January 27, 2009

a presidency in photos

I just lost the last half of my evening (how?) reading through this long post on Errol Morris' blog for the New York Times that I found via the wonderful tool of "Shared Items" in Google Reader. In it, Errol Morris asks the head photo editors of AFP, AP, and Reuters to share what they feel are the representative or iconic photos of George W. Bush's presidency, with commentary. From there I hopped over to the Reuters Photographers blog, where a number of their Washington photographers have personal entries to the same effect.

Bush hearing the news of the World Trade Center plane crashes from his Chief of Staff (AFP).

January 24, 2009

good news things

There's been a bit of good news coming my way lately, which is always nice, but particularly nice in the deep dark of winter cold.

I've been invited to two upcoming writers festivals, both of which I'm thrilled about, and at one of them I've been asked to take on the additional role of leading a creative writing workshop for 15- to 17-year-olds. Very exciting and potentially nerve-wracking! I went to the site and noticed the participants signing up can rate their choice of workshop leaders in order, so if I happen to be last on everyone's list, at least maybe I'll have the slightly-less-intimidating advantage of a smaller group. Or maybe not...I'm not sure how many teens the festival attracts to the workshops in general.

Two of the three stories I had published in journals last year are being put forward to various award competitions that I don't have any expectation of winning --- but it's a very nice vote of confidence from the journals to nominate them and it makes me feel warm and fuzzy and like a maybe-okay writer, which is the best one can hope for most days.

The current issue of the McGill Reporter has a profile on me here.

January 19, 2009

The Political Compass

While surfing a fellow Tweeter's blog, I found a link to a great site. The Political Compass explains itself as "a case of a journalist and an academic working on the inadequacies of simple left-right political identities." It's great --- a political site with scholarly understanding, historical accuracy, AND Canadian spelling! Click here to go take their questionnaire.

Here's where I fell on their spectrum:

Clockwise from the top right (Authoritarianism), it makes sense to think of the points of the cross as Fascism, Neo-Liberalism, Anarchism, and Communism. The vertical axis is the social dimension, the horizontal axis is the economic scale.

Here's another chart they have of international contemporary leaders:

Neoliberalism, and the rise of curtailed civil liberties, is responsible for the fact that most major political parties in North America would fall into the upper right quadrant. The site also plots the major parties in the Canadian elections of 2005 and 2008 --- and it's interesting to see how they've shifted.

January 14, 2009

Internet: dream research tool or bottomless pit of time-wasting?

When I was a kid and my favourite books were Anne of Green Gables and A Little Princess (published in 1908 and 1905 respectively, though written and likely set earlier), one of my main concerns about being a writer was how I was going to be able to find out all the necessary historical details to avoid glaring anachronisms in (what I assumed would be) my many thrilling orphan adventure tales. I imagined myself poring over piles of gigantic Encyclopedia Britannica volumes, looking up entries on "pavement" and "electric lighting" and copying down pertinent dates in a little notebook and generally finding the whole thing a big drag.

Thanks to the internet, my now-important fictional reference questions like, "What year did that Tanto Tempo album by Bebel Gilberto come out?" (2000) or "What does burning hair look like?" (see approximately 3,000 YouTube videos by drunk girls) are just a couple of joyous clicks away. But I'm starting to wonder if these little licensed surf-breaks aren't seriously cutting into my writing productivity after reading a short article by Cory Doctorow on "Writing in the Age of Distraction." He has lots of great tips (go read it), a number of which I already follow, but also this doozy:

Don't research

"...That way lies distraction — an endless click-trance that will turn your 20 minutes of composing into a half-day's idyll through the web. Instead, do what journalists do: type "TK" where your fact should go, as in "The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite." "TK" appears in very few English words (the one I get tripped up on is "Atkins") so a quick search through your document for "TK" will tell you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards. And your editor and copyeditor will recognize it if you miss it and bring it to your attention...."

So there you have it. Just TK. No writing-mandated surf sessions. I think I'm going to try it soon and see how it goes. I do sometimes use blanks for fact-checking if I'm on a roll, but I've never tried avoiding research with any kind of rigour. I know that I could just (*gasp*) turn the internet off, but that seems horribly extreme, doesn't it?

January 10, 2009

snow books

So far I'm enjoying this winter more than I ever thought I would, and I think I have Rawi Hage's Cockroach to thank for it. I read it right at the beginning of November, before we had any snow that stayed, and there was something so romantic about the misery of the protagonist as he shuffles along Montreal's wintry streets that it actually made me look forward to the four-to-five frozen months in store:

"As my feet trudged the wet ground and I felt the shivery cold, I cursed my luck. I cursed the plane that had brought me to this harsh terrain. I peered down the street and hesitantly walked east, avoiding every patch of slush and trying to ignore the sounds of friction as car wheels split the snow, sounds that bounced into my ears, constantly reminders of the falling flakes that gather and accumulate quietly, diligently, claiming every car windshield, every hat, every garbage can, every eyelid, every roof and mountain. [...] I am doomed!"

Bitterness is romantic, right? Maybe I just like a passionate complaint. A great book that effectively captures the exaggerated despair of a Montreal winter.

Earlier this week I was walking home through a snowstorm (so pretty! so hushed! all the cars reduced to a timid crawl!) and I tried to think of other favourite wintry books:

Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

This is my favourite postmodern comic novel of all time (though truth be told, I haven't read many postmodern comic novels). I read it in Rome while I was laid low by the heat, having found it on my host's bookshelf. I've since read all her other books save the two latest (which are winking temptingly at me from the bookcase), but so far this remains my favourite. Set in the 1970s in Dundee University and centred on the members of an English department, the book tells the story of Effie, who is simultaneously trying to write an essay on George Eliot and finish a detective novel which is the thesis for her degree. She has a hapless stoner boyfriend, a death-obsessed roommate, a mother who claims to be a virgin, innumerable bizarre classmates all nurturing their own writing ambitions, and she is almost certainly being followed by a private detective and yellow dog. But all of the novel's considerable hilarity is set against the backdrop of a Scottish winter plagued by frequent power outages and buses that never come.

Wonderful winter misery after returning an absent-minded professor to campus: "I trudged home, an icy interstellar wind at my back..." And on a stroll through a cemetery: "The cold was raw and chafing, there was no sunshine to make the snow pleasant in any way, only a wintry greyness cast over everything, including the sleeping dead."

Mmmmmm. (I do feel like I have to acknowledge the novel's dreadful title -- and I cannot imagine how it was arrived at -- but don't let that put you off. It doesn't do justice to the book.)

Street of Riches by Gabrielle Roy

It wouldn't be right not to include a Manitoban. Winner of the Governor General's Award in 1957, Street of Riches is a very sweet collection of eighteen stories chronicling a young girl's upbringing in Winnipeg's francophone quartier, St. Boniface. In "The Storm," Christine sets off with her cousins from her uncle's farm to go to a gathering of young people a few hours away. They travel in a kind of covered sleigh dubbed "the cabin," with a slot for the reins, the teenagers crowded together under buffalo robes with heated bricks at their feet. But the storm is worse than they imagine, and as the blizzard descends, they get lost. Everything is flat and dark. Twice they come up to large haystacks mistaking them for ominous houses. Several times, they get out of the travelling cabin to try and determine where they are:

"Nothing belongs more fully to the wind than snow -- so docile, so malleable! And here was the wind holding suspended in the air all that swollen snowy dust. Oh, the fine play of black and white comingled! [...] Whereupon the wind started to weep in so sorrowful, so absurd a fashion that of a sudden I thought of the beautiful Archangel cast into darkness -- for thus had he been called aforetime. And I firmly believed that the wind was Lucifer, to whom, for a winter's night or two, belonged Manitoba!"

A scary story, but all ends happily, and on balance, their enjoyment of the winter ride in the sleigh is what I mostly remember about this story.

Street of Riches is also a New Canadian Library title, and I look forward to seeing it on Roughing it in the Books, an ambitious blog project by two intrepid readers who hope to make it through the whole catalogue. It's No. 56, but Roy's better-known The Tin Flute is No. 5 and next up.

Baltimore's Mansion by Wayne Johnston

I've read a number of Johnston's novels and enjoyed all of them, but this literary memoir might be the simplest and most perfect. Set in Newfoundland, there's plenty of inclement weather. A book about his grandfather and his father and a lament for Newfoundland's lost independence, Baltimore's Mansion comes to a close with Wayne Johnston in a remote cabin, where he has gone to decide once and for all whether he will return to his home province. A storm comes while he is exploring a church in a nearby abandoned settlement:

"I have never heard a sound like the wind makes as it funnels through the windows, a shrieking whistle whose upper pitch seems to have no limit. I can only hear the sifting snow between the gusts, hear it on the floor of the church and on the ground outside, snow on snow, the island's terrain shape-shifting by the minute."

So two winter books and two storm scenes. What other snow books are out there?

January 9, 2009

Top Five Movies of 2008

I'm a little slow on the draw here, but it's still early January, and, anyway, does anyone really ever need an excuse for a Top 5 list?

1. Rachel Getting Married

I'm not positive that this is the best movie on the list, but I certainly enjoyed watching it the most. Shot in Dogme-style with handheld cameras and music played live on set, the film makes you feel like a weekend guest at a real wedding, from the cringe-inducing, over-long wedding speeches to the gleeful post-ceremony dancing. Bill Irwin is wonderful as the father. I laughed, I cried, and I also enjoyed the blue elephant wedding cake. Nom nom nom.

2. Man on Wire

The true story of Philippe Petit, a French tightrope walker who walked a high-wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. A beautiful, riveting film. You'll be pleased to know that the destruction of the WTC is never mentioned.

3. Snow Angels

When I saw this in the theatre, I thought it was perfect. Filmed in Canada (Nova Scotia doubling for Pennsylvania), the small town setting and the snow as a backdrop for tragedy reminded me a little of The Sweet Hereafter, another one of my favourite films. This flew flew under the radar but was truly lovely. There is a great review of it by Katrina Onstad on the CBC website.

4. Happy-Go-Lucky

Mike Leigh's movie about Poppy, the insanely upbeat kindergarten teacher, was not unexpectedly excellent, and I loved the way it brings the viewer from a kind of native aversion to Poppy's impossible sunniness to a complete and utter sympathy with her. Less dark than some of Leigh's other films, but still complex.

5. Synecdoche, New York

A sort of terrifying epic movie, brilliant but exhausting, and perhaps a wee bit expository towards the end. I love Kaufman but find him harrowing. I still haven't been able to bring myself to rewatch Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I have a feeling those viewings are coming a lot sooner than a second screening of Synecdoche. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, though, and I feel like as a screenplay it is dazzling.

Also terrific:

My Winnipeg: Guy Maddin's beautiful and surreal tribute to his hometown.

Pineapple Express: If Snow Angels didn't make David Gordon Green any money, this sure did. Hilarious.

The Year My Parents Went on Vacation: A Brazilian movie about a boy who ends up staying with an elderly Jewish man while his parents flee the city to avoid being 'disappeared' by the dictatorship. Set against the backdrop of the 1970 World Cup.

January 7, 2009

crossword puzzle building

Wouldn't you like to live here?

This apartment building in Lvov in Ukraine has a real, giant crossword puzzle on the side. During the day, the tiles look blank, but at night, special lights illuminate the answers (follow the English Russia link for a photo of it at night). The questions are planted around the city on various monuments and other locations of note.

PLR - The Public Lending Right Commission

Over on the Guardian Books Blog today, David Barnett is talking about the Public Lending Right award. In Britain, the PLR pays authors according to how often their books are checked out from public libraries. The payment is issued once a year, based on available funding and data submitted by libraries. The minimum payment is £1 and the maximum £6,600.

Writers, take note --- this glorious scheme is not only available in Britain, but in Canada, too. In Canada, however, the PLR is administered in conjunction with the Canada Council for the Arts and it works slightly differently: the payment is not based on how many times your book is checked out, but only on how many registered library catalogues your titles are found in. I have heard rumours of writers going from library to library, "donating" their books with the annual PLR payment in mind, but I suspect the actual cheque amounts to be too paltry for this kind of enterprising to be of much concern. In fact, kudos to them for doing the legwork! I wonder how many authors in Britain are coaxing friends and families to borrow their books from their local libraries?

The Canadian Public Lending Right Commission, like the British one, is also based on "available funding." As you can imagine, amounts have dwindled over the years as arts funding has been cut (boo!) and the amount of eligible Canadian writers has increased (yay!). From what I would guess, a good PLR cheque would be a couple of hundred of dollars. But it also sounds as though they have adopted a sliding scale scheme whereby newly registered books are at a premium, with payments reduced over time, shifting the support of the program to currently working writers.

So registering for the PLR is a must if you are a newly published author! The annual registration period doesn't open until February 15, but you can go to the PLR's website to sign up for a reminder email.