Monday, June 30, 2008

From the annals of readings by great poets

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

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

Friday, June 27, 2008

Correction Road by Glen Dresser

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

Monday, June 23, 2008

Great books I couldn't get through

I love these kinds of public admissions.

Andrew Holgate, The Sunday Times deputy literary editor

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

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

Monday, June 16, 2008

I'm a Virgo, a Montrealer and a Reader

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 12, 2008

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

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

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

How to treat The English Patient... or not

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

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

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Forgotten Classics: "Shmucks" by Seymour Blicker

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Biggest Drawing in the World

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

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

Bar Mitzvah Disco (BMD)

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

Monday, June 2, 2008

The afterlife of culture

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