Archive for October, 2010

On the glories of Kodak HC-110

October 29, 2010 1 comment

This post is apropos of very little. Someone came here today looking for info on expiry dates for Kodak HC-110 developer. So.

This photo of Steven Heighton, taken in September at Eden Mills, was developed a couple of weeks ago in HC-110 with an expiry date of October, 2006. So essentially, I think, don’t worry about it.

Steven Heighton, Eden Mills Writers Festival, 2010

Categories: Uncategorized


October 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Spotty WiFi on the Via train back from Kingston, where half the town partied drunkenly under the far-from soundproof window of my hotel room until the small hours, has kept me from reporting on last night’s reading, or on the wood duck I spotted in a pond by the railway tracks somewhere up near Belleville, this latter proof in my personal calculus that all is right in my world.


Alexander MacLeod and I read last night at the Novel Idea bookshop in Kingston, a nice little shop that, judging from the inventory on hand, is doing much better than its independent counterpart here in London.

Steven Heighton did the introductions, and kicked the evening off with a reading from a poem and from Every Lost Country. His poem, on Eden Abergil, the former Israeli soldier who posted photographs of herself posing with Palestinian prisoners, trenchantly pointed out that we are no longer shocked by these things. Perhaps we’re no longer capable of being shocked. And this recalled Alexander MacLeod’s introductory remarks before I read in Montreal, in which he pointed out that war and pornography are the two things to which we have become utterly desensitized, and that one of the achievements of Combat Camera is to resensitize the reader. I can’t remember his wording. I was chiefly shocked, at the time, to discover that the book doesn’t suck.

Alex read from “The Loop.” Every time I’ve seen him read, he has used a different story, and every time, I find myself thinking, oh, yeah. That one. That’s a good story. Every time, without fail. So that’s as good a measure of why you should read Light Lifting as any — perhaps a better measure than any.

Both Alex (who has been on the road longer) and I were by last night entirely enervated, and so our post-reading celebrations were brief and involved that rare luxury, a prepared meal. And this allowed me to reprise an old discussion with Steven Heighton. (I had hoped he had forgotten my snotty, May 2010 self, but this was not the case.) We are, it turns out, united in our distrust of the externally imposed plot, which of course also makes me hopeless at writing genre fiction. I suppose there are worse fates.

Categories: combat camera


October 27, 2010 Leave a comment

I got an email from Dale Gervais, who is a film conservator with Library and Archives Canada. Dale has been working for years with the World War II films of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit. The title of my book caught his eye, because “Combat Camera” is the name given to military photo units in Canada, the US, and the UK. I’ve shamelessly lifted that name for a title because it has a nice ring, and because my working title sucked.

Dale sent me links to two sites dedicated to those old Canadian army newsreels and the men who created them, which are well worth checking out. There will be a screening of select Canadian army newsreels at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa on November 10th. I’ll be in Waterloo reading that day (I think), but if you’re in the Ottawa area, you should check it out.

Categories: film, war


October 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Well, I did not read in Ottawa — that was last week — but swung through town on the Alexander MacLeod world tour. And so this morning found me blearily listening to construction noise outside my hotel window. So much for sleeping in.

Yesterday’s event with Anchee Min, Emma Donoghue, and Alexander MacLeod was a great success. Thoroughly entertaining. A good discussion period, during which Anchee Min took over moderating duties from a bemused Michel Blouin (who sensibly went with the flow) to question Donoghue and MacLeod.

The only fly in the ointment was that MacLeod’s book sold out. You always want one copy left over.

Now, on to Kingston.

Friggin Franzen….

October 26, 2010 Leave a comment

I can’t believe everyone is this excited over some book about rabbits….

Categories: combat camera


October 26, 2010 2 comments

It occurred to me last night that I haven’t actually been in Montreal proper — that is, east of the airport — in some 23 years. And the less said about that, the better. Last night’s reading at Drawn & Quarter was, in any case, kind of an away-from-homecoming.

I found myself installed in a hotel room featuring a non-functional Jaccuzzi tub and mirrors on the ceiling. Actually, that isn’t precisely true: there is only one mirror on the ceiling, but it is exceptionally large. I celebrated my arrival in these fine digs by drinking The Famous Grouse out of a plastic cup. It is not clear what part of the grouse is used to make this so-called whisky, but it is my view that it is probably made from by-products.

Drawn & Quarterly is a nice bookshop, from which I escaped with credit limit intact only by that superhuman willpower for which I am not precisely well known. I did buy a copy of Harold Hoefle’s book, The Mountain Clinic.

Harold read first, by dint of losing the coin toss. Somehow, although the chances are fifty-fifty, it always comes up heads. You’ve got a lot to learn about coin tosses, I said. Alexander MacLeod read from “Wonder About Parents,” one of my favorite stories from Light Lifting, and one he hasn’t read from before.

He also kindly introduced me with a ringing endorsement of my book: “It’s about war. It’s about pornography. And it doesn’t suck!”

And I announced, to universal approval, the topic of my next novel:

My next novel will be about a courageous lesbian puppy growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan, who rejects the hyper-masculine pheasant-hunting culture of her pointer forebears and embarks on a heart-warming journey to the big city, where she rescues a small child from a fucking well.

I feel this one will be a real winner. Now, on to Ottawa.

Categories: combat camera

On inspiration

October 25, 2010 Leave a comment

When I first saw Sam Abell’s book, The Photographic Life, I remarked to my long-suffering spouse that I felt somewhat defeated. Actually, I believe my precise words were, “Fuck it. I’m throwing all my cameras and lenses in the trash.” At which, of course, she merely shook her head: here he goes again, round 1,397 of endless self-flagellation. Yes dear, and while you’re at it, can you do the grocery shopping?

Well, I didn’t. Throw my cameras out, I mean. I may well have done the grocery shopping. I don’t know. It was a long time ago. Instead — instead of the camera-trashing, I mean, not the damn grocery shopping; this post is not concerned with groceries; these divagations that take on lives of their own will be the death of me — instead, I went out and tried to take better pictures.

What I am working around to, if you can just kindly pay attention here and ignore that whole thing about groceries, is a suspicion of those people who declare, “Oh, I love so-and-so. She’s the writer who made me feel that I could be a writer, too.”  That, it seems to me, is setting your sights pretty low.

The only writers who interest me are those who make me feel I’d best burn the manuscript and go fishing. My long-suffering spouse, it need hardly be said, is often heard to say such things as “Yes, dear, and while you’re at it, can you light the barbecue?”

Somehow, I never do. Burn the manuscript, that is.

Perhaps I’m alone in this. No, not in lighting the barbecue. Everybody does that. Can you stop with these distractions? I mean, perhaps I’m alone in this desire to be defeated, or in this vulnerability to defeat. But I hope not.

Categories: writing


October 24, 2010 Leave a comment

If Combat Camera moves westwards towards possibility, what does it mean that I’m bound for points east?

Tomorrow morning finds me on a train for Montreal, where I’ll be reading at Drawn & Quarterly tomorrow night.

Tuesday, I’ll be taking in Alexander MacLeod and Emma Donoghue at the Ottawa International Writers Festival.

Then it’s off to Kingston for a reading at the Novel Idea bookstore Wednesday night.

All this time on trains will finally give me a chance to get some reading done.

Categories: combat camera

A weekend off

October 24, 2010 Leave a comment

I am back in London for the weekend, following my appearance at the Ottawa International Writers Festival to promote Combat Camera, and am just now getting time to post. The dog has occupied much of my time. She has had several adventures with mud over the weekend, necessitating daily baths. She has, moreover, chewed up my iPod earbuds. But of canine misdeeds, I am endlessly forgiving.

The high point of the Ottawa festival, for me, was the opportunity to meet Joshua Ferris. I had little opportunity to chat with him, unfortunately, but he seemed to me a classy and gracious guy who takes a serious attitude towards writing. I was most impressed when he was approached, just before the show, by a fan who writes for the Carleton student paper. In response to his request for an interview, Ferris said he’d be happy to, if there was time. And although the event ran long and there was, in fact, no time, there was Ferris at the end, making time for the interview. Furthermore, he remembered the guy’s name. Classy.

Less so Ken Finkleman, whose asinine contribution to the evening I shall never forget. On getting up to read, third in line, he began by declaring that readings are futile, that writers are not performers, and that H. Nigel Thomas (who read first) was a case in point. He went on to declare that “this venue sucks,” to disparage literary events, the literary crowd, and fiction writers in general, and to interrupt others (and the moderator) during the panel discussion. Further notable contributions to the panel discussion included his question to Joshua Ferris: “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name?”

One audience member was moved to come up to H. Nigel Thomas at the signing table (at which Ken Finkleman did not deign to sit) and to say, “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.” And Ferris, back at the hotel, left the room when the topic came up, saying over his shoulder that he felt badly for the audience.

As for me, I am, as noted above, endlessly forgiving of canine misdeeds.

It can hardly escape the reader’s attention that Ken Finkleman is not a dog.

I can say only that given our relative ages, I am likely one day to have the pleasure of reading his obituary.

Categories: ken finkleman

You comma Idiot

October 21, 2010 Leave a comment

You comma Idiot, by Doug Harris. Goose Lane, 326 pp. ISBN 978-0-86492-630-2

You comma Idiot is, in short, the story of Lee Goodstone, small-time drug dealer and general layabout. One of his friends stands accused of murdering a 17-year-old girl, a rival is horning in on his drug business, and he has just inadvertently slept with his best friend’s girlfriend, by which I mean to say that, while he can’t claim the idea wasn’t entirely his, at least he wasn’t the instigator. Complications, understandably, ensue.

All this is given to us in the second person, a tricky gambit. Some reviewers have complained that the second-person litany of Lee Goodstone’s faults alienates the reader; no reader likes to be informed, page in and page out, that he is an idiot. But this misses the point. Second person narration does not, obviously, seek to tell us about ourselves; it’s a rhetorical device a narrator employs to persuade us to take a certain perspective on the viewpoint character. And this, in turn, may raise the question of just who is narrating, and why. It gets complicated.

You gotta be ambitious to try it, in other words. And to begin that attempt by calling out the best-known second-person narrative, that staple of creative writing texts, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City … well, you gotta have guts.

Both You comma Idiot and Bright Lights, Big City feature protagonists who dabble with drugs — and won’t leave home without their sunglasses. But Harris is the bizarro-McInerney. McInerney’s characters are glamorous, while Harris’s are losers. McInerney’s narrator loses his wife; Lee Goodstone takes up with a woman who has left her boyfriend. And in what is surely not a coincidence, McInerney begins his novel by telling us what kind of guy his protagonist is not, while Harris takes great pains to tell us what kind of guy Goodstone is. Those reviewers who complain that Harris alienates the reader are missing the point.

Jay McInerney opens by making excuses: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are….” McInerney’s narrator argues that his character is better than this, that he doesn’t belong here, that this is not really him. Harris does precisely the opposite. “You’re the kind of guy who falls in love after one date,” he declares. “You’re the kind of guy who rehearses a conversation fifty times in his head and then blows it when it’s for real. You’re the kind of guy who….” And so on, and so on, and so forth, and so on: Harris devotes his entire opening chapter to ensuring that we know precisely what kind of a guy Lee Goodstone is, and the portrait isn’t pretty.

If McInerney’s narrator argues for absolution, Harris’s portrays a toxic self-loathing. But despite the litany of condemnation, Goodstone soon emerges through his actions as no idiot at all, especially when compared with the company he keeps. He simply doesn’t have faith that he can be anything more than what he is.

And this is where the problem lies: the novel itself, in a sense, seems to lack the faith that it can be more than what it is. The characters don’t emerge as fully formed; Harris seems content to leave most of them flat. Goodstone is so averse to taking himself seriously, and so singularly lacking in ambition, that he rarely emerges as anything more than a comic figure. Harris is a more subtle writer than he seems to be, as when Goodstone watches a child, still out playing after all the others have been called it; we’re given to understand that he could be watching himself, that he must either eventually go in, or exist forever as a kind of Peter Pan of the streets. But Harris continually undermines these effects by playing for the quick laugh, a laugh that is, unfortunately, sometimes forced. You comma Idiot seems not to be able to decide whether to be a purely comic novel, and so falls short of its promise.