The “This is Water ” [shown below] video that someone made of a David Foster Wallace commencement speech was floating around the internet today and I watched it again even though I remembered taking issue with it the first time I saw it. It reminds me of the author Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted Talk about mental health and artists and how we need to look out for our geniuses and keep them healthy by not making depression glamourous.
Of course, Gilbert’s talk came to mind because David Foster Wallace killed himself. And when I watched that Ted Talk, I thought that it was a little presumptuous of Gilbert to imagine that her experience is similar to the “typical” ruined genius. She basically writes self-help books, right?
Then I felt like a jerk, because maybe that’s a shitty thing to think. What do I know?
Well, I had the strange fortune to have chosen mostly books that didn’t get to the Giller Prize shortlist. I don’t mind, of course, but I had hoped to read all of the books on the short list and it might be kind of a tall order now.
Caught by Lisa Moore was my latest read and it was sort of a job. I liked it and I am tempted to only tell you about the thing that I liked about it because I am feeling a bit peer-pressured. There aren’t many reviews (I did find one, however) of Caught that aren’t a excited gushes of adoration and support. Continue reading →
Now that was a story. I have just discovered that the best possible compliment for a novel is not to call it a book, but to call it a story. This occurred to me because the entire time that I was reading David Gilmour‘s Extraordinary, I kept referring to it as my story.
-What are you doing? Reading my story.
-Darling, what’s for breakfast? Coffee. Can you pass me my story?
The structure of Extraordinary was obvious and simple. We know what’s going to happen from the get-go. The reader is simply present for the journey. Even that isn’t all that outrageous. It’s plain, warm and tangible, extremely insightful – but not extraordinary.
One down and twelve to go… I’m off to an unimpressive start to my task of reading all thirteen longlisted novels by November 5th, but nonetheless, I am pressing on.
My first choice, Elisabeth De Maraffi’s book of short stories, How to Get Along with Women, was a page turner. I probably would have gotten through it a lot faster if I hadn’t just begun a new job at a cool place and if I didn’t care about keeping the job.
Despite the press in my time, what little I had to spare, was not wasted with Elisabeth’s book (I feel like I can call her by her first name because we have that in common and so when we meet some day, we will almost surely have the kinship that all Gemini and people named Elizabeth do).
The subject of women has been on my mind lately and not just because I am one. However, to my great irritation, my thoughts on the subject are not at all original. I’ve been thinking about the way that women are portrayed in media and how stupid that reality is. I’ve been thinking that there are not enough women teaching in universities, in politics, and business. I’ve been thinking about my experience with women and how shocking, terrifying and intense some of the stories I could tell are. I have known some real characters in my modest amount of time on the planet and have been witness to a lot of very powerful women. Continue reading →
So last week I attended a short and lovely ceremony announcing the Giller Awards longlist. It was so fun and beautiful and it made me feel like such a part of things.
There was only one snag. I hadn’t read any of the books. All my grad-school friends were there and none of us had read a single book, I don’t think. How embarrassing.
To add insult to injury, the Artistic Director of the Vancouver International Writers Festival went on a very flattering diatribe about our writing department and how it’s the best, most respectable in the country. He said that when he flipped through the list of authors attending his festival, he was pleased to see that a sizeable chunk of them were grads of the program. I didn’t know that. I should have known that.
In drastic reaction to my ignorance, I’ve decided, as a (self-appointed) member of the Canadian Writing community, that it’s high time I start acting like one. A writer ought to read the work of her contemporaries and so I began the Giller Prize Book Club. That way I can guilt my writing friends into doing it with me and my shame will motivate me to follow through.
“The best thing about Plato was his good style. He liked to invent systems, but he was too fine and artist to trust his systems fully. Now I’ve come to hate systems. I hate your pet system, I hate Fascism, and I hate the system that exists. But I suppose there must be some system and I’ll take any system that leaves me alone to get on with my work.” — Francis Cornish on the mindset of an Artist.
Roberston Davies must have been a fascinating person. I’ve only read one other novel of his, Fifth Business, in Canadian high school. From my small amount of research though, Davies appears to be pretty hung up on the extraordinary story of the un-extraordinary. How wonderful. How Exciting. How Canadian–and I say that with zero disdain.
Fifth Business is a book, that centres around a supporting character in the grander story of something else. Hence that name, Fifth Business, which is a theatrical term, common in operatic story structure. It refers to a role which is supporting and important for propelling the plot, but secondary to the hero and heroine’s role in the story.
What’s Bred in the Bone is a variation on that theme. The hero, is at the surface, simply an old art collector and miser. When we look closer, we find that Francis Cornish’s life was carefully crafted and destined to make an impact on the world, long after his death. Little did anyone know what a portrait of greatness could look like.
This is my first Retro Review Post. The name is probably obvious, but I’ll just say that Retro Reviews are reviews of old books that randomly come to me by word of mouth or pushy book-lenders. This week’s Retro Review is a book that I found in the free pile in my friend’s building’s laundry room.
I don’t read every book that I find in a free pile, but when three of my friends randomly came into possession of the same book, we decided to read it together. Here’s what I thought:
The thing that will strike the reader most about The Shipping News is not the story itself, but the atmosphere of the book. I am desperate to go to Newfoundland now, just desperate.
I would rather go to Newfoundland and eat flipper pie, work for a local newspaper full of typos and drive a boat to work than live in Manhattan and work for the New York Times. That’s how well E. Annie Proulx has convinced me of this world and the way she does it is so ultra clever.
We begin with a man named Quoyle who, in the outside world, is soggy and loathsome. I wasn’t sure I could go through with this novel to begin with because I didn’t know that I wanted to spend that much time with such a pathetic, self-victimizing, paragraph of depression as him. He’s everything that a person hopes that they are not. You don’t want to know too much about him because you don’t want it to rub off on you.
Some artists find creative fortitude in depression. Some people make themselves upset on purpose in order to produce the sad self-reflection that devastation can bring about. These artists have offered up their insides to the world. Lovely people like Joni Mitchell, Hemmingway, Joan Didion, Paul Simon and Chopin wrote break-up songs and love letters that created a shared space for the human experience.
It’s important to be where you are and to appreciate being alive enough to feel big feelings and then to use those insights to open your mind to better empathize with our collective human experience.
I wish I was one of those people, brave enough to dance with my own demons, but I’m often not. I thrive on momentum and inspiration. And though I know that the down and dark parts have to be experienced, that they won’t go without a fight, I am not prone to embracing them. I try to avoid them.
Remember when film cameras were being replaced with digital cameras? I distinctly recall feeling super uncomfortable about that. I’d had digital cameras in my house since they started (my mom worked for a dot-com before the bubble burst). Our first one was a bulky device that took giant photos and saved them directly to a floppy disc that I could then insert into my computer to upload six photos, which took twenty minutes. The idea that those intangible cumbersome ideas of pictures would replace the thrill of pointing, clicking and waiting for your film to develop was such a bummer.
That sickening bout of nostalgia was quickly relieved, however, as cameras got better rapidly and the making and sharing of photography became practically free. I can’t imagine that there are any practically minded people out there that are still mourning the reign of the film camera.
***Remember: there will always be purists and nothing is ever really gone forever.
Only children actually want to be artists – children, rich people, and boring people who are afraid of being exposed as boring people. Most of us grow up, and either learn that we aren’t interested/talented/crazy, and we move on because we are intelligent/responsible/hungry. The rest of us are either rich people/children/boring or reluctant artists. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to be an artist, I wanted to be an astronaut. And I often blame my mom for my not becoming one. She refused to send me away to Space Camp. But really, I was never going to be an astronaut. She knew from the start what I was.
Artist is a nebulous term that I don’t have a definition for exactly, but so far as I understand, here are some of the symptoms: