Monday, February 28, 2005

Three to go

I am reading three books at the moment. I often am. And I have a stack of books by my bed that I plan to read but haven't got to yet. I have started The Time Traveller's Wife - great so far.

Then I am re-reading Saint Saul by D.H. Akenson. Poor St. Paul/Saul is never given the attention he deserves; as Akenson points out very ably, Saul wrote before the destruction of the temple, before the gospel writers, while Jesus' brother James still ran the "Jesus movement" so what he says about Jesus , or doesn't say -just as important- should be very pertinent.

I am also picking out parts to read from Margaret Drabble's A Writer's Britain which I picked up used. Now since I am going away overnight (again!) I have to choose which to take. Or I could take all three. No wonder my bags are always so heavy.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Retreat Treat

Imagine this: Four women writers, non-published writers but writers nonetheless, holed up at a country house for two days. No husbands, no kids, no dogs-or horses. No phones to answer, no newspapers, no televisions to suck away the time, no news and the only weather outside the window. And no worries except those brought along. Yes, 3 of my writer friends and I enjoyed such a weekend and what a treat. One brought lasagna, one brought salad, another brought sangria and lunch , one brought bread and breakfast and beverages. All brought their desire to write. We talked a lot of course about many things but we did write. Not as much as we wanted but we encouraged one another and read what we had written and made suggestions to each other and read books on writing. And we came away vowing a repeat of our writers retreat. T.C. Boyle's , in his book East is East, describes a sylvan writers colony, an absolutely enchanting writers environment but Steven King in his book On Writing suggests, nay outright says, such retreats do nothing for your writing. He is probably right. "You might not learn The Magic Secrets of Writing but it would certainly be a grand time..." . Yes, Stevie it was.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Virtual Claptrap

Poor Russell Smith. In an article on "Virtual Culture" entitled “Admit it. Reading doesn’t work as a spectator sport” - Globe & Mail Feb. 24 '05- he says "Writers of my acquaintance are being increasingly frank about public literary finds them long and simply can't pay attention." Russell adds "This doesn't mean we don't like literature. We like reading ourselves...grew fond of books in childhood and associate the pleasure with solitude."

I think poor Russell never had parents who read to him as a child. I like reading alone also. It would be awful to not be able to read unless the author read to you-intellectual property run rampant- but who says it has to be one or the other. Can't we enjoy both? A poetry reading last year put on by my women's group was a moving experience. The author's voice- in both senses of the word- really came through in her reading.

May I speak to you directly Russell? You ask what pleasures audiences get from readings. A "reading" is a different experience from that silent activity we also call reading. Rather I think like the difference between listening to U2 or Bare Naked Ladies or Natalie McMaster on CD and going to a live performance.

I enjoy readings when the writing is good and the author delivers his work in an expressive way. I think you have been to far too many bad readings. You say that "authors pick poetic rather than gripping passages to read and often don't read with much expression or drama." Of all the readings I have been to - probably not as many as you have Russell but quite a number- there have only been a few times I have been disappointed by the author's delivery. When I heard Robertson Davies read some of his work it was memorable. I agree if the author is not expressive it does change the quality of the event but why not just say that? Why pan the whole experience?

"The older I get" you say "the less patience I have for passive listening- I am distracted by everyone around me, by what they are wearing, and where they are sitting , wondering if we are going to be late for dinner..." etc, etc.etc. How do you manage a concert, a symphony playing Mozart, or an Opera, a ballet, or a show like Mama Mia or Rent? Most of us learn in grade school to extend our attention span so we can get past, nay ENJOY, these hurdles of "passive listening" as we get older. I'm sure you have no problem with those things really.

I think what you are saying-not very well if you are a writer, Russell- is that you don't like the marketing hype surrounding these events but ironically your lack of attention leads me to believe you are there for the wrong reason yourself. If you don't want to hear the "reading" why are you there? I suspect you are there for the very thing you decry- the celebrity factor. And when it isn't there you and the other "writers of your acquaintance" get bored.

I think you have to get out, Russell, away from your high powered writer friends perhaps, out to the boonies where perhaps people go to readings because they really want to hear the author read their works and aren't there just to hob- nob with celebs, flirt and chat and drink beer.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Supersize them

I am not the only one thinking about whether people read. Michael Kesterton- I always read your Social Studies section Michael!- points me to an article by Don Glaister of the Guardian writing in LA.

Apparently Books are in trouble in the US: The Book Industry Study Group reports that annual sales in the US have fallen from 600m in 1999 to 535m last year. I am hopeful that Canada’s book sales are healthier. But according to Don south of the border “There is a crisis in literature. Readers have stopped reading, drawn instead to other perhaps more modish forms of entertainment. Sales are down, authors are despondent, salons are closing and literary lunches have become drab affairs....Many people over the ripe old age of 40 are starting to have trouble reading, and reading mass market books has become very difficult," Jane Friedman, president and chief executive officer of HarperCollins told the Associated Press....

The answer is obvious: publishers are to make books bigger, thereby making space for larger print on the page and solving in one swoop the malaise affecting literature. Maeve Binchey, Nora Roberts, Stuart Woods and Robin Cook ... will be the first to benefit from the new supersized literature as Penguin launches its Premium range in the US this summer..."We think it will be a more comfortable reading experience, but still at an affordable price," said Leslie Gelbman, Penguin's president of mass-market paperbacks....

The new format, which other publishers also plan to adopt in the US next year, will be half an inch taller than existing paperbacks...Moreover, the books will be printed on higher quality paper and they will sell for a figure between the price of an existing paperback and hardcover book....Rather than being concerned about such old-fashioned literary gimmicks as plot, character and the careful choice of appropriate language, they must now recognise that the key to successful writing is to change the font size setting on their computer and to invest in some heavyweight paper at the stationers.” (emphasis mine)

All you authors out there take note but I have to tell you that although over the “ripe old age of 40" I take my glasses off to read and have no trouble with small print. So much for my mother’s admonition that all that reading would ruin my eyes.

MK also reports on an article in the Christian Science Monitor which says that Mexicans read on average only 2 books per year compared to the Swedes ( who read 2 per month)

Monday, February 21, 2005

Canada Reads?

Well, I’m not sure. The best figures I could find were for 1998 -from StatsCan- . If that holds true now 40 % don't read books! Only 36% read a book a month. Percentage of Canadians who read books :
Total -61.3% Males -54.3% Females -68.2%
At least a book a week T-31.1 M-26.9 F-34.3
At least a book a month T-36.2 M-35.4 F-36.9
At least a book every 3 months T-17.6 M-19.5 F-16.2
At least a book every 6 months T-8.0 M-9.7 F-6.7
At least a book a year T-6.2 M-7.7 F-5.0

I read about a book a week on average.
I did find some more recent book sale figures. Sales of books are going up but I wonder what the per capita figure is.

Net sales of titles ( English books) in $ thousands
1996-1997 1998-1999 2000-2001
1,550,899 1,704,914 1,858,471

Titles published 1996-1997 1998-1999 2000-2001
8,043 10,757 11,452
Textbooks 1,222 1,881 2,011
Children's books 626 1,121 1,421
Tradebooks 3,718 4,677 4,980
Other 2,477 3,078 3,040

I have been asking myself whether I and my book circle members are influenced by the Canada Reads “battle of the books”. I don’t think we have consciously paid much attention to it but perhaps we are influenced indirectly. We have read quite a number of the books on the Canada Reads lists . * = books discussed in our circle # = books I have also read on my own
The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence.* Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood # In The Skin of A Lion by Michael Ondaatje* A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.*
Next Episode by Hubert Aquin Translated by Sheila Fischman, Sarah Binks by Paul Hiebert# Life of Pi by Yann Martel*,The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys,The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston*
The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro,Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King, Le coeur est un muscle involontaire (The Heart is an Involuntary Muscle) by Monique Proulx, The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe*, Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler#

We chose A Fine Balance in April 2002 just when Canada Reads was on. But we chose Life of Pi for discussion in Jan 2003 well before it was chosen for that year’s contest. We discussed In The Skin of a Lion in Feb. 2003 almost a year after its winning Canada Reads. And we read The Last Crossingin July /Aug 2004 also after Canada Reads chose it as a winner. Perhaps the exposure of Canada Reads did have something to do with those choices. But we read Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Stone Angel before 2002. And since I joined this book group some years ago (6 ?) we have read over 44 books. We've been at it longer than Canada Reads has. My favorite of all those listed above that I have read was A Fine Balance. Sarah Binks which I read years ago would have to be second- a very good and funny book but one I doubt very many people have read. Life of Pi would have to be my third choice. But then Atonement was excellent also. Hard to choose between them.

The Canada Reads Choices for 2005 - in case you have been, like away, are:
Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen, Rockbound by Frank Parker Day,Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin, No Crystal Stair by Mairuth Sarsfield,Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Why not suggest your favorite Canadian book for the Canada Reads list.
I am not sure what my choice would be. I 'll have to think about it.

and then take a look at A how-to manual for future Canada Reads panellists
(or, 5 simple rules to make sure your book isn't KO'd in Round 2)

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Rankin' Rankin

Was Fleshmarket Close vintage Rankin? I was impressed by his first book Knots and Crosses years ago, but having read several other books by Rankin since, I expect it to be of a certain quality. It just holds up. Could he have done the same in less than 400 pages? I think so. Does anyone else think there were some extraneous characters? Too many to care about some of them? I counted 18 characters introduced in the first 33 pages and 65 in all. I wonder why he needed so many. Red herrings? Did we really need 3 hairdresser friends? Did the story really require Rory Allan and Danny Watling? Or Cater’s buddy? What purpose did Jenny Lennox serve?

Was it a good mystery? Well, there were multiple mysteries- the skeleton mystery and the Ishbel mystery and the murder of Stef mystery. And of course HOW these tie together is the story. I wasn’t sure where the focus was. I didn’t mind that too much. It perhaps dulled the impact of the ending. There was not one satisfying resolution but a rather slow tying up of loose ends.

Is it good social commentary? It did present some of the complexity of the “immigrant” and “asylum” issue in Scotland. No one wins. The fleshmarket is there and where there is demand there will be suppliers. Because this is an unplanned influx there is no system to cope with them. Desperation makes minimal living conditions a situation asylum seekers and illegals accept opening opportunities for further exploitation. Police are charged with stopping smuggling and unlawful exploitation: this alone may not be in the interests of asylum seekers or illegals, then add in the unsympathetic attitude of many in the force. Rankin, through his characters, tries to cover the range of attitudes from downright racist to idealistic compassion. The tensions set up in the community can be felt. Rankin is careful not to stereotype Felix Storey the black investigator who has his own biases. Oddly, Mo Dirwan, who is more stereotyped in a way, comes over as a truer, more human, character than Felix. Caro Quinn, the protesting idealist, appeals to Rebus but ultimately does not satisfy. Rebus has compassion but recognises certain hard realities and limitations. DC Siobhan Clarke needn't have worried.

Enough flesh to chew on in our Lit Wits group I would say.

Note: What is Fleshmarket Close here in Canada (and in the UK) is Fleshmarket Alley in New York. Someone who has been there has assured me there is a real Fleshmarket Close in Edinburgh. I doubt there is an Alley there of that name.

Friday, February 04, 2005

In praise of amateurs

Now isn’t that serendipity? I have just finished The Full Cupboard of Life and Alexander McCall’s distinctive writer’s is voice still ringing in my ears. So this morning I see an interview with him in the paper. This is obviously meant to be, arranged by some helpful angel to speak to me. And whoa -he writes 1000 words a day plus and that is just for his serial novel 44 Scotland Street published Mon-Friday in the Scotsman. He is up at 5:30 and finished that bit of writing by 7am! Oh, Oh.

But he is encouraging too. He says “ I think it’s really important, and it’s a sad day when amateurism is pushed to the sidelines.” (Alexander plays the basoon badly so he isn’t talking about his writing.) He goes on to say “many people start off as amateurs and then discover they have a particular talent. That’s definitely the case with writing, that every writer in the very beginning is an amateur....” Now isn’t that good? That’s me I say gleefully. There is hope! Then I crash again. He says”...the idea that you can create and train a writer in my view is very suspect... you cannot put into somebody the urge to create, to write, to compose music.” Well, perhaps all is not lost. I do have an urge to write don’t I, I do have an urge to create so maybe I’m okay.

And he talks about Ian Rankin who lives just down the street ( authors row obviously). Now I am supposed to be reading Ian Rankin for my book circle and instead I was reading McCall Smith. He calls him a “proper crime novelist” whereas he says his books “are not really proper detective stories. They are really novels about character.” Now we can discuss THAT at our book club gathering. What would Ian say about that?

So thank you Alexander and have a good time ice-fishing. I am glad you don’t expect to catch anything . My husband never did and I expect as a Scot you will be able to manage the fortifying liquids which are an essential part of this “very important element in the Canadian commune with ice.” I do hope you give it more than 10 minutes, though. It would be a shame to miss out on this “cultural experience” and I’d like to see how you might work it into a book some day.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Book Lust

“There are many many books. And all the time more books are coming. It is difficult to read them all.” Mma Ramotswe says in The Full Cupboard of Life.

So many books, so little time. So true. What to do? I find help in the Globe Social Studies section which passes on a report in USA Today:

Nancy Pearl librarian and author of a book of reading recommendations, Book Lust , suggests readers use a rule of 50: If you are 50 yrs old or younger give every book 50 pages before you commit yourself to reading it. If you are over 50 since you have less of your life left you should subtract your age from 100 which gives you the number of pages you should read before you give it up. If you are 100 or over, judge the book on its cover!

Hmmm What's my number?

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

For my name is Will

So says Sonnet 136
But is it? Will the real Will please stand up? I was aware of the anti-Stratfordians and aware also that Edward de Vere was a candidate (among others) for the "real" Shakespeare of the plays and sonnets. I was already tending to the Oxfordian camp before reading Chasing Shakespeares.

One only has to read the sonnets. Compare the ego in the sonnets to the epitaph on the Shakespeare of Stratford's grave. It helps to be uneducated in traditional Shakespearean Literature as taught. The Shakespeare of Stratford is so safe and the Earl of Oxford is so NOT. But then I ask what writer would give his fame of which he seemed so proud to another. My mind is still open. Sarah Smith is quite convincing. Her knowledge and research commands respect and her mystery captures the raging and sometimes vicious debate by scholars - and the not so scholarly- while telling a stirring story. We can identify with her protaganist - very much a newbie in the field as most of her readers would be- and by presenting the arguments for de Vere in fiction she avoids being reviled by professional Shakespeare academics. Smart lady.

As a WIT ( writer in training) I did want to know where fact left off and fiction began, and there are other readers “who have done more graduate work than is good for them” as the author says, who feel the same way. Her website does help. When you write historical fiction ( which Chasing Shakespeares is in a way) there WILL be some readers who want footnotes or something like them. I am not an English major and not a Shakespeare nut. My brother, who is both, would probably be better equipped to comment on the merits of the author's "argument" for Oxford (de Vere). We will probably have flaming arguments about it. But I loved the line Sarah Smith repeats many times in the book "God is a librarian" (my graduate degree is in Library Science). I think it may be the librarians who finally solve this mystery.

Okay, now back toThe Cupboard
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
Dorothy Parker, Not So Deep as a Well (1937)