Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Courting the artist vote

The good people at artsvotetoronto.ca are trying to get the word out to the city's cultural workers that they should be actively participating in this year's mayoral election (slated for October 25). It seems that this year, with this particular string of municipal candidates, having artists' voices heard is more important than ever. As a gesture (and a reminder to certain candidates, perhaps), we've been encouraged to create the following sign: "I am an artist and I vote."

I implore all Free Range Readers out there to examine the issues, figure which candidates stand for what, and vote accordingly. You can bet your bookcase that I'll be doing the same.

(p.s. Yes, those are my bookcases in the background, and yes this is my first time uploading an image to blog, and yes the red in my sign was made with RR's lipstick!)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Review: Back Off, Assassin! New and Selected Poems, by Jim Smith

Imagine if Canadian poets bpNichol and Milton Acorn were somehow able to have a child together, and that child decided to follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a rambunctious, experimental and politically engaged poet, and that poet spent the `70s and `80s crashing around the nascent small-press literary scenes of Kingston and Toronto, going on to publish a number of books of verse and engaging in such counterculture hijinks as giving three-hour readings or tying himself to a chair on stage, and then imagine that poet deciding to exile himself from the literary life in the late `90s for about a dozen years in order to study and practice law, and then imagine if that poet came roaring back after his long hiatus with a big, bold, angry, exuberant collection of his new and old poems, a book that screams out those long-ago parental antecedents on nearly every page, a book that tries to capture those oh-so distant Springsteenian glory days when poets could still be agents for genuinely radical activism – imagine THAT, and you might be able to imagine what you’d find between the covers of Jim Smith’s Back Off, Assassin!

Make no mistake: this book is an absolute fucking rat’s nest. But it’s a glorious rat’s nest. Pungent, militant, deeply personal, often cryptic, occasionally sloppy, but ultimately able to keep an open-minded reader engaged from the first page to the last. Few Canadian books of poetry could pull off such a loud and relentless truculence. I see this collection as a kind of antithesis to my usual fare of more sombre, reserved poetry books – like, for example, David Helwig’s The Year One, which I reviewed favourably earlier this month.

Mind you, because many of Back Off, Assassin!’s poems date back to the 1980s, the targets of Smith’s socialist vitriol seem a bit dated: Reagan and his treatment of the Sandinistas; various Hollywood action stars of the period; and several acts of political injustice in Latin America. But we tolerate these references, I think, partly because our post-9/11, post-Bush world feels like it’s come back around to the dark days of the 1980s, thus resurrecting the relevance of Smith’s zesty critiques. This collection would have a lot less bite had it been published, for example, at the height of the swingin’ Clinton years.

Still, some parts of this book could have benefited from some updating. I’m thinking specifically of his sequence of poems about Arnold Schwarzenegger. When Smith originally wrote these lines, in the late `80s, Arnold held a much different role in mainstream culture than he does now. Back then, he was solely the hulking star of the Conan and Terminator films – or as one New Yorker film critic put it, a symbol of Hollywood action movies juiced up on “perposteroids”. But Schwarzenegger has since mutated into a political entity, and one worthy of Smith’s rapacious jibes. Had the poet chosen to modernize this sequence (or at least add an addendum to it) in order to explore the current version of Arnold, it would have gone a long way to tying the collection as a whole more closely to our current epoch. It may have also helped to avoid lines like these: “perhaps it is because you/ are a democrat/ transplanted from the fecund soil/ of Europe”. Arnold may be a democrat, but he’s no Democrat, baby. That guy is Republican through and through (“Don’t be an economic girly man!” he once admonished those who believe governments should regulate corporations – just about a year before unfettered financiers caused the global economy to collapse, if I’m not mistaken), and Smith misses a great opportunity to take a poke at him because of it.

There are tons of these little digs one could exact on Back Off, Assassin!, but to do so would be to miss the broader point. At its heart, this collection is full of a deeply held sense of trauma, both of the political and personal kind. The trauma of a socialist living in an increasingly unsocialistic world, but also the trauma of a man whose brother died too young, a man who had a strained relationship with his father. Even the trauma of a poet trying to find his place in Toronto’s already overcrowded lit scene.

Yes, much of Back Off, Assassin! is zany and silly, but it should still be read with the utmost seriousness.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

An amusing addendum to yesterday's review

For more information on John Banville's The Sea and his crotchety acceptance speech for the 2005 Booker, check out this very amusing article published today on the UK Guardian's book blog: How to be a good literary loser, by Rick Gekoski. Nice to see that the folks at the very top of the literary food chain still go through various angsts and anxieties.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Review: The Sea, by John Banville

It really does take reading John Banville at his best to fully understand why he had such a hellacious beef with Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. As I pointed out in my recent review of Saturday, Banville had some pretty nasty things to say about McEwan’s book in his own review, published in The New York Times. I can’t think of two other prominent U.K. authors who reside at such opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum. Whereas McEwan’s neo-realistic tome errs heavily on the side of craft, Banville’s novel The Sea, for which he was awarded the 2005 Man Booker Prize, is a pure and unapologetic work of art. The covenant that The Sea strikes with its reader is at once cold, complex and even daunting. This isn’t a novel you read unless you’re prepared to do some serious work.

What drives Banville’s approach is of course his commitment to his prose-as-poetry kind of style, which he sustains over 260 pages with barely a pause for breath. The Sea is a long rumination on death, memory and the effects of the past on the present – told in a lyrical style that achieves an almost dream-like quality. The Sea’s plot is nearly a deliberate cliché of a standard ‘literary’ novel: protagonist Max Morden, following the death of his wife Anna, returns to a seaside village where he spend a holiday as a child, and while there confronts the sins of the past as they butt up against the grim reality of his present. But a close reading soon reveals that The Sea is neither clichéd nor standard. Not at all.

As a child on that vacation, Max spent time with the eccentric Grace family: the tempestuous, precociously sexual daughter Chloe, her mute twin brother Myles, their young nursemaid Rose, and the Grace parents, Connie and Carlos. There is a strange, unwholesome dynamic emerging in this family, one that Max grows steadily aware of as he develops a boyish crush on the mother, Connie Grace. As the older Max reminisces about the forces that emerged to tear the Grace family apart, he soon sees connections and permutations about how he has reacted to his wife Anna’s death and how he has treated their daughter Claire in his elder years.

To say much more about the intricacies of The Sea’s plot is actually to give too much away. There is enough to gnaw on here in terms of story: an unrequited homosexual love, a wife grappling with the news that she’s going to die of cancer, and a drowning in the sea of the novel’s title. But what impresses about The Sea is what it achieves within the confines of what should be a contrived narrative structure. Banville skillfully moves between scenes from the far past, the near past and the present to weave a number of successful thematic connections together, and he does this without ever making the reader feel like he’s being taken for a ride. Part of it is that dream-like prose style, with scenes that undulate in and out like ocean waves; but part of it is also the careful work that Banville does to tie the novel’s various motifs into one singular and binding work of art. By comparison, something like Saturday comes off as plodding and manipulative.

One of my favourite reoccurring concepts in The Sea is the idea of horseplay-taken-to-hostile extremes, which occurs in all three separate timelines. There is good-natured wrestling on the ground that suddenly turns hostile; there is a dinner-table debate that transforms into a hurtful argument; and there are cruel words between children and adults that set the novel’s climax in motion. This is just one example of a deliberate literary construction that helps to tie several thematic threads together.

Banville will never be accused of being an “easy” novelist, and nor should he be. Unlike McEwan’s Saturday, The Sea makes no attempt to strike a populist chord. It is dense and layered and at times inscrutable. But it is also gorgeously written, with sentences that convey so much depth of emotion and raw momentum. This is a book you read slowly, savouring each turn of phrase and thematic twist until it has braided something indelible inside your mind.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ode to Kermode

by Mark Sampson

Can I be frank?
Now that you added
the undesirable D to your WM status
should we count you among the great
withering hopefuls?
You taught us the importance
of being earnest, and a little Wilde
Your coevals were suckers for
straight-up story, while your prodigies
languished under death-defying Derrida,
all those Lacan-ic afternoons

Tempest in a chamber pot
That’s the academic’s life
(such as it is)
but you held your nose
and your head up high
your piston mind and tweedy brilliance
forever glowing in
your Reading light
(We could all Frye in its heat)
No sun, gentle Prospero
No son, you Hamlet near the beach
Stare through our words
and give us a new language to speak

And what would say to an obituary in verse?
Bah – my job’s not finished. Never will be
If you must, go write your poem. Get it Donne
My real work here has only barely started

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Review: How to Get There from Here, by Michelle Berry

I’ve been meaning to read some of Michelle Berry’s work for a while now. She’s one of these writers I hear about a lot but don’t actually see a ton of my friends reading. Her name appears often enough in the Globe’s Books section and she seems to be a big deal, at least here in Ontario. So when I saw her first book, the short story collection How to Get There from Here, at my local used bookstore, I decided to pick it up.

In many ways, the stories in How to Get There From Here represent the best and the worst of what you’d expect from a first collection of stories. Berry is adept at capturing the little spark of an idea that illuminates a moment in time and building a piece of short fiction around it. This spark can take the form of a single incident, like the car accident in her story “Driving Lessons”; a turn of phrase, like in her piece “An Urban Myth”; or physical objects, like in “Orange Cowboy Boots” (a nice little ditty about a girl’s shopping excursion with her less-than-mature mother) or “Bug Shields and Gun Racks”. Each of these concepts are meant to act as a catalyst for a very brief but telling interaction between characters. Berry definitely has a good grip on the brevity part: there are 19 stories in this 149-page book, and each piece is distilled down to its essential moments.

But still, I found a lot of things that frustrated me about this collection. The focus always seemed to be more on the concept of each story and less on the characters who populate it. This resulted in some pieces coming off as cold and gimmicky. I would have tolerated a bit more length to these stories, provided it resulted in them saying something heftier about the human condition. Instead, we get short and ultimately distant episodes that are almost alienated from the reader’s sympathy. This caused the paradoxical effect of making the stories seem more daunting to read because they were shorter. By the end of page 149, I was glad the book was done. Also, many of Berry’s endings are cringe-worthy duds. In several of her stories, she makes some amateurish reference in her final sentence to the concept on which the story was based. A more mature writer would have chosen a more nuanced closing.

I also need to say something about the two stories that act as a kind of centerpiece to the collection – “Do You Know Who Emily Carr Is?” and “The Most Peculiar Thing.” These two pieces are essentially the same story, telling the tale of an art gallery worker who watches a mother and daughter who have come to the gallery to pray in front of a religious painting. Never mind that the first story seems like a false-start beginning of the second story – again, gimmicky, and I didn’t really see the point – but that’s not what bothered me. My problem was this: Berry goes to great lengths to emphasize that the mother and daughter are the only patrons in the gallery while all this is going on, that the place was virtually dead. And yet she also goes to great lengths to point out that it’s raining outside, presumably to add to the lugubrious atmosphere of the scene. But aren’t those two things contradictory? I mean, as the writer, if you wanted an art gallery to have a slow day, wouldn’t you have the sun absolutely blazing outside? Aren’t galleries typically busier on rainy days? Berry might argue that both of these things need to be there – the gallery needs to be empty of other patrons, and the atmosphere calls for a rainy day. But the fact that they need to exist in the same story, in the same fictive universe, just undermines the story’s whole reason for being. Call them contradictory necessities: If two concepts contribute to the heart of your story and those two concepts are at odds with each other from a plausibility standpoint, then you don’t have a story. There might be more at play here, but this came off as a massive oversight on the part of the author.

Having said all that, there are flashes of brilliance in How to Get There from Here that show the talent that I presume Berry has nurtured as her career’s moved forward. There is some wonderful descriptive writing here and her dialogue is almost always spot on. Not sure if I’ll read more of her stuff in the future, but I can see, in places, exactly why I’ve hear so much about her in the 15 years since this book was first published.

Blog featured on Wolsak and Wynn

I got word earlier today that Free Range Reading has been featured on the Wolsak and Wynn Publisher Ltd.'s website as a highlighted blog. Naturally, I'm as pleased as punch to see it there.

For those of you who don't know, Wolsak and Wynn is a literary press based out of Hamilton specializing in poetry and nonfiction. Checking out their Recent Titles page, I notice they've published fellow Atlantic Canadians Richard Lemm and Lesley Choyce. I'm looking forward to checking out some of their books in the future.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Review: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The cover of Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief depicts a finger pushing down the first in a long, snaking row of dominoes. It’s a fitting image for the book, set in Nazi Germany, about the causality of events and how they can set moments of both tragedy and pathos into motion.

The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl whose brother is killed and mother is taken away by the Nazis, who despite being illiterate steals books and becomes obsessed with the written word. She eventually learns to read from her foster father, Hans, and her growing knowledge of words corresponds with her growing knowledge of what’s happening to her country under Hitler’s rule. Liesel is subtly aware of the factors of fate that play a huge role in her life: the fact that she is alive while her brother is not, and that her foster father survived World War I only to have that survival come with a price tag: decades later, his family must hide in their basement a young man named Max, the Jewish son of one of Hans's fallen comrades.

The Book Thief deploys one of the more interesting conceits of recent literature: it employs Death itself to act as the narrator. It’s an apt enough approach, considering that the story is set in early years of World War II when Hitler’s death machine was at the peak of its power. Zusak has gone to great pains to make Death's voice both human and, oddly enough, humane. By revealing the events of Nazi Germany through the prism of Death as a character, Zusak is able to show us the very human cost of this grand historical catastrophe.

What I find most interesting about Zusak’s book, though, is that it’s labeled and marketed as a young adult novel. This is curious considering its length, gruesome subject matter and, most strangely, the fragmented approach that Zusak uses in telling his story. The Book Thief is not a straight-up narrative: several of the key events in the book happen out of sequence. I suspect this is a departure from most YA literature, and I applaud Zusak for taking the risk. Still, I often felt like some of the best or most climatic moments in the book are deflated by this tactic, since we often know what’s going to happen in a pivotal scene because Death as already told us in a previous chapter.

Despite this questionable approach, there’s no denying the raw power and heart-wrenching emotion on display in The Book Thief. Zusak does not shy away from the immensity of the Holocaust, nor does his book roam into some untenable allegory. He sticks with his overarching conceit and uses it to tell a raw and engaging story. I hope lots of kids discover this book. It is traditional storytelling at its best.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Review: The Year One, by David Helwig

I find something so soothing about the works of David Helwig. As one of Canada’s most prolific and versatile authors, he seems equally comfortable with the demands of prose, poetry and essays; and everything he writes is so quietly sensible, so unassumingly brilliant. I first discovered Helwig’s work when I was asked to review his novel The Time of her Life for The Halifax Herald back in 2000. Since then, I’ve read his recent novel Saltsea and his 1976 novel The Glass Knight, both of which I loved. And now, I’ve finished his astounding poetry book The Year One, which I picked up last month while vacationing in my home province of PEI (where Helwig now lives).

The Year One is a single long poem divided into 12 sections, one for each month of the year, and the year in question is the first year of the new millennium – 2001. Helwig takes us on a lengthy, contemplative walk through this time period, ruminating on everything from the quotidian detail of his domestic space to the world of politics, the tragic events of that year, and his own memories of the past. The poem moves with a quiet, almost effortless grace, capturing so many wonderful moments of illumination. The Year One tackles a variety of poetic approaches, from the narrative to the lyrical, from the aphoristic to the fragmented. Helwig is capable of shifting gears between these styles without causing the reader to jar, and this is one of the strongest skills on display in this very skillful book.

What makes The Year One so strong is the confidence that Helwig shows in incorporating multiple ideas or approaches into a single section of poetry: he references personal friends (some of whom have passed away) in nearly the same breath as he describes the beauty of the natural world around him and what’s happening in the news on any given day. Each passage feels buffed of the rough ends that would cause the reader to jar. Part of the skill is in the way he breaks his lines and his stanzas. But mostly it’s the contemplation behind each section that gives it its heart, that allows it to inhabit multiple approaches at multiple times.

These are lines free of sentimentality or cheap emotion. They are eloquently crafted and arranged in seamless, timeless rhythms. The Year One is a phenomenal achievement for a poet at the very top of his game.