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Tower of books in the main branch of Toronto Public Library

I had heard about the privatisation of Toronto Public Library and Kerry @Pickle Me This brought to my attention the petition organised to save it.

You might wonder how this concerns me since I don’t even live in Canada.  You probably already know the answer to this: I always feel concerned by anything connected with Canadian literature.

When I went to Canada last year, I visited a couple of the branches of Toronto Public Library.  I also did some research in their catalogue and they have amazing resources.  I was surprised by the welcome and help I received when I explained my interest in making some photocopies of certain books they hold.  Unfortunately, I did not have enough time, but my intention is to go back next year.  This might not happen…

I also follow what the Toronto Public Library does and they organise many literary events.  It would be such a dramatic loss for the community.

I consequently went to sign the petition.  It is actually a template letter with a box for additional comments, so I was able to explain why a person living in Ireland wants to show her support.  I really hope it can be saved from privatisation.  Imagine the impact this would have on literacy…  If you also feel concerned, follow this link.

 

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Literary Blog Hop

The Literary Blog Hop is a fortnightly event held at The Blue Bookcase prompting book bloggers to answer a question.

Discuss Bibliotherapy. Do you believe literature can be a viable form of therapy? Is literary writing more or less therapeutic than pop lit or nonfiction?

Bibliotherapy is not something I would have thought writing about had I not been enticed by this prompt.  To be perfectly honest, this is something I was only vaguely aware of.  Consequently, my answer might appear a bit superficial and not really thought through.  I guess reading other answers might help me to form a better opinion.

Bibliotherapy is most often used in cases of depression (and I will limit my answer to that).  Reading seems to have been recognised for its healing powers, which does not surprise me.  I can understand how reading can be beneficial in helping to relax, but also, as Christina states in her post, in helping people, especially adolescents, to identify with characters in similar situation, thus preventing them from feeling as if they were an abnormality.

However, there are other things that come to my mind.  Reading is a very solitary activity and I wonder if it might not cut the person off from the world even more.  Also, I wonder if it might not aggravate the situation: reading escapist literature might make it more difficult for the suffering person to face reality and reading more serious literature might depress the patient even more.  Literature is a perception of our world and acts as a commentary on it, and, let’s face it, the world is not a rosy place.

Readers often mention the fact that they like to find the book to match their mood and in the case of bibliotherapy I think it is a crucial aspect to take into consideration.  I believe it has to be carefully monitored and coupled with other therapies and group discussions.  In my opinion, walking still remains a more important therapy to undertake in case of depression.  Then again, I am not a therapist and this is only a spontaneous, and not researched, opinion on this topic.

Château d'Angers

After a quick stop in Montreuil (near Paris), I headed for Angers.  Angers is fairly close to where I am from; however, I had not been there since I was a young kid and the only thing I could remember of the town was the famous castle (we used to pass it when driving from Nantes to Paris).  My expectations were not really high, but I was agreeably surprised.  Angers is a really pleasant town with a great atmosphere.

A small paved street near the cathedral

I was there for a conference, but arrived the evening before.  The sun was shining and it was warm and I was at leisure to explore this charming town.  I love small and disordered streets and I enjoyed wandering in them.

Saint Maurice Cathedral

There are many old stone buildings and a beautiful cathedral, as well as some maisons à colombage.  I decided to have my dinner on a terrace facing one of them.

La Maison d'Adam

We were treated like kings at the conference and maybe it is not such a myth that the French like their food and their wine; I just did not grow up in such a family.  On both days, two hours were allocated for the lunch break, and these were indeed spent eating and drinking.  We had three-course meals in both places.  The first was only the university cafeteria, but the food was delicious.  The second day, we went to a café-bistro where we were able to eat on the terrace and enjoy a leisurely lunch in the sun.

Les Caves de la Genevraie

You might notice that I am skipping a meal here.  For the conference dinner, we were bought by bus to a village, Louresse-Rochemier, where a table had been reserved for us in a troglodyte restaurant, Les Caves de la Genevraie.  Troglodytes are houses that are built in the rock.  The temperature there can be quite low, but a fire kept the restaurant room warm and cosy.  There, we were served a traditional and earthy meal.  Each course was accompanied with some fouace, a traditional bread, which was made on the premises and served hot.  We began with a fouace stuffed with some mushrooms (grown in some toglodyte houses), followed by some rillettes.  Then, the main course arrived and consisted of a dish of white beans and rillauds (little bits of lard), which you spread on your fouace.  Being in France, we couldn’t escape a plateau de fromage, to my delight, as well as a dessert.  A filling meal, but as we took our time, we were able to fit everything.  Through the meal, we actually took a break and went to visit another part of the restaurant where the baker makes the bread.  It was a most enjoyable evening and a great food experience.

Baking the fouaces

The conference itself was also a success.  The theme of the conference was The Figure of the Author in the Short Story (you can read the programme here), a topic that I find highly interesting.  It was a small conference and consequently very friendly.  The plenary speaker, Charles E. May (whose blog you can read here) delivered a paper highlighting why the short story is a more writerly genre than the novel.  There was also a roundtable led by Tim Struthers (whose first ever interview was of Magaret Atwood) on the topic of interviews.  The highlight of the conference was a reading by Toby Litt, followed by a series of questions and answers.

Toby Litt

Here is the complete set of photos:

Literary Blog Hop

The Literary Blog Hop is a fortnightly event held at The Blue Bookcase prompting book bloggers to answer a question.

What is one of your favorite literary devices? Why do you like it? Provide a definition and an awesome example.

Metafiction is more a concept than a literary device.  I am going to let Patricia Waugh provide the definition, as she does it so well in Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction:

metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality”;

it involves “the construction of a fictional illusion (as in traditional realism) and the laying bare of that illusion.”

In order to do so, the author of a metafiction will use literary devices such as fragmentation, myse-en-abyme, story-within-a-story, self-reflexive author, address to the reader, footnotes, and so on.  S/he will bring to our attention the fact that what we are reading is a creation and not just a mirror held up to the world; it is a re-presentation.

Metafiction is often associated with postmodernism, because it has become a typical feature of postmodernist writing.  However, there are many examples of metafiction predating postmodernism.  One early and famous example would be Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which was written in the eighteenth century.  Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds is also a great example of metafiction: it contains a story-within-a-story in which the characters of the story lead their own life when the author is asleep.

Metafiction draws attention to the fact that any writing is a construction, or a re-constuction, and is therefore always to a certain extent a fiction, or fictionalisation.  It foregounds the fact that any narrative, even factual ones, is always mediated by an author and is therefore subjective. 

One of my favourite examples of metafiction is If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino, who begins his narrative as follows:

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.”

Margaret Atwood’s novel are also often metafictional.  Famous examples include The Blind Assassin and Lady Oracle, both containing a novels with the same name.  These novels are concerned with the politics of storytelling, but so are many of Atwood’s short stories and shorter fictions.  For instance, the narrator of “Giving Birth” tells us how she is sitting at her desk to write the story we are reading:

“This story about giving birth is not about me.  In order to convince you of that I should tell you what I did this morning, before I sat down at this desk . . . Now she’s [her daughter] having her nap and I am writing this story.”

In “There Was Once”, a story that parodies a genre you will surely recognise, the interlocutor keeps interrupting the narrator to ask him to change the story:

“‘There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the forest.’

‘Forest? Forest is passé, I mean, I’ve had it with all this wilderness stuff. It’s not a right image of our society, today. Let’s have some urban for a change.’

‘There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the suburbs.’

‘That’s better. But I have to seriously query this word poor.'”

And so on…  Do you think they lived happily ever after?

For its summer issue, The Walrus asked five Canadian writers to write a short story or poem according to the guidelines provided by the other writers.  Three of them are short stories…  It is interesting to see how each writer has dealt with the guidelines s/he received.

Kathleen Winter‘s story, “Madame Poirier’s Dog”, is written according to the guidelines of Alexi Zentner.  The first-person narrator of this story lives in a nursing home and explains why she always waits with so much anticipation for the visits of her youngest son, Armand.  Whereas her other sons are kind of business-like with her, Armand chats with her.  Together they remember the past and laugh.  This is her secret pleasure, which makes her tolerate her old age.

Last week, they were talking about Madame Poirier, a neighbour from years ago who will soon be moving in the same nursing home.  In particular, they discussed her precious dog, Dentelle.  Despite wearing a chastity belt for dogs, Dentelle was twice impregnated by the narrator’s dog and died from her second abortion.  Winter actually uses the prompt that a character has “to state that he or she finds people who treat dogs like children sort of creepy” at the heart of her story.  This story, which is about growing old reminded me of Binnie Brennan’s novella, Harbour View, which I reviewed a while ago.  It is a touching story, about how to cope when you get old, and is filled with memories and positivity.

Winter also makes a brilliant portrait of the characters, especially Madame Poirier and Armand’s wife, without describing them physically (another guideline).  The characters are not described as such, but evoked through their actions and what they say; however, Winter creates a vivid picture of these people, whom we might have ourselves encountered in our lives.

Another prompt is “evoke warmth without mentioning the sun,” but I let you discover how she does that…

Sarah Selecky‘s story, “The Cat”, is written according to the guidelines of Kathleen Winter.  The topic of this story might seem awkward as it is about the reincarnation of the narrator’s father into a cat.  One of her guideline was “The story should have at least one paragraph that contains something the author personally finds subversive and hilarious.”  Selecky explains on her website that this prompt gave her a liberation and “permission to write something ridiculous, inappropriate, terrible, or otherwise WRONG.”  This is a story that will really speak to cat lovers, but I must admit there is something disturbing in imagining that the cat is actually the narrator’s father.

Talking about her cat makes her remember her father when he was still alive.  She shares childhood memories (another guideline for her story) about going fishing with him when she was young or that time when he brought back live snails for dinner. 

I also liked her wink at Winter when she mentions that the cat spilled a glass of water on her copy of Annabel.

Alexi Zentner‘s story, “The Rules of Engagement”, is written according to the guidelines of Sarah Selecky.  Zentner begins his story as prescribed in a sunny location where three women are flirting with three locals, one of then being nicknamed “Fork” (another prompt) because of his pronunciation of the word “fuck”.  The women meet up the following morning and discuss their night, which is the occasion for the omniscient narrator to tell us a bit more about them and their affective lives. 

This might not be my favourite of the three stories, but I think that Zentner manages the guidelines very subtlely.  I actually really like the way these women are represented through their actions and the dialogue.  Although the narrator provides us with more information, very little is actually said about these characters; yet, we are able to get a clear idea of who they are. 

Short Story Monday is hosted by John at The Book Mine Set.

With this story I reach the end of my Canadian tour (you can find links to all the stories I’ve reviewed here).  Yukon is another territory for which I have had difficulties to find a story, but John at The Book Mine Set came to the rescue and suggested “Vegas Wedding” by Ivan Coyote (1969-), which he had previously reviewed and is available online here

John warned me that it is a personal essay, but said that it reads like a story, and it does!  This made me think about an essay by Douglas Hesse I read a while ago, “A Boundary Zone: First-Person Short Stories and Narrative Essays”.  According to Hesse, “a precise boundary line between essays and short stories does not exist”, thus leading many works to belong to the “boundary zone”.  At the heart of his essay if the issue of labelling and expectations.  One of the expectations we have in reading each genre is that one relates to fact, the other to fiction: “Reading a work as key to some more general truth involves a different set of perceptions than reading it as representing some action, however meaning laden.  We expect an essay story to show the way things are, a short story the way things happen.”  Furthermore, he states that “[t]he fundamental issue is reference.  Essays are supposed to refer to a real world beyond the page; short stories are not.”

Although “Vegas Wedding” reads more like a story than an essay, especially because of the extensive use of dialogue, presenting it as a personal essay implies that the piece is a true story, not a fiction.  This seems relevant considering the seriousness of this piece’s topic: same-sex marriage.  This is not fiction, such intolerance really happens in our world.

As it is told in the first person, the reader who is not familiar with Ivan Coyote only becomes aware that the narrator is a woman quite late in the narrative, Ivan being a name most often used for men.  This is when the story starts to become more challenging.  At first, it just seems to be the story of a couple deciding to get married in Vegas on impulse during a road trip to the death valley.  However, as you might have guessed from my previous remark, this is more difficult than it might seem at first, even in Vegas where anybody can get married in the space of a few hours.  Indeed, they are denied a license at the court-house because gay-marriage is not legal.  The narrator highlights the unfairness of the situation by claiming that there is more love between the two of them than between many of the heterosexual couples in the queue.

They still decide to try to get married at the chapel, but are refused because they do not have a license.  However, the narrator is now determined to get married to her girlfriend, Karen.  The irony of the situation reaches its peak when a priest watching porn also backs down when he is told they are lesbians because he finds it immoral, but would however accept to perform the ceremony against a fee of 500 dollars.  Finally,it is the photographer who offers to marry them and gives them a lovely ceremony.  Even though he is not prejudiced, we can still feel how he represents a majority of the population when he says “life partners” instead of “man and wife”.  In the end, the two brides are married happily ever after…

The story is entertaining and told in a light tone, but also problematises a serious issue of our contemporary society.  Not only does it show the incongruity of the legal system regarding same-sex marriage, but it also highlights the prejudice still existent in our society.

As a way to celebrate Canada Day, which was on Friday, I have been posting a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week, and will keep doing so during the weekend in an attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

I had been looking forward to reading a story by Audrey Thomas because I have read a few essay comparing her to Atwood.  I can see how they might be compared, not only in the themes and techniques of their stories, but also in their sarcastic humour.  Thomas was born only four years before Atwood, in 1935, and currently lives in British Columbia.  However, the story I consider today is not set in British Columbia, but in Montreal, although the character comes from Vancouver.

There is a story behind the story “Bear Country”, but I had never heard of it.  Feminism is at the heart of this narrative, but was also the reason why Marc Lépine shot six women at the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal, before killing himself in 1989.  The “massacre” is still present in the mind of Wilma, the main character of “Bear Country”.

Wilma has moved from Vancouver to Montreal, where she works as a secretary in Concordia university, writes plays for a small theatre company and learns French at the YMCA.  The gender of French words is something that intrigues Wilma and her plays have a strong feminist agenda.  For instance, she wrote a skit that caricatures a comment she had overheard from a professor saying that “Canada was putrid with feminism”.  In her play, she created a feminism Pollution Scoreboard similar to the one in McGill metro station.

She is obviously affected by attacks against feminism, so her anguish grows when the French course for which she has just applied is relocated to the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal.  As she takes the bus to go up there, she cannot help thinking about the “massacre”.  She worries about going up that staircase when the evenings will be dark in December.  During the class, she is lost thinking in French about how it would be if a man with a rifle walked in.

The story ends with another play Wilma wrote during the summer.  The play is another feminist take.  She uses the French word for “bear”, “ours”, to make a statement on gender imbalance.  The women in the audience pronounced the famous leaflet advertisement “We are in Bear Country”, while the men are supposed to respond with “This country is ours”.

The story is an overt critique of patriarchal discourses and a social commentary on feminism and anti-feminist sentiments.  It is humourous and shocking at once, especially since it is a response to a dramatic real event.

As I was saying on Monday, yesterday was Canada Day.   As a way to celebrate, I have posted a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week, and will keep doing so during the weekend in an attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

 (1963-) is a good author to make the transition between Alberta, where she was born, and British Columbia, where she lives.  She is also the youngest author in the anthology I own and I was eager to read her story, especially after reading an excellent review of her novel The Sky is Falling (great title!).  “The Chmarnyk” is also a story about the sky. 

I found this story difficult to read, but I will try to do my best at reviewing it.  It is told by a first-person female narrator who recounts her family’s story, or should I say disasters?  The story opens with the death of a dog in 1906, which led the family to move from Dakota to Manitoba “into safety”.  However, there, Mama’s baby is impaled.  The family moves again to escape the curse, but the death of the father makes them realised that it was him who was cursed.  When Teo, the narrator’s brother, dies, the mother exclaims that he has inherited his father’s curse.  There are many religious references and superstition can be seen as one of the main themes of the story.

Yet, we can tie these superstitions and religious references to the family’s origin.  From the term “Baba”, used to designate the grandmother, I would deduce that they are possibly Eastern European immigrants.  The family is depicted as always on the move, fleeing the curse of the land, but maybe also trying to find a place where they will be accepted as the narrator mentions that “they said we were worse than Jews” and that “Baba said she could smell hatred”.  It seems therefore that the family and their superstitions are not understood by the other inhabitants (in the same way the reader might be confused by these beliefs), but, and most importantly, are not accepted because of them.  The curse on the family might then act as a metaphor for the way the family is rejected.

The story is set during the depression, at a time when the Prairies were experiencing a drought (as in Ross’s “The Lamp at Noon”).  Most the story revolves around this lack of water and the efforts made by the inhabitants to survive.  The narrator even says that she was afraid to cry for fear that people would lick her face.  The title of the story is also a reference to the rain.  “Chmarnyk” refers to the narrator’s brother and is the name given to a rain-man in Galicia, the narrator explains.  In the story, the brother tries to find ingenious ways to survive despite the dryness.  When he dies, there is a thunderstorm: he has finally managed to make it rain.  The mother decides then that he has inherited his father’s curse.  The inhabitants claim that he has been struck by lightning; however, the story clearly suggests that he was shot by a farmer.

I find this story complicated and I believe each new reading will reveal more meanings and subtleties.  By reading on Caroline Adderson, I discovered that she writes about various historical periods and in the voice of various characters; she is not actually of Eastern European origin herself.  This story is well-crafted and I believe she must have done some careful research for it.  I think that knowing more about the context, but also about Eastern European customs would be enlightening.  However, the story can still be appreciated without prior knowledge.

As I was saying on Monday, today is Canada Day.  As a way to celebrate, I will post a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week and attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

Choosing Thomas King (1943-) to illustrate Alberta is quite arbitrary as he was born in California and currently resides in Ontario.  However, when he initially moved to Canada, in 1980, it was to teach in Alberta.  King is of Cherokee and Greek origins and is considered as a spoke-man for indigenous populations.  “One Good Story, That One” reflects these concerns.

The story is told in the voice of an Indian who sets to narrate a story to three white anthropologists.  At first, he begins to tell them anecdotes about his friends, but his friend, Napiao, insists that he recount a good old story, a story of origins, “how the world was put together”.  And so the narrator begins in a typically white-man fashion: “Once upon a time…”

The story he tells is no other than his own version of the Genesis.  He has God creating the world, including a television and a grocery story, and a “not so smart” Ah-damn and a clever Evening, “she be Indian woman”.  In his version, Ah-damn and Evening are also expelled from the garden of “Evening” – “just like Indian today” – by an angered God because they ate the “mee-so” and Ah-damn lied about the number he ate.  He nearly forgets the snake in the story, but remembers to add it at the end, hissing because Evening has stuck an apple in its mouth.  His version also includes coyote, the trickster, to whom the white men are compared at the end of the story.  However, in this story, it is them who have been made fun of.  They wanted a traditional indian story, but all they got was a subversion of their own myth of origin. 

This parody of the biblical myth is hilarious and the story as a whole is funny and clever.  King denounces the way white men appropriate Indian tales and properties in a humourous manner.  The first thing that struck me was the rhythm, probably reminiscent of the way native storyteller would narrate a story.  The English is broken and interspersed by numerous Indian words, but this only adds to the pleasure this story gives.

In my attempt to understand better postcolonialism in a Canadian context, I started reading the essays in Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism, a collection edited by Cynthia Sugars.  This book had been recommended to me as a good introduction to Canadian postcolonialism, which it indeed is.

In her introduction, Cynthia Sugars highlights the “impossibility . . . of settling on any one definition of postcolonialism in a Canadian context” (xiii).  She emphasises some of the form this postcolonialism can take, in particular as the result of American/English imperialism, but also from an indigenous perspectives.  This collection is an attempt at representing these various perspectives.

All essays have been previously published but are, here, regrouped according to their themes or perspectives: native perspective for instance, but also pedagogical ones.  It highlights how this contentious debate has evolved, with some essays being actual response to other essays, thus enabling the reader to create a more complete picture of the complex question of postcolonialism in Canada.

One will find essays by theorists, such as Northrop Frye, Linda Hutcheon and Diana Brydon, but also by writers, such as Robert Kroetsch, Thomas King or Lee Maracle.  Some of these essays might be more accessible than others, but I find that the way the collection is conceived helped for a better understanding of the difficult concepts.

Beginning with a consideration of postcolonialism in a Commonwealth context, the collection then moves to various attempts at defining postcolonialism in a Canadian context.  The essays thus highlight how postcolonialism in Canada might be the result of British imperialism, but also emphasise the question of Canada as a country in the periphery of the United States.  Indigenous questions are also examined in details and the essays offer an array of views on the topic.

I would highly recommend this book if you are interested in understanding better this controversial issue.  You might actually have already encountered some of these essays, but they act here as a dialogue.

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