Saturday, September 12, 2015

Where I've been, where I am

Did you notice? I've kind of abandoned this blog. Thank you for following me or for stumbling across this page. My home base is now

After all this blogging, about all that writing I was doing, my first two books (yes, two books!) of short fiction were accepted for publication in 2014, in reverse order: Guernica Editions took Nobody Looks That Young Here, to publish in 2018, and then Thistledown Press took Hamburger, which is coming in the spring of 2016.

In addition to my new Wordpress home, I'm still on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. An admittedly lazier version of my reading journal lives on at Goodreads.

Thank you again, your support means the world to me. Please don't lose touch!


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Reading Journal: Coming Attractions 09, ed. Mark Anthony Jarman (2009)

Oberon Press’s annual three-by-three – three short stories from three up-and-coming writers – includes Nicholas Ruddock, who has since published the novel The Parabolist; Alex Leslie, whose collection People Who Disappear emerged from Freehand Books in April, 2012; and Jeff Park, from whom no book has come out yet but who had all three of these featured stories published in The Fiddlehead. From Ruddock, I had already read (and liked) “How Eunice Got Her Baby,” a crash-and-burn account of a woman adopting her sister’s child, in Journey Prize Stories 19, and I also quite enjoyed “Sebald,” a story that was stylistically completely different from "Eunice" and told of a bizarre, time-bending encounter. Leslie’s stories all have a theme of loss, from an environmental, sociological or anthropological standpoint, taking us from a logging road in “Ghost Stories” to a night club in “Swimmers” and a domestic scenario in “Preservation” in which the protagonist’s dreams of being an archaeologist bubble to the surface. Finally, from Park, we get two great stories – the National Magazine Award Honourable Mention (2010), “Back to Disney,” about a graduate student who gets mixed-up in a grow-op, and the surprising “A Boat in Still Water,” about a sudden-onset love triangle after a visit to a military submarine launch – and one that was, unfortunately, the least enjoyable in the collection, “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Dog,” an account of a dinner with some serious “dog people” that ends in a (seemingly unfounded, by the characters and by the elements of the story) accusation of adultery. That said, one story had to finish last; Coming Attractions's 2009 edition, and this series in general, never fails to introduce three talented and interesting voices in Canadian short fiction.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Reading Journal: The Journey Prize Stories 16 (2004)

Selected by a trio of writers who have since become CanLit royalty - Elizabeth Hay, Lisa Moore and Michael Redhill - I might have anticipated that I wouldn't love these stories; I despised Late Nights on Air (Hay), was lukewarm to Consolation (Redhill) and I'm kind of dreading my upcoming Lisa Moore introduction (I've owned Alligator for at least a year but can't make myself crack it - I really didn't like her calling Dave Bidini a "lazy reader" during Canada Reads...). The best story here is probably "Isolettes," by Neil Smith, about coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, but I had already read and raved about it when I read his collection (Bang Crunch). I also quite liked the incredibly long "The Uses of the Neckerchief" by Lesley Millard - it tried to shoehorn in a bit too much in places, (an extra image here, an overwrought flourish there), but it really evokes the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder on a friendship and it's easy to get caught up in. In general, though, I found these stories overwritten and in many cases so focused on style that the reason to continue reading - the "what happens next?" - was lost in the smokescreen. The prime offender here is the winner, "The Last Spark" by Devin Krukoff, which uses great images but doesn't make me care about the characters and the mundane party they're having - in fact, I wasn't convinced Krukoff was too concerned with them, either. The stories by Adam Lewis Schroeder ("Burning the Cattle at Both Ends") and Patricia Young ("Up the Clyde on a Bike") felt the same. But the collection wasn't without some realist hits: I thought Michael V. Smith's "What We Wanted" was an excellently-told story about a (gay) sexual awakening, even if the writing itself was clunky, and the final two stories - "Nice Big Car, Rap Music Coming Out the Window" by William Metcalfe, about who really owns land (and a young man interested in a young woman, too), and Elaine McCluskey's "The Watermelon Social" - were stories that I could actually be taken away by. McCluskey's, at the end, left me saying "I don't really know what to say that was about," but it reminded me of "Half a Grapefruit" by Alice Munro in the way that the disparate pieces all seemed to somehow fit together. In sum, though, every contest is only as good as its judges, and every anthology only as good as its curators; I'm sure these are among the best short stories by new writers in 2004, but overall, it just wasn't my year.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Reading Journal: Collected Novellas, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1990)

My first foray into the rarefied air around this Nobel winner, the collection contains three novellas: Leaf Storm, (1955); No One Writes to the Colonel (1961). and Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1983). The first - which is Marquez's first book ever, and, Wikipedia tells me, took seven years to find a publisher - tells of a man going against the people of his town to give an outcast a decent burial. The second is about a war veteran waiting day after day, year after year, for his army pension to start coming in. The final story's a reconstruction of the circumstances of a murder, stringing along the suspense and making you question how it will finally happen right up until the final page. As a group, I'm sure Marquez never intended for them to be interpreted as a group, (though he's still alive, we could ask him), but each story has an element of the absurd, an incredible level of pathos, less magic than the magic realist style he became known for after One Hundred Years of Solitude (I hear), and, most interestingly to me, a persistent sense that death is always in the room. My favourite - and Marquez's, too, (Wikipedia again) - was Leaf Storm; he liked it because it was first and in a way his purest and most personal work, but I enjoyed it most because of the shifting narrative voice: the story's told in turns by an old man, his daughter and his grandson, which keeps the account interesting because each of the three has a different opinion that colours the telling. My least favourite was the final story, I just thought it dragged on, but I have to say, that was the point: everyone knows that Santiago Nasar has been killed, and before that, everyone knew that he was going to be killed - the story's entirely in the lead-up, the foretelling and not the death itself. In all, I'm glad I started with three shorter works instead of one of the longer novels, as it was a chance to see his style varying and evolving as well as to get acquainted with his preoccupations... not to mention, a first visit to Macondo (in Leaf Storm), the town to which we will return in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Or I will, at least. Trans. Gregory Rabassa (LS, CDF) and J.S. Bernstein (NWTC).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Reading Journal: April Fools Day, by Josip Novakovich (2005)

I probably won't come up with a better descriptor for this novel than Francine Prose did when she called it the "Croatian Candide," but there was a second comparable I discovered as I read it, Kafka, which I hope wasn't only because the book has an Eastern European totalitarian backdrop. More than anything, what struck me about this was how humourously absurd everything was, right down to chapters titled "After a soccer war, Croatia becomes a banana republic," and (slight spoiler alert), the trifecta of "Ivan tries family happiness," "Ivan discovers the thrills of adultery" and "The joys of cuckolding come to a sorry end." The desire to laugh at this simple man's existence is juxtaposed with a very real account of growing up under Tito and the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and though the character comes of age with the country, bringing to mind a figure like Saleem Sinai in Midnight's Children, and the writing is dense, the work never feels heavy-handed or overly political, and the absurdities of this one man's life only paint the political realities with the same brush by implication. My enjoyment lessened in that book's latter third, which grapples with the metaphysical when Ivan is presumed dead and/or to be a ghost, but overall it's a remarkably pleasing read. (Full disclosure: Josip lead one of my fiction workshops at Summer Literary Seminars, Vilnius, in August, 2011... regretfully, I'm only now getting around to reading his novel.)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Reading Journal: The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers (2012)

I hate to do it, but sure, I'll say it: Tim O'Brien for the Iraq War. It gets a bit purple in places - one two-page sentence in the latter half, in particular - and it doesn't push the limits of recall versus recount in the way The Things They Carried does, but this is in a way a much-needed novel, one that imagines around the giant reality of this conflict. What impressed me most was that not a ton happened in the book: it alternates from scenes during, before and after our hero, John "Bart" Bartle, embarks on his mission, and other than him there are only two other major characters: his friend, the 18-year-old Private Daniel Murphy, and the battle-hardened sargeant, Sterling. It's compelling throughout and reads fast while being rather imaginative and stylized, telling a simple story in clear and plain language and earning comparisons to everyone from Hemingway and Stephen Crane to Cormac McCarthy, as in this Guardian article, written upon the book's snagging of the newspaper's first novel prize. Love it or otherwise, it will endure - I thought it was a very good novel.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Reading Journal: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (2010)

Another Pulitzer-winning collection of linked short stories (or "novel-in-stories"; see: Olive Kitteridge, which took the prize just two years before it), but one that seemed much less forced in its links between stories than Olivedid. It was compelling reading, as each story/section followed a different character, giving us multiple protagonists and plenty of action. I was frustrated, at first, because we don't hear from Sasha - the main character in the first story/section - for a very long time, but the result was an enjoyable yarn of a book that gave you just enough reason to believe she was coming back (and therefore, to keep reading). Plus - you may have heard - the book delivers a most notable stunt: a section told in PowerPoint slides that's absolutely devastating and that made me feel a little guilty about the way my own work leans toward minimalism. Am I only delivering the "key points" of the action? The book's dizzying but not difficult, pushing at the limits of form while still telling an entertaining story, and it's one I'll probably read again. I'm not sure I was amazed, but I can see why people think there's something special here.