Wednesday, December 14, 2011
At any rate, the essay discusses an early novel by David Helwig called The Glass Knight, published back in 1976 by Oberon. As I mentioned in my review of his poetry collection The Year One last year, I'm a big fan of Helwig's work and find his writing some of the most consistently enjoyable stuff around. If CNQ gets around to updating its website, I'll drop a link to it if it's available.
News of this publication couldn't have come at a better time. I've had three especially tough-to-take rejections over last month that have just wrecked me, so it's good to see my name in print even if it's just for nonfiction. Thankfully - thankfully? - the Korean novel is still in considerational limbo out there in the publishing ecosphere, so hope springs eternal. I also have a poetry collection now making the rounds, God help us.
Oh, and yes - future in-laws. Ahem. Yes, RR and I are engaged. Have been since May. I know, I know, I should've mentioned it on the blog sooner. But I'm mentioning it now. August 11, 2012, baby! Healthiest life decision I've ever made. Can't wait.
Friday, December 9, 2011
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Friday, December 2, 2011
Crabbe was touched. The form had welded itself into a single unity on this issue. Tamils, Bengalis, and one Sikh, the Malays, the one Eurasian, the Chinese had found a loyalty that transcended race. Then, hopelessly, Crabbe saw that this unity was only a common banding against British injustice.
Friday, November 25, 2011
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend. There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim ‘I do enjoy myself’ or ‘I am horrified’ we are insincere. ‘As far as I feel anything, it is enjoyment, horror’ – it’s no more than that really, and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent.
Saturday, November 5, 2011
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Badly dressed, overweight social cripples ambled through cinema lobbies, often in twos and threes, quiet in their superiority, their “knowing” better than anyone else, so subtle in their condemnation that it made your heart hammer to tell them you liked something. They didn’t tell you you were wrong; they just dropped you into a Rolodex of inferior creatures and returned their attention to each other.
Friday, October 28, 2011
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Life on the ward may be like life anywhere, but there is one special question here for poets. Does madness generate creativity? Is madness creativity’s sponsor? Or is the truth rather that madness ruins the expression, that it is author of the experience but has no authorship of the poem? Is Wordsworth’s emotion recollected in tranquility actually spiked lunatic punch? I stared at the ceiling for hours, sedated, and decided that I couldn’t tell.
Jimmy, silently singing that swan song of denial, had a much bigger stroke, and became hemiplegic and aphasic. I visited him in hospital, and he expressed surprise that I would want to see him, since he “didn’t listen to me.” I sat beside him as he stuttered and stopped, only partially coherent. But I got one message clearly: that now he was very, very sorry. And when he expressed this, it was with an awareness of how much he had lost, and how difficult the future would be.
I want to show you the spirit of what I mean when I wax rhapsodic about what poetry can do. Instead of providing a happy-news message that cure is forthcoming, that despite the odds the patient will overcome, poetry can provide a more benign optimism: that the patient can understand her illness for what it is, and thereby steal from it its mastery. One can exchange servitude, if not for dominance (the boil, though pierced, may form again), then at least for a measure of control.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
He got genius, he got genius in spades. Cut him in half, he still worth three of me. It ain’t fair. It ain’t fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales. It ain’t fair. Gifts is divided so damned unevenly. Like God just left his damn sack of talents in a ditch somewhere and said, Go help youselves, ladies and gents. Them’s that get there first can help themselves to the biggest ones. In every other walk of life, a jack can work to get what he want. But ain’t no amount of toil going get you a lick more talent than you born with. Geniuses ain’t made, brother, they is. And I just was not.
Thursday, October 13, 2011
The problem is, I’m never convinced that the recommendations I’d make would ever work. I’ve only judged a small handful of writing contests and have never sat on a major jury for anything, so this is mostly pie-in-the-sky stuff. However, if you happen to run a major literary award and are in the mood to have a complete novice tell you how to do your job better, then this is the blog post is for you.
And even if you don’t run a major award but have opinions on these recommendations, I encourage you to leave a comment below. I’m especially interested in hearing why these ideas would never work.
Without further adieu:
Recommendation 1: Pick a five-person jury, no less. Make sure your choices come from a good mix of occupations within Canada’s broader literary infrastructure – academics, literary journalists, head librarians, published authors, arts administrators, etc – and also make sure there is a good regional, gender and (increasingly important) generational mix on your list. Vet the list for obvious conflicts of interest (e.g. you've accidentally picked an author who has a book in the same category she's judging.)
Recommendation 2: Get your five-person jury to read all of the given books under consideration. Don’t rush them – it’s gauche and totally beneath you to force your jurors to race through a mammoth fall list and make their decisions in time for a holiday shopping rush. Any award worth its salt won’t reveal a calendar year’s winner until the following spring. The reading should be a full-year undertaking, with decisions not happening until the first couple of months of the new year.
Recommendation 3: This is the most important one. Do not reveal the jury list during judging, even to the jurors themselves. I cannot stress this enough. Jurors should work at every stage of the process in complete isolation and ignorance of one another. There is no legitimate reason for jurors to interact with one another whatsoever. I would posit that if jurors discover who else is on the panel with them, it could taint how they read and judge the books under consideration. And if biases, agendas or axes to grind do exist, they will most likely wreak their havoc during ‘discussions,’ so eliminate discussions entirely. Instead, do this:
Recommendation 4: In lieu of a discussion, have each of the five jurors make their decisions based on a simple points system. This is what I suggest: from the full list of books under consideration, each juror picks a top 10 list, and each book on it gets 1 point. From his or her top 10 list, each juror then picks a top 5 list and gives those books an additional 2 points each (for a total of 3). Then, from that top 5 list, each juror picks an overall winner, which gets an additional 3 points (for a total of 6).
Recommendation 5: Allow each juror to also have a “worst 5” list. This can be comprised of books that he or she thought were awful, over-hyped or otherwise undeserving of the award. For each book on this list, he or she will award minus 3 points. This step is important, since it can help neutralize the biases or agendas that arise even when jurors work in isolation. After all, one juror’s “worst 5” selection might effectively nullify another juror’s overall winner. What remains can be a truer and more objectively achieved consensus. Once all the lists have been made, jurors then send them to your independent curator for review and tallying.
Recommendation 6: If conflicts of interest in the judging arise, the curator should resolve them at this stage. For example, let’s say one of the jurors is a writer who published a collection of short stories with a small press two years ago, and has now given three slots on his top 5 list to short story collections from that same press, then your curator may want to send the lists back to him and tell him to reconsider.
Recommendation 7: Once any conflicts of interest are resolved, the curator tallies up all the points from all books on all the jurors’ lists to come up with a master list of the top 5 books (this is your shortlist) and your overall winner. In the event of a tie (either for first place – i.e. the winner – or fifth place – i.e. the last slot on the shortlist) go back to the jury and ask them to re-rank the tied books (and only the tied books) to break the deadlock. Award points accordingly. No need to reveal the broader results of the voting or even who their fellow jurors are, even at this stage. Just ask everyone to reassess the tied books and get them to say “I rank this one first, this one second, this one third, etc.” Keep sending books back to your jury until the necessary tie(s) are broken. Finalize your shortlist and overall winner.
Recommendation 9: Reveal the shortlist at a press conference sometime in, say, early March. No need to reveal the jury list, even now.
Recommendation 10: Six weeks later, in mid April, reveal the winner and (finally!) the jury list at a gala celebration. Broadcast it nationally on CBC. Bring in ice sculptures and free booze. Toast the nominees and the winner.
So if anyone can help me punch holes in this, I’d definitely appreciate it. Leave comments below.
Friday, October 7, 2011
Velma spooned more lard fat into the skillet and stood for a few seconds with her feet planted in utter concentration, her lips puckered, stirring with a frenzy. Then she ladled the egg lumps onto a flimsy paper plate and brought them over.“Here are your eggs,” she gaily reported, blowing hair up out of her face and into his eggs too if that was where hair had a mind to fall. “Here they are, hard and greasy and not fit for a buzzard and just like your mama used to cook them when she was up and able.”
Robin found little in life about which to be enthusiastic. He was fond of reminiscing over the recent past. If I went out with Robin and Wanda for a night of drinking and relaxation after a grueling day on the set, Robin’s sole delight was in reminiscing over what the three of us had done the previous evening.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
I'll fill you in as more details about the reading surface. To tide you over in the meantime, please enjoy this song that the Lowest of the Low wrote about The Only. It's pretty rockin'.
Sunday, September 25, 2011
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
It also contains audio recordings of us reading from The Big Dream and Off Book respectively. (Forgive the slurriness of my voice. In fact, the first reader to correctly guess how many beers I had right before the recording will ... hmmm ... receive a free copy of the novel!) Anyway, many thanks to Julie Wilson for taking the time to profile us.
This is all, of course, in anticipation of Rebecca's big launch of her new collection, which happens TONIGHT at the Dora Keogh in Toronto. 7pm, 141 Danforth Ave. Hope to see you there.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Sunday, September 4, 2011
“My concerns are my concerns, and that’s where it ends. I haven’t the energy to go worrying about other people’s children. They’re nothing to do with me. I only have enough time to worry about myself. If I didn’t put myself and mine first, they wouldn’t survive. So I put them first and the others can look after themselves.”
I was, inevitably, touched almost to tears, for it is very rare that one meets someone who will give one such an answer to my question. She had spoken without harshness; I think it was that that had touched me most. I had so often heard these views expressed, but always before they had been accompanied by a guilty sneer at those who must be neglected, or a brisk Tory contempt for the ignorant, or a business-like blinkered air of proud realism. I had never heard them thus gently put forward as the result of sad necessity.
Thursday, September 1, 2011
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Monday, August 22, 2011
For me, the book began to resemble, around the second half or so, a rather large and cumbersome piece of IKEA furniture as I began to wonder whether Irving would end up with a bunch of unused pieces left over and whether he’d be able to tighten up all the screws by the last chapter. Sadly, there are a lot of dangling, unfulfilled or at least unsatisfying aspects to the end of this long, long novel. For one, I didn’t feel like I got enough closure on the mysteries of John’s mother’s life – her clandestine singing career and the secrets behind who John’s father actually was. I also felt really disappointed in the way the character of Hester – John’s sexually precocious cousin – just sort of disintegrates: she spends pretty much the entire second half of the novel vomiting, and then she becomes a famous musician. Huh? What? How did that happen?
RR and I both agreed that the more spiritual-mystical elements of Owen Meany got really out of hand the longer the novel went on. The earlier examples of it – like when Owen is convinced he is an instrument of God after accidentally killing John’s mother with a baseball, or when Owen sees his own name and date of death on a tombstone while playing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in a stage production of A Christmas Carol – all had natural, secular explanations to coincide with them. (The baseball thing was just a freak accident; Owen was suffering from a massive fever when he had his vision about his death.) But by the time Rev. Merrill begins speaking in Owen’s voice near the end of the novel, well, I was convinced that Irving had pretty much jumped the shark.
Thankfully, our disappointments in the novel have been tempered by our love of the first half, which is sweet and touching, so full of richly drawn characters and packed with some laugh-out-loud hilarity. “We’ll always have the Christmas pageant,” will be, I think, our mantra when we think back on this experience.
Anyway, this was a fun (if time-consuming) exercise and well worth the effort. We loved doing it, but also love the idea of getting back to our regular reading schedules. If you have any thoughts on Owen Meany, by all means drop us a comment. Or better yet, if you’re in the Toronto area, come out this Thursday (August 25) to Type Books on Queen Street West at 6pm and tell us in person: RR and I will be doing a reading there with PEI author Jeff Bursey. We’d love to see you if you can make it.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
As RR touched on, one thing that continues to impress about this book is the fluidity and skillfulness that Irving shows in the structuring of time. I suppose with a 617-page novel, you have lots of room to manoeuvre between the past and present, but it still isn’t easy. Irving is excellent at giving each scene a cadence and crescendo that is then counterbalanced perfectly with a sudden jump – either forwards or backwards –in the timeline. He never once waivers in his trust of the reader that he or she is capable of following along.
Like with most things I read, I do have the occasional criticism. Beyond the minor plot contrivances that RR alluded to in her post, there are times when I feel like some characters don’t always act like real people. Chief Pike’s obsession with finding the baseball that killed John’s mother seems like a bit of a strain; it was clearly a freak accident, so why treat it so fanatically like a ‘murder’? Also, Owen’s mother’s space cadet-like behaviour – the fact that she almost never leaves her house, almost never speaks, never looks out her windows, never even makes eye contact with people – isn’t really believable. Also, I wonder if the last name of Dan - the man who provides love, support and guidance to John after his mother days - is a bit too obvious: Needham.
But nitpickery aside, we’re having a real blast rereading this big, fat, funny novel from our youth. Stay tuned to our blogs over next few days for more discussion points. And if you’re reading along at home (or if you and your housemate are reading a different book simultaneously) , drop a comment below and let us know your thoughts.
Monday, August 8, 2011
I met Jeff briefly about 10 years ago while I was home on the Island, and he contacted me out of the blue a couple of months ago to ask if I'd read with him while he was in town. His novel, called Verbatim, is set in the legislature of an unnamed Atlantic province. There will apparently be a bit of theatre accompanying Jeff's reading, which RR and I will be participating in, so it should be loads of fun.
Anyway, here are the details:
Where: Type Books, 883 Queen St. West, Toronto.
When: Thursday, August 25 from 6 until 8 pm.
Who: Mark Sampson, Rebecca Rosenblum and Jeff Bursey
How much: Free, but naturally we encourage you to buy the authors' books.
I did want to mention that, contrary to the marketing materials making the rounds about this event, I'll most likely read a scene from the new novel. It won't be the same excerpt I've read at recent events in Toronto, Perth and Moncton (and subsequently published here, in a literary journal out of Manitoba called The Quint, back in the spring), but something new. I hope you're looking forward to it as much as I am.
What struck me about this novel is how much it reminded of the works of PEI short story writer, poet and playwright J.J. Steinfeld. In both Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew and the majority of Steinfeld’s oeuvre, we find not so much direct survivor guilt over the Holocaust but rather guilt from the children of Holocaust survivors, the difficulty those children have of facing up to (and finding meaning in) a reality that could perpetrate such a mind-boggling atrocity. Indeed, Ben’s ability to spot random absurdity in the everyday seems to stem from his awareness of the grandest absurdity of all – the Holocaust itself. A friend’s mother is born with a debilitating deformity; his brother’s brain condition prevents him from recognizing the women he loves; a childhood bully terrorizes Ben for reading a book for pleasure. Everyone, it seems, is susceptible to the random cruelties of a random universe.
What’s interesting is the way the novel balances this randomness with Ben’s religio-cultural background. On the one hand, he is very aware of the role that God and religion play in his self identity – he has a bar mitzvah, he celebrates Jewish holidays, etc.; but on the other hand, you get the sense that Ben ultimately believes in none of it, believes that there is nothing beyond this one crack at existence that we are all given. This is typified in a scene where he describes a story he learns at Hebrew school about 12 rabbis who face a painful, brutal death when they refuse to reject their beliefs. As Ben puts it:
We were halfway through the story of the Twelve Rabbis when I started feeling really guilty. I imagined walking home from school one day, and getting cornered by some Christian boys. I pictured them wearing Boy Scout outfits. They say to me, Ben, give up your Jewish god and become Christian like us, or we’ll kill you right now. I think of potato latkes and jelly fruit slices … and of my mother sitting on the edge of my bed and telling me how all her aunts and uncles were killed by Hitler, and of my father slathering horseradish upon his lump of gefilte fish at the Passover Seder, and of my mother getting pelted with snowballs because she’s four years old and she speaks Yiddish. Then I think of being dead. Nothing happens when you’re dead, and you’re not even aware that nothing is happening, because you’re dead.The juxtaposition here of an inherited Jewishness with an atheistic creed is startling.
But if it all sounds a bit depressing and ghastly, rest assured that it is not. Ross approaches these heady matters with an astounding sense of whimsy and humour. It’s wholly apt that his protagonist is a performance artist: what better way to express the comically arbitrary nature of life than through performances that are designed to exclude a grander sense of ‘meaning’? (As Ben says about his father’s reaction to his art: “He had no idea what I was doing – he was sure it was supposed to mean something and he was a simple man … ‘Whatever response you have is the correct response,’ I told him. ‘It’s not a matter of what I’m trying to say, but of what you get out of it.’”) Ben’s exhibits are, in one sense, typical of performance art: in one show, he eats a thousand donuts; in another, he submerges himself in a vat of ketchup and allows the audience to pull his hair; in another, he travels to Yellowknife to build inukshuks out of eggrolls. But it is that sense of playfulness, that child-like desire to express oneself as the universe spins around us, that makes both Ben’s personality and his art come to life.
Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew offers, in the end, no pat answers or solutions to the questions it raises. (Indeed, the sole plot point, that of whether Ben’s mother actually killed a Nazi, is never really resolved.) Instead, it simply gives us something deeper to ponder: the question of purpose, and the purpose of questioning. Perhaps there is no grander arc of meaning to the universe, but Ross is telling us that that’s okay. The artist’s job is to help us find patterns in the randomness. To find humour. To find beauty.
Saturday, August 6, 2011
So as many of you probably know, RR and I moved in together back in the spring. One of the things we did to cement our undying love and commitment was to painstakingly combine our huge personal libraries. While this has resulted in a massive wall of books now taking up the entire length of our living room, it did have the interesting side effect of producing a whole box’s worth of doubles. (This also included some double CDs –two copies of Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill, for example. Don’t judge me.) Now, while we have managed to give away most of the double books, one copy that has persisted is A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. My theory is that everyone who is literate already owns a copy of this book, and therefore it's been virtually impossible to fob off to somebody else.
So we’ve decided to use this opportunity to introduce the Co-habitational Reading Challenge. We will both be reading Owen Meany at the same time, and use our respective blogs to post our conversations and insights on the text. Don’t be surprised if this reminds you a little of the Retro Reading Challenge I ran on the blog last year. It’s very similar in nature – we each read Owen Meany when we were younger (she was about 17; I was about 24) and absolutely loved it, and we’re curious to see if it holds up after all these years.
Naturally if you’d like to participate, we totally encourage you to do so. You can either read Owen Meany along with us or you and your co-habitational life partner can choose another book to read simultaneously and then pop back to our blogs and let us know how it’s coming along.