Saturday, September 30, 2006

Saturday Night

My mom thinks that Saturday night is for going out. In her youth, it was date night. Or, if you didn’t have a date, it was a night to go out dancing with your girlfriends and hopefully meet a nice lad who would serve as your date on future Saturday nights.

In my university days, she was puzzled by the fact that my friends and I put no particular stock in Saturday nights. We’d as soon go out on a Thursday night as a Saturday. None of us kept Saturday night free for our boyfriends or girlfriends. Couples might go out together as part of a crowd, or both parties might head off on their own to, well, separate parties. Saturday night might even find us home watching television, or working on an essay. There was nothing special about it.

But tonight I realized that I do have memories of special Saturday nights. The smell of mushrooms and onions frying on the stove brought them back much in the manner of Proust’s Madeleine. These memories are not of teenage nights out but of childhood nights in.

Every Saturday afternoon, my parents, my brother, and I went to the library. We’d each pick our ten books (that was the limit) before heading home. While my dad prepared a special meal for us all, I’d gloat over my fresh stack of books and agonize over which one to start with. Usually the stack would be half rereads and half new books, so it was a difficult choice. Would I opt to spend Saturday night with old friends in familiar places: Avonlea with Anne, or New York City with the Melendys, or Deep Valley with Betsy and Tacy? Or would I strike out for new territory, meet some new characters, go somewhere I’d never been before?

After we’d eaten supper (which, you may have guessed, always included a side dish of sautéed mushrooms and onions), my dad would find some good music on the radio (usually classical or jazz), and each of us would settle into our favourite corner of the living room and take up one of our new library books. And that was us for the night, each off in our own world, but very companionably so.

There’s always something to do in Toronto on a Saturday night: a hot new restaurant or a cool new band to check out, a play to see, or a poetry reading to hear. I like a night on the town, but tonight I’m having none of it. Once I’ve eaten that mushroom and onion concoction that I turned up my nose at as a child, I’m settling into the big armchair with a thick new library book.

Maybe I’ll phone my mom for a chat first though, so long as I’m feeling nostalgic. Of course she and my dad might be out. After all, it is Saturday night.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Back to Book Buying, With a Vengeance

My challenge was to make it through August without buying any books. In fact, I lasted nearly two months, an unprecedented occurrence in my adult life. Today, I more than made up for it with the purchase of 22 books all in one go. Happily this monumental indulgence didn’t break the bank as the forum was my favourite annual university booksale, and most of the books were going for two or three dollars apiece. These are the riches that I came home with:

John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle;
Susan Cheever, Home Before Dark: A Biographical Memoir of John      Cheever;
Alasdair Gray, Ten Tall Tales & True;
Ronald Hingley, A Life of Chekhov;
James Joyce, The Critical Writings (edited by Ellsworth Mason &      Richard Ellman);
Margaret Laurence, Heart of a Stranger;
Bernard Malamud, The Stories of Bernard Malamud;
Katherine Mansfield, In a German Pension;
Mary McCarthy, How I Grew;
Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café and other stories;
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire;
Frank O’Connor, An Only Child;
Frank O’Connor, Collected Stories;
Katherine Anne Porter, The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne      Porter;
Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight;
James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime;
Muriel Spark, Aiding and Abetting;
Muriel Spark, The Bachelors;
Muriel Spark, Memento Mori;
Robert Louis Stevenson, Weir of Hermiston and Other Stories;
Elizabeth Von Arnim, The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen; and,
Wu Ch’Eng-En, Monkey, Folk Novel of China (translated by Arthur      Waley).

Adding a little extra interest to this haul are the items left behind in a few of the books by their former owners. In the Alasdair Gray, there's a boarding pass for an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Honolulu; in the Katherine Mansfield, a yellowed newspaper clipping of a review of the 1984 edition of Mansfield’s Collected Stories; and, most fun of all, in Monkey, Folk Novel of China, a letter dated 1961 from a fellow who used the exclamation “gads!” and signed off not “Sincerely” or “Yours Truly” but “Toodles.” BookLad has promised a post on all the ephemera he’s found in books over his years in the book trade. I’m sure he’s found much odder items than these. Nevertheless, they added a bit of colour to today’s used book extravaganza!

Now, I invite you to guess which of these purchases were inspired by recent blog posts and discussions, and on which blogs...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Marches and the Melendys

I’m in the midst of rereading Little Women in preparation for a discussion at Our Coffee Rings, and for the first time it occurred to me the extent to which the book is echoed in another of my childhood favourite reads, Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy series.

Both tales focus on a family of four children being raised by one parent during wartime. In Little Women, it’s the four March sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) growing up under the watchful eyes of their mother (Marmee) during the Civil War while their father is off serving as a chaplain for the Union Army. In The Saturdays, and the books that follow, it’s the four Melendy siblings, two girls (Mona and Randy) and two boys (Rush and Oliver), being raised by their widowed father in the lead-up to the U.S. entry into World War Two.

Mona, the eldest Melendy, a pretty, blonde, aspiring actress who struggles with vanity and with her duties to her younger siblings, is strongly reminiscent of Meg March. And Randy (Miranda) Melendy, quick-witted, lively, sizzling with creative spark, and possessed of “dark untidy hair,” has a great deal in common with Jo (Josephine) March, although Randy’s passion is painting rather than writing.

Of course there are substantial differences too, not least in setting (New York rather than New England) and time period (the 1940s rather than the 1860s). We first encounter the Melendys at much younger ages (ranging from six to thirteen) than the Marches (ranging from twelve to seventeen). And, of course, there is a significant masculine presence in the Melendy household that is largely absent in the March household. By no stretch do Rush and Oliver serve as stand-ins for Beth and Amy. (Though Rush does share Beth's aptitude for the piano, and Oliver has something of her calm demeanour and sweet nature.)

Nevertheless with the parallels in framework and characters and other shared features like elaborate family theatricals, a similar spirit seems to me to infuse the two.

I wonder if Enright was influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by Little Women when she dreamed up the Melendys. I hasten to add that I’m not suggesting that there would be anything improper in it if she was. The Melendys are a fabulous creation in their own right regardless. But given how fond I am of both fictional families, it’s fun to muse on the connections. I might just embark on a reread of The Saturdays and The Four-Story Mistake as soon as I’ve finished Little Women...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The University as the Main Character

I enjoyed Jane Smiley’s campus satire, Moo, but ultimately I was not dazzled by it. Of course there’s no reason why I should be dazzled by any particular book, but this was my first exposure to Smiley’s work and I’m aware of her Pulitzer Prize winning status, so I guess I was hoping.

The structure of the novel is, I think, at once its greatest strength and its fatal flaw. It is composed of several intertwining stories told from the vantage points of different campus actors. These stories are set out in short instalments interspersed with one another. Thus we get a couple of years in the life of the university from these various perspectives: that of the provost, the provost’s secretary, the chief fund raiser, a millionaire donor, a cafeteria worker, a handful of first year students sharing a dormitory, the renegade Marxist chairman of the horticulture department, the media-darling, right-wing economics professor, the untenured creative writing professor, and one of the creative writing students. This is only a partial list; there are more, many more.

The breadth built into this structure provides an unusually complete view of the workings of campus life. This isn’t the university offered up in microcosm through one department (usually the English department) as is standard in campus novels. This is the university as the sprawling, diverse, often at odds with itself, entity that, in my experience, it generally is.

The effect of Smiley’s structure is to give on one level an aerial view of the university as a whole, but on another to zoom in for close-ups of the component parts in the instalments devoted to individual characters. The characters are drawn in marvellous detail in these close-ups such that any one of them could have served as the main character in a novel of their own. The writing is tremendously engaging and several of the instalments work on their own as brilliant set pieces.

The problem with the structure is that no matter how engaged I was with each of the characters while reading their respective instalments, so much occurred in the space in between (taken up by the instalments of the stories of the other characters) that by the time they rolled around again I’d nearly forgotten who they were. Thus by the halfway point, and for the remainder of the novel, I felt distracted and a bit irritable. No main character emerged to serve as a focus and there was only a vague thread of a plot to hold it all together. I suppose the point was for the university itself to serve as the main character, but because the picture of the university that accumulated throughout the novel was of a fundamentally uncohesive unit, it wasn’t fit for the role.

Reading Moo was a bit like trying to cobble together a meal from appetizers. No matter how delicious each dish is, and regardless of the fact that together they add up to enough calories for a main meal, you leave the table feeling unsatisfied. In the end, though the novel has a great deal to recommend it, it never quite came together for me.

The Jealousies and Rivalries of Academia

Isabel did not like her desk to get too cluttered, but that did not mean that it was uncluttered. In fact, most of the time there were too many papers on it, usually manuscripts that had to be sent off for peer assessment. She was not sure about the term peer assessment, even if it was the widely accepted term for a crucial stage in the publishing of journal articles. Sometimes the expression amounted to exactly that: equals looked dispassionately at papers by equals and gave their view. But Isabel had discovered that this did not always happen, and papers were consigned into the hands of their authors’ friends or enemies. This was unwitting; it was impossible for anybody to keep track of the jealousies and rivalries that riddled academia, and Isabel had to hope that she could spot the concealed agendas that lay behind outright antagonism or, more often, and more subtly, veiled antagonism: “an interesting piece, perhaps interesting enough to attract a ripple of attention.” Philosophers could be nasty, she reflected, and moral philosophers the nastiest of all.

From Alexander McCall Smith, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (2005).

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Richard Ford on Fact and Fiction

Richard Ford on fact and fiction:

Writers are notorious for not respecting (or even knowing) the difference between what did occur and what they wrote as having occurred. Many writers believe that the distinctions between these two classes of event are—at day’s end—rather overly tidy distinctions, and never as interesting as what gets made of each. It is also true that some things that actually do happen often prove difficult to work with, become refractory to the writer’s process of development through change. My Grandpa Ben did not kill a man in a hotel lobby in Kansas City. But “my Grandpa Ned,” who bears a striking resemblance to another man, needs to do it for my story to find its climax, only I have a hard time feeling convinced about it. Often the real events, the actual people, cling to their factuality in ways that can make them unbalance a story, even ruin it. Fiction, after all, needn’t be a news report on life. Life’s just where the trip begins, and of course where it ends. But in the middle, in the story, we depart from life as we please in order to think of what might happen, and what difference it would make.

From Richard Ford, “A Short Story” in Maurice A. Lee, ed., Writers on Writing: The Art of the Short Story (2005).

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Bibliomania, Love, and Distraction

Cleo’s raging bibliomania was only ever assuaged by a brief, dissatisfying brush with love. The alarming distractions of amour fou (and the sexy feelings that went with it) led Cleo to take up writing poetry in addition to reading it. The only way she was able to process her bewildering emotions—the most predominant being terror and lust—was to record them. The object of Cleo’s virginal affections moved on, as involuntary muses often will, leaving Cleo with nothing more than one badly written play and a notebook full of illegible (and rather purple) poetic tributes to the joys and sorrows of love. She burned the notebook and returned to the safer terrain of reading but was mortified to discover that once the libido is awakened (and the heart along with it), it’s awfully hard to put back to sleep. She’d thought a good dose of Chekhov would help, but as it turned out, even Chekhov had an unhealthy preoccupation with matters of the heart. The only writer who seemed to be able to take Cleo’s mind off sex and romance was Ayn Rand. And now Mary Shelley.

From Marnie Woodrow, Spelling Mississippi (2002).

Friday, September 22, 2006

Patricia Highsmith on Developing a Plot

Patricia Highsmith on developing a plot:

A plot, after all, should never be a rigid thing in the writer’s mind when he starts to work. I carry this thought one step further and believe that a plot should not even be completed. I have to think of my own entertainment, and I like surprises myself. If I know everything that is going to happen, it is not so much fun writing it. But more important is the fact that a flexible plot line lets the characters move and make decisions like living people, gives them a chance to debate with themselves, make choices, take them back, make others, as people do in real life. Rigid plots, even if perfect, may result in a cast of automatons.

From Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1983).

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Spot of Bother

I loved Mark Haddon’s a spot of bother. I couldn’t stop reading once I’d started. I don’t have the stamina that I once had for reading late into the night, but I stayed up till 3 am to finish this one, no doubt much to the detriment of my performance at work the following day.

The novel is the story of 61-year-old George Hall. The characteristically understated “spot of bother” of the title is George’s descent into madness after he discovers a lesion on his hip which he believes to be terminal skin cancer.

Prior to this incident, George served as the quiet, steady centre of his rather volatile family, so it’s not surprising that it takes some time for anyone to notice that something is very wrong. His wife Jean is having an affair and finding that assignations with her lover are much more difficult to arrange now that the recently retired George is at home all day. His daughter Katie, still bitter over the failure of her first marriage, is planning a second, to her boyfriend Ray of whom no one in the family apart from her small son Jacob approves. George’s son Jamie, conservative and gay, may well have found the love of his life, but he balks at the prospect of parading his boyfriend before friends and family as his date to Katie’s wedding.

Though the novel is primarily George’s story, the perspective shifts at various points so that the reader gets inside the heads of Jean, Katie, and Jamie as well. The characters are frequently at odds with one another, and it’s a testament to Haddon’s skill that the reader's allegiance tends to shift along with the perspective.

An impending wedding that brings family tensions to the surface is a very conventional plot device. But a spot of bother is not a conventional novel. It manages to be at once uproariously funny and highly disturbing. It doesn’t gloss over any of the distressing details of George’s deteriorating mental state. Yet in the end the novel is somehow affirming in its depiction of life and family relationships in all their visceral messiness.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Lisa Moore on the Beginning of the Short Story

Lisa Moore on the beginning of the short story:

The beginning of the short story is the hardest part to write. Casual, intimate, grandly sweeping, austere, arresting, or delicately simple, it must have an iron grip. It convinces you. It seduces and provokes infidelity. You will be untrue to the four walls of your room, the weather outside, the city or field, supper bubbling on the stove. You will give up everything—the armchair, your lover, your children—and step through, briefly but absolutely gone.

From Lisa Moore, “Introduction: Getting Away With It” in The Penguin Book of Contemporary Women’s Short Stories (2006).

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Three Reasons Why I’m Excited to Read Alice Munro’s New Book

Today is the day, the release date in Canada of Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories, The View from Castle Rock. (Those of you in the UK and the US will have to wait a bit longer alas, with scheduled release dates of November 2nd and 7th respectively.) As I ready myself to dive in, I thought I’d share three reasons why I’m excited to read this book:

1. It’s a book by Alice Munro. That’s enough really. But there’s more.

2. The book is partly set in Scotland. It’s inspired by Munro’s genealogical research and follows the path of her ancestors from Scotland across to Canada. Regular readers of this blog will know of my frequent trips to Scotland, my fascination with the details I’ve turned up about the lives of my Scottish ancestors, and the way that some of these details have crept into my own fiction. It will be intimidating, of course, but also exciting to see what Munro has made of her Scottish material.

3. It is ostensibly a collection of short stories, not a memoir, but it seems to take on a more complex, hybrid form than that. For example, the stories, arranged chronologically, feature characters that bear the names of Munro’s actual relatives and, I gather, work their way up to more contemporary first-person narratives from the perspective of a character named Alice. In the foreword Munro writes of the book’s evolution:

I was doing something closer to what a memoir does—exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austerely factual way. I put myself in the centre and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality. They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed that they had once lived in Chicago. One of them got himself electrocuted and another fired off a gun in a barn full of horses. In fact, some of these characters have moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.

These are stories.

You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative. With these developments the two streams came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel, as they do in this book.

This formal innovation seems to me to reveal something really interesting about the process of writing fiction more broadly and I'm very much looking forward to seeing how the book unfolds.

I'm quite sure that you will hear more from me about this book as I work my way through it.

When and Why I Read Reviews

When I flipped to the book section of the Saturday Globe and Mail, I was pleased to find that this week’s instalment is a special issue devoted to “The Fiction of Fall.” It has seemed to me in recent months that the amount of review space devoted to fiction titles has been steadily decreasing and I was happy to see an issue that tilts the balance the other way. (I hasten to add that I haven’t gone so far as to tally up the column inches devoted to fiction and non-fiction respectively; it’s entirely possible that my perception is skewed by my own reading preferences.)

But despite my initial enthusiasm, I wound up setting the bulk of the issue aside to read later. You see, nearly all of the book reviewed therein are books that I’m already planning to read and, in a number of cases, planning to review myself.

It’s not that I never read reviews before reading a book. Reviews in print publications, online magazines, and particularly on blogs are an important source of book recommendations for me. But with this in mind, initially I generally only read reviews of books that I know little or nothing about to see if the reviews pique my interest, or of books that I’m well aware of but not much interested in to see if the reviews persuade me to give them a chance after all.

If I already know I’m going to read a book, especially if I’m planning to review it, I go to great lengths to avoid reading reviews to ensure that I come at it fresh, without too many preconceptions. I do, however, save those reviews to read later as, once I’ve read a book, I very much enjoy measuring my perceptions of it against those of fellow readers. I want to find out if we’re in agreement about its strengths and weaknesses and, if not, why not. Someone else’s response may cause me to rethink my own and, on occasion, to reread the book and reassess it.

So, if you’ve written a particularly clever blog post on a recent read and you’re wondering why it elicited no comment from me, there’s a good chance that I’ve got the book at the ready, and I’ve bookmarked your post to read later.

When and why do you read reviews?

UPDATE: See Dorothy W.'s very interesting response to my question and also the comments that follow her post.

Nadine Gordimer on the Short Story, the Novel, and Experimentation

Nadine Gordimer on the short story, the novel, and experimentation:

Certainly the short story has always been more flexible and open to experiment than the novel. Short-story writers always have been subject at the same time to both a stricter technical discipline and a wider freedom than the novelist. Short-story writers have known—and solved by nature of their choice of form—what novelists seem to have discovered in despair only now: the strongest convention of the novel, prolonged coherence of tone, to which even the most experimental of novels must conform unless it is to fall apart, is false to the nature of whatever can be grasped of human reality. How shall I put it? Each of us has a thousand lives and a novel gives a character only one. For the sake of the form. The novelist may juggle about with chronology and throw narrative overboard; all the time his characters have the reader by the hand, there is a consistency of relationship throughout the experience that cannot and does not convey the quality of human life, where contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness. Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment. Ideally, they have learned to do without explanation of what went before, and what happens beyond this point. How the characters will appear, think, behave, comprehend, tomorrow or at any other time in their lives, is irrelevant. A discrete moment of truth is aimed at—not the moment of truth, because the short story doesn’t deal in cumulatives.

From Nadine Gordimer, “The Flash of Fireflies” in Charles E. May, ed., Short Story Theories (1976).

Monday, September 18, 2006

Fictitious Reading Series 6

The first Fictitious Reading of the Fall Season will take place on Sunday, September 24th at 7:30 pm in the gallery space above This Ain’t the Rosedale Library (483 Church Street, Toronto). This month’s featured writers are John Lavery and Marnie Woodrow. The evening will include readings by John and Marnie, as well as an informal onstage interview with them. Stuart Ross will host, and I’ll conduct the interview.

John Lavery is the author of two collections of short fiction. His first, Very Good Butter, was a Hugh MacLennan prize finalist. His most recent collection, You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off, was described in The Montreal Review of Books as "the literary equivalent of a Dali painting." The Danforth Review credited it with "integrat[ing] traditionalist excellence with inspired innovation" and opined that it was one of the best books of 2004. John is a founding member of the Orchestre de la société de guitare de Montréal. He lives in Gatineau, Quebec.

Marnie Woodrow is the author of two acclaimed collections of short fiction and a novel. Her novel, Spelling Mississippi, was short-listed for the Books In Canada/ First Novel Award. The Vancouver Sun pronounced it "a spellbinding tale," and Books in Canada described it as an "original, sexy" story that "presents an unforgettable portrait of New Orleans." Marnie teaches at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies for which she recently earned an Excellence in Teaching Award. She is a co-director of The Word Lounge, an online and in-person coaching and editing program for creative writers. Marnie is currently completing a new novel and a short story collection.

Come out on Sunday night to hear these excellent writers read from their work!

For more information on this event and on future instalments in the series, check out the Fictitious website.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Eudora Welty on Place in Fiction

Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else. Imagine Swann’s Way laid in London, or The Magic Mountain in Spain, or Green Mansions in the Black Forest. The very notion of moving a novel brings ruder havoc to the mind and affections than would a century’s alteration in its time.

From Eudora Welty, “Place in Fiction” in Richard Ford and Michael Kreyling, eds., Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays, and Memoir (1998).

Friday, September 15, 2006

Trying All Sorts of Lives

Katherine Mansfield in a 1906 letter to her cousin Sylvia Paine:

I am enjoying this Hotel life. There is a kind of feeling of irresponsibility about it that is fascinating. Would you not like to try all sorts of lives—one is so very small—but that is the satisfaction of writing—one can impersonate so many people—

Reproduced in Vincent O’Sullivan, ed., Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories (2006).

Thursday, September 14, 2006

New Canadian Small Press

There’s a new Canadian small press on the scene. Ottawa-based Bunkhouse Press, dedicated to publishing the work of emerging literary writers, is launching its first three titles tonight: Barbara Sibbald’s Regarding Wanda, Jim Reil’s Now’s the Time, and Alex Mortimer’s The Quitter.

I’m particularly excited about Barb’s book as she’s an old friend whose writing I have long admired, and the descriptions of the other two books have me keen to pick them up as well. Click here for details on all three.

If you live in or near Ottawa, don’t miss the launch tonight, Thursday, September 14th from 6:30-8:30 pm at the Mercury Lounge on Byward Street. I wish I could be there to celebrate what look to be three fine new titles by an exciting new press.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Gentle Adventure

Right from the first page I knew that I was going to like Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April. Here’s the opening paragraph:

It began in a women’s club in London on a February afternoon,—an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon—when Mrs. Wilkins, who had come down from Hampstead to shop and had lunched at her club, took up The Times from the table in the smoking-room, and running her listless eye down the Agony Column saw this:

To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

That was its conception; yet, as in the case of many another, the conceiver was unaware of it at the moment.

My fellow Betsy-Tacy fans will understand why the mere mention of The Agony Column caused me to anticipate a bit of magic even in a wholly unrelated fictional universe. And it wasn’t just The Agony Column that captured my interest but also the women’s club in which Mrs. Wilkins perused it. I had recently encountered a London men’s club of that era in Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale but it hadn’t occurred to me that parallel women’s clubs existed. I wondered about this club and its denizens, in particular the listless Mrs. Wilkins. Who was she, what sort of life did she lead, and what change in that life might be wrought by a month on the Italian Riviera in the springtime?

It’s not giving too much away to tell you that Mrs. Wilkins does indeed embark on this adventure and that she does so in the company of three very different but equally intriguing women, one an acquaintance from church, the other two strangers to her: the pious Mrs. Arbuthnot full of good works and deeply buried resentments; the young, bored, beautiful Lady Caroline Dester who seeks to escape the frivolous demands of her social station; and the rigid Mrs. Fisher, an elderly widow who wishes to be left alone to reminisce about long-dead friends.

I’m inclined to describe the book as a gentle adventure, but I’m afraid that you’ll interpret gentle as boring. Far from it. It’s true that not much happens on the surface in the small castle at San Salvatore, at least not at first:

To the servants San Salvatore seemed asleep. No one came to tea, nor did the ladies go anywhere to tea. Other tenants in other springs had been far more active. There had been stir and enterprise; the boat had been used; excursions had been made; Beppo’s fly was ordered; people from Mezzago came over and spent the day; the house rang with voices; even sometimes champagne had been drunk. Life was varied, life was interesting. But this? What was this? The servants were not even scolded. They were left completely to themselves. They yawned.

But there is a great deal going in the minds and hearts of the women in residence there. Dramatic shifts are underway within each woman and ultimately these shifts manifest externally as well in their relationships to one another and to the family and friends that they left behind in England.

By the time I reached the end of the book, I felt as if a bit of San Salvatore’s transformational magic had been worked on me as well.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Moments of Epiphany

(Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity)

James Joyce has been credited with coining the literary usage of the term “epiphany”. In Writing Short Stories Ailsa Cox sums it up thus:

Joyce coined the term ‘epiphany’ to describe a moment of intense insight, which briefly illuminates the whole of existence. In image-based fiction, it serves as an emotional turning point, replacing the moment of outward revelation or decisive action which performs this function in a story dependent on plot. In a plot-driven story, a revelation leads towards a final resolution grounded in external action. An epiphany in image-based fiction hints at subjective, personal meanings hidden beneath the surface, which may or may not lead to action.


Epiphanies are usually invisible and private. On the outside, things seem pretty much as usual. It’s very important that they take place inside the everyday, subtly altering the character’s perceptions and making time seem to stand still.

“The Dead” is regarded by many as an exemplar of the centrality of the epiphany to the short story form. Typically, the epiphany in the story is pinpointed as occurring in the final pages after Gabriel’s wife Gretta tells him of her youthful romance with Michael Furey. I read the story with all this in mind and I don’t dispute this characterization. But I see “The Dead” as a story not of a single epiphany but of many such moments that build to that final one.

It seems to me that the most significant of those moments occur in Gabriel’s interactions with women: first in his brief exchange with Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, upon arrival at the party, then in his “row” with Miss Ivors the “enthusiast” and “propagandist,” and finally in his response to Gretta’s revelation of a romantic past into which he has apparently never before thought to inquire.

First Lily:

‘O, then,’ said Gabriel gaily, ‘I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?”

The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness: ‘The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.’

Gabriel coloured, as if he felt he had made a mistake and, without looking at her, kicked off his galoshes and flicked actively with his muffler at his patent-leather shoes.

This exchange “cast[s] a gloom over him” and causes him to doubt the speech he has prepared to deliver later:

He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.

Later he is similarly discomfited by an encounter on the dance floor with Miss Ivors:

‘O, innocent Amy! I have found out that you write for The Daily Express. Now, aren't you ashamed of yourself?’

‘Why should I be ashamed of myself?’ asked Gabriel, blinking his eyes and trying to smile.

‘Well, I'm ashamed of you,’ said Miss Ivors frankly. ‘To say you'd write for a paper like that. I didn't think you were a West Briton.’

A look of perplexity appeared on Gabriel's face. It was true that he wrote a literary column every Wednesday in The Daily Express, for which he was paid fifteen shillings. But that did not make him a West Briton surely. The books he received for review were almost more welcome than the paltry cheque. He loved to feel the covers and turn over the pages of newly printed books. Nearly every day when his teaching in the college was ended he used to wander down the quays to the second-hand booksellers, to Hickey's on Bachelor's Walk, to Web's or Massey's on Aston's Quay, or to O'Clohissey's in the bystreet. He did not know how to meet her charge. He wanted to say that literature was above politics. But they were friends of many years' standing and their careers had been parallel, first at the University and then as teachers: he could not risk a grandiose phrase with her. He continued blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmured lamely that he saw nothing political in writing reviews of books.

Miss Ivors repeats the charge once more and the incident rankles: “[S]he had no right to call him a West Briton before people, even in joke. She had tried to make him ridiculous before people, heckling him and staring at him with her rabbit's eyes.” And later: “It unnerved him to think that she would be at the supper-table, looking up at him while he spoke with her critical quizzing eyes. Perhaps she would not be sorry to see him fail in his speech.”

Each of these incidents undercuts his public persona and forces Gabriel to, at least briefly, confront the contradictions within him. As such, they presage this crucial moment near the end of the story in the hotel room with Gretta:

A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.

Of course this alone is not the epiphany. Still to come is his consciousness of how little he really knows Gretta, and of his own mortality:

Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few questions to contemplate:

1. The story is told almost entirely from Gabriel’s point of view. Why then does it begin before he arrives at the party?

2. I’m sure that I would get something more out of this story if I had a more solid sense of the political and religious context. This is not so much a question as a general plea to anyone who can offer up a bit of knowledge about Irish society at the time in which the story is set. For example, this is the first place I’ve encountered the term “West Briton.” I’m aware of a point in time when Scotland was known as “North Britain” and of the resentment that generated. Is a reference to the Irish as “West Britons” a parallel thing or perhaps something still more fraught? I was also intrigued by the bit about women being kicked out of the church choirs. What was going on in the Catholic church at that time? And what of Mr. Browne described by Mary Jane as being “of the other persuasion”? Does that mean he was Protestant? What would social relationships between Catholics and Protestants have been like in that part of Ireland at that time? Does that explain anything about the role Browne plays in the company?

3. Gabriel dismisses his aunts at one point as “two ignorant old women.” I realize that they’re not as well educated as Gabriel nor are they as well travelled. But why doesn’t their musical expertise, their knowledge of opera and so on, give them some cultural cachet in Gabriel’s eyes? Is he looking down on them as provincial in the very way that he so resented his mother looking down on his wife as “country cute”?

4. Who exactly are “the dead” of the title?

My favourite thing about the story: that gorgeous final paragraph. That’s a perfect ending if ever I’ve read one.

Click over to A Curious Singularity for other perspectives on James Joyce's "The Dead," and then join in the discussion of the story at MetaxuCafe.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Lewis Buzbee on the Bookstore as a Public Space

Lewis Buzbee on the bookstore as a public space:

The unspoken rules we’ve developed for the bookstore are quite different from the rules that govern other retail enterprises. While the bookstore is most often privately held, it honors a public claim on its time and space. It is not a big-box store where one buys closets of toilet paper or enough Tabasco sauce for the apocalypse; nor is it a tony boutique that sells prestige in the shape of sequined dresses or rare gems; and it’s no convenience store either, raided for a six-pack, cigarettes, and a Nutty Buddy on the way home from a hard day at work. The cash register’s chime does not define how long we can linger. A bookstore is for hanging out. Often for hours.

From Lewis Buzbee, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: a memoir, a history (2006).

Saturday, September 09, 2006

More Margaret Atwood

There are several highly quotable bits in an article about Margaret Atwood in today’s Globe and Mail. Here are a few.

On autobiography:

“If I were going to write an autobiography,” she says, “I'd feel compelled by truth.”

“Are you going to write an autobiography?”

“No. Why bother? Everyone thinks you're lying.”

On working out at a gym:

“Every once in a while, I join some gym and hope I'll follow through on it. But I'm too busy. To take a slice out of your life to go jump up and down seems an amazing waste of time. The discipline in my life all has to do with writing and the laundry. I don't have room for any more discipline.”

On the supposed dumbing-down of contemporary culture:

Unlike many observers of social trends, Atwood doesn't subscribe to the conventional wisdom about the relentless dumbing-down of the culture. She thinks smartness itself may take different forms that the older generation cannot recognize. “It's like birds,” she says. “People thought birds were stupid because they had very small brains. But you could not match the memory of a chickadee. You could not do it. They can remember exactly where they put every seed and they never come back to the same place twice.” Similarly, “it may be that the younger generation is smart in ways we don't identify as being smart.”

Click here to read the whole article. It should be accessible for a couple of days before disappearing behind a subscription wall.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Distinctive Blogging Voices

Several months ago, Dorothy W. wrote:

If the voice in an essay is interesting, it almost doesn't matter what the subject is. I read them for the personality, the sense of the author that lies behind the words, and I think that's what I enjoy about blogs too. I want a sense of a personality coming through.

I agreed then, and I was forcefully reminded of her point recently when I realized that I could recognize the voices of many of my favourite bloggers even when I encountered them without their names attached.

There are a couple of blogs that I visit several times a day, not because I greedily anticipate more than one post, but because their authors have a genius not just for penning interesting posts but for provoking interesting comments. Commenters respond to the post and, as comments accumulate, respond to one another’s comments, and a lively conversation develops. I keep checking back to see if more people have weighed in on the topic under discussion, and what they’ve said about it, and whether the author of the post has resurfaced in the comments section to respond.

It’s in these comments sections that I found I could recognize bloggers’ voices out of context. Well, not entirely out of context. Communities of litbloggers develop around shared interests and it’s not at all surprising to repeatedly encounter one another visiting the same blogs. But when you visit a blogger at home, you know whose post you’re reading. Whereas in the comments section of someone else’s blog, you often read several sentences before you scroll down far enough to see the signature.

Not long ago, I was reading a comment and thinking to myself, This must be BlogLily. I’d recognize that voice anywhere. When I got to the signature, sure enough it was. Since then it’s become a bit of a game with me—like trying to identify the song that’s playing on the radio from the first few bars. I’ve found that within a sentence or two, I can usually recognize Dorothy W., Litlove, BikeProf, Ella, Stefanie, Danielle, or Victoria, as the author of a comment. And, given the opportunity, I’m quite sure that I could similarly identify the voices of other favourite bloggers.

There are a couple of listservs to which I have belonged for several years. In that context, as I get to know people that I’ve never met in person, I develop a visual image of them. I’ve realized that I don’t conjure up visual images of bloggers the same way; rather, I imagine what their voices sound like. Identifying the authors of comments has something to do with content—familiarity with their literary tastes and preoccupations through regular reading of their own blogs. But it also has much to do with tone; I feel as if I can recognize the sound of their voices.

I’d love to think that this phenomenon demonstrates my fabulous powers of deduction but of course it’s not that at all. What it demonstrates is the distinctive, compelling quality of these bloggers’ voices.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

David Long on Stories and Novels

David Long on the difference between writing stories and novels:

Stories are tough. It's not that writing a short story is harder than writing a novel, but writing a book of short stories is really difficult—for me, at least. My last collection, Blue Spruce, represented seven years of work. A book of stories is all beginnings and endings, each of which has to be just right. Whereas a novel is mostly middle. If you get stuck while writing a story, then you're just stuck. But in a novel you can go and work on a different place.

[Note: For those participating in Carl V.’s Autumn Reading Challenge, David Long’s new novel, The Inhabited World, sounds like a good prospect—a most unconventional ghost story. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m sufficiently intrigued by what I’ve read about it to add it to my list.]

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Preview of Margaret Atwood's New Book

There was a ripple of excitement across the convention floor at Book Expo Canada back in June when it was announced that Margaret Atwood had arrived to do a signing. I lined up along with everybody else. Alas I was after a book not a signature, and it soon became apparent that no advance copies of Atwood’s new short story collection, Moral Disorder, were being distributed. But we weren’t sent home empty handed. We were each given a nice little chapbook containing one story from the new collection to serve as a preview.

Moral Disorder is a collection of linked short stories which trace the life of the central character from her 1940s childhood through to the present day. The story contained in the chapbook is titled “The Art of Cooking and Serving” and, though I understand it’s not the opening story of the collection, it is chronologically the first. In it, the narrator recounts the story of her eleventh summer which she spent waiting anxiously for the birth of her sister. She explains:

I was knitting this layette because my mother was expecting. I avoided the word pregnant, as did others: pregnant was a blunt, bulgy, pendulous word, it weighed you down to think about it, whereas expecting suggested a dog with its ears pricked, listening briskly and with happy anticipation to an approaching footstep. My mother was old for such a thing: I’d gathered this by eavesdropping while she talked with her friends in the city, and from the worried wrinkles on the foreheads of the friends, and from their compressed lips and tiny shakes of the head, and from their Oh dear tone, and from my mother saying she would just have to make the best of it. I gathered that something might be wrong with the baby because of my mother’s age; but wrong how, exactly? I listened as much as I could, but I couldn’t make it out, and there was no one I could ask.

Later she continues:

The danger that loomed was so vague, and therefore so large—how could I even prepare for it? At the back of my mind, my feat of knitting was a sort of charm, like the fairy-tale suits of nettles mute princesses were supposed to make for their swan-shaped brothers, to turn them back into human beings. If I could only complete the full set of baby garments, the baby that was supposed to fit inside them would be conjured into the world, and thus out of my mother. Once outside, where I could see it—once it had a face—it could be dealt with. As it was, the thing was a menace.

As the story unfolds, we see the narrator growing up under pressure, her relationship with her mother shifting, and the contours of her future relationship with her sister being determined. Everything that is to come is tantalizingly hinted at in two perfect final paragraphs. I’d like to quote them to illustrate my point but I don’t want to spoil the end of the story for anyone so I’ll resist.

A new book by Margaret Atwood is always an exciting prospect to me. That it is a collection of short stories, and a collection of linked stories at that—perhaps my favourite literary form—makes it still more exciting. Needless to say, the marvellous sample story with its tantalizing ending has ratcheted up my anticipation even further. Happily, I need wait no longer, nor need most of you, at least not much longer. Moral Disorder went on sale in Canada today and in the UK yesterday, and it’s due to be released in the US on September 19th. I’m off to track down a copy. I promise a full report once I’ve read it.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Next Up at the Short Story Discussion Group

Next up at the short story discussion group is James Joyce’s "The Dead", a story from his 1914 collection The Dubliners.

The discussion will begin on Tuesday, September 12th. Participants are invited to begin posting their thoughts on the story at A Curious Singularity on that day. If you’re not yet a member of the short story discussion group and you would like to join, please e-mail me. Of course, anyone can contribute through the comments sections of the posts without officially joining the group.

I look forward to the discussion!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Patricia Highsmith on Writing and Perseverance

Patricia Highsmith on writing and perseverance:

A book is not a thing of one sitting, like a poem, but a longish thing which takes time and energy, and since it takes skill, too, the first effort or maybe the second may not find a market. A writer should not think he is bad, or finished, if this happens, and of course writers with real drive will not. Every failure teaches something. You should have the feeling, as every experienced writer has, that there are more ideas where that one came from, more strength where the first strength came from, and that you are inexhaustible as long as you are alive. This requires an optimistic turn of mind, to say the least, and if you don’t have it by nature, it has to be created artificially. You have to talk yourself into it sometimes.

From Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1983).

Friday, September 01, 2006

Autumn Reading Challenge

On the whole, I like to keep my reading list flexible. Required reading brings out the rebel in me, even when I’m the one dictating which reading is required. Thus I’ve not yet been tempted by any of the reading challenges that have circulated round the litblogosphere. Nor do I respond well to scary books. So you wouldn’t think that Carl V.’s R.I.P. Autumn Reading Challenge would be the one to finally lure me in. The challenge he’s set is to read at least five books that fit the “broad criteria of being scary, eerie, moody, dripping with atmosphere, gothic, unsettling, etc.” between now and Halloween.

But thanks to the Slaves of Golconda, I’ve got a head start on this one with The Island of Dr. Moreau. How much creepier does it get than an assortment of mutilated beast-men stalking our hero about an island on which he is trapped in the company of a mad scientist? And while reading it, I began to wonder about the extent to which H.G. Wells was influenced by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a classic that I haven’t yet read. Another in this vein that I’ve been meaning to read is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a copy of which I bought recently while exploring Robert Louis Stevenson’s Edinburgh haunts. Then there’s Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw in which my interest was piqued by one of Litlove’s recent posts. (Incidentally, I think Litlove is tied with Danielle for the title of litblogger whose posts most consistently increase my TBR pile to alarming heights.) And also Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise Longue, recommended by Emily and Iliana in comments on Litlove’s aforementioned post.

Other possibilities include Coraline by Neil Gaiman which, children’s book or no, sounds terrifying (see what Mrs. Book World had to say about it in a recent post); Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier which I’ve long been meaning to read; and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue which I’ve not yet read despite the fact that many assign it a key role in spawning the mystery genre that I love so well.

No doubt many other possibilities will capture my interest as I follow the progress of other participants in the challenge. I’m certainly open to any and all suggestions, especially of more gothic titles. For example, I’d love to know what’s on the reading list of the American Gothic class that BikeProf teaches.

I think that I can manage to read five titles from this myriad of possibilities before Halloween. So, Carl V., count me in. But I’m blaming you if I don’t get much sleep over the next two months with all this scary stuff occupying my imagination!