Sunday 28 October 2012

My Pushcart nominated essay, "Six Pixels of Separation," now available at Amazon

What a fantastic essay! 
 I love it more with each reading!

~ Sylvia Legris, Editor, Grain Magazine

I'm pleased to announce that my Pushcart Prize nominated essay, "Six Pixels of Separation," has just been published at . Normally, I would have put it up on this blog...but I've now accepted (just like The New York Times) that writers must be compensated for their work, and so this 4,000 word piece is available online for the nominal sum of $2.99 (USD).

Six Pixels of Separation originally appeared in Grain Magazine during Sylvia Legris' tenure (Vol. 37.4, Summer 2010, p. 34-43, for those of you who want to read along at home).

Sylvia liked it so much, she also submitted it to Canada's National Magazine Awards, to be considered  in TWO categories: 'Personal Journalism' and 'One of a Kind.'

This is one of my very favourite pieces since I started writing full-time in 2005 and I'm very glad to be able to share it with you in this lovely edition, featuring a photograph of the cabin we five Fishtrap Fellows used when we were welcomed to the 2008 Summer Fishtrap Writing Conference.

Here we are at Fishtrap back in 2008 (funny that all five Fellows that year were women...we called ourselves the Fellas). These are some of the most impressive writers I have ever been privileged to meet, and I'm thrilled to be able to introduce them to you here, in case you haven't yet "met" them. From left: Jennifer D. Munro (originally from Hawaii, a woman who writes with affecting humour of her fertility travails--please see The Erotica Writer's Husband and Other Stories), me, Judith Groudine Finkel, novelist, and author of the moving short story "Two by Four", and two wonderful poets, Anna Ross (Hawk Weather), and Lorraine Healey whose The Habit of Buenos Aires won the Patricia Bibby First Book Award.

Here's the blurb from Six Pixels of Separation; I do hope you find the time to check it out!

"A couple of summers ago, I flew from my home in Montreal across the continent to Oregon for the first time, on points cadged from my husband. He travelled a lot for work. Because I quit science to pursue art several years back, I sponge off him shamelessly these days. And not just for plane tickets..."

One evening, after an argument with her husband about sex, Beverly Akerman wraps herself in a blanket and starts reading Raymond Carver. What follows is a heartfelt melding of reflections on love, sex, the Holocaust, evolution, literature, coincidence, windmills, and a trip to and from the Wallowa Lake, Oregon, celebration of writing and life known as Fishtrap. Read this astonishing essay by a major new writing talent.

Essay section headings: 

I: Irrigator evolution
II: Moraines
III: Raymond
IV: Darwin’s faith
V: Making a difference
VI: Valuables          
VII: Keeping track
VIII: The fellowship of the rings
IX: Renard
X: Rich
XI: The Dalles
XII: Change
XIII: Conflict
XIV: La langue française
XV: Arbeit macht Frei
XVII: The hard part
XVIII: Windmillus sapiens sapiens

Includes 13 footnotes.


Wednesday 24 October 2012

Did The Giller cause Douglas & McIntyre's demise?

Much is being made of the filing for bankruptcy protection and restructuring of Douglas & McIntyre, and many of the articles mention favourably the publishers’ stable of authors. Prominent among these is Johanna Skibsrud, author of the 2010 Giller Prize winning The Sentimentalists. In fact, prior to the naming of the book to the Giller short list, it had sold a mere 400 copies, boosted by another 2,000 after shortlisting, according to The National Post

After a quick scramble over several days that captured arts headlines, Gaspereau Press defending its hand-cranked manufacturing process (did they deliver them by horse and buggy, too, one wonders? No wonder book stores and publishers are dropping like flies)--Douglas &McIntyre inked a deal with Gaspereau  to provide 30,000 more copies. 

Unfortunately, a look at social media aggregators reveals that the public didn’t much like The Sentimentalists.

On Goodreads, 53 per cent of 1,248 responders liked the book; 46 per cent gave it only one or two stars. On, 30 of 41 responders gave it one or two stars.

Here’s a five star review written by “sean s.,” a “Top 50” reviewer from Montreal...digging a little, I surmise "sean s." is a professional “reviewer” who probably works in publicity or marketing:  his last 10 reviews (posted between Sept. 11th and Oct. 7th) are all five stars, and include most of the Giller finalists and all of the GG finalists...

Johanna Skibsrud is a 30-year-old Montreal writer, who is currently completing her PhD at l'Université de Montréal. She now also has the distinction of being the youngest author ever to have won Canada's most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize.

An early version of this novel served as Ms. Skibsrud's Master's dissertation at Concordia University.

The Sentimentalists is written in an oneiric, poetic style with nuances of emotion that belie the author's young age. The troubling subject matter, gradually uncovered with archeological patience, is based in part on the Vietnam War experiences of Johanna's own deceased father.

The novel opens in the Fargo, North Dakota trailer home of Napoleon Haskell, a Vietnam veteran. A rambling home, because Napoleon, a carpenter, has made numerous additions over the years:

"At the end of the corridor was the room my father referred to as the `second library' - the `first' having reach its limits years before. My father was a great reader and a great rememberer of things, though he never remembered anything in the right order, or entirely, and always had just little bits of all the books and poems he'd ever read floating around in his mind."

As his health deteriorates, Napoleon's daughters move him from his trailer to the town of Casablanca, Ontario, to live out his twilight years with Henry, the father of Napoleon's deceased brother-in-arms Owen.

There, after gradually opening up to his daughter about his own fragmented memories of Vietnam, Napoleon succumbs to lung cancer:

"In the same way, I suppose, that for the drowning man there comes, though several times he raises himself above the surface, the irrefutable moment in which it is certain that he will not raise himself again, and the last bubbles of his final exhalations arise and disperse, and an invisible seal is drawn across the waves... we gave him up."

Explaining the origins of the book, Skibsrud has said "The real beginning of this story was a summer I spent working on Flagstaff Lake (in Maine)... That fall, with the beginning of a story in my head, my father began to speak for the first time about his experiences in the Vietnam War. I am still not sure exactly why he told me his story when he did, but I think it had to do - it was 2003 then - with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which had been for some time stirring in him a deep anger toward a government willing to repeat the mistakes of the past at the expense of innocent people; soldiers as well as civilians."

Though the story recounted is fascinating, the real strength of this book is the accomplished writing. Michael Enright, a member of the Giller jury said "I read it twice, and it's amazing even the second time, and I think it would be even more amazing the third time."

The “most helpful” two star review:

…It is evident that literary scholars find this book a wonderful read. As an individual who reads books for entertainment, I found this book to be slow and without flow. Half way into the book I found myself reading the back cover to ensure that I had purchased the book whose description I had read - the synopsis on the back sounds very intriguing, but the book seemed aimless. Again, this may be because I am just a `lay person' and as such am unable to fully appreciate the author's literary genius…

Over at Librarything, the verdict was slightly less harsh: 85 ratings with a mean of 2.92 stars

It is very rare for me to close a book, unfinished, and know that I will likely never go back to try and finish it. I closed this book on page 65 still not clear on who the characters were or what their stories are. This book won the Giller prize - I had an expectation of a good read that fell far, far short. ( * )

A beautifully written novel that deserves to be read slowly; I read it at a pretty steady pace so I am sure I missed a lot. It is multi-layered and a moving story about a daughter trying to understand her father and the unreliability of memory.  ( ****)

Which raises the question: although the debacle must have been years in the making and probably not the result of a single bad decision, did their rush to grab The Sentimentalists hasten D&M’s demise?

And, for the future of Canadian publishing, let’s hope that the tastes of this year’s Giller judges are more in harmony with those of the purchasing public.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

The Meaning of Children wins 2012 J.I. Segal Award

Beverly Akerman’s The Meaning of Children and Stuart Ross’s Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew have co-won the 2012 J.I. Segal Award for English Fiction and Poetry on a Jewish Theme. The nine prizes will be awarded at a public ceremony on Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 7:30 p.m. in the Gelber Conference Centre, 1 Cummings Square (5151 Côte Ste-Catherine Road), Montreal.

Rhea Tregebov’s debut novel The Knife Sharpener’s Bell won the 2010 award. Previous award winners include Irving Layton, Naim Kattan, Adele Wiseman, Prof. Ruth Wisse, Yehoshua Rabinovitch,Yehuda Elberg, Yaacov Zipper, Dora Wasserman, David Homel, Rabbi Leib Kramer, Professor Gershon Hundert, Edeet Ravel, Leonard Cohen, and Ina Fichman.

For the complete list of 2012 winners, please see the event invitation.

"The J.I. Segal Awards of the Jewish Public Library are made possible by the J.I. Segal Cultural Foundation, founded by the late Dr. Hirsh Rosenfeld and Mrs. Dvora Rosenfeld. They were established in 1968 to honour and perpetuate the memory of the great Yiddish-Canadian poet, J.I. Segal, and to foster Jewish cultural creativity in Canada.

"The purpose of the awards, presented every two years, is to encourage and reward creative works on Jewish themes and to recognize contributions in Jewish education, both formal and informal. 

"J.I. Segal (1896-1954) is acknowledged as one of the most respected Yiddish poets. His work is characterized by its deep lyrical expression and evocation of the dignity of Jewish life in the Eastern European shtetl and in Canada. Segal strove to show that “a people and its culture are inseparable.” His poetry lives on in Yiddish and in translation."
Hear Bev interviewed, by Mutsumi Takahashi, about The Meaning of Children, also available as an e-book on

Sunday 14 October 2012

The Meaning of Children and The Bad Review

The Meaning of Children is divided into three parts, featuring stories with protagonists who are children, in the parenting years, or elders. Though I wish it were otherwise, many of the book’s stories are dark, reminding me of that Tolstoy maxim “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and its corollary, “If it’s happy, it’s not literature.”

Growing up, without the rose coloured glasses. To paraphrase Katie Hewitt in The Globe and Mail, these aren’t the wonder years.

But reading a book is like taking a Rorschach test: what you get from it is deeply entwined with what you bring to it, with who you are. 
Which brings us to The Bad Review. Writers are usually admonished to ignore The Bad Review (hopefully, there will only be one!) and focus on the good, and there is much wisdom in that advice. I have also been blessed to have received so much wonderful, positive feedback. But there is also much to be learned from the negative review…and so, despite the kerfuffle between Michael Lista in the National Post and CWILA, based on the earlier call and response round between Jan Zwicky and Zach Wells, I believe in writing, reading, and acknowledging, the bad review. And so, here is a discussion of mine.

Bee Markus oversimplified terribly when she wrote “what the fourteen stories in Akerman’s collection do is describe the myriad ways that mothering and marriage can damage and destroy a woman’s soul and spirit.” (B.A. Markus, mRb, vol. 14, no. 3, Summer 2011. Reproduced below; archived here).

There’s no doubt in my mind “that mothering and marriage can damage and destroy a woman’s soul and spirit (emphasis mine).” Not always, but sometimes. The thing is, my work doesn’t shy away from that. My book takes on the female experience, leaving behind the rose-tinted glasses. Maybe, deep in the heart of the mothering years, it can be hard to appreciate what, exactly, one is sacrificing. Maybe a little denial is not a bad thing.

But (in my opinion) there is much more in the book than what Markus saw; maybe the review says as much about her as it does about the book. That she saw the child point-of-view stories as introducing “the mother as a resentful victim” completely misses the point: that to grow up is to peel a series of layers of knowledge gleaned from experience. That growing up doesn’t end with an eighteenth birthday. It’s a lifelong trip.
Markus’s real problem may have been with the paperback’s cover: all those happy photos suggesting a light-hearted tiptoe through the parenting tulips. This was my publisher’s choice, part of the Faustian bargain that must be struck between gaining the reader (and, more importantly, the bookseller marketing department’s) interest and giving the flavour of the contents. I love the paperback cover and gave it my blessing, though I also warned it might lead to exactly the sort of reaction Markus appears to have had: the suggestion “that the stories behind the cover will most certainly be heart-warming vignettes celebrating the innumerable gifts that children bring to our lives.”

Several women, some “of a certain age,” as we say here in French, actually commented that the book was so much better than they thought it would be, based on the cover. They’ve had enough of the saccharine view that a woman’s life is consummated by motherhood. Which is one reason why I had a problem with Richard Wright’s Clara Callan, where Clara’s inner life, as represented in the series of letters she’s been writing, ends with the birth of her child.

I heartily acknowledge that my book probes the dark hearts of growing up and of mothering, but I also feel that the book as a whole is a much more balanced portrayal than Markus—and mRb--let on. Happily-ever-afterish stories do appear: “Paternity” and “The Woman with Deadly Hands” spring immediately to mind. What I’ve tried to do is to show you my 14 snapshots of life, with compassion. And without glossing over the hard parts.

So, there you have it. My take on The Bad Review. Of course, every writer should be grateful for every single review, good, bad, or indifferent. It means that serious readers seriously considered your work. Which is what every writer dreams of...or, at least, what this writer dreams of.

Thankfully, there are a number of other, much more positive takes from reviewers and other readers. You may find many of them here.

The Meaning of Children is available as a paperback (~$15) or an e-book ($5). Decide for yourself.

Monday 1 October 2012

What feminists--and Conservatives--should do about (defeated) Motion 312


Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

I’ve been a gun control activist since Sept. 14, 2006—which, for those keeping track, was the day after Kimveer Gill’s murderous rampage at Dawson College. And I’m also a strong feminist, for whom a woman’s right to control her own body—aka the right to choose abortion, if necessary—is vital.


So why am I not all bent out of shape about last week’s vote on Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth's Motion 312, which everyone recognizes as the Tories latest attempt to reopen the abortion debate? Because I remember what the Harper Conservatives did with the long gun registry: they turned it into a fundraiser’s wet dream. And I don't want that to happen again.

The more those of us in the pro-choice camp make a stink about a measly private member’s bill that didn’t have a hope in h-e-double-toothpicks of passing, the more quotes Conservatives will have for their future fundraising letters.

Mr. Harper is on tape multiple times, declaring, as he does in this video, that “as long as I'm Prime Minister, we are not reopening the abortion debate.” (see the 27 sec mark in this video).

Absent Henry Morgenthaler’s performing the act buck naked and on-camera in the House of Commons, I take the Prime Minister at his word. On the other hand, of course, once Mr. Harper steps away from the Prime Ministership, all bets are off.

The dance of the seven veils the Conservatives performed over the murder of the long gun registry was probably their single best fundraising issue. “Look,” they said, “we want to kill the registry. We’re trying our best to do so. But we just can’t, not in this Parliament, not unless we have a majority. And that costs, friends. To go from a minority to a majority government costs a lot. So, if you truly love the death of the gun registry, please open your wallets wide…”

Which begs the question: since the Conservative base is chockfull of types who love oil (the less regulated the better), guns (ditto), and the right of all women to, once again, remain barefoot and pregnant, and they already have a majority, why allow piddly little private members like Mr. Woodsworth to propose piddly little motions like this latest one to debate when human life begins? I mean, how dumb do they think their supporters really are?

I believe Motion 312 is just more of the same political hot air, and that pro-choice supporters are shooting their wads, so to speak, by making a big deal of it. Far better to just Youtube a mix of all those clips of Mr. Harper vowing the abortion issue will never be re-opened during his mandate…and then asking him when he’s planning on quitting.

Dear Conservative supporters: as that foreign bank used to say, “save your money.” Until Mr. Harper quits, you’re never going to get a real debate on abortion.

Let’s see: there have been, so far as I can recall, two Tory private member’s bills on abortion, Mr. Woodsworth’s and Mr. Rod Bruinooge’s 2010 motion “that would have made it a crime to ‘coerce’ a woman to have an abortion,” as Aaron Wherry put it in Macleans.

Oh, and dear Conservative supporters, one more little piece of advice, and it goes like this: “fool me once, shame on you…”