The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Reading

The Quebec Writer's Federation presents: Readings from the QWF Mentorship Program (Screenwriting, Poetry, Non-Fiction, Fiction)

Wednesday, June 6th, 7pm
Dépanneur Café, 206 Bernard W., Mile End

The four-month QWF mentorship program pairs experienced professional writers with emerging writers who are deemed ready by an independent jury to benefit concretely from one-on-one, intensive mentoring. The readings on June 6th will feature the achievements of this year's participants: emerging writers Anne Chudobiak, Leonard D. Eichel, Jaykumar Menon, Katarina Germani, Jean-François Méan and Judy Lessiter, and mentors Ian McGillis, Jeffrey Moore, Dimitri Nasrallah, Joel Yanofsky, Carolyn Marie Souaid and Seymour Blicker.

They didn't teach blogging in school

by the kid sitting in the last row

I told myself I would write something short for this post, because I’ve been busy the last few days and yesterday I found myself working on some fiction. So what does that mean? Is blogging like that stocky guy whose only job is to carry the real performer, the artist, on his shoulders? Wait. Let me try again. Does everything else take precedence over the blogging? I don’t mean everything else, of course. I’d rather blog than fall on my head. I’m talking about the kind of writing that has no stress attached because until it’s done, it’s yours, yours, yours alone. I’ll say yes, but only for me. There are some great bloggers out there who seem very relaxed in their posts, comfortable with their opinions and intellect. Me, I find blogging somewhat painful. It harkens me back to Elementary School. I wasn’t one of those kids who could raise his hand with an answer. I’d cringe. I’d hide behind the kid sitting in front of me, studying the rosettes, whether the hair was combed and clean or dirty and unkempt, until the teacher would finally move on. I was so pathetic; the teachers simply ignored me and my tactics. So I'm still learning, trying to improve. Tell me, who are some of your favorite bloggers and why? Post a link. And while you're at it -- what kind of kid were you at school?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Fever Thoughts

by Andrew Tibbetts

I moved to Toronto in November. Half a year and it feels like I’ve completely changed. I didn’t really have a social life for many years - and now I’ve got a problematic one. I suppose I expected a perfect one. When you make changes you think of all the good things you want. You don’t think of all the side-effects, of all the price-tags.

A central focus of my life half a year ago was music, movies and books. I spent most of my time alone listening, watching, reading. It was highly comfortable, highly portable and increasingly unsatisfying. So I moved to Toronto and started getting out of the house. If you’ve never dated as a grown-up and you dive back into it, it shouldn’t be a complete surprise to find yourself right where you left off: adolescence. So I’ve had to grow up in the dating realm like all the other realms. Skills aren’t necessarily transferable. Like how, if you learn to cook doesn’t mean you’ve learned to drive. However, I’ve been doing it: learning. I’m largely pleased. Even though I’ve already had a heartbreak and it’s not even summer.

But there are some undesired side-effects of living a real life. I’ve stopped reading, watching movies or listening to music. Almost completely. Last week, however, I came down with an infection and ended up back inside my old life. I lay on the couch watching movies, reading books and listening to music. I have a tiny fear that I’ve forgotten how. I don’t feel as comforted. I don’t feel like I’m basking care-free in the artist’s vision. My own life is tapping on my shoulder- come on! Come ON! Let’s get back out there.

This is having a strange effect on my writing. I have things I want to write about now. Not derived from thinking about other people’s work. Felt-experience that demands to be expressed in some form. But I don’t know how to do it. I used to come at it the other way- I’d discover a technique from another writer (“Wow- I love Delillo’s dialogue here. I’ve got to try something like that!”) and then I’d think up the content to match. Now I have the content but I haven’t a clue how to deliver it. I think it’ll be good for me. I’m guessing. I've actually written very little. And finished nothing. But I feel on the verge of a breakthrough. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. Or the fever from my infection.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Wok with Steve

by Steve Gajadhar

No retrospective musings of a trip to Southeast Asia would be complete without mentioning the food. Ah, the food…dang it! now I need to go eat some sweet and sour chicken. Okay, better now. And, aptly enough, that sums the food up. Of all the things we brought back with us (and we did bring back counterfeit versions of almost all consumer items known to man) the food is the one thing that has become a part of us, and the one thing that will remain with us long after the memories pass their expiration date.

Some favorites (in no particular order, unless they were laid out buffet style then I’d start at the top and work toward the dessert items):

Cashew Chicken – who knew browned cashews could be so good?
Sweet and Sour Chicken – ketchup at its finest.
Street Waffles – well, street anything really, but the waffles were ridiculous. Fold em up and jam em down. And they double as sponges for some of the nastier mystery meats that are inevitably mixed in with the other street stuff.
Mango and Rice – and palm sugar…mmm diabetes is only 200 of these away.
Weirdo Cambodian River Fish That I Swear Was Giving Me The Fish Eye – looked nasty yet tasted divine, just don’t linger too long near any of the rivers or you might get an idea where that extra flavor comes from.
Sauces – greatest on Earth, or at least parts of the Earth I’ve eaten at.
Fish Amok – runs amok with your taste buds.
Curry – mild, medium, hot; green, yellow, red. Just put em on my plate.
Milkshakes and Fruit Smoothies – better than anything made by the considerably fatter North American purveyors of ice cream.
Pretty Much Anything Else That Didn’t Involve Chicken Feet, Bugs, Eyeballs, or Innards – you can take the boy out of Canada, but you can’t take the Canadian (Western) food biases out of the boy.

Western food was the one genre that the region couldn’t pull off. Beef is not something I’d recommend either, unless it’s mystery meat. This isn’t a bad thing, but unfortunately I needed to find respite in the club sandwich from time to time and the phrase, “I’d kill for a hamburger,” did leave my lips on more than one occasion. My advice: get some antibiotic anti-you-know-what pills and TAKE them. Take them on the way over. Take them when you get there. Get some more at the store and take those too. Don’t bother waiting till you need them because you will, and by then it’s too late. Trust me on this one.

And near the end of the journey, after all this wonderful food, we topped it off with a cooking class at Baan Thai cooking school in Chiang Mai, Thailand. A full day spent learning how simple and elegant Thai cooking is. I could’ve done without the 2hrs of cross-legged vegetable carving, or the mortar and pestled curry paste, but then I’d have missed Thdom, our witty instructor, and the 5 amazing meals that I actually prepared - and still can’t duplicate, but I’ll blame the lack of Thai ingredients - and this photo op:

Now go eat some spring rolls!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Trips and treats

By Tamara Lee

Among my current reads is Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt , about a semi-retired gentleman who abandons his complacent lifestyle for adventurous travel.

On this trip east, I’ve been able to finally meet folks I’ve interacted with online for some time, but haven’t had the pleasure of meeting in person. It’s been a real treat.

One of the best things travel does for us is to take us out of our comfort zones, and force us to face who we are or who we think we are, as we interact with strangers and sometimes those we feel we know already. Often, as it was tonight, it’s as comfortable as meeting an old friend.

The bulk of our CWC writers is out here, in eastern Canada, and I am thrilled to finally get the chance to meet them. Just this evening one of our gang has generously filled me with sangria and tostados and stimulating conversation. And a delectable blackberry pie a la mode. Note to self: get recipe for this dessert.

As a result of the revelry, I have nothing sensible to say until next week, when the post I’d planned for this week will be cleaned up and edited into something (hopefully) entertaining and worth the price of admission.

In the meantime, feel free to leave your stories of first meetings: pen pals; online folks; long lost relatives.

Was it a trip? A treat? Terrifying? Easy as pie?

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Writing is Easy and Fun for Me

by Tricia Dower

I’ve been struggling with a story since the beginning of March and in a state dangerously approaching despair for three weeks. I'm ashamed of such egocentricity in the face of poverty, disease, war and oppression in many parts of the world. How privileged I am to even have the freedom to write.

But here I am, anyway, mired in a morass of my mind’s making. Paralysed by indecision and insecurity reflected in the file names I’ve given to generations of let’s call it Stupid Story: First Person Stupid Story, Third Person Stupid Story, Two POVs Stupid Story, Experimenting with Time Stupid Story, Deconstructed Stupid Story, Narrative Approach Stupid Story, Stream of Consciousness Stupid Story and, finally, Last Chance Stupid Story. There are thirty-six (and counting) separate, dated drafts under these various headings. I want to scream and cry in frustration at not being done with it.

About a week and a half ago, two stars collided to begin bringing me out of this funk. The first was a lecture by W.D. (Bill) Valgardson. He has had thirteen books published (including The Girl with the Botticelli Face), a dozen plays produced and five movies made from his stories. Bill taught creative writing at UVic for thirty years and I’ll bet he was inspirational. One of his more celebrated students was W.P. Kinsella (Shoeless Joe). Among several pearls he cast before this particular swine was that self-censure is even worse than official censorship. You can write to please others or you can write what you care about. Positive self-talk is critical. No one can give up for you. Only you can do that.

The second star was Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero. As I drafted last week’s blog, expressing my admiration for the author’s courage to break conventional literary rules, it came to me: I had been anticipating the reaction of others to what I was writing. (It’s too weird, no one will get it.) An old demon of mine had been at work — my tendency to believe that anyone else’s opinion has more validity than mine. So what if I’m the only one who “gets” my story? Ondaatje was practicing what Valgardson preached. Both of them had given me a message I badly needed to hear.

"I had a breakthrough,” I told Colin. He was so relieved he brought me flowers and reminded me of the song Make Your Own Kind of Music.

I e-mailed Bill to tell him how much I appreciated his lecture and he sent me a list of thirty writing affirmations. Here are just a few I’m keeping in mind right now:

  • The more I take it easy, the more I accomplish.
  • I always know what to do next.
  • I always finish everything I start.
  • It's safe for me to share my work.
  • The more I reveal myself in my work, the safer I am.
  • Writing is easy and fun for me.

P.S. Stupid Story is nearly done. Definitely different but it’s mine.

Photo: Bill Valgardson

Image: A postcard, artist unknown.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Is a Zip-Top the same as a Zip-Loc?

by Melissa Bell

Part I
As you read this, I hope to have crossed over that chilly boundary of U.S. customs at Toronto's Lester B. Pearson Airport and be flying westward for a few wonderful days in sunny Mexico.

As I write this, however, I am nearly sick with travel anxiety. I'm not looking forward to the journey - the destination, yes. But the getting there... Aren't we supposed to have perfected human teleportation by now? What are those lazy scientists doing?

I remember when air travel used to be fun. Really. It was great. You'd show up early because you'd be all excited and you'd sit and relax in the lounge and watch the planes come and go. Now you show up early because you have to. Or else. An 8:00 a.m. flight means be there by six. You may need to be thoroughly probed, but not in a good way.

Part II
I'm still awake and still in Toronto. I can't sleep. Are you kidding? This gels and liquids thing in containers no larger than 3 oz. And one 1-quart zip-top bag. Per person? Am I a contestant on Survivor and I don't know it? And why is it okay to carry on more than 3 oz of KY jelly, but if I want my large bottle of L'Occitane Shower Gel close at hand, no dice? And my precious knitting needles? I'm not even going to try no matter what the rules say. By the time I get to the check-out, I'll be too tired for the argument. My normally mild OCD has turned into something that will demand a whole new name by the time I'm finished. I don't plan on sleeping. My suitcase remains open in case I should remember something at the last minute. I'm not just carrying travel documents; nay, I have a file. A see-through plastic sleeve of photocopied papers. Just in case. E-mails from the hotels to prove I have accommodation where I'm headed. My online-printed boarding pass in triplicate (not that it matters - I'll still feel a need to do a proper check-in just to make sure). Where is this coming from? My father was a pilot for crying out loud! Shouldn't I be so cool and casual about this stuff? Where's my hahaha bon vivant nature disappeared to?

Thank goodness there's a vacation waiting for me at the other end. I'm going to need it.

To be continued...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Where has all the dog shit gone?

By Antonios Maltezos

I was always stepping in it as a kid. Seems if I wasn’t stepping in it, someone I knew was stepping in it, or someone I knew was telling me to watch out for the dog shit so I wouldn’t step in it. It’s just the way it was. You couldn’t go down to the corner store for an orange popsicle without having to detour around at least one steaming pile. I remember we had to walk to school with our heads down, and if you spotted it first, warning your buddies was the thing to do. We looked out for each other, because no one wanted to step in it. You didn’t want to have to dangle your foot in the air looking for some plush grass so you could do the angry bull, leave a huge skid mark across someone’s lawn… which the next heavy rain would take care of -- thank you very much -- no need to come out of your house. It’s just the way it was. Mowing the lawn meant stopping every third or fourth row so you could kick the turds into your neighbor’s yard. And we knew when it was okay to kick. Too dry, and the turds exploded on contact with your foot. It’s just the way it was. And we didn’t mess with the dogs back then, either, because chances were, the next time you met up with the dog you’d teased, he’d be loose, escaped, roaming the streets crapping wherever he wanted to crap. Dogs were freer then. If you saw one of those Beware of Dog signs, you knew for sure there was a freaking monster on the other side of the fence. Hey, and if you got bit, it was because you got too close. Too bad, so sad. Everyone knew dogs liked to bite. It’s just the way it was. You’d know, too, the next time. Today, people put up a Beware sign even when there isn’t a dog. Times have changed, but I wouldn’t blame the dogs. It was the people who were different. I remember we had a not-too-bright mutt named Chico. He liked to chew the tops off the fence boards so we’d always have problems with the neighbors. Plus my bike was stolen from right under his nose. He was asleep; I’m sure, because he was normally a big nuisance barker. He’d bark at anything. His barking was so bad the neighbor shot him in the side with what must have been a pretty powerful pellet gun to pierce the skin. Took us three days to figure out something was wrong. Except when we rubbed his side, he was so quiet. Anyway, we accused, and they denied, until they couldn’t deny anymore and they had to move out of the neighborhood. Someone would have been arrested had that happened today, when people are taking animal rights so seriously. We don’t chain our dogs to plywood boxes anymore, which seemed so regular when I was a kid. You banged some nails into some scrap wood, affixed the anchor bracket for the chain, and called it a house. After a few years of this kind of life, most dogs went postal, biting even the hand that opened the can of Dr. Ballards, so their meals had to be tossed like Frisbees. Eventually, the family dog became a neglected animal, and your dad had to drive him to the you-know-what because he was the only one who could still control the beast. Chico, you bastard!

All our shoes had big heels then, if you remember. I had a pair of Pepsi shoes when I was eight. They had a red tip where the steel toe usually goes, a white background, and blue at the ankles. The tip was bulbous, and that was embarrassing, but the worst was the three inch heels made of wood. Wtf? You didn’t want to inadvertently step in dog shit while wearing those shoes. The crap would get stuck right where the heel meets the arch, and you’d have to find the perfect angle that would fit right up in there and scrape it out. The edge of a curb.

So where has all of the dog shit gone? Why, inside, of course, along with the pooches. Poor bastards. They were freer when I was a kid, that’s true, and I do want to lament their suffering, their further domestication (not to mention the fact that dogs, in general, have gotten smaller, if you’ve noticed. makes sense. It’s the whole fish in the aquarium thing.), but I’m also enjoying the cleaner sidewalks. Took my youngest to the park the other day, and besides the dump she took standing by the swings (she’s still in diapers. almost done now. any day now.); we saw no poop to speak of. Seems the masters are bagging it, and taking it back home with them. Jeez. We’ve come a long way. When I was a kid, we’d give ole Rex some privacy; turn away while he was doing his business. None of that crinkling plastic to spaz the dog out. And we’d never have thought to pick it up… you kidding me? We’d step in it, on occasion, by mistake, but we’d never pick it up, and we’d certainly never bring it home. But times were different back then. Dogs were dogs, and people were people. That’s just the way it was.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Academic Writing Hurts

by Andrew Tibbetts

Academic writing is dreadful. I am considering going back to school to do my PhD and one of the things that stops me is the thought of the reading I will have to do. Here’s a famous example of the kind of thing my mind rebels against:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homolo­gous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of struc­ture inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticu­lation of power.

This doozy of a sentence is from an article in the journal Diacritics. It’s by Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature. It had the distinction of winning the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Award for 1998- the last year they held the award. It’s one of the most debated sentences in recent memory.

It’s not bad because it’s long. There’s nothing wrong with a long sentence. They can be beautiful. Look at this one from Annie Proulx’s story Brokeback Mountain:

They had a high-time supper by the fire, a can of beans each, fried potatoes and a quart of whiskey on shares, sat with their backs against a log, boot soles and copper jeans rivets hot, swapping the bottle while the lavender sky emptied of color and the chill air drained down, drinking, smoking cigarettes, getting up every now and then to piss, firelight throwing a sparkle in the arched stream, tossing sticks on the fire to keep the talk going, talking horses and rodeo, roughstock events, wrecks and injuries sustained, the submarine Thresher lost two months earlier with all hands and how it must have been in the last doomed minutes, dogs each had owned and known, the draft, Jack's home ranch where his father and mother held on, Ennis's family place folded years ago after his folks died, the older brother in Signal and a married sister in Casper.

Well, you might argue, there’s no comparison. This one’s a list- it’s easy to stay with the flow. It’s also full of sensual details that keep your mind engaged. Academic writing isn’t going to describe real things. Well, I might add, why not? What’s wrong with real things?

Let’s go elsewhere for some non-fiction. What about this sentence from William Gass?

It is probably embarrassingly clear by now that works of art are my objects of worship, and that some of these objects are idols at best -- rich, wondrous, and made of gold -- yet only idols; while others are secondary saints and demons, whose malicious intent is largely playful; while still others are rather sacred, like hunks of the true cross or biblical texts, and a few are dizzying revelations. ... It is one of Rilke's doctrines ... that works of art are often more real than we are because they embody human consciousness completely fulfilled, and at a higher pitch of excellence than we, in our skinny, overweight, immature, burned-out souls and bodies, do.

Gass is an academic and a writer. Here he’s going on and on (and on) about Rilke, but manages to throw in some palpable metaphors to make his points. While just as boaconstrictory as the Butler, this writing pulls you along a clean and clear emotional arc.

Well, you might argue, he’s not trying to talk about capitalism and structuralism.

Okay, let’s see how Karl Marx does it:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

Now we’re getting ugly. But how long does it take to figure out what Marx is saying and is it worth it? Compare that to how long it takes to figure out what Butler is saying. And then once you’ve parsed her sentence, what is actually being said? Marx is just as jargon-heavy but he cuts things up for you in manageable chunks and what he has to say is original and profound. Marxism will not be eclipsed by Butlerism.

I don’t mind prose that makes you work. I’m particularly fond of playing ‘find the predicate’ in late sentences of Henry James. When you’ve done all the work, you’re left with something beautiful and subtle. William Gass, in an essay on the later Henry James, takes a particularly stunning page-long sentence from James’ Italian travel writing and makes a massive chart out of it. The thing is constructed like a symphony, like an alter triptych, like the human brain. It’s complicated and convoluted. But he’s writing about winding through the hills in Italy- it makes sense the description evolves from the experience.

What does dry and awkward academic writing evolve from? And do I want to go there?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Park and Shop, A Love Story

By Anne Chudobiak

We’ve all heard it before. Bloggers are bad writers with big egos. They go on and on about themselves without any thought to their readers.

I might be a bad writer with a big ego, but I will never forget the readers. If anything, blogging has made them more real to me. Never before have they made themselves so obvious, with their ISP numbers in our site meter, with their comments or lack thereof. This is not a diary. If it was, I wouldn’t feel the need to pitch my blog ideas to my husband, like I did before posting last week.

“You remember how when my grandma died, my mom asked us if there was anything of hers that we would like, and me and my brother both asked for exactly the same thing?”

“No,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “You do. It was that board game, Park and Shop.”

Park and Shop was released in 1960 by Milton Bradley. It was billed as “The Nation’s Traffic Game Sensation,” the object of which was to “drive your car from your home to the nearest Park & Shop parking lot, park your car, then move your pedestrian marker to all the stops on your shopping list.” There really wasn’t that much more to it, which is perhaps why it was never re-released.

The game was mentioned in the New Yorker last week. The article (by Jill Lepore) was about another Milton Bradley invention, the Game of Life. In the 60s version of that game, players manoeuvred tiny station wagons stuffed with plastic-peg representations of themselves—pink for girls, blue for boys—around a board, acquiring degrees, money, insurance, investments and progeny along the way. People like me who grew up playing that game have exceedingly sentimental feelings about it, even though it’s all about being a good consumer in a consumerist society, and could have easily gone the way of other equally vapid and immoral games, like Park and Shop: “Who still plays Park and Shop?” Lepore asks, the point being that nobody remembers that game, except for me and my brother. This, I told my husband, would be the basis of my next blog.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “What do you want to say about Park and Shop?”

“That my favourite board game got mentioned in the New Yorker as being totally forgotten, and it’s not.”

“That’s it?”

“Is that not enough?”

“I think you need an angle. You could make it into a social commentary. Talk about how weird it is that generations of kids have grown up playing games that promote questionable ideals.”

“But the New Yorker already did that. And they did it really well. They went back centuries. They talk about board games in England and in India. They talk about babies dying violent deaths, choking on hot coals, in the colonies. I can’t fit all of that into my blog. It’s too much.”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you. You can write about Park and Shop, but none of your readers are going to have the slightest idea what you’re talking about, except for maybe your brother. Is that what you want?”

Of course I didn’t want to subject readers to a sub-par post about a minor Milton Bradley game. I would find a more exciting topic, the kind of thing that anyone could relate to, something like Middlemarch, sexism and hockey—that would do it! I could still write about Park and Shop, but in my diary. Not every reflection was meant to be shared with the world.

Monday, May 21, 2007


By Tamara Lee

As some CWC readers know, or have figured out, I’ve transposed myself from an apartment in Vancouver to one in Montreal for the spring.

I’m living at my friend D’s again, this time house- and cat-sitting while she’s in India. I also happen to work for a company based in Montreal, so I am able to mix business with pleasure; the best kind of trip, I think.

Last time here, I was full of the romance and excitement of living short-term in la belle ville. This time around, the inevitable comparisons between my hometown and my semi-adopted city (as well as Toronto and NYC, should I make my way there) will elicit more balanced (I hope) observations and cross-references, maybe even exciting interest in readers to visit.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve done the very anglophone low-brow thing: Quebec microbrews at a dank, old downtown Irish pub with some co-workers; and the francophone low-brow thing: drinks at a French karaoke bar on Ste-Catherine, near Bleury metro.

Karaoke, in general, is not something I do, the cheese quality being so inconsistent and all, but this is Montreal, where cheese tends to be better than the average Canadian sort. French karaoke was especially foreign to me; I was grateful for the several screens displaying lyrics. My reading comprehension is superior to my aural comprehension, as I was reminded when directions the bartender gave me to the bank sent me on a 20-minute trek through Friday night crowds in the Gay Village: it was the Couche Tard (the name of a corner store) across the street she was directing me to, not plus tarde (meaning ‘later’), which I interpreted as a variation of ‘further’ down the street. Aye aye. Jetlag and poor second language skills often get me into trouble in Montreal.

The French karaoke experience was both informative and adventurous, but it was also highly entertaining. Hearing (and reading) songs that the packed-out bar sang with anthem-like jubilation--songs I’d never heard before but everyone hollered out with glee--was a hoot. But one song, somehow retained from a Trois-Rivieres French course 15 years past, I could sing en complete with the rest of the crowd: Patricia Kaas’s ‘80s hit ‘Mon mec a moi” (That guy of mine), with that great line: ‘Il parle d’amour comme il parle des voitures’ (roughly translated as: ‘He talks love like he talks cars’). Classic. And then there were the semi-sardonic versions of the French Celine Dion songs (which she should have stuck to, in my opinion). There were a few English songs sung, too: a cover of the disco-soul and gay-club standard ‘Don’t Leave me this Way’ that was so good, people got up to dance; and a fantastic sexy-bluesy female rendition of one of my favourite francophone singers, Jean LeLoup’s bi-lingual “I lost my baby”.

But the biggest surprise of all was when the decidedly oldest man in the bar, easily nearing 70, dressed all in black, sauntered up and belted out the most amazing performance of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ I’ve ever heard. I never expected that in the middle of francophone Montreal, in an anonymous karaoke bar in the Gay Village, I’d hear the ghost of Johnny Cash. He was given a standing ovation. And after a shy ‘Merci beaucoup’, he was gone.


(postcard image of Ste-Catherine of old, courtesy of Mike Rivest)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Our Super-Famous: Are We Just Too Nice, or Are They?

by Melissa Bell

For all of my sincere love of quality writing and superb television programming (HBO! Yoohoo! Love ya!), there’s nothing quite like kicking back every once in awhile with an issue of The National Enquirer or People or what-have-you and indulging in yet another guilty pleasure of mine. Celebrity gossip. There. I’ve come clean, friends. I feel better just for putting that out there. But the other night I got to thinking: What’s the matter with us? Or should I throw in some italics and ask What’s the matter with us? Why are there no Toronto tabloids or Canadian celebrity gossip rags? Is it a volume thing? A lack of homeland readership? Do we not care? Or are we just content with knowing that our American neighbours will pick up on the scandals of our famous compatriots and give us the dirt if and when the dirt occurs? I wonder.

It’s not like there’s any shortage of Canadian celebrities on “the scene”. On the contrary, given our population (and I’m no statistician, so this is strictly an observation), we Canadians appear to have a disproportionate amount of our maple-flavoured fingers sweetening some of the hottest pies in the Famesville Bakery. Like say Sandra Oh in Gray’s Anatomy. Isn’t that show supposed to be huge? How about The Trailer Park Boys. Isn’t somebody hiding somewhere, waiting for one of them to break character in public? Aren’t we dying to catch Sarah Polley snub a homeless person? Celine – now why does it seem like everyone picks on her music? She’s our own Streisand – a woman who is revered South of the Border – yet we virtually ignore her personal life. She’s got a frozen sperm child for heaven’s sake, and I don’t even know the boy’s name. Meanwhile I know the names of Gwyneth’s two kids, and I’m pretty sure neither of them was conceived with frozen sperm.

And we’ve got our own scandalous gabillionnaires too, thank you very much: The notorious Conrad Black. And how can we ignore our Tie and Belinda? Are we too lazy to pick up a camera and follow these guys around ourselves? Where are the pics of a hot and sweaty shirtless Evan Solomon or Justin Trudeau? Surely Nelly and Avril have cellulite issues! Don't Canadians care enough to pay $4.95 at the checkout to see them?

Saturday, May 19, 2007


by Tricia Dower

Divisadero is the name of a street in San Francisco. It’s also the name of Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel which I mentioned in last week’s blog. A Quill & Quire review by James Grainger provides such a balanced view, I won’t try to compete. Consider this not a Review but an Impression.

Reading Divisadero is like being in a time machine that deposits you in different places then whisks you away before you can care too deeply about anyone you meet there. You’re an eavesdropper, a voyeur. Even when you think you’re having a conversation with one character the thoughts of another intrude. Ondaatje is not a slave to point of view conventions.

  • First stop: the 1970s and a farm in northern California, with Anna and her father and two others — Claire and Coop — he has raised as his own. It’s pastoral and pleasant until Something Happens.
  • Next stop: Tahoe in the early ‘90s. Coop is living a reckless life. I’m on edge in this place but drawn in by the danger and what I can learn about serious cheating.
  • We zip over to France, still in the 90s, where Anna is researching the life of dead author Lucien Segura and living in his country house. She tries not to think about What Happened so we get only bits and pieces of her life between then and now. She drifts into an affair with a gypsy who was a boy when Segura bought the house.
  • Back to Tahoe where Claire and Coop run into each other in a coffee shop and catch me up on a little of what transpired during the missing years. Just a little.
  • Back to Anna who tells us, finally, where she went after Something Happened at the farm.
  • Back to Claire and Coop: Something Else Happens and we leave them sitting in a car outside the farmhouse of their youth. I just know this is my last view of them and I’m more than a little ticked at Ondaatje for abandoning these characters before I’m done with them.
  • All is forgiven as the second half of the book takes us to the early 1900s and the story of Segura. I am pulled in so deeply, I callously forget about Claire and Coop and even Anna whose presence lurks in the background. Maybe I never did care about her. I could have cared about Coop, I think, but, what do they say? ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.’ Lucien Segura is complex and compelling and a window, I sense, into Ondaatje’s writerly soul.

The ending is transcendent and leaves me feeling complete. I may not have gotten all of the links between the separate stories in this book but I don’t care. Anil’s Ghost was more powerful, I believe, in what it had to say. But Divisadero is an experience, a journey into the imagination of an author who is not afraid to break any sacred writing rule. It was the perfect book for me to read at this particular time. I’ll tell you why next week.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Post-Hockey-Night World

By Anne Chudobiak

I have mentioned before my stance on hockey. I don’t like it, but I’ll watch it at your place if you set out some potato chips and call it a party. That’s what my friend Z did last Saturday. He even made pizza. Not that that was unusual for him. There’s a standing invitation to his place almost every week of the season. What was unusual, at least to me, was the male-to-female ratio: I was the only woman. Although this had apparently happened before, it had always been with someone else, someone like my friend B, a true devotee of the game. She used to play shinny with the boys on Sunday mornings until she got pregnant and had to content herself with watching hockey on TV. My unfortunate combination—a woman with no interest in the game—presented our host with an altogether different challenge. In an attempt to include me, he tried to steer conversation away from hockey to topics that might interest me more. “What have you been reading lately?” he asked.

Middlemarch,” I said. “I’m trying to read the classics.” This plan was not without problems. I was in the habit of avoiding older books, preferring to read new releases. The debate and buzz made them so much more attractive. I had already interrupted Middlemarch once, to read Ian McEwan’s latest, because of something I had read in a review. (The reviewer said that the marriage between the two main characters would have survived if only they had had access to therapy. I wanted to know if I agreed. It turns out, I didn’t.)

But Ian McEwan’s latest was just one of many new books. It wasn’t even the biggest threat to my historical reading plan. The new book I most wanted to read was The Post -Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. Everyone was talking about it, and I wanted to be able to join in. It’s about a woman who goes without her boyfriend to see a male friend only to find herself attracted to him. The book then follows two possible outcomes: one where she gives in to temptation, and one where she does not. It is most commonly compared to the movie Sliding Doors. I wished that I had two lives, one in which to read the classics, the other in which to read the upstarts. The appeal of newness was undeniable.

“I’ve never read Middlemarch myself,” said Z. “But then I don’t do chick lit.”

I should speak up here for my host. He is an avid reader with an eye for rare books. His collection of limited-run first editions is impressive (A.M. Klein, Leonard Cohen). He even has an elegant old copy of Middlemarch, which he pulled from the shelf for my benefit. He may own books by women, but he reads books by men. When he says “chick lit,” he means any book of any genre, just so long as the author is female. He does not mean to offend.

But you are probably familiar with this broad definition of “chick lit.” The terminology may be fairly recent, but the concept (that women writers occupy a different category) is far from new. The author of Middlemarch tried to steel herself against it by taking a male pen name, but history has long since blown her cover.

I wondered if Z had heard of Lionel Shriver. “Lionel” had been born “Margaret Ann,” and although this change didn’t have anything to do with career choice—she was still a child when she made the switch—it was interesting to think how it might be in her interest as a novelist to obscure her gender, if only for a short while. It added to the new-book buzz (or it did, now that she had won a major prize). Everyone had their own opinion on her adopted name, as well as on her strangely sexy author photos. Every newspaper ran a different shot. There she was in her leather coat. There she was in very high heels. Was she on her way to collect another award?

Thinking about Lionel Shriver made me realize that George Eliot made for hotter reading than I’d thought. Her worth was still being debated. Controversy doesn’t have to be new to be current. I left hockey night with a strengthened resolve. I would finish Middlemarch. Posthaste. Go, George, go!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

PETA in the Morning

By Antonios Maltezos

Well, it’s 4:41 in the AM, and that stupid bird in my tree is whistling again – started a coupla minutes ago. Either he chased out the finches that were there before, and so happy sounding, or one of the great many windy days of the last winter blew the tiny finch nest into the street, and they just didn’t have the muscles to re-stake their claim this spring. Where the heck do finches go in the winter? They’re so small – I just can’t see them flying all the way to Florida. The new bird is a robin (a lawn walker), quite common around here, almost as common as the sparrows, which I’ve come to ignore over the years, along with the crows. Crows are evil. Nobody likes them. Seagulls, too, I ignore, unless there’s a storm coming and they’re riding the updrafts for no bloody reason. Do I like turtledoves? Uhhmm… not really. They don’t do anything, and they look too much like pigeons, only softer. And they’re not too sharp, either. My mother had a turtledove nest right outside her back door, on a pipe or something, at waist level. She felt so privileged until a squirrel came along and flipped the nest over like a poker table. “Ah… there was a terrible fight. She really fought hard,” my mother said. “There were feathers everywhere, and the eggs were smashed on the patio stones.” I don’t like pigeons, either, btw, because of their toxic droppings.

He’s going to keep on singing until I have to get in the shower, isn’t he? He doesn’t know I’m writing a blog and could use some quiet, and that I’ve been up since 2:30 AM because I had to drive my brother-in-law to the airport. “What are you going to write about,” he asked in the car. I said I had no clue, unless something was to happen on my way back from PETA – Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport.

Nothing happened.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Wash on Gentle and Hang this Post to Dry

By Andrew Tibbetts

These days I have three jobs, plus I’m dating. This leaves me very little time to write. And since I write slowly- or, more to the point, rewrite interminably- this bodes poorly for my already sparse output. At the same time, I made a 2007 New Year’s resolution to submit some fiction to some print publication each month. Previously I’d be lucky to submit two pieces in a year. But I’m managing. How? By taking my laptop to the laundry room.

I have 28 minutes after I’ve put my clothes in the washer. I rout through the thousands of pieces I’ve started and abandoned. I settle on one that 1) doesn’t seem too bad after all and 2) is also almost done. By then it’s time to toss the wet things into the dryers. In doing laundry I enjoy the redisbursing of the loads most, grouping by colour for the wash stage but now grouping by heaviness for the drying stage. I try to find three washers across from three dryers and I perform a kind of Tom Cruiseish twirl and toss. Once that’s settled I have 50 minutes to rewrite. The pressure is its own motivation.

I do this every weekend, so each month I have four potential submissions. It’s a little humbling to think how much I could have gotten written if I’d applied the same work ethic to the days when I had a significant chunk of time to write. But maybe those days will come again and I can haul this new found practicality out of the dank laundry room into the endless hours in cafes where I used to dawdle. I smell a novel. Faintly. Off in the future. But right now, the socks need matching up. Au Revoir.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Start of the Journey

by Steve Gajadhar

Last time I promised to tell you all about our trip to Thailand and Cambodia, and so I will. I’m new at this travel writing thing, so hopefully you’ll bear with me as I go on my own travel writing journey of travel writing. As with all journeys it’s always best to start at the beginning, and the beginning was Bangkok. We spent very little total time in Bangkok, it was our stopover en route, our travel limbo. But we tried for 4 days and 4 nights to wrap ourselves around the city, to learn what we could and take something with us.

Like most of us tend to, I had wasted my time forming preconceptions as to the nature of the exotic capital of Siam. Swashbuckling Indiana Jones mixed with some leftover WWII economic boom, topped off with a weird mixture of socialist-communist-monarchy. I pictured an interminable megapolis of decrepit buildings ringed with abandoned 1990s cars. Cardboard shanty towns across the street from shopping malls. Parks full of garbage. Bangkok is all of this and it is none of this. Bangkok is the kind of city you could spend a lifetime discovering and still only scratch the surface. Bangkok’s underbellies have underbellies. Its stink assaults you while the heat immobilizes you. And just when you are ready to write it off, you stumble upon the royal palace that rivals Versailles. The wats (temples). And the people. All their colours and classes. All their religions and all their vices. The people are the jewels in Bangkok’s flawed modernity and they are everywhere. Tuk-tuk drivers, cab drivers, tour guides, travel agents, ladyboys, strippers, monks, tourists, shop owners, street vendors, buskers, landmine victims, and everyone is happy. Even the beggars wear smiles for clothes.

I started out trying to convey something about Bangkok. But I can’t. It would be like forcing reductionism on the universe. It makes writerly types want to curl up with a cheap drink and pen the great 21st century novel while it simultaneously peels language away until nothing is left but imagery and gesture. Bangkok. If you’ve been there the word is enough to conjure everything above and everything experienced that others have missed. And if you’ve never been there maybe you should go. Whether you end up liking it or not, Bangkok is worth the trip.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Tune in, Turn Off

By Tamara Lee

Hearing about the ‘Turn it Off, British Columbia’ campaign, an energy conservation initiative planned for May 16, was a disappointment to me. Not because I am a cynical resource hog (okay, I’ve been known to be both), but because I had already booked my airline ticket for that day, making my contribution to the event rather limited. And secretly (and, yes, cynically), I wondered if enough people would rally together to make any sort of impact. It seems, though, the initiative is gaining momentum.

Yesterday, I saw another advert for the event and, feeling a bit of guilt rise in me, decided to choose another day to do it, so at least I’d achieve the goal symbolically.

According to the BC Hydro website, the average B.C. household uses about 15% more electricity today than in 1986 and about 30% more than in 1976. The quick-cynic’s math on that one: 30 years, 30% increase. Jaysus.

As a twisted sort of irony, today my inbox contained a mass forward for another resource fight, an email reminding ‘all internet users’ to ‘not pump gas’ on May 15 in protest of the rising gas prices. As a non-driver, this one I can do.

The email throws out a few stats that I haven’t confirmed, but the gist is that 10 years ago, a similar ‘gas out’ was conducted, resulting in a 30cent drop ‘overnight… If all [internet] users did not go to the pump on the 15th, it would take $2,292,000,000.00 (that's almost 3 BILLION) out of the oil company's pockets for just one day.’

What’s sad is there will likely be a greater impact on the bottom-line on the May 15th forgoing of fuel, than the May 16th light outage.

But this fossil fuel protest has done one thing for me: it has made me more determined to do my part for the Turn It Off campaign.


(printgocco image courtesy of heatherjeany)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Marketing of Ondaatje

by Tricia Dower

I was one of around seven hundred people who paid eight dollars for An Evening with Michael Ondaatje last Saturday at Victoria’s Alix Goolden Performance Hall. He had been in Vancouver the day before and was scheduled for Nanaimo the day after (where tickets were $15 but you got finger food). Colin, our friend Ava and I snagged front row seats on the far right, next to Chapter’s book selling concession. I decided to buy my copy of his new book before he came on so I’d be ready to get his signature.

“Do you want a personal inscription?” a woman with a Chapters name tag asked. “Sure,” I said. She printed my first name in big letters on a yellow Post-it Note and stuck it to the top of the title page which she marked with the jacket cover. To save the author time when he signed it, she explained.

As Chapters/Indigo was hosting (translation: exploiting) the event, the first person at the podium was Charlene Hess, their marketing manager for Western Canada. She nervously noted this was one of the largest turnouts on Ondaatje’s tour; that they’d had to book smaller venues for other cities where there weren’t even a hundred people. “That didn’t come out the way I wanted it to, Michael,” she said.

She introduced Jo-Ann Roberts from CBC radio’s All Points West who gushingly introduced Ondaatje who got up, said hello and turned the podium over to a woman raising funds for an organization he supports: Dignitas International. After her spiel, he came back and, for about twenty minutes, read from parts of his latest book, Divisadero. His accented voice was easy to listen to. He fetchingly rubbed a shoe against his pants leg from time to time.

After the reading, he and Jo-Ann perched on stools and she led him through a brief and mostly congratulatory interview. The audience was invited to ask a few questions and it was all over except for the signing. The marketing manager appeared again to announce that Michael would stay for as long as it took to sign all of our books and that he’d personalize our copies of Divisadero but if we’d brought along older books, they would get his signature only. People who had won some Chapters contest got to line up first. A multitude followed, mollified somewhat by a young woman at a grand piano playing How High the Moon. Eventually, I made it to the steps of the stage where a gauntlet of Chapters staff verified that I had the new book and my yellow sticky. On the stage, Charlene took my book and opened it in front of Ondaatje who gave me the briefest of smiles and wrote “To Tricia” followed by a signature that looks like an ECG flatline. I felt sorry for him but should I have? Ava told me she heard he was shy and didn’t like to give interviews, didn’t like public appearances. I wondered why he had agreed to be such a trained seal. Would the book not have sold without the tour?

I did come away with something of value besides Divisadero (which I’m still reading). A few comments Ondaatje made during the interview and Q&A session stuck with me. He doesn’t like to “close all the doors” in his books, likes to leave some things unanswered for the reader to wonder about. In real life we leave stories before they’re done, so why not in fiction? Besides, he gets to a point where he really doesn’t know any more about his characters. He likes to write about what he doesn’t know and researches and writes simultaneously. His relationship is with his characters until he’s nearly done and must make his story “a bit more public,” must make something clearer. His books and characters all represent parts and “states” of him and he’s never gone back and re-read anything he’s written.

Just like me, I thought. Except for the output and the artistry and the legion lining up for a signature.

Photo credit: Mauricio Lima. Michael Ondaatje is the author of the novels In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Anil’s Ghost. His other books include Running in the Family, Coming Through Slaughter, The Cinnamon Peeler, and Handwriting. He lives in Toronto.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Happy Soon to Be Mother's Day and Be Careful What You Wish For

by Melissa Bell

Hey Everyone! If I could provide a link here (and I'm sure I could, but jeez, I'm tired, hopefully things might probably 'splain themselves as I get through this), you'd see that a while back I was sharing my desire for a new laptop. Well, the power of positive thinking has blessed me with the laptop of my dreams, my friends. And I couldn't be happier about it. Except for the stuff that is making me less than happy, and that stuff would involve the fact that I haven't the foggiest what I'm doing with the thing just yet. I've installed Word three times (unintentionally) and haven't a clue how to save anything I've written tonight. So I apologize in advance that, for today's post, I can offer up little more than an apology for not posting anything more than this. Not really, anyway. I had a really nice essay planned about my mom - because Mother's Day is coming up on Sunday, but I'm sure you all knew that and have already got cakes ready and reservations made at restaurants and the vans full of roses are ready to arrive at your mom's door at 7:00 am on Sunday morning. But as I type this, the font is the size of a baby tick and I'm going to have to bring this lovely wee machine into the office tomorrow (Friday, whee!) and get my smart friend coworker, R.T., to check out what I've done wrong and endure his eyerolling and his calling me a dumbass under his breath as he attempts to undo things he recommended against in the beginning.

Ah me.

But whatever. I'm blessed. I have my mother around this Mother's Day. We're going to go out for sushi, and then we'll probably watch The Trailer Park Boys movie and eat some delicious cake. I think about cake a lot.

Take care of the moms in your life, please. All of them.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Results, please...

By Antonios Maltezos

I’ve got issues with time and how it tends to slip away. If I look back on my life, there are long stretches where I did everything but write -- days, weeks, months, when I just wasn’t interested. I was, of course, but the writing was always something I could pick up later. Next month, I’m getting back to that story, type of thing, or maybe the month after the next. I’d even wait for the seasons to change because there was just too much stuff to do in the spring and summer. It wasn’t until I committed, after a couple years of submitting like crazy, learning about e-zines, as I neared my forties, that I realized I would have to treat the hours, the days, the months, the years to come, as something precious, to be organized. I’d have to start calculating. And I have been. There are stages to complete, other levels to attain. A few months back, I started submitting to contests. Most people do that to win some recognition, some prize money. I did that so I could slow down the machinery a bit, tie up my favorite stories by obligating them to this or that contest. Suddenly, it was okay to just let them sit, something I wasn’t able to do before. Besides the occasional drunken submission, which does happen, I’d spend the next few months editing, keeping a close eye on the deadlines, any upcoming contests. I’d have seen this as a waste of time, in the past, and probably moved on to something else after the first couple of failures to place. Not anymore. Submitting to contests is a great way to challenge myself as a writer. It means I have faith in my commitment. I can afford to slow down and perfect my craft without worrying that my focus will shift to something else. I’m busy, here, in training, in preparation for the next stage, when I can sit with my novel for months at a time, forgetting what it was like keeping a damn submissions log.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Old TV Shows on DVD

By Andrew Tibbetts

As a lonely gay kid growing up in rural Ontario I watched a lot of TV. When I think back to the shows I used to watch during the difficult times of my life, I wonder if the fondness I feel for them is like how other people remember old best friends. They were always there, always able to cheer me up and they had to go home when moms called ‘dinner’ or ‘bedtime!’ Now that everything’s on DVD, I’ve had the mixed blessing of being able to revisit a couple of shows that sustained and nurtured me.

The Wild, Wild West was on after school. I’d come home bruised from bullying and flop down in front of what my father always called ‘the square god’. Even though the Wild, Wild West cut into dinner time, my mother must of realized its revitalizing effect on me because I was allowed to watch it while eating my supper on a TV tray. I remember it as brilliant, mesmerizing and thrilling. Despite its having the trappings of a western it was more of a spy thriller with gadgets, like a turn of the century ‘Batman’ or James Bond with spurs that jingle-jangle-exploded. I especially related to the recurring villain Megalito Loveless, a genius midget with a great sense of humour. He lost every battle against the intrepid heroes but always managed to escape to plot for another day. One got the sense that the good guys admired and respected him. This was therapeutic for me in many ways.

Later in life: high school hell. I stayed up late and watched “The Avengers” rerun on CBC. It was my favourite part of the day. Sophisticated, sexy. The triumph of brains and style over brutality. I’d waft through the halls of my high school, brainy and stylish and despite the barrage of insult and objects tossed at me I felt that some other world awaited me where I would triumph. I just needed to find my Emma Peel, or was it my John Steed?

Watching these two shows recently has been incredibly disappointing. The shows seem thinner, marred by misogyny and hints of other ‘isms’, less magical, less thrilling. Dumb.

Of course, it’s me that has changed. It’s a trick of consciousness to make itself feel like an eternal, permanent, unchanging, unified entity. Just at it appears that the sun goes around the earth, from our seemingly static perspective our revisited childhood schools seem smaller; our monstrous teachers, human; our adolescent diaries, unintentionally hilarious. It certainly doesn’t feel like my tastes, or my entertainment needs have changed. I am the same person sitting in front of the square god popping in the DVD. It is the show that has changed.

My favourite TV show of yore was “The Secret Army”. It was a thoroughly exciting and morally challenging show about the French Resistance. I think it appealed to me most of all because I felt like an underground revolutionary in an oppressive regime. Although I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that as gay teenager in Northern Ontario.

I haven’t ever heard this show mentioned. I can’t seem to google up any trace of it. It’s not out on DVD. And maybe that’s a good thing. I’m not sure I want to see what has happened to my oldest and best friend.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

If You Know Me, Don't Read This

By Anne Chudobiak

There is a new bookstore in my neighbourhood. My kids and their friends are really excited about it: they like to visit the bookstore cat; they like to climb the bookstore couch; they like to talk to the bookstore guy. I used to be excited about it, too, before I came across the Funky Monkey blog.

Have you ever stumbled on the blog of someone you know, not very well, in real life? It’s awkward. You’ve never had an actual conversation, but suddenly you know their views on mass culture (to quote, it sux).

I didn’t know whose blog it was at first. There was a profile, but no picture, and no last name.

I was only there because the latest post was about a book I’d recently reviewed, Catherine Kidd's Missing the Ark. The blogger had written about it for another paper. (I’d read his review when it had come out and had wondered who the reviewer was. ) It was clear from his review that he'd enjoyed the book more than I had, although his blog seemed to indicate that he hadn't finished reading the book before the review went to print. He liked the book in part because it was about babies, a timely topic for him: “babies keep popping up in real life. They’re hanging out on the couch with their moms at the book store where I work, they’re coming in and out in strollers, they’re jumping in glee over the cat.”

That’s when I figured it out: The blogger was the reviewer was the bookstore guy. How funny to think that I might have contributed to his enjoyment of a book I hadn’t really liked. I'd have to be more careful with the kids. I didn't want them accidentally influencing literary discourse.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Breaking News: Death of the Headline

By Tamara Lee

One of my favourite ways to jumpstart a story or kick-start stalled creativity is to get a bit of gas, or inspiration, from headlines. And one of my favourite places to start is the Diversions section on the CBC website.

Just the other day, these three beauts were stacked all in a row:

"Monkey see, monkey sue: Austrian activists want chimpanzee declared a 'person'"

"Calf born with 6 legs, other physical oddities, romps happily at Nebraska farm"

"Rare brain surgery at Long Island hospital helps end toddler's laughing seizures".

How can a person not be inspired to write something from one of those? Now, I’m not partial to recycling a whole story (we’ll leave that to TV-writers), but prefer to get ideas for a great character trait, which is where many of my stories and scripts start.

Unfortunately, this favourite pastime of mine is likely to fall victim to this nuisance called progress.

Search-engine-optimization is here to stay, it seems. And for those of you who have no idea what that is (and I love that you don’t), it’s the new manner in which headlines are written, utilizing search engines’ key words, so that when you Google you supposedly get more of what you Googled for, because the headline will have the words you searched.

What does this mean to people like us? Oh, nothing, except headlines are beginning to be SEO’d into less-clever, more deadweight synopses, lacking the lustre of olde, as SEO writers nip and tuck the natural beauty right out of leads.

And it seems even the CBC has fallen victim to what I wish were just a trend. Perhaps the Diversions section is the last hurrah of the old-school headline writers.

A rather mundane headline like this recent one on CBC’s website: "Eating peanuts during pregnancy could be linked to children's allergies,” could inspire some kind of story, I guess—maybe a neurotic mother-to-be character—but half the fun of a clever headline is imagining what’s inside, and these new headlines are just not as enticing. As writers we are naturally readers. But why read further than that header; it pretty much says it all. Headlines, merely, have become the news.

At the risk of sounding fuddy-duddy, this new approach to web news does not inspire readers, but scanners, people browsing headlines or making search-specific queries. There’s no idle curiosity involved, nothing tantalising or mysterious or even clever about the new SEO headlines. And it’s just not how I want to get my news. Or how I want to steal my ideas, for that matter.

As one of the respondents to the article, Guillaime, lamented: “Why not simply tag everything with the phrase "Pam Anderson" so everything is returned with every search?”

So, I think I’ll rename this post to “Pamela Anderson and Girls Girls Girls.” That ought to bring in the kind of reader I’m looking for. If you can’t beat ‘em, mock ‘em, though that story's a bit old, I guess.

(photo by jakesville)

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Happy Mirth-Day!

by Melissa Bell

Hey, it's World Laughter Day! Yep. No, I didn't know anything about it either until I checked my e-mail this morning. I was all set to do a very, very serious post here about Sleep Country Canada and their inability to understand the fact that if a box spring can go UP the stairs, it can also come DOWN the same set of stairs without me having to schedule three separate appointments to have them prove it to themselves. Honestly, people! But now that I know it's World Laughter Day, I feel obligated to spread the word via this here blog. This site can provide more information:

It does throw a bit of a wrench into my weekend. I was planning on sitting around feeling sorry for myself today for no particular reason, and figured a few hours of moping and griping about the unfairness of the Universe because I didn't win the 6/49 jackpot (again!) might get me through the day. But now…now that I have been made aware of World Laughter Day I better make the most of it.

Thing is there are so many things to laugh at, where the heck do I start? And I think I may have screwed things up already. Yesterday I went to my local Blockbuster and rented The Queen, Borat, and the documentary Jesus Camp. I should have saved Borat for today! Dang! The Queen and Jesus Camp don't exactly sound like proper World Laughter Day viewing at all so I'm just going to have to sit on those two films for awhile, I guess. Thank goodness Blockbuster got rid of their late fees. You'd have thought the Blockbuster guy could have told me to save Borat for today. I bet he knew it was World Laughter Day coming up and he didn't say anything so that he could go home and laugh about it. Hope you're enjoying World Laughter Day at my expense, buddy! Yeah, well you go right ahead and laugh! See if I care. We'll see who's laughing when I celebrate today in my own special way by "accidentally" returning the Jesus Camp DVD in the Borat case and switching out Borat for The Queen. Oh man, wish I could be there. Fun times are coming your way, Blockbuster pal. I'm laughing already!

Have a great WLD, everyone! Don't overdo it!

(P.S. Dear Blockbuster: I am just kidding about the mixing up of the DVDs. Please do not sue me for malice aforethought. Thank you.)

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Saving Ourselves with Produce

by Tricia Dower

Every Tuesday afternoon, a young helmeted cyclist brings a container to our door. Inside are fruits and vegetables from Share Organics, a distributor of produce from organic farmers. They purchase from the closest sources possible (including greenhouses), although in the winter they go as far afield as California and Mexico in order to provide the full service.

Colin and I got involved to support the food security movement on our vulnerable little island. Fifty years ago Vancouver Island produced 85% of its food. Today, only 10%. If we rely exclusively on food that’s ferried or flown in, we’ll be in trouble if/when fuel shortages and/or border closings make food prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable. What’s more, transporting food long distances increases global energy use and the food isn’t as fresh. Does it cost more than organic produce from the grocery store? Probably, but insisting on cheap prices keeps farm worker wages exploitatively low and their working conditions unsafe. We pay $27 a week. For our most recent delivery, that bought us 3 pounds of apples, 1-½ pounds of bananas, 1 lemon, ½ pound of yellow cooking onions, ½ pound of snow peas, ½ pound of mushrooms, 1 pound of carrots, 1 bunch of broccoli, 1 bunch of spinach and ¼ pound of salad greens.

We started this service in December and I had visions of us gnawing on nothing for months but root vegetables and apples that had been put into storage in the fall. I was amazed at the variety of veggies left at our door, ones I had never seen, much less prepared: Jerusalem artichokes (they make a delicious but, unfortunately, gassy soup), celeriac (eat it raw or cook with potatoes and mash together), daikon radish (great shredded on a salad), and rainbow chard (pan cook like spinach in a little bit of oil, with lots of fresh garlic and only the water left on the leaves after washing). I am now a rainbow chard junkie.

So far we’ve also received yams, white and red potatoes, beets, broccoli, carrots, celery, parsnips, kale, leeks, chives, spinach, romaine lettuce, brown, white and Portobello mushrooms, mustard greens, cauliflower, ginger, parsley, rosemary, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, tangerines, mangoes, avocados, snow peas, tomatoes, onions, frozen blueberries and raspberries.

We know what we’re getting every week and we can customize our order, but it’s always a surprise to see what the stuff looks like. One week we were supposed to get a couple of pounds of yams and I suppose we did but they came as one humongous potato that would have taken an age to bake. We sliced it, barbecued the slices (yes, you can grill out year-round in Victoria) and dipped them in peanut sauce. We’ve gotten some gigantic beets, as well. If you have hours to kill some day, try making:

Beet Chips
  • Peel raw beets and slice them really thin; 1/8th inch if your knife is sharp enough and you have Popeye muscles.
  • Bring 2 cups water and 1 cup sugar to a boil. Plop in the slices and remove from heat. Soak for one hour.
  • Drain and place slices on aluminum foil covered pan. Bake at 250° until crisp – two, three, four hours, maybe. Build a bookshelf while you’re waiting or weave a rug.
Coming soon: fresh BC asparagus and rhubarb, not to mention the radishes, potatoes, beets, carrots, red peppers, lettuce, tomatoes and chard (!) Colin has planted in our tiny back yard. Life is good.

Photo: Our regular delivery guy, the one on the left, was training the one on the right the day I snagged them for this shot.

Recipe (minus the wisecracks) compliments of Victoria writing group buddy Steve Hughes.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

In Some Places, You’d Go to Jail for That

By Anne Chudobiak

Last Friday, I went to see novelist Heather O’Neill read at Montreal’s Blue Metropolis literary festival. I was late, which was unfortunate. Not only did I miss part of the reading, I missed the introduction, which must have included an explanation about the chair, the free one at the front of the room, the one I sat on.

It wasn’t until the next day when I made it to a Liam Durcan event on time—catching the introduction—that I realized my gaffe: I had sat on the Chair of the Imprisoned Writer. That explained the PEN Canada poster resting on its back. (I’d contemplated moving it to the floor.) It showed a pencil with an eraser on both ends. We were supposed to look at the poster on the otherwise empty chair and think of our fellow writers who had been persecuted for their art. It was a way of saying: Hey, you're in jail. Things look grim, but we're saving you a seat for later. Or it had been, until I walked in.

It was as though I had washed my hands in holy water or taken a swig from the prophet Elijah’s wine in front of an audience of strangers. But if the gods were angry with me, they weren’t being obvious about it.

When the Heather O'Neill reading had ended, I went into the lobby, where I encountered Margaret Atwood being ferried to a conference room. This made me feel good (Cat’s Eye is my favourite novel), and sad, because I didn’t have a ticket to see her, and the event was sold out. I don’t know why I bothered checking at the door, but I’m glad I did. A stray ticket was produced—it had been abandoned, “left to a good home,”—and I was whisked in behind her.

I chose a chair in the back row. It was of no particular significance to the world writing community, I hope. If it was, let me know. I can be slow sometimes with symbols.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

This Post Went to Florida and All it Brought You Back Was this Lousy T-Shirt

By Andrew Tibbetts

“Voyage and Return” is the fourth of Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots. The hero or heroine takes a trip and reports back: “where I went on my summer vacation” or “the Odyssey.” Same thing.

A voyage and return story lives or dies on the interest you can generate from your alien destination. Islands with one-eyed giant monsters that try to eat you: good; a McDonalds that has run out of hot apple pies: bad.

In movies, recently, the road trip sub-genre predominates in this category. The kooky family in “Little Miss Sunshine” returns from their voyage, not any less dysfunctional, but more united in their dysfunctionality. They dysfunction together. You’ve seen that t-shirt, the family that illegally transports dead relatives and riots at beauty pageants together stays together, right?

In Canadian literature, our voyages are often into the wild. We ratchet up the suspense with hypothermia and bears. Our triumphant returns are often of mere survival- a few wounds, some missing toes, a child planted in the ground ‘like a flag’- we come back diminished, more often than enriched. And this presents us with what more modern readers might want from a voyage and return tale: a change in the traveler. We’re so into our psychology; geography, not so much these days.

As well, I’d like to point out that often Canada is the alien terrain in our ‘voyage’ stories. We’ve been populated throughout our history by waves of immigration. Our stories have no ‘return’. We stay put.

One of my favourite novels is Guy Vanderhaege’s “The Last Crossing”. Some of the characters ‘return’ and some don’t. One of the most beautiful things in the book is the traveler who discovers a true home on his voyage. His ‘return’ is to his authentic self, a self that couldn’t have been entered into with a geographic return to the old country.

I wondered, as I thought about this ur-plot, if I should add this technique to my arsenal. In my writing, my characters never go anywhere. Often, I have a character that I really like, but I don’t have a story for them. Perhaps I’ll send them on a trip next time. This idea doesn’t spring naturally to me. I rarely travel myself. I’m too poor. And too anxious. We traveled so much when I was a child, I developed the opposite of wanderlust. I’ll call it rootslust, the longing to be planted somewhere. But my characters? There’s no reason why they should be homebodies.

And yours, writing readers? Do your characters need to find themselves somewhere outside their comfort zones? I challenge you to write a ‘voyage and return’ story. Stay tuned for mine.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

I'm Back!!!

by Steve Gajadhar

Home to Bangkok to Koh Chang to Pnom Penh to Siem Reap to Bangkok to Chiang Mai to Bangkok to home. An itinerary of places and also an itinerary of change both internal and external, because getting picked up then plunked down in a foreign country is a very visceral and immediate thing. Especially when going from the Big Island to Bangkok.

In my upcoming posts, I’ll try and relate something from each of the places we visited. Each was unique and each was unforgettable. I’ll start with Bangkok the place that bookended and middled our journey. I suggest you all begin googling away like mad! Until then…