Tuesday, June 23, 2015

My Quill and Quire review of Swing in the House, by Anita Anand ...

... is now up on the Q&Q website. I was really hoping to like this debut collection of stories, but unfortunately I had to give it one of the tougher rides I've given a book. Lord knows there's a great deal of pressure on first-time writers to get something into print, and I always come at these kinds of harsh reviews with a tremendous amount of sympathy for what worked and what didn't. But I do encourage readers to check out other opinions than mine on this one. You can read The National Post's review of the book from last month, and watch this video interview with Anand on Canada.com.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Review: Vanessa and Her Sister, by Priya Parmar

Virginia Woolf was, by most accounts, a terrible human being. Deeply classist, profoundly paranoid, unflaggingly envious of others’ success, she had a tendency to alienate those around her, including – perhaps especially – those she was closest to. Posterity has forgiven Ms. Woolf her proclivities, partly because she left us some of the most durable and dynamic works of modernist fiction, and partly because we now know that she suffered from a raft of debilitating mental illnesses, which culminated with her suicide by drowning in 1941.

There has been much documentation of Ms. Woolf’s life in the years since, as well as the lives of other members of the Bloomsbury Group, of which she was a pivotal member. So this makes Priya Parmar’s new novel, Vanessa and Her Sister, a daring act of literature: to map out, via fiction, the emotional world of characters whose real-life counterparts have already been captured so thoroughly – both by themselves (Woolf in particular was a voluminous writer of letters and journal entries) and by literary historians. Parmar places much of the weight of her narrative on Woolf’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, as she details the emergence of the Bloomsbury Group in the years 1905 to 1912. Yet the novel also takes a scrapbook approach, incorporating everything from train ticket stubs to telegrams exchanged between journalist and fellow Bloomsbury member Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf, the man who would return to England from his position in the foreign service in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to marry Virginia.

But Vanessa is a sly and engaging protagonist here, a kind of Virgil leading us through the off-kilter dynamics of her relationship to her sister as well as the other artists and intellectuals they surround themselves with. We get a wonderful portrait of the rise and deterioration of her marriage to the art critic Clive Bell; of his intense love interest in Virginia; of novelist E.M. (Morgan) Forster, whose success came early and often, much to Virginia’s chagrin; and of the dynamic between Lytton and Clive, which culminates with the former’s petitioning of Leonard Woolf to come home and marry Virginia.

Parmar is adept at revealing the small details that bring these historical figures to life. She shows Vanessa as cagey with her heart as she navigates the men in her life. She portrays Virginia as aloof, brilliant and unfailingly observant of every small human interaction. The prose here is vigorous and authentic, with turns of phrase that we can imagine the Bloomsbury Group actually saying. The book is incredibly well-researched and yet does not feel bogged down by the weight of this lived history.

Yet, as Vanessa and Her Sister went on, I did begin to wonder what was at stake for these characters. The answer, eventually, seemed to be whether or not Leonard would return home to marry Virginia. It was an odd place for Parmar to rest so much of this novel’s tension, since we already knew going in what the answer was. I also felt that the novel ended rather abruptly. Why did Parmar choose to cut off her story in 1912? In this sense, the sudden, jarring end made the book feel like a mere prequel to Michael Cunningham’s excellent novel The Hours.

Despite all this, Vanessa and Her Sister was a compelling read and I could not put it down. Parmar shows an uncanny talent for capturing both the deep, contradictory nature of her characters’ inner worlds and the external events of history. This novel is a welcome addition to the canon of work exploring the British modernist period.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Interview: Open Book Toronto

So I'm back on Open Book Toronto today with an interview as part of its WAR Series - Writers as Readers. I had a lot of fun delving into my (somewhat shameful) reading past and also making some recommendations about stuff I've loved recently. It's all, of course, in promotion of my new collection of short stories, The Secrets Men Keep, which, by the way, is launching this Thursday in Toronto. Anyway, thanks to Open Book for conducting the interview. I had loads of fun answering these questions. Read the full interview here.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Review of Sad Peninsula in the Charlottetown Guardian

So intelligence sources on the ground (as well as Google Alerts) inform me that a capsule review of Sad Peninsula appeared in my hometown newspaper, the Charlottetown Guardian, yesterday. It was the Guardian that gave me my very first paid writing gig, actually: back in 1992, when I was a high school student, I won a "Stay in School" short story contest, and the subsequent publication of the piece led to me getting a gig that summer and fall writing a column on "teen issues" for the newspaper. Great to see this whole writing career thing come full circle.

Also interested to learn about the other book discussed in the review: The Bastard of Fort Stikine by Debra Komer, published by Goose Lane. I hadn't heard of this book before, so I'll have to go check it out.

Anyway, great to see Sad Peninsula still getting a bit of press eight and a half months after release. And hey, reviewers: I do have another book, a short story collection, that was just published last month that's still looking for its first Canadian review. Just sayin'.


Friday, May 22, 2015

My Quill and Quire review of The Mystics of Mile End, by Sigal Samuel ...

... is now online at the Q&Q website. I don't really have a ton to add beyond what is in the review. I know this book has gotten some media attention over the last couple weeks and is all over the bookshops now. If it sounds like something you'd be interested in, I encourage you to go check it out. Sigal Samuel writes quite well and there are many aspects of this novel about Jewish mysticism and the binds that tie families together that are well-done and enjoyable.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Review: Cocktail Culture, by Mark Kingwell

I should state off the bat that I have no beef with philosopher Mark Kingwell. While I didn’t really get his biography of Glenn Gould, I have found the majority of his writing to be sharp, generous, witty, and incisive. His recent title, Unruly Voices, was an especially pleasurable tome, one I read as part of the research for a new novel I’m working on with a philosopher as its protagonist. True, Dr. Kingwell can be a bit silly from time to time, and yet we don’t really mind it – especially when he’s writing on a subject as frivolous as Western thought. But cocktails? Come now! You’ve got to take some things seriously.

I will also state that his 2006 book Cocktail Culture (illustrated by the always whimsical Seth) comes loaded with witty jibes, alcohol-based literary references, and, most importantly, a raft of recipes I had yet to try. (More on that in a moment.) Like any good academic, Dr. Kingwell spells out his thesis statement early, laying the groundwork for what is to follow:

The basic premise of the present book is that you should choose your drink carefully, take some care in its preparation, and enjoy it in moderation. Drinking cocktails is supposed to be fun, but not too much fun. Cocktails are associated with sophistication, after all, and whatever you may think in your own mind, you are not sophisticated after more than two stiff drinks.

As part of his introduction, he provides a good overview of the possible etymologies of the word ‘cocktail,’ and also begins serving up his many references to drinking in literary culture, making allusions to everything from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Peyton Place. It’s all very well thought-out and enjoyable.

The Chelsea Sidecar - one of the many delicious
drinks not included in Dr. Kingwell's book.
And yet, it feels as if Dr. Kingwell skirts incredibly close to cocktail sciolism in some of his biases and mixing techniques. I mean, what is his aversion to bourbon? No barman on any continent would serve up a manhattan with anything other than bourbon in it. If Kingwell doesn’t like how the stuff tastes, he should just say so. (Yes, there are bad bourbons, but this is true of any spirit.) Or perhaps his prejudice stems from bourbon’s origins in the American south – which seems silly, considering how delicious the best of this liquor can be. Why do I care if Woodford Reserve is distilled in the deepest, darkest, most racist part of Kentucky? For all I know, that’s part of its charm!

Also, readers should be mindful of Dr. Kingwell’s insistence on shaking most of his recipes. Some cocktails, especially if their constituent parts are made of a clear liquid, are better stirred than shaken. This is true of the Martini, the Gimlet, and definitely the Manhattan. In fact, I would challenge Dr. Kingwell to make himself a Manhattan using a proper, high-quality bourbon (I recommend Bulleit) and stir it rather than shake it. Tell you me can’t taste the difference! Also: readers should be wary of his repeated use of the term “cracked ice.” It conjures an image of small, shattered slivers of ice, which you should never use to make shaken cocktails. A good barman knows that you should only put nice big cubes in your shaker, as it reduces the watering down of your drink. But if you are using cracked or crushed ice, for God sake have the decency to double strain!

I reluctantly admit that the
Italian Stallion was delicious.
As well, certain tasty cocktails seem conspicuous by their absence in this book. Where is the Chelsea Sidecar? The Mancini? The transcendental Gin Sour? I would have preferred to see Dr. Kingwell’s take on these drinks rather than his baffling recipe for, say, the Mandeville Cocktail, which involves shaking cola along with the other ingredients (rum, Pernod, lemon juice, and grenadine). Good God, man! You NEVER shake a carbonated liquid in a cocktail. Always, always, always use it to top up the drink after the fact.
Ahem. Still, despite these egregious oversights, I do feel that my own repertoire has grown immeasurably after reading Cocktail Culture. I look forward to making a slew of drinks I hadn’t before, including the Harvard, the Ninotchka, the Boston, the Irish Kilt, the Fine and Dandy Cocktail (though it does sound like it was invented by Ned Flanders) and the Jersey Club. I was particularly appreciative of the chapter on drinks in boxing, as my father fought professionally in the 1960s and the sport was a big part of my family’s lore. The Italian Stallion proved formidable, though it is pretty much a version of the Boulevardier served up. With his trademark charm, Dr. Kingwell makes even the most obscure drink sound intriguing.

But most of all, this book is just full of some wonderful writing. It is reminiscent of the wittiest pieces on booze you’ll find from Kingsley Amis. (See my review of Everyday Drinking.) Here is, for example, another passage taken from the introduction,  a sharp concoction of cleverness and snark that Dr Kingwell delivers while discussing Rona Jaffe’s 1958 novel The Best of Everything:

Long before the cosmopolitan fashion of Sex and the City and its long comet-tail of associated chick-lit imitators, which made late-century New York into a kind of fantasyland of tits and tippling, Jaffe’s sad, clear-eyed tale of affairs, abortions, and advancement nailed the peculiar up-and-down thrills of the urban scene.

For God's sake, Rebecca, put the camera down
and help me to bed.
Cocktail Culture is, despite its obvious flaws and questionable inclusions, a lively and spirited book, with oodles of good recipes and some sound advice. It contains enough basic information for the tyro drinker, and enough in-depth detail to aid those who already know what they're doing. I encourage both the casual and serious mixologist out there to seek out it and experiment with some of the recipes. As Dr. Kingwell says of the Tom Collins, “Drink immediately but not quickly.” Yes. Yes indeed. Slante!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Review: Selected Poems, by W.H. Auden

I’m once again trying to fill some gaps in my canonical reading, which has led me to W.H. Auden, a 20th century poet I hitherto had shamefully little contact with. I was familiar, as many are, with what is arguably his single most famous poem, “September 1, 1939,” written in the wake of the Nazi invasion of Poland and very competently included in this anthology edited by Edward Mendelson. There is something timeless in the specificity that Auden captures in this poem, especially in its memorable second stanza:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

We can see in this piece what we can see in this entire collection – that is, the reason Auden is worth reading and why his work continues to stand out today. He is, in a word, concerned with the wide view, the bird’s eye scan of contemporary affairs and politics and culture. At a time when most poetry seems very much stationed upon the self, focused on the teeming aquarium of a single individual’s emotional experience, Auden dares to speak loudly of the larger forces shaping his world. This gives his voice a refreshing tang as we read it here, in 2015. In the stanza above, Auden makes allusion to the whole Germanic project, from Luther to Hitler, referencing the latter’s abusive childhood in Linz as well as the horror he wrought upon countless others. Auden does this with a kind of metronomic swagger, a swinging indifference to whether his subject matter and reference points will one day seem dated. Oddly enough, very few of them, in any of his poems, actually are.

Much of Auden’s early work relied on rhyme to provide structure to his ideas, and he seems to have been a late adopter of free verse. The chronological arrangement of the poems in this book allow us to view that evolution as it happens, as the poet tries to articulate both what his verse wants to convey as well as what it wants to reject. Even in the later works, the man remains ruthlessly contemporary even while he dabbles with and contorts over age-old techniques. Look what he does here in “Lament for a Lawgiver”:

Sob, heavy world
Sob as you spin
Mantled in mist, remote from the happy:
The washerwomen have wailed all night,
The disconsolate clocks are crying together,
And the bells toll and toll
For tall Agrippa who touched the sky:
Shut is that shining eye
Which enlightened the lampless and lifted up
The flat and foundering, reformed the weeds
Into civil cereals and sobered the bulls;
Away the cylinder seal
The didactic digit and dreaded voice
Which imposed peace on the pullulating
Primordial mess. Mourn for him now,
Our lost dad,
Our colossal father.

For seven cycles
For seven years
Past vice and virtue, surviving both,
Through pluvial periods, paroxysms
Of wind and wet, through whirlpools of heat,
And comas of deadly cold,
On an old white horse, an ugly nag,
In his faithful youth he followed
The black ball as it bowled downhill
On the spotted spirit’s journey,
Its purgative path to that point of rest
Where longing leaves it, and saw
Shimmering in the shade the shrine of gold,
The magical marvel no man dare touch,
Between the towers the tree of life
And the well of wishes,
The waters of joy.

Only a poet looking to make a statement about effect could pound the key of alliteration so many times across two blunt stanzas – so many times, in fact, that we are nearly hypnotized by its dizzying consistency. Only a poet who knows the force of structured lines could play so recklessly, so randomly with indentation and the precision of a line break. There is much in this poem about the “heavy world” that Auden is preoccupied with, but even if this were randomized gibberish, we’d still sit up and pay attention to what the man is doing here.

This collection aims to be comprehensive, a kind of Essential Auden – and as such there are many pleasures, and a few hiccups, along the way. The inclusion of his massive “The Sea and Mirror – A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest” may test even the most patient reader, as it moves from verse to prose over several pages. This piece forces us to delve deeply – perhaps too deeply – into Shakespeare’s iconic play in order to parse out the nuggets of meaning that Auden has planted for us. I questioned, after finishing this lengthy piece, if it was worth it. But there shorter, more succinct gems to enjoy. The poem “Oh what is that sound which so thrills the ear” (labeled poem 18 here) has a cadence and rhyme structure that stays with the reader long after he finishes reading it. Poem 35 (“‘Oh who can ever gaze is,”’) has us relishing in bon mots and aphorisms galore. Auden is always at his best when he is pointed, when he is able to crystallize a singular observation about the wider world around him.

By and large, these are poems to be relished over time, and I suspect I’ll be dipping back in to this collection for many years to come. Auden sets an impressive example for other poets, a writer who dared to say that it’s okay to write about society, about history as it is unfolding right now.