I tried to not clean this up on purpose, because this is how it naturally is. Russell has his own bookshelf upstairs. Some of these are ours, a lot of them are books by friends, which is fantastic, because so many of them are signed. They used to be alphabetically organized, and then Hugo happened. So his books are slowly moving up and up, and spreading like mold. It’s gonna be kid’s books everywhere.
On Tuesday morning, the New York Times published an essay by Angelina Jolie, where she bluntly described her decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy. Jolie tested positive for a rare gene, BRAC1, which greatly increases the likelihood that the person with the gene will develop breast and/or ovarian cancer. In addition to making the decision to have the painful surgeries, Jolie also described her choice to publicly discuss her health. Shortly after her piece was published, there was a frenzy of media response pieces, many of which were directed at the distinctly angry public reaction to Jolie’s essay (measured imperfectly through comments, blog posts, and tweets). At Salon, Maria Konnikova made the excellent point that while Jolie was bringing a different kind of awareness to breast cancer prevention, under the current healthcare system in the states her actions and choices are not only widely unavailable to American women, but in fact the broader awareness of genetic testing for BRAC1 may harm some women in material ways. Here in Canada, each province has different levels of coverage (though all provinces cover testing for the BRAC1 and 2 genes, depending on a patient’s medical history), but more options are available to the average Canadian woman when considering her own health.
This headline in the Guardian is technically inaccurate, but not exactly misleading: “I was swallowed by a hippo.”
Some trivia to fit this weekend’s theme: The word “mother” is an ultraconserved one, meaning it is about 15,000 years old. Speaking of Mum’s day, here is a lovely photo gallery of grandmothers around the world, and the meals they’ve made for their grandkids.
Recent books by Michael Moss and Mary Roach look, respectively, at the grossest parts of our alimentary processes: The terrible foods we put in our mouths, and what our wonderful, revolting bodies do with them after.
Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelf belongs to Lauren Kirshner, the author of the novel Where We all Go, and founder of Sister Writes, a writing program for marginalized women in Toronto’s West end. Her books are in her home in Toronto, which she shares with her husband and two cats.
When I moved in here, I had about 400 books and I just tried to move everything. It ended up being in garbage bags, and I was so eager to get everything unpacked that I didn’t shelve them in alphabetical order. After a while I got frustrated with not being able to find anything, I couldn’t lend people books. Finally, I put everything in a loosely alphabetical order. But I like lending books, or giving people books, and now it’s gotten messed up. But I’m not too particular about it.
So I suppose this is where I should come clean and admit that while I enjoyed reading both The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises, I’ve also long thought that Fitzgerald and Hemingway take up a much bigger space in the canon than the actual literary merit of those two books should permit. I might not go quite so far as to call either of those American modernist novels “a sort of aesthetic Ponzi scheme,” as Jared Bland wrote in the Globe and Mail about The Great Gatsby earlier this week. The movie, however, looks like it will be a spectacular celebration of the empty glamour Bland finds in the novel. I mean, did you see those Tiffany tie-in jewels?
“DON’T: Tweet zero times a day. Because then you’re no better than the animals!”
“I sat in a suite at the Savoy hotel, in privilege, resenting the woeful ratbag I once was who, for all his problems, had drugs.” This one’s from earlier this year, but I only happened on Russell Brand describing the pains and joys of sobrietyafter years of addiction this week. Hat tip to Hazlitt’s own Jowita Bydlowska, who knows a thing or two about all this herself.
Kirk Heron is a comedian and writer who told me that he would be unfit for my Shelf Esteem column here at Hazlitt because he only keeps one book at home, and it’s a single collected volume of Lord of the Rings. He is perhaps best known as the co-creator and quiz master of Toronto’s most popular weekly trivia night, Brass Facts, but is also a question-writer behind the scenes on the beloved trivial enterprise Cash Cab. The show follows host and cab driver Adam Growe around as he picks up fares in Toronto and quizzes them en route to their destination. Contestants, as you might expect from the name of the show, are given cash for correctly answering each question. Like trivia in general, it’s silly and delightful.
What would you say is the platonic ideal of a trivia question?
I can’t say for sure what type of trivia question Plato would have enjoyed. God, that was a bad joke. I can, however, say that trials have shown that the best trivia question is one that is multi-faceted. Instead of boring and straightforward question like “Who was the King of England in 1767?,” it’s much more fun to ask the same question with more information. A bunch of trivia geeks will know that the King of England during 1767 was George III, but they might not know that he had an affair with a hedge trimmer. I just made that up, of course, but asking “What British monarch had an affair with a hedge trimmer in 1767?” is perfectly confusing.
Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelf belongs to editor, National Post books columnist, and critic Steven W. Beattie. As the reviews editor of Canada’s book industry magazine, Quill and Quire, and proprietor of the long beloved literary blog That Shakespearean Rag, Beattie is an extremely dedicated reader. His books are tightly packed onto various shelves in the apartment he shares with his fiancé, Sarah Dunn. Dunn pointed out that her books were once organized alphabetically and by genre, and they both laughed as Beattie admitted that his encroaching book storing habits had overtaken her system, which sounded to me rather like love.
Organization is, how does one say...nonexistent. Books tend to get thrown wherever. These shelves over here started as overflow. Now there’s a section for Canadian poetry. Every shelf has more books behind the front ones. So I guess if there is any organization, it’s that the stuff in the front is newer than the stuff at the back. This is the problem with just throwing books on the shelf. Many of them are just pushed to the back and forgotten. At some point I’d like to go back and find out exactly what I’ve got back there.
At home with Claire Messud and James Wood, and their dachshund Myshkin, who for some reason didn’t make into the lead photo for this intimate profile of the “First Couple of American Fiction.”
Kim Gordon prefers to listen to rap music when she’s feeling traumatized, as she (and possibly all of Generation X) did when her marriage to Thurston Moore broke down. Also, she’s still totally rad. Even eternal rebel girl Kathleen Hanna thinks Gordon is the queen of the neighbourhood: “Fucking Kim Gordon thought I was on the right track, haters be damned. It made the bullshit easier to take, knowing she was in my corner.” Speaking of Bikini Kill, I wonder if anyone’ll be keeping track of all the explicitly feminist ponytails being worn by the audiences for The Punk Singerat Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. (Documentaries, by the way, are very much a thing right now.)
The young people are making new words slash old words do new things, and it’s cool. Language, man!
Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelf belongs to novelist, critic, and Ryerson University director of American Studies Randy Boyagoda. His shelf is in his office at the university, across from a window with a panoramic view of Toronto’s sky, which was grey on the day he gave me the tour of his book case.
What you’ll notice here would be primarily American books. As a professor of American Studies, that’s the context for most of the books here. But they are also books that I teach, that I end up reviewing, books that people send me...but the majority would be books that speak to my great interest in American literature and culture. In some ways, as I look at this shelf, what I notice are books that I’ve written about for various magazines and newspapers alongside books that I’ve enjoyed reading for my whole life, and books that I teach, various copies of my own fiction, pictures of my various kids...That’s kind of the main element here. If my writing life has multiple purposes then so too does my bookshelf.
Cabinet magazine recently celebrated ten years of putting curiosity on the printed page, and to mark the occasion they’ve released a door-stopping compendium to direct readers through a decade of miscellany. Curiosity and Method: Ten Years of Cabinet Magazine is a self-conscious encyclopedia, announcing itself as a book that aims to take both the long and short view. Just like the magazine, it collects writing on all manner of minutia from academics, essayists, and journalists. Also just like the magazine, it takes an antiquated interest in what true wonders remain in our information-saturated world.
While we at Hazlitt devoted this past week to failure, the rest of the world continued to fail just as reliably as it always does. Both CNN and the New York Post, to name a few, failed to let the actual facts cohere before reporting on Monday’s horrific bombing in Boston.
Here at home, John Barber failed to accurately depict Sheila Heti’s experience of working as a Canadian artist. Luckily, Heti wrote her response to his notion of just how much Canadian literary society has or hasn’t failed her, both before and after her most recent novel met with some American success.
Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelf belongs to author an columnist Tabatha Southey, whose famously tart and smart writing delights readers of the Globe and Mail on the regular. Southey’s book shelves are all over her house, which she describes as designed specifically to enable comfortable reading. She shares her home, and her books, with her two children and their dog, Tulip.
It’s just such a random collection of books. This book here, I don’t know if you know this book. He was on the Scott Expedition. Asply Cherry-Garrard was the youngest on the Scott Expedition. He almost died, as did his two companions. He was sent to collect Emperor penguin eggs. George Bernard Shaw, who was his neighbour, actually helped write the book. He almost dies, and the book ends with him taking the emperor penguin eggs to the British museum. And they don’t care about them at all. They’re just stuck away in a box. It’s a beautifully written book, a classic of Antarctic exploration. It’s a book I really love.
Sometimes, we can’t help but delight in other people’s misfortunes. From Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and Tommy Wiseau’s The Room to Cecilia Giménez’s well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous foray into religious art restoration, we as a culture are prone to LOL at spectacular failures. In his new ebook, Epic Fail, Mark O’Connell investigates the impulse to laugh at and deride the most earnest and flawed among us is good-humoured in its own right, and offers an examination of what it might mean to fail without comprehending our failures, including our own (epic) moral failure. Tracing a short history of the guilelessly untalented, from novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros—who left Aldous Huxley, among others, in stitches from the literally incredible and comical badness of her prose—straight on down to the famed Monkey Jesus Fresco Fiasco, O’Connell paints a subtle picture of epic human hubris, cruelty, and, yes, failure.
In the wake of the Orange Prize becoming the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the subsequent release of the list of this year’s nominees, there have been a few tweets and columns asking why we even need a women-only literary prize. I’m of a few minds on this—do women-only prizes really address a potentially gender-segregated readership, do they pave a path for female authors to be taken more seriously by reviewers, do they encourage a wider awareness of women’s work? Or do sex-specific prizes simply console us a little, we may not get treated with the respect we deserve from, say, the Times or our publisher, but hey, maybe we’ll win this prize. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that the prize has historically been awarded to some great books. This incredible and transparent piece from Deborah Copaken Kogan in the Nation doesn’t convince me of anything so much as the need for serious change in publishing—from the agent through to editor, book designer, publicist, reviewer and prize jury.
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.
Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelf belongs to Michael Lista, who is the poetry editor of the Walrus, a poetry columnist at the National Post, and the author of Bloom, a book of poems about Canadian Manhattan Project physicist Louis Slotin. His shelves are at the literal centre of his home, a loft in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, where Lista has lived for four months. All sight lines in the space extend toward his enviable library, which was lit beautifully by the afternoon sunlight on the day I visited.
My old place, I was there for three years. I had a bunch of random bookshelves, and the books got out of control. It was sort of like Hoarders-esque. It was really, really bad. Like, everywhere towering fucking stacks. So when I moved in here I got my sister’s boyfriend, who’s a carpenter, to build these shelves. And I got in touch with Carey Toane [a poet and librarian], I knew that she had gone through library studies, and I asked her if she knew anyone who wasn’t working and might be interested in organizing my bookshelves. So she put something on Facebook, and like five minutes later this woman, Elizabeth Ellie McAlpine, got back.
Renata Adler, interviewed by The Believer, on contemporary literary criticism: “More like a race to join the herd of received ideas and agreement.” And Sheila Heti, interviewed in Numero Cinq, on contemporary literary criticism: “It’s fun to see that stuff going on in America. In Canada, nobody was talking about the book in that way, so it’s cool to see it being used as a prop in peoples’ arguments.” Okay, and Michael Lista, in epistolary conversation in Poetry, on contemporary (especially Canadian) literary criticism: “Conservatism is the worst thing with which a critic can be charged; it implies that you’re inured to the only faculty that makes you worth reading—the ability to be surprised by the authentically new and have your mind changed by it.”