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Archive for September, 2008

September 30th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Nothing Childish about pushing One’s Creative Curve


Following on Steve Mitchelmore’s negation of Ursula Le Guin’s contention that the Modernists declared fantastic narrative to be intrinsically childish, I was unable, with Steve, to find anything supporting Le Guin’s claim. What I did find however was this quote from Ezra Pound’s Literary Essays, on Henry James’ ‘Fantasias’: 

"All artists who discover anything make such detours and must, in the course of things (as in the cobwebs), push certain experiments beyond the right curve of their art. This is not so much the doom as the fuction of all ‘revolutionary’ or experimental art, and I think masterwork is usually the result of the return from such excess. One does not know, simply doesn not know, the true curve until one has pushed one’s method beyond it. Until then it is merely a frontier, not a chosen route. It is an open question, and there is no dogmatic answer, whether an artist shoudl write and rewrite the same story (a la Flaubert) or whether he should take a new canvas."

I suspect Dan Green would approve. 

James submitted some of his fantasias to The Yellow Book.

September 26th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Dale Peck on Infinte Jest

"What makes the book’s success even more noteworthy [than it's size, popularity, critical success, etc.] is that it is, in a word, terrible. Other words I might use include bloated, boring, gratuitous, and — perhaps especially — uncontrolled. I would, in fact, go so far as to say that Infinite Jest is one of the very few novels for which the phrase "not worth the paper it’s printed on" has real meaning in at least an ecological sense; but to resort to such hyperbole would be to fall into the rut that characterizes many reviews of this novel. It seemed to me as I read through Infinite Jest’s press jacket that most of these reviewers didn’t merely want to like the novel, they wanted to write like it. I think, if I’m not mistaken, that the psychological term for this condition is mass hysteria.

As the preceding paragraph should make clear, I found Infinite Jest immensely unsatisfactory, which is a polite way of saying that I hated it."


Yes, but tell us what you really think Dale.

September 26th, 2008 • Posted in Uncategorized

The Incommunicable Glory

Paradiso: Canto I

The glory of Him who moveth everything
Doth penetrate the universe, and shine
In one part more and in another less.

Within that heaven which most his light receives
Was I, and things beheld which to repeat
Nor knows, nor can, who from above descends;

Because in drawing near to its desire
Our intellect ingulphs itself so far,
That after it the memory cannot go.

September 25th, 2008 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Character: Likeability versus profoundly Important Actions

Juliet Annan at The Penguin Blog quotes James Wood on foolish Amazon "reader reviews:" "with their complaints about "dislikeable characters", confirms a contagion of moralising niceness. Again and again, in book clubs up and down the country, novels are denounced because some feeble reader "couldn’t find any characters to identify with", or "didn’t think that any of the characters ‘grow’".

She then posits that "For fictional characters to work on the page, for them to grip you with their antics, they’ve got to fascinate. That’s far more likely to happen with flawed or even dislikeable characters."

I’d say flawed yes, but perhaps more accurately, complex characters are the ones who best hold reader interest. Those who must grapple with difficult issues, live through traumatic situations, solve dilemmas, act, and deal with consequences…

…and to some extent, I think we readers must, contrary to what Wood says, be able to identify with these characters in order to empathize and connect, and care about what happens to them…this explains why some great works may fall flat on first reading, but sing the second time round, years later, after a requisite amount of life experience has taken its flesh.

Staying with Wood’s Guardian article, one finds this on vital literary characters:

"…it often seems that James’s characters are not especially convincing as independently vivid authorial creations. But what makes them vivid is the force of James’s interest in them, his manner of pressing into their clay with his examining fingers: they are sites of human energy; they vibrate with James’s anxious concern for them.The vitality of literary character has then, perhaps, less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence and even plain plausibility – let alone likeability – than with a larger, philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character’s actions are profoundly important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters."

…which approaches I think, Matthew Arnold, following Aristotle, who names seriousness a tenet of greatness, where the import of the work is clear, the depth of the author’s commitment to ‘truth,’ to an honest rendering of an important message, is written into every character.

September 24th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Book Review of: The Idler’s Glossary


It takes little labour to love this book.

Mark Kingwell’s  substantial, splendidly informative introductory essay tells us much about the multifarious benefits that accrue to those who idle; it alone makes The Idler’s Glossary worth reading. 

No respite, we are told, can be had from boredom merely by exciting new desires to replace absent ones. The solution, quite simply, lies in idling, which, contrary to what you may think, has little to do with the avoidance of work — for the idler isn’t lazy — and lots to do with the construction of a value system entirely independent of work. For The Idler is no slave to the clock. In truth, he holds lucre in complete contempt.

It is in following the solitary path of inward contemplation that this enlightened loner, we are told, cultivates the most divine part of human life, and in so doing, comes closest to the gods. Do or do not. There is no ‘try’ with this effete elite. The strength of the water that finds its way past any obstacle is his most profound truth. 

And in informing us of this and other profundities, The Idler’s Glossary stays true to its roots; for there is, Kingwell tells us  "no more idle text than this with its refusal to offer complete sentences, its principled Flaneur‘s resistance to linear or extended thought, its marvelous Borgesian textual circuity — where terms seem forever bending back upon other terms resisting mastery and completion."

Though you may not master the Idler’s art in one reading, completing this book requires little effort. Along the way you’ll find plenty to delight in and ponder over, plus, possibly, if you don’t work too hard at it, a profound truth or two. 

Here are several favourites from Joshua Glenn’s Glossary:

IDLING: is not the opposite of working hard, but is instead a rare, hard-won mode in which your art is your work, and your work is your art.

QUATORZIEME: A professional 14th guest, who can be hired on short notice by a superstitious hostess who discovers that her dinner party numbers 13.

TRUANT: R.L. Stevenson writes that "while others are filling their memory with a lumber of words, one-half of which they will forget before the week be out, your truant may learn some really useful art: to play the fiddle, to know a good cigar, or to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men."

USELESS: Lin Yutang’s maxim that "a perfectly useless afternoon spent in a perfectly useless manner" is what makes life worth living.

September 23rd, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

New Fashion Mag in O-town

Couldn’t resist this photo. Try on the rest of The Dinner Jacket here.

September 23rd, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Bibliotherapy and The School of Life


Received a Facebook email recently from Alain de Botton telling me about:

"The School of Life is a new cultural enterprise based in central London offering intelligent instruction on how to lead a fulfilled life.

We offer evening and weekend courses, holidays to unexpected locations, stigma-free psychotherapy, secular sermons, conversation meals, a floating faculty of experts and a new kind of literary consultancy service called bibliotherapy.

Our faculty is made up of some of the brightest thinkers and artists at work today. They include Alain de Botton, Geoff Dyer, Susan Elderkin, Tom Hodgkinson, Brett Kahr, Robert Macfarlane and Martin Parr."

And here’s the scoop on Bibliotherapy, a service once delivered for free by knowledgeable, well-read booksellers:

"Once upon a time, it was easy to find books that you could enjoy and felt were relevant. Now a new book is published every 30 seconds, and you would need 163 lifetimes to get through all the books offered on Amazon. That’s why The School of Life has set up a bibliotherapy service: the perfect way for you to discover those amazing but too often elusive books that can transform and illuminate your life.

Make an appointment to meet one of our therapists – either in person or by phone or email – and you can discuss any area that you would like some books to shed light on. Perhaps you are looking for a set of books to help you think about your career options, or you’d like to fathom an aspect of a relationship. Maybe you want to spend six months reading history books or you have a demanding five year old for whom you’d like to put together a small library for the year ahead.

Whatever reading needs you have, we’ll take exceptional care and effort to create a reading prescription that’s perfect for you."

Only in England you say? Stay tuned.

September 22nd, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Three-pronged battle among the forces of irony, cynicism and idealism

Rick Groen in a thoughtful, personal Globe and Mail piece on David Foster Wallace’s honest search for truth (thanks to Judith Fitzgerald)

"Yet Wallace gave that hoary po-mo label both real meaning and sharp teeth. His best work captures the incessant barrage of mind-numbing, soul-fracturing noise that is modernity. But that’s just the first and easiest step. The next is to isolate within that noise the very battle that most of us are waging inside our heads, that three-pronged battle among the forces of irony, cynicism and idealism. Then comes the hardest part: To sign an individual truce, to find a still point, where irony fights to win a victory over cynicism that isn’t Pyrrhic, that doesn’t in the fray also obliterate our hopes and ideals, doesn’t slay the fragile (and so un-chic) angels of our better nature. That’s terribly brave and enormously difficult. Yet essential. And crucial to Wallace’s sensibility."

Then a quote directly from Wallace answering a question on the nature of fiction posed in a Salon interview:

"Well, the first line of attack for that question is that there is this existential loneliness in the real world. I don’t know what you’re thinking or what it’s like inside you, and you don’t know what it’s like inside me. In fiction, I think we can leap over that wall itself in a certain way. … There’s a kind of ah-ha! Somebody at least for a moment feels about something or sees something the way that I do. It doesn’t happen all the time. It’s these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel un-alone – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and un-alone and that I’m in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and in poetry in a way that I don’t with other art."

Mention too of this DFW interview with Charlie Rose from a decade ago, which contains some interesting thoughts on po-mo and David Lynch. Sadly, it ends with Wallace assuring Rose that he ‘isn’t about to jump off a building.’


September 22nd, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Lucy Maud Montgomery, depression, stigma and suicide


 Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-011299

This from the Globe and Mail’s laudable series on mental illness (via Bookninja)

"For many years, my family has kept a troubling secret. What has made things even more difficult is the fact that the person it involves was not only my grandmother, but one of Canada’s most beloved authors, Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Her most famous novel, Anne of Green Gables, is still a bestseller after 100 years. In addition to Anne, my grandmother wrote 19 other novels, personal journals and hundreds of short stories and poems. As well, she has been the subject of several biographical studies.

Despite her great success, it is known that she suffered from depression, that she was isolated, sad and filled with worry and dread for much of her life. But our family has never spoken publicly about the extent of her illness.

What has never been revealed is that L.M. Montgomery took her own life at the age of 67 through a drug overdose."

If mental illness is to be de-stigmatized, as cancer has been over the past fifty years, public discussion of the challenges and damage that it inflicts upon those who suffer from it, is essential.  As the Globe’s commendable coverage suggests, this multifaceted disease is very much a part of most people’s lives, and as such, nothing for them to be ashamed of.  Too many lives have been shattered — broken marriages, lost jobs — not just because of the devastating impact of mental illness itself, but also because of an unsympathetic, unaccepting attitude,  found among those who don’t understand or don’t wish to acknowledge it, toward those who suffer from it.  

Listen here to an interview I conducted recently with Irene Gammel. Toward the end we discuss LMM’s struggle with depression.


September 22nd, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Where your Head’s at Reading Martin Amis’s Second Plane

Image from here.

As novelist, Martin Amis possesses that same ‘single inestimable virtue’ he finds in John Updike the literary journalist: "having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes."

And so it was that, even though it’s not a novel, I read The Second Plane last Spring. Not with a sigh, or a whimper, but, rather, for the first time ever, with a break. For the first time ever, I had to lay an Amis book down.  Hampered by the fact that much of what is contained at least in the book’s first half — I’d read before, along with scrolls of screen filling commentary on what I’d already read. Mostly found on the Guardian’s website.

I’d had my fill, and was bored.

Amis’s prose, though crackling with its patented wit, unexcelled metaphors and alert phrase making — seemed tired, and strangely flippant in front of such a horrific event.

The book consists mostly of previously published chronologically arranged essays. I got to September 2006, then as mentioned decided to give it a rest. This one simply didn’t hold.

Several weeks ago however, prompted by coverage of the Hay Festival, I picked the Second Plane up again. Very glad I did too. It read much fresher; I especially enjoyed Marty’s ride around London and the globe with Tony Blair; a bit of alright it was; back to expected form. Of course, it hadn’t changed. I had. Which says a lot I think about reviewing. So much depends upon where your head happens to be at when doing the actual reading.