Archives for posts with tag: Toronto

The Tiny Wife Book Cover, EM Keeler, Bookside Table

The Tiny Wife is a small but surprisingly sweet urban fairy tale about a metaphysical bank robbery. While the book as an object, with Tim Pervical’s charming ink block illustrations and its twisted hand lettered cover, recalls the Gothic twee sensibility of a Tim Burton or Jhonen Vasquez, Kaufman’s quirky story seems to spring from a deeper well.

The thief in the opening chapter robs everyone at the bank of the item they consider the most sentimentally valuable. One man hands over his most recent pay stub, the first he’s received since getting an important promotion; a woman gives the thief a crumpled photograph of her children; another man hands over the original key to a house that’s been in his family for generations; one woman, the wife of the book’s subtle narrator, hands over the calculator she has had since high school, which she has used to make some of the most important decisions in her life. Being robbed of these materials will effect these people in strange and unpredictable ways. One woman’s tattoo comes to life, another turns into candy. The man with the key becomes physically overpowered by the family history contained in the walls of his house.

Each strange incident is described through the rhythm of a fable, short sentences and simple ideas that have totally steam rolled you by the time they come to the last line. These pieces are threaded together by the confusion that the narrator and his wife experience about the way that their feelings may have changed since the birth of their son. For the most part, The Tiny Wife feels like a dream, a fiction that seems senseless but meaningful, the kind where you wake up feeling like things have worked themselves out and you can keep moving forward in a world made a little clearer.

Advertisements

Chilly Scenes of Winter Book Cover, Emily M Keeler, Bookside Table

Chilly Scenes of Winter was not exactly funny. In fact, it was one of the rare books that made me think to myself, gee, what would happen if I read something that wasn’t totally depressing, for a change? My mom is constantly complaining that things are too dark here on Bookside Table, and this was the first book that really made me consider her position.

Which is not to say that Ann Beattie’s prose is dismal, or that her characters are humorless and unlovable. In fact, just the opposite; Charles and his friend Sam are riddled with the good kinds of flaws. They’re dynamic and Beattie paints their portraits with real verve and no small measure of skill. They are in that strange post college funk, where they’re technically adults but they feel unsure and unhinged in a world where the term no longer has a clear meaning. So much of Chilly Scenes is about the accumulation of the micro disappointments and disillusionment that come with growing up. Charles’ mother is mentally unstable, his stepfather is over-invested in a fantasy life, the older man that Charles and Sam meet at the local watering hole is an alcoholic well past the point of functioning, and love consistently proves easier in theory than in practice as these young men try to move forward without ever catching their bearings. The book is set in the mid 1970s, and the characters are almost all at a loss for how they can ever truly grow up, how they could possibly move on from the mayday of the ’60s.

Througout Chilly Scenes of Winter there is an incredible tension between the roles of fantasy and intimacy in relationships and in love. Charles pines for his ex, feels alienated from his sister, and relies on his best friend for the quotidian comforts of loving companionship. He imagines his ex in a big kitchen, fixating on A frame housing, imagines a bright but loveless future for his sister, and tends to the intimate work of caring for Sam when he loses his job, his apartment, and his dog. Beattie’s use of language seems calm on the surface but, just like her characters, has a deep and anxious pulse .The dialog still feels fresh, 30 years on, and there is a strange whimsy and exhilaration even in the most desperate scenes. “Charles sat up and sat cross-legged in the back seat, looking out the back window at the highway. He was so tired that he was giddy; he thought about waving to oncoming cars, seeing if they’d mistake him for a kid or think he was retarded and wave back. But he was too tired to play games.” And there it is! The incremental build up of so many small sadnesses, littered throughout this break-out novel, born on the back of repetition and blossoming into pervasive ennui. And let me tell ya, it gets to you alright.

The Odious Child book cover, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

These stories are dark. Some of them are shot through with the surreal, and all of them operate in a space of intensely self-aware psychic intimacy. Maybe self-aware is the wrong choice of word, or it’s only the right choice if we’re using it in a layered way, for the self, and awareness of the same, is presented in a layered triplicate in The Odious Child. There is a sense of Carolyn Black’s self awareness, her ability to know when to recede into the shadows of the text and when to present a full face to the world, when to provide you with the shimmer of her mindful prose and when to leave a thought unhinged or unsigned. There are the almost oppressively self-aware characters that populate these eleven stories, each of them demonstrating a strange metacognition that distances them just enough from their experiences to let you come right into the middle distance between their thoughts and their circumstances. And of course, there is the expectation that you gradually bring your own awareness, indeed your own self, into the fray. Because so many of these stores, “Serial Love”, “At the World’s End, Falling Off”, “Martin Amis is in My Bed”, for starters, are about women who spend their days collapsing things into words,  the book invites you to try and untangle experience from language.

And good luck with that. Black’s prose is sometimes spare, cerebral, and cool overall. But there is real warmth in these stories. Her work here reminded me of Sheila Heti and AM Holmes, with her ability to craft these bracing urban fables. But don’t get me wrong, Black’s voice is distinct; there is a great deal of wonderment and an empathetic sense of curiosity about the people at play in these stories. “Tall Girls”, about a man who is in the process of learning what it feels like to imagine something, to fantasize, reads like a celebration of the mystery of the mind, creepy and jubilant in equal parts. The titular story, about a woman who is so distraught and shamed by her beastly child that she fails to notice that her neighborhood is in the middle of either a massacre or an uprising, is striking in its elegance and distressing by virtue of its social prescience.

The collection is strong overall, and the stories sit well together, forming a quilted pattern of the alienation and anxiety of urban life. The Odious Child is an alluring portrait of the magic of the mind to twist and tense under the conditioning of a fractured city. Black’s work here evinces the kind of spirited control that gets my gears turning, and her ability to zero in on details, the myriad tiny fragments of thought and life, ensure that in me she has enchanted a perpetually devoted reader.

33 1/2 series, Let's Talk About Love Book Cover, EM Keeler, Bookside Table

Taste is a tricky thing. There is a shifting hierarchy of preferences for each player in pursuit of taste, which ideally develops as a process of greater and greater pleasure. But then again, sometimes the things we take pleasure in are in poor taste. In Let’s Talk About Love, Carl Wilson succinctly boils down part of the problem with taste: if ‘good’ taste is an elevated ideal (especially one reached dialectically), then very few people can have it, because good taste would have to be practiced and developed. Good taste requires a specific means of access, the structural and personal resources needed to educate oneself about the markers of aesthetic quality, and the opportunity to try a little bit of everything in order to create an evaluative schema. This is, plainly, not fair. Also, it’s inaccurate. Especially this late in the game of culture, and of cultural studies. But let me back track a bit: what the fuck is taste? And, in development of Wilson’s project, is there an end to it?

Taste is a means of experiencing the world. The word is sensory in nature, but even in it’s etymological origin story the word confers critical evaluation: based on the Old French taster, the Middle English verb tasten means to touch, taste, or test. To develop a sense of taste is to test the quality of whatever it is you are tasting. Wilson is quick to point out that we all have our own subjective “taste biographies” and throughout Let’s Talk About Love, he gives the reader a clue into his own; as a 14 year old living in a mostly white industrial town he hated disco, and later learned to rock his adult body to the glittering beats in Montreal. Our abilities to test for preference are shaped by our social environments, sure. That personal taste is subjective is not exactly a novel idea. We like what we like for myriad reasons, but mostly, I would hope, because what we like is an avenue for pleasure.

However, because what we like is shaped by our experiences, it’s easy to mistake a basic familiarity with a person’s ‘taste biography’ for knowing about the kind of experiences they may have had, and then that for the person they themselves may be. Taste, then, provides a handy metric for measuring other people’s compatibility with ourselves, and each other. But it also works the other way around too. I, for one, have learned to like things, first in the posture of enjoyment, then sometimes the real thing, to negotiate access to a group or person. Don’t tell me you’ve never once been overgenerous in your estimation of some cultural artifact if it meant getting laid, or getting the job. Sometimes, the degree to which you like the person makes you like the thing they like, even if it doesn’t rate well according to your taste rubric; sometimes love or infatuation can obliterate that rubric all together. Taste is an identity marker, and we use it to gauge and manipulate ourselves and others.

But Let’s Talk About Love is not a ‘taste biography’, an index of identity culled from the matrix of pop culture; Wilson’s project is much more subtle, and for my money, much more interesting. Two important things to note: 1.Wilson is a professional music critic. 2. While taste may be social, criticism, taste’s highfalutin’ cousin, is historical.

To the extent that critics can engage in the validation of taste, they are bound in their abilities to shape the future by the time in which they work. Some songs, some albums, are released and go unappreciated until the right critic, attuned to the temperament of culture, can revive them, or restore them, to relevance. Wilson gives the example of disco and metal, as genres, and their rebirth as legitimate markers of cultured taste after their hey day had come and gone. With the passage of enough time, the cannon can be reevaluated, so “The Monkees are now as critically respectable as Jimi Hendrix.”

After giving a brief overview of rockism’s critically anti-pop orientation, and citing a few examples of reflexive, reclaimatory turns in the history of western music, Wilson ends up with some ponderous questions about the effect of this ‘second thought’ criticism: “If critics were wrong about disco in the 1970s, why not about Brittany Spears now?”

Let’s Talk About Love is an exercise in a new form of music criticism, one that evaluates the place of an album in the larger cultural sphere but also situates those songs within the critics’ own taste biography. Wilson includes one chapter that reads as a straight up review, a longer piece that functions to critically engage the tone and texture of an important, though critically unsatisfying album. His review is standard, well written, relatively nuanced, and evocative of the sound a listener might expect. But the rest of Wilson’s work with this project evinces that this is not enough. This late in the game, you can hear a sample of any album on iTunes, you can read read your friends yea/nay response to any song on Face Book, or you can read a blog post to get the jist. Wilson recognizes the democratization of criticism, and rather than rail against the tide, he posits a potential path for the future: one where the professional critic may look beyond the canonization of their own taste biography. This book is a celebration of taste’s peculiarities, of the democratic forest of love and pleasure: “Democracy, that dangerous, paradoxical and mostly unattempted ideal, sees that the self is insufficient, dependent for definition on otherness, and chooses not only to accept that but celebrate it, to stake everything on it. Through democracy, which demands we meet strangers as equals, we perhaps become less strangers to ourselves.” Wilson, in the end, is afforded an opportunity to connect to something outside of his taste, and so also outside of himself. This work of new criticism tells us about more than just an album, more than just a song… It invites us to acknowledge that our tastes, personally and culturally, go beyond the qualities you can test for. They run deep enough to tell us a little more about ourselves, and about the other side too.

The Chairs, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

The best thing about The Chairs Are Where the People Go is the way that Misha Glouberman talks about his frustrations. The book’s forward, written by Sheila Heti, describes the text that follows as the product of morning meetings, where Glouberman would talk to her about “everything he knows.” As it turns, out, he knows a lot about negotiation, about managing expectations, and about how people communicate with each other. That’s why, I guess, he also seems to know so much about frustration.

The book is arranged into little meditations of various lengths that are centered on a specific idea, observation, or experience. A lot of them are about the games that Glouberman teaches as part of his Charades classes (–Yeah, he teaches classes on how to be good at playing charades–) : “Get Louder or Quit”, “The Gibberish Game”, “The Conducting Game”, “Fighting Games”, and, naturally enough, “How to Play Charades”. (There’s also one called “These Projects Don’t Make Money”.) There are sections on conferencing, on neighborhoods, on why getting piss drunk is only fun when you’re still really young, and on quitting smoking and wearing a suit. But a lot of them are about living in a city and remembering a lot of almost obvious things that I, for one, often forget: For instance, one section is called “Doing One Thing Doesn’t Mean You’re Against Something  Else”, which uses a few examples from Glouberman’s work with Trampoline Hall and his experimental noise classes to illustrate his point, being that choosing to set some perimeters on whatever you’re doing or making doesn’t automatically mean you oppose everything outside of those perimeters (“Like, if you write a book about Paris, it’s not a statement that no book should ever take place in New York.”). This is helpful advice, and the book has a lot of similarly simple ideas that are sometimes not put so simply in our day to day lives.

In fact, The Chairs, with Glouberman’s casual and friendly tone fueling an abundance of good advice, is arguably a self help book. But before I read it, I didn’t realize just how badly I needed the help.

The Film Club book cover, bookside table, EM Keeler

David Gilmour’s The Film Club is about movies, and parenting, and love, and pain. It reminded me, in parts, of The Stand-In, because of its Canadian-ness, and because I get the vibe that somehow it just wasn’t meant for me, in an almost generational way, even as it was loaded with good stuff I could take away from it. A friend and I were discussing it, and he said that it actually gave him a lot of insight into his own father (who, like Gilmour, dates somewhere between the Boomers and Generation X). This made a lot of sense to me.

Because, after all, that’s in a lot of ways what this book is about. It’s about Glimour and his teenage son, trying to negotiate the border between their lives as Jesse becomes a young man. I was touched by the amount of love, incredible-even-awful-love, that Gilmour expresses for his son throughout the book, and it was interesting to read a coming of age story told from the perspective of a parent.

At the centre of this memoir is a deal these men made, where Gilmour would let 15 year old Jesse drop out of school if he agreed to watch 3 films a week. Gilmour chooses the films, and makes loose units–Horror, guilty pleasures, nouvelle vauge, etc.,–for them to talk about and watch. With his knowledgeable adoration of film, Gilmour manages to teach his son a lot about the world from the living room sofa, and the book is packed with little facts and hundreds of movie suggestions. At it’s heart, though, The Film Club is a love letter from a father to his son, full of pride and fear, trepidation and tribulation. The very last line, borrowed (of course!) from a film, was inordinately moving; I  cried.

The Obituary book cover, Emily M Keeler, bookside tableThe Obiturary is a fantastic book, but it’s hard to describe. Gail Scott has written, even at times somehow overwritten and underwritten, this rolling novel that looks at life, history, sex, love, and two-tongued Montreal through a fractured lens. The main character, if you’d even call her that, is Rosine.

Sometimes the text reflects the rhythm of her thoughts, of her memories, but sometimes the words you’re reading are coming out of a photograph, or a fly. Sometimes they come through the walls. Scott plays with the phonetic quality of letters and words, in both English and French, to great effect. It’s an unconventional novel, though it is deeply (even lyrically) sensual, evoking the sharp clean smell of oysters and approaching the use of language as if hoping to encourage a synesthetic experience. This story has a complex structure, and some of its hypertext takes the form of heart–rather than foot–notes. The heart notes offer more information, more context, and tie the strange interior life of Rosine and the fly on the hotel wall to something more conventional, like a book about a dark history. But even in the heart notes there are subtle revisions and perversions that maintain a sense of particularity rather than detached objectivity. Even the fly on the wall only sees what it sees not from above, but from the very front lines of life.

The Obituary is much richer than I’m making it seem; it is so much more than an engaging experiment with form. Or maybe, that’s not quite right either. More likely, the form this novel takes comes directly from it’s content, with its grammatical omissions and contradictions. The book weaves around the idea of intersectionality, and what it means to have so many stories contained in a person, and how those stories crash up against each other, and how they run smack into the other stories in the world. Films, books, photographs, and other records that come to be a framing device for the morphological process of talking about what a life is, or what it can be.

The novel poses the question: “Reader, you may be forgiven for asking here what is a novel life?” Scott doesn’t have an answer, but  The Obiturary gives you a few clues, describing always “what is alive + speaking within us” even as it traverses over the dead, buried, as they are, in the past.

1. Sheila Heti lives in my neighborhood, well kinda. She’s a youngish white woman in Toronto worried about what art should be like, and what people should be like.

2. How Should a Person Be? is like an incredibly localized map of the neighborhood of these concerns, and Heti’s cartographic co-adventurer is her invariable friend and painter Margaux.  I definitely definitely felt like this book was a map for me, specifically, in a lot of really good ways.

3. But not an official map, more like the kind of sweetly personalized map that a friend will draw of where the good croissants are and how to get back to their house when you visit them in the city that they live in, where you don’t live and only go because you want to see them.

4. But better than that kind of map because I’ve never worried, not deeply, about where to find great croissants, but I have worried about betrayal, and lonliness, and fame, and friends, and whether or not I’m good enough at blow jobs, and what it means to be accomplished at something, like painting or cutting hair or imagining grilled cheese sandwiches. And I’ve also felt that maybe I’m not important, in a lot of ways, and I’ve agonized over my own equivocal enjoyment of that feeling too.

5. That whole business of ‘recognition’ is only part of the reason I liked this book, though. In addition to filling in a little bit of my life by way of reading about hers, this book was also funny and sad and sweet.

6. I read this book because one of my pals said the second time I met him that Sheila Heti is one of his favorite writers. He’s also a Torontonian, and he likes Trampoline Hall and other little things that make Toronto a place worth living and really local and lovable. He said that that he likes her, but is kind of wierded out by the degree of that like because she’s not only ‘from around here, but she’s from around here.‘ Which I took to mean that she’s like us, more so than other people are like us, because not only does she go to the same bars and concerts and pop-up venues that we do, but somehow she’s even more like us, in the ‘we, all of us, are having a moment’ kind of way.

7. And, not to spoil anything, but I kind of felt like that moment, the one we are all having, and by ‘we all’ I mean a very small number, in the long run, but still, that moment is kind of the answer to “How should a person be?”

8.  So I guess a person should be themselves, but throwing their hands in the air, and making a go of it, having a moment.

9. If only we could all make a go of it with the grace and humor and deceptively light touch that Sheila Heti does in How Shoud a Person Be?.

Winter of our discontent, book cover, steinbeck

The last three books I read were in depth explorations of the way that the mind blankets objects and situations with meaning. To the Lighthouse, The Mystery Guest, and The Mezzanine are all beautiful works that rely on objects as the vehicles for emotional content, for hope, for love, and for nostalgia.

In To the Lighthouse, there’s a pivotal scene towards the end of the first book where a character looses a brooch, and gains a lover. The brooch was a family heirloom, or something, but the interesting thing is how Woolf is able to use the object as an anchor for psychological and emotional experiences. Boulliere brings a pricey vintage bottle of wine as a gesture of his faith in the absurd, as a symbolic bridge across time and temperament. And of course there are the infinite close readings of quotidian objects in Baker’s The Mezzanine, the little book of a day in detail. There something about our stuff, the objects that we often touch more than we do our loved ones, something about these things that make up our lives.

I’ve been thinking about books as objects, the tactile book made of paper and glue, especially since I began this project.  What would ‘bookish’ mean without physical books? I know that the terrain of paper- vs e-books has been pretty well covered, and I have very little to add to the map. Just that these objects mean something to me.

When I was younger, I went through a pretty serious Steinbeck phase. My favorite was The Winter of Our Discontent, and still is by virtue of how much I loved it then. I have been carrying this object around, moving it from one place to another, from Calgary to Toronto, on buses, on planes, to the beach, to school, the subway, you name it, for over a decade. The edition I have is weathered and worn, the pulp cover having fallen off many times. Somewhere along the way someone taped the cover on upside down and backwards, as a prank, so that when I read the volume in public I look foolish. These memories are grounded in the physical object of the book itself, and no matter how I feel about Ethan Allen Hawley or Ellen or Mr. Marullo, I could never relive so many years of my own life in the same way if I were to read a digital copy.