Thursday, January 31, 2008

Basket of Bread, Snow Drift

The show dates for Rob's History of Still Life Series have been confirmed. The show will open in Edmonton at the Douglas Udell Gallery on April 12, 2008 and at the Douglas Udell Gallery in Vancouver on April 19, 2008. The picture above is one of the pieces for the show - Homage to Dali. There will be a catalogue for the exhibition, as well. Rob has been wanting to photograph the paintings he's done so far, but since he does this outside to get the lighting he wants and it's been hovering around -30 C. for the last many days he's holding off.

The cold in Edmonton has been bone-crushingly brutal, but the snow has been beautiful. The wind made all these wonderful drifts and patterns in the field near our house. In the picture above the snow seems almost like a carved relief. If I squint at it long enough I begin to see a bird, a mythical creature, or a detail of an angel. And then the blue of the snow on a sunny day has to go down as one of those things I love. Which got me thinking about the Fanny Howe poem where she writes:

I won't be able to write from the grave
so let me tell you what I love:
oil, vinegar, salt, lettuce, brown bread, butter,
cheese and wine, a windy day, a fireplace,
the children nearby, poems and songs,
a friend sleeping in my bed -

and the short northern nights.

(Fanny Howe from her Selected Poems)

Friday, January 25, 2008

An Aesthetics of Water

A few days ago, in spite of my increasingly well-known habits as a recluse, apprentice hermit, I did get out on the town. I attended the Olive Reading of Brea Burton and Jill Hartman's co-written book, Booty, put out by the Mercury Press. Brea was in the first incarnation of my writing group and the one at which the most wine and chocolate was consumed. I wrote All the God-Sized Fruit at the time and it wouldn't have happened without that particular group. Well, the reading on Tuesday night was racy, saucy, stormy, and sexy, replete with sunken treasure, sunken pleasure and (to steal from Fred Wah's blurb) erotic gossip.

Here's a quick excerpt from Brea's half of the book which gives you a flavour of the brilliant language play. (If you want to see the racy bits you'll just have to buy the book, mateys).


aesthetics of water, alchemy of escape, elements of
a fairy tale, venus de milo conspiracy, a phantom
itch, a fear of touch, the option removed, fixed
in stone, a reverse medusa, she gazes him alive.

-by Brea Burton, from Booty

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sentences like Fruit Drops

I've long been fond of short books. Among my favourites: The Hour of the Star, and The Stream of Life by Clarice Lispector, The Rose Garden by Kristjana Gunnars, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart. In the non-fiction department there is And our faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger and Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. In her essay, "On Writing Short Books" (from Stranger at the Door), Kristjana Gunnars quotes Jorge Luis Borges as saying, "the habit of writing long books, of extending to five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly stated in a few months' time, is a laborious and exhausting extravagance."

Because I'm attempting to write a short book I'm drawn to reading them, of course. I like taking Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal off the shelf and just reading the first page for inspiration. It's 98 pages long, a book about books, the destruction of books. The narrator operates a compacting machine into which he feeds beautiful books. Let me quote the first page, though, and leave it at that:

"For thirty-five years now I've been in wastepaper, and it's my love story. For thirty-five years I've been compacting wastepaper and books, smearing myself with letters until I've come to look like my encyclopedias - and a good three tons of them I've compacted over the years. I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me. My education has been so unwitting I can't quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books, but that's how I've stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past thirty-five years. Because when I read, I don't really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol..."

Hrabal's sentences really are like fruit drops, yes? I particularly like this book because it fits into two of my favourite categories: books about books and short books.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

This and That

Maybe it's because most of the jobs I've had over the years have been in either a bookstore or a library - but I've always been interested in the ways that people find those books that stand out for them, that really resonate, and that they read and re-read. And I suppose now I'm wondering what role a blog might play in all this. I recently indulged in a trade paperback copy of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I first heard about this book on a blog: Bookslut. I was working at the public library at the time and I think was the first person to request this book. After reading it, I did what you do at the library - I talked it up, passed it along to friends and helped library patrons make their own requests for the book. Okay, I can't take credit for the fact that the book is now on all the bestseller lists, including being numero uno at the New York Times, but I've had a few people thank me for mentioning the book to them which is always excellent.

The best thing about owning my own copy is that I have now underlined my favourite parts and dogeared the heck out of it. I'm not going to talk much about it here, but urge you to read the Bookslut review that sparked my interest. I wanted to mention the title here because if you're like me, and you see that a book is on the bestseller lists and that everyone has it on their book club roster and that the chain bookstores have it piled up to the ceiling and you see people reading it at the bus stop and if even one person has ever talked about it as a potential bathtub book, that might be enough to dissuade you from ever considering to buy it.

While reading Eat, Pray, Love, the line by Virginia Woolf kept resounding in my head: "Now what food do we feed women as artists upon?" There is much sustenance in Gilbert's book, but here is a small sample: "The Bhagavad Gita - that ancient Indian Yogic text - says that it is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else's life with perfection. So now I have started living my own life. Imperfect and clumsy as it may look, it is resembling me now, thoroughly." I don't know about you, but I need to be reminded to do this from time to time - to live my own imperfect, clumsy life.

Okay. So that's my book pushing for the day. I'd also like to point out a conversation I had with Kimmy Beach on what it is to be an Alberta writer posted on rob mclennan's Alberta, Writing blog.

And, I wanted to share the website of a friend's new business that she's been receiving lots of press for out in Vancouver and that I think is a brilliant idea. It's called Child's Own - and she makes soft toys based on drawings from your child. Aren't they adorable?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Literarymadness and What I Did During the Holidays

The holidays this time out were extremely refreshing. A good mix of family, friends, and lounging about. We did miss seeing some of our out-of-town friends but with luck they'll come to Edmonton in summer when it's not necessary to wear extensive layers and when the Sorels can rest safely in the closet. (Not that I don't think my hounds tooth Sorels are quite the fashion statement - they certainly are). The dog had us out in the cold, every day, three times a day. The good news is that with regular exercise he refrained from eating the Christmas tree. One brilliant moment was out at Laurier Park with a friend and her dog - we came upon this tree near the river, lovingly decorated. You can't tell in the photo, but it was snowing those big, gorgeous, movie worthy, fluffy flakes. Truly exhilarating - a magical moment indeed. My best read of the season? Manhattan by Helene Cixous. Sometimes, it's just one sentence that you need to read to get you writing again, and I found mine here. "each time I've wanted to get back to writing and I've wanted to write at all costs I have left the book behind, I have even left my own life behind and entered a country I didn't want to be in," (The sentences are really more like poetry, they risk running on, ending on commas, forgetting punctuation in their speed and sustenance...). She says that her "Tale" "could be contained in two words: literary madness or more precisely bound in in a single one: literarymadness." I believe that the year 2008 will be the year of my proper literarymadness....

A couple of other books that wowed me over the season: Divisadero by Ondaatje. (I was worried - people I admire had been so lukewarm on it. But no - brilliant, I say. On the way to becoming my most dogeared and scrawled upon copy of an Ondaatje book yet). The other book is Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences by Philip Fisher. Mainly the book flies over my small brain, but the last chapter, a reading of Cy Twombly's painting, Il Parnasso, utterly blew me away.

In addition to reading, walking the dog, keeping the child amused, and sipping wine (not necessarily in that order), Rob did a fair bit of painting. He's continuing with his History of Still Life Series and worked on a really brilliant version of a Willem Kalf painting which I shall post soon, but for now thought I'd put up one of my favorites - this version of a Goya. In a book on the Spanish Still Life from Velazquez to Goya, it is noted that "Goya's still lifes represent a rupture with tradition as abrupt and shocking as that produced by any aspect of his work. They are at once beautiful and poignant objects; all but one depict dead animals. Not the courtly game of a hunter's trophy, nor the meat on a butcher's stall, nor the dead beasts traditionally symbolising life's brevity or Natures' bounty - but animals that have been slaughtered, from whom life has been violently torn, in whose images there is a depth of pathos as life-affirming as anything to be found in the greatest works of Velazquez or Zurbaran." The fact that we are so accustomed to images of blood and gore yet fairly removed from the slaughter of the animals many of us eat on a regular basis is a strange thing to contemplate in the context of this painting.

Perhaps due to the wine sipping sessions, I got the idea in my head to learn to embroider. My first effort is a pillowcase for Chloe. I learned the stitches as I went, which is fairly evident. I shan't quit my day job....but I have to say it is a great deal of fun. Completely takes you out of yourself.