Sunday, December 23, 2012

Reading Journal: The Man in the Shed, by Lloyd Jones (2009)

A career-spanning collection from the only New Zealand writer I can name, in which several stories take place in a somewhat rural childhood and involve learning about why adults act the way they do - infidelity, usually. Jones's prowess in matters of the heart is especially well-displayed in the closing story, the 40-page "Amateur Nights," in which a barroom conversation leads to one man retelling classic Russian novels in order to help the other reconnect with his wife, who seems lost in the worlds they tell of; "Dogs" shows us an animalistic response from a man in a failing relationship, and the title story and "Who's That Dancing with My Mother?" make similar themes come alive. What I like most in his writing, I think, are the romantic flourishes; though he's plumbing some dark depths of human nature, in a single sentence we can suddenly forget this and focus on the idealized goal, the mark the characters have missed before winding up where they are. And a final story to mention, "Still Lives," a very short and gutting piece about discovering that a man dead behind the wheel is the source of a routine traffic jam. In all, it's a great introduction to the Jones beyond Mister Pip, and aside from "Where the Harleys Live," there's hardly a misstep in the book. I'll definitely keep reading him, he's become one of my favourites.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Reading Journal: Catch Me When I Fall, by Patricia Westerhof (2011)

For such a slim volume - also a debut - Westerhof packs a lot into these short stories, writing with incredible precision and a tight focus on small events that subtly reveal the larger world within them. The specificity of the setting is interesting in and of itself, one comparable to the Mennonite Manitoba of Miriam Toews or David Bergen, but a world entirely its own: a small Dutch-Canadian Christian community in Central Alberta. In my opinion, the best of the bunch was "God's Laughter," about a couple coming to terms with their adult lesbian daughter's out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and what's particulalry notable about this story is that, though many literary magazines turned it down, in conversation with the author I learned that this is the one readers mention the most. It's not mentionable for just its capital-S, capital-I Social Issues, though; it's great because of (minor spoiler alert) the triumph of love, and the way it comes off so honestly and not schlocky at all. The other winners are "The Whole Field," about trust and the challenges of mothering a frustratingly intelligent teenager, and "Holy Earth," about the tricky relationship between faith, environmentalism and thriftiness. These are stories of ideas but they're told through people, and it's an auspicious beginning. I'm looking forward to her new novel, The Dove in Bathurst Station, in Spring, 2013.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Reading Journal: Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles (2012)

As the old saw goes: easy reading is damn hard writing. Wiles, an architecture and design journalist by trade, is a very technically gifted writer, and his sentences are always propelling you forward through this almost-too-simple story: a writer accepts a house-sitting assignment in an unnamed Eastern European country during which he hopes to embark on a new novel - autobiographical wink? - but it quickly devolves into calamity. The hero is charged with the care of the apartment, its two cats, and as the title suggests, its exquisite wooden floors. On one hand, I wanted more of the environment: a failed attempt to learn the language or a wrong turn into an unfamiliar neighbourhood, to show us just how out of the water our fish is; but on the other hand, Wiles does a great deal with very little, staying in the apartment almost the whole time and showing us how everything comes unravelled. Now factor in the flashbacks that explain the narrator's relationship to the apartment owner, and the purpose of the latter's vacation, and you very quickly find yourself determined to find out what happens in the end: will he come home angry? Surprisingly indifferent? Or maybe he won't come home at all...? Of course, I can't tell you how it ends, but don't worry, it's a quick read and you'll get there soon enough. In comparison to a lot of debut novels - which are by nature rather sparse - Care of Wooden Floors is an achievement in simplicity.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Reading Journal: Zone One, by Colson Whitehead (2011)

What I was most taken with in this novel was the slow build that the author pulled off in the first 50 pages; after about six, I gritted my teeth for the long haul, but when it comes to the scene he's setting - New York, post zombie apocalypse - his beginning is truly in media res, and he rewards your effort by throwing you another bone every few pages, be it the meaning of a snippet of dialect or a pre-catastrophe memory that lets you a little further inside one character or another. You're hooked by the time he starts digging deeper into the characters than their simple function, that of Skel sweepers - zombie killers, emptying out mostly office buildings - when he truly begins showing you the toll the work is taking on the few survivors rehabilitating the city. Where the metaphor takes off is near the end of the book's first part and the beginning of its second, when the stragglers enter the picture: beings halfway between lost skels and unaffected humans - the Big Contemporary Metaphor of those who still have a chance, i.e., the skin in the game. He moves his prose along at a decent pace for a writer with such an academic pedigree, never slowing the action too long or over-stretching the flashbacks that humanize our heroes. It's definitely a book worthy of its hype, and it pays out on every extra bit of energy its reader expends.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Reading Journal: The Great Leader, by Jim Harrison (2011)

A strange thing, this, a novel with a subtitle on its inside cover page, ("A Faux Mystery"). It's a smart move by the author, as he's writing about a retired detective who shares some traits with Philip Marlowe, but others - the worst ones - with Charles Bukowski's alter-ego, Hank Chinaski. You discover just how much this story resists the usual detective narrative, and as you follow the anti-hero's quest to bring down a cult leader who preys on underage girls, you realize it's about something much larger: man and his place in the world. Harrison belongs among the last true Naturalists, bringing the landscapes - nay, ecosystems - of Michigan, Arizona and Nebraska to life beautifully and showing us the challenges they present to a species now seemingly tied up in the protagonist's friend's axis of evil: religion, sex and money. And for his part, when asked about his own faith, our hero gives us this, one of the more inspired paragraphs I've ever read:

"I thought it over quite a bit in the Nogales hospital when I was trying to organize an interest in continuing my life. Of course the drugs helped but they're mostly a lid over the pain like a manhole cover and you remain aware of the surge of pain underneath. Anyway I'd keep making a list of my favourite brook trout creeks, nine of them in fact. Also my favourite landscapes, maybe half a dozen, two of them from boyhood on Grand Island, and also that long gully you showed me west of here. I'd go over these places in my memory for hours and was surprised how well I remembered them right down to the minutest detail. The day I left the hospital it occurred to me that these places were the location of whatever religion I had. This started when I was a boy. In these places I never think of anything except where I am, sometimes for hours. I remembered that Mother said that when you pray you're not supposed to think about anything else, which was a trick I never could manage but can in these places."    

I've met some Harrison fans before, and he has earned a National Endowment for the Arts and a Guggenheim in his career, but for a writer so good, it's astonishing what a low profile he keeps. His latest could wear the mantle of Great American Novel with ease.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

December Update

This is it. One month until I turn thirty... and one month until my (self-imposed) deadline to have the final manuscript of Nobody Looks That Young Here ready to send out. I got a lot closer yesterday, and tomorrow, the whole thing will be a pile of paper in my hands, soon to be covered in pen marks.

There are some other exciting happenings this month, too:

  • On Saturday, December 8, I'll be reading "The Short Life of Gary Q. Stuffholder III" at the Propeller Centre for the Visual Arts's Comedy & Storytelling Showcase. "Gary" is a new story, not from my current collection, and it's quite a different thing for me: it's funny. I hope the audience agrees... and if they don't, thankfully, there are a dozen of us on the bill, including my friends Shaista Latif and Shari Kasman. Shaista is from Buddies in Bad Times Theatre's Young Creators Unit, and Shari's a hilarious writer published in Joyland and elsewhere who writes the most unconventional fashion blog you've ever seen. All for five bucks at the door! 984 Queen St. W., 8pm.
  • From a story cover to two cover stories: The Quint, featuring my story "Projections," came out this summer - I've been meaning to post this photo forever; can you find me hiding in the long grass? - and Exile Literary Quarterly, with my Vanderbilt-Exile Award-shortlisted story "Mercy," hit newsstands in November.

  • And lastly, the new issue of In/Words (Carleton University, Ottawa) just came out as well, featuring my story "Swept Up." I'm not sure this one's on sale in Toronto - if you see it on any newsstands, please let me know... and of course, buy a copy.

On Wednesday, when "Chaser" goes live, I will have no more stories sitting between acceptance and publication. I have a few submissions under consideration by magazines and contests, but Nobody Looks That Young Here will be my primary focus for the next month or so. I'll keep the Reading Journal dispatches coming, Thursdays and Sundays, and of course I'll put up a note around the holidays, but this looks like about it for 2012. Thank you for another year of reading and for supporting my work!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Next Big Thing

With thanks to Liz Harmer and Richard Scarsbrook for tagging me in, I bring you Chain Letter 2.0. Here's the deal: a writer answers 10 questions about his or her work-in-progress, then links to some more - they're at the bottom, please check out their work, too!

Without further ado...

1) What is the working title of your book?

Nobody Looks That Young Here.

2) Where did the idea for the book come from?

With a short fiction collection, it's hard to pinpoint when "the" idea came into being, but I can talk a little about where the first stories began. My first publication, "The Expiry Dates," (in Broken Pencil Death Match, which is currently open for submissions) was written in Richard Scarsbrook's Expressive Writing I course at George Brown College, and the prompt for it was "write about a job you've had." (Yes, you heard it here last: I actually worked at a Giant Tiger store in Southwestern Ontario.) A flash piece from that class as well, (from the very first prompt, "childhood"), ran in NoD at the University of Calgary - also open for submissions, until Jan. 1/2013 - under the title "Respect." I'm very much in the write-what-you-know camp, and before long I had a list of experiences, anecdotes, filthy rumours and out-and-out lies from which the collection's other 14 stories germinated. I eventually got them into the right order, which created something like a narrative arc that spans from approximately 1975 to 2005 in this place called Currie Township, somewhere southwest of London, Ontario, and probably not too far from where I grew up.

3) What genre does it fall under?

Literary Fiction; Short Stories.

4) Which actors would you choose to play the characters in a movie version?

Again a hard question because it's short fiction: there are a lot of characters, and a movie not named Short Cuts would probably have to drop a few. There are a lot of teenagers, and it would need both young and old versions of some characters. Nevertheless...

Dave, who moves away from Currie for university then comes back in his fifties to re-open the movie theatre, seems the hardest to cast, but someone wonderfully generic like Bruce Greenwood comes to mind. Claire, a girl he knew way back when, would be Julianne Moore, nowadays. Claire's sister, Susan, is Melissa Leo, maybe, and John Hawkes would play her common-law husband.

Entering the next generation, it gets harder - I can't name many teenage actors for Susan and John's kids and their friends, but type-wise, their son Mike would be equally generic, Shia LaBoeuf, maybe. His first crush Jessie would be an uglied-up Zooey Deschanel, and his next interest, Jenny - whose name is changing soon, too close to Jessie - would be Alison Pill. Sharon, the older girl from work, would probably be Ellen Page. (Sorry, Woody.) Mike's best friend Brian could be Channing Tatum, and Jennifer Lawrence is perfect for Brian's sister, Stella.

Sean Penn could play Jessie's abusive Dad, Hank Mueller, and the idiot ex-gym teacher guidance counsellor who suggests that Mike join the army would be Philip Seymour Hoffman, because no matter what the movie, were I making it, he would be in it. Him and Penelope Cruz. I'm sure I could rewrite something that works her in...

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of the book?

Michael Carrion is born into a seemingly predestined, depressing small-town life and must constantly struggle to scratch his way free of it.

6) Will the book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don't have an agent currently, and I'm not sure I'll take one for this first book. I'm hoping that a good relationship I've developed with a small publisher that doesn't usually work with represented writers will prove to be the right fit, but I'm not taking anything for granted.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

That Expressive Writing course mentioned above began in September, 2009. I've published other stories not in this book in the meanwhile, and the stories were all polished one at a time for magazine submissions, but I finally wrote the first draft of the final story - the closer that gives the group its title - in September, 2012. I guess that makes three years... a long time for 180 pages.

8) What other books would you compare yours to?

I wouldn't want to tell a reader what my book should remind him or her of, but I would absolutely love to hear it compared to Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women or anything by Albert Camus. I feel a special affinity between my story "Comets" and the latter's "La Femme Adultère."

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My girlfriend (fine: "common-law partner") of nearly seven years, Sidonie Wybourn, who convinced me that, if told well, stories I might think were mundane because of their familiarity to me could seem strange and new to a reader, particularly an urban one. She'd be the first to tell you that some of the things I tell her about where I come from make it seem like there's a whole different world three hours down the highway from Toronto.

10) What else about your book might pique a reader's interest?

It's short, so it won't require much paper, which is cost-effective and eco-friendly. Plus, most of the individual stories aren't very long, either, which makes it ideal to read on the subway. I have high hopes that the final version will fit in your pocket.

Oh, and one story has outlaw bikers in it.

Now, go read:

Julie McArthur
Braydon Beaulieu
Amy Stuart

Message for tagged authors: 

Rules of the Next Big Thing:
  • Use this same format for your post
  • Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)
  • Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reading Journal: All the Voices Cry, by Alice Petersen (2012)

It's a shame that the two stories I liked the most in this group were second and third from the end - though the stories are perfect subway length for me (about 10-page, 15-minute reads), I found that in most cases what I had on my hand was an account of some event or other but one that didn't pack much punch. The book ought to be divided in halves, too, I think; in the early going, the stories share common characters and a setting - a cottage north from Montreal - but then you're suddenly in New Zealand and the South Pacific, without any real closure on what seemed to be a linked group. I was beginning to somewhat enjoy untangling the character relationships from story to story in the first set - the whole is greater than the sum of its parts - but even the Journey-nominated "After Summer," the collection's first story that I had already read and enjoyed in the prize anthology, seemed lacklustre on second read. Petersen's style may be what I like least, and what complicates the effect of her prose (for me), as she stacks solid sentences one of top another without achieving an intuitive flow. I could put the pieces together on repeated reading, but to me a more enjoyable story is one that brings you along with the voice instead of forcing you to find your own path through. There are, however, some standouts in the group: "Neptune's Necklace," about an old woman, basically a shut-in, who imaginatively replaces her dead children with some young visitors, and "The Land Below," about the change in a father-daughter relationship after mother dies. The group didn't work for me, though.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reading Journal: Afflictions and Departures, by Madeline Sonik (2011)

It's a challenge to put into words why I enjoyed this book, but I did. I've always loved coming-of-age stories, and perhaps the most exciting angle in this one is that the story is true. Sonik's essays tell of a girlhood spent moving around the U.S. and Canada with a father with a drinking problem and a repressive emigrant mother from England. In each piece, we see the author and her attempt to overcome the challenge before her, finding ways to exist that don't stop at not rocking the boat but that result in growth. And though strangely mundane and packed with (perhaps too much) historical context, the collection sings because it's written tightly and hard to put down - the essays are so short you have little trouble knocking them off a few at a time. I found myself thinking of the book as a sort of evil twin to Bill Bryson's Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, where instead of a surreal escapes to comics or B-movies, it's the actual changes going on in medicine, communications, politics, etc. that take Sonik to her utopia: a comfortable, "normal" environment to inhabit. Interesting, unconventional and surprisingly readable. Highly recommend.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Reading Journal: A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey (2003)

I'll get this out of the way first: I don't care if it's true. Maybe it mattered at the time, because it was being sold as a memoir, but this far along, I think it can only be considered a story, a "fictionalized memoir" or an "autobiographical novel," using either term with a giant asterisk. I could, however, feel the controversy around the book affecting my reading of it and making me more attentive throughout. When I started thinking, for instance, "The addict voice he uses, all the 'want want want want want' etc., seems really cartoony," I wondered if I'd have even questioned it were I thinking it factual; and for all the repetitions he uses - incantations or refrains occasionally well-placed, but generally employed solely for emphasis, like those Star Trek: The Next Generation characters* did - and, as far as I can tell, completely arbitrary capitalization, I wondered "Would I forgive even worse writing if this were true?", because with memoirs, maybe because not everyone with a personal story is a capital-W Writer, I tend to criticize technique much more charitably. To me, what's especially interesting is that Frey first tried to sell this as fiction, because I would think that in a slush pile, it would look a lot like the hundreds of overly confessional based-on-a-true-story rehab "novels" that they reject pro forma. It makes me wonder: after a rejection of a short story for being too clearly "true" to be good fiction, would I try to publish it as a personal essay? If I was proud enough of the work, I think I would. And the only differences I see between that choice and Frey's "memoir" are that (1) that M-word carries a seemingly inherent claim of truth, and (2) my essay would not be 430 pages long.

But aside from all that: is it any good? Yes. I found the story compelling and very hard to put down. You could call his rhythms and style "stolen," from everyone from Henry Miller through William S. Burroughs or Jack Kerouac, though (as I already said) I can't understand the language conventions he chose to challenge, or why: if making Town or Hero a proper name, how are "small Town" and "football Hero" not? Any writer is free to do as s/he pleases with the language, but if I can't figure out the rules of the game - or if there aren't obviously any to speak of - I probably won't play.** As a whole, I thought Frey's fondness for repetition dragged the prose down more often than sped it up, but overall the writing moved at a surprisingly fast clip.

Taking the long-view, the book's not as ground-breaking as it would have been were it all true, or were it written before its stylistic forebears, but it's a book a lot like many books many people like; why, therefore, shouldn't people like it? We get a character who really needs help, and who works at getting it, meeting a ton of interesting characters and obstacles along the way - sounds like a decent story to me. And as a final note: I was reading it waiting for a takeout order in July or August, and in the Toronto Star that day, there was an "if you liked this, buy that"-type list. It surprised me to see that A Million Little Pieces was listed as a book popular with teens, but it makes a lot of sense - I don't think I'd be the first to say that the Frey character increasingly reminded me of Holden Caulfield as I neared the book's end, in the way that he discovered that despite his objection to nearly everything he the world, it was still possible to make his way in it. For that, I think the book's worth reading, pack of lies or otherwise.

*-Please comment below if you remember the name of these characters. Also, please don't laugh at me for watching this as a child.
**-Worth noting: I finished the book regardless...!

Monday, October 22, 2012

October Update!

No, I have not abandoned my first book in favour of a new project called Capsular Dispatches from a Library Addict - in fact, things are going quite well:

  • I'll be reading my featured story "Eyesore" at the launch party for Sterling Mag #3 this Thursday, October 25 at No One Writes to the Colonel (460 College St., Toronto). Things get underway around 7:00 p.m - details here! - and the magazine is already available to order, in print or digital.
  • Michael Callaghan, publisher at Exile Editions, interviewed me in advance of Exile Literary Quarterly #36.2's release this fall, in which my short story "Mercy" will appear. Check it out!

  • I can't help myself: when I see my work in a bookstore (Book City in The Annex, this time), I snap a photo. I like this issue of The Dalhousie Review (91.3) more than any previous ones because my name is on the cover - leftmost on the second line - and my short story, "Ode," is on the inside.

As for the book, it's nearly finished: the above are three of the 16 stories it includes, and the most recently-written one that rounds out the collection may have given it a new title: Nobody Looks That Young Here. This weekend I took the penultimate unfinished story in for an overhaul with the Toronto Public Library's Writer-in-Residence, Farzana Doctor - very helpful meeting! - and today I found out that though another new story, "The Territory," didn't win The Puritan's first-ever contest, it did get through several tiers of judging, which is encouraging... let's call it a (perhaps very) long list. By this time next month, all the stories should be printed as one manuscript and in hand for my final edit, as - yikes - a whole book this time. The self-imposed completion deadline is still December 31, and after some mild summer despair I've realized I'm going to hit it. I look forward to having more news to pass on - and more book reviews, hope you're enjoying them - between now and then. Thank you for reading!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reading Journal: The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson (2011)

A truly rare novel, one that is as heartbreakingly hilarious as its premise suggests: the adult children of performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang return home from their careers - Annie, an actrees, and Buster, a writer - and confront their parents about the childhood they spent as unwilling participants in their parents' experimental works. The central metaphor is of course a stroke of brilliance - all child-rearing is an experiment, and one that, if flawed, will produce damaged (if well-intentioned) products like the Fang children. The novel's written in a language that's plain and accessible, and the chapters alternate in focus from Annie to Buster and back, separated by flashbacks to the various projects that the children took part in and making of them an elephant in the room that reminds you of the damage done to the children at every step. You'd think from that sentence that it's a heavy read, but it's not, and it's not as flippant as a family chronicle by, say, Douglas Coupland, either. It's laugh-out-loud funny, particularly in its first half, and a book I loved, one of the last year's overlooked gems. Watch for its profile to rise now that Nicole Kidman's attached herself to a film adaptation... and before that, read it. Put it on your can't-miss list.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Reading Journal: Saints and Sinners, by Edna O'Brien (2011)

I will still, eventually, read her controversial - at the time, in 1960 - first book, The Country Girls, but unfortunately this was not the collection for me. In many cases - a common complaint with short stories I've read lately - I found O'Brien layering on the detail, and my eyes glazing over as she did. I'd like to know when exactly Alice Munro said the line quoted on the cover, that O'Brien "writes the most beautiful, aching stories of any writer, anywhere," because her style struck me as almost out of date. There's a classicism in her work, though, and I can pick up the same elements of Chekhov and Woolf in these stories that we find in Munro, Cythia Ozick, etc., particularly in "Manhattan Medley" where Woolf is referenced directly. The stories among the 11 that I did enjoy were the grittier "Shovel Kings," in which a man comes unwound in the wake of job-site fatality; "Madame Cassandra," a more mystically-styled tale of visiting a fortune-teller, and the aforementioned "Medley," whose action turns around an affair. When the author stepped out of her default and somewhat flat style is when I liked her best, and though she nailed the old style in "Medley," in the other stories it just didn't grab me.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Reading Journal: Coronado, by Dennis Lehane (2006)

For a mystery/thriller writer, Lehane's chops pass for seriously literary in Coronado, and though he stays close to the subject matter we expect, he also strays into new settings and - perhaps more importantly - new styles. His clipped rhythms are even more successful when it comes to writing the somewhat elliptical short story, as in "Mushrooms," a postcard from some small-time crooks that offers no resolution: what you see is what you get. The collection's two money makers, I would say, are the first two stories, particularly the opener, "Running Out of Dog," in which a man tasked with controlling a small-town's pet population creeps ever closer to the edge. In "ICU," we join a particularly chilling chase in which a mysterious figure keeps turning up on our hero's tail - it made me think of A History of Violence, and because so little is explained, Kafka. The book's rounded out by "Until Gwen" and its adaptation for the stage, "Coronado," in which a son gets out of jail and has to face his father, who is obsessed with finding the proceeds of the son's last crime. The story was elliptical, almost too much so, and though the play left some things to be desired - the staging seemed almost too minimalist for the increased number of characters - I found that I liked the theatrical ending better, perhaps because a dramatic adaptation has to show you more, more obviously, and thus the final action's significance was much clearer. In all, for a paltry five stories and one play, Coronado provides a great introduction to one of today's more prolific bestsellers while also being a surprisingly literary accomplishment.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Reading Journal: Savages, by Don Winslow (2010)

Already trumpeting its upcoming film adaptation on its front cover, this book came to me by way of my flight attendant girlfriend. (Note to self: start hipster-chic Tumblr called Books People Deliberately Leave On Planes.) So what is it? To take Stephen King's blurb off the cover - one sourced to a reference in the text, which makes it one of those rare worthwhile blurbs - "This is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on autoload": two young pot growers, mild-mannered Ben and hot-headed, ex-military Chon, produce the best stuff in Cali and wile away their off-hours getting stoned and shagging Ophelia, sometimes one at a time, sometimes together. But when the Baja Cartel refuses to let them out of the racket and kidnaps "O" as collateral, our heroes are left to come up with either a ton of money or a much riskier plan for a head-on rescue. The book's written in short bursts - shorter "chapters" than even The Da Vinci Code - and though its machine-gun fire storytelling is a too self-aware and too self-consciously trying to be cool, no given element lasts long enough for you to really get bothered by it, and the pages practically turn themselves. Solid pulp, and a good choice of subject matter; if there's one place we should hear more stories of, it's the war zone the drug trade has created in Mexico, right under its (and the American) government's noses.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Reading Journal: The Tiger's Wife, by Téa Obreht (2011)

Every time I put this book down, I didn't want to... and I think I put off picking it up for a few days at a time because I didn't want it to end. In her debut novel, Obreht gives us a narrator - a doctor, now - who carries the seeming folktales her grandfather told her when she was a girl into her understanding of her new place in post-war (former) Yugoslavia. And using frequent references to Kipling's Jungle Book, the most gripping of the stories is of a deaf-mute woman who, (through events I won't spoil!), comes to be known as the title character... also, there's a deathless man who is an absolutely enchanting creation, rendered like the rest of the story in lyrical-but-not-too-lyrical language. A spell-binding read worthy of all the acclaim it received.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Reading Journal: Chew, Volume 1: Taster's Choice, by John Layman and Rob Guillory (2009)

The collected first five issues of this comic, about FDA agent Tony Chu, a cibopath - someone who, when he eats something formerly alive, (except beets, for no obvious reason), can see what they went through before becoming food. In the near future he inhabits, the FDA is the most powerful government agency in America, and after 23 million people are killed by Avian Flu, chicken has been outlawed and has consequently spawned a black market. Inventive and filled with betrayal, intrigue, love, and - of course - blood, this angularly-drawn world is original and uses lots of oranges and grays to its advantage. If it has a genre, I'd call it spec-noir, if such a thing exists - I suppose it does, i.e., Blade Runner - and though the writing's a little juvenile, the premise is interesting, the humour's cynical, and the arc it's building is full of promise... particularly in Issue 4, where some distant planet explodes without an explanation. It bodes well; I'll have to read on, now.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Reading Journal: Such Is My Beloved, by Morley Callaghan (1934)

A gesture near the near the end of Chapter 1 in (what's commonly called) Callaghan's best novel provides enough intrigue for the whole rest of the story. The protagonist, the young Father Dowling, takes it upon himself to help two prostitutes he meets on the street, and after conversing with them in their hotel room, as he leaves, the hotel proprietor, Mr. Baer, who let him in earlier, "saw the white priest's collar which Father Dowling thought was still hidden by the woollen muffler, and he grinned so broadly that the corners of his wide mouth seemed to shoot up to his skull, he glanced up the stairs, and he made a load sneering noise with his heavy wet lips." The reader stays in the same shoes as Baer, knowing that this can't help but bring scandal down on Dowling, and the church as well, and you spend the rest of the (short) book wondering how long it will take. But on the other hand, you get absolutely swept up in the love - charity: caritas, not cupiditas - that Dowling lavishes on these untouchables, and you escape all the minor characters' seeming fatalism about the matter and hope against hope for all to be redeemed. It's a book that's very economical with its language, and interesting, too, for showing us a time when being a Catholic in Toronto was a minority position, and one always vigilant against potential persecution. One of the better Canadian novels ever written.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Reading Journal: Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth (1959)

The titular novella and five short stories comprise Roth's debut, which snagged the National Book Award, way back when. My eyes were opened particularly by the story "The Conversion of the Jews," in which a young Jewish boy engages in literal brinkmanship - threatening to jump off a roof - in order to prove his point that other religions than Judaism are no more or less true. As for "Goodbye, Columbus," it's a story of young love had and lost, and particularly, about class, as the Rutgers-attending narrator from Newark falls in with Brenda of the affluent suburb, Short Hills, who is also a student at Radcliffe College, in Boston. "Eli the Fanatic" tells of attempts to assimilate a more traditional Jew into his more modern community, and "You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings" of general boyhood mischief: being tricked by older boys into taking the blame for the acts he joined them in. And "Defender of the Faith" is a rather hilarious account of a sympathetic army commander who gets three fellow Jews in his unit and exhaustingly concedes to their special requests not otherwise honoured by the army (e.g., religious holidays). It's a searing statement of identity, a book (and a writer) with a fire in his belly and one who writes almost savagely, brusquely, using short words and sentences where others might noodle. An indispensable American document; love him or hate him, your path with Roth begins here, and - if it's O.K. to say 50 years after the fact - it's an amazingly auspicions debut.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Reading Journal: Parasites Like Us, by Adam Johnson (2003)

A wacky picaresque with poor jacket copy: "After trashing his '72 Corvette [which doesn't happen until Page 136], illegally breaking into an ancient burial site [page 120] and snacking on 12,000-year-old popcorn [page 232], Hank Hannah finds he's inadvertently unleashed the apocalypse." I expected these big events to be the book's best three - and for what it's worth, they are - but in a book that's almost 340 pages, to me, the apocalypse comes way too late, leaving only about 100 pages for us to see What Happens Next... and before them, we take an indifferent slog through 100-plus pages of not much happening at all: we learn about Hank, and his family, and his position as an anthropologist at the University of Southern South Dakota, but none of these details are particularly interesting. To the novel's credit, the narrator occasionally addresses the anthropologist of tomorrow, who will come across this and ask what it all meant, and there is some seriously funny writing, but the marketing department had to go and get my hopes up for a Misery-like opening car crash. It's not an awful book, but "exciting" isn't a word I'd use to describe it.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Reading Journal: Delicate Edible Birds, by Lauren Groff (2009)

Unfortunately, this was a collection I struggled to get through; as a general comment, I found that Groff's florid descriptions tend to write around the action, as opposed to seeming like they are the action. The shortest of the nine stories comes in at 16 pages, and during most stories, I found my eyes glazing over somewhere in the middle. The best of the bunch may be the closer, from which the collection takes its title, in which a few journalists, all from different countries, flee Paris in the middle of the Second World War, only to wind up prisoners on a Nazi sympathizer's farm. And though the first story, "Lucky Chow Fun," was unique, about a brothel in a small Pennsylvania town fronting as a Chinese restaurant, and "Blythe" told of a complicated friendship with a very disturbed artist, several stories - "Majorette," "Sir Fleeting," and the Best American Short Stories-selected "L. DeBard and Alliette" - were too plain for me, telling too ambitiously of complete lives and forsaking the snapshot-like strength of the short story, often having to fastforward many years into the future to conclude. Perhaps a victim of its marketing department - floral cover on quilted paper, rough-cut pages, link on the back jacket - the stories are daintily written pieces of Americana, but rarely do they rise above their prettiness and truly say anything about their subjects. Most of them read like aborted starts to novels, rushed out in the wake of her successful debut, The Monsters of Templeton. I will read her novel, and I think I'll like it more; her talents don't seem particularly suited to this form.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Reading Journal: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (2012)

The first psychology book I've read since being peripherally assigned them in under/graduate literary courses, and one that walks a tightrope between academic-level analysis and the pop non-fiction of a Malcolm Gladwell. There are extensive notes in the back end, so I trust the author, though her theories seem dangerously simplfied. Particularly in its first chapters, the book ably takes down the Extrovert Ideal, and explains that though the introverted work very differently, there's no reason that their superiors at work, or worse, their spouses or parents, should write them off. Introversion is not the same as shyness or neurosis, but Cain's work draws some interesting conclusions from a wide body of selected studies to show how dichotomies as diverse as, say high vs. low reactivity, or our varied dopamine processing abilities, play a role in the way we approach our lives. The findings can't help but repeat themselves sometimes - she is, after all, trying to prove a point - but the book is nevertheless interesting and highly accessible to the layperson's understanding of psychology: there's a bit of Jung, a little more Kagan, and nary a Freud in sight. Cool read.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reading Journal: Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology, Vol. 2, ed. Gloria Vanderbilt (2012)

Twelve new stories from this year's Exile magazine competition, including "Mercy" by some guy you might be reading right now. The purse is divided into two prizes - $3,000 for best story by an emerging writer, $2,000 for the winning established writer - and as in the first year the prize was awarded in Canada, the final judge's indecision and generosity doubled one prize and named co-winners. The winning established writers include Leon Rooke's "Here Comes Henrietta Armani," a brilliantly-structured story of a very odd woman like only he can write - very much form over content - and Sean Virgo's bewitching modern fairy tale, "Gramarye." Emerging writer winner Christine Miscione's "Skin, Just" is a musical lightning-strike of a story, about discovering a mole one believes to be cancerous, and a more than worthy winner. Other highlights? Amy Stuart's "The Roundness," (which won the 2011 Writers' Union of Canada Short Prose Competition, too), about giving up the baby in a teenage pregnancy; Kris Bertin's gritty "Tom Stone & Co.," about a bouncer who moonlights for his father-in-law's trash removal business; Martha Batiz's "The Last Confession," about emigrating after being a Latin American political prisoner, and Jacqueline Windh's "The Night the Floor Jumped," a lively account of being trapped by earthquake debris in which, though not a lot can "happen" in the static situation, every sentence keeps moving, leanly and declaratively, to make for an exciting piece. I liked almost every story in this collection, and it's an honour to be published alongside this varied group of talented Canadian writers.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Three projects you should know about

Three of the brilliant and talented writers I worked at SLS Vilnius last year are embarking on bold new ventures, and seeking our help:

1. Blair Bourassa, winner of the SLS Fiction Contest in 2011, is having his short story "A Dream on Fire" adapted into a short film. More here.

2. In Santa Cruz, CA, Catherine Segurson is spearheading a new journal, the Catamaran Literary Reader. More here.

3. Nikita Nelin, winner of the SLS Non-Fiction Contest in 2011, is sharing a story from the deepest of undergrounds: Burning Man. More here.

Check them out, and give them money - they will amaze us.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Reading Journal: Fantastic Women: Eighteen Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House, ed. Rob Spillman (2011)

"Sublimity is the echo of a noble mind," wrote Longinus, somewhere around the first century, C.E.; as my dusty old Norton crit anthology summarizes, to him, "writers and orators achieve greatness not just by rhetorical techniques but also by deep feelings, profound thoughts and natural genius. [...] Often the experience of reading a great author or listening to a greet speech leads us to a feeling of ecstasy or transport (ekstasis), which is distinct from the more rational effects of persuasion, the goal of rhetoric." Effectively, if a story connects with you - elicits enough pathos that it sweeps you away - you can call it sublime. It's a murky notion in a post-Romantic world.

And what of surrealism? Think of a Dali painting and you get the idea: such work seeks "a reality above or within the surface reality, usually through efforts to suspend the discipline of conscious or logical reason, aesthetics, or morality in order to allow for the expression of subconscious thought and feeling," as my Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia says.

Personally, few of these stories connected with me. The collection features two of the New Yorker 20 Under 40 - Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum and Karen Russell - as well as critical darlings Aimee Bender, Miranda July, Lydia Davis, and Lydia Millet. None of their stories were my favourite, though a second read of July's "Oranges" - on its face, little more than a collection of exchanges with survey people on the street - redeemed it a little, as the title may tell you which of the questions asked is most important. Bynum talked about dreams, but her story was hardly surreal... at least not compared to Samantha Hunt's "Beast," in which a woman is bitten by a tick and, in her dreams, begins becoming a deer, a welcome escape from a rather dreary life. It reminded me of the truly sublime story "La Femme Adultère," by Albert Camus. I also really enjoyed Julia Elliott's "The Wilds," about a girl growing up next to a family with several boy children who may literally be beasts. That was kind of it, though; they could have just as easily called the collection Women Writers You've Heard Are Good, in a Magazine You've Heard Is Good: collected over eight years, and mainly from three issues therein, this set seems more like a "We published them first!" boast than a well-grouped collection. On their own merits, more of these stories might work for other readers than did for me, and though it was preferable to get acquainted with these writers in shorter works, (as opposed to long debut novels), as a themed collection, I thought it was a dud.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Imagining Currie Township: A Photo Essay

On a recent trip home to small-town Southwestern Ontario, I captured a few of the places that are indispensable when imagining my work. The photos were all taken with my Stone Age Blackberry, but if the quality's not too bad, and if you've read my stories, you'll likely recognize a few places.

Baseball Diamond 1, Appin, ON

It's hard to tell from this angle, but the back fence is probably 10 feet tall - and up close to it, you can see where the top six feet were joined to the bottom four. When the fence was that low, locally, the park was nicknamed The Homerdome. Beyond the fence, there's a playground, the Appin Museum, and a pavilion full of picnic tables.

Baseball Diamond 2, Appin, ON

The view from left field, with the canteen beyond the first baseline, as an ominous cloud moves in...

Appin Museum, Appin, ON

Derisively called "The Ol' Plaque-n-Shack" in "Mercy," and home to the murder wall from "The Seven Confessions of Constable Tom Burford," (should I ever finish that story), the interior of this little building - and its newer friend, (right), which used to house Ekfrid Mutual Insurance, on the main drag (Waterloo Street, now called Thames Road) - is nothing like its fictional rendition. I presume. I haven't been inside since I was about 10. 

Wellington - Appin's Only Backstreet

Can't have a Waterloo without a Wellington. This old truck (and somewhat related scrap pile) caught me by surprise, as it wasn't on my mind when writing "Bondo," but when I saw it I realized that it's all been there as long as I can remember.

Former Gas Station, Appin, ON

The one business left in Appin is Cookie King, as you can vaguely read on the reverse of this sign. They, too, were on Waterloo for years, with a storefront, before moving it here and taking over the gas bar - see the island in the centre? That used to be pumps. Nowadays the original building, as well as this one, are primarily used for cookie storage. To my knowledge, the Cookie King still has a booth at the Gibraltar Trade Centre, in London, but I can't say for sure - even Google doesn't know.

Former Gas Station with Former Movie Theatre, Glencoe, ON

I didn't work in this gas station - not exactly. But my father did. And one summer, when I was eight or nine, in order to stop people from walking into the building - not pictured, sorry - and helping themselves to cigarettes from behind the counter, I manned the cash register, as a deterrent and, believe it or not, when the pumps were lined up with cars, a second employee. Years later - when I was in high school - a girl in the eighth grade walked up to the counter and committed an armed robbery with a two-by-four, whacking the eleventh-grade girl working there and making off with the money. (I presume there was money.) How either of these elements haven't surfaced in the book yet - and yes, it's almost finished! - I don't know.

(Former) Fox Theatre, with Main Street, Glencoe, ON

Briefly, when I was a teenager, in the town of Strathroy - where I went to high school, west of London - there was a movie theatre. I don't recall exactly, but in my memory its grand opening and its final showing were about a year apart. And another thing I don't remember - I vaguely remember Donald Duck on the big screen - is seeing a movie at the Fox, in Glencoe, when I was around three years old, which I'm told I did. What I actually remember is the Fox having always been closed. Last I knew, it was empty, but I discovered that it now houses a dance studio. By the way, Main Street probably doesn't always look like this - this was an overcast Sunday morning - but it certainly resembles what I describe in "Projections," my collection's opening story.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Reading Journal: Tishomingo Blues, by Elmore Leonard (2002)

A hilarious conceit from the pulp master: the Dixie Mafia. And the story's protagonist, a high diver at the casino in Tishomingo, Mississippi, witnesses one of their hits at the beginning of the book and spends the rest of it working his way out of trouble, with the help of some memorable no-goodniks, who are of course equal parts good ol' boys. The over-arching metaphor is a simple piece of genius, especially as the plot thickens, and much like trying to hit a pool that from atop the ladder looks as big as a quarter, our hero eventually finds himself with one harrowing play left. It's my first Leonard, and what they say is true: it must be about 80 per cent dialogue. He's indeed devoted to his 10 Rules of Writing, in which he quotes from Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks." It's almost a challenge to remember who's who, given the quick and scant descriptions he uses, but he's a truly self-effacing narrator, and he lets the characters give the reader the most important details, never in a heavy-handed way. Great fun.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Reading Journal: The Good Body, by Bill Gaston (2000)

A book about hockey, but not: the game has passed Bobby Bonaduce by, and now, experiencing the first signs of Multiple Sclerosis, he's returned to the University of New Brunswick, posing as a Creative Writing student, in an attempt to both get onto the varsity hockey team and to re-establish his relationship with his son, and maybe his ex-wife. It's a touching fish-out-of-water story punctuated by versions of his final workshop piece, and it's a well-observed, well-paced and often funny book - my favourite of Gaston's, so far.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Reading Journal: The Russian Debutante's Handbook, by Gary Shteyngart (2002)

Nicknamed "Little Failure" by his mother, Vladimir, an immigration consultant in his early 20s, takes on a client he can't help but assist: a Russian mobster fleeing the collapsing Soviet Union. For a book involving so much romantic failure, political turmoil and mafiesky run-ins, not only is it highly readable, it's surprisingly hilarious, lampooning not just the Russian side of the equation, but the American diaspora and all the ex-pats and, (of course), poets young Vladimir meets. A wonderfully ragged, picaresque debut from a writer whose stock has been steadily rising; on to Super Sad True Love Story next.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Reading Journal: The Journey Prize Stories, Vol. 23 (2011)

I enjoyed all but one of these 10 stories - I won't name the odd one out - and it was great to re-read Jessica Westhead, ("What I Would Say"), and Michael Christie, ("The Extra"), from collections previously discussed in this space. New to me, in particular, was the winner, Miranda Hill - a choice I agreed with, as opposed to Journeys past - whose "Petitions to Saint Chronic" incisively brings together three characters' stories in a hospital, viscerally and affectingly, in a work that will stay with you long after you've finished. I also found D.W. Wilson's "The Dead Roads" to be a spicy shakeup to the overdone Young Canadian Road Story. Fran Kimmel's "Laundry Day" was a delicious slice of dirty realist pie, and Michelle Winters's "Toupée" - on its face, about working in a restaurant - did the most with the least, and snuck up on the reader before its ending, subverting expectations you didn't realize were there and forcing you to go back to find out where she set you up. Though it's slim compared to previous volumes, it's a group well-selected by two Giller-nominated short story writers previously discussed here, Sarah Selecky and Alexander MacLeod, as well as Booker-longlisted novelist Alison Pick.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reading Journal: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)

One of the most sentimental novels I've read in a long time, and damned if Foer didn't, with all his MFA tricks, get away with it. Wearing his post-modern sensibilties on his sleeve, the many "touching bits" in the book come by way of letters, photos, diaries, notebooks and - most interestingly - edits to other documents that fill in the details as we follow our child protagonist, Oskar Schell, in his attempt to find out what a key left behind by his father - killed in the Twin Towers - will open. The premise is a fantastic one: from the moment that Oskar does the math to estimate how many locks per person are generated in New York city, I was hooked on his precocious voice, even - especially? - when the overall rendering of the child stretched credibility. And though I found that overall it was a wandering and by times stylistically jarring read, there is a love that shines through the work and illuminates everything in it, save for the title: though he overuses the adverbs "extremely" and "incredibly" throughout the book, I never picked up what exactly was loud and/or close; nonetheless, it's an important, thought-provoking and emotionally rewarding yarn that will be discussed for years to come. A worthwhile challenge.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Reading Journal: A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson (1997)

From Georgia to Maine runs the Appalachian Trail, 2,200 miles of hiking path in various states of repair, depending which state you're in. And chronicling the variations along the trail is our intrepid walker, Bill Bryson, who tells of the natural beauty (or decay), kind people (or complete morons), wonderful conservationists (or land rapers) he encounters on his journey. For a trail that's been protected since early in the 20th Century, a staggeringly small number of people currently use it, and even fewer have done the whole thing. Bryson writes incredibly humourously about shopping for gear, learning to pack, relearning to walk - did you know that the average American walks way less than one mile a day? - and, of course, bears. An enchanting book laden with research that, admittedly, sags a little in its third quarter, but that is on the whole a Ciceran triumph, perfectly balancing the two needs, to teach and to delight.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Reading Journal: The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady

A worthy finalist for the Giller Prize, no question, Coady's novel displays writing as vicious and vulnerable as the protagonist she creates: Gordon "Rank" Rankin, a former hockey enforcer who is repeatedly emailing erstwhile best friend Adam, who wrote a novel seemingly based on Rank's life. In particular, the first hundred pages are bilious and exciting, as Rank rails against Adam and begs that he be accurately represented. And though my interest tailed off a bit when Rank started to write his own corrective novel, in a way it was a tour de force on Coady's part to write in the person of someone writing an overly emotional draft. From time to time, it seemed that there was a writerly intelligence beyond Rank's holding the pen, and part of me thought that we would eventually hear from Adam, but the choice to alternate between the "I" voice addressing Adam via email and the third-person-narrated novel bits Rank was emailing to him was compelling enough, telling a clearly two-sided story well from only one interested party. Plus, dozens of Coady's finer brushstrokes come together for big cumulative effects in the end. In all, an excellent Canadian novel.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Launching Tuesday, June 12 at Dora Keogh: CVC Anthology, Vol. 2, featuring "Mercy"

My short story, "Mercy," was named to the short list in this year's Vanderbilt-Exile Competition, meaning that it will appear in the second volume of the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology alongside Emerging Writers winner Christine Miscione, Established Writers co-winners Sean Virgo and Leon Rooke, and other finalists Kris Bertin, Jacqueline Windh, Amy Stuart, Linda Rogers, Martha Batiz, Phil Della, Kelly Watt and Darlene Madott. The book launches Tuesday, June 12 at the Dora Keogh, 141 Danforth Ave., Toronto, and eight of us are on the bill. Great times to follow - see you there, around 8:00pm.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Reading Journal: Where We Have to Go, by Lauren Kirshner (2009)

An excellent debut by a young Toronto writer whose strength is her application of detail. Kirshner describes very, very well, rarely over-detailing but always providing lots, which should come as no surprise: her mentor at U of T was Margaret Atwood. She slyly makes her aesthetic point near the book's end, when she gives her young woman protagonist this thought as she reflects on the events depicted, a difficult coming of age between 12 and 19: "Maybe what makes a story real are the details." After finishing, when I attended a workshop the author was giving on "writing local," emphasizing how to make place come alive, I could still remember the depictions of the dirty Murphy bed in the apartment, and the low-end name of the scuzzy apartment building - Tivoli Towers, nothing like the amusement park! - and some of the characters' appearances. Plus, early in the book, the hero ends up tagging along to an AA meeting, which is a novel and well-rendered scene, one of the book's best. Kirshner's is a fresh voice that, though its diction is occasionally odd, is one of the most promising Canadian ones I've read in a long time, particularly when you consider how early in her career she is. I'm excited to see what she does next.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reading Journal: Correction Road, by Glen Dresser (2007)

I shouldn't be surprised to read another great book from tiny Oberon Press, (of Ottawa); John Metcalf's still editing there, and, (though I wasn't a Pomerance fan), they publish only the finest. For his part, Glen Dresser has written a book that's interesting from the first page, telling as it does of a rat catcher in a small town on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border - from the perspective of the rat, by times. I really liked the semi-frequent returns to the rat, who would soliloquize about his omniscience and the scenes' impact on him, the lowly one we never think about. The human characters are small time and small town, and though the ones in their early 20s speak like they're older, the story is simple and affecting, with old friendships and troubled couples and family tensions and adulterous temptations at every turn. A book with a real rythym to it that's easy to get caught up in, and another excellent Canadian small-press find.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reading Journal: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers (1940)

One word to describe this novel? Atmosphere. McCullers's debut, written when she was just 23, is a beautiful stumble through a young woman's formative years in the racially-divided American south. The characters live and breathe, particularly those men Mick Kelly is interested in: working-class hothead Jake Blount and the mute, (Mr.) Singer. As far as a plot goes, it's hard to pin much down, but each chapter is another scene that demands your attention with its immediacy and draws you in, almost to the point that you forget the forest for each of these trees. Tennessee Williams called McCullers's the South's best prose writer; for my money, she's no William Faulkner, but I'm a big Grapes of Wrath and Alice Munro fan, and this book slots in nicely alongside those writers, sometimes using sentences as punchy as Hemingway's, too. What can I say that hasn't been said? Don't just take it from Oprah, it's a classic.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Reading Journal: Swimming in the Ocean, by Catherine Jenkins (2002)

Not the kind of novel I'd normally be drawn to - a woman on a Caribbean vacation sits on the beach and rhapso-analyzes past loves - but I'm very glad I met this author, and therefore, read the book. Switching between apostrophe - each chapter brings a new, past "you" - and textbook-like descriptions of marine life forms, the term one might use to describe the style is "heavy metaphor." Erudite postmodern read that frequently references songs, paintings and more, but one that's also a profluent history of the heart in a crackling present tense; a great small-press discovery (Insomniac).

Thursday, April 26, 2012

"Mercy" on $5,000 Vanderbilt-Exile Prize Short List

Exactly what the title says! My long-suffering, 21 months in the making, 7,000-plus word story is among the final twelve, which is especially good news because it means the story will appear in the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology Series, Vol. 2 this summer, and an invite to a swanky dinner in June, too. The big announcement is still forthcoming, though: who will win the $3,000 for best story by an emerging writer? And who will win the $2,000 prize for best story by a non-emerging writer, (a prize for which my writing teacher extraordinaire, Richard Scarsbrook, was long-listed for his story, "The Statistician")? Ms. Gloria Vanderbilt is currently reading the stories - definitely the most famous person to ever look at my work! - and the news should be out soon, I'll update. I'd like to take this moment to thank two people who read and commented on the story: Summer Literary Seminars pal Larry Levey, and 2011 Broken Pencil Death Match compatriot (and champion) David Griffin Brown.

Some other little updates:

-I just signed the contract for my very short story, "A Real Princess," to appear in Stone Skin Press's upcoming Modern Aesop anthology, (thanks for the swap-and-edit, Julie McArthur). My first contract, cool!

-I'll be reading at the EW Reading Series at Duffy's Tavern, Toronto, on July 10, 2012.

-I found both the The Nashwaak Review and Prairie Journal issues featuring my work at Indigo last week, check it out.

-I'm about to go check the mail for my copy of Paragon, just released, in which my very short story "Hamburger" appears, and I hope it comes today, because tonight I'm off to Italy for a week or two! (My Reading Journal may take a short hiatus, but it will be back soon.)

As always, thanks everyone for supporting my work; with a little luck, I may have even better news next time. Ciao!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Reading Journal: China in Ten Words, by Yu Hua (2011)

The first non-fiction work I've read in a quite a while, and a choice I'm very happy with. Yu Hua, a fiction writer, takes ten concepts - 10 idiograms on the front cover - and writes a chapter about each, explaining what this idea means to him, and the role these concepts play in both his and China's identity. It's sort of a memoir, and sort of a study, and in the end (the late chapters, "Copycat" and "Bamboozle"), it's very critical of China's "economic miracle," and the greed and corruption and dishonesty on which this "success" has been built. The chapters "Reading," "Writing" and "Revolution" are particularly bracing, as well. Best of all, it's Hua's writing that gets you truly into the country, flourshing in the beginning chapter - "The People" - by taking you to Tianenmen Square in 1989. My next read about China will be something about the censorship of literature in that country; I'm fairly ignorant, but this struck me as a book the Chinese government doesn't want you to read. Trans. Allan H. Barr.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Reading Journal: Every Lost Country, by Steven Heighton (2010)

A doctor, his daughter, a mountain climber and a film maker embark on an Everest trek, and find themselves caught in the crossfire at a Tibet-Nepal border crossing. Heighton's latest novel - ahead of his second book of stories this summer, which I'm really excited for - is packed with action and imagery, though if I had to find a flaw, it would be in his balance of the two. I found that a lot of times, an extra sentence or two, (each one usually another image), would clog up the paragraph, getting between the actions. It's a trifle, though: Heighton is one of Canada's most under-celebrated writers and his sentences, as always, are poetic but muscular and incredibly well-tempered. I'll take one image too many here or there and still keep reading, no question.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Reading Journal: Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen (2006)

Incredibly evocative and detailed, but disarmingly clear in its prose - longer than it looks, and feels shorter than it is - Sara Gruen's novel more than deserves its fame. The main character has such an interesting backstory, and such a compassion for animals, and when he accidentally joins the circus, circa the Great Depression, the world he's drawn into is new and strange and exciting at nearly every turn. Plus, I'm a sucker for the point of view from which the story's told: old man in a nursing home remembering. The sting comes out of the language in the final hundred pages, but I found myself so invested in the outcome that I didn't care much. A pop novel, sure, but that shouldn't take anything away from it. I thought it was a great read.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Reading Journal: No Great Mischief, by Alistair MacLeod (1999)

Mystical and beautiful work that loops eternally back on itself, telling the history of a Scottish-descended Cape Breton family, exorcising demon after demon that comes with their rise in the world. (And they have risen: the narrator has made a Toronto dentist of himself.) MacLeod almost has too many balls in the air, deliberately using characters with the same name and one "Grandpa" and one "Grandfather," to the point where keeping track of where in space or time you are can be a challenge. But in the best sense, this novel - to me - was about its general impression, and there's such a current of loss running through it, and such a strong resistance to pure nostalgia, that this exploration proves well worthwhile. Definitely a novel I'll get more from on the second time through, but not so difficult that it absolutely requires rereading. A slow read that's justly become a CanLit staple, and will remain so for a very long time. Rich, rich work.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Reading Journal: The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath (1963)

Eminently quotable book about the coming of age of a woman writer - and later, unfortunately, depression and primitive therapy - that's worthy of its place in the canon. Take this example, from the end of the first chapter:

"I liked looking on at other people in crucial situations. If there was a road accident or a street fight or a baby pickled in a laboratory jar for me to look at, I'd stop and look so hard I never forgot it.

I certainly learned a lot of things I never would have learned otherwise this way, and even when they surprised me or made me sick I never let on, but pretended that's the way I knew things were all the time."

Or this one:

"I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn't thought about it.

The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end."

The coming depression is evident, but so too is the weight of promise, of knowing that you're not going to fit into the type of life others around you do. As a book for young adults to read, I think this one has stayed more relevant than The Catcher in the Rye, and I think that the unlikelihood of male readers identifying with it has been greatly exaggerated. It tapers off in the end, churning through several institutions before tying off the loose ends, but generally, I kind of loved it.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Reading Journal: The Broom of the System, by David Foster Wallace (1987)

My first DFW, and what a ride. Wallace's prose is always launching forward, disorienting and racing, but also incredibly dense. It wasn't until the final hundred (of the 460+) pages that I started to tire of it, mainly because one central plot point began to look like it would never be resolved... and it never was. I won't reveal which one, though, because part of the joy of this book is that there are so many irons in the fire: Lenore Beadsman and her father's baby food company legacy; her almost-romance and ensuing therapy sessions with her boss, and publisher of the Frequent & Vigorous Review, Rick Vigorous; her missing grandmother; the construction of the Greater Ohio Desert; a parrot who quotes scripture and Auden and winds up with a televangelism gig; and a "where did all the time go?" storyline that draws college friends back into the plot. That any of this comes together in the end is kind of a miracle. Hard reading, but good reading. Sad to say I probably won't read it again, even though the book seems to demand it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Reading Journal: The Reverse Cowgirl, by David Whitton (2011)

Another book by another Canadian writer who studied with Zsuzsi Gartner (see: Sarah Selecky, Matthew J. Trafford), David Whitton sets most of his stories in stomping grounds familiar to me: London, Ontario and Middlesex County. I'm sure it's not the first time Middlesex County has been named in Canadian Literature, but it was nice to see. Like Trafford, Whitton works often in the "grounded fantastic," wacky sci-fi-esque scenarios in which the story is less about the crazy stuff going on than about the characters' relationships. The opener, "Gargoyles," kicks off its action with a chunk of a cement gargoyle falling comically on the passing-by protagonist, knocking her down from local legend to local slut, though her beau, Richard, loves her regardless. I was less into the more imaginative "Twilight of the Gods" - set on a spaceship - and the title story, a Groundhog Day-esque journey through Paris that's also a love triangle, than I was the more realistic stories. "The Eclipse," about setting up one's derelict brother on a date, and "The Lee Marvins," about two rough-and-tumble tow truck drivers, were touching and funny and uninterruptible. Finally, "Raspberries," which can't be missed: an old widow keeps receiving a mysterious visitor, and against her better judgment, she begins indulging his attempts to make her suspect that her husband is in fact not dead. All in all, in The Reverse Cowgirl, you'll find some of the more original writing being done in Canada today, all of it matter-of-fact and witty in tone.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Reading Journal: CVC: Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology Series, Book One, ed. Gloria Vanderbilt (2011)

Exile Editions' ten finalists in the first year of their $5,000 competition, and already, a strange precedent has been set: Ms. Vanderbilt couldn't decide between the top two in the $3,000 Emerging Writer category - Frank Westcott and Silvia Moreno-Garcia - so she called it a tie and gave them both top money, while still giving Ken Stange his $2,000 for best among writers at any stage of a career. Westcott's story, "The Poet," opens the collection, and it's a detailed account of a poet being interviewed while lusting after the interviewer; Moreno-Garcia's story, "Scales as Pale as Moonlight," takes a more mythical tack, intertwining a family story with a legend in a way reminiscent of Nino Ricci's Lives of the Saints. For his part, Stange's story, "The Heart of a Rat," is a creepy and exciting story about rival professors performing transplants and competing for a woman. To its great credit, the group is varied, and puts the more lyrical - Rishma Dunlop's "Paris" - alongside the more classically Canadian realist, from Leigh Nash's "The Field Trip" to frequent Canadian writing contest winner Zoe Stikeman's "Single-celled Amoeba." My favourite story may have been none of the above, though: Kristi-Ly Green's "The Patient" depicts doctors indifferent to their jobs, which makes for a story like none I've read before. And though I didn't love all 10, what makes this collection valuable is that the stories are truly diverse; everyone won't like everything, but there's definitely some talent here.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Reading Journal: A Week of This, by Nathan Whitlock (2008)

A catalogue of the depressing aspects of life a mere hour outside Toronto, where failing small businesses, long-term but never married couples, and broken families make up the cast of characters. Whitlock's over-arching choice to tell his story in seven parts, one day each, allows for a very nuanced chronicle, but the drawback of this approach - same problem I had with David Adams Richards' everything-happens-in-one-day novel, Hope in the Desperate Hour - is that you start to get the feeling that nothing's really happening, because every little detail is recorded, burying the important ones. Overall, though, Whitlock's style is eloquent, changing registers entirely - sometimes successfully, sometimes not - when he wants a character to make a particularly bracing point, and I didn't mind getting to the end. I was hoping for a more dramatic conclusion, given the character goals laid out at the beginning, but after the entirely undramatic first six chapters, I suppose the final fade-out is exactly the point. I'm interested to see what this author does next; I think he wrote a pretty good book, but to me it wasn't at all exciting... which, equally, was probably also the point...

Monday, February 20, 2012

Reading Journal: 8x10, by Michael Turner (2009)

Certain variations of the postmodern novel will never be my friend. In this one, every chapter (vignette, is more like it, as very few are more than a page or two) is introduced by an 8x10 grid in which the sector you're currently in is highlighted. The action moves down the y-axis, through eight squares, ten times over (as it follows the x-axis), though some sectors are altogether skipped, for no evident reason. My interpretation of the device was that each horizontal row was a different character's point of view, and that if I were to read the book again, one row at a time, I would get something resembling eight plots, which possibly fit together to form a larger plot; however, were there a larger plot, I'm confident I would have detected it in the end, and my opinion of a book is that, though it may get richer on second read, you shouldn't have to read it more than once. Turner's refusal to use character names (which, if they had introduced each point of view, would have helped me understand who I was seeing) completely muddies this story, leaving it "open" - or as I'd rather call it, confusing, or messy, even. What the book is, then, is little more than a series of vignettes, some of them vaguely related to some war or other going on in the background. I'm glad it was only 160 pages, because there was literally nothing here for me. It got great reviews, though; maybe I'm the stupid one.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Three Small, Good Things

With Writers' Reserve Grant rejections rolling in fast and furious, and my 25-page story "Mercy" painstakingly approaching completion - goal: Exile Magazine's contest, deadline pushed back to March 6 - I can pass on three little updates.

1) Paragon Press, at Memorial University of Newfoundland, has accepted my very short story, "Hamburger," for publication in Paragon Journal #5. This story came together just in time for my first public reading, at Summer Literary Seminars - check out their contest, too! - in Vilnius this summer. Special thanks to Jackie Zakrewsky, from Washington, DC, who workshopped this piece intensively with me. The issue's due out in April.

2) Echolocation has posted a litte write-up and some photos from the launch party back in November, 2011, here.

3) Stone Skin Press has solicited a contribution to a new anthology of modern fables, which is an exciting departure for me. More details on that one down the road.

Thanks again for following! More Reading Journal entries coming soon!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Reading Journal: The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt (2011)

Perhaps the most unusual book to win the Governor-General’s Award since Bear (Marian Engel, 1976), DeWitt’s second novel takes the violence of a Cormac McCarthy and fuses it with the comic style of a Charles Portis, to the point that some scenes resemble the cartoony violence of Monty Python or South Park. Though it’s a “genre book,” The Sisters Brothers acquits itself well as literature, too, telling a rather traditional story about a man hunt, and brotherhood, and the ethical challenges an emerging conscience would pose to your average mercenary. It’s incredibly difficult to put this book down, and stylistically, it exploits a few simple tricks to create a brilliant voice that’s funny but that doesn’t discount the gravity of the situation. It's a book that I already know will be hard to top on my year-end list, and an absolute must-read if you liked True Grit or True History of the Kelly Gang.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Reading Journal: Ladies and Gentlemen, by Adam Ross (2011)

A book I plucked off the shelf at random in my local library, and which I found to be one of the better short fiction collections I've read. Seven stories here, ranging from 20-50 pages, and all of them inviting and human and challenging. Ross knows exactly how long to linger in a scene, whether he's telling you about the strangest job interview ever (the opening story, "Futures," with a great twist that you'll feel like you should've seen coming but will still surprise you), or a first love at the age of 13 ("Middleman"). The set ranges from the harder-edged "When In Rome" - about getting mixed up with the small-time crooks your brother hangs around - to the domestic "In the Basement" - about that college friend who gives it all up just to get married - and in all the stories, finely drawn characters face tough choices and make strange moves that generally seem justified. Ross's narrative voice is confident and his prose is smooth, never distracting with gimmicks or lyrics and always letting the story reign supreme. I highly recommend this collection, and I can already feel it informing my work.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Reading Journal: Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane (2010)

The sequel to Gone, Baby, Gone comes in at about half of its predecessor's length, and much thinner on story. Some of the excesses of the first installment were done away with, but as must any book in a series, this volume burns a lot of early pages catching up backstory, which stalled the book's ability to get its hooks into me. Lehane's prose is as clean and quick-reading as it's ever been, though, and when the action does finally pick up, the book comes to a whirlwind conclusion - breathless, if a bit contrived, and giving us a sense of what will happen to Amanda (GBG's abductee), complete with a side of Russian gangsters, which (eventually) makes for an exciting read. Best of all, the ending is one that will allow Kenzie to come back to us a very different man... or, one that could equally allow Lehane to abandon this series altogether and try something new.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Reading Journal: Off Book, by Mark Sampson (2007)

A world-beating debut that must have some truth in it, about a young writer named Cameron from rural Nova Scotia who attends King's College (Halifax) then moves to an unnamed prairie city, where instead of following his passion and writing plays, he begins crunching code for a web start up. Sampson himself, from Prince Edward Island - where one of Cameron's girlfriends comes from, one whose home we visit in the novel - attended King's, then the University of Manitoba (in Winnipeg). What he has produced here is a seeming hybrid of the academic novel and the bildungsroman, in which he often lays bare the device, referencing the process of writing frequently as well as the coming-of-age archetypes. The novel, the last book now-defunct Norwood Publishing produced, has a quite a few editing errors - spelling, doubled words, missing indents, tense errors - but the story is nevertheless profluent, and stocked with believable characters. It's over 360 pages long and tightly packed, and though I was working through several other books at the time, I kept wanting to come back to this one. Engaging story in functional - if occasionally a touch stiff - prose that reads quickly, but that also makes you think, as you recognize the types Sampson is employing to tell this ambitious story and discover the Kroetsch-ian leanings of the style the writer character develops. I really enjoyed it, and I'm looking forward to his next novel, Sad Peninsula, from which The Quint, (University College of the North, Thompson, MB), has published an excerpt that you can read here.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Reading Journal: King Leary, by Paul Quarrington (1987)

A Leacock Medal for Humour and Canada Reads winner, King Leary tells of an old-time (1910-1930, roughly) NHLer much more like King Clancy than King Lear. The plot revolves around the King's upcoming trip to film a ginger ale commercial in Toronto with Duane Killebrew, the record-shattering phenom clearly based on Wayne Gretzky. Overall, the book is audacious, and peppered with funny moments, but I struggled with the diction. Sometimes we were in the 1920s, and others, we were in Southern Gothic. And it took a long time for the main story to ramp up, about 100 pages - nearly half of the book. I was really hoping to laugh more, but with no chapters longer than about 10 pages, and because of the book's shifting chronology - sometimes in the present, sometimes in flashback, generally flipping one chapter at a time - it was hard to get deep enough into any given character or storyline for the humour or pathos of the situations to rise up. A great idea, but unfortunately, a book that I found too easy to read distractedly.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

My Top Ten Reads in 2011/Review: Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby

If you follow me on Facebook, then you know that I dispatch quarterly about the books I've read, in some form of hybrid micro-review/reading journal enterprise.

Of the 74 I got through in 2011, these were my 10 best reads.

10. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie (1993)
09. And Also Sharks, by Jessica Westhead (2011)
08. July, July, by Tim O'Brien (2002)
07. My White Planet, by Mark Anthony Jarman (2008)
06. The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink (1995)
05. Post Office, by Charles Bukowski (1971)
04. Taxi!, by Helen Potrebenko (1975)
03. Room, by Emma Donoghue (2010)
02. Barney's Version, by Mordecai Richler (1997)
01. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera (1984)

The quarterly wrap ups will continue on my Facebook page, but as of now, I will also be posting the reviews here, on my blog, one at a time. Here's the first:

Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby (2009)
A work of genius, to an extent, as Hornby has his finger squarely on the lonely, obsessive enterprise that music fandom has become, updating High Fidelity in the wake of the Internet much like Douglas Coupland's JPod was an update on Microserfs. The novel gives us three characters: childless (1) Annie, who's been with slacker and obsessive fan of (2) Tucker Crowe, (3) Duncan, for 15 years, in a holding pattern in a dreary English seaside town. Duncan runs an Internet fan board re: Tucker, who for his part, hasn't released an album in two decades, and is holed up in Pennsylvania with his most recent illegitimate child and its mother. When Tucker's hit album, Juliet, is re-released minus its production values (as Juliet, Naked - Beatles' Let it Be in 2003, anyone?), Annie's decision to listen to it first (without Duncan), and her difference of opinion as to whether it's better than the original, kicks off a sequence of events that makes her and Duncan rethink their relationship. I really liked the first 5/8 (250 pages out of around 400), but - slight spoiler - when Tucker himself enters the story, the focus changes, and though rooting for Annie (and, as with all Hornby male protagonists, only sort of rooting for Duncan to get his shit together), I much preferred Tucker in absence than in presence; the story sags as the window opens further into his life. That said, I demolished this book: started on a Thursday night, finished Saturday morning. An entertaining read that only misses the mark when the author plays away from his strengths (i.e., writing about fandom), it may nevertheless be Hornby's best.