Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Heart-Shaped Box

Read any scary books lately? Yes, I know, forget Stephen King - Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and all the other global warming books are the REALLY scary books! But as to novels, I've read a couple in the past year that are both well-written and scary. The Keep by Jennifer Egan is an excellent modern take on the haunted house tale, with just enough postmodern trickery (unreliable narrator anyone?) to appeal to the literary snob in me. The Ruins by Scott Smith is a suspenseful thriller that morphs into a chilling horror novel, all set near the tourist heaven of modern-day Cancun.

Before Joe Hill was revealed as the son of Stephen King, he had published a well-reviewed story collection, 20th Century Ghosts, in Britain and his first novel, Heart-Shaped Box. Hill/King wanted to establish himself as an author without the help of his famous Dad. Of course, now that we know this it is much easier to say, "Why, yes, Heart Shaped Box reads like early Stephen King." What I like is that Joe Hill uses cultural references from the post-Boomer era, including the title of his book (from the Nirvana song). The book itself is about an aging rocker, a lover of the macabre, who buys a ghost on Ebay. For a thousand dollars Judas Coyne becomes the owner of a dead man's suit, alleged to be haunted by a ghost...

Here's the author himself talking about his book:

Friday, October 19, 2007

Endymion Spring

Local boy makes good. It's a cliché but it is also true for author Matthew Skelton. Matthew grew up in Edmonton, went to U of A, then on to Oxford for his PhD. Pretty good thus far. But life in the ivory tower of academia can be hard, with shockingly few winners in the bitter battle for a full-time job (vs an endless series of low-paying lectureships, assistantships, etc). Matthew found himself living in Europe living on £ 12 a week. So he set out on another quixotic quest, writing a fantasy novel about libraries, books and a brother and sister. The chances of getting a first novel published are about as slim as getting a tenure-track job in the humanities. But somehow Matthew's novel, Endymion Spring, made it out of the slush pile, created a publishers' bidding war and went on to bestseller status and talk of "the next Harry Potter" in the UK!
The Journal's Paula Simons tells the incredible story [here].
Our Teen Librarian, Kathleen, blogged about the book [here].

And I've saved the best for last (yes, another cliché!): Matthew Skelton appears in person, at the Library this Saturday! Free admission. All welcome.

Matthew Skelton 1:00pm, Saturday October 20, 2007

The City of Words

We Alberto Manguel at the Library. We love all readers of course, but Manguel has to be the king of all readers. He joked once that his tombstone should simply say, "It was a wonderful read." One of the reasons he moved to France a few years ago was that he knew he couldn't afford to house his 30,000 volume personal library in Toronto. So he renovated an old barn in southern France where costs were lower. This library-building was the genesis of his book, The Library at Night - his love song to libraries.

Manguel has written often and well about reading and books:
And now he comes to town with a new book about reading, stories and books: The City of Words. This new book is actually the print version of this year's Massey Lectures, delivered by Manguel across the country this week and next. And we have the lucky opportunity to hear Manguel deliver lecture number 3, "The Bricks of Babel" in person: 8:00 pm, Friday October 19 - Myer Horowitz Theatre @ the University of Alberta. Tickets are $15 and are ONLY AVAILABLE IN ADVANCE through Ticketmaster [in St. Albert the Arden Theatre box office next to the Library is also a Ticketmaster office.]

This lecture and the others in the series will be broadcast on CBC Radio One's Ideas program the week of November 5-9, 2007. So, yes, go to the lecture tonight, applaud loudly and in November you can tell family and friends - "Yes, that's ME clapping on the radio."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bones to Ashes

I'm gobsmacked. Kathy Reichs - currently the #1 most popular author at the Library - is reading tonight at Audrey's Books! Nope, not a giant theatre, just the wee basement of Audrey's. I suggest you get there early and grab a seat!
7:00 pm, Thursday October 18.

Reichs' latest mystery novel, Bones to Ashes, once again stars forensic anthropologist, Temperance Brennan, and she's back in Montreal. Richard Helm talks to Reichs in the Journal [here].

The Law of Dreams

Peter Behrens was reading at Volume II Books last night, a day after the nominations for the 2007 Governor General's Literary Awards were announced. Behrens, of course, was the surprise winner of the 2006 Award for Fiction for his novel The Law of Dreams. The betting was on Rawi Hage's novel De Niro's Game, given that Hage was also nominated for the Giller - and who is this Peter Behrens fellow anyway?

There was groaning heard across the land when Behrens won, but perhaps it was just my own complaining. Another earnest historical novel about hard times in ye olde Canada? The potato famine? The trials of emigration? C'mon, can't prize juries make even a little attempt to reward the Canadian writers trying to record contemporary urban life in Canada? You know - the lives we're living in Canada, in cities, today?

And then I read it.

Reluctantly, at the behest of someone I trusted, I read it. And it didn't take much beyond the first page to draw me into one of the best reads of 2006 for me. If you tend to roll your eyes when someone tells you about the great historical novel they read, as I do, I urge you to defy your natural impulse and to give The Law of Dreams a try.

Behrens' writing is dazzling, with particular images that have remained in my mind like those showstoppers in Ondaatje. The key for me is the compelling main character, Fergus, who learns to live by the 'law of dreams': keep moving. Strangely, given its famine setting and the horrific events Fergus endures, the book is not depressing. British writer Nicci Gerrard puts it well in a piece in The Observer gathering underrated books:
Though this hauntingly bloody and beautiful novel has been garlanded with praise and prizes in Behrens's native Canada, here its reception has been weirdly muted. Set in the potato famine in Ireland in 1847, the transport ship to Canada and finally Montreal, it tells the story of the young man Fergus's journey through horror, violence, and degrading poverty - but in spite of its picaresque telling of unimaginable catastrophe and scorching disaster, the novel is neither melodramatic nor depressing. Rather, there's a euphoric uplift in its pages, a poetic energy in the style which completely bowled me over. Such a messy, delirious, risky, big-hearted book; such a treat.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Stupid to the Last Drop

Are Albertans stupid? Montreal journalist William Marsden thinks so. (Is he still ticked that the Esks beat the Als in the Grey Cup in 2005 and 2003?) His book's title and subtitle explains it all: Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (and Doesn't Seem to Care).

Marsden appears to be emulating Michael Moore (Stupid White Men) - fighting the good fight but doing it by poking an angry dog with a stick. And the sarcastic attacks work to a point - the various emperors are shown to have no clothes - but the weakness is that the film or the book ends up playing to the same sympathetic audience as before the attack.

Marsden's polemic will find a sympathetic audience with many Albertans of course. What many central Canadians like Marsden don't understand about Alberta is the diversity of opinions, the freedom to express these opinions, and the openness to opinions that makes change possible. I find new ideas and approaches are more welcome in Alberta than Ontario. Indeed, as someone who has lived in both places, I find Ontario far more "conservative", in the classic sense (change happens incrementally - hey, slow down!), than Alberta. One example only: the precursor to the NDP, the unashamably labour/socialist CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) was formed in Calgary in 1932!

Calling us stupid just gets our collective back up and sends the oil industry apologists to the barricades with endless chants of "N.E.P., N.E.P." And actually Marsden's book is timely and full of excellent facts that Albertans, especially Albertans, should be thinking about. Maclean's magazine has a look at the book and the issues involved [here].

Many, many Albertans agree with Marsden and have been bringing these issues forward. Alberta writer Andrew Nikiforuk had a sympathetic review of the Marsden book in the Globe and Mail recently [here], but he noted that "It's not just Alberta, it's the whole country." Nikiforuk has been writing about these issues for years, including in his award-winning book Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig's War Against Big Oil. And in a perfect storm of bookish events, Nikiforuk is one of the featured authors at this weekend's Edmonton LitFest!

Appearing in Edmonton with Nikiforuk are some of the leading writers on global warming and the environment, many of whom I blogged about [here] back in January:

The only writer missing is Al Gore! Perhaps next year for LitFest.... Take a look at the schedule and pop down for some interesting listening and discussing.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Inheritance of Loss

Speaking of Kiran Desai: last year's Booker winner for The Inheritance of Loss is in Edmonton tonight:

7:30pm, October 12
Oldtimers Cabin
(9430 - 99th St)
Tickets are $5.
Phone Greenwoods Books @ 439-2005
to make sure there are tickets left.

The Golden Notebook

Doris Lessing has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. At 88 years of age she is the oldest winner of the prize. Contrast that with Kiran Desai, at 35 the youngest winner of the Booker Prize (last year). Of course, Lessing has been waiting awhile, as she published her most famous book, The Golden Notebook, in 1962, when she was 43 (if my math is correct!). [picture at left is Lessing in 1962]

The Swedish Academy, in their Nobel citation, referred to The Golden Notebook:
“The burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work and it belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th century view of the male-female relationship.”
In my youth the book had the aura of the forbidden - 'Is it naughty?!' (all naughty things seemed to have colour: Forever Amber, I Am Curious Yellow, Dress Her In Indigo and all the other colourful John D. MacDonald pulp fiction). In the homes of my parents' friends it was kept on the very top bookshelf along with Portnoy's Complaint, The Female Eunuch (with the scary female torso cover), Erica Jong, Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence and other dangerous folks.

It was a
musing (okay, and a little disappointing) to find out years later that The Golden Notebook was/is a feminist classic, a pioneer in its examination of female identity, a serious, complex, innovative literary work with interwoven narratives and unusual structure - perhaps "frank" for 1962, but certainly not "naughty". I believe I figured this out when I read Lessing's much-anthologized story, "To Room Nineteen" in university (published in 1963). I re-read it today and it is still a stunner of a story: a woman trapped in marriage and family retreats to a rented room for a time, but can't really escape in the end. [You can find it in The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction here at the Library]. [picture at left, Lessing in 2006]

The New York Times has an impressive treasure trove of Lessingiana [here], including audio of her reading and answering questions at NYC's 92nd St. Y in 1994, pluse NYT reviews of many of her books.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Spook Country

William Gibson, the man who invented cyberpunk in his classic novel, Neuromancer, and coined the term "cyberspace" reads from his excellent new novel, Spook Country, in Edmonton: 7:30 pm Wednesday October 10 @ the Telus Word of Science (aka Odyssium). Tickets are $10 adults, $8 not adults (with over 6.5 million copies of Neuromancer sold since 1984, perhaps the fee is a fundraiser?).

The Wars

Back in the day my favourite Calgary bashing joke was:
Q: What's the difference between Calgary and yogurt?
A: Yogurt has culture.
Calgarians still seem obsessed with making money and buying giant vacation homes, but I'll admit, begrudgingly, that there are many cultural bright spots in that striving city to the south. The Calgary Folk Fest has given big sister Edmonton Folk Fest a run for most-interesting lineup the last few years. Calgary Opera has commissioned and produced two new Canadian operas (Filumena in 2003, Frobisher in 2007). The new Sled Island Festival showed the vibrancy of Calgary's music scene, as did Chad VanGaalen's nomination for the Polaris Prize. Calgary's literary festival, WordFest, has become one of Canada's largest while Edmonton's LitFest still struggles. And while Edmonton is still a theatre town par excellence, the Calgary theatre scene is quite healthy and interesting.

Down in Calgary for turkey last weekend, I attended Theatre Calgary's world premiere production of The Wars. This is a theatrical adaptation of Timothy Findley's classic Great War novel, The Wars, written and directed by Dennis Garnhum. Apparently this production is Theatre Calgary's first premiere since 1988, and it is a big production, with many actors and a complex set. Their gamble paid off, with sell-outs for the entire run. The play is spectacular, including a show-stopping scene when soldiers undergo a gas attack: the clouds of gas creep and pour from the back of the stage down into stage front, spilling off the stage and dissipating when the gas hits the heat from the audience.

As a play? Hmm. Adapting a beloved novel is always dicey. The book is always better than the film is the cliché. But The Wars was adapted by Findley himself into a feature film in 1983, so Garnhum had one path to emulate (or avoid). I think the play did work, but perhaps not as well for those in the audience who love the book. The novel is complex, the play is straightforward. In the novel Robert Ross is much more morally ambiguous. He's grey as the mud of Flanders. But in the play Ross is a hero, full stop, and the choices he makes are clearly heroic. And some of the most "dramatic" (and controversial) episodes in the novel are left out of the play.

A great book can lead to many interpretations. Props to Theatre Calgary and Dennis Garnhum for taking an ambitious project on. It is entirely worthwhile and may point folks back to Findley's books. But Edmonton isn't going to let Calgary hog the world premieres of Canadian plays about the First World War this season. The Citadel Theatre premieres Vern Thiessen's new play, Vimy, on October 20th! The CBC has a piece about this odd coincidence [here].

For an update on the Edmonton/Calgary rivalry, check out the ongoing "Tale of Two Cities" series in sister newspapers, the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal. Columnists from each paper trade cities to examine an issue. This week Edmonton theatre critic Liz Nichols had nice things to say about Calgary's theatre scene [here].

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Spanish Fly

Hold on, he's coming: The Soul Man. As in Sam Moore, the surviving half of legendary Stax Records duo, Sam & Dave. They were the inspiration for John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd's Blues Brothers act. Sam is playing all the Alberta hot spots - Medicine Hat, Fort Macleod, and Sherwood Park (Saturday October 6 @ Festival Place). Yup, Fort Macleod. Of course, I can't help but think of the scene in the Blues Brothers film, when the reformed band steals a gig at Bob's Country Bunker and only avoids lynching by the redneck crowd with repeated versions of the theme from Rawhide and "Stand By Your Man." Sam is playing the historic Empress Theatre in Fort Macleod, so I think he'll be okay.

But another Soul Man is coming too, this one the Chicken Soup for the Soul man: Jack Canfield. The "beloved originator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series" and "the driving force behind the development and delivery of over 100 million books sold..." is appearing at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton on October 11. He is speaking about his book The Success Principles, in which lays out his 64 principles for success. Canfield will be familiar to folks from his appearance in the hyper-successful film/book, The Secret. (By the way, The Secret is available as a free downloadable eAudiobook via our new NetLibrary digitial audiobook service [here])

Soul man? More like soulless man? Certainly listening to Canfield on the CBC radio phone-in it is easy to dismiss him as a glib, fast-talking salesman for his radio-friendly unit shifter/book-products. Just listening to him is a bit exhausting! But the Soup books definitely hit a collective nerve and have been a source of comfort, even support, for many, many people. And Canfield's new book is can't-go-wrong stuff: take full responsibility for your life, always ask for feedback, control your spending - with a fresh spin - "Reject rejection", "Become an Inverse Paranoid" (see the world as out to help you instead of out to get you).

Calgary-based author Will Ferguson's first novel, Happiness TM [originally published as Generica] is all about a Canfield-type self-help guru, Tupac Soiree. This is a very funny satire about what happens when a seemingly innocuous self-help book actually works - readers become happy! But as happy readers begin quitting their jobs the entire economy collapses and the end of the world approaches. An excellent poke at the self-help industry.

Will Ferguson reads from his second novel, Spanish Fly, at Volume II Books on October 4th. This novel is about con men during the Great Depression, including one Jack McGreary - one of the main characters of Happiness TM. This makes Spanish Fly a bit of a prequel to Happiness TM. The novels are quite different however, with the new one more serious in tone.

To set the right 30's dust bowl mood, Ferguson talked his pal, Calgary roots musician Tom Phillips, into recording a soundtrack CD for the novel. That's right, a soundtrack for a novel! The CD is all original songs - 3 have lyrics by Ferguson himself. You can listen to excerpts [here]

If you are down in Calgary for WordFest, Ferguson is reading in Calgary on October 11th and Banff on October 12th.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Shock Doctrine

Naomi Klein, Canada's answer to Noam Chomsky, is in Edmonton Tuesday night, promoting her new book, The Shock Doctrine. [Hmm, is it okay to say "promoting" about a prominent critic of unfettered capitalism?!] The October 2nd event is at the Royal Alberta Museum at 7:30 pm.

Klein is best-known as the author of No Logo, the "bible" of the anti-globalization movement. No Logo captured the zeitgeist of the early 2000s - the anti-Word Trade Organization "Battle of Seattle" in 1999, the anti-G8 protest in Genoa in 2001 and so on. The book has sold more than a million copies and is available in 28 different languages (speaking of globalization!).

Since No Logo came out, Klein has published columns in prominent publications like The Nation and The Guardian. In 2004 she and husband Avi Lewis released The Take, a documentary film they created which depicts Argentinian workers taking over a closed factory, reopening it and running it a worker collective. Available on DVD at the Library.

For an overview of the book's thesis, take a look at the short film by Klein and Children of Men director Alfonso Cuarón, directed by Jonás Cuarón, here. Or for an even odder mix of celebrity politics, watch Naomi Klein inteviewed by actor/director John Cusack here.