Before I worked at a bookstore, books were just things to be read. I never gave much thought to the big glossy volumes that occupy a lot of shelf space in many book stores. But the world of so-called “coffee table books” is surprisingly varied, going way beyond books of art or photographs of faraway places. With impressive production values – and hefty price tags – these books are closer to works of art than literature. I was reminded of this after an article London Review of Books pointed me to a book called Disruptive Pattern Material: An Encyclopaedia Of Camoflage: Nature, Military, Culture. The heft and glossiness of such a volume, despite – or perhaps because of – its esoteric focus, somehow make it inordinately desirable to me. Taschen, the eccentric European publishing house known for its expensive and eclectic selections, also occasionally puts out books that have this affect on me, like the Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. And I’m a sucker for atlases, the bigger and glossier and more stuffed with maps and diagrams and charts the better, like the National Geographic Atlas of the World. I am especially intrigued by atlases devoted to a narrow topic like the Atlas of Contemporary Architecture.
Another weekend, another festival in Toronto.Millions readers in Toronto take note: Undaunted after a summer of festivals piled on top of festivals (Film, Fringe, Pride, Caribana, Jazz, NXNE, Luminato, and others that I’m sure I’m forgetting), Toronto grabs a few winks, splashes on some water, and bounces back with a few more festivals for the literary and art crowd.First of all, I would be remiss if I didn’t throw out a shameless plug for one of my favourite events in Toronto: Nuit Blanche. Beginning at 7pm Saturday September 29th, downtown Toronto turns into an art lover’s paradise with an all-night, all-free, art extravaganza. Meet friends at the nearest outdoor art installation as the clock strikes midnight, stroll through tiny galleries at three in the morning, or just marvel until the sun comes up at the latest crazy thing to burst from an artist’s imagination.Then grab a nap and head over to Queen’s Park for the Word on the Street festival. Sunday, September 30: Word on the Street is back, nestled in leafy Queen’s Park, with readings and workshops spotlighting the best and most anticipated in Canadian literature.Finally, beginning Wednesday, October 17, and continuing until Saturday, October 27th, Toronto’s Harbourfront hosts the International Festival of Authors with ten days of readings and round tables by a few dozen of the best and biggest authors in the world. This year, you can hear the likes of Margaret Atwood, Ian Rankin, M.G. Vassanji, Michael Ondaatje, Tracy Chevalier, Jasper Fforde, Will Self, and J. K. Rowling. I went to a few readings and round-tables last year, and was lucky enough to hear Deborah Eisenberg, Edward P. Jones, Alberto Manguel and Ralph Steadman. I even met Wallace Shawn!
The first chapter (or a fraction thereof) of John Irving’s new novel Until I Find You has been posted at the Random House Web site. This novel looks like standard Irving – in the brief excerpt I noticed two classic Irving tropes, Toronto and a protagonist with a missing father. It’s hard to say if the book will be good or bad. His last couple have been clunkers, but if Irving has managed to recreate some of the magic from his earlier novels in Until I Find You, I’ll certainly read it. According to this article in the Times, he started the book back in 1998, which I’ll take as a good sign. The reviews will probably start coming in soon. The book comes out July 12.Update: Until I Find You gets a “B-” at the Complete Review.
Rex Sorgatz (who runs the excellent Fimoculous) has noted a trend in the accessible non-fiction category: the “My Year As…” book. The author spends an entire year reading the OED or gorging on the competitive eating circuit, all to provide a window into a subculture, give the author an opportunity to poke a little fun at him or herself, and ultimately provide fodder for a book. Were I to trace the genesis of its trend, I would speculate that it’s the offspring of Morgan Sperlock’s gluttonous and popular experiment Super Size Me and the proliferation and popularity of reality television, wherein a regular Joe endures a contrived concept and the world watches. Sorgatz has compiled a list of these books, which at 22 strong, inclines this observer to think that the “year” may be nearing its end for this type of book.This trend, of course, replaced an earlier trend, “biographies of things,” which had “changed the world,” according to the assertions of the authors and publishers, perhaps achieving its apotheosis with Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. This trend was succinctly dismissed by Richard Adams in the Gaurdian, writingIn a sense, yes, all these things have changed the world, but only in a general sense that everything that exists changes the world.
I first experienced ennui while solving a crossword puzzle — no, not the actual feeling of listlessness or dissatisfaction; rather, that’s when I first encountered the word. My adventures in a new tongue had begun, a strange language called Crosswordese, which consists of words used often by crossword makers but rarely experienced in the real world. (By the way, in Crosswordese, a crossword maker is known as a cruciverbalist.)
Do you speak Crosswordese? When you lose a button from a shirt and can’t find the sewing kit, do you ask your partner where the etui is kept? Might you sometimes mischievously refer to margarine as oleo? Have you ever stridden into a church just to point out what a great apse it has?
I started a life of crossword-solving as a teenager, almost three decades before my first novel, Black Chalk, was published, and I give credit to the world of puzzles for helping foster my interest in language.
But crosswords are about more than accumulating words: crosswords are about having fun with words; crosswords are, in fact, about loving words.
Among my favorite crossword clues are the following (answers at the bottom of this piece in case you want to solve):
HIJKLMNO? (5 letters)
Site of unexpected change? (4 letters)
Where there’s a Will? (12 letters)
See, crosswords encourage you to play with language. And, as a novelist, I get to play in the sandbox of words every day. But more than just aiding in a love of language, more than just encouraging you to have fun with words, crosswords also stimulate skills such as lateral thinking, humor, and synonym use. You could say that crosswords are the ideal training tool for a novelist.
But the ways in which puzzles have affected my life as a novelist go deeper than the mere enjoyment of solving crosswords. In my early 20s, having discovered that I absolutely loathed Law (the subject of my college degree and subsequent training, and the area in which my parents wished me to work), I needed to find a job. I had known for some time that I wanted to be a novelist, but at that tender age I think I felt too young to write fiction. (And I know I felt considerably too scared.) So instead of turning to novels right away, I got a job in another area I loved: puzzles. And for years, I edited and compiled all sorts of puzzles — crosswords, logic problems, word searches, sudoku, riddles, spot the difference…How could all of this fail to leach into my fiction?
If Black Chalk reads like a puzzle (and many reviewers have stated as much) then it is as much because of my work in that field as it is because I enjoy challenging myself — I really do like tormenting myself with plot problems, it seems. As a writer you sit on your own in a small room for a very long time — and one of the ways I like to keep myself entertained, it turns out, is by constantly pivoting and twisting my plots like the pieces of a Rubik’s Cube until I come across a pattern I find particularly pleasing.
It feels to me that staring at the blank page is a lot like staring at a blank crossword grid. When I make up a crossword, I have, say, a theme and 10 or a dozen answers that I want to place in the grid. And when I set out to write a novel, I have a theme and 10 or a dozen plot points or developments that I want to place in the story. And so the challenge, in both cases, becomes one of getting everything to interlock, of making everything work together, a matter of filling in the gaps in the most pleasing way possible.
Because, let’s face it, what better way is there than solving puzzles to stave off the feeling of…I’m stumbling for the right word here…It’s something like boredom…Dammit, I’m supposed to be good at synonyms…Ah, that’s it: ennui.
⅄∀M∀H⊥∀H ƎNN∀ ؛∀ℲOS ؛(¡O oʇ\ᄅ H) ᴚƎ⊥∀M :sɹǝʍsu∀
Image Credit: Flickr/Chip Griffin