Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Price Elasticity of Literature

To self publish or not to self publish. That's the question more and more established and would be writers are asking themselves. There are undeniable success stories, particularly in pulp genres (thrillers, crime fiction, romance, sci-fi, supernatural-romance etc.) Often, authors first establish themselves through the traditional publishing model and them branch off and build their readership and profitability by self-publishing. As with all other product in the marketplace, brand-building is key. The model doesn't seem to work for literary fiction nearly as well though for a varity of reasons and publishers are becoming strictly marketers, divesting from literature by devoting fewer and fewer resources to editing and material support to their authors (not to mention paying smaller advances). Agents and publishing houses are increasingly expecting to receive polished publishable manuscripts. I know a few writers who are paying for professional manuscript editing services in the hope that it can lead to a deal, a risky and expensive proposition. The problems facing the publishing and marketing of literary fiction are dealt with in an interesting article by Alex Good. He makes the point that unlike literary fiction, genre fiction is well-suited for selling on the web which tends to cheapen everything by making it so readily available. A $0.99 to $2.99 price point makes everything merely discardable merchandise, akin to fast-fashion or fast-food ie. not something you cherish enough to put on your shelf. When it's in a person's mind that they should be paying so little for a book (when paying anything at all) how do you then go and ask $10 or $20 for literary fiction (read: higher quality merchandise). When $0.99 becomes the price for a book ie. what readers expect to pay, it doesn't matter whether the author is Danielle Steele, Dan Brown or Dostoevsky. The question is will literature, as we know it, pay the ultimate price?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

New Year's Day


It started innocently enough,
a white screen, a thought, leading to an image
that accumulated into words
(she thought of rainclouds forming)
the syllables counted, the line skipped
rhythm added (she thought of sidewalk puddles)
and a clever rhyme about New Year’s Day
that made her smile with
hope for better tomorrows
tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
(kind of cliché, she knew, but it didn’t matter
it felt right for the time of year), she
a junior in university
emailed what she’d typed to her list of friends,
(mostly acquaintances)
with wishes for health and happiness,
and it was read and deleted by most,
but two messages slipped through and
were forwarded to their contact list
and two more were forwarded to theirs
and this went on for weeks
the forwards multiplying virally
through blog links, Facebook sharing and Tweets
and someone posted it on YouTube
accompanied by images pilfered from the web
and a song by Taylor Swift used without permission,
and it got hits and hits galore, millions
and a hundred million and a book deal
(like Sh*t My Dad Says)
that was a New York Times Bestseller
and a film option from Hollywood
and a logo and a phrase that became a clothing line
and the President quoted it
in his re-election campaign speech
and it was translated into forty-two languages
including Swahili, Mongolian, and Ojibwa
and it got its own Wikipedia page
and school children all around the world
committed it to memory
for a while.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Drum roll please...

The $50,000 poem. Judge for yourself.
(I particularly like how the poet managed to slide in, as it were, the words 'cock' and 'cunt'. That alone makes it worth every penny.)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The weather today...


The martyr-sun withers behind shadows
Darkly cumulus. Cellophane angels
Wood magi, tinfoil stars appear below
Mount-Royal, new benedictions they sell
To jingles of merchants and Christmas bells
The storefronts hang with icicles dripping
Like clear bloody nails as soles go slipping
Along glacial pavement of downtown roads
Umbrellas popped-open over heads low
Like black mushrooms or propped vinyl halos
Mothers trailed by elfin cherubic broods
Are neon-illumined in rubber hoods
Their tiny icon-faces bright as dolls
Puppet nativities entrance them all.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Same Old Same Old

The other day my seventeen (eighteen in April) year old daughter confided that she was 'blown away' by a certain Pink Floyd song from their Animals album. She called 'Dogs' up on her laptop (Youtube) and we listened to it together. 'How does he make his guitar sound like yelping dogs?' she queried excitedly. 'The way the synthesizer sounds like a pack of barking hounds. And the lyrics. Freaking genius.' I smiled, knowingly. You see, I'm slightly familiar with this particular tune. Listened to it possibly a thousand times when I was my daughter's age. In fact, I used a quote from Dogs for my senior entry in my high-school yearbook. This seemed a good way to bid adieu to my childhood :

And after a while you can work on points for style
Like the club tie and the firm handshake
As sudden look in the eye and an easy smile
You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to
So that when they turn their backs on you
You'll get the chance to put the knife in.

I was a cheery optimistic lad.
Apparently, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

I'm thinking about this because of a provocative Vanity Fair article arguing that every twenty years or so American society has traditionally regenerated itself with new styles, new fashion, new design, new entertainment. My taste in music (Pink Floyd) was radically different from my mother's taste (Frankie Laine). My dad called the jeans I wore on a daily basis 'dungarees'. The renewal of style has not only distinguished fathers and mothers from their offspring, but has kept the economy pumping at a healthy clip. In the last twenty years, say, from 1992 to 2012 we've stalled, according to the article. The median wage hasn't changed, and the music hasn't changed that much either - Lady Gaga is just a spruced up (and younger) version of Madonna - same with the fashion and even the politics. It would stand to reason then that parents my age, would have a lot more in common with their kids, then those parents had with their parents, which seems to be my experience. I'm not sure that we're in a holding pattern per se, but the rate of cultural change does appear to have slowed. The distance between me who was born during the civil rights revolution and came of age during the heyday of disco, and my parents who were pre-war babies seems transcontinental culturally-speaking. In my day we called it 'the generation gap'. I doubt if my kids would inherently grasp that concept the way we did. So, same old, same old, right? Well, not in one very obvious and important way: technology. All those devices that were science fiction when I was young that are now ubiquitous, commonplace and indispensible. The 'transponder' used by Captain Kirk to order Scotty to 'beam me up' is what we now call a cellphone. The desktops and laptops and i-thingamajigs and Blackberries and video games and Facebook and Google have all undoubtedly shifted the cultural parameters. Styles and eras don't seem to matter nearly as much as they used to and one can argue that it is precisely because of our obsession with gadgetry and the internet which makes us feel as if we are living virtual and a-temporal existences. The internet makes all cultures of all eras immediately present and accessible. We travel through space and time with a mere click of a button. Style, as we used to understand and live it, is irrelevant. I mean, do you really have to care about the clothes you wear, or how you wear your hair, if you live, play, shop, do your banking, go to school, and socialize through a screen?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

If you happen to be within 100 kms of the nation's capital

Thanks to the fine folks at the University of Ottawa's Department of English and the Vered Jewish Canadian Studies Program I have the pleasure of reading from my new (critically acclaimed) novel Halbman Steals Home on Wednesday December 7, 2011 at 6:00 p.m., Arts Hall, 70 Laurier Ave East, Glenn Clever Room #301 and best of all admission is FREE

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Publisher's Weekly review of Halbman

I was surprised (and relieved) to see this brief review of my upcoming second novel only scheduled for release in late February. Nice! It can be pre-ordered at (hint, hint).

Friday, November 11, 2011

In praise of Salesmanship

On the right hand side of your screen you will notice a little e-book called "Salesmanship: Three Stories." If you don't think it's worth the $4.99 price tag, here's a little testimonial from one reader of the title story, (okay, so it's not so 'little', nor is it really a testimonial, more a review/critique). William Robinson has published meticulously crafted short stories in a variety of publications including carte blanche, Verbsap and snreview among others. This is one reader who knows of what he speaks. If I wasn't quite sure what I was writing at the time, I'm sure glad I have Bill to tell me so eloquently what the story is really about. (warning: there's a spoiler at the end).

I have so much writerly appreciation for this story. It is a brilliantly told story about a rapidly aging man trying to determine what his life, or life in general, has amounted to. And as the title aptly implies, Salesmanship, after years of having said “no” to the Lubavitcher boys and to faith, he finally says “yes.”

Or at least he’s willing to listen.

Thus, the impetus to find some sort of answer comes one late Friday afternoon by way of a Lubavitcher boy into his office. Time is everything, perhaps, because he is beginning to see his own whittling away. He is no longer selling like he used to. Is it possible that the young boy reminds him of a new beginning, a chance to start afresh? Perhaps.

But mostly we are treated to a text that offers the reader glimpses into the slow grind down of his business, and of a life. Peppered throughout is this running commentary balanced within the present moment of the first-person narrative, which he offers in regard to the events and decisions that have shaped his life. His son-in-law, Joel, runs off to China periodically for cheaper fabrics. The office is lonely and drab. But within that framework, we learn that there is still lust in his heart. (Or should we say in his penis, which seems to function more like an eighteen-year-old's!)

The portrayal of this scene is one masterful stroke after another by the simple yet persistent desire to peek at his dim-witted secretary’s “honkers.” Yet in the same breath we sense that it is too late for him to contemplate the possibility that he could do much more than gawk. Save for the penis, his body is starting to fail him. And thus another strike at old age, for the penis symbolizes lust and power, but within a failing vessel such as his body, what good is it ultimately?

The context of the story is interesting, and conveys the understanding that the writer, either consciously or sub, gets credit for: it was back in the old days quite a common practice for bosses, without remorse or confusion, to schtump their secretaries. It is within that context and implication that adds wrenching depth and complexity to the character and story. Congrats!

So either the world has changed and the old man can’t keep up, or it no longer matters. He is young in mind, but visibly, in real tangible bones, too old in the mind of the world. Although he would like not to have to go quietly into thy good night, he knows on some visceral level that his time has passed.

Enter the boy as the vehicle, the one who is going to attempt to convert him (sell him) after all these years some greater meaning to his life. The fact that the boy is working alone piques the man's interest, throws the his world view slightly askew, and he’s intrigued. By offering the boy a “yes,” he gains some satisfaction, and some power back, as is illustrated in, One thing is undeniable, the kid's giving me a sense of satisfaction. It comes from knowing that by simply answering "yes" instead of "no" to his question I have the power to put a very uncomfortable boy at ease.

And yet the power-grab is all too brief. We are led into this empty, dusty room (the room functions with dual meaning, a paradox, perhaps---either an empty vessel upon which to start over, or the end of something represented by it's very vacantness). And in that room he wants the boy to impart some shared wisdom about God and Jews, something as a sort of keepsake after the boy leaves.

But he’s a boy. The man knew on some level that he wasn’t really going to get much, but there was hope, expectations. And as he says himself, when expectations aren’t met, there is inevitable disappointment. Then we see his memory of the marriage, and the fact that the yarmulkes, which were sewed with the names of his daughter and son-in-law, was all “a load of crap.”

When the boy begins to hum a tune that he is not familiar with, the ritual itself is “so foreign and medieval.” Then he is bound and his fingers lose sensation, the physical symbolism of him losing control/power over his life. When Laurie suggests that he may need help, things turn for the worse; it all becomes too nasty a charade. And so he begins to panic-sweat, due to the realization that in life there are no answers, only truths created by oneself. (I may have wanted a bit more cause-and-effect in terms of him reaching this heightened state of discombobulation rather than his inability to read the thick text, but that’s a tiny quibble.)

The condom is a nice touch at the end—he is on to Joel and Laurie, their illicit affair. (Now the reader, and perhaps the man himself, understands that Laurie's concern had more to do with this secret than for the man's welfare.) Is he going to fire Laurie, get Joel squared up to live a respectful life and treat his daughter right? We don’t know. But the final declarative sentences give us the inkling that he is going to retake some of that lost power, if only briefly, to establish right from wrong—yes, he’s clearly found his own religion---and, by extension, hellbent on grounding himself in the world, a world that he realizes he hasn't yet departed.

Glen, you have created a powerful story about mortality and one man’s desire to come to the terms of his own life and the meaning in it. Beautifully rendered!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Join Me!

I will be participating along with talented fellow writers Bev Akerman, Elaine Kalman Naves, Ami Sands Brodoff in a literary panel discussion at in the first (annual?) Blue Emet Arts Festival on November 20th. Two good reasons to show-up (besides hearing my awesome co-panelists): I'll be reading an excerpt from my forthcoming novel Halbman Steals Home, and since I'll be vastly outnumbered and at a disadvantage as the only boy involved (story of my life) I'll desperately need your support, so pleeeese come!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Making art from shmatas, or 'extreme sewing'

Not to be missed: One of Canada's preeminent textile artists, Barbara Wisnoski, is showing recent works from October 29th until November 26th, details here. From the press release:

Décorum ou la broderie in situ is a performative installation featuring Barbara Wisnoski’s ‘extreme’ sewing combined with text adorning the gallery walls. Produced over a ten-month period from an accumulation of cast-off clothing, the textile motifs form a repeat pattern that expands a small domestic embroidery motif to a public scale. The family archive aspect implicit in her raw
materials – a household fabric inventory - is rendered explicit, with narrative text on one wall echoing the design. Through a serial process of destruction and reconstruction – slashing fabric apart with scissors, sewing it together, then slashing it apart again - the remnants form a dense, homogeneous texture where surface melds into structure.

On Thursdays and Fridays throughout the duration of the exhibition the artist will be present in the gallery, where she will finally tend to her large pile of mending. Furnished with comfortable seating and a sewing machine, visitors can engage with her about the artwork or come with clothing repair projects or a good book to talk about.

Part open studio, part performance, part sewing bee, this temporary pavilion mixes the languages of public and private space in a hyperbolic act of decoration, inviting questions about art and labour, ornament and utility, consumption, the measure and value of time, memory and the uses of nostalgia.

Friday, October 14, 2011

It's literary awards season and...

Let the griping begin. Actually, the Canadian scene turned out kinda interesting with two novels that few had ever heard of before hitting the literary equivalent of a grand-slam homer by making it to the shortlist of the GGs, the Rogers Trust, the Giller and the Man Booker. One of them even looks like it's loads of fun to read, which would be a switch for most literary prizes. And that's part of the point of this interesting critique of this year's National Book Award fiction shortlist. The ever-widening gap between what some people think we ought to read and what most of us would actually enjoy reading. I think the writer makes one interesting point in particular: In a culture dominated by film and television, all literary novels are so obscure as to be virtually invisible, and books that seem ubiquitous to people embedded in the publishing world are anything but to those who aren’t. (The next time you’re waiting for a bus, ask the person next to you if he or she has heard of Jeffrey Eugenides or “The Art of Fielding.” Hell, ask them if they’ve heard of Jonathan Franzen.) As I've said before, the proliferation of literary awards has been inversely proportional to the cultural significance of books. In other words, as books have become less important more awards have been created. Presumably there is a relationship between the two ie. that awards are being created in the hope of salvaging their declining cultural prestige. Which begs the question, what ought to be the role of literary awards, if salvaging the novel's status in the cultural marketplace clearly isn't working? If you ask any prize juror, they always say that they make their choice on the basis of merit alone. They try to identify the best book to bring it to the reading public's attention. But what's a 'best' book? I think that, increasingly, the reality is 'best' however you define it, has no relevance for most readers. Not the way it might have fifty years ago when novels enjoyed a certain cultural influence. And anyway, no one is ever going to convince me that a juror really reads all 150 novels submitted for any given prize in any given year (that's like reading a novel every two days for an entire year). If 'best' means nothing, than I vote for 'most enjoyable' cause that's about all any juror can honestly tell, and it's the only thing that most readers truly care about.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls

One of the most thrilling memories I have is standing with my daughter - I think she was ten or eleven years old - in front of a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls and listening to her read it, recognizing words from a 2000 year old document. Every penny spent on Hebrew parochial school seemed to make complete sense (cents) for the first time. The vastness of two millennia of history and tradition suddenly vanished, time and space contracted into a single awesome moment in a chamber more powerful than a nuclear reactor; the mind of a little Jewish girl. I'm guessing this why the Dead Sea Scrolls going on the internet actually gives me goosebumps.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Coco Chanel: Opportunist and Anti-Semite

In addition to her collaborations, Chanel spoke loudly and vehemently against Jews, and even tried to take advantage of the Nazi seizure of Jewish businesses and property. Her world-famous perfume, Chanel No. 5, was owned and produced by the Wertheimers—a rich Franco-Jewish family. Chanel had always been paranoid that the Wertheimers were stealing from her (though her lawyer assured her of the contrary), and during the war, when the family had fled to America, she attempted to take full control of Chanel No. 5. But the Wertheimers had anticipated that the Nazis (or Chanel) might try to steal their company, and therefore they signed it over to a Frenchman for the duration of the war. Chanel couldn’t touch it. The Wertheimers also sent a spy, Herbert Gregory Thomas (under the pseudonym, Don Armando Guevaray Sotto Mayor), to retrieve the chemical formula to make Chanel No. 5 as well as collect all the necessary ingredients. He then brought everything back with him to America, so that the Wertheimers could continue to produce and sell the fragrance. Vaughan finally gets his spy moment here, and it is certainly one of the most exciting portions of the book.

She partied with the Nazis at the Paris Ritz and then gave bottles of perfume away to American GI liberators to bring back home to their mothers, wives and girlfriends. Read the book review here.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The failure of university English departments

In today's university, no one is any longer in a position to say which books are or aren't fit to teach; no one any longer has the authority to decide what is the best in American writing. Too bad, for even now there is no consensus about who are the best American novelists of the past century. (My own candidates are Cather and Theodore Dreiser.) Nor will you read a word, in the pages of "The Cambridge History of the American Novel," about how short-lived are likely to be the sex-obsessed works of the much-vaunted novelists Norman Mailer, John Updike and Philip Roth or about the deleterious effect that creative-writing programs have had on the writing of fiction.

With the gates once carefully guarded by the centurions of high culture now flung open, the barbarians flooded in, and it is they who are running the joint today. The most lauded novelists in "The Cambridge History of the American Novel" tend to be those, in the words of another of its contributors, who are "staging a critique of 'America' and its imperial project." Thus such secondary writers as Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut and E.L. Doctorow are in these pages vaunted well beyond their literary worth.

The indispensible Joseph Epstein on why we don't care about novels anymore... Well, not really, but may as well be about that. It's really about how universities have failed students, critics, readers (and by extension writers) of American fiction. I'm not sure that the works of Roth and Updike are likely to be short-lived, or that Vonnegut is a secondary writer. But there is no doubt that the importance of 'contextualization' in the study of literature has raised mediocre novels to an undeserved status, and given aspiring novelists a low bar to shoot for. 'Good' and 'bad' are no longer legitimate criteria on which to judge novels since everything is culturally relative. And it extends beyond the walls of academia. I read far too many book reviews (a practice I have told myself I have to stop for fear that it will turn my brain to sludge). And one notices how readily and often reviewers laud new novels, how loosely they throw around terms like "masterful" and "exceptional" and how rarely "bad" (or its euphemisms) show up. You don't have to read a ton of reviews like I do (did). Pick up any new novel off the shelf and read the blurbs and 'praise for' on the back cover and you see what I mean. With so much mediocre work stocking the shelves and being lauded to the hilt it's no wonder that readers don't know what to believe anymore and seem to have stopped caring.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sevillians Unite to Save the Empress!!!

Leila Marshy over at The Rover writes about the ill-fated Empress Theatre building which has shamefully sat idle and deteriorated over the past 20 years while politicians and community organizers argued over what to do with it. I remember the building when it was Cinema V, sister repertory film house (in a sibling rivalry sort of way) of the old Seville Theatre where I worked as a doorman for a few years in the early 80s. Yes, their building was more art-deco beautiful, but we Sevillians thought of ourselves as cooler because our building had a more venerable history (Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr.) and it was downtown, a block from the Forum. Also, our ticket booth was on the street, while theirs was inside. Working the Seville door every Friday and Saturday night (Rocky Horror, Dawn of the Dead, The Road Warrior, Best of the New York Erotic Film Festival) was my rite of passage into young adulthood. I cleaned up more than my fair share of beer-smelling puke, and stopped more than one speed-induced fight between patrons, but the unmentionable perks (Leila mentions some of them) were unmatched and I was the envy of all my friends. Now, the Seville is nothing but a memory. All Sevillians should unite to find new life for the Empress, undeniably a Montreal landmark. We can't let this opportunity slip away, the way it did with the Seville. My seventeen year old is currently looking for part-time employment while she attends CEGEP and I can't help lamenting the fact that there aren't jobs with perks anymore like at the Seville and Cinema V.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Four Montreal Jewish writers worth hearing (at least three of them anyway.)

I organized and participated in a session of the recent Association of Jewish Libraries conference in Montreal. The idea was to gather a group of local writers to read from new work and talk about what it means, if anything, to be a Jewish writer. It's worth your time if you happen to have a spare hour and a half, or less.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sherwood Schwartz 1916-2011

He gave us Ginger and Marianne. The three hour tour. The critics hated his shows and we loved them, and still do, and for that alone he is worth honouring. He rejected the staid father-mother-two kids suburban portrait of the typical 1950s American family and decided that there was something truer and more absurd to our existence. We're actually an incompatible motley shipwrecked bunch thrown together on a lush beautiful island with no obvious way to get off, and somehow we survive together.

Sherwood Schwartz has finally found a way off this crazy island. Here's a fond salute to one of the most influential storytellers of my generation.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Salesmanship: The ebook

Ever since jumping hesitantly on the bandwagon a few weeks ago I've become positively enamoured with my ereader. Now I am a full-on devotee. The natural next step was to start toying around with epublishing. A few hours of tinkering with free downloaded software and walla!! My first e-book, appropriately titled "Salesmanship", and featuring three short stories. Admittedly, the savvy internet user will be able to track down two of these three stories on the web. But why read off a screen when, for the outlandishly inexpensive price of $4.99 (shipping and handling included), you can own this digital edition to add to your personal ereader library? I'm still not exactly sure how it'll work administration wise, but try it out by clicking on the Buy Now button and maybe, if all goes as planned, you'll receive shortly a special e-package of literature in the e-mail. And best of all no trees were sacrificed.

The $50,000 poem

Hear ye!! Hear Ye!! Calling all poets!! Don't delay. The deadline for the inaugural $50,000 Montreal International Poetry Prize approaches this Friday, July 8th! It's open to all poets - and that means you (who doesn't consider him/herself a poet). Everyone's eligible!

Look, I'm actually fan of poetry. Read the stuff, edited a couple of anthologies, even write the stuff on occasion. So why does this new prize for a poem seem so completely absurd? I keep asking myself, can there possibly by such a thing as a poem worth $50K? We're not talking a novel that takes years to write or a body of literary work; a single poem! And why does it seem that as less people read poetry and buy poetry publications the more poetry prizes there are, and the higher their purse. Clearly, a declining readership has prompted a kind of false, one might even say sad, effort to prop up flaccid, sagging prestige. The spectacle (if that's what it could be when it involves poetry) recalls the compensations needed by the owner of a souped-up muscle car. A new prize will not generate new interest in poetry, if that's what the organizers are after, and certainly not new book buyers. Never have, and never will. As well-intentioned as this prize might be it only serves to make generally ignored poets feel better about themselves, at least one poet anyway. I keep thinking about all that money being put to good use by spreading the largesse; imagine how many poetry collections $50K could buy.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Where Saint-Urbain intersects Chabanel

It does in fact - I mean Saint-Urbain and Chabanel intersect as you'll see in the video below. I was asked by the Gazette to participate in the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of Mordecai Richler's death. My written contribution is here. My video contribution, from Chabanel naturally, is below.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tolerance? Understanding?

There will be no synagogue expansion on Hutchison. At least, not this synagogue. And not this time. The real loser here is... (you fill in the blank). Actually I blame both sides. I'm guessing that the Hasids have never invited their neighbours over for tea, let alone smiled and said hello when they passed in the street.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Another referendum in Quebec

I wrote about the Outremont Hasidic community in The Rent Collector and their fight to erect an eruv, a virtually invisible boundary allowing certain practices on the Shabbat. Round two came when the Hasidim asked the local YMCA to cover a window that allowed passersby to view women exercising in skimpy clothes (the Hasidim paid to have frosted glass installed). Round three is at hand - this battle about whether a small synagogue should be allowed to renovate and expand their building. Of course, this is really all about tolerance and the perceived increasing 'encroachment' of a growing religious people on the surrounding secular community. My guess is that rounds four, five and six are not far away.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Strange Bedfellows at the JPL

Did you know that the word "avocado" came from an Aztec word that means 'testicle', just like the word "testify"? Or that the word "porcelain" refers to a 'pig's vagina'? Join me as I introduce Howard Richler and learn about these and other words that originate from unmentionables. Howard is a well-known Montreal logophile, columnist and author who apparently has a fetish with language. Should be a, if not racy, then at least very interesting evening. More here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Montreal Mashup

Someone once said that a great city is twice built, once in bricks and mortar, and a second time in the imagination. Montreal has been built and re-built over and over again. The good folks at Rover recently staged the second edition of Imagine Montreal at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival in which parts of The Rent Collector are read along with excerpts from 24 other works by local professional actors. In this video of the event the image of Mount-Royal's cross accompanies an excerpt from TRC.

Imagine Montreal from The Rover on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Thanks For Coming

When you're dealing with a deity with a sense of humour you may be surprised by what the afterlife has in store. Find out by reading my new humorous piece of fiction up at the Shtetl Montreal website. Check it out!

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Mighty Jacobson

Howard Jacobson plays ping-pong and chats about his newly re-issued tour de force.

Halbman Steals Home

The cover of my new novel due out early next year. More details here. Let me know what you think of the cover. Don't be shy to pre-order now.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Not knowing how to ask questions

A funny thing happened on the way to the seder. We forgot how to ask questions.

The Passover seder has one main objective; to tell the story of Israel's miraculous liberation from slavery and to do it in a way that will involve the whole family, particularly young children. This is why we don't just read the story, we enact it. We eat it, we drink it, we sing it, we mimic it, we even play a game of redemption, hiding a piece of matzah and paying the finders for its return. Involving children is the central component of the seder. The telling of the story gets underway only once the youngest member of the family asks the four questions, famously beginning with, Why is this night different from all other nights? In fact, how to ask the four questions at Passover is one of the very first things a Jewish child learns to do after they are old enough to learn the Hebrew alphabet. It's a rudimentary skill that is often the first public display of a child's Jewish education. But what happens when no child will ask the questions? Nothing happens. The seder grinds to a halt. Well, that's exactly what happened at our family seder this year. It must be said, that our family seders are unique events. We rent out a room at a hotel and typically have 60 to 100 in attendance extending three and four generations. In recent years it has become practice to post a family tree on a wall so that the cousins can locate their relationship to others in the room. Admittedly, asking the four questions at this seder is not for the shy personality. It's an intimidating scenario. There you are surrounded by eighty or so cousins, most of whom you know only vaguely if you know them at all, who are waiting to hear you sing a song in an ancient, tongue-mangling language you've only just begun to learn. And yet, every year one or two or three courageous youngins always step forward. This year, no one did, in spite of much begging and cajoling. Eighty people in the room, many children of various ages, a number of them parochially schooled and fluent in Hebrew, and no takers. At that moment, in the uncomfortable pregnant pause when it was becoming clear that no one was going to volunteer, a question and its implications arose in my mind: Have we forgotten how to ask questions? A quick survey of the room revealed highly accomplished people, doctors, lawyers, business people, three generations of families, all knowledgeable, educated, thoughtful people. And yet the moment suggested something disturbing to me, a prevailing complacency, a self-satisfied and worrisome disinterest and disengagement, and not just with the seder itself, but perhaps with larger dimensions of life as well. The fact that the seder can not proceed without the questions being asked suggests the essential importance of questioning. The ability to question equals freedom. When we stop asking questions we are tactily, either by choice or by force, giving up our independence. We are slaves, either in physical bondage, or suffering from forms of spiritual and mental slavery. The Haggadah (the seder guide) cleverly anticipates the difficulty of engaging younger generations in the seder by describing four sons, one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and even one who does not know how to ask a question. Many rabbis characterize the problem of the fourth son, not as lacking in knowledge, but as suffering from apathy, malaise. It seemed to me precisely the fog that had settled on our seder room. How clever of the rabbis to create a structure and process where, at a single penultimate moment at the outset of the seder, so much would be revealed about where we stand as a family and as Jews. We were rescued from discomfort by my oldest first cousin, a man in his seventies, a grandfather many times over, who stumbled his way through the four questions - he was clearly out of practice, it having been probably sixty-five years since the last time he said them at the family seder, way before my time, when he was the youngest, first grandchild of my grandparents. To be fair, our family seders have never really been about reengaging our religious traditions, culture and history. They've been about re-acquainting with family, getting to know long lost cousins, and introducing new generations to the family, which is important of course. Still, every year that I attend there is a place in my heart where I am hoping that the youngest members of the family will clammer and fight to ask the four questions, that they will see this opportunity to take centre stage in the grand reeneactment of our national story as a privilege and a moment to shine.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Companion by Lorcan Roche

A little while back I wrote that I thought there wasn't enough anger in today's writing. Then along comes Lorcan Roche's The Companion a book about two very angry characters; Trevor a caregiver who gets his kicks busting people's heads, and his charge a terminally ill young man suffering from Muscular Dystrophy named Ed. They both have a lot to be angry about. Ed is an only child. His father is a Manhatten Judge ensconced in his study and cares more for his books than his son. His mother is perpetually convalescing from a minor accident and never leaves her room. It's the most depressing portrait of domestic alienation and emotional neglect imaginable. Money might not buy love but fortunately for this family it can buy services. Enter Trevor, a strapping, young, angry Dubliner who answers an ad to be Ed's companion and caregiver. Ed's an ornery, irritable and demanding handful and caregivers don't last. Luckily, the Judge is only too willing to keep writing cheques to replace them. Trevor, it turns out, is experienced in providing care having tended to his dying mother and worked in a hospital for the clinically insane. He has the physical strength and fortitude to handle anything Ed can dish out. Notwithstanding the fact that Ed is physically wasting away while Trevor is fit and works out regularly in the gym, the two undeniably have a lot in common and find solace in each other. They're both fighters. Trevor sees himself in Ed's predicament. "And some days you're so angry you can literally hiss and spit, especially at incredibly healthy fuckers like me who've never been physically sick, not one single solitary day. And you want to lash out, you want to be cruel, and callous, to injure and inflict as much as your mean little spirit will allow. And maybe the only joy you know is the peace that comes after an argument, the feeling of things being washed away by coarse, salty tears. And you wish you could bleed to death heroically, not just leak like a stain into the carpet." This is Trevor talking about Ed, but also himself. In the end this is Trevor's story. We learn about why he fled his home to come to New York, an act of both escape and repentance. America, through Trevor's eyes, is the perfect place to pay your dues because they're so hard to come by here. "Americans are really shite at apologizing; they think the mere fact they bring themselves to mouth the words absolves them. They're not interested in the rites of penance, in listening to precisely how they hurt you, in understanding how small it made you feel. They want to move on, they want closure which is American for wanting things to go swiftly back to the way they were before. Inside their heads. They cannot comprehend that because they don't really know what they did wrong, that because they really don't need to know, the rest of us find them truly terrifying." Reminiscent of Nick Hornby, the searing voice, the depth and candidness of prose are what makes this book so exhilirating. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Imagining Montreal: The new and improved Blue Met edition

Not to be missed. Rover has reprised the staged reading, Imagine Montreal, as part of the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival in Montreal on Friday, April 29, at 8 pm. The event is taking place at the Holiday Inn Centreville, in Chinatown. The "script" - a collage of excerpts from 26 novels published since 2000 and set in Montreal - will be read by 10 Montreal actors. The band Sweet Mother Logic will provide music. This idea is greatly reworked since the premiere in November, telling a riveting story: the rebirth of Montreal after a gloomy time in the mid and late nineties. The featured books will be available at The Blue Met bookstore.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Avner Mandelman at the JPL

Join me as I introduce Avner Mandelman, author of the new thriller The Debba and two killer collections of short fiction. Details here. He's a fascinating person with a unique personal story and one of the rare few who somehow manages to balance success in both business and writing fiction.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Kane's Bernstein

Mankiewicz may not have been the only participant in the Citizen Kane project concerned about whether Sloane’s appearance was sufficiently sympathetic. As Mankiewicz knew, Sloane was a Jewish actor and a veteran of Welles’ theater company. In the years following the filming of Citizen Kane, Sloane embarked on a series of plastic surgeries to reduce the size of his nose and thereby, he imagined, broaden the range of acting roles available to him. Welles later said that Sloane “must have had twenty operations before he killed himself. He must have thought, ‘If I could ever bob my nose right, then I’ll be a leading man.’”

Harold Heft's fascinating piece on Orson Welles's portrayal of the jew in his masterpiece Citizen Kane.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Be careful what you wish for

A little levity before linking to a disturbing Newsweek piece about the increasing presence of 'religious-Zionists' in the Israeli army. In the past, we heard resentful complaints by secular Israelis that the Hasidim got all the government perks without having to serve in the army. Suddenly, there's worry that more and more officers are wearing knitted yarmulkes and sympathetic to the settler movement. The author asks, will these soldiers obey their commanders or their rabbis? File under: Be careful what you wish for.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Facebook Effect

Reducing "people" to "users" and "consumers" through profiles designed to define them as such. (Zuckerberg: "A lot of the information people produce is inherently commercial. And if you look at someone's profile, almost all the fields that define them are in some way commercial - music, movies, books, products, games. It's a part of our identity as people that we like something, but it also has commercial value.")...What made social networking such a big deal was the fact that people liked being used. Anything was better than the loneliness and boredom of the Internet and the derangements brought on by blogger psychosis. And so social networking became a drug. Early on, Facebook executives called the effect their product had "the trance," understanding that what they were doing was essentially pushing a narcotic (not coincidentally, their first big advertiser would be a gambling site).

Read the entire review here.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Poets are masters of concision - but this is ridiculous

How to reduce a twenty page film treatment into fourteen lines - and rhyming, iambic pentameter to boot! A battle of wills to be sure. Shakespeare himself would be impressed.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Telling the Truth

All too often, reading contemporary poetry, what I feel is, So many dishonest lines! Lines that sound beautiful but that aren’t meant. If you aren’t really paying attention, you can be seduced by them. But if you’re listening closely, they don’t ring true. They have the sound of trying too hard, or of trying to put something over. They sound as though they are listening to themselves, admiringly, rather than speaking from a real place inside the poet. The words may be gorgeous, they may be clever, they may have dazzle or flash, but they aren’t speaking in a real voice.

Robyn Sarah again on telling the truth in poetry. What she says about poetry is equally true in fiction. I wonder if she would agree with my contention that what she calls writers listening to themselves, admiringly, rather than speaking from a real place may be the result of the 'academization' of writing ie. more writing coming out of university creative writing programs. And bonus; she quotes Joseph Epstein, one of my favourite writers.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Walking the public/private fine line

For writers who use language as an artistic medium, a tension goes with this dichotomy: the process of creation is intensely private, yet the creation will not be complete, will not have fulfilled its purpose, without an audience. Thinking too much about “audience” during the creative process can inhibit the process and distort the creation, but thinking too little about it can do the same. Soon enough one needs to ask, “Who am I writing this for?”, because it is the sense of audience that gives writing its voice. Voice, style, tone, are how a piece of writing treats its reader.

Robyn Sarah on the writer's challenge to find the perfect public/private balance.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Jewgrass and Canlit

Not your Bubbie's klezmer says Bev Akerman over at Rover riffing on the recent Shabbat Shira sold-out shindig at our shul. But anyone who knows a little about klezmer knows that it's taken many forms over the last few decades, particularly in the US, ranging from groups like Boston's The Klezmer Conservatory to New York's Klezmatics, not to mention John Zorn's Klezmer-inspired Jazz-infused musical experiments. Being an island of Jews in a lake of Quebecois in an sea of Anglos has made the Montreal Jewish community uniquely conservative in character and consequently late to catch a ride on the upcoming cultural waves. But I'm proud to say that our little shtibel (the only Reconstructionist synagogue in a city of eighty or so Orthodox minyans) is trying to do its part to open a few doors and windows a crack, let some cultural fresh air in to the stagnant atmosphere. A culture is vibrant when artists (be they writers, painters, sculptors, actors, musicians, poets, whomever) feel they have the license to combine their own personal traditions with a myriad of other influences. Today is the 102nd anniversary of the birth of A.M. Klein, a Montreal Jewish writer and one of Canada's greatest poets. A writer who left his mark by combining Hebrew liturgy, Yiddish idiom, a mastery of English literary forms, a fluency in French and profound sensibility for Quebecois culture. So you ask, Jewish bluegrass from Montreal? I say you're darn tootin! And mazel tov to Bev on her new collection of short fiction. Strength to strength!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2011)

A remembrance of the late great Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb in the Rover.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Writer's Life

I thought back to my days in Miss Jeffries’ Grade 10 creative writing class, where my thoughts went along the lines of: How can I entertain myself? (and as a secondary notion, How can I totally gross out anyone who reads this, particularly Courtney Smith, with her neon green scrunchie, whom I sort of like? — what can I say: I was 15, and not the suave Lothario I am today). I had to rekindle the joy I’d felt when the page just opened up, I fell in, and there were no limitations or worries about target demos, what editors will think, the booksellers, the whole apparatus I’d no knowledge of when I’d first said to myself: Hey, it would be pretty cool to write all day long.

Craig Davidson
tells it like it is for most writers.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

In Howard Jacobson's Man Booker Prize winning novel sad-sack goy Julian Treslove is mistaken for a Jew when he is mugged in the street, or so he thinks. Making matters worse his assailant is a woman. In one fell swoop his sexual and ethnic identity (which is to say his entire identity) have been stolen from him. A personal crisis ensues and Treslove spends most of the rest of the novel ruminating and anguishing about, well, sex and identity. Treslove desperately wants to be Jewish. Why? I'm not quite sure. It may have something to do with the fact that his two closest friends are Jewish, his former teacher Libor Sevcik and Sam Finkler, an old school chum and now a renowned philosopher and media personality. But it's not just their Jewishness Treslove envies, it's their losses. Sevcik and Finkler have both recently become widowers. The combination of love, loss and Judaism are irresistible to Treslove who, aside from being a bore, is an incurable romantic. One more thing Treslove instinctively can't resist about Jews is their penchant for self-hatred. Finkler founds an organization called ASHamed Jews to take a public stand against Israel's actions in Gaza (among a host of other amorphous things Jews have to be ashamed of). Then Treslove becomes fascinated and follows the internet blog of a Jew trying to grow (or more accurately 'stretch') his foreskin back. Self-hatred is something Treslove comes by honestly, and justifiably, having failed repeatedly as a lover and as a father to two sons by different women. He falls in love with the unlikely-named Hephzibah, Libor's great-great niece, a large woman who appears to embody in every way the Jewishness that Treslove craves. He reads a Yiddish dictionary to acquire Jewish idiom in his vocabulary, and aides Hephizbah with the creation of a new museum of Anglo-Jewish life (not a Holocaust museum.) Still (self) acceptance eludes him. This is all intended as ironic, of course, the non-Jew feeling marginalized from history's most marginalized people. I've been a Jacobson fan for a while. I really enjoyed Kalooki Nights, and loved The Mighty Walzer. Those novels were energetic and deftly-written - serious but with a light touch - in a way that The Finkler Question simply isn't. Finkler feels like a performance. The author wanting to say a lot about the state of being Jewish these days. The novel is comprised almost entirely of characters opining, and the humour is heady and forced. But the main problem is that the novel is missing a solid, empathetic core; a central character for whom the reader can genuinely care, as Walzer had Oliver, and Kalooki had Max Glickman. Julian Treslove is a pathetic, self-obsessed drip, a loser who overthinks and spins his wheels in place. There's little that's enjoyable, or particularly funny (or excusable) about watching him sink deeper and deeper into the mire of his own making. As an exposition on the modern Jewish psyche, which it is undoubtedly intended to be, The Finkler Question is tiresome and dreary. As a meditation on friendship it is unrelentingly melancholic. Only a brief glimpse of Jacobson's storytelling brilliance is in evidence when near the very end of the novel he briefly touchingly describes the actual deaths of Libor's and Finkler's wives in successive chapters. The contrast is achingly revealing about their respective marriages, relationships and lives. It's also telling that these sections, the most authentically and beautifully wrtten in the novel, were not about Treslove. Still, I'm thrilled the novel won the Man Booker. Hopefully, it will bring more attention to Jacobson's superior earlier novels. I have no doubt that the award jury intended it that way.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

File under: Jews and sports

I don't know whether to cheer or cry about this headline. I mean the times have definitely changed when the venerable Habs have two Jewish players on the roster, Mike Camalleri and Jeff Halpern.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Conscious Mind and the Fulfilled Life

Harold had the sense that he had been trained to react in all sorts of stupid ways. He had been trained, as a guy, to be self-contained and smart and rational, and to avoid sentimentality. Yet maybe sentiments were at the core of everything. He’d been taught to think vertically, moving ever upward, whereas maybe the most productive connections were horizontal, with peers. He’d been taught that intelligence was the most important trait. There weren’t even words for the traits that matter most—having a sense of the contours of reality, being aware of how things flow, having the ability to read situations the way a master seaman reads the rhythm of the ocean. Harold concluded that it might be time for a revolution in his own consciousness—time to take the proto-conversations that had been shoved to the periphery of life and put them back in the center. Maybe it was time to use this science to cultivate an entirely different viewpoint.

Another brilliant article from the indispensible untouchable David Brooks.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Yiddish wit

No one sees the hump on his own back and more Yiddish wit and aphorism in this delightful illustrated compendium for bubbie, zaida and the whole family.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A New Year poem

A pleasant surprise to receive this poem in my email inbox on New Year's day from the Saskatchewan Book Award winning poet Dave Margoshes. I think it properly captures the held-breath sobriety of the day; our aims, the goals we set for the New Year, and the feelings of hopefulness mixed with uncertainty at that moment when the midnight clock's hand is about to strike.

A stopped clock

The spiraling ball hovers in the plangent air,

a bullet misdirected. It could go either way,

straight to its true mark, or as far wide

as all the error we are capable of, all

the weight of our hopes skewing its course.

Win or lose is beyond the point, each winner

harbouring a loss within, each loser right

at least once. Tomorrow country, they call it

tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

all our tomorrows spiraling just out of reach,

a ball sinking at last to a confounding certainty.

- Dave Margoshes, copyright 2010

Wishing us all brighter tomorrows