Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Reading and Rereading

In the foreword to Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, Anne Fadiman reflects on the differences between reading and rereading:

And there lay the essential differences between reading and rereading, acts that Henry and I were performing simultaneously. The former had more velocity; the latter had more depth. The former shut out the world in order to focus on the story; the latter dragged in the world in order to assess the story. The former was more fun; the latter was more cynical. But what was remarkable about the latter was that it contained the former: even while, as with the upper half of a set of bifocals, I saw the book through the complicating lens of adulthood, I also saw it through the memory of the first time I’d read it…

This passage flows from Fadiman’s experience of reading a childhood favourite, C.S. Lewis’s A Horse and His Boy, to her eight-year-old son Henry, and the distinctions that she draws here don’t necessarily hold for rereading other sorts of books in other contexts. Nevertheless, the passage got me thinking about my own rereadings and wondering about those of others.

Are you a rereader? Which books do you reread? If you reread childhood favourites, which ones hold up in adulthood for you? Are there books that meant a lot to you once that you’re reluctant to revisit for fear of spoiling the magic?

Monday, January 30, 2006

Meeting Garbage Head at the Gladstone Hotel

The other night I went to a reading at the Gladstone Hotel. The place is looking very swish now that the renovations are complete. Lovely as it is, I can't help but miss the seediness of the old, run-down Gladstone. The two writers on the bill were Richard Truhlar and Christopher Willard.

I was there to see Truhlar. A couple of people have been talking him up to me lately, so when I saw his name in the events listing in the paper I decided to investigate. Alas, I arrived late and he read first. I only caught the tail end of his reading from The Hollow and other fictions (Mercury Press, 2005), and I couldn’t pick up the thread of it sufficiently to form an impression. So, I'll be checking out his work on the page without benefit of a live preview.

Happily, I did get to hear the whole of Christopher Willard’s reading. I didn’t know anything about his work beforehand, but I was immediately taken with his novel Garbage Head (Vehicule Press, 2005). Here’s an excerpt from the back cover that conveys the gist of it, insofar as that's possible:

As technology erases the lines between reality and virtual reality, a boy nicknamed Garbage Head develops the ability to say what those on TV and radio will say before they say it. An appearance on The Fabulous Gigi Fandone Show rockets him to fame, but his troubles begin when he uses his ability to predict the numbers of a multi-million dollar lotto. The FBI deems him to be a national threat and Garbage Head is arrested and taken to a president more consumed with watching reruns and learning street slang than in leading a nation.

It’s a full-length novel that is composed of mostly one-line paragraphs. These staccato paragraphs mirror the relentlessness of media sound bites and simultaneously lampoon the celebrity-obsessed culture that breeds them. In the passages that Willard read, the novel came off as bitingly funny and very smart. I snapped up a copy at the book table and I look forward to reading Garbage Head in its entirety.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Raising a Glass to Robert Burns

It’s Robert Burns day -- the Scottish bard’s 247th birthday to be precise, and Scots the world over will be dining on haggis, neeps, and tatties in his honour. I have no such meal planned, but I will raise a glass to him. After all, he was every bit as eloquent in praise of his favourite beverages as he was on the subject of haggis. See, for example, these excerpts from a poem titled "Scotch Drink:"

O thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro' wimplin worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp an' wink,
To sing thy name!


O Whisky! soul o' plays and pranks!
Accept a bardie's gratfu' thanks!
When wanting thee, what tuneless cranks
Are my poor verses!
Thou comes-they rattle in their ranks,
At ither's a-s!

It goes on like that for twenty-one verses. Clearly, the man loved his whisky.

Here’s an excerpt from another of my favourites:

The gloomy night is gath'ring fast,
Loud roars the wild, inconstant blast,
Yon murky cloud is foul with rain,
I see it driving o'er the plain;
The hunter now has left the moor.
The scatt'red coveys meet secure;
While here I wander, prest with care,
Along the lonely banks of Ayr.

No one does wild Scottish weather better than Burns.

For a short biography, click here. To read his poems, click here. Finally, to listen in on a traditional Burns supper, click here.

Happy Robert Burns Day.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Fictitious Reading Series

Literary types in the Toronto area, mark Sunday, January 29th on your calendar. That evening, the second instalment of The Fictitious Reading Series will take place at 7:30 pm in the gallery space above This Ain’t the Rosedale Library (483 Church Street). The featured writers are Jason Anderson and Alexandra Leggat. Both will read from recent work, and the evening will conclude with an informal onstage interview conducted by me.

Jason Anderson’s first novel, Showbiz, was recently published by ECW Press. Anderson was inspired by the true story of Vaughn Meader, a JFK impersonator whose career ended abruptly with the President’s assassination. In Showbiz, Anderson spins this tale into an alternate fictional universe, “a dark comedy about the cost of fame, the story of a man who became a walking punchline and a writer who’ll do anything to hear the rest of the joke.” In a review in Quill & Quire, Adair Brouwer described the novel as “nervy, funny … as flash as a pinkie ring and as sharp as a sharkskin suit.”

Alexandra Leggat is the author of two collections of spare, dark short stories, both published by Insomniac Press. The first, Pull Gently, Tear Here, was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed First Fiction Award. The second, Meet Me in the Parking Lot, was praised by Wendy Banks in a Globe & Mail review as “a success, unified by its cars and bars and imploding marriages, and above all by the rich, spooky washes of mood it invokes.” Banks concluded: “You feel you're in good hands with Leggat in the driver's seat; she knows where to go.”

Come out to hear these writers read next Sunday night! And if that's geographically impossible, I heartily encourage you to seek out their books.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Toronto's Literary Vitality

In an article in The Globe and Mail, Christopher Frey finds evidence of Toronto’s cultural vitality in its diversity of reading series:

Literary events put on by Harbourfront Centre and the University of Toronto Bookstore may enjoy a higher profile, but the growing slate of ambitious, DIY-inspired arts and literary evenings is where you'll find real proof of the city's cultural vitality. It's in the bars, indie bookshops and YMCAs where these restless offspring make their homes that Toronto's literary future is being fomented.

The Fictitious Reading Series, my new venture with Stuart Ross, is one of the five series that Frey profiles in the article. Click here to read all about them.

Stay tuned for a detailed announcement about this month's instalment of The Fictitious Reading Series.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Writing Home

From a 1974 Alice Munro story titled “Home:”

… we follow slowly that old usual route. Victoria Street. Minnie Street. John Street. Catherine Street. The town, unlike the house, stays very much the same, nobody is renovating or changing it. Nevertheless it has faded, for me. I have written about it and used it up. The same banks and barber shops and town hall tower, but all their secret, plentiful messages drained away.

(Quoted in Robert Thacker, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives: A Biography (McClelland & Stewart, 2005) at 6.)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Revising Reviews

Barry Callaghan on revising reviews:

I have always said -- especially to my students, since I was always five minutes late -- that punctuality is the virtue of the bored, yet, as a journalist I have always liked writing to deadlines -- like the hangman’s noose, a deadline concentrates the mind. But once the deadline has been met I’ve been only too willing to re-work lines, sharpen phrases -- never changing the spirit or the point of the piece -- but honing it. Honing it in the same way I would hone a story or a poem, because I’ve always thought a review -- if written in a certain way -- could be not only a story about another story but possibly a deft parable of its time.

(Barry Callaghan, Raise You Five: Essays and Encounters 1964-2004, Volume One (McArthur & Company, 2005) at xiv.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

From the Archives: Edinburgh Book Buys

I’ve just booked my ticket for a trip to Edinburgh in the spring. It’s been three years since I spent a substantial period of time there and I can’t wait to go back. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t write much while on the road, but I was dabbling in travel writing at the time of that previous trip and I kept a somewhat chaotic journal throughout. Here’s an excerpt from it, dated April 20th, 2003, in which I described my book purchases up to that point:

So, what did I buy? Four more books -- my suitcase is going to be woefully heavy. A brand new Alanna Knight in hardcover -- An Orkney Murder. The third in a series about Rose (daughter of Inspector Faro), an intrepid Edinburgh detective in the Victorian age. I haven’t read the first two, but the combination of those factors with an Orkney setting had me looking for this one, not yet available in North America. Also long sought, a biography of Neil Gunn. Very excited about that one. A third that I’ve been contemplating since I got here and learned of its existence -- McLevy’s Stories. An 1860 Edinburgh policeman who wrote up some of his cases. By rights he should have been an influence on Edinburgh crime fiction thereafter but it seems his work had been lost from view and most contemporary Edinburgh crime fiction writers had never heard of him until Mercat Press issued this book. So said Quintin Jardine in the intro. Could well have influenced Arthur Conan Doyle though, given the location and the timing. I may go off in search of his [Conan Doyle’s] house and the statue of Sherlock Holmes on Calton Hill today, provided the rain doesn’t start bucketing down ahead of schedule. The final book of that day’s (April 18th) purchases -- The Kiln by William McIlvanney. About a writer living alone in Edinburgh, looking back on the summer of ’55, some kind of turning point, how he became who he became. Sounds intriguing, plus I love his Laidlaw novels, so promising all round. The others that I’ve bought -- the first day (Monday the 14th): Edinburgh in the Golden Age [by Mary Cosh] -- a massive hardcover tome but a brand new release covering exactly the right time period for my research purposes. Also a recent re-issue of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, a copy of Neil Gunn’s Highland River, and a copy of Edwin Muir’s Autobiography. Finally, a biography of Sir Walter Scott by A.N. Wilson. I’ve been looking for one for ages and haven’t been able to find one. Don’t know why as there must be hundreds out there. Really enjoyed Wilson’s C.S. Lewis bio too, so this seemed promising. So far I’m a bit disappointed though. It’s very academic and I wanted a grand sweeping tale like the man himself would have written. I think I’ll have to dig out a more old-fashioned biography for that. In the meantime, I’ll persevere. 3 other purchases: 2 at the museum of Scotland later that afternoon -- Going to the Pictures: Scottish Memories of Cinema and The Scottish Women’s Suffrage Movement. Then in the afternoon of the 17th at the Museum of Childhood’s bookshop, Sweets and Sweetshops. All for the Wishaw novel.

I know that I picked up at least two more books before I came home, both novels: James Robertson’s The Fanatic and Alan Warner’s The Man Who Walks. What is most notable about this lot of books, besides the fact that it’s an excellent collection of books by Scottish authors and/or about Scotland, is that I’ve only read four of them in the three years that have passed since I bought them. So, in anticipation of my forthcoming trip, and in accordance with my New Year’s Resolution to read more books from my own shelves, I intend to read a few more of these before I go. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Mysterious Anna Kavan

I’ve been reading Anna Kavan’s Asylum Piece. It’s a stunning collection, each story stranger and more intense than the last.

Anna Kavan is a new discovery for me. A mysterious reference on The Sharp Side piqued my curiosity and the bit of sleuthing that I did in response turned up her name. It’s entirely appropriate that I should have come to her this way given that she was very much a figure of mystery. She was born Helen Woods in 1901. Her first six books, two of which had a character named “Anna Kavan” at their centre, were published between 1929 & 1937 under her married name, Helen Ferguson. In 1940, after her second marriage failed, she changed her name to “Anna Kavan” and, in the words of her biographer: “she became someone else.”

Asylum Piece was the first of her books to be published under her new name and, although it’s the first that I’ve read, I gather that it represents a marked departure in style and substance from the ones that went before. The Helen Ferguson novels are generally described as “conventional” and Asylum Piece is most assuredly not conventional. It’s described on the flyleaf as “a study of various aspects of insanity” and it is popularly regarded as an autobiographical work based on a severe breakdown that Kavan suffered which led to a lengthy stay in a Swiss sanatorium. I usually object to assumptions of autobiography in relation to a work of fiction, but with an author who has recreated herself under the name of a character from one of her own novels, the line between the author and the work becomes rather difficult to draw. The stories in Asylum Piece are very dark tales, replete with vivid and disturbing images and laced with paranoia. But there’s an extraordinary clarity about them that makes them oddly uplifting all the same. Anais Nin summed up the book beautifully as one “in which the nonrational human being caught in a web of unreality still struggles to maintain a dialogue with those who cannot understand him.”

Here’s an excerpt from a story titled “A Changed Situation:”

When I first came to live here it was an entirely new house -- that is to say, it had certainly not been standing for more than ten or fifteen years. Now, at least half of it must have been built many centuries ago. It is the old part which has grown up during my occupation that I fear and distrust.

Lying peacefully curled up on a sunny day, the new house looks like a harmless grey animal that would eat out of your hand; at night the old house opens its stony, inward-turning eyes and watches me with a hostility that can scarcely be borne. The old walls drape themselves with transparent curtains of hate. Like a beast of prey the house lies in ambush for me, the victim it has already swallowed, the intruder within its ancient structure of stone.

I’m adding one more item to my list of aspirations for 2006. I intend to read everything I can find by or about Anna Kavan. I may also read the novels by Helen Ferguson just to see if they strike me as books written by an altogether different writer.

Friday, January 06, 2006

An Influx of Poets

I went out today and bought myself a copy of The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford. It’s a nice new paperback edition just published in September. (The book was originally published in 1969, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970.) I’m beginning at the end with the very last story titled “An Influx of Poets.” This story appears in book form for the first time in this collection, having been carved out of a chapter in a novel titled The Parliament of Women which Stafford worked on for twenty-four years but never finished. I’ve always been curious about that unfinished novel and I’m looking forward to getting a glimpse. I’ll report in after I’ve read it. In the meantime, let me leave you with the opening paragraph which already has me hooked:

That awful summer! Every poet in America came to stay with us. It was the first summer after the war, when people once again had gasoline and could go where they liked, and all those poets came to our house in Maine and stayed for weeks at a stretch, bringing wives or mistresses with whom they quarrelled, and complaining so vividly about the wives and mistresses they’d left, or had been left by, that the discards were real presences, swelling the ranks, stretching the house, my house (my very own, my first and very own), to its seams. At night, after supper, they’d read from their own works until four o’clock in the morning, drinking Cuba Libres. They never listened to one another; they were preoccupied with waiting for their turn. And then I’d have to stay up and clear out the living room after they went soddenly to bed -- sodden but not too far gone to lose their conceit. And then all day I'd cook and wash the dishes and chop the ice and weed the garden and type my husband's poems and quarrel with him.

(“An Influx of Poets” in The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford at page 465.)

Thursday, January 05, 2006

New Year's Resolutions

I come from a secular, Scottish family and New Year’s Eve, or rather Hogmanay, has always been a more important holiday for me than Christmas. I love the idea of a fresh start at the beginning of each year, and I can never resist the ritual of making resolutions however improbable actually sticking to some of them might be.

That said, I don’t feel the need to make any dramatic changes in my reading habits. Some might say that I lack focus. But I like the way I read, picking up whatever book strikes my fancy at a given moment, ever alert to new possibilities emanating from friends’ suggestions, public readings, writers’ festivals, and reviews and author interviews that appear in various literary media. I particularly relish the way that books often lead me to other books. Some of my best discoveries have resulted from a passing mention of a forgotten writer in a biography of someone better known. If I planned my reading methodically, what chance would there be of discovering an unexpected gem? Then again, perhaps if I was more methodical about the search, I would discover more new, fabulous books. With all that in mind, I lay out the following aspirations for 2006:

1. Read the work alongside the biographies: There are a few new biographies that I eagerly anticipate reading this year, in particular, Julia Briggs’s Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life and Robert Thacker’s Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives. When I do, I plan to re-visit these authors’ work as I read about their lives.

2. Re-visit a few more writers from my pantheon of greats: There are a number of writers whose work I admire enormously, but it’s been so long since I read it, I’d be hard pressed to articulate exactly why. I want to go back and re-read some of these authors, beginning with the novels of Muriel Spark and the short stories of Jean Stafford.

3. Read some Beckett: I plan to read some of Samuel Beckett's work this year in honour of the centenary of his birth.

4. Search out small press titles from outside Canada: I regularly read books published by Canadian small presses. But I’m barely acquainted with small presses outside of Canada. This means that the books I read by non-Canadian authors are usually the well-known ones that are short-listed for prizes and reviewed in the New York Times. This means that I’m missing an awful lot. Becoming a regular reader of various litblogs over the past year has gone some way to rectifying the situation. For example, thanks to the presence of Soft Skull Press in the blogosphere, several of their titles have caught my eye and I'll be seeking those out. But I plan to become more active in the quest to unearth small press books and little-known (at least to me) authors from outside Canada.

5. Devote more blog space to discussion of Canadian small press books: It’s likely that many readers outside of Canada are as unfamiliar with the work of authors published by Canadian small presses as I am with the work of authors published by the small presses of other countries. So I will make a more concerted effort to talk up some of the Canadian books that I believe are not getting the attention that they deserve.

6. Read more books from my own collection: I have an enormous collection of books, much of which I have not yet read. I love the library and I will never forsake it. But I do get a bit carried away with my library borrowing. For example, I currently have 34 books checked out of the public library and 30 books checked out of my university library. I have a whole bookcase devoted exclusively to them. No, I don’t manage to read them all before they’re due back. But I try, and as a result my reading priorities are often dictated by which books are due back at the library first. This is ridiculous. So this year I plan to shift the balance, read more of my own books, and thereby reclaim control of my reading schedule.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Apparently Fiction is Alive and Well

An article in The Book Standard lists the 200 best selling books of 2005. By my count, 120 of those books are fiction titles. Some of them are even good ones. This would suggest that readers are not eschewing fiction in favour of non-fiction as literary journalists have suggested again and again. Admittedly my quick bit of number crunching isn’t exactly a scientific way to gauge the health of fiction but the doomsayers rarely support their position with proper evidence either. I’m going with a positive slant. After all, could so many litbloggers be wrong?

(Thanks to Bookninja for the link.)

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Favourites from 2005

Here are my ten favourites out of the books that I read in 2005. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order by author. For those books that I’ve already discussed at some length on this blog, I’ve kept my comments to a minimum and provided a link to my earlier post. For those that I haven’t mentioned until now, I’ve tried to provide a sense of what they're about and why I liked and admired them.

Kate Atkinson, Case Histories (Little, Brown, 2004):
Case Histories is a bona fide crossover hit, succeeding brilliantly as both literary fiction and as a mystery novel. Given the very different expectations associated with each, this is no mean feat. My experience in reading it was of an exquisite tug-of-war. The sentences are so beautifully crafted, the characters so fully realized, that I wanted to linger to appreciate the writing. At the same time the suspense was so expertly ratcheted up that I wanted to rush to the end to find who did it and why. I read it twice to satisfy both impulses.

John Banville, The Sea (Knopf, 2005):
The Sea is a brilliant novel about grief and memory that left me in awe of Banville’s writing talents. For my full review, click here.

David Gilmour, A Perfect Night to Go to China (Thomas Allen Publishers, 2005): A Perfect Night to Go to China is a spare, powerful novel that offers up a riveting first person account of a life and a mind unravelling. For my full review, click here.

Eva Ibbotson, The Star of Kazan (H.B. Fenn and Company, 2004):
Eva Ibbotson is in her eighties now and doing her very best work. She has previously written comic romps for younger children and romances for adults. The Star of Kazan (and Journey to the River Sea, the book which immediately preceded it) is something of a cross between the two. Here Ibbotson weaves the various components of the best children’s literature into one fabulous novel: a fairy tale plot involving an orphan, a fantastical setting, gothic twists, and breathtaking adventure. It’s the rich, eccentric detail that elevates this book into my pantheon of bests. That the story should open with Annika, the heroine of the tale, abandoned as a baby in a small alpine church and found by a cook from Vienna on her day off is unremarkable in the realm of children’s fiction. That the cook stopped in at the church because her new shoes were too tight to climb further up the mountain and join her friend for a lunch of salami sandwiches -- that’s the sort of detail that gives this book texture and brought it to life for me.

Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief (Hyperion Books, 2005):
I recently read the first three books in Canongate’s Myth series. I liked them well enough, but for my money the best modern re-telling of a myth published in 2005 is The Lightning Thief, a novel for children. The novel is narrated by 12-year-old Percy (Perseus) Jackson. When we first meet Percy he’s struggling with ADHD and dyslexia and is on the verge of being kicked out of yet another boarding school. He soon discovers an extraordinary explanation for many of his troubles: he’s a demi-god, and as he approaches adulthood demons are sniffing out his powers. It seems that in the present day the gods of Greek mythology continue to fall in love with mortals and a number of children like Percy have resulted from such unions. Percy is first whisked off to Camp Half Blood to be trained as a hero and then embarks on a quest across the United States to recover Zeus’s missing lighting bolt. Percy is a wry and engaging narrator and the intersection of the contemporary world and the realm of myth is vividly imagined here with Mount Olympus located atop the Empire State Building, and the Underworld deep beneath Los Angeles.

Stuart Ross, Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (Anvil Press, 2005): The book’s title includes the word “confessions,” the publisher describes it as part memoir, and it’s written in the first person by one Stuart Ross. But the narrative voice is a brilliant literary creation for all that. It’s this voice, full of marvellous contradictions -- self-deprecating and wildly egotistical, ironic and sentimental, deadly serious and funny as hell --, that makes the book such a scintillating read. The jacket copy nicely sums up the breadth of topics covered: “In these essays, [Ross] catalogues his reasons for bitterness, offers a crash course in avoiding writing, pisses off his publishers, rails against open mics, explores his floundering Jewish identity, implores young writers to stop bugging the crap out of him, and declares himself the King of Poetry." The essays were originally published individually as a series of columns in Word: Toronto’s Literary Calendar between 2001 and early 2005. But in book form, they add up to more than the sum of the parts. The usually vague notion of “literary community” becomes tangible in this tour through the highs and lows of a writing life in the small press realm. Read this book! And while you’re at it, read some of Stuart Ross’s poems as well. My personal favourite of his poetry collections is Razovsky at Peace.

James Salter, Last Night: Stories (Knopf, 2005):
At first glance, the stories in Last Night seem to be all surface detail, but the detail is so carefully chosen that it serves to excavate all that lies beneath. The inner workings of a whole complex world are thereby revealed. For my full review, click here.

Ali Smith, The Whole Story and Other Stories (Random House, 2003): The Whole Story and Other Stories is a dazzling collection of stories about stories. Smith artfully plays with the idea of story without ever depriving the reader of story. Paradoxically, postmodern play reveals emotional truths. For my full review, click here.

Uwe Timm, In My Brother’s Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS (Translated from the German by Anthea Bell, Douglas & McIntyre, 2005): Uwe Timm was only two-years-old in 1943 when his brother Karl Heinz, sixteen years his senior and a soldier in the SS, died from wounds he received fighting in the Ukraine. As an adult, Timm tries to piece together who his brother was and what his role in the war was from letters and a diary that Karl Heinz penned at the Russian front. Timm approaches his brother’s papers with a trepidation that he likens to that he felt on listening to the story of Bluebeard as a child. What will he find when he enters the locked room? What he finds is silence. The diary is mostly a sketchy record of mundane details. Timm tries to link the diary with what he now knows of the actions of German soldiers at that time and in that place. Did his brother participate in atrocities? Did he doubt the orders he was given? Did he feel pride? Did he feel guilt? The diary provides no answers. Timm’s quest, and this silence at the centre of it, propels him into a broader consideration of how different generations of Germans saw themselves in the aftermath of the war, contrasting the views of his father’s generation with those of his own. In My Brother’s Shadow is a small, powerful book that has stayed with me.

Sherill Tippins, February House (Houghton Mifflin, 2005):
February House tells the fascinating story of an experiment in communal living when a group of young writers, artists, and musicians (including Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, George Davis, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, and Jane and Paul Bowles) came together under one roof at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn in the year leading up to the US entry into WWII. For my full review, click here.