Category Archives: writing

Hotel of the Saints

Hotel of the SaintsA dying dog, a pair of doves, blindness and an old hotel feature in eleven deceptively light tales of isolation in Ursula Hegi’s Hotel of the Saints, a collection that spans about twelve years of Hegi’s short fiction. These are stories of ordinary people leading lives of quiet desperation, estranged from society, from relatives, sometimes from themselves,. They are left to forge an uneasy peace with a sorrow-tinged existence.

In the title piece, Lenny, a seminary student trying to find his faith, helps his frail and incapable Aunt Jocelyn overhaul her newly inherited Hotel of the Saints after the death of her husband. The old hotel rooms come alive as sunny Mediterranean colours and whimsical themes replace the drab greyness, and Aunt Jocelyn and Lenny are transformed.

It always comes back to sitting alone at a desk,” she said. “I do between 50 and 100 revisions. So the way I used to write is the way I still write.

In The Juggler, a mother tries to protect her daughter from marrying a man who is going blind. The mother’s anxiety about her child quickly leads to conflict about the nature of their relationship and what it means to rely on another too much.

I do it to really go very deeply into the characters to understand the characters, to explore the characters. And a lot has to do with language. I write fiction as if I were writing poetry.

In one of the briefest but most powerful stories, titled The End of All Sadness, Hegi gives voice to an abused woman who finds a place of peace amid a life of violence. A single mother brings home a man who’s been sleeping on the ground by the pond. She marries him after he hits her for smiling at the postman. In her strange euphoria, she has no space even for her daughter.

After I’ve written a story, after I’ve gone through it 50 or 100 times, each time I feel those feelings. I go through that experience with the character. And after I have finished the story, on an emotional level, it has become my experience, and I am altered.

Ursula HegiIn Doves, a quiet, lonely single woman finds herself in a country bar. “A lean-hipped man asks her to dance, and as she sways in his arms on the floor that’s spun of sawdust and boot prints, she becomes the woman in every song that the men on the platform sing: the woman who leaves them; the woman who keeps breaking their hearts.”

The woman with the dying dog in Lower Crossing comes to realize that she keeps herself busy with trips to the local cafe, work in her plant shop, living with her middle-aged sister, and occasionally picking up men at the hardware store, as a way of coping with the loss of her best friend.

Ursula Hegi is the author of five novels: Intrusions (Viking Press, 1981), Floating In My Mother’s Palm (Poseidon Press/ Simon and Schuster, 1995), Stones from the River (Poseidon Press/ Simon and Schuster, 1995), Salt Dancers (Simon and Schuster, 2001), and The Vision of Emma Blau (Simon and Schuster, 2001). She has also published nonfiction, as well as two collections of stories, Unearned Pleasures (Scribner Paperback, 1995) and Hotel of the Saints, (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

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Praise Song for the Day

Elizabeth AlexanderPraise Song for the Day
written and recited
by Elizabeth Alexander
at Obama’s inauguration

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Washington DC Mall

Elizabeth Alexander’s poem to celebrate the inauguration of President Barack Obama will be published as a commemorative book by Graywolf Press on Feb. 6. Alexander, who teaches at Yale University, read the poem immediately after Obama’s inaugural address Tuesday. The book will be titled “Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration.” Alexander is the fourth poet to compose a special poem for an inauguration, following Robert Frost, for John F. Kennedy, and Maya Angelou and Miller Williams, for Bill Clinton.

Graphic Novels: Comix or Lit?

Its fans number in the millions, and both the publishing industry and Hollywood have fallen in love with it. Despite seeming to be on the forefront of popular culture, however, there are grounds to dispute its very existence–or, if it does exist, exactly when it was born. This omnipresent but elusive creature is the graphic novel, and some people think it is 30 years old this month.

The puzzle ostensibly began in October, 1978, when Baronet, a small publishing house in New York, brought out a book entitled A Contract with God. Although the volume had the general feel of a comic book, it featured no superheroes or monsters. Instead, there were four fictional accounts of ordinary people coping with the burdens of life. More interesting yet was the cover of the book, which proclaimed it to be “a graphic novel by Will Eisner.”

Although Eisner had been more or less out of the comics business for years as of 1978, he still would have been revered had he never returned. His finest achievement had been the 1940-52 run of The Spirit. That series, depicting the adventures of a non-super-powered crimefighter, was famous for its superb composition. Bizarre angles, heavy use of shadows and a playful way with the opening titles were its hallmarks.

Despite the great success of The Spirit, Eisner drifted into other areas of commercial art during the 1950s and 1960s. When he returned to comics in the 1970s, he was no longer interested in straightforward tales of heroes and villains — he wasn’t even comfortable with the term “comic book.”

While searching for a publisher willing to accept A Contract With God, he portrayed the project as a “graphic novel.” (He later joked, “It didn’t work. I sent it to them, and they said, ‘It’s a comic book.'”) Eventually, he found Baronet, and history was made.

Or not.

Today, the concept that Eisner reputedly invented back in 1978 seems to be a resounding success. Often packaged as trade paperbacks featuring contents that integrate words and pictures for an audience not necessarily interested in Batman or Superman, graphic novels have won considerable recognition. Art Spiegelman, the elder statesman of the field since Eisner’s death in 2005, won a Pulitzer prize in 1992 for his Maus books, which dealt with the Holocaust. Serialized during the first half of the 1980s, and printed as an initial volume in 1986, the various editions of Maus had sold 1.8 million copies by mid-2004. Movie studios have been receptive to the graphic-novel phenomenon, and recent acclaimed films based on graphic novels include Road to Perdition, American Splendor, Ghost World and Sin City.

Yet there is a worm in this apple — if there is even any apple at all. Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian-born, French-based creator of the widely praised Persepolis books, snootily (and inaccurately) told The Wall Street Journal last year, “I don’t like ‘graphic novel.’ It’s a word that publishers created for the bourgeois to read comics.”

More surprising, Art Spiegelman has discounted Eisner’s impact on his own books. In a Nov. 14, 2003, column, Andrew D. Arnold of Time.com quoted Spiegelman saying the following about A Contract With God: “I liked one of the stories very much, but it didn’t register with me as having anything to do with what I had climbed on my isolated tower to try to make, which was a long comic book that would need a bookmark.” Eisner himself had doubts about terminology in his last years and was advocating several alternatives to “graphic novel,” including “graphic literature,” “graphic narrative” and the clunky “sequential art.” The British comics writer Alan Moore has offered a scornful suggestion: “big, expensive comic books.”

Even if one discounts all of the above and insists that the graphic novel emerged immaculately in the 1970s, alternate versions of its birth still abound. In 1971,Gil Kane brought out Blackmark, a 130-page fantasy tale in pocketbook form that billed itself as “the next step forward in pictorial fiction.” In 1975, a group of French writers and artists founded Metal Hurlant, which soon spawned a U. S. version, Heavy Metal. These two magazines highlighted numerous creators, including Guido Crepax.

In 1976, Jim Steranko and Byron Preiss collaborated on Chandler, a private-eye story printed as a trade paperback and touted as a “visual novel.” In the same year, writer Harvey Pekar started his autobiographical American Splendor series. In 1977, Canada’s Dave Sim started what would turn out to be an eccentric, 300-issue epic about a talking aardvark named Cerebus. In October, 1978 — the same month as A Contract with God was released — Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy brought out the adventure book Sabre, which the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide has called “the first direct-sale graphic novel.”

According to comics historian Denis Gifford, the San Francisco comix scene of the 1960s and ’70s was heavily indebted — through inspiration or outright mentorship — to none other than Harvey Kurtzman, who founded Mad magazine in 1952. Spiegelman has confirmed that he was one of the many kids avidly devouring pocketbook reprints of Mad in the 1950s. In addition to the curious involvement of Mad, there is an argument that graphic novels already existed in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1941, U. S. publisher Albert L. Kanter defied the trend of superhero comics and created a line of graphic adaptations of famous novels aimed at young readers. This line soon became known as “Classics Illustrated,” and it ran new material right up to 1969, just nine years before the release of A Contract With God. European contributions to the children’s market are just as extensive. Belgium’s Georges Remi (alias “Herge”) brought out the first of his celebrated Tintin books in 1930, and these visual escapades — about 60 pages each, some of the narratives continued from volume to volume — appeared until 1976.

Let’s get over it, and just accept that there are a multitude of genres and approaches within the comic literary form.

Full story at National Post

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

Yann Martel’s brilliantly entertaining blog, What is Stephen Harper Reading, is a treasure trove for booklovers.

If you are a writer in a country run by a man who does not care about the arts – and certainly does not give them enough money – how do you change his mind? Lobbying would be ineffective. Whiny columns will be predictable. And megaphones and placards are dull to a novelist who can dream up an ocean-going Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Yann Martel, whose Life of Pi won the Man Booker prize, has come up with his own form of direct action: every second Monday, he sends a book to the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper. If the PM will not follow the arts, the arts must come to him – by post.

These are not just any books, mind; Mr Harper is a busy man, so what he gets is short and accessible. As light reading, they can still be pretty heavy: Tolstoy, Hindu scriptures, Strindberg. Such texts, the writer says, “expand stillness” – just what a head of state needs after an infernal day’s politics.

When is he meant to read them? “Everyone can do a page at bedtime,” says Mr Martel. “Or his aide could get a book to him when he visits the toilet.” Each second-hand paperback has an introductory note from the sender (“Om Shanti” ends the letter accompanying the Bhagavad Gita).

An ice-hockey fan, the PM has not commented on his gifts. But to give is better than to receive, and the unrequited novelist will continue his campaign until Mr Harper leaves office. “If I knew he liked thrillers,” says Mr Martel, “I would send more of those – perhaps a Chinese thriller.”

Martel explains:

On March 28th, 2007, at 3 pm, I was sitting in the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons, I and forty-nine other artists from across Canada, fifty in all, and I got to thinking about stillness. To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Just gazing upon a still lake, upon a quiet winter scene—doesn’t that lull us into contemplation? Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, yet we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important, and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by.

I was thinking about that, about stillness, and I was also thinking, more prosaically, about arts funding, not surprising since we fifty artists were there in the House to help celebrate the fifty years of the Canada Council for the Arts, that towering institution that has done so much to foster the identity of Canadians. I was thinking that to have a bare-bones approach to arts funding, as the present Conservative government has, to think of the arts as mere entertainment, to be indulged in after the serious business of life, that—in conjunction with retooling education so that it centres on the teaching of employable skills rather than the creating of thinking citizens—is to engineer souls that are post-historical, post-literate and pre-robotic; that is, blank souls wired to be unfulfilled and susceptible to conformism at its worst—intolerance and totalitarianism—because incapable of thinking for themselves, and vowed to a life of frustrated serfdom at the service of the feudal lords of profit.

The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute, certainly not. I don’t think he even looked up. The snarling business of Question Period having just ended, he was shuffling papers. I tried to bring him close to me with my eyes.

Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts.

But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness.

For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness.

~~ From the Globe and Mail, April 14, 2007

Water for Elephants

Today’s Globe & Mail ran a little piece on The Long Summer of the Carny.

The carnival workers of Conklin Supershows don’t see the big-city glam of the CNE or the PNE. From April to October, they travel small towns, setting up shopping mall midways and county fairs. It’s a fading way of life with few rewards.

A few weeks ago, they had set up a sad little show in the nearly empty parking lot of the East York Towne Centre, with rides for the kiddies, a couple of bored elephants shuffling back and forth under an awning in the July heat, and some small performing dogs racing back and forth in an enclosure.

I was reminded of Sara Gruen’s wonderful book, Water for Elephants, which is a must-read for anyone who is fascinated by the circus, elephants, or the Depression-era hobo life.

As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie.

It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

After Jacob puts Silver Star down, August talks with him about the reality of the circus. “The whole thing’s illusion, Jacob,” he says, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what people want from us. It’s what they expect”

Dave Weich of Powell’s Books interviewed the author. An excerpt of the interview:

DW: Is it true that you’d never been to a circus before starting your research for Water for Elephants?

Sara Gruen: It’s true. I had no history whatsoever. No interest, no connection to anyone associated with the circus. I grew up in northern Ontario. I don’t know if they didn’t come up that far or if I just never went, but if I did go it made such a little impression on me that I didn’t remember it.

DW: What wound up being your favorite act?

SG: In the end, the liberty horses… A person, usually a beautiful woman, comes out with a group of twelve horses typically, sometimes all white, sometimes black and white. She stands and makes signals with whips in the air, and she talks to them, and they obey her.
I have a horse, and I think it’s very cool that they can get horses doing that with no restraint and no halter.

DW: Marlena is that woman in Water for Elephants.

SG: Yes, and in fact I modeled her act after ones I had watched.

DW: And Rosie was based on a real elephant?

SG: Several elephants, yes. There was actually an elephant that would pull her stake out of the ground to go and steal lemonade, and then she’d go back and put her stake back in the ground and look innocent while they blamed the roustabouts.

DW: One of my favorite details in the book, having nothing to do with the circus, describes the boys in the hobo jungle: when they sleep, they take off their shoes but tie them to their feet. How did you educate yourself in Depression-era America?

SG: I wasn’t quite sure at first that this was the era I’d set the story in. A circus photo set me off on the path of the novel, but then I got on a sidetrack about hobos and I realized that something like 80 percent of them were under twenty-one. You think about hobos and you imagine middle-aged, dirty men by the side of the track, but no, they were kids.

DW: So much happens on the train or just off the train. It’s the book’s main setting.

SG: The whole of a circus worker’s social life happened on a moving train. When they were off, they were setting up or they were performing or they were tearing down, so everything happened while they were moving. Once they collected your quarter, they did their act and then they got out. You were leaving by the front end of the tent, and they were hauling the benches out by the back end—they’re done, they’re finished, they want to get on the train.

SG: For Water for Elephants, which was the first historical thing I’ve written, I did all the research ahead of time. I needed to feel that I knew the subject matter in and out. I hate outlining. I hate outlines, hate them, hate them. I usually know what the crisis of the book is going to be, though I don’t know how I’m going to get there. I try to make it bad enough that I don’t know how I’m going to get out of it. And when I get there, I have to get out of it. I just get myself geared up, and I write every day and see what happens.

DW: Has your technical-writing background helped, or has it been a hindrance?

SG: It was great training. For one thing, it taught me to sit down and write for eight hours a day. For another, it taught me not to take personally editorial comments. The first instructional project I gave to an editor ten years ago came back covered in red. I was practically in tears. It has to be a thousand times worse if it’s a piece of fiction, but I don’t take it personally anymore.

DW: Did you get up close and personal to elephants in your research?

SG: At the Kansas City Zoo, I observed the elephants with their ex-handler for a couple of days, taking notes on body language and behavior. I got into the habit of walking up to elephant handlers at the circus and saying, “Hi. I’m writing a book. May I meet your elephant?” I got lucky twice. The first time was right after I’d been out with this elephant handler at the Kansas City Zoo who had been gored by an elephant. He took a tusk through the thigh, one through the rib cage, which just missed everything vital, and another through his upper arm. So I still had that in mind. I was standing beside this huge thing with his amber eye staring down at me.

The guy said, “Go ahead. You can touch her.” I was shaking, but I touched her. I said, “Okay, I’m done now.” Several months later, I met the second one. It was one of these little circuses that throws a tent up and says, “Free tickets!” And then it’s twenty-dollar popcorn. I snuck out of the big top because it was small and pretty cheesy, but during the show I asked to meet the elephant; the handler gave me a bucket of peanuts and stuck me in an enclosure with this thing. He shut the gate. I was alone with this African elephant. I was looking at her, and she was looking at me like, This is not part of the usual repertoire. So I fed her the peanuts. By the end of it, she was such a love bug. I was hugging her and kissing her, posing for photos. She gave me a kiss, a big, sock puppet, mushy elephant kiss with the end of her trunk. It was really memorable.

Sara Gruen’s website

Elizabeth Judd’s review at the International Herald-Tribune

The Impossibility of Translating Poetry

notebook of roses and civilizationWhen work took Erin Moure to Montreal for the first time in 1984, she admits that she could “barely cope” with the language.

Early last year, with poet/novelist/playwright Robert Majzels, she embarked on a French-to-English translation of Cahier de roses et de civilisation, a 2003 book by Nicole Brossard, one of Quebec’s most important poets. It took her and Majzels almost three months to complete the project, published last fall by Toronto’s Coach House Books as Notebook of Roses and Civilization.

The 88-page volume has gone on to be short-listed for the 2007 Governor-General’s Award for translation. And in April, it was one of three texts nominated for the Canadian side of the Griffin Prize.

Moure is hardly a stranger to Brossard’s work. Notebook of Roses and Civilization is the third Brossard translation she and Majzels have completed. Nor is Moure a stranger to writing poetry. She has been nominated for seemingly every Canadian poetry prize, including two nods, in 2002 and 2006, for the Griffin, and five for the Governor-General’s award, in a writing career spanning more than 30 years.

Translation is a fraught exercise, of course. As Moure notes, “Languages aren’t equivalent. The register even of the word ‘I’ and ‘je’ is so different. You think of these things as equivalent on a practical basis, from day to day … but day-to-day language is not as precise as the use of language in poetry.”

And in the case of Brossard’s work, there are “challenges because she has a kind of tone and register, on what we call the macro and micro level, that we have to maintain.” Plus, Brossard does things in French that are “syntactically strange that we have to find a way of doing in English as well.”

While Notebook of Roses and Civilization “is necessarily different from the book in French,” Moure stressed that she and her collaborator tried “to stick very, very closely to providing the same experience to a reader in English as a reader in French – inasmuch as that is possible because readers bring to texts their culture.”

Brossard, 65 this year, has won at least two Governor-General’s awards in French-language poetry. Yet her fierce rejection of conventions of grammar, punctuation, narrative and logic, of what’s been called “the natural speech lyric,” have made her a sort of “poet’s poet.”

For Moure, the fact that today’s so-called common reader often doesn’t “understand a lot of contemporary poetry at the get-go” is a quibble. “We don’t demand this of life itself. Find me someone who understands life. I’m 53, and I don’t understand it. I understand certain things; I have certain reference points. I get through the day and I love it – but something always happens to throw me for a loop.

Excerpted from James Adams, Globe and Mail, June 4, 2008

A Beautiful Sentence

Beauty, in a sentence, is as difficult to describe as beauty in a painting or a human face. If you are even thinking in these terms – that is, if you are even considering what might constitute strong vigorous, energetic, and clear sentences – you are already far in advance of wherever you were before you were conscious of the sentence as something deserving our deep respect and enraptured attention.

Consider the sentence that begins Samuel Johnson’s brief biography, The Life of Savage.

It has been observed in all ages that the advantages of nature or of fortune have contributed very little to the promotion of happiness; and that those whom the splendour of their rank, or the extent of their capacity, have placed upon the summits of human life, have not often given any just occasion to envy in those who look up to them from a lower station; whether it be that apparent superiority incites great designs, and great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages; or that the general lot of mankind is misery, and the misfortunes of those whose eminence drew upon them an universal attention, have been more carefully recorded, because they were more generally observed, and have in reality only been more conspicuous than others, not more frequent, or more severe.

The quality that this sentence shares with all good sentences is clarity. Between its initial capital letter and its final period are 134 words, ten commas, and three semicolons, and yet the average reader, or at least the reader who has the patience to read and consider every word, will have no trouble understanding what Doctor Johnson is saying.

SentenceDespite its length, the sentence is economical. To remove even one word would make it less lucid and less complete, as Johnson takes an observation so common as to have become a cliché (money and fame don’t by themselves make us happy) and turns it, then turns it again, considering the possible explanations, the reasons why this perception may be true or merely appear to be true. The sentence combines a sort of magisterial authority with an almost offhand wit, in part because of the casual ease with which it tosses off sweeping philosophical generalizations (“great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages”, “the general lot of mankind is misery”) compressed into subordinate clauses, as if the truth of these statements is so obvious to both the writer and the reader that there is no need to pause over these pronouncements, let alone give them sentences of their own.

Possibly the principal reason why the sentence so delights us is that to read it is to take part in the process – the successive qualifications and considerations – of thought itself, of a lively mind at work. Finally, the cadence and rhythm of the sentence are as measured and pleasing as those of poetry or music.

Excerpted from Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer, HarperCollins, 2006