Category: Reading

Best Reads of 2016

9780812987232Managed to read over a hundred books and view about the same number of movies in 2016.

You’ll find my list of favourite films over at my blog, Cinema Arete.

Read slightly more non-fiction than fiction last year, a bit of a worrying trend. I’ve really cut back on my genre fiction in the past while; I’ve found the suspension of disbelief rarely works for me any more. The last horror novel I read, by Peter Straub, struck me as completely implausible and I barely finished it.

More and more, I’m looking for quality reads, books that are innovative, literate and unique.

And, more and more, contemporary fiction just doesn’t meet that criteria.

 * * * *

Best Books Read in 2016

Fiction:

Fortune Smiles (Stories) by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Execution by Hugo Wilcken

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo

The Heavenly Bible by Donald Ray Pollock

Today I Wrote Nothing (Stories) by Daniil Kharms

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse

The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken

The Adulterous Woman (Stories) by Albert Camus

Honorable Mention:

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

Poetry:

Without by Donald Hall

Felicity by Mary Oliver

Non-fiction:

Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life by James Hawes

Ghost Wars: Secret History of CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden by Steve Coll

Contrary Notions by Michael Parenti

When the Facts Change by Tony Judt

Disaster Capitalism by Antony Lowenstein

Young Orson: The Years of Luck & Genius by Patrick McGilligan

We Learn Nothing (Essays) by Tim Kreider

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk

Honorable Mention:

The Idea of Communism by Tariq Ali

Goebbels: A Biography by Peter Longerich

My Life & Travels by Wilfred Thesiger

Hogs Wild (Essays) by Ian Frazier

unknown

Black Dog Press: The Year Ahead

book-catalog

Over the holidays I devoted a considerable amount of thought to what should happen next with Black Dog Press.

So far, my imprint has released eleven books, a couple of limited edition chapbooks…but now what?

I’ve come to the determination that I won’t be publishing anything in 2017—and before the emails and complaints start flying, let me elaborate.

Despite my considerable efforts, Black Dog Press remains a very marginal enterprise. It is a constant struggle to draw attention to my writing when there are so many tomes being published and self-published, churned out like dumb, identical widgets. I want to pursue new methods for advertising my books, trying my best to overcome my aversion to self-promotion (a particularly ugly manifestation of narcissism). I’ve never been an author who haunts forums, always looking for an opportunity to reference my own work, and I’m not much a joiner, if you get my drift. More like your classic lone wolf.

In the past, I’ve sought out other, like-minded indie authors/publishers but, candidly, haven’t found many who take the printed word as seriously as I do. Very few scribes these days produce genuinely original, literary work; their prose is often derivative (fan fiction) or stuck in a genre of little interest to me (zombie, shapeshifter romance, etc.). Sadly, the proliferation of technology, the growing number of publishing platforms, means that the amateurs and wannabes out there can publish all the crap they excrete, with the minimum of editing or critical scrutiny. Pounding their chests and calling themselves writers, having a fit when anyone dares question their professional credentials. As petulant as they are untalented, vicious, rather than visionary.

Sending out review copies doesn’t work—that much has been made clear. Again, too many books, too few good publications (even fewer qualified critics)…and then there are the unnamed rags that want you to buy advertising space before they’ll even consider your book for review. There’s a special red-hot poker in Hell waiting for that scum.

I adamantly refuse to purchase a positive, five-star review from Kirkus or Publishers Weekly. Never, never, never.

What does that leave?

I’ve been looking into hiring a publicist, but that would mean leaving my comfort zone and putting my books, my personality, my face in the hands of a stranger. Granting them permission to do what’s necessary to “raise my profile” (I’m literally squirming as I type those words).

But something has to be done. I’m publishing terrific, intelligent, compelling novels and stories and they’re not getting the attention they deserve. After over 30 years as a professional author, my stature isn’t anywhere near what it should be…and the fault lies with me.

I have to do better at promoting my growing body of work, even if that means trying things I’ve never dared attempt before.

It’s an approach I’ve always shied away from, but there’s no other option.

If I want to continue growing my readership, keep Black Dog Press afloat, I have to cast aside my aversion to, gulp, selling myself to the public.

Sigh.

This isn’t going to be easy…

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)

“Invisible Boy”–listen to the MP3

EctoplasmAs previously reported, I’ve been mucking about with sound recording of late—music, initially, but yesterday I thought I’d try my hand at some spoken word.

“Invisible Boy” is my best known and most frequently anthologized story. It appears in my collection Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination and has become one of my signature tales.

I’ve performed it frequently at live readings but, for some reason, resisted recording it.

I’ve rectified that oversight, adding some music for dramatic effect.

Hope you enjoy my rendering of a favourite short story:

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.

streetprague

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.

communist

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?

narrowprague

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)