Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Today is the 150th anniversary of one of the most spoken about speeches in recent history that starts Four score and seven years ago, the Gettysburg Address. In tribute I re-post this 'love' poem which, for some strange reason makes reference to it.


I wonder if her eyes are brown
or blue (green is rare)
and if her hair is blond
and flowing or dark and curly
(poems by poets with shortcropped
hair generally don't appeal to me),
and if she writes sitting
at the kitchen table longhand
on coffee-stained sheets of foolscap
that scatter to the floor,
or by the window
in lined hardcover volumes
she numbers and places on the shelf
in her 'office'
when she's finished
(it matters)
and whether her room
is in a tiny apartment
in a crowded city
or a cottage in the country
(perhaps something grand and colonial
with a wrap-around porch),
I also picture her
not flat-chested
and imagine that sometimes,
when she is not getting it quite right
she touches herself
for reassurance
until the word comes:
Arriving at the end
of her poem
(like some great battle that has been won
or lost, I'm not sure which)
I think of Abe Lincoln
standing in front of 15,000
at a national cemetery in Gettysburg PA
orating those famous 272 words
and question
how anyone heard him
without a mic.

Monday, November 4, 2013


A very good session at the 3rd annual LE MOOD day of learning this past Sunday. What a super cool, happening event. Hundreds of (mostly young) people attending dozens of informative and enlightening sessions.  I even passed renowned environmentalist and broadcaster David Suzuki in the jam-packed hallway after our conference. My thanks to Zev Moses and the other organizers for doing a great job drumming up interest for "Whatever Happened to the Shmata Business." Congratulations to the other participants, Arleen Solomon Rotchin, Irwin Tauben and Jonathan Reisler (aka Stick) who passionately described the finer points of shmatology to a standing-room only audience. I've been asked to reproduce my brief opening remarks, so here they are: 

I do not believe it is hyperbole to state that manufacturing clothing was the single most important industry to the Jewish community of Montreal in the twentieth century. Yes, it is true that Jewish people have been active in a variety businesses including scrap metal, real estate, retail, and dry goods to name only a few. But no other industry employed a larger number of people, generated more wealth and afforded more opportunity, particularly to the Jews emigrating from Eastern Europe in the two great waves of immigration at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, and the next wave after the Holocaust in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was also critical for the third wave of immigration from North Africa in the 1960s and early 1970s.
When I’ve spoken to Jewish audiences in the past I sometimes ask a show of hands on the question how many people in the room have had immediate relatives ie. parents or grandparents, who worked in the garment industry. Invariably it is almost unanimous: No matter who we are today, what businesses or professions this generation we works in, the origins can be traced back to shmatas. The doctors, lawyers, accountants, MBAs, financial analysts, university professors, school teachers, architects, engineers and software developers of today are the progeny of cutters, sewers, shippers, patternmakers, designers, fabric salesmen, knitters and manufacturers. We often talk about the importance of the Bronfman family to the establishment of the institutional Montreal Jewish community. But I think it is more accurate to say that, at street level, the Montreal Jewish community was built on rags.
In the area where I work along Chabanel and the surrounding streets, giant buildings were built during the industry’s heyday in the 60s, 70s and 80s, almost 7 million square feet in all. There were between 50 and 100,000 employees working in almost 1000 garment companies in these buildings. Chabanel was reportedly the second most important generator of wealth on the island of Montreal on a per square foot basis after downtown.
            So, if for more than a century there is no other industry more important to the creation of the Montreal Jewish community; if a portrait of our community, our history, our character, our mentality, our families, our culture and way of thinking, is impossible without an understanding of the shmata industry, why have there not been more books written about it? More films made? More exhibitions? More academic study?
Shmatas, or rather the people who built the industry, have been given short shrift.
When Mordecai Richler started writing about life in the 1940s on the Main, Jews were initially either doubtful or incensed at his portrayal. Richler’s portrait, as truthful as it might have been, was considered unflattering and many Jews didn't like it being publicized. There was a sense of embarrassment and shame.
Have shmatas been given short shrift for a similar reason?
I remember as a child in the early seventies driving with my dad to his office at 9320 Saint-Laurent corner Chabanel on Saturday mornings. Those giant white brick structures loomed above the street filling me with a combination of awe, fear and loathing all at the same time. I won’t end up here, I told myself. I’m going to be better than this, better than a dress manufacturer. Is this sense of shame our dirty little secret? Why we don’t talk about the shmatta business? There is no Nobel prize given out for dress manufacturing. 
I wonder if a sense of wanting to redress an injustice is the reason why people like me and Johnny and Arleen are writing about what we experience in an industry that is so important to all of us. One thing is for sure, it's necessary.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Whatever Happened to the Shmata Business?

The Montreal shmata business will be the topic of discussion featuring an illustrious panel of shmatta mavens and yours truly at the upcoming Le Mood conference. Check out the details at the Facebook page, like us and join us. 

Presented by The Interactive Museum of Jewish Montreal "What Happened to the Shmata Business" takes place at Le Mood Festival, Sun. Nov. 3rd, 2pm, Room 9 at Le Mood. www.lemood.ca 

The garment trade or "Shmata Business" has defined Montreal's Jewish community for over a century. Nearly every Jewish Montrealer knows someone who works or worked in the industry. But over the past 15 years the Shmata business has undergone a major transformation, as retail giants have changed the way "shmatologists" do business. We'll talk...to a panel of Jews in this business who have witnessed these changes first-hand and either left the field or reinvented it. And we'll find out how this effects the Jewish community's identity. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Rent Collector Ebook, finally

Eight years since its original publication, my debut novel The Rent Collector is finally available from Amazon as an ebook for Kindle. It is also available for purchase in epub format for your Kobo by clicking on the Paypal account on this website where it says "Buy Now".   

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short StoriesGoodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories by Philip Roth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I made it a bit of a project this summer to read a bunch of Philip Roth books. I started with his latest (and final?) novels Nemesis and Indignation and finished by re-reading his first book Goodbye, Columbus. In the back of my mind I was expecting the recent work to display a seasoned mastery and the early work to pale in comparison. What happened was the absolute contrary. The stories in Goodbye Columbus are loose, ingenious, lively, crafty, profound, surprising and generally thrilling in a way the later books aren't. The late Roth is tempered, measured, nostalgic, reserved, pessimistic and plodding in comparison. The titular novella was not my favourite in Goodbye, Columbus. The much anthologized story "Defender of the Faith" and in particular, "The Conversion of the Jews," are as fine as any stories I've ever read, amazingly self-assured for a debut. I've read about a dozen of Roth's novels spanning his career and can not think of any of his fiction I've enjoyed more, even the second time around.

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Monday, August 5, 2013

NemesisNemesis by Philip Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. The summer of 1944 Newark, New Jersey, that is. That's kind of how I felt about this novel, sort of ambivalent. There is an ennervating nostalgic 'sheen' that coats the polite (almost antiseptic) prose of the narrative - I guess symptomatic of writing in the mode of a reminiscence - in spite of the creeping horror called polio that is terrorizing the children of the community. The character of Bucky is so unfalteringly the schoolyard hero, so without edge as to verge on bland. This despite being raised by his grandparents because his mother died in childbrth and his estranged father is an ex-con. He is apparently utterly without bitterness or anger because his grandfather taught him how to be tough. Bucky does all the right things, defends and cares deeply for the fitness and well-being of his kids as their playground director, and offers his condolences to the families of the ones who suddenly succumb to the childhood scourge. The first real sign of conflict comes when about half way through the novel Bucky, or Mr. Cantor as he is referred to for most of the novel, makes the fateful and 'unheroic' decision to abandon his anxiety-ridden kids and fearful community (not to mention his aging grandma) to escape the ravaged city for Camp Indian Hill in the idyllic Poconos to join his fiancee the unblemished Marcia Steinberg, where they canoe out to an island for lovemaking trysts surrounded by white birches. The decision to leave Newark happens in a flash, engendering some inner conflict but not very much, when it becomes clear to Bucky that life as a member of the upstanding and intact Steinberg family (the very model of an Ozzie and Harriet assemblage) offers escape from his own disjointed roots (of course, he doesn't think of it that way). He does hesitate once in camp for abandoning grandma and the kids - everything just seems way too perfect in the mountains - but I expected much more gutwrenching guilt. The reader knows this can't end well, and thus two things happen at this point in the story; it becomes apparent that this is all a set-up (which is the way it feels from page 1) and, the disastrous ending has been precisely telegraphed. It's all very tidy and we rush to see how Bucky is going to deal with the inevitable. Only in the last few pages, in the present, does the writing start to sing with the depth of Bucky's inner turmoil. But when he starts arguing about theological matters it feels forced, sounding more like Roth than his protagonist. Bucky simply doesn't seem like the type to go there. Still, his anger with himself at the end comes as a refreshing show of genuine emotion.

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The RavineThe Ravine by Paul Quarrington
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel kept me at a distance most of the time. Partly, this was due to the nature of the protagonist, a guy who is essentially in denial (or as he puts it The Twilight Zone) about a traumatic incident that has supposedly altered the path of his life culminating in screwing up every decent and worthwhile relationship he's ever had (wife, brother, friend). Phil is a hard guy to like and the only thing that keeps his voice from sounding self-pitying is its comic edginess, which kept me engaged. The other aspect of the narrative that distances the reader is the novel within a novel gimic. Phil is a bullshit-artist of the highest order, believing his own lies (part of living in denial), and partly why he ends up writing for teevee, the flakiest and most commercial medium of all. So now he has taken to writing the novel - for reasons he can not quite understand himself - that the characters of the novel are reading and reacting to. This is either Phil's therapeutic act of re-constituting memory and coming to terms, or just another attempt at rationalization and denial, we're never quite sure which. The novel playfully ties together a variety of narrative motifs and allusions, factoring in a Twilight Zone Episode, with a play that Phil has written for his ex-wife Veronica, and an episode of the TV show he writes, as well as the fateful childhood event he is trying (or not) to remember. Finally, it's enjoyable to watch Quarrington/Phil, the author qua author, pull the ends together into a tight but forgiving slipknot.

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Disgrace of the Jew in JM Coetzee's novel

Since finishing Disgrace by JM Coetzee something has been nagging at me: The sense that there were an abundance of Jewish characters and references, that may have explicit and implicit meanings. Coetzee loves to write in multiple layers. My favourite of his recent novels, Diary of a Bad Year, set in a three-story building and offering three interconnected narratives, demonstrates this not only in meaning but structurally as well; each story is separated and alternating on the page. That the protagonist of Disgrace may be Jewish is never mentioned, but his name, David Lurie, suggests it, just as it suggests his "lurid" behaviour. As the spiritual/quasi-religious layers of the story began to reveal themselves I started thinking less of Lurie as a 'fallen angel' or a lucifer-type character whose arrival spells disaster for his daughter once he has been cast out of the rarified ivory-tower 'heaven' of academia. Instead, I thought of him as the marginalized disgraced Jew of history, cast out from the center of social acceptability like his daughter's farmer neighbour Ettinger (another Jewish name) whom she relies on for support and protection. And the reference to rabbi Isaac Luria, the famed Cabbalist, became apparent, especially when joined with the name of his student paramour Melanie Isaacs. The lechery for which Lurie is disgraced, his unrepentant stance before his academic inquisitors, and the way he appears to represent a Cabbalistic worldview - in which the spirit of the Creator is regarded in female sexualized terms (the Shekinah) and penetrates the world to provide the lifeforce for all of creation - convinced me of David Lurie's Jewishness. Lurie carries all of the hallmarks of the Jewish liberal, urban, art-loving, secular intellectual. There is even a section of the novel about Lurie's sense of having been scapegoated. If true, Coetzee is peddling in some disturbing stereotypes, the lecherous Jew, the selfish Jew, the unrepentent Jew, the Jew in need of reform and rehabilitation.   

Monday, July 15, 2013

DisgraceDisgrace by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I didn't like Waiting for the Barbarians because it was so earnestly allegorical (a story that has self-conscious aims of being important, statement-making literature) and Disgrace teeters on the edge but manages to stay on the safe side. David Lurie is a fascinating character, a middle-aged man who, on principle (a romantic notion of the eminence of desire) is unrepentant about his relationship with one of his students and is prepared to suffer the consequences for the sake of his ideals. And yet he is a man for whom love exists only in the poetic abstract, the component of selflessness, all but absent from his life. Lurie is exquisite in his loneliness and disconnectedness. Everything begins to change when, after being dismissed from his university teaching position, he seeks refuge with his daughter, a lesbian farmer living in the dangerous townships. The realities of life lived close to the ground and hard choices begin to impinge on Lurie's privileged (urban, elitist) worldview. The main strength of this novel is in Coetzee's multi-faceted evocation of the psychology of exploitation and its political echos in a post-apartheid South Africa struggling with self-transformation. The weakness is when it begins to feel heavyhanded and too earnest. The sections of Lurie writing an opera based on the memoirs of Lord Byron in Italy dragged down a novel that otherwise moved at a solid clip. In spite of his avowed dislike of traditional religion, Lurie eventually finds that salvation, for one who has fallen from grace, requires a form of self-sacrifice.

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Monday, July 1, 2013

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

On Chesil BeachOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My wife read this novel first and then handed it to me, which ended up making for a very interesting discussion afterward. It's essentially the story of a single moment in the life of two people on their wedding night, the fears and expectations, and ultimately the way they deal with disappointment. McEwan's prose are forensic, unsheathing layer upon layer of a point in time, to give the reader the sense of how momentous every moment truly is; personal and collective histories all mathematically adding up to a decision, an action, or inaction. He is less interested in the aftermath than in meticulously rendering the emotional and geographical landscape, subterranean as well as above ground, not to mention the importance of climate, in this the case, the late 1950s, on the cusp of the era of sexual liberation, the women's lib movement, the pill etc. Why do I say it made for an interesting husband/wife discussion? Because McEwan tells the story from both points of view, and I wasn't sure that he got the woman's side right. I was thinking that his portrayal of Florence as sexually frigid to the point of suffering was a bit extreme. But my wife said she thought it accurate, especially given the era. I was a bit disappointed that in the end McEwan raps the story up by recounting the way that the decisive moment played out in Edward's life and in Florence's it's left open-ended. Not sure what McEwan's reasoning was, but it felt like he baled, prematurely, and maybe given the events of the wedding night that's what he wanted the reader to feel. True, it left me unsatisfied, which would be clever, but in this case, not in a good way.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Moses, you've got male

A couple of interesting recent posts lamenting the lack of masculine prose in fiction, or is it the end of the traditional image of manhood, or both. Novelist Frank Bill, whose writing I'm not familiar with, asks if masculine writing is dead, by which he seems to mean a certain style of prose that depicts a certain stereotypical kind of manly man, men who've gone from being learned by their fathers and grandfathers, to being babied by their mothers. Being learned from their fathers, to Bill, literally means hunting deer and dressing your kill in the forest. He thinks we've become "girlie-men" in the words of the old SNL skit with Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon playing Hans and Franz, soft, unrugged and unskilled in survival. DG Myers responds that Bill is confusing a romantic ideal of masculinity, what he calls 'reactive masculinity' as brought about by gender-neutralization in American culture, with true manhood, which to his mind means, "Taking care of others .... A man knows in his bones that he is expendable, especially in his bones, and if he is to be indispensable, he must make himself so—by indispensable service to others." What Bill seems to be concerned with is the connection between the image of manhood and a certain style of writing, both of which seem to be on the wane. When we forsake the traditional image we risk losing a robust style of writing that emphasizes the masculine worldview ie. individual struggle (male) over forming and nurturing relationships (female), a desire to master (male) over consensus-building (female), a preoccupation with broad conflicts (male) over domestic ones (female), descriptions of nature's harsh beauty (male) as opposed to its fluid magnificence (female). I sense that both Bill and Myers are on to something, and not just because one time a literary agent who'd read my last novel in manuscript form said that she doubted it could be sold to a publisher because she didn't see the ladies of the book club recommending it to one another. Men, if they read at all, generally like action, sci-fi, books that provide insight into the forces at work in quotidian life (Gladwell, Leavitt), what I call 'mastery'. Literary fiction is increasingly a girl thing. With Passover, and the telling of the story of the liberation from Egypt, I began thinking about the man who is perplexingly hardly mentioned in the Haggadah, and yet who is utterly present in the story: Moses. It's telling that in the mid-20th century DeMille film version, in contrast, Moses is front and center, humble and strong, the quintessence of the manly hero, a survivalist, family-man, rugged and wise, the very figure of a man lamented by Bill. But Moses is also Myers's version of a man, duty-bound, like Swede Levov in Philip Roth's American Pastoral with the "golden gift of responsibility." At last night's seder it was mentioned that the heroes of the Haggadic story are women; Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who rebelled against the Pharaoh's decree to kill the Israelite first born, and Miriam who watched over baby Moses in the basket as it floated down the river, and even the Egyptian princess who plucked him from the Nile and took him into the Pharaoh's house. But I found myself thinking about the absent males, and not just Elijah the Prophet for whom we set a place, but unsung Moses for whom no place is set, and about what that absence might signify in the story of today. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The fiction at the core of literary awards

An interesting piece by author Madeleine Thien in the National Post online in which she talks about her reasons from recently resigning from the jury of the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. The proliferation of literary awards in the last couple of decades is undeniable. Having your novel appear on an award shortlist is important for a variety of reasons. To the author it means validation. To the publisher it means additional publicity and attention. To the industry it means potentially increased sales. To the reader it distinguishes a handful of books worth reading from the thousands published every year. The industry needs awards. And as self-published books proliferate in the digital world, they will mean even more to the book-buying public. And yet authors and publishers know how idiosyncratic the nature of awards is. They are clearly hit and miss, as much an expression of the personal tastes and preferences of individual jury members as a recognition of enduring quality. Thien, I think, makes a valuable point when she argues that at the very least the system should not be so opaque. Yes, awards are here to stay. And they owe it to readers who rely on them for their book-reading recommendations to be as open as possible about the selection process. The reality is that it is humanly impossible for a juror of any of the major awards (the ones that every author and publisher wants to win) to meaningfully wade through the scores of novels submitted every year. If, for example, 150 novels are submitted (not unsusual) for a certain prize, that would require each juror to read more than twelve novels per month, if given a year to do it, which is rare. Most jurors have day jobs. I don't know about you, but I'd have to be reading eight hours a day five days a week to cover that territory. Forget about feeding the wife and kids. Therefore, a vetting process must take place, and Thien is arguing that the prize administrators should be open about it. The Amazon.ca First Novel Award, which she won in 2006, comes in for particular criticism from Thien. It is a uniquely important award because is recognizes first-time novelists, is backed by a major book retailer with resources, and is that much more meaningful for authors seeking validation at the very outset of their careers. In the past, when the prize was administered by Books In Canada, the now-defunct literary publication, it was quite transparent about their vetting process. The year that my novel was a finalist (2005) was the last year novelist WP Kinsella chose the finalists. Kinsella was the first novels reviewer for BiC, and arguably no one in the country read more first novels than he did. Still, his tastes were undeniably idiosyncratic. And it struck me as comical to watch the jurors charged with choosing a winner attempt to grapple (comprehend) with Kinsella's eclectic selection. Did the prize recognize the best debut novels of the year? Probably not. Were many worthy books overlooked? Of course. To my mind any vetting process is as good (or bad) as any other. Everyone knows that awards are a crapshoot. For those of us lucky enough - it's mostly about luck - this kind of acknowledgement provides an important boost. In my case, it meant a lot just to know that someone of the stature of WP Kinsella liked my book. The cloaked secrecy of some prizes (The Giller, for example), as Thien points out, in an effort to protect some fictitious image of objectivity is at best nonsense and at worst, a lie. These awards mean too much, in spite of themselves, to be so opaque and disengenious. They owe it to the reading public to be as open as possible. They should trust the public to decide how valuable they really are when it comes to making book purchases.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

When it sucks to speak French

News this week of the incomparable Office de la Langue Francaise citing an Italian restaurant for having too many 'pastas' on their menu, and a CBC poll finding that more than one quarter of anglos don't feel welcome in Quebec. Well, here's my two cents and it can be summed up in seven words:

It sucks to speak French in Montreal. 

I was born and have lived my whole life in Montreal. I learned French in elementary and high-school. When so many of my friends were leaving the province I chose to stay. I went to graduate school in Geneva, in part to improve my French. I have made my home here, and raised a family of four children here. I make my living here. I speak French quite fluently. I write French quite well too. I estimate that between and 20 and 30 per cent of my day is spent communicating in French. When I go to court (for business reasons) I insist on testifying in French. In fact, I enjoy speaking and writing in French. The problem is that speaking French in Montreal is often an experience that sucks, and that’s why more people don’t do it, or resent making the effort. It sucks for a number of reasons.

The first reason is common sense psychology. People hate being forced to do anything. The natural tendency is resistance, regardless of what it is. This rule applies to most things, especially something as personal as what language you must communicate in. The laws associated with discouraging the use of languages other than French mainly serves to make non-Francophones feel attacked and instinctively resist. 

The second reason is, of course, political. Speaking French has become a political act. For many it represents political aspirations of self-determination. For me, and I suspect many like me, the political undertones have the effect of draining the act of speaking French of its inherent beauty and enjoyment. Speaking French does not and should not have to be a political act.

The third reason is snobbery. The moment an Anglophone speaks French to a bilingual Francophone who recognizes their accent, they respond in English. I’m not sure this is done out of courtesy, or with good intentions. I think it’s most often done to show superiority ie. that they speak English better than you can speak French. My sense is that for some reason Francophones have a bizarre intolerance for grammatical error and poor accents. It’s as if it grates on their nerves. I wish they would learn from Anglophones to accept the occasional mangling of their language. It’s one of the reasons people gravitate to speaking English. It’s a welcoming, open, non-judgmental, forgiving language. English speakers naturally give non-native speakers a wide berth to communicate in English. It’s part of the attraction of speaking English.

My suggestion to the government and to Francophone Quebeckers is simple; don’t make it suck to speak French in Montreal. Highlight all the positives about the language, its inherent beauty, its rich cultural heritage, how fun it can be to learn, read, speak and write. Francophones should encourage people to speak French at every opportunity, with their neighbours, in the street, when they go shopping, or take public transportation. They should let Anglophones speak, even making mistakes, and when spoken to in French only answer in French. Instead of paying language cops to enforce discouraging laws the government should spend money on trumpeting these sorts of positive messages in ads, that speaking French is a point of great pride for Montrealers, and not just as Quebeckers, but as Canadians.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Halbman Steals Home on Radio Shalom 1650 AM CJRS

In case you didn't get the chance to hear the live broadcast, the interview with me on Radio Shalom with venerable host Stan Asher can now be downloaded here.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Remembering Ezra

For some February 14th is Valentine's Day. For me and my family it's Dad's birthday. My brother Randy created this beautiful video tribute from archival footage of dad doing what he loved doing most. I think he is still doing it right now, and forever more. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Halbman on Radio-Shalom

If you happen to be near a radio (or sitting in front of your computer for live stream) you can catch me on Radio-Shalom this coming Wednesday, Feb. 13th at 3:00 with host Stan Asher on the dial at 1650 AM in Montreal talking about Halbman Steals Home and other stuff.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

HuskHusk by Corey Redekop

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Zombies are hip. They're in now, the way vampires were in 15 minutes ago. What is it about the undead that appeals to us? Gamers know how prominently zombies figure in today's culture. As the last time I played a video game it was on an Atari console, I was utterly oblivious. It was serendipitous that the charms of a video game called Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 were revealed to me by a work colleague's 14 year old son who is an aficionado. In BO2 the player finds him/herself in a post-apocalyptic world populated by killer zombies wanting to feast on his flesh. Fortunately, each player is armed to the teeth with every imaginable weapon and a potentially endless supply of ammunition. The result is a never ending orgy of gory carnage. My young friend's revelation completely altered my view of the novel Husk by Corey Redekop. I already felt that Husk was one of the most enjoyable novels I'd read in a while. Using exuberant prose, a satirical viewpoint and darkly sly humour, Redekop makes a devastating statement on modern consumer society along the lines of the classic B-movie "Dawn of the Dead" (my era) in which zombies invade a shopping mall. I get the point that consumer/entertainment culture subsumes and mesmerizes us into a self-indulgent stupor, driving an innately self-destructive instinct that morphs us into insensate, ravenous sub/superhumans. But I had no idea that there was something else going on in Husk, an altogether more subversive ambition. By flipping the perspective around and taking the zombie's point of view, making him a thinking, feeling, sympathetic being, and doing it in a writing style that is vibrant and lively, Redekop is ironically transforming the sense-deadening, ultra-violent culture of the screen that obsesses millions upon millions of mostly young men into something that approaches art. Sheldon, or 'Shel' as he likes to be called (ha ha) is a gay zombie with a heart. We know this from the first pages when he awakens mid-autopsy, his organs removed from the cavern of his body, and after ripping the arms off the attendant and getting ready to flee, hesitates to retrieve his blood-pump from the floor; he may not physically need it, but he won't leave it behind. Husk is a also scathing satire of the celebrity industry that feeds the pop-culture meat-grinder; shlock-producing directors and manipulative agents, 'reality' tv that isn't real, and talk shows that are dysfunctional freak-shows. This, as it turns out, works to the advantage of a zombie actor trying to resuscitate a moribund career. Redekop is a smart, prodigiously talented prose stylist. He takes gleeky (geeky + glee) delight in describing biological matters, for instance, exactly how the zombie who has no functioning organs, whose veins are filled with formaldehyde and whose muscles should be useless atrophied slabs, manages to move, speak, eat and defecate. And that's another of the many pleasures in reading this novel; Reading about someone whose basic bodily functions provide a challenge reminds us that we are feeling, breathing, flesh and blood beings who can rejoice in the miracle of our bodily capacities. I know this doesn't sound like much of an insight, but part of Redekop's literary achievement is to show how we've lost touch with our essential physical selves in a world in which so much of our time is spent in our own headspace, in front of a screen, in the realm of virtual reality, or subsumed in glossy celebrity image-based media. Maybe pop-culture is ultra violent and sexually charged precisely because we so desperately crave genuine physical experience, the ultimate irony. My one gripe with the novel is the ending. While Redekop brilliantly walks the fine line between high art/low culture for most of the novel, in the concluding sections he succumbs to self-indulgence with a climax that matches Black Ops 2 for absurd over-the-top grotesqueness. The core of the story, Sheldon and the fascinating questions he raises about human frailty and the nature of consciousness, gets lost in a torrent of horrorshow violence mimicking a CGI-generated movie.

One last note. My Amazon-ordered copy arrived with inconsistent print quality, some pages were faded. Fortunately, the publisher offers a digital copy free with proof of purchase of a print copy. For a guy like me whose eyes aren't what they used to be and who reads by a dubious bedside light, the ability to enlarge font is a godsend. 

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Slow ManSlow Man by J.M. Coetzee

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I see this novel in three parts. Part one is an elegant meditation on the experience of sixtyish photographer Paul Rayment, whose leg has been amputated in the aftermath of an accident in which his bicycle is struck by a car. Paul's frustrations with his incapacities and the healthcare system, and his ruminations on what it means to exist on the edge of a watershed 'before and after' moment in his life are movingly rendered. Intimations of mortality are hinted at by the name of the accident site, Magill Rd., which if you've studied a little Russian you know means 'grave'. There is a section in which Paul considers the possibility that he may have actually crossed over to an afterlife: "If dying turns out to be nothing but a trick that might as well be a trick of words, if death is a mere hiccup in time after which life goes on as before, why all the fuss? Is one allowed to refuse it - refuse deathlessness, this puny fate? I want my own life back, the one that came to an end on Magill Road." (p. 123) But soon he is ushered back to earthly existence by a devoted Croatian caregiver named Marijana Jokic, a restorer of art by training and restorer of body and soul by profession. Paul is smitten. It's not hard to see why the 'cared for' would fall in love with their caregiver since the relationship is based on unique intimacies and vulnerabilities. How can you not love the person responsible for essentially bringing you back to the land of the living? Paul's problem now is what, if anything, to do about it, especially considering that Marijana is married with three children. The wheels start to come off, in a matter of speaking, when Elizabeth Costello enters the picture; thus begins the novel's second stage. Mrs Costello, is a well-known novelist who literally barges into Paul's life inexplicably knowing everything about him, including his past, the events surrounding the accident, his infatuation with Marijana, and the nature of his most innermost thoughts, feelings and sub-conscious motives. She seems to know everything except how Paul's story will end which is apparently what keeps her around, as much against her own will as her subject's. Fans of Coetzee will recognize the name Elizabeth Costello as the titular character from his 2003 novel. This shift in the story - one in which the challenges of Paul's physical rehabilitation are shunted aside - comes off blatantly as a device. Paul himself begins to see it this way, suspecting that he's being used as the model for a character in Costello's next novel. And so the story inside a story, the story about the nature of storytelling, the stories we tell ourselves etc. starts to nudge out the initial narrative. At this stage, I wanted to launch the book against the wall because I get annoyed with writers who play that game. To my mind it serves to distance the reader from the characters, and draws attention to the author's infatuation with his enterprise. But Coetzee being Coetzee, he knows how to keep the reader reading by gradually turning the plot screws, in this case stemming from two sources; Paul's offer to pay for Marijana's son Drago's private schooling and the way it rips her family asunder, and a second Marianna (said to be the one with two n's), a young blind woman with whom Paul has a kinky tryst arranged by Mrs Costello. As the novel moves into its final third Coetzee adds a few twists with a fall in the bathtub and his protege Drago apparently stealing from him, but by this time the author has let the tensions slacken and the narrative becomes spotty, interrupted by ponderous lengthy expositions by the Costello woman. Coetzee starts to emphasize themes related to displacement, (immigrant displacement, Paul's displaced love for Marijana, whether there is any such thing as authenticity in the world anymore). Near the end, Paul wonders again if he has passed through a portal into an afterlife, and the reader feels that sort of uncanniness and disconnection too, which, even if it is the author's goal, tends to undermine the story's emotional impact. The heartwarming ending flirts with something Disney-esque and isn't completely convincing. This novel was Coetzee's first after winning the Nobel Prize, and one senses, with all the wordplay and cleverness, he might have been a touch too distracted by expectations.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Were the Shakespeare plays actually penned by a Jew?

This interesting piece posits that the character of Shylock may have actually been the creation of a Jew.  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Last Great American Writer

What, then, is a serious, literary writer today but a kind of ghost, haunting the information/media wasteland Stephen Henighan has dubbed the afterlife of culture? Every literary bio is a ghost story.

In this interesting review by Alex Good of a biography of David Foster Wallace he seems to be making the point that there is no last great American writer.  There are few second acts in American literature, and in our time many of the first acts have been remarkably brief. One of the hot new names contemporary with Wallace was, according to Max, Mark Leyner. I had never heard of him before reading this book. Meanwhile, is any member of the "brat pack" of Conspicuously Young Authors - Jay MacInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz - read today? (The fourth "official" member of the pack, Mark Lindquist, isn't even mentioned here.) Elizabeth Wurtzel (who Wallace tried, unsuccessfully, to bed) seems to have vanished without a trace. Even among Wallace's acolytes the process of dynamic obsolescence is working in overdrive. How many people can name a David Eggers novel after A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and this despite the fact that he continues to receive excellent reviews? The painful fact is that by the time he was 40 Wallace knew in his bones that his fifteen minutes were over, and indeed said as much.

But isn't the best writing, writing we call 'literature' that rises to the level of art by definition supposed to defy this process he calls 'dynamic obsolescence'? Maybe Wallace understood something that added to his despair. That today's culture is one in which there is no distinction between high and low, everything is mere 'product' and therefore nothing lasts. Or rather in our democratizing digital culture everything lasts equally, serving to accelerate the process of devaluation and the transforming of all creativity into so much clogging expendable cultural detritus. Maybe Wallace understood (what Warhol understood before him) ie. that in this hyper-proliferized environment it is the iconic persona that lasts in our culture, and the surest way to safeguard a lasting legacy - one beyond the alloted 15 minutes - was, not in the work one produced, but ironically, in dying tragically young.