Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sad news

This is really sad: Key Porter Books just laid off most of its staff and is relocating out of Toronto. What a bummer: I've really liked working with Key Porter, with the kids program at the Writers Festival. And I have to feel for the folks that just got laid off. That just sucks.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Happy Birthday English!

It might be kind of arbitrary to call this the birthday of English, but if you had to pick a day for the birth of the language as we know it, this one might be it. I spotted this today in a newsletter I get called The Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy arrived on British soil. He defeated the British in the Battle of Hastings on October 14, and on Christmas Day, he was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey.

The Norman invasion had a larger and more pronounced effect on the development of the English language than any other event in history. Within the course of a few centuries, English went from being a strictly Germanic language to one infused with a large Latinate vocabulary, which came via French.

We wouldn't have this language as we speak it without the Norman invasion of Britain. And we wouldn't have one of the things I really love about it: two different vocabularies, each suited to a different level of politeness. When I used to teach English to ESL students, I told the high-level ones that if they were ever confused about which word was the more polite, the more formal, the more scientific; pick the longer one. 'Talk' or 'converse'? 'Spit' or 'expectorate'? 'Walk' or 'perambulate'? 'Trip' or 'voyage'? You want the gutsy, visceral (and there's another example!) version of a word, go for the Germanic. You want the fancy, formal version, go for the Latinate.

There's just so much you can do with English. It's a complete hodgepodge of Celtic, Germanic and Norman roots with a whole bunch of loan words grafted on. Sure, it's a bit of a creole, a chimera, a kluge, a mongrel. That's what's so awesome about it.

So, thanks for the invasion, William. Happy birthday (joyous anniversary), English. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

John Vaillant at Nicholas Hoare

I didn't really have a chance to write about this back when it happened, but I spotted the photos I took from the back rows at the packed reading at Nicholas Hoare today, and thought I'd post one. 

This book - The Tiger - is really, really good - a very skilful braiding of multiple threads together while never losing the thread of the through-story, which is hard to believe, tense, and would make a great movie. Apparently there has been some interest in the movie rights - keep an eye out. The story would play out something like The Ghost and the Darkness, but I personally think it would be better, and more interesting, especially if the movie can hang on to the idea - which shows up in the books - that what the rest of the world thought was great for Russia - perestroika - was actually disastrous for the people and the tigers of the far easten coast.

I also have to say, if you weren't there, you missed a great reading - Vaillant has an exceptionally good reading style. I asked him later if there was an audio book, and if he did the reading for it. I'm happy to report that he did. . . and maybe the experience of reading for the audio book helped him. Too often I've been disappointed by an author who has a great book, and can't read it aloud: this was mesmerizing. Vaillant is also a very good storyteller, and the way he talked about the creation of the book and explained all the factors that contributed to this complicated relationship between a community of humans and a wounded and angry Amur tiger fit easily between the sections he chose to read. I'm not surprised the bookstore came close to selling out of the book. 

And Nicholas Hoare was a great setting. "This place... it's a shrine," Vaillant said, about the shop, with those awesome floor-to-ceiling shelves and rolling ladders. Have to agree. There's not much in the way of seating for an event like this, but it feels so good to be there. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Stone Book

The daughter of a stone mason learns the old ways of her family when her father shows her symbols carved into stone in this classic work of magical realism. Based on the book by British author Alan Garner and shaped for the oral tradition by storyteller Jan Andrews, this is a coming of age story that examines our relationship with our history and our landscape.
I remember being read Alan Garner's stunning The Stone Book when I was probably too young to really understand it: which may be why the magic sank so deep. I remember that, like a lot of Garner's work, mystery underlay everything: the landscape, the people, the rhythms of the way they talked. I remember the opening of the book - the ploughman's lunch, and the dizzying, vertigo-inducing image of a child riding a weathercock at the tip of a steeple as though she was galloping through the sky, spinning above the countryside. And every time I see the tilted layers that you see in Ontario granite, or the weathered-out shelves of the schist cliffs I climbed near Aberdeen in Scotland, and nearly every time I see the pattern that receding waves leave on a beach, I think of the child looking at those ripples across the roof of a cavern, and understanding that once, somehow, the stone above her head had been an ocean floor.

So I'm particularly excited that Jan Andrews has adapted The Stone Book to the oral tradition, and is going to be telling it on October 3rd. And I can't help thinking that Jan, who is also a rock climber, will have just the feel for stone that the story asks for.

Happy Birthday Bilbo!

Yup, it was on this day in 1937 that The Hobbit was published. I'm actually re-reading my copy these days - it sits on my bedside table. I just got to Beorn's house.

I don't need to get into how incredibly important a book this fairly silly little tale with a fairly ridiculous hero is, do I? So here - in celebration of the Little Dude's 73rd birthday, something completely frivolous, that also sort of illustrates how much a part of our culture this book has become:

Monday, September 20, 2010

Vox Femina at Umi Cafe

Oh, I wish I wasn't busy on the 23rd: I would absolutely be at this reading otherwise. Vox Femina is made up of Luna Allison (Ottawa, Montreal), Jill Battson (New Mexico, Toronto), Sandra Alland (Edinburgh, Toronto) and Adeena Karasick (NYC), and they're all fantastic. I can only imagine what it's like when they join forces. This show is a Voices of Venus special presentation: props to VoV for putting together yet another stellar special!

The show's at Umi Cafe, which is a little place, so get there early to get a seat: 7:00, September 23rd. (Yep, that's this Thursday!)

Incidentally, in case you didn't know, Jane Urquhart is at the Mayfair Theatre tonight at 7:00 with the Writers Festival - fresh off the announcement this morning of the Giller Prize longlist. (That link goes to the CBC announcement: I'd send you to the Giller website but it seems to have been security blocked for suspicious activity. I'm not sure what that means, but it's just about the absolute worst time for it to happen. Wonder if someone at the Giller pissed off a hacker? Or if they have a beef with one of the nominees?)

P.S.: I got this comment on Facebook from Amazon, who is one of the people that runs Voices of Venus, and she said she'd tried to comment here and run into issues with the 'select a profile' thing. So, for the record, what she wanted to say was:

Wish you could come, too. Thanks for the signal boost! :-D

I should clarify, though: Vox Femina (who will be at the Kingston Writers' Festival after their show in Ottawa) approached VoV as an already-formed group (via Luna Allison). Also, we're getting a tonne of help from Ladyfest Ottawa. (The poster has since been amended to reflect that).!/photo.php?pid=14900467&o=all&op=1&view=all&subj=82921239343&aid=-1&id=691780051&oid=82921239343

Friday, September 17, 2010

Does a writer's DNA matter?

I posted the schedule for the Fall Edition of the Festival on the Festival's Facebook and Twitter feeds last week, and created a Facebook event for the Festival itself.

I'd already done the same for the pre-Festival lineup, and one of the Festival's Facebook friends had responded by asking, "Um... what happened to the womenz?"

I wrote back, explaining that we don't really give much thought to the sex, race, religion or sexual orientation (or physical condition, or age, or hair colour, or number of tattoos) of a writer when considering him, or her, or hir, or whoever, for an invitation to the Festival. If we had a 50/50 policy, wouldn't that be a bit strange? "We must invite precisely 35 men and 35 women writers"? How many of those men, and women, should be, say, black? And of those black men and black women, how many should be Caribbean, how many African-American (and by 'American' I mean 'North American'), how many from Africa, and how do we make sure the correct countries are represented from Africa? Do we then find ourselves desperately trying to find a writer to invite, any writer, who's female and from Namibia?

Well, okay, I didn't say it like that. I said that we consider what's out there, and who is touring, and who has a great new book out, and who we think is likely to grab the interest of our audiences, or who we think is important to introduce our audience to. Sex doesn't enter into the decision making process one way or the other - and it does turn out that, some years, there are more of one demographic group than another. One year, every fiction author was female. It was totally unplanned; it just happened to fall out that way. (And no one complained at the lack of men, incidentally.)

But then, the same Facebook friend responded to the full Festival schedule by announcing that she was going to boycott the Festival, because there weren't enough women in it.

Okay. That's, as far as I can tell, her prerogative. I think she'll be missing out on a pretty sweet lineup, personally, but that's her call to make.

And then one of her friends added that she was going to give us the benefit of the doubt, but "if it doesn't change next year" she would cancel her membership, and I started to feel - defensive? Confused? Indignant? I started counting women. And it felt weird. Last fall, 29 out of 75 writers were women. What does that mean? Does it mean anything? Suddenly I was looking at writers and putting them in boxes. Male. Female. White. Native. Indian. Black. Muslim. Jewish. Christian. Gay. Straight. Sometimes it had a bearing on the book they were here to present. Usually it didn't. But suddenly they all had a tag, or it felt like they needed one. And it felt weird.

We get people every year who call and ask me, "Are there any queer writers in the lineup this year?" or "Are there any Aboriginal writers?" or "Are there any Muslim writers?" To which I usually find myself shrugging and answering, "You probably know better than me: the authors list is up on the website." Sometimes I don't know a writer's sex until I look up their bio - what if they have an indeterminate name, or go by initials only? The same goes for religion, sexual orientation, anything you can't tell from a name.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we should be making an effort to ensure a gender balance in our lineup. But passing up a Michael Cunningham, or a John Lavery, or a Richard B. Wright, because he's white and male seems strange to me. I'm a woman: I don't feel excluded by this lineup of authors. I don't understand canceling a membership or boycotting the Festival in protest against it, as though it was a deliberate, patriarchal decision on the part of the staff to exclude women (for one thing, three-quarters of our full-time staff are female). I'll say it again: we invite authors who are good, who are interesting, who have new books out, who we think will draw an audience, spark an important conversation, or help our community better understand itself.

Sean, the Artistic Director of the Festival, told me that he once had a conversation with Donna Bailey Nurse in which she told him the Festival had a good reputation in the black community. "Why's that?" Sean asked her, and she said it was because they knew there was no tokenism in the Festival: if a writer was invited it wasn't because we 'needed some colour,' it was because we thought she was good, and as a member of a community that gets tapped for the sake of diversity, she valued knowing she was being included on her own merits, not for the colour of her skin. I'd say the same thing about the women in this Fall's lineup - I mean, look at who they are. Two of them are Booker shortlisters this year. Three are members of the Order of Canada. We've also got an IMPAC longlister, and the recipient of the inaugural Human Dignity Award from the European Parliament. I'd say the women in this fall's lineup are pretty impressive people. And none of them were invited because of their sex: they were invited because of their talent.

And I really wish I could stop counting women now, but it's a bit like having the Barney song stuck in your head. Argh.

Talk like a 13th Century Pirate - Challenge!

My father just sent me this, from the 18th-Century Literature list he's on: not sure if it's a real assignment, but I'd like to think that it is. (He asked if I'd heard of Talk Like A Pirate Day: arrrr, an' knowin the sort o' scurvy bilge rats crossin' my wake across the Seven Cyber Seas, it's sure as curses in dead men's eyes I'll savvy the High Holy Day o' the Pastafarians...)


I think this assignment is awesome, too. In fact, I'd love to toss it out there as a challenge. (Steve Zytveld, I'm looking at you.) If you want to give this a try, the assignment, as originally posted, is below. Post your translations here in the comments section! (If you post them by Monday, that's extra points. Points are redeemable for 'geek cred,' the standard currency of conventions, comic stores, online discussion boards, and any and all MMORPGs, particularly the ones with pirates. Also legal tender in many fine academic establishments.) 


(N.b. You do not need to be a geek, nerd, or medieval literature student to participate.)


"This coming Sunday, Sept. 19th is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Any of those who have chosen to write at least one two-page paper for their paper options may, for this Monday only, translate any 50 lines of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales into pirate-ese. You must demonstrate understanding of the original text in your translation -- no random translations, please. Your grade will reflect the accuracy and originality of
your translation. I will, of course, take into account different possible readings of lines.

If you need some direction in talking like a pirate, check out this website:

The links from this page are probably more useful than the page itself.

Good luck, have fun with it if you choose the translation exercise, and see you all Monday.

 --James Rovira"

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cool Things Roundup

It's been a hell of a crazy day, so don't mind my moment of geek: is it so wrong that after a long, very exhausting pre-Festival-crunch day, I got home, sat down, and played my cell's ringtone (the sound of the TARDIS taking off) to make myself feel better?

This is the sound, incidentally. It may make you feel better too. Or it might just make you worry about my sanity.

But on my list of other things that have brightened my day (and that are more in keeping with the theme of this blog):

Local storyteller and author Jan Andrews posted today that her children's book The Auction is going to be made into a children's opera. Not only is the idea of an adaptation pretty exciting, but I love the idea of a children's opera. There should be more of that type of thing, please! I'm also pretty happy for Jan. What a cool project to be involved with.

Also, the National Post's Opening Line of the Week was posted today, and it's the first line of John Lavery's brand new novel Sandra Beck. Hooray, it's here! Hooray, it's great! I've been loving John's writing for a long time. Nice to see other people think he's great too.

And I see on Pearl Pirie's blog that Sean Moreland is involved in starting up a new reading series at U of O? The first reading is on the 20th. I'll be working that night (that's the Jane Urquhart reading at the Mayfair) but I want to come check it out when I can!

And, a couple of copies of Ken Sparling's BOOK arrived at the office today. I don't think I've seen a more instantly gorgeous book in a long time. I haven't had a chance to even think of reading it, but that didn't matter. I just wanted to touch it and feel it and flip through the pages and look at the fonts and the way the ink sat on the paper. What stunning design. Sometimes books, as objects, are just awesome.

P.S. Just to head back to the geekiness of the beginning of this post - if you don't know about the blog Letters of Note, you probably should. It's a collection of fascinating letters, memos, faxes and telegrams from around the world, from all sorts of people on all sorts of topics. It's arch, smart, enlightening, and often very funny (one of my personal favorites for this year is the letter from a 14-year-old Slash - yes, that Slash - to his ex-girlfriend.) But that's not the one I liked today. The one I liked today was the response by the BBC to a fan named Ronald's request for blueprints for a Dalek.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

It's here!

Well, it's finally up and online: the Ottawa Writers Festival fall schedule. I've had my head buried in web design for the last couple of weeks to get this ready to go and I'm actually a day ahead of schedule! Highlights for me? Well, hell, where to start?

I could list all the stuff I want to catch but the truth is, I may be running around in the background, so I can't get my hopes up that I'll be able to make the events I want to see. Good thing we usually video our events for YouTube (and this time with better sound quality, I promise!)

But if I don't get in to see William Gibson on the 24th I'll be very sad. Just sayin.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Raise It (again)

CFSW is coming! CFSW is coming!

The first time I ever attended a slam was at the first Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, which was held here in Ottawa at Library and Archives Canada. I've written about the experience before - I'd never seen or heard anything like it. The energy level was amazing - in fact, after one session I remember walking out of the theatre slightly stunned, getting myself home and then just heading to my room to lie down on my bed, feeling like I'd just run a marathon.

It was the idea of people jumping to their feet screaming like rock concert fans, for poetry, that really grabbed me. There was one moment when the judges apparently didn't love someone's piece as much as the audience did, and there was an eruption of 'boo's' for the judges, and then I vividly recall the standing ovation in defiance of the points awarded, where the whole audience clapped and cheered and turned to face the poet as he went back to his seat in the auditorium, and had to be quieted down eventually by the host.

After that, I started seeing Capital Slam ramping up in Ottawa, and slams jumped up all over the country, and a spoken word scene developed, particularly here, that was tight-knit, passionate, and thriving. But it wasn't just Ottawa, it was thriving all over the country. CBC started their Poetry Face-Off contest. From Vancouver to Halifax, poets started popping out of the woodwork. And climbing into vans to drive to each other's cities to perform and crash on other poets' couches. And organizing event after event. I kept thinking that eventually a critical mass would be reached, and we'd reach what the market in Ottawa could bear for competitive spoken word. But it didn't seem to be happening. Then other slams and slam-style performance series started appearing. The Onenesss Poetry Showcase at the East African Restaurant. Urban Legends at Carleton University. Bill Brown's 1-2-3 Slam. Voices of Venus, the women's spoken word series. OutSpoken featured queer spoken word during Pride Week. Lanark Country got a slam series after the inimitable Danielle Grégoire moved to Almonte and started a writing workshop. There are spoken word workshops happening all over, particularly the ongoing Ingredients workshop at Umi Cafe. And Ottawa's slam team took home the gold at the last CFSW, and one of its members, Ian Keteku, recently became the World Spoken Word Champion in Paris.

Oh, yeah, and the Canadian Olympic Committee decided to feature Vancouver poet Shane Koyczan in the Opening Ceremonies this winter. So, a spoken word poet made up part of an international showcase of Canada.

So now CFSW is coming back to Ottawa from October 12-16 (it moves locations from city to city across the country) with all the momentum it's built up, and bringing with it a nation-wide community of people who generally all know, respect, admire and learn from each other. If you haven't heard spoken word before, this would be the place to do it: the best in the country, giving it their best, and an audience that is beyond excited about being there.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Back again. With a tiger.

I tried to post this on my old blog... and realized how much I don't like the Tripod blog tool. So, here I am!

Amanda Earl's kicked me into action with a great short rant on her blog about the lack of coverage of literary events in Ottawa. How come a town that's so booming in very cool indie publications covering the arts, fashion, culture and theatre somehow manages to get less publicity for the literary side of things? Not no publicity, but somehow tangibly less. It's a little more lackluster.

I might argue that maybe the literary scene is more insular, but I don't really think that's the case. Maybe all the poets already know each other, and so don't think to promote? Or maybe, as Amanda suggests, people see the word 'poetry' and assume, well, that can't be cool? (and in this case I'm talking about page poetry, since the spoken word scene is booming, and 'cool' is pretty much the word everyone involved in it would use to describe poetry.) 

Don't know. But Amanda said, get out there and blog. So, with my fire lit again (and sadly, just before I'm about to be eaten by the Writers Festival) I'm going to try to get back to blogging.

Although, the Festival is about to eat me. The first event is next Friday, and, coincidentally, I've been wanting to write about it. It's a book launch for John Vaillant's book The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. It's usually pretty hard for me to read all or even most of the books that we feature at the Festival, but I've been giving it a try this season, and I lucked out with The Tiger. It took me only a few days to read. Can I use the word 'gripping' without sounding like a cheeseball?

The book follows a series of actual events in the far eastern corner of Russia, an area called Primorye, which is sandwiched in alongside Mongolia, and is a surprisingly alien place. His descriptions of the land make it sound like the Genesis planet: his coinage for it is 'boreal jungle,' the sort of place where it's 30 below but there are tigers and jaguars alongside the wolverines and caribou, and where the native population, who share a lot of physical traits with the Inuit, are sharing their space with emigrated ethnic Russians from the western end of the country.

The book starts with a hunter who is killed by a Siberian tiger, the world's biggest cat, and with a group of men who are, essentially forest rangers, although out here most of the forest rangers are ex-military, as are a lot of the poachers they deal with. It follows the tiger, which is not just hunting people, but destroying them, leaving virtually nothing behind, and even going after their cabins and destroying those as well, and it follows the men whose job it is to hunt the tiger down and kill it. Along the way it takes in the history and biology of the Siberian tiger, the way in which tigers and humans might once have shared the same ecosystem more or less peaceably, the economic and social dissolution of eastern Russia that forces the local people to poach tigers for the Chinese market, and the psychology of the sort of people who can live in a place as barren and forbidding as Primorye.

The landscape is a character. The cold is a character. The tiger - both the actual tiger and the mythical, mystical, psychological tiger - is definitely a character. And the way in which the story slowly follows the hunt for the tiger, with elegant, graceful side detours into the history of Russia, the lives of the people involved, the local ethnography and mythology, and the harsh realities of the landscape, kept making me stop with my jaw dropped. How did he do that? I'd think to myself, and then dive back in. It was like listening to a really good jazz musician improvising for ages while never really losing the arc of the whole tune.

Admittedly, I also have a certain fascination for survival, for the kinds of people who can accomplish the kinds of physical and mental and emotional feats that these people can, and I love reading about completely unfamiliar places. Score on all counts.

And I've just come across this review from the Seattle Times which says everything I'd like to say, and also had the insight to compare him to John McPhee (albeit they call him "John McPhee on steroids," which makes me giggle, and sort of kind of nod in agreement - especially about the virtuosic and seemingly effortless amount of stunning background detail.) 

Can't wait to hear him read next Friday. (It's at Nicholas Hoare Books, at 7:00, and it's free! Wine and cheese, and blood freezing on the snow. Awesome.)

Moving Day

New platform, new lease on life. At least, I hope so. The Tripod site I used to use has gotten clunky and was never all that pretty to start with. And after the inimitable Amanda Earl's rant today about the lack of literary coverage in town, I thought, hey wait... I really should be adding my (admittedly minor) voice. So, I've moved to Blogger, where I already have a blog on cycling, The Incidental Cyclist. (Which would be why you see Mike muscling in on my literary opinions, in the 'posted by' lines.)

We'll see if having both blogs in one virtual place keeps me on track...