Saturday, February 18, 2006

Type Cast 5

Anyone who has been to my house for dinner knows three things. One, I don’t eat critters of any kind, not even semi-sentient prawns or probably-not-sentient fish. Two, I can’t cook anything - anything at all. I have burned canned soup to a hard crust and forgotten to drain the water from macaroni and cheese before adding the orange powder. The less I cook, the longer my guests will live. And three, I know the 2-4-One Pizza delivery number by heart, and the delivery guy calls me Richard.

I’d like to claim some deep spiritual cause for my decision, taken at age 17, to stop eating the local fauna, or at least come up with a sound ecological reason – but the truth is I am pathetically vulnerable to sentimental notions about nature and animals, and meat is too difficult to cook. People die every year from undercooked chicken. People like me.

Because of the above food issues, I detest cookbooks. Cookbooks remind me of the Sears catalogue - just as the sweaters never look as good on me as they do on the glossy pages, the food depicted in cookbooks is as different from the indifferent slop I prepare as Avril Lavigne is from Rita MacNeil. Cookbooks are hateful anxiety machines designed to breed disappointment, self-loathing and a unnatural attraction to coriander.

That is, mainstream cookbooks - the kind that focus on presentation over information. At the other end of the shake and bake spectrum is Victoria chef Sarah Kramer’s simple and scrumptious La Dolce Vegan! Vegan Livin’ Made Easy - an unpretentious, straight forward cookbook that will teach you how to make tasty meals and snacks without harming a single hair on a mammal’s head, your own included.

I consider any text with the subtitle “made easy” a pointy gauntlet thrown at my slippered feet. So, I tried two recipes from the book: a salty seaweed noodle soup that tasted like a slow stroll along a seaside harbour caressed by warm breezes (consider that line my audition for a wine column), and a tangy, dairy-free “cheeze” sauce that took about 4 minutes to make and saved a bin-bound plate of pale, over-boiled broccoli. Baste me in yeast flakes, I can cook!

Kramer is not surprised by my sudden conversion.

“I’m so proud of you! I write cook books for people just like you, who think they can’t cook. Cooking is not hard, you don’t need a funny hat. I have a test for all my recipes: if my friend, who will remain nameless, my dear, wonderful friend who can’t make toast can make the recipe, then anybody can do it.”

With sales of her cookbooks topping 100,000 in Canada alone, Kramer clearly knows how to reach the animal-free audience. And we’re not the easiest crowd to charm - the no-meat community can be fiercely judgemental and militant. How does Kramer handle being a spokeswoman for our notoriously cranky clan?

“I call those negative people the Vegan Police, and they drive me crazy. I guess I am a sort of spokeswoman, but, honestly, all I get from the vegan-vegetarian world is love, love, love. Any negatives I hear just bounce right off me. I try not to get involved in any community squabbles over who’s a good vegan and who’s not, and just do my own thing. When people ask me for advice, I tell them to pay attention to their own stuff and be the best eater that they can be. Finger wagging doesn’t work.”

Still glowing from my seaweed soup triumph, I ask for a simple tip to keep me from living on take out.

“Always have the staples around. Always have a can of chick peas, a tub of tofu, some soy milk and brown rice – from those basics you can grab some veggies and build a whole meal.”

Easy for her to say. Whenever I cook with tofu the results look like, ahem, pre-digested materials. What am I doing wrong?

“Tofu is like shoes, you have to try many, many types before you find the right fit. There’s soft tofu, which is good for smoothies, desserts and dips, medium, which is good for scrambling and faux cheesecake, and then firm, which is good for grilling and stir fries.”

“The other thing you need to know is that tofu is like cake flour, it doesn’t have a lot of flavour so you have to add things to it to make it edible. Marinating helps too – otherwise it’s just a blob of nothing.”

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Type Cast 4

Writers are naturally counter-intuitive people. With all that thinking time on their hands, the bounty of options grows hourly. It’s maddening, but it makes for good plot twists. And unusual career choices.

Take the case of Emily Pohl-Weary. The Parkdale born and bred 32 year old novelist, anthologist, biographer (her book Better To Have Loved, a biography of her grandmother, the prolific science fiction author Judith Meril, was a Toronto Book Award finalist and winner of a 2003 Hugo Award) former Broken Pencil editor, and all-around literary starling has, for some inexplicable reason, decided to endanger a thriving career by publishing her first book of poetry, Iron-On Constellations.

Poetry? She might as well take up model trains or start writing for the International Socialist newspaper (actually, both hobbies undoubtedly have larger followings). Writing poetry is the one sure way to literary obscurity and pennilessness. Not even poets write poetry anymore. All the poets I know are busy preparing non-fiction manuscripts, histories of podiatry and monographs on degu husbandry - i.e. something that will sell.

Oh well, at least the poetry is beautiful. Pohl-Weary is a natural poet with a sharp set of observation skills. Her poems are succinct narratives, tiny novellas that detail the easy (and sometimes very uneasy) exchanges that pass between lovers, friends, familiar strangers and everyone in-between. Her poetry is hardly shy, and does not seek to cloak raw drama (sexual, emotional, or her own unflattering ego melodramas) in flower-stuck metaphor.

When Pohl-Weary does venture into more flighty terrain, she makes sure the reader is with her for the ride by couching her more fanciful extensions of imagination in plain and often rough language. The trade in poetic obscurities and intentional opaqueness that plagues so much Canadian poetry, particularly the more academic brands, makes Pohl-Weary testy.

“I am an anti-academic in everything I do, especially in poetry,” Pohl-Weary tells me over the phone as a video game twitters along in the background.

“I think there’s something morally wrong about writing that makes people feel stupid. Plus, it’s boring. I’d rather read a mystery novel than some puzzling academic text.”

What’s the game in the background?

“Oh, how embarrassing! I’m playing Civilization. Do you know it? The goal is to conquer the world.”

So much for all that democratic talk.

“Yes, yes, I know. What can I tell you? It’s soothing. I got addicted to games at the same time I was writing Iron-On, when I was stuck at home for months with an illness. Between 1998 and 2000, when I was quite sick, I found it was easier to focus on writing for shorter periods of time, so it just seemed natural to write short poems. But I kept going over the poems again and again, writing and re-writing, so I didn’t really make good time in any business model sense.”

Are you a compulsive rewriter?

“Yes, I can’t even read stuff once it’s published because I want to rewrite the sentences right there on the page.”

Or, one might guess after reading the very personal subject matter divulged in Iron-On, scratch out the words altogether.

“I was pretty scared to publish this book at first, because it’s so personal, and I deep-sixed it for a few years before I showed it to my publisher. And now that it’s out, I’m kind of hesitant about the kinds of questions people ask me. Whenever I give a reading, people come up to me and ask me really, really personal questions and I have to find a way to politely deflect them.”

“I realize that when you dig into someone’s brain by reading their book, you want to find out from the author what’s true or not true – but sometimes people lose any sense of boundaries.”

Given that Pohl-Weary comes from a family of public people – her mother Ann Pohl is a prominent leftist activist, her grandmother Judith was nicknamed “the little mother of science fiction” by her mid-century peers, and Pohl-Weary’s grandfather is the iconic speculative fiction author Frederick Pohl – you’d think she’d be more than used to living in a fishbowl.

“I grew up in Parkdale fending off the johns and the junkies like every other little girl, and at the same time I had an activist, very social family that was in the public eye. I didn’t grow up with polite society rules. My grandmother’s dildo was auctioned off for charity after she died! So, I don’t have those appropriate/inappropriate filters that other people have.”

“The result of this strange childhood is that I just want to stay honest, and honesty requires a kind of innocence. If you allow yourself to experience the world you’ll see the ugly, the gorgeous and the unusual all at once. It’s sort of like having two voices inside my head.”

Perfect for a poet.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Type Cast 3

Oprah Winfrey says she feels duped, conned, hoodwinked and bamboozled by memoirist James Frey’s falsified account of his years of drug-addled bad behaviour. I would like to respectfully suggest to La Oprah that the fault is all her own.

I am loathe to pick on the world’s most popular television presenter because I actually enjoy her show –well, most of the time. The hysterical audiences are a bit much to take, and Winfrey’s increasing religiosity strikes me as a vulgar attempt to solidify her position as the Mother Teresa of Talk.

But it’s hard to argue with anyone who can actually coerce North Americans to read. And, like any novelist, I would sell my brother’s kids to get Winfrey to pick one of my under-selling books for her club. (The kids, by the way, range in age from 19 to 12, are well-behaved, healthy, and kind of cute, if anyone’s buying).

My difficulty with the whole Winfrey/Frey uproar is that I doubt Winfrey’s own show would stand the honesty test she’s applied to Frey’s book. Even a casual viewer of the show will realize that the guests – the non-celebrity guests, at least – have been thoroughly coached before they appear on the couch. They cry on cue, reveal their secrets in carefully planned sentences, and know exactly when it’s their time to talk and Winfrey’s time to judge.

When Winfrey’s cameras venture out to the homes of the sad suburbanites she interviews, the subjects re-enact their traumas in front of the lens with concise, well-rehearsed accounts of their troubles. In other words, they perform for the show. They are acting. The stories might be true, but who knows how much the presence of the camera, indeed the chance to appear on international television, affects the way the guests describe their lives? The temptation to inflate, overstate or otherwise colour their accounts to make better television must be enormous.

Can Winfrey swear on a stack of Toni Morrison novels that all of her guests have told the whole truth? Of course not, nor should she even try. News broadcasts are hardly objective retellings of events, so why would a chat show have a higher standard of verisimilitude? And remember, when Bill Clinton’s memoir came out Winfrey gave the former president and renowned liar the full gushing treatment, no questions asked. Pot, meet kettle.

But criticizing the moralizing excesses of a television chat show is too easy – the very format of such shows demands that there be an absolute right and an unquestionable wrong. The core problem with this entire non-debate is that the real and much more complex issue has been wholly overlooked – the issue of how and why we read in the first place.

Winfrey’s book clubbers treat books like medicine. They read the downtrodden memoirs and hard-luck novels Winfrey favours with the expressed intention of looking for the next great “healing” device - as if writing, or any form of art, existed only to make one feel better about oneself. Obviously, art makes the world a better place, but mostly by accident. No artist sets out to create a work specifically to cauterize a social wound – no decent artist at least.

Any societal benefit gained from a piece of art is purely incidental, and highly likely to change over time. For instance, we do not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin today because we wish to abolish slavery, but because the book is a riveting story of oppression and survival. At the time it was published, however, Lincoln himself declared that the book had done no less than start the American Civil War. Similarly, John Herbert’s classic 1965 play Fortune And Men’s Eyes - which when it debuted was read as a scathing expose of the terrible conditions of Canadian prisons - is still performed today, despite all the reforms it prompted, because its poetic depictions of psycho-sexual power dynamics between men still resonate. In another fifty years, the play may be remounted as a camp farce or as an historical romance, or not at all.

But when you treat literature like a cheap psycho-therapeutic tool, as Winfrey’s book club does with an almost pathological neediness, and expect the assembled words to cause reliable psychological effects, you are bound to be disappointed. Using literature to get over, say, your childhood sexual abuse is akin to fixing a leaky sink with a bucket of pudding. Literature is too porous, too slippery, and too full of questions to be turned into an emotional version of the South Beach Diet.

Cultural theorists have been arguing for decades (rather successfully) that no two people ever read the same book in the same way and, even more disconcerting, that every time you read a text you re-invent it – thus making any questions about the reliability of a text abjectly moot.

Furthermore, when the act of reading is so inherently untrustworthy, relying on a book to “heal” you and then feeling cheated when you find out the book is a fabrication and not a prescription is, well, stupid. Every book is a fabrication and you’re the one holding the knitting needles (or, in Winfrey’s case, the entire sweater factory).

If you read for medicinal purposes, you’d be better off eating the pages – they’re just full of cleansing fibre.