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What do The Band, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Oscar Peterson, Basia Bulat, Arcade Fire and Leonard Cohen all have in common?  That’s right, they’re Canadian!

I was reading Rosemary Sullivan’s The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out yesterday and she mentioned Ronnie Hawkins and Joni Mitchell.  I was a bit surprised, I had no idea they were Canadian (Ronnie Hawkins is actually born American and got naturalised later).  I knew Neil Young, one of my favourite musician, was Canadian, and so was Oscar Peterson, a great jazz musician, although I only learnt that after liking their music, but Joni Mitchell?  It’s just weird, I seem to be drawn to Canada; my mother thinks I must have a Canadian sensibilty (my favourite literary theorist, Linda Hutcheon, is also from Canada).  Curious to see what other musicians originate from Canada, I had a look on Wikipedia.  Guess what?  The Band are also Canadian (well, four of the five members)!  For those of you who don’t know them, they played with Bob Dylan for a while, and their last concert, The Last Waltz, was made into a film by Martin Scorcese.  I am also a big fan of them (I even used to fancy Robbie Robertson as a teenager; don’t laugh!).

So here is some great Canadian music for you!

Joni Mitchell singing “Big Yellow Taxi”, quite a famous song:

Joni Mitchell singing “Coyote” with The Band at The Last Waltz concert:

It’s a bit difficult to choose just one song by Neil Young as there are so many I love.  You can’t go wrong with “Rockin’ in a Free World”:

And this is “Old Man”, the song that made me discover Neil Young:

I love this version of “The Weight” by The Band and The Staple Singers performed at their last concert, The Last Waltz.  Rick Danko is amazing in it and The Staple Singers are amazing!

And, of course, there are the beautiful lyrics of Leonard Cohen, here singing “So Long Marianne”:

I am not really into jazz, but I went out with a jazz musician for three years and got introduced to jazz.  When I was with him, he shared his passion with me and I got to figure out what I liked and didn’t like in jazz.  Oscar Peterson is quite traditional in his playing of the standards, he is not into this free jazz madness, but he is great.  I nearly went to see him in concert; unfortunately, I missed my chance.  This is “Caravan” (look at his hands!):

And this is Basia Bulat, an artist I went to see at the Jazz Festival in Montreal last year.  She is amazing; she plays so many instruments!  This is “In the Night”:

Isn’t she great?  Have a look a this one too:

I could keep going for quite a while; some gems, aren’t they?  You want one more for the road?  Here is “Helpless” performed by Neil Young, The Band and Joni Mitchell:

I hope you enjoyed this musical interlude as much as I did.

 Literary Blog Hop

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

What setting (time or place) from a book or story would you most like to visit? Eudora Welty said that, “Being shown how to locate, to place, any account is what does most toward making us believe it…,” so in what location would you most like to hang out?

This question is more difficult than it seems.  I don’t like when local settings are described in too much details, but I like to feel the atmosphere of a place at a certain time. 

I think that ideally, I would like to be in the place described in the book I am reading at the moment.  I think it can enhance the reading experience.  For instance, I thought it gave more atmosphere to The Cousin, by John Calabro, to read it when I was in Italy.  However, I wonder if that might not also reduce to power of the imagination.  Reading is about interpreting language and perhaps knowing too much about where it comes from might spoil that liberty we are given when reading.  I suppose both reading experiences have their appeal.

Since I discovered Margaret Atwood’s works, I have wanted to visit Canada (even more than before).  As you might have guessed by now I am passionate about her writing, but also about the life she led while growing up and the myth she embodies.  Significantly, Atwood says that locations are at the origin of her writing.  This might partly explain my growing desire to visit those places. 

When I went to Canada last June, I was both visiting a real place, but also an imaginary world created through writing.  Quite often, I associated these places to specific stories.  My favourite experience was going to Ward’s Island in Toronto, which is one of the settings of “Isis in Darkness” (as well as The Robber Bride).  As I was taking the ferry, the narrator was sitting next to me on his search for Selena.  Like him, I went looking for her house.  Which one could be Selena’s house?  In the same story, the Bohemian Embassy is also mentioned and it is a place I would like to have seen.  However, the story is set a few decades ago.  I will never be able to experience the Toronto of the late 50s when Margaret Atwood did her first reading in the Bohemian Embassy.  I can still imagine it though…

Is this Selena's house?

You can see my posts on my trip to Canada in the June 2010 archives.  Quite often I have related the place to a piece of writing.  I am still in the process of writing those posts and I am writing the one on Ward’s Island at the moment, but I have already posted the one on the Bohemian Embassy.  I know it is taking me a long time to write that travel diary, but, at least, I get to visit the place a second time!

CBC stands for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  It is what I would consider as a major Canadian institution.  It has done so much to promote the arts and culture in Canada.  One could mention the reading programmes created by Robert Weaver, one of which, “Canadian Short Stories”, featured a young Alice Munro.  The CBC is also the organiser of literary awards and of the famous “Canada Reads“.

CBC is in danger of disappearing and needs your support.  Steph at Bella’s Bookshelves discusses this matter better than I would, so I send you over to her blog.  You can read about it here and here, as well as sign a petition to show your support.  I am not a Canadian resident and cannot sign this petition, but I am aware of the importance of the role played by the CBC, so please, if you live in Canada, help the CBC!

A few days ago, I was telling you in my post on the conference in Milan about a documentary by Aaraon Diaz on Mexican workers in Canada.  The film raises awareness about the conditions in which these immigrants work and the consequences ensued, resulting sometimes in death.  It is a moving documentary and I would recommend to see it.

There will be a preview of this documentary this Friday  at 17:00 pm at the Montreal University, room 6453, Pavillon 3744, Jean Brillant Street in Montreal, Canada.  If you are in the area, why not go?

A facebook page has also been created and here is the trailer:

On that glorious sunday, I set to go to Ward’s Island.  This was the place I wanted most to see and the one I preferred in Toronto.  As I had not been to Kensington market and also wanted to visit a couple of bookshops on Bloor and Bathurst Streets, I decided to go for a little wander first. 

Church on Bloor Street

I left from Yonge Street, walked up to Bloor Street and walked west until I reached Bathurst.  I, of course, stopped a few times to visit some bookshops and ended up with a heavy bag to carry around with me all day.  Some parts of Bloor Street were nice, with a bit of activity, but others were too quiet and so was Bathurst Street.  I like to find a buzz in a city; otherwise it reminds me of those boring and depressing Sundays in France (I used to hate them!). 

Kensington market area on a sunny sunday

I was then happy to arrive to Nassau Street and get closer to Kensington market.  The buzz was there, it was sunny and people were happy.  I stopped for a bit of food, enjoying the heat and looking at passers-by. 

Stall in Chinatown

After a walk around the streets of Kensington market and Chinatown – and a couple of stops in shops I must admit – I jumped in a street car that took me to Harbourfront  where I caught a ferry to Ward’s island.

On the ferry to Ward's Island

You might think it is a strange choice to go to Ward’s Island rather than Centre Island, which is usually favoured by tourists.  Ward’s Island is one of the two inhabited parts, Algonquin island being the other, and I had been told how chaming it was.  I also wanted to see where Richard from Margaret Atwood’s “Isis in Darkness” went to look for Selena – it is also where Charis from The Robber Bride lives.

View of the city from Ward's Island

“One day he bought a bottle of Italian red wine and took the ferry over to Wards Island.  He knew Selena lived over there.  That at least had been in the poems.

He didn’t know what he intended to do.  He wanted to see her, take hold of her, go to bed with her.  He didn’t know how he was going to get from the first step to the last.  He didn’t care what came of it.  He wanted.

He got off the ferry and walked up and down the small streets of the island, where he had never been.  These were summer homes, cheap and insubstantial, white clapboard or pastel, o sided with insulbrick.  Cars were not permitted.  There were kids on bicycles, dumpy women in swimsuits taking sunbaths on their lawns.  Portable radios played.  It was not what he’s had in mind as Selena’s milieu.  He thought of asking someone where she lived – they would know, she’d stand out here – but he didn’t want to advertise his presence.  He considered turning around, taking the next ferry back.

Then, off at the end of the streets, he saw a minute one-storey cottage, in the shade of two large willows.  There had been willows in the poems.  He could at least try.

The door was open.  It was her house, because she was n it.  She was not at all surprised to see him.

. . .

She led him to a stone breakwater overlooking the lake, and they sat on it and ate the sandwiches.  She had some lemonade in a milk bottle; they passed it back and forth.  It was like a ritual, like a communion; she was letting him partake.  She sat cross-legged, with sunglasses on.  Two people went by in a canoe.  The lake rippled, threw off glints of light.  Richard felt absurd and happy.”  (“Isis in Darkness” from Wilderness Tips)

Could this be Selena's house?

In the first half of the 20th century, Toronto Islands used to be a place where the city dwellers would have a summer home and come to escape the summer heat.  However, in the 30s, some of the homes on Hanlan’s point were destroyed to build the airport.  Later, in the 50s, the land was transferred to the Metro Parks Department and homes were slowly demolished to transform the islands into a park because of flooding problems.  Atwood refers to this in an unpublished story called “Ménage à Trois”, which can be found at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library (MS 200, Box 95, Folder 4).  Some inhabitants opposed this decision, but by 1970, only 250 homes – on Wards and Algonquin Islands – remained.  A long fight ensued before the islanders were finally granted the right to stay there and keep their homes, provided that they were living there full-time if I am not mistaken.  This is a condensed summary, but you can read more about it here and here

Street signs on Wards Island

I loved going around the “streets” of these two islands.  The habitations are really different on each island.  On Ward’s island, these are mostly small colourful cottages, while on Algonquin’s island the houses were definitely more upmarket.  I kept asking myself which one could have been Selena’s house. 

Houses on Algonquin Island

I stopped for a cold drink in the garden of the Rectory Café, which was built in 1948 and survived the demolitions.  It was lovely to sit there browsing through my new books.

Not where I got my books from, but I found this swapping spot quite original

Being there allowed me to take a breath of fresh air.  I sat on the beach looking at this beautiful lake…

Bird an boat watching on Lake Ontario

I also noticed many cats chilling in gardens and on the “roads”.  It must be a paradise for them with so few cars around.  Animals are a great ice-breaker as they provided me with an opening to start chatting with a few islanders.  I ended up walking with one of them who told me a bit about the islands.

Cat lying on the road

I unfortunately had to leave, but I know I will come back.  I might even treat myself with a couple of nights on the island next time I’m in Toronto.  When I got back to the ferry dock, the sun was setting on the city.  It was beautiful!

City skyline in the sunset


This was the last day of this great conference.  It started with a session of readings.  I decided to go to see John Calabro and Helen Maria Viramontes.  I spent a lot of time through the conference chatting to John and I didn’t want to miss his reading. 

John Calabro is of Italian origins and Helen Maria Viramontes is of Mexican-American origins.  Both their reading reflected these and were thus a bit exotic.  Helen’s reading was tender, John’s was somewhat disturbing (you’ll understand better why if you read my review).  Both were enjoyable.  John read from The Cousin and I rushed to buy the book at the coffee break. 

Helen Maria Viramontes and John Calabro

Next, I went to see a great panel entitled “The Body in Life and Death” and heard three really interesting papers.  Sylvia Patter delivered a paper on olfactory imagery in Janet Turner Hospital’s stories.  I had never heard of this writer.  She was born in Australia and Patter’s paper focuses on how the imagery in her short stories evokes certain smells from that country.  I could nearly smell the flowers she was talking about.  Paddy O’Reilly presented a paper on the grotesque (and physical disability) in Flannery O’Connor’s stories.  I had not read anything by O’Connor (still have not; shame on me!) but her paper was quite fascinating.  Finally, Sharon Wilson talked about death in Atwood’s “Isis in Darkness” and “The Bog Man”.  She described those stories as “parodies of mythological quests”.  As you can imagine, I was delighted to listen to this paper.

I then had lunch with Sharon and we discussed Atwood a bit more.  Sharon is one of the most renowned Atwoodian (and one for  admiration) and I was glad to have this opportunity. 

I decided to skip the afternoon session and go to rest a little before the banquet.  The banquet was fun and it was nice to see everybody chill out.  There was a reading by Clark Blaise, which was preceded by a moving introduction from his wife, Bharati Mukherjee.

Those four days were great and very productive from my point of view.  I had a fantastic time and met wonderful people.  It was a bit sad parting (for me anyway), but I hope I’ll see some of these people again.  I don’t like endings, I always get a bit emotional; but new adventures were awaiting me.

I took this picture at the Toronto Public Library.  Isn’t that so cool?

This third day of the conference was a big day for me, for many reasons.  The day started with the panel in which I presented.  An early panel at the same time as a World Cup football match meant that not many attended.  As a result, my stress level went down as there was a very friendly atmosphere.  My presentation on Atwood’s “The Bog Man” and “Horatio’s Version” went well and I found the other presentations interesting, particularly Michelle Ryan-Sautour’s.  She delivered a paper on Angela Carter, an author I’ve wanted to read for quite a while.  The similarities between Carter and Atwood are striking and this is something I would like to look into.  Unfortunately, the session ran overtime and we were not able to receive questions.

I think I was a bit exhausted after that and did not pay much attention to the next session.  This was followed by a luncheon and reading.  When I walked into the dining room, my attention was caught by a small woman with blue eyes and curly hair.  This woman was Margaret Atwood, of course.  My heart started racing; I knew I would get to talk to her later on and I was a bit impressed.  There is something about meeting the author you admire the most and on whose works you spend most hours of the day working.  I was sitting at the table next to hers, chatting with scholars and discussing my earlier presentation.  Sharon Wilson was kind enough to call me over to the table and introduce me to Ms Atwood.  Well, I was not prepared and my English went all wrong!  We exchanged a few words and I went back to my table to listen to Bharati Mukherjee read one of her stories.

There was only one session programmed for the afternoon: “A Talk with Margaret Atwood”.  Clark Blaise was leading the talk.  They have known each other since their days teaching at university in Montreal and the tone was quite friendly.  I must admit that I did not learn much during that talk as I had already read interviews or essays mentioning many of the things Atwood said.  However, it was lovely to actually hear her telling her anecdotes.  She is a funny and witty person!  Much of the talk revolved around novels rather than short stories, but we were able to ask then a few questions…

Following this public talk was my interview with Atwood.  She was assailed by the public to sign books, so I waited a few minutes before going to her and bringing her to sit down in a quiet corner.  I had been granted ten minutes (although we ended up chatting for twenty).  It is a short time when you have so many questions to ask; particularly when the person you are interviewing is so chatty!  This was my first time interviewing someone, and I did not really know how to go about it.  I wanted to ask all my questions but was very conscious of the time.  As Atwood said at the talk earlier, it is easy to talk about novels than short stories or even the shorter fictions; I had thus to often gently bring back the topic onto the short stories.  Sometimes, I would have liked to delve further on her answers, but I also knew I had other questions I really wanted to ask; it was difficult to manage.  However, it was really pleasant to talk with her once my nervousness passed and I had a good laugh.  Before she left to take her taxi, I asked her to sign my copy of Bottle.  It is a limited edition (1000 copies) of a few stories, which were later published in the collection The Tent.  It is a pretty little book and, now, it has become a repository of the memories of my chat with Margaret Atwood.

Our next stop was the main Toronto Public Library.  We had a bit of time to grab some food and chill out before the readings for the evening started.  On the programme were readings by Margaret Atwood, Li Ang, Alistair MacLeod and Robert Olen Butler.  Here are a few moments of the evening.  I was hoping Salon would put the recordings online but they have not yet, so these are my own recordings (except for the reading of “Our Cat Enters Heaven”) and they are not very good (sorry!).

Maurice Lee introducing the event:

Ted Sheckels introducing Margaret Atwood:

Margaret Atwood introducing her reading:

Margaret Atwood reading “Our Cat Enters Heaven” from The Tent:

Margaret Atwood reading from “The Headless Horseman” from Moral Disorder (I love her giggles!):

Li Ang introducing her reading:

Alistair MacLeod introducing his reading:

The readings were then followed by a very entertaining series of questions and answers.  I had a good laugh listening to Alistair MacLeod and Margaret Atwood deploying their wit (and sarcasm).


Signing and smiling

To end the evening, the four authors had to go through a signing session.  I wanted Alistair MacLeod to sign the collection I had bought, but could not be bothered queuing and thought I would have another occasion during the conference.  I stood there, chatting with my friends and took a couple of pictures of Margaret Atwood being all smiles for her fans.  I was thinking that I would like to have a picture with her, but I am quite shy and have always thought it to be a bit cheesy.  Yet, I knew I would regret it.  I like photos and the memories they bring back, and, for me, this day had indeed been a big day.  My friends then made me stand behind her and took a picture; that was even more ridiculous than asking her! 

Shying away

Finally, I went for cheesy and asked her for a picture (thanks John and Ian for making me do it!).  One of my lecturers from my university days in France was around and absolutely wanted to take a picture, so I had to stand there quite a while as she was looking for her camera.  I thus ended up chatting with Margaret Atwood and this is the shot I prefer, natural and spontaneous!


After all the excitement of the first day of the conference, the second day seemed a bit quieter for me.

I started the day with a panel on flash fiction and was able to pick up of few pieces of information of that sub-genre.  Philip Coleman’s paper on Örkény Istvan’s One Minute Stories was particularly interesting and made me want to look closer at this author I had never heard of (which I have not done yet, shame!).

This was followed by a panel on “Place, Politics, and Postcolonialism”.  M. Y. Alam discussed the conditions of productions of his first story.  His argument was based on a statement that all writings depend on the condition of production and it was interesting to follow the process he underwent.  I hope what he said will come back to me when I will read his stories (you might expect a review of one of them at some stage as he is one of the authors collected in the book published by Route I was given).

The afternoon started with a plenary session on Alice Munro’s “Passion” and the participants included some of the leading names in short story theory: Charles E. May, Michael Trussler, Per Winther, Michael Toolan and Susan Lohafer.  Each of them presented their reading of this recent story by Munro.  Unfortunately, I had not read the story and did not fully appreciate the discussion.  I was a bit disappointed, but had only myself to blame for that.

The following panel I attended was again organised by the Margaret Atwood Society.  Alice Ridout presented a most interesting paper on Atwood’s latest collection, Moral Disorder.  There has not been much work published on this collection and it was great to be able to hear someone discussing it.  She focused on the relationship between time and space in the collection, noting that time is mapped onto places and that the collection represents a “cartography of Nell’s life”.  The ideas she foregrounded were most interesting and I hope she will some day publish an article on it.  Ted Sheckels presented a paper discussing how stories can be misread.  He focused on “The Man from Mars” and the representation of the ethnic other and explained how students might see the story as “condoning othering and racial rejection”.  It gave me much to think about: how we read and interpret texts, but also how Atwood’s writings tend to show in order to critique, rather than imposing views on the reader, thus running the risk to be misinterpreted.  Finally, Mairin Barney also gave a talk on “The Man from Mars”, in order to illustrate how Atwood’s stories are useful demagogic tools for First-Year English students.

In the evening, there was a reading by Sandra Cisneros.  However, I was unable to go as I had a paper to finalise.  I had decided to get a good night sleep, but, as always, it took me much longer than I had planned and I did not get back from the internet café to my hostel until late.  Moreover, when i got back a little surprise awaited me (you can read about it here), which delayed my sleeping time even further.  I was thus stressed and exhausted when I finally hit my bed on the eve of the big day…

One of the reasons for my trip to Canada was the 11th International Conference on the Short Story in English.  This is a biennial conference organised by the Society for the Study of the Short Story.  As I am doing my PhD thesis on Margaret Atwood’s short stories and fictions, this was a dream occasion for me.  I was even more excited at the idea of presenting there.  For the occasion, the Margaret Atwood Society had also organised two panels dedicated to Atwood, which meant that I would be able to meet and hear the scholars whose work I read and use in my research.

The conference programme was intense and it was sometimes difficult to choose which panel to go to see.  On top of that, events were organised in the evening , which enable the participants to meet in an unformal way.

On the first day, I went to see a couple of panels and heard papers about Raymond Carver, Stephen Millhauser and Stephen Dixon.  I had never heard of Dixon before, but Susan Rochette’s paper, which focused on 14 Stories (a collection of thirteen stories), really made me want to read the collection.  I also went to see the panel on Atwood and loved it, particularly the papers by Shuli Barzilai (she is so funny) and Reingard Nischik (I admire her work so much).

I went to introduce myself to a few Atwoodians, which was not easy as I am a bit shy.  I had actually met Sharon Wilson (any of you with an interest in criticism on Atwood will probably recognise the name) the day before in the library.  As I arrived to my desk, the woman sitting behind me called me over to apologise for having borrowed a folder from my trolley.  I told her it was not a problem and asked her about her research on Atwood.  When she told me who she was, my jaws dropped!  It was a bit strange to meet this person I read the work of.  I knew I would, but I was still impressed.

I also went to a reading by Christine Sneed, who read a story she had recently written, and Mark Anthony Jarman.  Both readings were enjoyable, unfortunately, the accoustic in the room was terrible, which ruined my pleasure.

I also met with some of the delegation of British publishers (smoking can be a very social habit): Ian Daley (who offered me a collection I will soon be reviewing from) and Isabel Galan from Route Publishing, Jim Hinks from Comma Press, who gave me so many suggestions I do not know when I will get time to read all those authors, and Joanne Brandon from Cadaverine Magazine, which is specialised in under 25 authors.  There was a big group of them from companies specialising mostly in short stories and they had come to discuss publishing aspects, etc.  I had great fun with them as they did not take themselves too seriously.  I encourage you to follow the links and check what they do, who might find something interesting!

In the evening, we were invited to a reception at Ben McNally bookshop, a perfect venue for people who love literature.  It was difficult to resist spending all my money in the books of authors I was talking to (and yes, they would tempt you).  I enjoyed the cheese and wine while chatting to academics and writers; the two worlds are apart, yet, they connect in their love for literature and it is interesting to hear both perspectives.  I had a nice conversation with John Calabro, author of short stories and two novellas, from Quattro Books, a publishing company dedicated to the novella.  We were the last two leaving the place and as we were walking in the section, John kindly gave me a mini guided visit of the area.

It was an enjoyable first day.  It was amazing to meet so many interesting people.  I had fun and heard fascinating papers, but was exhausted by the end of it and did not have the courage to revise my own paper!