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!