I’ve been doing a fair bit of recreational reading recently, what with being socially isolated and all (although with three kids, my wife, my mother-in-law, my homestay student, and my tenants in the basement all cooped up wit me, I sometimes wish my isolation could be a little more complete). As I’ve been reading, I’ve come across a few things that I don’t otherwise have a place for, so here they are –
1. In Adam Mars-Jones’ The Waters of Thirst, he includes the identical paragraph twice, in places that wouldn’t make the repetition obviously or even usefully stylistic. In my edition (Faber and Faber, 1993), the repeated section appears on pages 5 and 63, and it reads so: “Kids these days, with their Gore-Tex grafts and their high-flux machines. Two hours for dialysis! That’s not kidney failure. That’s a holiday.” What a strange bit to repeat if done so intentionally. What an obvious repetition to miss if done so inadvertently. Make of it what you can.
2. In John Berger’s Pig Earth, he includes this paragraph, which is ended by my new favourite phrase in the English language: “In the soup, made with parts of the salted backbone, were carrots, parsnips, leeks, turnips. The loaves were passed round and held against each chest in turn, as a slice was cut off. Then, spoons in hand, we entered the meal.” What a beautiful formulation! – “We entered the meal.” It says something perfect and otherwise indescribable about the shared meal. Amazing.
Kevin Heslop at The Temz Review has just posted an interview with Roxanna Bennett and I about Roxanna’s new book, unmeaningable, and about Gordon Hill Press.
Queen Mob’s Tea House just posted an interview I did with Guelph author Adam Lindsay Honsinger about his new collection of short stories, Somewhere North of Normal. You can find it here – https://queenmobs.com/2018/10/interview-adam-lindsay-honsinger/.
I’m rereading John Gardner’s Nickel Mountain because of a poem I’m writing, and I came across something I didn’t notice the first time through – a set of brackets that includes three whole paragraphs, two of them quite long, the three of them comprising almost two whole pages and something like half the chapter. Now that’s a set of brackets to be proud of.
I’ve been reading some really fun books lately – fun in the sense that I’m not even sure what to think about them after I’m finished – which I love. Here they be. Read them, then let’s arrange to have coffee so I’ll have someone to talk about them with.
1) Daniel Kehlmann’s You Should Have Left, which was recommended by Brad Deroo, Guelph-based musician and critic (you can frequently find his stuff in Canadian Notes and Queries). It’s a kind of riff on The Shining maybe? But far less violent and far more disorienting.
2) Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, which was recommended by Andrew Hood, Guelph-based author of books like The Cloaca and Jim Guthrie: Who Needs What. It’s a story (or several stories in a sense?) circulating around H. P. Lovecraft’s legacy, with a curious blurring of fact and fiction.
3) Daniel Sada’s One Out Of Two, which was recommended by more than one Latin American friend trying to temper my Roberto Bolano obsession. Two virtually indistinguishable twin sisters who’s relationship get’s disrupted by a romantic suitor, and… weirdness.
And seriously, if you get through one or more of them, let’s talk.
I’m currently in Edmonton visiting friends, which means also visiting Edmonton used bookstores. One of my finds was The Gray Book by Aris Fioretos, and it contains (in fact, begins with) one of those beautiful, sprawling sentences I love. Enjoy.
“Gray and falling, and while falling waiting for the strange moment when the tongue turns light and limber, liquid with avowal, the teeth become dragons, and the instant suddenly resembles the drowner’s last dream, he who fell from a precipice and now sinks like a stone but lackadaisically as a leaf, winging swinging like a dim dot suspended in motion, yet moving toward rest because the present’s elastic membrane has placidly expanded, now permitting images of past and prior to pour into appearance as he sinks glides sinks downward inside its roomy pocket in a dissident sort of rhythm – another cadence, another clause, another clue – contained in a depth that is its own surface encasement… and it has at that moment, comfortably cushioned yet malleable, when we have closed our eyes, resting on a mattress perhaps, or a cot, that it all begins… gradually the well-known surroundings disappear, although we still seem to perceive the table’s flat surface in front of us or the flower-patterned fringed bedspread covering our disheveled body in the manner of a rippled ocean out of which peaks and summits emerge like distending formations in a mist-distorted land.”
I’m going to tell you a story about a book.
A few months ago I went to a reading at The Bookshelf, our local independent bookseller. I didn’t recognize the name of one reader (Daniel Coleman? Author of Yardwork?), but the other was my friend Shane Neilson, and I love to hear him read, so I went.
It was a solid event, though too sparsely attended. Daniel’s reading was quite interesting, and Shane’s was good as always. Afterwards, I was chatting with Daniel about some of the ideas he had raised in his reading, and Shane mentioned that those ideas had been raised much more deeply in Daniel’s earlier book, In Bed with the Word, which was about reading, spirituality, and cultural politics. I was intrigued, but The Bookshelf didn’t have a copy, so Shane promised to loan me his.
Then I forgot all about it.
Shane, however, did not. The next time we met for lunch, he dropped me off his copy, and this morning I sat down on my front porch with my coffee (escaping the unseasonable heat of my house), and read it front to back, out loud. I don’t read everything out loud (Poetry, yes. Philosophy, sometimes. Fiction, rarely), but this book seemed to ask for vocalization, so I obliged.
It didn’t take that long to read, even aloud – maybe two and a half hours – and it was worth every minute. It’s a little gem of a book that gets into all kinds of my favourite things – the posture of reading and reflection, the function of slowness in thinking, the difference between criticism and what Daniel calls discernment, the spiritual (not to say religious) significance of reading, the necessity of good reading to turn to moral action – and so forth. He also cites a whole range of authors who have been influential on me, from Simone Weil to Jacques Derrida. It was a provoking and affirming read.
What it is not (despite what the previous paragraph might seem to imply) is a work of philosophy, not in a rigorous sense. It’s far more the sort of book that I have come to call a meditation, something like Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, or (closer in time and space) Tim Lilburn’s Going Home. What I like about these kinds of books is how they take up their subject in much they way that Daniel’s book recommends – slowly, thoughtfully, leisurely. They take their time. They adopt a posture of humility or (as I’ve often argued from Heidegger) of thankfulness.
Before I was even quite finished In Bed with the Word, I knew it was the sort of book that needed to be on my shelf. I started walking down to The Bookshelf to get my own copy, reading as I went. They still didn’t have it in stock, but I ordered it. There aren’t enough books like it out there.
I’ve been reading some good books recently, too many to address individually, so I thought I’d do one of those quick surveys I used to do.
Gary Barwin’s No TV For Woodpeckers – Gary Barwin never writes the same book twice, not remotely, and yet all of his books are worth reading, which is one of the better compliments I can offer an author. I reviewed No TV For Woodpeckers for the Rusty Toque, so you can get a fuller idea of what I think of it there. I’ll just say here that barwin does some fascinating things with proper names in these poems, and that the collection as a whole creates a unique and poetic sense of place.
Shane Neilson’s Dysphoria – There is no poet in Canada who provokes my emotions so deeply as Shane Neilson, to say nothing of what he accomplishes technically and formally. This collection is no exception. It’s a remarkable volume. Again, I’ve reviewed it at length elsewhere, for Contemporary Verse 2 (though there’s no electronic version of it, so you’ll just have to go get the Summer issue for yourself). Whether you read the review or not, do read Dysphoria (in fact, just read all of Neilson’s books).
Paul Auster’s 4321 – This is a crazy, amazing book, but I can’t recommend it without proviso. It’s long. It’s structurally experimental. It’s written almost entirely without dialogue. In other words, it’s not an easy read. It’s not a page-turner. It won’t keep you up all night. You will absolutely be able (tempted?) to put it down. But it’s also very much worth reading. Book some time for it, but get it done.
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo – This book is a marvel – historical scholarship mashed with historical fantasy in ways that you will never have seen before. The dialogue in some places is an absolute wonder, simultaneously farcical and moving. I read the whole book in one go at the bar one evening (a six pint book), then read it again more slowly over the next few days – loved it both times.
George Elliott Clarke’s Gold – Clarke was the first Canadian poet I ever read who I didn’t hate. I’d been fed a whole series of very “Canadian” poems by highschool teachers, all without any real context or biography or, well, anything. Then I picked up Clarke’s Whylah Falls and fell in love. Gold doesn’t strike me with the same power, but it has some great bits. The erotic sonnets in the middle are particularly wonderful.
James Lipton’s An Exultation of Larks – This is an older book (published in 1968), and it’s a book that will appeal most to word nerds. It explores the linguistic form of venery (a pride of lions, a flock of sheep, a gaggle of geese, and so forth). It’s a cute book, with lots of trips down etymology lane. It may not amuse you, but it amused me.
David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System – I have managed to avoid David Foster Wallace until now. I’m not entirely sure how. I made serious notes to myself several times over the years about intending to read him, but always seemed to get distracted by one thing or another. Learn from my error. Grab this book, especially if you’re a fan of the slightly surreal. Some of the scenes are masterfully absurd, but the larger story never falls incomprehensibility. I’m picking up Wallace’s Infinite Jest next.
Adam A. Donaldson interviewed me about Vocamus Press and the Book Bash Festival for his Guelph Politicast podcast. Have a listen.