Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: Nothing to Envy – Ordinary Lives in North Korea, and The Hidden People of North Korea – Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom

North Korea (officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is at a turning in its history. With the 2008 stroke of dictator Kim Jong-il and the ongoing speculation over who will replace him when he eventually passes, the nation known as the “Hermit Kingdom” has become a mainstay in the international news headlines. With so much talk about succession planning and how it will affect North Korea’s ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, it’s often easy to forget that there are 23 million people who continue to live under the thumb of the Kim regime, who exist in some of the most brutal, ascetic and oppressive conditions of any people on Earth. With so much upheaval expected to happen in North Korea over the coming years, the timing of these two recently published books couldn’t be better.

Both Barbara Demick and the married team of Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh claim to offer readers the same thing with their respective books – an inside glimpse at the everyday lives of ordinary North Koreans – but only one is able to truly slip under the fog of the DPRK’s geopolitical circumstances to achieve this. As hard as they try, Hassig and Oh can’t quite shake off their roles as policy analysts/researchers and give us something beyond a macro interpretation of what daily existence in North Korea must be like; there are no flesh-and-blood humans populating their book. On the other hand, Demick, a journalist who spent the better part of a decade covering both Koreas for The Los Angeles Times, goes much deeper by choosing to focus on six defectors, conducting extensive interviews with them and then rendering their stories into a vivid exercise in creative nonfiction. The result is a harrowing and entirely human portrait of what it’s like to live under the most repressive regime in the world. Make no mistake: both books are groundbreaking in what they add to our knowledge of life inside the DPRK; but if you’re looking for the everyday human element, the smarter money is spent on Demick’s book.

Demick gets off to a good start by choosing not to focus on people living in North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang, knowing rightly that their lives aren’t exactly indicative of life in the DPRK as a whole. Only the most highly ranked and politically connected classes of North Korean society get to live in Pyongyang, and consequently its citizens have not experienced the hardships of the last 20 years as acutely as everyone else. Demick instead focuses her attention on the northern industrial city of Chongjin. Her cast of characters include Mi-ran and Jun-sang, two love-struck young people from different castes who need to keep their budding romance a secret; Mrs. Song, a formerly devout communist forced to embrace underground capitalism in order to survive during country’s economic collapse, and her rebellious daughter Oak-hee; a young female physician named Dr. Kim who struggles futilely to save lives during the North Korean famine; and Hyuck, one of North Korea’s infamous kochebi (“wandering swallows”) – orphaned children left to beg and steal in North Korea’s train stations and markets.

Nothing to Envy does an amazing job of capturing the quotidian detail of these people’s tortured lives, and balancing it with analysis of what has been happening in North Korea over the last 20 years. We get to feel the starvation, the deprivation; we see the impact of mass death, the fight for survival, and the government’s relentless, Orwellian propaganda that tries to deny what is happening on the ground. Demick also gives us a window into the everyday interactions and existence of North Koreans – the gossiping of mothers, going to the movies, discovering the bliss of literature, trying to maintain clandestine romances, and the struggles to navigate the insane bureaucracy that runs the country.

The unifying theme that holds these six defectors’ stories together is that they all feel betrayed by the country that they had sworn to protect. Nothing to Envy reveals the harrowing double life that most North Koreans have to live: to be bombarded with messages from the ruling elite about the near-divinity of the country’s founding father Kim Il-sung and the infallibility of his son Kim Jong-il while at the same time facing the everyday reality that their country is economically, socially, philosophically and morally bankrupt. Demick is an astonishing storyteller in the way that she brings all this together and gets her readers fully invested into these six people’s lives.

Hassig and Oh’s The Hidden People of North Korea paints its picture with much broader strokes. To its credit, the book focuses much of its attention on the most trying decade of North Korea’s history – the 1990s. How the DPRK managed to make it to the millennium without imploding is one of the great mysteries of contemporary international politics. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European communism in the early part of the decade crippled the country’s already precarious economy by depriving it of subsidized commodities. The death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 sent the North Korean people into a paralysis of grief that lasted three years. And the floods in the middle and later part of the decade destroyed crop yields that led to widespread famine. Hassig and Oh attempt to show how the combined force of these calamities affected (and continue to affect) the lives of North Koreans.

Unfortunately, the book is never quite able to deliver on the promise of its subtitle; this isn’t really a story about everyday life in the Hermit Kingdom. Hassig and Oh spend nearly a third of their text providing historical and sociopolitical context on North Korea, as well as a detailed description of the opulent lifestyle that Kim Jong-il is known to lead – information that is available from numerous other sources. They claim that these details are important to understanding the rest of the book, but I never really sensed that they nailed the connection. It would have been better to dive right in to life on the ground, to show us the struggles and hardships that North Koreans experience on a day-to-day basis.

I will give them credit: once they get going, Hassig and Oh provide a detailed, bird’s eye analysis of how the North Korean system works (or more accurately, doesn’t). Their sections on the economy, the way the media operates, the propaganda machine, and the Kafkaesque legal system are thorough and engaging. And like Demick, Hassig and Oh go to great lengths to show how ideology and reality are now completely at odds with one another in North Korea. Despite the Kim regime’s best attempts to stop it, there is a grassroots embracing of small-scale capitalism happening in the streets and markets of North Korea; people have lost faith in the idea of a communist paradise.

Ultimately, the stories of North Korea belongs to North Koreans themselves, and its through their eyes that these stories must be told. To that end, Demick does a much better job than Hassig and Oh. Still, as a purveyor and proponent of literature, I can’t help but wonder if we'll get something more than a nonfiction account of the country; I wonder if North Koreans have ever captured their own disastrous circumstances through the art of fiction. Is it possible that North Korea is secretly harbouring its own version of a Mikhail Bulgakov, a Yuri Daniel or an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Perhaps if there is a thaw in the country after the inevitable death of Kim Jong-il, we’ll be lucky enough to find out.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Thanks to McMaster University

Had an absolutely phenomenal reading at McMaster University last night. My heartfelt thanks to the instructors and students of HTH SCI 4NN3 Written Communication in Health Sciences II course for having me come in to read from Off Book and talk about literature and the writing life, and for treating me like an absolute rockstar for the entire time I was there. The students were astute, engaged and engaging, asking tons of fantastic questions and sharing some of the struggles and accomplishments they've had with their own writing.

I was especially delighted to see how well read so many of the students were and how genuine their interests in creative writing seemed to be, despite the fact that most are on paths for careers in the sciences. The class is an eclectic mix of bright, hardworking young people with a diverse range of interests - everything from business journalism and midwifery to student politics and Canadian poetry. It's often easy to grumble about how the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket, but let me just say that if the future ends up in the hands of young adults like the kind I met last night, then we're all going to be okay.

Thanks again, everybody. It was awesome.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Update on Draft

So things are shaping up nicely for the Draft Reading Series reading slated for April 18th, of which I am a part. I hope you all can come out and enjoy the show. The folks at Draft have put up a new blog, so I thought I'd share the link with you. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Review: Still Life with Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins (for the Retro Reading Challenge)

When I selected this book for my Retro Reading Challenge, I mentioned loving Still Life with Woodpecker when I first read it but also being warned that the works of Tom Robbins don’t really hold up much after you’ve passed the age of about 22. What I forgot to mention was that Still Life with Woodpecker is my favourite of all of the Tom Robbins novels that I’ve read, which includes his entire oeuvre up to and including 2000’s Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates. To me, none of the other books captured the same zany magic of Still Life with Woodpecker. Consequently, I thought it had the best chance out of the bunch of not being excruciating to reread for this challenge.

A little background: I read Still Life with Woodpecker for the first (and only other) time in the spring of 1994. I was still 18 and had just completed my first year of undergraduate. It had been a heady time, naturally. The previous eight months had exposed me to a new city, new friends, new experiences and a reading list of the heavyweights of Western philosophy, history and literature. Arriving on the first page of Still Life with Woodpecker just a few weeks after classes ended, I remember feeling a prideful frisson of recognition at this reference to Dostoyevsky:

“This is the all-new Remington SL3, the machine that answers the question, ‘Which is harder, trying to read The Brothers Karamazov while listening to Stevie Wonder records or hunting for Easter eggs on a typewriter keyboard?’”

This passage probably made my 18-year-old self very happy. Never mind that if one stopped and thought about this line for longer than a couple of seconds, one would realize that it makes absolutely no sense. It does nothing, conveys nothing, serves no function whatsoever. And it’s the second sentence in the novel!

Yes, but that’s not the point … I hear my 18-year-old self saying. In fact, this is a refrain that kept echoing in my mind each time I wanted to criticize some part of this novel while rereading it, a refrain spoken by every rainbow-belt-and-ripped blue-jeans-wearing goddess-of-bohemia coed who has loved this book. Reading Still Life with Woodpecker the first time made me feel sexy and alive. Reading it now just made me feel old and crusty.

The story, such as it is, revolves around Princess Leigh-Cheri, redheaded daughter of expelled monarchs from some unnamed European country. Brooding with vague angst in the attic of her family’s home-in-exile in Puget Sound, WA, Leigh-Cheri gets wind of a conference happening in Hawaii called Care Fest, the intention of which is to make the world a better place. Thinking this will help cure her late twentieth-century ennui, Leigh-Cheri travels to Hawaii to attend. There she meets fellow redhead Bernard Mickey Wrangle, AKA the Woodpecker, a terrorist who intends to blow up Care Fest with dynamite. His motivation for doing so is never clearly defined (but then, neither are most other aspects of this novel – plot, characters, themes, etc.) but you get the sense that Bernard is pretty bad news. Nevertheless, Leigh-Cheri falls madly in love with him and experiences a wild sexual, philosophical and emotional awakening as she learns more about Bernard’s flaky world view. His subversive activities cross paths with Leigh-Cheri’s parents’ political exile, which draws the ire of the CIA, which eventually results in Bernard’s supposed murder in an airport in Algiers and Leigh-Cheri getting engaged to a button-downed Moslem with unlimited wealth. Do you follow? Along the way, we learn about the cycles of the moons, the bliss of anal sex, the origin of pyramids, the history of Camel cigarettes, and how to make a homemade bomb using Fruit Loops and batshit. But of course we do. If it all sounds too ludicrous to fit successfully into 277 pages, you’re absolutely right.

Yes, but that’s not the point …

Despite all the wacky, left-field plot twists, one must admit that Tom Robbins’ books follow a fairly cookie-cutter template, and it’s this template that the older me has some serious issues with. His protagonists are almost always young, attractive females but his narrators are unmistakably older and male. This inevitably results in the narrator ogling his own protagonist in a dirty old man sort of way. In Still Life with Woodpecker, there are countless references to Leigh-Cheri’s “peachclam”, or variants thereof, to describe her genitals. It would be bad enough if Robbins kept his narrator’s consciousness separate from Leigh-Cheri’s; but there are numerous instances where he amateurishly melds the two using free indirect narration. Thus, Leigh-Cheri ends up referring to her own body, her own sexuality in ways that no woman ever would.

Yes, but that’s not the point …

Of course, the biggest problem I’ve developed with Still Life with Woodpecker is not with the story or the narration’s structure. It goes down deeper than that, to the level of its sentences and their descriptive choices. Robbins shows incredibly poor control over most of his metaphors. Check out this passage from early in the novel, describing Care Fest:

“Don’t think the news of that conference didn’t melt the ice off the dog dish at thirty paces. If her life span were a salad, Leigh-Cheri would have dived into the dressing to present that conference with a perfect crouton.”

Come again? What dog dish? What ice? At thirty paces? And what the hell does a salad have to do with any of it? Let’s try another one, from just a few pages later. Here’s Robbins attempting to describe Hawaii: “… Hawaii was, indeed, a travelogue tableau; a living Pap smear for the paradise flu.” If you have any idea what Robbins is on about here, for the love of God please email me at sampson[underscore]mark[at]hotmail[dot]com. This prose may very well have been conceived under the influence of various mind-altering intoxicants, but it was egregiously left alone by an editor’s pen, probably for the simple reason that it sounds cool – at least to an 18 year old who hasn’t read very much.

Yes, but that’s not the point …

So what is the point, then? I suppose the point would be whether Still Life with Woodpecker’s story can live up to the portent that Robbins establishes early in the novel. We’re reminded numerous times that the tale we are reading will be monumental for the last quarter of the twentieth century. I’m not sure I bought it – what with the novel ending with Leigh-Cheri and the Woodpecker getting sealed inside a pyramid together to spend even more time ruminating on the nature of the cosmos. But I do have to admit, the novel got a lot better by the end. Robbins was able to reign in his loopy descriptions and hippier-than-thou pontifications. I did sense some real-life resonance in the whole “I-guess-I’ll-have-to-settle-with-you” atmosphere of Leigh-Cheri’s engagement to A’ben Fizel, her Muslim fiancĂ©. And I still feel that the novel ends with the best sentence possible under the circumstances: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

I don’t regret rereading this novel; it did suit the purposes of The Challenge, and it certainly took a lot less time than rereading Stephen King’s It would have. But I can safely say that I’ve outgrown Tom Robbins. I’m happy to leave him to all the horny undergraduates who haven’t yet discovered Kurt Vonnegut, A Confederacy of Dunces, Evelyn Waugh, or any number of other authors or novels that are truly comic.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Reading at McMaster University

Great news: I received an invitation yesterday to do a reading/lecture at McMaster University next Thursday for a writing course offered through its Health Sciences department. The instructor for the course read Off Book about two years ago and thinks the novel fits in very well with the various themes and ideas that the class has been covering. Apparently they've been discussing me and the novel a little bit already and everyone seems stoked to have me come in. I'm of course immensely flattered and really looking forward to it. I'll report back here to let y'all know how it goes.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Back at 'er

So I made it back safe and sound to Toronto last night after a few days in Orlando, Florida with the family. It was a brief but fun trip, much of it spent in a car driving to places other than Orlando. These visits included a day excursion east to the Kennedy Space Center (they're preparing to send a shuttle up on April 5, don't ya know) and another west to St. Petersburg, where we got to eat a wonderful lunch at the very charming Chattaway Restaurant. (Decor included street signs named after restaurant staff and a garden populated with fairy sculptures that felt right out of A Midsummer's Night Dream.)

As every Canadian realizes whenever travelling to the States, there are many subtle but unmistakable differences between our two cultures. Things I noticed on this particular trip is that cabs in Orlando have tricorner hat-shape billboards attached to their roofs, advertising everything from insurance companies to girly bars. Driving on the highways, we also seemed to encounter more than one road toll whenever getting from point A to B. Each one is fairly cheap - maybe a buck or $1.25 - but they start to add up after a while as you drive into the benevelent jaws of those public-private partnerships. Oh well ...

In the end I was happy to head home, as I was really starting to miss RR, Toronto's unseasonably warm weather, and the metric system. I woke up this morning to discover that my new novel had done absolutely no work on itself while I was away. I also realize that I owe some time to a number of other writerly projects, not the least of which being my Retro Reading Challenge review. I wrote part of it last night at the Orlando airport. I'll finish the rest of it shortly, I swear.

Until then...

Friday, March 12, 2010

Florida ho

Just a quick note to say I'm heading out this weekend for the (hopefully) sunny climes of Florida for a few days of vacation with my family. My parents have been going down there for three months for the last few winters, and they've been hankering to have me and the siblings join them for a stay. So finally this year we're going to do it.

I may try to blog from down there if I get the chance. I'm very close to having my Retro Reading Challenge review, of Tom Robbins' Still Life with Woodpecker, ready to go, so I may try to post it from down there. Otherwise, I'll see you all back here next Thursday.

To tide you over, I strongly recommend you check in over at Pickle Me This: Kerry Clare has announced that Ray Smith's 1986 book Century is the winner of her Canada Reads: Independently campaign. I couldn't be happier. I love Ray Smith - did graduate work on him as a masters student in Winnipeg - and consider him one of the most criminally underappreciated writers in this country. I read Century in the original Stoddart edition (as opposed to the new edition recently released by Biblioasis) and while not quite as good as his 1974 novel Lord Nelson Tavern, it's still a remarkable read. So go check it out. Congrats to Smith and congrats to Kerry for a fantastic blog initiative.

OK, I'm outta here. Don't read anything I wouldn't read. Erm. Wait, no. This is Free Range Reading. Read whatever you want.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review: Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis

When I was at the University of King’s College in Halifax for undergrad, I spent three out of the four years living in a residence called Radical Bay, the Latin motto for which was “Bibo ergo sum.” This of course translates into “I drink, therefore I am,” a play on Rene Descartes’ epistemological declaration Cogito ergo sum. Presumably this motto originated in part because we read Descartes as part of King’s Foundation Year Program in first year, and in part because undergrads like to drink. (Not me; I was a teetotaler under my senior year. Shocking, I know!)

If there is one writer above all others who lived by this creed, it would be Kingsley Amis (1922 – 1995); or so you’d gather from the recently released book Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, which collects his three seminal works about boozing: On Drink, Every Day Drinking and How’s Your Glass?, written between 1971 and 1984. Alcohol seems to have been at the very core of Amis’ existence. By the accounts contained here, it would seem that the man drank all day every day, and had a diverse range of tastes. Wine, beer, gin, cocktails, martinis, concoctions from strange and foreign lands – he seems to have sampled it all.

The first part of the book discusses Amis’ overarching philosophies and advice around boozing, with aptly named chapters like the “Mean Sod’s Guide”, “The Hangover” and “The Boozing Man’s Diet”. It also contains a chapter specifically of cocktail recipes, several untested by Amis himself and quite possibly fictitious. The second part reprints a regular column on drinking that he wrote for one of the dailies in England. The third is a long, laborious series of quizzes about various types of alcohol.

The strength of Everyday Drinking is not simply Amis’ encyclopedic knowledge of booze and his ability to take a firm stand behind what he likes and dislikes. The real gem here is the ongoing satirical tone that runs through most of the work. The editors were quite wise to leave the author’s various jibes, anachronisms and fuddyduddyism untouched. He mentions, for example, that a good price for a bottle of wine is between £1 and £2. There are instances of offhanded misogyny (I raised an eyebrow when Amis lamented the loss of pub culture due in part to the ever-increasing presence of women; the pub being, of course, a “male refuge”) but also a number of funny bits that equally catch you off guard. He closes, for example, his recipe for “The Old Fashioned”, a short-drink cocktail, with “You may supply drinking-straws if it is that sort of party.”

Of course, after 302 pages it all starts to get a bit tedious. I must admit that by the time I reached the quizzes at the end of the book, I was pretty much licked and ready to rejoin the world of simpler drinkers and less sardonic tones. I can see taking this book off the shelf and reading certain passages to dinner guests while in the midst of our partaking. But not for a while. Everyday Drinking should be sipped on occasion, not guzzled in one go.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Writer's Curse

So I had a doctor's appointment earlier this afternoon, my first in several years. I'm happy to report that I received a clean bill of health, and happier still that the meeting passed with none of the thinly veiled passive-aggressive barbs that usually fly between me and a G.P.

I'm inherently nervous around doctors, mistrustful even. I mean, who else can get away with making you take your clothes off and then telling you that you need to lose weight? (I'm thinking: Dude, if I were a girl and this were a date, I'd be perfectly within my rights to kick your shins off.) But this guy was friendly, polite and very thorough. There were no embarrassing "You know, Mark, that question would be better asked of a pyschiatrist" moments, and he was nice enough to ignore the fact that I was clearly understating my weekly intake of caffeine and alcohol.

The only red flag in my blood work was an especially low level of Vitamin D. This is of course known as the "sunshine vitamin." A normal Vitamin D score falls somewhere between 75 and 100; I scored 32, less than half of the bottom end of a healthy range. I chalk this up to being a writer, and told him so. Those long hours alone in a white room, scribbling away at my creative drippings, the countless sunny days that just pass me by entirely because I can't figure out if a particular paragraph should go at the beginning or end of a chapter. Plus, as my father would be the first to point out, I'm not much of an outdoorsman. Anyway, I'll be taking a daily supplement for the rest of the winter.

I don't mean to harp on doctors. They do good work. I mean, it's not novel-writing or anything, but they do contribute what they can to society. Still, I have my prejudices. To see these prejudices perfectly articulated, I encourage you to read the opening page of Martin Amis's novel Time's Arrow. I could not have said it better myself.

Enough for now. I'm off to take my pill.


Friday, March 5, 2010

Review: Changing My Mind – Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith

It has almost become axiomatic to acknowledge Zadie Smith as the high-water mark of literary writers born in the 1970s. One merely needs to read the opening page of her debut novel White Teeth (published in 2000, when she had not yet turned 25) to realize just what kind of big, prodigious talent we’re dealing with here. Reading White Teeth when I did – about a year after it came out – left me at once energized and humbled. It wasn’t just the virtuosic abilities evident on every page that got to me; it was that someone of our generation, of my generation (Smith was born exactly six weeks after I was) could produce something so big and brave and marvelous at such a young age. And while I haven’t read her sophomore outing The Autograph Man (a rather dull excerpt of it, published in The New Yorker, turned me off), I did devour her third novel, On Beauty, when it came out in 2005. Since doing so, I have taken on a somewhat inappropriate sense of ownership over Smith and her writing in my own head; I feel like she is our writer, my writer. I feel like she belongs to us.

So here it is, four long years later, and she has brought out Changing My Mind, a collection of essays, journalism and bits of personal memoir that she has been writing for various mainstream publications since about 2003. I should admit here that I have a real soft spot for nonfiction books of this kind, when a talented novelist takes on long-form journalism/essays, using his or her creative writing skills to capture the details and insights that most workaday journalists and academics miss. I’ve read several of these types of collections over the years (see the list below for some recommendations) and I’m always astounded at the range of interests and capabilities that the authors show. Smith is no exception. In fact, I would say that Changing My Mind is the very best of these “occasional essay” collections that I’ve encountered.

The book opens with her delightful essay on Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. I read this piece when Smith first published it in the UK Guardian a couple of years ago, and its placement here, at the beginning of the book, sets the stage for the whole “changing my mind” theme that permeates the collection. Smith’s mother gave her a copy of Hurston’s novel when Smith was 14, but she responded negatively to the recommendation right off the bat, convinced that the only reason her mother wanted her to read it was because, like Smith, Hurston was black. In fact, Smith came at the novel with a number of prejudices – a distain for overly lyrical writing, for deliberately aphoristic writing, for plots that centre around a woman’s pursuit to find a man – and very fixed ideas about what made for a successful novel. Their Eyes Were Watching God violated so many of Smith’s “rules” about good writing – and yet it left her weeping in juissance by the time she reached the last page. Funnily enough, when her mother asked what she thought of the book, the teenaged Smith’s too-cool-for-school response was that it was “basically sound.” Brilliant.

Speaking of funny, there are some rich moments of hilarity peppered throughout Changing My Mind – some belonging to Smith, some belonging to her subjects. An example of the latter would be her piece on E.M. Forster and his BBC radio contributions that aired from 1929 to 1960. As many of you will know, Smith holds a special regard for Forster’s work: The structure of On Beauty mirrors almost exactly that of Howard’s End. (As you can see from my reading log, I had the good sense to read the two books back to back.) What is evident in both Forster’s novels and in Smith’s analysis of them is that Forster, unlike many of his modernist contemporaries, took an unassuming, conservative, middle-of-the road approach to both his writing and to his stature as a writer. (Smith’s word for it: “middling.”) What wasn’t readily apparent to me – at least until Smith provided me with snippets from Forster's radio broadcasts – is that the man was also bloody hilarious. Behold this passage:
…[H]ere Forster is too humble: he knew more of his audience than the content of their passports. Take his talk on Coleridge of August 13, 1931. A new Collected is out, it’s a nicely printed edition, costs only three shillings sixpence, and he’d like to tell you about it. But he senses that you are already sighing, and he knows why:

Perhaps you’ll say “I don’t want a complete Coleridge, I’ve got ‘The Ancient Mariner’ in some anthology or other, and that’s enough. ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ and perhaps the first half of ‘Christabel’ – that’s all in Coleridge that really matters. The rest is rubbish and not even good dry rubbish, it’s moist clammy rubbish, it’s depressing.” So if I tell you that there are 600 pages in this new edition, you’ll only reply “I’m sorry to hear it.”
Smith can also crank up her own humour, in an A.L. Kennedy sort of way, when sharing insights about her writing experiences in the essay “That Crafty Feeling”. (This might be a good time to mention that the only disappointment with Changing My Mind is the exclusion of her other essay about writing, “Fail Better”, [a writerly turn of phrase that I’ve always attributed to Mordecai Richler, but I think I’m wrong about that], which was also published in the UK Guardian. Thankfully, “That Crafty Feeling” makes up for its absence.) I was especially moved by the section entitled “Middle-of-the-Novel Magical Thinking”, since I myself am right now in the middle of rewriting my own sophomore novel and going through much of the following angst:
In the middle of a novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical center of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post – I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a giant semicolon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of the novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses. You sit down to write at 9 A.M., you blink, the evening news is on and four thousand words are written, more words than you wrote in three long months, a year ago. Something has changed. And it’s not restricted to the house. If you go outside, everything – I mean, everything – flows freely into your novel. Someone on the bus says something – it’s straight out of your novel. You open the paper – every single story in the paper is directly relevant to your novel. If you are fortunate enough to have someone waiting to publish your novel, this is the point at which you phone them in a panic and try to get your publication date brought forward because you cannot believe how in tune the world is with your unfinished novel right now, and if it isn’t published next Tuesday maybe the moment will pass and you will have to kill yourself.

Magical thinking makes you crazy – and renders everything possible. Incredibly knotty problems of structure now resolve themselves with inspired ease. See that one paragraph? It only needs to be moved, and the whole chapter falls into place! Why didn’t you see that before? You randomly pick a poetry book off the shelf and the first line you read ends up being your epigraph – it seems to have been written for no other reason.
I loved this passage so much that I had to read it aloud to RR as soon as I got the chance, then hastily assured her when I finished that I don’t actually see her face as a giant semicolon.

The real strength behind Changing My Mind, beyond the unifying idea of how reexamining our opinions – either deeply cherished or mundanely peripheral – can help to change them for the better, is the sheer versatility that Smith displays in her subject matter. She is as comfortable writing a biographical sketch of Kafka and an analytical piece on Middlemarch as she is writing a feature article of Oscar Night or quick-hit movie reviews of recent Hollywood releases. In the penultimate section of the book, Smith writes a touching account of her father and how her impressions of him changed as he was dying. (It paradoxically reminded me of something Alice Munro said in a recent interview, about how when we’re in our thirties we tend to see our parents as just a nuisance.) Then, in the final section of the book, Smith switches gears and writes a dissertation-worthy critique of David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. There’s an irony in this essay that goes beyond the fact that Smith began writing it before Wallace’s tragic suicide in 2008: She goes to great lengths to analyze Wallace’s descriptive prowess of swimming pools in his short story “Forever Overhead”, pointing out how perfectly and accurately Wallace captures our collective memories of swimming as children; yet Smith herself exhibits this exact sort of talent when she describes Wallace’s work overall: “He can’t be read and understood and enjoyed at that speed any more than I can get the hang of the Goldberg Variations over a weekend. His reader needs to think of herself as a musician, spreading the sheet music – the gift of the work – over the music stand, electing to play. First there is practice, then competency at the instrument, then spending time with the sheet music, then playing it over and over.” I suspect this is precisely how willing readers feel when approaching Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

The versatility on display in this collection lends a deeply felt sense of humanism to Smith and how she processes the world, and this infuses these essays with a charm that’s irresistible and refreshing. Of course, the true measure of success for Changing My Mind is whether readers will decide to follow Smith’s example and change (or at least round out) their opinions about something. For me, the collection achieved this. I am a notoriously bad re-reader; I’ve only ever gone back to a small handful of books over the years. I am forever trapped by this anxiety that I just haven’t read enough, that every person I know has read more books than me. But in her essay comparing Barthes’ notion of the Death of the Author with Nabokov’s belief in authorial privilege, Smith reiterates that wonderful Nabokovian maxim: “Curiously, one cannot read a [great] book: one can only reread it.” I have recognized the inherent truth of this statement from the very first time I heard it, but I am also intimidated by it.

Yet, Smith’s collection has changed my mind. I need to realize that reading widely isn’t simply about racking up the literary notches in one’s bedpost. It’s also about going back to works that I know are good and rereading them over and over, to understand better what exactly makes them so brilliant. With that in mind, I’ll probably start revisiting books a lot more often. I plan to go back and reread Kafka’s Collected Stories and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and (God help me) Middlemarch.

But you know, I think I’ll start with White Teeth.

Recommended reading: other collections of “occasional essays”

This is by no means an exhaustive list of this sort of nonfiction collection – it’s not even an exhaustive list of what I’ve read – and none of these books are quite as good as Changing My Mind. Still, I add them here for your own reference in case my review has sparked your interest in the genre:
  • Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, by Martin Amis
  • How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen
  • Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing, by Margaret Atwood. (Titled Moving Targets: Writing with Intent here North America. I bought and read my version while living in Australia.)
  • Kicking Against the Pricks, by John Metcalf
  • Making Waves, by Mario Vargas Llosa.
  • When Worlds Deny the World, by Stephen Henighan

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Mohawk College

I'm off this evening to give a reading/talk to a creative writing class at Mohawk College in Hamilton. The class is taught by poet Adam Getty, who has published two superb collections of verse, Reconciliation and Repose, both with Nightwood Editions. I met Adam when we did a reading together about two years ago and we hit it off. Since then, he's asked me to come in to do a reading and lecture for his students each semester or so.

My talk is ostensibly about characterization: I read the scene from Off Book involving Pauline and the turkey (you all remember the one, right?) and also make references to works by A.L. Kennedy and Philip Roth, examples of good characters and good ideas about characterization. But usually the talk shifts and expands to encompass whatever the students are interested in talking about. Adam has promised me a small but enthusiastic class tonight, and I'm looking forward to it. Wish me luck.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Update: I've selected my choice for the Retro Reading Challenge

So I've finally gotten around to making a choice for my own Retro Reading Challenge, which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. As I mentioned in the original post, I will not be going with Stephen King's 1,000+ page tome, It. Instead I've decided to go with something much shorter, but I book I loved just as much when I read it.

My selection is Still Life with Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins. I read this book for the first and only time in the late spring of 1994, when I was still just 18. I remember being quite bedazzled by Robbins' prose, sense of humour and quirky world view at the time. Having said that, I've been told that Robbins' work doesn't really stand up once you're past the age of about 22. Anyway - we'll see!

But please, pass along this link to your bookish friends and try to get them to play along. I've already had one entry, from Trevor J. Adams (see the comments area of the original post), and there are a couple others in the works, so stay tuned.