Thursday, 19 December 2013

Digression: Marketing Advice for Artists from 'Christmas Magic,' a Made-for-TV Xmas Movie

   Made-for-TV Xmas movies are the best, not least because they're so unflappably (and arguably pathologically) optimistic about the redemption that each and every Special Season ushers in—for individuals, families, and entire municipalities!!

   Christmas Magic effortlessly reflects the genre's manic, chirpy disposition. Oakville, Ontario's own Lindy Booth (Relic Hunter, Warehouse 13) stars in Hallmark Channel's pop-Christian heartwarmer, directed by Stratford's own John Bradshaw (of Christmas Star, Mistletoe Over Manhattan, The Town Christmas Forgot, Cancel Christmas...and Pegasus Vs. Chimera fame). 
   It's an "original movie" in the sense that a Hallmark greeting card represents "original art."

   Booth plays Carrie Bishop, who is killed in the opening five minutes. 

   No angel (yet), she's a conniver, a backstabbing event planner who steals clients from her former boss and mentor using hinted-at but never fully disclosed feminine wiles...
   Carrie can't resist gloating, of course, and decides to make a cellphone call to her ex-boss while driving. In the middle of her villainous boasts, she's hit by an oncoming vehicle. Apparently, God doesn't always move in mysterious ways.
   Dazed, Carrie appears to wake up in the next scene. She's outdoors; there are white Christmas lights and a wide set of stairs, but otherwise she's all alone and confused. A man in a military uniform, who'd warned her just minutes before about talking on the cellphone while driving, approaches her and says, "I warned you about driving and using the cellphone." (Besides mapping redemption in various forms, TV Xmas flicks are always irrepressible, even evangelical, Message Movies, uncomplicated parables for the Age of Television).
   The stranger also informs her that she's Tot, as the Germans say. And that since she was such a nasty careerist hag in real life (these aren't his exact words), she's got one chance to make amends—all by midnight on Christmas Eve!
   Naturally, this stranger in military clothing is a guardian angel who will oversee her Heavenly Assignment of helping a befuddled sad-sack widower fix his life and dowdy restaurant, which serves terribly unfashionable and paradoxically bland Chicken Piquante (the tell-tale sign of the restaurant's imminent bankruptcy). 
   Carrie'll burn in eternal hellfire if she fails—that's implied, not stated—but can float to her own fluffy cloud in Heaven if she succeeds. By Godly omnipotence she's whisked off to a picturesque small town (Ontario's own Hamilton, in fact).

   And so begins the renovation of Carrie Bishops corroded soul. 

   I stopped watching soon after, so I don't know for sure how her journey ends. My guess is the legendary pearly gates (re: the Book of Revelation 12:21—"The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.")
   Along the way, newly non-conniving Carrie stops by a gallery, where a nervous artist is hanging paintings for his first solo show. 
   He's pacing, sweating, and wringing his hands. He could use a Quaalude. This being a Christmas movie, a genre philosophically opposed to pharmacology, the anxious artist gets helpful advice instead—from Carrie (who is, after all, an event planner from New York City). Grateful, he bows to her metropolitan expertise.
   She scans the four white walls of the small square of a room and then asks him, "So, what's your catch phrase?"
   "Huh? Catch phrase?" He's bewildered.
   "Yeah, a catch phrase. So that everyone will remember what to say about your show the next day."
   She returns to scanning the walls, which feature the artist's brightly-coloured depictions of Americana West iconography in a Pop Art style. 
   "I've got it," Carrie announces. "New American Classics."
   Guess what? The next day, the phase "New American Classics" is falling out of gallery-goers' mouths. It's a Christmas miracle!

   Fellow artists, you have a novel coming out, a short story collection, some poetry, perhaps your first solo show, and you've reminded friends of the fact, made attempts to befriend and/or ingratiate yourself with arts section newspaper/magazine/online literary site editors, and made efforts to simultaneously (a) increase the scope of your socializing and (b) mentally substitute hazy, unproductive "socializing" with entrepreneurial, go-for-the-throat "networking." You're willing to kiss ass, shake hands, kiss babies. 

   Good for you. You are a brand, and this brand is a business enterprise within a competitive capitalist environment. The brand must grow. Stagnation is not an option.
   But have you brainstormed about your catch phrase yet? Is it clever? Accurate? Memorable? 
   You must assure that your catch phrase trips off the tongues of well-heeled consumers. You want Michiko Kakutani, Adam Begley, and James Wood to be singing "[insert your catch phrase here]" as they wander from bookstore to launch to publishing industry insiders' party and have other women and men of influence ask, "So what's that catchy tune?" They'll reply, "[insert your catch phrase here]." Before they walk off, they'll add, "Trust me, it's sure to be a hit."    
   Trust literally angelic Carrie; she knows a thing or two.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Barry Dempster's "The Outside World" and Kelli Deeth's "The Other Side of Youth"

   In the Toronto Star Alex Good recently identified Douglas Glover's Savage Love as the "best book of 2013 you probably never heard of," and praised the book as a stylistic masterpiece (overlooked chiefly because its author tends to write experimental short fiction published by small presses, he'd opined in an earlier review).

   My feelings for The Outside World are similar. Not the experimental masterpiece bit, but the should-be-widely-recognized-and-has-not-been sentiment.
   If in the furiously active world of Twitter, products and brands are ever-trending (as in "Now Trending: Disney Star Dylan Sprouse’s Nude Selfie Lands on Twitter, and Other Hot Topics"—thank you for the headline, Globe and Mail), then, I imagine The Outside World is resolutely non-trending (untrending? flatlining?). 
   At least the mediasphere that has made me aware of the books I ought to read (Glover's, Boyden's, Catton's, etc) hasn't as yet let me know to add Dempster's fine Bildungsroman to the pile.
   The quietly sensational novel tells about a young teenage boy's dilemmas in his world, which is suburban Scarborough circa 1966. One affecting charm is in the hapless character and his wrestling with the complications of a family environment that radically destabilizes. The other comes with Dempster's prose, which is neither baroque nor experimental (as it reflects, more or less, the knowledge and ability of its adolescent protagonist), but manages to not become merely prosaic (which would probably be an accurate representation of the writing style of an actual 13-year-old) because Dempster's other work (as a poet) suffuses the prose to just the right degree.
chief among them the fact that he mainly writes experimental short fiction published by small presses - See more at:
chief among them the fact that he mainly writes experimental short fiction published by small presses - See more at:


   I experienced misgiving when I struggled over the review of The Other Side of Youth, Kelli Deeth's second story collection, because I had such ambivalence about the book. 
   I admired the craft of the writing, for one, and that's no small matter. Deeth's stories are subtle and superbly engineered, and they express an attention to detail and emotional nuance that stands well above average (which is to say you both remember them and think about aspects of them well after the fact).
   And while the title seems to promise views (emphasis on the plural) of post-youth life, the stories return again and again to a type, a white, heterosexual, and more or less middle class Ontarian, who's marked by a passiveness and masochism with regard to romantic and sexual relationships, her parents (domineering, hectoring mothers in particular), and agency. They're stuck, in other words, and evidently going nowhere fast.
   Taken together, the stories reflected, to me, a relentlessly closed-off, nihilistic, and claustrophobia-inducing setting and a population of female characters that makes the masochistic women of Mary Gaitskill short stories seem boundlessly optimistic. Besides the fact that this narrowly singular vision of WASP femininity matches nothing in my sphere of experience or awareness, my feelings as the reader of a collection of short stories were (and are): why? 
   The compulsion to write more or less the same character in different, albeit similarly hopeless, settings, is an interesting one. As a reader of a collection of stories, though, I'm personally interested in seeing how  - over nine or ten or a dozen outings - an author can register various views of various parts of the social worlds that interest them and their readers.
   As I've implied here and also explicitly stated, these words are personal reactions to these stories. Others have found (and will find) nothing to kvetch about in Keeth's angle of approach. They're likely to sing her book's praises. 

Monday, 2 December 2013

Digression: Favourite Readings (2013)


   The only planned reading I have for December is vintage...from 1972 in fact. (It's Xavier Hollander's The Happy Hooker, and I'm reading it for research purposes. The right, research. 
   That scandalous memoir is a point of reference for characters of the current novel I'm writing, and rather than faking it à la How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, I'm going to re-read its jail to riches to rags story. That will be the first time since, hmm, junior high school.)
since the only planned reading I have for December predates 2013, I'm free to formulate a list of favourite books of the year. I won't presume to argue that they're qualitatively The Best (that category's a morass, a bog of quicksand: best to avoid it altogether). And considering the large majority of them were assigned for reviews, the sampling isn't particularly wide.
   I enjoyed them, though, and claim them unequivocally as reading experiences I'd recommend for others. (The Sun asked a few contributors for their Top 5 books—with reasons why—and mine can be viewed here.)

   In no special order, here they are—


 The Outside World by Barry Dempster


Mount Pleasant by Don Gillmor

 Caught by Lisa Moore

 Fresh Hell: Motherhood in Pieces by Carellin Brooks


 Juanita Wildrose: My True Life by Susan Downe


Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood


 Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery


The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country by Charlotte Gray



   The Once and Future World by J.B. MacKinnon

  Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris


    As for less-than-pleasant and less-than-recommended, there were novels by D.W. Wilson, Shyam Selvadurai, and Douglas Coupland. Seeing that one was nominated for a national literary prize and another was called the finest novel of the year
by one Victoria-based reviewer, take my opinion as highly subjective. I also don't like whistling, Moshe Safdie's design for the Vancouver Public Library central branch, sandwiches with bottled mayonnaise in them, a single long-stemmed rose given as a token of affection, the mystifying acid-wash denim revival, the Pontiac Aztec™, Axe for Men, and the unexpectedly persistent trend of Affliction™ MMA couture.