Essential reading – Alistair MacLeod

Of late, I’ve been reading the works of Alistair MacLeod. It is not a vast oeuvre. It consists of two collections of short stories and a novel. The short story collections have helpfully been brought together into a single volume, Island. The novel, No Great Mischief, won the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. But it is in the short stories published between 1968 and 1999 that MacLeod’s reputation is rooted. And it is there that I would encourage anyone interested in this essential writer to begin their journey.

The reason I started reading MacLeod recently is that my wife and I are in the midst of planning a trip to Nova Scotia. I’ve never been. Admittedly it is a long way from southern Ontario.  It is also a long way from the UK, where we spent a sizeable portion of our lives. So my knowledge of the land and life and people of Nova Scotia is sketchy at best. And while guide books and maps are of great use in planning the details of travel, they don’t often offer up that spark that lights your imagination and breathes life and meaning into your future experiences. Walk down almost any street in Oxford, or London, or Paris and you will have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of associations readily crowding your palette. At times it can be overwhelming, especially if you only have time for a short visit. But without at least some of that, it’s hard to know what experiences you would have at all. They might be no more meaningful than the digital images recorded on your phone and later deleted to make space for that new app you’ve just got to have. For me, the best way to pre-seed my experience of somewhere new is to delve into its literature. Fortunately, my wife is, as usual, a bit ahead of me in these matters. So, after some initial research and settling upon Alistair MacLeod as one of the essential writers I would need to read in order to gain an insight into life on Cape Breton Island, I was able to simply turn to our bookshelves and discover that we already owned copies of MacLeod’s collected short stories and his novel. I was ready to begin.


I suggest that if you are starting out on such a journey you should begin at the beginning with the short stories. I didn’t do that but I wish I had. One of the benefits of Island is that the short stories are presented in the order in which they were originally published, with the dates of publication indicated. Read that first story, “The Boat”, which was published in 1968 when Alistair MacLeod was 32. Incredible. Everything (or almost everything) is there. The rocky shore, identity through labour, generations, fathers and sons (and grandfathers), the sense in which the Scottish Highlands of the 18th century are barely a breath away from the real lives of these men and women on Canada’s eastern shore in the 20th century. The Gaelic. The lived, almost genetic, history of a people. The way the narrator stands at one remove from his tale, which in all other respects is straightforward, linear, and song-like. And also the constituent tragedy — tragedy as environment, as something that must be lived through and dealt with but which has no external cause. Not tragedy as punishment, just tragedy as a normal part of life. Perhaps it is little wonder that with such a rich seam, MacLeod is able to spend the rest of his writing life mining it.

Whether the story involves fishermen or miners or loggers or farmers or lighthouse keepers, there is an intimate relationship between a man’s work and who he is in MacLeod’s writing. Is there also an ambivalence there about whether the writing life shares this density? Certainly some of these stories feel like they were hewn out of rock, as though MacLeod has done all of the heavy lifting and left us only the pure metal. For the most part, however, writing as labour remains obscured here with the focus firmly fixed on the people whose stories are being told rather than the teller. It isn’t until the stories in the 1980s that MacLeod’s narrative approach begins to become more complex. However this increasing complexity does not move him away from his principal subjects. The same can be said of his novel, No Great Mischief, which shares this narrative sophistication. A related observation might be that the earliest stories have a narrative directness to them, almost like an oral tale. And it is this directness that pushes to the surface even in his more complex stories. Linear narrative set within a complex narrative form has a tendency to read as fate, the inevitability of action and person that brings symbolic meaning to resolution. Thus the writing becomes increasingly archetypal, even a bit heavy, especially in the novel.


It is hard to say whether there is something insular about MacLeod’s writing. At times it feels like writing from an earlier generation. With the prevalence of the physical environment and the close ties between man and beast, especially dogs, you might think it is quintessentially Canadian, with perhaps a hint of Jack London. But this is also a writer who was fully embedded in the professional life of writing in the latter third of the 20th century, both as an English professor and a teacher of creative writing. Yet it is as though other writers of his time, especially progressive writers, had no influence on him at all. Or perhaps that is what ought to be expected if his aesthetic choices were fixed well before he began publishing stories. In any case, his resolute focus upon a specific locale and relatively small range of themes (if birth, death, and marriage count as a small range) comes across as a conscious choice. One which needs to be considered, though I’ll leave that for others to consider more fully.

I’m glad I read these works of Alistair MacLeod. I feel as though I have gained a small sense of the possible lives of those of Scottish descent on Cape Breton. I recommend them heartily.

Of course, the Scots are relative latecomers to life in Nova Scotia, though you might not pick that up from MacLeod’s writing. So naturally I’ve been reading some of the Acadian writers as well. But that, as they say, is a very different story.

Poetry as a book club selection?

The book club that I have been frequenting for the past four years managed a first this month. It has always been wonderfully eclectic in its selections: literary fiction, historical fiction, noir fiction, memoir, creative non-fiction, graphic novels (both memoir and fiction), even YA fiction. With such a range, you can’t help but get stretched out of your comfort zone. That’s one of the reasons I really like attending. That and the lively discussions that we partake of for an hour or more once a month. The book club is organised and led by Mandy Brouse of Words Worth Books. And although my experience is limited (this is the only book club I’ve ever participated in), I think we moved this month into less travelled territory for a generalist book club. Our selection was Michael Crummey’s recent collection of poems, Under the Keel.


We were a bit uncertain — all of us — as to how this would work. As we arrived at the bookstore (our sessions are held in the bookstore in the evening) almost everyone looked around at the others and said, “I didn’t think anyone else would show up tonight.” Surprise! We actually had a solid cohort of regulars in attendance. The challenge, I think, was not the poetry itself. The challenge was what to say about it and how.

We are all wide-ranging readers and poetry certainly falls into the mix for most of us, though perhaps not as a steady diet. Michael Crummey’s poetry is both lyrical and accessible. He writes of his experiences growing up in Newfoundland and Labrador. He writes of love and the death of his father, sometimes bringing these subjects together in startling and moving ways. He explores the imagined lives of other, older Newfoundlanders. His diction is not typically elevated. His verse tends toward the free, but almost as often swings back to the song-like rhythms of his Irish ancestors. His observations are earthy and not metaphysical. His turns of phrase are worthy of pause but not typically mere displays of showmanship. In short, his poems can be read and appreciated by anyone. But that didn’t stop us wondering how we would manage to discuss the book.

Our book club discussions typically begin with each of us in turn saying our names (especially useful for newcomers) and very briefly summing up our impression, good or bad, of the book in question. Thereafter we begin delving into specific aspects of the book, e.g. characters, situations, writing style, things we loved, things we hated, and so forth. Our conversations can and do go almost anywhere. Of course it is easy to give a simple thumbs up for Under the Keel, but how would we press on from there?

As with many poetry collections, Under the Keel is not perhaps best thought of as a single work. Crummey divides the book into five sections, the poems of which loosely cohere. For example, the first section, entitled “Through A Glass Darkly”, has poems concentrating on his early adolescent sexuality, the pressing world-encompassing fascination of the 14-year-old boy. The fourth section, entitled “Under Silk”, has poems about, for, and to his wife, Holly. These are love poems of various sorts, but a mature love tempered by knowledge of life’s finitude. How would we go about discussing Under the Keel as a whole?

Here, Mandy stepped up and led us in a new direction. Instead of discussing the book as a whole, she suggested that we each pick a poem we either especially liked or didn’t like and read it aloud to the group. Then we could discuss that particular poem. There followed a moment of silence . . . and then we plunged in. Although none of us were practised public readers of poems (which is no small talent!), we each of us took up the challenge. And I have to say that the results were excellent.

The first poem selected and read is perhaps the most moving one in the whole collection, “Something New” which is part of a short set entitled, “Hope Chest”. Ostensibly it is a love poem, a declaration of fidelity and commitment. But it begins with a lengthy description of Crummey’s father dying of cancer and the loving care patiently provided by his wife, Crummey’s mother, during those long last days. The juxtaposition of images is striking and memorable. Other poems that we gamely read included, “Boys,” “Stars on the Water,” “A Carry-On,” and “Pub Crawl in Dublin”. And for each we had a fine discussion.

I’m sure other book clubs must include poetry books on a regular basis. This was a first for us, but I suspect it won’t be a last.

Chromecast: the very thing


So many things in life are less than they claim, or that you hope they’ll be, or that you imagined they might be. Google Chromecast, which is now available in Canada, is exactly what you imagine it will be, exactly what you hope it will be, and exactly what it claims to be. It is the very thing.

The future was always meant to be like this. In it, I saw myself drawing down content from somewhere on the Internet and then sending that content to various devices in my home. I’m sure I must have seen George Jetson do that in a cartoon when I was a child. Now I’m doing it too.

The Google Chromecast device is modestly priced. It is about the size of the remote key for your car. It plugs into an HDMI slot on your television. A usb power cord plugs into the Chromecast. The device begins sorting itself out almost immediately. In advance I had installed the Chromecast app on my Nexus 7. Once I activated that app it immediately searched for nearby Chromecast devices. Once the association was made and I had given my renamed Chromecast device access to my home network, it upgraded its software and then a minute or so later it was ready to go.

Go where?

My first port of call was the YouTube app on my Nexus 7. Since YouTube is owned by Google, it is not surprising that it is one of the first Chromecasting enabled apps. I found a video on YouTube to use as my first test. It was one of a friend of mine’s young son playing his guitar. I tapped the “cast” icon which connects the app with the Chromecast device. And there he was, my friend’s young son, large as life on our, admittedly somewhat large, television screen.

I believe, “Too cool,” is the appropriate expression here.

Next up was a short animated film from Google Play. This Pixar animated drama happened to be pre-installed on my Nexus 7 when I bought it. I’ve never purchased or rented any other films from Google Play because, frankly, although the Nexus 7 screen is a marvel, I rather prefer my films to be a bit larger. (It’s okay with me that the kids these days seem to love watching movies on their phones, but it just doesn’t work for me.) Once again the “casting” of the media to my television was a breeze. And the picture quality was, as to be expected, amazing.

I don’t have NetFlix. The main reason I don’t is because neither our television nor our Blu-Ray player gives us straightforward access to the Internet. However, it did not escape my notice that NetFlix is also a Chromecast enabled app. I suspect a lengthy discussion in our house now as to whether or not we should make the leap to NetFlix.

The final step in my Google Chromecast testing was via a desktop computer. In this instance the computer in use was an iMac. The browser I was using was Google Chrome. And yes (you’ll have guessed this), the Google Chrome browser is already Chromecast enabled. Once I clicked on the connection icon I was offered the option of casting any tab from the browser onto the television screen. I think I already mentioned the future and what it looks like. Well my future always looked like this.

Of course the possibility of casting a web page onto a 48-inch high definition television raises a few challenges. For example, I like to watch Hockey Night in Canada, which is streamed live on Saturday nights on the CBC website. I’m looking forward to casting that onto our television this weekend. But already I know that it is highly unlike that the CBC is streaming its broadcast in HD. And that means the picture might look a bit fuzzy on the big screen. Will content providers need to up the ante on such live streamed events? I think so. And this got me thinking of web designers more generally. For the past few years we’ve been perfecting sites that look great on both a desktop computer but also on a tablet or even a phone. Will the advent of casting to much larger screens require a substantial rethink in website design? Almost certainly.

No matter. We’ll deal with it.

After all, now that the future is here we’ve just got to live with it.

Elizabeth Hay: Sounds and Voices


Last night I was privileged to be in the audience as Elizabeth Hay gave a talk entitled  “Sounds and Voices”. Ostensibly she was reading from and talking about her novel, Late Nights On Air, which is set in Yellowknife in the mid ‘70s, a time when Hay herself was living in Yellowknife and losing and finding herself in her first job with the CBC as a late night radio personality. Thirty years later she sat down to write a novel about shyness (she was painfully shy herself) and how it is overcome and how one’s place, alone in a tiny radio booth or alone out on the seemingly endless and empty tundra, can bring a shy person out of themselves. I’ve been lucky enough to see Hay in front of an eager audience of writers and readers twice previous and on those and this occasion she was riveting. She speaks in soft, measured tones, thoughtful and sincere and undoubtedly wise. Whether she is reflecting on her writing process, reading an excerpt from one of her novels, or responding to a question from the audience, she seems to be entirely present, gifting us with her full attention and concern. It would be hard, I think, not to come away with increased admiration for her, and that has been my experience every time.

Through anecdote and excerpt, Hay traced her early inspiration and motivation for writing the novel. She gave an amusing account of the transformation of the title, which did not settle upon its final version until the weeks leading up to publication. “Titles,” she said, “always seem inevitable once they’ve been settled upon a work and it has been read by many people. But it isn’t the case.” Hay is gently self-deprecating but evidently filled with the strength of spirit necessary to persevere, a talent she believes all writers need. In the end, she noted echoing Graham Greene, it’s all a question of the work, doing the work, and continuing to do the work.

I remember reading Late Nights On Air five years ago, the first of Hay’s works that I had encountered, and being immediately taken with it. It carried such a clarity of vision, both emotional and scenic, but it was the narrative voice that ultimately secured my allegiance. Not surprisingly the novel opens with a man hearing a disembodied voice on the radio late one night and falling in love. There is an intimacy, a narrative closeness, that sometimes takes hold in Hay’s writing. I’m thinking here especially of Garbo Laughs, but it can also be seen in Alone in the Classroom and Small Change. It isn’t something that I encounter in many writers and I wish could have had the courage to ask her about it during the question period or during the reception that followed the event. Unfortunately it isn’t something that I’ve been able to fully articulate myself yet, and one does not wish to appear tongue-tied in front of one’s heros.

I’m always fascinated by the writerly process. Hay says that she is as well and thus does not turn aside such questions. She says she needs a quiet room, a room she loves to go to. She rises and writes early in the morning preferring no encounters until after noon. She will usually begin by reading some poetry, perhaps something of Margaret Avison or Louis Glück, although she has recently been giving Wallace Stevens another try and finds she is getting something out of him this time. (Is it her love of poetry that explains the sometimes exquisite closeness of her narrative voice?) She’ll reread what she had written the day before making numerous changes and then set forth the continuance. She writes in longhand sitting in a large rocking chair with a plywood plank laid across the arms as her writing surface. If it was good enough for Virginia Woolf, she notes, it should be good enough for her. Later she will type what she has written into the computer and print it up for further editing.

Influences are often on an audience’s mind, perhaps naturally since clearly all of us have gladly been influenced by Elizabeth Hay’s writing. A further question on novelists she reads and admires led her to finish by enthusing about Penelope Fitzgerald, a writer whose work is so deceptively light, so perfectly paced and gently feathered that it is probably perfect. I couldn’t agree more.

Already I’m looking forward to Elizabeth Hay’s next novel which we were told would be out next spring. She wouldn’t tell us what it was about because there is still a great deal of work to be done on it, especially the ever difficult for her ending. And of course she couldn’t tell us the title because, well, that is no doubt subject to change.

Bark: Stories by Lorrie Moore


There are reasons to feel lucky to be alive. One of them is that Lorrie Moore is writing short stories. Amongst the eight stories collected here are enough masterpieces to make you believe all over again that Moore may be the reason that the short story was invented. And the others — well, I don’t know. It’s very possible that in a year I might come round to thinking those other stories are the real masterpieces. I’ll admit that Moore is often ahead of the curve.

Some stories here have all the elements of classic Lorrie Moore. The long opening story, “Debarking”, is one of those. It is full of quirky observations, puns and half-puns and other word-play, excruciatingly poignant moments, and, well, exuberance, I guess. Even in the midst of what is really a sad or pathetic situation, there is exuberance. “Paper Losses” is another in this classic Lorrie Moore manner. Nearly priceless. Other stories, such as “Referential” show Moore in narrative dialogue with her peers, in this case Nabokov. In some stories, Moore seems frustrated, even angry, with the politics of America. There is a level of incredulousness that begins to creep in perhaps in stories such as “Foes” or “Subject to Search”. And there are yet other stories that don’t have any easy category. A story like “Wings” seems serious and anxious and possibly almost painful. It’s one of those ones that maybe, after a bit more thought, I’ll decide is actually a masterpiece. Moore’s writing is like that — it prompts more thought.

Warmly recommended.