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sit-com, one cannot help but reflect on what has changed and what hasn't. The social gender roles are significantly out of date and the "situations" for the comedy reflect that, but what a powerhouse Lucy is.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