Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Rocky Mountain Locust Plague of 1875

A swarm of Rocky Mountain locusts streams overhead for five days, creating a living eclipse of the sun. It is a superorganism composed of 10 billion individuals, devouring as much vegetation as a massive herd of bison — a metabolic wildfire that races across the Great Plains. Before the year is up, a vast region of pioneer agriculture will be decimated and U.S. troops will be mobilized to distribute food, blankets and clothing to devastated farm families... By clocking the insects’ speed as they streamed overhead, and by telegraphing to surrounding towns, Dr. A.L. Child of the U.S. Signal Corps estimated that the swarm was 1,800 miles long and at least 110 miles wide.
On 'grasshopper glaciers' and the lessons learned from the mysterious disappearance of a plague of biblical proportions.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"No place in the Quebec dream"

A bit of a row over at the Cyberpresse. Montreal filmmaker Jacob Tierney had the chutzpah to tell it like it is here in Quebec culturally-speaking; "extremely inward-looking" where "anglophones and immigrants are ignored". La société québécoise est extrêmement tournée sur elle-même, dit Tierney. Notre art et notre culture ne présentent que des Blancs francophones. Les anglophones et les immigrants sont ignorés. Ils n’ont aucune place dans le rêve québécois. C’est honteux. Predictably, the responses have ranged from outrage to a "circle the wagons" mentality. Well, it's not just in film. Here's my story, for what it's worth: A novel published by a small but respected Montreal publisher of english poetry, prose and fiction. The novel, set in Montreal, is about an orthodox Jew struggling to manage an industrial building in the heart of the city's famed garment district. It is well received, garnering positive notices in newspapers across Canada (Toronto Star, Globe & Mail, Montreal Gazette among them). It is selected by W.P. Kinsella as a finalist for the Amazon.ca/Books In Canada First Novel Award alongside Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road and others. The small, respected publisher sends the book to a few of Montreal's more prominent french publishers to explore the possibility that such a novel (positively reviewed nationally, prize-considered, Montreal-set) might be translated and published in French. The answer he receives (I paraphrase) is no interest because the novel is deemed 'offensive'. No further details are given. However, I got an inkling of what could possibly be considered 'offensive' about my novel when a review came out in a small cultural magazine called Spirale, in a special edition of essays on Anglo-Montreal writing which ends up being the only review of the novel published in the french press in Quebec. It was an extensive, thoughtful review which, among other choice assertions, accused the novel of being an 'exportation product whose secondary objective is to soil the image of Quebeckers' (The Rent Collector est un produit d'exportation dont l'un des objectifs secondaires est de salir l'image des Québécois.) Had my novel realized the grand ambition given it by this reviewer as 'exportation product' (sales outside Canada were poor) I would have been very satisfied. Look, Quebec publishers are free to publish whatever they want for whomever they suppose will purchase their product. But if this isn't a case of cultural paranoia, or at the very least, severe hyper-sensitivity, I don't know what is. Jacob Tierney, whose reputation is growing, whose career as a filmmaker is on the rise and will undoubtedly transcend the bounds of suburban NDG, but who loves his city as much as I do and wants to tell its story, the story he knows, is exposing the smallmindedness and insularity that exists here. And the Québécois don't like it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Enough to be angry about

This review of a recent poetry collection makes a really interesting point: There's just not enough anger in today's writing. Not enough outrage. And with the state of, well of almost everything, the economy, the environment, our families, our streets - the greed, the corruption, the values (or lack of same) - there is so much to be angry about. If the arts are any indication, we are in a blithe period; polite in our art and criticism, form trumping content, attention-grabbing foolishness (Lady Gaga) masquerading as originality, escapist-fantasy eclipsing discourse. I know it's been said before and better (Neil Postman's seminal Amusing Ourselves To Death). But it might be that the reaction to Yann Martel's latest novel, is also in part, a reaction to an author who dares to be 'serious' and who believes that art/literature should be taken seriously in an unserious ironic age, to the point of being 'offended' by such a position. Clearly, the 'offense' expressed by some reviewers was entirely misplaced and overstated, curiously so. Misplaced outrage in a review says more about how culturally misguided we are than reflect on the quality of the work in question. It may bespeak the forlorn state of book reviewing at the moment but also show how inured we have become to outrage as an important motivating emotion in the art we create and experience. Where anger and outrage still find purchase in our culture seems to be with essayists/media commentarists, some witty, articulate and intelligent, (Christopher Hitchens) and others downright insulting and obnoxious (Rush Limbaugh), especially (and maybe only) when it entertains (John Stewart). It's hard to imagine a novel published today that will outrage, say the way, Tropic of Cancer did. Or a painting the way Guernica did? Or a song the way the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen did: Works so powerful and truthful as to become influential.