Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Reading Year

I confess that I haven’t kept thorough records this year. My list of books read in 2008 totals 75 titles, but I suspect that there are more that ought to have been included on that list that I failed to note down. That partially explains the significant dip from the 100 books per year that I’ve averaged since I started keeping track in 2005. What else might explain the deviation? It’s been a very productive year for me in academic research and writing which has meant lots of time devoted to reading articles, cases, and bits and pieces of books rather than books cover-to-cover. I’ve also been very scattered in my reading of late such that I find myself now surrounded by ten partially read books, some of them 500 plus pages, most of them more than half read, all of them very good books that I plan to finish, but not before the new year rings in. But enough about the books I didn’t finish. What of the ones that I did?

Of the 75 on my list, 62 were fiction, 11 non-fiction, and 3 poetry. They were nearly evenly split between male and female authors: 38 written by men, 34 written by women, 2 co-written by a combination of both, and one written by a pseudonymous author whose sex has not been revealed. The list is dominated by English-language authors from Canada, Scotland, England, and the U.S., but it also includes books by Australian, Chilean, Czech, French, Japanese, Norwegian, and Swedish authors. Eight were translations. I’d like to be reading more works in translation than that but, nevertheless, it’s a marked improvement from the one or two translations per year that I was averaging before I started seeking them out in connection with my 2007 “Reading Across Borders” challenge.

In fiction it was a genre-heavy year, with 40 of the 62 fiction titles falling into the category of crime fiction, and a further 7 into the category of fantasy (the latter a testament to my continuing love affair with Terry Pratchett’s discworld novels). In non-fiction, there was the usual smattering of biography, memoir and books about writing and/or reading. But also a number of books on running (my antidote to Olympic withdrawl) and on nutrition and food politics (always an interest but now, I think, elevated to a preoccupation). The poetry books were all contemporary, small press titles by Canadian authors. Three sounds like a scant number, but given that I rarely read poetry books cover-to-cover, opting instead to dip in and out, that number doesn’t accurately reflect the amount of poetry that I read.

One unusual feature of this year’s list of books read is the number of authors that made repeat appearances on it. The list includes seven authors by whom I read anywhere from three to six books in a single year. This can be accounted for by a combination of happy discoveries (new-to-me authors whose work I liked so well that I immediately sought out and read more of their books) and binge reading (it’s common-place for me to read several instalments of a mystery series in quick succession).

One all-too-usual feature of the list is that it has a resolutely contemporary tilt. It breaks down into 59 twenty-first century titles (18 of those published in 2008), and 17 twentieth century titles, with nary a one from the nineteenth century or earlier. (Yes, if you recall any of the bold resolutions that I made this time last year, that does mean that I didn’t finish War and Peace, or Les Miserables, or Don Quixote.)

If I were in a mood for making resolutions, I’d resolve to expand my reading horizons in 2009 by seeking out books from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and endeavouring to read at least a few pre-twentieth century titles. But I’m not in a mood for making resolutions. I may take my reading in those directions, but I’m not making any promises in that regard to myself or anyone else. I’m going to read whatever I feel like reading whenever I feel like it. My only bookish resolution is to blog more often, or at least more consistently, in 2009.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Not "Influences" But "Acquisitions"

Mavis Gallant on influence and style:

There is no such thing as a writer who has escaped being influenced. I have never heard a professional writer of any quality or standing talk about "pure" style, or say he would not read this or that for fear of corrupting or affecting his own; but I have heard it from would-be writers and amateurs. Corruption--if that is the word--sets in from the moment a child learns to speak and hear language used and misused. A young person who does not read, and read widely, will never write anything--at least, nothing of interest. From time to time, in France, a novel is published purporting to come from a shepherd whose only influence has been the baaing of lambs on some God-forsaken slope of the Pyrenees. His artless and untampered-with mode of expression arouses the hope that there will be many more like him, but as a rule he is never heard from again. For "influences" I would be inclined to substitute "acquisitions." What they consist of, and amount to, are affected by taste and environment, preferences and upbringing (even, and sometimes particularly, where the latter has been rejected), and instinctive selection. The beginning writer has to choose, tear to pieces, spit out, chew up, and assimilate as naturally as a young animal--as naturally and ruthlessly. Style cannot be copied, except by the untalented. It is, finally, the distillation of a lifetime of reading and listening, of selection, and rejection. But if it is not a true voice, it is nothing.

From Mavis Gallant, "What is Style?" in The Paris Notebooks (1986).

Monday, October 13, 2008

Next Up at the Short Story Discussion Group

The story selected to serve as the focus of the next discussion at A Curious Singularity is Kelly Link's "The Specialist's Hat".

The discussion will begin on Tuesday, October 14th; participants are invited to begin posting their thoughts on the story at the A Curious Singularity blog then. Click on the title of the story above to access it online.

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 to the discussion through the comments sections of the posts without officially joining the group.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Upcoming Discussion of Emily of New Moon

Over at Blogging Anne of Green Gables, we will shortly be turning our attention to another of Lucy Maud Montgomery's novels, Emily of New Moon. The discussion of Emily is scheduled to begin on October 15th. If you would like to participate but are not yet a member of that blog, let me know and I will send you an invitation to join. I'm looking forward to a lively discussion of my childhood favourite Mongomery heroine.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Audiobooks Worth Listening To

I was slow to embrace audiobooks. I take things in much better by reading than by listening so I had decided that audiobooks just weren’t for me. I’m much too apt to drift away while listening and lose the thread of the thing. But then I moved and my commute to work got substantially longer, plus I started spending a fair bit of time on the stationary bike or on the treadmill at the gym. And I recognized that both my commute and my sojourns at the gym would be enhanced if I could find audiobooks that would hold my attention. Through a bit of trial and error, I figured out that either a suspenseful plot or an engaging narrative voice does the trick (or, better yet, a combination of both), and I have since spent many a pleasurable hour listening to books. The very best of my discoveries, listed below, are the ones that have been sufficiently riveting to prompt me to applaud subway delays, or to extend my workouts by a few extra miles:

1. Anything by Terry Pratchett read by Stephen Briggs (the list includes Going Postal, Making Money, Thud!, Monstrous Regiment, The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and Wintersmith): I didn't think it would be possible for me to love Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels any more than I already did, but listening to them read by Stephen Briggs adds a whole new layer of enjoyment to the experience. The tone of his narration conveys Pratchett's wry humour perfectly and the voices that he creates for the various characters are marvellous. I hadn't given much thought to how a golem might sound until I heard Briggs' rendition of one—booming, echoey and, well, clayey, just as it ought to sound. And there's the precise, chilling tone of Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician, Lord Vetinari. And the inimitable diction of City Watchmen Sergeant Fred Colon and Corporal Nobby Nobbs. I could go on and on, but instead I’ll just urge you to listen for yourself.

2. Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, read by Cynthia Bishop and others: This one is a product of Full Cast Audio, a company that produces unabridged recordings of children’s books using a narrator and a full cast to bring to life the voices of the various characters. The formula works brilliantly here. I still experienced The Goose Girl as a book rather than as a play (there’s no abridgment or adaptation apart from the removal of the “he saids” and “she saids” rendered unnecessary by the format), but I think that the range of voices more effectively conveyed the depth and nuance of Hale’s novel than a single reader would have done. Listening to it not only prompted me to seek out more novels by Hale, but also more audiobooks produced by Full Cast Audio. I have no doubt that I will discover more excellent authors this way.

3. Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, read by Kim Mai Guest: This stunning novel by Meg Rosoff is set in the near future, or perhaps an alternative present, in which the bombs of an unknown enemy begin to rain down on England shortly after 15-year-old Daisy arrives there from Manhattan to stay with cousins she’s never met before. Reader Guest nails Daisy’s first person voice, beautifully conveying her teenage blend of cynicism, bravado, and vulnerability. The plot would have kept me glued to this one regardless, but even if it hadn’t, Daisy’s voice as rendered by Guest would have held my attention.

4. Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers (first in his mystery series featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander), read by Dick Hill: It could be a dicey proposition, performing a work in translation, trying to make the characters sound Swedish in English (when, of course, in actuality they would just be speaking Swedish) without descending into a caricature of a Swedish accent. But Hill manages to strike the right balance here, ably conveying the atmosphere of Mankell’s novel as well as the voices of his characters. The only quarrel that I have with Hill’s reading is he makes all of the female characters' voices sound the same and rather shrill and sing-song at that. But Inspector Wallander’s universe is a mostly male one, so that discordant note didn’t often interrupt the flow of the book.

5. James Joyce’s The Dubliners, each story read by a different Irish actor: I wasn’t sure at first how I would respond to a single book read by multiple readers. It’s a short story collection, of course, but a linked short story collection, and I thought I’d prefer to hear it read by a single voice to add a thread of continuity, just as the author's voice does on the page. But, then again, the stories are told from the perspective of a variety of different characters, so why not represent that variety by employing different readers? Ultimately, I concluded that it worked. There’s a bit of unevenness. For example, Colm Meaney’s reading of “Araby” is oddly flat (oddly, given that Meaney is a talented actor and “Araby” a brilliant story). But for the most part, the stories are beautifully read. I particularly relished hearing each one read in an Irish accent that brought the rhythms of the language to the fore.

6. Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, read by the author: I’m going to read this one for myself as well, as I couldn’t take it all in in one listen. But Bryson, who has an engaging conversational tone even on the page, has a very companionable voice and I very much enjoyed the feeling as I listened of being guided through that welter of information by the author first hand.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The U.S. Election Campaign through a Literary Lens

There's a very interesting article in the current issue of the New York Review of Books by Colm Tóibín which draws parallels between James Baldwin and Barack Obama. Click here to read it.

And so long as I'm recommending articles related to the U.S. election, don't miss James Woods on "the Republican War on Words", or George Saunders' brilliant satire of Sarah Palin's war on words.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Immodesty of the Short Story

Steven Millhauser on the short story:

The short story concentrates on its grain of sand, in the fierce belief that there — right there, in the palm of its hand — lies the universe. It seeks to know that grain of sand the way a lover seeks to know the face of the beloved. It looks for the moment when the grain of sand reveals its true nature. In that moment of mystic expansion, when the macrocosmic flower bursts from the microcosmic seed, the short story feels its power. It becomes bigger than itself. It becomes bigger than the novel. It becomes as big as the universe. Therein lies the immodesty of the short story, its secret aggression. Its method is revelation. Its littleness is the agency of its power.

To read the rest of Millhauser's essay on the short story and the novel, click here.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Toby Litt's Advice to New Writers

Toby Litt's advice to new writers:

Don't write what you know. You don't know what you know. Surprise yourself.

For the rest of the Guardian interview from which this nugget comes, click here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Running as a Creative Activity

Kathrine Switzer on running as a creative activity:

People always ask what you think about when you run, and to runners, it's a weird question because our heads are full of so many thoughts. Running is not a boring activity to us, it is a creative one.

From Kathrine Switzer, Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women's Sports (2007).

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Haruki Murakami on Running and Writing

Haruki Murakami on Running and Writing:

Right now I'm aiming at increasing the distance I run, so speed is less of an issue. As long as I can run a certain distance, that's all I care about. Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same sort of tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day's work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm. This is the important thing for long-term projects. Once you set the pace, the rest will follow. The problem is getting the flywheel to spin at a set speed--and to get to that point takes as much concentration and effort as you can manage.

From Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir (2008) (translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel).

Saturday, July 05, 2008

On the Road Again

I'm off to Scotland for three weeks. I may check in occasionally to report on book purchases and other literary adventures, but likely things will be quiet around here until my return. In the meantime, enjoy your summer reading!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Canadian Book Challenge Omnibus Review


I did a fine job of keeping up with my reading for John Mutford's Canadian Book Challenge over the course of the year, but not such a good job of keeping up with posting about my reading. So here I am on the final day of the challenge, doing an omnibus review to cover the nine out of thirteen books read that I haven't yet reported on.

1. Ellen Anderson, Judging Bertha Wilson: Law as Large as Life: This biography of the first woman judge to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada reads a bit like two distinct books. The first half is a conventional biography which tracks Bertha Wilson’s life prior to her appointment to the bench: her birth and upbringing in Scotland, her stint as a philosophy student at the University of Aberdeen, her years as a clergyman’s wife in a northern Scottish village, emigration to Canada, legal study as a mature student at Dalhousie Law School, and her unconventional career in legal practice. The second is a work of legal scholarship with a focus squarely on Bertha Wilson’s judgments rather than on her life. I was most interested in the first half as I already knew a lot about her judgments but knew only the barest outline of her early life story. But I can enthusiastically embrace the second half as well as I am sure that the very detailed description and assessment of Wilson’s judgments that Anderson provides in it will prove a very helpful resource to me in my academic work. My initial impression was that general readers who would enjoy the first half of the book might get bogged down in the legal detail of the second, but having thought more about it I’ve revised my opinion. The portion on the judgments is very accessibly written without ever glossing over the complexity of the subject matter, and surely anyone interested enough in Bertha Wilson to pick up a biography of her will want to glean from it a full sense of the impact that her tenure on the bench had on Canadian law.

2. Margaret Atwood, Moral Disorder: This book is, to my mind, a model of what a linked short story collection should be. 1. Each of the stories can stand on its own. None read like fragments of a larger story. 2. Yet, the collection as a whole has a sense of continuity and wholeness. The whole is something more than the sum of its parts. 3. Finally, there’s a reason why it’s a short story collection rather than a novel. It focuses on the life of a single character (Nell), but in tracing that life through short stories, Atwood is able to achieve something different, reveal different things, than would have emerged within the structure of a novel. I won’t try to sum up the book as a whole. I find this virtually impossible and frankly undesirable in a review of a short story collection. But I will highlight a few things about the content and the structure to support the statements I’ve made above. The collection begins at the end with a story set in the present. Then it skips back to the beginning with a story about eleven-year-old Nell, and proceeds more or less chronologically thereafter. I say more or less, because there’s considerable variation in the breadth of the time span covered by each story which creates some overlap. Arranging the collection with the most recent story first gives a sense of circling back around that creates a sense of wholeness, and knowing how it ends gives the reader a sense of forward motion as immediately you want to figure out how the characters arrived there. The overlapping of stories together with a shift in narrative voice is where the form of the linked story collection offers a different view of the subject than a novel would have done. In particular, there is a shift from first person (stories one through five) to third person (stories six through ten) and back again (story eleven) . The initial shift from first to third person occurs at precisely the moment when Nell enters into a common law relationship and begins to feel less an individual and more someone in relation to others--a wife, a stepmother-- so viewing her suddenly from the outside seems exactly right. And along with that, because of the nature of the relationship, this is when Nell begins to feel less in control, so it makes sense that at that point her voice ceases to determine the arc of the narrative. It all adds up to a rich, layered, nuanced look at a life.

3. Irene Gammel, Looking for Anne: How Lucy Maud Montgomery Dreamed Up a Literary Classic: Gammel has described this book as a double biography which simultaneously tracks the origins of Anne of Green Gables and fleshes out the life of Anne’s creator at the time that she was conceiving and writing the novel. It is also something of a detective story. For although Montgomery was a prolific diarist, she revealed very little in her journals about the inspiration for Anne and the writing process that brought her into being. Gammel had to do a good bit of digging to illuminate both here and we are the beneficiaries. Gammel has tracked down the magazines, poems, and novels that Montgomery was reading when she conceived of Anne, and identified various aspects of her early life that preoccupied Montgomery as she wrote. The result is a fascinating glimpse not just into Anne’s origins but, more broadly, into the creative process by which writers transform disparate influences and inspirations into independent works of fiction.

4. Harold Johnson, Charlie Muskrat: In his third novel, Johnson deftly weaves together traditional, modern and post-modern modes of storytelling to create a novel which is funny, moving, and profound, not so much by turns as all at once. What begins as a short hunting trip (Charlie Muskrat setting off from his northern Saskatchewan home in his truck Thunder with a thermos of coffee, a bag of cheezies, and a shotgun, in the hope of sighting a moose from the road) becomes, with the intervention of Wesakicak (the trickster figure of Cree legend), a cross-Canada road trip. While Charlie encounters police officers, border guards, officials from the department of Indian affairs, and a prison chaplain, among others, Wesakicak chats with Hermes, Socrates, the Muses, and Jesus in his quest to sort out what’s to become of Charlie. And occasionally, a writer named Harold Johnson drops in on the narrative, getting cagey when Charlie asks him what he’s working on these days. Perhaps my favourite scene in the book is one in which a university student sitting in a Winnipeg bus shelter reading a novel titled Charlie Muskrat by Harold Johnson looks up to see Charlie skidding though an icy intersection in his truck. She offers him a cheerful wave and turns back to her book leaving him to wonder how she knows him. I so enjoyed travelling cross-country with Charlie Muskrat that, when I finished the book, I flipped back to the beginning and read it again. (Disclosure: Harold is a friend of mine and we’re both published by the same small press.)

5. Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel: For my post on this book, click here.

6. Robert Lecker, Dr. Delicious: Memoirs of a Life in CanLit: For my review of this book, click here.

7. Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables: For the first of my series of posts on the book, click here.

8. Peter Robinson, All the Colours of Darkness: This is the latest instalment in Robinson’s police procedural series featuring Inspector Banks. It’s not due out until September, but I had the good fortune to pick up an advance copy at BookExpo earlier this month and I couldn’t resist diving in immediately. I’ll save my full review until after the novel’s publication date, but I can tell you now that it’s a riveting read that will be a treat for fans of the series. And if you’re not yet a fan of the series, you’ve got a few months to get up to speed! I recommend beginning at the beginning with Gallow’s View and working your way forward chronologically. It’s a fine series which started strong and has not once lapsed in quality through 19 books; indeed, it seems to me that it gets better and better with each new instalment.

9. Stuart Ross, Dead Cars in Managua: I was particularly keen to read the second section of Ross’s latest poetry collection, a sequence of poems titled “Hospitality Suite” about the absurd universe of hospitals, as I’d been very much taken with these poems when I heard him read aloud from them at various readings. They fully lived up to expectation, even more powerful on the page than read aloud, treading the knife-edge between humour and pathos in a way that no other writer I've encountered does better. The first section of the book was something of a surprise, a bleak travelogue of Managua illustrated with photos of the decaying cars which give the book its title. Again, very powerful, but in a wholly new way. The final section contains disparate poems most of which grew from exercises that Ross sets for the students in his periodic Poetry Boot Camps. These ones make me feel like writing poems; perhaps its time I signed up for one of those boot camps. Each of the three sections of the book has a distinct identity; together they showcase the depth and breadth of Ross’s poetic talents. I’m looking forward to spending more time with these poems. (Disclosure: Stuart is a good friend as well as being one of my favourite poets.)

10. Mariko Tamaki (author) & Jillian Tamaki (illustrator), Skim: This book was my first foray into the realm of graphic novels and it was a perfect place to begin to develop an appreciation of the form. Being very much a word person, I entered into it with the idea that the words would take primacy and the drawings would illustrate the text in a straightforward fashion. I soon realized that the reality is much more complex and interesting than that. It’s almost as if the words and the drawings are in dialogue with one another. Sometimes the drawings say things that the words can’t. Sometimes the drawings appear to contradict the words. It’s the perfect medium for representing the world view of high school outsider Kimberly Keiko Cameron aka “Skim”—a Wiccan goth grappling with a powerful crush on her English teacher Ms. Archer, and hanging on tightly to her cynicism in the face of a school-wide campaign to bolster school spirit and combat suicide (“Girls Celebrate Life!”). The particular genius of this book for me is the way that it plays with the stereotypes endemic to high school without ever reducing any of the characters to them.

11. Zachariah Wells, ed., Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets: I’ve been partial to the sonnet form since my teenage infatuation with Edna St. Vincent Millay, but until I cracked open this book I hadn’t realized how many Canadian poets had written and are writing sonnets. This is a marvellous collection which blends together sonnets by Canadian icons from past decades (Milton Acorn, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, Gwendolyn MacEwen, E.J. Pratt) with sonnets by a range contemporary poets (including many of my favourites: Ken Babstock, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Evie Christie, Kevin Connolly, David McFadden, Stuart Ross). The poems themselves are pleasure enough, but the notes provided by editor Zachariah Wells about each poem at the back of the book add another layer of enjoyment to the reading experience. You can read the poems for yourself first, then read what Wells has to say to see if you agree with his interpretations and assessments of his choices. And finally, the book is a beautiful physical object as well. You can see the cover reproduced above, but you have to hold the book in your hands to appreciate the richness of the colour, the striking quality of the design, and the lovely texture of the paper.

12. Zoe Whittall, Bottle Rocket Hearts: In her first novel, Whittall brings alive in gritty detail the specificity of a particular experience in a particular time and place (coming of age amidst the feminist and queer communities of Montreal on the eve of the 1995 referendum on Quebec separation). Yet in doing so, she evokes a coming of age experience that a broad range of readers will connect with emotionally regardless of how far removed their lives may be from that of central character, eighteen-year-old Eve. An aspect of the novel that I particularly relished is its presentation of the forging of a political identity as a central aspect of coming of age. It’s not surprising, of course, that the personal and political would be intertwined in this context. Nevertheless, sorting out one’s own political stance seems to me an especially fraught exercise when engaged with political communities of a collectivist bent, and in this novel we can see that in all its messy, complicated glory.

13. Inger Ash Wolfe, The Calling: For my review of this book, click here.

The First Reviews

I don't know if things happened faster back then or if it was a testament to the quality of Anne of Green Gables, but a mere ten days on Lucy Maud Montgomery already had a solid indication that her first novel was a success. Here's an excerpt from her journal entry dated June 30, 1908:

These days are perennially interesting because of the reviews of my book. So far they have been favourable. Anne is already in her second edition. My publishers are hurrying me now for the sequel. I'm working at it but it will not be as good as Green Gables. It doesn't come as easily. I have to force it.

The discussion of Anne of Green Gables continues over at Blogging Anne of Green Gables. It's not too late to join in; let me know if you fancy doing so. And I suspect that once that discussion wraps up, we will continue on to Anne of Avonlea and have our say on whether we agree with LMM about the relative merits of her sequel.

Friday, June 20, 2008

One Hundred Years to the Day

(Cross-posted at Blogging Anne of Green Gables.)

Today, June 20th, is the actual day one hundred years ago that Lucy Maud Montgomery first held the newly published Anne of Green Gables in her hand. Despite being a prolific diarist, Montgomery wrote very little in her journal about either the process of writing Anne, or the aftermath of its publication. But she did express her pleasure and her joy on that momentous day. Here is her journal entry in its entirety:

Saturday, June 20, 1908
Cavendish, P.E.I.

     Today has been, as Anne herself would say "an epoch in my life". My book came to-day, fresh from the publishers. I candidly confess that it was for me a proud, wonderful, thrilling moment! There in my hand lay the material realization of all the dreams and hopes and ambitions and struggles of my whole conscious existence—my first book! Not a great book at all—but mine, mine, mine,—something to which I had given birth—something which, but for me, would never have existed. As far as appearance goes the book is all I could desire—lovely cover design, well bound, well printed. Anne will not fail for lack of suitable garbing at all events.
     On the dedication page was the inscription "To the memory of my father and mother". Oh, if they were but living to be glad and proud. When I think of how father's eyes would have shone!

From Mary Rubio & Elizabeth Waterston, eds., The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Volume I: 1889-1910 (1985).

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rebecca Rosenblum on the Short Story

Rebecca Rosenblum on the short story:

Short stories are complete, and thus you know (nearly) right away what you are dealing with—whether you like it if not why, and whether you want more. They are self-contained, offering all you ever need know about the given situation. And yet they are by nature constrained and thus spare—non-essentials are left out, leaving space for the reader to slide inside, inserting imagination of whys and wherefores, physical descriptions and psychological profiles.

To read the rest of Rebecca's very eloquent post on why short stories will never die, click here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Summer Story Schedule at A Curious Singularity

All three of the stories contending to be our June selection garnered considerable enthusiasm and no clear winner emerged from the voting. Indeed, a number of people expressed an interest in reading all three. I've decided that that's a fine idea. Of course, we won't discuss them all in the same month, but if we take each one up in turn, these three stories will take us through to the end of the summer. (Given the difficulty I've had in other years keeping the group running through the summer months, this is a convenient solution to a difficult choice administratively-speaking as well!) So, arranging the stories in the order in which they were nominated, our summer schedule of story discussions at A Curious Singularity looks like this:

June 10: Raymond Carver's "Cathedral";

July 8: Laura Bork's "Mama Loved Patsy Cline"; and,

August 12: Jackie Kay's "Wish I Was Here".

Members of the group are invited to post their thoughts on Carver's "Cathedral" at the A Curious Singularity blog whenever they feel ready to do so. If you're not yet a member of the group and you would like to join, please e-mail me. New members are always welcome! Of course, anyone can contribute to the discussion through the comments sections of the posts without officially joining the group.

Happy reading! I'm looking forward to discussing all three of these stories with fellow short story aficionados over the course of the summer.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

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

The three stories that have been nominated to serve as the focus of our next discussion at A Curious Singularity, scheduled to begin on Tuesday, June 10th, are:

Laura Bork's "Mama Loved Patsy Cline";

Raymond Carver's "Cathedral"; and,

Jackie Kay's "Wish I Was Here".

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. All are welcome to vote for the story selection and to join in the discussion regardless of whether or not you've participated in any of our previous short story discussions.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Anne of Green Gables: Questions I Never Thought to Ask Before

Cross-posted at Blogging Anne of Green Gables.


On the left is the the edition of Anne of Green Gables that I remember best from my childhood, illustrated by Hilton Hassell and published by The Ryerson Press. On the right is a picture of me the year that I first encountered Anne.

Like many of you, I have a long history with Anne of Green Gables. Although it's a Canadian classic and I grew up in Canada, I first encountered it in Scotland when I was ten-years-old and spending one of my dad's sabbatical years there. I don't know what initially prompted me to pluck it off the shelf of the Edinburgh Public Library. I do know that I was instantly smitten, that I read it quickly, and reread it countless times thereafter.

What was the source of its appeal for me then? First, much as I enjoyed the year in Edinburgh, I was homesick for Canada. And although the novel's Prince Edward Island setting actually has more in common with the Scottish landscape I then inhabited than with the prairie city in Saskatchewan that I'd left behind, Anne of Green Gables still somehow felt like a bit of home. Second, Anne was a skinny, freckled, red-haired outsider with a fondness for books and big words. All qualities to which I could relate all too well. Later, when I discovered the rest of Montgomery's oeuvre, I felt a much stronger kinship with Emily's writing ambitions than with Anne's. But Anne came first and holds a special place in my heart as a consequence.

What new insights could a reread of Anne of Green Gables yield up for me now? You would think that well would be exhausted after rereading the book so many times in childhood and a good few times as an adult as well. But no, in a testament to the richness of the novel, as well as to my long and ever shifting relationship with it, I'm finding myself noticing and questioning aspects of it this time through that I had never noticed or thought to question before. My modus operandi for this group read then will be to work my way through the book at a leisurely pace, offering up such observations and questions in a series of posts along the way.

We enter the novel by way of a meandering, paragraph-long sentence that follows the path of a brook from its source "away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place," alongside the Avonlea main road, and past the kitchen window of the ever-watchful Mrs. Rachel Lynde. I think that Mrs. Lynde is a marvellous character but it is by no means an obvious choice to begin the novel with her. Anne is, as trumpeted in the title, the main character, yet we don't meet her until the second chapter. Not only is Mrs. Lynde not the main character, I'm not sure that I would even count her among the most significant of the secondary characters so far as Anne is concerned (in that circle I would include Matthew, Marilla, Diana, and, later, Gilbert). Yet there she is, front and centre in the first paragraph and, indeed, throughout the whole of the first chapter. Why did Montgomery choose to begin the novel this way?

Ultimately, thanks to Mrs. Lynde's observant eye, and to her status as almost the voice of Avonlea, the first chapter provides the reader with a vivid picture of Green Gables, Matthew, Marilla, and the broader community. Thus armed with a sense of the people that Anne is about to encounter and of what is truly at stake for her, I think that we're primed to sympathize with her much more deeply than we otherwise could.

I suspect that a contemporary editor would suggest cutting much of that first chapter in order to get straight to Anne with the idea that that's the way to hook the attention of child readers as quickly as possible. What do you think? Is that opening chapter a perfect conduit into the book, or does it serve as a barrier to contemporary child readers of reputedly short attention spans? I'm putting myself in the former camp, partly because I don't regard Anne of Green Gables as a book exclusively for children, and partly because I don't think we give contemporary child readers enough credit when we make limiting assumptions about the breadth of their interests and attention spans.

The other aspect of the first chapter that jumped out at me from this reading was the sense of Canadian identity conveyed by Marilla in her exchange with Mrs. Lynde about the risks of taking in an orphan. She acknowledges some qualms but takes comfort from the fact that they're getting a "born Canadian." She notes: "And then Nova Scotia is right close to the Island. It isn't as if we were getting him from England or the States. He can't be much different from ourselves." I wouldn't have thought that either England or the States would have seemed particularly foreign to someone from PEI at that point in history, but Marilla's remarks belie my assumptions on both counts. They also lead me to wonder about if and how the Canadianness of the novel is conceived by non-Canadian readers. Does the embrace of Anne of Green Gables by readers from all over the world give Canada a place in their consciousness? Or does the Canadian content slip by non-Canadian readers unnoticed?

I'll stop there for now, saving my thoughts and questions about later chapters for subsequent posts.

To read the views of other bloggers on Anne of Green Gables on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of its publication, stop by Blogging Anne of Green Gables. A discussion of the novel will be ongoing there throughout the month of June. If you'd like to participate, let me know via e-mail, and I'll send you an invitation to join the Anne blog.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

John Updike on Literary Biography

John Updike on why we read literary biographies:

We read, those of us who do, literary biographies for a variety of reasons, of which the first and perhaps the most worthy is the desire to prolong and extend our intimacy with the author—to partake again, from another angle, of the joys we have experienced within the author's oeuvre, in the presence of a voice and mind we have come to love.

From John Updike, "On Literary Biography" in Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism (Random House, 2007).

Saturday, May 24, 2008

An Unintentional Hiatus

I didn't intend to take a three-week break from blogging. But a number of academic deadlines converged (a conference paper and two book chapters), and while I worked madly to meet them I found myself bereft of energy for anything else, at least anything else that involved sitting at the computer and writing. I don't feel too badly about not posting here. For, of course, there are plenty of fine blogs where you can get your fix of book talk regardless of whether or not there's anything going on here. But I do feel that I've rather let the side down where the various reading groups and challenges that I run are concerned. Here's a quick update on each of those:

A Curious Singularity: Regular participants will have noted that no new short story discussion commenced in May. I'm just going to let that slide and turn my attention to June. To that end, please send me your nominations for our June short story and I'll compile a slate of them for us to vote on in short order.

The Short Story Reading Challenge: Over the last month several people commented or emailed requesting to join the challenge and I was very slow to respond. I think I've caught up with all of the requests now though. If you expressed an interest and didn't receive an invitation to join the challenge blog, let me know and I'll rectify the oversight. We're up to 75 participants now who have collectively posted 118 reviews of short stories or short story collections since the beginning of the year. Not a bad show of interest in a genre that we're forever being told is dead or dying! Thanks to all those posts, I've been introduced to a number of authors and collections that I hadn't come across before and I'm very grateful.

Blogging Anne of Green Gables: Our group read of Anne of Green Gables, in honour of the 100th anniversary of its publication, is scheduled to begin on June 1st. I've sent out invitations to join the Anne blog to the eighteen people who have so far expressed an interest in participating. Again, though, if you ought to have received an invite and didn't, let me know and I'll send you another (and please make sure to provide me with a working email address for this purpose). And of course there's plenty of time to sign on even if you haven't yet communicated your interest. Just let me know. I'm looking forward to reading a multitude of different perspectives on this enduring classic.

A Modest Poetry Challenge: Several brave souls took up my April challenge, writing one or more critical posts about poets, poems, or poetry collections during National Poetry Month. Before the end of May, I will post a proper roundup linking to all of those very thoughtful and interesting posts and then I'll perform the promised book draw.

I think that's me all caught up in the blogging realm. Hopefully now I'll be resuming regular posts here. I've missed sharing my reading with you!

Saturday, May 03, 2008

A.L. Kennedy on King Lear

A.L. Kennedy on King Lear:

Shakespeare's King Lear is magnificent, appalling, soaring, banal, cruel, tender, funny and complex; the virtuous are punished, justice is rarely served (and lawyers are unloved). Its scope is so demanding that it's virtually impossible to stage and its end is simply shattering—in other words, it's very much like life.

To read the rest of the article, the latest in the Globe and Mail's 50 Greatest Books series, click here.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Fusing a Visceral Impulse with a Cerebral One

David Lehman on the broad appeal of crime fiction:

From the start the detective story offered a formula or a form that was elastic enough to allow for infinite repetition and variation. The plot centered on life-and-death matters that were stark enough to please a mass readership. On the other hand, the hero was distinguished by properties of mind that ensured the interest of an intellectual class. To this day, no other category of popular fiction so cleverly fuses a visceral impulse with a cerebral one—the physical action of the crime, the mental action of the detection—or so easily accommodates the best efforts of the Oxford don and the former steelworker, the prolific spinster and the pseudonymous journalist, the hard-edged experimentalist and the hard-line feminist, the Anglophile and the Anglophobe...

From David Lehman, The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection (2nd edition, 2000).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Anne of Green Gables at 100

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Lucy Maud Montgomery's classic novel Anne of Green Gables and the occasion is being commemorated in a myriad of ways in a multitude of places.

Several books related to Lucy Maud Montgomery and to Anne have been or will be published this year to coordinate with the centennial. The one which has garnered the most attention so far is the prequel, Before Green Gables, authorized by Montgomery's family and written by Budge Wilson. (I have so far resisted reading this one out of loyalty to the original Anne but, having recently ventured into the realm of LMM research, I've been persuaded that I ought to give it a go out of scholarly interest, so you may hear something from me about it soon.) But there are many more. For example, there's a lovely re-issue of the novel that reproduces the cover of the 1908 edition. And there are a number of books that will be of great interest to scholars as well as general readers including the marvellous Looking for Anne: How Lucy Maud Montgomery Dreamed Up a Literary Classic by Irene Gammel (I promise to post a review of this one soon), and the one I'm most excited about, due out in October, Mary Rubio's biography of LMM, Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings (it's the first biography to draw upon LMM's voluminous journals and I've been eagerly anticipating it since cracking open the first volume of those journals back in 1985).

And there are events galore: book launches, exhibits, scholarly conferences, and celebrations of varying degrees of formality. Just a small sample includes conferences due to be hosted by the University of Prince Edward Island ("L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables & the Idea of Classic") and the University of Guelph ("From Canada to the World: The Cultural Influence of Lucy Maud Montgomery"), an exhibit ("Anne of Green Gables: A Literary Icon at 100") organized by Irene Gammel which has just opened at the Spadina Museum in Toronto, and celebrations in Leaskdale and Uxbridge (two Ontario towns where LMM once made her home), St. Paul, Minnesota, and, of course, all across Prince Edward Island.

Reflecting on all of the foregoing, it seems to me that Anne's centennial ought to be duly commemorated in the blogosphere as well by doing what we do best: reading (or rereading) the book and sharing our reflections on it with one another. So how about a group read of Anne of Green Gables? The novel's original publication date was June 1908, so I'm proposing that our group read commence on June 1st. That would give all those interested in participating a bit of lead time to acquire a copy of the book and to read it. In anticipation, I've set up a dedicated blog to serve as a home for our discussion where we can post our thoughts on the novel and all things related to Anne and her centennial. Let me know, via email or the comments section below, if you're interested in participating. It would be wonderful to have a range of participants, some encountering the book for the first time, and others revisiting a childhood favourite, thereby giving us a broad scope to explore its enduring appeal.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Jhumpa Lahiri on the Short Story

Jhumpa Lahiri on the short story:

In the wider world, there is a terrible hierarchy that people have between stories and novels. There is a sense that bigger is better and smaller is a diminutive, lesser thing. It's maddening to me because I don't understand it. I just think that if one is a serious reader of fiction, that argument doesn't really hold very much water because some of the most remarkable works of fiction are short.

To read the rest of Vit Wagner's interview with Jhumpa Lahiri in today's Toronto Star, click here.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Next Up at the Short Story Discussion Group

The story selected to serve as the focus of the next discussion at A Curious Singularity is Roald Dahl's "The Way Up to Heaven", a story that was first published in 1954 in the New Yorker. Though I'm familiar with Dahl's books for children, this will be my first exposure to his writing for adults and I'm looking forward to it.

The discussion will begin on Tuesday, April 15th; participants are invited to begin posting their thoughts on the story at the A Curious Singularity blog then. Click on the title of the story above to access it online.

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 to the discussion through the comments sections of the posts without officially joining the group.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Commemorating Virago Modern Classics

There’s a marvellous essay by Rachel Cooke commemorating the 30th anniversary of Virago Modern Classics in this weekend's Observer. I know that many of you experience the same excitement I do upon catching sight of one of those green spines on the shelves of a used bookstore, and that you will read Cooke's article with the same sense of kinship that I did. You'll find it here.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Lewis Thomas on the Semicolon

Lewis Thomas on the semicolon:

I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn't get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.

From Lewis Thomas, "Notes on Punctuation" in The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1979).

Friday, April 04, 2008

Dawn Powell to Charlotte Johnson

Dawn Powell to Charlotte Johnson in a letter dated December 6, 1918:

Do you know I've lived about twenty years since Sept. 2—the date of my arrival in New York? Everything whirls around you all the time and you grab what you want and then let it resolve again. It makes me dizzy to think of all the warm friendships and Passionate Affairs I've been through in three months. The funny part of it all is that you have to come to New York to appreciate the virtues of a small town just as you have to go to college to learn how easily you can do without a B.A. And all the men say "I love you" and look at you with long wistful "I-surely-am-hit-now" gaze and you kiss them and say this is the first time I've ever cared like this and then you never see each other again. And on the subway in the mornings you suddenly find yourself talking to a man or girl who is a genuine soul-mate. They get out at Times Square and you see them looking back at you through the windows and both of you know you'll never meet again. Somehow there's nothing tragic in it, though. You recognize and love it all as Life—the World—Humanity—whatever it is.

From Tim Page, ed., Selected Letters of Dawn Powell 1913-1965 (1999).

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Les Misérables: Take Three

Three times I have resolved to read Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.

The first was when I visited Hugo's tomb in Paris at the age of seventeen. It seemed a properly writerly thing to do to visit his tomb, but I did recognize that it would have been a more meaningful pilgrimage if I had actually read the man's work.

The second was a few years later when I stumbled upon a black and white film adaptation on late night television that thoroughly piqued my interest in the character of Jean Valjean. (I think it was this version, but I'd have to watch it again to be sure.)

The third was earlier this year when Danielle proposed reading it en masse.

Alas I did not follow through on occasions one or two. I don't think I even got as as far along as checking the book out of the library. But I feel sure that the third time will be the charm with me and Les Misérables, particularly now that Danielle's suggestion has crystalized into a formal group read with its own blog home, Into the Parisian Underworld, set up by Ashleigh. I'm confident that the enthusiasm of my fellow bloggers for the enterprise will buoy me up if my own flags.

I concede that the early passages about the bishop aren't exactly gripping. (Is it sacrilege to say that I understand why the movie didn't begin with him?) But the odd line has made me laugh out loud and I'm sure things will liven up when Jean Valjean enters the narrative.

So look for more posts on Les Misérables as I progress through it. And please join us at Into the Parisian Underworld if you fancy reading along. I anticipate much interesting discussion of the book among the group read participants.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A Modest Poetry Challenge

April is National Poetry Month in Canada and the U.S. and in honour of the occasion I’m proposing a modest poetry challenge. I don’t need a challenge to get me reading poetry. I read lots of it on a regular basis. But I don’t post about it very often. I feel confident of my capacity to distinguish between good, bad, and mediocre poems and to allot my reading time and book buying dollars accordingly. But I find myself at a bit of a loss when it comes to articulating precisely how and why I arrive at these judgments. I feel as if I don’t have an adequate critical vocabulary or a broad enough frame of reference when it comes to writing about poetry.

On the one hand, knowing my own limits and showing a bit of humility doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. But on the other, I recognize that poetry gets precious little review ink, and it seems almost irresponsible not to do my bit to spread the word about poetry that I think is worth reading. On the latter ground, I’ve decided it’s time to shelve my writing about poetry inferiority complex (no doubt related to my writing poetry inferiority complex) once and for all.

I know that some of you are avid readers of and articulate writers about poetry; indeed, some of you are accomplished poets. But in the grand scheme, while I see quite a lot of posting of poems on blogs, I don’t see a lot of posting about poetry, at least not in comparison to the plethora of posts that regularly appear about fiction and non-fiction titles. This leads me to believe that some of you may share my hesitancy to write about poetry and welcome a challenge aimed at moving beyond it. So, on to the challenge.

The challenge is simply to post about poetry at least once in the month of April. The post could be a review of a collection of poetry, a broader meditation on the work of a favourite poet, or a detailed analysis of a single poem. Simply posting a poem doesn't count unless you go on to say something about that poem. The idea is to dare to be critical (as in analytical, not necessarily negative) and venture an opinion.

No one need commit to this challenge in advance. Just let me know, via e-mail or the comments section below this post, when you make a poetry post and provide me with a link, and I’ll do a grand roundup at the end of the month. There will, of course, be prizes! Everyone who makes a poetry post will be eligible for an end-of-month book draw. If you make multiple poetry posts, your name will go into the draw drum multiple times thereby increasing your chances. I haven’t yet settled on precisely what the prizes will be, but I have in mind a number of fine contemporary Canadian poetry collections that would make a welcome addition to any library. So, go forth and read poetry and then share your impressions of what you've read with the rest of us!

Monday, March 31, 2008

An Unconventional Memoir of a Life in CanLit

Dr. Delicious: Memoirs of a Life in CanLit is, as its subtitle indicates, a memoir of Robert Lecker’s life as a professor, critic, and publisher of Canadian literature. But who is this Dr. Delicious character? In the introduction, Lecker explains that after a student told him that his surname means “delicious” in German he began to reconceive himself:

The idea of being Dr. Delicious instead of plain old Professor Lecker made me think about the kind of writing I would have done if I was really the tasty version of myself. Professor Lecker would be reluctant to tell stories about his own life. He would resist the temptation to make his life in Canadian literature personal. He would not gossip. He would write scholarly articles and books that no one would read. But Dr. Delicious would lead a completely different life. He would delight in his classroom experiences. He would take liberties with his life story. He would talk about the ups and downs of being a Canadian publisher. He would bring in music, painting, hypochondria, malt whisky, deranged students, government grants, questionable authors, bank debt, termite infestations, a teaching stint in Brazil, lawsuits, the pleasures of hot sauce. He would write about his passions, his failures, how the whole business of CanLit drove him crazy, lost him sleep, drove him on.

I can appreciate how the idea of Dr. Delicious helped Lecker to abandon academic convention in embarking on this book, but in the early going I found the Dr. Delicious persona off-putting. To me it smacked a bit of an aging professor trying too hard to be cool. (No doubt my sensitivity to this stems from my own fears of venturing into that territory as a professor just past forty and no longer as conversant with my students’ pop culture references as I once was.) It was only when Lecker shucked off the Dr. Delicious veneer to describe the unabashed passion for the study of literature that he developed in graduate school that I was hooked by the narrative. The jaded academic is a familiar figure in the public imagination, and Lecker does go on to catalogue many of the frustrations of academic life with great insight and humour. But the passionate scholar is all too rarely represented, and it was a great pleasure to encounter one here.

Ultimately it is not a sharply drawn Jeckyll & Hyde conflict between what Lecker refers to as his “multiple book personalities” that makes this book so interesting, but rather their mostly peaceful co-existence. That Lecker is deeply suspicious of the CanLit canon in his critical work, yet contributes to its formation in what he chooses to teach in his professorial guise and what he chooses to publish as co-founder and long-time partner of Canadian small press ECW. That he is a champion of Canadian fiction and poetry, yet opts to devote a substantial amount of time and energy to the publication of dubious non-fiction titles (a low-carb cookbook, a glossy biography of Jennifer Lopez, WrestleCrap: The Very Worst of Pro Wrestling) to keep his press afloat. These are, of course, the realities not just of Lecker’s professional life but of academic life and small press publishing more broadly. And thus Dr. Delicious is a very satisfying read for anyone who is interested in the pleasures and frustrations of academic life, of small press publishing, or in the formation of and challenges to the CanLit canon. It was a bulls-eye on all three counts for me. Indeed, I was sufficiently intrigued by the snippets about the CanLit canon to buy a copy of Lecker’s previous book which is wholly devoted to the subject, Making it Real: The Canonization of English-Canadian Literature.

So, although I was not so keen on Dr. Delicious the persona, I highly recommend Dr. Delicious the book.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Space and Place in James Joyce's "Araby"

James Joyce’s “Araby” is a marvellously evocative short story. It is a very interior sort of story; the action, such as it is, occurs almost exclusively inside the narrator’s head. Of course this is not uncommon in coming-of-age stories as they generally track changes that occur within the protagonist. But this quality is heightened in “Araby” as the changes that the narrator undergoes are provoked by the quiet dissolution of a fantasy rather than by any dramatic external catalyst.

The interiority of the story is underscored for me by the way that Joyce uses space and place within it to highlight contrasts and mark transitions. The houses of North Richmond Street are associated with stuffy, respectable adulthood while the street itself is the terrain of childhood. The houses, in contrast to a vacant one at the end, are described thus in the opening paragraph: “The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.” But the street itself can be a more raucous place:

When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street.

The back lane is more adventurous territory still, not theirs but navigable nonetheless:

The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses, where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness.

Back on the front street, the narrator and his playmates still opt for the shadows beyond the light thrown by the kitchen windows. They duck out of view when the narrator’s uncle comes past on his way home, or when his friend Managan’s sister calls him in for his tea.

But when the narrator becomes smitten with Managan’s sister, despite never having so much as exchanged a word with her, he confines himself more often to his house. He lies on the floor of the front parlour where he can watch through the window for her to appear on her front doorstep. He ventures into the back drawing room where the previous tenant, an old priest, had died, to vent his desire in privacy. Finally, after Managan’s sister speaks to him at last, and he begins to anticipate a real connection between them, he goes to the top of the house, distancing himself further from the “child’s play” he now disdains:

I mounted the staircase and gained the upper part of the house. The high, cold, empty, gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discretely by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.”

The connection that the narrator anticipates has to do with a planned visit to Araby, “a splendid bazaar.” When Managan’s sister spoke to him finally, it was to ask if he was going to Araby. She can’t go herself as she is to attend a convent retreat that weekend, and he tells her that if he goes he will bring her something back.

Araby is associated with neither childhood nor respectable adulthood; it’s another space entirely. The very name “cast[s] an Eastern enchantment over” the narrator. He nearly doesn’t make it there when his uncle forgets to return home in time to give him money to go. But finally, after an anxious train journey, the narrator arrives at the bazaar at ten minutes to ten on Saturday night.

I found myself in a big hall girded at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service.

He listens to the stallholders counting money and gossiping to one another. Even those few stalls that are still open are clearly not keen for his business so late at night.

What better place than an exotically named bazaar a train journey from home to represent a fantasy just out of reach? And what better place than that bazaar at closing, its gaudy facade let down, its aisles empty of revellers, to bring home the recognition that the fantasy is out of reach and remains just that, a fantasy?

The story ultimately is masterful in taking not just the narrator but also the reader from the space of childhood (the bracing chill of the dark street ringing with boys’ shouts) to the awkward in-between (confining oneself to private corners of the house then railing against that confinement) to young adulthood (and the sharp moments of disillusionment it inevitably brings).

“Araby” is the third of fifteen stories contained in James Joyce’s collection The Dubliners. But it’s such a perfect coming-of-age story that I’m thinking of the collection now as book-ended with “Araby” at the beginning and “The Dead,” a masterpiece of a story about, among other things, aging and death, at the end, and I’m very keen to read the collection from start to finish to see what I make of it as a whole.

Drop by A Curious Singularity to read what other bloggers have written about James Joyce's "Araby."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Next Up at the Short Story Discussion Group

The votes are in, and the story selected to serve as the focus of the next short story discussion at A Curious Singularity is James Joyce's "Araby". Click on the title to access the story online. This is the second story from Joyce’s collection The Dubliners that has been discussed there. For a look back at what group members had to say about "The Dead" in September 2006, click here.

The discussion will begin tomorrow, March 25th. Members of the group are invited to begin posting their thoughts on the story at A Curious Singularity then. If you're not yet a member of the group and you would like to join, please e-mail me. New members are always welcome! Of course, anyone can contribute to the discussion through the comments sections of the posts without officially joining the group.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Novelistic Take on the Spitzer Scandal

I hadn’t given the Spitzer scandal a great deal of thought until I read this opinion piece by novelist Richard Russo in The Washington Post. Not only did it prompt me to think more deeply about Spitzer, but also about the construction of novels. (Thanks to Sarah for the link.)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Exploring the Novella

I’ve stumbled upon another reading challenge that I can’t resist. The Novella Challenge, hosted by Trish, calls for participants to read six novellas between April and September. This challenge appeals to me for two reasons. First, there are a number of books of the required length that I had already planned to read or reread in the near future, a few with a view to including them on next year’s Law & Literature syllabus. Second, I’ve long been puzzled by the novella form.

What exactly is a novella? One website that I came across defined it as being “longer than a long short story but shorter than a short novel.” Not very helpful, but very much in line with the general tendency to define the form primarily by reference to length. In setting out the terms of the challenge, Trish defines the term novella as encompassing works of between 100 and 250 pages. Elsewhere, I’ve seen a span of 60 to 130 pages delineated. My own conception of novella length falls somewhere in between, perhaps 75 to 175 pages. Of course, all that these divergences demonstrate is how arbitrary it is to define a literary form simply by length.

I note that there are a number of books on my shelves that appear to be novella length, but which the authors and/or publishers have explicitly, via a subtitle, proclaimed to be novels, for example, Every Eye by Isobel English (152 pages), and Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster (145 pages). I recall, as well, that there was some debate as to whether Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (167 pages) ought to qualify as a contender for the Booker prize given that the rules of the competition restrict eligibility to “full-length novels.” My own perception of On Chesil Beach is that it is indeed a novella by virtue of both its length and its scope. But many others disagreed, including the Booker committee and judges who included it on the 2007 shortlist. On the other hand, I’ve seen Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie referred to as a novella and, while it clocks in at a mere 127 pages, I would count it as a novel by virtue of its complex structure. I have also seen James Joyce’s “The Dead” labelled a novella and, given that it’s a story of only 40 odd pages which anchors a linked short story collection, that just seems nutty to me. To my mind, it’s an exemplar of the short story form.

All of which is to say that it’s got to be about more than page count. I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking and reading about the formal distinctions between the short story and the novel. Does the novella have more in common, formally speaking, with the short story or with the novel? Or is it its own creature, with its own formal attributes? Participating in The Novella Challenge will be a fine kick-start for me in exploring these questions.

To meet the challenge, I plan to read (or in some cases, reread) at least six of the following classics:

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart;

Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease;

Honore de Balzac, The Unknown Masterpiece;

Albert Camus, The Outsider;

Henry James, The Aspern Papers;

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice;

Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivner;

Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café; and,

Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine.

I would also like to read some contemporary novellas. I don’t have many specifically in mind though. My sense is that it’s even harder to get novellas published than short stories these days and that, when novellas do get published, they’re generally buried within a short story collection so that they may not attain an independent identity in readers’ minds. A new Canadian small press that is bucking this trend with a novella series is Quattro Books, and I will definitely be checking out some of their offerings. I also have A Bright Tragic Thing by Elyse Freidman on my TBR list (a novella published as part of her recent collection Long Story Short). Other suggestions of contemporary novellas for me to read are most welcome.

Finally, to help me muse on the formal attributes of the various books I’ll be reading, I plan to delve into the following academic studies that I picked up at my university library:

Judith Leibowitz, Narrative Purpose in the Novella;

J.H.E. Paine, Theory and Criticism of the Novella; and,

Mary Doyle Springer, Forms of the Modern Novella.

Here too, I’d welcome recommendations of articles or books on the novella form.

Thanks to Trish for hosting The Novella Challenge and starting me off on a grand new reading project, and also to Eva who brought the challenge to my attention.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander Mysteries


In my latest foray into crime fiction in translation, I finally made the acquaintance of Inspector Kurt Wallander. My dad has been recommending Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander books to me for years, but it was only last week that I began with an audio version of the first instalment in the series, Faceless Killers (first published in Swedish in 1991 and in English translation in 1997). I’m generally not keen on audio books as I tend to drift when I’m listening rather than reading. But I’ve found that a suspenseful mystery can hold my attention and render my commute bearable. Faceless Killers did better than that, keeping me riveted through a variety of weather-related subway delays that stretched my commute to nearly three hours one afternoon. I was so thoroughly hooked that the minute I reached the end, I picked up the second in the series, The Dogs of Riga, this time in book form, and made short work of it as well. And, having listened to the first book, I had the benefit of having the proper pronunciations in my head so that I didn’t stumble over the Swedish names when reading for myself.

So what’s so good about this series? It begins with the central character, Inspector Kurt Wallander. In many respects, he is an embodiment of the conventions of contemporary crime fiction. Wallander is a disaffected, angst-ridden police officer. He drinks too much (mostly whisky), is passionate about music (opera), and his personal life is in shambles (his wife has just left him and he is estranged from his teenage daughter). He frequently winds up battered and bruised from the physical risks that he takes in the course of his investigations. And yet he subverts a myriad of conventions as well. He falls in love at the drop of a hat, but he’s not the least bit suave with women and his feelings are rarely reciprocated. He may drink copious quantities of whisky of an evening, but he’s apt to order a glass of milk with lunch. His stomach knots under stress and he finds himself searching for a toilet at inopportune moments. He worries about his weight. He telephones his elderly father nightly, concerned about his drift into senility. He gets on rather well with his boss. He doesn’t fight doggedly over his turf when he comes into contact with other branches of the police service but rather hopes they might take a difficult and disturbing case off his hands. He makes a lot of mistakes, and many months may pass before he manages to resolve a case. He does his job well and has a strong sense of duty, but he is constantly tempted to quit the police service for an easier life. All of which is to say that though he has many of the requisite characteristics of a crime fiction hero, he remains gloriously human.

Mankell’s Wallander books also appeal to this literary tourist for their vivid evocation of Sweden. After only two books, I already have a strong sense of the landscape and the progress of the seasons in the southern province of Sweden in which the series is set. And I have learned something about Swedish society, politics, and history as well. I recognize, of course, that fiction isn’t the best source of information about such things. But I relish a novel that sparks my interest in a new subject sufficiently to send me off in search of non-fiction about it, and these books have done that for me. Faceless Killers opens with the brutal murder of an elderly Swedish couple. The woman survives for nearly a day but wakes only long enough to speak the word “foreigner” before she dies. After a leak to the media, simmering tensions around Sweden’s immigration policy ignite resulting in further crimes and many complications for Wallander and his team in their quest to solve the case. This scenario offers not just a suspenseful mystery but also a glimpse into an aspect of Swedish society that runs counter to the general perception of the country as a bastion of tolerance. The Dogs of Riga opens with the bodies of two men who have been tortured and executed washing up on the Swedish coast in an unmarked life raft. The victims are traced to the Baltic state of Latvia, then in the midst of violent political turmoil stemming from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The rather apolitical Wallander must travel to Latvia and learn something of its history and politics in order to solve the case. Again I found myself riveted by the plot (formulated by Mankell before the outcome of the Latvian quest for independence was determined), and also moved to learn more about the recent history of the Baltic states than I had gleaned from following the news at the time that the events to which the book alludes were unfolding.

Utterly satisfying books both, and I am very much looking forward to reading my way through the rest of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

In Praise of Harriet the Spy

Click here to listen to a radio tribute to the central character of one my childhood favourite books, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I think that I'm overdue for a reread of this one.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe

All of the pre-publication buzz about The Calling, a crime novel by Inger Ash Wolfe, has focused on the identity of the author. When advance publicity revealed Wolfe to be the pseudonym of a well-known North American writer of literary fiction, the guessing games began at once. Speculators constructed a pool of likely prospects drawn from writers who share an agent with Wolfe, have the requisite knowledge of the part of Ontario in which the novel is set, and have been long enough between books to have completed a new one. I confess to some curiosity about this. But now that The Calling has hit store shelves, I’m content to turn my attention to the more important question of whether it’s a good book.

It has a couple of significant flaws. First, despite the occurrence of a murder within the first ten pages, The Calling gets off to a slow start. As is too often the case with a book that is to be the first in a series, there’s an awful lot of back-story shoehorned in in unwieldy chunks in the early chapters. Second, there’s just too much plot for one novel. More than once, upon encountering yet another twist in the plot, I found myself eyeing up the pages still to be read and asking in a peevish “are we there yet” sort of tone what could be left to uncover.

But there is much that warrants praise as well. The cast of characters is a fascinating lot, each of them very interesting in his or her own right, and so too are the dynamics of the relationships between them. At the centre is Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef, acting chief of the Port Dundas police detachment, sixty-one-years old, recently divorced, and fighting a reliance on the painkillers with which she soothes her bad back and the carefully concealed bottle of whisky with which she washes them down. Serving alongside her is Detective Sargeant Raymond Greene who, despite an outlook much more conventional than Hazel’s, appears content to answer to a female boss. And then there are the recent additions to Hazel’s team: Detective Constable James Wingate, a young, technologically-savvy officer, newly arrived from Toronto, and Detective Sargeant Adjutor Sevigny, a French-Canadian officer of intimidating size on loan from the Sudbury police, both of them with personal secrets that they must strive to keep concealed. This diverse group is thrown together to pursue, with little experience and few resources, a serial killer who is dispatching terminally ill individuals, one after another, in gruesome fashion.

A second strength of the novel is the sense of place evoked within it. In highlighting this facet of the book, I’m not referring simply to the vivid depiction of the landscape of the bit of Ontario where the fictional town of Port Dundas is located, but also to its relationship to the rest of Ontario and to the rest of the country. The novel brings to life the contrasts between rural and urban policing, and, as the scope of the case broadens with the identification of more victims, the tensions not just between rural and urban Ontario, but also between Ontario and other parts of Canada.

Finally, there’s the plot. I noted that there are a few more twists and turns to it than fit comfortably in a single novel but, nevertheless, it was altogether riveting for long stretches, and ultimately it wound its way to a very satisfying conclusion.

The Calling is not a great crime novel, but it’s a good one. And I very much hope that it is the beginning of a series because I suspect that, with the initial hiccups of establishing a series out of the way, the second book will be even better. I could very happily spend several more books in the company of Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef.