Tuesday, March 31, 2009


This poem has been doing the rounds of writer's blogs/Facebook/Twitter this week, and is now my favorite new poem:


Works for academics as much as writers.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Jackie Hurt

So I came in from my walk last night and turned around to see this on Jackie's hip. We phoned the vet immediately, even though it was after10:00 already; and then we tried to figure out what the hell had happened while we waited for the vet to call back.

Mary and the kids had been playing with Jackie for an hour before I took Jackie out for her evening walk, and hadn't noticed anything, so it was pretty obvious it had to have happened on the walk. But I couldn't for the life of me figure out how she could have acquired such a wound while on a four foot leash without my noticing. I rewalked the route in my mind's eye, and while there is one fence on our usual route that has two nails sticking out of it, we always give it a wide birth; and while Jackie had had one of her freakouts barking at one of the neighbour dogs (most days she's okay with his barking from behind the fence, but every once in awhile he must bark something especially rude, because she pulls and jumps and goes nuts, as on this occasion) I could not see how my pulling on her leash could have resulted in a puncture wound like this.

Mary's first thought was it was a gunshot wound. This is a bit paranoid, but only a bit because we had a candidate in mind who is crazy enough to think shooting our dog would be funny. But I would have heard something, or seen someone, surely. Even a BB gun would have made an audible piff. But then, worrying my way through the walk again and again, I suddenly remembered that Jackie had -- on one of the quiet stretches of our route where there are no other dogs --jerked around as if shot, and kept pulling to go back, starring at something. I remembered my saying at the time, "Jackie, there's nothing there, you're jumping at shadows". I thought nothing further of it, but now, in retrospect, I wonder if I had allowed Jackie to be injured without my even noticing.

The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that must have been the moment -- only a block or so before I found the wound, and Jackie had been convinced that there was something there -- what if I had missed some kid in the bushes with a BB gun, and ignored my dog's attempt to warn me? Or even if the gunshot wound seemed far fetched, what if there was some dangerous object sticking out of the lawn or a fence or one of those old garbage can sheds? I let my dog get hurt, and I hadn't even noticed or listened to her. Paroxysm of guilt that such a thing should happen on my watch.

When the vet didn't phone back within the hour, we phoned a second vet who agreed to see Jackie immediately. She was really great, even though it was after midnight when we finally brought Jackie in. She told me that it wasn't a gunshot (which was somewhat reassuring -- it means I don't have to start driving to another neighbourhood for nightly walks); and that it looked older than the timeframe I had indicated. Once she shaved away Jackie's fur, it was obvious the puncture was from above, rather than from the side. The vet nominated a dog bite or a tree branch.

So then it was Mary wracking her brain, trying to think what could have happened. The day before she had taken Jackie for an off leash run, but Mary was positive there had been no dog fights or any other hazards. And how could she not have noticed the wound? We couldn't see how it was possible.

Eventually, we came up with our current theory, which is that there was a barbed wire fence at the off-leash park, and it is remotely possible that Jackie ran into a barb which sliced her open, but that the torn flap of skin remained over the cut, making it invisible -- and that when I had yanked Jackie back off the road during her freakout on our walk the next evening, she had tumbled onto her bum, and that was what rolled back the loose flap of skin, reveaing the wound. It makes sense to us, but we will never really know for sure. I certainly have become very paranoid about hidden obstructions on our night-time walks.

So, the vet treated Jackie, gave her the 14 day antibiotics, gave us doggie equivalent of Advil, and the dreaded "cone" and sent Jackie home. I was very pleased with the vet's bedside manner, very impressed with Jackie's stoic acceptance of the pain, though a very sad picture. Being the hopeless softies we are, he hate having her in the cone so have tried protecting the wound by dressing Jackie in shorts and T-Shirt, but that's only good while we're there to watch Jackie closely -- she undoes the clothes if we aren't. So it will have to be kennel and cone for times we're both out, much as it pains us to see Jackie like that.

Anyone have any experience dealing with these kind of puncture wounds? In their dogs, I mean.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Self-Publishing and the Exception to the Rule

It's easy to see that the publishing industry, like the music industry before it, is undergoing major changes where in future it may not be uncommon to see writers simply bypassing the publishers altogether to sell directly to their readers. The new print-on-demand publishers (like Lulu) make it extremely easy and economical for writers to self-publish, especially where these have immediate access to on-line distribution through Amazon or Chapters. This is good, because in cutting out the middleman (publishers, retailers) costs can be kept down, yet with a much higher return from the cover price going directly to the writer. But this is also very bad, because without a publisher acting as 'referee', the reader has almost no way of navigating through the storm of self-publishing that is threatening to overwhelm us.

Self-publishing is often legitimate when dealing with small niche or regional markets. As small publishers have increasingly been bought out by larger national publishers, and national publishers consolidated into global megapublishers, the big publishers have taken on so much debt acquiring their former competition, that they can no longer survive publishing books with limited appeal. To survive, they increasingly rely on economies of scale, and have been dropping even their formerly profitable midlist authors (those who sell 50,000-75,000 copies). So when authors I know turn up in limited editions from small regional presses or their own personal imprint, no problem. But finding new authors worthy of attention amongst the recent tidal wave of self-published titles is another matter entirely.

Most self-published work is -- not to put too fine a point on it -- dreadful. As a reviewer these last 30 years, a lot of self-published titles have crossed my desk on their way to landfill, and they have generally ranged from dreadful to appalling. There was one author I recall who had a certain naive charm, in an amateurishly painful way, but she was the exception to the rule, and even her work wasn't good enough for me to actually review -- I don't see the point of really negative reviews when there are so many good titles worthy of recommendation.

This history of self-publishing as synonymous with bad writing is a problem for those trying to catch the wave of the future, because professional reviewers have been conditioned to simply ignore any self-published work sent into them. Indeed, not only is it unlikely to be worthy of review space even in the local paper or niche market newsletter, the sort of individual that self-publishes is often the sort who takes personal affront at bad reviews, and there is only so much crank mail, tire-slashing, and death threats a reviewer can put up with before just deciding not to bother. Which sometimes leaves good writers who can't sell to the mega-publishers an uphill battle for acceptance.

Once such title is Lorina Stephens' Shadow Song. From the perspective of the major publishers, Shadow Song is unmarketable for three reasons: (1) as a Historical Romance, it has way too many fantasy elements; as a fantasy novel, it reads too much like a Historical; and as a Canadian novel, it's too down beat for either. So when a marketing department can't figure out which imprint to bring it out under, the project just doesn't go forward. (2) There are elements here that could lead to charges either of cultural appropriation or subtle racism. Both charges would be false, the first person narration merely expressing the authentic views of a European from 1830, but from the publisher's point of view, why take on any controversy when there are a hundred other manuscripts that won't raise any flags. (3) I think this book has real potential as a companion to high school history / novel study classes, but there are three sex scenes that essentially block it from that market. So, I appreciate why the big publishers looking for an easy, surefire hit, passed on Shadow Song.

But none of those considerations should matter to actual readers. It's simply a marvelous book, the exception that proves that sometimes self-published can be great. Indeed, I go so far as to say that the superior writing, backed by meticulous research and authentic characterization, elevates this cultural fantasy to candidate for Great Canadian Novel. As a historical romance, it features a ten year old girl thrust into life in 1830s Upper Canada (after sheltered aristocratic upbringing in England) and eventually into learning from First nation's shaman. The fantasy elements based on First Nation's culture are as convincing and riveting as any based on usual Celtic/Anglo traditions; the historical detail so finely rendered you can reach out to touch the settings; and the authentic voice of 1830s heroine gives narration fine Jane Austin feel-- with maybe touch of Black Donnellys thrown in. Definitely in the best tradition of dark, slow Canadian fiction, Shadow Song packs a powerful punch.

Highly recommended. (If you buy it, go for the green cover pictured here, rather than the original blue cover.)

Friday, March 06, 2009

Bad Dog!

Mary and I are reluctant to kennel Jackie during the day. Jackie is great at voluntarily going into her kennel at night, often without even being asked, but flops onto the ground and has to be dragged to her kennel on the rare occasions when we've kenneled her during the day. So, if we intend to be away for brief periods, we have been letting her roam the house.
In anticipation of Jackie being at home alone, we go around closing bedroom doors and so on, so she just has the run of the basement and the ground floor -- kitchen, dinning room, and front room. I'm fairly good at policing those areas to ensure there is nothing left out that Jackie can destroy, though Jackie has been steadily educating us on what constitutes "potential toy" to her. The electrical cord on the vacuum cleaner, for example, took me by surprise; luckily it wasn't plugged in at a time. But just like with baby-proofing the house when Tigana and Kasia were small, we now automatically lift everything chewable up onto counters and shelves out of Jackie's reach.

I have to confess that I may have occasionally accidently on purpose failed to put away particularly loathsome kids' toys – you know the ones I mean: the ugly stuffie that the kids insist they still want, even though neither has actually touched it in four years; or the politically incorrect bratz doll that somebody gave one of them for a birthday present; or the beloved teddy that has started to go a bit moldy. If these happen to be left on the basement floor, well, it's Jackie takes the blame on their dismemberment, not me for throwing them out; and the kids learn (very slowly, I must say) to pick up after themselves.
So, after quickly checking that there was nothing on the floor except sacrificial kids' toys and a half dozen strategically placed Jackie toys, including a new stuffed gopher which should have been good entertainment for 2 hours, we left Jackie at home alone for a bit longer than usual -- four hours.

We came home to find her toys and the kids' toys all perfectly fine, still scattered about the floor. However. The stuff – our stuff – on the dining room table....

So Jackie apparently climbed up onto the supposedly out-of-reach surface of the table and ate 1 silicon oven mitt (I would have though those essentially indestructible!); an assortment of pens; a bar of old soap (well, we sent 20 minutes reconstructing the pieces strewn around the room to ascertain that it was essentially all accounted for and we didn't have to phone the vet to pump her stomach); and – wait for it – my $400 ipod.

Fortunately, I had my laptop and its power cord with me, or otherwise I'd no doubt be looking at a $4,000 replacement cost. But why oh why would a dog climb up on a dinning room table to eat an ipod? They can't taste that great.
I was a bit surprised how calmly I took this—I listen to that ipod whenever I get the chance – it is my main source of CBC/NPR/BBC/TVO programming, and listening to shows like Sparks, Search Engine, and Q, is a significant resource for courses I teach on popular culture and cyberculture etc. Listening to the ipod is the only thing that made housework – especially alone in my brother's or mother's places – tolerable. Long drives, like when I go up to Edmonton to check on Mom or renovations to Doug's, I listen through external speakers. I'm not sure I manage without an ipod.

When I asked Mary why I was being so philosophical about it, Mary reminded me of when we first met, and she had left her two dogs with me while she went out on the lecture circuit for a couple of weeks. I'd come home one day soon after to discover the two dogs had got into and torn apart a giant carton of crayons. There had been micro pieces of crayon spread over and rubbed into the living room carpet changing it from a standard neutral beige to a truly unique "rainbow". And to Mary's surprise and delight, my only reaction had to been to burst out laughing. It was obviously my fault, not the dogs', that I had left the crayons where they could chew them up. I think it was at that point she figured I'd make a passable father for her kids....
But it does mean we will have to kennel Jackie when we're away from now on, which seems so mean. At least, it's usually only for a couple of hours at a time this time of year, since Mary and I can work from home most of the time, just going in for actual classes or meetings. But still....

Zack Hill