Thursday, March 29, 2007

Back from the Dead at the Tournament of Books

Over at the Tournament of Books, Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan has risen from the dead in the zombie round to claim a berth in the final. In the process, it has vaulted me into third place in the Book Blogger’s Office Pool—a nice change after many days of languishing at or near last place. Click over to the ToB site tomorrow to see which of the two finalists walks away with the coveted Rooster: Cormac McCarthy’s much-vaunted The Road, or the surprise finalist, Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan. Given the praise so far lavished on The Road, I fear it will be an uphill battle for Absurdistan. But if Absurdistan wins, so do I. What do I win? Well, nothing actually. But the Morning News reader on whose behalf I have been participating in the Pool stands to win copies of all sixteen of the contending books and it would be a great pleasure to be the instrument by which a fellow reader obtains fabulous free books.

Happy though I am to have been returned to contention in the Pool, I must register an objection to one of the criticisms levelled at Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, the book that Absurdistan vanquished today. Judge Rosecrans Baldwin dismissed One Good Turn as “a detective novel for literary folk who don’t like detective novels.” I’m a literary type who loves detective novels, and I think that Kate Atkinson is the bee’s knees.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Writer Who Endures

Andre Dubus on the writer who endures:

What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, trying to write le mot juste, as Flaubert said; writing several of them, which become a sentence. When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer’s own blood, and with an occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth, right there on the page on the desk. And when a writer does this work steadily enough to complete a manuscript long enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk. If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world, where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger, and, more dangerously, despair, convinced that the work is not worthy, so not worth those days at the desk. But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement.

From Andre Dubus, “First Books” in Meditations From A Moveable Chair: Essays by Andre Dubus (1998).

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The First Fictitious of Spring

The next Fictitious Reading will take place on Sunday, March 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 Salvatore Difalco and Leona Theis. The evening will include readings by these talented writers, as well as an informal onstage interview with them. Stuart Ross will host and I will conduct the interview.

Born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, the son of Italian immigrants, Salvatore Difalco attended the University of Toronto, where he completed an M.A. in English. After several years of writing poetry, Difalco turned to short fiction in 2004. He has since released one chapbook of stories, Outside (Black Bile Press) and has had short fiction published in a multitude of literary magazines. His first full-length fiction collection, Black Rabbit & Other Stories, is forthcoming from Anvil Press this spring. He currently lives in Niagara Falls.

Leona Theis grew up in a small town in eastern Saskatchewan. At various times she has lived in Vancouver, Denmark, France, and Australia. She is the author of two books of fiction: Sightlines, a linked short story collection that won two Saskatchewan Book Awards in 2000, and most recently a novel, The Art of Salvage. Theis was recently awarded first prize in the creative nonfiction category in the 2006 CBC Literary Awards. She is a past member of the board of the Sage Hill Writing Experience and has served as associate fiction editor for the literary magazine Grain. She lives in Saskatoon.

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

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Next Up at the Short Story Discussion Group

Next up at the short story discussion group is Jean Stafford’s 1953 story “In the Zoo.”

For those unfamiliar with Stafford’s work, Joyce Carol Oates nicely sums up her oeuvre as follows:

Of Stafford's three well-received novels only Boston Adventure (1944), her first, sold well—it was in fact a best seller, reaching 400,000 copies; and this despite the novel's literary manner, its resolutely old-fashioned language that advances the narrative by slow grudging degrees. The Mountain Lion (1947) and The Catherine Wheel (1952), by contrast, both possess the sharpness of dramatic focus and the economy of style of superior short stories, and may have sold poorly because of their very excellence. Though one would not want to stigmatize Stafford by suggesting that she is a “writer's writer,” these novels, particularly The Mountain Lion—a subtly and brilliantly realized tragedy of adolescence, told in a remarkably graceful and seemingly artless voice—remain highly regarded by other writers and substantiated early claims for Stafford's gifts. Awards and honors came to her in plenty, including a number of O. Henry prizes, inclusion in The Best American Short Stories and, in 1970, the Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford.

The discussion of "In the Zoo" will get underway as soon as someone is bold enough to post the first post on the story over at A Curious Singularity. 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.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Confessions of a Book Reviewer

As an occasional freelance reviewer, my lot is very different from that of the career reviewer that George Orwell evokes in his essay, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer.” Nevertheless, as I struggle to complete an overdue review of a book to which my response is uncharacteristically non-committal, aspects of Orwell’s essay are definitely resonating with me:

I ask any regular reviewer—anyone who reviews, say, a minimum of 100 books a year—whether he can deny in honesty that his habits and character are such as I have described. Every writer, in any case, is rather that kind of person, but the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash—though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment—but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.

I would not go so far as Orwell who concludes:

The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews—1,000 words is a bare minimum—to the few that seem to matter. Short notes of a line or two on forthcoming books can be useful, but the usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless even if the reviewer genuinely wants to write it. Normally he doesn't want to write it, and the week-in, week-out production of snippets soon reduces him to the crushed figure in a dressing-gown whom I described at the beginning of this article.

But I am thinking fondly about the virtues of the blog where I have the freedom to review particular books only when I feel moved to do so and about which I can write as many or as few words as I like...

To read the rest of Orwell’s entertaining and provocative essay, click here.

Wanting to Know What a Story is About

Andre Dubus on the short story:

Wanting to know absolutely what a story is about, and to be able to say it in a few sentences, is dangerous: it can lead us to wanting to possess a story as we possess a cup. We know the function of a cup, and we drink from it, wash it, put it on a shelf, and it remains a thing we own and control, unless it slips from our hands into the control of gravity; or unless someone else breaks it, or uses it to give us poisoned tea. A story can always break into pieces while it sits inside a book on a shelf; and decades after we have read it even twenty times, it can open us up, by cut or caress, to a new truth.

From Andre Dubus, “A Hemingway Story” in Meditations From A Moveable Chair: Essays by Andre Dubus (1998).

Monday, March 12, 2007

Holding the Book in My Hands

It’s always exciting to arrive home and find a parcel of books awaiting me on the front porch. But it was excitement of a different order when I noted that the return address on today’s parcel was that of my publisher. Could it be? Yes it was— my ten author’s copies along with a note of congratulations.

All In Together Girls should be available in Canadian bookstores and from online retailers by the end of the month. The Toronto launch party will take place on the evening of April 22nd. If you’re in or near Toronto, please mark the date on your calendar. I would very much like to have my local blogging friends there to celebrate the occasion with me! I will provide more details soon.

In the meantime, I’ll savour this first moment of holding the book in my hands, no longer just ideas in my head or files in my computer, but a physical object independent of me, poised to make its own way in the world…

Predicting Reading Preferences

I’m off to a dismal start in the ToB Book Bloggers’ Office Pool. I’m zero for two on the first two match-ups. Indeed, the book that I predicted would win the whole thing was knocked out of contention in the very first match of the first round.

The match in question pitted Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun against Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, with novelist and short story writer Brady Udall serving as judge. I had Mr. Udall tapped as a reader who was likely to appreciate a good comic novel and predicted the outcome of the match accordingly. His commentary on his ultimate choice suggests that I was correct in my initial surmise. However, he didn’t think that the comic novel in contention in that particular match was a good one, and so laid waste to my prediction of the outcome by choosing Half of Yellow Sun over Absurdistan as the winner.

This particular example has me contemplating the broader hypothesis that readers are apt to be more demanding and hence more critical of books that fit within their preferred category or genre of books than those that fall outside of it. This should have occurred to me before I arrived at my list of ToB predictions since, on reflection, I believe it to be true of myself. It has something to do with the heightened expectations with which I meet a book I expect to like and the disappointment associated with those expectations not being met. It also has to do with the more extensive critical palette yielded by a greater familiarity with a particular category or genre of books. If I’m familiar with the conventions of a genre, I’m well equipped to see where those conventions have been too slavishly adhered to, or where they have been flouted to poor effect. If I’ve already encountered outstanding books within that category, it stands to reason that less accomplished books will suffer by comparison.

This goes some way to explaining why even carefully chosen book gifts and thoughtful book recommendations often miss the mark. It may not be so difficult to predict an individual’s reading preferences in broad terms, but it seems to me that predicting a reader’s response to any particular book is an exercise fraught with peril...

Follow the rest of the fun of the Tournament of Books here.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The ToB Book Bloggers' Office Pool

The 2007 Tournament of Books kicks off at The Morning News on Thursday. Click here to find out which books will be squaring off against which books in what promises to be a fierce and very entertaining competition. And while you’re over there, don’t miss the chance to win copies of the contending books by entering the Book Bloggers’ Office Pool Contest:

Here’s how the contest works. In addition to this year’s brackets, below you’ll find a set of brackets filled out by each of our selected Office Pool Book Bloggers. Review them, then select the one you think is the most likely to win—the bloggers will be scored for each match they predict correctly, with scores updated each day of the Tournament. Email us at the address below with the name of the blogger you like in the email subject line, and your full contact information in the body of the email. (You can only enter once.) We’ll randomly select one reader for each blogger to “play for,” and the winning blogger’s reader will win every book in the tournament, courtesy of Powell’s Books. Note: The contest will close at 6 p.m. EST this Wednesday, March 7.

I’m one of the participating bloggers. Throw in your lot with me, and you could win a fine stack of books. Of course, if you think that one of the other bloggers has compiled a more likely looking list of match winners, follow your gut and go with them. The fact that there is very little overlap between our choices suggests that this is going to be a tough one to call…