Friday, June 29, 2007

Reviewing: a review

I haven't yet had a chance to read through all of Alex Good's essay on the State of Reviewing in Canada (seems to call for the upper case, like a report from a royal commission) – mostly I skimmed it for my own name....

At first blush it looks mostly like "sky is blue" kind of stuff – book reviews are not taken seriously, reviewers are not paid well, most reviewers don't know what they're doing, undeserving books hog all the attention, big names gets handled with kid gloves, o tempora, o mores, etc. – but I'm sure it's still worth a read.

I may add my own two cents later.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

"Nice land claim you got there..."

"... shame if anything were to happen to it."

OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino applies his usual diplomatic style to the tense state of native relations:
"I believe that First Nations and aboriginal leaders across this country are making great progress ... and I would hate to see Mr. Brant or anyone else destroy that progress that is being made," Fantino said.
Oooh, what's the government going to do, ignore court rulings in favour of native bands and drag their heels over just about every single land claim? And if they did, how would we notice the difference?

ADDED: Maybe this is just too obvious to note, but isn't this all just a wee bit of an overreaction? I mean a guy wants to block train tracks with a dirty old bus – something he has been promising to do for weeks – and our brave, brave security apparatus is acting like it's the second coming of Osama Bin Laden. You don't think they're exaggerating the threat to help drive their own agenda, do you? After all, if Brant's magic bus was all it took to bring this province to its knees, then how well would we do in a real crisis?

Yippee ki nay

Funniest review of a review of the new Die Hard.

(Found this thanks to S,N!)

ADDED: speaking of Yippee Ki Yay...

(Where is "If it bleeds, we can kill it."?)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Public orgasms for thee, but not for me

Leah McLaren is disappointed by the apparent settling down of some of the crazy performance artists she heard about in high school but never saw, and is still too classy to go see now.

Having endured Leah's performance in the Tish Cohen thing below, I think I can safely say that a public viewing of Annie Sprinkle's cervix is a lot farther down the scale of ick.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

I'll have the corn, extra cheese, with a side of eye-rolling

And the nominees for most unconvincing acting in a diner-set promo spot are...

The book trailer for Tish Cohen's Town House:

And the Hilary Clinton Sopranos-parody:

The winner gets whacked. The loser, too, while we're at it.

While we tabulate the votes, let's watch a good diner scene:

Friday, June 22, 2007

Sawyer saved!

It's not online, but the brief interview with Robert J. Sawyer I did for the never-to-be issue of Toro has resurfaced in the latest issue of Maisonneuve (thanks to a last-minute rescue by the intrepid and always nattily dressed Carmine Starnino, who is an associate editor for the magazine).

ADDED: It's worth seeking out the interview to read what Sawyer – a fan-friendly author, almost to excess – has to say about Atwood's LongPen device, which he compares to the kinds of thing used by Hazmat professionals.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Some chickens just can't dance

Maybe I'm just dense, but what the hell is going on in this Popmatters review of Emily Schultz's Songs for the Dancing Chicken?

The superstructure of possible identities in approaching the text creates a web that circumscribes the uncertainty and doubt necessary for this work because this work is one of space, albeit monumentally small space. But it is not the vastness of space that so troubles us, the incomprehensible distance that to gaze into draws us ever nearer the beginning of being since that distance can be safely parsed into fact and statistic.
This is what the inside of my head looked like after I finished reading the thing:

Ponyo on a Cliff

Hayao Miyazaki, whom I thought had retired two films ago, has a new one coming next year, called Ponyo on a Cliff. It's about a goldfish princess who wants to be human.

Hey, he made a frigging spirit-world bath-house and a walking castle work, he can make this one work, too.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Novel indigestion

Matthew Kneale thinks that writing a novel is like cooking a good meal.

Ah, literary writers and their cozy lifestyle metaphors for the creative process! What are the final revisions before publication – an after-dinner apéritif on the veranda?

From my very limited experience, writing a novel is more like preparing hundreds of kids' lunches every day: your every intention is to make something delicious and varied and nutritious, but through impatience, fatigue, failure of the imagination, or simple lack of time or talent, you end up with some lumpen, over-familiar, and over-compromised mass – jam sandwiches and carrot sticks – that depresses even the person who put it all together, never mind the bright little minds who open it later, full of anticipation, only to be deeply disappointed. (And who probably toss what they can't trade.)

Friday, June 15, 2007

Defending the short story (or, why you shouldn't bother)

AL Kennedy on the much-maligned short story:
The short story - it gets a bad press. Well, mainly it gets no press at all, which is worse. But if it ever is discussed, the short story is usually dismissed as the commercially untouchable equivalent of finger-painting.

In an age when responsible adults will happily read Harry Potter books in public, the short story is supposed to be something for children - possibly because they're short, too. Plus, it's condemned to labour under the pedantic curse that demands a beginning, a middle and a twist in the tail. The magazines that used to print stories have largely disappeared and they're left to be harried by endless small-scale competitions that merrily dictate size, content, themes and even title options. (Would you do that to a novel?) Stories are allegedly what novelists knock off when they're feeling lazy, me journalism with a dash of purple prose, something to read in the toilet, a waste of trees.

I know that, as both a writer and reader of short stories, I'm supposed to say, "Huzzah!" and "Finally!" at this, but even putting aside my natural inclination toward hating everything that is good and well-meaning, I think these kinds of things are not only pointless but self-defeating.

A few months ago, at a literary awards event, the head of a jury handing out an award for best short story gave an impassioned defence of the short story form. Almost involuntary, a thought came into my mind: "I guess the short story is dead after all..."

How do you "defend" an artistic form? I can make arguments as to why a particular writer or book should be read, but a form? There's a lot of three-minute rock songs I like, too – doesn't mean I think people should be out scooping up as many of the things as they can simply because, you know, rock songs are good!

Despite Kennedy's claims to the contrary, modern short stories are not typefied by their diversity. There is always someone around putting some quirky spin on the basic model of the "20-page bourgeois blues," but that just confirms the primacy of the central model. As James Wood said of magical realism vis á vis plain-old realism, the bourgeois story schools its truants. I'm not complaining about that – how could I, given that my favourite short story writers (Chekhov, Cheever, Pritchett, O'Connor, etc.) pretty much invented that model, along with Updike and Munro and the rest. Within that frame, Barthelme is more like Updike's acid-dropping older brother than anything truly alien. With so many stories and writers trying to fit within that narrow cultural cohort, of course the general reading public is not going to respond with boundless enthusiasm. You can only read so many stories about the end of a significant relationship, and about the feelings engendered by such an event. (I know; I've written them, and still do.)

The arguments in the defence of the story also get confused when it comes to separating artistic realities from economic ones. Kennedy's piece is typical. Stories, she writes, are too often "condemned to labour under the pedantic curse that demands a beginning, a middle and a twist in the tail." How declassé – an ending. Short stories are the purest form, she states, and should be subject to no outside considerations, especially crass commercial ones. But then she complains that agents and editors don't take them seriously as a commercial concern, and commercial magazines don't print them anymore. And they especially won't print the naughty ones.

This is called wanting to have one's short fiction cake and eat it, too. Especially odd given that she invokes the name of O. Henry in the piece – not exactly the purest avant-garde model around. Do you want to be rich or respected?

A short story collection won the Giller prize and was one of the bestselling Canadian books this year. Why? For one thing, because it was a collection of stories about doctors, written by a doctor. And it was written well. In other words, short story collections don't sell... until they do. Here's a shocker: agents and editors have no idea what will sell, either. Not until someone comes along with something that a large number of people enjoy reading. (Then they go looking for more of that.)

In other words, it's the writing that justifies the existence of a form, both commercially and artistically.

Pouting that the critics and the marketplace don't take you seriously enough and exhorting people to read stories just because stories are good! is the best way to signal your own irrelevance. After all, I'm sure the classical music press is full of op-ed article wondering why people don't listen to more fugues....

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Showdown on Lansdowne

My neck of the woods made the papers:
It has been a classic local battle between the people and their politician in Toronto's west end.

On one side: the city's youngest councillor, Adam Giambrone, a staunch supporter of the $2-million project that will narrow Lansdowne Avenue between College and Bloor Streets from four lanes to two.

On the other: Sam Galati and his band of neighbours from the Toronto Lansdowne Residents' Association who object to the plan because they fear increased congestion and are angry about what they claim is a lack of consultation.

Their opposition is writ large on lawns along Lansdowne and neighbouring streets where dozens of yellow signs stand stamped with the words: "Giambrone, don't narrow Lansdowne!"

Residents have also held what they call traffic JAM-brones - parading over crosswalks and stalling traffic - and waving signs at last weekend's Portuguese parade in the area.

Mr. Giambrone is playing host to a meeting with Mr. Galati and the residents tonight at city hall in hopes of healing the rift. But the work will still begin next week, he says.

I'm fairly ambivalent about the whole thing. I know some of the people involved, and I'm puzzled as to why a bike lane isn't part of the plan (maybe it is and I'm just missing it); on the other hand, I lived on that stretch for a couple of years and found it almost willfully unfriendly – aside from the one or two people we knew, our neighbours only started even saying "hello" after we'd been there a couple of years. They even snubbed our kids, which I just found perverse.

Which is all to say that although the residents probably have a case, part of me is, like, fuck em.*

On the other hand, I don't understand how our councillor let this get this far. Having said that, he was for a while the president of the federal NDP party, so perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise when his political instincts are found wanting....

* totally unfair and petty, I know. But there it is: don't snub my kids.

ADDED: more on the whole broohaha here and here, with long back-and-forths in the comments sections.


Tbogg knocks the idea that immigrants sticking together is somehow a new thing:
As an American Southwesterner I'm not exactly sure where these "apartheid communities and enclaves" have sprung up, but I sincerely hope that they are surrounded by a buffer zone comprised of Little Italy, Chinatown, Koreatown, and maybe a pleasant neighborhood where you can still get a nice piece of whitefish to nosh on....
This kind of thing reminds me of the debate between Haroon Siddiqui and George Jonas about immigration in Canada in new revised edition of Great Questions of Canada. Jonas gives the usual line about all these brown people (ok, he doesn't use the term, but the implication is fairly clear) who cling to the ways and language of their mother country and who – horrors! – sometimes only come here to work for a while before fucking off back home, cash in hand.

Siddiqui has to gently remind Jonas that the English and French were doing all of that from the moment the country was "discovered." Many still do. After all, who were the ones huddled in forts and speaking an alien language for the first half-century of this country's existence?

My own parents, immigrants themselves, made a point of avoiding some of the anglo motherland enclaves in the area where they eventually settled, where people spent time in tea rooms deploring calling trucks "lorries" and television "the telly" and generally deploring the colonies. And yet, for all their efforts, they remained as English as beans-on-toast, bad teeth, and emotional impotence.

Intelligent discussion of immigration often gets cut short by knee-jerk cries of "racism!", but that's because the discussion too often is implicitly racist, however unintentionally so. It's like gay marriage: any possible discussion of the potential cons (and I'm all for it, by the way, though I am always open to hearing the contrary position, just as I waited in earnest and in vain back in 2002/3 to hear an actual intelligent, non-crazy argument in favor of the US invading Iraq) is totally overwhelmed by impassioned-yet-evasive arguments made by people who can't simply admit that their biggest problem with the thing is the idea of penises in bums. (Talk about your contrary position! Ba-da-boom!)

Where was I...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A heartbreaking sale of stagnant genius

McSweeneys is holding an auction to help offset recent losses.

On the auction block:
  • a childlike sense of wonder in the world and a belief that amusement is the invisible force behind everything
  • a strong dislike of cruelty, parochialism, and ickiness
  • an unshakeable faith in the super-duper-extraordinary power of hyperbole
  • a lock of Susan Sontag's hair
  • A KISS pinball machine
And, of course:
  • a million hearts, huge and wide open (unless you're one of those tacky asshole reviewers)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

I'm looking for pound notes, loose change, bad checks, anything...

Spinal Tap's "Gimme Some Money" used in an American Express commercial. If you listen closely, you may also hear a small gurgle from irony's fast-decomposing corpse. Somehow, it's even funnier in this context.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Agog over prog

I'm not sure yet what I think of the thing myself, but being what a friend of mine referred to other night as a "closet Yes fan," it gives me an enormous amount of smug pleasure that people are getting hyped up over this Battles record, which sounds, on first blush, an awful lot like Big Generator-era Yes (which is an era that makes even me shudder).

I really like this song, however (it goes nowhere, but neither does a lot of things I love):

[Added: I freely admit that it yields up nothing of interest after the second or third listen, but I think it would work well on, say, a 400-level highway, something I'll be seeing a lot of this summer. Repetition and forward drive become more important in music in direct relationship to the length of the drive.]

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Babstock talk

Ken Babstock interviewed in the Globe.

I remember the "Ottawa Valley rock band" mentioned in the thing, having once played in a band that opened for them in a second-floor bar about the size of my desk. They were shit. So were we. Who wasn't?

Shocker: Gore Vidal feeling litigious

Gore Vidal plans to sue Edmund White over the latter's play Terre Haute, about a cultured European starting a correspondence with a terrorist, as Vidal did with Timothy McVeigh.

It's not clear if he was serious or just feeling cranky.

Story is in today's National Post - I'll link to it when I can find it online. [Found it.]

"For certain people after fifty, litigation takes the place of sex." - Gore Vidal

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Revamping the Rag

Beattie's joint has moved and gone upscale.

I like the new look, and am a little envious, though the "notes from a literary lad" tag feels a little too "Memories of Oxford Common Rooms" for me.

I've been wondering what to do with this place. It's very nearly a year old, and gets some decent daily traffic – fewer visitors than places like BoingBoing or Arts&Letters Daily get in the time it took to write this sentence, but a decent enough number for a blog like this, that is mostly full of snide one-liners about Canadian also-rans, with the occasional impotent rant about some minor CanLit non-event.

I will likely spruce things up closer to the publication of the book, though that is still [winces] a year away. Probably the first thing to do will be to move, as Steven has, that .com closer to my name, though for now there is something appropriately humble about keeping the two separated.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Writing the city, at arm's length

Here's a well-meaning but fairly bland thing on writers "mapping" Toronto through their writing. What's notable, aside from all that is missing, is the tone of most of the examples given: detached, passive, chronically amused/bemused, seeing the city's most obvious landmarks through the wrong end of the telescope. Nowhere is the observer immersed in the city, a part of it. A flea on the back of a dog doesn't stop to say, "What strange and wonderous things, these dogs!" or write prose poetry about canine physiology.

More on writing Toronto here.

A day late

Being away from TV and radio for the weekend, I had no idea who won Saturday's game. After buying the Sunday Star the next day, I still didn't know – amazingly, there were no Stanley Cup results in the paper, the sports section having clearly been laid out sometime Saturday afternoon.

That's the way to win the newspaper wars.

Luckily, I was able to catch the highlights in the only bar open in Bala on a Sunday evening. While waiting for my take-out food, I think I saw the Pronger hit at least four dozen times, from every conceivable angle except "concussion cam."

Cottage country

A few days gone, in the heart of the Muskokas, in a tiny cabin only a few minutes' walk from the Kee to Bala. Check out that lineup at the link - Mobb Deep being the odd men out.

(Above: the "beach" in front of our rented cabin. The Canadian Shield protects us all.)

    A very subtle and funny writer - one I've become obsessed with over the past year - in a decidedly Muriel Spark mood. Imagine The Pr...