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.

Reading – a year in review, 2013

2013 was a very good year for reading. I discovered new authors whose work I enjoyed: Elena Ferrante, Madeline Miller, and Carrie Snyder. I continued my affection for authors with whom I had already been acquainted: Elizabeth Hay, George Saunders, Penelope Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Lorrie Moore, Nicholson Baker, Tove Jansson, Richard Ford, and Lars Iyer. I started reading ebooks as a normal part of my reading habit. The book club whose meetings I attend continued to give satisfaction. I reread a few favourite novels, most notably the gorgeous Belknap Press edition of Austen’s Emma. And I discovered some new favourites. I also wrote short reviews of each book I read this past year and posted them on LibraryThing, a few of which I re-posted here on this blog. I’m already looking forward to another great year of reading ahead.

Stats from my 2013 reading list:

  • 22 were borrowed from our public library
  • 17 have Canadian authors
  • 24 were chosen due to personal recommendations from friends
  • 10 are by authors who appear more than once on the 2013 list
  • 4 were being reread
  • 3 were read aloud by my wife and me
  • 17 are non-fiction
  • 11 are ebooks

Books read in 2013 (83):

  • Ford, Richard. The Lay of the Land
  • Wood, James. The Fun Stuff
  • Coady, Lynn. The Antagonist
  • Scalzi, John. Redshirts
  • Young, Nora. The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering The World Around Us
  • Schultz, Emily. The Blondes
  • Annas, Julia. Intelligent Virtue
  • Anshaw, Carol. Carry the One
  • Saunders, George. Tenth of December
  • Barnes, Julian. Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story
  • Vila-Matas, Enrique. Never Any End to Paris
  • Robinson, Marilynne. When I Was a Child I Read Books
  • Handler, Daniel (author), Kalman, Maira (illustrator). Why We Broke Up
  • Fforde, Jasper. The Song of the Quarkbeast
  • Bradley, Alan. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  • Fitzgerald, Penelope. Offshore
  • Orr, David. Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry
  • Stein, Lorin (ed.) and Stein, Sadie (ed.). Object Lessons: The Paris Review presents the Art of the Short Story
  • Iyer, Lars. Exodus
  • LaPlante, Alice. The Making of a Story
  • Humphreys, Helen. The Reinvention of Love
  • Ford, Richard. Rock Springs
  • Fitzgerald, Penelope. The Bookshop
  • Chuilleanáin, Eiléan Ní. Selected Poems
  • Vila-Matas, Enrique. Dublinesque
  • Fenton, James. An Introduction to English Poetry
  • Miller, Madeline. The Song of Achilles
  • Hobsbaum, Philip. Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form
  • July, Miranda. It Chooses You
  • Fenton, James. The Strength of Poetry
  • Ferrante, Elena. My Brilliant Friend
  • Ford, Richard. Women with Men
  • Davis, Lydia. Varieties of Disturbance
  • Humphreys, Helen. The Lost Garden
  • Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse
  • Meyer Spacks, Patricia. On Rereading
  • Hay, Elizabeth. Alone in the Classroom
  • LaCava, Stephanie. An Extraordinary Theory of Objects
  • Attenberg, Jami. The Middlesteins
  • Gibbons, Stella. Cold Comfort Farm
  • Wodehouse, P.G. What Ho!: The Best of Wodehouse
  • Ford, Richard (ed.). Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work
  • Rourke, Lee. The Canal
  • Jansson, Tove. Travelling Light
  • Stein, Garth. The Art of Racing in the Rain
  • Pick, Alison. Question & Answer
  • Hay, Elizabeth. Small Change
  • Shields, David. How Literature Saved My Life
  • Atkinson, Kate. Life After Life
  • Ford, Richard. Canada
  • Wagamese, Richard. Ragged Company
  • Ferrante, Elena. The Days of Abandonment
  • al-Tahawy, Miral. Brooklyn Heights
  • Walter, Jess. We Live in Water
  • Moore, Lorrie. Birds of America
  • Saunders, George. The Brain-Dead Megaphone
  • Patchett, Ann. Taft
  • Murakami, Ryu. Coin Locker Babies
  • Kaufman, Andrew. Born Weird
  • Williams, John. Stoner
  • Hill, Miranda. Sleeping Funny
  • Hutchins, Scott. A Working Theory of Love
  • Haddon, Mark. The Red House
  • Schultz, Emily. Heaven Is Small
  • Tropper, Jonathan. The Book of Joe
  • Ferrante, Elena. The Story of a New Name
  • Baker, Nicholson. Traveling Sprinkler
  • Tóibín, Colm. Mothers and Sons
  • Franklin, Ariana. Mistress of the Art of Death
  • Sedaris, David. When You Are Engulfed In Flames
  • Hill, Miranda (compiler), Medley, Mark (compiler), and Wangersky, Russell (compiler). The Journey Prize Stories 25
  • Tropper, Jonathan. Everything Changes
  • Morley, Christopher. Parnassus on Wheels
  • Morley, Christopher. The Haunted Bookshop
  • Joyce, Rachel. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
  • Austen, Jane. Emma edited by Bharat Tandon
  • Hay, Elizabeth. Garbo Laughs
  • Fitzgerald, Penelope. Human Voices
  • Moore, Lorrie. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
  • Snyder, Carrie. The Juliet Stories
  • Homes, A.M. This Book Will Save Your Life
  • Fagan, Jenni. The Panopticon
  • Gartner, Zsuzsi. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives


eBook user experience

Ever since I got my Google Nexus 7, I have taken up reading eBooks. Having just completed my tenth eBook, I want to reflect, briefly, on the experience. These ten eBooks constitute 1/8th of the books that I’ve logged on LibraryThing as having been read by me this past year. That is not an insubstantial portion. It is safe to say that I have incorporated eBooks into my normal reading habits. Does the experience of reading an eBook measure up?

First, I should note that all of the eBooks I have read have been downloaded from our local public library. Public libraries in Canada appear to have settled upon the OverDrive Media Console as their default. Thus I have been using the OverDrive app on my Nexus to facilitate my reading. OverDrive functions principally as a broker of eBooks to libraries and other institutions. The eBooks themselves are generated by the publishing houses. As I understand it, the publishing house licenses its material to libraries (or whomever) via the OverDrive intermediary. So my experience of these eBooks is in part due to the product generated by the publishing house and in part due to the environment through which I engage with that product, i.e. the Overdrive app.

There are any number of issues that arise with the above distribution model. But there are other people better placed to canvas and comment upon these. For my part, the only thing that impacts my reading experience is the artificial throttle on digital goods expressed through the “one-copy/one-user” lending model. Typically, for the kinds of books I read, the library will purchase a single licence. When a library patron signs out the eBook, that book becomes unavailable to other users for the full period that it has been borrowed. Our library uses a two-week standard borrowing period. After two-weeks the eBook you have downloaded to your device becomes inaccessible to you and is later deleted. There is no way, currently, to return a downloaded eBook early. In the event of twenty-five library patrons desiring the same eBook for which there is only one licence, there could easily be a one year wait for the last person on the list. I confess that I do not see the logic in that with regard to digital goods. Surely it would be more sensible to simply allow all twenty five patrons to download the book at the same time and just count the instances of its use. But, as noted, there are others more familiar with the licensing models and the economics of eBooks who are better placed to comment on this. I’m only interested here in my user experience.

Of the ten eBooks that I have read, seven different publishing houses are represented. The books range from current literary fiction best-sellers to short story collections and even non-fiction. The authors and their publishing houses are all either Canadian, American, or British, and the original language of each of the books is English. I’ll consider this a limited cross-section.

The Good Stuff:

I like the control I have over the font size. Numerous inexpensive editions of literary classics are published with such tiny font sizes that reading them can be a strain. With an appropriate font size, I can read in bed without my glasses. Admittedly that makes it rather tempting to fall asleep, but then that’s what I would do with a print book as well.

I suppose the next point goes along with the previous, both being aspects of the app through which I am engaging with these eBooks. I like the uniformity of the textual experience. On another day, maybe I wouldn’t count this as a separate point. But today it seems noteworthy.

I like the fact that these books do not occupy space on my bookshelves. Of course no library book is going to end up on my bookshelf permanently. So this isn’t unique to eBooks. But since the majority of what I read is dross (and this may hold true for other people as well), I like that I don’t even have the temptation to fill my shelves with such books. There is a downside to this as well. At least two of these ten eBooks are books that I would very gladly have on my bookshelf for a long, long time. That has something to do with the way I think about my bookshelves, I suppose. Or my vanity. And although it isn’t properly part of my user experience with eBooks, it does make me wonder whether, after having read such an eBook, I would be tempted to purchase a print edition. I don’t have an answer to that question yet.

The Not-so-Good Stuff:

What I like least about eBooks is the poor production value. At times it felt like I was reading a “pre-print” version of the text: typos, elided words, failure to correctly display accents. In some instances, chapters were not separated from each other. In others, blank pages appeared between some chapters. Just plain shoddy workmanship. I confess that I regularly thought to myself, “I’m glad I’m didn’t pay for this.” (But of course I did pay for it one way or another since the public library is supported by my taxes.) And that must be a huge stumbling block for the growth of eBooks, if my experience is even remotely typical. I certainly am not motivated to spend anything like the amount that retailers are demanding for eBooks. Not until I have some reason to think that I would be getting value for money.

Consider a contrasting eReading experience. I have a subscription to the electronic version of The New Yorker magazine. I access and read this magazine on my Nexus 7, just as I do with eBooks. But my experience of The New Yorker is fabulous: the text is clear and flexible, the photos are brilliant, the enhanced multi-media content is always appropriate and welcome, and the content is suitably proofed such that I’ve yet to come across simple errors. Why is my experience of this eMagazine so much better than my experience with any of the eBooks I have read?

I can only speculate here. My guess is that future magazine sales are more directly impacted by the user experience. Provide a poor user experience and your reader will simply not purchase your next issue. Worse, you might be losing that golden chalice of a subscription. So, I think, magazine publishers must be incredibly focused on creating a positive user experience. By contrast, I suspect, book publishers are not really worried about the user’s next purchase. It is the current sale that matters to them, and you’ve already bought the goods, so to speak. Your next eBook purchase might come from any publishing house and is more likely to be due to that book’s reviews and marketing than any previous user experience you’ve have with eBooks. So naturally eBook publishers are not motivated to take poor user experiences to heart.

I suppose that’s pretty thin in the way of explanation, so perhaps I’ll leave further speculation to others.

My experience with eBooks has not turned me off them. I will continue to read eBooks. I will continue to download them from our public library. But I can’t see myself purchasing any eBooks from retailers any time soon. Meanwhile, another issue of The New Yorker has just showed up on my device, so at least I have something to look forward to.

On rereading Jane Austen’s Emma

Few novels return as much pleasure on rereading, for me, as Jane Austen’s Emma. I read it first more than twenty years ago. At the time, I was reading through Austen’s oeuvre quickly and systematically. I read the Austen novels in order of publication. Emma was the last of her novels published in her own lifetime. She had already had some success with Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. But with Emma, I think, Austen pens her first fully mature novel. It seemed to me, even on that first reading, to be the one novel in which she is in total command of her craft, thoroughly realizing a vision of . . . of what? Of love, certainly. Of honour and propriety and family and class and taste, both poor and perfectible, and marriage and, well, life. It is also, as all great literary exemplars are, transformative; it reshapes the novel form itself. Austen reworks here what a novel is and can be. Such novels demand to be read and reread and then reread again.

I was fortunate on this rereading to have at hand the wonderful new annotated edition from The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Edited by Bharat Tandon, this is a beautiful large format hardcover book. The oversize page width allows for the annotations to appear alongside the principal text. There are relevant drawings and reproductions of paintings and even stills from filmic adaptations. But the text is never burdened at any point. The annotations tend to be clarificatory or informational, but sometimes also helpfully interpretative, especially where critical opinions diverge on the importance of key scenes.

Bharat Tandons’ introduction is worthy of special note. It is accessible yet erudite. It points up some of the key tools Austen deploys in writing Emma, such as her liberal use of free indirect style. And it is rightly conscious of the fact that no one would purchase such a heavy, large and somewhat expensive edition unless they were coming back to Emma, coming back with love. This is an edition of Emma almost designed, as it were, for rereaders.

One of the special treats in returning to Emma with such a fine edition is that the reader has the perfect excuse to slow down his reading. There is no need to race along with the plot from one misguided intervention in the lives of others to the next. The reader can take his time. Time to savour Austen’s very precise observations. Time to revel in her withering, warts and all, presentation of grasping tastelessness (e.g. Mrs. Elton) and her superficially similar but in fact very different presentation of kind-hearted senselessness (e.g. Miss Bates). There is plenty of scope here also to take note of how intricately Austen has structured her plot. It is impossible not to imagine her, pen in hand, being delighted with the nuances she has placed on Emma’s self-deceptive insights, knowing full well that all will be revealed in the third volume. It is a delight that transfers naturally to the rereader.

I often claim Emma as my favourite novel. But that is a mere expression of subjective preference. Is it also a good novel?

I have, at times, declared Emma to be a perfect novel. By that, I mean simply that it fully realizes its own (re)vision of what a novel is. It’s in this sense that the novel is transformative. And naturally it admits that there are an indefinite number of perfect novels. As new authors take up the novel form and make it their own, different exemplars of perfection arise. (It’s not surprising that an author would only ever write one perfect novel in her lifetime.) But is a perfect novel also a good novel?

No, not necessarily. A good novel tends to be one in which the reader develops an emotional connection with the characters or events such that the insights and subtle reflections conveyed by the novel (either overtly or tacitly) enter into an ongoing dialogue with the reader. This dialogue is ongoing and open. In effect, the reader learns something, so to speak, through reading a good novel. (The ‘so to speak’ is not perfunctory; readers tend to learn less in this sense from didactic novels.) A sign (but not a foolproof sign) that readers have entered into such a positive relationship with a novel is their willingness to reread the novel again and again (or at least to reflect upon it often). On this ground, I feel confident in identifying Emma as a good novel.

One of the things that this rereading of Emma spurred me to think about is the clear-eyed blindness of love. Love in many forms is on display throughout the novel. It begins with the happy union of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston. It ends with, “the perfect happiness of the union,” of Emma and Mr. Knightley. Between these points lie yearning, infatuation, admiration, obsession, and more. Harriet Smith is often the vehicle through which love takes its turns. But her love cannot be trusted, blinded as she is by misapprehension and false hope.

By contrast, Mr. Knightley’s love of Emma is clear-eyed. He can see her faults and willingly points them out. And yet despite these faults, he comes to find her faultless. He declares her, “faultless in spite of all her faults.”

That’s a curious state. And I don’t have any glib response to it. But it sounds like something I ought to hold on to and think about further.

In fact, it rather captures how I feel about the novel itself. There are many aspects of Emma that some readers dislike — the capricious and self-involved title character, the meddling in Harriet Smith’s life, the focus on one class in society, the lack of historical sweep (perhaps denoting a preference for a later transformer of the novel such as Tolstoi), or the distrust of unions of ‘so-called’ perfect happiness. To all of which, I can only nod and reply that I stand with Mr. Knightley: I think Emma is, “faultless in spite of all her faults.”

Which, I suppose, is love.