Summertime: Kanye West, Hemingway, and Daiquiris

“As a writer you should not judge, you should understand.” — Ernest Hemingway


Kanye West is performing tonight at the closing ceremonies for the Pan Am games in Toronto. There’s been a lot of Canadian-style outrage over his appearance here. Some people are angry an American artist is headlining the event, and some just think that Kanye West is, well, not a very nice person. There are so many problems with the debate around this that I don’t know where to start. You could read this column in Now, or Shad’s comments at the CBC for some thoughtful comments.

Sure, West is arrogant and has a tendency to upset sensibilities by being a jerk at big social events. (Taylor Swift seems to be doing fine, by the way.) But no one’s accused him of being a serial rapist, or a pedophile. As far as we know he’s  never locked a teenage girl in a hotel room so he could have sex with her without the press knowing about it. He didn’t get behind the wheel of a car drunk and drive off a bridge causing the death of an innocent passenger, or been accused of tying his wife to a chair and assaulting her for hours.

When an artist isn’t a paragon of virtue, does that devalue his artistic achievements? Or does art exist on its own, the measure of whether it’s good or bad established only against other works? And who gets to judge? Does it make a difference if the artist is dead or alive? I can’t watch a movie by Woody Allen anymore, not just because his creepiness now seems obvious, but because I don’t want to support him financially. But I still read Patricia Highsmith’s books with pleasure, even though I don’t agree with all of her views. There’s a great doc on Netflix right now about Stephen Fry and his love of the music of Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer.

For some, Ernest Hemingway’s glorification of manly pursuits such as boxing and bullfighting, makes reading his books a bit of a guilty pleasure now. Not for me, mind you. I still love the guy, and his spare, granite prose, like a Mies van der Rohe building, cold and warm at the same time.

DaiquiriHemingway knew a thing or two about guilty pleasures, and his favorite liquid pleasure at  El Floridita in Havana was the daiquiri.

The daiquiri is the perfect summer cocktail to sip while you’re indulging your taste for imperfect artists and flawed heroes, maybe on a dock with a book, feeling the sun beat down on the blood-spattered sand of a Spanish bullring, or chilling on a rooftop with friends watching Kanye perform with his irresistible blend of seduction and provocation at the closing ceremony of the Pan Am games.

Here’s how you make one:

  • 1 1/2 oz white rum
  • juice of one lime (or 1 1/2 if they’re the withholding kind)
  • 1 tsp powdered sugar

Shake ingredients in chilled shaker with ice.  Pour into chilled glass. Summer’s brief. Enjoy.

On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

“When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.” – Oliver Sacks

courtesy of Penguin Random House

courtesy of Penguin Random House

Oliver Sacks is as much a writer as a doctor.The searching spirit shared by the artist and the scientist has always been a part of his life, and with it the impulse to observe and record.

On the Move is a candid look at the personal and professional life of Oliver Sacks, well-known neurologist and author of Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, (one of my favourite books, and one I reread periodically) and many other books. On the Move is, like Sacks’s case studies, anecdotal and filled with closely observed sketches of family members, friends, lovers, patients, mentors and people he met on the road.

Many of the details of his life will be familiar to readers from his other books. He has already published a childhood memoir, Uncle Tungsten.  In Hallucinations he wrote candidly about his youthful depression and drug experimentation, and in A Leg to Stand On he described his path to recovery after a mountaineering accident caused a severe leg injury. Some of the stories shared in his previous books feature in On the Move, along with excerpts from letters, journals and early writing. Everything comes together to reveal the life of, as Sacks describes himself, “a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.” Those passions include not only neurology, but writing, music, motorcycles, weight-lifting, scuba-diving, botany, chemistry, and the study of the human spirit.

Sacks was born in England. Both his parents were doctors (his mother was a surgeon and his father a general practitioner) as were his two older brothers.  Oliver followed suit, but he felt constrained by an England with “too many Dr. Sackses” and “it was not easy, or safe, to be an open or practicing homosexual in the London of the 1950s.” Nor in the presence of his mother, who, when he revealed his sexual identity to her responded with, “You are an abomination . . . I wish you had never been born.”  Sacks had a vision of “the rugged open spaces of the American West” and set out in 1960 for Canada, where he travelled for a while, then California and finally in 1965, New York City where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life.

Sacks has an endless fascination for people and their uniqueness. (He confesses that when asked to grade a group of students, he gave them all As because they all had different ways of thinking that made their intelligence unique.) With material gathered from a lifetime of journal-keeping, we meet truckers, weight-lifters, doctors and writers, and witness a life filled with passion, curiosity, dangerous risk-taking as well as shyness and insecurity.  Sacks suffers from face-blindness, which makes it difficult to recognize people, and admits that his experiences at a horrendous boarding school as a boy may have contributed to a difficulty “bonding.” He’s open about his mistakes as well as successes, and there are a few abandoned (and lost) projects, regrets, and the usual heartbreaks and losses that are a part of every life.

courtesy of Penguin Random House

courtesy of Penguin Random House

Above all is a deep passion for writing, and the book is as much about the books, written and unwritten, as Oliver Sacks’s life. Like many other writers, he finds in writing a way to think about the world. “It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing.” His scientific and authorial idol is the Russian neuropsychologist A.R. Luria, whose case history Mind of a Mnemonist combined clinical observation with “the dramatic power, the feeling, and the structure of a novel.” Sacks sought to emulate that style in Awakenings, the book about his work with post-encephalitic patients at Beth Abraham hospital in the Bronx. It was his first successful book (it was later adapted for a play by Harold Pinter, and a movie starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams) and infused with the author’s now trademark admiration for his patients and “how intensely human they were, throughout all their vicissitudes.”

When the author sent his friend, poet Thom Gunn, a copy of Awakenings, he received an admiring letter in return. Gunn noted the presence of a quality he felt had been missing in Sacks’s youthful writing, “call it humanity, or sympathy.” Where Gunn felt that in the past a “deficiency of sympathy made for a limitation of your observations,” sympathy was now “literally the organizer of your style.” It’s compassion that makes all of Oliver Sack’s books both moving and beautiful, and in On the Move there’s an added poignancy from the knowledge that Sacks may not be with us long enough to write many more books. In February, Oliver Sacks revealed in a New York Times essay that a rare melanoma contracted in 2006 had spread to his liver.

”I cannot pretend I am without fear,” he wrote. “But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return.” Many of those gifts are shared with his readers in this enjoyable memoir, and in all of his other books.

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: a review

“Let the reader enter with his or her own imagination.” Toni Morrison

God Help the ChildToni Morrison is one of the most respected and beloved writers working in America today. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is known for her beautiful writing, memorable characters, and vivid expression of the African-American experience, and novels such as Sula, Song of Solomon and Beloved are modern American classics. Now 84, Morrison continues to experiment with narrative and language, and use writing as “a way of thinking.” Her latest novel, God Help the Child, explores themes of race and childhood, themes that are familiar to her readers and closely echo those of her first novel, The Bluest Eye.

God Help the Child has several narrators, but focuses on two characters, Bride and Booker, and their relationship. Bride, a cosmetics company owner, sublimates the pain of her loveless upbringing  and her guilt over a childhood act of betrayal, by cultivating beauty and pursuing success. Born with blue-black skin to a light-skinned mother, Sweetness, Bride spends her childhood craving her mother’s love and approval but never receiving it. Booker is a musician who hides his own childhood pain. He’s captivated by Bride’s beauty and they begin an affair. But in the wake of Bride’s attempts to atone for the guilty act she’s kept secret for years, Booker’s own pain is exposed and he abruptly leaves. Through Bride’s attempts to find him, she learns more about Booker, and herself, and what she must do for healing and forgiveness.

The voice of Sweetness, Bride’s mother, drew me into the story on page one. Sweetness’s awfulness makes for compelling reading and I wanted to see more of Sweetness and Bride, and of how the mother’s discomfort around her own daughter “so black she scared me” affected Bride. “What you do to children matters,” observes Sweetness. “And they might never forget.”

But Sweetness’s voice is replaced by Bride’s, and then a host of other narrators. Characters tell their stories, sometimes adding to our knowledge of Bride, but occasionally feeling like a distraction. The multiple points of view might be more satisfying in a longer book, but at 178 pages, peripheral characters in God Help the Child remain unexplored and even Bride doesn’t have the indelible stamp of authenticity that the characters in Beloved and The Bluest Eye, for example, do. Bride’s mysterious physical transformation and encounter with Rain and her parents in the woods feels more symbolic than entrancing, and ultimately doesn’t seem closely connected with her journey to, as Morrison put it, “becoming a three-dimensional human being.”

Despite these quibbles, Morrison’s compassion, intelligence and thoughtful writing are always welcome. The author’s depiction of racism and shadism, and the lifelong wounds left by childhood abuse, both emotional and physical, are visceral and affecting. There are many points in the book where the writing stops you in your tracks. Where Sweetness is withholding and cold, Booker’s parents nurture body and soul, treating the weekend breakfast table as a forum for questions and discussion served with a banquet of “hot biscuits, short and flaky; grits, snow-white and tongue-burning hot; eggs beaten into pale saffron creaminess ; sizzling sausage patties, sliced tomatoes, strawberry jam, freshly squeezed orange juice, cold milk in Mason jars.” Booker’s last memory of his brother Adam “skateboarding down the sidewalk in twilight, his yellow T-shirt fluorescent under the Northern Ash trees,” is moving and lovely.

It’s writing like this, poetic and luminously alive, that reminds you why you came to read Toni Morrison again. And if there isn’t as much evocative storytelling in God Help the Child as you would like, you can be forgiven for being a bit disappointed only because she’s set the bar so high in the past. Morrison explained the act of writing to an interviewer as “control. Nobody tells me what to do. It’s mine. It’s free. It’s a way of thinking. It’s pure knowledge.” Lucky for us that she’s still pursuing that knowledge on the page.

For more on Toni Morrison and God Help the Child, read this New York Times feature by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and listen to a brief excerpt of the author reading for the audio book.

A bunch of stuff that happened in my book world, February edition

“The most serious charge that can be brought against New England is not Puritanism, but February.” – Joseph Wood Krutch, writer and February-hater.

February is the shortest month of the year, but it likes to do this: blizzard

And then I mostly just want to do this: go away

But fortunately there are a few interesting things happening in the world of books to read and talk about.

Literary Hub to launch in April

The Wall Street Journal reported a story earlier this month about a “Huffington Post for the literary world” to be launched in April.

The site, scheduled to go live on April 8, is called Literary Hub. Focusing on literary fiction and nonfiction, it will present personal and critical essays, interviews and book excerpts contributed by nearly 70 partners ranging from the small press New Directions to heavyweights such as Scribner, Knopf and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Bookstores and literary magazines such as the Paris Review also will contribute. The site, at, will commission original content, including dispatches on the literary scenes in cities across the country, bookstore profiles and a weekly review of books. (Organizers are still discussing whether it should publish its own book reviews.) The site will offer a new book excerpt each day, and a daily roundup of literary news.

The whole thing feels a bit vague at this point. According to its creator, a literary hub is needed because “there’s a gigantic amount of literary content being produced each day but unless you have 10 people looking for it, you won’t find it.” Really? That seems like a statement by someone who just recently heard there’s this thing called “The Internet.” Indeed one of the aims of Literary Hub is to target “literary types who weren’t early digital adopters, and still prefer to read on paper.” Uh, why? Anyhoo, I was curious enough to subscribe. You can read the full article at

Listen to Roxanne Gay in Toronto

The International Festival of Authors and Harbourfront Centre hosted Roxanne Gay in Toronto. The popular writer, professor, blogger and author of Bad Feminist spoke and read from her novel An Untamed State. If you missed it because, well, it’s February in Toronto and you didn’t want to go outside, you can listen to the full talk at

An interview with Harper Lee’s editor at Vulture

Assuming you are reading this blog and love books, you have heard that there will be a new book published in July by Harper Lee. Go Set a Watchman is already a bestseller, and in the wake of initial excitement, there’s been some fascinating discussion about exploitation of the elderly and the rights/wishes of an author regarding her work. When an author dies, are we obligated to honour her wishes if, for example, she wants any remaining manuscripts or personal documents to be destroyed? Who owns the letters and journals of a deceased author – a community of literary fans and scholars, or her still living relatives, whose lives may be affected by the publication of documents initially intended to be private? And if an author is still living, but we’re unsure of her capacity to make decisions about her affairs, are we obligated to honour her past wishes more than her present ones? You can read an interview with Harper Lee’s editor at

Hey, there’s this book called 50 Shades of Grey and they made a movie!

With much heavy-breathing on the part of movie studio executives, the film version of 50 Shades of Grey was released this week, giving the internet the opportunity to turn away from Gamergate, Bill Cosby and whatnot to focus once again on belittling women, their literary tastes, desires, etc. Having personally slogged through 300 pages of the book, with 200 to go, I can honestly say that the discussion around 50 Shades is more enthralling than the book. I haven’t seen the movie yet; the reviews aren’t promising and I’m loathe to fork over the bucks – I’ll wait for the iTunes release. There’s an entertaining review, though, by Monica Heisey at The Hairpin.

Accident at the Sugar Beet at the New Yorker Fiction podcast

The New Yorker Fiction podcast’s latest story is Tom Drury’s Accident at the Sugar Beet, read by Antonya Nelson. Drury’s small-town rural setting is a place where warm neighbourliness lives next to unknowable desires — think walking through a cornfield strewn with ground glass. Accident at the Sugar Beet is funny, touching, and unsettling, and I am ashamed to admit I had never heard of this very fine author. You can listen to the story at The New Yorker, or download the podcast on iTunes.


I don’t buy books as often as I’d like. I don’t have the budget. But sometimes people give me gift cards, an’ I get to treat myself – ooohh.

All the Songs

So here is All the Songs: The story behind every Beatles release by Jean-Michel Guesdon & Philippe Margotin. It’s not scholarly exactly – much of the information can be found elsewhere, and there are far too many exclamation marks and question marks for the text to feel authoritative.

But there are lots of bits of trivia and photos, so I can read along as I listen to the albums,

drink coffee, look at pictures of cool British birds like these three: Another Girl

                                                                                                                                               and pretend that February in Toronto never happened. Heaven.

Review: The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman


Rise and Fall Rachman

“[The]past is like overseas: it still exists, even when you are not there anymore. Future time too. It is there already.” – Tom Rachman, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers

My reading slump came to an end earlier this month with The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman. It is his second book since his critically acclaimed debut, The Imperfectionists. In some ways it’s more difficult to talk about a book you like than one you don’t—so much easier to be clever at someone’s expense. And I liked this book very much, so I’ll just tell you about it.

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the story of Matilda—Tooly—Zylberberg, owner of a failing bookshop situated in a tiny Welsh village and run with the help of Fogg, a twenty-eight-year-old “urban sophisticate, no matter how his location, how his entire life, militated against such a role.” Tooly leads a solitary life running her shop, playing the ukulele and taking walks in the hills, when a message from someone in her past lands in her Facebook inbox: “Desperately trying to reach you. Can we talk about your father???” Which might be startling enough except that Tooly doesn’t know to whom he is referring.

And so Tooly and the reader begin a journey into her past which takes us to New York, Thailand, England and Italy, from the 1980s to the present day. Through a narrative that moves back and forth in time, her life is slowly revealed.

At age nine Tooly travels the globe with a man she addresses as Paul (who could be her father) and a copy of Nicholas Nickleby. (There are lots of Dickensian touches in the book, including lost or missing fathers, characters with names like Fogg and Mr. Priddles, and an “orphaned” protagonist adrift in a dangerous world.) In Bangkok Tooly goes to school briefly, until she meets Sarah, a charismatic figure who alternately showers her with lavish affection and ignores her completely.  One day Sarah takes her to a party and introduces her to Humphrey, a Russian who reads philosophy and addresses Tooly as “darlink”, and the alluring Venn whose manner toward Tooly is both respectful and protective.

From that point on Tooly leads a peripatetic life with this unconventional new family.  Venn’s philosophy of freedom and independence —and his charm— is so seductive that Tooly is willing to do  anything to please him. At twenty she’s sharing an apartment in New York with Humphrey and inserting herself into the lives of a group of college students. She begins a relationship with a law student named Duncan, initially with the hopes of picking up some useful information to take back to Venn. Duncan falls in love with her of course, since he is twenty and insecure, and Tooly is mysterious and detached.

As Tooly learns more about her past she begins to question the assumptions she made about the people around her, and their true motivations, and to think about the power of others over her life. Fortunately for Tooly, and for us, not all of life’s lessons are cynical ones, and if charm can sometimes mask venality, grace and generosity may come in a homely guise. As a reader we’re sometimes wise to the hidden motivations of the adults around Tooly before she is, but not always.

The story ranges geographically and spans decades but the result is surprisingly intimate.  The title hints at grand events, but there are no sweeping scenes or dramatic revelations in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. (Sorry, if that’s what you like, it’s not here, and there have been some reviews complaining that the pace is dull. But then if that was all I cared about I wouldn’t read Murakami either, and I love him.) It is the people with whom we share our lives that leave an indelible mark on us, and acts of love, both disguised and declared, that affect our course.

As in The Imperfectionists, each page sings with beautifully observed characters, evocative description and thoughtful prose. But while The Imperfectionists was episodic,  (more linked stories than a novel) The Rise and Fall of Great Powers combines ideas, style and structure into a cohesive and emotionally satisfying story. This is a wonderful book and I wanted to read it all over again as soon as I was done. I can’t wait to see what Tom Rachman does next.

Tom Rachman will read from The Rise and Fall of Great Powers at the York Quay Centre in Toronto on Wednesday June 25 at 7:30 pm.


Some thoughts on writing

“The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.” – Maya Angelou

I have been in a bit of a reading slump. Do you ever find that the more you read, the more it takes to really grab you? You find there are ideas or ways to express ideas that you have seen many times before. And it gets harder and harder to find those books that are really trying to say something to you besides, “Hey, look at me.”

Of course all art is graffiti on the wall. But some graffiti says, “This is what it’s like to be me, know what I mean?” And some is just tagging.

I read a manuscript once that was well-written in that clever, faux-Lorrie Moore way that is so enamoured of critics these days, with a cast of quirky, damaged characters with shocking secrets in their pasts. It wasn’t terrible, and I could easily picture it in hardcover on the shelf at the local bookstore. But it wasn’t authentic. I hadn’t noticed at first because I’d never expected to be lied to. Writing a novel is hard. Why would you go to all the trouble to do something so difficult, with such a shaky promise of success if you don’t actually have anything to say?

Maya Angelou died this week. I have never read a book by Maya Angelou. And you know what held me back? Taste. I interpreted her popularity as a sign that she couldn’t be very good.  There were many times I heard the wisdom of her words in quotes and interviews, and they spoke to my feelings very directly. But for some reason I ignored that and continued reading “smarter” books. I’m not proud to admit it, and it’s something I’ll be correcting when the flurry of holds at the library dies down.

Literary taste is a club. Clubs are made to beat people over the head with. A lot of people really, really want to fit in. So they write books they think other people will likethat manuscript I read for example.

Other writers are doughty travelers. They’re ambassadors from the country of What-It’s-Like-To-Be-A-Freak, and they come to your country to meet you and shake hands. Their story might be weird or extreme, or as familiar to you as your oldest memory. The telling could be simple or fancy, traditional or novel, clever, dumb, sappy or cynical, funny, morose or lyrical. But it’s from the heart.

I just want authors to be honest. There’s an idealistic part of me that wants literature to be pure and trueand I don’t exclude commercial fiction here. If you really want to say something to me, I’ll forgive imperfections of writing or plot. But if you just employ the conventions of writing with the hopes of exploiting my feelings as a route to personal fame and fortune, I’m just going to be pissed off.

A good book bears witness to life on earth. It’s an offering, to the universe, and more intimately, the reader. It’s saying, this is what it’s like to be me. You feel me?


Black and White

Lorrie Moore: Interview

Photo credit: Linda Nylind

Photo credit: Linda Nylind


One of the most well-regarded writers in America is in Toronto and I am about to meet her. I’m in a boardroom at the offices of Lorrie Moore’s Canadian publisher, copies of her latest story collection, Bark, on the table in front of me, and an empty chair at the end of the table where, presumably, she will sit when she arrives. I’m trying to contain my excitement, fumbling with my iphone to make sure it’s set up to record properly, and wondering how I got here. When she arrives, dressed in an understated grey jacket and black skirt, it is she who puts me at ease, greeting me with a smile and an outstretched hand.  Throughout the interview she is frank and engaging, her frequent laughter creating a charming sense of friendly intimacy and interest.

Lorrie Moore has written three novels  (Anagrams, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and A Gate at the Stairs), and four collections of short stories (Self Help, Like Life, Birds of America, and Bark). She has also been a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, writing about books, films and television, and has taught creative writing for several years, most recently at  Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The New York Times described Birds of America as “At once sad and funny,” and observed Lorrie Moore’s “virtuosic skills as a writer”. At her very best, her original use of language and close observation of contemporary life combine to create short stories that are both zingily entertaining and touchingly insightful.

I began by asking her about Bark, and whether the book was conceived as a thematic whole, (“Oh, whole with a ‘w’! ‘What? There’s a thematic hole?!”) or was, as she described Birds of America, a “temporal document”.

LM: I think Bark would be like almost all the other collections. Self Help has six mock imperative stories and three that are just first person and it’s called Self Help in a jokey, mock imperative way.  But I think all these collections are a pulling together of stories that I wrote over a period of time. And thats why I call them a temporal document. They don’t have a relationship to each other so much but they’re responses. They’re not so much stories about where I am—although I wouldn’t say that but someone else might. Except to the extent that all writers write about what’s on their mind so there’s that. But usually there’s something that has happened in the world or in life and I get an idea and combine it with another and then I sit down and work out a story and that’s really sort of fun.  In Birds of America there’s a stronger sense of place, I think, in each of those stories than there was in the previous collections. And in the book following Birds of America, which was A Gate at the Stairs which was very much focused on place. And then in Bark  the settings of all the stories are key but not important—or they’re necessary but not the thing the story is about except to the extent that they’re all stories about America.

DM: Some  stories are overtly political and some have a political backdrop. There’s a mood of disappointment overall in the book, a coming to a stage in someone’s life where one’s been through a significant amount of loss. How much of that is cultural and how much is personal experience?

LM: I think that’s what stories are reckoning with. In a sense they’re tiny little narratives of injury and of disturbance and three of the stories have public events in their background. So the first story [“Debarking”] has the invasion of Iraq which was driving everyone crazy in 2003 which was when I wrote the story. (And it was fact checked by The New Yorker so if anyone thinks I got the facts wrong they’ll have to take it up with The New Yorker.) That was really a huge thing and I’m not sure it was sufficiently appreciated by people in other countries how crazy-making that was for most Americans. It was really a hard time. And then we have the worn out intelligence analyst in “Subject to Search” and then there’s the guy that is just so happy that Obama is about to be elected [“Foes”].  So those are the three out of eight that have those kinds of public events in them. But that’s just true to how one lives. It’s not as if you live without those things in your life.  So is there regret and rue and all of that? Sure, but there always is. I think there were in other collections of mine as well.  But nobody stabs anyone! There’s a stabbing in the first collection and in the third collection someone jumps out a window. And someone shoots someone in Birds of America. So there are no real weapons here. I think it’s a lighter book because no one gets shot and no one gets stabbed!

DM: Two of the stories are based on works by other writers.

LM: “Based on” would be a little strong for one of them.  But one of them [“Referential”] yes, it shadows the Nabokov. The other one [“Wings”] just lifts a plot element.

DM: I wanted to know more about your motivation for writing those stories.

I don’t know what came over me. It’s really crazy. Each came about differently. With the Nabokov, I read “Signs and Symbols” yet again. I seem to read it every other year as a teacher and suddenly I noticed different things about it and it set off a kind of shadow story in my mind. Maybe I was inspired by Nathan Englander having done this with the Ray Carver story. He wrote something that was not a close shadowing of the Carver story. Do you know the story that I mean? He wrote a story  called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” and it’s a brilliant story. I just loved it. And he used some of the language of Carver and it’s exhilarating. He takes a situation that is like Carver’s where he has the couples meeting for dinner. He sometimes has the language show up, but he’s just telling his own story—it’s different. I stay very close to the Nabokov story.  I have them actually visit the son, which in the Nabokov story they don’t do. And I have the couple not be married, but I follow the Nabokov story very closely. I thought, I don’t even know if this is kosher! Can anyone really do this? I don’t know. Nathan did it in one way and I was doing it very, very closely and I didn’t know. And so I thought well, I’ll let the world decide.

DM: You did follow it closely. But I felt it was your story too. It was one of my favourites in the collection, and there’s so much beautiful writing in it and the emotion really came through. The son is in an institution and his impulses are extreme, but he’s very sensitive to the world, very intuitive, and he senses Pete’s leaving before his mother. I wondered where you stood in terms of his “craziness”.

LM: Well, I guess you’re not even supposed to use the word crazy when you’re talking about mental illness! Mental illness is just illness and I don’t necessarily think that it means that you’re completely out of touch with any truths, or what you say is nonsense, and in fact the history of the mentally ill is such that in some cultures they’re thought of as possessing the truth and speaking from the gods. I don’t believe that. He’s a troubled boy but these are troubled adults too and he knows that Pete is going away because Pete has already been absent. But the mother has dragged him there on the boy’s birthday and so Pete gets a lecture from the boy.

DM: A very poetic lecture. Is poetry something that you read a lot or have ever written?

LM:I used to. I wrote very terrible poetry and I used to read very good poetry.  I read it only sporadically now but I do read some.

DM: The other form of storytelling I’ve heard you talk about is television, and some examples of longform television drama that can tell a story in a very novelistic way. What are the things that writing can do that television can’t?

LM: Well, writing is not a collaborative thing. It is one person designing and telling stories and that will always be interesting in its own way.  That’s something television can’t do. The collaborations on cable for particular narratives are often incredibly interesting but its not a writer’s form. It’s not one solitude meeting up against another solitude. The author is behind a story, but is creating a story that then is just for the reader. The story is almost a kind of mask for the author and then the reader encounters the author through that story.  But in television there’s thirty creators and the writer may be the least of it.  So that’s what fiction writing continues to do. It’s one person writing and that has its strengths. You don’t have this great cast of actors to use and you don’t get to have their facial expressions with all their subtlety and amusement. Facial expressions are really what make these actors so valuable and interesting.  So you don’t have that, but also you don’t have any time limits. You don’t have some director saying “no no no we’re doing it this way” or story editor saying “no, we’re cutting out the part about the tree.” It’s all yours. You get to design it all. It’s one human mind, one human imagination, it’s not a committee.  That’s the way literature will continue to be important.

DM: You’ve talked about your admiration for Alice Munro. I felt that reading “Wings”. Are there other contemporary writers you admire?

LM: I admire them all. We didn’t talk about “Wings“ and the James thing.

DM: Yes, I wanted to talk about that.

LM: The James thing there was just the triangle.  The plotting that has been taken and  done by a number of people. Terrence Malick did it in Days of Heaven. That’s Wings of the Dove too. So it doesn’t have James’s writing. It doesn’t have his story. It has that elemental plot thing which he used over and over again in different ways. I just kind of lifted that but then wrote my own story. I wanted people to pay attention to the fact that this was a kind of gilded age story in a new gilded age so I named the characters KC and Dench after the James characters.  It’s not a close following like “Referential”.

There are a couple of stories that move around in time and end back in time rather than forward in time. I dont know. I don’t think my writing bears any resemblance to Alice Munro’s. I wish it did.  She’s a genius.

DM: Can you talk a bit more about the evolution of “Wings.”? I think I read in one interview that you had originally conceived of it as be a novella.

LM: It depends on your definition of novella. I thought maybe it would get to sixty or seventy pages. I just thought the amount of time that would be needed for these relationships to merge could possibly require a novella. But it fell a little short of that. That’s alright, that’s just life.

DM: I wanted to ask you about the title of Bark, which can have multiple meanings. Joan Didion once said “I write to find out what I’m thinking” and I wondered if you found that with your writing. Do you sometimes understand something better after you have written about it, or followed a train of thought through wordplay and puns?

LM: I think I may start with a question and then end up with an answer to a different question. Not that short stories have to ask questions or be quests for knowledge but often they are.  Language sharpens and refines but may also lead you down the garden path. And yes, “Bark” has multiple meanings—the cortex of the brain, the yelp of an animal, the papery skin of a tree (sometimes used for writing), the boat that takes one across water, as in the river Styx. It’s a good anglo-saxon word, and its etymology is perhaps related to the German for “broken.”

DM: Can you tell me about your writing process? You teach as well. How much time do you have to devote to your writing and how do you generate ideas? Do you keep a notebook?

LM:I do keep notes. And files, and I used to literally keep notes on my desk. Right now I don’t even have a desk that I’m working on because I’m in a rental. It’s just a dining room table. And I am teaching so that does take up time. Back in Madison I have a room with a table that’s just for writing. I also bought a new place in Nashville which I haven’t had time to move into. And that’s just mostly empty.  So I thought, this could be perfect, I can just write on the floor!  When I’m running errands in Nashville if I spot a furniture store I’ll go in and I’ll look around at the tables and the desks and see if any of them speak to me but none of them have yet. It’s very catch as catch can.

There’s not a week that would go by that I’m not taking some notes, but there might be a week that goes by that I haven’t written a page. That’s bad. These tours take you completely away from your work and it’s absolutely not what you signed up for.  I have a  writer friend who,when he has to have his picture taken, says to the photographer, “When I’m not writing I’m a dead person. And when you take a picture of me you’re taking a picture of a dead person.” And that keeps it short! But to have a long spell without interruption? I’ve had that. I have a dim recollection of it. And I’m looking forward to having it again. But there‘s no set process because there’s too much interruption. There’s no set life.

DM: What makes something  a novel vs. a short story when you start to think of an idea?

LM: I think the novel is essentially sterophonic. Everything I’m going to say about the novel is probably also true for an Alice Munro story. I think of the novel as being about time, that time is a real player and you need the space to work out the force of time, time as a character and that’s why you’re working in a longer form. There’s a stereophonic aspect so you can have different points of view. You can operate in different times and have those sections be talking to each other that way. Stories tend to be too brief to accommodate that, too fragile. And I think also that a novel wants to present a world, and recreate that world and so it needs the space to recreate that world. I think short stories are better speaking out from a world that is already shared somewhat with the reader so it doesn’t have to spend time creating and presenting that setting. So it is a good form for presenting stories of contemporary life. I shouldn’t say form, I should say genre, because it doesn’t really have a form except to the extent that it’s briefer than a novel. It would be harder to write historical fiction in short stories or it would be harder to present a world that you didn’t already take for granted and understand and then push your story out through that. If you had to spend the time inventing that world and creating that world, that might be better to do in a novel.

If your ideas have to do with setting, which is time and place, you probably need a novel. If the setting is less attached to your idea, and the setting can be assumed or  presumed between the reader and the author then you can work in a story.

DM: You don’t prefer one or the other? Or it’s just where the idea leads you?

LM: It is that. I don’t have a big stack of novels that I’ve written and yet I’m taking notes for a novel now and I’m looking forward to really somehow settling in to it at some point. We’ll see.

DM: And you’re not interested in working in a collaborative genre?

LM: I’m not. I’m not because I just think, why would I? Why would I want to do that? The thing is once you choose to be a writer of books you have made that decision to be alone. I made that a long time ago. I don’t want to have to take someone’s notes and include them.  The whole idea was to be a literary artist and artists work alone.  Essentially that’s what they do, especially writers. If you just want to be paid and have a job that has some writing in it, maybe its fun. I’ll never know.

DM: Any ideas exciting you right now?

LM: Yeah, but I can’t speak of them. It has to do with the novel that I’m beginning but it’s going to take a long time. We’ll see what happens.



Bark by Lorrie Moore



“‘Hope is never false. Or it’s always false. Whatever. It’s just hope,’ she said. ‘Nothing wrong with that.’” – Lorrie Moore, Bark

Bark is  Lorrie Moore’s first story collection since the publication of Birds of America in 1998. I reviewed that book here when I read it two years ago. At the time I was struck by Moore’s imaginative use of language, so truthful and surprising, and her ability to use humour to give warmth and understanding to some of life’s harder truths. I was excited when I heard there was a new book. And when it arrived in my mailbox with its gorgeous cover, I couldn’t wait to get started.

Bark has just eight stories, only one of which was not previously published. I wasn’t familiar with any of them, so I just dove in and read them in order, practically in one sitting.

The collection begins with “Debarking”, first published in The New Yorker in 2003. In it, America embarks on a war with Iraq, and a recently divorced middle-aged man, Ira, meets Zora, a sexy pediatrician. Ira senses something amiss about Zora, but “Like everyone he knew, he could discern the hollowness in people’s charm only when it was directed at someone other than himself.”  Despite misgivings that Zora “might not be all that mentally well” — what tipped you off, Ira, her bizarre relationship with her teenage son? Ira continues to see her, telling his friend Mike, “I can’t live without some intimacy, companionship, whatever you want to call it, to face down this global craziness.”

In “The Juniper Tree”, three middle-aged women visit a friend who has just died. Like, I mean, they actually go to her house and have a conversation with her. At first I thought it was a dream, but, no. The protagonist and her friends live in a small college town where they take turns dating the same eligible but emotionally unavailable man and stave off despair with gin and crafts.

Every woman I knew here drankdaily. In rejecting the lives of our mothers, we found ourselves looking for stray volts of mother love in the very places they could never be found: gin, men, the college, our own mothers, and one another. I was the only one of my friendsall of us academic transplants, all soldiers of art stationed on a far-off base (or, so we imagined it)who hadn’t had something terrible happen to her yet.

That “yet”.  Although you could understand why the narrator might be worried. Her friend Robin gets cancer and dies. Of the other two friends, one has lost an arm, and the other suffered a stroke.  In a bizarre visit to Robin’s house the night after she dies, the protagonist is judged for not bringing the right gifts, and forced to perform, singing  The Star-Spangled Banner for her dead friend.

“Paper Losses” is about the end of a marriage. Kit and Rafe are increasingly alienated from each other, Rafe “prickly and remote, empty with fury” descending to the basement to build model rockets, “filling the house with fumes” and occasionally throwing attention Kit’s way with random, weirdly expressed affection, causing Kit to observe, “It was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle: Should marriage be like that? She wasn’t sure.” No, Kit, no it shouldn’t.  Kit’s inability to let go of her misplaced desires causes her to be swept along by events,  and she accompanies Rafe and the children on vacation even after Rafe has served her with divorce papers, because “they had promised the kids this Caribbean vacation so what could they do.”

In “Referential”, a middle-aged woman and her lover visit her mentally ill son in an institution. His illness is not named, but he sees “veiled references to his existence” in everything around him. “Do you think of me when you see the black capillaries of the trees at night?” he asks Pete, his mother’s lover. “Do you think of my mom when staring up at the clouds and all they hold?”  “We can be found,” he says, as if sensing that Pete has already emotionally left this family. “We haven’t disappeared, even if you want us to.”

“Referential” is itself referential, an homage to Nabokov, lifting plot and whole passages from his story, “Signs and Symbols”.  In an interview in The New Yorker Moore said she admired “Nabokov’s adventures in language and style and naked braininess.”

The last story in the book, “Thank You for Having Me”, is the sunniest, despite its plangent tones. At a country wedding, an ex-husband plays the piano for the bride, the guests drink wine and eat misshapen chicken, and a biker straight out of a George Saunders story rides in and makes a speech. It’s a strange party, with lots of funny moments, but most importantly, with a sense of the small triumphs available to us when we dare to connect:

People shouldn’t have been set in motion on this planet only to grieve losses. And without weddings there were only funerals…So much urgent and lifelike love went rumbling around underground and died there, never got expressed at all, so let some errant inconvenient attraction have its way. There was so little time.

It’s a nice way to end the book, but it’s not the story that stays with you. That would be “Wings”, a retelling of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove.

KC and Dench are down and out musicians renting a house near a hospital, lying in bed, selling their clothes on eBay and splitting their morning Starbucks. Well, Dench is mostly the one lying in bed. KC gets the coffee, taking the dog with her and chatting with Milt, an elderly neighbour she meets outside his house. As KC and Milt’s friendship progresses, Dench suggests KC encourage Milt’s feelings for her in the hopes that Milt will die soon and leave KC his money.

Spoiler: KC will eventually punch Dench in the face, but I wondered why it took her so long. She should have done it much, much earlier, possibly the day she first met him, when he auditioned for her with his “inexpressive baritone” and young, soon-to-be-dumped girlfriend waiting in the car.

But in the meantime, like Ira in “Debarking” and Kit in “Paper Losses”, KC remains infuriatingly mired in her own passivity.  Dench, once appealing and charming to her, is unreadable: “She had given up trying to determine his facetiousness level. She suspected it was all just habit and his true intent was unknown even to himself.” Something is rotting in the walls of the house, “yeasty and sulphuric” and as “the lines between things seemed up for grabs” even Milt’s motivations and desires are ambiguous.  It’s not until Dench reveals source of the rot in the house, in a horror movie-style gesture of cruelty, that KC finally disentangles herself from him.

As horrifying and dark  as “Wings” is, it is the story in Bark that comes closest to marrying real feeling, ideas, story and language. It’s not that  Bark isn’t well written. But without the warmth of relatable characters it’s like a wasps’ nestjust a hollow paper shell full of stings. Too many of the characters and situations in Bark seem contrived. Zora in “Debarking” isn’t just unappealingly weird, she’s dysfunctional and abusive, and it stretches credulity to believe Ira would stay with her just because he’s lonely and frightened by the bombing of Baghdad. Secondary characters are vehicles for clever lines that lack authenticity and aren’t charged with enough emotional juice to give the stories meaning.

I feel sad that so much good writing is adrift in these unlikeable stories. Lorrie Moore’s facility with words can still stop you in your tracks. In the best moments she employs those skills with tender precision, like when KC observes as she’s falling out of love with Dench: “You could lose someone a little but they would still roam the earth. The end of love was one big zombie movie.” But too much of the time her observations felt cynical and reductive, and her unrelieved imagery of death and decay had the effect of making me feel after I’d read the book that I’d woken up next to a corpse.

In the end reading Lorrie Moore’s Bark was a bit like KC meeting the charming but hollow Dench: “it was like walking into a beautiful house to find the rooms all empty.”



Stories About Storytellers by Douglas Gibson

Stories About Storytellers

“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” – Arthur Plotnik


A while back I posted about Douglas Gibson’s  Storytellers Book Club.  At Gibson’s website, choose one of five seminal CanLit classics and read along with others, guided by discussion questions written by Gibson and enlightened by his insight as an editor and personal friend of the books’ authors.

In Douglas Gibson’s career as an editor and publisher he has partnered with some of Canada’s most important authors, including Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Hugh MacLennan, Mavis Gallant and Alistair MacLeod. His knowledge of the Canadian literary scene from the sixties to the present day, and his passionate dedication to our literary culture shine through in Stories About Storytellers, which recounts his professional and personal relationships with twenty-one iconic Canadian writers.

The introduction to Stories About Storytellers is by Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro. She credits Gibson with supporting her choice to continue to write short fiction as opposed to novels.

He was absolutely the first person in Canadian publishing who made me feel that there was no need to apologize for being a short story writer, and that a book of short stories could be published and promoted as major fiction. This was a fairly revolutionary idea at the time. It was his support that enabled me to go on working, when I had been totally uncertain about my future . . . his respect for my work changed me from a minor, “literary” writer who sold poorly into a major writer who sold well.

Gibson is probably right to claim that this alone would be enough to justify his entire career in publishing. But working with Alice Munro is only one of his accomplishments, and at the time that Munro’s letter was written (to the head of MacMillan of Canada explaining her decision to follow Doug Gibson to M&S), he was also working with Hugh MacLennan and W.O. Mitchell.

Gibson joined Doubleday in 1968 and worked as an editor and publisher for forty years until his retirement in 2008. In 1968 Canada had just celebrated its centenary with Expo ’67, Lester Pearson was prime minister, Margaret Atwood had not yet published The Edible Woman, Coles was the preeminent bookstore in Canada, and WH Smith’s Standard Book Numbering (SBN) system was two years old.  Today Canadian readers buy  books in stores and online, (digitally or on paper), the old nine-digit ISBN has been expanded to thirteen digits, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature and Margaret Atwood is a recognizable international brand. We celebrate Canadian books and writers with countless awards and prizes, and our culture (including fiction and nonfiction writing) has benefitted from a diversity of voices never imagined in 1968.

When a book “works”, the reader doesn’t think about how it came into being, and most readers aren’t aware of how collaborative an effort writing a book can be. We often imagine that an author toils away in her lonely office, polishing and honing her masterpiece in isolation until it is perfect and ready for publication. Many very talented writers probably don’t need a great deal of editing, but many more benefit from the insights of a sympathetic and supportive editor who understands both the artist’s personal vision and the marketplace. An editor advocates for the reader and the writer, identifying places in a manuscript where the writer’s vision isn’t clearly communicated and gently suggesting revisions that might help.

With Alice Munro, Gibson’s responsibilities included suggesting titles, helping source appropriate artwork for her covers, encouraging Munro to continue writing in the vein at which she excelled (short stories) and “to get her to agree that, oh all right, we really do have enough stories now to bring out a new collection [and] to stop Alice from trying to rewrite the book, compulsively polishing the proofs as they go to her for what we hope will be purely formal approval.” With Alistair MacLeod, too, Gibson says his editing role was “almost non-existent.”

Sometimes Douglas Gibson was working with someone who wasn’t primarily an author. Brian Mulroney, for example, wrote his memoirs without the help of a ghost writer. Gibson recalls,

He would write it, chapter by chapter, in chronological order, and Francine [Mulroney’s assistant] would send the neatly-typed chapters to me, usually in hard copy. . . I would edit them, making changes, shifting paragraphs, and so on, as seemed appropriate. Then I would hand these edited (and thus very messy) pages over to my trusty editoral assistant . . . and he would produce a clean copy. . . That was what went back to Brian, along with an explanation of the changes I’d made, if they were not obvious. . . As always, the author — the man with his name on the cover — had the last word.

Stories About Storytellers is filled with insights into the creative collaboration of editor and author, as well as lively anecdotes about Canadian writers of the sixties, seventies and eighties, some forgotten and some still writing today. But  what I really loved about the book was Gibson’s passion for the country, which comes alive as he recalls his travels across Canada, from Victoria to Newfoundland, and his encounters with the people who have helped create our country’s literary voice. Whether he’s describing “the endless lakes and rocks and pines outside the Greyhound bus window . . . giving way to fields and farms and maple trees” on an early trip to Ontario from Winnipeg, conversing with a drunk Newfoundlander on a plane, (“I never met a Newfoundlander I didn’t like”, he confesses) or driving through the Annapolis Valley to visit a dying friend, Gibson’s descriptions of Canada are lyrical and heartfelt.

In December 2013 Douglas Gibson accompanied Alice Munro’s daughter Jenny to Stockholm, where she accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature on her mother’s behalf. No one could be more deserving of the trip  as Gibson, who  has demonstrated through his life, work, and writing, a deep love for this country and its literary culture.

For David Gilmour: A Reading List

The internet’s a bit like Halloween — people feel free to say things behind a mask that they would never say to your face. Last week it was the whole Miley/Sinead thing, where a musician of a certain generation chastised another musician of a certain other generation, in the guise of helpful advice, regarding the younger musician’s sexually provocative performance. Sinead was accused of slut-shaming (not without warrant) and generally being crazy (cruel and uncalled for); Miley then responded by attacking Sinead’s mental health, damaging what credibility she may have had, which resulted in Sinead escalating the conflict to rather silly heights.

This kind of thing is truly unfortunate, focusing attention on disagreements among women while we pretend that a frank discussion about women’s freedom of expression can take place in a neutral, bias-free forum. There are so many things to discuss with this fascinating dust-up beyond one woman’s mental instability and another’s bratty response. Is Miley Cyrus expressing her own sexuality in an empowering way, or is she pandering to male tastes in order to sell records? Is sexuality unique and innate to the individual or socially constructed? And if it is a social construct, how can women claim their bodies for themselves in a sexist culture? How much freedom do female artists have in the commodified world of popular culture? Is there a line between “artists” and pop culture “personalities”? Should there be?

ANYWAY, previous to that kerfuffle, was the David Gilmour ballyhoo. In a brief interview that you can read on the Random House Hazlitt page, Gilmour, without a trace of self-awareness, revealed that he doesn’t teach female writers (or Canadians) in his class at the University of Toronto because he only teaches what he loves, and he doesn’t love any female writers, apart from Virginia Woolf. (Apparently he teaches a course on short fiction. Without mentioning Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant, one supposes.)

I’m sure David Gilmour is a very nice man.  And if you’re reading for pleasure, you should be able to read whatever you like. But he’s teaching a class. And in that capacity he has an obligation to encourage open-mindedness, empathy, critical thinking and curiosity.

Many teachers would say that they learn as much from their students as their students learn from them. In that spirit, I decided to ask some people what they thought David Gilmour should read. I especially wanted to hear from the demographic that might sit in one of David Gilmour’s classes. (Two of my respondents did, in fact, take his class “Love, Sex, and Death” at U of T. One of them dropped out, the other stuck it through to the end.)

So, here you go, David Gilmour. A list of titles hand-picked just for you!


To start off in Gilmour’s comfort zone, Peter suggested A Boy at the Leafs’ Camp by Scott Young because “there are no icky girls in it except Bill Spunkska’s mum.”

Wetlands by Charlotte Roche was Maria’s pick for Gilmour.  In her words, “I think he has the stomach for it.” I haven’t read this book, but I must be one of the few people who hasn’t, because according to Wikipedia, in March 2008 it was the best-selling novel in the world! I’m not sure how much love and death there is in it, but there’s lots of sex. Weird, girly sex.

According to a couple of his students, one of Gilmour’s favourite tropes was middle-aged men going to Paris and  having affairs. So Muna thought he should read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. In this book a man goes to Paris and has an affair. Just the kind of book Gilmour loves, except that the characters are gay.

Emma suggested Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, which she read “in two separate classes taught by male professors.” Apparently some men are able to recognize the brilliance of Munro’s ability to bring fully realized characters to life with a few deft strokes of the pen.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was Shirley’s pick for Gilmour because “seriously, he could have inspired it.” The thing about Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction is that to some of us, it doesn’t seem farfetched.

Katie had two choices for David Gilmour. The first suggestion was Bear by Marian Engel, which is written by a Canadian woman (two strikes against it there) and features some hot girl on bear action. The second was Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks. Race, class, gender, and pedagogy — ooh, a heady mix, and perfect for this list.

And finally, two suggestions from Diyaa: Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Because, in Diyaa’s words, “I think Mr. Gilmour thinks only “Serious Heterosexual Men” write about Serious Things. Well he’s most definitely wrong.”

Have a suggestion to add? Let me know in the comments!