Saturday, October 18, 2014

Review: The Walking Tanteek, by Jane Woods

There is a scene of starling simplicity early in Richard B. Wright’s Giller-winning novel Clara Callan when his titular protagonist comes to a sudden, irrefutable realization that God does not exist. As young Clara documents in her diary:

I was sitting at the kitchen table after breakfast looking out the window at the snow on the bare trees and the blue sky through the branches. I was thinking of how the light is returning and of how different the morning sky now seems from only two weeks ago. And then it came to me as I sat there at the kitchen table looking out at the trees and the snow and the sky—I no longer believe in God. I have been feeling such intimations for some time now, but today, at twenty minutes past seven, it came to me clear and whole. God does not exist.

I was reminded of this passage over and over again as I read Jane Woods’ debut novel The Walking Tanteek, since it offers up a kind of inverse story (and writing style) to Clara’s stark, straightforward recognition of her atheism. There is nothing straightforward about The Walking Tanteek’s Maggie Prentice as she battles the competing forces of religious belief and secular materialism in this expansive and deeply comic novel. Mag Mary, as she is sometimes referred to (perhaps as a play on the Bible’s own Mary Magdalene), is an alcoholic voice actor living in Toronto who gets roped up with her twin brother Gerard, a fire-breathing and intolerant Christian minister who leads a kooky cult of misfits called the Untouchables. The story opens on the senseless death of a group of children in a car accident, and the sheer randomness of this tragedy looms over Maggie’s messy internal world through the course of her story. She constantly challenges the extremism of her brother’s religious beliefs, and by middle age falls back in love with an old flame from her hippie days named Liam, and marries him. But Liam’s own materialistic atheism (not to mention his shallow twit of a mother, Gail) soon awakens a need in Maggie to recognize the possibility – indeed, the inevitability – that there may be some higher power guiding our lives and all of existence itself.

Woods handles Maggie’s ongoing battles with great zest and aplomb. She perfectly nails so many aspects of her protagonist’s life – the careerism of acting, the soulless condo existence above Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, the student life in Montreal’s McGill ghetto in the sixties – and weaves them well into this novel’s broader themes. She does an especially good job of capturing Maggie’s alcoholism in all its slurred speeches and bumbling clumsiness. Here’s a sample:

Yes, okay. I drink. And have for quite a while now, from long before I ever saw the inside of Gerard’s tumble-down, haunted house of holiness. Drinking feels like lighting a crackling fire inside my cold glass box. It feels, at the beginning anyway, like someone’s moving all the heavy furniture out of the way, clearing the dance floor for big fun and frolic that almost materializes every single time.

One can’t help but spot the exuberance of Woods’ style here and in other places. The Walking Tanteek (the title for which is taken, maybe, from a mondegreen that Maggie overhears in a Bob Dylan song) bursts with wild, elastic sentences that loop and spin and twist with baroque enthusiasm. Maggie is a deeply conflicted woman, and this narrative style helps to reveal just how all over the map she really is. Here is an example of how her inner world is shaped:

Five years of supposedly learning the nature of Divine love. Five years of clawing myself bloody in search of faith, of cringing before Gerard’s lacerating harangues, and suddenly love, actual love is standing right smack in front of me. Love with a  scrubbed face, walking up to say hi in the inscrutable language of heaven. There are no signs, no wonders. No repentance is required. There is just love, scrabbling a message like Anne Bancroft in my Patty Duke palm while my heart bursts like a supernova and all the crooked ways are instantly made straight. 

Yet, despite this virtuosic writing style, there were times when the book seemed a bit elusive, if not overwritten. There is a long, rambling section in the middle describing Maggie’s student days in the sixties, and much of it feels like a pervasive Baby Boomer nostalgia rather than anything necessary to the plot. There were also times when I felt like I wasn’t really sympathizing with Maggie during her narration, since she appeared motivated mostly by the need to validate and sustain a life of indolence. She has several problems, of course, but many of them seem to stem from the fact that she really doesn’t want to do anything, ever. It was hard to take her side in her arguments with Liam, for example, since he seemed to be the one doing all the work (both literally and figuratively) in the relationship.

Still, there is no denying that The Walking Tanteek is a powerful, cosmic, and often very funny read. Woods seems to defy gravity itself as she sets up scenes of both hilarity and poignancy. I was surprised, in fact, that this book didn’t receive a bit more attention upon its release earlier this year, as it possesses a wholly original voice whose prowess is hard to deny.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Reminder: Reading tomorrow night in Guelph

Just wanted to send out a friendly reminder that I'll be reading tomorrow night, Thursday October 16, at the Bookshelf (in the E-bar) in Guelph Ontario. The festivities start at 7 pm and there promises to be food, cask ale, music and, of course, fantastic literature. I'll be sharing the stage with Guelph author John Jantunen, who has just published his debut novel with ECW Press, called Cipher. We'll also be joined by local musician Jason Sheffield.

Many of you may not know this, but I lived in Guelph for a year, back in 2006-07, and while there I was a regular at the Bookshelf and consider it one of my all-time favourite bookstores in Canada. I'm looking forward to seeing a number of familiar faces tomorrow night, and to reacquaint myself with the city and the bookshop. Anyway, if you live in Guelph or the surrounding area (or heck, even if you don't - it's only a 75-minute drive from Toronto if the traffic gods are kind), then come on out. I would love to see you there.

And as always, you can check out my full list of upcoming readings by visiting my events page.


Friday, October 10, 2014

Introducing: The Secrets Men Keep cover!

So I am very happy and honoured to reveal the cover design for my forthcoming collection of short stories, The Secrets Men Keep, slated for release with Now or Never Publishing of Vancouver on April 15, 2015. Eagle-eyed readers will no doubt spot the unmistakable influence of RenĂ© Magritte in the design, which is a-okay by me. I love the sharp red of the colour, the semi obscurity of the title's lettering, and the overall vibe emitting from the presentation. I think this is really going to pop off the bookstore shelves. Anyway, many thanks to Chris Needham and his team at NoN for a superb job. I'll post more news about the collection as it becomes available, so stay tuned to the blog for that.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Interview in The Toronto Quarterly

So I've got one more Sad Peninsula-related interview to share with you, this time with Darryl Salach at The Toronto Quarterly. Here's a snippet:
TTQ – There's an interesting passage in the book where you talk about writing and dealing with the past as being an act where you could not muster enough egotism and narcissism to do it properly. What encouraged you take these as you describe 'horrific leaps of faith' in order to properly tell the story of the 'comfort women'? 
Mark Sampson – I think any act of literature, any work of fiction, is a tremendous leap of faith. It takes a certain amount of assuredness – if not outright arrogance – to think that what we concoct out of our imaginations would be of interest to other people. I really believe that you need that cockiness just to get past the fifth paragraph, no matter what your fiction is about. But what I’m doing in Sad Peninsula is a bit beyond even that, because half the story I’m writing is in no way related to me or my own experiences. But there was something in the character of Eun-young that really spoke to me, and so once I mustered up the courage to tell her story (and it took a while) I knew that it was all a leap of faith. It still is. But I guess in that scene, Michael is maybe acknowledging the power that fiction has to put us inside the mind of someone else – and, this case, someone very different from ourselves.
Anyway, thanks so much to Darryl for showing such interest in the book. Read the full interview here.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Reminder: Reading tonight at the Rowers Reading Series

Just a quick, friendly reminder that I'll be reading TONIGHT as part of the Rowers Reading Series, in in its new location at The Central here in Toronto. I'll be sharing the stage with three other amazing writers, John Barton, Binnie Brennan and Margaret Sweatman. Here are the details:

When: Tonight, Monday October 6th.
What time: 6:15 to 8:45. (Readings begin at 6:45)
Where: The Central - 603 Markham St. Toronto, ON

Come on out if you can!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

My review of David Bergen's Leaving Tomorrow ...

... is now online at The Winnipeg Review. Long-time readers of this blog know that I've tackled other Bergen books in the past - The Case for Lena S. here in 2010, and The Age of Hope for Quill & Quire in 2012. This new novel landed somewhere in the middle for me: better than the The Age of Hope, which I considered a serious misfire, but not quite as enjoyable as Lena S. or Bergen's masterpiece, The Time in Between. I also used this review to interrogate the genre known as the bildungsroman and question whether it has any life left in it, as it's a form that Bergen both uses and, I think, satirizes in this novel. Anyway, overall Leaving Tomorrow was a compelling read and I'm sure, like the rest of Bergen's work, it will find a wide audience.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sad Peninsula review in Publishers Weekly

I'm very pleased to be able to share this lovely review of Sad Peninsula, which appeared last week in Publishers Weekly. This marks my first review in a U.S.-based publication, and a big one at that. The reviewer writes: "The harrowing and deeply moving sections of Sampson's (Off Book) sophomore novel describe the traumatized life of Meiko, born Eun-young, as she survives atrocities and spends later decades 'barren as a rock' as well as mutely suffering, poor and ashamed, on the margins of conservative, male-dominated Korean society. Alternating but equally engaging chapters describe Michael, a disgraced journalist from Halifax fleeing personal failures and squandered opportunities while 'slinging English like hamburgers' at ABC English Planet, a rigid ESL school in neon-lit Seoul." Read the entire review.