Over the last couple of days I have been pondering stories and storytelling. What makes a great story? What makes a great storyteller? As these thoughts have been bouncing around in my head, I came across a book from Red Clover Press called Monoculture by F.S. Michaels.
Red Clover Press is the little publisher of art, culture, and big ideas. And, their first published book is the aforementioned Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything. I think it’s interesting for a publisher to chose their first work to be about stories.
“Storytelling is a form of immortality. It goes from one generation to another,” says the American author Studs Terkel. Now memories and stories can fade, become diluted, or gain more momentum than deserved, but the act of publishing that story secures it in a particular time and place. I think this is why authors seek publication, it’s not enough to just write. Published works become a legacy.
But not all great stories are published, or publishable. When James and I talk about stories, we’re typically talking about how stories help us make sense of who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Monoculture is about a master story that takes over and narrows our understanding of our place in the world, or how to fit in the world. So far, 100 pages in, it’s a pessimistic story about economics and efficiency are altering our social activities. But these aren’t necessarily the stories James and I discuss. We’re inclined to chat about universal stories.
Here is the thematic convergence. Amongst all the thinking about stories this week, I stumbled across a video clip of Kurt Vonnegut discussing the shape of stories and how these could be programmatically understood. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I pass along this story:
Following on the heels of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and other Quirk Classics, comes The Meowmorphosis.
In Franz Kafka’s original version, Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, wakes up in his bed to find himself transformed into a large insect. In Coleridge Cook’s version, Samsa is a giant cat.
The Quirk Classics typically follow the plot summary to fairly closely, but introduce the absurd twist introduced in the title.
Gregor wakes up as a giant cat. He looks around his room, which appears normal, and decides to go back to sleep to forget about what has happened. He attempts to roll over, only to discover that he cannot due to his new body. He gets distracted and plays kitten-like with some dust particles and reflects on the dreary life he’s led as a traveling salesman. He turns to the clock and sees that he has overslept and missed his train to work.
Gregor’s mother knocks on the door, and suspects that he may be ill, since he never misses the train. The family is dependent on Gergor’s income so they are keen for him to open the door, which is locked as usual. The situation is more intense when Gregor’s manager comes to the family’s home to inquire of Gregor’s whereabouts and to let him know that the office is not satisfied with his work of late.
Gregor, with his large yet kitten-like paws, does manage to unlock the door. Horrified by Gregor’s appearance, the office manager runs from the apartment and Gregor’s father aggressively shoos Gregor back into his room.
Gregor wakes and sees that someone has put milk and bread in his room. It’s his sister who has taken to caring for him. She also changes his litter.
As Gregor grows, he begins scratching the furniture and climbing on things, which leads his sister to remove the furniture. As these transformations have been taking place, Gregor’s aged father has gotten a job and the family has taken in boarders. One evening as the boarders are listening to the sister play violin, Gregor creeps out of his bedroom (the door has been left ajar) and unwittingly startles the boarders. He subsequently runs away from the family home. In Kafka’s original, Gregor dies. In Cook’s version, he suffers a judgement day of sorts.
Wow! Vancouver is holding a major Canadian poetry conference in October as part of the Vancouver 125 celebrations.
The Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference is a four-day poetry conference, October 19-22, 2011. The focus is new generation of poets, which are defined as poets who published their first book after 1990. The conference is presented in partnership with the Office of the Poet Laureate of the City of Vancouver, The City of Vancouver, Simon Fraser University’s Writing and Publishing Program, The Vancouver International Writers Festival, The Vancouver Public Library and the Listel Hotel.
This is an amazing opportunity to enjoy poetry from poets across North America.
Participants include Griffin Prize winner Christian Bök (Eunoia), Griffin and Governer Governor-General’s Award finalist Ken Babstock (Airstream Land Yacht), Griffin shortlisted poet Suzanne Buffam (The Irrationalist), G-G nominee Evelyn Lau (Oedipal Dreams), and Michael Turner (Hard Core Logo).
We have some non-poet here, but the keynote reading will feature Governor-General’s Award and Griffin Prize winner Don McKay (Strike/Slip); prolific and esteemed U.S. writer Fanny Howe (On the Ground); and fellow American Martin Espada, a Pulitzer Prize finalist (for The Republic of Poetry).
According to a recent Vancouver Sun article, there was a landmark 1963 poetry conference, which brought some U.S. superstars to town. Hm, clearly time for another major poetry event.
The conference will be at SFU Woodward’s in October. The 90-minute sessions will be for readings and discussions.
Plus V125PC coincides with the Vancouver International Writers Festival, which means there will be a lot of literary madness going on in this city.
“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”
This was the opening paragraph of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone which I read in the morning on my way to my internship with Raincoast Books in 1998.
I was immediately hooked by the language. I love first paragraphs of novels and here, right off the bat, JK Rowling had set the stage for the most magical of books by honing in on the lack-luster imagination of this suburban middle class couple.
By the time I arrived at Raincoast (a 40 minute bus ride later), I was incapable of working. I basically told my boss that I couldn’t do any work that day because Harry Potter was trapped in the dungeon with Fluffy, the giant three-headed dog, and I needed to see how it was all going to work out.
Harry Potter was actually on the third floor of Hogwarts, but I didn’t think anyone would understand what I was talking about. They knew Harry Potter, dungeon, wizard, and that was enough.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had been published in the UK the previous year (June 30, 1997).
My interest was peaked because JK Rowling had received a $100,000 advance from Scholastic to publish the books in the US, and that was a big news story at the time.
Raincoast Books, as the distributor of Bloomsbury UK, discovered that they actually had the rights to publish the Harry Potter books in Canada. (There was initially some confusion about who had the rights and Alan Macdougall, president of Raincoast, had met with Christopher Little (Jo’s agent) at Frankfurt, and they’d sorted out the deal. Raincoast, not Scholastic, had the rights in Canada. And off we went!)
So I was initially lured into reading the book because of the publicity about its author, and also because Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was set to be published in July 1998.
As my internship was coming to an end, I was working in the catalogue department at Raincoast Books. For those of you not in book publishing, publishers create a catalogue of all the books they are publishing that season. There’s a cover image of the book, a descriptive blurb, and author bio and sometimes a couple of interior shots for picture books or photography books.
Those catalogues are printed and given to sales reps who then visit booksellers and, using the catalogue, pitch the titles to the booksellers, who then determine what books will be stocked on the shelves and promoted.
My job was to find something interesting to say about the Harry Potter books because we were putting both in the catalogue and needed to give them a little push. In particular, we knew that there were 7 books in the series and series sales tended to wane as the series progressed. We wanted to see what kind of audience we could build from the beginning, assuming it was going to dwindle with each book.
(Raincoast.com 1998 website copy)
I know it’s hard to imagine a time when Harry Potter wasn’t popular, but JK Rowling attended some deplorable book readings in bookstore basements next to the toilets where trapped book browsers were compelled to listen because they happened to be nearby when she started reading to the handful of guests who’d shown up.
That was another lifetime ago.
And tonight, quite possibly 13 years later to the date of my first Harry Potter encounter, I am attending the midnight showing for the last Harry Potter film.
“I am dead excited” as the British fans like to say. And although I’m a little sad to see this part of the franchise come to an end, I am really looking forward to Pottermore and the adventures that lie ahead.
Cheers to Harry Potter, JK Rowling and the friends that I have met along the way!
The Penderwicks is Jeanne Birdsall’s first book and I’m quite pleased that she’s since written a series about the four Penderwick sisters. Rosalind, 12, is the oldest, then there’s Skye, Jane and Batty. Plus Mr. Penderwick and Hound, the dog.
In this first novel, the Penderwicks find themselves summering at the beautiful estate called Arundel. The grounds are magnificent, the cottage quaint and the owner of the estate is a cold-hearted, nasty woman who cares about her garden winning first place in the Garden Competition, her son being well behaved and the four Penderwick daughters being out of sight. (Ok, she’s not really cold-hearted, but she rather sharp tongued and a bossy boots.)
The Penderwicks is charming. If you’re a fan of The Sound of Music, Pippy Longstocking, or any of Enid Blyton’s books, then this new series will seem like an old friend.
Good morning Harry Potter fans! It is less than a week to the opening of the final Harry Potter film. As the publicity wagon picks up speed, you’ll notice more and more attention is paid to the wizarding world. An example of this appears in today’s Vancouver Sun. I’m featured in an article “Potions for Muggles”. More to come on this later today but if you’ve landed on this page looking for Harry Potter perfumes, visit: http://botanyofdelight.com
Lots of good writing exists in Canada, but there are a couple of authors who stand out for me and Miriam Toews is one of them. Maybe I recognize the Prairie sense of humour, or maybe she’s just really good.
Irma Voth is the quirky protagonist of this novel. She’s 19, married, Mennonite and living in Mexico. The problem is that she married a narco Mexican named Jorge who wants her to leave Campo 6.5, and whether he’s a narco or not, her father disapproves of Mexicans, anyone who leaves the campo, and everything his daughters do or want to do.
If my dad’s assessment was accurate this place was teeming with narcos, and not just the garden-variety narcos but narcosatanics in search of sensations (like Jorge, allegedly), bored with drinking blood from skulls and poised to bolt for bigger thrills while the rest of us were in it for the long haul, working hard and honestly for very little money, the way God meant for us to be. But I didn’t believe it. I think my uncle got a job selling cars in Canada and Wilf wanted to study the violin and my aunt thought it would be cool to get a prm. But who knows. Maybe they’re a family of drug lords now, throwing bodies out of helicopters and bowling with the heads of double-crossers. That would be my father’s theory.
The reclusively of Irma’s Mennonite community makes for some misunderstandings and confusion when a film crew moves in to make a documentary of the community. Irma, already ostracized from her family, is swept up in the madness of the film and hired as a translator for the lead German actress. Her innocence and curiosity is a virtue and a pesky annoyance to those more worldly. What I like about Toews’ writing is that Irma’s ignorance and questioning is more sound than the seemingly insightful musings of the film director, the lead actress, the film crew and Jorge. Irma gets it, even when she doesn’t.