Saturday, December 28, 2013

My Quill and Quire review of The Desperates, by Greg Kearney ...

is now online for your reading pleasure. This was one of the stranger novels I read this year, but for the most part I enjoyed it a lot. Check it out if you get the chance.

Thursday, December 26, 2013


Painting by Sylvia Sampson

(for Rebecca)

Is that what all that napping’s
for? A U-shaped curl of fur and
squeezed-shut eyes to gather your strength
for some future villainy?

But we think: how defensively cute you are
just before those hips sway like a buoy and
your haunches grow taut at the thought
of launching. You’re a cautious intruder

at our table, fed up with the indignity of eating
kibble in a bowl on the floor by the trash.
One squirt of the mist bottle sends you fleeing
but you’ll slink back, forgiven and forgiving.

We know a killer sleeps somewhere in your DNA
despite all your listless snoozing in my chair.
You would kill a thing just for moving:
feathered or furred, or a piece of string

Life affords you so few opportunities. So when
one rises like a phoenix (or some bit of yarn)
over the crest of the couch, you leap at it.
You leap to break its neck.

Then come back to groom those silent paws.
As if nothing you’ve done could ever be wrong.

- Mark Sampson

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My contributor's copies of QWERTY Fall 2013

 ... arrived in the mail today--a lovely early Christmas present. The issue contains my poem "A Millisecond of Gravitas," as well as lots of other poetry, fiction and artwork. Perusing the contributors' page, I'm pleasantly surprised to see a bevy of non-Canadian poets included. Looking forward to tucking in and discovering some new voices. Anyway, check it out now on better newsstands everywhere.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: Personals, by Ian Williams

You know, I read Ian Williams’ first book of poetry and enjoyed it a lot. Felt it was a solid effort, a pleasurable collision of the personal and the postmodern. I had a feeling, after finishing that collection, that Williams would go on to do something grander and even more impressive. Well, he has lived up to that promise and then some with his 2012 collection Personals, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Griffin Prize.

Much like You Know Who You Are, Personals is able to impressively blend emotional—even sentimental—experiences with some finely wrought experimentation. The collection takes as its premise the idea of personal ads providing a poetic structure to reach out and connect with our fellow humans, but the book is actually much more than that. Many of these poems read like incantations, charming us with a series of repetitions that build an alluring velocity in Williams’ verse.

We can see examples of this from the book’s opening salvo, “Rings.” Here, each section of the poem ends with a closed loop of words forming an actual ring. But the real propulsion comes from the constant and deliberate use of repetition in the more standard lines:

Like, a girl on our lawn says, you want to hear me talk
like my sister when she’s on the phone? Like she always
says like. Like this. Like me and my boyfriend
went to the mall and like I saw him looking at a girl
and like she was totawy into him. Like I can tell.

We see examples of this sort of repeating poem throughout Personals, in poems like “American History I” with its rhythmic use of the word “right” and “Personal History I, Canon” with its almost identical use of the term “copy.”

Personals also comes loaded with references to all manner of popular culture and consumer products. Everything from UFC and Wal-Mart to Bran Flakes and Old Spice cologne make an appearance. These allusions give Personals a certain down-to-earth immediacy: readers will be able to situate themselves in a middle class, post-capitalist world even as Williams takes them through an emotional or linguist journey. The contrast between the poetry’s references to everyday objects and its more experimental approaches creates some pleasurable connections that will stay with the reader.

Williams writes about personal relationships with a great deal of brio and the various constraints of this collection only help to enhance those preoccupations. Personals is very personal, and well worth reading.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Acceptance: Now or Never Publishing

Well, you know what they say: why have one book on deck when you can have two? Yes, I'm very pleased and excited to announce that Vancouver's Now or Never Publishing has offered a contract to release my short story collection, tentatively entitled The Secrets Men Keep, in 2015. This will come in the year after my novel Sad Peninsula will be published by Dundurn here in Toronto. I'm of course tickled pink to now have two books in the queue, especially considering it's been six years since Off Book came out.

For those of you who are interested, I did do a blog post about the manuscript about a year ago. Several of the stories in it have been published (or accepted to be published) recently: one appeared in PRISM international earlier this year; one is in the current issue The New Quarterly; one is forthcoming in The Antigonish Review. In total, eight of the 13 stories have found homes in journals in Canada and the United States.

The good folks at Now or Never Publishing were very fast and very enthusiastic with their response. I submitted to the press just a few weeks ago after reading The National Post's review of Liz Worth's new novel PostApoc, which NoN published this fall. They also released my fellow Norwood Publishing refugee Charles Crosby's latest novel back in 2008, as well as other notable titles.

Anyway, very excited by all this and am looking forward to working with them. Stay tuned to the blog for further updates as things develop.


Monday, November 18, 2013

My review of Giant by Aga Maksimowska in The Antigonish Review

... has appeared online at The Antigonish Review's website. My take on Maksimowska's novel is a bit mixed, but on the whole I found it a beautifully written and intriguing read. Anyway, I'm posting it here for your reading pleasure. Let me know what YOU think.

Also, speaking of The Antigonish Review, my short story "The Fantasy" is still forthcoming in the journal and (I think) will appear in the next issue. So keep your eyes peeled for that as well.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

My Quill and Quire review of The Last of the Lumbermen by Brian Fawcett ...

is now online at the Q&Q website. I was pleased to give this rivetting novel a star review, even though it had as its subject matter two topics I have little interest in: hockey and small-town life. Just goes to show that one can overcome personal taste if the writing is good enough. Which Fawcett's is, so go check out his book when you get a chance.


Monday, November 11, 2013

Acceptance: QWERTY Literary Magazine

I'm happy to report that I received a lovely acceptance letter from the good folks at QWERTY Literary Magazine for a poem of mine entitled "A Millisecond of Gravitas." For those of you who don't know, QWERTY is an undergrad-run literary journal out of the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. It has published lots of cool writers over the years, and I'm extremely pleased that I'll be appearing in its pages. I've been told the issue containing my poem will be out sometime in December, and I'll post an update here when it is.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Review: M/F, by Anthony Burgess

One could say that Anthony Burgess was doubly cursed when it came to recognition. He always wanted to be known as a composer of music who happened to write novels on the side rather than a writer of novels who happened to compose music on the side. Worse, the novel he was best known for—A Clockwork Orange—was something he dismissed as a minor work, a hack job he pounded out in six weeks that just happened to be made into a popular film a decade after it was published.

So which novels did Burgess want to be recognized for? Earthly Powers, his magnum opus shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was certainly up there, but so too was this slimmer, more manic picaresque, M/F, published in 1971. In fact, one might argue that M/F is, from a strictly technical standpoint, Burgess’s most accomplished work of fiction. The layering of puns, the word games, the well-timed comic barbs, the allusions to the theories of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the Freudian symbolism—all lend credence to Burgess’ voracious intellect and versatility on the page.

M/F’s “plot”, to be sure, must be ingested with the sort of increased suspension of disbelief reserved for highly experimental novels. When Frank Kermode himself wrote that the story is difficult to synthesize, you know you’re in for a challenge. But here goes: Twenty-year-old Miles Faber has been kicked out of his New York City university after getting caught fornicating on the school’s library steps. Despite the efforts of his dead father’s lawyer to stop him, Miles sets out to the Caribbean island of Castita, where he looks to unearth the unpublished poetry of a creative genius named Sib Legeru.

The reason for his father’s posthumous attempt to thwart Miles is because strange familial connections, rooted in an act of incest, await him in Castita. Miles discovers a sister he didn’t know he had, as well as a perfect (and perfectly vulgar) doppelganger. When Miles accidently kills his double to save his sister from rape, he is forced to masquerade as him in order to trick the double’s mother, and in doing so finds himself in a position to marry his own sister. What unleashes is deeply comic exploration of the Oedipal complex, the nature of superstition, and literary power of wordplay. Like the great Greek tragedy that lends this book so much of its inspiration, M/F hinges on the solving of a riddle.

I must confess: I have but an undergraduate knowledge in the theories of Lévi-Strauss, and my tolerance for Freudian analogy can only stretch so far. Yet it is undeniable that there is a deep tendon of genius under the surface of M/F. Burgess weaves his puns and his allusions expertly and with great deliberation. Thankfully, one can read M/F simply at the level of its convoluted plot, missing much of its subtext, and still get a lot out of it. You’ll laugh. You flip the pages. And you’ll probably increase your vocabulary by a wide margin.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

At least 10 years overdue

It was great to see Lynn Coady win last night's Giller Prize--an honour that is long, long overdue in my opinion. I was disappointed back in 2011 when she didn't nab the award for The Antagonist (see my review of it here), and I also feel she could have easily won it for her novels Strange Heaven (published in 1998, when she was just 28) and Saints of Big Harbour (published in 2002). At any rate, so pleased she finally took home the honour. I was also pleased that the shortlist was comprised of such a crop of young-ish writers (no one was born earlier than 1964), a real feat considering the Giller has been traditionally dominated by Baby Boomers or older.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Review: Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, by Chrystia Freeland

If there’s one thing that pundits love to talk about in this age of ongoing yet sluggish recovery from the 2008 economic collapse, it’s income inequality. The topic has been, for example, on the tongues of commentators as Wall Street billionaire Michael Bloomberg wraps up his 12-year stint as mayor of New York, a city that has seen both tremendous growth and tremendous growth in wage disparity under his watch. It has been a topic of much debate in relation to China, a country that has seen nearly 1 billion people elevated out of poverty in the last two decades and yet now boasts one of the largest gaps between the haves and the have-nots. And talk of income inequality remains the background chatter of any discussion about how the Eurozone is going to reconcile its chasm between the winner countries and loser countries as it tries to recover from the recession.

So Chrystia Freeland’s timing is quite good with this 2012 tome, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, a book that provides us with a window into the much-maligned 1% of society. Freeland wisely does not limit herself to examining the plutocrats of the United States and other pillar countries of the West. Instead, she sets as her thesis the notion that a one-percenter from the Upper East Side of Manhattan has more in common with a Russian oligarch or Chinese billionaire than he does with a middle-class office drone in Cleveland. Her book looks to examine both the history, the rationales, and the outcome of the modern-day plutocracy that we now take for granted.

In this attempt, Plutocrats succeeds on many fronts—especially in the first quarter of the book. Freeland establishes the proper historical context for how such breathtaking wage disparity was able to emerge, i.e. the industrial revolution that commenced in the mid-to-late 1700s and found its culmination in such late-19th century figures as Andrew Carnegie, whom Freeland cites extensively. She walks us through the Long Depression (1873-1896), the Great Depression (1929-1939) and how income inequality in these periods helped to spawn such eventual phenomena as global communism and the New Deal. She also discusses the great golden age of mixed economies (1945-1980) and how wage disparity was at its lowest and general prosperity was at its highest during this period. She then leads us through the economic coup d'état that occurred starting around 1980 with the Chicago School of Economics that saw the rise of globalization and neoliberal economic ideology. This led inevitably to the collapse of communism and millions around the world seeing their standard of living skyrocket, but also caused a level of income inequality that Andrew Carnegie could not have even imagined. And thus, here we are, saddled with a sub-society of plutocrats who are so much wealthier than the rest of us.

The next two quarters of the book examine in detail the lives of these stratified billionaires, but there doesn’t seem to be much cohesion to Freeland’s descriptions and the writing starts to grow tedious. Part of the problem is that she doesn’t delve into the broader philosophical underpinnings that allow plutocracy to thrive. After walking us through what we might label Carnegian inevitability—the idea from Andrew Carnegie that income disparity was a bad thing but entirely unavoidable in the wake of the industrial revolution—she leaps forward into neoliberal inevitability, that is the overriding belief that because advances in technology and international politics have allowed for globalization to occur, then globalization must occur. What is missing is the moral argument for unfettered capitalism that emerged in the middle part of the 20th century, between the period of Carnegian inevitability and the period of neoliberal inevitability.

This moral foundation, I would argue, arose from a writer less nuanced than Milton Friedman, the doyen of the Chicago School, and one whose ideas found little traction at the time because she was writing during the height of America’s mixed-economy successes. That writer—one Freeland mentions only in passing—is Ayn Rand. While most intelligent people rightly dismiss Rand’s “philosophy” as little more than the one-dimensional ramblings of an intellectual pipsqueak, her credos are enjoying a resurgence among right-wingers and apologists for the plutocrats. This is because income inequality is, ultimately, not inevitable. It is a deliberate choice that society has made based on the moral assumption—an assumption articulated by Rand in both her fiction and nonfiction, and one reinforced by Friedman and the Chicago School and then made practical through Reaganomics and Thatcherism—that “greed is good,” that leaving capitalism unfettered will eventually lift all boats. The idea is: if I, as a lower or even middle-class person, experience an unprecedented and demonstrable rise in my standard of living as a result of unfettered capitalism, then why do I care how much more the top 1% makes than me?

Freeland barely skims the surface of these issues in the middle part of her book; and even as she builds to her engaging summations at the end, she never really delves deeply into this. There can be little doubt that globalization and economic neoliberalism have improved the economic status of millions around the world; anyone looking to argue against that on sheer data would surely look the fool. But if this is the case, then why is income inequality a bad thing? If the overall pie is getting much bigger than we could have ever imagined, then why should we be concerned if our percentage of the pie is going down? Freeland does not really answer this question effectively by the end of Plutocrats.

The reason, for what it’s worth, is that just because your economic status has risen doesn’t mean that you necessarily have more agency over your life. In fact, quite the opposite can be true. Surely the litmus test for any economic policy is that its core tenets allow for the next generation to live happier and more stable lives than the previous one. But neoliberalism has cataclysmically failed on that count. If an American graduating from university in 1970 could glimpse through a time portal at the America of 2013, she would be mortified by the far-fetched dystopian nightmare that she'd see. The age of cheap education, plentiful well-paying jobs for life and affordable housing is gone. Today, two-income families struggle to make ends meet. University or college education is growing increasingly out of reach for even upper middle-class households. Student loan debts now cripple two generations of graduates. Outsourcing, contract work, and layoffs become a regular and stressful occurrence. Jobs pay more than what our parents made (even when adjusted for inflation), but we’re inexplicably worse off. And these grievances are not limited to the West. In 1980, a full 80% of China’s population lived in abject poverty; today, the country is an economic powerhouse. Yet a recent survey showed that even middle-class Chinese label themselves less happy than they were 35 years ago. Something is definitely wrong. The reason income inequality is to blame is because it robs the majority of the population of agency over the long haul. The benefits may be short-term, but the drawbacks rewire how you are forced to live the rest of your life.

Thankfully, Freeland posits an antidote (albeit inadvertently) to this malaise early in Plutocrats. She has some great descriptions of the mixed-economy period, and readers should rightly see the re-emergence of mixed-economy ideology as our only way out. It’s intellectually lazy to pull one’s economic policies hard to the right (as we’ve been doing since 1980) or hard to the left (as many countries did in the first half of the 20th century) on sheer principle alone. The wiser thing to do, the harder thing to do, is to create a strategic and well-thought out mix of socialist and capitalist polices that are balanced and fair. Higher taxes, more strategic regulations, and the re-financing of public institutions would provide longer-term benefit to everyone, including those at the top. But it’s a strategy that governments are not interested in, and the majority of middle-class people don’t care about. We’re all too busy just figuring out a way to make a fast buck.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: Arguments with the Lake, by Tanis Rideout

The listless, monolithic hulk of Lake Ontario looms large in this stellar collection of interconnected poems by Tanis Rideout. Arguments with the Lake takes as its basis the lives of two teenage swimmers from the 1950s, Marilyn Bell and Shirley Campbell, the former of which was the first person ever to swim across Lake Ontario. By plunging into the aquatic depths of these two characters’ fictionalized emotional lives, Rideout pulls off a poetic rendering of two historical figures that is as consuming as it is invigorating.

Indeed, much of the success of Arguments with the Lake stems from Rideout’s use of what we might call a double metaphor. On one level, this collection likens the act of marathon swimming with an argument—the pull and drag, the fear of losing oneself to drowning, the overwhelming sense of needing to conquer a nemesis through persistent repetition. This idea plays itself out in an number of pieces, including the poem that lends the book its title, “Shirley, Midlake”:

The lake tries to soothe and slow, creeps cold into core, slips
into the sheltered bay of lungs, the hidden rivers around the heart.
It’s a fair exchange – beats per pleasure. For pain. Each of us is allotted
the strikes of the heart. I’m using mine, arguing with the Lake.

But Rideout places a second level of comparison over this metaphoric structure. Arguments with the lake extend to arguments with the self, with expectations of womanhood, with negotiating the competitive spirit, and what lay ahead when that spirit is extinguished. Here Rideout is in “Motherhood,” exploring a kind of parental malaise that is akin to sinking:

the baby she thought of drowning, of sinking to prehistoric muck –
all doubt and congealed evolution, as unchanged as those lampreys.
She found comfort in the rot and discard, swept away, blinded.
Waiting for something else to emerge from the muck.

As lugubrious as this passage sounds, it’s not indicative of the book’s tone in general. Arguments with the Lake strikes a hopeful, generous tone in so many passages as Rideout unleashes a precision and quiet beauty that takes one’s breath away in unexpected places. Optimism ultimately wins out in this collection. As she writes in “Shirley as Drowned Ophelia”: “O, the Lake. The only thing that kept me afloat/ was what I thought was on the other side.”

Friday, October 25, 2013

Current issue of The New Quarterly

There was a celebratory air at the Sampsenblum household yesterday (despite the fact that I was laid up with a cold) as RR and I received our contributors' copies of The New Quarterly no. 128. We both have short stories published therein: a piece called "The Man Room" from me and a piece called "Marriage" from her. This issue also has works from various literary luminaries including Miranda Hill, Helen Humphreys, Alice Major and Karen Solie. Anyway, go check it out when you get a chance, then come back here and let me know what you think.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

The home office...

post-purge and just days before I begin a new novel. It won't look this nice again for a while.

It took two days of cleaning to get it to look this way.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Review: Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra, by Jim Smith

Raging counterculture versemeister Jim Smith has returned with a new collection of poetry, Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra—a book at once frothing with quirks and puns and all manner of Smith’s trademark zaniness as well as a serious deference to the Spanish-speaking political and poetic traditions to which it owes a debt. Indeed, the Nicanor Parra of the title refers to the famed Chilean poet (now 99 years old) who won the Cervantes Prize in 2011. Both Chile and Spain loom large over Smith’s book as he mixes his bizarre cocktail of random absurdity and pointed activism.

Take, for example, the piece “Things I’ve Died from Recently,” a list poem that—like the best Smith’s work—deliberately destabilizes its own centre, acting as a real-time palinode to the rapid-fire lines it lays upon the page. He writes:

Running away from bears.
Running toward bears.
Failing  to look at a diabetic’s feet
carefully when they are my own.
Getting angry & holding
my breath while swallowing my tongue.
Inhaling food.
Reading too much
reading not enough
While we as readers can only glimpse at the motivating factors behind this poem, we can still abandon ourselves to the cadence of its contradictions. Compare that to Smith’s poem “The Fate of Chile,” which makes no attempt to mask its driving force. This piece plays with the phenomenon of those who were “disappeared” during the brutal reign of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet—and paradoxically credits his actions for bringing so much of that country’s poetry to Smith’s consciousness:

I know what happened to Jara,
but where is Luis Navarro now?
I know what happened to Allende,
but the fate of Sam Rojas is unclear to me.

Friends I never would have had
but for Pinochet

Never would have read Parra
but for Pinochet

Another poet haunting this collection is Lorca, who was murdered during the Spanish Civil War. It was interesting for me to read Smith’s musings on this writer after reading Patrick Friesen’s recent collection A Dark Boat, which also taps into the Lorca mystique. Whereas Friesen relies heavily on reverence when referencing the various legends that surround Lorca, Smith works in his tributes by weaving them into his book’s broader panoply of cheekiness. Indeed, whether writing about Lorca, Neruda, or Milton Acorn, Smith acknowledges the sacred by reminding us that nothing is really sacred.

In my review of Smith’s previous collection Back Off, Assassin! New and Selected Poems, I referred to his arrangement of poems as “a rat’s nest”—which shouldn’t in any way be taken as an insult. The same description fits Nicanor Parra: this book is wild mix of list poems, counting poems, fragments, long poems, minimalist poems, experimental poems and lyrics. They’re all over the map, and this can prove to be a disconcerting or invigorating ride, depending on how open-minded you are. That said, Smith’s influences can occasionally overwhelm his verse—shadows of bp nichol, Stuart Ross, Acorn, and David McFadden weigh a bit too heavily here. But it’s a minor grumble about a book that is, for the most part, tremulous with its own originality and verve. These are poems that practically vibrate in your hand as you read them.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Who's Reading What at TNQ

And speaking of The Marquess of Queensberry, you can hop over to The New Quarterly and see me talk about it briefly in the magazine's Who's Reading What section of the website. This is a neat little thing that TNQ does, where they ask authors published in the journal what they're currently reading. I'm there, of course, because my short story "The Man Room" will appear in the latest issue, no. 128, on newsstands and in the mail to subscribers very soon. I'll keep you all posted when that happens.


Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde’s Nemesis, by Linda Stratmann

“John Sholto Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensberry has the unique and unfortunate place in the history of literature: he is almost universally reviled as the man who precipitated the tragic downfall of Oscar Wilde. The ultimate though not exclusive  responsibility of Wilde’s downfall must be borne by Wilde, who committed a criminal offence, had the man who exposed him put on trial for libel, and then lied in the witness box, but Wilde’s well-deserved rehabilitation as a literary genius and a good if not flawless human being has led to the demonizing of his accuser.”

So begins Linda Stratmann’s thorough and fair biography of Queensberry (1844-1900), a man who is actually famous for two things: precipitating the destruction of Oscar Wilde, and lending his name to rules of modern-day boxing. Stratmann takes us on a linear journey to show the evolution of this divisive and surprisingly complicated man—a man driven by a passion for athletics, by moral order, and a deep sense of his own importance in the development of 19th century Britain. The act for which he is most notorious for—attempting to drive a wedge in the homosexual relationship between his son, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, and Wilde—was actually the culmination of a life rocked with familial suicides, tragic accidents, marital incompatibility, failure to attain a peerage, and an impotence that spoiled any chance of him attaining any sexual satisfaction of his own.

Stratmann’s details it all: the suicides that claimed the life of both Queensberry’s father and one of his sons; the tragic mountain-climbing accident that killed his brother Francis when Queensberry was on the cusp of his 21st birthday; his troublingly ill-suited marriage to his first wife, Sybil, a woman of genteel refinement who had no interest in the obsessions of her jock husband; the reflection of Bosie’s flamboyancy found on his father in law; and Queensberry’s frustrating attempts to secure for himself a seat in the British House of Lords, an honour bestowed on his son Francis at the age of 27 when he hadn’t really done anything to deserve it.

Readers will also find a detailed explanation of how Queensberry was able to shepherd along the rules that would return boxing from backroom bare-knuckle bloodbaths and back into the respectable fold of the western sporting world. What’s interesting learn here is that Queensberry didn’t actually devise the rules that bear his name. They were developed by his friend, the sportsman John Graham Chambers, and were first applied only to amateur boxing. But Queensberry did pay to have a tournament challenge cup created for bouts fought under these rules, and thus his name eventually became associated with them.

One should not believe, coming into this lengthy biography, that Stratmann has written a hagiography that downplays the man’s heinous behaviour when it comes to Wilde. She doesn’t. But what she has written is a detailed portrait of Queensberry and how he became the surly and infuriating man he became. Stratmann rightly puts the blame for Wilde’s downfall on key moments of the playwright’s own hubris and naïveté, especially during specific courtroom scenes during the libel trial. We are, perhaps for the first time, able to see those scenes through Queensberry’s eyes. In the end, we may not be left with a view on Queensberry that allow us to sympathize with him. But we are left with a rich record that will help us to better understand him.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Thomas Morton Prize

Hey writers: The deadline for The Puritan's Thomas Morton Prize for Literary Excellence is looming. To mark the occasion, the journal asked if I'd write up a little something for its blog, the Town Crier, about winning the poetry category last year. Check my piece out here:

The Puritan has also extended the deadline for this year's contest to October 10, so get those submissions in. I know I will!


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Q&Q review of Extraordinary, by David Gilmour ...

 ... is now online at the Quill & Quire website. Gilmour's new novel found its way onto the Giller longlist last week, which I think speaks volumes about how much sway his reputation continues to have over tastemakers here in Canada. I was a bit surprised myself, since I felt the contrivance at the heart of this book (about a woman who narrates her life story to a half-brother she hardly knows on the night she's asked him to help her commit suicide) was a bit of a stretch, as was the nature of the head injury that have led to her being disabled. Anyway, it'll be interesting to see if Extraordinary makes it to the next round when the shortlist is announced next month.

And for those who are interested, I also reviewed Gilmour's 2011 book The Perfect Order of Things here on the blog.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Review: Day of the Oprichnik, by Vladimir Sorokin

I’ve always suspected that Russian is an aphoristic language. I don’t know what is it about sloganeering, maxim-making, and other lapidary bon mots that speak to Russia’s national mentality, but I see it all over that country’s literature. My long-held suspicions have once again been confirmed, this time by Jamey Gambrell’s translation of Vladimir Sorokin’s infamous dystopian romp, Day of the Oprichnik. With lines that echo back to Bulgokov (oh, that great zinger about burning manuscripts) and Dostoyevsky, Sorokin’s novel is very much aware of the traditions in which it is ensconced.

The year is 2028 and the setting is Moscow. Russia has morphed into a devilish hybrid of monarchy, hyper-capitalism and brutal totalitarian state. The men in charge of keeping order and crushing sedition are called the Oprichniks. At the height of their vicious acts, these men will yell out phrases like “Work and Word!” and “Hail Hail Hail!” They murder, rape and destroy—all in the service of His Majesty, looking to breed absolute obedience and loyalty from the Russian population. Our protagonist, the hard-drinking Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, is at once brainwashed by the Oprichnik fraternity and capable of glimpsing the world that exists beyond, the consequences of  violence and unwavering order. His is not a story of slowly revealed revelation—a la Fahrenheit 451 or Nineteen Eighty Four. It is rather his own distanced description of a world that he knows on some level is immoral and yet cannot control or find a way out of.

This all sounds promising, but unfortunately Day of the Oprichnik just doesn’t hold together. Sorokin—perhaps in the interest of appearing original—relies too heavily on elision: we never get a sense of the broader machinations of the society he creates or how Russia arrived in the state that it’s in. Komiaga’s inner world comes off as rather hollow. He doesn’t really change or evolve over the course of the novel, doesn’t ever build upon his sense of the magnitude of his actions or the role he plays in this horrific society.

In the end, Day of the Oprichnik feels somewhat half-assed and derivative. It’s sort of a cross between A Clockwork Orange and Lord of the Flies, only without the heart or the moral background. This is a highly touted novel, but probably worth skipping.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sad Peninsula update: novel and author added to Dundurn site

I was pleased to discover earlier today that my forthcoming novel, Sad Peninsula, now has an ISBN number and has been added to Dundurn Press's website. You can check out the book's listing here and my author page here. As you may notice, the release date is still an entire year away (almost to the day!) but it's still nice to see things moving along. More updates to follow as they unfold over the coming weeks and months.


Saturday, August 31, 2013

Review: We Others – New and Selected Stories, by Steven Millhauser

Steven Millhauser does something curious with this, his 2011 collection of new and selected short stories: he puts the newest pieces first. Perhaps this is a nod to his still-growing stature within the firmament of American fiction, a way of bypassing the presumption of familiarity. Despite having published numerous books since his debut in the early 1970s, getting his later stories regularly printed in The New Yorker and Harper’s, and winning a Pulitzer Prize, there are still many readers—extremely well-read readers—who have no idea who he is.

We Others aims to alleviate this by providing a deep dive into Millhauser’s oeuvre. The book, which clocks in at nearly 400 pages, is nothing if not thorough in its exploration of the author’s themes and preoccupations. Clear patterns emerge, story after story: tales about the disruption of normality, the lure and tyranny of progress, the odious effects of commerce on creativity. The pieces show a range of versatility, moving from a realist mode to an almost surrealist one, displaying an adeptness at traditional allegory as well as the ability to subvert narrative convention.

The collection opens with “The Slap,” a piece about an ordinary bedroom community to a large metropolis that becomes terrorized by a shadowy figure who goes around slapping people at random. This was actually one of my favourite pieces in the book. Despite being a rather obvious allegory for senseless 911-style terrorism, “The Slap” possesses a off-kilter compulsion that keeps the pages turning. I not only wanted to know how the story would end, but also how far Millhauser could stretch his parable without breaking it.

One of Millhauser’s great talents is his ability to marry the strange and the tender in a single story. Examples of this from the selection of newer pieces include “Tales of Darkness and the Unknown, Vol. XIV: The White Glove” and the title story “We Others.” In the former piece, we see a touching relationship between a teenage boy and girl disrupted when the girl develops a mysterious illness that requires her to wear a white glove on her hand. In the latter, we bear witness to a devastating love triangle between two women and a ghost. In each case, Millhauser is able to infuse his story with a great gentleness even as he undermines our sense of reality.

There are numerous standouts from the selection of older pieces as well. The novella “August Eschenburg” is an expansive and gripping tale about a young boy living in the 19th century who is a wizard at building automatons, and how  competition, commerce, and changes in public taste affect his chosen art form. This is Millhauser at his realist best. By contrast, “The Eighth Voyages of Sinbad” is a sort of postmodern metafiction—as much about the history of the story of that famous sailor as it is about the sailor himself. Yet Millhauser is equally strong in this mode, showing his ability to stray from narrative’s beaten track when he wants to.

There are, inevitably, a few missteps that pepper We Others. “A Visit”, for example, is the story of a man who goes to visit an old acquaintance he hasn’t seen in nine years, only to discover the man is living in a “remote upstate town” and married to a frog. The story never really does much in the way of building a plausible world for these characters to inhabit, and thus falls flat. Similarly, “Flying Carpets” is a magical story that doesn’t really do much with its magic. The writing is strong and lyrical, but it just doesn’t engage enough with its own premise. Consequently, this story—like a few others—starts to drag, and thus makes the collection as a whole more daunting than it should be.

Millhauser has many tools in his writerly toolbox, and this anthology gives the reader and excellent taste of what he is capable of. Whether We Others will bring him a wider audience remains to be seen, but this book is definitely worth slogging through: there are many gems and only a few dull stones.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Reprinting of my poem "The Papier Mache Milton Acorn"

Just wanted to let y'all know that my poem "The Papier Mache Milton Acorn", originally published in a Halifax literary journal back in 2010 and included in my as-yet unpublished poetry manuscript, has been reprinted on this Acorn tribute blog. Many thanks to editor Chris Faiers for taking such an interest in it.

Monday, August 19, 2013

My Q&Q review of The Hundred Hearts by William Kowalski ...

is now up on the Quill and Quire website. Kowalski's novel is fiercely entertaining and definitely worth checking out.

Also: I know it has been quiet here on the blog but that's because I've been on vacation for the last two weeks and am only now just back. RR and I drove out to the Maritimes to visit my family and spent quite a bit of time touring around the region--including spending our anniversary on the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton. I also took her to the closest thing I have to an ancestral village, a place called L'Ardoise (located on Cape Breton's southern coast), and we spent a pleasant evening there with some relatives of mine. Anyway, I'm back in Toronto now and looking forward to a busy fall.


Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: The Semiconducting Dictionary (Our Strindberg), by Natalee Caple

The vicissitudes and vagaries of the life of Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849-1912) form the basis for this 2010 collection by Ontario poet Natalee Caple. Tapping into a rich tradition in Canada of postmodern books that conduct a poetic rendering of an actual historical figure, Caple assembles an assortment of fragments, missives, interior monologues and other ephemera from Strindberg’s troubled life. The result is a sly, hagiography-free lens into a fascinating and fraught character. The added twist here is that Caple has actually re-imagined this infamous playwright as a woman in disguise.  

Strindberg experienced periods of both dizzying success and heartbreaking failure over the course of his career, and much of his life on display in The Semiconducting Dictionary is punctuated by his obsession with his first wife, the Finnish actress Siri von Essen. Caple strikes a good balance in this book between matters of the heart and matters of career, exploring Strindberg’s insecurities in each camp. They coalesce into what is probably the book’s strongest poem, “The Playwright Interviews Herself to Stave off Loneliness.” Here Caple writes:

What do you want?
To be a famous playwright whose plays run day and night
everywhere in every language. 
What is the greatest misfortune you can imagine?
To be without Siri and unable to write. To be unable to write.

The grandiosity of Strindberg’s vision for and of himself unwinds in this and other poems as his talents and self-image fail to live up to his ambition.

What works less successfully through this book are poems that project a rawer infatuation that the playwright felt for Siri. In pieces like “Ours [Siri]” and “She Leaves Me,” I was left with the sense that Caple was dancing up to the line of cliché and sentimentality, that she was perhaps foisting too much of her own personal emotion onto a fictional construction.

Still, there’s no denying that this book possesses a queer and original power. Whether the gimmick of turning this notorious woman-hater into a woman himself works will be left up to each individual reader. But the versatility and lyric beauty of Naple’s vision is enough to make this collection worth checking out.    

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review: Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

Just a short review of this big, brilliant book—not only because I’m pressed for time but also because longer, better reviews of this book can be found elsewhere. Let the Great World Spin won both the National Book Award in the States and the International IMPAC Literary Award, and deservedly so. McCann has written rich, fragmentary tale focused on the twin themes of love and loss.

The interwoven tales within Let the Great World Spin coalesce around a real historical event: tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s improbable journey on a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City one morning in 1974. McCann’s novel could almost pass for a hefty collection of interconnected short stories: each section of the book has its own protagonist whose life intersects with the novel’s other protagonists in startling ways, and each is related to or affected by Petit’s walk,  a stunt that really awakened the city to both its lost and future greatness.

McCann takes several risks in this book, chief among them killing off two pivotal and meticulously drawn characters early on in a horrendous car crash. How those deaths reverberate throughout the lives of the remaining characters provides much of Let the Great World Spin’s emotional heft. The tragedies that unfold are shadowed by the inevitable reality of what is to become of those twin buildings looming on New York’s skyline. 9/11 is only referred to in the book's coda, but the reader will bring that emotional baggage into the book from page one.

This is also a very thorough portrait of a New York that doesn’t really exist anymore. The city was in full decay in 1974, and McCann captures the rampant crime, drugs and danger that seemed to contaminate every street corner at the time. The city becomes a perfect mirror for the troubled lives of his characters.

A challenging but wonderful book, Let the Great World Spin has helped to establish McCann as A-list material in terms of New York’s current literary scene. I’ll definitely be pursuing more of his work in the future.  

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Review: The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

There is often a blurring of the lines, with creative types, between manufacturing the conditions to create art and manufacturing the art itself. I suppose it’s inevitable that we expend a disproportionate amount of energy shaping the circumstances in which our creativity can flourish. And of course, should those circumstances not match our idealized (romanticized, fetishized) view of them—well then, that just explains the reason for our failures, and our fury. Dammit, if only I had a different job. Or no job at all. If only I had a supportive spouse, or no spouse at all. If only the critical culture out there was more in tune with the type of art I create. Maybe if my children, my parents, could just respect me more as an artist. If only I had a room of my own. This mentality, it seems to me, is bourne out of the notion that circumstances create artistic propulsion, rather than the other way around. I often need to remind myself that this kind of griping, if left to fester, will privilege the lifestyle of an artist over the art itself.

These issues seem to rest at the heart of Claire Messud’s controversial new novel The Woman Upstairs. It tells the story of Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge Massachusetts who holds pretensions toward the life of a working artist. Nora feels she has sacrificed her dreams by comporting herself to various societal pressures and expectations—the chief one being the responsibility of looking after her mother as the woman dies of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Yes, Nora is bitter and angry that her life has worked the way it has, that she is “just” an elementary school teacher and devoted daughter and sister, rather than the fiery creative genius she imagines herself to be. These feelings are aggravated when she meets the Shahids, a family visiting Cambridge from Europe for a year. The patriarch of the family, Skandar, is a visiting professor at Harvard; son Reza becomes a student in Nora’s class; and mother Sirena is everything Nora wishes she herself could be—a full-time working artist with a respectable following and reputation.

Messud brilliantly captures Nora’s inner world as her infatuation with each member of the Shahid clan grows. There is something a bit Single White Female about her obsessions, but Messud is wise to have Nora cast herself as a kind of Alice Munro-esque protagonist struggling to cut her way through all the expectations weighing on her to achieve the life she wants. There is even a part when Nora channels Munro when she hears her mother’s chiding whisper in her ear: “How dare you, Mouse? How dare you? Who do you think you are, Mouse? Who do you think you are?”

So what kind of idealized vision does Nora have for her creative life? Messud portrays it spectacularly, melding together a perfect devotion to creativity with a frothy, flawless domesticity:

If you asked me, upon my graduation from high school, where I’d be at forty … I would have painted a blissful picture of the smocked artist at work  in her airy studio, the children—several of them, aged perhaps five, seven and nine—frolicking  in the sun-dappled garden … I wouldn’t have been able to describe for you the source of income for this vision, nor any father to account for the children: men seemed, at that juncture, incidental to the stuff of life. Nor did the children require a nanny of any kind: they played miraculously well, without bickering, without ever the desire to interrupt the artist, until she was ready; and then, the obligatory and delightful picnic beneath the trees. No money, no man, no help …

What’s conspicuous about this passage is not just the absence of a man or a steady paycheque (conflated here, as creative women sometimes do, into a single monolithic unit) but the absence of the art itself. We aren’t given even the slightest glimpse into what this fetishized version of Nora is creating. And it is this absence, I found, that provided the novel with much of its narrative drive. The book is less about Nora coming to terms with herself as it is with her coming to terms with the nature of her subject matter.

Of course, her art does have a shape: it takes the form of dioramas of some of her favourite female heroes—Dickenson, Woolf and other solitary figures. The “smallness” of these works are meant to juxtapose the enormity of Sirena’s massive installations. The two women end up sharing a studio space together, and Nora is able to feed off Sirena’s creative force even if it imbues her with jealousy and frustration. Messud takes us step by step through Nora’s infatuations, first with Sirena and Reza, then finally with Skandar himself. To say more would be to reveal various undulations of the plot.

There were times, unfortunately, where I felt that plot took too much of a backseat to vague ruminations and interior monologues; there are large swaths of The Woman Upstairs where nothing much actually happens. Messud does give us a potent view into the complexities of Nora’s character: on the one hand, she is narcissistic and self obsessed; on the other, she has a deep and abiding altruism and generosity toward the needs of others. But the narrative spends too much time in these places and not enough time in the action of the story.

What saved this novel for me, though, is the various small revelations that Nora encounters as her story progresses. Her mother, it turns out, was not the powerless housewife she imagined her to be. Sirena’s relationship Skandar is far from perfect. And, most importantly, her subject matter is one that can obsess her, that can transcend her romanticized notions of the artistic lifestyle.

There is no denying that this is a powerful and well-envisioned novel that captures perfectly a kind of self regard that feels so prevalent to the 21st century. The Woman Upstairs is a deeply contemporary novel that reflects back the darkness and the light of ourselves as we try to shape our own worlds and how we define the meaning of success.  

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Review: It’s Hard Being Queen: The Dusty Springfield Poems, by Jeanette Lynes

It was so nice to finally get around to reading a full collection of poems by Jeanette Lynes. I’ve seen her verse around literary journals for years and have always been impressed by her output. She strikes me as a poet who revels in her own versatility, her ability to hit her subject matters from a variety of angles. She also strikes me as a poet unafraid of having a bit of fun on the page.

Both of these attributes are apparent in It’s Hard Being Queen, a kind of poetic rendering of the life of Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, better known to the world as Dusty Springfield. Lynes’ approach to capturing this crooner’s 60 years of turbulent existence is unapologetically linear but nonetheless engaging. The collection takes us from her early days in England, making her own recordings and trying to convince her family she’s destined for greatness, to the various vicissitudes of American show business and popular culture.

One of the focuses in the early part of the book is Springfield’s notorious perfectionism. Lynes captures this best in “The Producer’s Poem” when she writes:

If he had hair
he’d tear it out.
Hour nine, she records
the same syllable again,
again, again. She makes her art
one syllable at a time and it
hurts to watch …

Such methodical obsession could be applied—as Lynes no doubt knows—to poetry itself.

It’s Hard Being Queen walks us through Springfield’s initial rise to fame as well as her subsequent collapse into obscurity. Lynes captures this fall from grace in such aptly titled poems as “Some Things She Did for Money” and “How To Be Born Again (in the Secular Sense)” with its cheeky queries, “Have the fan letters the flowers/ stopped? Do your shoulder pads outsize/ your bank account?” The collection then leads us through Springfield’s improbable comeback, which culminated with Quentin Tarantino’s inclusion of her song “Son of a Preacher Man” on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. With strokes of small genius, Lynes braids the film’s relentless violence with Springfield’s animosity towards the journalists who once again pay her attention:

She knows them, they’ve been calling
her fat and bent and lost for years,
their meat-grinder words pressed
into scandal-shaped patties.
She’s often wished them
gruesome ends.

As the collection comes to its close, one must inevitably ask: Is this hagiography? The answer, I think, is both yes and no. To be fair, there are times when it feels like Lynes is a bit too enamoured of her subject. She has a tendency to place Springfield on the right side of every situation, every dispute or flare of tension in these poems. Yet her ultimate goal is to gain a prismatic view on the life and career of this celebrity, and this is a goal she achieves. I never once felt like Lynes was telling me what to think of Dusty Springfield. There is a enough wiggle room in these pieces for a reader to come to his own conclusions.      

Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: Whiteout, by George Murray

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I attempt to review—even just briefly—virtually every book I read over the course of a year. It’s no easy task. But a curious thing happened back in 2011 when I read George Murray’s collection of sonnets The Rush to Here. Here was a poetry book that I enjoyed quite a lot, and yet found that I had nothing really constructive to say about it. It’s not that I didn’t admire the book—I did. I thought it was great. But I struggled to articulate why. So rather than force myself to put down thoughts I didn’t actually have, I thought it wiser to just remain silent.

I’ve had no such issue with Murray’s new collection, Whiteout. This book is a tiny tour de force, a gently but meticulously crafted array of poems about life, death, love, and the randomness of the universe. Indeed, Whiteout spins itself into its own little galaxy, tugging at us with the gravitational pull of life’s arbitrary moments. Murray understands that joy and tenderness can arise out of such machinations, but so too can chaos and catastrophe.

A fine example of theses ideas in action is his poem “St. John’s.” On one level, the piece takes us on a briny, beery tour of that city’s downtown, but there is also something larger at play. Murray hints at the possibility of alternate universes in this poem with lines like: “Your future could lean in that door and you/ might not recognize it as anything/ but the next in another series of nows.” And he closes this exploration with an arresting statement that halted me in my tracks:

… Somewhere under
every inch of skin is a Venn diagram

with lovers overlapping just so,
and it’s here I want us to be. No one asked,
What if there’s only the one universe?
If it turns out there is, then one is enough.

For me this statement hung over the entirety of the book, a kind of neutral resignation to the random power that life can exact upon us. I saw these ideas at play when I went back and reread “The Uncountable”, with its lines “Mass exists, numbers exist, but there’s no/ power one has over the other without/ the intrusion of our invention.” And I also saw it in the violence of his poem “The Ants”, where a bomb blast at an opera house leaves the audience in a state of shock as they “stumbled about like straggled/ scalpers calling out spares and outrageous asks.”

If this all sounds a bit intense, rest assured that Murray is capable of great playfulness here, too. His piece “Song of a Divorce Budget” uses traditional rhyme and the assemblage of puns to build a fun little counting poem about one of life’s least fun experiences.

Other critics of said it and I’m happy to echo them: Murray is at the height of his powers in Whiteout. This book is a great place to start if you haven’t read him before, with lots of ideas and imagery to savour.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: Contents of a Mermaid’s Purse, by Phoebe Tsang

Sensuality and fairy tales abound in this 2009 debut poetry collection by Hong Kong-born, Canadian-based violinist Phoebe Tsang. There is a rich (some might say overtired) tradition in our literature of firing the tropes of classic fairy tales through the lens of contemporary living; but Tsang breathes new life into the genre by focusing her verse on an oft-overlooked aspect of those traditional yarns for kids: the erotic.

Indeed, in poem after poem, Tsang peels back our expectations of what can be conveyed through a traditional image for kids—a mermaid, a black cat, a pig with an apple in its mouth—to reveal a visceral world of lust, desire and even violence underneath. Take, for example, her poem “With Cherries for Eyes.” Even the most prudish schoolmarm would notice the steamy flush that accompanies the following lines:

My suckling piglet, my prize.
You have come here through fire, red and well-oiled.

You lie there, legs sprawled wide as a treat—a sweetmeat—
with your glazed maraschino-eyes.

And the telltale apple between your lips
as if yours was a death by choking—burning—unsatisfied—

Or take the piece “Golden Goose Pie”. Here the bodily desires go airbourne, climbing the proverbial beanstalk toward some elusive crescendo, a passionate peak. Tsang writes: “You carry me on your back like Hercules/ and I wonder: Is there a giant in you/who eats girls for breakfast?” Her climatic stanza begins, “If it’s true we are/ what we eat, I have swallowed/ a sapling whole and now/ must rise each day entwined/ in tendrils …”

These preoccupations culminate in what I felt was the best and most explosive poem in the book, “His Mistress the Witch.” Lured in like Hansel and Gretel, we cannot escape the immediate eroticism of the poem’s opening salvo, “She tastes like gingerbread—/ fresh from the oven/after the icing’s licked off—”? The candied carnality continues with lines like:

When your tongue finally
reached her nectar
all you could do was lap faster
greedy as a kitten
for the sweet cream
liquid sugar ebbing    

But what really brought me home, so to speak, in this small masterpiece was the linguistic volleys that Tsang deploys. Gently jarring rhymes—often enacted mid-line—occur throughout the poem (“And how could you forget the thirsty/ miles alone in the desert before/ the woods were grown”); and an understated use of alliteration and assonance provide the piece with much of its propulsion. Yet what made me want to read “His Mistress the Witch” over and over (and over, and over) again was its searing climax, which seems to coalesce all of Tsang’s preoccupations into one concentrated thatch of verse:

… her nutmeg and cinnamon skin,
and as the glucose high
kicked in, it seemed
all of life’s questions
had simmered
to one longing distilled:

what would you give
to sleep with a witch—
inside a witch’s bed,
under a witch’s candied canopy
(that melts peppermint relief
onto your raw red face),
while heat rises
from the oven, where
your own children are being fed
like kindling, daily bread
to keep your home fires burning.

If the hornier side of fairy tales is not your thing, then Contents of a Mermaid’s Purse offers other delights. Tsang has a real knack for verbal illustration—she describes a medicine cabinet as “flat-chested”; she describes an orchestra as “attentive as wait staff/ at an upscale restaurant”—and there is, not surprisingly for a professional violinist, a certain musicality to much of her writing. This little book is definitely worth picking up.    

Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove

As I approach this thoughtful and well-organized overview of the 40-year poetry career of John Newlove, I feel at once uniquely equipped and wholly underqualified to assess its merits. This is because, with the exception of a few anthologies and lit mag reprints, my experience with Newlove’s work has been fairly sparse. I remember his name still being bandied about in the English department hallways at the University of Manitoba when I was there in 2000-2002, but I had few occasions to read anything by him. So perhaps I’m coming to these collected poems with little baggage. Or, perhaps, little context.

No matter. Editor Robert McTavish has done a stellar job in his chronological selecting from and organizing of Newlove’s oeuvre, providing us with a thorough and overarching view into the man’s poetry. Mind you, I could have done without Jeff Derksen’s illiterate and turgidly academic afterword—shocking, that this kind of “scholarly” dross still gets published—but I didn’t allow his convoluted and suffocating pleonasms to spoil my enjoyment of the poems. McTavish, in his work, has stuck to organizing the pieces in the order of their original collections’ publication, rather than trying to group them by theme. The book is stronger for it.

It goes without saying that you get a real window into the development of a poet’s voice when his selected works are laid out in this manner. Newlove’s first collection, Grave Sirs, was published in 1961, when he was just 23; his second, Elephants, Mothers & Others, was released two years later. There is evidence in both of an earnest young man still trying to nail down his craft. You can see this in the arresting misogyny of “My Daddy Drowned” or the stunted framing of "Birds, Dear." Naturally, as the collections progress, the poems get better. I was left stunned by the final line of “Kamsack,” a poem from his 1965 collection Moving in Alone, in the way that it reveals a self awareness so uncommon in a man not yet thirty. Here the poem is in its entirety:

Plump eastern saskatchewan river town,
where even in the depression it’s said the wheat
went thirty bushels and was full-bodied,
the river laying good black dirt each year:
but I found it arid, as young men will

By the time Newlove won the Governor General’s Award for his 1972 collection Lies, his poetry had become ensconced in the rhythms of prairie regionalism and the nationalistic agenda of CanLit as a whole. I don’t mean that entirely as a dig. There is something in Newlove’s voice that transcends the pack with which he ran; one gets the sense reading, say, “Every Muddy Road” or “My Dreams” (with its delightfully disturbing first stanza) that Newlove was unafraid to reach for the universal, to write sly, occasionally crass poems alongside the nationalistic observations that would help earn him Canada Council grants.

Still, the prairies loom large in Newlove’s corpus of work, and this is no more evident than in his long poem The Green Plain, published in 1981. (Or is it 1979? There is a discrepancy in A Long Continual Argument.) The cadence here is a tour de force of crafty line breaks and rhythmic descriptions, unleashing images of plains, forests, stars and farmland alongside ruminations on the larger world. Reading it, I couldn’t help but hear the voice of another great prairie poet, Dennis Cooley. And I mean that literally. Go online and find a clip of Cooley reciting his work, then come back and read this excerpt from The Green Plain. See what I mean? It’s amazing how Newlove is able to replicate a thick prairie accent almost entirely through enjambment. I wager this work played a key role in inspiring the entire genre of the prairie long poem that flourished in the 1980s.

As Newlove got older, his poetry grew increasingly meta. I suppose this was inevitable. Still, there are numerous gems to encounter as you get deeper and deeper into A Long Continual Argument. “The Permanent Tourist Comes Home” teems with sharp observations about middle age—the death of parents, the visits home, the horror of starting over (it closes with the chilling line: “Awkwardly, I am in love again”). “Big Mirror”, by contrast, is a fun, playful take on a visit to the dentist, using battered grammar to represent a temporarily disabled mouth. Indeed, Newlove grew interested in writing about the limitations and inconveniences of an aging body as he entered his final years. His poem “The Examination” shows how our fate can be sealed within the larger genetic tapestry of our families.

A Long Continual Argument wisely ends with “The Death of the Hired Man” (“He collapsed like a sack of wet shit,/ which is what we all are, if you think of it”), a fitting swan song to cap off a life, a career, at its summit. Newlove left us with an impressive body of work, a rawness and honesty about the world he came from as well the world of the self. He was unafraid to put even his harshest observations through the musicality of his art. As he puts it so sagely in his long poem “White Philharmonic Novels”: “What good is a witness/ who will not tell his tale?”

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Quill and Quire review of Every Little Thing, by Chad Pelley ...

is now online at the Q&Q website.

What's interesting about this review is that the first draft was far more negative than what eventually got published, but my editor wisely came back to me a few days after submitting it to ask if I wanted to take another look at my piece, now that I'd gained some distance from it. He didn't tell me to rewrite it or tone it down. He merely asked, in a very respectful way, if I could just make sure I was still okay with what I'd written, having had some time away from it. I was really glad he did this, because having cooled down after reading Pelley's book (yes, I hated it that much), I realized that the initial draft of my review probably did cross a boundary in terms of its vitriol, so I took another pass at it. I even managed to work in something positive to say. As a result, I feel that the published version is a much stronger and more balanced review. It just goes to show that a good editor knows how to gently guide a writer towards making good decisions and to re-consider his approach when it's warranted. Thankfully, Quill & Quire has one of the best.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Review: Arguably – Essays, by Christopher Hitchens

When Christopher Hitchens—the British-born, American-based polemicist and author, famous for his antitheist screed God is Not Great—died in December 2011, a certain pall fell over the intellectual circles in which I travel. For those who quietly (or not so quietly) embrace humanism and see the Enlightenment as the pinnacle of our species’ achievement, Hitchens was a kind of patron saint. In recent years, his regular TV appearances have been rendered into shareable YouTube clips, showing him in the full bloom of his genius as he eviscerates some gormless religious fanatic or other. He was also unafraid to skewer feminists, academics or other ostensible allies should they get a bit too far up his kilt. Indeed Hitchens, who spent decades identifying himself as a socialist, alienated many on the traditional Left by coming out in favour of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But whether you liked him, hated him, felt betrayed by him, or merely feared him, there was no denying that his was one of the great minds of the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st.

Arguably, published after his death from esophageal cancer, collects the last ream and a half of Hitchens’ geopolitical writing, literary criticism, long-form profiles and other journalistic ephemera, spanning from about 1999 to just a few months before he died. I use the term “ephemera” only partially pejoratively here: these articles, most of which first appeared in magazines such as The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate, and The New Statesman, do possess a certain Grub Street grind to their tone and raison d’etre. A lot of the pieces in this book—in fact, I would argue almost half of them—really aren’t worthy of the annals of posterity, and will stand more as quickly crafted artifacts of a certain period of history, rather than imperishable or definitive analysis of our modern times. But it doesn’t really matter. Even when hacking out a couple thousand words on Hugo Chavez, the conflict in Afghanistan, the latest Harry Potter novel, or the death of Benazir Bhutto, Hitchens is sharper and more succinct than the next 10 best nonfiction scribblers combined.

He was, without a doubt, the go-to journalist when you wanted to gain a panoramic view on some geopolitical issue. And therein lies his great strength: he was a true polymath, someone who could take so many disparate pieces of knowledge and weave them together into a cohesive whole. He understood, with great profundity, how the butterfly effects of history could ripple through our civilization and shape the world we now live in. Writing in a period when most alleged intellectuals willfully pigeonhole themselves and see the world through a singular prism, Hitchens was ever-expansive, able to bring to bear the wisdom of poetry and novels on all manner of the world’s geopolitical strife. He was the type of writer where context was everything; he believed wholly in the idea that the world was a knowable place if you were willing to work hard at knowing it. Arguably captures much of this genius and generosity. If you want to challenge your opposition to the Iraq war, learn the idiocy behind the term Islamophobia, understand the broader context of the 2008 economic collapse, or learn about seismology’s relationship to democracy, than this is the book for you.

Or, if those topics are not your thing, you can still pop by to see what Hitchens thought about P.G. Wodehouse. Or John Updike. Or the underhanded way that waiters pour wine. Or why women aren’t funny. (Actually, Hitchens’ tongue is so deeply in cheek in that piece that its tone falls wildly out of step with the rest of the book.) Or why he admires Graham Greene. In fact, his two pieces on Greene—one a review of a 2005 biography, the second an introduction to a new edition of Our Man in Havana—provide some of Hitchens’ juiciest bon mots. The following passage captures Greene’s catholic approach to travel splendidly:

A journalist, most especially an Anglo-American travel writer, will run the risk of disappointing his editor if he visits Saigon and leaves out any reference to quiet Americans, or turns in a piece from Havana that fails to mention the hapless Wormold. As for Brighton, or Vienna, or Haiti—Greene was there just before you turned up.

It goes without saying that, in a book this huge, there are going to be plenty of disappointments. Take, for example, Hitchens’ two “travel” pieces on North Korea. While he isn’t exactly wrong in dismissing the country outright as a slave state, he does miss the opportunity to put the North Korean situation into a broader historical context, to elucidate how 35 years of Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th century really shaped that regime’s self image and unique approach to totalitarianism. Hitchens has no qualms providing Islamic dictatorships with generous helpings of context, but his analysis of North Korea feels thin and cursory by comparison.

Or take his piece on J.G. Ballard, the prolific British writer of science fiction and futurism, who died in 2009. The article is labeled a review of Ballard’s posthumously published The Complete Stories (a misnomer, by the way; there are several tales missing from it); but if Hitchens’ piece is meant to be an analysis of Ballard’s corpus of short fiction, it falls well short of that. If it’s meant to more of a profile of the man, then it also fails. You’ll find far better portraits of Ballard elsewhere, including Martin Amis’ hilarious profile of him in the 1993 essay collection Visiting Mrs. Nabokov.

Speaking of Martin Amis, there is a lengthy review of his Koba the Dread included in Arguably. Even if you weren’t familiar with Amis’ novel, this review is interesting to read as an act of journalistic objectivity, since it’s well known that Hitchens and Amis attended Oxford together and were long-time friends. Most book editors would balk at allowing one half of such a relationship several thousand words to review a book written by the other half of such a relationship, but Hitchens puts on an absolute clinic of fairness, detachment, and analysis. He definitely gives Amis his due—there’s no denying his position near the very top of contemporary English-language literature. But in instances where Hitchens feels Amis’ prose has fallen down, he says so—pointedly, unsentimentally, as if he were just another writer and not someone Hitchens has known personally for decades. The piece left me wondering if I myself could ever review a book by a friend I’ve known since my university days with such cold-eyed grace.

In the end, when reviewing Arguably, one must set aside these literary profiles/criticism and once again acknowledge Hitchens’ true métier: his geopolitical writing. Whether tackling the historic phenomena of Nazism and Stalinism, or writing about the current-day situations in Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, Hitchens’ breadth of knowledge and depth of engagement have few peers. His piece “Imagining Hitler” is inspired: he shows how senior German officers were aware of the Fuhrer’s madness long before it ever dawned on Winston Churchill. His lengthy piece on Rebecca West puts the early 20th century collision of anti-Semitism and jihadism into a thoroughly enrapturing context. His piece “The Persian Version” is a great primer into the mentality that shapes modern-day Iran. And his vitriol at the murder of Theo van Gogh is pitch perfect.

We could even close by showing how his analysis of contemporary Pakistan skirts the persistent accusation against Hitchens, that he was a misogynist and not especially interested in women’s points of view. In an article about the U.S. government’s complicated relationship with Pakistan, called “From Abbottabad to Worse,” his opening paragraph contains this incredible salvo about Pakistan:

Here is a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped, by tribal or religious kangaroo courts, even if a rumour of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk. In such an obscenely distorted context, the counterpart term to shame—which is the noble word “honor”—becomes most commonly associated with the word “killing.” Moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter.

Succinct. Cold-eyed. Articulate. Infusing your brain with context for a broader issue. And a cri de coeur against moral relativism that will (hopefully) place its writer on the right side of history. This is, I think, a fair way to sum up Arguably. Hitchens’ enemies—and he had many—may have wanted to take him down, but it’s hard to see, based on the book at hand, how any of them came close to even touching him.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Acceptance: The New Quarterly

I was overjoyed yesterday to receive an acceptance letter from The New Quarterly for my short story "The Man Room." TNQ, it goes without saying, is one of the most prestigious literary journals in North America and I am ecstatic that they have accepted a piece of fiction from me. "The Man Room" is part of the unpublished short story collection manuscript that I have now started peddling around, so this acceptance (along with the one I received a couple of weeks ago from The Antigonish Review) is another bit of validation that I'm (hopefully) on the right track with this book.

The exact issue in which the story will run still needs to be confirmed--it will either be in the autumn or the winter edition--but I'll keep you all posted when I learn more.


Saturday, June 1, 2013

Acceptance: The Antigonish Review

I'm happy to report that The Antigonish Review in Nova Scotia has accepted my short story "The Fantasy" for an upcoming issue. This was some pretty excellent news to come home to last night, as I'd known for a few months that the piece had been forwarded on for final consideration and am so pleased that it made the cut. "The Fantasy" is one of the pieces in the short story collection I recently finished writing and am now peddling around.

While I was waiting for the verdict on "The Fantasy", the book review editor at The Antigonish Review asked if I'd review something for them as well, which I did. My review of Aga Maksimowska's debut novel Giant was accepted and will also appear in an upcoming issue.

Anyway, very excited to have work included in this long-standing and venerable Canadian literary journal.


Friday, May 31, 2013

For Publicists: How to Approach a Book Blogger

Several months ago one of my favourite online contacts whom I’ve never met stepped down from her job. She was a publicist for a mid-sized Canadian publisher who had approached me a couple of years ago asking if I’d consider reviewing on this blog a novel she was promoting. I still marvel at the way she introduced herself. Instead of including me on a huge, impersonal email blast, as most publicists would do, she wrote me a friendly, individualized email. In it, she cited a previous blog review that I’d written of one of her publisher’s other books (which I had discovered on my own), told me how much she enjoyed my analysis of it, and asked if she could send me the current novel she was promoting.

I agreed, and about a month later the review appeared on this blog. The piece was, to put it mildly, quite negative. But I sent her a link to it anyway (that was part of our agreement) and wholly expected a terse, rude email back from her, questioning my critical faculties and telling me to please fuck off. In fact, the opposite happened. She wrote to say that she appreciated the review, even if it was negative, and asked if she could send me more books. Over the next two years, I continued to receive regular missives from her—always individualized, always friendly—about various titles in her employer’s latest catalogue. I wrote reviews of many of them—some positive, some negative, some mixed.

I’m going to miss our interactions because this woman really was a paragon of class and a delightful ambassador for her profession. I get occasional correspondence from other publicists at other presses, and it frustrates me that many of them don’t put as much thought into their jobs as she did. I must confess that I have a deeply ingrained and rather reflexive need to mock and be suspicious of publicists, marketing managers, PR flaks and other corporate spin doctors—this is what journalism school does to you. But I thought I’d lay out some tips on how publicists might interact with book bloggers, and base them almost exclusively on this person’s behaviour.

As a proviso, though, I do want to point out my knowledge that book blogs, including mine, have a very limited impact on our country’s overall literary culture, and so they should. The vast majority of book blogs out there are utter garbage—poorly written, sporadically updated, with no clear mandate or voice—and no one should think that this medium will ever replace professionally run book sections in professional publications (even as they increasingly shrink or outright disappear). My own blog is often hastily written—I started composing this post at 4:30 this morning when I really should have been working on a poem—and I know I battle exhaustion, hangovers and a paucity of time to keep this blog updated and relevant. But still, it plays enough of a role to attract the attention of publicists, so let’s go ahead and help them do their jobs better.

Tip 1: Write a personalized introduction. I hate being included on mass emails, especially when the correspondent wants something from me. I work hard to show there’s a working brain behind this blog, so you should show that there’s a working brain behind your marketing efforts.

Tip 2: Read my blog beforehand and cite previous reviews I’ve written. You get extra points if can do so with books I’ve reviewed that weren’t published by your press. In this era of Hootsuite and Google Alerts, it’s pretty easy to keep tabs on what people are saying about your own stuff. But I’d be mightily impressed if you mentioned a post that had nothing to do with the company you work for.

Tip 3: Don’t get huffy if I write a negative review. I know there’s a burgeoning culture out there of censorship and antagonism toward negative reviewing, and I want no part of that. I’m often shocked at how sycophantic a lot of book blogs can be. Most posts tend to follow a similar formula: the reviewer spends the first 40% of her review reciting a personal anecdote or confession, often tangentially related to the book in question, and then spends the remaining 60% basically parroting back the book’s publicity materials. If that’s the kind of blog you’re looking to send books to, then Free Range Reading is not the place for you. I try to review every book I read, and I try to be as honest in my assessment of them as possible.

Tip 4: Don’t just automatically send me every book you publish every season. A number of small presses do this to me, and it’s fucking annoying. Touch base with me first, either via email or through a mail-out of your latest catalogue. Describe the books you’re flogging and then ask me if I’m interested in any of them. Don’t send me books I’ve already reviewed on my blog. Don’t tell me when you’d like me to review the books—I read on my own timeline. And most importantly, keep all correspondence with me individualized.

Tip 5: Keep the hyperbole to a minimum. I know you’re tasked with promoting your authors’ works, but try to keep some perspective on the quality of their books when writing publicity materials and correspondence about them. You shouldn’t have to tell me how great a book or author is: it should be self evident from the work itself.

Tip 6: Know which kinds of books I don’t read. This blog is called Free Range Reading for a reason, but there are still certain types of books that just don’t interest me. Go through the blog and figure out what they are. (And no, I’m not going to tell you.)

Tip 6: Keep the conversation with me going. This is especially important if I write a negative review of one of your titles. If I feel like our relationship is contingent on me writing a certain type of review, then I’m less likely to touch one of your books in the future.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Iron-on Constellations, by Emily Pohl-Weary

This slim volume of poetry (just 54 pages) was published in 2005 by what must have been a still very nascent Tightrope Books. Pohl-Weary, known for her editorial work on the magazines Broken Pencil and the now-defunct Kiss Machine, uses these poems to examine her feelings about guys and other foibles of young-person angst, as well as the various vicissitudes of being a west-end Toronto hipster.

Indeed, Canada’s largest city is a live wire in this collection, (starting with its opening piece, “What I Learned Growing up in Parkdale”), a near-electric current that Pohl-Weary plugs into for inspiration. Her take on the city is what we’ve come to expect from young, distracted hipsters leery of substance: her observations are urban without being particularly urbane, a surface exploration of the sights and smells of this patchwork city, the whalesong of streetcars, the storefronts of Queen West, the fish markets of Chinatown, our clichés of downtown Toronto superimposed over its daily, actual existence.

Pohl-Weary is at her best when she allows her desire for raw emotion to slip away in favour of evocative implication. One of the strongest pieces in Iron-on Constellations is “Throat Flower”, which opens with the stirring lines:

Today, walking,
we talk as a flower sprouts deep in my throat.
Spewing green, red pedals push out.
I submit to growth.

and closes with the earthy couplet, “I gnash at the green stalk,/ tastes like wooden asparagus.” There is just enough wiggle room in the central symbolism of the plant for the reader to create his or her own meaning. Or take “My Gold Hair Is So Unreliable”, a piece that fuses clever imagery to the ache of a broken heart to create a deceptively complex poem.

Unfortunately, these examples are the exception rather than the rule in a book overrun with adolescent anguish, lazy descriptions, and minimalist misfires. The poem “Break the Ice” is among the worst, a narrator’s shallow plea to a boy to awaken desire in her, which comes with the cringe-worthy stanza:

You are life.
You are not life,
you’re just a boyfriend.
A little boy kneeling before my pain.

I’ve read lines by ninth-graders that contain more polish and sincerity. Or take the piece “Subway of Love.” The poem is as bad as its corny title suggests, where Pohl-Weary tells us “I’m riding the molten metal flow/ you would probably call desire” and describes the stars as “muggy”, which wouldn’t make sense even if you didn’t set your poem in a subterranean locale.

In these and other instances, it often seems like Pohl-Weary is reaching for the easy rather than the difficult, the vague rather than the specific, the prefabricated rather than the vibrantly original. In her poem “Picking at Walls and Armies,” a kind of half-ekphrasis, she writes: “I would portray my lover in black and reds,/ infuse him with the correct dosage of passion, mystery, and pain.” Look at the lack of specificity: not one single word or combination of words in those two lines create—if you’ll forgiven the pun—a portrait in the mind of the reader. It’s like the poem can’t muster enough drive to be vivid.

And therein lies the larger issue, the hipster hole that Iron-on Constellations has fallen into. There often seems to be a deep and abiding suspicion of ambition in these poems. There is a lackadaisical tone, a half-hearted indifference to the craft of poetry throughout this book, as if the author felt that such effort was somewhat beneath her. Which is a shame, because Pohl-Weary does display instances of talent throughout this collection. But I’m left with the sense that it didn’t even occur to her that anyone would, eight years out, actually read this small book closely, or with any care.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: Gaspereau Gloriatur - Volume II: Prose, edited by Michael deBeyer, Kate Kennedy and Andrew Steeves

If any readers of CanLit were unfamiliar with the Kentville, NS-based publisher Gaspereau Press prior to 2010, that ignorance quickly evaporated when Johanna Skibsrud won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel The Sentimentalists, which Gaspereau had released the previous year. Suddenly this artisan publisher became known as the little press that could; it also became known as the little press that wouldn’t—mass produce its books that is, despite the additional demand that the Giller win had engineered.

Yes, you would know a Gaspereau volume just by the feel of it: their hand-made tomes, created in small runs of a few hundred copies each, are exquisite to hold in your hand and have won numerous awards for their breathtaking design. But what of the press’s literary sensibilities? Can we find some overarching statement to make about Gaspereau’s tastes in novels, short stories, poetry and nonfiction? Maybe, maybe not—but a good place to start looking would be with this Gaspereau Gloriatur anthology series. Published in 2007 in two volumes—one for poetry and one for prose—to celebrate the press’s tenth anniversary, these anthologies collect some of Gaspereau’s best work from its first decade in business. I received the prose volume as a gift a few months back from my good friend J.J. Steinfeld, whose charming story “Outliving Hitler” is included in its pages.  

Prose, for the purposes of this anthology, is defined as short stories and novel excerpts, as well as personal essays and other forms of nonfiction. These parameters give the book a bit of a hodge podge feel, but a delightful one for the most part. Indeed, I was pleased to find a number of real gems from both familiar names and writers I had never even heard of. This is part of Gaspereau’s allure: whether publishing a small-press veteran or an emerging new voice, the press doesn’t resort to attention-hustling or elaborate promotional schemes; it quietly allows the work to speak for itself.

One of the stand-out pieces for me was Jonathan Campbell’s novel excerpt Tarcadia—a writer and a book I was hitherto unfamiliar with. Campbell’s tale, set near the Sydney tar ponds in the early 1970s, could have easily slipped into the clichés of a dour, regionalized rumination on place and self. Instead, his prose is lively and humourous, the dialogue sharp and pitch perfect as he captures the lives of young boys trying to make their way in a small, isolated place. Campbell is a natural storyteller, and this excerpt—which involves a rafting trip along the polluted tar ponds—is riveting.

I was also impressed with Don McKay’s nonfiction excerpt “Vis a Vis: Fieldnotes On Poetry & Wilderness.” McKay is mostly known as a poet, and I’ve read a bunch of his verse and like it well enough. But this personal essay is a cut above: from the title you might assume it details one of McKay’s frequent contemplative walks through the natural world; but he kicks things off with a brilliant description of a yard sale he held while living in New Brunswick. The essay then moves seamlessly into an analysis of metaphor and the role it plays in “the normal traffic of events.”

Other standout pieces in the anthology include Elaine McCluskey’s brilliant short story “Queen of the Losers”, which contains the most perfect description of a Halifax tall ships festival; John Ralson Saul’s talk “Joseph Howe & the Battle for Freedom of Speech”, delivered at my undergrad alma mater, the University of King’s College in Halifax; a wonderful piece on cycling by the chronically underappreciated author and scholar Kent Thompson; and Glen Hancock’s surprisingly original memoir excerpt “Charley Goes to War,” about his time in WWII.

There are, as with any anthology, a few disappointments along the way. I’m a huge fan of John Terpstra’s poetry (see my review of his collection Disarmament) but his personal essay “Falling into Place” was both incredibly dull and utterly baffling. I found the prose and preoccupations of Susan Haley to be somewhat dated and unoriginal. The piece on songwriting by Bob Snider was so vague and generic as to be virtually unreadable. And the ramblings of Nova Scotia poet Peter Sanger had me lost within the first couple of paragraphs. Overall, I also felt the volume could have benefited from more stand-alone short stories, rather than an imbalance of excerpted pieces from longer works.

Still, there’s a great deal of value in this anthology and in Gaspereau Press as a whole. It’s hard to pinpoint that overarching sensibility I mentioned above, but one can try. Most of these pieces deal with, in some way, the off-the-beaten-path aspects of our Canadian experience. There is, for the most part, a privileging of the rural over the urban, of the slowly ruminative over the quickly familiar quotidian. These pieces are, by and large, quietly brilliant rather than, well, loudly brilliant. But one can only take these statements so far. Gaspereau is like most small presses: it’s trying to cast a wide enough net in order to publish some of the best writing in the country, while still staying loyal to a particular taste in writing as a whole. This anthology is a great view into that aesthetic microcosm. Here’s hoping the press puts out a similar volume in 2017 to celebrate 20 years in business.

Monday, May 13, 2013

My review of Alice Munro's Dear Life ...

 ... has been published in the new issue of Canadian Notes & Queries (CNQ), which arrived in the mailbox today. Munro's Dear Life was, if I were perfectly honest, one of the tougher reviews I've had to write. I read the collection back in October when it was first published, and I found myself reading other reviewers who really loved the book. I did not, I found it exceedingly difficult to say so--especially with Munro's reputation being as weighty as it is. Anyway, I managed to get through my piece and am actually kind of proud of the result. I was also relieved that, after I had submitted it, the New York Times also ran a fairly tough review of the book. Glad I'm not alone in my negative assessment. Did anyone else out there think this was a weak outing by Munro?

There looks to be a ton of other great stuff in CNQ, as always. The issue's theme is music and there are features on such luminaries as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Anyway, you should check it out. On sale wherever intelligent Canadian magazines are still sold.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Event reminder: Racket at the Rocket

Just a gentle reminder that RR and I will be doing a reading on the Danforth next Friday (May 17) as part of a new-ish east end reading series here in Toronto called Racket at the Rocket, put on my Open Minds Toronto. Here again are the details:

When: Friday, May 17, 2013. 7:30 p.m.
Where: Red Rocket Coffee - 1364 Danforth Ave (near Greenwood Subway Station), Toronto.
Cost: PWYC
Featuring: Me, RR and others.

Here's hoping you can all make it out.


Friday, May 10, 2013

How to Read a Literary Journal

I remember the incident distinctly. It was 2002 and I was attending the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, a eager-eyed grad student on the cusp of finishing his MA in English. I stood in line following a reading by two women whose work I admired greatly, looking to get them to sign their books for me. The first woman, from the east coast, had just published her second novel, her first having done very well four years earlier. (She had also published a successful short fiction collection in between.) The other woman, from the west coast, had just published her first book, a collection of short stories, with a major Canadian publishing house. She seemed more nervous and inexperienced than the first woman, unfamiliar with the mores of a literary event. Sitting at the signing table, she would ask each and every one of us in the line the same question with a kind of grating automation as we approached with our books: “Do you want me to sign it or sign it and inscribe it?” When it was finally my turn, having had to listen to this query 15 times in a row, I opted for just the signature, and while she scribbled it onto the title page, I said: “I really loved your book. I had actually read a number of these stories before, when they were published in journals.”

Journals,” she replied, then turned to the first woman and laughed caustically. “Do people actually read those things?”

Her comment—and its tone—has stayed with me all these years. Here was a young writer who managed to get several stories published in Canadian literary journals, and (according to profiles run of her in our national media) used that track record to land an agent and score an impressive book deal with a major publishing house. Yet, she was more or less confessing in the semi-privacy of a signing line that she didn’t actually read the journals that had helped launch her career, and that there was something anomalous about me because I did. I’m not sure it’s relevant to point out that this writer has, in the 11 years since the incident, gone on to publish exactly nothing else; but I do think it’s relevant to say that there’s not necessarily anything anomalous about her view on journals. I know a lot of writers or would-be writers who don’t read them—even if they do submit to them on a regular basis, and occasionally get some stuff published.

On the one hand, the trepidation or lack of interest is understandable. Literary journals can be intimidating. There are so many of them here in Canada, and who can possibly keep up with them all? And isn’t the quality of their writing a bit iffy anyway, on account of most the contributors being at the beginning of their careers? I know that when I first dipped a toe into reading journals back in the mid 1990s as a wet-eared undergrad in journalism in Halifax, I certainly struggled with them. If a story or poem’s “lead” didn’t grab me immediately, I was prepared to write off the entire enterprise. Surely I, in my 19-year-old wisdom, was better suited to judge the quality of these publications than their long-suffering editors, most of whom slave away in their volunteer positions for years. Thankfully, I grew up and got over myself. I began reading more journals more thoroughly, and came to understand the nuances and the focuses that shape them. This in turn helped me to be a better reader, and a better writer. By the end of 2002, I had published my first short story in one of them.

Now, more than a decade later, I’m married to another writer who also reads journals regularly, and the stream of them arriving in our mailbox is relentless. In the last two weeks alone, we have received fresh issues of PRISM international, The Antigonish Review, The New Quarterly, The Windsor Review and The Malahat Review. We also subscribe to The Fiddlehead, CNQ, FreeFall, and others. We will read them all, most likely from cover to cover. And we will discuss and pass polite judgment on the quality of many of them at the dinner table or on a road trip.

Admittedly, we’re a bit insane. I’m not saying that to be a literary writer in Canada you need to do what we do. Not at all. But if you’re a neophyte and looking to follow the same trajectory that has shaped both of our careers, and the careers of many fiction writers and poets in Canada—i.e. publish in literary journals first, build up your C.V., then land a book deal of some kind—then it sort of behooves you to read a least a few of these magazines on a regular basis. But as mentioned above, it’s kind of intimidating. Where do you start? With so many journals stuffed onto the literary newsstands, how do you find some that you’ll actually like? And what do you do once you start reading them?

So here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the last 20 years, and want to share them with you.

Tip 1: Get over the idea that they’re all the same. Okay, to be fair, a lot of them are the same, or at least appear to be very similar. A writer I know once said that you could rip the covers off several journals in this country and have no way of telling them apart, and it would be hard to argue with him. But still, many Canadian journals have specific sensibilities, and exploring the landscape out there means figuring out what those sensibilities are. I’m pretty sure I could tell, for example, the difference between The New Quarterly and The Malahat Review, even if they weren’t printed in different formats. Room certainly has a specific mandate, as does On Spec or Rampike. Last year, I received a subscription to Matrix magazine after entering a poem in its Litpop contest. I hadn’t actually read Matrix before, and what I discovered was that the magazine published all kinds of fascinating stuff, none of which was really my cup of tea. Now I know not to send them more of my writing in the future, as it probably wouldn’t be a good fit. As for nonfiction, if you can’t tell the difference between the literary criticism in, say, CNQ and the literary criticism in, say, Canadian Literature, then you’ve probably got bigger problems to deal with. Some journals have a regional focus; others focus on a certain style of writing. As the saying goes, find your niche.

Tip 2: Dip a toe in by entering contests. You don’t have to tell me that the annual writing competitions that most journals put on seem, at least on the surface, to be a little suspect. It’s no coincidence that the entry fee is usually exactly the same price as a subscription, and the main objective may be to inflate subscription numbers in time for yearly grant applications. But still. You may want to try reading a journal regularly but are worried about spending money on something you may not like. Entering a contest is essentially a twofer: it means your work will be read on its own terms (that is, your name is not allowed on your entry) with the added bonus that the journal will arrive in your mailbox at regular intervals over the next year. When it does, read it. Read the contest winners with an open mind and see how their work compares to yours. Read it with the idea of figuring out exactly what the soul of the journal is, and whether you want to continue subscribing to it in the future.    

Tip 3: Read journals cover to cover, like a book. It took me a while to embrace this idea. For the longest time, I would only spot-read journals, going in and finding names I recognized or reading pieces out of order. But what I’ve learned is that if you want to have a relationship with a literary journal, you need to read it on its own terms. This means recognizing that most good journals want to take you through an aesthetic arc, that they put a lot of thought into the order and mix of the stories and poems. It’s very easy to parachute into a journal, read one piece, decide you don’t like it, and then dismiss the entire issue as flawed. But if you do this, you’ll miss out on a lot of great stuff.  

Tip 4: Get over the idea that journals only publish so-so work by newbies still learning their craft. Patently false. No journal I know of has a mandate to publish only beginners who show some potential for greatness. Most journals accept work from both new and established writers with the only objective being to publish good writing, however they define it. I always marvel at how some of the country’s best writers—writers who may even publish regularly with big presses—continue to put stuff out in journals. For readers, it’s a great way to keep track of what people are working on and get excited about forthcoming books. Speaking of which …

Tip 5: Engage with the work, however you define that term. For me, this means not just seeing the writing in journals as someone’s publication credit, but something worth getting excited about. There are a number of writers whose books I came to specifically because I first encountered them in journals: John Wall Barger and Catherine Owen are two recent examples that jump to mind. I actively seek out more stuff by writers whose works in journals excite me. I also have a number of acquaintances and colleagues in the writing community, and I make sure to let them know if I loved something they published in a journal. I myself had a story recently in PRISM international, and it’s a testament to the reach and impact of that magazine that I received a number of comments from strangers who had read and loved my piece. The lesson is: if you dig something you see in a journal, let the writer know.            

I want to close by pointing out that it’s entirely possible to get your stuff published in journals even though you never read them. Despite what submission guidelines might say, this happens all the time. If you adamantly refuse to even give journals a try, and yet see them as pivotal stepping stones to your own fame and glory, I suppose that’s your business. But let me say this: if a journal publishes you, at least try and read the issue you appear in. I mean, it strikes me as the minimum one can do to acknowledge the hard work that editors and contributors put into these things. And like with anything you read, come at it with an open mind. What you find inside might surprise you.