Category: Literature

Doing your Christmas shopping? Think indie!

You undoubtedly have a number of book-lovers on your Christmas list you need to buy for.

And it’s always a dilemma, isn’t it, trying to figure out what a book nerd would like. Let’s face it, everyone’s tastes are different and bibliophiles are a notoriously strange bunch.

But if you’re seeking something quirky, off the beaten track, a truly personal gift, have you given any thought to indie presses?

I can think of a number of excellent small publishers who could use your business.

There’s Angry Robot and Two Dollar Radio and if you’re looking for good Leftie tomes, check out books released by Verso or Haymarket.

And, ahem, may I also draw your attention to my little publishing concern, Black Dog Press.

You can peruse my Bookstore page for details on each of my titles—it’s a disparate catalog, featuring mystery, suspense, sci fi, horror…even an old style western.

All of my books are available for ordering through Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, Amazon…or your favourite independent bookstore.

Support indie artists!

book-catalog

Please be patient…renovations currently in progress

In a few months, this blog will be ten years old.

Time to upgrade the old gal, select a new theme photo, clean out some of the clutter, etc.

I’ve paid particular attention to my “Other Media” page, tossing some older efforts and adding fresh renderings of my best, most popular tales, along with a few recent electronic pieces.

More changes to come, but do let me know what you think of the “new look”—your opinion is important to me and, no, I’m not just saying that. Honest.

cliffepidaurus

The author, at Epidaurus (July, 2016)

An Agoraphobic Abroad (Part 2)

Part II

Troy (I)

Troy (I)

“So tribe on tribe, pouring out of the ships and shelters,
marched across the Scamander plain and the earth shook,
tremendous thunder from under trampling men and horses
drawing into position down the Scamander meadow flats
breaking into flower—men by the thousands, numberless
as the leaves and spears that flower forth in spring.”

The Iliad (Translated by Robert Fagles)

It almost didn’t happen.

I mean, it was that close.

I’d checked into some bus tours to Troy before we left home. I knew there were day trips from Istanbul and they weren’t cheap. But we decided to wait to actually book the Troy excursion until we got to Turkey—I think we held out hope that our hosts would know the best and cheapest method of getting there. In retrospect, maybe not the wisest course of action.

As it turned out, neither of our Istanbul hosts had contacts in the travel industry, so with the help of Sherron’s cell phone (and a good wi-fi connection), I started searching for tour operators that included Troy in their itinerary. There were a few and, as I feared, they turned out to be quite pricey; indeed, too pricey for my tastes. I started pondering the possibility of leaving Turkey without seeing the plain of Scamander and the remnants of the Scaean Gate—I have to say, it didn’t sit well with me.

I read Peggy Albion-Meek’s The Great Adventurer, a young adult re-telling of the story of Odysseus, when I was nine years and was enraptured.

The prolonged siege of Troy figures prominently in the book, the wily King of Ithaca responsible for coming up with the scheme that finally breaks the stalemate. Other famous figures put in appearances and I soon developed a loathing for the haughty Agamemnon, while cheering as the god-like Achilles hacked his way through half the Trojan infantry, displaying a bloodlust that made even the mighty Hector quail before him.

Troy (II)

Troy (II)

Troy, needless to say, holds a special place in my heart. I’d put it right near the top of my “bucket list”. But it seemed like fate was intervening and unless I was willing to pay an arm and a leg, Troy might be out of reach.

Then, a sudden breakthrough.

A communication from one company confirmed a coach was available, quoted a fee that seemed reasonable…was I interested?

Oh, yes.

The mode of conveyance was a comfortable Mercedes mini-bus, extra spacious because there were only about six or seven other people accompanying us (most of them bound for the nearby the Gallipoli battlefield, not Troy). It was a lengthy drive, down the Anatolian coast, and at one point we had to ferry across the Dardanelles to get to Canakkale on the other side, where a different bus was waiting to take us the rest of the way to Troy.

And there it was. And there I was, standing amidst the weathered, crumbling remains of a place I’d dreamed about since childhood. Well…

A peak moment. Who would’ve believed it possible?

Because of the iffy political situation in Turkey (see: previous post), tourists were in short supply and, except for a German documentary film crew, we had the site all to ourselves.

Uran Savas is the most engaging, charming, knowledgeable guide I’ve ever encountered. Uran combines a winning personality with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Troy and its physical environs—he knows every square foot of the place. Uran led me around the extensive ruins, which span thousands or years, each layer revealing insights into the lives or ordinary Trojans and their ruling elites. In all, there were at least ten separate cities built on this site, ten separate eras represented. Uran could point out sections of wall denoting each of these eras, his erudition and quick wit constantly in evidence. Despite the blazing heat, he set a leisurely pace, not hurrying, pausing to point out certain landmarks or patiently respond to my seemingly constant questions.

Sherron hung back, taking pictures, including one of my favourites, where I’m touching a portion of a wall that dates back to Homeric times. That’s a keeper.

As a bonus, Uran introduced me to a good friend, the man who happens to be in charge of the on-going digs at Troy, Dr. Rustem Arslan. He answered a couple of my stammered queries and posed for a picture with us, before hurrying away, back to his duties.

End of a perfect day. Oh, except for that interminable drive back to Istanbul. All and all, it amounted to a time-consuming, wearying interlude—let’s see, we were picked up around 5:30 a.m. and dropped off back in Istanbul shortly after 10:00 p.m. Wow. Time-consuming, indeed.

We left Istanbul the next day, after ten days so confident of our grasp of the city’s commendable public transportation system we travelled to Kemal Ataturk International Airport via cab, ferry, bus and monorail, arriving on time and hardly frazzled at all.

We flew out of Istanbul shortly before 5:00 that afternoon. I realize I’m skipping a lot in this account, due to space constraints (like dealing with the persistent, ingenious carpet salesmen or meeting the remarkable Emin Senyer, a preeminent performer of Karagoz shadow puppet theatre), but that’s unavoidable. We must push on to Prague.

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Prague

Yes, Prague. By reputation, one of the most beautiful cities on the continent. Boasting every modern convenience while, simultaneously, possessing a lengthy, storied past, the region frequently playing a crucial role in 20th century European politics.

One thing we immediately noticed was that it was a lot cooler and drier than Greece and Turkey. Almost like back home.

Prague was the one city both Sherron and I had at the top of our lists when we were planning our proposed Grand Tour of Europe. We felt drawn there, for a variety of reasons. To me, it’s the home of Kafka, Hrabal, Meyrink and the Capek brothers. A veritable hub of surrealism and the macabre and ground zero as far as alchemy and the black arts are concerned.

For my dear, puppet-crazed wife, Prague’s status as one of the world’s hotbeds for hand-carved wooden marionettes, not to mention innovative theatre and film, made it an irresistible destination. And there was one other attraction:

We spent over a week at a small penzion a half-hour from Prague, where Sherron took part in a workshop led by Michaela Bartonova. Michaela has a long and impressive résumé as a puppeteer and master instructor. Her students come from around the world to work with her and learn from her methods. This year’s attendees included participants from Canada (us), Israel, Spain, Hungary. And they were all sweet, wonderful people; we bonded with them, had many great, raucous conversations after each day’s session was over.

While Sherron was off designing and carving her creation (from linden wood, the Czech Republic’s national tree), I kept myself busy by journaling, reading, writing poems and hanging out with Zsolt–whose wife Aggie was taking the workshop for the second year in a row–and their kids, Philip and Heidi. We had a ball together and the week seemed to zip past.

I think the only thing we didn’t manage while we were in Prague was catch a glimpse of Jan Svankmajer, the legendary Czech animator. It would have been delightful to spend an hour or two in his studio or watching him at work on his latest effort, an adaptation of a Karl Capek story that was financed through crowd-sourcing.

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Communist Museum

Visiting Kafka’s grave and the museum in his honor were high points, as was the hour or so we spent in the Communist Museum (more properly titled The Anti-Communist Museum). Trying my first shot of absinthe…guzzling Czech beer…seeing a genuine Toyen painting…

A stop of the Millennium Gallery (not far from the Kafka Museum), introduced me to the work of Jiri Sozansky. Ondrej, a fellow fan of the macabre, showed me a number of prints by Sozansky, briefing me about the artist, a man who deliberately inhabits the far fringes of Czech art; I couldn’t resist bringing one of his pieces home with me. Very disturbing, unnerving stuff; not for all tastes. Search him out, he’s amazing (you’ll find one of his short films here).

What I won’t miss are those wicked, uneven cobblestone streets. For a metropolis renowned for being “walking city”, Prague’s city fathers couldn’t have picked a worse road surface. After the first few days traipsing around, my lower back and hips were in rough shape. Stretching and anti-inflammatories helped, some.

That said, I’ll put up with the cobblestones, endure the natural surliness that seems to be part of the Czech national character, I’ll even forgive the less than thrilling cuisine—

But how do they tolerate the tourists?

Yes, the tourists. Out of the various spots we visited in Europe, they were at their worst in Prague (particularly in “Old Town”). Swarming and pointing and gawping and barking at each other in a dozen different languages and dialects–and you could tell what they were saying always amounted to little more than: “Lookit that, honey, ain’t it neat?” Snapping selfies at every opportunity, imbuing each and every street corner or jutting steeple with significance. I was seated at a small diner and watched as a tubby, rather bookish fellow a few tables away took a picture of himself with his plate of food.

Really?

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Prague (side street)

Selfies at a wall dedicated to the memory of John Lennon. Selfies in Wenceslas Square. Selfies framed in front of one of the innumerable castles or cathedrals…

Urk.

I hate tourists and tried very hard never to act like one. We usually shunned areas where there was a high concentration of idiot foreigners but sometimes they were unavoidable. Streaming down the winding, constricted sidestreets, moving in groups, often consulting handheld gadgets, heads swivelling back and forth, eagerly seeking out the next attraction or point of interest.

Strumpet

Prague, you old whore
coquette of Mitteleuropa
adorned in gothic finery
enduring the rough pleasure
of marauding hordes
secretly derisive of their
admiring gazes
offering your best
most familiar features
while assuring each of them
you’ve never done this before.

Every so often, Sherron and I would consciously try to slow things down, take a moment, seat ourselves on a bench or at an outdoor café and just look around, absorb what we were seeing, the little details that we might revisit later, in recollection. Trying to retain the strongest possible impression of that locale, that instant in time.

Colorado-Mansfeld Palace (Prague)

Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace (Prague)

Who knew if we’d be able to manage another trip of that magnitude? Was it likely, given our financial situation? And maybe that’s why for us it was never about rushing around, patronizing all the usual tourist traps, checking them off our list and then moving on. Never stopping to reflect, experiencing Europe on the fly, through the window of a car or bus, doing our level best not to interact too much with the locals…

Interact we did, chatting with folks from every walk of life, people who quite often weren’t shy about sharing their views with us, once they realized they had an attentive, appreciative audience. We tried to be open, receptive, patient…and were rewarded with some memorable encounters and exchanges. Mustafa, one of our guides on the bus to Troy, so passionate and knowledgeable about Middle Eastern history, comes to mind; and what about Anke and Dick, Alex and Suzanne, Michaela and Ralph and Uran and Zsolt and Aggie and Emin and Ali and Eva and so many others. They shared their stories with us, welcomed us into their lives and homes, offering fresh perspectives, opinions that often didn’t jibe with what we were hearing back home.

That is the greatest benefit of traveling to a distant land and no virtual environment, no documentary can come close to emulating the experience of physically being there, at Mycenae or Epidaurus or Troy…or even buying bottled water from a cheerful vendor not far from Galata Tower.

Feeling the ground beneath your feet, hot sun directly overhead, the welcome chill of the plastic bottle against your skin. Knowing this is real, an authentic moment.

Turning to each other, clasping hands, conscious of the adjacent funicular tracks. The vendor wants to know where we’re from.

“Canada?” He grins. “Very far. Welcome! Welcome!”

Bidding us good day and waving once we’re underway, another smiling face, another encounter to add to our scrapbook, situated alongside brochures, ticket stubs and a smooth, streaked pebble collected from the beach at Kiveri.

Mementos, when photographs no longer suffice.

The final two lines of my travel journal, composed upon our return to Canada:

“For a time, I was able to forget who I was, see the world through young and innocent eyes. What do you call that, except a blessing?”

globeprague

Globe Book Store (Prague)

“Where’s Jeeves?”

jeevesAh, what I wouldn’t give to have someone like the redoubtable Jeeves in my life.

An individual endowed with almost supernatural competence, intelligence and aplomb. Absolutely unflappable. Capable of quickly and expertly assessing any situation, offering the most expedient and logical course of action, which is all but guaranteed to achieve the desired result.

But it’s more than that. A true Jeeves is able to anticipate setbacks and complications, avoiding them like a poorly disguised tiger trap. His abilities are practically psychic—how else do you explain how he materializes even before he is summoned, showing up the instant his services are required?

P.G. Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves and his impetuous, dim-witted employer, Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, has the perfect word for Jeeves’ sudden, timely appearances: he simply “shimmers” into a room.

Wonderful.

Bertie is excitable, craven, shallow, gullible, naïve, inept; if it wasn’t for his phlegmatic, faithful manservant, he’d be in a pickle literally every waking moment of his life.

For Jeeves is the ultimate fixer—perhaps Bertie is right and it’s all the fish he eats. Whatever the source of his genius, Jeeves never fails to provide unstinting, courteous service and when compelled to suggest some subtle stratagem or artifice, you can count on Jeeves to save the day.

No impasse is so hopeless, no cause so lost that Jeeves can’t provide a ready remedy.

A Jeeves would organize my affairs, ensure the bills are paid, prevent our household finances from creeping into the red. He could fend off lovelorn friends, bossy aunts, irate foes and deal with those pesky Jehovah’s Witnesses that keep ruining my quiet, peaceful Saturday mornings.

Bearing in a pot of strong tea and my daily newspaper as soon as he hears me stirring. Reminding me of an appointment or birthday I’ve forgotten. Drawing my bath, making sure it’s exactly the right temperature. Purring words of comfort and consideration while laying out my clothes for the day.

My man, Jeeves.

Truly, he stands alone!

* In my view the best way to experience “Jeeves and Wooster” is to listen to the BBC Radio dramatizations of Wodehouse’s stories. Michael Hordern and Richard Briers are stellar—the productions are first rate, the supporting players well-cast, the end result always hilarious.

hordern

I have “Seasonally Adjusted Reading Disorder”

whiteheadAutumn has arrived, which means my reading tastes are in the process of changing.

During the summer, I tend to favor faster, more plot-driven narratives–thrillers, mysteries, noir—but once the leaves start turning, taking on brighter hues, I seek out more somber, atmospheric efforts.

John LeCarré, for instance, is the perfect fall read. His complex novels, populated by morally compromised characters and deep, dark secrets, are well suited for cooler, drabber days and nights. British novels, in general, are better enjoyed during autumn and winter than they are brighter, cheerier times of the year. Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel aren’t really appropriate for the beach and only a complete fool would pack Orwell or Rushdie in with the suntan lotion and towels.

Glancing at my bookshelves, I can tell you in an instant which books match each season.

Contemporary Fiction (Spring-Summer)
Literary Fiction (Autumn)
Historical Fiction (Summer)
Biography and History (Winter)
Poetry (Autumn-Winter)
Science Fiction (Summer-Autumn)
Critical Essays/Creative Non-Fiction (Winter)

Breaking it down by individual author: Jim Harrison (Spring); Cormac McCarthy (Autumn); Jonathan Franzen (Spring); W.G. Sebald (Autumn); Colson Whitehead (Autumn); Richard Russo (Spring); Raymond Chandler (Summer); Don Delillo (Autumn); Alastair Reynolds (Summer); David Mitchell (Spring-Summer); Italo Calvino (Autumn-Winter); Denis Johnson (Autumn); Thomas Pynchon (Autumn-Winter).

There are exceptions, of course, cases where those generalizations don’t apply. Works relating to politics, ecology, religion and philosophy are sprinkled throughout the year. And every so often I can’t resist plucking up some big, fat biography (ex: Robert Caro’s magisterial portrait of Lyndon Johnson) and just having at it. A two or three day binge that leaves me disoriented, out of step with everyday life. Barely able to prepare and eat a five-minute boiled egg. And, no, I do not exaggerate.

It’s become sort of a tradition that I tackle a real forearm-strainer right after Christmas and heading into the New Year. The kind of tome you have to bench press. Hardcover, if possible. A single volume history of World War II or the collected essays of Christopher Hitchens. To counteract the effects of all that turkey, red wine and good fellowship.

Tell me I’m not alone, that someone else out there has to deal with their own version of Seasonally Adjusted Reading Disorder (SARD). Perhaps we can start our own support network, help each other overcome our entrenched habits, learn to read what we want, when we want.

Oh, and, by the way, did you hear there’s a new LeCarré book out this month.

Wouldn’t you know it?

You might call that a coincidence but I’d say it’s right on time.

le-carre

“Live! From Epidaurus…”

EpidaurusiOne of the high points of our time in Greece was visiting the ancient amphitheater of Epidaurus.

Alec Guinness called it the “greatest theater in the world” and ol’ Alec likely knew a thing or two about such matters.

I took along a handheld digital recorder to capture snippets of sound along the way and decided that a live reading at Epidaurus was just too fantastic an opportunity to miss.

I selected a few of my recent poems, ran through them a few times, then had Sherron hold the recorder while I did my thing. I was reluctant to place myself anywhere near stage centre, where the uncanny acoustics would carry every single syllable up to the cheap seats. Instead I stood at the very front, right against the first row of seats.

We were lucky enough that most of the tourists had left by then, chased away by the scorching sun. But you can still hear a few morons, clapping to confirm that, yes, indeed, the acoustics are phenomenal, as the last person demonstrated…and the person before that. Everyone lining up to take their turn.

During this trip I learned to really loathe tourists. There’ll likely be a post on that later.

For now, join me at Epidaurus, right around noon, this past July, the temperature hovering in the mid-30s.

Get the picture?

Great…now click on the MP3, sit back, close your eyes and listen

“Cliff Burns, Live at Epidaurus”

Epidaurusii