south of the 49th of our inherent cultural superiority? Actually, I take special pleasure in this story for two reasons: A. The authors and illustrator are Canucks and, B. The illustrator is my first cousin Montreal-native Audrey Colman. All involved deserve to make additional fortunes ('additional' because they're already reaping bank vaults on the book series, and farting dog plush toys etc.) from American consumers. I'm telling you, culturally-speaking we own them... our evil genius is letting them think they own us.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Monday, October 20, 2008

Eva's Threepenny Theatre by Andrew Steinmetz



As editor of Esplanade Books (the Véhicule Press fiction imprint) Andrew Steinmetz has proven time and again - with his books scooping up awards and nominations left, right and centre over the past few years - that he's one of the best in the business. He is himself a multiple award nominee for poetry and non-fiction. Now, apparently fifteen years in the making, Andrew's debut novel has arrived from Gaspereau Press. My guess, if Andrew's record is anything to go by, is that the book is definitely worth your attention. Here's what the publisher has to say about it:

In an unusual fiction about memoir, Andrew Steinmetz tells the story of his great-aunt Eva who performed in the first workshop production of Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece The Threepenny Opera, in 1928. Steinmetz takes the story back to Eva’s childhood in Germany, with her invalid mother and domineering siblings. Her training as an actress began just after her graduation from high school, and her introduction to the philosophies of Brecht and his contemporaries soon followed. With the pronouncement of the family’s Jewish origins, both Eva and her brother left Germany to escape Nazi rule, Eva eventually settling in Canada. In their sessions with the tape recorder running, we see Steinmetz’s own life as it intersects with Eva’s, and his changing perspective on her life and work. Tied together with threads of Brecht’s play, Steinmetz presents a life lived as though the world were a stage. A fictional tribute, Eva’s Threepenny Theatre is as much concerned with what happened as what might have or was imagined to have been.

“I’d known Eva since childhood,” says Steinmetz, “and always in the back of my mind was this story I’d heard about her and The Threepenny Opera. I didn’t know much about Bertolt Brecht, initially, but in my early twenties I was a songwriter and one night while I was in the studio recording, I got to talking with the engineer and later he pulled out a record of Lotte Lenya singing ‘Seeräuberjenny’ and ‘Kanonen-Song.’ That was it. Lenya’s kitsch and the killer instinct: Eva talked like that. The droll, aloof, harsh cabaret style is incredibly moving, to me at least, something which seems to work almost despite itself. It was easy to see Eva as a product of Weimar Germany, of that precise period evoked by these songs. So I guess the initial and strongest connection between the novel and Brecht was through the lyrics he wrote for this music. As a socialist playwright, Brecht wouldn’t touch naturalism, seeing it as an endorsement of a bourgeois or genteel world view, and I have to say, as a writer, I could never approach writing a family memoir wearing a straight face. Eva was schooled in Brecht, and so it felt right that the novel’s form would reflect that, and at the same time bring about some genre consciousness. I also wanted some sort of emotional arc despite putting up with ideas of alienation and detachment. If this makes it sound like I’ve been working at cross purposes for the past fifteen years, which is as long as I’ve been at it, then that’s exactly right.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Little Eurekas by Robyn Sarah


Here's a reprinted review of Robyn Sarah's 'Little Eurekas'. Robyn is a fine poet, educator, short story writer and essayist who's been fighting the good fight for years. She writes about poetry with greater clarity, honesty and passion than anyone in Canada. Her essential message about why poetry matters is not stuffy or highminded. On the contrary, it's because poetry can offer a beauty and enrichment that will all need. This collection is indispensible.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Closer To Home by Terence Byrnes


I draw your attention to this online interview with Terence Byrnes talking about the art of literary photography and his new book of writers portraits. I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with Terry when he came to take my photo for the back cover of The Rent Collector (above). He's been photographing authors for a number of years and has compiled quite the gallery of portraits, mostly of Montreal writers, some of which can be viewed at the Véhicule Press website. More than just satisfying the task of shooting an author portrait for a book, Terry and I toured 99 Chabanel together - every nook and cranny - going from abandoned garment factory spaces down to the basement furnace room and up to the rooftop. Surprisingly, the portrait of me selected to appear in the new book is not the one used for the novel (above). But it is, rather, an exact and very revealing portrait (although admittedly somewhat unflattering,) taken in front of a wall of ominous-looking pumps and pipes in the basement of 99. Terry's eye is impeccable and he has the technique to match. This book is a treasure.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Global Financial Yom Kippur

As we stood in synagogue this past week, begging forgiveness from the Almighty for our transgressions, seeking a cleansed conscience and soul, the financial markets were undergoing a global cleansing of their own. I couldn't help thinking about what was happening in apocalyptic terms as I turned on the boobtube Thursday night (after a 26 hour media fast) to catch the latest reports of unabating stock market declines. It's not, as Warren Buffet called it, a "Pearl Harbour." Because that suggests a surprise attack and momentary defeat. At least it ought not be seen as a market Pearl Harbour. I prefer to think of it as a financial Yom Kippur. A day of reckoning. A time to take stock (pun intended) of the corporate greed, systemic mismanagement, and questionable approaches and practices that have underpinned the US-driven global financial system for over two decades. On Kol Nidre evening I spoke about 'Forgiveness in Unforgivable Times'. Beginning with the Holocaust, I said, terms such as 'forgiveness' and 'harm' and 'responsibility' have had to be completely redefined. The scope of attrocity and wrongdoing perpetrated in our time is without precedent. We are becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent and the pace of change is so fast that our misdeeds now outstrip our capacity to adequately consider and comprehend the consequences of our actions. The injustices are piling up, the harm is more and more vast, and our willingness and ability to respond is evermore diminished. The question now is, whether the global financial Yom Kippur of this week will represent a genuine cleansing, a true reckoning, an opportunity to shift the paradigm to something that makes sense in the long-run and benefits the majority, and not just the Wall Street elite and their political backers? Or will we return, in short order to the same old same old? A probable answer lurks in my bones, and I shudder to think of it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Kol Nidre (All Vows)

Of all the Jewish prayers, Kol Nidre is one of the most recognizable—and certainly the most controversial. Neil Diamond intoned it in order to penetrate the stone heart of his cantor father at the end of the remake of The Jazz Singer, and Al Jolson sang it, mercifully out of blackface, in the 1927 original. Max Bruch used the haunting music that accompanies the prayer to furnish the full title, and half the theme, of his celebrated adagio in 1881. Beethoven, too, borrowed the theme for the sixth movement of his String Quartet Op. 131, which had been commissioned by the heads of Viennese Jewry seeking to honor the founding of a new synagogue. Even Perry Como and Johnny Mathis recorded their own renditions in the late '50s. from Slate

Tonight more Jewish people will attend synagogue than at any other time of the year. They will flock to hear the achingly beautiful melody of Kol Nidre to begin Yom Kippur, the most hallowed, sombre day of the Jewish calendar. I'll be there, and as I have for the past fast years, I'll be delivering the d'var Torah (literally "words of Torah" ie. sermon). I'll be speaking about what forgiveness means in unforgivable times. To all my Jewish friends, g'mar chatimah tova, have a meaningful fast, may you be inscribed in The Book of Life on Yom Kippur and may the day bring you new beginnings!

Monday, September 29, 2008

A lot can happen in a year

One of the most moving (sobering, disturbing, hopeful) moments of the High Holy Day Services is the chanting of the Unetanah Tokef. This stunning video comes courtesy of my friend and co-parishioner Dave Pinto. A lot can happen in a year, indeed. Let us all hope and pray that next year is better than the last one. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life! Shana tova u metukah!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Correction:

More reason to run faster to buy (or Amazon.ca order) the Bruce Jay Friedman book "Three Balconies" published by Biblioasis. It's a collection of new stories not older material. According to Dan, Grove Press published his collected stories a few years back. That's worth chasing down too.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

'The Lay of the Land' by Richard Ford


My friend the Montreal writer David Hamburg once had the privilege of having dinner with John Irving. Over the course of conversation David mentioned that when he started reading a novel he always had to finish it come hell or high water, even if he was hating it. Irving reponded that that was moronic (I paraphrase). He operated on a 20 page rule (I think it was 20, though it may have been 40, it was surely less than 50), meaning the number of pages he gave a book before he dumped it if he hadn't been completely captivated. Life is too short and there are too many good books out there to waste your time on something you don't like, was his explanation. I tend to agree. However, until a couple of years ago I was, like David, a masochist must-finish reader (or in a more positive light an eternal-optimist reader.) I was also a one-book-at-a-time reader. Nowadays I have at least two or three novels going at the same time. So how to explain the fact that I stuck with Richard Ford's 'The Lay of the Land' for over a year? It was a novel that I had started last summer, read half, put it down over the winter and then picked it up again to finish this summer. We're not talking about a 1000-pager like 'Infinite Jest' (my traditional limit for a novel is 350 pages max). The novel is a dozen or so pages shy of 500, though it reads like 1000. Yes, I am a slow reader, but this is a slow-reading book, and I mean this in the best possible sense. I followed the Irving rule and within the first ten pages I was enthralled: every sentence, every paragraph and page is so carefully crafted, so rich in detail and sharply-worded that to be properly appreciated (like a gourmet meal accompanied by a vintage wine) it requires time for savouring and proper digestion. When I returned to the novel after an eight month hiatus it was as if I'd never put it down. The main character, ex-writer and now-realtor Frank Bascombe had entered my bloodstream and was still circulating through my body. Picking the novel up again was like bumping into a friend, not an 'old' friend, but someone I'd met last summer (in a bar, if I went to bars, or on vacation down south) and who'd left an enduring impression. There was an attachment, as if we'd become memorably and intimately acquainted in a short span of time before regretfully having to go our separate ways. On my second go with Frank this summer, the moment I turned the last page of the novel and shut the cover I instantly felt a vacancy. So maybe I took so long to read it because I wanted to make it last as long as possible.

The term that keeps repeating itself in my mind to describe the achievement of this novel is 'monument'. It marks a life lived; Frank is facing his own mortality having been diagnosed with prostate cancer. But it also memorializes (and solemnizes to a certain extent) a particular time-period and landscape, namely, millennial America during the weeks of suspended animation ("suspended aggravation") between the 2000 Presidential election and the US Supreme Court decision to award George Bush Florida's Electoral College votes that handed him the Presidency. The setting is the New Jersey Shore where Frank works as a realtor and the novel takes places over a few days leading up to the American Thanksgiving holiday. Frank is bringing the remnants of his shattered family together (for a holiday dinner catered by Eat No Evil), daughter Clarissa who is back with a man after a stint of lesbianism, and no-goodnik son Paul who works for Hallmark in Kansas City, and is shlepping with him a timecapsule to bury in the sand. Frank's also dealing with the fact that his second wife, who has brought him as close as he's likely to be to true happiness, has recently run off to England to be with her first husband who suddenly showed up after being presumed dead for two decades. And there is the everpresent memory of his deceased son Ralph - the most moving passages in the novel deal with Frank still trying to come to terms with this loss.
Ford's greatest quality as a writer, one that puts him in the category of the very best, like Updike and Bellow, is the way he turns his protagonists into emblems of their time and place (think Rabbit Angstrom or Moses Herzog). And though Updike and Bellow were two of the great figures of 20th century American fiction, Ford's distinction is that his creation is undeniably a transitional figure to the 21st century, making the author perhaps the first great American novelist of the new century, and TLOTL perhaps its first classic. It is a quintessentially American novel, and unCanadian, in the way that the mundane is utterly inseparable from the grandiose. The 'important' themes of death, sacrifice, memory, love, and loss that are at the core of Frank's story (indeed, the human journey) are not trumpeted front and center as they tend to be in Canadian novels. Rather they are woven in seamlessly into Frank's quotidian concerns, his business dealings, his friendships and family relationships. Frank is, in so many respects an American everyman and what makes him such a genuine and charming host is that he's experienced too much and for too long to take himself seriously. Yet, the underlying seriousness of Ford's narrative is never in doubt. As the filter through which we experience millennial (and get a foretaste of post-millenial) America, Frank is the ideal guide to the 'state of the disunion' as he takes us along for a drive up and down the New Jersey shore, with a copy of Shore Buyer's Guide rolled up next to us on the front seat. There are stops to witness a hotel demolition (complete with grandstands and souvenir sellers), and to have a few drinks in an after-hours lesbian bar among others, on Thanksgiving eve. There will be dissertations written about this novel, but suffice to say that it is simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny, head-shakingly witty and heartbreakingly wise. As unforgettable as Frank is. And if this is your first Ford novel, as it was mine, you will likely be as impatient as I am to dig into the first two installments of this trilogy.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Birthday by Sivan Black-Rotchin

Because it is my birthday and because I wrote a poem for her, my daughter Sivan has returned the favour. And here it is.

BIRTHDAY

they say when you turn 40
it's a turning point in life
knowing life's half over
should cut you like a knife,
but really, what's the difference
between 30 and 44?
do you feel quite older
do your wrinkles show lot more?
no, i think it's all the same
no matter what your age is
i think in life what happens is
you enter different stages
so really it's a number
and now it's forty four
and now you're getting older
you should enjoy your life some more
i don't care how old you are
i say your age means NIL
no matter what your number is
you're my loving father still.

Monday, September 15, 2008

more David Foster Wallace

I pinched this off the memorial Facebook page. From his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon. Mezmerizing.

"As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger."

The Collected Bruce Jay Friedman


Call it coincidence, serendipity, zeitgeist, whatever, Dan from Biblioasis comments in response to my earlier post on Bruce Jay Friedman they will be publishing shortly his collected short stories under the title Three Balconies. Don't walk, run out to buy it!

David Foster Wallace 1962-2008

Let the apotheosis begin. Great interview. Pick through it like a vulture for hints of future suicidal despair.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Cockroach by Rawi Hage


I didn't read DeNiro's Game. It was already too stigmatized for me by multiple award nominations (Giller, GG, Commonwealth, Dublin IMPAC - which it won.) And the excerpts I'd read in reviews turned me off. The prose felt excessive and overcooked, which is generally not to my taste. Turns out, if Cockroach is any indication, I was right, Hage writes overcooked prose. But in this novel it generally works well because the narrator is mad, as in nuts, and morally obtuse. It's a madness born of dire circumstances. He's an Arab emigré to Montreal, a refugee from Lebanon, and the novel is set in the dead of winter, an appropriately dire setting. He's also a lowlife (quite literally), a thief and a teller-of-tales who's just tried to hang himself from a tree, and having failed, has been ordered by the court to undergo a psychological assessment. But back to Hage's prose style which reads like English that has been translated from Arabic. It has that fresh flavour. Descriptions vacilate between overheated and raw, lyrical and blunt, wry and spicy, angry and comical. It's a conflicted energized voice that suits the narrator's state of mind perfectly and moves from refreshing to exhausting at times. The unnamed outsider narrator imagines himself a cockroach, a survivor, a primordial creature guided by instinct subsisting on the underside of existence. He exploits his lowly vantage point to observe and mock the bourgeois society that both repulses and attracts him - like a cockroach he owes his very survival to a wealthy, indulgent, wasteful society. In his sessions with the educated middle-class psychologist Genevieve, rather than reveal himself, he tells stories that titillate and fascinate her. It's a manipulation, the power game of the essentially powerless, but also revealing of his own pathology. This is fiction as portraiture and it's hard not to see this as self-portraiture, (if not literally than figuratively) Hage himself as the exotic, clever storyteller stringing us along. There are rants against religion, politics, the fat-cat bourgeoisie. It's also a portrait of the community of refugees from Arab tyrannies. We meet many familiar types who have been forced to flee; the persecuted gay, the exiled professor, the artist/musician, an activist taxi driver, but don't ever really get to know any of them. And we're never even quite sure how well we can trust the narrator himself, which is both the main strength and the principle weakness of the novel. Not much happens in the book until the last quarter. The narrator tries to collect on a debt, frequents a local café, finds a job at an Iranian restaurant, commits petty crimes, fantasizes, flirts, fucks and falls in love with a woman named Shoreh. As I say, it's life lived below society's bottom rung and one day rolls uneventfully into the next. The prose are what keep the reader interested - the flavourful phrasing, sharp observations and social commentary - for a while, anyway. When, in the book's last quarter, something like a plot begins to emerge, a revenge killing, it feels tacked on. I'd already pretty well lost interest. I'm still on the fence about whether I'll read DeNiro's Game any time soon. I guess I'm looking for a storyline that keeps me engaged with tension, suspense, and makes me trust the narrator, and care.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My summer reading

It's been an odd summer, and not just weatherwise. My reading has been as sporadic as appearances of the sun. I started with one goal. To finish Richard Ford's 'The Lay of the Land,' a novel I'd started last summer, read half and let it sit on my bedside table all year. I haven't succeeded yet. Ford's novel is a curious reading experience. It's over 500 pages long but reads like 1000. After leaving it to stew for about nine months, I had no trouble picking it up again and remembering exactly where I had left off. It's a rare book, more monument than novel; a character study so detailed, inseparable from a landscape and zeitgeist so richly imagined and uncannily authentic, it seems to transcend the normal boundaries of time and narrative. That having been said, it's also not an easy read and is completely uninterested in plot. It's about loss and a 'Permanent Period,' a stage of life reached in which regrets are few and mortality comes knocking. It's tough going, but so rich and rewarding, with a voice that's so pitch perfect and fully-formed, it's like getting to know an old friend intimately again. In short, it's a novel that demands finishing. I suppose I'll have more to say once that's done.

Instead, of working on Ford, I spent most of the summer getting distracted. I'm almost done with Rawi Hage's latest 'Cockroach' (stay tuned for a review coming soon) but in the interim I picked up a book of short stories by Bruce Jay Friedman called 'Black Angel' that I can't put down. This little gem cost me fifty cents from the charity table at Hanniford's grocery store in the strip mall beside the highway in Saint Albans, Vermont. I've had some luck with that table in the past. Picked up a copy of Elyse Friedman's extremely enjoyable debut novel 'Then Again' last summer from that table. (There appears to be some connection between being an author named Friedman and turning up on the charity table at the Saint Albans Hanniford's). I was curious about Bruce Jay after reading a whatever-happened-to piece about him on Nextbook.com. Apparently he's still writing, though his name has been established less from literary fiction than screenplays. For a while there he was on the fast track to literary stardom, published in the New Yorker, a critically lauded novel called 'Stern'. Now he's perhaps best known as the guy who wrote the screenplay to the movies Splash and The Heartbreak Kid.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Mysteries to me

I don't know what this means but here are the top five searched terms that end up at my blog:

1) "rent excuses"
2) "excuse poems"
3) "b. glen"
4) "Jonathan Garfinkel"
5) "bounced cheques"

Top five events which prove that watching the Olympics is closer to watching a show at Caesar's Palace Hotel & Casino in Vegas than a sporting event.

1) Beach volleyball
2) BMX biking
3) Rythmic gymnastics
4) Synchronized swimming (actually anything with "synchronized" in the title)
5) Trampoline

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

America: The Beautiful

I know everyone is talking about Phelps and Bolt, but thus far, I have another image that has stuck with me from watching these Olympics, US gymnasts Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin standing next to each other on the podium. A curious sight. Johnson, the compact, thick-thighed, sixteen year old sparkplug with the bunny-faced goofy smile and slightly dazed look in her eye, along side Liukin, the tall, lithe, elegant, cool blond, her gaze burning with arch competitiveness. Their respective parents couldn't have provided a more stark contrast too. Liukin's father/coach was a former Russian Olympic gold medalist himself. The consummate professional, he was on the floor with his daughter during competition, confident and supportive. Liukin's mother was usually nowhere to be found - she couldn't bear the tension of watching her daughter compete (except that she did attend the balance beam final, her daughter's last Olympic event.) Johnson's doughy bespectacled mid-western parents were in the stands the whole time, bubbling with energy, cheering their daughter on and looking utterly out of place, like they couldn't believe their aw-shucks good fortune to have such a marvelous kid who was doing such a wonderful job in front of the crowd. Their joy seemed not unlike the joy of parents watching their six year old playing a candy-cane in the school Christmas play.

Watching the contrast in their appearance and style, it suddenly dawned on me: This is quintessential America, a country whose citizens are per capita perhaps one of the most obese on earth but whose athlete representatives continue to win more medals than any other. They are fat, undisciplined and out of shape as citizens, but disciplined, trained and absolutely committed to achieving world supremacy as athletes. America embodies opposites. Both extreme discipline and extreme sloth, religious fanaticism and radical secularism, theism and atheism, sexuality and puritanism, moral conservatism and libertarianism. Only one thing unites them all, a commitment to freedom, diversity and possibility in the various permutations and combinations which may or may not lead to success. This, of course, is the exact antithesis of the host Chinese approach. When they are successful, the Chinese leave nothing to chance. Their triumph owes everything to authoritarianism, formula, strict regiment, homogeneity and control. Nothing, or as little as possible, is left to chance, hence the substitution of one girl's voice for another's appearance, and the digital manipulation of images at the opening ceremonies. Ironically, for a country that brought us Hollywood and plastic surgery, it is not America but the Chinese that seem fake, less real. America takes its chances, lets the chips fall where they may, and the result, sometimes, are Shawn and Nastia, as real and as different as they come, from both ends of possibility's spectrum.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Two Jews, A Black Guy and a Porpoise

“They did it!” I screamed, before the person on the other end could speak. “They did it, they did it, they did it!”

“I know!” My mother shouted back. “And they’re Jews!”

Rachel Shukert at Jewcy.com asks the eternal question, Are Jews to Aquatics What African-Americans are to Basketball?

Monday, August 11, 2008

My Olympic Dream

"Olympism tends to bring together as in a beam of light, all those moral principles which promote human perfection." Pierre de COUBERTIN

Okay, I don't want to seem like a wet rag and I like watching athletic prowess and the drama of victory and defeat as much as the next sod, (I also like to get drunk occasionally, and even watch the finale of So You Think You Can Dance) but let's take a step back for a minute. I've been thinking about it, and in the spirit of the day I have decided that I too have an Olympic dream. I would like to hear a country with the courage to announce that they're not interested in the Olympics, that they never have any intention of participating and don't think participation in the games is a pathway to international peace, but rather a colossal waste of valuable resources that would better be channelled into more productive (and less harmful) programs and efforts (like infrastructure, affordable housing, clean water, affordable medicines, education etc. etc. the list is endless.) We can be dazzled by the spectacle of the event, but what is needed is some perspective. The Olympics is a show. The biggest show on earth. Nothing more. It is political in nature and celebrates nationalism (in 1936 Hitler understood this, he also understood that his own warped philosophy of eugenics, purity and physical beauty dovetailed nicely with the philosophy of "human perfection" espoused by Olympism.)

One aspect I have found compelling about the way activists have attempted to use the Olympic platform (pun intended) to draw attention to the cause of Tibet independence, is that it contrasts weakness, humility, vulnerability and spirituality with hardcore power (embodied by China itself) and the emphasis on physical strength and even, disturbingly, human perfection through physical prowess (as in the motto of the Olympic movement, "Citius, Altius, Fortius" meaning Swifter, Higher, Stronger.) Tibet appears to represent the utter antithesis of Olympism, a pathway to peace that is peace itself, not competition and conflict, and certainly not extravaganza.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Jeffrey Mackie reading at Vallum's Cafe/Culture

Jesus has forded the stream
Me, I am thinking I will put in a cassette
To record the 2nd coming
Me, I am watching porn
It is the closest to love
Half the world gets
Me, I am eating roots and berries
It's the closest to food
The rest of the world gets
Me, I am writing advertisements
It is the closest to literacy
The world gets

The lighting's less than optimal but check out this reading by the Montreal poet Jeffrey Mackie. I met Jeffrey when we read together at The Yellow Door a while back. I instantly became an admirer. A writer in the best tradition of the poet engagé, his work has an immediacy and an appealing unpretentiousness about it, not to mention humour, as you'll hear. He doesn't shy away from either the big questions or the most pressing issues of the day. And his voice is unique in the way it melds high and low culture, prosy language with lyrical flourishes, small quotidian experiences and big philosophical, spiritual, political and social concerns. Jeffrey firmly believes poetry matters and I think his does. He's reading here from a work entitled "Truth Among the Obsessions" which first appeared on the poets against the war website and is now available in limited edition chapbook format from Allied Widget. On a weekly basis Jeffrey can be heard on CKUT radio 90.3 FM

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The last great American poet?

"I'm really just a nice, middle-class Jewish boy from New Jersey. If you take a swing at me, I'll probably swing right back. I write poetry."

Love it.

Friday, July 25, 2008

from a Time.com article ostensibly on the job of US poet Laureate...

but it's this very insightful quote from Matthew Zapruder that deserves amplification as far as I'm concerned. Poetry is one of the last vestiges of freedom in our culture:

In a culture like ours where language has been completely and utterly subordinated to the task of selling people things, how do you create a little freedom? Only in art that isn't designed to sell or convince or sermonize or cajole or urge. Maybe that's poetry, or at least some poetry.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Since my mom seemed to like this one...


DAUGHTER
For Eden

Most of the time
I don’t understand
a word you say
then again
you’re only two
and I’m only your father
which almost guarantees
I’ll understand you less
in a year from now
and even less in five
or ten;
I’m sitting minding
my own business
an opened book
on my lap and
you appear
sudden as a bird
on a balcony rail
you’re wearing
your baggy grey elephant
costume, floppy trunk
dangling off your forehead,
and you ask me
for a peanut
then pause and tell me
with a look in your eye
I know I’ll come to fear
that next time
you will be a cat
and after that a dog
and you want to know
where my costume is.

Monday, July 21, 2008

More vampires, magic atop bestseller lists & C.R.A.Z.Y.

Apropo of my last post about movies usurping literature as the standard for the arts here is an article which appeared in the papers about the latest phenomenon atop the bestseller lists. To quote myself (Oh I love doing this): And here's another prediction: the fiction bestseller lists will increasingly feature books that have filmic qualities, magic, fantasy, adventure etc.

Now, to completely contradict myself, I watched C.R.A.Z.Y. this weekend. If you grew up in the seventies, do yourself a favour, go out and rent (or borrow, as we did from the library) this movie. It's the best evocation of growing up during that period I've seen on film. It brought back a flood of disturbing memories. It was also an extremely moving (yes, it got under my skin) portrait of teenage angst and alienation, with powerful individual performances, and the added dimension of one young man's struggle with being gay in a homophobic family. This may sound odd, but one aspect that surprised me was how similar the mill-town, middle-class, strictly Roman Catholic upbringing of Quebecois portrayed in the film felt to my own, which was Montreal, Jewish, more upper-middle-class. I guess the seventies were the seventies - blond Lebanese, Pink Floyd and Ziggy Stardust - in Hampstead and Trois Riviere. The film is stylishly shot, and richly layered, once again showing that Quebec films leave Canadian films wanting.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hellboy, I love thee

I have never been completely moved by a movie.
I've been excited, thrilled, scared, even provoked (intellectually) but moved, I mean deeply, mortally, life-alteringly touched? Nope. Don't get me wrong. I like movies. Some have left indelible marks - Apocalypse Now immediately comes to mind, changed the way I think about war, even the human condition. There have been memorable characters and performances, even in mediocre films like Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men (yes, I thought it was a mediocre film - actually worse, a narrative disaster, and Brolin's performance was more memorable than Javiar Bardem's.) But have I been changed by the experience? This is the question I've been asking myself as my wife and I have recently started making semi-regular trips to the video store to catch up on films we've missed in recent years. I've been mostly disappointed. I've always considered myself an intellectual sort of guy, a cultural elitist if not an outright snob. So, why, suddenly do I realize that when it comes to movies the ones I prefer are technicolor, smash-em-up, bang-em-up thrill rides? The recent spate of Hellboys and Batmans and Hulks and Harry Potters seem to me to represent filmmaking at its apex. And now there is this piece from the National Post which goes some way to explaining why I'm feeling this way. There are certain things that movies do well, violence being one of them, slapstick comedy and melodrama being two more, and certain things movies don't do so well, telling moving stories for example. It's the nature of the medium, a cool one that is incapable of generating the warmth, tone and intimacy required for telling a story that really gets under your skin. But here is the problem, and it's alluded to in the very last quote of the Pauline Kael piece; what happens when movie-culture becomes the very definition and standard of culture in general? An answer: It changes the art being produced across the board. Which seems to be one of the reasons why the Harry Potter books have been such ripping successes. They approximate the film experience in style and content. Unfortunately, books like Harry Potter do poorly at approximating the reading experience ie. as novels they make great films. And then there are Michael Chabon-type novels that attempt to meld popular genre (comics) more suitable for films with literature. In the desire to achieve commercial viability novelists have been trying to reach audiences by encorporating filmic strategies and standards and have abandoned the elements of narrative that make reading literature a uniquely sublime, multi-layered, intimate experience. A vicious circle ensues - with audiences and writers reenforcing these tendencies, and marginalizing everything that does not fit. So here's one safe prediction: The Hulks and Hancocks of this world will continue their ascendency at the box office, as will the Will-Ferrell-type goofball comedies. This is a good thing. Long live Wall-E! And here's another prediction: the fiction bestseller lists will increasingly feature books that have filmic qualities, magic, fantasy, adventure etc. You'll find me at those movies, but I'll be reading other books.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A new 'best' list we can all get behind

Well, it's not exactly a 'best' list - what do you call someone who is the best at being mediocre? The folks at LWOT, one of the best and certainly the most attractively designed literary magazine on the web, are asking you, the Canadian public (and anyone else) to vote on The Most Mediocre Canadian. There's even a blog to go along with the official poll. Hmmm, I've got to think about this one, I mean there are so many to choose from.

Monday, June 30, 2008

From the annals of readings by great poets

Thanks to the Véhicule Press web blog for this link to a very funny, scathing review of a poetry reading by Robert Creeley.

The most real part of the evening occurred with a cameo appearance by some Art Drunk who, after arriving very late and swaying in the doorway for a couple minutes before finding a seat, finally couldn’t take it anymore and yelled “You’re a fucking wimp!” Creeley thought he said “Talking wind,” and said Well that’s what poetry is, talking wind. “You’re a fucking wimp!” the drunk repeated before moderator man went over to have a talk with him. Drunk Critic lasted maybe 15 more minutes, till Creeley started on a long explanation of an upcoming poem about Wordsworth’s sister (?), when Drunkman shambled out the exit with a loud “FUCK WORDSWORTH!,” cueing (appreciative?) laughter in the crowd. Give me a triple shot of that stuff.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Correction Road by Glen Dresser


Glen Dresser can be proud of his debut novel. It's a solid work of fiction, written in a prose style that is as understated as it as rich, much like the rural prairie landscape it describes so well. It took me a bit by surprise. I'm not typically a fan of prairie fiction and don't seek it out (I think the last novel I read set on the prairies was Who Has Seen The Wind.) But I was almost instantly drawn in by Dresser's surehanded, thoughtful, if somewhat unspectacular style. I'm using unspectacular, in this instance, as a compliment, mind you. I've become somewhat tired of the overblown "original" "inventive" new fiction trumpeted by publishers, in other words, books that seem to be getting all the attention. Give me authentic characters, a well-drawn, evocative setting and a believable storyline any day. In Correction Road the setting is the late 70s in a sleepy town on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. There are three main characters: Hugh an exterminator for the Alberta Rat Patrol (did you know that Alberta had an agency which kept the province rat free for decades?) his girlfriend Joan who works at the local liquor store and Walt, a taxidermist who runs a museum of stuffed animals and various oddities. Each is floating aimlessly through his/her respective life, like clouds in a prairie sky that sometimes float into each other's airspace, or not. On the surface their relationships are leisurely and non-committal, and if that was all Dresser gave us, this would be one deathly boring novel. But he's smart and adept enough as a writer to convey the unspoken story below the surface, where simmering human (and nature's) drama really takes place. The reader's question for most of the novel is, when will all the subsumed tension bubble up to the surface (like an infestation of rats) and how will it play out? Which brings me to the other main character in the book, a tricky, omniscient rat (half-instinctive, half- intelligent) living within the walls of Walt's museum, and confounding Hugh's attempts to find and catch him. I know it sounds hokey, but the rat tells part of the story from his subterranean point of view, and it's a tribute to Dresser's imagination and skill that he pulls it off so well. Dresser does make some of the mistakes of most debut novelists, overwriting, overreaching and trying to show how much he knows when he should be focused on keeping the story rolling - the big themes are all here, the eternal conflict between man and nature, artificial versus natural boundaries, there are even healthy doses of Canadian politics (as a backdrop, Quebec separatists are preparing for the 1980 referendum.) Often, flaws of overwriting slip in to debut novels due to a lack editorial guidance typical of small independent publishers, in this case Ottawa's Oberon. But this novel suffers less than most, because Dresser is such a thoughtful, engaging and competent writer. Correction Road is a worthy addition to prairie fiction.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Great books I couldn't get through

I love these kinds of public admissions.

Andrew Holgate, The Sunday Times deputy literary editor

London Fields by Martin Amis; Almost everything that is wrong with Amis’s writing is here, in full-colour detail, in this overblown, self-regarding, sexist, appallingly snobbish novel. The preening, self-consciously hip mid-Atlantic drawl is bad enough, but what takes the breath away is the vitriolic portrait of British working-class life. You can feel his father’s prejudices seeping out of every sentence. Cartoonish, offensive and in the bin, I’m afraid.


I too loathed Amis's London Fields but adored his Time's Arrow. McCarthy's The Road is also at the top of my list of recent overrated books that I couldn't get through. Another on that list is Kazuo Isiguro's Never Let Me Go which I read to the end only because there wasn't much else to do while lying on a beach in Cuba and I'd already devoured the only other book I had with me J.M. Coetzee's wonderful Diary of a Bad Year.

Monday, June 16, 2008

I'm a Virgo, a Montrealer and a Reader

Passing the office of a co-worker the other day I remarked on the stack of James Mitchener novels he had on his desk. There were two or three of them. "Well, y'know," he said smiling proudly, "I'm a reader."

Now I'm not sure why I should consider that remark so strange but I did at the time. It's true that this co-worker is not the sort of guy one would peg as "a reader." A former college hockey defenseman, he's a burly, jovial, gregarious fellow, well-liked around the office, educated (in practical matters, engineering, calculus - he keeps impeccable files and handles construction projects for the firm) and smart, though not in a bookish way. His tastes culturally-speaking are somewhat suspect and decidedly low-brow, an appreciater of seventies music and films, particularly the oeuvre of John Travolta of that period (he's also an Italian, and anything Italian, by Coppola for example, works for him) especially in roles where Travolta played opposite Olivia Newton-John, and anything for that matter that featured ONJ, especially her turn as the rollerskating angel in Xanadu.

But it was not the profile of this reader that threw me momentarily off. It was, rather, that he had even bothered to call himself a "Reader," as if there it were some sort of title, a moniker worthy of esteem, like saying, I'm an Earl, or a Duke. Undoubtedly he considered that by declaring himself a reader, he (like me, it's well known around the office that I am both a reader and a writer) had joined an exclusive club. But here's the thing, his declaration was also clearly meant as something revealing, something personal and perhaps even slightly subversive, like admitting "I'm a Habs fan" in the middle of Boston Commons.

When I shared these thoughts with my 14 year old daughter Sivan she immediately agreed and without a wink of hesitation. She understood exactly what I was talking about (which, by the way, doesn't happen terribly often these days.) "Just look at Facebook," she said. "In the space on Facebook reserved for Favourite Book, where I put books by Ian McEwan and Catcher in the Rye, the vast majority of my friends have written "Not a reader." Perhaps most astounding of all is that my daughter's cohort have absolutely no compunction about the public declaration that they are non-readers. There is no shame in it. On the contrary, it's like a badge of honour.

Let's be clear here, I'm not talking about reading as an everyday practical skill, one used and abused on a daily basis in virtually every walk of life. I'm talking about reading books. Actual, books! (and I make no distinction here between Danielle Steel and Philip Roth.) It appears that there are readers and non-readers, like smokers and non-smokers. Notwithstanding reports of ever increasing book sales, it would seem that as the ranks of smokers diminish with every generation, so do the ranks of readers. Perhaps a day will come when there are "readers sections" on airplanes, public transportation and restaurants. These would be quieter venues. And come to think of it, maybe this accounts for the success of places like Starbucks, which, unlike other eateries, saw a niche in catering directly to readers (and term-paper writers). Trends being what they are, my advice to Starbucks is to start work on another niche asap. Come to think of it, they already have, web-surfers.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Former Montreal cabbie Hage scoops up IMPAC, world's richest novel prize

The only cabs he'll be taking from now on will be from airports in the backseat. Okay, I guess I'll have to read DeNiro's Game after all. Something had stopped me up to now. Probably a bunch of things, a combination of jealousy and... well, jealousy. I mean the guy's written this debut in his third language. Not first. Not second. Third! Most people don't even have a third language let alone could write a novel in one. I mean for me that's like writing a novel in Yiddish (or Hebrew, it's a toss-up.) But the other reason I haven't read it is that the exerpts I have read haven't drawn me to the book. Something about the prose seemed overwrought and faux-poetic in that annoying atmospheric Michael Ondaatje (see above) internationalist style. Without casting aspersions on a book I have yet to read, there is something about international war-torn settings and faux-poetic language that endears a book to prize juries. Maybe this is one way that the literary bourgeoisie can feel magnanimous, elevating the (artistic) suffering of the oppressed, the poverty-stricken and displaced, and in the process ennoble themselves. Or maybe, I'm full of crap and Hage's novel is just goddamn good and deserves all the accolades it received in Canada and abroad. Can so many "authoritative" people be wrong? One thing I love about this story is that Hage is not a product of any university creative writing program (he studied photography. My recommendation to writers: study agriculture, biology, ancient Greek, hell, study calf-roping, anything but creative writing.) It got me wondering about how many of the works of fiction that have been recognized internationally over the last number of years with prizes have actually been written by graduates of university creative writing programs. I expect, not many, if any. Though, I would expect that in poetry one would find many more academy-trained prize-winners, which if true, would attest to the insularity of that world, and perhaps the sorry state of poetry in general.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

How to treat The English Patient... or not

But Ondaatje’s anti-narrative technique of bending the lily is not the worst of it. Nor is it his precious and pretentious writing, so lazily glossed by reviewers as “poetic” (as Brian Dillon nails it: “It sounds poetic only if you don’t read poems”). At least one reviewer will confess to being tired of reading about strong but silent types who “have a darkness within” them. This is all quite bad enough. But what causes the most pain is what has been the mainspring, at least since The English Patient, of Ondaatje’s mass popularity. Like all of the books on the shortlist, Divisadero is a romance. And I don’t mean “romance” in the sense of one of Northrop Frye’s mythic modes. I mean that in its essential sensibility it’s the kind of book you’re likely to find on display somewhere close to the checkout in Shopper’s Drug Mart.

Alex Good is sick up and fed with the Giller, Michael Ondaatje and the general state of what passes for mainstream literature in Canada. And I thought he was taking the year off. Glad to see he's still in the game.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Forgotten Classics: "Shmucks" by Seymour Blicker

The premise is as ingenious as it is simple. It's 11ish pm. A divorced Jewish property manager named Levin turns his car into a downtown Montreal alleyway, taking a shortcut so he can get home as fast as possible to bed the woman he's just picked up at a local bar. His car is three quarters through the alleyway when a taxi driven by a Romanian immigrant (Pelzic by name) pulls in to the laneway headed in the opposite direction. What ensues is a high-noon stand-off, two equally angry, equally self-righteous stubborns, both perenially unable to catch a break from life, who have decided to make this confrontation their last stand. Each stays in his respective bubble not budging and watching from afar (except for the odd "Fock you!") the comings and goings in the other person's vehicle. They include a drunken millionaire wanting to be taken home and a fourteen year old girl looking for spare change.

It's an allegory of prejudice and miscommunication in a world that's gone crazy, in other words, a world of shmucks (a particular joy is reading Levin's explications on the nuances of the Yiddish term.) The beauty of this story is that neither Levin nor Pelzic seems to realize how he's one of them, a shmuck that is.

I had to track this short novel (128 pages) down on the internet and managed to snag a reasonably priced copy from Abebooks. A writer friend had recommended it as a work that he found had stood up surprisingly well over time. Extremely well, I say. It's absolutely hilarious and has a sad poignancy and an underlying seriousness that still resonates.

I have a vague memory of the time this book first came out in the early seventies. I was about seven or eight years old and Seymour Blicker lived around the corner in Hampstead on Gayton. I used to play with his kids on occasion at Gayton Park across the street, particularly the eldest son Jason, who you might know from his successful acting career. We never asked Jason about what his dad did for a living, though the word around the neighbourhood was that it wasn't a 'normal' living. Still, they lived in a nice house and the kids (four of them, Jason had a very pretty, very smart, older sister and twin younger brothers) seemed to have everything that the rest of us had who came from shmatta, legal or accounting families. When "Shmucks" came out I have a hazy recollection of an adult (it might or might not have been one of my parents) mentioning that what Mr. Blicker wrote was smut. I imagined something out of Penthouse Forum. Something akin to Roald Dahl's ribald naughtiness would be more accurate. Actually, the sex scenes and references in the novel which were deemed so outrageously crass and vulgar, often feel dated, even quaint, which tells you something about how far we've come.

One of the many pleasures of this book for me was how Levin's being harrassed by his tenants. At one point he decides to use his time in the car to answer their complaint-filled correspondences. (I got a particular chuckle out of how, in the absence of cellphones and Blackberries, each complaint was communicated to him and had to be answered by letter. By the end he's having enough of it, answering one formally-worded complaint in a dream by simply saying, "And perhaps you could do a little favour for me, Mr. Sanderson... perhaps you can go fuck yourself" - okay maybe you have to be in the property management game as long as I have to truly enjoy that response.)

The resolution is as simple and ingenious as the premise, and also as satisfying, leaving the reader with a sense of hope. I won't give it away, but I'll say one thing, both Pelzic and Levin finally win out in their own little way, and in the process each gains a glimmer of insight into himself. If there is a publisher out there listening, please re-issue this book! The hardcover I managed to obtain is already cracking at the seams.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Biggest Drawing in the World

What if the world was your canvas and a GPS was your pen. I'm not completely sure I buy this one, but the film shows Stockholm artist using precisely this technique to create a self-portrait. A second film shows him planning out the trip. The questionable aspect arises from the travelling lines. Would it be possible for all of the airplanes etc. to follow precisely the lines set out in the plan? What about all the curves, and curls? Unlikely. Anyway, it's an inspired idea, and even if it could not be executed, it would still be an incredible feat of planning.

*NOTE: Since posting I dug further to find out more about this incredible idea. My hunch was right. It turns out to be only an idea, a fantasy, but a brilliant one nonetheless. Give this kid his diploma suma cum laude.

Bar Mitzvah Disco (BMD)


"The crucible of our generation" - that's apparently what some are calling the hokey, themed, extravaganzas that were Bar-Mitzvah parties of the 70s. It might be a little much but who could deny the indelible memories (some cringe-worthy) that these parties left us with. As I mentioned in an earlier post my BMD was magic-themed (with a professional magician performing) at the Elm Ridge Golf and Country Club. My parents had hired a bus to take my friends out to the golf club and called it "The Magic Bus" (or was it "The Magical Mystery Tour"?) - I suppose they'd bypassed the late 60s and missed the reference to hallucinagenic substances. How can you not love this website devoted to the BMD. The book looks like a hoot. By the way that photo is not me (it comes from the book), but it does bear a certain strange resemblance to yours truly. Which makes me wonder if the BMD was some sort of altered reality, and we, the bar-mitzvah bochers, were actually all the same kid.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The afterlife of culture

Chew on this, a review by Alex Good of Stephen Henighan's latest. You may know Henighan as an accomplished poet, essayist and short-story writer. Or you may know him as the author of a silly essay he wrote in Geist that garnered a lot of attention last year which offers a preposterous theory purporting to explain how Vincent Lam came out of nowhere to win the Giller. The whole thing reeked of sour grapes. Henighan's a smart guy and a good writer who's been snubbed by the establishment of literary prize-givers. Still, like Alex, I have a lot of sympathy for his crusade against the corporatization, institutionalization and monopolization of the arts. By those terms I mean that artists, like all producers in every marketplace, serve the people who pay the bills. In the arts that has increasingly meant government bureaucrats, the funding agencies they run and the arts establishment clustered around university departments. The result is art that has become disconnected from the interests and concerns of the general public. It's a situation that is particularly stark in the visual arts which has become almost entirely a purview of elites (funding by government, institutions or the extremely wealthy.) In other artforms the disjunction has expressed itself in severe bifurcation, for example in music, where you have wholly popular product ie. hip-hop which tends to pander to the lowest common denominator in terms of taste and subject matter, and "unpopular" product, the stuff that's deemed good for us but is not viable in the open marketplace, which is funded by and panders strictly to the tastes of elites. I'm guessing that's what Henighan means when he writes about the state of the novel (as quoted by Good) History ceases to be what shaped us and becomes simply the raw material for new book-shaped consumer products. We package it up in the forms of popular entertainment in order to dispense with it. Some of the novels even articulate an explicitly anti-innovative, anti-chronological critical ideology; nearly all abdicate the realist novel's responsibility to engage with the present. The disjunction between popular and non-popular culture, (I don't like the terms "high" and "low" art), if it indeed exists, can't be a good thing for the art being produced. If there is one thing that an artist (writer, painter, musician) should strive for is an art that aesthetically trancends the quotidian while at the same time speaks with immediacy and urgency to the concerns of everyday people.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Celebrating young writers & artists in Montreal tonight

Tonight at the Jewish Public Library several hundred Montreal-area young writers, musicians and artists (grades 7-12) will be fêted at the 25th annual publication of the Firstfruits anthology. Firstfruits is an incredible program, encouraging creativity in high-school kids (and hopefully getting them away from the tv and computer screen, except of course, to write poetry, essays or stories.) I've enjoyed an almost twenty year association with this program which was founded by visionary (and National Post editorialist) Barbara Kay. Tonight, I have the privilege of acting as MC as the kids are called up to accept prizes and read from their works. I'm especially excited to hear the evening's guest speakers Nancy Marelli and Simon Dardick, co-publisher's of Véhicule Press, one of the best independent publishers in Canada. It's been a particularly good week for Véhicule whose books have won a couple of prestigious awards.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Kind words for A Dream of Birds

From Bywords

A Dream of Birds by Seymour Mayne and B. Glen Rotchin, illustrated by Sharon Katz.

Reviewed by Megan McGrath.

So agile in their expressions of birds, Seymour Mayne and B. Glen Rotchin pluck the most beautiful words to associate with our feathered friends. A Dream of Birds is a collection of word sonnets so lyrical and humorous, poignant and elegant, thoughtful and sad. Mayne and Rotchin's word sonnets play off each other in easy dialogue, comparing birds to musical notes, speech, angels, and women. In "Fire," Rotchin proclaims the birth of a cardinal from a log's flame. Mayne inserts a quaint "Canadian-ness" in his mention of birds perched on maples in "Day Off." In the title poem, Rotchin stretches beyond birds but the connection remains. A truly beautiful collection, these word sonnets are the perfect conversation between two gifted poets, illustrated boldly by Sharon Katz.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Maxwell Bodenheim


Memorial Day in the States seems like a good day to draw your attention to the forgotten American bohemian poet and novelist Maxwell Bodenheim on his birthday. With thanks to The Writer's Almanac.
Milton Klonsky once recalled being in a bar in Greenwich Village in the early 1950s and suddenly hearing the owner and many of the drinkers shouting and jeering at someone. When Klonsky turned to see what was happening he noticed "a tall, glum, scraggly, hawknosed, long-haired, itchy-looking, no doubt pickled, fuming and oozing, Bowery-type specimen" standing near the door. People were calling to him to read a poem or even make up one on the spot. The man turned and glared at them and wrapped his "old dung-coloured horse blanket of a patched overcoat" around him in a way that reminded Klonsky of Marc Antony drawing his toga to him as he faced the Roman mob. And then he said "Pimps! Patriots ! Racetrack touts !" in a contemptuous voice, and swept out of the bar. It was, as Klonsky said, the kind of exit that stays in the mind, and it gave the victim of the sneers of the crowd a kind of nobility.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Testing my blog PH balance

Well, if you are one of the dozen folks who regularly reads this blog you may have figured out that the last entry was strictly a test. I couldn't care less about Paris Hilton. A colleague in my office who fancies himself a maven on all things computer and internet said that if I mentioned PH it would send visits through the roof. I told him he was full of crap but decided to test out his theory for 24 hours as a lark. He was wrong. The number of visits have reversed. The mention of PH has begun to suck interest out of my blog like the black hole that she is. So for those of you who may have abandoned me because I posted on PH, I didn't mean it, please come back!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Paris burger

Is there any difference between Paris Hilton and a cheap rubber sex doll?

No wonder I was always so bad in math


In a 2003 study at Harvard, Dr. Carson and other researchers tested students’ ability to tune out irrelevant information when exposed to a barrage of stimuli. The more creative the students were thought to be, determined by a questionnaire on past achievements, the more trouble they had ignoring the unwanted data. A reduced ability to filter and set priorities, the scientists concluded, could contribute to original thinking.

Inability to focus. Attraction to other things. Mind-wandering. Love of the world. The desire to drink it all in. It's all the same to me. Well, I may be pushing it. But this NYTimes piece raises some interesting questions, not just about the aging brain, but the nature of wisdom and the way it's been so completely undervalued in our day and age. We live in an information age. Which means that the ability to assemble and parse data, categorize, sift, mathematicize and monetize has gain ascendency over more ephemeral, intangible and experiential forms of information. We have devalued and undervalued wisdom. Shunted aside our elders. Taken the short view over the long. Either ditched the repositories of human experience completely -the sacred texts and ancient myths and traditions that make up our civilizations - or chosen to fiercely embrace them in superficial (read: literal) and dangerously fundamentalist ways. It's a perilsome and, in fact, dehumanizing enterprise. Yes, religious fundamentalism is a product of our technocratic, information age.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

If you happen to be in Ottawa tonight... (sixth in a series)

If you missed us on Ottawa radio, catch us live and in person! I'll be reading with Clayton Bailey and Glen Dresser at Collected Works bookstore at 7:30 pm, 1242 Wellington St. (at Holland). Come for the thrills, the entertainment, the intellectual stimulation, and if not, apparently they make a mean cup of java.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Things so good on Chabanel product is being tossed from windows

Reports of the demise of the garment industry on Chabanel are vastly exaggerated. Garmentos aren't throwing themselves out of windows. But if you were at the annual end-of-season Matt & Nat sale at 225 Chabanel you would have seen purses and handbags being launched from the building and being 'saved' (and fought over) by the crowd of gawkers below. I don't know much about Matt & Nat except that my wife and daughters instantly begin a Pavlovian drool at the mere mention of their product.

Canada Reads... and now so does English Montreal!

Organized by the venerable QWF (Quebec Writers Federation), they're calling it Schmoozapalooza for some reason. Looks like fun and even if you can't make it to hear these writers championing the works of other writers, visit the website to read the works in question. They're all worth your time.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

On radio

If you happen to be in Ottawa or want to stream Ottawa radio, my Vehicule Press stablemate Clayton Bailey and I are scheduled to be on the "Literary Landscape" show with host Jane Crosier at 6:30 pm. this evening, tune in to CKCU 93.1 FM.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Preoccupied With My Father


A little book by Toronto lawyer and self-taught painter Simon Schneiderman. It's a tribute to his father Yoel who survived several personal and global tragedies in his ninety plus years, including unimagineable family losses. The format is unusual and lovely, hardcover and compact with beautifully reproduced paintings. The art is colourfully textured in the naive-style, sometimes reminiscent of Chagall's dreamy shtetl paintings, at other times suggestive of the savage characterist George Grosz. Each page of the book features an image from Yoel's life opposite a page of only a few words. It's a book that can be read in ten minutes or savoured and read over and over again. My interest in the book was initially less literary than personal. I knew Yoel Schneiderman. I was a 24 year old working at the Jewish Public Library organizing lectures and readings. Mr. Schneiderman was my most stalwart patron. An angular man with high cheek bones and thin expressive eyes (Simon's portrait is remarkable) he would attend, without fail, virtual all of the library's programs, whether they were lectures by esteemed university professors or open mic poetry readings, whether they were in French, English, Yiddish, or Russian, whether the weather was clear and sunny or minus 20 and the streets were blanketed in two inches of ice. I knew nothing about him, save his name (he called me Mister Rothchild and spoke to me with a certain respect that, given my youth and his age, I considered comical). If there were two people in an audience (which happened more than I'd like to admit) one would be Mr. Schneiderman, and when he was missing, it had to be serious (As it turned out one time it was, he was mugged in the street.) This book is a loving, moving tribute but even more it's a testament to one ordinary, unassuming man's quiet courage and the enduring power of the human spirit.