Monday, December 28, 2009

Year-end reflections


I'm not one for making year-end lists of bests and worsts. In the first place I haven't read or seen nearly enough for the practice to be anything more than masturbatory drivel. In the second place everything I have read has been selected in a purely haphazard fashion. So what remains is like silt dredged up from the river bed and sifted through palms; I look down into my muddy hands as unsure of what I've got, of what's worth keeping and what's not, as when I started. Ultimately there is the everpresent solitude, the pool at my feet, and the mystery of life below the water's dark surface. There are many blessings to count, and if I was adequately skilled and appreciative, every breath standing on the shoreline would bring me a sense of renewal and hope. Alas, this year ends on an uncertain note, with a few disappointments that I'm taking to be opportunities - only time will tell. Looking back on my reading I do find trends. My taste has shifted away from heavily serious fiction, to serious with a light (often comedic or absurdist) touch. Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy somehow fits into this category, as do the novels of Howard Jacobson and the short fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman. After polishing off Friedman's latest collection, I have just finished his 1996 off-kilter comic novel A Father's Kisses, and enjoyed it after about 100 pages of uncertainty. It's a book that's hard to characterize, though cleverly absurd would fit, and once you get into the author's tempo (granted, not everyone will) the pleasures become apparent. In addition to discovering Friedman, I blew the dust off of the forgotten Canadian gem Shmucks by Seymour Blicker which was a revelation (okay that was summer 2008, but it lingers), and re-read Richler's Saint-Urbain's Horseman and Barney's Version for the first time, neither of which held up as well as I thought they would. Admittedly, I was never big on Richler, but there was something in his writing that called to me this year. As with reading lists of years past, mine was compiled without forethought or deliberation. Some dishes at the buffet attracted my tastes more than others. (If there was an argument to be made for the existence of the subconcious mind, the choices that constitute a reading list of fiction might provide ample proof, assuming you are not a bestseller-list automaton or Oprah drone, although that too speaks volumes.) My choices reveal that, although it's sometimes difficult to admit, I have joined the ranks of card-carrying middle-age men. Combine this with the fact that I read (and occasionally write) novels (not to mention book reviews) makes me something of an anachronism at the end of the double-naughts, a dying breed. Apparently middle-age men don't read fiction anymore (if they ever did) which is a shame. Allow me to recommend it to my confrere of expanding midriffs and receding hairlines. Novel-reading, as a means of expiating the temptations of mid-life, is a lot safer (and cost-effective) than having an affair (or two, or a dozen, wink-wink Tiger), or buying a convertible Porsche, or taking up snowboarding. And although novel-reading may not be as thrilling as the aforementioned activities, it potentially at least, offers pleasures that last longer. So, if publishers and booksellers are listening - there's a huge untapped market out there just waiting for your attention. If men at mid-life can be trained to change diapers surely they can learn to pick up a book once in a while too. I know their wives are on board with this one.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"The most meat that ever stepped into the ring"


In my ongoing (and some would argue futile) attempts to enrich your appreciation of illustrious names in the annals of Jews in sports.

Friday, December 18, 2009

To be human

This pressure gets exerted downward, with agents informing their authors of the Facts of Life: if they want the kind of attention and healthy advances that were common a decade ago, during the boom years, they had better make sure their work is pitched broadly. More and more authors alter their approach to fit into a stream that grows ever narrower. And more and more readers find themselves baffled by books that don’t seem to know what they are trying to do, and turn away to more forthrightly literary or commercial work.

With all this talk basically asserting that the literary novel is in a crisis I have come to the conclusion that what the form offers that few if any forms of art can is 'intimacy'. I have gravitated in recent years to books like Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy partly because, like the main character, I am a middle-aged man experiencing middle-age-manhood. But more because Ford is a master at creating a bubble of intimacy between writer and reader. Reading these books one has the sense that we have entered the protagonist's authentic world, the inner-sanctum of his selfhood. In a world in which the celebrity-driven media is all-intrusive, a world in which basic human interaction is so heavily mediated by technology, the screen, the phone, and so forth, the literary novel can exist as a counterbalance. It has to do with the quality of the medium and mode of consumption ('curling up with a good book') which may be characterized as 'quiet' and 'revealing' in nature. There are a lot of experiences that were once the purview of books that films can now, and will in the future, do as well if not better than books in the realm of bombast and spectacle; generate thrills, suspense and horror, carry us to distant or imagined lands, fabricate alternative realities etc. But because it is fundamentally a flattening medium, film does not (and will never) convey the subtle complexities and depth of what it means (in thought, feeling and spirit) to be another person. The question for the future of the novel will ultimately rest on how much we value achieving that level of genuine personal human connection.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The world at one remove

In the years that followed, Weizenbaum became increasingly sceptical of technology that allowed us to experience the world at one remove and on our own terms. He had grown up in Nazi Germany, and saw in the virtual world some of the dangers of a system that divorced the individual from the necessity of regular and frank human interaction and allowed everything to become an extension of personal need and desire.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Crows

CROWS

If boots
could fly
they'd be
crows
a black
scheming
vestibule
full
identical
as paired-up
souls
suspended
between worlds
conspiring
behind doors
immune
to public stares
a murder
spills out
into the street
spreading
like crude
from a tanker
run aground.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Kelev Tov

There's a German Shepherd the Rabbi can talk to.

Meir Ifergan z"l

"Quand tu es heureux la vie passe vite."
"Life passes quickly when you are happy."
- Ariel Ifergan, eulogizing his father Meir Ben Yosef v' Fibi, a great teacher, a tzaddik, someone who was blessed and was himself a blessing, and was happy.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The dark days

Are these the dark days of 'serious' literature. Philip Marchand of the Toronto Star seems to think so.

Canada Reads 2010

The line-up was announced yesterday. In the past I've found the process and broadcasts inane, but hey, anything that brings added attention to Canadian books is alright with me. The problem starts with who the panelists are and how they are chosen. I like the idea of having panelists who represent a multicultural and linguistic cross-section of the nation, an African-Canadian participant, an South Asian-Canadian, a Qu├ębecois, and from a variety of walks of life, but not at the expense of enlightened discussion. The panel selection has in the past undermined both the calibre of exchange and titles selected. Will the ultimate choice reflect, by any stretch of the imagination, the one novel that Canada should read this year, of course not. And if this lofty objective (admittedly an unattainable one) is not to be remotely achieved, can't the whole basis of the enterprise be called into question? I think so, and I believe listeners and readers know this and will lose interest, if they haven't already (as I have) which is a shame. I think the folks in charge at the CBC began to give up on what they aspired toward some years ago, and I suspect so will we. This year's books strike me as unimaginative (except for Nikolski, by Nicolas Dicknor) and backward-looking which, in and of itself, is not problematic. I thought the selection of King Leary in 2008 was positively inspired (in fact all the titles that year were interesting.) There is something dull and safe about choosing lauded, well-worn titles like Fall on Your Knees, Generation X and The Jade Peony. If we have to look back why not, go way back, to novels genuinely overlooked or ones long-forgotten that merit being discovered by new generations. The present panel reflects a narrow, youngish (20s-40s) age group which may account for the fact that their 'classic' selections only go back as far as the 1990s. Are these the novels that should truly matter to us today? There are so many outstanding young writers being published in this country (often with small presses) with prescient, vibrant voices. Why not discover one of them? Again, all of this says something about the quality of the panelists, not as accomplished individuals, though they may be, but as readers which is what really matters if this exercise is to be taken seriously by anyone.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Making minced meat out of Cockroach

I wasn't crazy about Hage's novel either, but for very different reasons. There is something nagging about Mary Gaitskill's review in the NY Times book section, an undercurrent of envy for Rawi's success. Far from his prose being "mannered, preening and clumsy," they struck me as overcooked, like he continually overstretches. Okay, "clumsy" yes. But as I pointed out, and Gaitskill hardly even mentions, the main character is suicidal, and therefore more than slightly off-kilter. She's right about the lack of drama in the novel as a whole, and I think it's because Hage is essentially a novice, still learning his craft. The ability to develop plot, pace and dramatic tension is a sophisticated aspect of the artform and requires practice. His descriptive ability obviously comes much more naturally (I'm guessing it has something to do with his years as a practicing photographer.) Hage is still working out the kinks of storytelling. Gaitskill could have offered a fairer assessment.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Reading Her Poetry


READING HER POETRY

I wonder if her eyes are brown
or blue (green is rare)
and if her hair is blond
and flowing or dark and curly
(poems by poets with shortcropped
hair generally don't appeal to me),
and if she writes sitting
at the kitchen table longhand
on coffee-stained sheets of foolscap
that scatter to the floor,
or by the window
in lined hardcover volumes
she numbers and places on the shelf
in her 'office'
when she's finished
(it matters)
and whether her room
is in a tiny apartment
in a crowded city
or a cottage in the country
(perhaps something grand and colonial
with a wrap-around porch),
I also picture her
full-breasted
not flat-chested
and imagine that sometimes,
when she is not getting it quite right
she touches herself
for reassurance
until the word comes:
Arriving at the end
of her poem
(like some great battle that has been won
or lost, I'm not sure which)
I think of Abe Lincoln
standing in front of 15,000
at a national cemetery in Gettysburg PA
orating those famous 272 words
and question
how anyone heard him
without a mic.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Historical fiction's hammerlock on Canlit

I've made mention of this time and again and as recently as my review of Charles Demers's new novel below. In the wake of Kate Pullinger winning this year's GG for her novel set in Victorian times Steven Beattie makes some interesting points, to wit:

And the virtual hammerlock that historical fiction seems to have on our country’s literary imagination is problematic to me, not so much because there’s anything wrong with historical fiction per se, but because of what the genre’s stranglehold on our literature implies about our present situation. The fact that so few stories are written about the way we live now suggests that there is nothing of value worth writing about in today’s society: no drama, no earth-shaking conflicts, no cultural upheavals or societal paradigm shifts that might provide worthy material for fiction.

I don't think the ascendency of historical fiction implies anything about the value of the here and now as subject matter. But it does say a lot more: About the 'professionalization' of creative writing, the displacement of experience by research, which is at the heart of academic training etc. About how conservative readers have become, and by extension publishers (who always look for safe/cost-effective bets.) Beattie hints at the 'perils' of getting the present wrong, which suggests a kind of cowardice on the part of our novelists too. He's on to something. But I would go a step further. There is a difference between re-telling a story already told, one that has been amply sifted through the filter of time and perspective, and creating one on the fly. It's the difference between following a script (allowing room for a certain amount of interpretation) and all out, no holds barred improv.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Moth

I must be sleeping under a rock or something but last night I discovered a marvellous website called The Moth. Apparently it's been around for quite a while hosting storytelling events, recording them and generating a significant following. My initiation involved clicking on a touching, harrowing tale by Ed Gavagan called "Drowning on Sullivan Street." The Moth blows Stuart Mcleans's tepid in comparison story exchange out of the water.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Prescription Errors by Charles Demers


There is a glut of poet-novelists in this country (Atwood, Ondaatje, Michaels, Redhill). What we need are more comedian-novelists. Stand-up comics and novelists share a lot in common; both employ narrative techniques based on sharp observation, carefully chosen language and syntax, and devices such as irony and absurdity, and of course... timing. Charles Demers's debut novel The Prescription Errors has it all. But there's something more too, and it relates to the commitment comedians, by virtue of their craft, make to the here and now, critiquing our personal and social foibles, fakery and false-gods. The poet-novelists and historical-novelists that rule the Canlit roost are devotees of a specialized craft that is increasingly speculative and relies on heavy-duty book research. By being unflinchingly focused on the state of things as they (we) are, stand-up comics have insight into more prescient matters relating to our current political-ethnic-economic condition, how well we are treating each other or not, the state of our humanity or lack of same. The siphoning of writing talent away from the literary arts to the big and small screens (chasing money and notoriety) goes some way to explain why much of the fiction being published (and lavished with prizes) is disconnected from everyday experience and reality on the ground. Aspiring novelists see themselves on a career track that goes from a university creative degree to post-graduate studies to an academic position and writing novels. To my mind, cab-driving (Exhibit A) may be better training for novel-writing than getting a creative writing MA. Exhibit B is Charles Demers, a guy who's got his fingers in a lot of pies, activism, television, radio, stand-up comedy, journalism, and internet-publishing. He's hard to categorize (and we all know how important 'categorization' is in the era of diminished attention spans) and his debut is equally hard to pin down. One thing that does comes through with flying colours is fresh, energetic prose from an acute, socially/politically-engaged mind. Two stories interconnect. In one, a stand-up comic named Ty Bergen has just scored his big break voicing a hit cartoon. The only problem is that his Hollywood days are numbered since he got the gig by replacing beloved (Canadian) actor Al Sampson who's recuperating from a near fatal car accident. Everyone wants Al back asap (his producer, colleagues, and fans), and Ty has the sense that he is, at worst, an immoral lowlife (for taking advantage of someone else's misery) or at best, a place-holder, counterfeit, a cheap replica of the original, in work and in life. The irony is that it is precisely Ty's cosmopolitan talent mimicking multiple ethnic accents (a 'Canadian' talent - think Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, and for older folks like myself Ottawa-born impersonator legend Rich Little) that snagged him the California gig. Ty ('tie') may be a sell-out, and Demers weaves through the text a critique of our uneasy relationship with US mass-market culture.

The main, and more substantial narrative, is voiced by Daniel, an obsessive-compulsive engaged in a Marxist medical research project (you'll have to read the book to understand what that means) and whose cousin Sara's girlfriend has published a children's book about lesbian turtles that some groups are fighting to ban. Daniel is caught up in his own thoughts and anxieties, working in dead-end jobs, and ensconced in the dark basement of a university library perusing medical journals. A description of Daniel's job washing the floors of a car parkade yields a sampling of Demers's gift for apt, spicy description: "You might think that every oil stain or wad of discarded gum ground into molecular bond with the pavement through the pressures of time and the wheels of SUVs would bear its own unique imprint, each an urban snowflake in a postmodern, post-climate winterscape, say. No."

Only Sara's son Robeson, whom Daniel babysits, seems to bring him out of himself (his shell). The bond between Daniel, who lost his mother to illness when he was a child, and Robeson, who has an abundance of mothers, is a touching one. The choice to name a small white boy
after Paul Robeson - a mountain of a black man, a man's man, an accomplished athlete, intellectual and artist, one of the last century's great renaissance figures - telegraphs Demers's desire to explore themes of racism, homophobia, the mind-body problem, art vs. politics and censorship among others. But it's the portrait he paints of Vancouver's rich ethnic cosmopolitanism that is memorable, as typified by Daniel's relationship with a 6'4" turban-wearing Sikh named Baljinder or 'Bo' with whom he smokes weed, goes to comedy clubs and stargazes.

The recent novel this one most reminds me of is Andy Brown's The Mole Chronicles. I don't think it's coincidental that both Brown and Demers have Montreal-Vancouver pedigrees - the former is Vancouver-born and now lives in La Belle Province, while the latter is a Vancouverite who has his roots in Quebec. Nor is it happenstance that both their novels are published by Insomniac. Like many first novels The Prescription Errors suffers from being overly ambitious and dense. Firsttime novelists are typically in a major rush to say what they have to say, and they pile it all into too narrow a container. Demers doesn't quite manage to balance the Ty and Daniel sides of the narrative equation, and his multiple thematic strands are foreground when they should be background. Nevertheless, it's enjoyable to watch him try to pull it all together, like a young stand-up performer whose got great material, is rough around the edges when it come to overall execution, but who you know is destined to make his mark.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Kettubah artist Sivan


My eldest daughter has ventured into designing Jewish marriage contracts. So if you know a Jewish couple getting married and shopping for a beautiful, timeless piece of art with meaning, invite them to browse this site.

If you happen to be within two hours of Ottawa this month...


Tweeting the world into existence

And God twittered "Let there be light" and there was light.

Blackburied

You've heard of "Crackberry". Here is another new terminology that describes the condition of someone walking (or driving) in a zombie-like trance, head buried in his Blackberry device, not paying attention to anyone or anything else around: "Blackburied", as in, "He was blackburied when we met," or "I saw him blackburied on the street," or "she was blackburied behind the wheel, which caused the accident."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Art news

"Fishman" by David Griffin. I own this painting by this wonderful artist (and friend). I've always thought of it (hopefully and metaphorically) as greenbacks swimming into my bank account. Check out his website for more evocative (and slightly creepy) art. Also, his fascinating blog, which I know is very smart since I don't understand most of it. But the music (and dancing) videos are good.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Montreal launch of ZOO by Arleen Solomon Rotchin

I have it on good authority that the author will present the fascinating true story behind the story of her friendship with the jailed investment fraudster. You won't want to miss it!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

For the love of books


The other day I was describing to my eldest daughter the merz creations of Kurt Schwitters, one of my favourite artists of the 20th century. I'm a sucker for any art that transforms, recycles, re-uses etc. old stuff into new and beautiful stuff. To me, that's what genuine creativity is all about. This is what genuine creativity is all about!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Don't take my word for it...

I've been saying it for some time (as have others). But don't take my word for it. Now Man-Booker jurist Michael Prodger is making the argument and he ought to know. He's read something like 130 novels in the last six months, which according to him (and who can argue) makes him an expert on contemporary fiction. I would just add one thought that occurred to me when we were having a minor row over at Bookninja.com. It's not just the university creative writing programs that have standardized literary output to its general detriment, but commensurate with that, the fact that fiction writers have become too narrow. Learning to write means achieving a solid competence in all aspects of the craft. I would argue that a novelist should also be able to write essays, poetry, reportage, non-fiction etc. as well. It's a rather old school notion in our specialized day and age. But if you think about it, many of the greatest novelists (Hemingway immediately comes to mind) also wrote reportage, screenplays, essays, opinion pieces, advertising etc. Having to scrape together a living not only grounded them in the concerns of their readers (as opposed to the disconnection we see today between artists and the general public) but made them more skilled (and perhaps instinctive, and therefore fresher) writers as well.

Monday, September 14, 2009

You can't do THIS with CD containers; Album faces

We had a moderately successful garage sale this weekend. I was not too happy when a customer asked if I had any vinyl LPs. Not wanting to lose a potential sale I reluctantly answered yes, four milk crates full, but he'd have to help me lug them upstairs from the basement if he wanted to have a look. He agreed. I sold five albums for a buck each and then three more for two bucks each ka-ching! And then the real fun started. My daughters were giddy with excitement flicking through the album covers and then they had a eureka moment: Album Faces!
























Stirring the Canlit pot

Barb Kay is at it again, declaring exactly what she feels, doing it eloquently (and pissing a lot of people off in the process.) I won't respond to her essay directly, and I certainly won't comment on a book (or a writer) I've never read. But I will add one observation, which I think is germane to her argument about the type of Canadian writing she is referring to. Listening to Shelagh Rogers' CBC show this past week it suddenly occurred to me that the authors (of Canadian fiction) that she was interviewing were incredibly dull. Shelagh is a 'nice' person and she may be partially to blame for making her guests sound uninteresting because of her interviewing technique which tends to gush. But I blame them too. All they did was talk about their books, their techniques, and what inspired their writing etc. What I want to hear about is not what inspires their writing but what inspires their living! Eleanor Wachtel is a much better interviewer in this regard. I've met a few novelists in my day (and some very 'important' ones, Bellow, Doctorow, Richler among them) and my experience was that the last thing they wanted to talk about was their writing. I'm not naive. I know that the context for an author interview is promotional. Yes, I need to know about the novel being promoted, but not ad nauseum, and please no shop-talk. I'm more likely to go out and buy a book if the writer sounds like an exciting person who has insight and something meaningful to say about life. And here is, I think, where the problem lies; 'living' is synonymous with 'writing' in the age of the professionally-trained novelist. Whereas writing used to be a means to an end - the expression of the tensions and struggles between the aspiration to seek out significance in the travails of daily life (while holding down jobs, trying to make ends meet, supporting a family etc.) - it is now a self-sustaining, self-referencing, end in itself. In the age of professionally-trained creative writers, novels are personal flights of fancy, idea-driven, overly-researched entities and therefore disconnected from common experience and concern. I remember listening to author interviews as a young man and being amazed at the wisdom, breadth of interest, depth of engagement and sensitivity of the writers, and thinking that that is what I wanted to aspire to. Not because these were great writers, but because they were great people who were politically and socially aware and active, and who saw themselves as agents of change, consciousness-raisers, and shit-disturbers. It seems that too many now are dull, self-absorbed and syncophantic, the products of the institutionalization of the creative arts, the laziness of the critics and risk-averse publishing houses and their all-powerful marketing departments. Whether you agree or disagree with Barb Kay's taste in fiction, her opinion is absolutely necessary if there is to be a revitalization of the industry and the art in this country.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

An audio feast

Listen to More About Henry by composer/ audio-artist Adam Goddard. The first time I heard it was on CBC's Ideas a while back and it stuck with me as a dream does. My memory was refreshed on a recent drive back from visiting at camp when it re-aired. The Henry of the title is Adam's grandfather who recalls the early days of farming and the hardships of life on the prairies in the early 20th century. Adam turns his grandad's memories into a many-layered, multi-faceted, and loving piece of contemporary music. Best of all it's eminently listenable and at times catchy too. This might sound odd but it most reminds me of The Who's epic rock-opera Tommy.

Friday, July 24, 2009

I've been thinking about...

escapist books. At least, there used to be something, a genre, that we used to call 'escapist'. These days most of what we see on the bestseller lists seems to be 'escapist' which makes the term redundant. I don't mean only in the SF/ fantasy sense. But historical fiction too. Any book designed to carry the reader away to another place, another timezone, an alternate reality. What I'm attempting to bring to light is the dearth of fiction written these days set in the here and now, or at least, the recent past, say the last twenty years. Blame Harry Potter. Blame The DaVinci Code too. It appears that this is what readers want. Books that will take them to other time periods, alternate worlds, or fantastical scenarios of various kinds. It is not, incidentally, what I want, which appears to make me 'old fashioned'. These thoughts dovetail interestingly with a CBC radio piece I heard today on the meaning of GPS, Global Positioning Systems. They have become so ubiquitous, on cellphones and as a standard feature in cars, that articles have started appearing attempting to parse out what it all means. One writer suggested that she had to compete with the GPS for her boyfriend's attention in the car. She called the GPS, 'the other woman'. Dump the shmuck immediately, I say. But I was also thinking that it meant something worthy of further scrutiny. Perhaps it signals that we are becoming less attuned to our immediate surroundings, shunning positioning ourselves in the here and now, locating ourselves by what we experience and notice in the real world, in favour of a kind of virtual existence, being a dot on an electronic map. If technology is to be completely trusted - and increasingly it appears to be the only trustworthy mode of existence - as we are wont to do in this technological age, what happens when a conflict arises with physical experience? It's probably an urban legend, but I've heard of a GPS commanding a driver to turn right on a bridge. He did as he was commanded with tragic results. And even if that's only an urban legend, it bespeaks a paranoia and concern. All to say - connecting books and GPS - we seem to be losing our sense of being in the here and now, noticing landmarks, trusting our senses, and caring about our surroundings. If books are any indication, we don't seem to want to be where we are at the moment, rather, we don't care to know, to seek meaning, to glean understanding from our circumstances, our ordinary daily struggles etc. We'd rather be fantasizing about vampires and demons and magic and farfetched conspiracies. Who can blame people for craving escape in a world that teeters on the edge of political and economic bankruptcy? On the other hand, isn't that what literature's all about? To make sense of a world on the edge? Maybe we need those stories more than ever?!

Monday, June 29, 2009

The summer of Jacko

My say on MJ. I'll start by stating the obvious, he was an exceedingly talented boy, and a very screwed-up man. He could sing and he could dance. There were better singers and better dancers, but perhaps not anyone who combined them quite as well as he did. By many accounts, he was a pedophile, addicted to painkillers and plastic surgery and was 500 million dollars in debt. I shudder to think that he was anyone's hero or role-model. He was emblematic of all the excesses of our society; a creature who mirrored the very worst in us, our vanity, our greed, our acquisitiveness, our self-medicating indulgence, our narcissism, our immaturity, even as he sang about love and racial tolerance. In the end, he became our monster, and like all monsters that are really reflections of our worst tendencies, we secretly want to destroy them even as we embrace them. I am saddened. Not for his loss but for the future of his progeny, and for what awaits his three kids too.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Torat Imeinu


My creative, wonderful, egalitarian Reconstructionist shul has done it again, an inspired, history-making initiative called: Torat Imeinu, Our mother's Torah. It has commissioned a Torah written by a soferet, a female scribe, the first in Canada. It's an amazing project in celebration of the synagogue's Jubilee 1960-2010, the third Sefer Torah scribed by Jen Taylor Friedman (the other two are in the US). You can follow Jen's progress and fascinating insights on the process on her blog. And of course, we are inviting everyone's support - you don't have to be a shul member to participate. It's a unique, moving, meaningful and permanent way to honour grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts and entire families. You can sponsor a letter, a name, a favourite verse etc. and it will be acknowledged with a certificate. Be a part of something really special!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Little Bee by Chris Cleave


I'm feeling a bit more hopeful today, largely because I've just finished Chris Cleave's latest novel Little Bee. This tale of two opposites, an African girl and a British preppy (do they use that term anymore?) who save each other's life has restorative power, and what more can you ask from a work of literature? It is a story about the unlikely places we find refuge and the true meaning of freedom. Cleave is equally skilled at capturing moments of horror (and there are a few devastating scenes) and sheer beauty. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Damn it...

Maybe I'm in a perpetual state of self-delusion, but in spite of all the evidence I still want to believe that the good guys win in the end. It keeps me going. That's what makes this sad news sting so much. Paul Quarrington is, by all accounts one of the good ones in a game that tends to feature players who are small-minded, petty, jealous egomaniacs, and I'm not just saying so because he blurbed my debut novel and didn't know me from Adam. Generous with his time and energy, humourous, a mentor to the youngsters, and an all around kind fellow, that's the word on the street. My prayers (and those of so many) are with him and his physicians.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Just because...

I have a special affinity for working joes (janes) who somehow find the spare (ha!) time to write novels. Anne Giardini takes the cake (and it's not even a family-owned business!)

I'm a fan of David McGimpsey. Anyone who can make poetry out of Gillgan's Island and Hawaii Five-O is okay with me. I always said his cherubic punim belonged in the Canlit pantheon.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Kids' Castles


Last week I was unexpectedly inspired to start another blog. (I say unexpectedly because the one thing my life does not need right now, besides another pet, is another blog.) A few weeks ago daughter Tamar (age 10) came home with a school assignment. The task was to build a castle. Knowing full well that she was incapable of pulling it off on her own, and initially doubtful of the whole point if the parents were going to do most of the work, we ended up labouring together on it for several hours and enjoyed the experience. We talked about the kind of castle she wanted, the style, size and materials etc. I taught her about getting organized and good planning. We also chatted about her friends, music, books, gymnastics, TV shows, her likes and dislikes, you name it. The project ended up being a boon for our relationship. The parents of Tamar's class, being who they are, threw themselves into the assignement with gusto. The assemblage of castles that arrived on the project due date was truly something to behold. Some of the castles were conservative while others were wildly inventive, more imagined than real. Some were tidy and others were messy. Some were clearly mostly grown-up built while others were completely kid constructed. Each one said so much about the creator(s). The thought occurred to me that there must be other castles made by kids floating around. And maybe folks would send me their pictures of them. Anyhow, please check out the kids' castles blog site and pass on the message that we're looking for photos. By the way, the awesome castle pictured above was not built by Tamar and me. It's the work of classmate Jonah B, with, I suspect, a little help from his dad Jack and mom Eliza.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Almost Swine Flu...

The VP Finance of our company spent a week on holiday in... wait for it... glorious Cancun Mexico. He came back about two weeks ago and then developed flu-like symptoms - after spending five days in the office touching files, the coffee pot, shaking hands etc. I spent a week avoiding him like the plague. Yes, VP Finances are insane workaholics who, in spite of fever, nausea and aches, spend 18 hours a day infecting the office with their presence. Finally, enough of my co-workers bullied him into going to the hospital to get tested. Turns out he's clear (I'm still doubtful.) One of my favourite bloggers Lawrence Nyveen thought he may have contracted swine flu on a visit to Texas in late April...I don't know what's worse having the overblown bug or the tests to find out. After reading about his experience I think I have an idea.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April - poetry month (and Spring)


BULL’S EYE

For me a poem
is worked soil
turned and watered
a thousand times over
green profusions pruned
with blunt tools
strangling weeds uprooted
dug out stones cast aside
on a growing pile
sweaty body bending
as praying bodies must
that draw closer to their source
sifting pale fingers squirming
through black earth till
my stiff spine
refuses to straighten up again.

Amid the struggle questions occur:
Does the perfect poem radiate
like a garden in bloom
multi-coloured bands expanding
outward forever?
Or does it zero in
on a single symmetrical flower
a golden bull’s-eye word
the unpronounceable Name
as succinct, precise and encompassing
as the well-aimed arrow-point
embedded in silence?

And how can a tired man
awaken from his cramped cage of bones
to yawn and stretch
at the long, sun-circled day
as it reaches its perfect
unheralded conclusion.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Passover reading


It is that time of year again - to recycle old chessnuts because things are just too damn stressful around the house to come up with anything new. So here is a post from last year that is sure to become a classic Blood on the family doorpost, and a new gem from the incomparable Reb Woody Allen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Richard Ford explains himself, sort of.

This is why I love Richard Ford's novels. (Thanks Mark)

Impeccably crafted lines like this about his protagonist Frank Bascombe: And I can certainly imagine that a millennial standard-bearer might be worth having; a sort of generalisable, meditative, desk-top embodiment of our otherwise unapplauded selves - one who's not so accurately drawn as to cause discomfort, but still recognisable enough to make us feel a bit more visible to ourselves and possibly re-certify us as persuasive characters in our own daily dramas.

He certainly says it better than I did.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Kudos for my friend, co-author and co-editor Seymour Mayne

Louis Rosenberg Canadian Jewish Studies Distinguished Service Award 2009
Prix d'excellence Louis Rosenberg en ├ętudes canadiennes juives 2009

The Association for Canadian Jewish Studies is delighted to announce that Professor SEYMOUR MAYNE of Ottawa is the 2009 recipient of the Louis Rosenberg Canadian Jewish Studies Distinguished Service Award. The ACJS is proud to recognize Professor Mayne’s lifetime achievement in literary scholarship, poetry and translation as well as his central role in the founding and directing of the Vered Program in Canadian Jewish Studies at the University of Ottawa. Please see below for more information on Seymour Mayne’s achievements.

The Louis Rosenberg Award was established in 2001 to recognize an individual, group or institution, who has made significant contribution(s) to Canadian Jewish Studies in one or more fields. Professor Mayne joins a distinguished list of writers, scholars and community leaders who have received this award in the past. This list includes Miriam Waddington, Rabbi Gunther Plaut, Ruth Goldbloom, Abraham Arnold, Professor Gerald Tulchinsky, Professor Irving Abella, Cyril Leonoff and Seymour Levitan.
The executive of the ACJS wishes a hearty congratulations to Professor Mayne and looks forward to presenting this award to him on the evening of Sunday May 24, 2009 in Ottawa as part of our annual conference.
Dr. Randal F. SchnoorPresident, Association for Canadian Jewish Studies

Professor Seymour Mayne is one of Jewish Canada’s foremost poets and literary scholars. He has been active for close to four decades as a published poet, and has enjoyed a long and illustrious academic career in the University of Ottawa’s English Department. He is author, editor or translator of more than fifty books and monographs, and his poetry has been widely translated into French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish. Moreover, he has organized countless forums to promote Canadian letters in the Ottawa region, including reading groups, journals, anthologies, and literary events. Professor Mayne has also been instrumental in the promotion of Jewish Canadian Studies. After many years of rallying, he oversaw the establishment of the Vered Jewish Canadian Studies Program in 2006. The Vered Program, which was created to promote an understanding of Jewish life, culture, language, literature, and history in a Canadian context, offers an array of interdisciplinary courses in both English and French, as well as a minor. Prof. Mayne continues to serve as the program’s director and most ardent promoter

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sunday, March 22, 2009

On being a Jewish-African American writer in Obamaland


“Jews at one point were the best boxers in America. Jews were the best mobsters in America. Jews lived in ghettos and were slaughtered because of their race. I dare anybody to separate that from the African American experience.”

Recently, my friend Harold Heft, a Montreal writer living in Toronto, headed down to Manhatten to interview the Jewish-African American novelist Walter Mosley. Gazette readers were treated to a fascinating piece. I hope Harold manages to spin it off and we can read more soon from this encounter with a truly fascinating person of mixed heritage.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

CAMERAS
for Arleen

You gave the children cameras
when you saw they had lost
the trail of breadcrumbs in the street
and crumbs were just the world
forever crumbling. You wanted them to know
that a composite of moments
could be shaped by longing into
belonging, and a photograph is a talisman
of light and love.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Ah, revenge is sweet...

... all the way to the grave.
A lovely poem, beautiful sentiment for a beloved, missed husband - or is it? Look closely. Now read the story. I guess the last laugh was on John.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Palm Beach Signing of ZOO by Arleen Solomon Rotchin

Photo from the successful Palm Beach signing of ZOO at Tanya Pierce. Surrounded by assorted happy customers, the author is at the lower right with my fashionably multi-coloured sister-in-law Pascale in the centre sitting on her lap.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009

One more offering

[This sonnet first appeared in 1999 to mark the 90th anniversary of Klein's birth. The central metaphor is a wedding, since Klein's poetic entreprise and his modus operandi was to marry two worlds; the traditional and the modern, English and French, Jewish and Gentile, the Holyland and the Diaspora, Jerusalem and Montreal.]

ABRAHAM MOSES

North of the former Yiddish theatre, gate
and railing perform; mimic, pirouette, soar -
black twists of wrought-iron do Hasid horas
to storied heights, they serif-stretch, punctuate
the urban sprawl like ketubbah-script, ornate;
Obscured through white veil of snow, the bridled doors
and porches seem like rows of peddler horses.
The Main is dowry, or else bequeathed estate
immemorial. Here, Abraham Moses
was wedded to his past, imbibed lush doses
from an heirloom kiddush-cup. Ever the proud
bridegroom, and linguistically well-endowed,
he vowed his eternal soul true and loyal
under raised cross-peaked chuppah of Mount-Royal.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Offering at the altar

We went to see Endre Farkas's Haunted House, his biographical play about A.M. Klein. It's worth seeing. The set is particularly good and the actor playing Klein very strong. Pat Donnelly got it right in The Gazette. But there are a couple of important omissions, one inexplicable; Klein's two sons are shown, Sandor and Colman, but not his daughter who tragically committed suicide.

The piece below was originally published in September of 2002 to mark the thirtieth anniversary of A.M. Klein's death. It was, in fact, my first attempt at fiction, written in the imagined voice of Klein moments after he completed the manuscript of his novel The Second Scroll (published in 1951) - which would prove to be his last published work before a prolonged silence ending in his death in August 1972. I reproduce the piece as an offering on his centenary. I was quite amazed to see how Farkas in his play picked up many of the themes I touch on in my piece. A testament to how the figure of the poet, his words, and ultimate silence still resonate.

Unwriting Myself: From the Imagined Journal of A.M. Klein

August 1950

“To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee
And not be silent,
O Lord my God, I will give thanks unto thee forever.”

What more is there to say, and where exactly have I arrived? To praise God, is that the only thing to do? Then what of this scroll unrolled, come to an end, a stop, a period – truth be told – an emptiness, a silence. Worse still, a question: Either God is or is not. And not another praise, nor curse, nor word, nor punctuation will suffice to conjure His presence.

Bessie is in the living room typing the last of it. Her tac-tac-tacking behind the wall insults the quiet. It intrudes as a Morse Code of desperation and helplessness, fills the cold night air along Querbes Avenue with the insistent SOSing of a sinking ship. Faces appear out of the bookshelf. I hear the quickly fading cries of ice-filled lungs, tongues swollen stiff. God, when will You arrive to save us? How shall we open our blue lips to sing Your praise?

What praise will do? I brought you music and poetry. Danced before you like King David turning shame to honour in Your name. Debased myself in some eyes, feeling lifted aloft on wings of Divine egolessness. As I write this Jerusalem quakes and the Ark of Your new-old State totters, as it always has. I will not try to right it. Refuse to repeat well-known mistakes. How can I go on stumbling toward Your dream like a biblical ox?

I did Your bidding. Cursed the community its golden calves. Now I am weary, my mind is shattered like Your famous Ten Words. My hiding place has always been the rock, a craggy formation of words. I have seen You pass, the back of Your head. But it is not enough right now. O God reveal Yourself. Show Yourself, full-faced, panim el-panim, let me know the secrets behind the words. Those secrets for which Akiva was martyred, stripped of his skin, layer from layer, his insides become outsides, the outer his inner-being, and he was indistinguishable from meaning itself, from Torah, from pure spirit. His torture was his liberation. You revealed Yourself to my predecessor, that master of letters, and now I ask the same for me. Even as we speak I can feel the parchment of myself peeling away, unscrolling, twisting to the floor.

I must admit that the glory I sought all along was not Yours but mine. The song was for myself, my own edification. The beauty I pursued was an investment on which I expected a respectable return. To see my words make a difference, to hear the hosannahs of my peers, my community. Thus was Your name made profane.

Words are false, even the choicest, sweetest ones, mere illusions, constructions of how we want to appear, the mark we want to leave. But these can not matter. Only You are eternal. You stunned Job into silent awe contrasting the narrow boundaries of his mortal existence with the limitlessness of Creation. Suddenly he realized that the indivisible, unfathomable laws which govern the movements of nature are also sovereign over the individual. Reality is not the content of tiny personal claims. It is a sweeping continuum, undeniable as it is unchangeable, fluid and shifting as tidal consciousness. What are we? Long extinguished stars that appear as luminous traces of our own deaths. The ghost writer is ghost. The poet is landscape.

If life is form then death is content. Could this be Your secret? The one exposed with the great Akiva’s final revelation, his body opening like a many-petaled flower for the morning sun? Every creative act is simultaneously a death sentence. The artist seeks but one thing, the perfect unison of form and content. Enraptured by the sounds, smells, tastes and visions of the world, he delights in his corporeal being. He thinks corporeality equivalent to reality, ultimate being, and thereby idolizes the material. But no incarnation of the material can fuse form with content in an unending embrace of humankind and Divinity. Only in the denial of the material, of materiality and corporeality, can essence surface like a submerged bathescope. Only in the liquid buoyancy of transparent selflessness can the pure self rise to You in wholeness.

And so every word I write and ever wrote is leaden, sinking – an ombrous stain, every letter, a shadow footprint on a snowy page. I have espoused, opined, editorialized, rhapsodized, mused, debated and analyzed with only one goal in mind; to shape a self, a Somebody. But arguments are a wardrobe for fools. To think that one can create oneself from the costumes of idea and utterance. At their best, words are amusements, avoidances, diversions from the singular truth. These repulsive skins I have grown must go, must be shed. These disguises of selfhood I’ve spent a lifetime concocting and justifying with cleverness and craft must be effaced. There is only one question, one formulation, one equation:

Either God is
or is not.
I am not God.
God is.
And so
I am
not.

____________________________________
The bureau is swept clean. Two erasers sit on the corner like pebbles on a hardly visited headstone. There is also a tea cup and saucer. Below the cup’s rim, a thin golden line, like a horizon. Fingers reach for the handle's seraphic curl, a letter flourish, an ear’s outer curve. The hand and cup do not meet. They are held in time and space between being and not being. And this is where God sees fit to leave them. Suspended in grace.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy 100th A.M. Klein



Two milestones today. No, Valentine's Day is not one of them. Birthdays. First it's my father's 81st birthday. If, within the next twenty-four hours, you've somehow managed to learn how to surf the net and stumble upon my blog dad, let me wish you a very happy birthday. I'm sorry I can't be in Florida celebrating with you. Anyway, I'll be calling later on as usual.

Second, it's the birthday of someone I've always considered a literary grandfather, the late great Montreal poet and novelist Abraham Moses Klein. My friend and fellow Klein-disciple Harold Heft (who wrote his PhD dissertation on Klein) has written a nice commemorative piece in today's Gazette. Also, nice that Harold slipped in mention of the Klein tribute poetry anthology I co-edited with Seymour Mayne (pictured) on the occasion of the poet's 90th birthday. As Heft mentions, it may not have the PR of Robbie Burn's Day, but Klein's centenary is being commemorated, including this upcoming event organized by the University of Ottawa (as part of the Tree Reading Series) on February 24th, and the staging of Montreal poet Endre Farkas's play Haunted House based on Klein's life and works at The Segal Centre for the Performing Arts. So have some haggis, no make that some gefilte fish, in celebration of the day. Incidentally, of the portrait by Ernst Neumann which Klein did not like much, the subject wrote, "had its geography correct but its climate all wrong."

Monday, February 9, 2009

Book signing for ZOO

In case you happen to be slumming it in Palm Beach in the next couple of weeks. You can read my blurb here:


You are invited to meet
ARLEEN SOLOMON ROTCHIN
Who will sign copies of
her debut novel
ZOO

Thursday February 26, 2009
2:00PM-4:00PM
at
Tanya Pierce
219 Royal Poinciana Way
Via Testa #3
Palm Beach Florida 33480

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Closer to Home in Globe and Mail Web edition


Terrence Byrnes' wonderful book of author portraits, which I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, was featured in The Globe and Mail's web edition this weekend. My pic (above) is part of the slideshow which includes shots of Anne Carson, David McGimpsey, Rawi Hage, Heather O'Neill and Yann Martel among others. Terry was kind enough to make a blow-up print for me which now hangs framed in my study. I love it. It's an evocative shot and oddly, very personally revealing, with me standing amid a massive complicated spaghetti-tangle of heating pipes and pumps in the basement furnace room of 99 Chabanel, my stiff body and head appearing as part of the plumbing.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

'Uncle' Bernie (Madoff) and the Jews

From Newsweek: Read on and you will understand why Joseph Epstein is simply one of the best (and funniest) American writers.
Sample: There is something deeply trivial about golf that is unseemly for Jews, who have traditionally been accustomed to taking themselves seriously. Whacking away at a little ball, hoping, at the end of four hours' effort, to arrive at the finish a stroke or two fewer than the previous time one wasted a morning at this game—no, no, no, I'm sorry, but this is all wrong for Jews. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers didn't undergo pogroms and the struggle to evade conscription in the tsar's army to come to America for their descendants to put on peach-colored pants, spiked Nike shoes and chemises Lacoste to appear on the first tee promptly at 8 a.m. A Jew should be studying, arguing, thinking, working, making money, contemplating why God has put him through so many trials. A phrase like "dogleg to the left" should never pass his lips. If Madoff's depredations will bring a few Jews in off the links, perhaps that is not entirely a bad thing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Legendary Israeli Rock Band Churchills - scrapbook




Some pictures recently discovered of the legendary Israeli rock band Churchills (also known as 'The Churchills'). They are of interest (to me and my kin at least) because the cute guy in the middle with longish hair is my uncle Stan Solomon, who's recently come back 'home' to Montreal after spending most of his life Stateside. Growing up in the late sixties and early seventies I remember receiving records (vinyl) in the mail from Israel that had been either performed, written and/or produced by Uncle Stan. Of course, the significance of these recordings completely escaped me at the time. What did I know from Israel, or music for that matter, I was six or seven. Uncle Stan's stint with Churchills (and Israel) were shortlived, though even as he went on to illustrious careers in the shmatta business and then as an art dealer in Florida, he maintained producing, recording and musical management activities on the side with aspiring young bands. For years, the old Churchills records gathered dust in a cardboard box. I only became aware of the gold I was harbouring when, in 1990 I was in Israel and wandered into a Tel-Aviv record store called HaOzen HaShlishi (The Third Ear). I was greeted by huge posters of my uncle and his bandmates wallpapering the inside featuring a photo from the Churchills debut album in which my uncle flatteringly appears in his underwear. I asked the manager why the display? He answered that the eponymous album had just been 'rediscovered' as a lost classic and one of Israel's most important albums. It had just been re-issued in CD format. Of course I bought a half dozen copies to bring home and distribute among family. When I told the store manager that Stan was my uncle and I had an original copy of the album he offered me twenty-five CDs in exchange. Turns out that the vinyl is a much sought-after rarity fetching significant sums among collectors. Now, the news from Israel via two of uncle Stan's former bandmates (Florida-based Rob Huxley who also played with the legendary British band The Tornadoes, and Israeli Miki Gavrielov, who went on to a major solo career, Churchills guitarist and bassist respectively,) that a small reunion tour scheduled for the fall 2009 is set. Uncle Stan is already warming up his vocal chords. He'll need to work hard. Besides the three decade hiatus, warming up anything this week when Montreal is expecting temps of -25 will be tough.