Four Days, Four Books

Thursday, 30 June 2011

It's noon and the VIA train I'm riding from Aldershot to Ottawa has only just served coffee. It's the pick-me-up I needed to begin blogging, something I hope to do quite a bit over the next few days as I retrace my steps in Ottawa — my first solo trip to my previous home in a few years. Along with the annual Canada Day party (which I missed last year), I am looking forward to doing some of the bookish things I loved while living in the nation's capital, including spending hours in The Book Market on Dalhousie, reading on the lawn of Parliament Hill, and possibly a brief trip to the Library and Archives.  

Instead of choosing one book to bring with me, I chose four — one half of me indecisive the other half ambitious. Since boarding the train just over four hours ago, I have read a quarter of Joanana Adorjan's memoir, An Exclusive Love, a thoughtful portrait of her grandparents, Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust, later choosing to end their lives together in old age. Memoirs have always been my genre of choice, and this one is already gripping me.

Another selection is a classic — Kerouac's On The Road, which was a Christmas gift from my dad, who couldn't believe I hadn't read it, insisting I get to it right away! It took me a few months, but it's now on the top of my reading list. 

Being on the train with a pile of books on the fold-down tray in front of me reminds me how much I love travelling, and how much I miss the regular commute between home and Ottawa, which I knew well as a student at Carleton. I've graduated from the Greyhound bus to the VIA train, a slightly smoother ride. I can't help but take a look to see what people are reading around me. A woman across the aisle is reading Trevor Cole's  latest, Practical Jean, and I'm tempted to ask her about it, but she keeps drifting off to sleep.

The train is somewhere between Ottawa and Kingston now, putting me just about an hour away from my stop. To save a few dollars, I will be staying in the Carleton residences, a brief home I moved into almost nine years ago. I'm looking forward to some bits of nostalgia, and as much reading time as I can possibly fit in.

Review: You Know Who You Are by Ian Williams

Monday, 27 June 2011
Kristen den Hartog and Ian Williams will read from their new novels at Bryan Prince Bookseller (Hamilton) on Tuesday, June 28 at 7:00 p.m. In anticipation, I'm posting a review from 2010, which was originally published in H Mag.

Even before cracking the spine of Ian Williams’ debut book of poetry, You Know Who You Are, a reader can conjure up images of what the collection might be about. Two letters on the front cover, highlighted in red, stand out from the others, “U” and “I.”

As predicted, many of the poems in You Know Who You Are explore relationships, but not in the flowery voice of many poets who idealize them as two people becoming unified as one. Williams’ poems on the subject are often about the way relationships divide or polarize two distinct beings. “If you won’t say, I won’t say,” writes Williams.

Williams excels at using poetry to express the often-unspoken conversations that exist between two people as they resist saying the things that they need or want to say. “Just your throat moves as you drink back everything left to say,” he writes in a poem called “Notwithstanding.” At times, sentences in You Know Who You Are trail off, unfinished, as though Williams himself has more to say.

While Williams has been published in many literary magazines, such as Fiddlehead, Arc, The Antigonish Review, and Descant, You Know Who You Are is his first collection of poetry. It has been published by Hamilton’s Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. In 2011, he will release his first collection of short stories, called Not Anyone’s Anything. Ian Williams divides his time between Ontario and Massachusetts, where he is a professor at Fitchburg State College.

While romantic relationships are common in the pages of You Know Who You Are, they are not the only theme Williams explores in depth. He also dissects and challenges stereotypes, in particularly those involving young, black men in urban settings, and the societal expectations of masculinity placed upon them.

“Folks like us, we don’t get assassinated, we get shot,” writes Williams in one of his grittiest poems, called “Code Blue: Medical Emergency (Adult).” Readers can’t help but be drawn in by William’s abrupt, stark language, laced with words that make readers uncomfortable: punk, visceral, machete, gansta. Luckily, for readers, these grim tales are infused with humour, spotlighting Williams’ obvious wit.

Williams’ ability to easily transition between scenes of gloom and pessimism to scenes of hope, makes You Know Who You Are a diverse collection, rooted in authenticity and powerful words. It is an especially good read for those living in Ontario, as many of Williams’ settings are familiar, from the shores of Lake Ontario to the Don Valley Parkway.

Ian Williams read from You Know Who You Are on Sunday, November 7 as part of the Lit Live Reading Series at The Sky Dragon Centre.

Friday Mixtape

Friday, 17 June 2011
Books are not the one true love of my (unromantic) life — words are. I love the way words sound. I love the way they look on a page. I love the way they can hurl meanings and soften blows. I love typography (especially fonts with serifs). I love how words seem to leap from the pages of books and magazines. And I love words that are tossed at me through speakers or headphones as integral ingredients to songs that I love.

This was a quiet morning in the office, so I took the opportunity to revisit my iTunes playlist while I worked, jotting down lyrics along the way. I admit to a level of snobbery when it comes to this mixtape. I have omitted some pretty embarrassing songs from this list that popped up on shuffle.

Stars of Track and Field
Belle and Sebastian
Make a new cult every day to suit your affairs
Kissing girls in English, at the back of the stairs
You're a honey, with a following of innocent boys
They never know it
Because you never show it
You always get your way

Tangled Up In Blue
Bob Dylan
All the people we used to know
They're an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter's wives
Don't know how it all got started
I don't what they're doing with their lives
But me I'm still on the road
Heading for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in Blue.

Girl in the War
Josh Ritter
Turn up the music and pray that she makes it through.

That Teenage Feeling
Neko Case
Now that we've met
We can only laugh at these regrets
Common as a winter cold
They're telephone poles
They follow each other
One, after another, after another
But now my heart is green as weeds
Grown to outlive their season

And nothing comforts me the same
As my brave friend who says,
"I don't care if forever never comes
'Cause I'm holding out for that teenage feeling
I'm holding out for that teenage feeling"

When I’m Gone
Phil Ochs
I won't feel the flowing of the time when I'm gone
All the pleasures of love will not be mine when I'm gone
My pen won't pour out a lyric line when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

Little secrets

Monday, 6 June 2011
I love used books. I love the secrets they hold — notes scrawled in the margins, ripped pages, coffee rings, all from a mysterious owner I will never know. When I lived in Ottawa, I spent hours at The Book Market on Dalhousie, leaving with dozens of used books, each with its own secrets. The Hamilton area also has a handful of shops full of gems, but I must admit, it’s not a used-bookstore that holds the best inexpensive rarities. It’s the Burlington Re-Use Centre.

I almost hesitate to declare my love of the centre here, mostly because it feels like my own little secret. I’m not sure how many bibliophiles have discovered its wealth of used books, but based on the piles I leave with after each visit, I feel like it’s mostly under appreciated. A few weeks ago, I spent a mere $20.00, leaving with some soft-cover classics from my youth, and a number of vintage hardcovers. 

I bought four of these anthologies, each full of stories I remember from my own childhood, and many more I have never heard at all. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has stopped by this blog before, but I am very nostalgic about many things, but especially books.

Each of these anthologies set me back just one or two dollars a piece.

The copyright date on this Nelson anthology is 1937. A faded name is scrawled on the inside, and I can't help but wonder about its previous owner(s) and the life it led.

This gem is a vintage copy of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. I have admittedly never read the classic, so I was tempted to buy it even before I saw that careful notes hidden inside.

Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

Friday, 3 June 2011
You know you've read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend.  —Paul Sweeney

I don't know anything about Paul Sweeney, the author of the quotation above. I have no reason to believe that he's still alive, and I would bet money that he's never read Room, Emma Donoghue's raved-about bestseller. Yet his quotation accurately describes what I am feeling right now, at this very second, having just shut the book for the last time.

For seven days, Jack, Donoghue's five-year-old narrator has plagued my mind. Inventive and curious, he is like most boys his age. He loves Dora the Explorer. He loves building things from nothing, using toilet paper rolls and other trash. And he loves reading books and hearing stories over and over again. But Jack is unlike any other boy. Since the day he was born, he has been held captive in an 11-by-11-foot room, which he shares with another prisoner — his 26-year-old Ma. As a reader, I couldn't help but fall in love with Jack, and now that I have come to the end of his story, I will miss him.

Room has garnered praise for many reasons — Donoghue's remarkable character development, her attention to detail, her failure to break character — but mostly, it is its uniqueness that makes Room impossible to put down. Simply put, it's unlike anything I have ever read before.

Jack's Ma, who remains nameless to readers, creates an insular world for Jack, who knows nothing but his prison home, where his imagination carries him from day to day, constructing toys from egg shells and empty vitamin bottles. His only glimpse of a world outside Room comes from inside Wardrobe, where he hides when Old Nick, his captor, climbs in bed with Ma to rape her. 

After a risky escape plan succeeds and lands Jack outside the only home he ever knew, readers have the privilege of watching him adapt to his and Ma's new life, exploring the things he had only ever seen on a small rabbit-eared television inside Room, including everything from maple keys to cell phones.   

Room is, at times, gripping, raw, and incredibly angering, but Jack's innocence, curiosity, trust, and loyalty make it mostly a tender and beautiful read that I highly recommend. Falling in love with Jack and getting to watch him stumble through his new world is worth all the hype.   

ricepaper: Generations (Issue 16.1)

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Issue 16.1 of the always fantastic ricepaper, which features my review of Arsenal Pulp Press's Farewell My Concubine: A Queer Film Classic, is on stands now. A complete breakdown of the Spring 2011 issue can be found here.
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