Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Longest War

If you read one book about the last ten years:

The Longest War by Peter Bergen.

The paperback edition, just released, includes the death of bin Laden.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Robert Kroetsch

Robert Kroetsch was tragically killed on June 21, 2011 in a car accident. He was 83 and an icon on Canadian literature. I don't include with that statement any regional qualifier, but he was particularly well regarded in Western Canada, specifically in Alberta.

Here's his Wikipedia entry, which calls him "the single most influential figure in Canada in introducing ideas about postmodernism." (See also my review of Re: Reading the Postmodern.)

My short story "Beginning and Endings" (from Thirteen Shades of Black and White (Turnstone, 1999) includes a reference to Kroetsch and his novel Words of My Roaring (1966), which I withdrew from the Saskatoon Public Library circa 1993.

Beginnings and endings is an idea that repeats in that novel, and it's an idea I've often repeated in my fiction, along with the question: What is a story?

Here's the passage from my story:

She was wearing the same clothes, the same stupid baseball cap on backwards. She saw me first. I was glad to see her.

I was sitting in one of the cafes, sipping a beer, reading that Kroetsch novel. Beginnings and endings. I had them on my mind.

I waved at her to come join me.

"You want something to eat?" I asked.

"Sure," she said.

I gestured to the waitress to bring a menu. The waitress was from Ireland. She was in Toronto for the summer on an employment exchange program.

"How have you been?" I asked.

"Good," she said.

She picked up the Kroetsch novel, flipped it over. On the back cover was a photograph of Kroetsch from the 1960s. He looked awful, like a real suit. Some kind of McCarthesque dinosaur. He wasn't like that at all, I knew. But that's what he looked like. Like a university lecturer. A real drag.

There are many moving tributes on him this past week. A drag he wasn't. An important figure, he was.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Wayde Compton

Wayde Compton's After Canaan (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010) is subtitled "Essays on Race, Writing and Region."

And it is so.

It is, furthermore, rich with intelligence and timely analysis.

Following Barack Obama's remarkable electoral victory in 2008, the commentariat were insistent that we had entered a "post-racial" world. Within this unique historical moment, Compton's essays ring with caution. They also, and I don't know how else to say it, sing with sanity.

What I mean is, Compton addresses many topics that are often swamped with anxiety. His voice is clear, unwavering, and dedicated to a depth quest for meaning. It should also be said he is a critic of both the left and the right of the political spectrum. He is a poet and historical researcher, free from any party line.

I devoured this book eagerly. Here's some places others have commented:
Here's an interview with Compton from Geist.

I'm going to provide a simple response to this complicated book.

The NY Times link above (and the author's response) jumps off from the first essay in the collection, "Pheneticizing Versus Passing," a remarkable and creative piece of analysis about racial identity and how people often project racial conclusions on others. The author's distinction between passing and pheneticizing is who has the power of agency, the subject or the audience.

"Seven Routes to Hogan's Alley and Vancouver's Black Community" provides a fascinating historical recreation of a key moment in the past century when the West Coast's miniscule black population came up against the forces of urban modernization with predictable results.

"The Repossession of Fred Booker" made me sad.

"Obama and Language" -- simply a must-read. And interesting to read alongside Zadie Smith.

Finally, a word about "region." As you might guess, the region is Canada's Pacific south-west. Compton repeatedly make the point that the region's black population has historically been so small as to be nearly invisible. Asians and First Nations folks are the more noticeable minorities. Compton make the point that this fact gives West Coast blacks a unique perspective and narrative history. While this is no doubt true, it is Compton's searing intelligence that makes this book singularly valuable.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Random Recommendations

Over the years people have recommended books to me, and I've collected a small pile of torn bits of paper with authors and titles scribbled in corners.

I've been recently cleaning up my crap and was going to throw out these random recommendations, but I decided to post this odd little list here instead.

(I haven't read any of them. I'm a bad receiver of recommendations.)
  • Robert Lecker, Making It Real: The Canonization of English-Canadian Literature (Anansi, 1995)
  • John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse
  • Celine, Journey to the End of the Night
  • Anthony de Mello, Awareness
  • Marjorie Howes, Yeats' Nations
  • Donald T. Phillips, Martin Luther King on Leadership
  • Paul Smith, Discerning the Subject
  • Erving Goffman, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life
  • Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self
  • Homage to Robert Frost
  • William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow
  • Robert Schneider, Brother of Sleep
  • P Fitzgerald The Blue Flower

Monday, June 13, 2011

Shane Jones

Last week I picked up Craig Segilman's Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me at a charity used book sale. Based on the first 20 pages, I recommend it.

Among other things, I learned Sontag began her career aggressively against those things she disagreed with, and then later focused her energies praising those things she liked.

This post is of the latter variety. It's not criticism; it's merely praise.

I first became aware of Shane Jones when I published a short story of his in The Danforth Review. It did it twice: Celebrity Furniture (2006) and Figure Four Leg Lock (2004).

Now the dude has a Wikipedia page and a film deal.

More significantly, though, he's produced a good novel: Light Boxes (Penguin, 2010). I was in my neighbourhood bookstore and saw it on the shelf. A very pleasant discovery.

I'm not going to say much about it, just point to an excellent review here. Or here.

Congratulations, Shane!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Daniel Jones

Toronto Stories: The People One Knows
by Daniel Jones
Mercury, 1994

The Brave Never Write Poetry
by Daniel Jones
Coach House Press, 1985 (reissued 2011)

by Daniel Jones
Three O’Clock Press, 2011 (Rush Hour Revisions, 1998)

I missed Daniel Jones and I miss him. I feel self-conscious saying that, knowing that he killed himself and, thus, there are those who miss him in a more-real way than I do.

What I mean is, I never met him. Never saw him read. Never heard of him until I reviewed his short story collection, The People One Knows for ID Magazine in February 1995. By then he was already gone, and I discovered he’d been the editor of Paragraph, a magazine I read (though, apparently, inattentively).

My review is posted below. I remember approaching it as if Jones were still alive. I didn’t mention his death in the review. I wanted the review to be about the book, not him. I liked the book, though how much I liked it doesn’t come across in the review, it seems to me now. I continue to recommend it highly (though it’s difficult to find).

At the time, I thought, “This is the type of book that people should be writing.” But I didn’t realize how extraordinary it was. Lo, all these years later, I am much more aware of how rarely Canadian writers attempt to articulate the sharp moment of the evolving present.

And how hard it is to do so.

The People One Knows articulates a world that I felt very much a part of (call it post-punk ennui, or whatever), which is why I miss Jones. He was able to write things that resonated with me. Wrote things that I wished I had written. Wrote in a way that I was trying to write, before I was able to realize it. So I am, of course, curious what else he would have done, but, sadly, there is no more.

What we have now, instead, lucky for us, is two reissued Jones titles: The Brave Never Write Poetry and 1978. One poetry collection, one novel.

The poetry collection is legendary. I have heard about it repeatedly, seen poems from it spray painted on walls and sidewalks around Toronto, but never actually viewed a copy of the bloody thing. So, hooray to Coach House (and Kevin Connolly), for bringing it back. The poems are as sharp and controversial as ever. They are also strangely reassuring. Yes, life was like that. Someone else saw it, too.

Jones was a powerful figure for his generation. This year, he’d be 52. He was never a “major” writer in his lifetime, but his ambition and his connections and contributions are major enough to have remained of interest. I have used the term “post-punk ennui” above, but a more reflective examination of Jones’ era (and his role in it) is long over-due.

Any curious PhD candidates out there might want to start with the National Library and Archives Canada collection on the author.

From “The Brave Never Write Poetry”:

The brave ride streetcars to jobs
early in the morning, have traffic accidents,
rob banks. The brave have children, relationships,
mortgages. The brave never write these things
down in notebooks. The brave die & they are



[Review first published in ID Magazine, Feb 2-15, 1995 issue]

Toronto Stories: The People One Knows
by Daniel Jones
Mercury, 1994

Drug addicts. Alcoholics. Freaks. Failed artists. Aging punks. This book presents an evocative vision of the underside of Toronto in the 1990s.

Nine of the 10 linked stories that make up this collection, which is titled after a line from one of Hemingway’s poems, are told in the first person. In these nine stories, the narrator, a thirtysomething writer, poet and writing instructor (much like the author) introduces the people who surround him.

We meet Lee, a teenage junky, who house-sits the narrator’s cats when he goes to Montreal for New Year’s with his girlfriend. We meet Richard, who dropped out of the army to be a sculptor. Richard points a rifle at the CN Tower and asks the narrator to dare him to pull the trigger. We meet Assa, an ex-girlfriend with a deformity.

The characters are unflinchingly real in their weaknesses. They want to do the right thing, but often don’t know what that is, or find that they haven’t the strength to follow through. For example, after one of his writing classes the narrator finds himself on the subway with one of his students. She tells him that she’s not getting along with the instructor of one of her classes. She posits that this is because he doesn’t like the way she looks. The narrator wants to reassure the student that she’s attractive, but he doesn’t. Instead, he resents having to decide whether his student is attractive. He would rather stay uninvolved.

Still, these characters are not whiners. The overriding emotion in this book is regret, not a shallow sense of injustice. The narrator often looks back on the by-gone days when he was “cruel” or “an alcoholic, though I didn’t know it at the time” and wishes that he had done better. You get the feeling one or two bouts of rage at the world might have done him good.

The narrator’s lack of self-esteem is one of the book’s weaknesses. One episode of naval gazing could have been overlooked, but the scene is repeated in at least three stories.

A second criticism stems from the best story in the collection, “The Poet’s Wife.” Strangely enough, it belongs in a different collection. The author’s ironic awareness shines brighter and digs deeper her than in the other stories, but the shift to the third-person voice creates an awkward dissonance.

It’s a good read, though. In a very funny twist, the story features Jones, once the editor of Paragraph: The Canadian Fiction Review, in a cameo as himself, alongside two of Canada’s other literary lights, Barbara Gowdy and Brian Fawcett.

The book is written with an eye for realism often missed from the contemporary literary scene. Jones provides facts and images, but little interpretation and zero political claims. His sparse writing style suggests Hemingway’s influence extends beyond the title. Like Papa, Jones doesn’t tell us more than we need to know.

Toronto Stories provides a look at a side of Generation X that Douglas Coupland could never capture. The people Jones knew aren’t struggling to put back together their suburban dreams. They are struggling for something more universal. Call it purpose, relief, or redemption, Jones’ characters are looking for ways to integrate the pain of their pasts with the hope they hold out for the future. This theme has long been grist for the literary mill. Jones works with it well.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Short Stories - Spring 2011

Six years ago I wrote a "state of the nation" piece about the short story in Canada. Re-reading it recently, I thought it remained an interesting snap shot in time.

In 2005, buzz was the short story collection was in decline. Publishers didn't want them. Readers weren't interested in them. Only workshop organizers and creative writing programs were making any money off of them.

In Best American Short Stories of the Century (Mariner Books, 2000), John Updike (editor) intoned:

The health of the short story? Its champions claim that as many short stories are published as ever. Whatever statistics show, my firm impression is that in my lifetime the importance of short fiction as a news-bearing medium -- bringing Americans news of how they live, and why -- has diminished.

Humpf. Maybe so, maybe not.

Opportunities for short story writers have certainly diminished. Yet the genre keeps attracting attention and talent. See, for example, Nathaniel G. Moore's recent series on the short story in Open Book Toronto.

Here's some recent and newish short story titles that caught my attention (haven't read them all yet; just sayin'):

Greg Kearney - Pretty (Exile Editions, 2011)
Jessica Westhead - And Also Sharks (Cormorant, 2011)
Julie Booker - Up Up Up (Anansi, 2011)
Matthew J. Trafford - The Divinity Gene (D&M, 2011)
Zsuzsi Gartner - Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (Penguin, 2011)
Hal Niedzvecki - Look Down, This is Where It Must Have Happened (City Lights, 2011)
Dennis E Bolen - Anticipated Results (Arsenal, 2011)
Clark Blaise - The Meagre Tarmac (Biblioasis, 2011)
You might also want to check out the new Douglas Glover story "A Flame, A Burst of Light" in The New Quarterly (#118, spring 2011).

The short story. Alive and kickin'