Book Launch – “Finding the Words” Edited by Jared Bland

On the 17th of February, Walrus Magazine hosted the launch of this wonderful new Canadian book, Finding the Words: Writers on Inspiration, Desire, War, Celebrity, Exile and breaking the Rules. Bland works at the magazine, as an editor, and was also the editor responsible for pulling this new anthology together.

There was a real hodge-podge of Canadian literati on-hand for the launch, which was held at Duggan’s Brewery. Being newly returned to the city, I haven’t yet met all of the great writers, bloggers and journalists in the Toronto market, so hitting these events solo is a bit daunting. I really should not have worried, though, as writer Guy Gavriel Kay introduced himself to me, thinking I looked familiar. We established very quickly that we had not previously met, but then went on to have an extremely in-depth conversation about the role of the internet in the lives of today’s authors, while also discussing The New Yorker’s David Denby. During our conversation, Kay mentioned he was waiting on his friend “Martin” to arrive. Well, “Martin” turned out to be none other that the Globe and Mail‘s Books Editor, Martin Levin. (I was sort of dying inside over my profound good luck in meeting both gentlemen! With hope, this was undetectable to my good-natured raconteurs.)

My only disappointment of the evening was the lack of a reading from the book – maybe this is standard operating procedure when it comes to anthologies?? I somehow doubt it, though. There are so many wonderful essays contained within the volume that to have a portion of one essay brought to life through wonderful oration would have been a great treat. Bland conceived the idea for this book as a look at the importance of language to writers. He brain-stormed some really crazy ideas with Ellen Seligman, a publisher (fiction) at McClelland and Stewart, as well as the President of PEN Canada.
Bland knew he wanted to keep the subject for the anthology broad in subject to allow participating authors some leeway with their essays. That the book would be anchored by this idea of the importance of language was always prominent though. “Language exists for us as something sublime as well as something incredibly banal.” writes Bland, in the introduction of the book Finding the Words. He goes on to write that this idea is “more complicated still for writers who are, after all, the artists whose raw material is most omnipresent in their lives.” Language, Bland concludes, “is an extremely rich subject for an anthology”.

Eventually (as you will note from the subtitle of the book), the topics of: inspiration; desire; war; celebrity; exile and breaking the rules were decided upon for the essay topics that would be solicited from novelists, journalists, songwriters, memoirists, philosophers and essayists. If you have a favourite Canadian wordsmith, they very likely have an essay in Finding the Words. This is a book that offers so much insight, grit and life within its pages. And, as an impressive aside, I would be remiss if I did not mention that proceeds from this volume of work will go to PEN Canada in support of its vital work in defense of freedom of expression on behalf of writers around tho world who have been silenced. A very noble cause and a very worthwhile project from Jared Bland.

(Apologies for my less than regular posting. I have been dealing with an illness, so have had some challenges keeping to a regular schedule.)

No Gentle Segue…

I have taken a break from the daily blogging – recovering from the Olympic adventure & working on some fiction writing – but jump back into the blogosphere today. There really isn’t a gentle segue as I move into my prime areas of interest: writing and reading. If I couldn’t have my books and, well, words really as an outlet, I would be a mess of a woman. It seems to be a genetic trait as many in my family are also voracious readers and there are several writers in the fold.

My latest undertaking is an on-line book group at Goodreads. This social networking web site is to books and writers what MySpace is to music and musicians. I have been using Goodreads for about one year now and I love it.

The Goodreads group I have created, along with my friend Nathaniel, is called Bookish. We hope it becomes a wonderful forum to exchange great book ideas and news.

In other book-related happenings today, the Canadian Booksellers Association (CBA) has announced the nominees for the 2010 Libris Awards. In contention for Fiction Book of the Year are: Galore by Michael Crummey, The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon and The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre.

I read Galore in December, 2009 and it was my favourite book of last year. It is an epic novel set in Newfoundland. These two ideas are enough to earn my interest, but the incredible story and the poetic language Crummey has crafted turned me into a drooling faniac. Stephen Galloway, author of The Cellist of Sarajevo wrote this review of Galore for The Globe and Mail (spoilers included):

“Galore opens with a group of people in the fictional Newfoundland outport of Paradise Deep, slaughtering a whale that has inexplicably beached itself. Young Mary Tryphena watches as the body of a man, pale and stinking, is cut from the whale’s belly. Her grandmother, an old crone named Devine’s Widow, defies the town oligarch, King-me Sellers, and has the man carried up the hill to prepare him for a proper burial.

The man, it turns out, is in fact alive, though he cannot speak a word. In the spirit of compromise and illiteracy, he is given the name of Judah. He never does utter a word, and he never loses his stench, but his presence ignites a spark in Paradise Deep that sustains the story for multiple generations.

Crummey’s prose is flawless. He has a way with the colloquial that escapes many writers, an ability to make the idiosyncrasies of local speech an asset in creating an image in the reader’s mind.

“They’d scaled the whale’s back to drive a stake with a maul, hoping to strike some vital organ, and managed to set it bleeding steadily. They saw nothing for it then but to wait for God to do His work and they sat with their splitting knives and fish prongs, with their dip nets and axes and saws and barrels. The wind was razor sharp and Mary Tryphena lost all feeling in her hands and feet and her little arse went dunch on the sand while the whale expired in imperceptible increments. Jabez Trim waded out at intervals to prod at the fat saucer of an eye and report back on God’s progress.”

I have, for example, never heard the word “dunch” in my life. But still I know what it means, and have even from time to time felt it in my own rear side. There are writers who can send you scowling for a dictionary, and writers who throw you laughing into language. I went to the dictionary only because of this review, and “dunch” wasn’t there. It doesn’t need to be.

I believe that books, or at least good books, have a voice. I’m not talking about narrators or characters or that sort of thing; what I mean is that the book itself feels alive and it has a personality and sound all of its own, independent of whatever other stylistic devices are at play within its pages. In this respect, Galore succeeds brilliantly. It’s a book that will live in the minds of readers long after they’ve turned the final page.

Where Crummey’s first two novels took one or more characters and placed them in a historical context that allowed readers to see both the characters and Newfoundland, which is how most historical novels work, Galore achieves a far more difficult effect. The characters, plot and setting have been fused, in that this book isn’t so much about the people and the events and places that affect them as it is the folkloric sum of Newfoundland, and the characters, as individual and real and compelling as they are, are, for all their strangeness, archetypes, an odd and wonderful mash of biblical and pagan touchstones. It’s an incredibly difficult task to make characters such as these work as human beings as well as elements of folklore, and Crummey does it with as much skill and grace as Gabriel Garcia Márquez does in One Hundred Years of Solitude , a novel very much the forebear of this book.

We eventually follow the descendents of young Mary Tryphena through the years, watch as Paradise Deep flourishes and flounders, see the ripples of events that happened years before, see history repeat and morph and repeat again. In Galore , the ghosts are real and the real people live as ghosts. Things that shouldn’t happen do. You could, I suppose, call the book a sort of magic realism, though I’m not sure if that doesn’t confine it in a way I’m not willing to do. There’s something about the term “magic realism” that suggests that magic isn’t real, and besides that, the magic that takes place in Paradise Deep isn’t really magic, it’s simply a part of the known world, like gravity or rainfall.

We have, in Canada, a handful of writers who are able, in the minds of readers, to define a place. While I’ve never lived in, or in some cases been to, the Miramichi, Comox Valley, Cape Breton or Montreal, I’ve read David Adams Richards, Jack Hodgins, Alistair MacLeod and Mordecai Richler. As a result, those places live as vividly in my imagination as many places in which I’ve spent more time and about which I know more factually. Perhaps even more vividly.

Michael Crummey is without a doubt one of Canada’s finest writers. I won’t thrust the mantle of the voice of Newfoundland on him, as he may well in the future write about other parts of the world, and I will be happy, as a reader, to follow him there. Throw a rock on the Rock, burning or not, and you’ll hit a good writer (please don’t actually throw rocks at writers, or anyone). But the Newfoundland that exists in my imagination – the one that may not be real and if it ever was real likely doesn’t exist today – smells and tastes and sounds like Galore.”

I highly recommend Galore and sincerely cheer for Crummey to triumph and win the Libris Award.