amongst books

amongst books

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Come hear me read this Friday at U of Ottawa

Ottawa Arts Review
March 2 at 7:30 pm.
Bar 1848, U of Ottawa, Unicentre

Launch of first issue
free admission
donators eligible for door prizes
music of John Kelly
Readers include Chelsea Edgell, Dan Bosworth, Amanda Earl, Akbar Hussain, Chris Jennings Marcus McCann, rob mclennan, Sean Moreland, Ranlyt Richildis

This publication (briefly called Heat) follows/replaces Yawp, the journal of the University of Ottawa English Students Association, which was around for something like eight years. Will be interesting to see how it develops.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Puritan Firestorm

The Puritan is a literary prose journal published here in Ottawa. Its first issue was just launched in the last few weeks.

Last week Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston’s review of the Puritan’s first issue was published in the Xpress. I was disappointed that the reviewer did not go into specifics about the stories, but more controversially, I was pissed off at his sanctimonious tone about what he referred to as “amateur writing.” It seemed like a cheap and easy way to write a review to me: don’t deal with the work of the publication; just make general and condescending remarks.

He’s planning to go into more detail about amateur writing in his print review, but I think he should go into more detail about the actual stories instead. Labels like amateur writing serve no purpose except condescension. I don’t care whether someone has been published for decades or whether the story published is his first story ever in print. That isn’t relevant to whether the piece of writing is well-written or not. You can read all about it here.

Since the Xpress doesn’t permit people to write more than one comment, I’ll have to post my response and afterthoughts to the reviewer’s reply here.

I likely should have mentioned that I had written one of the stories in the issue; however, since the reviewer was unspecific in his comments about the stories, I didn’t feel the need to be specific in return. I should have stated that I’d written the story and that I had no problem with it being intelligently torn to bits.

[Since the story was submitted for the journal, I’ve worked with my fiction writers’ group and they’ve given me some great advice about how to turn Zombie Walk from something that was basically a character sketch into something more. I make money from stories about sex and sexuality, some coin it “erotic fiction”. ZW was my first attempt at a story that couldn’t be labelled in that way.]

Next I claimed the reviewer gives good review of work by friends. He says that claim is without basis. Here I am in a funny position. When I said that, I was thinking about his fluffy and positive reviews of Chaudiere Books publications. Like Mr. Mesiano-Crookston I am also a friend of the publishers of Chaudiere Books. This is what I was referring to when I said he gave good reviews when he’s writing about his friends. This was a cheap shot on my part and I regret it. I’m not suggesting that the publications in question were not worthy of good reviews.

The truth is Ottawa is a very small world and it is quite difficult for friends to avoid reviewing one another. I’ve read glowing reviews from folks who are friends of a specific author or publisher. Is that important?

To me it is important when a review is a paid review or when readers are looking for unbiased information about a publication. Perhaps that is impossible in a town as small as Ottawa. I think the reviews in the Xpress are sometimes lacking from the standpoint of analysing and critiquing. I also find reviews very difficult to write and haven't ever sent any of my own pathetic efforts to any publication for money.

I appreciate that the Xpress “reviews” also serve as promotional pieces to help get the word out about a particular work, and that is more important perhaps.

Why doesn’t the Xpress dispense with the notion of publishing reviews and simply realise that what it is doing is providing some wonderful free advertising by promoting local writers' work? There’s nothing wrong with that in my opinion. It may be that it is too difficult to find a non-partisan, non-incestuous reviewer in Ottawa. We’re all related one way or another.

I’m glad to see the Puritan getting lots of notice and I don’t mind that I’m the shit disturber. This is often my role. I haven’t won any popularity contests so far, and I don’t intend to start winning them now. I don’t like sanctimonious and condescending attitudes and when I see them, I question them, often by taking on the role of the green vomit spewing demon in the Exorcist.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

CanLit - a snapshot of favourites

rob’s recent entry on his favourite contemporary CanLit got me wondering about what mine was. Geez I love the lists. I’m not so sure I care about whether a book is contemporary or not. Here’s a snapshot of Can Lit Fiction I remember I like. There may be others, so I won’t coin this my ultimate list of fav CanLit:

Robertson Davies, The Deptford Trilogy

I still love this and return to it over and over. If any writer ever made me feel that I wanted to write, this man did. He was a crusty old curmudgeon and he spun tales better than any writer, Canadian or none, ever could. His books were erudite, articulate and the man knew how to write dialogue.

Ivan E. Coyote, Close to Spider Man and Loose End

Ok, this isn’t fiction. I’m cheating already and it’s my own list. But Ivan is an amazing storyteller with a fine gift for writing compelling characters. She’s so funny I almost pee my pants when I read her. At the same time, I have such compassion for what she writes about. Imagine being treated like an outcast no matter whether you go to the men’s or women’s bathroom. Or having a bunch of teenage girls on a plane whisper “what is it?” I wanted to crush those girls when I read that. Crush their tiny heads.

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake

I hate sci fi, ok? Loathe it. It bores the pants right off of me. But Ms. Atwood made it compelling, relevant and fascinating here. Sure there were a few technical details, but Atwood didn’t bog it down. I loved her technique of switching from the past to the present in her narrative. Many others try this; most fail.

Anne Marie MacDonald, The Way The Crow Flies

This is a thick book. It’s kinda sad. It’s the best coming of age story I’ve read set in Canada in a long time. McDonald has a background in theatre and you can tell. The book gets a bit dull when the MC grows up. I could do without that part. But the stuff about her childhood as an army brat on one of the stations was fascinating to me. Lots of people have lived in similar environments, but not me. I found the setting to be exotic.

Matthew Firth, Suburban Pornography

Yes, this collection of short fiction has sex in it. Big deal. What’s great about Firth’s writing is his dialogue, his sense of humour and his surprising compassion. My two favourite stories: “Giants” about a man in a diner, waiting for his wife and child, what they witness and “Job Action” about garbage men who indulge in pot smoking and debauchery when faced with the possibility of a strike. Firth paints vivid descriptions. I find myself returning to the stories, something I rarely do.

Jane Urquhart, Away

I loved this spellbinding book about Irish immigrants to Canada. The Irish myths in this story were fascinating. I read the book ages ago, yet its atmosphere lingers on. The imagery is breathtaking. It also has a fair bit about Canadian history, some native stuff and even Darcy McGee. Small book packs big punch.

Katherine Govier, Fables of Brunswick Avenue

“Everyone lives on Brunswick Avenue sooner or later...” Ms. Govier knows how to write a short story. I have a problem with a lot of short fiction. I just get into the characters and the damn story is over. This collection of linked stories about the people who lived on Brunswick Avenue in the 60s and 70s left me satisfied.

Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept

This is a jewel of a book, more poetry than prose, by an Ottawa local who comes from a wealthy family to boot. She scandalized the rich folks of Rockcliffe by falling for a married English poet and bearing four of his kiddies. This book is mean to be fiction, but it’s clearly autobiographical. While you’re at it, read Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of Elizabeth Smart, “By Heart,” and then read her bio of Gwendolyn Macewen, Shadow Maker...and then...this fantastic autobiography by artist Barbara Caruso called “A Painter’s Journey” about her life with poet Nelson Ball, her work publishing the poet b.p. nichol and all kinds of other interesting stories about trying to survive as an impoverished artist in Ontario in the 60s and 70s. My that was a tangent.

Laisha Rosnau, The Sudden Weight of Snow

I loved this book about the 17-year old Harper, hippie culture, family and coming of age in the 60s and 70s. I related to the main character very much. I enjoyed reading about the small BC town where the novel is set. Since my husband is from BC and has lived in similar bergs, it made a good topic of conversation.

Lynn Coady, Mean Boy

This tale of a young university student who takes an old rouĂ© as his mentor in a small East Coast town was full of humour and I enjoyed all the poetry talk. There just aren’t enough books about poetry and literary communities are there?

Michael Crummey, The Wreckage

I didn’t expect to like this book. WW2 POWs in Japan? Um...I usually skip this kind of thing, but what made this book really compelling for me was the main character, Aloysious (Wish) Furey and the stuff about Newfoundland.

I wish Annie Proulx was Canadian, then I could rave about the Shipping News, another book set in Newfoundland that I loved. She has ancestors in Quebec though. Does that count?

Joseph Boyden, Three Day Road

Again another book set in a war, this time the first world war. I had no intention of reading this book. To be honest I’m sick of CanLit about the WWs, but this one was different. I heard an interview with Boyden and he talked about how he was hoping women would read his book, that it had as much to do with family and relationships, perhaps even more than it had to do with war. The other difference between this novel and most hoary old books about war is that the main characters were Cree soldiers. In the interview, Boyden talked about his difficulties in writing the novel. Boyden is part Cree. He said that typical western chronological narrative was difficult to use for this story. He ended up using the native circular storytelling method. Rather than start at the beginning, he started in the middle. It’s a fascinating book and opened my eyes to the rotten treatment native men received as soldiers fighting for our country. Not that I should be surprised.

Shani Mootoo, Cereus Blooms At Night

Mootoo writes of a fictional island. The story is told by Tyler, the gay nurse of an old woman named Mala whose life he pieces together. It’s about love, trechery and it’s magical. You also have to hear Mootoo read if she comes back again. She has this Irish/Trinidadian accent that’s beautiful.

Darren Greer, Still Life with June, Tyler’s Cape, and his book of essays, Strange Ghosts

Greer writes about the East Coast, he writes about family, he writes about the marginalized members of society, poverty, AIDS, abstract art and coming out of the closet. I really love his work.

Emma Donoghue, Slammerkin

Set in 18th Century London, this book tells the story of murder, prostitution, the role of fate and circumstance. Donohughe is right up there with Sarah Waters, the author of Fingersmith, in my opinion. I love good historical fiction.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Long Johns at the Factory Reading Series

Folks wore their most luxurious fleece lined long johns last night, coming in to Arts Court from the cold to hear Jennifer Mulligan and Una McDonnell read.

The pre-reading banter was fun, with beer in hand and bawdy conversation. Marcus stopped by en route to Betrayal, the Pinter play being performed at Arts Court right now. Anita, David, Monty, and Pearl were among the writers I babbled to. I spotted John Lavery, but didn’t manage to have a chat, which is a shame. I’m curious about what he’s working on these days. He writes some exquisitely original fiction.

Also had great conversations with Emily, the curator of the gallery, and Jennifer’s pal, Cheryl. I handed out my little winter chappettes, published by Poems For All. I have a few left, so if I see you, ask for one. They’re cute.

It was great hearing Jennifer read once more. I have a problem with the acoustics in the Art Gallery. It might just be me, but I had a devil of a time hearing Jennifer. Luckily I know many of her poems because we workshopped them in rob’s workshop together. I was pleased to hear new work from Jennifer also. I worry when a workshop ends that people will not continue to work on their poetry. Jennifer has a lot of talent. She tends to combine very realistic details with wit and whimsy. She has some sensual pieces as well. I’d like to see Jennifer explore more of her sensuality in her poetry, to really let go and see what comes out.

Una McDonnell, the second reader is as rare on the Ottawa literary scene as good glass of whiskey at the Carleton Tavern, so I was glad to hear her read. The main thing she read was an excerpt from a very compelling story about a hen-pecked husband and a sexually dysfunctional wife. The man is desperately trying to get his marriage back, but she’s more interested in the family poodle. It was interesting to hear a story about such a situation written in the man’s voice by a woman. Cool too, to hear places like Thyme and Again in a story. I go there. I knew just what Una was describing when she talked about the chicken picatta. I’ve tasted it. I wanted to taste the cheese she described: wrapped in grape leaves, aged in a wine barrel. It was beautiful, also very sensuous.

After the reading, rob and I shared in some ribald humour that I’m not sure the others appreciated, but it gave me a reason to end the evening laughing. Charles took a few photos and at least one will be on his site in the next few days.

February is a tough month to get through. Charles and I missed Ronnie Brown’s reading this week at Tree due to the cold and the distraction of a warm bed, but we were damned if we were going to miss another one. We’re tough. We’re Canadian. We shouldn’t let a –31 wind chill stop us. And so tonight it’s off to the launch party of the Puritan at the Avant Garde Bar. If you haven’t picked up a copy of the new prose journal, you should get one at Bridgeheads, or the U of O English Department or just come to the launch party tonight. The vodka at the Avant Garde will cure your winter blues, or at least paint them pink for a while.