To books in 2010!

Over the past 2 weeks, Andrew and I have logged about 4000 kilometres. We started in Montreal and visited various points in the Maritimes (Moncton, Halifax, but mostly Cape Breton where we spent Christmas) and then made a last minute decision to visit dear friends in New York City, driving through Maine (which always feels like the wilder, more remote cousin of Vermont to me) and Connecticut. In Cape Breton, we spent a lot of time doing what you’re supposed to do at Christmas: eating. And I relaxed too, and breathed in a lot of clean, country air, and I read Ghosts by Cesar Aira, a novella set in Argentina. It’s the holiday season in that book too, New Year’s Eve actually, and a Chilean family is living in a construction site that will eventually be luxury condos. Ghosts live in the building too, and they fly around naked and covered in dust and do things like chill bottles of wine for the humans and invite the oldest daughter to a party at midnight. I also started reading Charles Portis’ Dog of the South, and it’s an amazing thing, this book, funny and strange, all these details about characters who get into the weirdest situations (another man has stolen not only Ray’s wife, but also his credit card and car, and Ray sets out to track down the two lovebirds in Mexico), an aimless, sparkling road novel.

Once we left Nova Scotia, there wasn’t as much time to get absorbed in a novel, but whenever I go to New York City I make sure to visit The Strand, the bookstore famous for having over 18 miles of books. The Strand is overwhelming and always packed with so many people and there is something about seeing so many books that sometimes makes me wonder what the point is of ever bringing another book into the world because they’re all there already, shoved into talls shelves or piled on tables, and the prices! The discounts! But that feeling is fleeting and I will amble through and pick up books, put them down, pick up others and usually try to cap the amount I buy at 4 or 5. This trip I emerged with 2666 by Roberto Bolano, another Aira novella, Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace and a copy of Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem which I’ve read, but decided I wanted to own. These books, along with books I got for Christmas (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Virgil’s Aeneid, 2009 Best Short Stories) and a book of essays about photography that I purchased at the Aperture Foundation gallery make up my reading list for the next few months.

I’m excited to read more books in 2010, to discover something that will make me feel feverish and excited or simply understood, that quiet, humming content you get when you read the right thing at the right time. Screw being overwhelmed by books at The Strand – we need all of those books, and more of them, because there are too many moments in our lifetimes and everyone else’s lifetimes that should be documented or reflected or heightened.

Top 10 Favourite Things About 2009

1. My favourite books read in 2009 were Lorrie Moore’s “A Gate at the Stairs” and Roberto Bolano’s “The Savage Detectives”. I read many good things this year, but those are the ones that stuck with me the most.

2. One of my favourite reading memories was the morning of my thirtieth birthday. That weekend Andrew and I had been in Toronto for my bridal shower at my parents’ house, and then we took a long detour back to Montreal through New York. We stopped in Ithaca for the night and the next morning, my birthday, I woke up absurdly early and read Karen Solie’s “Pigeon”. It was quiet and sunny and peaceful.

3. The two readings I did in 2009 were so fun. I wrote about the reading at the TZL already. The reading at Le Pick Up was also fun and probably the oddest setting for a reading that I’ve ever done. Depanneur Le Pick Up is not just a dep by name – it’s really a dep, with shelves of cereal and toilet paper and fridges full of beer and pop. But, it’s a little different because you’ll also find things like vegepate and soy milk, and there’s a zine rack by the door, and the lunch counter serves pulled pork sandwiches (real pork and vegan equivalent). It was set up so that the reading was done in the back corner, next to the ATM machine, in front of a few shelves of tampons, near the fridges.

4. I stuffed three seasons of Mad Men into one year and as a result feel more in control of my career and wardrobe.

5. I bought an Iphone after I unceremoniously dumped a bottle of Vitamin Water on my Ipod and couldn’t stomach the thought of music-less commute to work. Instead of spending money on another Ipod, I decided to consolidate my phone and mp3 player into one device. It was probably my favourite purchase of 2009. I also now understand the appeal of e-readers. I’m definitely not in the market for something like a Kindle (I don’t need any more electronic devices), but it’s nice to have certain books loaded on my Iphone to read when the book I have in my bag isn’t cutting it.

6. I quit my job and started a new one, and it felt good.

7. The songs I listened to the most did not come out in 2009, but I listened to The National a lot, and Neko Case (“Middle Cyclone” was a 2009 release!), the Pixies and Julie Doiron (especially “I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day” and, recently, the folky side project Daniel, Fred and Julie).

8. Cafe Comme Chez Soi was my favourite brunch find of 2009, followed by The Sparrow. Boite Gourmande wins for consistency, reliability and lots of good sunshine.

9. Istanbul was strange and beautiful. We walked everywhere and I stopped and petted nearly every stray kitten we passed (many). I got pummelled in a steamy Turkish bath. We drank a lot of tea. We took a ferry to Asia. Michael Jackson died and we watched many MJ videos in our hotel room. We sat on the roof of the hotel at night and listened to prayer calls from all of the mosques surrounding us. I should’ve bought more scarves, but it was hot and I didn’t have enough foresight. We ate a lot of food.

10. Getting married was so much fun, but intense too. We gathered people we loved and went to Greece and did things like rode scooters around the island and went swimming in blue salty water and drank lots of weak white wine and ordered Greek salads. On our wedding day it rained, but then it stopped, and my girlfriends did my makeup and my hair and made sure I looked pretty, and I cried a lot, and Andrew and I danced to “Northern Sky” by Nick Drake, and the bottom of my dress was muddy from the rain, and my mother accidentally locked us up on the roof, and Andrew and I read each other poems we wrote for our vows and they were embarrassing and personal and so full of love, and wow, yeah, it was intense.

So, 2009: an intense, full year. A great year. But I’m ready for 2010 to start and I have big plans for this upcoming new year. I’m excited to share them with you.

Mix Stories

So after The Odyssey, I wasn’t kidding about reading something less epic. Instead of launching into another novel, I’ve been reading short stories, selections from various books, dipping in and out as I please. It’s a bit of a refresher course: sometimes I just need to be reminded how stories work. I’ve been revisiting many of my stories and I sometimes get lost in them, wondering, does this need to be longer? Or shorter? Is this interesting? This is SO not interesting. How do I make it better? One evening I stood in front of my bookshelf and pulled some of my favourite collections off the shelf. Curiously, in the pile of books I had selected the authors were overwhelmingly female. I love the dudes of course (those classic C-men: Chekhov, Cheever, Carver), but when I think about the stories I am most influenced by, they happen to be written by women.

Sometimes I think it would be fun to make a mix tape-like list of some of my favourite stories. If you could amass a series of stories to give to a friend, what would you include? When I’m working on my own stories, I’m inspired by the following:
“Heaven” Mary Gaitskill (from “Bad Behaviour”)
“Terrific Mother” Lorrie Moore (from “Birds of America”)
“Sister Crazy” Emma Richler (from “Sister Crazy”)
“Diegesis (World of a Fiction)” Masha Tupitsyn (from “Beauty Talk & Monsters”) “When We Were Nearly Young” Mavis Gallant (from “In Transit”)**
“Bread” Rebecca Brown (from “What Keeps Me Here”)
“Nipple of Paradise” Lisa Moore (from “Degrees of Nakedness”)
These are from books that are sitting next to my computer – I’m leaving out a lot. But, still, seeing these stories in a list makes me realize that they all have the same kind of themes (motherhood, sisterhood, coming-of-age-girl-style). It’s no surprise that these are the ones I’m gravitating to most these days since many of my stories deal with the same themes.

** After writing the list above, I got to thinking about this particular Gallant story and why I liked it so much. At first it seems like a wisp of a story, a short collection of musings about the narrator’s life at a specific point in her life. It’s personal, but detached. But it’s the kind of story that sticks with you – maybe it’s the way it ends abruptly? The way the narrator and her “friends” seem so gripped with fear?

Wanting to find some analysis, I stumbled upon The Journal of the Short Story in English. It’s an academic journal that discusses the short story and it appears that they’ve put the full text of their back issues online. This appeals to my thwarted English major side. This essay, “Genre transgression and auto/biography in Mavis Gallant’s “When we were nearly young”", confirms why this story is so weighty. There’s a lot going on.

I haven’t updated what I’ve been reading for a long time, mostly because it took me forever to read “The Odyssey”. I read the epic poem in high school when I took Saturday morning Greek school. We were somehow supposed to understand the ancient Greek version, but considering that I had only recently mastered the alphabet, some verb tenses and basic vocabulary, I just borrowed an English translation from the library and followed along (this just reminded me that my Greek OAC exam was the day after my high school prom. I remember sitting at that desk at Burnamthorpe Collegiate and pulling stray bobby pins out of my hair). I filed the book away in the back of my head, and then didn’t really think about it until a month or two ago when I went to the John William Waterhouse exhibit that’s currently on display at the Musee des Beaux Arts. Waterhouse does those dreamy, pre-Raphaelite paintings – you recognize them as soon as you see them, pale ladies with long flowing hair, lots of lush nature scenes, etc. I wasn’t particularly interested in going to the exhibit, but Andrew and I have memberships to the museum and were feeling guilty about not taking advantage of them. Once I was there I became absorbed in the paintings and was especially taken with those devoted to the Odyssey. For instance, “Ulysses and the Sirens”, where Odysseus (or Ulysses) orders his crew to cover their ears so that they won’t be tempted by the Sirens, who are depicted as ridiculous/frightening birds with female heads. I had forgotten this detail from the story. When you read something so sprawling, you end up forgetting a lot. I remembered Penelope continuously weaving and unweaving her shroud and Odysseus challenging his wife’s suitors to an archery competition, but I forgot about many of Odysseus’ crazy adventures, like his encounter with the cannibal that ate his crew mates one by one or his stay on Circe’s island (where she turned the men into a bunch of pigs – ha!).

So, the exhibit inspired me to read The Odyssey again, but this time I read one of those modern translations (it was a good translation, but I’ve now returned the book to the library and can’t seem to find the author online). It’s probably a cop out, but I knew I would be distracted by the epic poem format, and I wanted to revel in the pure story, all those gods and godesses and betrayals and backstory, so I stuck with prose. It took me awhile to read through all 24 books and I’m already forgetting many details about it, but this time I took notes along the way. It was such a pleasure to read, although now I’m ready for something a little less epic.

1) I was in Toronto last weekend and did an afternoon reading at the Toronto Zine Library. Hallowzine featured a bunch of great zine writers, like Alex Wrekk (Brainscan), Jeff Miller (Ghost Pine), Chris Landry (Kiss Off) and Suzanne Sutherland (My Bad). I felt a little sheepish reading at a zine reading considering that “Cement, Flour, Saints” is now 2 years old and is not going to be reprinted, but I seized the opportunity to read “We Should Make Things”, the essay about zines that I wrote for the Shameless anthology. It was great reading it to a group of people steeped in zine culture. They knew what I meant when I talked about long-armed staplers and glueing stamps. I’ve only done a handful of readings, but this was my favourite, I think. The vibe in the library was warm and cozy, the audience was engaged and it was a wonderful way to spend a few hours on Halloween afternoon. Super big thanks to Amy for being an adorable MC and for inviting me to read.
Hallowzine setup at the TZL
Setting up for the reading – Chris is stringing up pumpkin lights, Amy is in kitty-cat ears and Suzanne has a beard on. Just your typical Halloween day reading.
Moi
Here I am reading. I didn’t wear a costume, but I did wear all black for the occasion.

2) Soon after working my way through those Cavafy poems, I happened across a flyer for “Cavafy: Passions and Ancient Days“, a one-man reading/play by Yannis Simonides that was going to be performed at Montreal’s Hellenic Community Center. I reserved the night for myself and went this past Friday. It’s been awhile since I’ve been to a Greek community event. When I was growing up, my father was heavily involved in the community and I spent many childhood evenings in auditoriums like the one I was in on Friday. It felt the same: the old ladies with their haispray-stiffened hairdo’s, that blend of Greek and English, the vague smell of coffee from the coffee makers in the back of the room.

Simonides’ performance was an homage to Cavafy, and jumped from biographical facts about the poet, Simonides’ own reflections on his work and influence, and then to Cavafy himself, reciting poems. It was surprisingly seamless: Simonides was wondeful at switching between the two roles of himself, the playright, and Cavafy, that famous Alexandrian poet. Cavafy was such an interesting, complex person and Simonides touched on everything that made him who he was: his eccentricness, his homosexuality, his sense of Hellenism (Cavafy always insisted that he was a Hellene more than a Greek, and that if he was a Greek, he was an Asian Greek), his love of Alexandria, his work life (30 years as a government clerk in the irrigation department!). The show was billed as a bilingual reading, but other than the poems which were first read in Greek before being translated, it was in English, to the dismay of some people in the audience. The woman next to me poked me once after I’d laughed at a joke and asked me if I understood what was going on. I said yes, and then she sniffed, “This is like a university course.” I guess not everyone was as impressed as I was.

Doris #26 – Cindy Crabb: Today was one of those days, those simple, perfect ones. The weather was beautiful: Indian summer, a little cool, but still warm enough to eat breakfast on a picnic table in the sun. Andrew and I went to the market and bought eggplants and coloured peppers and avocadoes and the man in Tortilleria Maya spoke to me in Spanish, and then we went downtown to the Antiquarian book fair at Concordia and I bought a book called “Science and Psychical Phenomena” and then we went and sat at a sunny table at Reservoir and drank beer and ate fries and then, AND THEN, when we walked down Duluth there was a strange puppet show going on in the window of a cafe. We stood with the small crowd and watched a vaguely demented show about a girl who ate everything, starting with cupcakes and cookies and then moving on to cats and bicycles. And as she kept eating her belly (a balloon) started getting bigger and bigger and bigger until it exploded in a big pop and everyone laughed except for the one child in the audience who burst into tears. Her father hugged her and laughed and explained that it was okay and it was really very adorable. And throughout the day I would sneak peaks at the zine I had purchased that morning, the latest issue of Doris and this is one paragraph I particularly loved: but i think hope is like a crush. not the resigned hope, like – i hope things get better – but the hope that feels like suspended disbelief. where spaces open up and everything is possible again, and you’re pushed to adventure, pushed out of your regular boxes, pushed to show off, to be the person you want to be the most, working hard to show your best sides, your secret scars your hidden dreams. And I think that’s how I’m feeling these days, hopeful. It’s a worthy feeling to aspire to. What I did today has nothing to do with the zine, but the zine was a part of the day, you know? It made it better. Doris always seems to have that effect.

You can order Doris straight from Cindy or from Paper Trail distro. If you’re in Montreal you can pick it up from the zine rack at Le Pick Up (7032 Waverly), which is run by Jeff Miller of Ghost Pine fame. He has a great selection of zines. While you’re there you can also get a pulled pork sandwich or a really great breakfast bagel.

A Gate at the Stairs – Lorrie Moore: There has been so much buzz about this book that there’s hardly anything left to write about it. Everything I’d say has already been phrased perfectly and published.

For example:

Here’s Jonathan Lethem doing the gushing that I don’t have to do anymore, plus it’s totally legitimate because he’s all “published novelist” and “New York Times reviewer” and I’m just some half-hearted quasi-blogger who’s only published a handful of stories and essays in magazines hardly anyone will read. Thanks, Jon: …Moore may be, exactly, the most irresistible contemporary Ameri­can writer: brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm; seemingly effortlessly lyrical; Lily-Tomlin-funny.


Or here’s Lisa Moore elaborating on how well Lorrie Moore does that funny-sad thing I love so much (Bonus: one of my favourite writers discussing another favourite writer! And they have the same last name!): Language in Moore’s stories and novels is reversible, like those clever garments that can be worn inside out, or outside in; she shows that language can point at itself and at the same time expose – always unsentimentally – human pain and hope, vulnerability and strength, what’s funny, and what’s not funny and how everything, eventually, is both.

Getting down to the details of the book itself, it’s about a 20 year old girl, Tassie, who starts nannying the newly adopted mixed-race baby of a married couple in her college town. Along the way she meets her boyfriend in her Intro to Suffism class, watches as her brother graduates high school and enlists in the army, and plays her bass. In one of the more perfect details, Tassie talks about how she’s figured out how to play Sleater Kinney songs on her bass. “Huh,” I thought when I read it. “Funny!” But, Carrie Brownstein’s reaction was even better: Reading my own band name within the book’s pages was like having a movie character turn toward you, say your name and confer with you on the plot. It was a personalized fortune cookie. It was having a park named after you without first having to die.

And here’s Lorrie Moore herself on why she decided to use Tassie as the filter for this story: Here’s the thing about being 20 years old. It’s actually the universal age of passion. It’s the age at which nature and form come together and your individual passion achieves its final shape and expression. When, later in life, when you’re older, you feel furious, it’s the fury of a 20-year-old. When you fall in love, it’s the love of a 20-year-old. It’s articulate, it’s visceral, it’s platonic. It’s the pure form of the emotion. When you observe the hypocrisies and injustices of the world, and feel shocked and betrayed by them, you’re actually being 20 again. And yet, you’re just shy of being able to drink. How perfectly completed, and thwarted, at the same time.

I didn’t expect the novel to go the way it did, and I didn’t expect to feel so gutted by it. I admittedly felt a bit emotionally manipulated (here’s a blog entry that has some criticisms I agree with) but the writing was so good and Tassie was such a great character – nerdy and earnest, trying so hard to do the right thing, but still fucking up the way 20 year olds do – the perfect kind of heartbreaking.

My favourite thing I’ve read this year.

Ladies and Gentleman, the Bible! – Jonathan Goldstein: To tell you the truth, I was a little worried about this book. I love Wiretap and I had enjoyed listening to little snippets from the book on the show. I even went to Goldstein’s Jian Gomeshi interview at Blue Met and laughed a lot. But I was worried that the book would feel too gimmicky, that the jokes would be too predictable, that making fun of the bible was best handled via deadpan monologues on radio shows. But, no. The thing about this book is that it’s not just poking fun at the inherent silliness of religious stories, it’s also pointing out that they are good stories, that the characters are interesting and complex. And it’s funny; the jokes are good. So, yes, no disappointment here.

Holding Still For As Long As Possible – Zoe Whittall: I was looking forward to this book enough to splurge on the spendier hardcover version while visiting Toronto a few weeks ago. My mother accidentally ran the lawn mower over the telephone cable lines and we didn’t have phone or Internet for a portion of the weekend, which meant that I began reading almost immediately. The book is told from the perspective of three main characters and the story knit them together with enough foreshadowing to keep me tense as I approached the ending. I perhaps enjoyed the lead up more than the inevitable conclusion, but overall I loved the book and thought it was a great, solid follow up to “Bottle Rocket Hearts”. And as a former Torontonian, I loved seeing references to my hometown, ones I hadn’t seen in books before, like The Beaver or The Red Room.

On not just writing what you know

Selected Poems – C.P. Cavafy: On my way to Istanbul, I picked up a copy of Constantine P. Cavafy‘s Selected Poems at the Athens airport. Cavafy is one of modern Greece’s most celebrated poets. Whether he’s writing about Hellenic historical events or homosexuality, his poems have a kind of cool, elegant detachment, kind of like the marble statues you might find in an archaeological museum. The thing about Cavafy is that he didn’t live a Rimbaud-esque tortured poet existence. He worked for 30 years at the Ministry of Public Works, and spent a large portion of his life living with members of his family. So, his body of work didn’t necessarily follow that creative writing standby of “writing what you know”. In fact, this is from the introduction to the book: In an early ars poetica he wrote that the notion that a writer derives most profit from “personal experience is undoubtedly a sound one; but were it strictly observed it would limit termendously literary production”. Thanks for that reminder, Constantine.

I was also struck by the poem below – it’s a kind of warning for our over-sharing generation, all our blogs and twitter and flickr and facebook chatter (guilty on all counts).

As Much As You Can
If you cannot fashion your life as you would like,
endeavour to do this at least,
as much as can: do not trivialize it
through too much contact with the world,
through too much activity and chatter.


Do not trivialize your life by parading it,
running around displaying it
in the daily stupidity
of cliques and gatherings
until it becomes like a tiresome guest.

Twilight

I kind of missed the Harry Potter boat. I read the first book on a flight to Greece a few years ago and ended up feeling cheated. It didn’t seem clever or cute; I had been expecting more. I’ve been told many times that the books get subsequently better and I believe this, but ugh, all those books and pages – I know it’s an easy read, but I just never felt like committing myself to the series just to be up to date with the cultural zeitgeist. And then I read the His Dark Materials trilogy two Christmases ago and loved it so much. It gave me what I had been looking for in HP – magic, good writing, complex themes, sweeping adventures. I cried when certain characters died and cheered when things worked out. The ending was surreal and dreamy and perfect. I didn’t feel that way, or even get an inkling of that feeling with Harry Potter, so eh, maybe I’ll read the series one day, right after I finish “War and Peace” and “Remembrance of Things Past”.

This is how I felt about the whole Twilight series too – I was just going to let it pass. I had picked up enough pop culture references to get the gist of what it was about and to decide that I didn’t feel like reading it (Human-vampire romance! Robert Pattinson is really hot! etc). But then I saw the book at a friend’s house and couldn’t resist. At the time I was trying to read “Infinite Jest” as part of the Infinite Summer challenge and needed a break – I wanted something page-turny and easy. I tore through “Twilight” kind of breathlessly and in spite of myself. I devoured “New Moon” immediately afterwards. I sheepishly wrote to my friend and asked her to bring the last two books when I saw her next. I consumed the entire series within 2 weeks, cumulatively more pages than “Infinite Jest” but requiring 99% less brainpower to digest. (And I still haven’t cracked the first 15% of Infinite Jest. I suck.)

Stephenie Meyer is a bad writer, but she writes the way a teenager first writes, all melodrama and brooding, so I wasn’t so distracted by it – I was familiar with that type of writing. She’s good with plot, although isn’t so good at filling in the details (which might explain why there is so much Twilight fanfic; it’s practically begging for it). As a whole, “Twilight” was the best – it had romance, an awkward, angsty, lovestruck underdog teenaged girl, hot vampires with skin that sparkled in the sun like diamonds, frantic cross country travel and unequivocally evil vampires. It worked. “New Moon” was supposed to further Bella’s relationship with her main squeeze werewolf, but I failed to see why she fell for him so hard so fast. And then things started to get kind of unhinged. “Eclipse” was basically thin plot and lots of backstory (which paves the way nicely for plenty of prequels, other possible movies, etc). And then the final book, “Breaking Dawn” was just so off-the-wall it was almost embarassing. Because of its pure wackiness it was my favourite – vampire pregnancies, vampire sex, weird vampires from all over the world, werewolves falling in love with babies, humans learning forbidden secrets. It was VC Andrewish in its perversity, but without any incest. So much fun!

So, yeah, it was a fun read and I ultimately enjoyed reading it. And now I will move on to Proust or something.