The Spur Festival, Helen Walsh told us from the stage, is meant to be like a live-event magazine. After just six short months in development, the festival of art, politics, and ideas opened last night in one of the Toronto Reference Library’s few bookless rooms, the Bram and Bluma Appel salon filling instead with people—around 300 of us, in fact.
We were gathered for the opening keynote, a discussion between book futurist Hugh McGuire and beloved librarian and events programmer Paul Holdengräber from the New York Public Library, moderated by Toronto Life’s editor-in-chief, Sarah Fulford. With a slightly wobbly but persistent optimism, we found ourselves congregating to listen to a very broad but impassioned discussion of the Future of the Book. The conversation couldn’t help but be full of digressions, with the speakers annotating and expanding at length on each other’s remarks. Literature is an unwieldy topic, and the future by its very nature can’t exactly be pinned down.
I drove through the market in the village of Arcahaie along Haiti’s western coast this morning, and saw sack after sack of Mega American Rice. Artibonite rice, named for the province about 50 kilometres north of here where it was grown, used to be renowned for its flavor, not to mention its role in the Haitian economy. For all intents and purposes, it no longer exists.
I had been thinking a lot about CIDA recently, the 45-year-old Canadian International Development Agency that was just put to rest in the latest federal budget. I’ve heard lamentations. I’ve read accusations of mismanagement. But all I found myself saying to anyone who would listen was, The thing should have been smothered in its fitful, fractious sleep years ago.
Aleksandar Hemon is a tall, athletic-looking man in a sea of nebbish Brooklynian tweed-and-sneakers types, although there are a fair number of women here to see him as well. He is bald and his glasses are wire-framed and small and he sat on the stool at McNally Jackson on Friday night like a man poised to make an escape. Opposite him was the novelist Colum McCann, who’d come to talk with Hemon about Hemon’s new book of “non-fiction” (that term is deliberate, more on it in a moment) The Book of My Lives. And as I was trying to get one of the last seats left I could hear people around me talking about just one particular part of Hemon’s work.
“That essay destroyed me.”
“It’s so sad, about his little girl...”
That essay, called “The Aquarium“ and detailing the death of less-than-two-year-old Isabel from a rare form of brain cancer, ran in the New Yorker last summer. A young friend of mine said to me after reading it he felt he “never wanted to love anything again.”
“It’s a great pleasure to tell the truth of the world to children, and have their minds blown open,” Patsy Aldana beamed from the stage. The former publisher of Groundwood books was presented with the Writers’ Union of Canada Freedom to Read Award last night, at an event meant to celebrate the efforts of the Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom to Read Week. “The biggest issue we are facing in our freedom to read,” Aldana continued, “is the diminishing capacity of publishing in this country; we need to really fight to keep our network of stores, our network of publishers, and our network of readers vital.” There was a huge round of applause.
It may surprise you to learn that the National Book Critics’ Circle award ceremony, which took place last night in New York, was pretty sparsely attended. It was not black tie, it was not a red carpet, and even the Powerpoint presentation which accompanied it was dominated by a minimalist aesthetic. And really, of course, no one expects the Oscars: books simply don’t occasion the same glitz. But the auditorium at the New School was perhaps half full.
It’s hard to resist extending that into a metaphor about how unpopular critics can be, even in the community they serve. Yet awards remind you that when artists complain about critics they mean “the people who don’t like my art.” Rare is the person with the fortitude to turn down an accolade, even when it comes from the hated critics. And in America, the NBCC awards occupy a space somewhere between the Pulitzer and the (much-debated) National Book Award, i.e.: they’re one of the more coveted prizes. (Full disclosure: I am a member, albeit a recent member, of the NBCC.)
Over in the United Kingdom, or as we colonials like to call it, the mother ship, the novelist Hilary Mantel has kicked up quite a fuss by writing a speech about the royals. Her critics include the Daily Mail, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, deep readers all apparently. And they contend that she has trained an evil, jealous eye on Kate Middleton. It perhaps goes without saying that they find Mantel’s judgment of Middleton unfair. The press in particular intimates that she must be jealous to dare to criticize Kate.
What, precisely, is the nature of the judgment, you ask? In the essay, entitled “Royal Bodies,” Mantel considers what it is that we expect, physically, of young women in Kate’s position. Mantel proceeds on the premise that the press treats Kate as little more than an incubator of slightly more genetically-diverse future kings and queens... MORE
The auction opens an hour before the tribute begins. The perimeter of Koerner Hall’s austere lobby is lined with Al Purdy’s life in artifacts. It’s mostly photographs, notes, and first editions. There is also a white Mexican shirt. A few people mill quietly about, but it’s clear that we in the earliest wave of the audience are more likely to look than bid. A crowd examines the various posted floor plans of Purdy’s famous A-frame; it’s the reason why we’re here—to ensure the modest cottage continues its legacy as a place for poets and writers to go and take the work of making literature as seriously and joyously as Purdy did.
In 1957, Al and Eurithe Purdy spent the last of their savings, around $800, on a piece of land near Ameliasburg, Ontario. And then they built a house. In the years to come, writers from all over the country, at all levels of public success, would make the trek to see the house and to meet him. But at the time Purdy was 39, and, as Michael Enright would later tell us, considered himself a failure.
For much of the night, six of the seven chairs onstage at the New York Review of Books’ 50th Anniversary celebration at Town Hall, on 43rd Street, remained empty. Bob Silvers, a founding editor, often sat in a seventh, watching over his presenting contributors. It was hard not to find heavy, if perhaps unintentional, symbolism in the empty chairs. Other than Silvers and Jason Epstein, nearly all of the other founders of “the paper,” as some of them referred to it, are dead: Barbara Epstein, Elizabeth Hardwick, Mary McCarthy, Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer. Silvers himself seems sprightly and all but it’s always sad to contemplate what it might be to find yourself the last one standing.
Quite unintentionally, three of the last four books I read were novels set in New York City, which is also where I happened to find myself last week. (The fourth was Edward Keenan’s brand new personal and political history of Toronto since amalgamation, Some Great Idea, and I’ll come back to that soon enough.) I’ve had the privilege of knowing (and even, in some cases, adoring) many Americans, including a big heaping handful of New Yorkers. I’ve shown some of them Toronto, and described our unique position as a small nation stretched over a very big piece of land. And of course, I also tell them what it’s like to watch their television, to read their literature, and to know that there are more people living in the state of California than in all of Canada. If we are forced to mistake America and her cultural industriousness for a mirror, we can’t help but recognize that we here have got a seemingly significant problem of scale.
It’s an amazing thing, really, but even people like Walter Murch get bored. The editor of films like, oh, you know, Apocalypse Now, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and The English Patient, Murch has the kind of life you figure is just one giant pitcher of fascinating conversation and good on-set food. But as he was describing his work on Monday night at McNally Jackson in New York, he said that with each project he found himself getting swept up in the pace of filmmaking—which he described as intensity piled upon intensity. Until, suddenly, he said, a film ends, and you are “launched through the windshield of your schedule.” It was in those post-crash moments of disorientation, he says, that he began to take up hobbies like, you know, translating mid-twentieth century Italian writing by a man named Curzio Malaparte.
This year, there will have been close to 160,000 psychological studies published in academic journals, magazines, and books, or as dissertations. Such studies aspire to measure and better understand how we are happy, how we are sad, how we love, how we lie, how we should sleep, why music is sadder, even why art matters. Here are 11 recent studies, sampled rather randomly by advance-searching PsycINFO with key words like “art” and “happiness.” And also words to do with sex.
Like every ex-pat Canadian in New York, I have a habit of letting Americans know when they’re speaking with pride of some figure who actually belongs to us. Which explains why all last night, at KGB Bar in the East Village, I kept wanting someone to interrupt the “Tribute to Mavis Gallant” we were watching and ask a Canadian to read. The people we were getting were all Americans—the novelists Lynne Tillman, Francine Prose and Binnie Kirshenbaum, the short story writer Deborah Eisenberg, and this guy named Wallace Shawn. And though all of them professed great admiration for their subject, some stubborn part of my soul was singsonging “Americans can’t have everything! Some things are too Canadian to be denied!”
When The Baffler launched its third issue at Housing Works last night, it was not content to have an ordinary party. The evening’s conceit was that we had been transported to the year 2112, where the libertarians ruled, and Ayn Rand had been reanimated—though the resurrection was still in progress, you might say. (The young woman playing Rand gamely drooled on her own lapel all night and moved only stiffly, her Russian accent waxing and waning all the while.) Then two contestants on a “game show” were quizzed, essentially, on their knowledge of Western literature—as seen by Rand, who described, for example, Lord of the Flies as a book she “wished was autobiographical.”
You might wonder how a ten-year career becomes worthy of commemoration, and so would I. Yet no one openly questioned why we were attending a “roast” of, rather than a reading by, Gary Shteyngart at BAM (which stands for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the borough’s premier arts centre) Harvey Theatre in downtown Brooklyn on Tuesday night, as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival. Perhaps that’s because it was a vaguely uncool issue to raise; we were supposed to arrive knowing better. Sure, Shteyngart’s three books are well regarded, but they are not classics just yet. (Late in the evening more than a dozen members of the audience would admit they’d never read any of them.) But everyone knows that being named one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” may actually count for posterity.
The first thing Alan Dershowitz wanted the crowd at the 92Y on Friday night to know about Jeffrey Toobin’s book was that he’d assigned it to a Harvard Law School class he was teaching on “how to write about the law for a general audience.” But upon reading Toobin’s new book, The Oath, he said, the students flooded his office, wanting to know how they could be expected to continue with the study of law. If judges were all as subject to politics and personality as Toobin suggested, they could no longer see the point of having a Supreme Court. “Was that your intention in writing the book?” Dershowitz asked, to the audience’s peals of laughter, and Toobin’s too.
It may be fitting that The Beguiling’s 25th anniversary celebration was a little shambolic. That pulp-choked house in Mirvish Village wouldn’t be the best comics shop in North America if not for its unsurpassed breadth—graphic novels, superhero books, classic newspaper strips, manga and bande dessinees in their original languages, risographed art objects and filmy zines—a selection that attracts similarly diverse readers. The sheer number of comics crammed inside that space can feel divertingly chaotic at times, and so was last night’s event, as hundreds of people waited on technical issues for half an hour outside the Bloor Cinema. But where else would they be able to see Chris Ware, Charles Burns, and Adrian Tomine on the same stage?
At seven o’clock, the first polls closed and I arrived, thinking I’d be early, to the Housing Works Used Bookstore in SoHo. But it was already standing room only. The AIDS-charity-owned venue, tucked away on Crosby Street, is one of the last holdouts of the artsy, progressive SoHo before the ibankers moved in. It turns into a cavernous performance space most nights of the week. Increasingly, it is the last Manhattan foothold of the bookish creative class that has now largely decamped to Brooklyn, who are packed together like fair-trade sardines tonight. The place is all Strand canvas tote bags and hand-knit caps, most people double-fisting Brooklyn-Lager-with-phone and a paper cup full of chili, which had been highlighted in the ads for the event as much-needed “comfort food.” The average age has to be under thirty, though here and there I see beards of serious vintage.
By the time the guy from the Film Society at Lincoln Center steps up to the microphone to introduce the movie, as well as its writer and director (that would be Anna Karenina, Joe Wright, and Tom Stoppard) I’ve learned a great deal about the sixty-something woman sitting next to me. She thinks that Keira Knightley is a very good actress, the person sitting in front of her is too tall, she skipped the last Ben Affleck screening because she’s seen him on too many talk shows, and she has a sister in New Jersey who would have come but for the storm. She delivers all of this information to either me or the slightly more receptive young Asian man on the other side of her without waiting to hear our responses. And yes, she has the dropped-Rs, ancient tweedy jacket, and lack of indoor-voice of a stock Woody Allen character.
I have decided to sit in the very front row, mostly so that I’ll have a new vantage point in what has started to feel like a very familiar room. I march down to the front and turn my back on the house. The stage fills my field of vision, and as the audience trickles in I realize that at least three rows behind me are empty. I suddenly suffer an irrational fear that the panelists will be able to see me and that they’ll think I’m strange, or that I ‘ll somehow throw them off their “A” Game. I suppress these thoughts, and the lights dim.
The panelists, James Grainger tells the few of us scattered about the house, are Beatrice MacNeil, from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia; Liam Card, from Port Elgin, Ontario, Kristel Thornell, from Sydney, Australia; Irvine Welsh, from Edinburgh, Scotland; and A.L. Kennedy, who was born in Dundee but currently lives in Glasgow, Scotland. There aren’t any novelists from the U.S. or England on the panel, though their absence makes perfect sense; other English speaking countries define their literature against these twin behemoths.
Even though I’ve shown up forty minutes early, the line to get into the Don DeLillo talk at the New York Public Library is already snaking down the hall, doubled up over itself. The thing about going to these types of talks in New York is that everyone else does it, too. Add in that this event is in midtown, where frustrated cubicle drones (I say that lovingly; until relatively recently I was one) could easily stop off after work, and the cattle-call effect is inescapable.
The events are always sold out even when, as tonight, the talk is being given by a man whose books are not, typically, popular bestsellers. His celebrity capital is of a different kind, which the city’s literati treasure much more highly than being well-known, per se: he has, as the Times’s Charles McGrath once put it, a cult. They are in evidence this evening, it’s true, given how many in line are openly clutching, if not reverently reading, DeLillo’s books. And come to think of it, the room the New York Public Library uses for these events is not un-church-like, with a high, domed glass ceiling.