Current Reading

A quick overview of my current reading projects.

The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, by William St Clair

As can likely be guessed by the title, this is an academic study of reading habits throughout the Romantic period. It actually goes further than this, with a thorough examination of how intellectual property laws were developed to support the printing industry, and how this affected book prices, print runs, and general availability of books through the Romantic and Victorian ages. There are roughly three hundred pages of appendices containing tables of print runs and unit price of various works of interest throughout the period. It’s a very complex study, and I’ve only read a few chapters so far, but I’ve been quite impressed so far. The impact of intellectual property is especially relevant today, especially when one considers the Google Books settlement. I’m certainly oversimplifying the importance of this book, I just haven’t read enough of it yet to fully grasp whats going on.

The Last Man, by Mary Shelley

I’m reading the Bison Books edition from 2006, which aside from a few minor alterations, exactly follows the text of the first (1826) edition. I’ve only read two chapters so far, and I intend on taking notes while reading this. I can see some similarities already with Frankenstein, as Lionel starts out a rough savage, to be later educated in the classics. The opening chapters focus on the wilderness and freedom of youth, which I expect to recur as the novel progresses. It should be a most interesting novel.

Campus Chills, edited by Mark Leslie

I read several of the stories in this anthology when it launched, and I’m finally getting around to finishing it off. The best stories so far have been ones deeply rooted in a particular location. Three of the stories were written by Waterloo graduates. Julie E. Czerneda’s “The Forever Brotherhood”, James Alan Gardner’s “Truth-Poison”, and Douglas Smith’s “Radio Nowhere” all take place on the Waterloo campus. I was fortunate enough to attend the book launch in October, and all three read excerpts from their stories. Kimberly Foottit and Mark Leslie wrote “Prospero’s Ghost” which takes place at McMaster. “Different Skins” by Michael Kelly takes place on Philosopher’s Walk at the University of Toronto.

The story I liked best from this anthology is Douglas Smith’s “Radio Nowhere“, which has recently been posted on his website. While all the stories give some view of the supernatural, hauntings and horror, “Radio Nowhere” also carried a great melancholic sense of guilt and  loss. It’s a great story.

I’m reading some other books at the moment as well, but they’re currently on hold while I focus on these.

Book Review: Steel Whispers

I would like to recommend Steel Whispers, by Hayden Trenholm for the Aurora Award this year. This is an exciting sequel to Defining Diana, which was nominated last year. This novel once again follows Frank Steele in a brilliantly imagined future Calgary.

The pacing of this novel started off strong, and kept me reading at a frenetic pace. In particular, the opening hook has a great deal of emotional impact, and as the mystery draws itself out, layers of character development are revealed. Within the first pages, Frank Steele begins investigating the murder of his estranged son, as part of an ongoing case of Borg (cyborg) murders. Frank protests his emotional investment in the case, and the novel focuses on how Frank comes to understand his son. Hayden builds on this initial level of emotional tension throughout the novel, in a remarkable novel.

The revelation that his son had Borg implants is particularly interesting, and handled in a manner consistent with gender identity studies. When Frank asks his ex-wife about their son’s implants, she replies that he was “like all kids – enamoured with what was new and different. He hung with that dress-up crowd at college” but she also admits that she didn’t “pay much attention. I thought it was a fad” (14). She seems genuinely confused as to what actually defines a Borg.

This point is highlighted by one of the viewpoint characters, Buzz Wannamaker, who in addition to being a Borg, is also Native American. Frank notes that “his parents had enough trouble accepting he was Borg without him talking to voices in his head” (26). This dual concept of identity explores the problem of how we see ourselves, and how others see us. When Frank later asks him to define what defines a Borg, Wannamaker suggests that it is not the implants, or at least not just the implants but that “something inside us makes us Borg” (98). This way in which this argument is handled is well done, and quite evocative of some of the LGBT issues in contemporary society.

As a culture inherently different from the social norm, there are other comparisons to gender studies. While “some of the Borg didn’t look much different than regular humans with all of the modifications and augmentation hidden under their skin”, others “liked to flaunt their changes” (10). Due in part to their refusal to submit to the social norms, the Borg are social outcasts. With regards to the Borg murder case, Frank notes that the “press was having a field day with the idea of a Borg serial killer, alternating between a sick fascination with the grisly details and vicious speculation on whether the culprit should be hunted down or given a medal” (16). As seen throughout history, those who are different suffer persecution from cultural orthodoxy.

The investigation into his son’s death is linked together with this sense of identity, and Frank comes to finally learn about his son, and to accept who he became. The action and tension in the story is well maintained, building up towards an exciting confrontation near the end. Hayden’s characters are much more fully developed in this story, as they evolve from detective-noir style caricatures and confront their inner demons. This is a great strength of the novel, as Hayden can effectively characterize with a few sentences, later to build very complex characters whose struggles, failures and successes are meaningful.

This focus on identity has brought an interesting Canadian perspective into the novel.

Creative Writing Retrospective

Last term, I was enrolled in English 335 at the University of Waterloo. This course was a workshop based course on creative writing. This course had a great deal of potential, but only partially lived up to my expectations.

The course is composed of three main areas of creative writing: poetry, short fiction, and drama (called “collaborative performance” in the syllabus). While I was most interested in the short fiction component, I also greatly enjoyed the poetry unit. For each of the first two units, two new poems or short stories were written and workshopped. One of each was then chosen to be thoroughly revised, and justification provided for the revisions. The collaborative performance was written and edited in groups, and was presented in class on the last day.

Possibly the best part about the course was the license to write. I not only wanted to write, but I was compelled to do so. The poetry unit helped me to think more deeply about the fundamentals of language, while the fiction unit allowed me to concentrate on narrative.

In contrast, the drama unit provided me with little value. The collaborative work was interesting, but there was little focus placed on revision after the presentation. This unit also took considerable time which I would have rather spent writing more poetry or fiction. The performance aspect of the work was also uncomfortable. My group read our script, rather than memorizing it. I did not have the time to spend memorizing a script. This is a creative writing course, not a drama course. Maybe this part of the course was more meaningful to others in the class, but I felt it detracted from my experience.

There was very little academic content in the course, which is expected for a creative writing course. It is listed as a workshop course, not a lecture. There are other courses which focus on the short story, and others which focus on poetry from the academically critical perspective. This course focused on creating and revising effective writing.

The workshop portion of the course was valuable, but also frustrating at times. The class size was excessive. There were over twenty people enrolled in this section of the course. When workshopping as an entire class, critiques of everyone’s work meant taking two nights to cover everyone. For the second piece in the poetry and fiction units, we broke into smaller, more focused groups, reading five pieces instead of twenty. In general however, there was not enough time to effectively critique the writing. If the class was smaller, more time could be spent on each individual piece, or each student could write another piece.

In general, I found the critique process to be poorly defined. The majority of the time was spent discussing what people liked, and what people didn’t. A particular phrase was often pointed out as being cool. It was more rare to hear a critique which focused on elements such as pacing or plot construction. The instructor frequently brought up the need to focus on characterization. This is a fault I was guilty of, in at least one of my stories, which I later gutted and rewrote from scratch.

Another frustration was having my work reviewed last in both the poetry and fiction sections. I realize that someone always has to be last, but it’s no more fun in creative writing than it is in high school gym class.

The pacing of the course seemed excessively slow. Over twelve weeks, we wrote two poems, of which one was revised, and wrote two pieces of flash fiction, of which one was revised. Added to this was the writing, editing and performance of a collaborative drama. Five pieces of original writing, and two revisions. I was expecting more writing in the course, and ultimately found the level of workshop discussion unsatisfying, primarily due to the lack of time for individual reviews.

I think this course would benefit from a bit more structure in the critique process. What sort of things should be looked at during a critique, for example. A simple list of some of the basic elements of fiction, such as plot, characterization and effective dialogue would have improved some of the reviews. By the middle of the term, I was getting rather tired of hearing the phrase “I really enjoyed this story” prefacing a simplistic review.

The instructor also has a bias against genre fiction, although it was allowed in the course. This can be understandable, as it is much more difficult to assess work in a genre in which one has little experience. From my perspective, it’s much easier to write in the genre in which I read. Without knowing the conventions of a particular genre, it can be difficult to determine if a certain phrase or concept is typical of the genre. The instructor primarily reads literary fiction, I believe.

I’m not sure if I will enroll in the advanced creative writing course. I think I need to spend some more time to absorb the experience of the first course, before I come to a decision.