August 31st, 2016

Video from Burst at Pages Unbound

Back in May, I did a reading with a group of wonderous folks including Suzanne Alyssa Andrew who so kindly invited and presented me. There is now video evidence online, and despite my horror of ever seeing myself on film, I kind of like it. If you like, you can watch it too. Enjoy!

May 16th, 2016

Noteson Pages Unbound festival and the Festival of Literary Diversity

Last Friday night I read at the lovely lovely Pages Unbound festival, and on Saturday I attended four panel discussions at The Festival of Literary Diversity. Aside from being a pretty festival-centric weekend, all that immersion gave me a little jolt on why literary community–some kinds more than others–are important.

From a self-involved standpoint, after TWO years of editing my book, not being able to publish stories (because they are under contract) and rarely being invited to read anywhere (nothing personal, but I haven’t been asking and most invitations are tied to book promotion), it was very very nice to get up on stage in a fancy theatre at the AGO, in the company of many impressive peers and after being so generously introduced by the wonderful Suzanne Alyssa Andrew. It was nice to be included, and listened to, and applauded for. It was nice to share my stories in a non-editorial context–my editor shows her regard for my work by suggesting ways to make it better, which I deeply appreciate, but sometimes it’s nice when people show regard by clapping, asking questions, or just saying they liked it. Just accepting what I have to offer and engaging where they can. I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to share my work, but now that it’s a bit rare, it’s especially precious.

Which was an interesting frame of mind to be in the next day when I hit the FOLD, a festival devoted to stories and voices that often get pushed off the stage, denied that very attention, engagement, and applause. You can read Kerry Clare’s run-down of the day on her blog (Kerry kindly invited me to go with her and a couple other smart women, and we attended all the same panels, so you can assume I had similar experiences, though not that I had Kerry’s level of insight!).

I actually meant to write a longer post about what I heard at the FOLD and how it made me feel, but I think I’m still digesting or am just overwhelmed by the amount of good and challenging discussion and debate I saw in one speedy Saturday. In any event, I feel privileged for getting to both speak and listen, and the listening was especially beneficial.

January 26th, 2016

Thursday reading (NEW TIME), other nice things

I know, being a writer is supposed to be about writing, and mainly it is–there really isn’t another way, because you just can’t count on the outside world to provide you with ways to feel all writerly without actually doing anything. I know I can count on myself to show up at my desk, and that’s about all I know.

BUT sometimes the random outside world comes through, and then I get to read the fantastic stories Best Canadian Stories, mentioned in the previous post and think, as I read one great piece after another, “Hey, me too, I’m in here too.” And that’s delightful.

Also, this week I finished an incredibly slow read of one my stories in French. A literary translation student chose my story for a project and was kind enough to send it to me when she finished. I’ve been aware of a few other such projects–one student in Mexico was translating a story into Spanish–but for whatever reason they weren’t comfortable sharing the final products. Which is totally fine, but what a gift to see the translation, and in a language I can actually read (very slowly)! I have been so privileged to see my work interpreted by other creative folks in so many interesting ways–a play, a short film, a feature film project that in the end did not work out but was really cool to discuss with the producers. A translation is another way of seeing a creative stranger dance with some of my ideas, and it was a lovely experience.

And finally, I’ll be doing that little reading Thursday night. The time has been MOVED UP–PLEASE TAKE NOTE if you’re coming–it’s doors 6pm, readings 6:30 on Thursday, at the Supermarket at 268 Augusta Street. I’m looking forward to reading to anyone who cares to attend, because that’s fun and maybe they’ll even say something encouraging or challenging to me afterwards, but I know that in the end, all this fun flurry will come to an end and I will have to go back to my desk and right some more. Which is–and has to be–fine too.

January 7th, 2016

A reading!

I know, right–I haven’t done a reading since November 2014–over a year!–and it was starting to seem like I might never do one again. But friend and correspondent Jeff Bursey is coming to town to read from his new novel Mirrors on Which Dust Has Fallen and he kindly invited me, Mark Sampson, and S. D. Chrostowska to join in the fun. We’re all reading together at Supermarket on January 28, doors 7pm, readings 7:15 (I think there’s a band after, is why). Here’s the BlogTO notice for it and here’s the Facebook invite in case you want to respond or see our bios or whatever. If you are free that night, I hope you consider coming out!

Honestly, this event is mainly to celebrate Mirrors but I can’t help but be a little excited to read for an audience again. And the good thing about my long hiatus is that I have a wealth of new material to choose from…whatever shall I read…

October 2nd, 2015

On Order

This past weekend, I went to see my husband participate in a panel on the short story at Kingston Writers’ Fest, alongside Priscila Uppal and Mark Anthony Jarman. It was a fascinating discussion with great readings alongside. In fact, the whole festival (we stayed all weekend and saw a grand total of 7 events) was fab.

But the discussion on order in short-story collections was not long enough for my liking, so I thought I’d extend it here.

So! I care about order in collections. I also care about order in albums, where it is arguably more important. Rare, in our iTunes days, that one track will actually lead into another by blending music from one to another (there was a recent Sloan album that did it, making it mind-bogglingly weird to listen to on shuffle) but usually there’s at least a bit of a gestured segway, even if the track change is marked a moment of silence. You want to carefully plan any dissonance between songss, ditto big tempo changes, keys, moods, etc. It’s not that these sorts of juxtopositions are inherently bad–or good–just that they need to be thought through. Same with stories.

Mavis Gallant said that story collections aren’t for reading straight through–one should read a story, then close the book. Stories are for thinking about, and then after a while, the next day, when you’re done thinking you come back for the next one. But realistically, I think each story primes the reader to read the next one, and it’s nice to put them in an order that’s pleasing, that creates some variety, tension, interest. There is absolutely no reason someone couldn’t eat a peanut-butter sandwich followed by a single oyster followed by a tablespoon of relish, but most of us don’t consider that a meal, or pleasant.

Which is why most short story writers really work hard to structure their collections. This is true even if there are no linkages, even if the stories aren’t taking place in the same “universe” or with the same characters. In fact, my second collection The Big Dream was easier to structure than my first Once, because the stories were linked. They didn’t all move forward in time–there were a bunch that covered the same events from different angles, and a bunch more that it didn’t matter where exactly in time you were situated. But it the stories where time mattered or was obvious, it was easy to order them. In Once, where the stories were unlinked, and had almost no crossover characters, I didn’t have any temporal line to fall back on, so the structure is all about contrasts in tone, subject matter, characters. I didn’t want two really similar stories up against each other, but I also didn’t want say, a really dark ending to precede a silly, goofy story. That’s why “Massacre Day” is the last piece in the collection–I think it’s one of the strongest pieces, but also one of the grimmest–it would be hard for anything to follow it. And it may well require the most thought from the reader, so it’s good that there’s space there to think if you want to.

I’m not saying that I got these choices right, just like I’d never even claim that the stories themselves are awesome–merely that the ordering of the stories was part of my creative process, part of what I chose to present to the reader. A novelist (a thing I am currently attempting to be) decides on structure for novel in approximately the same way, though it’s more complicated. A linearly told novel is very different than one that flashes back and forth in time, and that is clearly a creative decision; the decision to order stories one way or another is too.

So…I like to read stories in the order the author (and editor!) chose for them. A few people at the reading protested the idea that of being “told” to read stories in order, since they preferred to flip through a collection and choose to read whatever jumped out at them. Which is of course fine–and I believe it’s what Alice Munro does, someone who obviously knows what she’s doing regarding short stories. Often stories will be anthologized solo or published in magazines solo, but again an editor is making a choice to insert them in a certain spot, before and after certain other material. I am interested in those choices, in seeing how well they work form as a reader and learning how I might make better ones myself as a writer.

A collections order is not *an* order to the reader–it’s a suggestion, the author and editor’s best suggestion of how the stories might be read. Just like you are not required to look at every piece in a gallery exhibit no matter how carefully curated–there’s still lots of pleasure to be had in alternate viewings. Or in songs on shuffle, or best-of collections. But I am interested in the author’s own intentionality, and willing to be guided by his or her choices most of the time.

August 25th, 2014

RR readings this fall

I haven’t donevery many readings lately, but I’m doing a couple this fall if you’re feeling you’d like to see me read. Actually, both of these are the result of me tagging along on stuff far cooller than I…like…

September 24, Biblioasis 10th Birthday Biblioasis, amazing home of amazing literature (and publisher my first two books) is turning 10, and invited 10 authors to help them celebrate at the International Festival of Authors. I’m so honoured to be one, but much more excited to hear the others read–this is a great list. If you’re in Toronto, please join us (and if you’re not, worry not, there are other birthday activities in other cities coming up!)

November 16, Plasticine Poetry Reading series Yes, they’re going to let me read at a poetry series–amazing! But even better, the star of the evening will be my husband who will be reading from his new book, which is terribly exciting!! Sad Peninsula is onsale September 6 and launching September 30, with lots of readings throughout the fall. I am very pleased to be a part of this one.

February 4th, 2014

Sometimes I do things

I wouldn’t want you guys to think I’d given up the literary lifestyle just because I rarely blog about it (or anything) these days. I do still take an interest in books, writing, and words–for the record…

February 15, 6-8:30, at The Old Nick at 123 Danforth (at Broadview), my friend Ron Schafrick will be launching his new book The Interpreters. He’ll be reading and signing, but I’ll be one of the opening acts (along with Mark Sampson. Come check it out!

My short story, Marriage, which was published in The New Quarterly last fall, was chosen for inclusion in Best Canadian Stories 2013, which will be out next fall. Very delighted!

The playwright/director/theatre guy Colin B Anthes has adapted some of the stories from Once in a live theatre performance that is going to be staged April 26 and 27 in St. Catharines. As I may have already mentioned in this space, I am SO excited about this and will definitely be there on the premiere weekend. If you live in the region or would be able to get there on those dates, please try to come. I will have more info as the situation develops, but just wanted to mention it due to the aforementioned excitement!

And I’m doing lots of other, non-literary stuff, like preparing to cast-off (at last!!) my blue knitting square; spending a lot of time failing to train my cat to do any tricks but for some reason he still really adores the process and *purrs* (very rare for him) while we’re training; visiting a bunch of babies. Oh, and one more literary thing, reading the best book ever (thanks for the recommendation, Kerry Clare!

December 11th, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews *The Pickup Artist* by Terry Bisson

Yep, I’m still working my way through my “to be read” list for 2012. The Pickup Artist by Terry Bisson is number 14 of a very confused and long-suffering 15.

Near as I can figure from his baffling website and much clearer Wikipedia page, Bisson is a well-respected American sci-fi writer with many serious, vaguely political novels to his credit. I researched this only briefly, but it sounds about right because *The Pickup Artist* read like the sort of cool-idea light-hearted adventure that serious author writes as a fun exercise and/or a wink at his fans. I found it a one-note, dull slog, but I’m not a fan (or a person who had heard of this author outside of this book) so I guess that’s why.

What is this book doing in my home, you ask? I have a theory about that. I had surgery in 2007 and it put me out of commission for a good while. Knowing this was coming, a few kind folks gave me books to read during recuperation. Some close friends gave me lovely things, but some people, just sort of generally wanting to be kind, seemed to give me books at random. I ended up with some really odd stuff, but it didn’t matter because I was both in a lot of pain and on a lot of pain medication (you’d think those two would cancel each other out, but no) and thus unable to pursue anything more intellectually rigorous than episodes of *Friends*, of which I watched many. I’ve been working my way through the books very slowly ever since I went off the codeine.

Which all just to explain what I was doing with a book in my house that contained none of the things I like about books. *The Pickup Artist* is about life on earth an indeterminate number of years in the future. The future is hazily imagined except one thing that is explained at GREAT length throughout the book–at some point, the world could not tolerate the backlog of artistic creation. New artists could not gain attention when there was so much old, excellent art lurking around for people to enjoy: how could you enjoy some new poet if you were constantly distracted by the Modernist canon? It’s the sort of logical-conclusion conversation people have late at night, and it’s interesting enough as a concept.

There’s one or two other interesting ideas–a cloning experiment gone wrong, a listening bug that convinces the target to keep it close with sexual gratification–but this book never gets past the level of the late-night ramble. The protagonist has almost no personality and certainly no backstory–apparently he was just a rule-follower who lived with his mother and dog and NEVER KNEW ANY OTHER PEOPLE. When he teams up Hank, a big-breasted librarian, it seems like things might take off, but even though they set off on a madcap roadtrip through middle America, Hank spends most of the rest of the book in sullen silence and we never learn much about her, other than that she has been pregnant for 8 years (don’t ask). She is the least interesting character in the world but she wears a mood sweatshirt that Bisson references almost every single time he mentions her. Apparently, if we know her mood, we don’t need to know anything else about her as a person.

The personal level of this book is non-existent. It’s all about the extrapolation of that one cool idea about the canon-purge. We get alternating chapters of “historical” (history in terms of the present-tense of the book, but still future from 2013) descriptions of how the laws came to be in place to delete certain works of literature, music, and visual art. Those historical chapters are shorter than the “plot” chapters, but they are crazy dull. There’s a twist at the end involving some of the historical characters and though I remembered who they were all too well, I did not care one ┬áiota.

Blech. There’s a tiny bit about the protagonist wishing he knew his absent father, but this is merely repeated, never expanded or explored. You don’t find out what happens to anyone at the end, which didn’t matter except I kinda wanted the zombie dog to make it. No one develops or learns anything, they just go places very slowly and repetitiously.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Bisson is a great writer–this book reads like it was written in a weekend, maybe at an airport–he’s probably better when he puts more effort in. But I won’t be doing that because I disliked this book enough to steer clear of this author for a good long while.

Off the shelf fail!

November 1st, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

I reread Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the second in Helen Fielding’s series, to prepare for reading the third, which is just out. The first of these books is a classic, and when I reread it last Christmas it held up just fine. It’s a very Christmassy book, which is why I had it out, but beyond the holiday spirit, beyond the nostalgia for a time in my life when I saw my friends every second day and told them EVERY SINGLE THING, it’s simply a very funny, very charming book. Bridget’s a nitwit, of course, but a sweet one you can root for, and Fielding really makes a very simple girl-nabs-boy-after-lots-of-chaos story work in that first book.

In the second…eh, not so much. BJ #1 is a book that spawned a genre, and it really shouldn’t have–it’s a good book, but simply not deep or complex to support a host of imitators with much variation. The later chicklit was all. the. same. (I haven’t read everything, of course, and Marian Keynes is an exception, though a number of her novels are something other than the chicklit.) Some was a bit funnier than others, some a bit more realistic, some a bit less. But it was all manic and bouncy and reveling in the shallowness of fashion and self-help and dieting without Fielding’s dollop of self-aware irony. And, kinda, so is BJ #2–it’s later chick-lit, and it’s not as good.

Bridget’s still sweetly dopey, of course, but now sometimes she’s such a dope that it’s hard to believe she deserves to see everything work out. Her friends are bitchier and/or dumber in this book, depending on which friend, and sometimes you don’t really believe they’re doing her any favours with all their “support.” The biggest problem, surprisingly, is the absence of a villain. In the first BJ novel, we had Daniel Cleaver, Bridget’s boss, crush, and eventually, terrible boyfriend. He was a jerk, but a hilarious sardonic jerk and I loved reading about him even as I hated him (and Hugh Grant’s performance as Daniel is the best part of the film version, in my opinion, especially when he falls out of the boat).

There is no such delightful jerk in this novel. Bridget’s boyfriend is actually the dreamboat Mark Darcy, who is always right and super-sweet and thus a fairly dull foil for Bridget. He does have some nice moments–not being able to find the fridge in his own kitchen is sweet–but mainly Mark is banished from the narrative. Either Bridget or Fielding isn’t able to cope with the idea of a functioning adult relationship, so entangles Mark a barely funny series of misunderstandings and then they break up.

I do not accept Tolstoy’s premise of happiness being dull, and I think if Fielding had tried harder we could’ve had some fun with a happy couple (my parents have been married 41 years, and they’re hilarious).

Instead, the novel just kind of rambles for a while. When I first started the reread, I wondered why the movie centred so much on the Thailand bit, since that didn’t start up in the book for 200 pages. But, when I got there, I realized that it was because it was the funny bit. Actually, the immediately preceding bit, where Pretentious Jerome is reading essentially gay erotica to the Lifeboat book club, and then Bridget’s dad and Admiral Darcy burst in and begin reciting Rudyard Kipling’s “If” is one of the most sublime bits of comic writing I’ve read in a while. And the book gets better and better from there, ending at a point where you’re once again rooting for Bridget and Mark to hook it up, those crazy kids. But there’s the 200 pages before that that we’re just going to have to not count, because well…meh.

I am SO curious about the third book in the series. I’m also #600 on the library waiting list, so it’ll be a while. I’ll keep you posted.

October 3rd, 2013

Nora Ephron on Reading

I am about halfway through Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad about My Neck, which is largely a funny, silly book about things that don’t matter to me. The food essay was funny, but I don’t think she realizes how rare it is to have both the money and the leisure time to “need” twice weekly trips to the salon. But then, I’m about 20 years younger and a few hundred thou poorer than the target audience for this book, I imagine, so I’m trying to appreciate it for what it is, which is an extremely well-written book. And in passages like this, you see why:

“When I pass a bookshelf, I like to pick out a book from it and thumb through it. When I see a newspaper on the couch, I like to sit down with it. When the mail arrives, I like to rip it open. Reading is one of the main things I do. Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape: it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”

Just about sums it all up, doesn’t it?

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