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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.

March 31, 2010

Books in Motion #4

A book in motion for every leg of last night’s journey to the meeting at Literature for Life. The almost-not-awkward, soon-to-be-handsome young man riding east on the Bloor-Danforth line. He’s reading David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children. The young woman in fabulous boots getting off the southbound train at Yonge Station carrying The Bell Jar. And then the man beside me reading The New Yorker eastbound on the Dundas streetcar. Which isn’t a book in motion, I realize, but the streetcar was crowded and everyone was being terribly private about whatever novels they were reading.

March 16, 2010

Where have all the mass-market paperbacks gone?

All right, wouldn’t you know it? My twenty-five year old mass market paperback copy of The Tiger in the Tiger Pit by Janette Turner Hospital (which had a very unappealing cover and I found in a box on the sidewalk) turned out to be a wonderful novel. So much in common with Orpheus Lost, the other book I’d read by her though– literary allusions (though here they were Shakespearean instead of classical), musical references, bits of it taking place in her native Australia. Are all her books like this? Perhaps I’ll start combing the sidewalks and soon I’ll find out.

I found it interesting also that such a literary book would have come out in mass market paperback– does that still happen (unless you’re Margaret Atwood, whose mass market The Blind Assassin is fantastic)?  Did they even have trade paperbacks in 1984? Because I never find those in sidewalk boxes.

Recently, when I read How the Heather Looks (published in the mid-sixties), I noted the passage where Joan Bodger recounts the university town her family had once resided in where they sold books at the supermarket, a necessary staple along with all the others– milk, cheese, etc. And she thought that was so brilliant. A funny perspective, since books in the supermarket are the worst thing that have ever happened to books in most places– because they’re sold at such a knock-down cost, of course, that publishers make no money, booksellers can’t compete, and all the books they sell there are crap anyway. So it’s too bad about that last point, or we could just about put a positive spin on the whole thing, but alas.

So, anyway: whither art thou, literary mass-market paperback? And where is the modern-day Allen Lane when we need him/her most?

March 9, 2010

Books in the City

Because I only ever read YA for purposes of nostalgia, I’ve probably not read a novel for young readers that’s been published since the early 1990s. I decided to read Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me after reading this piece on it at the Guardian Books Blog, and because it had won the estimable seal of the Newbery Medal. And yes, also because it’s the story of girl who’s reading A Wrinkle In Time.

I’d forgotten how wonderful YA fiction can be– there was nothing simple about Stead’s plot, and though the vocabulary was simpler than I was used to, and the font was bigger, she had me wrapped up in the story and completely baffled as to where it would go next. She wasn’t writing down to anyone.

When You Reach Me turned out to be a nostalgic read all the same, however. Perhaps in itself an ode to the great YA fiction of yore (whose heroines I’ve written about before, actually, on International Women’s Day exactly two years ago). The story takes place in 1979, which means its protagonist needs dimes for the payphone. And all the best YA took place in the ’70s, didn’t it? Which was sometimes weird, especially when girls needed belts for their sanitary napkins, or lost their virginity on unfortunate shag rugs, but there was something in the air then that leaked into these wonderful stories.

Stead’s Miranda is blunt, feisty, awkward, mortified by her mother (“…if she had the slightest idea what she looked like, she wouldn’t be laughing at all.”), gutsy, fearful and vividly drawn. The story was not at all dated (which makes it a bit different from the YA I remember so well– no one refers to anybody as a “woman’s libber”, for example). That Miranda lives in New York City too is only fitting, because everybody did then. With their unabashedly single mothers, in buildings without doormen, and they’d walk around the city with keys strung around their necks. It’s strange how much encountering adolescence in 1970s’ New York City is really a kind of literary homecoming for me.

Another book in the city I’ve read lately is Stacey May Fowles’ Fear of Fighting (which is a Canada Also Reads contender, and [insert “wow, do I ever love the internet!” comment here] available as a free download. Defender Zoe Whittall holds this book up as an example of an urban book set in the present day, the kind of book that cranky people like to complain doesn’t exist, and that many readers too fond of inter-generational prairie family sagas could end up ignoring.

I read Fear of Fighting skeptically, first, because I’m unconvinced that “contemporary urban tale” is necessarily shorthand for good. It’s very often been shorthand for complete crap, in my experience, with storytellers too conscious of what they’re up to, in Toronto referencing Parkdale for the sake of referencing Parkdale (and either not explaining what this means, or explaining too much), getting novel-writing confused with map-drawing, thinking they’re not required to actually do anything as storytellers because this is a “contemporary urban tale” after all.

I also wonder about this demand for contemporary urban tales– is this another way of asking for books about people like us? And I understand why a wide of variety of approaches to fiction is important, but I also know that when girls who collect shoes and go shopping a lot demand fiction that reflects their lives, the rest of us find that a bit disdainful.

Finally (and then I promise, I’ll stop with the provisos), unlike Whittall, I don’t necessarily love “good non-cliché-ridden mental illness narrative” (or perhaps I’ve just never encountered the first two descriptors).

When I started Fear of Fighting, I thought it had a YA sensibility, but having read When You Reach Me now, I realize that I was only recognizing another irrepressible narrative voice. Who doesn’t write down to anyone. Fowles’ work is so wonderful because it doesn’t try too hard, because her narrator is wry and discerning. After Marnie gets her heart broken, she eventually she stops leaving her house, even adandoning her lucrative career filing for a document shredding company. The book is the story of her piecing together what’s happened, and what she’s going to do next, and Zoe Whittall is right– the book is funny. “Fucking hilarious” may be taking it a bit far, but it’s true that Fowles’ Marnie is the most hilarious agoraphobe I’ve ever encountered in fiction, or anywhere.

March 5, 2010

Canada Reads: Independently. It's the Final Countdown

Okay, it’s not exactly a “countdown”, but “It’s the Final Vote” would bring to mind no song by Europe, and so what’s the point of that? I’ve just posted my final Canada Reads: Independently review, and my rankings are set with Hair Hat in the top spot. But my power only extends so far, of course, and the winner of Canada Reads: Independently isn’t up to me. It’s up to us!

For those of you who’ve taken part, reading all or some of these books, you’ve got a vote. Our little poll will close at midnight on Thursday March 11th. Before then, email me (at klclare AT gmail DOT com) your top pick of the Canada Reads: Independently selections, and the winning book will be announced on Friday March 12 (just in time for CBC Canada Reads champion to be unveiled!)

And my bets are on Century, but anything can happen!

February 26, 2010

The Wall of Pickles

At The Grilled Cheese in Kensington Market

May 7, 2009

Please bear

This would be a blog entry, but I am too fixated on cloth diaper brands and securing my next serving of ice cream. Plus everything I do these days seems to proceed in a most dilatory fashion. For example, I’ve been writing this for twenty minutes. Please bear with us, and thank you.

October 7, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

Our very first turkey dinner: this is totally a milestone. Deliciousness intaken. Everybody is sleepy. Hooray hooray for harvest time.

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