November 10th, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews the Giller Prize show

I have not watched an awards ceremony on tv since…whenever the first time Steve Martin hosted the Oscars (ah, 2001! thanks, wikipedia). I thought it would be fun because I like Steve Martin, but I hadn’t seen any of the films, got bored almost immediately and gave up. As a child, I liked watching the Tonys, but only for the musical numbers.

Historically, I’ve taken little interest in the Giller Prize, for similar reasons—I had rarely read any of the books, no musical numbers, not even Steve Martin. But this year a number of authors I admire—and books I love—appeared on the list, and it suddenly had something to do with me.

I have to say, good as the nominees are, I have not found following the Giller run-up especially rewarding. I liked seeing This Cake Is For the Party flash randomly on the tv while I ran on the treadmill at my gym, and Steven Beattie’s five reviews are always interesting, but the Giller pledge? A seemingly drunken conversation in the Globe about how everyone under 40 is an idiot? I think a lot of stuff went on on tv, which I don’t have except randomly at the gym, which might have been more entertaining.

But I did want to watch the ceremony, so Mark (cableless) found us a home containing the three necessary elements—a functioning tv, cable, and a resident who didn’t mind watching the ceremony.

I gotta say, the CTV/Bravo folks (I didn’t know they were the same until this event) worked really hard. The show was exactly one hour, unlike the long rambling Oscars. Of course, it helps that they had only one award to give away. Mark and I briefly fantasized that perhaps there would be equivalents of the Oscars’ sound and lighting awards—stuff for book design and editorial work—but of course there wasn’t. Maybe next year.

The host—a Michael J. Fox-ish news anchor who was very charming but who made such intense constant eye contact with the camera his pupils seemed dialated—kept things moving at a good clip. Each book was introduced by a famous person who I had never seen in the flesh before, so I kept exclaiming “That’s what Anne Murray/Barbara Amiel Black/Jim Cuddy looks like?” The famous folks were non-literary except for one past winner, but all did admirable teleprompted jobs describing plot and character. Then there was a mini-movie about each author, showing them strolling around town with their partners and kids and talking about writing. Intercut with that was interviews with the judges, who described what was awesome about the book.

I’m not sure if I should admit this, but I really liked the personal stuff. Most of it had nothing to do with the books, but it was all very sweet and interesting. One relevant bit I especially liked how David Bergen’s university-student son described how he tried to challenge his dad with his philosophical readings, and that had ended up in the book. Some of it—especially the shots of each writer writing—was lame-o, but on the whole pretty tasteful.

After the little movie, the author was called to the stage. I was confused by this—were they going to give a reading?—but no, they were just given little leatherbound books with the Giller rose on them (what were they?), embraced by the presenter, and sent back to their seats. I guess it was a chance to show off their party cloths (wow, everyone looked good—how does a writer know where to buy and how to wear an evening gown? Does the Giller committee have people to help with that?)

I was surprised that there was so much talk about the books, but no readings. I had thought that’s what the authors were going up there for, or perhaps the presenters would do it, but no. Surely the books are the point of it all, and these talented folks’ actual prose would be much more interesting than the back-flap-chat summaries offered instead. I wonder why no readings…? Especially when so much time was lavished before and after commercials on showing the authors standing against a white screen, answering weird questions very badly. Almost all the clips involved them saying the questions were hard or impossible to answer, and that’s what was kept *in*. I wonder what they cut??

In truth, it wasn’t a very literary evening, even though the host kept exhorting viewers—with increasing anxiety, I felt—to read the books. It was really a sales-y style they used, mentioning the Giller effect and actually showing percentages of how much sales of past winners had increased with the win. I’m not sure what the point of that was, but if I was Linden McIntyre, I’d resent being called Mr. 710%, as he was last night. Isn’t it “The books sold so much because they’re awesome” not “The books are awesome because they sold so much”—right?

Those of us in the peanut gallery fell into decidedly non-literary behaviour, exclaiming over people’s clothing and what might be wrong with Barbara Amiel Black’s head (our hostess explained probably Botox). And then Johanna Skibsrud won, which I think was a big surprise to most, but a pleasant one. She was emotional, but still managed to give a good, clear, not-too-long speech. It was really worth the price of admission (well, we paid in Pirate cookies, but even more than that) to see Skibsrud’s sister crying with delight in the audience. That was lovely.

It was a pleasant evening and I’m glad I watched, though I don’t know that I’ll be in a desperate hurry to do so again. The emphasis on promoting Canadian authors in this show was a bit skewed—they’re only promoting five books. And the Giller pledge doesn’t make much sense and offends me in a way I can’t quite put a finger on—why do we have to promise? Can’t we put the books down if we get bored? And yes, I do think everyone should buy lots of Canadian books to keep our publishing industry going, but there was so much sales talk on this show, completely ignoring how much many people depend on the libraries systems, borrowing from friends, etc., and how that’s pretty good for the industry in its own way.

But then again, I don’t even know how to put on an evening dress, so I can’t really say.

September 4th, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews *Ysabel* by Guy Gavriel Kay

My review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel must be somewhat lacking in context, as I know it is one of hundreds of books in a genre of which I’ve read, in last 15 years, pretty much zilch. It’s the tale of a teenager, disregarded and pushed around by the adult world, who discovers amazing powers within himself and is able to step in and stop a wrong that e no one else could even fathom. You see–popular story-style.

When one is starting to read in new territory, it is wise to start with the best–so that even if the material is not particularly attractive, the talent of the writer and the intricacy of the structure can help suck you in. Which is why Scott wanted me to read something by Kay, one of Canada’s greatest and most vivid storytellers, as well as a global bestseller and pretty much the only writer I have ever encountered whose readings draw such crowds that people arrive a couple hours early to ensure they get seats.

There’s a reason–Kay is damn good. My somewhat snippy summary above does not at all encompass the 12-character, fast-moving, action/adventure/historical novel that is *Ysabel*. The book takes place in the south of France, where 15-year-old Ned has been dragged so that his famous photographer father can shoot images for a new coffeetable book on the area. His had is accompanied by three assistants, so Ned has no real role to play other than sulk and do homework.

On the first day of shooting, Ned wanders into an old cathedral where, in short order, he meets a pretty exchange student from New York and a 2600-hundred-year-old gentleman who climbs out of the floor, threatens them with a knife, and later springs from the roof.

Unlike some fantasy books I could mention (and most of the vampire-related ones), *Ysabel* does not simply use history to organize or weight the plot, or to sound cool and deep. The plot is intrinsically rooted in Greek/Celt relations (such as they were) from millenia ago. It seemed that Kay had done an incredible amount of research, but to be honest, if he muffed stuff, I could never have caught him, and I doubt most readers could have. That’s the advantage of choosing an esoteric point in history of course.

But a sensational one–if Kay is to be trusted, even the unimproved history contains bloody sieges, obscure marriage rites, seafaring adventure and midnight rituals. Not to mention skull worship. The events that Kay makes use of are so serious and strange that sometimes the improvements he does make on them–the story that Ned walks into involves a eons-old love triangle, and an elaborate game of hide-and-seek–can seem trivial. But most of the time, the book makes a powerful case for history being still with us, always, and the worst crimes never being truly forgotten.

So the man in the cathedral must fight another for the hand of the beautiful Ysabel, and Ned and his new pretty friend Kate get wrapped up in it–first a little, then a lot. And the interesting thing is, then Ned’s dad does too. And his dad’s assistants. Ned’s mom, his aunt and uncle round out the cast.

Since the Brothers Grimm, books have featured plucky young heroes whose parents were either dead or dastardly, and who thus had to fight their battles all all all alone. I have long maintained that there is nothing Freudian in this; it is simply easier to right an adventure story about one or two rather than about a family (try it!) It is really nice to see Ned scrambling along alone and then–in honest 15-year-old fashion–having to turn to his folks for certain kinds of support. *Ysabel* is at times very sweet, but almost never sappy.

All the characters were well-drawn, if not particularly nuanced. Most were strong, conflicted, kind, smart, and frightened, although perhaps each in a slightly different order. There was a long backstory related to Ned’s mom and his aunt which is rather overdramatic and does not have a satisfying resolution, but the more quotidian interactions of the family are natural and smooth–everyone’s pretty panicked by the violence and craziness (supernatural wolves keep attacking) but someone’s always hollering after Ned to bring his cellphone and wear a hoodie. The acknowledgements mention that Kay is a dad of young men perhaps slightly older than Ned, which would explain why his insights, while not exactly profound, are so accurate.

Sometimes I get so caught up in my short-story universe that I forget how other forms work. A 400-page fantasy novel is about as far from short-story as you can get; characters read aloud from historical wall plaques in this book, not just once but several times. They also read from guidebooks, websites, and the occasional poem. And it’s weird to get massive chunks of exposition like this, yes, but honestly, it seemed to work well enough. I guess it is a question of pacing–if you are going into 1000s of years of character backstory, countless wars and sieges,  3/4 of a page on a google search seems about right.

It also helps that Kay’s prose is crystal clear. It’s brilliant in the sense of being invisible–the words just exist to bring you the images. *Ysabel* was the most movie-like book I’ve read in a while. Even sitting beside the massive hardcover, I still feel like I watched it more than read it. And the best way to see the clean *serviceableness* (that’s a compliment, actually) of the prose is to open a page at random. Read/see:

“Ned got back in and slid the door shut. Greg looked back at him for a second, then put the car in gear and started forward again.

“They passed through that closed-in arid canyon in silence, came out of shadow into springtime fields and vineyards and sunlight again. Moments later they saw the Roman arch and a tower on the left side of the road…”

The ending is very very exciting–involving the characters racing up a mountain at dusk towards the site of an ancient murder of 200 000 souls, a crime still present for Ned because of his nascent gift for a kind of second sight. Reeling from the proxy pain, Ned struggles to save a life and (what, I’m not wrecking anything, it’s that kind of book) succeeds. The bittersweet way his victory plays out is touching and my eyes actually watered a bit (it’s been a tough week, though; Kay can’t take entire credit for that).

There is some weirdness going on with the male-female relations in this book, I can’t not mention that. The Ned-Kate relationship is actually pretty natural, quirky and chaste, but quite believeable. There are a couple of really inappropriate sexual jokes from one of the adult characters though. These came early in the book and then went away, so I took it as Kay’s soon-abandoned attempt to be edgy, but the theme comes back right at the end. Way to take the edge off a nice moment, Mr. Author.

More innocuously, there is a way-too-long scene of men-are-idiots-women-are-smart banter that made me insane. I hate those sorts of “women rule the world by telling men where their socks are” jokes: you got so much respect for women, find your own damn socks. And while you’re at it, evaluate on a woman-by-woman basis, instead of a blanket statement. But this is my own personal bugaboo more than anything; the scene is not all that long.

I have not at all really delved into the intricacies of the plot because, well, it’s really intricate. And Kay explains it really well, but I don’t think I could. This book is a fast fast read–you don’t feel at all hard-done-by (there are too many hyphens in this post) reading 400 pages, though it’s a bit much to lug around the hardcover.

Oh, and another cool thing? The main characters are all from Montreal, so while in France, everyone’s speaking French. Neat-o.

Ok, that’s it.

July 1st, 2010

Literary Pilgrimage

I think I might have written about visiting the house that inspired Anne of Green Gables in December, but that was all snow-covered and non-functional for the winter (though still splendid). In summertime, you can tour the house, which was actually originally just the house of some people LM Montgomery knew, that she transformed in her imagination to be the Cuthbert farm. But the descendents of that family donated the house to be an Anne sanctuary, and it has been redone as LM imagined it. And whoever did the decor did a pretty good job of making it coincide with how I pictured it during my approximately 20 readings of the original book. I thought Anne’s bedroom particularly accurate.

Anne's room at Green Gables.

Anne's room at Green Gables.

But other spots were less so, and those I just admired but then dismissed. Seeing the house was really cool and interesting from a historical perspective, but as literature, the book remains separate for me. What happens between a reader and the page builds a world, and I found I really couldn’t add anything from some other world (even if it is the “real” one) into the one LM and I created as I read (and reread). I had a lovely time and would be curious to make other literary pilgrimages, but I think curiosity is the total of my feelings on these. Which is an interesting discovery, really.

I might feel differently if the book were nonfiction…if I read any nonfiction.

March 14th, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews *Nikolski* by Nicolas Dickner

I finished a day late (what’s up with that lately?) but I was still able to be really pleased that Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner won Canada Reads. Even though I don’t really know the radio flavour of the debates or what caused the book to rise to the top for that particular group, I enjoyed it immensely and am glad the book will have a wider audience (and another little decal to put on its cover, along with the GG one) thanks to this.

I am glad the book chosen as our national read is such unabashed fun–full of puzzles and confusion and fanciful adventure, and, especially, language that is an electric delight. I often feel a bit of frustration when reading translations, the sneaking suspicion that however good the English version is, it’s a bit…muffled…compared to the original. Nikolski suffered not a bit from that cottony translation-y feel, so a considerable debt is owed to Lazer Lederhendler (what a great name!) for making this translation so crisp and snappy. Read or, really, listen and watch:

“In a few seconds, she will be pinned face down on the asphalt, a knee pressed into her back, and duly handcuffed.

“She swings around 90 degrees and bolts toward the wire lattice. A Frost fense. Good–she knows how this thing works. She grabs the steel mesh and scrambles up as fast as she can. Too late. A pair of hands are clutching the cuffs of her jeans and pulling her down toward solid ground. She tightens her grip and kicks out blindly. The young, aggressive guard holws with pain and lets go.

“Suddenly released from his grasp, Joyce describes an elegant arc over the grid. Sailing head down through the air, she wonders how this is all going to end.”

Isn’t that perfectly lovely?

From what I hear of Canada Reads, we should count ourselves lucky not to have gotten a medicinal winner that bears its Canadianness like a prescription for better nationalism. Nikolski’s set all over the country (except British Columbia, which some of the characters are afraid of), and is gleeful in the place names, the little local details, the histories and topographies, and especially the maps. I could have done with a few fewer descriptions of maps, but Dickner seemed to be enjoying himself so much, so what the heck–it was interesting enough. The cartography theme, the bibliomania theme, the garbage theme, the fish theme–all seem to concentrate on history, signs left behind (ok, except the fish–the fish are just neat). It’s a book that’s thrilled about being a book, that’s thrilled about other books, full of characters who read with joy and enthusiasm. Delightful.

Language, theme, now for the tricky part–what is this book about? Well, there are three central characters, although it’s really hard to tell that for a long time–we get histories and ancestries of half a dozen others who them don’t reappear. In this, as well is in the formally effervescent language, the emphasis on family trees, and wildly implausible coincidence plausibly brought off, Dickner owes a considerable debt to Marquez (oh, go to the link just to see the photo–have you ever seen a sweeter author photo?)

Ok, wait, not influences, plot–what is the book *about*? I, um, don’t know. The three characters, Noah and Joyce in the third person, and an unnamed bookstore clerk in the first, are vaguely connected through a book (Noah and the clerk), family relationships (Noah and Joyce), proximity (all live in the same neighbourhood) and friends (Noah and Joyce). The most seemingly important relationships go unrecognized, though, and mainly the novel is three separate stories with minimal intersection.

Which is kind of awesome–characters move in and out of each other’s lives with minimal fanfare, coincidences are known mainly to the narrator not the characters, and life changes happen in a breath without anyone getting too excited. And what’s amazing is that this book has *no* closure–I actually literally did that thing where you turn the last page over thinking the story is still going, only to get the Acknowledgements. So you flip back, thinking two pages stuck together and then you realize–that’s it. Some lives went on in front of us for a while and they were interesting, and now they will probably continue to go on and be interesting, but not in front of us anymore. We had our share.

If you hate books like that, wait, don’t run away–you could think about it differently. If you just read the book as Noah’s story, it coheres a lot better as a forward-moving narrative (albeit with a lot of digressions). Noah is by far the most fleshed out character–he has loves and longings and career anxiety. His academic career–studying indigeneous prehistory through archeology, introduces my favourite character, Thomas Saint-Laurent, his supervisor. Saint-Laurent is actually an archeologist of trash–he ends the book protesting the destruction of a dump–and is good goofy fun (although why does no one ever point out that all archeology deals with trash, ie., remains and debris??) Noah’s adventures take over more and more of the book, and are pretty fascinating, especially since Noah is such a sweetly baffled, slightly adrift character.

Joyce starts out vibrant and vivid but by halfway through the book she’s figured out her career path and then she just apparently…keeps doing it. We don’t hear much about her for ages, and never about her ever having a personal interaction with a single soul until very near the end, and then it’s only an emergency favour. I do have to quibble with the way women are treated in this book–of five female characters, one is dead as the book begins, three disappear by book’s end, and the other one is enigmatic Joyce. Which is, perhaps, just the way it is sometimes, but none of the female characters besides Joyce ever seems to have a rational explanation for anything she does–certainly, none are offered–and Joyce’s choices all dead-end eventually. These women serve more as the conditions under which male characters must cope, rather than characters in themselves, which, you know, bugs me. Joyce doesn’t fit that mold, being rather a very cool character who wizens away as the story progresses.

That said, I really didn’t do things like tally up female versus male plot action while I was reading–I was quite happily swept away by Niokski, and looking back on said sweeping, I think *Nikolski* deserved the complete attention I gave it. This book is big, weird, ambitious, hilarious, true, and magical–and the fact that it was written by a Canadian about Canada, and was voted for by Canadians, makes me proud to be one, too.


December 4th, 2009

Canada Reads Report

I don’t know a lot about…stuf that happens…unless that stuff a) happened in my living room or b) someone came to my living room (or invited me to theirs) to tell me about it. This is not helped by the fact that I can’t really listen to talking on the radio. Here’s my terrible secret: I have a hard time listening to a voice without looking at its source. Great for being an attentive conversationalist, lousy for radio listening. Music, no problem, and inane chatter I can maybe drift in and out of as I mop the floor, but to listen to a newsreport, an audio book, or a dialogue about books, I would pretty much have to sit down and look at the radio, or at least close my eyes.

So I don’t, which is why I used to always miss everything about Canada Reads: things that happened on the radio and involved talking were not for me. But then some of my favourite blogs started covering it, and last year I (felt I) had a really good sense of the process despite never listening to the actual show.

This year, however, no one is all that excited about the list, so I think my sense of the process is about to go away again. But I can’t help but be excited that one of my favourite books of all time, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, is on the list. I know it’s no longer as cutting edge as it was when it was first published, 18 years ago, I know a lot of people have already read it–but in my mind, good books don’t get old, and they don’t get used up.

Do they?

I am one of the youngest members of Generation X (1961-1981, according to Wikipedia) so maybe I don’t exactly relate as those more embedded in it do. But I think even those who came before 1961 or after 1981 can relate to loneliness, career disorientation, the wish for less, and the feeling that stories and friends can save your life. That last bit is pretty much my philosophy of life.

It’s true I read this book really young, and it is possible that I imprinted on it as a baby goose does on its mother, or sometimes a human or a feed trough. I read the review in Sassy Magazine (that literary bastian) and it impressed me enough that I recognized the book later that year when my parents said I could have a book from Barnes and Noble on our trip to Manhattan (that was before B&N was a commonplace thing). I actually got two, that and Trainspotting (a book I consider even less of a “novel” than GenX). Both books have stuck with me through countless rereads, but I admit that I did start with them during an impressionable period in my life.

But my last read of *GenX* was only a couple years ago, and for a grad school class, and it was still as funny and wistful and lovely as I remember. And looking at the structure with a more grad-school critical eye maybe even made me appreciate it more. I love the tales that form the much of the “novel” that is *GenX*. This year’s Canada Reads list has no short story collection on it, but the nested narratives of Coupland’s book come pretty close, and I love that formal envelope-pushing.

I’ve heard this a time or two, but surely people don’t really think the book is shallow, do they? Perhaps it is confusion akin to those around Calvin and Hobbes’s mystification over colour photos of a black-and-white world–*Gen X* is a deep searching warm and funny novel about a shallow world–I mean, the liposuction fat and trinitite and stuffed chickens are just…detritus.

Aren’t they?

Maybe I’d better watch the radio show.


July 17th, 2009

Oh, look!

I don’t usually link to blogs that haven’t been going for a while, in case they don’t continue, but I’m too excited to wait to tell you that The New Quarterly has a blog now, The Literary Type. And really, I have no doubt that TLT will thrive with all the good energy and talent that lives at TNQ behind it, and with their wonderous managing editor Rosalynn Tyo at the helm.


The flower said it wished it was a bee

March 26th, 2009

For the love of little magazines

I tend to stay away from anything remotely political in public forums, not because I am not opinionated but because I am so pathetically ill-informed that I can almost always be counted on to have it all wrong. Already today I’ve been baffled and upset about Gaza and the seal hunt, and it’s not even tea-time yet.

But just in case anyone misinterpreted my blog-silence on the manner of the proposed funding cuts to small-circulation periodicals in Canada–including the lovely “little” mags that constitute so much of my reading–I am opposed. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t possibly have that much wrong.

For further wisdom, read John Barton’s piece on the Globe’s website. Mr. Barton, editor of the Malahat Review has been working amazingly hard to protest these cuts, and he expresses better than I ever could exactly what would be lost if our little mags disappeared:

“These magazines provide an essential service to the nation as incubators of creative innovation….

“To quote Phyllis Webb from her aptly titled poem Pain, little magazines “throw a bridge of value to belief.” Who can say which unsung contributor will some day be the toast of the world? An editor’s job is to support writers by giving them a chance.”

We can only laugh at these regrets

March 10th, 2009

On We Struggle

By 7:15 today, I had showered, brewed tea, broken a ceiling lamp (I think it really broke itself; normal on-turning shouldn’t result in it shorting out like that) and written two letters. By 8, I had read two short stories, gotten dressed, and decided that the skirt I’d chosen didn’t really go with my sweater. When I tried to take it off, I discovered that I’d done up the hook and eye wrong (again, I’m thinking not really my fault–who know you could go wrong with those?) and *couldn’t* get the skirt off. This was the point at which I considered going back to bed, but five extremely despondent minutes later, I was able to change skirts (I still don’t know what went wrong). Keep in mind that neither skirt was the right answer to most questions fashion could ask: the one I had on was made of sweat-wicking technical fabric and slightly too big (but not big enough to slide over my hips or shoulders while fastened, we learn), and the one I wanted to wear is extremely elderly with the pockets completely torn out, so that things placed in them reappear immediately on the floor.

By 8:30, I was dressed and out the door, downstairs filling out the repair-request for my broken ceiling lamp. When it was done, I went over to the super’s mail slot and inserted…the two letters I’d written! I looked down at my repair request, still in my hand, and was sad, but put that in too; why not? Then it seemed like a good time to spend a few minutes staring at the wall, thinking about my retirement villa on the moon. Will I be allowed to have pets, I wondered. A kitten seems like such a good companion for the elderly. But how do felines react to zero-gravity?

Finally my super arrived, and I told him my sad story, at which he nodded unhappily, because he does not understand English. He has never admitted this to me, and he appears to read and speak it fine, so I keep talking to him and he keeps nodding. Aural English is tough to master, I know. Finally he opened his door and I pointed to his mail basket. He pulled out my repair slip and stamped and addressed letters and I said, “Ah, those are mine,” and we both regarded them thoughtfully for a while. Then I very gingerly took them out of his hand and said, “Thank you! I’m so sorry!” He smiled a little, and then broke into a grin when I said, “Goodbye!”

I still think today could recover and be a good day, but it will take some focus. Think about how people are really pulling together over the proposed funding cuts for literary journals and other mags with smaller circulation. Think about weather in positive degrees. Think about kittens.

And if all else fails, there’s always poets.

Now everybody kiss

January 2nd, 2009

I win!

Yes! I have read The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories in its entirety: all the introductory materials, biographical and copyright notes, and every word of every story. Ask me anything; I’m full to bursting with Canadian short stories!

My relationship with this book is *intense*–I read it pretty steadily, if not quickly, for over a month, sprawling by a day into a second calendar year. The relationship is pretty physical, too; since my reading is done in myriad locales and often in transit, I’ve been carrying this book on my person quite a bit. Once it’s on you, you don’t forget about the PBCSS, for though the kitchen scale says it weights only two pounds, I suspect strongly that my kitchen scale is broken and it weighs six or seven.

Oh, it’s been epic, the affair of PBCSS and I: I ordered the first copy from the library, got curry on the pages, took it on a Via train, a Greyhound bus, several Go trains and busses, and more TTC subways, streetcards and busses than you can imagine. Then the library recalled the book, I ordered a new copy, got chocolate on the pages, got back on the trains and busses. To impress a writer I admire, I carried the anthology (and many other things) down 22 flights of stairs and across town. I read it in a bar, in bed and at my desk; I told everyone I was reading it (and no one cared). I used it to flatten wrinkles when I was to lazy to iron, to start a conversation and to end one.

And now I win, because I’ve read it all and I can STOP CARRYING IT AROUND.

Actually, I won by reading. I have no regrets–the PBCSS is not pure pleasure, but the vast majority of the stories contained therein *are* pleasures, and I really enjoyed reading them, even when my wrists were throbbing from holding the damn thing upright.

It’s not that I disagree with my comrades at the Salon des Refuses: it is deeply dismaying that so many brilliant story artists have been left out of the collection, and that they are so many of them stylistic innovators speaks of unhelpful blinkering. It was in fact only my reading of the Salon issues of *The New Quarterly* and *Canadian Notes and Queries* that made me want to read the PBCSS. Reading 20 brilliant and wildly different stories back to back, with appreciations and background notes was such a joyful education that I thought maybe I should think more about anthologies (which I hadn’t really thought about at all outside of school).

I read (I think) everything that was published about the Salon, almost always agreed with the agitators without anything interesting to add, got interviewed more than once without anything interesting to say (someday those tapes will surface), and finally I read the damn PBCSS. When I did, I was thrilled by the stories, but my feelings were truly hurt, and hurt on behalf of my heroes and mentors in the world of short stories, by some of the editorial comments. That this anthology was trying to “open up and make more interesting the definition of the short story” by calling memoir and novel fragments into the fold, rather than by paying homage to the artistry and innovation of people were actually working in the form made my hair puff up. But that’s already been discussed, many times in many places.

I did come up with some criticisms of my own that no one else mentioned, maybe because they are not interesting. Nevertheless, I’ll share them:
–who decided not to date the stories? and to put the bio notes at the end, in story order, *separate from* the copyright notes, which are then in alphabetical order? Call me crazy, but I care who the people are wrote these stories, when and where they were writing, and at what point in their careers these pieces were published! The bio notes also seemed not to have been proofread (the main text of the book was fine)–a weird oversight–there were actually a couple lines missing at the bottom of pages.
–why is there more than one piece by several authors? no explanation is offered, and while with Alice Munro none is needed, the others are…really random.
–how, I wonder, do Munro, Mavis Gallant and Merna Summers feel about being the only three of our “literary mothers and fathers” in the book’s last section who aren’t dead?
–alarming that the anthologist would suggest that short story writers are “singing in pure voice simply because they feel there is a need for music, a need for song.” You show me a writer of *anything* who doesn’t feel he or she has something to say, and I’ll show you someone who should get out of the business.
–Only *one* section of the book is introduced as containing stories that leave readers with “[o]ur view of the world altered, darkened or enlarged; certain faiths have been strengthened, others have been shaken loose…[and feeling that] something else, equally arresting and believable, is more than likely going to happen very soon.” What, one wonders, are all the other stories trying to do?

These are, I think, real issues, yet they won’t really matter to the average college English student, book-group member, auto-didact storyphile, who will look at the stories that have been recommended or assigned, read and delight, and then maybe read the next story and delight in that also.

Because, despite some questionable curation and a few duds, the vast majority of these stories are very very good!! Many I’d read before, but it’d been too long and I was thrilled to see “Gypsy Art” and “Joe in the Afterlife” and “The Lonely Goatherd” again, and so very many others. And there were so many to me *new* stories in this collection, “Vision” and “The Friend” and “Catechism.” It was such a joy to go from strength to strength like this, to find the stories lighting each other up. “And the Children Shall Rise”!! “Horses of the Night”!!

The reason, I think, that it’s so shocking that certain stories are included in the PBCSS for reasons of PCness or quirkyness and not quality is that *most* of them *were* chosen for quality, and the juxtoposition is jarring. Adrienne Poy’s “Ring Around October” is tepid, but hardly appalling, until you place it next to Caroline Adderson’s brilliant “And the Children Shall Rise.” Then you see a problem.

Despite its many flaws, despite the fact that I’m upset by some of the suppositions that the editorial notes make, I feel that most of the stories themselves succeed in what should have been the book’s goal: the glorification of innovative, intelligent, artful, heartful, tightly controlled and deeply resonant short story writing in Canada. I’m happy to be a tiny part of that project, and I look forward to the next, better, more comprehensive and respectful anthology that will come next from Canada’s wealth of talent. I hope the bruise on my hip from carrying this one in my bag will have healed by that point.

The starmaker says it’s not so bad

September 8th, 2008

Eden Mills Recap

Yesterday morning, Kerry Clare and I set off for the Eden Mills Writers Festival, to listen to the readings, buy the books, be short-listed for the Eden Mills Literary Contest (KC’s story “Stillborn Friends”) and to read at the Mill (RR’s story “ContEd”). It didn’t start to rain until we were at the rental car place, and it didn’t start to pour until we hit the 401. I’m actually a fine driver (far better than you’d think if you know me socially, I’d say) but the 401 becomes whitewater in a downpour, and I am not that much *better* than fine. At least white-knuckling the highway took my mind off my terror about doing the reading.

But we didn’t die under the wheels of a semi, and instead arrived in the still-pouring downpour, and sloshed into the, you guessed it, outdoor festival venue. By the time I’d signed in, it was pretty close to my cue to read, but there was of course still time to sneak by the Biblioasis tent and see, for the first time ever, my book.

I knew what it looked like, since I spent three years writing the thing and saw every version of it, and the cover mock-ups, the advanced reading copies, etc. I knew it would be there, since Dan (Wells, Biblioasis publisher) had promised to bring copies. It really should’ve been a zero-suspense moment, but, um, it was absolutely thrilling. There was *Once*, out in the world, separate from me and all the people who have been working so hard on it–a big stack, looking pretty much perfect, and ready to be taken away and read. Something about the thought that the book is now fully self-contained, that anyone, strangers can read it if they feel like it, is what really hit me at that moment, I think.

Dan put a copy in my hands and hugged me and a photographer took my picture, and someone asked me to sign a copy, and my mentor Leon Rooke suddenly appeared to congratulate me, and I hugged him, and hugged Kerry, and somehow got out from under my umbrella and got wet…

I think, once in a while, something can be exactly as good as you dreamt it would be.

And then I went down to the Mill, which is a lovely setting to read in. There is a hill facing the water, a natural amphitheatre looking out across a tiny inlet to another spit of land where the stage-tent and microphones were set up. Of course, with the downpour ever increasing, all that surrounding water seemed a bit much, and I was rather alarmed crossing the slick-boarded bridge to the stage. But fellow readers Elspeth Cameron and David Chariandy were spell-binding enough to make me forget all the splashing and chill under my umbrella. Almost more amazing than anything was the fact that people stayed to hear me, the last reader. After 40 minutes in the deluge, when I walked to to the podium, perhaps 50 or 60 soggy people peered at me through the curtain of water, waiting patiently to hear what I had to say.

And I didn’t die under the wheels of a semi! Or fall into the water, or make any egregious stumbles in my reading. It was probably the most audible reading I’ve ever given–I’m getting louder! And…and…I read it out of the actual book! Hooray!

Whew. It was all gleeful after that. Stars of the afternoon included Mariko Tamaki, Paul Quarrington, Shari Lapena, Laurence Hill and, of course, Leon Rooke. Another star: the sun! It came out and was lovely warm for most of the afternoonn. My clothes got dry, even my feet. And we were fed dinner in the community centre, served by adorable children so eager in their work that they would sometimes watch you take the final bite of your salad with their hands on the rim of the plate. Hilarious!

And then, after getting briefly stuck in the mud of the parking area, we drove home. I was very very tired and over-stimulated, a state in which it is my preference to drive 20 kilometres under the speed limit. And it is a testament to Kerry Clare’s truly wonderful spirit that she neither attempted to decapitate me with one of our Eden Mills Mix cds (which would’ve been a tragic loss of both me and music), nor closed her eyes and let me get away with disrupting traffic. And we didn’t die under the wheels of a semi, or even ding the rental car, thanks mainly to Kerry’s gentle guidance, and then we were home.

I am very lucky in my friends, and in many things.

My best friend Leslie said / oh she’s just being Miley

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