Monday, October 30, 2006

November Reading Challenge

There’s only one day left in October and I’ve still got one scary book left to read to complete Carl V.’s R.I.P. Autumn Reading Challenge. What better time to make grand plans for next month…

Remembrance Day falls on November 11th in Canada and in honour of that Kailana has proposed a November Challenge: to read at least three books over the course of the month set during World War I or II. I’ve scanned my TBR shelves and found several books that fit the bill by virtue of their setting or subject:

Restless by William Boyd;
A Richer Dust: Family, Memory, and the Second World War
     by Robert Calder;
Love, Sex and War: 1939-1945 by John Costello;
I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors by Bernice Eisenstein;
Brass Buttons and Silver Horseshoes: Stories from Canada’s
     British War Brides
by Linda Granfield;
The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson;
The Friends of Meager Fortune by David Adams Richards;
Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille
     by Rosemary Sullivan;
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters; and,
The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume I: 1915-1919.

I’m not sure precisely which ones, but I’ll plan to read three from that list in November. Plus I’ll toss in a re-read of L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside which is an unparalleled fictional depiction of life on the home front during World War I.

Who else is planning to join in this challenge?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Pitch-Perfect Voice

Guy Vanderhaeghe on Richard Ford’s new novel:

The Lay of the Land qualifies as a bona fide page-turner, a book that keeps the reader up late at night eager to find out what happened to whom and how. But for me, the chief delight of the novel is its narrator's winning, pitch-perfect voice. In his stories, Ford strips the chassis clean, reducing wind resistance, paring his vehicle down to the bare essentials. In contrast, the prose of The Lay of the Land provides a ride in a high-end automobile, replete with deluxe appointments, driven by an assured chauffeur who glides you smoothly through the New Jersey landscape, calling your attention to interesting views, passing on pertinent anthropological information about the inhabitants and playing the perfect raconteur.

For the rest of the review which appeared in today’s Globe and Mail, click here.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Seon Manley on Greenwich Village

Seon Manley on Greenwich Village:

The Village! In the first place, every young writer had to live sometime in Greenwich Village. After that, Paris perhaps, but certainly Greenwich Village first. It didn’t matter whether you would ever write a word, whether it was all just some dream—just the desire seemed to drive you down the streets of the Village. Hadn’t they all been here before us? The good and the not-so-good, writing in attics, in basements, pounding typewriters and pounding the streets in an effort to find copy, to find publishers, to find the future.

From Seon Manley, My Heart’s in Greenwich Village (1969).

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Fictitious Reading Series 7

The seventh instalment of The Fictitious Reading Series will take place on Sunday, October 29th 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 George K. Ilsley and Susan Kernohan. The evening will include readings by George and Susan, as well as an informal onstage interview with them. I will serve as host and Stuart Ross will conduct the interview.

George K. Ilsley is the author of two books of fiction, the acclaimed short story collection Random Acts of Hatred, and, most recently, the novel ManBug. ManBug was lauded in the Globe and Mail as "an elegantly accomplished postmodern love story" that "delivers keen intellectual and aesthetic pleasures," while Xtra! pronounced it "touching and quite steamy." ManBug was one of three nominees for the litblog co-op’s Autumn 2006 Read This! Selection. George is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School but rather than settling into the life of a lawyer thereafter, he opted to travel the world and take on such diverse jobs as wok cook, props-maker, and rabbit rancher. He is originally from Nova Scotia and now lives in Vancouver.

Susan Kernohan is currently at work on a short story collection titled Dead Man’s Pajamas. Her stories have been published in several Canadian magazines including subTerrain, The New Quarterly, and This Magazine, and in the anthology All Sleek and Skimming. Susan works as a teen services librarian. She grew up in Sarnia, and lived in Thunder Bay, Guelph, London and Montreal before making her home in Toronto.

For more information on the series, see the Fictitious website.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Five Things Meme

Following Litlove, Dorothy W., and Danielle, here are five things that most of you don’t know about me:

1. I skipped grade three. I gather that the current conventional wisdom is that this is a bad idea so schools rarely skip students ahead now. But I can’t say I’ve ever felt a gaping hole in my life where grade three ought to be. I never felt at a disadvantage because the majority of my classmates were a year older than me. The only time that I can recollect age becoming an issue was in university when my friends reached legal drinking age before I did. But then, that’s what fake ID is for...

2. In my early teens, my best friend and my worst enemy were twins. This state of affairs no doubt said more about the twins’ relationship with each other than about mine with either of them.

3. In high school, I was a fan of both punk and heavy metal music. I didn’t experience this as a contradiction. My thought was that if you take each of these genres to its extreme, they wrap around and blur into a similar sound. My friends of these musical persuasions disagreed, so I had to hang out with them in shifts. Fortunately a wardrobe in which black leather predominated worked well in both worlds.

4. I consider it the height of decadence (in a good way) to go alone to see a movie at the cinema in the afternoon.

5. I used to be a distance runner. My greatest ambition was to one day run the Boston Marathon. In the intervening years, recurring knee injuries have made it difficult to run at all. I have come to terms with the fact that I’m unlikely ever to run any marathon, let alone a prestigious affair like Boston that requires a qualifying time to enter. Despite this, I believe that I maintain a runner’s sensibility (although, alas, not a runner’s physique).

I was casting about for a literary connection in all this, since I do my best to stick to theme here. Then I tracked the meme back to its source and found that it did indeed have a literary genesis. The whole idea behind asking various bloggers to list five things about themselves was to collect material for writing. I must say that as I thought about aspects of myself and my experience that I could share here, it occurred to me that there was some rich material there that I haven’t yet mined for stories. Those twins for example—I really ought to write a story that features a pair of twins at odds with one another.

I'm very curious about what five things those of you who haven't yet chimed in on this meme might be inclined to share about yourself...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Never in the Papers

Ernest Hemingway in a 1950 letter to Robert Cantwell:

A man can’t stay home all the time and when he goes out if anything happens it is in the papers. It is never in the papers that you wake at first light and start working; nor that you serve your country … Nor that all the ambition you have ever had is to be the best American prose writer and work at it hard…

Quoted in Larry W. Phillips, ed., Ernest Hemingway on Writing (1984).

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Extreme Lit

Mark Z. Danielewski on his new novel Only Revolutions:

It’s kind of extreme lit: It’s for those people who want to free-climb a cliff or go for a triathlon. There needs to be work out there for people who want to challenge their minds and go for something a little heavier or heartier or more complex.

For the rest of the interview which appeared in today's Globe & Mail, click here.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Blog-Enriched Reading

I stopped by my university library on the way home from work today and came away with four blog-inspired choices:

Bryher’s The Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoirs which has been on my wish list since Matt Cheney wrote about it at The Mumpsimus several months ago;

Angela Smith’s Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Public of Two which I was inspired to seek out by recent discussions at A Curious Singularity;

Gabriel Josipovici’s The Lessons of Modernism which Mark Thwaite mentioned recently in a post on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse at ReadySteadyBlog; and,

Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt from which Terry Teachout has been posting a series of tantalizing excerpts this week at About Last Night.

As I made my way from the library to the bus stop with these tomes in hand, I reflected on the extraordinary extent to which the literary blogosphere has enriched my reading life. I frequently find myself prompted by a blog post to pick up a book that I might not otherwise have heard of or been interested in. And, of course, it’s not just a matter of book recommendations broadening my reading, but also of critical commentary deepening my reading. Blog posts regularly inspire, challenge, and sometimes even anger me.

It takes a great deal of time and effort to maintain a blog and I am so grateful to all of you who do so. Not just to those I mentioned above, but also to all of the excellent bloggers listed on my sidebar to the right, to the many MetaxuCafé members whose blogs I visit through the headlines page, and to those who contribute many bookish insights through the comments sections of this and other blogs. Thanks to one and all.

That I should have access to this vast, stimulating universe without so much as leaving my house seems nothing short of magic.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Matt Cheney on George K. Ilsley’s ManBug

Check out Matt Cheney’s post at the litblog co-op on why George K. Ilsley’s novel ManBug was his nomination for the Autumn 2006 Read This! Selection. For those of you in Toronto, you will soon have the opportunity to hear Ilsley read from ManBug. He will appear, along with Susan Kernohan, at the next instalment of The Fictitious Reading Series on October 29th.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Edgar Allen Poe on the Tale

Edgar Allen Poe on the tale:

In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one preestablished design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.

From Edgar Allen Poe, "Review of Twice-Told Tales" (1842); Reprinted in Charles E. May, ed., Short Story Theories (1976).

Monday, October 16, 2006

A Socially Unproductive Profession

     The novel. Driving through the dusty haze of a soft summer evening to Victoria’s apartment building, I reflect on my metamorphosis into an author.
     I still regard the idea of the book as a master stroke. Not, mind you, the idea for the book, but the idea of the book. After being unemployed for a full twelve months I had to invent a plausible occupation. People were always asking me what I did. I didn’t do anything. I was simply unemployed, which doesn’t qualify as an activity but is, rather more accurately, a state of being. In the animal kingdom it has its metaphorical equivalent in the hibernation of the bear or the woodchuck, or in the pupal stage of various insects. Or so most people seem to think. Particularly employers who never want to hire anyone who isn’t already working for someone else.
     So one day, in answer to the inevitable question as to what I did, I replied that I was a writer. It just popped into my head. I noted a cessation of embarrassing questions. The news circulated among Victoria’s friends and my acquaintances. Nobody questioned my sincerity. It appears they regarded this profession as socially unproductive enough to appeal to me.
     The strangest thing was that this public confession got me writing. Sort of. I admit I have spent more time thinking about writing than actually writing, and even more time talking about writing than actually writing. But still, if one announces one’s membership in that illustrious company of joyous spirits, living and dead, who have judged the pen mightier than the sword, one had better evince loyalty to the side and scribble.
     However, from experience I can testify that authorship is a trying, taxing business. It is particularly so in my case because I can’t seem to get interested in writing about what I ought to be writing about. I mean, after all, I was once a seriously considered candidate for a Canada Council grant, a genuine copper-bottomed A-student with a double major in English Literature and Philosophy. I was going to ship out for England and write a dissertation.
     Consequently, I am capable of bandying around the names of some pretty thoughtful people: Blaise Pascal, Soloviev, Ellul and even Simone Weil. I was even forced to read some of their books. In fact, at one time I had a very strong affection for Soren Kierkegaard, who, at least in the flesh, seemed to have much the same effect on people that I have. Like me, the gnarled little Dane didn’t mix well at parties, was inclined to goad people into a frenzy, and made too much of a love affair.
     Because of my exposure to great thoughts I feel a vague obligation not to reflect too badly on my education. I feel I ought to at least take a shot at a Big Book. Somehow I can’t seem to manage it.

From Guy Vanderhaeghe, “Sam, Soren, and Ed” in Man Descending: Selected Stories (1982).

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Virginia Woolf on the Novel

I’ve just read “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”, a marvellous 1924 essay by Virginia Woolf on the novel. In it, she uses the device of one Mrs. Brown, a stranger whom she encountered one evening in a railway carriage and immediately began to speculate about, to demonstrate the shift underway in the form of the novel between Edwardian writers (exemplified by Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells, and John Galsworthy) and Georgian writers (exemplified by E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce). Reading it, I was reminded of what an incomparably brilliant essayist Woolf is. Oddly, reading Woolf’s criticism of Bennett’s fiction also helped me to clarify what it is that I recently found wanting in a story of her own, “Kew Gardens.” I’ll save those thoughts for a later post at A Curious Singularity (to be written after I’ve had some time to mull over the extent to which Woolf’s ideas about the novel apply to the short story form). But in the meantime, let me offer a series of excerpts from her essay for your own mulling pleasure:

Here is Mrs. Brown making someone begin almost automatically to write a novel about her. I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character—not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved.


And so [the Edwardians] have developed a technique of novel writing which suits their purpose; they have made tools and established conventions which do their business. But those tools are not our tools, and that business is not our business. For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death.

You may well complain of the vagueness of my language. What is a convention, a tool, you may ask, and what do you mean by saying that Mr. Bennett’s and Mr. Wells’ and Mr. Galsworthy’s conventions are the wrong conventions for the Georgians? The question is difficult: I will attempt a short cut. A convention in writing is not much different from a convention in manners. Both in life and in literature it is necessary to have some means of bridging the gulf between the hostess and her unknown guest on the one hand, the writer and his unknown reader on the other. The hostess bethinks herself of the weather, for generations of hostesses have established the fact that this is a subject of universal interest in which we all believe. She begins by saying that we are having a wretched May, and, having thus got into touch with her unknown guest, proceeds to matters of greater interest. So it is in literature. The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognizes, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to cooperate in the far more difficult business of intimacy. And it is of the highest importance that this common meeting-place should be reached easily, almost instinctively, in the dark, with one’s eyes shut.


This is what I mean by saying that the Edwardian tools are the wrong ones for us to use. They have laid an enormous stress on the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings that live there. To give them their due, they have made that house much better, worth living in. But if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it. Therefore, you see, the Georgian writer had to begin by throwing away the method that was in use at the moment. He was left alone there facing Mrs. Brown without any method of conveying her to the reader. But that is inaccurate. A writer is never alone. There is always the public with him—if not on the same seat, at least in the compartment next door.


Such, I think, was the predicament in which the young Georgians found themselves about the year 1910. Many of them—I am thinking of Mr. Forster and Mr. Lawrence in particular—spoilt their early work because, instead of throwing away those tools, they tried to use them. They tried to compromise. They tried to combine their own direct sense of the oddity and significance of some character with Mr. Galsworthy's knowledge of the Factory Acts, and Mr. Bennett's knowledge of the Five Towns. They tried it, but they had too keen, too overpowering a sense of Mrs. Brown and her peculiarities to go on trying it much longer. Something had to be done. At whatever cost to life, limb, and damage to valuable property Mrs. Brown must be rescued, expressed, and set in her high relations to the world before the train stopped and she disappeared for ever. And so the smashing and the crashing began.


But, instead of being gloomy, I am sanguine. For this state of things is, I think, inevitable whenever from hoar old age or callow youth the convention ceases to be a means of communication between writer and reader, and becomes instead an obstacle and an impediment. At the present moment we are suffering, not from decay, but from having no code of manners which writers and readers accept as a prelude to the more exciting intercourse of friendship. The literary convention of the time is so artificial—you have to talk about the weather and nothing but the weather throughout the entire visit—that, naturally, the feeble are tempted to outrage, and the strong are led to destroy the very foundations and rules of literary society.


I have given an account of some of the difficulties which in my view beset the Georgian writer in all his forms. I have sought to excuse him. May I end by venturing to remind you of the duties and responsibilities that are yours as partners in this business of writing books, as companions in the railway carriage, as fellow travellers with Mrs. Brown? For she is just as visible to you who remain silent as to us who tell stories about her.


Your part is to insist that writers shall come down off their plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown. You should insist that she is an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety; capable of appearing in any place; wearing any dress; saying anything and doing heaven knows what. But the things she says and the things she does and her eyes and her nose and her speech and her silence have an overwhelming fascination, for she is, of course, the spirit we live by, life itself.

But do not expect just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment of her. Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction—we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown.

In singling out this series of passages, I’ve tried to isolate just one thread of her argument. Of course in doing so I’ve cut out a great deal of what makes the essay so interesting and engaging. If these bits have sparked your interest, I highly encourage you to track down a copy of "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" and read the whole of it.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Another Day, Another Book Sale

My primary goal in attending this week’s big book sale was to round out my Virginia Woolf collection in anticipation of the reading project that I mentioned the other day. I did rather well on that count, picking up four of the novels and one of the essay collections that I didn’t yet own. But of course I didn’t stop there. I found a raft of books to feed my current obsession with the novel as a literary form. Then I came across a few bargain editions of books I’ve read multiple times but inexplicably didn’t have copies of in my collection. Plus a selection of memoirs, essays, and letters that I’ve been after for a while. Plus a few short story collections by authors whose work I’ve become increasingly interested in of late thanks to discussions at A Curious Singularity. And finally, a couple of fiction titles that I’ve been meaning to buy for ages. You can see why I didn’t restrain myself.

Here’s the grand list:

Miriam Allott, Novelists on the Novel;
The Personal Papers of Anton Chekhov: his notebook diary
     and letters on writing
(translated by S.S. Koteliansky,
     Leonard Woolf, and Constance Garnett);
Robertson Davies, World of Wonders;
Robert Murray Davis, ed., The Novel: Modern Essays in Criticism;
John Halperin, ed., The Theory of the Novel: New Essays;
John Lent, So It Won’t Go Away;
Katherine Mansfield, Bliss;
Mary McCarthy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood;
Mary McCarthy, The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays;
Lorrie Moore, Birds of America;
Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop;
Cynthia Ozick, Metaphor & Memory;
Grace Paley, Enormous Changes at the last minute;
Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins
     (John Hall Wheelock, ed.);
Robert Scholes, ed., Approaches to the Novel: Materials for a Poetics;
Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the
Philip Stevick, ed., The Theory of the Novel;
Guy Vanderhaeghe, Man Descending;
Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel;
Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room;
Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out;
Virginia Woolf, The Waves;
Virginia Woolf, The Years; and,
Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader.

There’s yet another such book sale next week. At the rate I’m going, perhaps I ought to sit that one out…

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Pleasures of the Editing Process

I’ve been enjoying recent accounts by BlogLily and BikeProf of the progress of their fiction writing. They’ve left me feeling inspired but, I must admit, also rather envious. BikeProf is just beginning a novel but is giving himself up to a daily compulsion to write and is progressing with astonishing speed. BlogLily is in the final phase of drafting her novel which she evocatively describes as “the great downhill.” Me, I’m fathoms deep in the final edits of the short story manuscript that is due to be published in the Spring. Alas, this endeavour is not provoking any moments of euphoria to parallel those that my fellow writers describe in connection with their drafting processes.

That is not to say that the editing process doesn’t have its own pleasures. Chief among them is that, after working in solitude for months and years, suddenly, in the person of your editor, you have a reader. Not just any reader either, but possibly the most attentive reader you’ll ever have. Your editor is paying close attention to every word, every nuance. If your editor doesn’t get what you’re trying to convey, chances are that no one else will either. Yes, the editor is critical; that’s her job. But she’s critical in the service of your work. She is almost as committed as you are to making your book the best book it can be. Of course, all of this is true only if the editor is a good one. Happily, the editor with whom I am working is a very good one.

I confess that I meet nearly every suggestion for change that she puts to me with a knee-jerk moment of resistance. But I’ve found that once I let that moment pass, I generally come around to the view that the suggestion was warranted. More than once, she has put her finger directly on a line or a passage about which I was already harbouring secret doubts. And addressing those doubts, putting them to rest before sending the book out into the world, is precisely the point of the exercise.

That brings me to the second great pleasure of the editing process: it marks the end, the completion of the book that you have been working on for so long. Your book is on the cusp of being sent out into the world, hopefully to meet many more readers. And once it’s out of your hands? Well, then it’s time to move on to the next one. The prospect awaits of the giddy beginning of a first draft of something new, to be followed eventually by the euphoric downhill ride to the finish…

Patricia Highsmith on Being in Tune With One’s Book

Patricia Highsmith on being in tune with one’s book:

Good books write themselves, and this can be said from a small but successful book like Ripley to longer and greater works of literature. If the writer thinks about his material long enough, until it becomes a part of his mind and his life, and he goes to bed and wakes up thinking about it—then at last when he starts to work, it will flow out as if by itself. A writer should feel geared to his book during the time he is writing it, whether that takes six weeks, six months, a year or more. It is wonderful the way bits of information, faces, names, anecdotes, all kinds of impressions that come in from the outside world during the writing period, will be usable in the book, if one is in tune with the book and its needs. Is the writer attracting the right things, or is some process keeping out the wrong ones? Probably it’s a mixture of both.

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

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Meandering Through Kew Gardens

(Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity)

On first reading, Virginia Woolf’s "Kew Gardens" seems a meandering sort of story. But on closer investigation, it becomes apparent that the meandering quality is a deliberate effect and that beneath it lies a precise, careful structure.

The story opens and closes with paragraphs of detailed, sensuous description, funnelling from general to specific and back again. In between there are four main sections, each of which focuses on a pair of people walking in the garden. The first and the fourth are mirror images of one another, and so too to an extent are the second and the third. Layered in between each of the sections is a return to the flowerbed which keeps the stories within the story rooted in the same bit of earth. The effect is rather like the closing image of "a nest of Chinese boxes [...] turning ceaselessly one within another."

The first pair is a married couple with two children in tow. The husband, Simon, strides out ahead of his wife and children, wishing to be left alone to reminisce about a past love, Lily, to whom he once proposed. Before long however, he turns back to his wife Eleanor, wanting a witness to his memory, and she offers one of her own in exchange. Soon Simon, Eleanor, and their children are walking four abreast, all in the same moment. Eleanor had brushed off Simon’s tale from his past asking him: "Doesn’t one always think of the past, in a garden with men and women lying under the trees? Aren’t they one’s past, all that remains of it, those men and women, those ghosts lying under the trees ... one’s happiness, one’s reality?" Continuing on, they “diminished in size among the trees and looked half transparent as the sunlight and shade swam over their backs." They too have become "ghosts lying under the trees,” perhaps signifying someone else’s past, perhaps someone else’s future.

This takes me to the fourth pair, a young couple, "both in the prime of youth," or perhaps "in that season which precedes the prime of youth." Everything round about them is described in highly sexual terms. The season that precedes the prime of youth is described as that “before the smooth pink folds of the flower have burst their gummy case.” The two of them stand in the garden, she holding a parasol, he holding his hand over hers; the two of them, we are told, "together pressed the end of her parasol deep down into the soft earth.” Initially, they seem oblivious to the sexual energy that surrounds them. Their remarks to one another are described as being “uttered in toneless and monotonous voices." But finally he is overtaken by excited impatience ("it was too exciting to stand and think any longer, and he pulled the parasol out of the earth with a jerk and was impatient to find the place where one had tea with other people, like other people") and she by excited confusion ("'Wherever DOES one have one’s tea?' she asked with the oddest thrill of excitement in her voice, looking vaguely round and letting herself be drawn on down the grass path, trailing her parasol, turning her head this way and that way"). But is she Lily or Eleanor to his Simon? The way that the passage I’ve just quoted echoes one from the earlier pair suggests the former. I’m thinking of the passage in which Simon likened his love, his desire for Lily to the dragonfly that flew round about them in the interval between his proposal and her refusal: "it went round and round about: it never settled anywhere." This young couple is in a hurry to get somewhere but they don’t seem to be quite sure where, or with whom.

The second and the third pairs don’t match up quite so neatly but there is a sense in which they stand as opposites. The second pair is two men, one young and one elderly, the latter clearly losing his grip on reality, the former looking after him. The third pair is two women, both elderly, one stout and one thin. While the addled elderly gentleman of the second pair seems to ricochet back and forth from memory to memory, inhabiting several different time periods at once, the women of the third pair seem to be standing still, all of their conversations covering the same territory, so much so that they need not even be fully articulated, each day presumably much the same as the next.

Woven through these stories is a description of a snail’s progress through the flowerbed. The snail is the heartbeat of the story, the ticking of the clock. Its steady pace marks the passage of time, always consistent in spite of the erratic pace at which the various human characters are moving through the garden and through their lives.

Fascinated though I was by the story—its complex structure and the richness of the language employed—it struck me ultimately as deeply flawed, both on a surface and on a structural level. On a surface level, the weakest part for me was in the articulation of the story of the third pair, the two elderly women. Nowhere else do we get the sort of bald description with which we are introduced to these characters: "two elderly women of the lower middle class." In each of the other three pairs, the characters are revealed to us through their gestures and in their dialogue. Here, we get only compressed dialogue intended, I think, to indicate how repetitive and inconsequential the content is, despite the narrator’s description of it as “very complicated dialogue.” On its own, this compressed dialogue might be regarded as an interesting technique by which to convey a lot in a few words. But contrasting the treatment of this pair of characters with that of the other three pairs, I can’t help wondering why they in particular got such short shrift.

On a structural level, the problem is, of course, much deeper. It seems to me that, in the final analysis, the story served the structure rather than the structure serving the story. The characters, the scenes, the description—even at their best—never fully came to life. Thus, though I was strongly engaged by the story on an intellectual level, I never connected with it on an emotional level. And while it’s possible for me to get a lot out a short story that only offers one or the other, I don’t count a story as truly great unless it provokes a response on multiple levels. I’m glad that I read Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens,” but I won’t be adding it to my personal pantheon of greats.

Click over to A Curious Singularity for other perspectives on the story and to join in a discussion of it.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Composting and Composing

     'Life is compost.'
     I blinked.
     'You think that a strange thing to say, but it’s true. All my life and all my experience, the events that have befallen me, the people I have known, all my memories, dreams, fantasies, everything I have ever read, all of that has been chucked into the compost heap where over time it has rotted down to a dark, rich, organic mulch. The process of cellular breakdown makes it unrecognizable. Other people call it the imagination. I think of it as a compost heap. Every so often I take an idea, plant it in the compost, and wait. It feeds on that black stuff that used to be a life, takes its energy for its own. It germinates. Takes root. Produces shoots. And so on and so forth, until one fine day I have a story, or a novel.'
     I nodded, liking the analogy.
     'Readers,' continued Miss Winter, 'are fools. They believe all writing is autobiographical. And so it is, but not in the way they think. The writer’s life needs time to rot away before it can be used to nourish a work of fiction. It must be allowed to decay. That’s why I couldn’t have journalists and biographers rummaging around in my past, retrieving bits and pieces of it, preserving it in their words. To write my books I needed my past left in peace, for time to do its work.'

From Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale (2006).

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Nikki Giovanni on Writing from Experience

Nikki Giovanni on writing from experience:

Writers don’t write from experience, though many are resistant to admit that they don’t. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.

Quoted in Sophy Burnham, For Writers Only (1994).

Friday, October 06, 2006

Next Up at the Short Story Discussion Group

Next up at the short story discussion group is Virginia Woolf’s "Kew Gardens", a story first published in 1919.

The discussion will begin on Tuesday, October 10th. 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.

Isaac Asimov on Enduring Interruption

Isaac Asimov on enduring interruption:

Whenever I have endured or accomplished some difficult task—such as watching television, going out socially or sleeping—I always look forward to rewarding myself with the small pleasure of getting back to my typewriter and writing something. This enables me to store up enough strength to endure the next interruption.

Quoted in Sophy Burnham, For Writers Only (1994).

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Childhood Favourites

Danielle’s got a great post up about her favourite books from childhood, and about children’s classics that she missed. You’ll likely have gathered this, since I mention them at every opportunity, but my all time favourites are Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books. Sooner or later I’ll pen a post about the whole series and why I love them so. In the meantime, just to give you a taste, here’s an excerpt from a scene in which twelve-year-old Betsy makes a trip to her town’s brand new Carnegie Library in the Autumn of 1904.

     She entered a bit self-consciously, never having been in a library before. She saw an open space with a big cage in the center, a cage such as they had in the bank, with windows in it. Behind rose an orderly forest of bookcases, tall and dark, with aisles between.
     Betsy advanced to the cage and the young lady sitting inside smiled at her. She had a cozy little face, with half a dozen tiny moles. Her eyes were black and dancing. Her hair was black too, curly and untidy.
      “Are you looking for the Children’s Room?” she asked.
     Betsy beamed in response.
      “Well, not exactly. That is, I’d like to see it. But I may not want to read just in the Children’s Room.”
      “You don’t think so?” asked the young lady, sounding surprised.
      “No. You see,” explained Betsy, “I want to read the classics.”
      “You do?”
      “Yes. All of them. I hope I’m going to like them.”
     The young lady looked at her with a bright intensity. She got down off her stool.
      “I know a few you’ll like,” she said. “And they happen to be in the Children’s Room. Come on. I’ll show you.”
     The Children’s Room was exactly right for children. The tables and chairs were low. Low bookshelves lined the walls, and tempting-looking books with plenty of illustrations were open on the tables. There was a big fireplace in the room, with a fire throwing up flames and making crackling noises. Above it was the painting of a rocky island with a temple on it, called The Isle of Delos.
      “That’s one of the Greek islands,” said Miss Sparrow. Miss Sparrow was the young lady’s name; she had told Betsy so. “There’s nothing more classic than Greece,” she said. “Do you know Greek mythology? No? Then let’s begin on that.”
     She went to the shelves and returned with a book.
      “Tanglewood Tales, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mythology. Classic,” she said.
     She went back to the shelves and returned with an armful of books. She handed them to Betsy one by one.
      “Tales from Shakespeare, by Charles and Mary Lamb. Classic. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. Classic. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. Classic. Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain. Classic, going-to-be.”
     She was laughing, and so was Betsy.
      “You don’t need to read them all today,” Miss Sparrow said.
      “May I get a card and take some home?”
      “You may get a card, but you’ll have to get it signed before you draw out books. You may stay here and read though, as long as you like.”
      “Thank you,” Betsy said.

From Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown (1943).

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Giller Prize Shortlist

The shortlist for the Giller Prize was announced at a news conference this morning. Neither of the two excellent books that I was so pleased to see on the longlist made the cut (Stolen by Annette Lapointe, and Pleased to Meet You by Caroline Adderson). But since I have not yet read any of the five that did, I can't venture an opinion as to whether those omissions are an injustice. Clearly, I’ve got some reading to do!

The shortlisted books are:

1. De Niro’s Game, a novel by Rawi Hage, published by House of Anansi Press;

2. Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, a short story collection by Vincent Lam, published by Doubleday Canada;

3. The Perfect Circle, a novel by Pascale Quiviger, translated by Sheila Fischman, published by Cormorant Books;

4. The Immaculate Conception, a novel by Gaétan Soucy, translated by Lazer Lederhendler, published by House of Anansi Press; and,

5. Home Schooling, a short story collection by Carol Windley, published by Cormorant Books.

It's an unusual list. The Giller Prize is our glitziest fiction award—I think it would be fair to describe it as Canada’s equivalent to the Booker. It generally goes to a high-profile novel put out by one of the big publishing houses. Yet not one of the titles on this short list matches that description. Two of the five are short story collections rather than novels. Two of the five are translations, originally published in French by Quebec authors. And a whopping four out of five are published by small/indie presses.

I look forward to reading all five of the shortlisted books. The Giller Prize will be awarded on November 7th.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Like a Regular Book-Worm

I suspect that the real attraction was a large library of fine books, which was left to dust and spiders since Uncle March died. Jo remembered the kind old gentleman, who used to let her build railroads and bridges with his big dictionaries, tell her stories about the queer pictures in his Latin books, and buy her cards of gingerbread whenever he met her in the street. The dim, dusty room, with the busts staring down from the tall book-cases, the cosey chairs, the globes, and, best of all, the wilderness of books, in which she could wander where she liked, made the library a region of bliss to her. The moment Aunt March took her nap, or was busy with company, Jo hurried to this quiet place, and curling herself up in the easy-chair, devoured poetry, romance, history, travels, and pictures, like a regular book-worm. But, like all happiness, it did not last long; for as sure as she had just reached the heart of the story, the sweetest verse of the song, or the most perilous adventure of her traveller, a shrill voice called, “Josy-phine! Josy-phine!” and she had to leave her paradise to wind yarn, wash the poodle, or read Belsham’s Essays by the hour together.

From Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868).