Underrated & Overrated in CanLit

K.D. Miller's Brown Dwarf: Read this book!

Over at the National Post, Alex Good and Steven Beattie give their list of overrated and underrated Canadian writers. Among those who are have been too widely praised: Anne Michaels, Douglas Coupland, Michael Ondaatje, and Yann Martel. Those deserving of more attention include Clark Blaise, Caroline Adderson, Russell Smith, Douglas Glover and Lynn Coady.

These are very strong lists. I happen to agree with almost all the judgments, at least with the writers I’m familiar with. I’m especially happy to see the shout-out to Clark Blaise, who is one of my favorite living writers. In an ideal world, Blaise would be as feted and popular as Alice Munro.

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Canadian Notes (No Queries)

Canada's Finest Magazine

I’ve been on a CanLit kick lately. Here are the fruits of my recent obsession with Canada’s literary and visual culture:

1. Over at the National Post, I review Camilla Gibb’s new novel The Beauty of Humanity Movement, a novel that uses cooking as a prism for viewing the recent history of Vietnam. The book left me cold, for reasons described in the revew. An excerpt:

Just as a brimming pho bowl can easily overflow, Gibb’s passion for food spills into her prose, which is soaked with cooking similes. About one character, we’re told that the feel of her breast “was like a perfect brioche from a French bakery, the nipple like a hard raisin.” This same girl is described in these terms: “Her lips like a butterfly, her skin dewy like a newly peeled potato.” Another beauty has nipples that are “more [like] grape seeds than the raisins of the [earlier] girl.”

A moment of distress leads to a simile that requires a Heimlich manoeuvre: “He prayed for Dao’s life, but woke each morning in certain distress, dread lodged like an egg in his throat.” Perhaps this novel made me too gastronomically minded but my first thought was: What sort of egg? Hard-boiled? Scrambled? Poached?

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Andre Alexis Revisited

I’ve already made clear my objections to Andre Alexis’ recent Walrus article decrying the state of Canadian literary criticism (or CanLitCrit). But my relatively mild rebuke has now been superceded by Zachariah Wells’ truly devastating response in Canadian Notes and Queries, which can be found here. It should be called My Deathmatch with Andre.

An excerpt:

This is far from the only example of failing to practise what you preach. In the same essay in which you decry “personal attacks and collegiate vitriol,” as well as certain critics’ practise of “insulting” their targets, you write disdainfully of “a short, pompous man with thick, dark-rimmed glasses (a self-styled “critic”).” Just because, unlike Starnino and Bigge, you don’t name the person you’re belittling doesn’t mean that it isn’t an insult. It just means you’re less brave than they are in dishing it out. Either that, or this bespectacled little man’s a character you’ve invented.

Canadians Too Mean?

John Metcalf: the root of all evil?

In the latest issue of The Walrus, Andre Alexis argues that Canadian literary criticism is, of all things, too mean-spirited. He blames John Metcalf for the sitation. I wasn’t impressed with Alexis’ arguments and wrote a rebuttal (a very mild Canadian rebuke, of course), which ran in today’s National Post. You can read it here.

An excerpt:

Imagine an essay on the global economic crisis that described our dire prospects and then zeroed in on villain Fred Witherspoon, a banker in Winnipeg who is a bit too reluctant to hand out loans. Such an article would be laughed at for its inherent implausibility, but as an argument it would be no different than André Alexis’s essay in the current issue of The Walrus, which starts bemoaning a genuine problem — the sorry state of cultural criticism in Canada— then finger-points in the direction of one man, John Metcalf. “If I had to blame one Canadian writer for this state of affairs, I’d blame novelist and critic John Metcalf,” Alexis writes.

Christopher Hitchens: No Prayer But A Poem

William Wordsworth, The Lost Leader.

 

I wonder if anyone has written on the etiquette of prayer, the social ethics of when it is appropriate to pray for another person.

Christopher Hitchens has cancer. I have every good wish for him and hope that his chemotherapy treatment is effective and he recuperates quickly. But even if I were the praying sort, which I’m not, I’m not sure I would pray for Hitchens, for fear that it would be disrespectful of one of his chief (and most admirable) personality traits, his fierce atheism. To pray for Hitchens is to risk playing the fool, as James Boswell did when he went to the deathbed of the God-denying David Hume. Childishly, Boswell kept asking Hume if he didn’t want to reconcile himself with his creator. Hume displayed great forbearance but the entire scene was farcical and did no credit to religion.

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Canada’s Greatest Books

What are Canada’s best 100 books? This is a question Stephen Patrick Clare and Trevor Adams are hoping to answer by polling Canadian readers. They plan to sift through the results and publish the list of those that receive the most votes as Canada’s 100 Greatest Books, a kind of sequel to their fun 2009 compilation, Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books. Readers are asked to email in their top ten favourites. “The criterion is simple,” Clare and Adams write on their Web site. “Only works of fiction and non-fiction written by Canadian authors and that involve Canada in some capacity will be accepted.”

I had some important work to do when I came across the best Canadian books project—so naturally I had to compile my own top ten list on the spot. There are different ways to define best, and in my case, I decided to focus on books I not only considered important, but enjoyed reading. That meant I did not include books like George Grant’s Lament for a Nation, an undeniably significant book on historical grounds, but one that has never really spoken to me on a personal level. Rather than rank my top ten I’ve listed them chronologically. Here are the first five, with the rest to follow. Continue reading

Cyrus Habib: Hic Rhodes, Hic Saltus

Below is a fascinating interview of Cyrus Habib by Chesa Boudin; I am reprinting it from The Rhodes Project. I am proud to count Cyrus as a friend, and I have also had the pleasure of meeting Chesa on a few occasions. Apologies for my obscure Hegelian pun in the title of this post.

Chesa Boudin earned two master’s degrees from Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship (Illinois, Merton and St. Antony’s, 2003). In April 2009, Scribner published his latest book, Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America. He is currently in his second year at the Yale Law School.

Cyrus Habib (Washington and St. Johns, 2003) an interview

Chesa Boudin

At the Bon Voyage Weekend in September 2003, my class of newly-selected Rhodes Scholars descended on the Jury’s Hotel in DuPont Circle. Cyrus Habib (Washington and St. Johns) was easily the best dressed member of the group. His Armani tie complimented his tailored shirt and crisp pinstripe suit. He had a penchant for details – manicured fingernails, a unique wrist watch, cufflinks, and matching accessories. No matter the setting, he had on perfect designer sunglasses and would often switch between several in the course of a day. This focus on the aesthetic may seem odd for an intellectual powerhouse like Cyrus – or for the introduction to this interview. However, his attention to visual detail is particularly noteworthy because Cyrus is completely blind.

As a child Cyrus was diagnosed with Retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the retina. In his case it struck one eye, and then the other. He was lucky to receive world-class treatment that prevented the cancer from metastasizing to his brain; he was unlucky in that it left him with no eyesight whatsoever and unable even to distinguish light from dark. Unlike someone blind from birth, Cyrus has an abundance of vivid visual memory from before he lost his sight. Since Cyrus lost his vision in 1989, he imagines everyone today with mullet haircuts and plaid polyester pants. While he can no longer see red or green, he has an acute visual image of those colors and knows not to mix and match them except during the Christmas season. And if Cyrus has a conversation about a skyscraper or a forest, he can actually picture the subject in his head, rather than understanding or imagining it through verbal context as someone blind from birth would have to do. These memories, combined with an uncanny sense of physical space allow him to navigate the world so smoothly that on first encounters he often passes as not being blind at all. Yet for the last twenty years his brain has not accumulated any new visual memory, leaving space to develop in other areas – his sense of smell and hearing, his memory, and his ability to master complex information quickly epitomize the word “extraordinary.”

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Solastalgia and the tree shepherds

There is a kind of long-term shock that comes with the realization that the landscape around one’s own home is being altered beyond recovery. Psychologically, after all, a landscape is a permanent thing — hills and forests and paths are unchanging things to a child, and even when one moves away in adulthood they are assumed to remain protected, inviolate. Increasingly, of course, this assumption is wrong: the relentless spread of housing developments, roads, and shopping centres means that many people in the industrialized world face a high probability of losing the landscapes they remember as children. To some extent the shock lies in the simple unexpectedness of the change.

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Spiegelman and Mouly on Kids Comics

Nobody talks about comics with more intelligence than Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, so it is always a happy day when they sit down for an extensive interview as they recently did for Michael Silverblatt’s show Bookworm. Silverblatt, abuzz with his smart responsiveness and high-spirits, chatted with the pair about their new anthology The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics. You can listen to the interview here.

It is perhaps worth adding that Silverblatt is a great host and he brings out the best in his guests. Spiegelman and Mouly have both been interviewed by Silverblatt on many occasions before; you can find a list of earlier interviews here and here.

Salinger & family

Salinger's most famous book.

There will be many obituaries and tributes to J.D. Salinger, who died yesterday. I said my piece about him in a review of his daughter’s memoir, which ran in the National Post on Sept. 10, 2000. Here it is:

DREAM CATCHER: A MEMOIR

By Margaret A. Salinger Washington Square Press, 436 pp., $39.95

Although he keeps flunking out of school, Holden Caulfield, the hero of The Catcher in the Rye, is a smart kid. For a 16-year-old he can make surprisingly useful literary distinctions, for example noting that only some good books make us curious about the author. “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

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