Monday, December 31, 2007

Year End Tally

I read 118 books in 2007. That’s more than usual (in 2005 my total was 109, and in 2006 an even 100). I’m not surprised though, given what a busy and stressful year it’s been. That may sound counterintuitive, but when I’m crazily busy and stressed out, I’m much more likely to spend my non-work hours reading than, for example, out socializing. Under such circumstances, I relish, indeed require, the time I spend inside of books that much more.

101 of those books were fiction, and 17 non-fiction, continuing a trend away from non-fiction that I first noted last year. Perhaps in 2008 it will begin to tilt back? The fiction breaks down into 97 novels and 4 short story collections. This is many fewer short story collections than usual and I’m not sure how to account for that. If I added in all the individual stories that I read in anthologies, literary magazines and collected or selected works, the balance wouldn’t be quite so far off. Still. I think now is a good time for The Short Story Reading Challenge! The genre breakdown of the fiction is as follows: 28 literary or general fiction, 29 mystery, 25 children’s or YA, and, the surprising development, 19 fantasy. How did a genre that was scarcely a blip on my radar in previous years come to figure so prominently in this year’s reading? It’s all down to my newfound infatuation with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels—so funny and smart and politically astute. The non-fiction titles covered a range of subjects including biography, memoir, essays, travel, history, and health.

My year’s reading took on a decisively contemporary slant with 83 books from the 21st century (a full 27 of those first published in 2007), 35 from the 20th and a paltry single volume from the 19th. As is the case nearly every year, the sole 19th century author that I read was Robert Louis Stevenson. I think in 2008 I’m going to have to resolve to stretch further back in time more frequently.

My reading continues to be dominated by authors from England (42) and the U.S. (40), but with a respectable number of books by Canadians (14, a lot fewer than normal) and Scots (8) appearing in the final tally. But thanks to The Reading Across Borders Challenge, I did much better this year in reading works in translation: 11 works in translation read, rather than the usual token one or two. These eleven works were translated from Icelandic, French, Spanish, Polish, and Czech.

I usually read more books by women than men, but not this year: 64 by men, and 54 by women. Finally (and I note this here because it might explain how the male authors rocketed into the lead this year), there were a number of authors by whom I read multiple books but two in particular that dominated: Terry Pratchett (19!) and Paul Auster (8).

All in all, it was a very satisfying year’s reading.

Stay tuned for my list of ten favourites which I will post later this week.

Final Report on the Reading Across Borders Challenge

As I set about planning The Short Story Reading Challenge for 2008, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a negligent host I have been of my 2007 challenge, The Reading Across Borders Challenge. I was surprised (though delighted!) by the number of people who signed on to the latter, and while I initially attempted to maintain a complete list of participants, I soon lost track. As today is the last day of that challenge, I thought I’d try to recoup a little, offering up my own final report, and inviting participants to post their final reports, or to link to reports they’ve posted on their blogs, in the comments section below.

The idea behind the challenge was for participants to determine which countries or regions tend to dominate their reading and to commit to reading a number of books over the course of 2007 that took them beyond the borders of those countries or regions. I had discerned that my own reading was dominated by books originally written in English by authors from Canada, the U.S., and the UK, so I committed to reading ten books in 2007 by authors from elsewhere in the world, at least half of them works in translation.

I had no trouble meeting that goal but in so doing I didn’t end up ranging as far afield as I had expected. I would read one book, become enamoured with the author, then seek out their other works, then perhaps seek out books by other authors from the same region. So, rather than criss-crossing the world, I scarcely made it out of Europe. Ultimately, these are the books that I completed within the requisite timeframe:

1. Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth (Chile) (translator: Chris Andrews);
2. Grégoire Bouillier, The Mystery Guest (France) (translator: Lorin Stein);
3. Arnaldur Indridason, Jar City (Iceland) (translator: Bernard Scudder);
4. Arnaldur Indridason, Silence of the Grave (Iceland) (translator: Bernard Scudder);
5. Arnaldur Indridason, Voices (Iceland) (translator: Bernard Scudder);
6. Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder (France) (translator: Joanna Kilmartin);
7. Patrick Modiano, Out of the Dark (France) (translator: Jordan Stump);
8. Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles (Poland) (translator: Celina Wieniewska);
9. Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Last Rituals (Iceland) (translator: Bernard Scudder); and,
10. Jiří Weil, Life With a Star (Czechoslovakia) (translator: Ruzena Kovarikova with Roslyn Schloss).

Despite a more limited scope than anticipated, I certainly don’t consider the exercise a failure. What could be better than discovering new authors whose work I can’t get enough of? And, as you’ll see when I get round to posting my list of favourite reads from 2007, three of the titles on that list come from this one. But, while continuing to follow up on this year’s fabulous discoveries (more books by Roberto Bolaño, Arnaldur Indridason, Patrick Modiano, and Jiří Weil, please!), I will also endeavour next year to continue to stretch my reading horizons, this time by seeking out works by authors from beyond the borders of North America and Europe. I’ve already got books by Chinese, Egyptian, Indian, Japanese, and Nigerian authors lined up. I won’t make it an official challenge, but I will think of reading across borders as a sort of a rolling challenge to guide my reading life in perpetuity.

How did you fare with your Reading Across Borders Challenge?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Short Story Reading Challenge

Regular visitors to this blog will have gathered that I’m a keen reader of short stories, so it will come as no surprise that the challenge I propose to host in 2008 is a Short Story Reading Challenge. The blogosphere abounds with reading challenges for the new year; I’ve already committed to rather a lot of them myself. But where challenges are concerned my attitude is unequivocally “the more the merrier.” I’ve never regretted signing up for one even when I didn’t finish it, so great is the pleasure of embarking on a reading journey in the company of congenial fellows, and so great the rewards of the encounters with new authors and books thereby provoked. And the beauty of short stories for the time-strapped reader is that they are, well, short. With that in mind, I offer up a variety of forms that the Short Story Reading Challenge could take depending on your level of familiarity with short stories and on the amount of reading time you expect to have at your disposal in the coming year.

Options 1 & 2: If you’re short on time, you can simply commit to reading ten short stories by ten different authors over the course of 2008. If you’re relatively new to reading short stories, any ten will do. If you’ve already got a lot of short stories under your belt, make it ten short stories by ten writers whose work you have not yet read. How about that—a year long challenge that you could conceivably complete in the course of a day! Of course, I would encourage you not to do that but rather to heed the words of Mavis Gallant, short story writer extraordinaire, who advises:

Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.

Completing this version of the challenge could be a simple as participating in the short story discussions at A Curious Singularity throughout the year. Or picking up a short story anthology, whether of classic or contemporary stories, or of stories of a particular genre or on a particular theme, and slowly working your way through at least ten of the stories contained within. Of course, my hope is that once you get started you’ll get hooked and you’ll spiral out into other stories by those writers and more!

Options 3 & 4: If you’ve got a bit more time to devote to this endeavour, you can commit to reading between five and ten short story collections over the course of 2008. Again, if you’re a short story novice, the world is your oyster as far as selection is concerned. But if you’re a seasoned short story reader, you’ll want to choose collections by writers whose short stories you have not yet encountered.

Option 5: This is the custom option under the rubric of which you can tailor your reading list to best meet your personal reading aspirations. You might wish to craft a list that focuses on a particular place, or era, or genre. Or you might wish to include reading about short stories as well as of short stories, for example, such works as Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. It’s entirely up to you.

If you’re aiming to read individual short stories and you’re not sure where to begin, check out the list of “ten truly great short stories” that William Boyd appends to this article on the short story. I also recommend the fine list of ten favourites that the Literate Kitten compiled last spring. You can find it here, as well as some recommendations from her readers in the comments section below the post. You’ll also find some great suggestions by dropping by The Book Mine Set for “Short Story Mondays.” And you may also wish to have a look at the stories that have already been discussed at A Curious Singularity, a list of which can be found toward the bottom of the sidebar there. If you’re looking for recommendations of short story collections, I encourage you to check out the short review, an online review site with an exclusive focus on short story collections. There is also an excellent review section (and many other great short story related resources) at story, a UK site dedicated to celebrating the short story form. Finally, for recommendations of both individual stories and collections of stories, you’ll find this article in The Danforth Review to be an indispensable resource. In it, 27 writers provide their lists of what they would include if they were called upon to put together the curriculum for an introductory-level course on the short story. Of course, I’m also hoping that participants and fellow bloggers will provide further recommendations of their own favourites.

I’ve created a blog dedicated to this challenge, which you’ll find here. On it, participants can post reading lists, recommendations, and reviews of specific short stories and short story collections, as well as ruminations on and links related to the short story form more generally. If you’d like to participate in the challenge, let me know in the comments section below or via e-mail. Even if you don’t plan to participate in the challenge, please post the titles of some of your favourite shorts stories or the names of your favourite short story writers below so that participants in the challenge can benefit from your recommendations.

For my own Short Story Reading Challenge, I plan to read ten short story collections by ten writers whose work I’ve not read before. I’m in the midst of compiling my list. But before I post it, I promise to post my own list of favourites from a lifetime of short story reading, so watch this space for that.

Happy Reading!

Friday, December 28, 2007

A Dizzying Day's Reading

I felt a sudden compulsion today to read my way to the end of the many books that crowd my bedside table, each of them somewhere between a half and nine-tenths read. I finished four of them and read a good bit of a couple more. It made for a dizzying day of abrupt shifts in mood. I walked across the Cevennes with Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey Modestine, I travelled the Mississippi in a houseboat with the grieving Mary Morris, I revisited Sikeston, Missouri with Terry Teachout, I reviewed obesity research with Gina Kolata, I drifted in and out of the lives of the expatriate writers that people Roberto Bolano's short stories, and I paused now and again to savour one of George Murray's sonnets. Marvellous books every one of them and I'm not entirely sure why I've let them all languish unfinished for varying lengths of time. With the short stories and the poetry it's deliberate. I like to sit with a story or a poem for a while rather than rushing headlong into another, so it often takes me weeks and months to work my way through collections of short stories and poems. But what of the rest? In large measure it’s simply that I'm prone to reading far too many books at once. I'm an undisciplined reader who will read only the precise book that I'm in the mood for, so it's not unusual for me to put one book, even a very good book, aside in favour of another on a whim. Indeed, sometimes it's the very best books that I put aside at moments when I just don't have it in me to give them sufficient attention. I note though that novels are seldom to be found among the unfinished books. So evidently the narrative thread usually present in a novel can make a serial monogamist out of this promiscuous reader. And by contrast I can't help but think that I've been giving short shrift to the non-fiction books in drawing them out so long that I don't give myself a proper chance to appreciate them as wholes rather than as sums of parts. Perhaps next year I'll try not to stretch myself quite so thinly across so many books.

One Stirring Hour

Robert Louis Stevenson on sleeping afield:

Night is a dead monotonous period under a roof; but in the open world it passes lightly, with its stars and dews and perfumes, and the hours are marked by changes in the face of Nature. What seems a kind of temporal death to people choked between walls and curtains is only a light and living slumber to the man who sleeps afield. All night long he can hear Nature breathing deeply and freely; even as she takes her rest she turns and smiles; and there is one stirring hour unknown to those who dwell in houses, when a wakeful influence goes abroad over the sleeping hemisphere, and all the outdoor world are on their feet. It is then that the cock first crows, not this time to announce the dawn, but like a cheerful watchman speeding the course of night. Cattle awake on the meadows; sheep break their fast on dewy hillsides, and change to a new lair among the ferns; and houseless men, who have lain down with the fowls, open their dim eyes and behold the beauty of the night.

From Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879).

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Books Given and Received

I trotted out this list already in a comment on LK's blog last week, but now that the gifts are all opened, I can post it here without fear of giving away any surprises. I always buy a book or two for everyone on my Christmas list. I get such pleasure out of trying to match up each person with the right book(s). For the most part, I'm told that I do pretty well. So, on to the list.

For my dad: Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (a gloomy, atmospheric Icelandic mystery novel) and Scotland's Books: the Penguin History of Scottish Literature by Robert Crawford.

For my mom: Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear and Findings by Kathleen Jamie (a wonderful book of natural history essays by a Scottish poet).

For my brother: Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin and The Book of Dave by Will Self.

For my 13-year old-niece: Enter Three Witches by Caroline Cooney and How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.

For my 10-year-old niece: Wild Girls by Pat Murphy.

And for Eric: This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin and Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music by Phil Ramone.

As for books received, well, no one gave me any books. But before you start feeling sorry for me, let me assure you it's not that nobody loves me nor that the people who love me don't know how much I love books. It's just that they've noted a distinct lack of control on my part when it comes to book buying and they've sensibly concluded that if I want a book, chances are I've already got it. However, I followed Bloglily's example and put a couple of books under the tree for myself, two that I've been very keen to acquire: The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter and the aforementioned Scotland's Books: the Penguin History of Scottish Literature.

Now we can all happily read away the rest of the holidays.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Story For Christmas

I've written just one story set at Christmastime, so in honour of the day I'm posting a recording of me reading it aloud. It's titled "The Story of Her Life," and it appears in my recent collection, All In Together Girls. To hear it, click on the title of the story on the player below. (Thanks to Eric for the fine recording job.)

Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate Christmas, and happy holidays to one and all!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Vote for the January Story Selection at A Curious Singularity

The stories nominated to serve as the focus of our January discussion at A Curious Singularity have a distinctly Russian flavour. No doubt this has something to do with the fact that several members of the discussion group are eagerly anticipating the Russian Reading Challenge. Our three nominees are:

Isaac Babel's "My First Goose" (1926);

Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat" (1842); and,

Alexander Pushkin's "The Snow Storm".

Please let me know, in the comments section below this post or its duplicate at A Curious Singularity or via email, which of these stories you would prefer to discuss in January.

In the meantime, there are still a couple of weeks left to contribute your thoughts on Elizabeth Taylor's "Miss A. and Miss M.", the story currently under discussion there.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

My Neighbourhood

Check out this short video all about my neighbourhood. About four minutes in, you'll get a peek at the local library my visits to which I regularly mention here. I didn't know until I watched this program that it's one of three Toronto libraries that was built in 1916 to mark the three-hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare's death.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Byron the Proto-Celebrity Dieter?

Here's a weird tidbit from an unexpected source:

     Byron's constant battle with creeping pudginess—he inherited his tendency to plumpness from his obese mother, he said—was of never-ending fascination to his fans and critics in Europe and America. And nearly everyone who despaired over how hard it is to lose weight understood his lament that everything he ate turned to fat on his body.
     Edward John Trelawny, a fierce competitor of Byron's, wrote, "Byron had not damaged his body by strong drinks, but his terror of getting fat was so great that he reduced his diet to the point of absolute starvation. He said everything he swallowed was instantly converted into tallow and deposited on his ribs." Byron, he added, "was always hungry," and when he gave in and ate, he instantly gained weight.
     Byron's diets were legendary—one raisin and a glass of brandy a day, or a mess of greens doused in vinegar. He'd stave off hunger pangs with tobacco and green tea. And, over and over again, he resorted to drinking vinegar.
     Historian Lois Banner notes, "The popularity of drinking vinegar to lose weight can be traced directly to Byron, whose most popular regimen, according to some accounts, was to subsist for some days on vinegar and water."

From Gina Kolata, Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—and the Myths and Realities of Dieting (2007).

First Lines Meme

It's terribly lazy of me to do memes two days in a row. But I'm grading essays, and formulating exam questions, and finishing an article, so blogging of the sort that requires a sustained attention span is out of the question. Besides, I like this meme, which I've borrowed from Danielle, who in turn borrowed from Sylvia. It involves "posting the first sentence of each month from your blog," thereby creating a patchwork representation of your year in blogging. I've fudged it a bit, skipping to the second post of the month if the first began with a quotation rather than a sentence I penned myself.

January: In 2007, I plan to do the following… [I realize that’s only part of a sentence, but it leads to five detailed reading resolutions of which, nearly a year later, I must shamefacedly admit I have accomplished only one.]

February: I'm in Boston and Cambridge this weekend.

March: The 2007 Tournament of Books kicks off at The Morning News on Thursday.

April: I'm a born procrastinator.

May: This time last year I was in Scotland, and I'm feeling rather mournful about the fact that I'm not there now.

June: I acquired many new books on my recent travels.

July: I'm not planning any further actual travel this summer, and I'm a great fan of travel writing, so how could I resist the Armchair Traveler Reading Challenge?

August: Recent circumstances have propelled me into a spate of light reading and I've come across a few good books along the way.

September: I've been mulling over Litlove's meme about the joy of language.

October: I've been mulling over Grace Paley's "A Conversation with My Father" for weeks now.

November: I have long been familiar with the work of Scottish writer Edwin Muir, particularly with his poetry and his extraordinary travelogue Scottish Journey.

December: There's a lovely essay by Denise Hamilton in this weekend's Los Angeles Times on her enduring fondness for the books of Beverly Cleary.

If you're curious about where any one of those first sentences leads, click on the month to read the full post from whence it came. It sounds as though I'm forever travelling, thinking longingly of travel, and/or mulling over some book or other. An eerily accurate snapshot of my life…

Monday, December 10, 2007

Seven Things Meme

I've been tagged twice now (first by seachanges and then by Ella) for the seven things meme, so clearly it's time for me to give it a go. It's described by some memers as "seven weird things" and by others as "seven random things." Like Dorothy, I prefer the random formulation. It seems an odd enterprise to confide weird things about yourself to people who don't know many normal things about you. I suppose some things qualify as objectively weird, but for the most part, I think a bit of context is required to distinguish weird from normal. Without context, all you've got is random. Although, I suppose a collage of random could add up to weird. Anyway, enough preamble, and on to the seven things…

1. Every time I have a fever, I dream the same dream.

2. I love the prairies and the sea in equal measure but it makes me anxious to be amidst mountains.

3. As a teenage camp counsellor, I once succeeded in starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together.

4. I can throw back straight scotch or tequila like a pro, but just a few sips of a drink containing vodka makes me feel as if my limbs are not my own.

5. My lifetime coffee intake tops out at a single cup. I didn't like it, and never had another. (Funny how the scotch drinking didn't follow the same trajectory.) Lest you think that renders me caffeine-free, however, I have to confess that I drink many many cups of tea every day. I love tea.

6. I refuse to spend money on taxis if I can possibly avoid it. I'm extravagant in many respects but I believe extravagance should yield pleasure and, while I concede that they can be convenient, I get no pleasure from taxi rides. I'd rather walk or take public transit. In light of this, it will not surprise you to learn that I rarely wear high heels.

7. After a lifetime of being mostly indifferent to the fantasy genre, I have so enthusiastically embraced Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels that they comprise more than one-fifth of the 100 books I've read so far this year.

If you fancy undertaking the seven things meme, consider yourself tagged!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Beverly Cleary

There's a lovely essay by Denise Hamilton in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times on her enduring fondness for the books of Beverly Cleary. Click here to read it.

I haven't reread Cleary's tales about Ramona and Beezus Quimby since childhood though they were certainly favourites back then. I do periodically return to her YA books Fifteen and The Luckiest Girl though. I suspect that these books are too innocent for today's sophisticated YA readership, but I love them still. And I highly recommend Cleary's two-volume memoir, A Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet. The memoirs are a particular treat for Cleary fans of course, but will also be of interest, I think, to anyone intrigued by how writers and books are formed.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Elizabeth Bowen on Plot

Elizabeth Bowen on plot:

     Plot might seem to be a matter of choice. It is not. The particular plot is something the novelist is driven to. It is what is left after the whittling-away of alternatives. The novelist is confronted, at a moment (or at what appears to be the moment: actually its extension may be indefinite), by the impossibility of saying what is to be said any other way.
     He is forced towards his plot. By what? By the “what is to be said.” What is “what is to be said”? A mass of subjective matter that has accumulated—impressions received, feelings about experience, distorted results of ordinary observation, and something else—x. This matter is extra matter. It is superfluous to the non-writing life of the writer. It is luggage left in the hall between two journeys, as opposed to the perpetual furniture of rooms. It is destined to be elsewhere. It cannot move until its destination is known. Plot is the knowing of destination.

From Elizabeth Bowen, “Notes on Writing a Novel” in Pictures and Conversations (1975).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mainly these are Working Journals

Mary Morris on the journals that she keeps while travelling:

         I have kept these journals for years—as I wandered the dusty streets and marketplaces of Central America, as I travelled across Siberia. I wrote in them when I lived in Paris and when I was under house arrest in Havana. On the inside cover I always write “Reward,” but I have never lost one, though once in Spain a young man raced off a train to give a journal back to me and I kissed his hand. And on the Vltava in Prague a boat vendor accepted one as collateral so my daughter and I could rent a pedalboat.
         Mainly these are working journals, but inside of them I also keep a diary and paint. I cut and paste boarding passes, snapshots, local flora. What happens around me, what is said. The bizarre, the inane, the weather, the everyday. I write it all down here. I jot in the margins and paint the pages in the colors of my moods. I almost never keep them at home, but when I am on the road I am working in them nonstop.

From Mary Morris, The River Queen: A Memoir (2007).

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Walter Mosley on the Uses of Poetry in Fiction Writing

In This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley writes of having taken several poetry workshops at the City College of New York in Harlem, and he says that though he has yet to write "even a passable poem," he is convinced that reading, studying, and attempting to write poems has served his fiction well. Here's an excerpt from what he has to say about what a fiction writer can learn from poetry:

     Of all writing, the discipline in poetry is the most demanding. You have to learn to distill what you mean into the most economic and at the same time the most elegant and accurate language. In poetry you have to see language as both music and content. A poet must be the master of simile, metaphor, and form, and of the precise use of vernacular and grammar, implication and innuendo. The poet has to be able to create symbols that are muted and yet undeniable. The poet, above all other writers, must know how to edit out the extraneous, received, repetitious, and misleading. A poet will ask herself, "Why did I use that word, and how will that usage affect meaning later in the poem when the same word is used again? A similar word?"
     The poet seeks perfection in every line and sentence; she demands flawlessness of form.
     If the fiction writer demands half of what the poet asks of herself, then that writer will render an exquisitely written novel.

When I began writing, I aspired to write poetry. I wrote reams of poems which ranged from mediocre to downright bad, and I didn't find my feet as a writer until I switched to fiction. But I've never felt that my attempts at poetry were a waste of time. Like Mosley, I'm convinced that writing poetry sharpened my fiction-writing skills.

Are there other fiction-writers out there who feel that reading or writing poetry has served their fiction in this way? And what about the link between reading poetry and reading fiction? Given the attentiveness to language that it requires, might regularly reading poetry also make one a more discerning and appreciative reader of fiction?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

November Fictitious Reading

The next Fictitious Reading will take place this Sunday night (November 25th) 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 Lynn Coady and Jeff Parker. The evening will include readings by these talented writers, as well as an informal onstage interview with them. Stuart Ross will host and I'll conduct the interview.

Lynn Coady was nominated for the 1998 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction for her first novel, Strange Heaven. She received the Canadian Authors Association/Air Canada Award for the best writer under thirty and the Dartmouth Book and Writing Award for fiction. Her second book, Play the Monster Blind, was a national bestseller and a "Best Book" of 2000 for the Globe and Mail; Saints of Big Harbour, also a bestseller, was a Globe and Mail "Best Book" in 2002. Her latest novel, Mean Boy, was a Globe and Mail "Best Book" of 2006 and won the Alberta Writers Guild's George Bugnet Award for Fiction. Most recently, she acted as editor on The Anansi Reader: 40 Years of Very Good Books. For many years a resident of Vancouver and then Edmonton, Lynn Coady now lives in Toronto.

Jeff Parker is the author of the novel Ovenman (Tin House Books) and The Back of the Line (DECODE), a collection of stories and images in collaboration with artist William Powhida. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Hobart, Ploughshares, Tin House, The Walrus, and other publications. He teaches at the University of Toronto and is the program director of Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia.

If you're anywhere near Toronto, you won't want to miss this one! If you're not able to attend, I encourage you to track down the books of these writers and sample their fabulous fiction on your own.

For more information on the series, see the Fictitious web site.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Biography Challege

I have perhaps already been overly ambitious in the number and scope of reading challenges for which I've signed up of late. But I can't say that I've ever regretted embarking on a challenge even when I haven't managed to work my way to the end of my proposed reading list or to blog diligently about each book from it that I did complete. For even when I don't adhere to the letter of the challenge, I nearly always stretch my reading horizons in the attempt.

The In Their Shoes Reading Challenge won't take me into new genre territory as I'm already a devoted reader of biographies, but it will provide excellent incentive to tackle the many tantalizing biographies that are currently adding considerable heft to my TBR pile. And since one of the characters in the novel that I'm writing is a biographer, I can call the whole endeavour research. I'll be thinking, as I read my way through my list, not just about the life of the subject of each biography, but about how the author went about shaping that life into a book.

The parameters of the challenge are straightforward. It runs throughout 2008. The goal is for each participant to select a number of books of his or her own choosing that fit within the rubric of biography, autobiography, or memoir, and to read and blog about those books before the end of the year.

Here's my list:

Anatole Broyard, Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (1997);

Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir (2006);

James Campbell, Exiled in Paris: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, and Others on the Left Bank (2003);

Susan Cheever, American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work (2006);

Victoria Glendinning, Leonard Woolf (2006);

Charlotte Gray, Reluctant Genius: The Passions and Inventions of Alexander Graham Bell (2006);

Robert Lecker, Dr. Delicious: Memoirs of a Life in CanLit (2006);

Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton (2007);

A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet, Volume I: The Young Genius 1885-1920 (2007);

Ruth Panofsky, The Force of Vocation: The Literary Career of Adele Wiseman (2006)

Charles J. Shields, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (2006); and,

Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy (2007).

A couple of these I've already begun; indeed, I read to the halfway point of Tomalin's Thomas Hardy last spring. But I've let so much time elapse since I set them down that in each case I plan to start over so as not to deprive myself of that glorious sense of the sweep of a life that one only gets from being thoroughly immersed in a good biography from beginning to end. Twelve books in twelve months, some of them very substantial tomes. I may not manage it given all the other books I expect to read alongside them, but, as ever, I will relish the attempt.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Which Betsy-Tacy Character Are You?

Now here's a quiz I couldn't resist:

Which Betsy-Tacy character are you?
Your Result: Betsy Ray

As a child, Betsy is lively and imaginative, a story-teller and a ring-leader. As she grows up, Betsy is popular with both boys and girls because of her fun spirit and love of a good time. She loves traditions, having fun, parties, and boys, but she sometimes undervalues herself and her talents. In the end she learns to love her true self and comes to realize and value her love of writing, and makes her dream a reality. Although she has had many beaus, she ends up with the one best suited to her (Joe Willard!), who understands her love of writing and encourages her to be her real self.

Emily Webster
Tacy Kelly
Tib Muller
Carney Sibley
Julia Ray
Irma Biscay
Winona Root
Which Betsy-Tacy character are you?
See All Our Quizzes

Being shy and red-haired, Tacy Kelly might seem the more obvious result, but my writing focus combined with a penchant for wandering around Europe must have tipped the scale toward Betsy Ray. However, if the quiz allowed for cross-gender character identification, the outcome would likely have been different. After years of pondering whether I'm more like Betsy or Tacy, it occurred to me recently that I actually identify most strongly with Joe Willard. What do you think, Betsy-Tacy fans? Quiz or no quiz, which character from the tomes do you identify with most strongly and why?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Milan Kundera on the History of Art

Milan Kundera on the history of art:

Applied to art, the notion of history has nothing to do with progress; it does not imply improvement, amelioration, an ascent; it resembles a journey undertaken to explore unknown lands and chart them. The novelist's ambition is not to do something better than his predecessors but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say. Flaubert's poetics does not devalue Balzac's, any more than the discovery of the North Pole renders obsolete the discovery of America.

From Milan Kundera, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (translated from the French by Linda Asher, 2006).

Friday, November 09, 2007

Next Up at the Short Story Discussion Group

Next up at the short story discussion group is Elizabeth Taylor's "Miss A. and Miss M." This story, first published in Taylor's 1972 collection The Devastating Boys, was pronounced "her most technically accomplished story" in a survey of her work that recently appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.

The discussion begins on Tuesday, November 13th. Participants are invited to begin posting their thoughts on the story at A Curious Singularity then. If you're not yet a member of the short story discussion group and you would like to join, please e-mail me. New members are always welcome! Of course, anyone can contribute through the comments sections of the posts without officially joining the group.

I look forward to the discussion.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The People in His Novel

The wind blew through the empty streets with a kind of dispirited moan; had been blowing all night long, while Vivaldo sat at his worktable, struggling with a chapter which was not going well. He was terribly weary—he had worked in the bookstore all day and then come downtown to do a moving job—but this was not the reason for his paralysis. He did not seem to know enough about the people in his novel. They did not seem to trust him. They were all named, more or less, all more or less destined, the pattern he wished them to describe was clear to him. But it did not seem clear to them. He could move them about but they themselves did not move. He put words in their mouths which they uttered sullenly, unconvinced.

From James Baldwin, Another Country (1960).

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Discovering Willa Muir

I have long been familiar with the work of Scottish writer Edwin Muir, particularly with his poetry and his extraordinary travelogue Scottish Journey. I also knew a little about his wife Willa Muir, through his work and through her occasional brief appearances in biographies of other Scottish writers, for example, George McKay Brown. I was aware that she was an accomplished translator and had, together with Edwin, translated many literary works, most notably the novels and stories of Kafka. But until I followed up a mention on Sandra Alland's blog of a new study of her writing (Moving in Circles: Willa Muir's Writings by Aileen Christianson), it had somehow escaped my notice that Willa Muir had also written a couple of novels and several works of non-fiction. I assure you that it's not like me to leave an accomplished woman writer to languish in the shadow of her more famous husband, but I confess that with Willa Muir this is exactly what I had done. No longer!

I plan to order a copy of Christianson's book and, while I await its arrival, I'm going to read as much of Willa Muir's work as I can get my hands on. Yesterday, I arrived home from the library with two of her books: a novel titled Imagined Corners and a memoir about her husband titled Belonging. I've done no more than flip through them so far, but I thought I’d share with you the back cover description of the novel and the first paragraph of the memoir, to see if I can persuade some fellow bloggers to join me in my quest to discover Willa Muir.

Here's the back cover copy from Imagined Corners, a novel first published in 1935:

Willa Muir was an acute and acerbic observer with an intimate knowledge of the Scottish middle-class conventions that she describes. In Imagined Corners, her first novel, young Elizabeth Shand, newly married to the unstable but handsome Hector, finds herself in the social, intellectual, and spiritual strait-jacket of small-town life early this century. Into the growing complexity of these entangled relationships her sister-in-law and namesake returns from Italy, sophisticated and freshly widowed. Through her, Elizabeth rediscovers an intuitive desire to face life honestly and intelligently, and reassesses an enforced life of petty vanities and delusion against new possibilities of personal and sexual freedom.

And here's the first paragraph of Belonging, a memoir first published in 1968:

I first met Edwin Muir in a Glasgow flat sometime during September 1918. On the face of things our meeting was unlikely; he was a costing-clerk in a Renfrew shipbuilding firm and I was a lecturer in a London training college for teachers. It was still more unlikely that having met we should get married less than a year later and most unlikely of all that our marriage should last. Edwin's Glasgow friends, who thought they knew him, prophesied that it would not last six months; my friends in London, who thought they knew me, were of the same opinion. Yet when he died in 1959 I became aware that I had been assuming we should die together, when it came to dying, hand in hand. I could not believe it possible for me to be alive and for him to be dead. It did not make sense. We belonged together.

I promise to report in as I read my way through first these books and, later, Christianson's Moving in Circles.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Vote for this month's Story Selection at A Curious Singularity

It's time to vote on which story will be the focus of the November discussion at A Curious Singularity, scheduled to begin on Tuesday, November 13th. Three stories have been nominated:

Elizabeth Bowen, "Hand in Glove" (1952);
Elizabeth Taylor, "Miss A. and Miss M." (1972); and,
Gloria Sawai, "The Day I Sat With Jesus on the Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts" (2001).

Please let me know, in the comments section below this post or its duplicate at A Curious Singularity or via email, which of these stories you would prefer to discuss this month.

In the meantime, there's still a week left to contribute your thoughts on Guy de Maupassant's "La Horla," the story currently under discussion there. I expect that I will be adding my two cents just under the wire as usual. I was dubbed "Kate the Late" in kindergarten and I have to concede that decades later the tag still applies...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

James Lasdun on Raymond Carver's Stories

James Lasdun on the prospect of a new edition of Raymond Carver’s stories that would restore them to their pre-edited state:

If the restorations of Carver improved what we have, I'd be all for them, but in my opinion they don't. What Lish's editing brought forth from Carver's writing was very, very good. What I've seen of the material Stull and Carroll want to restore is, frankly, pretty awful. It's the kind of thrashing around writers do when they want to force meanings on their stories that aren't in fact supported by the stories themselves.

To read the rest of Lasdun’s article which does us the service of setting an original and an edited ending of one of Carver’s stories side-by-side for comparison, click here.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

October Fictitious Reading

The next Fictitious Reading will take place tomorrow night (Sunday, October 28th) 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 Derek McCormack and Trevor Strong. The evening will include readings by these talented writers, as well as an informal onstage interview with them. I'll serve as host and Stuart Ross will conduct the interview.

Derek McCormack's last novel, The Haunted Hillbilly, was named a best book of the year by both the Globe & Mail and the Village Voice. It was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Best International Gay Fiction. His newest novel, The Show That Smells, is forthcoming from ECW Press in 2008. He will be reading from the new novel for the first time at the Fictitious Reading Series!

Trevor Strong is a writer/singer/comedian. As one third of the music/comedy group The Arrogant Worms, he has toured across the world, performed with symphonies, and had one of his songs used to wake up astronauts on the space shuttle Endeavour. He has also published a self-help book -- Get Stupid! with the Ignorance IS Bliss Method! -- that has helped dozens of people reclaim their inner idiot, and had some of his Very Grimm Fairy Tales printed in This Magazine. He is currently working on his first novel, Edgar Gets Going: the rise and fall and rise and fall of a fairly decent bass player. He lives in Toronto with his wife, two kids, a good cat, and a bad cat.

Join us for fabulous fiction and sweet Halloween treats!

For more information on the series, see the Fictitious web site.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Law and Literature: Two Questions

I'm in the midst of creating a syllabus for the course in "law and literature" that I'll be teaching next term. A voluminous body of scholarly literature on the subject has developed in the last twenty years or so and I've been filtering through it with great interest and enjoyment. But the part of the process that is most fun for me is contemplating which literary works to include in the course materials. I've been perusing favourites from my own bookshelves and also consulting a number of anthologies that helpfully collect together much law-related literature in one place: Trial and Error: an Oxford Anthology of Legal Stories (edited by Fred R. Shapiro and Jane Garry), Legal Fictions: Short Stories about Lawyers and the Law (edited by Jay Wishingrad), and Law in Literature: Legal Themes in Short Stories (edited by Elizabeth Gemmette), for example. But I would be remiss if I didn't also call into service the vast knowledge of the book blogging world. Are there any literary works with legal themes that you would recommend I consider for inclusion? I'm interested in literary works of all sorts whether they fit within the rubric of classic, contemporary, popular, detective fiction, children's literature or any other category. I'm most interested in short stories and poems simply because I don't think it's realistic to expect my students to read multiple novels given the time-constraints they'll be operating under, and I'd rather have them read complete works than excerpts. But if novels spring to mind, I'd like to hear about them as well. Please share with me your suggestions, either via email or the comments section below.

The other related endeavour with which I would very much appreciate assistance is the compilation of a list of poets and fiction writers who studied or practiced law. My purpose is two-fold. First, I think such a list might provide inspiration to law students who write and are anxious about their capacity to continue their literary pursuits alongside their legal ones. (Though admittedly some examples, such as Kafka who despised his legal work, or Robert Louis Stevenson who was reputed to have attended his law lectures only when the weather was poor, might cut the other way!) Second, I want to invite them to consider if and how the legal training of particular writers may have influenced their literary work. So again, please share with me the names of any lawyer-writers that occur to you.


Update: With respect to my second question, it seems that James Elkins has already done a very thorough job of cataloguing lawyer-poets the world over. Check out his extraordinary list here. Please keep the names of the fiction writing lawyers coming though...

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Halloween Book Giveaway

During last month's book sale madness, I bought a second copy of Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop (sequel to his delightful Parnassus on Wheels). I did not do so for the pleasure of having two copies nestled together on my shelves, though I confess that I have been known to hoard multiple copies of favourite books in the past. I picked it up because I suspected that there are fellow Morley fans out there in the blog world who might like to have a copy of it. Though not a particularly spooky tale (the haunting is perpetrated by "the ghosts of all great literature" that take up occupancy in bookshops and libraries the world over), the title seemed to me to make it the perfect book for a giveaway on the eve of Halloween.

If you want The Haunted Bookshop, let me know either via email or in the comments section below. While you're at it, if you fancy doing so, please share the story of your happiest recent book sale find. If more than one person expresses an interest in the book, I'll do a draw on Friday. I'm happy to send it anywhere in the world, so don't let your location prevent you from entering your name. After the draw, I'll contact the winner for his or her mailing address.

Happy book hunting and book haunting!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

More Reviews of All In Together Girls

Two more positive reviews of my short story collection, All In Together Girls, appeared this past week, one in my hometown newspaper, the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, and the other in exceptionally cool lit mag subTerrain. Click here to read the former, and here to read the latter. (Be forewarned that the Star Phoenix review gives away the endings of a couple of the stories. If you haven't read the book and you don't like spoilers, you'll want to skip over the middle paragraphs.)

A Single Time and Place from a Multitude of Angles

Have you ever found what you thought was random reading unexpectedly coalescing into a focus on a single time and place?

In the past I have deliberately set out to explore particular places in particular decades, notably Paris in the 1920s and New York in the 1950s, through multiple sources: fiction, histories, memoirs, biographies and so on. But this time around, there is no deliberation about it. I have inadvertently read myself into the streets and flats and clubs of London in the immediately aftermath of WWII.

I think it began with Muriel Spark and this arresting passage from her novel The Girls of Slender Means:

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind's eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.

Not long after I left behind the girls of Spark's May of Teck Club, I found myself viewing it all from a different angle, knocking about 1950s' literary London in the company of the likes of Kingsley Amis and John Osborne via Humphrey Carpenter's group biography, The Angry Young Men.

When I ordered David Kynaston's gargantuan history of the period, Austerity Britain 1945-51, I rationalized the purchase by telling myself that it was background research for the novel I'm writing. But this is patently untrue. A couple of my characters spent time in London during WWII, but they decamped for Canada immediately thereafter, and the action doesn't begin until they are ensconced on this side of the Atlantic. No, clearly I am simply pursuing a fascination with post-WWII London, to no particular purpose.

This was underlined for me last week when I decided to read some Doris Lessing in honour of her Nobel Prize win. Originally I had intended to return to The Golden Notebook, but ultimately I couldn't resist volume two of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade 1949-1962. It opens with her arrival in London, and documents her move from one bomb-damaged flat to another, as she struggles to simultaneously care for her young son and get her writing career off the ground. And yesterday, as I trolled the aisles at the latest big university book sale, I noted that the surest indicator that I would buy a book after idly perusing its back cover was whether that back cover made mention of postwar Britain. This is how I wound up bringing home Stevie Smith's The Holiday ("Celia works at the Ministry in the post-war England of 1949, and lives in a London suburb with her beloved Aunt...") and Anthony Powell's Books Do Furnish a Room ("...describes the state of literary life in postwar London").

Having now recognized this pattern in my reading choices, I resolve to pursue it more systematically. I'm not conceiving of this undertaking as a challenge; I want it to be more flexible and open-ended than that. So call it a reading project instead.

I have two questions for you, in connection with the foregoing:

1. Can you recommend any books to me, fiction or non-fiction, on post-WWII London?

2. Have you ever engaged in such a project, deliberately or inadvertently, and, if so, what time and place was your focus?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Another Book Sale Binge

I blame Danielle. If not for her praise of Elizabeth Taylor's novels and her general enthusiasm for Virago books, I might have been able to resist the four pristine Virago editions of Taylor’s novels and short stories. Mind you, there's plenty of blame to go around. It's on account of a review by Dorothy and excerpts posted by Terry that I've long had my eye out for copies of Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe and Graham Greene's Travels with My Aunt respectively. It was a mention by Litlove that piqued my interest in the work of William Maxwell. Before Imani's Outmoded Authors Challenge, I'd never even heard of Olivia Manning. And, of course, it's Sharon's Russian Reading Challenge that has Dostoevsky in the front of my mind. You're enablers of my book buying habit, every last one of you, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate it!

Here's a complete list of today's acquisitions:

Elizabeth Bowen, Pictures and Conversations;
A.S. Byatt, On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays;
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground;
Alasdair Gray, The Book of Prefaces;
Graham Greene, Travels with My Aunt;
Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade 1949-1962;
Olivia Manning, The Levant Trilogy;
William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow;
Mary McCarthy, The Groves of Academe;
Anthony Powell, Books Do Furnish a Room;
Jean Rhys, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie;
Jean Rhys, Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography;
Stevie Smith, The Holiday;
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Scottish Stories & Essays;
Elizabeth Taylor, Angel;
Elizabeth Taylor, The Devastating Boys;
Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season;
Elizabeth Taylor, The Soul of Kindness;
Claire Tomalin, Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life; and,
Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays & Reviews.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Sending Reserves to a Successful Sector of the Battlefront

Doris Lessing on the military mindset of publishers:

In certain military academies there is this exercise: The examinee is to imagine that he is a general in command of a battlefront. In one area his troops are only holding their own, in another are being routed, in a third are driving back the enemy. With limited resources, where is he to send support? The correct answer is: to the successful sector; the rest must be left to their fate. It seems few people give the right answer; they mislead themselves with compassionate thoughts for the less successful soldiers. This is how publishers think. An already successful or known author gets advertisements, but struggling or unknown ones are expected to sink or swim. When the public sees advertisements for a novel on the underground, they are seeing reserves being sent to a successful sector of the battlefront. They are seeing a best-seller being created from a novel that is already a success.

From Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography 1949-1962 (1997).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Shared Reading Experience

Eric has been quoting Dostoyevsky to me all morning. This is a bit of a surprise as he's one of those men who, though an avid reader, rarely reads fiction. But it turns out that of the novels he has read, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is his all time favourite. When pressed, he says simply: "That book changed everything." How could I not have known this about him already? After all, I’m the sort of book-mad person who will eye up new friends' bookshelves before taking time out to coo at their babies or pat the heads of their beloved dogs.

The upshot of this revelation is that next year, when I read Dostoyevsky's The Idiot as part of the 2008 Russian Reading Challenge hosted by Sharon of Ex Libris, Eric is going to join me. A live, in-person, right-here-at-home shared reading experience to run alongside the virtual, international shared reading experience among bloggers that the challenge represents. I'm looking forward to this on both counts.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

O Canada

John Mutford's Canadian Book Challenge calls on participants to read thirteen books by and/or about Canada between now and Canada day (July 1st) and to blog about each one along the way. I confess that this challenge is a bit of a cheat for me. I read an average of 100 books per year, and usually at least a quarter of those are by Canadian authors. So committing to reading thirteen over the next eight months doesn't feel like a challenge. I don't diligently blog about each book read though. So I'm going to take that part of the challenge seriously and make sure to talk up any Canadian book I read that proves worthy of praise.

Why thirteen books? Because Canada is comprised of ten provinces and three territories, and one of the options John outlines for the challenge is to pick one book from each province and each territory. I think this is a cool idea in the abstract, but I'm feeling a bit conflicted about the embrace of regionalism at the moment, so I'm not going that route this time around. My thirteen picks don't coalesce around any particular theme. They are united by two things only: all were published or are forthcoming in 2007, and all are books that I'm really keen to read. They represent a range of genres: novels, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction. Some are by well-known authors, others are first books. Half are published by small, independent presses.

I'm listing the books I intend to read below, along with a description of each one cribbed from catalogue copy or back cover blurbs, to give you an idea of what piqued my interest, and perhaps to pique yours.

1. Gil Adamson, The Outlander (Anansi): "In 1903 a mysterious, desperate young woman flees alone across the west, one quick step ahead of the law. She has just become a widow by her own hand.... As the young widow encounters characters of all stripes—unsavoury, wheedling, greedy, lascivious, self-reliant, and occasionally generous and trustworthy—Adamson weds her brilliant literary style to the gripping, moving, picaresque tale of one woman's deliberate journey into the wild."

2. Elyse Friedman, Long Story Short: A Novella and Stories (Anansi): "Elyse Friedman's fiction, described as 'part Kafka, part South Park' (Toronto Star), is as funny as it is fierce, as witty as it is empathetic." And is "Long Story Short" not the best title ever for a collection that includes a novella and a handful of short stories?

3. Salvatore DiFalco Black Rabbit and Other Stories (Anvil): "Existential and reflective, brutal and honest, these are stories that will leave you questioning the essence of existence, your own humanity, and that of those around you. This is deft storytelling from a talented new voice."

4. David Gilmour, The Film Club (Thomas Allen): “Written in the spare elegant style he is known for, The Film Club is the true story about David Gilmour’s decision to let his 15-year-old son drop out of high school on the condition that the boy agrees to watch three films a week with him. The book examines how those pivotal years changed both their lives."

5. Helen Humphreys, The Frozen Thames (McClelland and Stewart): "A groundbreaking, genre-bending new work from one of Canada’s most respected writers. In its long history, the River Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river.... The Frozen Thames contains forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the river froze between 1142 and 1895."

6. Robert Kroetsch and John Lent, Abundance: The Mackie House Conversations About the Writing Life (Kalamalka Press): Captures on the page “five days of strange, elliptical conversation” about the writing life.

7. Roy MacSkimming, Macdonald: A Novel (Thomas Allen): "In the grand literary tradition of Gore Vidal's novels about American political history, Roy MacSkimming has conjured an extraordinary novelistic recreation of the last days of Canada’s indomitable first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald."

8. David McGimpsey, Sitcom (Coach House): "Mischievous, generous and side-splittingly funny, this collection of wry soliloquies and sonnets begins with a milestone birthday and finds itself—through antic turns and lyric flips to demi-mondes as varied as the offices of university regents and the basic plot arc of Hawaii Five-O—to a sincere contemplation of mortality and the fashion sense of Mary Tyler Moore."

9. rob mclennan, ed., Decalogue 2: Ten Ottawa Fiction Writers (Chaudiere): "The ten authors that make up this collection highlight both the range of style and the strength of writing happening around the current City of Ottawa, ranging from roughneck prose to lyric exploration to a more straightforward kind of narrative storytelling. Rather than giving you a list of authors you've already heard of, this collection focuses on the works of authors you might not have heard of yet, some of whom have only recently come up on the national radar."

10. Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero (McClelland and Stewart): "From the celebrated author of The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion comes a remarkable new novel of intersecting lives that ranges across continents and time. In the 1970s in northern California, near Gold Rush country, a father and his teenage daughters, Anna and Claire, work their farm with the help of Coop, an enigmatic young man who makes his home with them. Theirs is a makeshift family, until it is riven by an incident of violence — of both hand and heart — that sets fire to the rest of their lives."

11. Jessica Westhead, Pulpy and Midge (Coach House): "A hilariously deadpan, wincingly funny take on one office innocent's workplace coming-of-age." (That blurb comes from Lynn Coady, herself a brilliant comic novelist, so I'm inclined to take her word for it.)

12. Zoe Whittall, Bottle Rocket Hearts (Cormorant): A queer coming-of-age novel set in Montreal in the lead-up to the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty.

13. Michael Winter, The Architects are Here (Penguin): "Michael Winter's eagerly anticipated new novel The Architects are Here features the unexpected return of Gabriel English, the popular and controversial protagonist of three of his previous critically acclaimed books. Prompted by a near death experience involving a wayward billboard Gabriel is forced to come to terms with the disappearance of his enigmatic girlfriend Nell. After packing up the shattered remnants of his Toronto apartment Gabriel sets out on an impromptu road trip with his roguish friend David Twombly to Corner Brook Newfoundland, their childhood home and the site of a recent accident involving David's father in which Nell may be implicated. Along the way they encounter all manner curious characters from their shared past including a good many familiar faces from the Canadian literary community."

As usual, I reserve the right to make substitutions at will, particularly when spring rolls around and I find myself distracted by shiny, new books from 2008...

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Richard Pevear on Collaborative Translation

Richard Pevear on collaborative translation:

I'll take an example of what that collaboration can produce from Tolstoy's description of the Russian Army crossing the river Enns. After a good deal of confusion, the hussar captain Denisov finally manages to clear the infantry from the bridge and send his cavalry over. As the first riders move onto the bridge, Tolstoy writes, "On the planks of the bridge the transparent sounds of hoofs rang out." The Russian is unmistakable — prozrachnye zvuki, "transparent sounds" — and I find its precision breathtaking. It is pure Tolstoy. To my knowledge, it has never been translated into English. What we find in other versions is the "thud" or "clang" of hoofs, and it is likely that I would have done something similar if Larissa had not brought me back to what Tolstoy actually wrote. His prose is full of such moments of fresh, immediate perception. Coming upon them and finding words for them in English has been one of the most rewarding aspects of our work.

To read the rest of Pevear's article on the experience of translating Tolstoy's War and Peace in collaboration with Larissa Volokhonsky, click here. Their new translation is due to be released this week. I must get myself a copy!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Multiple Translations of Tolstoy's War and Peace

I did a compare and contrast exercise a while back with different translations of one of Chekhov's short stories and concluded that I preferred the most recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. So, upon learning from a newspaper article that the publication of a Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace is imminent, it struck me that now would be a good moment for me to tackle that classic tome. Reading further into the article though, it becomes apparent that choosing between translations, at least as far as War and Peace is concerned, involves more than different turns of phrase. There are, it seems, multiple, quite radically divergent versions of War and Peace floating around, and different translators are working from different originals:

Ecco's book [translated by Andrew Bromfield] has one possible selling point for a novel infamous for its length: It's more than 400 pages shorter than the so-called canonical version, in part because it lacks many of the philosophical digressions and historical observations Tolstoy added later. Also, its story has some twists, since Tolstoy changed the fates of some characters, including killing off several between drafts.

Faced with this sort of choice, my inclination, at least for my first go round, is to go with whichever version the author regarded as the final work. But according to an expert quoted at the conclusion of the article, Tolstoy himself never expressed a clear view on that point:

"There is no definitive edition," says New York University's Anne Lounsbery, assistant professor and director of graduate studies in the department of Russian and Slavic Studies. She adds, "Tolstoy himself didn't take much interest in it after he wrote it. He allowed interventions by all sorts of people."

I'm still inclined to think that the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is the one for me, but perhaps I ought to undertake a bit of research before making the final call. Certainly the foregoing indicates what a complicated business selecting a translation can be.

Philip Roth on Reading While Writing

Philip Roth on reading while writing:

I read quite a bit. I just finished two books by Milan Kundera - essays called The Curtain, and a novel called Ignorance. Before that, I read a new biography of Joseph Conrad. Before that, a long book by Tony Judt called Postwar, a marvellous, epochal book of the history of postwar Europe. Usually I don't read fiction when I'm writing fiction. I read the Kundera because I'd read the book of non-fiction. And he's a friend. The problem is, the book of fiction you're reading is finished and polished and expert, and what you're writing is so crappy that you get doubly depressed. Best to avoid it.

To read the rest of Johanna Schneller's interview with Philip Roth which appeared in today's Globe and Mail, click here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A New (To Me) Book Meme

Seachanges has tagged me for a book meme and of course I can't resist...

Books I possess:

Or is it books that possess me? I've never done an official count. Some day I'll upgrade my LibraryThing account and catalogue them all properly. But it's safe to say, scanning my bookshelves at home, my bookshelves at work, the errant stacks of books tucked away underneath chairs or in the corners of rooms, and dimly remembered boxes of books secreted in the backs of closets, that my personal collection currently exceeds 4000 books.

Last book(s) read:

I'm always reading several books at once but the last one that I finished reading I read in one evening cover to cover. Dora Bruder is a slim, non-fiction book by French novelist Patrick Modiano and it’s extraordinary. It is, as described on the back cover, "part memoir, part memorial." It's also part quest narrative, part detective story, and part a lot of other things. I will write a proper post about it soon. It's the first bit of Patrick Modiano’s writing that I've read but it most certainly won’t be the last.

Last book(s) bought:

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano (see above). It's a rare thing for me to buy a book and read it immediately like that, but this one hooked me from the minute I flipped it open on the subway on my way home from the bookstore. I bought it on a whim after I came across it on the remainder table at my university bookstore and it proved a great discovery.

Just to mix things up a little, though, let me also share with you the last books that I checked out of the library. Yesterday I stopped in at the library on my way home from work and picked up Honeymoon and Night Rounds, both novels by Patrick Modiano (see, I told you that Dora Bruder wouldn't be my last encounter with his work!), and Devastating Boys and Other Stories by Elizabeth Taylor (this will be my first exposure to her work and I'm looking forward to it after hearing her praised on various blogs, and how could I resist a collection of short stories titled Devastating Boys?).

Five meaningful books:

I could list a lot more than five, of course, and in singling out these particular titles I'm repeating some things that I've said in previous blog posts. But I'll give myself marks for consistency on that score, instead of deducting them for lack of originality!

1. Betsy and the Great World by Maud Hart Lovelace:
Regular readers of this blog know that I mention Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy books at every opportunity. There are several books from the series that I could single out as particularly meaningful to me. There's Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown in which 12-year-old Betsy makes her first visit to her town's brand new Carnegie library and learns that she has to read good books if she wants to write them. There's Heaven to Betsy at the end of which 14-year-old Betsy concludes that if she abandons her writing altogether for the social whirl of her new high school friends, her talent might wither. And there’s Betsy in Spite of Herself in which the recurring theme is "to thine own self be true." But ultimately my favourite in the series is Betsy and the Great World in which 21-year-old Betsy leaves behind her Minnesota home to spend a year alone in Europe. By this stage in the series, she's sold a few stories and she's beginning to find her voice as a writer. She sets off from Boston harbour in January of 1914 in search of adventure and story material. Betsy's journey in this book, both literal and emotional, was a great source of inspiration to me in childhood and adolescence. As a world traveller, an independent woman, and a writer increasingly dedicated to her craft, Betsy was a heroine to emulate.

2. Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe:
Man Descending was the first book of short stories I ever read. It was my final year of high school, and in the years leading up to it I'd read the odd short story from the literary anthologies that served as texts for English class. But Man Descending was my first sustained exposure and what a great place it was to begin. Vanderhaeghe is a brilliant writer and reading his stories sparked in me an enduring love of the short story form. The fact that Vanderhaeghe is from my home province of Saskatchewan and set many of his stories there gave his work added impact for me. It was a clear demonstration that world-class writing could and did happen right there at home. So, as well as being a wonderful reading experience, Man Descending also served as an inspiration to me in my early attempts to write fiction.

3. The Comforters by Muriel Spark:
I was sufficiently intrigued by the back cover description of this book that I stole it from my older brother. It was required reading for a class he was taking on "The Modern British Novel." I don't think I made off with it until after he'd written the final exam; I hope not. I was immediately drawn into The Comforters by Spark's wit and the sharpness of her use of language. But it was the meta-fictional aspect of the book that really dazzled me. The protagonist, Caroline Rose, suspects that she is a character in a novel. She hears voices narrating her experience accompanied by the clacking of a typewriter. She begins to copy it all down in a notebook. Is she the author of a novel or a character in one? The Comforters provoked me to think more deeply than I ever had before about how a novel is constructed.

4. Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco:
In my youth, I was obsessed with literary life in Paris between the wars, in particular, with the work of expatriate writers from the U.S. and Canada. I immersed myself in memoirs, biographies, literary histories and criticism, novels, stories, and poems. I read Kay Boyle & Robert McAlmon's Being Geniuses Together, Morley Callaghan's That Summer in Paris, Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, Shari Benstock's Women of the Left Bank, Noel Riley Fitch's Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, Janet Flanner's Paris Was Yesterday, Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, and Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight. But of all of these marvellous books, I think that Glassco's memoirs had the strongest impact on me. I fancied myself a poet then and I fear I was overly earnest about it. Glassco's irreverent memoir of the two years that he spent on the fringes of that celebrated expatriate community cut through a lot of literary pretensions including my own. I realized that I had rather more in common with the eighteen-year-old John Glassco who drank more than he wrote in Paris than I did with the more famous literary luminaries with whom he hung about. At the same time, it was reassuring to know that Glassco had eventually buckled down and made a name for himself as a poet, as well as transforming the experiences of his dissolute youth in Paris into a very entertaining book.

5. Ali Smith's The Whole Story and Other Stories:
This is a book of stories about stories which nonetheless succeed as, you guessed it, stories. It's a difficult balance to strike and Smith achieves it brilliantly. These stories cracked wide open my perception of what a short story could be. I read the book three times in a row, then immediately went off and transformed a poem that I'd been trying to write for years into a very odd little story. Although my writing is nothing like Smith's, I can point to her as my most direct literary influence in recent memory.

I think that this meme has been making the rounds for a while, and I'm not sure who is left to tag. If you haven't done it yet, and you'd like to, I would be most interested to read your responses to these questions!

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Books Live On

I thought that I had read all of Madeleine L'Engle's fiction. But in the midst of a recent listserv discussion in the wake of her death, someone mentioned And Both Were Young as a favourite L'Engle novel, and nothing that she said about it sounded familiar to me. Off I went to the library to rectify this gap in my reading.

And Both Were Young is one of L'Engle's earliest novels, first published in 1949. Though, interestingly, the edition I read was a 1980s update to which L'Engle had restored the material that her editors had insisted she take out of the original edition because they deemed it inappropriate for a young audience: material which unduly emphasized death (hard to do in a book set in Europe in the immediate aftermath of WWII, one would think), or too explicitly referenced sex (I'm not sure which bits these were; certainly nothing jumped out as even vaguely salacious to this contemporary reader).

The novel tells the story of Philippa Hunter ("Flip"), an American teenager sent unwillingly to a Swiss boarding school by her artist father to free him to travel about Europe to conduct his work and be wooed by a woman who Flip emphatically dislikes. Flip is miserably homesick for America and her father. She is sure that she will never fit in among her more sophisticated classmates, and she's not sure that she wants to. Ultimately, however, a chance meeting with Paul, a French boy with a mysterious wartime past, flowers into a forbidden friendship that offers her some solace.

I certainly wouldn't count And Both Were Young among L'Engle's best books. It's clear that it's an early novel. The characterization is a bit thin, and the plot rather melodramatic. Yet glints of the L'Engle magic are present nonetheless. Flip is a clear precursor to later stormy, stubborn, her-own-worst-enemy characters like Vicki Austin and Meg Murray. And Paul similarly presages mysterious, wounded characters like Zachary Gray. On the strength of that, I read And Both Were Young with great interest and enjoyment. And, of course, I could not then resist returning to the other L'Engle books that it brought to mind. I've begun with a couple that feature Polly O'Keefe, not as well-known as Meg or Vicki, but perhaps my favourite L'Engle heroine.

I've now taken a look at a complete bibliography of L'Engle's work, and it seems to me that there are still more fiction titles listed there that I haven't yet encountered. And I already had a couple of volumes of her autobiographical writings sitting on my shelf as yet unread. So though Madeleine L'Engle is gone, a number of her books are still out there for me to discover, and all of my favourites are available to be reread. The books live on, and L'Engle's interesting mind and extraordinary empathy within them.