Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Upcoming reading in Toronto

It's a long way off, but I thought I'd mention now that I'm scheduled to do a reading here in Toronto as part of the Draft Reading Series on Sunday February 12, 2012. By sheer feat of coincidence, the (as for now, tentative) locale for the event is at my favourite bar in the city - The Only Café. I started drinking in this place even before I moved to the city and I continue to stop by to partake in their wide selection of German and Belgium beers on a regular basis.

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

Review: Larry’s Party, by Carol Shields

Carol Shields is one of those writers I keep coming back to when I’m in need of some flawlessly executed expansiveness. In her very good novel Unless and in her even better novel Swann, I fell immediately in love with not only the worlds she created but also with the seemingly effortless way she created them. Shields’s writing is as reliable as any in contemporary Canadian fiction.

So coming into Larry’s Party, her 1997 (and penultimate) novel, I had some pretty high expectations. Unfortunately, I felt that this book just didn’t quite live up to the standards I’ve become accustomed to with Shields’s work. Larry’s Party takes as its story 20 years in the life of one Larry Weller. Born in Winnipeg in 1950, by the time we first meet up with him in 1977, he’s just gotten married to his first wife, Dorrie, and is well established in his unconventional (for a man) career as a florist.

Each chapter details a new year in Larry’s life and takes us through the various milestones of the Baby Boomer generation: he and Dorrie have a son, Ryan (conceived out of wedlock, which for the mid 1970s was still a big deal); they get divorced after five years of marriage; Larry eventually moves to Chicago, taking on a new career as a designer of elaborate specialty mazes for the wealthy and marries his second wife, a Women’s Studies scholar named Beth; he then divorces her after she takes an academic job in England; he develops a relationship with a third woman, Charlotte; and through it all goes through the various foibles of growing old and the twists and turns of life in the second half of the 20th century.

There’s a lot to admire about this book, but also a lot that annoys. Chief among the problems I had with Larry’s Party is its structure: each chapter is written as a stand-alone piece, as if this were a collection of short stories and not a novel. Characters and their backgrounds are reintroduced in each chapter and each chapter has its own small arc. And yet this is not a short story collection, and it’s not even a collection of linked stories. If it were, Shields wouldn’t be so preoccupied with the linear track of Larry’s overall story and would have made the various ‘slippages’ necessary for a linked collection to work. This is a novel, and yet is inexplicably framed like a short story collection.

The other problem I had was the number of secondary stories that just did not go anywhere. Larry’s mother deals with a great deal of depression as a result of playing a role in the death of her own mother-in-law (it involves, implausibly, the consumption of a toxic bean) but this subplot is never explored in any depth. Larry’s sister, Midge, is also a fascinating character but the various pitfalls of her life are forever kept out of our reach, and not in a good way. Ryan, who gets heavily involved in sports as a teenager, becomes embroiled in a steroid scandal, but we learn almost nothing about it.

Finally, Larry’s Party’s overarching metaphor, that of the maze, is a bit overdone by the end of the book. We catch on too early to the importance of Larry’s career as a designer of mazes and yet it seems even this motif is dropped without explanation. The final chapter, where Larry hosts the titular dinner party where all three of the women in his life show up, is dull, dumb and implausible. Larry is, it seems, left agog at the very existence of these women who have gone to become such successes without him. He is agog, it seems, at the very notion of a successful, independent woman.

While it’s true that Larry’s Party is rich in Shields’s trademark prose, it’s also true that it’s far inferior to her other work. I admit my expectations were very high, but I definitely wanted to see something better from this author.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Profile in Canadian Bookshelf

So something really cool has happened. RR and I have been profiled together in an article on the Canadian Bookshelf magazine website. It talks about living with and loving another writer, our relationship with each other's work, and how we get along with the ups and downs of the literary life.

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.

Renovating poetry

A couple of weeks ago I attended the launch for Sachiko Murakami's latest poetry collection, Rebuild, and while there learned about a neat project she's initiated to coincide with the book's release, called Project Rebuild. It's essentially a website housing poems that you can 'move into' - i.e. edit and renovate - in order to make a new poem. I thought I'd give it a try.

I tried to do something a little different with mine, so instead of renovating a single poem, I did a mash-up of a number of poems on the site. I also used a very famous spoken word song by Gil Scott-Heron as my source piece. Anyway, here are the results: The Renovation Will Not be Televised. Give it a read and, if you're so inclined, leave a comment here and let me know what you think.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: Description of the Blazing World, by Michael Murphy

It’s difficult to talk about the various plot points of Michael Murphy’s debut novel, Description of the Blazing World, without giving the whole story away. The book has what we might call a diptych structure – that is, two separate narratives that alternate back and forth, chapter after chapter. The first stream introduces us to pathetic everyman Morgan Wells, who grows obsessed after a postcard arrives in his mailbox addressed to a different man with the same name. The second stream is narrated by a fourteen-year-old boy whose mother sends him away from their Nova Scotia home to live with his older brother Dave in Toronto for a few weeks during the summer of 2003. While there, the boy discovers a letter hidden inside Dave’s copy of a 17th century science fiction novel called The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish, unleashing a slew of mysteries about the boy’s family and sending him on a crusade to unlock the secrets of his recent past.

You don’t really get a sense of how these two narratives are connected until late in the novel, when Murphy begins skillfully exposing exactly what ties the poles of Morgan Wells’s story to the poles of the boy’s story. It’s hard to go into details here, since doing so would reveal spoilers that might ruin the novel for a perspective reader.

What isn’t hard to do, though, is tell you how great Murphy’s writing is. He has a fantastic eye for quirky details that bring his world to life, and a style that is at once funny and deeply engaging. I did find myself more interested in the boy than I did in Morgan, since he does seem to be the more fleshed-out character. I love the way he constantly corrects himself whenever he finishes a sentence with a preposition. I love his passion for Choose Your Own Adventure books. I love the way he possesses both a fourteen-year-old’s self deprecation and his sanctimony. And his observations (and critiques) of the adult-run world are pitch perfect.

What’s also interesting about this book is how Murphy can provide us with just one half of a character, for the purposes of the broader plot, without making us feel like we’re being ripped off. You don’t get a full angle on Dave or the boy’s mother, or even Morgan himself, until close to the end when everything fits into place. It’s like two seemingly disparate paintings, slowly being rotated and moved closer together, until it finally becomes apparent how they fit together and create a bigger picture.

The only flat note in the book was reading Murphy’s author bio and seeing that he’s now attending law school. Good lord, what for? Such a career might put a crimp in his writing time (I hear lawyers occasionally work more than eight hours a day), which would be a shame, since it would be wonderful to see more – a lot more – work from this talented young writer.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review: The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

This was a reread for me, and it was quite interesting coming back to Hemingway’s short fiction after having not read much of it over the last 10 or 12 years. I figured it made sense, considering that 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of his death.

I was happy to reacquaint myself with several pieces in here that I loved when I first reading – including “A Day’s Wait” (a story about a boy with a fever who thinks he’s going to die because he’s confused the metric and imperial thermometers), “Hills Like White Elephants” (about a couple discussing an abortion), “Fifty Grand,” (about a boxer who bets against himself) and several of the Nick Adams stories.

What was also interesting was how some of these stories failed to register with me the first time around but now strike me as incredibly powerful and memorable. A stand-out was in fact the first story in my edition of this collection, which is “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In just 30-odd pages, Hemingway creates a tale as rich and complicated as any novel in this story about a troubled husband and wife on a hunting excursion in Africa.

It’s tricky to try to say something original or unique about Hemingway’s writing; his work is so deeply canonized that comments about his themes or approach seem to be just part of the literary atmosphere. But I will say this: I think I’ve got a better understanding, after rereading this collection, of why Hemingway ultimately ended his own life. The man clearly saw the themes that preoccupied him – courage, honour, masculinity, battles in the external world as well as battles in the soul – as not only huge but monolithic. Unshakeable and unwilling to be negotiated. That’s the kind of pressure or world view you can handle easily in your twenties and thirties, but not so much in your fifties and sixties. I think these stories show us the psyche of a man who gambled with his soul with every piece he wrote.

What he’s left us, thankfully, are several of the finest pieces of short fiction the world has ever seen. He remains, 50 years after his death, a proven master at so many things that make a short story great: the concision, the precise turn of phrase, and the saying of very big things in small ways.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Review: The Millstone, by Margaret Drabble

“I suppose I must have a rock-like confidence in my own talent, for I simply did not believe that the handicap of one small illegitimate baby would make a scrap of difference to my career …” When Margaret Drabble published this line in her 1965 novel The Millstone, she may have meant for it to be taken comically, or ironically, or both. Forty-six years later, such a sentiment has thankfully drifted into the realm of the probable, but even the most-together single mom in 2011, never mind 1965, probably wouldn’t express it with such insouciance. The world is still a hard place for women who wish to both raise a child and have a career, and to do it without any help.

It’s this premise that lends The Millstone its tension, and its heart. The novel tells the story of Rosamund Stacey, a bright and successful graduate student who has a promising career as a scholar of Elizabethan poetry ahead of her. Since it’s the swinging sixties in London, Rosamund is romantically involved – though placidly, noncommittally – with two men at once, Joe and Roger. While finishing up her degree and living in the flat of her socialist parents, who are away on a year-long humanitarian mission to Africa, Rosamund falls pregnant to a third man, George, in a one-night stand that could best be described as less-than-consensual. Rosamund is stunned by her pregnancy and the sudden kink it places in her career plans. And yet her decision to keep her baby is swift and absolute.

On the surface, The Millstone might appear to be a novel about a young woman putting a freshly liberated society to the ultimate liberal test. Rosamund almost challenges the mores and beliefs of those around her, making them put their progressive views where their mouths are. Both Joe and Roger offer to marry her, but she turns them down. She finds not a gram of comfort from the nurses who help her deliver her baby, despite the soft-edged atmosphere one might expect from a maternity ward. And Rosamund’s roommate Lydia, who moves in under the pretense of helping take care of little Octavia when Rosamund needs to be working, is too preoccupied with the novel she’s writing (which, fittingly, is almost entirely about a young woman trying to raise a baby on her own) to be much help.

But there is an undercurrent to Drabble’s novel that is much more than that. The Millstone isn’t so much about a liberal world put to the test as it is about liberalism being subsumed by what we might call today ‘neoliberalism.’ In the greatest irony in the novel, the only time Rosamund lets go of her highly ironic tone and gives in to something close to an authentic emotion is when she contemplates shedding her parents’ socialist beliefs for the betterment of her baby. This happens when she meets another mother who espouses a profoundly 'Tory' sentiment that resonates deeply, surprisingly in Rosamund’s heart. The woman says:
“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.”
Rosamund is nearly floored by how much this right-wing world view speaks to her. She thinks:
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.
This is a chilling counterbalance to what has come before it in the novel. Drabble deftly takes a story that might have sunk into a quagmire of navel-gazing domesticity and blows it out to say something large, and largely disturbing, about the broader world and where it is inevitably heading. Her command of such thematic balance is especially impressive, considering she herself was still in her twenties when she composed this novel.

In the end, The Millstone is more than a relic to a by-gone age and its influence on motherhood. It is a reliquary to the emotional world of motherhood, its complexities and contradictions. It is a novel as relevant today as it was when it was first published.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Reading report

Had a great reading at Type Books last Thursday with RR and Jeff Bursey. If you missed it, Jeff put up a nice little write-up of it on his blog, which includes a nice photo of RR and me. Enjoy!