A George Bowering Event

February 8, 2020

One of Canada’s foremost novelists, poet, playwright, critic, and historian, the prolific George Bowering will be in Vancouver for the launch of his newest book.

“Writing and Reading gathers essays and criticism issuing from one of the most productive word processors in the country over the past decade or so.  All over the map in terms of content, style, and even length, a remarkably consistent perspective emerges from these thirty-one pieces, one that places reading at the centre of any writer’s practice.”

And not just in Vancouver but at our own People’s Co-op Bookstore, 1391 Commercial.   The launch begins at 7:30pm on Friday 21st February and admission is free.  A good one to mark in the calendar!


Richard Brautigan

January 30, 2020

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Today would have been the 85th birthday of Richard Brautigan.

There were entire decades during which I read and re-read the complete Brautigan canon every single year. After Dylan Thomas, Richard Brautigan was my most important influence.  He was especially valuable to me in giving inspiration and value to my flash fictions and poems.

I read and re-read the koans that are the stories in “Trout Fishing In America“, the utter tripiness of “In Watermelon Sugar,” the essential genre pastiches such as “The Hawkline Monster,” “Sombrero Fallout,” and “Dreaming of Babylon“, the straightforward vulnerability of “The Abortion.”  And the poetry.  Every year I read them, for decades.

He is sorely missed.


Milkman

January 28, 2020

Continuing through my reading of the Best Novels of the 2010s, I have managed to get through Milkman, by Anna Burns.  This is an extraordinarily intense work, shot through with wry black humour.

It is narrated by an 18 year old woman who lives in a nationalist “no go” area somewhere in Northern Ireland deep in the violent troubles of the late 1970s.  She is considered “beyond the pale” by some locals — and some family members — because of her habit of reading while walking, and her disdain for the 20th century, preferring instead the world of 19th century literature.  One of her brothers has been killed by the state forces and another is on the run. The narrative thrust of the piece comes from the fact that she is stalked by a much older man — the Milkman of the title — who is considered a heavyweight member of the paramilitary renouncers who control the district.

The novel is written in a style that I can only describe as being like the constant dialogues one has with one’s own thoughts.  It is like a stream of consciousness though with more clarity.  It does, however, mean that it is composed of long complex sentences, often in a shorthand, embedded within very long (sometimes pages long) paragraphs. Once you get used to it, it is a perfect form for this novel though it did  mean it took a while to digest.  It is replete with a raft of beautifully crafted minor players.

One of the shorthand forms is that there are no names in the book; characters are called what they are — “second sister”, “maybe-boyfriend”, “first-brother-in-law”, “longest friend”, “tablet girl’s sister” etc.  The warring factions are also discussed by description rather than names — “renouncers-of-the-state”, “foreign soldiers”, “from over the water”, and the troubles are known as “the border issue” or the “political problem”.

The novel tells of many things. It is the story of a slow and unwanted seduction, of an unrecognised withdrawal from the rest of the community, of family dynamics in a dangerous era, of a failing relationship,  More, it is a devastating portrait of a highly toxic masculinity and the ways in which women, both traditional and modern, deal with that.  It is also helps explain some of the deep-seated tensions that living within a Troubled environment can bring with it.  For example, residents of the neighbourhood would not call an ambulance or got to hospital if they were sick or wounded:

“Of course, she didn’t go to hospital because as with calling the police here – meaning you didn’t call them — involving yourself with medical authorities could be considered imprudent as well.  One set of authorities, pronounced the community, always brought on another set of authorities, and should it be that you were shot, or poisoned, or knifed, or damaged in any way you didn’t feel like talking about, the police … would show up from their barracks right away” and try to turn you into an informer.

Perhaps most of all, Milkman shows the fatally destructive power of gossip within a closed society.

Well worth the read.


Densmore in Oz

January 22, 2020

On the always wonderful Public Domain Review I found a glorious essay on W.W. Densmore, the illustrator of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books at the beginning of the last century.  Moreover, it has a collection of dozens of Densmore’s images.  I chose two early examples.

 

Well worth the time!


The Tiger’s Wife

January 8, 2020

I just finished Tea Obreht’s remarkable The Tiger’s Wife, another of the best novels of the 2010s that I am working my way through. Set in an unnamed Balkan country created after the wars that dismembered Yugoslavia, Obreht creates a devastating portrayal of a society ripped apart by centuries-old ethnic and religious animosities, told in a series of overlapping stories saturated with peasant folklore and magical realism.

A young doctor from one side of a border crosses the boundary to help orphans on the other side and to find the body of her recently dead grandfather, also a doctor. In her journey, she discovers and re-discovers the life of the old man and how he was affected by the second world war, life under “the Marshall” (Tito), and in the subsequent civil and independence wars. Central to it all is a tiger, freed from its captivity in the City zoo by Nazi bombardment. The tiger wanders the countryside until it takes up residence around an isolated village where the grandfather is a boy. Its effect on the villagers drives much of the book

It is a compelling story of one family’s experience of some of Europe’s worst times. But this narrative is shot through with long, perhaps fabulous (in its original sense) episodes in her grandfather’s life that illuminate the role of Death (in its multiple guises) in a peasant world forced to deal with the madness of the twentieth century. It is filled with an array of fascinating Balkan characters and the whole is suffused with dreadful superstition and a kind of black comedy.

I thought this was a marvelous book.

 


Western Tales

December 23, 2019

In my continuing effort to read all the best novels of the 2010s, I sat down yesterday to read Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams.  I read it in one gulp — in the time it took to do the laundry, and for the Seahawks to lose to the Cardinals — and wished it would never end.

This is a masterpiece of storytelling in which we follow the life of Robert Grainger, a woodman in the first half of the twentieth-century. In simple direct prose, in paragraphs that could be poetry, we see his tough upbringing, the loss of the family he makes, the daily trauma of life as a lumberman, and the extraordinary changes that were transforming the west in those decades.  Without the slightest sentimentality, we are touched deeply by his tragedies and his ability to continue against awful odds.

This is work of genius, reminding me of Richard Brautigan but without the comic surreality.  I was certain it was the best book I had read in 2019; but then ….

I turned to The Buddha In The Attic by Julie Otsuka which covers much of the same period,  I gulped this exquisite gem in just two bites, almost not breathing throughout because I was so entranced by its magic.

In a marvelous and innovative way, Otsuka recreates the lives of a group of Japanese women shipped to San Francisco as mail order brides at the beginning of the century. Each chapter describes in vivid and intimate detail a portion of their lives: the trip across the Pacific; the first night with their new husbands; learning about how to deal with white folks and the hard work they were forced to endure; having babies; raising children who often reject their history; the shock of internment, and life after.

Her method — a sequence of linked narratives, often of a sentence only, which works throughout the novel — is hard to describe. I hope this small excerpt does it justice:

“We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 115-degree heat. We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the years. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. We gave birth in dusty vineyard camps in Elk Grove and Florin. We gave birth on remote farms in the Imperial Valley with the help of only our husbands … we gave birth in Rialto by the light of kerosene lantern on top of an old silk quilt we had brought over with us in our trunk from Japan …”

I feel privileged to have read this.

 


Writing For Dollars

December 21, 2019

For some, writing can be a very lucrative business.  Forbes magazine has compiled a list of the top five earning authors of 2019:

  1. $92m — J.K. Rowling
  2. $70m — James Patterson
  3. $36m — Michele Obama
  4. $20m — Jeff Kinney
  5. $17m — Stephen King

Other than Michele Obama, the names will be familiar to those who saw the report in March this year that tracked the top writers’ earnings from 2008-2018.  As I wrote then, the rich get a great deal richer.

I doubt that the new anti-transgender controversy concerning Rowling will affect her income to any great extent.