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Pickle Me This

March 27, 2013

Oh, the poets.

cottonopolisOh, the poets. I know you half-hate readers like me. Hate by half only because I’m not totally terrible. I keep buying your books, and sometimes I even read them, but not always. I start to read and get distracted by bigger books, by books that don’t require so much attention. And when I do read and it comes time to talk about the books, I never know what to say (mostly because the gate-keepers of poetry conversation are seriously terrifying and I can never tell if they’re joking or not). And poets, I don’t always understand what you’re trying to say. And now I’m doing the very worst thing of all, which is examining my growing stack of poetry books and determining that April would be a fine time to read them. But in my defense, it’s not just because April is Poetry Month. I promise. It just so happens that most of these books have happened to come into my life at this point in time (I was summoned twice by Book City today by a call that a poetry book I’d 0rdered had come in), and I really need to get through my to-be-reads before the baby is born. So I will be reading poetry in April–forgive me please the cliche. The books before me look really fantastic though and I can’t wait to share them with you.

See also my list: Poetry Books I’ve Read This Year

February 27, 2013

The Best Thing About Worst-Case Scenarios

IMG_8907The best thing about worst-case scenarios is that you decide to call you doctor back and you ask for clarification about lumpish things. You ask if there was anything particularly alarming about your particular lump (ie it is the lump that is guaranteed to kill you in six months that you really wish you’d never learned about) and she tells you everything you never thought to ask about yesterday, and you write it down this time. She says that the lump is lumpish, as lumps go, and large (though not as large as you’d forcasted after trying to measure it with a ruler this morning) and any lump that large would call for a biopsy. Beyond that, there is nothing that makes you or your lumpishness exempt from the good prognoses of thyroid lumps. You could possibly feel positive about outcomes. Doctor joins the chorus of people imploring you to calm down. There is no reason to be crying at 5 in the morning.

The best thing about worst-case scenarios is that after spending 24 hours devastated at the inevitably of death in six months, every single outcome seems absolutely tame. The world comes back into view and you greet it with an enormous sense of relief.

You do, however, keep having to apoligize to people for being hysterical on the internet, but you’re probably not the first woman who has never displayed such behaviour. And sometimes maybe that’s what the internet is for. It beats crying alone.

Thanks everyone. xo

July 8, 2012

Changing the furniture

As you can see, we’ve been changing the furniture around here, and I’m rather ecstatic about this new arrangement. I wanted something simple and light, but to still retain my door motif. The gorgeous red door above, complete with mailbox, has come from the talented artist Patricia Storms, and the site’s design, as ever, is courtesy of Stuart. And I especially love that my footer is actually feet, those red wellingtons that were my header years and years ago. Who says that websites don’t have history?

May 1, 2011

The Common Reader

I really enjoyed the essay Narcissus Regards a Novel, about how readers read to be entertained, about how there is no longer cultural authority, media doesn’t shape taste but simply reflects it, good is what makes us feel good, what affirms our ideas about who we are. I particularly liked the last half of the essay, which posits that perhaps there still exists some readers in possession of that “strange mixture of humility and confidence” that allows the invitation of influence, the possibility of second thoughts. (I believe this was called “flip-flopping” in the 2004 American presidential election.) Irresoluteness is not commonly regarded as a virtue in our society, though I actually find it kind of attractive. Mark Edmundson, the essay’s author, thinks so too, and he thinks we’re all out there waiting for the right works to deliver us from our Narcissism:  “… the truly common reader—this impossible, possible man or woman who is both confident and humble, both ready to change and skeptical of all easy remedies”.

And this is not a yes, but. If anything it’s a yes yes yes yes yes!, but, because I love the idea of the moveable reader, and of reading as the antidote to a society of prescriptive consumerism, but the beginning of the essay still rankles me. Because while our reluctance to judge the value of artistic works has certainly lowered the cultural tone, the alternative is even more disgusting (and I think of Parley Burns in Elizabeth Hay’s new novel: “What a ranking, comparing, depressing mind he had.”) I think of literary critic William Arthur Deacon who was also obsessed with determining what was great and what wasn’t, and how history has determined he was wrong, wrong, wrong. (I hope he knew it too, somewhere in his heart, before he died a painful, lonely death. He was a horrid man.) Who gets to be the decider? I’m not saying that everything I love is brilliant, but some of it is, and critics would still leave it out of the canon.

The beginning of the essay also gets me, because I wonder about anyone to tell me how I read, why I read, let alone how I should read. I do desire to be Edmundson’s elusive common reader, but so what if I didn’t? Who is he to tell me how I should be? Or what literature should do, as though books ever only do just one thing (and if they do, please don’t let it be to “be an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us.” I hate the violence of that image, and my sea isn’t even frozen).

I was thinking about this even before I read this essay, as I rode the subway on Tuesday evening and watched the woman across the train from me reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. She was coming home from a job that required her to wear attire that didn’t suit her, which I knew because her casual/sporty jacket did not go with her skirt and nylons. Over her nylons, she was wearing socks and running shoes, which meant her daytime footwear didn’t suit her physical needs either. It was 6:45, which is late to be commuting downtown, and I thought, “Wow, you can have your book. You don’t get to pick your own clothes, or your schedule, so surely I’ll grant you your book.” I thought, “Office lady in the running shoes. You read whatever you damn well please.”

I am lucky that I can afford to be elitist, because I don’t want to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and because I once tried to read The Da Vinci Code, but I thought it seemed long and more than a bit boring. I am also lucky because I get to spend a lot of my life doing creative, fulfilling things, but I think that kind of life can put one more than a bit out of touch with reality. And so I do like to check my snobbery from time to time, and stay irresolute about most things, such as what’s great and what isn’t, and who’s allowed to tell who to read what and what for.

October 25, 2010

10 Reasons to be Happy

1) The odds of an amazing book winning The Giller Prize is remarkly high

2) I heard on the radio (via the Inuit) that polar bear populations are rising, not falling. They’ve just gotten better at hiding from scientists.

3) I know two awesome babies born in the past two weeks, and two more are still abrewing. Odds of at least one of them changing the world for the better is quite high.

4) Unfit, angry people without karma on their side are at greater risk than the rest of us of dropping dead at any time

5) America elected Obama president

6) Those Chilean miners, remember?

7) Dairy Milks in the post, and leftover pumpkin pie

8) Message to My Girl by Split Enz

9) The Sunday after next has 25 hours in it

10) Drawing close is Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year, and I’ve chosen to regard this as a harbinger of spring.

BONUS: My next door neighbour just brought a huge box of fresh fruit to my door– 3 pints of strawberries, melon and grapes.

October 15, 2010

Vote vote vote for The Girls Who Saw Everything

Remember when I was 40 weeks pregnant and obsessed with Sean Dixon’s The Girls Who Saw Everything? I sure do, and even with everything that’s happened since, I’m still pretty obsessed with it. And Stuart also enjoyed it, and he’s quite a different kind of reader than I am, so that says something about this book’s appeal. Anyway, when asked to champion a Canadian book from the last ten years as a candidate for CBC Canada Reads 2011, The Girls… came to my mind immediately. Because, as I told the good people at the CBC:

it’s challenging, literary, fun, plot-driven, ripe with allusions, a good read even if you don’t get the allusions, a book about girls that’s written by a man, because it’s a celebration of bookishness, and because it’s about the most bizarre book club you could ever imagine.

So get behind me! Vote for my pick over at the CBC website.

June 8, 2010

On magazines

Charlotte’s post about magazines has inspired me to copy her (and has also introduced me to the The Devil’s Artisan, which has very much piqued my interest). I too love magazines, and though the stack of those to-be-read has never recovered from Harriet’s early months, and I fear I will be months behind until the end of my days, I continue to renew my subscriptions and look forward t0 each day that I find one waiting in my mailbox.

Magazines I subscribe to:

The New Quarterly:

I’ll admit it– if you publish my stories, I’ll be loyal to you, but that’s not half the reason why I’m partial to TNQ. As I posted recently, “TNQ is fiction, poetry, features, art, profiles, creative non-fiction and more. TNQ is never the same, but always gorgeously produced, the work is always thoughtful and interesting, containing stories that have absolutely blown my mind. I read Alison Pick for the first time there, and Carrie Snyder, and Terry Griggs, and Amy Jones, and Zsuszi Gartner. I love the “Magazine as Muse” section. The Editor’s letters are always a pleasure to read, and full of treasures themselves. In short, four times a year, TNQ comes into my world and makes it a better place.”

Room:

Room (formerly A Room of  One’s Own, which I still think was a fine name and I kind of wish they hadn’t changed it) does a fantastic job with supporting and promoting new writers, and publishing them alongside amazing work by established ones, and for the most part, this balance works well. They’re a feminist magazine run by a volunteer collective whose diversity is reflected in the magazine’s content. Each issue is linked by a theme, however loosely, and I also appreciate range of forms they publish– short stories, poetry, interviews, reviews, and profiles of readers. It makes for a good read, and, like TNQ, they have good editors’ letters as well.

Canadian Notes and Queries:

Oh, the learning at your fingertips in an issue of CNQ. I’ll be honest– the content is a bit hit-and-miss in terms of appealing to me, and I didn’t really read the last issue,but I’ve loved pretty much every other issue of CNQ that’s come to me over the past three years. I enjoy the ongoing MacSkimming series of interviews on the history of Canadian publishing, their focus on the bookselling climate, their issue on translation was incredible, the best articles are challenging and interesting even when I disagree with the point of view. It’s also a really beautifully designed magazine.

ROM Magazine:

We get this one automatically as part of our museum membership, and I don’t read it cover-to-cover, but I still love it. The recent redesign has been absolutely beautiful, I like Mark Kingwell’s columns, and thanks to this magazine I know all kinds of bizarre facts about ladybugs, bats and the dead sea scrolls.

London Review of Books:

I started subscribing to this one through a twofer subscription deal my friend had. A genius idea, because this periodical is a bit addicting, and of course, once I started, I really couldn’t stop. I used to try to read everything, but now only pick out articles that will hold my interest, which means I don’t read as much about economics and Afghanistan as I once did, which is a shame because the articles are amazing. But they’re also loooooong and the print is every small, and if I read everything I wanted to in the LRB, there would be no time for books. There is always time for Andrew O’Hagan, Alan Bennett, Jenny Diski and Anne Enright, however. And scathing reviews that are brilliant rather than bitter.

Chatelaine:

What happened? One minute, I was too cool for Chatelaine, and now I’m way too much of a Mum. The new issue wasn’t even worthy of being a coaster on my coffee table. Tonight I ate a dip that was from that issue, however, and it was good, but I’m still not convinced. I miss Katrina Onstad (who yes, was the best thing they had going), and the recipes (which have become my staples. What will I cook without them?) were lacking, and there was nothing interesting in the entire issue. I’ve been a pretty happy subscriber for the past two years, but I think my Chatelaine days are done.

Magazines I don’t subscribe to:

Walrus: I waited and waited for them to start publishing women writers, not merely on principle, but because a general interest magazine written by only men is not generally interesting. I even sent a letter asking the editor why publishing women writers was not important to him, and I got zero reply, not even a form. I no longer subscribe, and though the contributers seem a but more mixed lately, I still don’t think I’m missing much.

Magazines I would subscibe to were my life a better place:

The New Yorker: If I subscribed to this magazine, my stack of unread issues would grow so high that I would have to jump off the top and kill myself. But I wish it didn’t have to be that way– if only there were more days in the week, and I had nothing else to do but read it. Because The New Yorker is fantastic, I admire the stamina of its subscribers.

The Believer: I love this magazine, and it’s lovely, but very expensive, and so are a lot of other things.

May 12, 2010

So what is to be done with phone boxes

From “The Person in the Phone Booth” by David Trotter. London Review of Books 32.2:

“So what is to be done with phone boxes? Or, increasingly, without them? Some will no doubt survive, merged imperceptibly into the general fuzz of urban information. Others may enjoy an afterlife as tourist attraction, temporary internet office or excuse for performance art. The rest will vanish. But the question these cubicles have posed for more than a century is as pertinent now as it ever was. How are we to go on being private in public? The lesson to be learned from the history of the phone box is that the construction of privacy in public by physical rather than social and cultural means always tends to excess. The physical structure (box, booth or kiosk) brought about experiences which, although they did not concern telecommunication, became indelibly associated with it. The lesson to be learned from the representation of the phone box in folk memory, and in literature and film, is that we remember the piss and the phlegm, and the hauntedness. There is knowledge in that remembering, knowledge we wouldn’t otherwise have, of what ordinary coexistence in dense populations might actually amount to. We’ll miss out on a lot of inadvertency, both good and bad, if we give up constructing privacy in public by physical means. We may find ourselves in a world in which the boundary between public and private is either non-existent or policed by surveillance and legal constraint. That doesn’t sound to me like much of an improvement on those anxious, savoury minutes spent locked and lit up in the toxic aquarium.”

April 25, 2010

More on "Domestic fiction", which, turns out, doesn't exist.

First, I want to point out that Twitter has become a lot more worthwhile since I started following Washington Post book critic Ron Charles. And it was his review of Sue Miller’s The Lake Shore Limited that made me realize that I’d become derailed with my “domestic fiction” epiphany (which was that it was not just the stuff of women’s fiction, that it’s universal. That the realm may not be as divided as I’d supposed). Ron Charles writes that Miller:

“might be the best poster child for the poison condescension bestowed by the term “women’s literature.” She didn’t publish her first novel, “The Good Mother” (1986), until she was in her 40s, but since then she’s been prolific and popular (another mark against her), writing about families and marriages, infidelity and divorce — what we call “literary fiction” when men write about those things. Last year, a grudging review of “The Senator’s Wife” in That Other East Coast Newspaper claimed that Miller’s novels “feature soap-opera plots,” a mischaracterization broad enough to apply to any story that doesn’t involve space travel or machine guns.”

You know, I really meant “women’s fiction” all along, which (the surprise is) is also often written by men. Except, yes, it’s “literary fiction” then. This all reminds me of Julianna Baggot’s piece from last winter (via SWB) that posited: “Women… are supposed to be experts on emotion. I’ve never heard anyone remark that they were surprised that a book of psychological depth was written by a woman. So men get points for simply showing up on the page with a literary effort.” I don’t know if the last point is completely true, but I do think that “psychological fiction” is something of a woman’s domain these days. That psychological fiction and what we call women’s fiction are often one and the same.

I am still bothered by Alex Good’s review of Lisa Moore’s novel February, which suggested that the novel’s most “gendered” elements were “so transparently the stuff of commercial fiction”. I continue to not understand what this means, exactly, but it seems similar to the “soap-opera plot” accusation thrown at Sue Miller (and in fact, Good bemoans the lack of a “fast-paced, and forward-moving plot” [space travel and machine guns?]). I continue also to still think that February was a stunning novel. Could a man have written it? Does it matter? Would it have been judged any differently if a man had written it?

It seems that for many critics, “women’s fiction” is a polite way of saying “bad fiction” (and that “bad fiction” is an impolite way of saying “women’s fiction”), but I’m not sure that judgment is entirely fair. In fact, yes, to bring this around to what I was talking about in the preceding paragraph, I know the judgment isn’t fair when women are writing some of the best fiction out there. And that when the men are writing it, then it’s “literary fiction”, as noted by Ron Charles.

So I don’t know what to think now: my revelation continues to be that fiction is not as gendered as I’d previously suspected, but that there might still be such a thing as “women’s writing”. Though it might just be a construct, a gap manufactured by critics who find it easier to catagorize things simply. It might also be a misunderstanding, women’s writing being judged by its lowest common denominator (Maeve Binchy, as opposed to Virginia Woolf, for example). Because there is truly some seriously shitty “women’s writing” out there,  but we could say the same about the men. Or are women writing books which are restrictive in their readership? Might the fault be with the readers though, who are prejudiced about what “Great Works” are constituted of? And then here’s the really complicating factor– what about discerning readers who thought that February was crap, full stop (and I’ ve met them. I think they’re crazy, but I’ve met them). Truly, me responding with, “You wouldn’t get it. You’re a man” is a pretty unfair response. And doesn’t say much for February, because shouldn’t great literature speak to everyone? (Though I really don’t understand why this great book wouldn’t.)

April 6, 2010

Bloom by Michael Lista

“Something that has bothered me enormously as a reader of poetry is the failure of poets—especially the so-called avant-garde—to pick up on the formal complexity of the world as revealed by the various scientific disciplines. Biologists have shown us the double-helix, the root not only of physiology but also of behaviour, cognition; chemistry gives us Bach and personality; and physicists are proving we’re more math than matter. And yet so many poets give us a world that looks profoundly out-dated; disordered, solipsistic, self-made, random, positively 20th century. I think a more honest book is one in which the spontaneity of personality is set within the strict—and ancient— clockwork of the world.” –Michael Lista, from “Not Every Gesture Is a Manifesto: An Interview…” by Jacob McArthur Mooney

Say I’m making it
for making’s sake, as humans must
when put before an erector set
whose pieces spell out
Please for the love of Jesus
do not dare assemble us

–from “Do. But Do.”

how when an atom’s centre smashes and cracks
new light explodes from the matter’s collapse
–from “Lotus Eaters”

Michael Lista’s collection Bloom comes with a guide map as an appendix, which might suggest its a book that takes us into unventured territory. And while I’m not sure that Lista’s book is necessarily more “honest” than those of the “so many poets” he mentioned in his interview, this is a fascinating collection nonetheless, in its premise and its execution.

Los Alamos, New Mexico is the guide map, and Bloom tells the story of Louis Slotin, a Canadian physicist working on the Manhattan Project. Exactly nine months after Slotin’s predecessor, Harry Diaghlian, was killed in an accident while “bring[ing] a core of nuclear fissile material as close to criticality as possible”, Slotin himself has an accident, and though he manages to shield the other scientists in the lab from radiation, he dies nine days later. An essential twist in the story is that Slotin died training his replacement, Alvin Graves, who was having an affair with Slotin’s wife.

I don’t know what “close to criticality” means, and neither have I read Ulysses, but even still, I was able to be captivated by Bloom. Each poem in the collection takes another poem as its source material (by poets as various as Ted Hughes, the Pearl Poet, and the Velvet Underground, by poets as cotemporary as Karen Solie, Robyn Sarah and Nick Laird, and plenty of [undoubtedly famous] other poets to whom a reference might bely that I’ve actually heard of them), and Lista refers to his work with the original poems as “English to English translations”. By which he means that his source materials are building blocks, modified to suit Lista’s poetic purposes and the purposes of the story.

Not a thing is original here– just as Slotin’s experience is a copy of Diaghlian’s, and Graves’ was the stand-in in Slotin’s marriage, each poem is a variation on something that has been written before, each of these poems refers to allusions and other texts (as well as a pivotal part of a 1989 movie projected onto John Cusack’s shoulder). And while the product of such an experiment is a little confusing and overwhelming, it’s also navigable and pretty fabulous to contemplate as a whole– the cacophony, so many voices, and such variation is entirely readable.

I am not this book’s intended audience, presuming it was only ever meant to have just one. But I am pleased to now understand how literary remixing could be an art onto itself and not simply plagiarism ala Opal Mehta. The incredibly illuminating Torontoist interview I refer to above (and yes, I was unafraid of cutting and pasting for this review) notes that Bloom is controversial, that readers could resent Lista’s rearrangement of beloved or iconic works (and I wonder too, if his variations might look paltry in comparison?). Interestingly, however, because my knowlege of the source material was so incredibly minimal (indeed, the only poem I’d read was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight back in Major British Writers, and I’m not sure whether to blame the University of Toronto or myself for this) none of these problems existed.

Lista’s poems refer me not to something that’s old, but something that’s entirely new, which was the opposite of his intentions, but it’s a distinctly original result.

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