Sunday, March 27, 2016


A friend brought to my attention this wonderful "essay" by Rivka Galchen in the New Yorker, The Only Thing I Envy Men.

I write "essay" after looking for how the magazine labels it. It's a memoir (probably) but it reads like a short story, with wit, poignancy, and unexpected twists.

She starts off discussing "women writers" and I expected her to envy men that they hold the default position. This is true in part, but it runs much deeper that; it pokes gentle fun at our gender biases, but then picks away at the biological basis for how men and women form different emotional attachments.

Let me tell you why I love this "essay." Go read it first, I don't want to spoil it for you. It's short and lively.

First, doesn't it make you want to read everything? Helen DeWitt, Dorothy Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, Jane Bowles, Even Virginia Woolf. The joy of recognition: yes, I've read Natsuo Kirino.
For many years, Shirley Jackson was nearly the only "woman writer" I had read. Then, around age twenty-five, I had the blunt experience of looking at my bookshelves and noticing that my bookshelves were filled almost exclusively with books by men. Which was fine, I wasn't going to get in a rage about it, I loved those books that I had read. But I was unsettled, since my bookshelves meant either there were no good books by women, or I had somehow read in such a way as to avoid them all. I had never had my Jane Austen phase or Edith Wharton phase or even George Eliot phase, I associated those writers with puberty, or "courting," both things that repelled me. (I now know I was stupid to feel that way.) But, like I said, I wasn’t going to rage at myself, or at the world, I was just going to try to read some books by women. But where to start?
Second, it turns the issue of gender biases in literature and publishing on its head. What makes the writing of a woman writer so womanly? What makes Walser and Kafka sound "female," in Galchen's opinion? I love how she persists in believing Denis Johnson is a woman, even while being surprised that his book was written by a woman.

Third, it goes where good girls don't. It considers the possibility of (female) sexual behaviour without bearing the burdens of its consequences. It considers motherhood without the burden of children. The possibility of covert babies.

Fourth, it makes me wonder about the metaphorical children, the creative works that authors nurture and give birth to, letting them make their own way in the world. Do men and women relate to those offspring differently? Are women held to task for these children, while men more easily dissociate from them?

The essay comes from Galchen's book, Little Labors, due out in May. I'll be checking it out, along with everything else she's ever written.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Blue Met 2016

It's one of my favourite times of year again: The Blue Metropolis Literary Festival is just a couple weeks away, April 11–17, heralding the start of festival season in Montreal. But more importantly: books, books, writers, ideas, and books!

The program was released a few days ago. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a print copy — I'll spend days perusing it, circling, highlighting, dog-earing, before I settle on my own schedule of events to attend.

This year's International Literary Grand Prix winner is Anne Carson. I've been meaning to read her for years, so maybe soon.

The standout guest in my opinion is Valeria Luiselli, who is being honoured for The Story of My Teeth, which I'm reading right now. She'll be interviewed on stage by Scott Esposito.

Stay tuned for recaps of select events.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Boredom drove him to read the folder of hotel information from cover to cover, the fire escape plans on the back of the door, a copy of Yorkshire Life, anything that wasn't nailed down. He considered, and rejected, the idea of playing a mindless game on his phone and was eventually driven to look for a Gideon Bible in the bedside drawers but when he found one he realized he wasn't that desperate yet. A yellow Post-it note fluttered out of the Bible. In pencil, someone had written, "The treasure here is you." Jackson stuck the Post-it note on his forehead and died of boredom.

He came back from the dead after ten minutes, a Lazarus licked to life by a canine redeemer. The dog looked worried. Could a dog look worried?
— from Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson.

A coworker saw me in the metro and later asked, "What were you smiling at? You're so smiley!"

"My book."

The magic of Kate Atkinson: that stories so tragic can make me feel joyful.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Millions of beautiful words

I'd been copyediting for a few years when I landed a dream job, at a very hip ad agency. Designers and copywriters were clamoring to work there. I didn't know anything about advertising (this is well before Mad Men came to tv), but I did know a little something about editing, about publishing, and about how language works.

What's nice about working for an agency is the variety: print ads to websites to custom reports, one-offs and multi-phase campaigns, across all media. This job had me fixing grammar, checking proofs, and touring print facilities, but also acting as sounding board for creative. Editing as end-to-end quality control.

But the best thing about that job was my boss, my mentor, from whom I learned the value of a holistic approach to editing. Editing is less about spelling, grammar, and punctuation than it is about listening, hand-holding, and ego-stroking.

Early on, she loaned me her copy of Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A Scott Berg — a biography of he who edited the greats: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe. I got myself my own copy shortly thereafter. Every editor should read it.

Now it's been adapted for film.

Genius opens June 16th, and I'll be watching it. It looks like it takes quite the turn for the melodramatic, but hey, that's life, I'm living it.

Thanks, Edie, for everything.

Monday, March 14, 2016

You get to make sense of your yesterdays

Here's a book that I wouldn't ordinarily read, that I had no desire to read, that I had no intention of reading. Not my kind of book, I said. But even while trying to dismiss my coworker's recommendation, I was reminding myself to keep an open mind. How could I judge it if I hadn't read it?

Well, I've read it now. The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom, was entirely adequate as a way to kill time: an easy-to-read, serviceable story. Despite this, perhaps because of it, I found it wanting, in three main ways.

1. The cosmology.
For starters, the theology of it, the cosmology, the whole construct of heaven just doesn't work for me. You may say that this is subjective and unfair of me, a nonbeliever, to judge. But I do read a lot of SF, so suspension of disbelief is not really a problem for me. Until the internal logic breaks down.

This is the story of Eddie's life, told after his death, through his interactions with five characters who had a profound effect on his life, or vice versa. These people have a lesson to impart. Why five people? That seems entirely arbitrary. Given that people lead very different lives in quantity and quality, I don't understand how this number could be applied across the board. But it is, it's the rule. What happens if there are twenty-three people clamoring for the right to meet with you? And what if the people best suited to explaining your life to you are still alive?

Once you've met your five people, you in turn get to impart a lesson to someone. This is not that book, but I can't figure out how it works. You pick just one person, to teach them a lesson? How do you choose? By having listened to five lessons, you're now qualified to impart great wisdom to the newly deceased? What happens after that?

One person in heaven, the Blue Man, explains that this is not Eddie's heaven, it's his own heaven. So, heaven is telling someone a lesson about their life? Not hearing it? So is Eddie in heaven, or isn't he? Shouldn't it be "the five people you meet before heaven"?

This heaven is Eddie-centric, but it pretends to be an example of a universal principle. It's a little like It's a Wonderful Life, only imagine a whole choir of angels trying to pass their finals by running all the citizens of Bedford Falls through series of flashbacks and trials of what-ifs at the same time, but that would still work because there's an independent angel-passing body to ensure everything runs smoothly and everyone in Bedford Falls is being processed separately. But what if there were no angels, and all the citizens suddenly had to do 360-degree reviews of each other, but not everybody, just five random, erm, I mean significant people, you can see how the structure begins to break down. What five people would George Bailey meet in heaven?

By taking Eddie's singular story and trying to slot it into a universal schema, his experience begins to lose integrity and sense. Do we all have the same lessons to learn?

The second person Eddie meets, his commanding officer during WWII, tells him, "That's what heaven is. You get to make sense of your yesterdays." In my worldview, my heaven is right now — you get to make sense of your life before you die.

2. The subtlety (or lack thereof).
Eddie meets five people, and they tell him exactly what he's supposed to learn. I prefer lessons that are a bit more nuanced. I am, in fact, generally a smart enough cookie to figure out the moral of the story on my own. Eddie's lessons are all pretty obvious: everyone is interconnected, hatred can eat away at you, love doesn't have to end, blah, blah.

Compare this with, for example, Kate Atkinson, just because I happen to be reading her right now, but she's as fine an example as any. There are easily "lessons" in her books, about interconnectedness, sacrifice, purpose, etc. But she never sits you down to tell you, "Dear stupid reader, here is the lesson you must learn." She explores much the same territory as Albom — how seemingly random acts can hugely impact others — but it is that: an exploration, not a hand-held guided tour.

Maybe heaven is for dumb people. Or heaven is like school. Not sure I want to go. Albom's message is impossible to miss; there are no grey areas in heaven. But in my experience, life and the lessons to be had from it are much more complicated than Albom allows.

3. The details.
The Blue Man was christened Joseph Corvelzchik. Polish. For some reason I thought also Jewish, but I can find no evidence of that now, and then, why christened. But that name! Completely made up. It's just not plausibly Polish. Even assuming the immigration officials managed to mangle the records, why not simply give the name, the spelling, he was christened with. When transcribing from Cyrillic, for example, one may encounter spelling variations, but Polish uses a Latin alphabet, so it's not reasonable for an initial K to be transformed into an initial C (and trust me, a surname starting with C-o would be odd). But it's the l and the z — it's a phonetically unnatural combination. This surname reflects someone's mistaken idea of what Polish looks like. And it reflects poorly on the author and the editorial staff that it was not questioned.

Am I petty to harp on this detail? Perhaps. But when one detail is wrong, it gives cause to doubt the credibility of the rest of the experiences, whether in WWII Philippines or a mid-century fairground

God is in the details. Or the devil is. Take your pick.

I didn't hate it.
It's mostly a sweet story about a mostly sweet man. It's not a demanding book. It's less sappy than I expected it to be. But I want my books to be more.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Your life wants to become another's

"I'm dead, but I'm fine."
Dead inside, she means. Or maybe just dead to some people in particular.

I found The Lost Daughter, by Elena Ferrante, to be an uncomfortable little book. Like The Days of Abandonment, it is an emotionally raw book with a narrator that says things that nice women, good mothers, aren't supposed to say.
One looks at a child and immediately the game of resemblances begins, as one hurries to enclose that child within the known perimeter of the parents. In fact it's just live matter, yet another random bit of flesh descended from long chains of organisms. Engineering — nature is engineering, so is culture, science is right behind, only chaos is not an engineer — and, along with it, the furious need to reproduce. I had wanted Bianca, one wants a child with an animal opacity reinforced by popular beliefs. She had arrived immediately, I was twenty-three, her father and I were right in the midst of a difficult struggle to keep jobs at the university. He made it, I didn't. A woman's body does a thousand different things, toils, runs, studies, fantasizes, invents, wearies, and meanwhile the breasts enlarge, the lips of the sex swell, the flesh throbs with a round life that is yours, your life, and yet pushes elsewhere, draws away from you although it inhabits your belly, joyful and weighty, felt as a greedy impulse and yet repellent, like an insect's poison injected into a vein.

Your life wants to become another's.
The novella spans the length of Leda's holiday on the coast, which she cuts short after just a couple weeks. An English professor at the university in Florence, she spends her vacation days at the beach, and she is quickly engrossed in unravelling the stories and dynamics of an extended Neapolitan family who have settled down near her. They are loud and rough — vulgar — exactly the kind of people Leda has struggled her whole life to escape.

She is particularly entranced by a 4-year-old girl, Elena, and her young mother. Their relationship is marked by intensity and tenderness; Leda obsesses over it and seemingly covets it. Then one day Elena loses her doll, and Leda is drawn into their drama more directly.
I watched the child, but, seeing her like that, alone and yet with all her ancestors compressed into her flesh, I felt something like repugnance, even though I didn't know what repelled me.
Leda's train of thought leads us back through her relatively short marriage. We learn that she has two daughters, now grown, whom she'd abandoned. We have occasional glimpses of her own mother ("How I suffered for her and for myself, how ashamed I was to have come out of the belly of such an unhappy person.") and the life she left behind in Naples.
"Now it seemed to that an encrusted sediment that had been lying for decades in the pit of my stomach was stirring."
Throughout The Lost Daughter, Leda is overwhelmed with feelings of disgust and revulsion. Beneath the surface layer, the fruit are overripe and rotten. The smell disgusts her. Insects on her pillow. A repulsion for an adult's fake-child voice and a child's fake-adult voice. The doll gurgles something bilious, stomach filth, stagnant liquid. Leda almost constantly feels irritated, exasperated, agitated, annoyed, distressed. She feels a vague irritation, an uncontainable aversion. And this attitude pervades the entire book.

So who is the eponymous lost daughter?

When Elena is briefly lost at the beach, Leda remembers herself being lost, and also when her firstborn was lost at the beach.
Bianca was crying when they found her, when they brought her back to me. I was crying, too, with happiness, with relief, but meanwhile I was also screaming with rage, like my mother, because of the crushing weight of responsibility, the bond that strangles.
Leda's daughters live in Toronto with their father; on many levels they are lost to her — they will never understand how their mother abandoned them. But the title references a singular daughter.

Perhaps Leda is the lost daughter; when she had ambitions beyond those circumscribed by Neapolitan life, she disconnected from her roots.

Perhaps Leda views Elena's mother as a lost daughter, a daughter preferable to the ones she had. She is more like her, and present.

Elena's doll is lost, and she is an imaginary daughter, and also a symbol of all the other daughters in this book. A nonexistent, ideal daughter. The doll herself, in play, mimicking Elena's aunt, is pregnant; perhaps the lost daughter is the bile inside her, expelled, aborted.
"Children are always cause for worry."
I love the intensity of Ferrante. Her writing is compelling in its honesty, but it is emotionally exhausting to read. It'll be a few months before I'm ready to face her again, but I look forward to the Neapolitan novels.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Man does not actually accommodate science very much — he gets in the way of it

Sometimes I get strange thoughts, sometimes I think Chernobyl saved me, forced me to think. My soul expanded.
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich, is an utterly devastating document, assembled some 10 years after the 1986 accident at the nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine.

These are the accounts of witnesses and survivors: power plant physicists, emergency workers, and local farmers; those in power and those following orders; those who left, those who stayed, those who returned.

The scope of this tragedy is so vast; it deals in ignorance, incompetence, and a sovietism that blends pig-headedness, denial, and a deliberate attempt to cover up certain facts.

I don't think anyone needs convincing that Chernobyl was a disaster, both the fact of it and how it was managed. Astoundingly, for many, although the dangers were already known, it was preferred over the alternative. Some people, mostly elderly, refused to be evacuated, or returned shortly thereafter. This was the only land, the only life, they'd known. Others, they felt safer living with the physical threat of radiation in ready-made homes than enduring struggles for independence. People from Tajikistan and from Chechnya chose to resettle in the area surrounding Chernobyl because it was better than where they came from.
I was running away from the world. At first I hung around train stations, I liked it there, so many people and you're all by yourself. Then I came here. Freedom is here.
While this book depicts real events, at times it reads like science fiction. In particular, the physical and mental preparation to journey into the zone, cleaning up upon return from the zone, and drinking vodka to protect against radiation (a fully sanctioned practice, but complete bullshit) — these read like they're straight out of Roadside Picnic. It's more than the use of the term "zone" — it's the dread that the term embodies.

Robots were initially deployed to clean up Chernobyl, but the radiation disrupted their electronics and they broke down; so human clean-up crews were used instead.

A former head of the Laboratory of the Institute of Nuclear Energy talks about growing up in the glory days of science and science fiction, dreaming of nuclear energy and space travel; nuclear physicists were the best and brightest, it was a "cult of physics."
Life is a surprising thing! A mysterious thing! Now I believe. I believe that the three-dimensional world has become crowded for mankind. Why is there such an interest in science fiction? Man is trying to tear himself away from the earth. He is trying to master different categories of time, different planets, not just this one. The apocalypse — nuclear winter — has already all been described in Western literature, as if they were rehearsing it, preparing for the future.


Life is such a surprising thing! I love physics and thought that I wouldn't ever do anything but physics. But now I want to write. I want to write, for example, about how man does not actually accommodate science very much — he gets in the way of it. Or about how a few physicists could change the world. About a new dictatorship of physics and math. A whole new life has opened up for me.
Had Alexievich not been awarded a Nobel prize, I doubt I would've picked this book up; I'm not naturally a nonfiction reader, and the subject matter is depressing. But I'm glad I read it. It is horrific, but it is also eerily compelling. Since these are credited oral accounts, it's difficult to say that Alexievich is a great writer or even a journalist. Rather her craft is more like that of an editor's, curating the testimonials, selecting them and giving them structure and context. These accounts are sad, but they are balanced with occasional bits of humour and imbued with a deep sense of humanity. Alexievich very gently guides the reader from ground zero to Moscow and back again, navigating personal remembrances, military accounts, and the official record. Truly this is a literary chronicle of the soul.

One recurring theme is that of freedom. Tragedy, it seems, brings with it the gift of perspective and liberation. You come to know what's essential, and let go of the rest.
We'd ask each other: is this what our life is like? It was the first time we saw it from the outside. The very first time. It made a real impression. Like a smack to the head... There's a good joke: the nuclear half-life of a Kiev cake is thirty-six hours. So... And for me? It took me three years. Three years later I turned in my Party card. My little Red book. I became free in the Zone. Chernobyl blew my mind. It set me free.