Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Three Day Event by Barbara Kay

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Junk Email

Junk Email 

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

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A prayer for the new PM

A prayer for the new PM

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

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A little love for Mordecai Richler

A recent panel discussion in which I participated.

Monday, July 27, 2015

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

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

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

Steel yourself - stand above - laugh at your critics!

All best, h

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The fundamental contradiction of the religious terrorist

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

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Is Amazon all BS?

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Money, the ethnic vote and literature

I was recently invited to take part in a panel discussion on Mordecai Richler and Montreal Jewish writers. It was a lively discussion focused mostly on Richler, which I guess might be expected, so synonymously is he identified with Montreal Jewish literature. I don't think Richler would have any qualms about the close association with his beloved native city, but categorizing him as a Jewish writer brought him to fits during his lifetime. One of the panelists was an academic who is translating Richler's oeuvre into French for a Montreal based publishing house Editions Boreal, the latest novel a translation of Solomon Gursky was Here. Two things I learned from the discussion that I had not known: First, that many of Richler's novels have never been translated into French. I would have expected that an author of his international reputation and standing, translated in dozens of languages around the world, would have by now had all his novels translated into French, the language of his home province. Second, the novels that were translated into French were published in France not by Quebec publishers. Notwithstanding the difficulty (enmity?) that the Quebecois had with Richler I would have thought that a Quebec publisher would have published, if not his essays which were particularly damning of Quebec politics and history, than at least some of his fiction. It appears that the new Boreal series is the first. I guess that time (and death) has softened the edges of the relationship between Richler and the Quebecois literary establishment. This initiative by Boreal seems to signal that the accomplishment of the late author's literary legacy has begun to endear him to a less sensitive, self-conscious society. And it only took a little more than 14 years, less than a generation.  

By coincidence, The New Yorker - a magazine with which Richler was associated - has published an interesting piece by Toronto writer Pasha Malla on Quebecois fiction being translated into English. Malla makes the argument essentially that this fiction has a distinct quality that merits broader attention in Canada and the US and the time is right. He writes, Despite tapering enmities, though, the dynamic between Canada’s Francophone and Anglophone communities remains less one of cohesion than indifference and estrangement. Championing a recent translation of Raymond Bock's story collection "Atavismes: Histoires" Malla's uncommon (for an English-Canadian) fondness for French-Quebec fiction may stem from his stint studying creative writing at Montreal's Concordia University. Despite his effort to spotlight French-Quebec fiction in the pages of the NewYorker - counterpoint to Richler's famous expose of Quebec historical anti-Semitism in the same magazine more than two decade ago - it is unlikely that much notice will be paid. The fact that Bock's novel is being publishing through something called Dalkey Archive's and Literary Translation Program (and not by a mainstream publishing house like Penguin or Viking) speaks volumes about how far outside the margins it (and all French-Quebec literature) remains.

By another coincidence, a recent article in the daily Le Devoir also speaks of the thawing of the cold political and cultural climate in Quebec to outside influences and a new openness. Like Malla who writes about the 'international sensibility' of the new French-Quebec fiction, the author of the Le Devoir piece characterizes the current younger generation's distaste for the old separatist paradigm which simply has little relevance in this hyper-connected, borderless digital world: « Les jeunes ont moins peur de l’assimilation crainte par les générations précédentes. Ils sont moins dans la tension, l’animosité et dans cette logique identitaire nationale forte »

In addition to the Richler translations to French and the Bock translation to English, Malla mentions the initiative of Montreal publisher Vehicule Press and editor Dimitri Nasrallah (who hosted the panel in which I participated) who have committed themselves to exposing French-Quebec fiction to English-speaking readers by devoting half of their publishing program to translations next year. So we seem to have an auspicious confluence of political opening, generational attitude shifting and literary initiatives all resulting in a new spirit of understanding and rapprochement. I'm all for togetherness and openness and Kumbaya singalong moments, but you'll excuse me for being skeptical.

I don't think Richler's novels will sell in Quebec or be read in high-schools, as they should. I don't think the US or English-Canada will clamour to embrace a long-lost, shamefully neglected kin in French-Quebec novelists. And Malla makes one major conceptual error in his article; grouping Canadian writers as either English-Canadian (also called Anglophone) or French-Canadian (also called Francophone). This, to me is a false dichotomy, for several reasons, one being that in Quebec there are many kinds of writers and I don't believe Quebec-English fiction writers should be grouped with the writers outside the province. Quebec-English writers are a distinct sub-species that, with few notable exceptions, Yan Martel, Heather O'Neill, Rawi Hage among them, have not generally been readily accepted either outside provincial borders or within them. It is telling that of the writers listed, Martel and Hage struck gold with major international prizes before they were embraced nationally or locally, an old refrain. The Richler translator on our panel made one very revealing remark. She said (I paraphrase) that the Quebecois could never acknowledge a Montreal (or Quebec) regarded through the eyes of 'others', by which she meant ethnically diverse Quebeckers (such as Richler), whether they were born here or not. The experiences they wanted to read about had to reflect and support their own pure laine current, historical or mythical experiences. Are the new Richler translations indicative of a new 'acceptance' of another experience and perspective on Quebec? More likely they just serve to underscore the shameful fact that Quebec has never cared about its English writers and remains suspicious of us and other minorities.
On the day it was announced that former Quebec Premiere Jacques Parizeau had left the planetary plane, his bitter drunken remark on referendum night in 1995 still resonates for some of us: C'est vrai, c'est vrai qu'on a été battus, au fond, par quoi? Par l'argent, puis des votes ethniques, essentiellement. And I think about Le Prix Parizeau, a literary prize founded by Mordecai Richler in response to those fateful utterances to celebrate Quebec 'ethnic' writers (and to mock Parizeau's remarks) and I smile and miss him more.   

Monday, May 25, 2015

So let's just say

So let's just say that there is no such thing as paradise on earth. And let's just say that the best we can hope for is to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And let's just say that it's an ongoing project, and although we're not perfect, at least we're moving in the right direction, and our task is to keep moving in that direction. And let's just say that the goal isn't to become super rich or super smart or super famous or super powerful or super influential or super holy but to create a society in which the most defenseless, most vulnerable, most disadvantaged among us have the opportunity to live dignified, meaningful and productive lives. And let's just say that evil is taking advantage, harming and exploiting the most vulnerable and defenseless, and not caring.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There is no doubt that Jennifer Egan is a talented writer with a gift for observation and a clever turn of phrase. Which makes it all the more regrettable that she decided it was necessary to experiment with structure in this novel qua short fiction collection that doesn't quite know what it wants to be and forfeits the power of storytelling in the process. Each chapter is told by a different character and time periods shoot back and forth which disrupts flow and makes it difficult to care for any particular character. The result is less than the sum of its parts and forgettable. Warning: If you're reading on an ereader the Powerpoint section is difficult to read, it was unscalable on my Kobo.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Fortress of nerd-dom

When did novelists and poets become such dullards?

I have nothing against literary festivals. In fact I've even participated in a few myself. But there I was reading the newspaper, scrolling through the lineup of the upcoming local litfest, and feeling completely uninspired. Don't get me wrong, there are some great writers coming from all over the world who have written some fantastic books, some of which I've even found the time to read. But it was the personalities that failed to attract and get me excited. If I'm going to pay good money to go hear an author speak or read or opinionate, he/she better be worth the expense. They'd better be as surprising and inspiring and entertaining as any performer I'd want to see or hear. Musicians, for example, know that they better have a great show because in the digital era live performance is how they make their living. What happened to the days when novelists and poets had to sing for their supper? Staring at the newspaper, my mind suddenly began to wax nostalgic for an era, even I can recall, when novelists and poets actually had personalities.

But did writers ever really have to sing for their supper? Maybe it was only the mediocre writers who had to pound the pavement to drum up an audience. Actually it was the exact opposite. There was a time when writers understood that it was part and parcel of the job, and the best most renowned writers, from Oscar Wilde to Dickens to Mark Twain to Walt Whitman, were relentless at it. They embraced public performance, understanding that it was an essential component of what they did. And they were as well known for their stage appearances as their writing. Later, television was a boon to writers and some novelists were masters of the medium. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal come to mind, both of whom had feuds with William F. Buckley and each other, stirring controversy with wit and verbal swordsmanship. 

In Canada we had poet Irving Layton,  Leonard Cohen's mentor of whom he famously said "I taught Irving how to dress and he taught me how to live forever." Layton appeared regularly on CBC's show Fighting Words together with other author-guests like novelists Robertson Davies and Hugh Garner and poet Earle Birney. But of his cohort, it was Layton who perfected the image of the celebrity-writer persona with his verbal stridency. A bit later Layton was matched by Mordecai Richler who seemed to have a particular gift for offending, and embraced the role.

No doubt, over the last few decades, the chill of political correctness, on the one hand, and the ubiquitousness of media and pervasiveness of opinionating 'talking-heads' on the other hand, have mitigated against the importance of the public intellectual. But more than that, maybe novelists in particular have simply given up. With everyone trying to get attention for one endeavour or another, selling their wares on a variety of platforms and being more outlandish in the process, the nerds have simply decided to retire to their laptops in their fortresses of nerd-dom. They are content to write their novels and not get noticed because they know that in the crowded marketplace of attention-seeking, they don't stand a snowball's chance in hell of competing. Could Mailer or Layton compete nowadays, in the era of media stars like Kim Kardashian? It's an intriguing question to ponder. Not too long ago the late Christopher Hitchens showed how adept a writer could be at courting controversy, leveraging media attention with articulateness and wit to his advantage. Were he speaking at this year's litfest I'd at least be tempted to shell out the bucks to hear him. Alas Hitchens is gone, and anyway he wasn't a novelist, which was my main point. The last novelist I can think of who garnered significant media-hype for his public appearances was Salman Rushdie and it took a fatwa calling for his murder and ten years of hiding to drum up public enthusiasm. I guess my biggest concern is not about boring novelists after all. Turns out to be boring audiences who, I fear, wouldn't know the difference between Kim Kardashian's booty and Irving Layton's intellectual bravado, or rather they'd prefer a public showing of the former over the latter. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Gum ThiefThe Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My second Coupland in as many months, the other novel being Microserfs,and for a time I thought I'd become addicted to his style of writing, his keen observations, and his dark humour. I love Coupland's thoughtfulness, his playfulness, his cleverness, the layering of voices that conveys the texture of ordinary contemporary life; it's the modus operandi of a performance/conceptual artist as much as a writer. And I guess where it can also feel a bit plotlessly redundant is when you realize that the voices are all really, at base, the same voice, conveying facets of the same essential message about alienation with the same ironic tone. In the case of Microserfs the voices belong to a group of Silicon Valley computer programmers. In The Gum Thief the voices belong to unremarkable losers, principally Roger a divorced mid-forties man and Bethany a mid twenties Goth girl, both working at Staples, and wondering, as David Byrne sang, "How did I get here?" Other voices in the mix belong to Bethany's mom Dee Dee, Roger's Ex Joan, and characters from Roger's novel manuscript in progress "Glove Pond." It's a mash-up, where fiction meets fact meets fiction, that ultimately goes nowhere, sort of like the characters. Still, Coupland has a way with a phrase and metaphor that uncannily captures a sense of what consumer/voyeuristic/empty culture feels like, and for that alone, and the fact that he's got a great sense of humour, makes reading The Gum Thief worth the effort.      

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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mississippi Goddam by Nina Simone

It is said that children are the best teachers. I have been learning from mine for the past nearly twenty-one years. I had to share my latest education. It came courtesy of my daughter Tamar who had to write an essay for her grade 10 English class on a work of art that was influenced by the social or political context in which it was created. An intriguing assignment from an inspired teacher, I thought, considering that so much of what passes for art these days seems to be insular, self-gazing drivel, more concerned with the promotion of personality than with social conscience. Tamar asked for my help to edit the essay, which was about a song by Nina Simone. Have you ever heard of her? she asked. How the heck did you ever discover Nina Simone? I shot back. Of course I knew of Nina Simone, especially her rendition of I Put a Spell on You. But the song Tamar had uncovered was not one with which I was familiar. And what a song it is. Essential. Tamar still hasn't revealed exactly how she found it. I guess for all those internet naysayers who lament that kids are wasting their time in front of the screen, here's the flip-side. 

With Liner Notes By: Tamar Black-Rotchin 

Picket lines School boycotts
They try to say it's a communist plot 
All I want is equality 
for my sister my brother my people and me
- Nina Simone, Mississippi Goddam 
In the 1950s and 60s, the civil rights movement had a major impact on artists. Musicians, writers and poets took the opportunity to express their desire for political equality and social justice, and to give voice to the historical pain and suffering endured by American minorities. One artist who rose to prominence in this context was jazz singer Nina Simone. Simone is an excellent example of an artist who was influenced by the African American struggle for civil rights, and her 1964 song, “Mississippi Goddam” demonstrates how historical events can inspire and motivate protest in the form of art. Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933 in North Carolina. She was a classically trained musician whose aspirations to be become a concert pianist were thwarted when she was denied admittance to a prestigious music institute reportedly because she was black. According to The Jazz Encyclopedia this event “...heightened her anger over the racism...pervasive in the United States during this period.” Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Simone made a name for herself performing and recording popular music that blended classical and jazz styles. As the quintessentially African American musical style with origins in the historical experience of slavery, jazz became Simone’s principal mode of musical expression. Two events inspired Nina Simone to write Mississippi Goddam. The first was the assassination in 1963 of civil rights activist Medgar Evers by a member of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan. In the song, when Simone wails "Everybody knows about Mississippi," this is the event to which she is referring. Evers was a well known activist whose work in the civil rights movement made him a target of opponents. He was shot down in cold blood outside his home on the morning of June 12th, a few hours after US President John F. Kennedy made a nationally televised speech in support of a civil rights act. The Evers murder was a lightning rod for further protest, political engagement and artistic expression by musicians such as Bob Dylan and writers like Eudora Welty who responded to the tragedy with protest works of their own. The second event that inspired Simone’s song was the horrific bombing on September 15th 1963, of The 16th Street Baptist Church by four members of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, which killed four young girls and injured 22 others. The nation was horrified by this event. It was widely considered a turning point in the civil rights movement, and contributed to the support for passage of civil rights legislation in 1964. In the song Simone refers to the bombing when she sings "Alabama's gotten me so upset." Artists like Nina Simone who risk expressing unpopular political views in their work often do so at great personal and professional cost. When it was released in 1964, the recording of Mississippi Goddam was banned in several Southern states with the reason given that the title was religiously objectionable. In a March 1986 interview in Jet magazine Simone declared that although she does not regret her role as a civil rights activist, Mississippi Goddam probably hurt her career. “All of the controversial songs - the industry decided to punish me for and they put a boycott on my records.” Still, it seems to me that a genuine artist must speak honestly above all else. They must use their talents to tell the truth no matter how unpopular that may be. Protest songs have much importance because they convey powerful and purposeful messages to the public, letting the masses know that they are not alone in the hardships that they face and their daily battles for justice and equality. Protest music can bring a sense of unity and harmony to those who are suffering, and most of all, they can be a catalyst to major social change for the better. In this respect Nina Simone is a true hero. As she says in the song:
Lord have mercy on this land of mine 
We all gonna get it in due time

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Last CollectionThe Last Collection by Seymour Blicker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolutely hysterical and thoroughly enjoyable. Canada is not known for its satirical novels, but in Shmucks and The Last Collection Seymour Blicker proves himself to be equal to the masters of the genre, especially the Jewish sub genre, which has it's own style and flavour. This novel is especially reminiscent of Woody Allen's wackiest. Memorable characters include a particularly neurotic psychiatrist who's office features tropical decor and a remote controlled recliner chair that spins and rises to the ceiling, and a Jewish thug with a soft spot. Blicker does what all the best authors do, he turns the tables on the characters and at the same time on the reader. The cons get conned, and we can't ever really be sure who is the genuine article. And therein lies the deeper resonance of this novel, as in all superior satire, the layers of truth and deceit are revealed. The last collection referred to in the title is not only collection on a debt, or the mental illness of hoarding and greed which afflicts the protagonist and which gets him into debt in the first place. But it also cleverly refers to the collection of moral sins that one party wants to atone for and the collection of guilt that the other party wants to liberate themselves from.

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Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Hopelessly Hopeful Jew

Why did you think it was so easy to exterminate your people? You're weakness. I saw it. Everyday I saw it. Everyone of them thinking only of how to avoid being flogged or kicked or killed. Everyone thinking only of themselves. Why do you think it only took four soldiers to lead a thousand people to the gas chambers? Because not one out of thousands had the courage to resist. Not one would sacrifice himself! Not even when we took they're children away! So I knew then, that you people had no right to live! You had no right

As it is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, it's been a week to think about the Holocaust. The lines above come from a 2011 film called The Debt which I saw on the weekend. Not a great film but the lines have stayed with me for days. They are spoken by a former sadistic Nazi doctor called "The Surgeon of Birkenau," a character clearly modeled after Mengele. He says this to one of his captors, member of a team of Mossad agents who traveled to East Germany in the early 1960s on a mission to bring him back to Israel to stand trial, obviously based on the successful abduction of Adolph Eichmann. The most riveting part of the film begins when the plan to whisk the ex-Nazi out of Germany fails and the Mossad agents are forced to hold him. The longer it takes to formulate a new plan to get him out of Europe the more the Nazi surgeon can toy with their minds and hearts, essentially exploiting perceived weaknesses. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't take it far enough, but I found the psychological manipulation and subtle control he begins to exert on the highly-trained agents extremely compelling. The lines quoted above spoke to me in particular because I've always wondered how it was possible that, aside from the odd episode of heroism and rebellion that we've all heard about like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, millions of Jews seemed to sleepwalk to their inevitable demise. We've heard explanations for this. About the disbelief, particularly among German and Austrian Jews, that the country and culture to which they felt so loyal, could betray them. We know that the Nazis perpetrated mass-deception, telling the Jews that they were going to be put to work, hence the words inscribed in black wrought iron "Arbeit Macht Frei" on the entrance gate of the camps. And yet, the explanations never seemed to me completely sufficient. Millions upon millions of Jews, were put to death with relative ease. As the character Vogel says, "It took four soldiers to lead a thousand Jews to the gas chamber." Could he be right that it was because the Jews were inherently weak, that they were too selfish to make the personal sacrifice to save their brethren if not themselves? The thought disturbed me. And then I had another thought. Maybe it wasn't because they were selfish. Maybe it was because as Jews we are programmed to be hopeful. We are culturally and religiously hardwired to believe that there is always a Promised Land if only we can get through the trials and tribulations of the wilderness. And so even when parents were separated from their children on the selection ramp, and even when they had their belongings stripped from them and were told to line up for disinfecting showers, their hopelessly hopeful minds continued to believe with every fiber of their souls that all would end well, families would be reunited in hugs, and they would survive. And then I thought about the Israeli national anthem Hatikvah, which literally means The Hope, and I said to myself that the Nazi Surgeon could not be more wrong. He was wrong, tragically so, because he viewed hopefulness as weakness, and in doing so was himself expunged of any humanity, because hope is the very essence of being human. To deny hope in others, or to use it for personal gain, to take advantage of it and use it for manipulation, is a moral crime of the highest order. Perhaps maintaining hope in the face of unspeakable atrocities, and not willingness to die for a cause, is the greatest heroism of all.