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



If boots
could fly
they'd be
a black
as paired-up
between worlds
behind doors
to public stares
a murder
spills out
into the street
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.