Saturday, December 30, 2006

Double Poetry Whammy

from the Guardian this morning, treating Review readers to an interview with the magnificent Anne Carson AND a resolved Ruth Padel arguing that poetry is better than the gym as far as happiness indices are concerned. Both of them make a bid for the importance of 'difficult' poetry -- or indeed, claim that all poetry should be difficult. I can't really add anything to their contributions so... yeah... If the articles inspire you, look out for Padel's A Poem and a Journey, a follow-up compendium of poems and reading guides to her 52 ways of looking at a poem which is an English degree (except more fun and with fewer deadlines) in a book.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Jordan, Lorde, Sontag, Butler, Willis... Who Will Be Left to Speak?

Feisty, fabulous feminist essayist Ellen Willis died yesterday. The silencing of a major leftist voice in the US is a cautionary note after last week's midterms victory for the newly centrist Democrats. Willis was a pioneering voice for abortion, an expanded definition of family, workplace rights, pro-sex feminism and cultural radicalism.

She was also one of the first people to bridge academia and activism, and one of the last of a generation of feminist essayists who included Susan Sontag. Katha Pollitt is one of the few remaining feminists writing regularly for US national publication and receiving global attention (OK, Naomi Klein and Noreena Hertz are the newbies). Don't even mention Caitlin Smith or Ariel Levy, who Willis would have torn to shreds in seconds.

Where are the feminist essayists of our generation, trained in the humanities and thinking politically? Lots of brilliant women write for Bitch and Bust, many of them combining academic or professional careers with activist writing. But not the New Yorker or Why is that? And why are so many of the voices that do get heard those of attractive white middle-class women?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Poem of the Moment

The internal rhyme! The powerful use of the past participle to imply the pastness of its couplet partner. The subvocalic echo of the rush with which the news was received, with its powerful "sh" alliteration of a clean wind bringing change, borne on the wings of dreams...

And the tickertape stutter of "election" bringing us back to earth - openended, reminding us that the war (in the Senate and in Iraq) is not over.

The Evening Standard opted for the headline "Bushwhacked!" with its cowpoke charm and neat Whedon echo (GWB as king of the Reavers, anyone?) but this poster brings more chickens home to roost for me with its dual physical/emotional "crushed."

Waving or Drowning?

I've now been reading Virginia Woolf's The Waves for a month. It's less than 200 pages long, gorramit, but I just can't seem to finish it. It's actually a great book for public transit reading -- absorbing yet non-linear enough to roll with the punches (yup, actual punches sometimes, along with sophisticated elbow blocks and shoulder barges). I have read it before, back in the distant mists of my adolescent Virginia Woolf obsession (inspired by Sally Potter's Orlando) but the impetus to re-read came from the incipient multimedia stage production by Katie Mitchell at the National Theatre. I've wanted to re-read it for a while, since doing some work on how Virginia Woolf haunts contemporary films about women academics -- Charlotte Rampling gives a scintillating reading from The Waves in Sous le sable, very much a film about waving and drowning.

So -- will I finish the book before the show tonight? Or is it a book that - with its cyclical nature - can never truly be finished without beginning it again?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Get Some Chicken

Here I was, planning to be soooooo good and make some headway into the stacks of Delirium's Library (although Marina Warner's Phantasmagoria is so mind-blowing it's like a delirious library in and of itself)... and then: boom! New Marjane Satrapi leaps off the shelf and into my hands at Mega City in Camden. See, I keep trying to be serious and read about 'the role of the archive in contemporary artist's film and video' and an article on Jean-Luc Godard by someone called Frodon (no joke!). But. Comix get in the way.

Chicken and Plums! Chicken and Plums!

K, I'm gonna go read it now. Tomorrow I will be serious and get stuck in.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Small Is Beautiful

Kegedonce has just announced two new titles! Yay for small presses, especially a small press as unique as this - publishing work by First Nations writers, and brave enough to publish poetry AND fantasy fiction. Incredible. Daniel Justice's instant cult classic, Kynship, gets its sophomore sister, Wyrwood. And Rolland Nadjiwon's Seven Deer Dancing continues Kegedonce's run of excellent poetry. If you're thinking about Thanksgiving (and surrounded by Nature's bounty, who isn't), consider giving thanks to and learning from the first folks of Turtle Island by investigating Kegedonce's diverse list. You may just meet a fabulous witch called Denarra, and fall in love at first sight...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Trobadours of Yore (and Today)

There is a fabled place in far-off West London where poetry still thrives amidst the beer drinkers and musicians tuning up in the basement. That place is The Troubadour. OK, so their troubs tend towards the swimmers of the mainstream, but worth a visit if only because all these poets came from one writing workshop. And because Shapcott, Greenlaw and Padel are light years ahead of the Armitages, Farleys and Sweeneys.

Monday 9th October - COFFEE HOUSE POETRY

Many major New-/Next-Gen poets learned their trade at a Notting Hill workshop group founded in the ‘80s by Robert Greacen. Leading names from that group come together for a unique celebration of contemporary poetry— Poetry Society president Jo Shapcott has won the National twice; Her Book: Poems 1988-1998 (Faber 2000) contains poems from her 3 collections— Maurice Riordan edits Poetry London; his 3rd book, The Holy Land is due in 2007— novelist/radio-dramatist Lavinia Greenlaw teaches on Goldsmiths College’s Creative-Writing MA; Minsk, her 3rd collection, was Eliot-prize-shortlisted— Matthew Sweeney now lives in Romania; his many publications include Sanctuary (Cape 2004) and a Selected (2002)— Ruth Padel is Poetry Society chair and contributed, for many years, a uniquely popular poetry column to the Independent on Sunday; The Soho Leopard (Chatto 2004) is her 6th collection.
Readings 8-10pm £5.50 / £4.50 concs

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Events A-Go-Go

My pixie ears prick up on hearing of the following... launch of sexy new poetry collection The Allotment at Warwick University, Oct 12th, along with the fabulous "greatest hits" of rock star poet Andy Brown. There'll be a reading in Brighton, November 18th, for all you seaside lovers, too.

There's also a whirlagig of poetry this coming weekend in Cambridge, with the Experimental Women's Poetry Festival, including Susan Schultz, Kathleen Fraser, Redell Olsen and other lovely luminaries.

For something a bit more hands on, how about a writing workshop with Saradha Soobrayen and Dorothea Smartt as part of The Fire This Time, dedicated to queering - and celebrating - Black History Month.

And, good golly, there's Poetry International, featuring Lorna Goodison, Ulrike Draesner and others.

Enough to make a librarian want to curl up and snooze, er, read a good book :)

Sunday, September 24, 2006

I think you mean "What the f*** happened here"

So, Verso are calling What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles "caustic and hilarious." Uhhhhhhhh, well, it's not Jon Stewart. Perhaps hilarious in an evil-laugh-here-is-how-I'll-kill-you Mr. Bond way if you're a Republican, but otherwise just pretty damn enraging as it reveals the systemic destruction of press independence, social security, civil rights and, well, the world perpetuated by the Bush II junta. Weinberger is exactly the kind of public intellectual whose absence from American life and media debate he laments. It's instructive that several of the major pieces in this book originally appeared in European venues. Read it and weep, kids. Then register to vote and get informed. I look forward, in a grim, hiding my face way, to a similarly intelligent, well-written and non-alarmist book about the Blair years.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Every Blog Counts...

even when all seems very silent. Yes, this isn't exactly a political blog and won't save the world/the Middle East/whales (although my recent Shebytches column has some solutions to global war involving Alanis Morrissette and a donkey) but - who knew? - it might actually help sell the books that I love and rave about.
Now, I have no idea if anyone reading this blog actually goes, hmm, yes, I shall go out and experience Delirium's Library, but Random House seems to think that you might. They've just asked if they can quote part of a posting in the shiny paperback edition of The Outlaw Varjak Paw. Wow. Of course, I went through the "oooooooh noooooooo, RH are evil conglomerate German-owned, Da Vinci Code publishing demons" and then thought, myah, knock it off. That's so COOL!
So big happy wishes to SF Said on the paperback publication and, er, get out there and get cat-tastic, yall!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Where to Get ZInes in London

Small and surviving, bookartbookshop is like the ICA's little sister, but cooler. If you like artists' books, paper art, zines, weird stuff and buttons, there's no need to be in London: you can shop online. And if you have zines etc., Kelly, the power-that-is, takes them on commission to add to her cavern of delights.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

New SiP day!

Tee hee, what the hell! There's only 7 more Wednesdays left to celebrate, folks... after that no new crazy love triangle from Texas to brighten my life every six weeks. I fear end-of-Buffy-style apocalypticness, and not in the Mel Gibson, Mayan speaking sense. If you've never read Strangers in Paradise, start now and be ready for the final battle, er, issue, in 8 months time...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Queers and Freaks Untie!

It's not often I'm so crazy about a book that I want to run around telling complete strangers to read it (er, except what else is a blog for?) but here goes: Hello, Cruel World is amazing. It's Whedonesque, hopeful, crazy, intense, useful, inspiring, funny, informative, challenging, queer, sexy, illuminating and could form the basis of a very disorganised religion. If you don't believe me, then listen up to author Kate Bornstein doing a way better job that I can of persuading you here. Bornstein for President! And props to LiP for putting the Gender Talk interview in their ever-useful, intelligent, infuriating and ass-kicking Media Picks list.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Read On... Pellinor Three!

You can catch up with Maerad and Cadvan with a free first chapter from lovely independent Walker Books (support the indies!) And that feather on the cover -- it really is a crow feather!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Alternate Realities

An entertaining article about adaptation, counter-histories and truly crazy writer Philip K. Dick -- ignore Scanner Darkly and imagine the Dick films that were never made, including Scorsese's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?...

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A working definition of irony

from one of those writers that I loved, then loved to hate, then ignored, and may come to love again, Mr. D. Coupland: "The way I would define irony is this: to have the ability to contain opposing ideas inside your head without going crazy," being interviewed by reliably entertaining Euan Ferguson.

It's a neat punchline to an excellent conference paper on irony that one of my students gave in class, which began with Winona Ryder's failure to define irony in Reality Bites. Proof that Coupland is smarter than the generation of imitation slackers that he spawned.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

The InterWeb as Delirium's Library

As an activist who worries about the amount of paper and shipping being a book lover involves (as well as being a shut-in who is scared of large amounts of people who gather at things like events and protests), I have to believe that reading is more than a solitary activity. Part of the idea behind this blog - and I think blogs in general - is that reading can be communitarian, generative, exciting and necessary to forging a future. Bloody ambitious for an activity that requires little more than turning pages and lifting a mug of tea. Which is (best case scenario) why I write about books here and in magazines... And the magic of the interweb is discovering that those words - selected to convey the power of a reading experience that is interior and silent - have circulated, have engaged, are in the process of helping to form that community of people who act with their eyes and minds. Also, it's an opportunity to go *squeal*, a review that I wrote has been cited somewhere! A lovely mixture of humility (ah, this is in the service of community and a wonderful, incredible writer) and arrogance. Anyway - check out Dragonfly Rising, the site of Qwo-Li Driskill, activist, poet & agitator. Zhe has been making community through reading and writing for several exciting, glowing years & I am utterly inspired by hir work. So it's very cool to think that my review might be leading others to discover Qwo-Li's wellspring of wonder.
And Delirium's Library (following the dragonfly, rising) spreads its rainbow wings.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

ten good unreasons

I haven't actually written about anything I've been reading (apart from my world wide webwanderings) for a while. Fear not, I am still a codex grrl, it's just that with cataloguing everything for Library Thing - didja see the neat widget to the *left*? - I haven't had much time to think about reading. Although I have been reading. Finished Leila Ahmed's A Border Passage a while back, very thought-provoking, and also Janet McNaughton's The Raintree Rebellion - completely different kind of book (teen SF rather than literary memoir) but equally engaged with individual identity as rooted in communities shaped by the social and political landscape. I also read Germaine Greer's translation of Lysistrata, which was Germy fun. There's also the proof of Empress by the woman who wrote the Go book that was much raved about. Don't know why. It's pretty much fashion porn à la Memoirs of a Geisha. Hum. I feel like I'm reading a thousand other things, but they are either a) a list of books on order or b) actually student papers. Or c) dreams. Very vivid dreams at the moment. Maybe cause I'm reading so many books.
Also, Julianna Pidduck's Contemporary Costume Drama, which is pretty bloody good. Robin Morgan's The Burning Time, which I finished a while a go but had to review for a new London magazine called (wait for it) Vagina. And a fantastic Frida Kahlo catalogue that I'm perusing for a new tattoo...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Adaptation = Natural Selection?

So, I spent the last few years working for/with Professor Linda Hutcheon, whose new book A Theory of Adaptation contains a few juicy facts that I discovered amidst mounds of photocopying from bad books about film adaptations. I was therefore interested to see that, only a couple of weeks before the book is published, The Guardian and Waterstones are playing the adaptation game. If you live near a Borders or Waterstone's in the UK, this is a chance to vote for the best movie adaptation of all time. And vote strategically, given that...
There are only two films directed by women: Orlando and American Psycho (8 source texts are by women). Only three adaptations from novels not in English: Doctor Zhivago, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and The Vanishing, which - presuming it is the German not the Hollywood version - is the only non-English film on the list.
Of course, this is a transparent marketing plan but it's still pretty shameful that none of Pasolini or Fellini's adaptations (Oedipus Rex, anyone?), or La Reine Margot, or even Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon made it.
Sin City rather than Ghost World? Who are these experts? And when did both Borders and Waterstone's give over their identities to,uk? There doesn't seem to be a way to vote online. If you can find one, post it here.
It's dumb, but I'm fascinated...

Friday, April 21, 2006

An Intimate Connection (Collection?)

Ah, to be in New York amidst the smell of book dust. Not that you or I could afford the kind of prices these books go for... And I do wonder about the first edition, signed copy blah blah thing.
OK, so there was this one time in Edinburgh when I was really miserable and I considered blowing a week's food money on a pristine first edition of the public printing of Seven Pillars of Wisdon (a great book about lostness and escape) - not the private printing, which runs in the £1000s (or even add a zero), but still rare enough and with all the fold-out maps intact.
I love books with fold-out maps. Or just maps. I've been reading Bettany Hughes' Helen of Troy, which has six or seven maps. And lots of endnotes. And appendices. It's almost Anne Carson, except it's archaeology.
And as with Anne Carson, lots of "distinguished" white male academics and writers are upset because she brings sex (sexuality as well as erotics) into the discipline, and makes the classical world accessible. Blah blah. Her book made me want to translate Greek again... Somewhere in my "other" library in London are a pile of Greek texts (mostly bilingual) from my schooldays in Ancient Greece (hehe).
Although what's left to translate? Carson's done Sappho, Catullus, Stesichoros, Mimnermos, bits of Alkman, Simonides, Euripides, Aeschylus (in the NYRB, but available to subscribers only so I won't post a link that will upset us poor non-subscribers -- but if anyone has a link to the excerpts on a blog or elsewhere, I'd be grateful for the post)...
There is something very tempting about the Iliad, although Christopher Logue kinda has that covered (Cold Calls is haunting me in a "Read me again!" way).
Maybe the antiquarian book fair could turn up something really antiquarian???

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Zine Shout-Out from Timisoara

If you're a grrrl zinester, then get in touch with Nita Mocanu of LADYFEST Romania - she is setting up a travelling zine library & would love copies of your deepest, darkest thoughts to share with the reader of Romania!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


So, just when I thought next Saturday (29th) couldn't get any than a workshop with ass-kicking poet and activist Chrystos, it turns out there's a doc about Sally Mann at Hot Docs (called "What Remains" for documentary/photography/art fans). And now... there's an opportunity to meet my creator (no, I don't believe in god) -- JILL THOMPSON (shouting, I know -- but have you read The Little Endless Storybook? She is a genius!) is going to be in town at the (ohmigod, can it really be happening?) Women of Comics event at the Toronto Comicon. Gasp! Also, Jessica Abel, Colleen Doran, Diana Tambly and Jen Van Meter. It's an overdose of grrrl goodness! It's also $18 - but you can get $3 with a lovely Fiona Smyth flyer (piles to be found at Toronto Women's Bookstore & Beguiling).

Sunday, April 16, 2006

New Obsession! Ultimate Happiness...

Caused by browsing del.ic.ious, which was my favourite timewaster this week, until I found... LibraryThing. It even sounds like something Dream dreamt up, hehe. A relation of the Fashion Thing? And a perfect way to keep track of all my books as I pack them, which will drive my mum NUTS!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Star-Crossed Book Lovers

There've been several articles in the Toronto Star of late about how the internet is helping people form live communities - MySpace, and now (finally) they have caught onto Bookcrossing. I've considered engaging in this form of aleatory reading for a while, but the website shows that the most left books are thrillers & romances. I prefer the chance meetings with strangers in the form of notes, postcards, lists that you find in secondhand books. My prize of this collection is a postcard from the nineteenth century that I found in a lovely edition of Sir Thomas Wyatt at G David in Cambridge. Usually it's just receipts or old bookmarks.
I use strange things as bookmarks - in my copy of War Variations right now is a very odd list that I found at Dupont station and think might be director's notes from a rehearsal. I should really send it to Found Magazine but I like it.
I sold some books last week (sob! mainly theory & Canadian poetry, interesting that they were the first to go -- or maybe the most saleable) at the secondhand bookstore across from where I work, and when I went in the next day with another bag of books, the clerk gave me an envelope that he had found in one of the books (he couldn't remember which, durn it). There's a photo of some orchids with a message to me on the back from someone called Paul...
Three days later, I found him in my badly-filed memory banks. Knowing which book the card was in would have helped. But it did make me wonder what else the book mountain holds?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Blue Haired Librarians Unite!

Which means something completely different these days, at least according to the New York Times' article, Zines in the Library Catalogue? Of Course. Well, as blue-haired zinesters are wont to say, duh. Just as playbills and ballads of the Renaissance tell us about the material, aesthetic and political culture of a broad sector of non-aristo society, so zines are an insight into those who don't get to write for the NYT. They are records of the ephemeral - meetings, feelings, connections, encounters, protests - sometimes with a "this zine(ster) will self-destruct in 30 seconds" feel. And they're growing. There was a customer at the bookstore today whose 6 year old daughter wants to start zining -- how cool is that?! I remember writing and illustrating stories with a friend in tiny Victoria Plum notebooks that were given out in party bags. And using those weird carbon copy sheets to get high - er, to make copies of poems to give out to classmates.
The Toronto Public Library has had a zine library for a couple few years now, beating out Barnard both in the age of its collection and the fact that it's open to the public. The two cool librarians who run it are regularly found at small press and zine fairs, picking up goodies and befriending people.
This is how librarians should be, doncha think? We get a bad press - grumpy, shh-monsters. Even uber-librarian of cool Rupert Giles (many agree) is more scared of students touching his books than he is of giant blubberous demons. (Check out the collector's item American Library Association's "Ohmigod there's a librarian on TV & he's HOT!" poster. Also, the very sweet "Kids read those graphic novels, right?" poster of Dream sulking with a book). But then his (er, that could be Dream as well, but I mean Giles, although there are similarities) library is regularly subject to the ravages of evil.
Mine is currently being ravaged by something worse than vamps: moving! I am even selling books (piles & piles of them, many bought second-hand, several unread). In one of the first batch I sold, the diligent clerk found a postcard from someone I didn't even remember, providing me with a puzzle for half a day.
But more than who, I wanted to know which book it had been in. Diligent dude couldn't remember. Argh.
So, in summary: zines, libraries, memories, mysteries. Ann Cvetkovich calls zines "archives of feeling," part of a class of objects (live performances, meeting minutes, oral testimony, video art) that capture what's left out of the official archives. As Yvonne Rainer's new book (which seems to put difficult childhoods and club sandwiches on the same level) is called, Feelings are Facts. I don't know if she ever made a zine in reality, but in Delirium's Library, there's a whole box full of them.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Oh Canada(s)

Keep your eyes on the ever-curious image of CanLit developing on the Guardian Unlimited: Culture Vulture blog. I've added my 50 cents worth (that's 20p, for my English readers) & of course, I'm dissatisfied with it & can think of tons more authors to laud -- and more importantly, lots to diss. Russell Smith? MacInerny-wannabe cant.
Ooh, it's so fun. So post away to the Guardian & post here with laurels for the underlaurelled & poison darts for the sacred cows. Is there really nothing out there by Alice Munro & Leonard Cohen???

Monday, February 27, 2006

Octavia Butler: A Science Fiction Hero

Octavia Butler died last Friday, 24 Feb 2006, after falling and hitting her head outside her home in Seattle. LiP Magazine has a .pdf of an interview they did with her about her most recent novel, Fledgling. I was lucky enough to hear Ms. Butler talk about her book, on a night of high wind and driving rain in Toronto, the sort of night when no sensible person is (doing anything but?) fighting their way across campus carrying a large box to see one of their heroes. Many other sensible people fought the good fight, and listened, for an hour, to some amazing stories, good advice and incisive political analysis. Democracy Now has a brief obituary, reminding readers that Butler always used her position as one of the few African-American writers of science fiction to engage in critique of political power, racial inequality, sexism and attendant oppressions. She did so with high humour, much hope and an ever-evolving set of characters who provide new models for living, as she did in her writing life.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Almighty NYT

I must be pretty cool, because I know three people who have had books reviewed in the New York Times over the last couple of weeks. Two of them I even like, both as people and as authors ;) One is the splendid SF Said, author of Varjak Paw, scoring his second NYT Review, which gives hope that serious consideration of children's books is not confined to this blog. It would have been cool to see an NYT journalist discussing the import of Varjak's Mesopotamian (Iraqi, for those not equipped with an archaeological turn of brain) ancestry rather than whether dogs are cooler than cats, but still -- a good review from a dog person for a cat book. That's high praise indeed. The second person (I'm just jamming him in here where he can't really be seen) is Nick Laird, who I've only met briefly but took against for a number of reasons involving money, sex and poetry. He famously has all of these, simultaneously, which is pretty irritating. And he has a review in NYT. If they just called him "Zadie Smith's husband," everyone would ignore him or be snide about him the way they are when some male artist's wife or girlfriend achieves something. (Hmm, and all three authors reviewed are male... Conspiracy? It's not like all my friends are male).
The third person to be lavished with praise is Steve Heighton, who I met at Massey College in 2004 (and once before that, very drunkenly, at a party for the Griffin Prize) where he was writer-in-residence, working on 'Afterlands,' the book reviewed in said august organ. It's pretty cool to follow a book from production to publication to review, something I've been lucky enough to witness - in all its pains and glories - a few times over the last years. To see such solitary, ornery struggles become the meat of public consumption (NYT book pages = Sunday brunch) is unnerving for someone considering committing their own thoughts and inventions to the page.
Exciting, too: a review in NYT lifted Afterlands from 1000-ish to the top 100 on overnight. In some ways, the Amazon sales ranking has replaced the good review as balm to an author's heart (not that authors check it obsessively or anything). But what does it mean, apart from that Americans can clearly eat brunch, read the NYT and use their computers at the same time (ah, the dangers of One-Click ordering...) For hardcover lit fic, fine - but are 8 year olds reading NYT? Surely not. Or ordering from Amazon?
It's scary that the literary world can be carved up so: a few publications of renown place their seal of approval. A few large retailers order. Or don't order. Display or don't display. The, as has been written so often, end. What does it matter that a small independent bookstore can sell 150 copies of an Indigenous fantasy novel put out by a small press at its launch? Rabid fans didn't even have the power to float Serenity at the box office...
OK, so I'm changing the subject (which was? oh yeah, how cool I am, but enought of that) but it's all connected: the media sells us pre-packaged "cult classics" and gets hoist on its own hypetard (JT Leroy, anyone?). Readers aren't enough anymore - what matters is consumers. I know that I have a shelf of unread books (I mean, that was the point of this blog but - in that curious way - new books keep keeping me from the old ones) but I intend to read them, when I'm not reading other things. I don't just buy them because the NYT makes them sound important. It's not like I wish for another era, where only rich people who could read Latin could own books - hell, I bet the Duc de Berry never even looked at his "tres riches heures" - but I'm curious as to what a community of readers, rather than shoppers, might look like.
I think that Kynship, Afterlands and The Outlaw Varjak Paw would still be in that top 100 - but funkymonkeyboy wouldn't. What neglected classics - unreviewed, unsaleable, deeply loved - would you see up there?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Tell me, what do we all long for?

If there's one thing that gets my guaranteed goat, it's generalizations. I aspire to become my high school english teacher, who would cover essays with cryptic abbreviations such as "RG," for "rash generalization." No crime was worse, in her eyes, than presuming on the seasoning of sauce for both goose and gander. This is why I ignore prize lists, bestsellers and other people's recommendations, boiling my own sauce out of weirdness such as Women & Sufism and film theory, which no-one really reads for fun. While the novel has to brave - must, even - an attempt at the general, it has always struck me that poetry is an art of the specific. Which is why, when poets turn to prose narrative, their novels tend to have the charm of the particular, the minute and the perverse. And which is also why I am so astonished by the badness of Dionne Brand's latest, What We All Long For.
In fairness, I should have seen it coming. Everyone on the planet - including some who write for the New York Times - think it's the greatest book ever. Rave reviews have raved late into the night. I have handsold a dozen or more copies based on other people's gushing adoration. But something wasn't right... I put the book on hold at the library when it first came out, and then didn't even buy it when it appeared in paperback a year later, even though I was still fifty-seventh in a list of four hundred and twenty. I just knew it would suck.
Now, don't get me wrong - I love Brand's work. I have taught In Another Place Not Here, and own several volumes of her poetry. But something about how reviewers kept talking about how her new book was so "real," how it captured the spirit of the city, how it told the truth (because there is only one) about the immigrant experience in Canada, about racism, whatever - that's a government report, not a novel. Other people might read to see themselves reflected, to see the blinding truth but - that's the blinding obvious, duh!
I read to be surprised by things I didn't know (I knew), to be astonished by a detail or description so hallucinatory it couldn't possibly be for real. Not for wisdom, but for enchantment. Not for dialogue that sounds as if it were copied from an anti-racism education workbook, but for the incredible but true ways in which we sometimes speak without thinking, or think without speaking. Insight doesn't stick to the surface. It doesn't say "somehow" (I counted a dozen somehows in 5 pages) - it knows how. It never repeats itself, except when it means to.
But (unlike Brand) I don't generalise. Perhaps this is the book that others have longed for, and I respect their longing. But I wonder at the arrogance of that "all" and those it excludes, and the vagueness of its promise (what do we all long for? belonging, I surmise from 100 pages). I long for the specificity of an author who once longed to make something new, not mis-reproduce memories of eavesdropped streetcar chatter, not tell me things I already know.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Stories Within Stories

I had a plan to spend this evening evaluating the latest in state-of-the-art film publishing from Wallflower and Reaktion, but a) I'm kind of scared of Reaktion's insectoid logo and b) it's Sunday evening, goddamnit. Traditionally, chez famille, Sunday evening was a time of cold cereal and quality children's television, usually of the literary adaptation variety: A Little Princess, The Diary of Anne Frank, My Family & Other Animals... which tells me I was conforming to this ritual even in my early teens, as the adaptation was broadcast at the same time as I was reading the book in secondary school (1989, for data queens).
But best of all, and now available on DVD for trips down nostalgia lane, was The Storyteller, brought lavishly to life by Jim Henson's production company. This would have had the best place by the fire in my house anyway, because it was by the Muppet guy -- and we loved the Muppets. That his company was also responsible for Labyrinth, my favourite film until I was 16 (and saw Jean Cocteau's not-dissimilar Belle et la Bete), didn't hurt the show's chances of stopping tea time in its tracks.
When I stumbled across the DVD in [insert megastore name here] last year (while looking for Eerie, Indiana, another massively under-rated show that has aged worse than Pete Burns), I was astonished to see that there were only ever nine episodes of the series made. In my head, it assumed epic proportions, running for at least as long as Fraggle Rock, and possibly longer: it seemed to have pervaded my entire conscious life as a pre-teen. Was that just because I was obsessed by fairy tales? Or because I took on the role of family storyteller?
Strangely, as I read down the DVD booklet, I found that there was only one episode that I could remember with any clarity: Sapsorrow, whose epigraph "based on an old German fairy tale" gives no hint of the complex mesh of tales woven together here, or of the basic structure, which is from the Jacques Perrault story, Peau D'Ane (Donkey Skin).
It's hard to call it a "basic" story. It's not one of the beloved canon of English fairy tales. In fact, I'd forgotten its existence - and the existence of the show - until I was in my first year of university (Shakespeare class), reading Marina Warner's From the Beast to the Blonde. Her chapter on father/daughter incest plots (in which she includes all of the Shakespearean romances) describes in detail the transmission of the basic structure a saint's tale (Saint Dympna, I think) to Shakespeare to Perrault and elsewhere. In the Henson version (written by Anthony Minghella), it is a magic ring, owned by the now-dead queen, that binds the king to marry the woman whose finger it fits - and, with the tragic logic of fairy tales, it fits the finger of his youngest, sweetest daughter. The king is decidedly reluctant - and this is where Minghella's version makes its change.
In Peau D'Ane, in Saint Dympna's story, and at the start of Pericles, the father is all too willing to comply with the mythic or cultural logic that precipitates the incestuous marriage. What Minghella can't change is the result: it's the girl who is punished, fleeing her father (as in the Goose Girl or Love like Salt) into servitude, disguised by being disgusting. In Jacques Demy's bizarre film version, Peau D'Ane (Catherine Deneuve) struggles to project or perform degradation, being clearly Catherine Deneuve at all times. In Sapsorrow, the disguise is effective in a truly Hensonian way, turning the actress playing Sapsorrow (Alison Doody) into a Muppet-like creature of matted fur and feathers, something tufty and puppet-like.
Although our minds have grown used to smoother integration between puppets, animation and live action, the herky-jerky of Hensonia reminds me that the figures in these tales are all puppets of fate (even the Storyteller himself is subject to the whim of the tale's logic in A Story Short). Now I can watch the episodes with enough book-larnin' to unpick and critique the mish-mash of references melded into portmanteau tales (some more successful than others) - and point to the absence of other references in this Euro-dominated "mythic" canon - I wonder whether my reason for watching isn't still the same: to hope that each retelling presents the characters with an opportunity to resist fate's string-pulling and change the tale? Writers like Angela Carter, and Warner herself, have used feminist narrative logic to do just that, but ultimately their work - as with my viewing habits - is compelled by the tales themselves, their inexorability and repetition, their unsettlingly neat happy endings that never deal with the unhappy dealings that have gone before.
If this all seems a little heavy for a Sunday night, it makes me wonder what else I absorbed (or resisted) from lessons learnt at the television's knee - and also at the lack of small screen adaptations being made for children right now. There's the adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson's Tracy Beaker, but that's weekday programming - quite different. On a Sunday, when the whole (mythical) nuclear family is gathered to watch, what's being shown that helps children learn to see their family as "other animals," to protect themselves from the worst stories as they repeat endlessly?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Breaking the Mood

Just finished indulging in Rebel Angels, the sequel to A Great & Terrible Beauty, a YA fantasy novel that I dismissed on first reading and then discovered surprising depths to when I re-read it. Both books stand out among the current crop of YA fiction for being set in historical London, as opposed to a fictionalised historical London (like the Bartimaeus books). They remind me of Phillip Pullman's Ruby in the Smoke series, both in having the requisite feisty heroine, and in their fascination with the diverse and dirty nooks of Holmesian London (there's even a character in Rebel Angels who lives on Baker Street).
Of course, the feisty heroine is surprisingly modern - in a way that reminds the reader just how modern the educated women of the late nineteenth century were. Yet Gemma Doyle is not just advocating for women to get the vote; her liberal thinking encompasses revisionist feminist history, anti-racism, a narcotics harm reduction policy, sexual liberation, an awareness of sexual abuse, bulimia and self-cutting. All this in 500 pages. It's a heavy book in more ways than one. Jan Mark describes the weight of this generation of YA novels when she writes in her review of Girl & Gander that "[there was] a time when it was believed that children were not equal to the demands of long books. Now it has been established beyond doubt that they are, it need not be forgotten that they can still appreciate short ones."
On the one hand, I salute Ms. Bray, the funky livejournalling New Yorker who hit the bestseller list with A Great & Terrible Beauty, for her courage in including these meaningful contemporary issues, and considering how they might play out in Victorian London, with its opium dens, Indian servants, corsets and "benevolently" dictatorial patriarchy. On the other (and in fairness, I've read very few Victorian novels but more than the average 14 year old), the inclusion of these glaringly modern tropes - particularly the character who cuts herself - is as jarring as twentieth-century Americanisms like "intermission" (for "interval" at the opera) and "gotten."
But while a careful editor might have picked up on the rips in the linguistic fabric (which, to be fair, are few and far between), it requires a complete rethink on a narrative and symbolic level to imagine telling the story of young women in another era through the bodily and emotional tropes through which they would have conceived themselves. Bray is excellent on fainting, dancing and suitors, but in her attempt to make the book "relevant" and educational - or inclusive - to contemporary teen readers, she destroys the very illusion that makes the book so compelling: the construction of a world that is different from our own, that may experience the same situations, the same feelings, but expresses them in its own way. While I'm all for the conceit of a fantastic feminism (inspired, in the novels, by a magical realm controlled by a powerful group of women known as the Order), Gemma's inclusion of her friends in the new Order - one sexually abused by her father, one poor and self-harming, one an Indian servant, one insane - smacks simultaneously of modern multiculturalism and of a tokenist sentimentalism for the victimised that is all to Tiny Tim.