Sunday, August 19, 2007
Further to Wodehouse, and the notion that publishers are lazy sons of bitches, and at best a necessary inconvenience (I do believe Zach Wells has expressed similar thoughts from time to time) I'm off on yet another vacation. Tobermory for a week of sand, sun, and afternoon naps. Cheap wine, since I can no longer afford the good kind. I hope everyone out there soon gets the chance to do the same.
For the past week, I've been sitting back on the rear porch and reading The World of Jeeves, a Jeeves and Wooster omnibus of short stories by P .G. Wodehouse. I've avoided reading Wodehouse before, as I'd seen a few episodes of the BBC Jeeves and Wooster, and thought it often just plain silly. But as I readied John Metcalf's Shut Up He Explained for publication, Wodehouse kept coming up. I decided to give him a try.
If, like me, you've not read Wodehouse, you're in for a treat. His stories are incredibly funny, a pure pleasure to read. John has told me the novels are even better. At one time, when I had the bricks and mortar bookshop, I probably had most of Wodehouse in one format or the other; now I'll have to search him out. But search him out I will, as this is as much fun as I've had reading in many a year.
Wodehouse is not merely light fluff, either. He's a brilliant writer. Evelyn Waugh used to refer to him as the master. I'm beginning to see why.
In the story "The Artistic Career of Corky," Wooster muses on the world of publishing, in a short bit which probably hits a bit too close to home. I enter it here, for your amusement.
"I always used to think that publishers had to be devilish intelligent fellows, loaded down with grey matter; but I've got their number now. All a publisher has to do is to write cheques at intervals, while a lot of deserving and industrious chappies rally round and do the real work. I know, because I've been one myself. I simply sat tight in the old flat with a fountain pen, and in due season a topping, shiny book came along."
The truth of the matter is, alas, most of us publishers cannot even manage to "write cheques at intervals"; or if we can, t 'is often at long intervals, after much hounding and gnashing of teeth. So much for the whole noble profession bit.
Saturday, August 18, 2007
The review was paired with Di Brandt's So This is the World & Here I Am In It. Porter's take on the book -- on both -- is largely religious or spiritual. Which is not at all invalid, but at least with Little Eurekas seems only a small part of what is often going on in these essays. Still, a good review...
POETS AS PROSEURS
George Grant in conversation with Dennis Lee uses the phrase, "loving one's own." Love what belongs to you, by family or kin, or what is close to you, by heart or proximity. Love your heritage and tradition, what comes down to you by ancestral blood and experience. Grant's phrase contextually enriches a comprehensive reading of poets Di Brandt's and Robyn Sarah's new collections of literary essays.
Brandt, with all her ambivalence and qualification and rebellion, loves the Mennonite tradition. She honours her peasant farming and Anabaptist roots, her Plautdietsch mother tongue. She also quarrels with certain patriarchal tendencies in her tribe. Hers is not an easy love, not a requited love, but it's love nevertheless. You can't write a sentence like the following without love: "... like Leonard Cohen, who threw away his noble rabbinic lineage for bohemian excess only to recapture its grandeur in his poetry and contemplative practice, I put myself, precipitously, in [his] company to claim that I've been faithful, are you listening, daddy, grandma ... I've been true, trying as hard as I can to understand what that idealistic, crazy, stubborn, ecstatic, beautiful, terrible heritage was about."
Brandt's Mennonite heritage bookends So This Is the World & Here I Am In It, the 10th publication in NeWest Press's Writer as Critic Series, and forms a midway investigation called Je jelieda, je vechied: [roughly: the more educated you are, the more corrupt]: Canadian Mennonite (Alter)Identifications.
For the most part, she keeps the reader on Manitoba soil with reflections on Manitobans Adele Wiseman, Dorothy Livesay and David Arnason, and James Reaney's Winnipeg. Along the way, she meditates wonderfully on bees and makes fascinating notes on Berlin. Her other excursion beyond local soil is her rather academic-sounding response to Mavis Gallant's German-centred The Pegnitz Junction. As insightful as her critical thoughts are, especially the ones on Wiseman and Gallant, they don't rise to the level of poetry in prose. The result is that Brandt's is a two-voiced book, the voice of critical prose and the voice of poetry-in-prose.
When she loves her own, when she cleaves to blood and bone, she writes some of the most ecstatic prose in Canadian letters. Long Faulknerian sentences, such as the one quoted above, defy the straitjacket of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, which shaped a generation's prose. Keep the writing plain and simple, the manual says. That's fine when your reality is plain and simple, but what if it's convoluted and contradictory, where there are more collisions than coherences? What then?
At her best, Brandt writes with the intensity of Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Her prose lifts, it gallops - picture wild horses let out of a barn - and it accumulates phrases and verbs and modifiers like ivy gone mad on a wall. It comes close to those holy moments in writing where critic Alfred Kazin says that the word and the object are one. Fecundity and luxuriance energize her style.
Robyn Sarah's style is quiet, measured, thoughtful. She is open to the mesmerizing and incantatory, but tends to favour smaller celebrations. Little Eurekas showcases the full range of her personal poetry lab. She writes poetry, reviews it, teaches it and edits it. She collaborates with fellow poets; she interviews and is interviewed by fellow poets. Divided into Essays, Review Essays, Appreciations, Short Reviews and Collaborations, all pertaining to poets and the nature of poetry, her book closes with three of her finest poems: Riveted, Grace and Fugue.
What Sarah loves is clear: She loves poetry and words, and draws strength from the Jewish tradition. The best of her writing sometimes brings the three together in a single utterance. When asked about the spiritual in her work, she replies, "The expression that translates as 'Pay attention' is Sim Lev. It means, literally, 'Apply Your Heart.' " She does that in her own poetry with "closely observed concrete particulars," and in her observations on Margaret Avison, Don Coles, Ken Babstock and others.
In her poem Grace, for instance, she has the aging poet O make the connection between poets and sparrows, "hopping around at the foot of café tables, waiting for crumbs. Waiting for God to drop something, by accident or on purpose - as today, these sparrows." In an interview, Sarah says: "If God is dead, I must have missed the obit." She begins to study Hebrew in order to read Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.
In contrast to Brandt's full-voiced exuberance on her Mennonite tradition, Montrealer Sarah speaks less explicitly of her spirituality. But she adds, "that doesn't mean I don't think it's central." The reader hungers to listen: "Remember and keep, the twin commandments regarding the Sabbath, express an essential Judaic imperative." Sarah explains that when the Temple was destroyed, its rituals were abandoned in practice but turn up as minutiae in supplementary passages inserted into the prayer book, often "mumbled at breakneck speed in synagogue."
She remembers Elizabeth Brewster's lines concerning her conversion to Judaism in her 80th year as not coming from Sinai or heaven, but "only human voices in an old shul/ singing Adom Olam/ ordinary daylight,/ bread, fruit, wine ..." She notes that Amichai "may have ceased to believe and practice, but he remembers."
Sarah says that you know a good poem if you remember it "as one remembers an individual face from a crowd," and if you want to say it out loud, savour it, share it, be puzzled by it. You also know a good poem if, when you've read it, you immediately want to write a poem of your own. She gives an example of a good poem: George Johnston's Cathleen Sweeping, about his three-year old daughter sweeping her room against dust, wind and gloom. She applies loving attention to the poem reminiscent of Molly Peacock's charm and intelligence in How to Read a Poem. When she later broadens her discussion of Johnston, she loses the intimacy.
Sarah says that what makes one a reader of poetry is the habit of, maybe the cumulative addiction to, "moments of electric response to a particular poem." Certainly one is grateful for the homeward lunges and electric moments in both Robyn Sarah's and Di Brandt's well-sculpted prose.
Friday, August 17, 2007
.... Alex Good grapples with Patricia Robertson's The Goldfish Dancer. Seems to me Alex wrote an essay about just this sort of thing recently. Oh, the present state of book reviewing! On the other hand, he's done a better job than Michelle Berry in the Globe, despite such unnatural constraints.
The Goldfish Dancer
by Patricia Robertson
(Biblioasis,158 pages, $24.95 softcover)
In this collection of short stories by Whitehorse writer Patricia Robertson, the emphasis is on dislocation and the exotic. Characters drift through adventures they are unable to either fully understand or communicate.
The language, whether it's Spanish in the story Graves of the Heroes or the secret alphabet of goldfish in the title story, fails them.
Even England, where one young heroine heads off to work "because it wasn't so foreign," turns out to be a dangerous destination that leaves her "tilted and off-centre."
With shimmering emotional understatement, the experience of vulnerability and otherness is precisely evoked in stories as eccentric as they are refined.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
The book looks swell in an attractive, minimalist David Drummond cover. Dave Bidini (of Rheostatics and Tropic of Hockey fame) quotes on the cover: "A real triumph and a book hockey fans deserve. Cold-cocked deserves a place in the pantheon. Absolutely one of the best hockey books of our era." (Yes, it's a blurb, and a front cover one to boot, but you can trust it, because we read it first, loved it, and say the same thing.) More importantly, it's in no way your standard hockey tome: it's fresh, witty and word drunk, cuts the game no slack, wrestles its beauty down.
It should be in stores within a couple of weeks. I'll keep you posted regarding launches, readings, and anything else Cold-cocked.
Friday, August 10, 2007
No, Lorna Jackson's Coldcocked is not the only book we're publishing this fall, but she is the only one of my authors with a blog. So, here's installment number 3. Saves me from thinking up something pithy late on a Friday eve, and gives a good sense of the range of the book to boot.
When I moved to Metchosin on the southern tip of Vancouver Island fourteen years ago, we—there are five—were called the Western Communities. I like the sound of that: a hint of cowboys and agrarians, of gentler enterprise and neighbourliness. Enter big-box everything, then 1200-acre Westin Bear Mountain golf resort—“a true lifestyle experience”—and now we are called West Shore.
The shore belongs to Juan de Fuca Strait. From where I’m sitting—well, if I stand tall and the wind blows from the south—I can glimpse across the strait to where Raymond Carver wrote “Cathedral” late in life. Turn around and look past the trunk of the balsam that crushed my car in December (demon wind from the west), there’s where Emily Carr set up late in life to escape the city and paint forest. Metchosin is still pretty rural. For weeks I’ve been trying to outsmart a huge and clever white-tailed buck that sleeps on my septic field, rises to dismantle my gate, and clearcuts the romano bean plants. Bats hang in the attic above my office. Rats, mink, owls, turkey vultures.
Cold-cocked: On Hockey is mostly a meditation on the game and a recap of the Big Line seasons of the Vancouver Canucks. By writing it, I wanted to answer the hockey questions, “Why me, why now, why them?” and figure out why many were so drawn to the game again after the Salt Lake Olympics. In part, too, the book is about the difference between Vancouver, where I grew up, and Metchosin where I grow now. While I wanted to know why a man like Todd Bertuzzi could turn so violent and ruin the fun we were having, the book also says this is simply a violent world: from the cougar that killed my sheep, to the wind that wrecked my car, to citizens who deny the dignity of their neighbours. A violent and also beautiful world thanks to its violence.
For one season, I travelled a dozen times to games in Vancouver and weathered the undignified half-hour interview window the NHL allows media after practices and games. A few weeks from now, it was announced yesterday, many of those players will arrive on Vancouver Island’s West Shore, check into their swank suites at Langford’s Bear Mountain resort (thanks to former NHLer and now-CEO land developer/philanthropist, Len Barrie, and a bunch of co-investors including Rob Niedermayer and Ryan Smith), and then shuttle down to Colwood to Bear Mountain arena for training camp.
Cold-cocked is also about my right knee and how its rehabbing—and the muscley renaissance of my sporty self—became symbolic of the reasons I left and came back to hockey. My gym is at the Juan de Fuca Rec centre, a short hike up the hill from Bear Mountain Arena where the team will attempt to re-gel after last season’s surprising successes and chemistry.
I spent so much time and energy and brain cells trying to enter and understand their turf. It seems apt that just as Cold-cocked comes out, the lads will skate on mine.
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
Away in Port Colborne camping with friends for the weekend. A lovely time. Even managed to sail on the Challenger, a 96 foot Tall Ship for a couple of hours.
What I could not find was my weekend Globe fix. I hit 7 or 8 convenience stores, none of which carried it. One clerk had never heard of it before. So I only found out about the Globe review of Goldfish this morning.
Needless to say, as a protective publisher, I don't agree with Ms. Berry on this one. Though I am not a frequent reader of the Post, I think their review of Goldfish was much more on the mark. Berry's focus -- seemingly critical -- on the international locales of Patricia's stories, and her comment concerning the lack of quotation marks seems to me a touch odd. As to the latter point, the list of prominent and successful writers who eschew quotation marks in dialogue is a long one, running from William Faulkner to Michael Winter. It's certainly something I would have thought this reviewer would have rubbed up against before.
Still, I'm happy for the coverage. The Globe editors have been quite generous to us: that's our fourth Globe review since April. As far as this particular one is concerned, I urge you all to take a look at this collection and judge for yourself. I have faith in you: I think you'll find a bit more here that "too many facts with not enough connecting sentences."
Travellers foreign and domestic
August 4, 2007
THE PENANCE DRUMMER
And Other Stories
By Lois Braun
Turnstone, 246 pages, $19.95
Print Edition - Section Front
THE GOLDFISH DANCER
Stories and Novellas
By Patricia Robertson
Biblioasis, 158 pages. $24.95
Two talented writers, who have proved themselves before, offer up two very different collections. The Penance Drummer, by Lois Braun, and The Goldfish Dancer, by Patricia Robertson, have much to recommend them.
Robertson's first collection, City of Orphans, was short-listed for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and The Goldfish Dancer has already been short-listed for the inaugural Metcalf-Rooke Fiction Prize for unpublished fiction. Lois Braun's short fiction has been nominated for the Governor-General's Award, the Journey Prize and the Manitoba Book of the Year Award. This is her third collection of stories.
The Goldfish Dancer consists of two novellas and five short stories, all of which are set with a view to history and the broader world. In First World War New York, postwar Alberta, 19th-century England and even contemporary Spain, Robertson reveals characters facing the variety of challenges life has to offer.
In Agnes and Fox, she intertwines the story of an Indian nurse, an elderly woman at the end of her life and the woman's imaginary friend, Fox. Graves of the Heroes deals with a woman, Claudia, who, after completing her PhD, takes a vacation in Spain in order to find the grave of a family member who died as a hero. Instead, she must come to terms with finding a dead baby abandoned in the bushes, an incident that knocks her out of her book-learning and into reality. The Goldfish Dancer mixes the First World War with an exotic dancer who uses goldfishes in her act.
These stories and novellas are full of information, layer upon layer of facts about characters, settings, history - sometimes too many facts with not enough connecting sentences. In Badlands, a little boy and his mother escape an amputee father and end up living in a hotel. The mother waitresses and finds a sleazy new boyfriend. Robertson gives us background, setting and character facts - sketches of these characters' lives - which are fulfilling, but also overwhelming.
Robertson has also chosen to write without the use of quotation marks. The combination of many-layered information about these characters' lives and situations, with no real punctuation, makes for staccato-like reading. A reader may constantly have to fight to figure out who is speaking. Is anyone speaking or is it just narration? And where are we in the story? Rhythmically, the writing is jarring. But the ideas within the writing are intensely interesting.
The Penance Drummer is an altogether different creature. Lois Braun situates her tales in small prairie locales or in suburban Canadian cities, in the here and now, with interactions between people who aren't travelling most of the time and who probably have never travelled or seen the wide-open world. But Braun succeeds brilliantly in making this collection complex and worldly by creating timeless and rich characters.
I relished this collection. I dove into it and didn't want to come up for air. Braun's style is addictive. She has characters who seem to speak out of the sides of their mouths, something like Hemingway characters. People who say just enough, and say it with a certain style, a certain finesse. Everything said has meaning.
Katy's dying uncle Isaac, in the story Assassins, hearing that a heron is standing still in the field beyond his house, tells Katy, "I suppose it's dying, then. Some things are too beautiful to live. Tigers. John Lennon. The world nurtures assassins to destroy them. Someone or something probably wounded it."
Dry wit and quiet humour seep through these stories. In Sturgis, an old woman talks to her dead brother as she works in her garden. When a criminal running from the police hides under her trailer, Liddy calls him by the name written on his shirt, Sturgis. " 'Hey, Sturgis ...' Then she sang. 'Stand up, stand up for Jeeee-sus ...' Because she didn't know what else to do, Liddy resumed watering the beans and carrots beneath the sun and the cloud mountains."
Braun's collection of wonderful characters shines. She might be the Alice Munro of Manitoba. There is such depth in these people's lives. These are expansive stories, like the prairie fields and skies. The stories are just large enough, just funny enough, just sad enough. Just enough.
Friday, August 03, 2007
Here's hoping the rest of you manage to get away from your computers this weekend.
Thursday, August 02, 2007
The new issue of the New Quarterly -- 103, with Biblioasis' Kathleen Winter on the cover -- is a real treat. An excellent interview with Kathleen and three stories; a story, 3 poems and an interview with Isabel Huggan; short plays by Michael Crummey, Lisa Moore and (Kathleen's brother) Michael Winter; essays on writing by Steven Heighton and Douglas Glover; and last but not least, an essay by Mike Barnes on psychotropic drugs called 'Vaster than Empires: Tales of the Tropane Alkaloids." I'll be dipping into this one as soon as I finish this post.
There are other decent literaries out there, but for my money The New Quarterly is the best out there. This issue is cheap at $12.
Kim Jernigan Editor, The New Quarterly
I'm currently reading Robyn Sarah's Little Eurekas: A Decade's Thoughts on Poetry. This lively collection of essays, many of them first published in The New Quarterly, explores "all aspects of a life in poetry: reading it, writing it, teaching it, editing it, publishing it, reviewing it." Sarah's own prose is immensely readable. She approaches each of her topics with a certain unknowingness but a great deal of concern about the question. We get to see, not preconceived ideas, but a mind at work. I was particularly taken with her analyses of individual poems, including a long essay on the work of the late George Johnston in which she shows how glancingly he illuminates deep things through seemingly innocent surface detail. The book ends with a series of conversations with other poets, a lively give-and-take in which we're allowed to see how provisional any poetic manifesto is, including her own. If you love poetry, this is your book.
Pro basketball has point spread manipulation by a gambling referee. The highest-paid player in the NFL is implicated in a dog-fighting ring that reportedly executed passive pit bulls by hanging, drowning, shooting, slamming, and electrocuting. There’s the Tour de France and whatever those skinny dudes take to get so oxygenated. And the big batters of baseball: who’s born with a neck like that (besides pit bulls)?
Hockey scandal: a couple of naughty redheaded brothers—Eric and Jordan Staal—get busted for noisiness after a bachelor party at a swank resort in Minnesota. We’re not appalled. We feel for the nice parents (turf farmers). Male fans chortle, shake their summer-shaggy heads, and skyhook another t-bone onto the grill. Women just know bachelor parties are stupid, but still: their poor mother.
Brother stories tickle and delight us (maybe not Hamlet/The Lion King). In hockey, brothers make for great characters in a story that can be light on subplot. But real brothers don’t interest me. The Sedin twins are amazing, sure, and I’m glad they play on my team. But they’re more circus act than brother act. It’s shocking when a Henrik slap pass through the crease doesn’t find a millimeter of Daniel’s stick and scoot behind the whiplashed goalie. They lived inside the same person together for almost a year; of course they think alike. And the Staal brothers—all 4 of them—might as well be twins, given their hairdos and chin cleavage. Skill City, but Dullsville.
Players who develop bro-chem and rip it up a deux make for great stories in hockey. With Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, you get the brotherly hijinx, the circus, and also ironies and incongruities that make a better story: Vinnie’s the long lean slickster, the Swimsuit Edition hunk whom supermodels covet, the first overall. Marty’s the monster-thighed family man, the college boy who did gymnastics, the small forward no team would draft. On different lines, they seem distracted. Put them together on the power play and the dance gets smoother, fancier. Yes, they score plenty at key moments. But it’s more than that: the embrace when they do, the brotherly bliss, a bunk beds and GI Joe camaraderie that’s unexpected and familiar.
Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo, same thing. Consider the NHL’s last TV ad campaign: Ontario Joe, the GQ-handsome needle-voiced city boy, burns toast in his little kitchen; Moose Factory’s black-eyed and smirking Jonathan paddles a surfboard on calm open water, a sexy nature boy in the great outdoors. They’re such different characters, and yet their rapport—their mutual ribbing off-ice and their Thornton-to-Cheechoo-shoot-score on it—could only be described as fraternal. The goals are the product of brotherly love and Sedinian prescience. How can that be?
It still hurts to remember the glory days of Bert and Nazzie. The dark-haired naughty outlaw Todd and the golden-haired Nordic god Markus: best friends, brilliant line mates, excitement personified on the ice and adolescent glee off it. And more compelling because these brothers were undone by a loyalty so scandalous and Shakespearean it could only happen to brothers.