The OED word of the year, PEN president Philip Slatton tells us by way of introducing the event, is “selfie.” He adds that the night’s proceedings—a conversation about memoir and literature of the self between Jian Ghomeshi and Sheila Heti, moderated by Mark Medley—might have been different if the word “twerk” had beat out “selfie.” Though the line-up, he joked, would likely have been the same. Medley said that if the audience were well behaved he might twerk before the night was through.
Medley asked Ghomeshi and Heti about writing in a graphomaniac world of status updates and tweets and emails, supplemented by selfies and vines. We’re all writing so much about ourselves, he said, more than ever before. Is a Twitter stream going to replace something more formal? “Is,” he asked, “the memoir doomed?” Heti, whose most recent book How Should a Person Be? is, while not entirely fictional, absolutely a novel and not a memoir, leaned back in her chair. Here was a question for Ghomeshi, whose debut book, 1982, is exactly a memoir of that year in his life. He said that he had a hard time calling it a memoir at first, if because he’d always mixed up the notion of memoir with memoirs—the latter a fuller “womb-to-tomb” autobiographical account of a person’s experience. As the conversation turned toward the differences between fiction and nonfiction, Ghomeshi would say that he wanted people to know that his story was one he’d lived through, that it was real. This became increasingly important as the book revealed more than just his teenaged infatuation with David Bowie, morphing into the story of his coming of age as a confused and resolutely pop-loving Iranian in Canada’s 1980s.
In our third—and final—dispatch from IFOA, Douglas Coupland remembers quitting smoking, and moderator Rodge Glass asks Craig Davidson, Tamara Daith Berger and others what is the point to all this writing.
In our second dispatch from IFOA, Isabel Greenberg bring a comic to life, Xiaolu Guo wraps us up in language, and Anne Carson talks about Krapp Hour.
Siri Agrell enters and introduces the panel: Peter Bagge, a short, grey-haired cartoonist who looks much less gruesome than the graphic self-portrait that appears in the program; Nadeem Aslam, whose face seems as open as a window, features built around eyes that widen in a way that seems almost spring-loaded; Jami Attenberg, whose face I’ve seen so may times on Tumblr, where she keeps a delightful, selfie-ful home online, that it feels for a second like we’re good friends and I get a bitter gut punch of nerves on her behalf when she walks out; and Sam Lipsyte, who looks exactly like Sam Lipsyte.
One of my favourite John Ashbery poems, “Instead of Losing,” ends with these lines: “Or is right now the answer—you know, the radio / we heard news on late at night, / our checkered fortunes so pretty. / Here's your ton of plumes, and your Red Seal Records. / The whole embrace.” The inscrutable elder of American poetry resists guiding reception or interpretation of his writing, but if you happen to be passing through New York this month, you can at least gawk at his stuff.
John Ashbery Collects: Poet Among Things, which continues at Chelsea’s Loretta Howard Gallery until November 2, raided its subject’s Hudson, NY, house for paintings, portraits, books, collages, furniture, toys, and a warping convex mirror. There are stanzas alongside them on the walls, but the exhibition eschews crude X/Y associations to try to display a process stilled.
Writing about a previous edition of Pop Montreal, I said that certain music festivals feature so many tempting shows as to make the scattered rush between them “strangely serene.” This time around, it was tranquil in a muted sense. You couldn’t wander down the street and encounter a band like the precise, nimbly noisy Deerhoof playing some unfamiliar club. There were no agonized choices akin to last year’s between Venus X and Lil B, at least for somebody with my tastes; I invariably found only one set luring me at every hour of the night. But in that subdued, off-peak mood, several moments still seemed emphatic.
You sometimes hear, including from me, that the annual Polaris Prize shortlists represent a misleadingly narrow spectrum of Canadian music, dominated by guitar-centric indie and its folksier hinterlands. Ascribe it to the lingering cultural prejudices of this huge small country, the taste consensus of the 200-plus bloggers, broadcasters and critics (like this one) who determine each year’s nominees, the ideological construct of meritocracy, the magnetic undulations of aurora borealis, whatever you prefer. But the performers at last night’s gala defied that critique: in the Art Moderne auditorium built by a ruined mercantile dynasty we heard assaultive riffs, worldly R&B, unbreathing minimalism, queer dance-pop, aboriginal club anthems, and finally a rejection of any such mediation. Jessica Hopper introduced the eventual oversized cheque recipients with two or three sentences: “Godspeed has decided not to be here.”
If you’re a woman and you don’t want to wait in line for a public washroom, just go to a live UFC fight.
Saturday night, Toronto hosted its third UFC pay-per-view. Mixed martial arts fighting had been illegal in Ontario up until three years ago, but those three fight-nights have been enough to prove its staying power, and at UFC 165, there were just a handful of unfilled seats in the Air Canada Centre (approximate capacity: 19,000). The light-heavyweight title fight of champion Jon Jones versus Alexander Gustafsson was the main event, but anyone can watch that at any bar with a few televisions. Half the fun of seeing a live UFC event is watching everyone in the stands, people suffering meltdowns over punches not landed and failed choke-holds.
Nelson Adams quickly shuts the door behind us after we’ve been ushered into the room. “Don’t let the humidity get in here,” he says to Claire Battershill, a former apprentice printer at Massey College’s Print Shop. The plan was for Battershill to give a few of the people working on the design and production of her forthcoming collection of short stories, Circus, a quick tour of the quirky anachronisms of hand-operated presses in the basement of one of the University of Toronto’s affiliated colleges, though circumstances changed, and the loose group was instead split into two; Battershill walked half of the crowd through her own history with the shop in the foyer, while Adams, the College Printer, gave us an overview of the presses and type.
Massey College, founded by a body of intellectuals (including Robertson Davies) in 1963, has a storied history of being involved in larger public life. The college is perhaps best known as the host of the Massey Lectures, which bring the ideas of public intellectuals, such as Northop Frye or Adam Gopnik, to a wide Canadian audience through partnerships with House of Anansi press and CBC Radio. The college also offers a journalism fellowship as a means of enriching public discourse through supporting research projects of established working journalists. It’s a fitting program, given the Davies family’s role in the newspaper business, and the college’s commitment to the role that publishing and printing play in intellectual life. The shop and its attached library of rare books detailing the diverse history of books and print are managed by a small team, dedicated to preserving the history of type and its production.
Several years ago, Bettye LaVette told New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson: “I am not a music enthusiast. I’m not a fan of music. I’m the music. I don’t know another way to phrase that. I don’t mean to sound arrogant. When you talk to my husband, you can see his love for music on his face, but for me it’s like living with a man for forty-eight years, and y’all don’t get along, but you’ve got used to each other.” Appearing at the Toronto Jazz Festival last night, the singer said it was part of her 50th anniversary tour (LaVette cut her first single, an elusive hit, when she was 16), following a decade-long “Who the Hell Is She Tour.” It took half a lifetime to get the break she deserved.
Walking up the stairs of the Winchester Kitchen and Bar I become discombobulated; the stairway ends abruptly with a mirror, and so instead of a room full of people you arrive only upon yourself. The real entrance is a sharp, unexpected turn to the right, and standing there is another smiling, brown-curly-haired, boldly bespectacled white woman, only this time she is not my literal mirror image, but someone else altogether. She asks if I’m there for the launch, perhaps sensing my confusion, and I gratefully answer in the affirmative. She directs me to a table where the latest issue of Brick has been stacked. I buy one.
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.