Friday, December 31, 2010

I Love Lucy

For Christmas, I bought my six-year-old step-daughter Season 2 of "I Love Lucy." She had previously seen the video below on YouTube. She has a terrific belly laugh, and this video brought it out full force. Lucille Ball and her companions from the 1952 season on DVD have provoked similar results.

As 2010 ends, hooray for Lucy. Hooray for laughter. Hooray for strong women.

Watching this 58-year-old sit-com, one cannot help but reflect on what has changed and what hasn't. The social gender roles are significantly out of date and the "situations" for the comedy reflect that, but what a powerhouse Lucy is. She is set-up perpetually to work herself out of problems. She is set-up perpetually to desire more from her husband ("Give her a chance, Ricky," Fred and Ethel say. "Yeah," Lucy says. "Give me a chance").

Within the confines of her environment, she comes out time and again a winner. My six-year-old's eyes light up, her belly shakes, her toes wiggle. This Lucy, she doesn't take no for an answer. She goes for it. She has a hunky husband who adores her (even as he misunderstands and often marginalizes her). My six-year-old sees that ("I don't like Ricky," she said, immediately, after watching a couple of episodes).

But what she sees more, I think, is Lucy fighting back. With laughter. With zaniness. With unbridled determination.

What I see is, wow, what a great comedienne. I see Chaplin's tramp in her physical comedy. Her range - verbal delivery, timing, expressiveness - is astonishing. The writing on the show is sharp, timeless.

The situation below is from an episode called "Job Switching." The men challenge the women to "make the living," as Ricky says. In turn, the men need to look after the house. Both fail in these tasks, and the episode ends with a return to the status quo. It was the 1950s, after all, and that status quo would change.

That status quo isn't anything to be nostalgic about, but the fact that "I Love Lucy" can rock a six-year-old girl's world in 2010 is curious to me. What are the contemporary equivalents? Miley Cyrus? Dora? Marge Simpson?

Ooops, I did it again. I'm trying to end the year on an up note.

Yay, Lucy!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Little Red Rooster

Apropos of nothing, the link to the Rolling Stones' cover of Willie Dixon's Little Red Rooster on YouTube (the video won't embed).

Earlier tonight, I was listening to a CD of early Stones. Ah, it reminded me of a line in a Mark Anthony Jarman short story (which one?) about how the Stones lost it after 1965. Or something like that.

Even when I was in high school in the 1980s, there were traces (faint, yes!) of discussion about whether the Stones (a) still mattered (b) the point at which they'd lost it. Was it with the death of Brian Jones?

I remember that Jarman line (faintly, yes!) because I remember thinking that Jarman was trying to capture something in his stories that the Stones were trying to capture in their early songs. And it wasn't fame.

What was it? That thing?

(This post goes out to all of those over the holidays who had little ones say to them something along the lines of, "But that happened in the 19th century!" .... And you held back and didn't say, "20th, actually.")

Now an embedded video alleging to be previously unreleased Brian Jones.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Prime Boneheads

I mean, Prime Ministers. Oh, whatever. Looking ahead to 2011 and a potential federal election, here are four book reviews originally published in Quill & Quire that look backward as we look forward.


Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada’s Leaders
by J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer
Bastards & Boneheads: Our Glorious Leaders, Past and Present
by Will Ferguson
(from the November 1999 issue)

Egotists and Autocrats: The Prime Ministers of Canada
by George Bowering
(from the September 1999 issue)

Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Could Be in the 21st Century
by Harvey Schachter, ed.
(from the September 2001 issue)

Repeat after me. Canadian history isn’t boring; Canadian historians are boring. Most of them, anyway. As Will Ferguson amply illustrates in his survey of Canada’s glorious leaders past and present, Bastards & Boneheads, the history of the European invasion of the northern half of this continent has just as much drama, conflict, and intrigue as the self-narrative of those deluded followers of manifest destiny to the south of us. Canada has long been a country in need of a storyteller. And Ferguson is an apt one.

First, however, let’s size up the opposition, represented here by J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer’s expanded top 20 list titled Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada’s Leaders. Granatstein has been making the rounds lately decrying how little Canadian high schoolers know about their nation’s history. He does his cause little service here, however, despite using the Chatelaine-like technique of listing the PMs in order of greatness. If only he had called Chatelaine and asked their advice! Surely a survey of the sex lives of our PMs would have done more to focus the minds of teenagers on the significance of leadership in national affairs (no pun intended).

Whereas the nature of Granatstein’s and Hillmer’s exercise limits them to the country’s leaders from Confederation to the present, Ferguson casts a wider net. His narrative begins with the arrival of the first French colonialists (1604) and includes chapters on glorious leaders like Chief Tecumseh, Lord Durham, Louis Riel, and the suffragettes. Ferguson scores here, since his survey of winners and losers includes not only those sanctioned powerful by Parliament, but those who exercised influence in other jurisdictions.

The decision by Granatstein and Hillmer to focus on parliamentary leadership leads them to interpret Canadian history through the challenges faced by our PMs; mainly, how to govern a large, underpopulated country prone to regional conflicts and struggling to wean itself from one empire (British) while avoiding being sucked up into another (American). This is narrative with interesting but familiar features. For example, it raises the eternal spectre of Canada’s collapse, either from inside or from without. On the one hand, we have the War of 1812 and Free Trade. On the other, Canada’s PMs have done battle with openly separatist movements in Quebec and Nova Scotia and sought means to pacify Western idealists from before Riel to the present day.

Ferguson adopts a less conventional view: “If we are good, if we are very, very good, we [Canadians] may one day become Acadians.” The Acadians (remember them?) were French settlers in Nova Scotia for 100-odd years until most of them were forcibly expelled by British military thugs in 1755. A few remained; many were deported to the then-French colony of Louisiana; some managed to return to the Bay of Fundy area and settle in what is now Canada’s only officially bilingual province, New Brunswick. Ferguson presents the Acadians as victims of history who nonetheless overcame the odds and remained big-hearted and prosperous. They are a model for the rest of us. In Ferguson’s view, if Quebec faced facts it would see it has nurtured a victim narrative out of proportion to the details of the past. If English Canada faced facts, it would see the plan to assimilate the First Nations was a disaster; it took too long for women to get the vote; Canada’s failure to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany was one of the nation’s darkest hours. None of these events figure prominently in the book by Granatstein and Hillmer. They were not priorities of Canada’s PMs, and they are not the priorities of Canada’s leading historians. How boring – and unfortunate.


Egotists and Autocrats: The Prime Ministers of Canada
by George Bowering
(from the September 1999 issue)

Not so many years ago, when Brian Mulroney led this country into yet another of his misbegotten constitutional adventures, The Globe and Mail ran an editorial reminding readers that Canada was a country-in-progress. We all know that Canada was “born” on July 1, 1867, but was it really? Perhaps it started a few years earlier with the merger of Upper and Lower Canada. Perhaps it began on the Plains of Abraham. Perhaps things didn’t really get started until Trudeau brought home the constitution in 1982.

For over 100 years Canada has been asserting its independence, George Bowering tells us in his thorough and amusing survey of our usually illustrious prime ministers. And similar issues come up again and again. Will Canada send troops to fight Imperial wars? Will Canada get its own navy? What about its own flag? Will Canada embrace Free Trade or a home-grown economic policy? Can Ottawa expropriate provincial land so the Americans can test their latest super-duper torpedoes? The questions never cease.

In Bowering’s view, Canada has never been led so much as watched over. Our prime ministers have suffered the thankless task of overseeing a vast underpopulated land ready to be torn apart by regional lunatics or swallowed up by Imperial so-called friends: mainly, Britain and/or the U.S. You can almost see Bowering’s wry smile as he recounts the struggle of various PMs to balance the country’s competing interests. Mulroney didn’t invent East/West conflict, he only perfected it, and he left the country, as Bowering says, with “Laurier’s nightmare.”

It’s a pity that Mulroney will likely never share Bowering’s view of history, wherein the patterns repeat and those who try to “fix” the intersecting gears are quickly ground to dust. With the country now full of me-firsters and other assorted Mulroney-spawn, it’s left for us to hope that Bowering’s book will prove a useful antidote to the poisonous spores that still drift about the land.


Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Could Be in the 21st Century
by Harvey Schachter, ed.
(from the September 2001 issue)

Canadians dissatisfied with the lack of discussion of clear public policy alternatives during last fall’s federal election campaign can rejoice at the arrival of this new resource. In Memos to the Prime Minister, Harvey Schachter has compiled over two dozen messages for our leader from some of Canada’s top businesspeople and thinkers.

The writers fire advice at Mr. Chretien from the left, the right, and numerous points in between, leaving readers to wonder what direction the PM will move in. Perhaps he’ll prefer to sit in the middle weighing his options. Bob Rae begins his memo claiming this quiet approach “would be a great mistake. There is much to be done.”

Schachter asked the contributors to be prescriptive, so it is not surprising that the writers follow Rae in urging the Prime Minister to do more, more, more. Cut more taxes. Increase program spending. Innovate health care by providing individuals with their own “health care dollars” accounts. Innovate health care by focusing on quality management systems. Save the environment through tougher regulations. Save the environment by letting the free market rule.

After reading Memos, readers will no longer wonder where the public policy debate has gone in the country. They are more likely to question why the biggest issue the opposition parties can think to raise in Parliament is the PM’s financial relationship to a hotel beside a golf course.

What’s missing from this collection? Artists and church folk. Groups like the Canadian Council of Bishops and the Mennonite Central Committee make policy recommendations to the government all the time. It is strange that their voices are not heard here. Artists also have points to make. It is sad that their ideas to remain unacknowledged.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian
or the Evening Redness in the West

In the season of joy, peace and consumerism, what can one say about such a book? Hands down, it is the most bloody, most murderous, most haunted with evil book I have ever read.

It is also astonishingly beautiful.

But I don't agree with the cover blurb about "regeneration through violence." I didn't find regeneration in this book. The beauty generally comes from the constrast between the brutality of the actions (constant murder) and the lush descriptions of landscape, which are often harsh, yet they sustain life; they offer alternatives to murder; they offer the argument that meaning can exist outside the context of human discourse. That is, land itself, nature itself, is meaning (though, of course, the book, all books, language is a human medium).

I didn't like the ending, which I'm going to explain next, so last chance to jump out if you don't want to know.

The novel, in quick synopsis, follows a 14-year-old American boy (called "kid") through travails in Mexico in the mid-1800s, where he joins a crew of mercenaries who hunt Indians for their scalps, which they sell. One of the mercenaries is "the judge," who is more than thug; he knows multiple langauges, is deeply read, has many engineering skills, and is generally a Superman (Nietzschean implications intended).

In the book's final pages, the crew has been dispersed. Most all are dead. The kid and the judge alone remain. The kid has opportunities to kill the judge, but he doesn't. They are separated. Years pass. The kid becomes "the man." He meets the judge, who calls to him: "The last of the true. The last of the true. I'd say they're all gone under saving me and thee. Would you not?"

They converse, then the judge says: "I tell you this. As war becomes dishonored and its nobility called into question those honorable men who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance, which is the warrior's right, and thereby will the dance become a false danse and the dancers false dancers. And yet there will be one there who always is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?"

"You ain't nothin," is the reply, and we are very nearly at the end. The judge by this point has already accused the kid of withholding part of his heart from the murderous project, one which all recognized he was good at. A natural born killer. Yet he himself won't admit it. "You're crazy," he says to the judge earlier, though he declines the opportunity to eradicate this evil man. Live and let live, might be his motto, if he weren't such a proficient killer himself. He kills, but not with the purity of evil the judge wants to see in him.

Their final encounter is in an outhouse, and it's ambiguous. Except the judge survives to return to the narrative, dancing and saying he will live forever. The kid/man may be dead (it's unclear) or he may just be gone. The resolution is no resolution. Certainly nothing is regenerated here.

Is the judge the devil? That's an easy, oversimplified interpretation, but is he?

I wondered what others had to say, so I set off across the ... western plain, I mean, the internet ...  and found that the NYTimes reviewer from 1985 didn't like the ending either:

The kid and the judge are our own dead fathers, whom Mr. McCarthy resurrects for us to witness. He distances us not only from the historical past, not only from our cowboy-and-Indian images of it, but also from revisionist theories that make white men the villains and Indians the victims. All men are unremittingly bloodthirsty here, poised at a peak of violence, the ''meridian'' from which their civilization will quickly fall. War is a civilized ritual beyond morality for the judge, but not for Mr. McCarthy, who positions his readers to evaluate the characters' moral and philosophical stances. The kid frequently responds to the judge's grandiose speeches by saying, ''You're crazy'' - a notion so plausible that it effectively undermines the judge's authority.

Mr. McCarthy carefully builds this dialectic only to let us down with a stylistically dazzling but facile conclusion. Years later, in a saloon where a bear dances on stage, the kid encounters the judge, who calls himself a ''true dancer'' of history, one who recognizes ''the sanctity of blood.'' There is a hint that he kills the kid. Last seen as a towering figure on stage, the judge is ''naked, dancing . . . He says that he will never die.'' H E is denied the last word, though. Mr. McCarthy's half-page epilogue presents a man crossing the plain making holes in the ground, blindly followed by other men who search for meaning in this pattern of holes. The judge's enigmatic dance and the long ordeal of the novel's violence demand more than this easy ambiguity. There are, of course, no answers to the life-and-death issues Mr. McCarthy raises, but there are more rigorous, coherent ways to frame the questions.

The ending also get special mention on the book's Wikipedia page:

... the most common interpretation of the novel is that Holden kills the kid in a Fort Griffin, Texas outhouse. The fact that the kid's death is not depicted might be significant. Blood Meridian is a catalog of brutality, depicting, in sometimes explicit detail, all manner of violence, bloodshed, brutality and cruelty. For the dramatic climax to be left undepicted leaves something of a vacuum for the reader: knowing full well the horrors established in the past hundreds of pages, the kid's unstated fate might still be too awful to describe, and too much for the mind to fathom: the sight of the kid's fate leaves several witnesses stunned almost to silence; never in the book does any other character have this response to violence, again underlining the singularity of the kid's fate.

Some other links:
Here's some choice Bloom:

AVC: The violence in Blood Meridian is uncharacteristic. It’s not used as a cheap metaphor or a means of catharsis or transformation.

HB: Oh, no, no. The violence is the book. The Judge is the book, and the Judge is, short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature. The Judge is violence incarnate. The Judge stands for incessant warfare for its own sake.

AVC: So you think that, despite your own initial reaction to it, McCarthy is successful in the way he uses violence in the book?

HB: More than successful. It’s not only the ultimate Western, the book is the ultimate dark dramatization of violence. Again, I don’t see anyone surpassing it in that regard.

AVC: You’ve been extremely critical of the politicization of teaching literature…

HB: Critical, young man, is hardly the word. I stand against it like Jeremiah prophesying in Jerusalem. It has destroyed most of university culture. The teaching of high literature now hardly exists in the United States. The academy is in ruins, and they’ve destroyed themselves.

AVC: Do you have a similar resistance to political readings of literature? For example, do you have a problem with those who have read Blood Meridian as a critique of American imperialism?

HB: I don’t think it’s that at all. I think that’s too simplistic an understanding of McCarthy. When he issued that unforgettable vision of the Apaches advancing into battle against the cutthroat desperadoes who are going to cut them down… Who are, after all, these invincible monsters, and in the end all but the Judge will be dead… I don’t think that the aesthetically minded reader is trying to think of that as a sociological commentary on the degradation of the Apache Nation. It’s a grand picaresque in its own right. I don’t think McCarthy was interested, at least at that point in his career, in moral judgments, any more than Melville was involved in moral judgments or Faulkner was involved in moral judgments—at least until he got soft later on and produced a beastly book like A Fable. The kind of apocalyptic moral judgments made in No Country For Old Men represents, I think, a sort of falling away on McCarthy’s part. Blood Meridian is too grand for that.

Can't say that I always agree with Bloom, but I do here.

Blood Meridian is grand.

E-Books of Wonder

Fast Company has a fascinating slide show on the evolution of the e-book.

I'm e-lusting after an iPad, but willing to wait on edition 2.0. Still, the scroll idea in the slideshow is astonishing.

As ever, I'm curious how the commercially-driven e-innovations can open opportunities for creative communities (aka literature).

Email. Listservs. Online magazines. Blogs. Social media. E-pads.

Been reading Sina Queyras's Unleashed, a book that emerged from a blog. More on that later. I like it. Among other things, it made me wonder about the difference between the e-book and the blog. The book has a couple "broken links." Words that were hyperlinked on the blog, but that sit flat on the page.

Can the e-book be more organized, coherent, focused than a blog - and also enable the sparks of insight from well chosen hyperlinks? (Hyperlinking, to my mind, is just as potentially brilliant today as it was in 1995, nearly the whole point of the interNET, to my mind.)

I've never read an e-book, in actual fact. The Kindle couldn't interest me less. But the iPad, with its rich media and multiple apps ... yummy.


RELATED ... I received the following pitch, which I will share here as it is related to the above speculating....

Dear Michael Bryson:

Celebrated novelist Blanche Howard, 87, has released her new novel Dreaming in a Digital World as an original e-book. ....

We hope you will review Blanche Howard’s new novel on your blog and provide a link to it. We can also arrange an interview with the amazing Blanche Howard.

For a free download, click here; go to the cart to purchase, then open a free Smashwords account and use the coupon code LZ25D. The e-book is also available for $4.99 at Barnes & Noble, Sony, and Apple e-bookstores. But you can offer the free download to your readers until January 15, 2011.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

"Teaching" Canadian Literature

A recent post by Amy Lavender Harris, "Why We're Teaching The Wrong Kind of Canadian Literature," reminded me of a lively discussion that took place on The Danforth Review in early 2003. That discussion was precipitated by a report prepared by The Writer's Trust that concluded:
  • fewer than one-third of high schools in Canada offer students a course on Canadian literature;
  • most students read fewer than six Canadian books during their secondary education;
  • few students can identify 10 Canadian writers;
  • the number of Canadian literature courses has declined over the last few years and will continue to decline, in some provinces;
  • teen literature programs at public libraries receive staggeringly fewer resources than children's programming;
  • there is an attitude within the high school system that Canadian literature is substandard and doesn't merit being taught in schools; and
  • community standards and fear of reprisal has a large impact on the materials teachers choose to use in the classroom.
TDR published a summary of the report, which was prepared by Jean Baird.

Harris's piece was prompted by a G&M opinion article by Susan Swan, who also noted the 2002 survey and quoted Baird: “We may be one of the few countries in the developed world that doesn’t teach our own literature.”

Contrary to the Swan/Baird call for a new national literature teaching strategy, Harris recommends a focus on the local:

For one thing, there isn’t a Canadian literature so much as there are many Canadian literatures. By this I mean something other than the old ‘regionalism’ thesis people haul out in efforts to explain why Manitobans and Maritimers drink different kinds of beer. I mean something far more particular. It seems to me that rather than having everyone in the country poring over the plot of Late Nights on Air or Execution Poems (which would themselves be a vast improvement over Roughing It In The Bush), high school students in Sackville would do better to read David Adams Richards (and Clarke) while Vancouver students could focus more particularly on Douglas Coupland and Susan Musgrave.

What I am arguing is that rather than a national or even a regional education strategy, what we need is a far stronger commitment to engaging with local literature, particularly when it reflects the geographical, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds of students learning about it.

This need not lead to simplistic sociological criticism, as Harris's recent Imagining Toronto eloquently proves.

Literature rewards multiple approaches and perspectives. That ongoing fact that students aren't engaging their local or national literature in any significant way ... means whatever rewards are paid them are slim.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Reading List

On my bedside table I have a stack of books that I'm "reading." As I type this, the books are piled beside the laptop on the dining table. There are 17 of them. I intend here to preemptively comment on each of them.

I often have a stack of books beside my bed that I jump between. It's not unusual for me to be reading a half-dozen books at once. It is, however, unusual for me to have 17 books within arms length.

Northrop Frye (in The Educated Imagination, I believe; a book I read 20 years ago) wrote about how one's experience of a book is affected by the previous books you've read. Books don't exist independent of each other; they are part of a larger universe of storytelling, literature, myth, language codes, whatever you want to call it.

The reading experience, in other words, is deepened by reading books in the context of other books. The order that you read books in makes a difference in how you experience them. My wife doesn't understand how I can read a handful of books at the same time, but I like the cross-contamination. I severely distrust mono cultures. I distrust arguments that don't recognize their own short-comings. I value ambiguity, even contradiction.

In a recent blog post, I wrote some high-level comments about how I preferred the "weird" over the "real." I don't have a powerful sense of what these categories mean. In any case, I don't mean them to be mutually exclusive or water tight. But I was trying to say something that I sense to be "true" about my reading tastes. I am drawn to books that undermine certainties. I have a notion that literature is ideally suited for this. Literature, I think Frye would say, isn't about reality; it's subject isn't the real. Literature is a system of self-referential patterns, an un/stable house of language cards. (Frye was more structuralist than I would prefer to be.)

Anyway, I don't find much structuralist stability in reality and so prefer the self-consciously unstable world of certain kinds of "fictional" books. ("Reality" being the one word Nabokov insisted ought always to be in quotation marks, a quote Carol Shields was fond of.) My recent essay on Shields' short stories can also be read as a defense of the "weird," and a slap against sociological readings of Shields' influence and impact.

But what about the books? Why are they piling up?

The answer is short and simple. My wife has breast cancer. She is half-way through an 18 week chemotherapy treatment. That's why I have so many books beside my bed. I keep buying them, and I want to read them, but I can't read them. My brain is far too consumed with other storylines, projected fears, mind-over-matter positive thoughts. So I am writing this post to engage these books, which I will read, somehow, eventually.
  • Blood Meridian by Cormack McCarthy (Vintage, 1985). I'm on page 267 of this one. I bought it maybe five years ago and started it once, then abandoned it after 10 pages. I have returned to it now and will finish it. Yes, the language is haunting. Yes, the violence is catastrophic. Here's a quotation from page 245: "Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man's mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others."
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Harper Collins, 2010). I've read 20 pages. They made me smile. I was pleased by the complex ironies Franzen employs with great skills. Now I know that Leah McLaren has warned readers that Franzen's novel isn't anything more than "simply droning on about nothing for 567 pages," so I may be in for a grand disappointment. (My mother-in-law didn't like the book either.) Still, even in the first 20 pages, I would dispute (pace McLaren) that Franzen is "faxing it in." McLaren puts down to "sheer laziness" the "artistic trend" that the "great narrative masters of our time" are "confining the scope of both their storytelling and insights to the suburban kitchen sink." Wow. We're a couple of decades past the K-Mart realists of Carver et al, so McLaren is well late to the party; and I just suspect (apropo of nothing) that the satire is lost on many readers who are otherwise keen on consumerism and such. Moving on.
  • How to Read Beauvoir by Stella Sandford (WW Norton, 2006). I picked this up on impulse. Existentialism. When your life is shocked by cancer, you tend to be thrown back on first principles. Why are we here? Who are we? Why go on? This is a slim book, and I've read the first two chapters. One called "Anxiety," the other "Ambiguity." I'm digging it.
  • Sandra Beck by John Lavery (Anansi, 2010). I wish my head was clearer, so I could read this book. I read the first six pages and I remembered why I hold Lavery in such high esteem. I hope to come back and write more about this book later. Needless-to-say, it's not about suburban kitchen sinks.
  • The Rebel by Albert Camus (Vintage, 1956). More existentialism. I haven't read much Camus. I tend to think about existentialism as a series of cliches. But it appeals to me at the moment. Taking a hard look into the void. I've read the introduction, but none of the book so far.
  • Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa by W.P. Kinsella (Oberon, 1980). I picked this up used. The title story was in an anthology I read in high school. I still remember it. Kinsella has faded from public view in recent years. His stories aren't celebrated in Metcalf's "Century List" and tend to be more known now for, um, racially complicated issues than their craft. But I'm curious to read this book with fresh eyes. I'm hoping to be pleased.
  • Flying to America by Donald Bartheme (Counterpoint, 2007). From the master of the absurd, 45 more stories. The uncollected Bartheme. The stories his editors have posthumously gathered. I like what Bartheme stories do to my brain. They send sparks down my spine. Here's a quotation: "Order is not interesting, Perpetua said. Disorder is interesting." Are there insights a post-Vietnam dystopic imagination can teach us in our dystopic 21st century meltdown? Surely to Betsy, yes.
  • The Mountie at Niagara Falls by Salvatore DiFalco (Anvil, 2010). Three? Four dozen stories? In 141 pages? What's up here? Sharp fragments of narrative. Some work better than others. Okay. But the cumulative effect is a rattling, an unsettling. Isn't that what I said I was looking for earlier on (up there).
  • Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod (Biblioasis, 2010). Yes, Alistair MacLeod's kid. But he is known to me as the buddy to my buddy, Harold Hoefle. In fact, HH gets special mention in the credits. This is a beautiful book and by all accounts brilliant, but I'm suspecting it may be more lyrical than my reading tastes are desiring at the moment. As per Frye, the right time needs to find the right book ... or the other way around?
  • Complete Physical by Shane Neilson (Porcupine's Quill, 2010). Poetry by my old Danforth Review colleague, who is also a medical doctor. Neilson has a talent for powerful compression of language. By which I mean, his poetry can be dense and pack a wallop. When writing about poetry, I always feel I lack a proper vocabulary. I don't know what to say about Shane's stuff, except it's uniquely his, and that's the mark of a true craftsman.
  • Unleashed by Sina Queyras (Book Thug, 2009). A book from a blog. I haven't read any of this yet. Needing to find the right time, place, space.
  • People Still Live in Cashtown Corners by Tony Burgess (CZP, 2010) and Ravenna Gets by Tony Burgess (Anvil, 2010). An embarrassment of riches. Two new books by Tony Burgess. Bring on the flesh-eating language viruses and zombies. Crush the suburban kitchen sinks.
  • I Am A Japanese Writer by Dany Laferriere (D&M, 2010). I started reviewing books by DL nearly 20 years ago, then he stopped publishing in English. Now he's back. More, please. More.
  • Imagining Toronto by Amy Lavender Harris (Mansfield, 2010). I have been anticipating this book for a couple of years now. An offshoot, or culmination, or by-product of, or whatever, of the Imagining Toronto website, this book excites me because I am bored to death with the discourse about my home city and I trust what I've seen of Harris's approach to her project. I admire it, frankly.
  • Around the Mountain by Hugh Hood (Porcupine's Quill, 1994). First published in 1967, this cycle of short stories was intended to be sold to tourists during Expo '67. The stories cycle geographically around Montreal's "Mountain." It's a book I've been curious about for some time, and I finally ordered it. Another meditation on time/place.
  • The Complete Novels by Flann O'Brien (Everyman's Library, 2009). Must be what remains of my celtic blood, but I was filled with tickles the first time I dipped into The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds, and the opportunity to have all of O'Brien in one place was too much to pass up. As should be obvious by now from the list above, I do, too, prefer to the weird to the real, and that's a genuine aesthetic choice, I'll argue any time, however "content based" it may be. A self-conscious use of language as a destablizing force is an acknowledgement of complexity ... anxiety and ambiguity ... and whatever else is in the rest of that book on Beauvoir. I'm guessing. It helps ensure each day is as interesting as the last.

Carol Shields

The new issue of Canadian Notes & Queries (CNQ #80) includes my essay “Thinking about gender and narrative: The short stories of Carol Shields.”

Click here for PDF copy.

Check out the magazine, if only for the other contributors. It’s a lovely, newly redesigned mag – frequently stuffed with lively and necessary (and ocassionally ridiculous) content.



The below is the bibliography for the essay, at least the bibliography for an earlier draft of the essay, which rambled hither and yon.

Blake Baily, Cheever: A Life, Knopf, 2009.

Paul Bailey, “Wise funny tales of love stripped bare,” The Independent, August 6, 2004.

Stephen Henighan, “Reshaping of the Canadian Novel,” When Words Deny The World, Porcupine’s Quill, 2002.

Anne Hulbert, “’Collected Stories’: Woman on the Edge,” New York Times, February 6, 2005.

Barbara Kay, “Unreadably Canadian,” National Post, July 15, 2009.

David Willis McCullough, “Itemize This,” New York Times, June 11, 2000.

Carol Shields, “A View from the Edge of the Edge,” Carol Shields and the extra-ordinary, Marta Dvořák and Manina Jones, eds., McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007.

Carol Shields and Blanche Howard, A memoir of friendship: the letters between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard, Viking Canada, 2007.

Carol Shields, Collected Stories, Harper, 2004.

Carol Shields, “Narrative Hunger and the Overflowing Cupboard,” Carol Shields, Narrative Hunger, and the Possibilities of Fiction, Edward Eden and Dee Goertz, eds., University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Carol Shields, interview with READ Magazine (Vol. 1, No. 1), May 2000.

David Thoreen, “Elegance and excess,” Boston Globe, February 20, 2005.

Adriana Trozzi, Carol Shields’ Magic Wand: Turning the Ordinary into the Extraordinary, Bulzoni, 2001.

“What is the best work of American fiction in the last 25 years?” New York Times, May 21, 2006. and online discussion

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Trevor Clark

[First published in Quill & Quire, October 2010]

Love on the Killing Floor
by Trevor Clark
Now or Never Publishing
ISBN: 978-0-97395-588-0

The unnamed narrator of Trevor Clark’s new novel is a white male in his thirties, adrift in Toronto. A professional photographer, he is separated from his wife and living apart from his young daughter. As the novel opens, the narrator is the only passenger on a Scarborough bus in the early hours of a morning in 1992. The bus gets pulled over by police, who are investigating a series of brutal rapes. They question the lone passenger about his recent whereabouts before allowing him to continue his journey.

The early 1990s was the period before Paul Bernardo was identified as the Scarborough Rapist, and the novel’s beginning is a haunting reminder of the crimes. It also sets the novel’s paranoid tone, which is fraught with racial and sexual discomfort. The story follows the narrator as he drinks in bars with long-standing acquaintances, hooks up with women, works at a portrait studio in a mall, and visits his daughter.

The narrator downplays conflicts with friends, his employer, and his ex-wife, while his discomfort with racial minorities is amplified to the point that it becomes his defining feature. His racist impulses are challenged when he meets a beautiful, sexually powerful black woman who introduces him to the city’s non-white bourgeoisie.

The strength of the novel lies in the fact that Clark portrays this coupling credibly and does not provide pat refutations of the narrator’s less savoury traits. By the novel’s conclusion, the narrator has confronted some of his prejudices but remains stubbornly committed to others.

Told in clear, understated prose, Love on the Killing Floor is a rare, sharp work of social realism, providing a vivid portrait of Toronto at a precise moment in time. The novel’s frank exploration of race in contemporary Canada will leave many uncomfortable.

Rudy Wiebe

[First published in Quill & Quire, September 2010]

Rudy Wiebe: Collected Stories, 1955–2010
University of Alberta Press
ISBN: 978-0-88864-540-1

Rudy Wiebe’s reputation is based on his novels and non-fiction, which have focused on Aboriginal themes and his Mennonite heritage. Though he is not widely known as a short story writer, a half-­century’s worth of his efforts in this genre have now been collected in a single volume.

Divided into four sections, the 51 entries in Collected Stories showcase Wiebe’s diverse concerns. The first section, which is the most lively, includes tales of warriors, Chiefs, and the First Nations’ experiences prior to the imposition of restrictions on their land and freedom by the Crown. The other sections include stories on Mennonite history, Western Canada, and more personal character sketches. In one story, a writer discusses poetry with a potential mistress. In another, set in 1980, the voice of long-dead Alberta Premier William Aberhart castigates contemporary citizens of Rose Country for wasting their wealth. There’s even a fictional interview with Wiebe in which the Saskatchewan-born writer claims to be English.

Aesthetic critics (notably John Metcalf) have long claimed that Wiebe’s fiction betrays a wooden ear and strained earnestness, and these stories show that this claim has a certain validity. Wiebe’s parents spoke Low German, which has no word for “fiction”; the only categories for stories were “truth” and “lies.” One cannot help but notice how much of his fiction is based in fact, and wonder if the Mennonite binary view of literature hasn’t remained foundational. Elsewhere, Goethe’s German Romanticism is clearly a dominant influence, one that aligns with an interest in pre-contact Aboriginal cultures and a clearly evident sensitivity to the marginal, the weak, and the natural world.

Wiebe is one of Canada’s powerful myth makers and storytellers of the past half-­century. He has not, however, been an innovator of the short story genre. His best work is full of action and adventure and grounded in historical context. Psychological or linguistic complexity is not his forte. He is a great storyteller, but not a writer of great short stories.


Or below.... unedited by Q&Q. Just for interests sake.

Reviewed from uncorrected proof

I once saw Rudy Wiebe speak about growing up in a Mennonite family. His parents spoke Low German, which had no word for “fiction.” The only categories for stories were “truth” and “lies.” He also spoke about how Geothe’s engagement with German geography and history inspired him to use his own similar influences as a subject of his writing.

The Great Chiefs of the prairies, for example, drew his attention, and he won his first Governor General’s Award for The Temptations of Big Bear. A second Governor General’s Award followed for A Discovery of Strangers, which is also grounded in historical fact and explores the relationship between First Nations and those who came later.

Wiebe’s reputation is based on his novels and non-fiction titles, which have focused on Aboriginal themes and the writer’s Mennonite heritage. Though he is not widely known as a short story writer, a half-century of his efforts in this genre have now been collected. They show a continuity of interest with his other works.

Divided into four sections, the 51 entries in the Collected Stories showcase a writer with multiple selves. The first section captures tales of warriors, Chiefs, and adventures of First Nations before the limitations imposed by the Crown through the treaty process. This section is the most lively. The other sections include stories on Mennonite history, Western Canada, and more personal character sketches.

In one story, a writer discusses poetry with a potential mistress. In another, set in 1980, the voice of long dead Alberta Premier William Aberhart castigates contemporary citizens of Rose Country for wasting their wealth. There’s even a fictional interview with Wiebe in which the Saskatchewan-born writer claims to be English.

Aesthetic critics (like John Metcalf) have long claimed that Wiebe’s fiction betrays a wooden ear and a deathly earnestness. One cannot help but notice, for example, how much of Wiebe’s fiction is based on fact and wonder if the Mennonite binary truth/lie hasn’t remained foundational. There is little indication in these short stories that Wiebe has engaged the influences of literary modernism, apart from some judicious quotations from Kafka.

Goethe’s German Romanticism clearly sustained itself as Wiebe’s dominant influence, one that aligns with an interest in pre-contact Aboriginal cultures and a sensitivity to the marginal, the weak, and the natural world.

Weibe is one of Canada’s powerful myth makers and storytellers of the past half-century. He has not, however, been an innovator of the short story genre. His best work is full of action and adventure and grounded in historical context. Psychological or linguistic complexity is not his forte. He is a great storyteller, but not a writer of great short stories.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Jim Smith, Patrick Lane

Earlier this week, I was thinking about writing a blog post called "Literature WTF."

I was despairing for a new book to read, disappointed by the gossipy coverage of the latest "Giller Scandal," and turning over again in my muddled brain for the upteenth time questions about what is literature, what isn't, and who cares.

I care, clearly, though I don't understand why I can still get so enraged by the idiocy of "book news." The Giller Prize every year seems to spark much stupidity.

Hooray, books are being given front page news.

Hooray, a book award show is on TV.

Boo, every year there seems to be more commentary about the selection process, the jurors, the conflict between large and small publishers, etc., than there is about ... what?

What is it that I'd prefer to be given prominence in the major media?

This is my muddle.

Oprah's Book Club has generated ongoing controversy for seeming to promote books as a form on therapy, the major theme of Oprah's media empire being personal redemption. And my spine stiffens when I hear people speak about liking a book because they:
  • identified with the protagnonist
  • found the characters likeable
  • related to the problem the protagonist had to covercome
Or equally if they disliked a book because of the opposite reasons: found the characters unlikeable, etc.

The shortfall here, of course, is that there is no analysis (perhaps no comprehension) of literature as language-made. That is, no arguments are often put forth about the author's use of language (complex, simple, good, poor).

Difficult language is sometimes described as "poetic" (Ondattje gets this label frequently), an oversimplication. Poetry is obscure and prose that is difficult must be good and, therefore, like poetry, is the false argument often put forward.

John Metcalf has made a career of reinforcing the need for more vigorous criticism of the language used by our writers. But there is more. There is also genre analysis. How does one book related to others similar to it. There is also ... well, all sorts of different kinds of analysis.

Depth, however, isn't what the major media are good at. They are known for the opposite.


So I don't feel betrayed (pace Andre Alexis) when the major media can't produce decent literary analysis. They never have, and they never will.

Yet it irks me.

Here are some recent links on the recent "Giller Scandal":

Stray related thoughts. A couple of weeks ago, my six-year-old step-daughter avidly explained to me the difference between fiction and non-fiction (a concept she had learned that day in school). "Non-fiction is real," she said, "and fiction is made up."

Later she asked me if Shrek was fiction or non-fiction.

"Fiction," I said. She pondered this.

"Right," she finally agreed. "Because there's no such thing as a talking donkey."

After 9/11, it was common to hear that sales of fiction were down. Sales of non-fiction were up. People wanted to make sense of the "new normal." I challenge the underlying assumption that non-fiction better explains the world (pre- or post-calamity).

For one, the other thing that people were doing post-9/11 was returning to poetry. Interest in Auden's September 1, 1939 surged (click on link to hear that poem read by Dylan Thomas).

But more generally we interpret the world through language, frame it with stories, turn sequences of events into narratives. Facts are meaningless outside of context. Context is meaningless without the movement and ordering of time.

Cause/effect, in other words, is fiction.

It is what we make it up to be.

A reader of George W. Bush's memoirs, for example, could come to no other conclusion.

Shrek is to non-fiction what the Bush White House was to the events in Kafka's TRIAL. That is, a manufactured reality that locked in its own pre-determined conclusions. It could have been different, given a different set of imaginative gifts.

Or as Bob Dylan said, "If I can think it, it can happen."

Which brings me to Jim Smith's Back Off, Assassin! New and Selected Poems (Mansfield Press, 2009) and Patrick Lane's Witness: Selected Poems 1962-2010 (Harbour, 2010).

These two "selected" collections round up the careers of two significantly different poets. Smith's book is edited by the evil genius Stuart Ross, whom I have previous described as "Canada's leading literary surrealist." Smith shares Ross's attraction for the well chosen odd juxtaposition. Another feature of the book is an attraction to radical political positions (i.e., Sandanistas good, Ronald Reagan bad), a quality I found endearing and which ignited within me waves of nostalgia. (Where did I put that Clash CD?)

Smith and Ross have mixed old and new poems non-linearly. That is, having not read Smith before (he's been publishing since 1979) I had no idea which were "selected" poems and which ones were "new," except to infer from clues in the content (like references to the Nicaraguan class struggle). The approach means the naive reader (me) can approach all of the content fresh, and I did, and I enjoyed it. It left me, frequently, befuddled, but no more so than when I make my daily scan of CNN.

Perhaps you can see where I'm going with this.

Reality is absurd, so the absurdists are the true realists.

Patrick Lane's Witness disappointed me. Many of the poems are about animals. They seemed like Ted Hughes lite. There were poems of youth, work, hardship, violence - earnestly told, yes, but shimmering like non-fiction. They were too real; they didn't spark with imaginative weirdness.

At least, not to me.

Without imaginative weirdness, how can I trust that they are true?

Donkeys do talk, you know.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Publisher's Crisis

A report by Gordon Lockheed on Dooney's Cafe:

Are we approaching some sort of cultural Armageddon that will wipe out our book publishing industry while transforming Chapters/Indigo into a purveyor of cultural bric-a-brac and scented candles in which a few novels aimed at the diminishing stock of novel-reading little old ladies occupy a small corner of the floor?


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Matt Lennox

Matt Lennox's Men of Salt, Men of Earth (Oberon, 2009) is the type of book William Deverell recently argued we ought to celebrate more in Canada.

It is a rollicking collection of eight short stories, written in the adventure vein of Cormac McCarthy or Joseph Conrad.

It is literary, but delightfully unselfconscious about its artfulness. The stories are gripping, the language imaginative, the intelligence of the author radiant.

Caveat. I published the title story in The Danforth Review in 2006. It was the author's first publication, and it later landed in that year's edition of Best Canadian Stories.

Since then, Lennox has served with the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan and is now apparently a student at the University of Guelph.

Not the usual pedigree of a small press author, eh? (Student, yes; soldier, no.)

It's a pity more fuss hasn't been made about this book. I only discovered it existed when it was long-listed (and later short-listed) for the 2010 ReLit Award. (Stuart Ross won.)

Travel is the common element in these eight stories. The opening (and title) story takes place in Australia. A Canadian youth is taken in the outback by locals/friends and he attempts to kill a kangaroo. Animals and violence (explicit and implied) and also common elements. The narrators/protagonists are young men seeking challenge, seeking definition, seeking to test themselves against the large, mysterious forces of the world.

The book includes a series of linked stories about Canadian friends traveling through India. In one, they get help from a local, who turns out to be from North Toronto.

Men of Salt, Men of Earth ends with a 68-page story (a third of the book) about a young man who joins friends in Mexico on a trail well off the beaten path. The story shows the protagonist in his sales job in Toronto -- succeeding in a corporate culture of macho vigor -- and then transported to the back of beyond. Living as if on the edge of reality.

Or is the whole point that it's a Conradesque quest down the river, seeking the authentic?

Lennox has written a startling debut collection that conjures up Heart of Darkness and All the Pretty Horses. He is not the usual small press author, and this is not the usual small press book.

Monday, September 6, 2010

David Adams Richards

This past weekend, I finished reading David Adams Richards of the Miramichi: A Biographical Introduction by Tony Tremblay (UTP, 2010). The Globe and Mail also reported (Sept 4, 2010):

... some prominent economists and policy makers are now suggesting the real problem [with the economy] isn't lack of consumer spending - it's that the unemployed don't have the right skills to fill the jobs that are open.
   These people are now theorizing that the financial crisis has altered the structure of the U.S. labour market, perhaps permanently (print edition, B1).

The connection between the Richards biography and the Globe's report on the U.S. economy is this: Tremblay's portrait of Richards returns again and again to Richards' fury at how "liberalism" forced change on the lives who lived in New Brunswick, particularly those who lived along the Miramichi River (and particularly in the 1960s and 70s).

The "structure" of the economy changed and established ways of being and living fell away. The two paragraphs from the Globe a similar story - and suggest Richards' charting of the stresses of economic transformation on the working poor could well be an anthem of our time.

Ironically, however, his work has often been marginalized as "regional" in focus. If the U.S. economy is just another "region" now in our multipolar world, then Richards' work deserves the label "universal."

A confession. I haven't read any of Richards' novels. Tremblay's biographical introduction introduced Richards' work to me - but readers familiar with Richards' work will learn much, too. From the historical sweep of the Miramichi region going back to the first European settlers, to the portraint of multiple generations of Richards' family, to the articulation of the literary politics of New Brunswick and Canada during the early years of Richards' career, this book has much to recommend it.

Tremblay ends his biography in 1989, with Richards' first GG win (for Nights Below Station Street), which culminates all of the hard work, struggle and ambition Richards committed to his literary career up to that point. That moment, however, from the point of view of 2010, is about the midway mark of Richards' publishing history, so there is much biography left untold (though Tremblay draws heavily on Richards' nonfiction of recent years to ground his arguments about Richards' literary methods and motivations).

One of those later nonfiction books is God Is: My Search for Faith in a Secular World (Doubleday, 2009). (G&M review here.) Tremblay, repeatedly,  makes it clear the extent of (conservative) Catholicism's influence on Richards. "Like Dostoevsky," Tremblay writes, "Richards felt that the best alternative to ... bourgeois liberalism was a form of Christian autocracy" (267). A wry smile came to my lips, therefore,  as the book ended recounting Premier Frank McKenna's party for Richards' GG win. McKenna's liberal economic transformation of New Brunswick was grounded by the kind of "intellectual" "theoritical" "philosophizing" Richards "instinctively" despised (quotations mine).

In the early 1980s, Tremblay tells us, "Richards was becoming increasingly reactionary" (283); he believed in "the ethical superiority of spontaneous action over calculated intent, which is always more ideologically laden" (313).

Myself, I don't believe this latter conclusion holds water. Isn't spontaneous action likely to be driven by unspoken, unconscious, unarticulated "ideological intents"? Isn't it better to speak about what's behind the motivation, while also confessing to the imperfect nature and/or understanding of the motivation?

Richards' fiction is strengthened by his generous empathy, particularly for those with lesser than the rest; it also rests on the Catholic conclusion about the unknowability of the human heart. His fury at social workers and other "liberal" "socially progressive" theories and economic/government programs and strategies comes from the same place. You can't help people, he might say, by telling them that they must change who they are. Social work, in this view, is fundamentally un-Christian (or un-Catholic, in some interpretations, at least).

But what about the novels? Are they really about economic philosophy?

No. Tremblay suggests no such limit. In fact, he provides much close reading of Richards' early work, focusing on the characters, their immediate needs and actions. He quotes Richards repeatedly on the author's "love" for his characters and his desire that his readers feel the same. Again, it is hard not to think of Christ the Shepherd, caring for his flock, each unique, each desired, each protected within the fold no matter what.

Tremblay's spirited reading of Richards' early work makes a strong case for its ongoing significance, if not appeal. Perhaps his "introduction" will lead to other reassessments of Richards' output. The economic shocks of the 21st century have arguably only added to the relevance of Richards' vision. Liberalism, it is always worth reminding ourselves, doesn't lead to perfection (nor does any other political philosophy). And critiques of modernism that defend the value of the individual are always valuable.

Are the novels themselves any good? I'm now motivated to find out for myself.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Darwin's Bastards

Last spring, I went to the schoolyard to pick up my six-year-old step-daughter from senior kindergarten, this book in hand: Darwin's Barstards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow, selected and edited by Zsuzsi Gartner (Douglas & McIntryre, 2010).

The kids thought the cover was fantastic. "What is that?!"

The book was the centre of a throng, and witnessing the chatter of the SKs on this subject was a pleasure to behold.

Mutants clearly invigorate the six-year-old mind. Equally, many of the 23 stories collected in this anthology invigorated mine.

Divided into four sections (survivors, lovers, outliers, warriors), this book throws down the gauntlet of what a short fiction anthology in Canada can be.

For one, while all of the authors are Canadian, this isn't a book any high school student could claim in boring. For two, Gartner has achieved that elusive balance, one that has stymied her peers for decades - an anthology that effortlessly blends the literary and the popular, genre fireworks and pointy-headed big ideas.

My personal favorites:
  • "There is no time in Waterloo" by Sheila Heti
  • "Survivor" by Douglas Coupland
  • "Notes from the womb" by Anosh Irani
  • "This is not the end my friend" by Adam Lewis Schroeder
  • The introduction by Zsuzsi Gartner
Other stories in the collection provide fierce competition for the above. Authors include: Lee Henderson, Stephen Marche, Yann Martel, Timothy Taylor, Mark Anthony Jarman, Jessica Grant, Elyse Friedman, Annabel Lyon, William Gibson, Heather O'Neill, Pasha Malla, and Neil Smith. And others.

"There is no time in Waterloo" by Sheila Heti imagines a world in which everyone consults their mother before taking any action. "Mother," however, is metaphor; it's a hand-held device, really. The device predicts the probability of various outcomes. Waterloo, Ontario, is the site of the action. Also the home of RIM and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Princess Avenue, where I spent layabout time in the 1980s and early 1990s, features in a prominent role.

"Survivor" by Douglas Coupland is set in the middle of the Pacific on a tiny island, where the n-th season of the CBS hit reality show "Survivor" is being filmed. Meanwhile, nuclear war ends life elsewhere. The "survivors" are survivors. Outwit, outlast, out play.

"Notes from the womb" by Anosh Irani is narrated by a foetus. The story ends at birth.

"This is not the end my friend" by Adam Lewis Schroeder is set roughly 50 years in the future. The USA has melted down into zombieland. Obsessed with celebrity trivia, it has suffered social collapse. To prevent a similar crisis, the Canadian government has outlawed celebrities and built a barrier between the Great White North and its southern neighbour. The story follows the trip of a musicologist, who is researching "rock stars." Travelling with his neice and nephew, he visits Feist, who is living in a remote location in a trailor.

The introduction by Zsuzsi Gartner is charming, funny and intelligent.

Darwin's Bastards is an anthology for every bookshelf.

Some reviews:
Even a dissenting one:
Other links:
  • The Movie

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Kenneth Sherman

Andre Alexis provoked what amounts to a shit storm in Canadian letters today when he published an essay in the July 2010 issue of the Walrus titled, The Long Decline. What was in decline? The art of literary criticism.

First, I agree that the contemporary art of literary criticism is one or two notches above pathetic.

But, second, I think this is a perpetual state. Good criticism is rare, rare, rare. The quality of criticism doesn't go up and down with the cultural tide. Good critics transcend their contexts.

Northrop Frye, Alexis rightly states, was one of them. The decline of newpaper inches devoted to book reviews, Alexis wrongly states, is not indicative of a decline in criticism. It is indicative of the pressures of international capitalism to be "efficient" and capture the "mass audience."

Yes, we are all nostalgic for The Globe and Mail's book section. However, one only need turn to the robust (online) responses to Alexis's essay to know that his lament for the the loss of "conversation" is premature.

I can't say this captures all the links related to this subject, but here is a generous helping:
Alexis has responded in at least two places that I found:
Gosh, I don't know what all of this brohaha amounts to, but some of it is interesting.

I'm not going to go to the bother of attempting to articulate that "some" here. You may tempt it out of me after a couple four beers.

BECAUSE the topic of this post is Kenneth Sherman, the author of a book of literary criticism published by Porcupine's Quill  in 2009 that has been woefully ignored.

Is there a decline in literary criticism? There's a decline in interest in decent literary criticism, that's for sure.

Sherman's book is What the Furies Bring (Porcupine's Quill, 2009), and as far as I can tell online it's been reviewed sparsely:
See also:
I read this book last fall, and I can only confess now that I cannot do it justice. So I will begin with the trivial: This book contains no essays on Canadian literature. Is that, perhaps, the reason for the resounding critical silence?

On the one hand, I would have liked to have read Sherman's commentary on Margaret Atwood's writings. Sherman has collected  remarkable selection of essays on (post)apocolyptic writing. Elements of Atwood's ouvre certainly fit within this subject. I experienced Sherman's lack of engagemenet with Atwood as a loss.

On the other hand, I deeply appreciated Sherman's engagement with the wide variety of subject matter that he does present. The book is, in part, a response to 9/11, but it is much more. It is proof that one can read deeply in the 21st century. That there can be continuity within contemporary life with deep subject matter. That our literary inheritance offers more than gossip, subjective gotcha reviews, and despair.

For example: Read and weep (and laugh)

Here is a quotation from Michael Greenstein's Toronto Star review:

Allusive yet restrained, Sherman's poetic voice engages well-known writers, such as Primo Levi and Anne Frank, and more obscure figures, such as Nahman of Bratslav and Varlam Shalamov, whose stories of the Soviet Gulag make him the "poet of the frozen Inferno."

The cover image of this book, based on George Raab's etching Lone Pine, tells us much about the style and substance of these essays. Bare horizontal branches of a solitary tree reach out, as if seeking companionship; like a work of sculpture, the pine is defined by the spaces between its branches. Although the landscape of this stark image is set in Ontario, the scenery has universal ramifications.

In similar fashion, Sherman's lyrical essays define and are delineated by bleak landscapes and by other writers who have witnessed and survived the Holocaust or Stalin's death camps. Each essay is a quiet dialogue with the dead, who are resurrected on the page, while the reader listens to the conversation between the essayist and his subjects.

This book shows that however much criticism in general may suck, its supposed decline is not yet fatal. It is a book that ought to tempt every reader with literary aspirations, everywhere.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Diana Fitzgerald Bryden

No Place Strange
by Diana Fitzgerald Bryden
Key Porter, 2009

I read this book last year and have been recommending it ever since.

It is the story of the birth of a child and the motives and complications, intentional and unintentional, that brought the parents together, pulled them apart, and possibly bring them together again.

That is the simple, high-level reading of the book.

The phrase "motives and complications" only begins to suggest the complex baggage each parent brings to the relationship. The mother, Lydia, is Canadian, Jewish; the father, Farid, is Lebanese, Muslim. They meet in 1986 in Greece, which functions as a kind of magical middle ground. When they meet, they are each moving "away," but also forward. Toward the new. The other. Each other.

Their courtship begins tentatively, but then it becomes intense. Ultimately, they are separated by a misunderstanding, an error, but not before conceiving a child.

A deeper level of backstory also animates this book. Lydia's father was a journalist who covered the Middle East and travelled deep into dangerous territory to interview members of Palestinian militant groups in the early 1970s. In 1972 he was mysteriously killed, possibly for having a romantic connection with a glamorous revolutionary. The revolutionary, who lived, is friends with Farid's family in Beruit, who are professionals opposed to militarism and the civil war tearing Lebanon apart in the 1980s.

The narrative is, therefore, infused with environmental influences that have only become more amplified in the 21st century: clash of cultures, war and peace, revolution and terrorism. The author handles these influences well, contextualizing the historical, managing and articulating a range of perspectives, while grounding her characters in the specific details of their lives. This isn't a story about politics, in other words; this is a story about people whose lives have been thrown about by politics.

See also reviews in:
The reviews, to my mind, seem stymied by the novel's mixture of love story and politically sensitive historical context. Though the author is praised for her handling of this "incendiary" material, she is not lauded enough methinks.

Initially, I thought I might do a compare/contrast between this novel and Cockroach by Rawi Hage, which also includes a character who experienced the chaos of Lebanon in the 1980s. Hage's narrator now calls Montreal home and lives a noir existence that seems half William S. Burroughs and half Albert Camus. He is also a man with strongly traditional masculine traits.

No Place Strange, on the other hand, is a woman's book. It is a book, at base, about a baby. A magic child. One who embodies hope that the world can move beyond chaos, conflict, misunderstanding and move into a more nurturing, caring, yes, mothering environment.

Wouldn't it be pretty to think so.

No Place Strange was nominated for the Amazon First Novel Award (which was won by Jessica Grant).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Marion Woodman, Elinor Dickson, Robert Bly

This review first appeared in Id Magazine (Fall 1996).

Robert Bly
The Sibling Society

Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson
Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness

New books by Robert Bly and Marion Woodman provide an interesting compare-and-contrast study. Woodman, the Canadian Jungian analyst, feminist, and author from London, Ontario, and Bly have shared the stage of various workshops for the personal development set. Woodman discusses the feminine, and Bly promotes the masculine. Now readers who peruse the latest offerings from two of the 1990s more creative thinkers can attempt to recreate the atmosphere of those workshops for themselves.

Bly, an American poet who first gained prominence for his principled stand against the Vietnam War, is probably best known for influencing men to retreat to the woods with a set of bongos and body paint. Bly's 1992 book, Iron John, became a surprising bestseller and brought the so-called Men's Movement into the media glare.

Iron John, of course, was also attacked for minimizing feminism's significant gains and achievements. In particular, many found Bly's suggestion that men return to a pre-patriarchal form of masculinity ridiculous in the extreme. Bly's new book, The Sibling Society, picks up where Iron John left off. However, this time Bly has been more careful to clarify his position.

"The anger against patriarchal structures," Bly writes, "is a just anger; its structure has damaged both women and men. The women's movement has in general been a vigorous and essential wave of energy, which has brought about deep changes, long overdue, in the relations between men and women. Patriarchal certainty is no longer so firmly implanted in the brain of every man, and patriarchal structures have dissolved in many fields, allowing women to move forward and take a place in the world."

Bly, however, is on guard against feminism's excesses, and it is here that the critics stumble. See for example the recent brutally inaccurate review of The Sibling Society in The Globe and Mail, which all but called Bly a Neanderthal. Bly's critics take him to be saying that we ought to return to the past, where fathers ruled the home and all was right in the land. Bly is not so simple. He strikes, instead, a cautionary note: he celebrates the progressive elements of feminism, while at the same reminding us to respect and honour men and women, their distinctiveness, and the complexity of their differences.

On this point, Woodman agrees. "Even now," Woodman writes (with co-author Elinor Dickson), "in the patriarchal excesses of militant feminism, we see yet another swing of the pendulum, the failure to find balance." Woodman's book is called Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness, and it is primarily concerned with how Goddess imagery can help save Western culture from its more outrageous bloodbaths. However, Woodman delivers a cautionary note to feminists who find little to like in men, comparing "militant feminism" with the dreaded "patriarchy" it claims to oppose.

Bly and Woodman each retreat from the male and female cultural powermongers and attempt to cultivate the creative middle ground. Woodman, for example, promotes "a new masculine consciousness that can pull the feminine out of the inertia of the mother, bringing a new assertiveness, a new perspective on life." This may sound like a bunch of gobbeldegook, and more than once I got lost in Woodman's book, feeling cast adrift in some netherland of her creation. But it also strikes me as a generous contribution to the stalemate which too often passes for the relationship between the sexes.

"Men have not escaped patriarchy's bludgeonings," Woodman writes at the beginning of a chapter on how a dream relationship to the Goddess can lead men into deeper relationship with themselves, others, and life itself. What is strange is that this needs to be said, and that it has the potential to be so explosive. Bly speculates in The Sibling Society that the reason that Iron John was so consistently misunderstood is because he wrote it for a literary audience, and many of his critics were sociologists.

Maybe that's true. Maybe there is a significant gap between those who can appreciate the wisdom of mythopoetics (the power of myth, metaphor, poetry) and those who prefer their knowledge of the world broken down into statistics, charts, graphs, historical patterns. But if this gap is so wide that we can no longer hear each other, then I think that it's time that we learned to bridge the crevice. There is a ringing need for new answers and new approaches, and Bly and Woodman offer some of the most original.

Bly's point is that patriarchy needed to be broken down, but that the culture that is slowly replacing patriarchy also has its destructive elements. Bly notes, for example, the rise in single-parent homes. Men are neglecting the role of fatherhood. Patriarchy overvalued the role of father, but now we have accommodated the absent father. Western culture has swung from one end of the pendulum to the other. It has created, Bly contends, a society where we parent each other: a sibling society, which has done away with the father figure and is now busy attacking motherhood (see, for example, the significant role attacks on welfare mothers played in electing the Harris government).

Bly makes his point by quoting sociological statistics; however, in the more interesting part of his book, he illustrates his thesis with examples from folklore.

When he talks about fatherless sons, for example, he provides some of the most interesting criticism you're ever likely to read about "Jack and the beanstalk."

For those familiar with Jungian psychology, Woodman's book will prove to be equally rewarding. For beginners, however, many of the passages may prove tough going. Also, I was particularly uncomfortable with her broad generalizations linking Jungian archetypes with quantum physics and chaos theory. It makes for interesting reading and dinner conversation. But is it true?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Eye wuz here

This is a review of an anthology published in 1996 of women writers under 30. Perhaps by now they are all under 44?


This review first appeared in Paragraph (Summer 1996).

Eye wuz here: Stories by women writers under 30
Edited by Shannon Cooley
Douglas & McIntyre, 1996

Forty, fifty, sixty years from now, graduate students will read this book and discuss the 1990s feminist consensus the same way that we now read W.H. Auden and the rest of the Angry Young Men and wonder what it was exactly about socialism that so intriged them.

In the meantime, however, readers will be pleased to spend time with the 28 sharp-witted writers brought together in this collection. Eye Wuz Here presents 28 Canadian female writers under the age of 30, all of them working in the short story form. The writing is intelligent, daring, insightful, dangerous, provocative, searing, sad, funny, delightful.

The collection is the project of Shannon Cooley, who began gathering stories for this publication as she was working on a creative writing degree at the University of Victoria. The Canada Council assisted its publication, and now we know what young women have on their minds: mostly sex.

It would be easy, of course, to complain that the view of the world that emerges from these stories has rather sharp borders. The men, for example, tend to be shallow. They are lovers, losers, boyfriends, abusers, husbands, brothers, uncles, accessories all to the drama of the female narrators. This criticism, I recognize, is cheap, and I wouldn't make it, except that it leads me to where I want to go.

Which is here: In her introduction, Cooley claims a peculiar "goal for all art and literature." Cooley writes: "Through sharing point of view comes empathy, and through empathy, the lessening of loneliness and isolation," which plays an important role "in the process of working towards positive change." A fine sentiment, surely, but as misguided as all attempts to link art and politics.

I would argue, for example, that Cooley's collection feeds a middle-class feminist myopia and assists in the splintering of society, not its healing. Class issues, for example, are dealt with very poorly in this collection, if at all. And it's hard to believe that a generation of writers which grew up during a period which saw two referendums in Quebec, plus the Meech Lake and Charlottetown debacles, has nothing whatsoever to say about the fate of the nation. To say nothing of the fact that this collection heavily favours West Coast writers over East Coast writers, and includes not one Quebecois or First Nations voice.

But these are political issues, not aesthetic ones, and I have already said that this collection contains some fine writing. I expect publishers to pursue each of the 28 writers in the collection. If they do, Canadians will be offered a rich array of literary work in the years ahead. If I was to offer any advice to the group of 28, I would ask them to move beyond the Jack Kerouac school of journalism as fiction and to let their talents take them into deeper waters.