The Shadow Over Portage and Main

Coming up soon, if you’re in town you should check it out!!!

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The Gates of Paradise

One night several years ago, I was working at a bookstore, and I was bored. My MO on nights like these was to read up on (surprise!) books: new releases, interesting factoids, things I hadn’t heard of. And somehow I found myself perusing this article, about books written in a single sentence. At the outset, it highlights two authors: Bohumil Hrabal, who is one of my favourite writers and a novella virtuoso, and Jerzy Andrzejewski, who I’d never even heard of. The former penned “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age” in a single massive run-on sentence, and the latter did the same with “The Gates of Paradise.”

I’d already read “Dancing Lessons,” and enjoyed it thoroughly (but if you’re new to Hrabal, start with “Too Loud a Solitude”), so it was a matter of course that I wanted – no, I needed to read “The Gates of Paradise.” Which book, incidentally, has by all accounts been out of print since sometime in the late sixties. The gauntlet was thrown down, and an obsession was born.

For once, the internet was no help: I couldn’t find a copy anywhere. I discovered that the University of Regina had a copy in its holdings, and that was the closest I came. For the next four years, whenever I found myself in a used bookstore I would head immediately to the “A”s, having long since memorized the author’s humdinger of a last name. In an English bookstore in Poland I found one of Andrzejewski’s other books, but even in his home country nobody seemed to know much about “The Gates of Paradise.”

And here’s some unsurprising full-disclosure: I like to own my books. I like to dog-ear them, and mark them up, and admire them on my shelf. But eventually the search grew wearisome, and I conceded defeat. I went online to the website of the Winnipeg Public Library, and submitted a form requesting Andrzejewski’s elusive book on interlibrary loan from the University of Regina.

Barely two weeks later I had the book in my hands, and I read it twice, and I loved it. Often the end of such a lengthy quest will bring a sense of anticlimax, but in this case I was nothing but pleased.

But as it turned out, the quest wasn’t over. I noticed something peculiar on the yellowed hardcover from the U of R: instead of Jerzy Andrzejewski, the publisher had anglicized the author’s name to George Andrzeyevski! Another quick internet search turned up a scant handful of copies under the “George” moniker on abebooks, and given barely another week I had my own copy in my hands. In fact, for a few days there, I had two copies of the elusive book in my possession!

Of course I gushed about it to all of my friends, though I suspect only a few of them understood the magnitude of my quest, and of my obstinacy, and of my excitement. And of course I’d love to recommend this book to you, to everyone, but as I discovered, it’s not the easiest thing to get ahold of (and you’d better believe I’m going to take darn good care of my own copy)!


Photo on 2014-07-26 at 12.24 PM

A Roadside Inn

I see life as a roadside inn where I have to stay until the coach from the abyss pulls up. I don’t know where it will take me, because I don’t know anything. I could see this inn as a prison, for I’m compelled to wait in it; I could see it as a social centre, for it’s here that I meet others. But I’m neither impatient nor common. I leave who will to stay shut up in their rooms, sprawled out on beds where they sleeplessly wait, and I leave who will to chat in the parlours, from where their songs and voices conveniently drift out here to me. I’m sitting at the door, feasting my eyes and ears on the colours and sounds of the landscape, and I softly sing – for myself alone – wispy songs I compose while waiting.

Night will fall on us all and the coach will pull up. I enjoy the breeze I’m given and the soul I was given to enjoy it with, and I no longer question or seek. If what I write in the book of travellers can, when read by others at some future date, also entertain them on their journey, then fine. If they don’t read it, or are not entertained, that’s fine too.

-Fernando Pessoa


There are a few different schools of thought here. There are those who blanch at the merest mention of dog-earing, or scribbling notes in the margins, or underlining and highlighting. Then there are those who feel that a book isn’t really Theirs until it’s been internalized to such a degree that the work itself has been transformed into something completely different than it was before.

I fall somewhere in between; I’m a notorious dog-earer and underliner, but I often lack the discipline to add comments in the margins, eager to get on with the reading.

Here’s something from The Millions that’s on a totally different level: a marginalia conversation/dismantling of Dan Brown’s “Inferno.”


Food for Thought

If you know me, you know that I’ve retained a bit of a beef with Amazon from my days working at an independent bookstore. It’s always kind of hard, though, to really mount a methodical argument to validate my dislike – it’s a little bit of the destroying bookselling and literary culture, mixed with the scummy business practices and sucking money out of the local economy at an unprecedented rate – but here’s an interesting article (which I realize is from England) that focuses exclusively on the way they treat their tens of thousands of employees, and contains some insights that were new to me. Food for thought this holiday season.


At Last!

My fourth book talk just went up! In it, I chat a bit about Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” which was the book that introduced me to Murakami’s work.

Take a look!


Radio Silence

This happens, sometimes.

In mid-September, halfway through a round of fairly widespread short-story edits, I got the urge to work on something bigger. So I buckled down and returned to my novel-in-progress, “The Historian Fragments.” And I got a bit carried away. “The Historian Fragments” is a project I’ve been working on since spring 2012, when I started drafting it. I did a complete rewrite/overhaul this past winter while I was living in France, and I’ve just wrapped up a third extensive revision. Just in time, in fact, for moving day.

So now I’m all moved in, and I have a shiny new doorstop sitting square in the middle of my desk, staring me down. I’m already getting feedback from some of my primary readers about the new revision, and I must say I’m feeling pretty encouraged.

Anyway. Now it’s time to relax for a few days. Hopefully I’ll get another book talk up in the next week or so.


Every Love Story is a Ghost Story

The writing of David Foster Wallace was a fairly recent discovery for me. Last summer, at the urging of a colleague, I took about a month to plough through “Infinite Jest.” It was a weird read: as compelling as a page turner, brimming with absolutely virtuosic writing, but the prose was missing a necessary element of… emotion? I’m not sure if I can put my finger on it. Many people describe DFW’s writing as being full of “pyrotechnics,” and I agree, but things like the development of Don Gately toward the end are so full of soul that I’m helpless not to include “Infinite Jest” on any list of my favourite novels henceforth.

Excited, I soon picked up “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” and disliked it enormously. It wasn’t that I didn’t find it well-written or emotionally engaging (the many autobiographical references to depression are hard to read, sometimes), but overall I was bored, something I didn’t come near to experiencing with IJ.

So I gave him a break, and brought his famous essay collection “Consider the Lobster” with me on my recent trip to France. And again it blew my mind. I’d never read essays like these before (I might do a book talk on his essays, after I get around to reading “Supposedly Fun Thing”), at once extremely intelligent and compelling, but also funny and playful. It made me think with shame of all the high school and university essays I wrote that were just flat on the page, lacking any life or interest. And it throws down the gauntlet for any essays I dare to write in the future.

All this is a preamble to my having recently finished “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story,” D.T. Max’s biography of DFW that’s recently out in paperback. Wallace’s untimely suicide in 2008 notwithstanding, I was excited to read about the life and development of someone who on the strength of his writing I must consider to be at least something of a genius. And there were definitely uplifting and inspiring parts to the story.

But what struck me most deeply was the sense of sorrow and struggle that seems to have pervaded his life. He struggled with addiction, depression, anxiety, and what I would identify (mostly through his letters to friends, an astonishing number of which Max seems to have gotten his hands on) as a total lack of confidence in what he was doing; he seemed to be always second-guessing, always under pressure, and after reading Max’s book it’s not hard to see the forces under which he failed to publish another novel, in his lifetime, after the powerhouse “Infinite Jest.”

The recipient of the famed “Genius Grant,” regarded by many as the greatest American writer of his generation, successful as a university instructor and eventually finding a soulmate in Karen Green, committed suicide at the age of 46. These are the things I knew about DFW before I read this bio. I was shocked to see, despite apparent appearances, what a sad life Wallace seems to have lived. And for me as a young writer, he’s now become both an inspiration, and the ultimate cautionary tale.



New Video?

Yes, indeed there is. New “Book Talk” just went up, this one about Margaret Atwood’s enigmatic collection of short pieces, “Good Bones and Simple Murders.” Check it out!


The Short Story pt. 1 – Revenge

Recently and with mixed feelings I finished reading Yoko Ogawa’s “Revenge,” a collection of somewhat macabre short stories (billed as “eleven dark tales”). This was one of those random reads for me; without prior knowledge of the author or her work, I picked it up on the strength of a colleague’s recommendation.

The reason this is “The Short Story pt. 1″ is that I have a somewhat complicated love/hate relationship with short stories. As a writer, there are times when I enjoy writing them, but more often than not I find that they quickly become either over-wrought, or they “disappear up their own asshole,” as Kurt Vonnegut would say. As far as short fiction goes, I most enjoy writing so-called “flash” fiction (ie <1000 words). And as a reader, short story collections definitely have a habit of disappointing me, with notable exceptions, and I think it will take more than one blog post to untangle my feelings.

Ogawa’s collection was a bit of both – excitement and disappointment. Let me say first that I was entranced throughout by her gentle, honest writing style. Her prose felt very natural, and was quick and easy to read. It belied the dark elements of the stories that often came right at the end; sometimes this “shock-ending” device worked, and sometimes it didn’t. My favourite example of this sort of ending is still Roald Dahl’s “The Landlady.”

The neat thing about this collection is that all of the stories were somehow interconnected. Generally this meant that the major plot element in one story would appear as a minor but scintillating detail in the next. At first I very much enjoyed the way Ogawa did this, but towards the end it grew tiresome, felt somewhat like a gimmick. Of course I started trying to think of ways that… someone… might do it better, without any notable epiphanies. By the last story it was just a bit too cute.

Regardless, despite its flaws, this little book is one of the best short story collections I’ve read recently. It’s certainly not a terribly involved read, and there are some occurrences that might prove disturbing for the faint of heart, but overall it was entirely enjoyable.