Sunday, March 15, 2015

My review of Sweetland, by Michael Crummey ...

... published in Canadian Notes & Queries (CNQ) #92 happily arrived in the mailbox late last week. As you'll find out when you go pick up a copy of the issue, I felt that Crummey's new novel isn't quite as good as his last, the magic realist masterpiece Galore, but I like it a lot all the same. Definitely a novel worthy of its recent kudos and worth picking up.

Getting the latest issue of CNQ is always cause for excitement around the Sampsenblum homestead, but it was especially the case this time around. Rebecca also has a lovely essay in there called "How to Learn to Read (If You Don't Know Already)." The issue also includes fiction by the ever-stylist Russell Smith, poetry by Shane Neilson and Marc di Saverio, reviews by Kerry Clare and Laura Bast, and an essay by editor Alex Good that is already causing some chatter. Anyway, I'm looking forward to tucking into this issue soon, and I hope you'll do the same.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

On Rereading George Eliot’s Middlemarch

When it comes to one’s reading habits, influences can be a curious thing. My knowledge of the work of George Eliot (born Mary Anne – or alternatively Marian – Evans, 1819-1880) is based wholly on the fact that I read two of her novels when I was 20 years old: The Mill on the Floss, which I loved immensely, and Middlemarch, which I flat-lined through. I’ve been meaning to reread the latter for years, since so many people I admire say that it’s a work of genius and worth a second chance.

This desire was exacerbated by a recent slew of articles about Middlemarch that have come in over the transom. Rebecca Mead, a staff writer with The New Yorker, has published a number of pieces about the book, which have been collected in her well-reviewed nonfiction title, My Life in Middlemarch. As well, I was impressed by this Open Letters Monthly essay on Eliot’s masterpiece by Dalhousie University professor Dr. Rohan Maitzen. The universe seemed to be speaking to me: it was time to give Middlemarch another go.

I had read The Mill on the Floss in 1995/96 as part of a course called Fictions of Development, taught by Maitzen’s colleague at Dalhousie, Dr. Marjorie Stone. I was blown away by Eliot’s rich portrait of the novel’s protagonist, Maggie Tulliver, and her relationship to her brother Tom. The story unveiled for me so many revelations about desire, sibling loyalty, and the suffocating circumstances of small-town life. Shortly after the course ended, I turned my attention to Middlemarch, but found that that novel possessed none of the spirit and zest of its predecessor. I did manage to finish all 700+ pages, but by the end I was left asking: What the hell was that? The novel’s early sections felt bogged down by that endlessly tiresome question from 19th century English literature: Who should I marry to get the best leg-up in life? And the story seemed strangled later on by countless subplots that I struggled to care about.

Rereading Middlemarch almost 20 years later has been an eye-opening experience to say the least. I’m now pushing 40 and happily married, and this lends a certain insight that I didn’t have before. This time around, the character of Dorothea Brooke – who passes as the closest thing this long, multi-perspective epic has for a protagonist – strikes me as someone wholly compelling. She is a woman awakening to her own intellectual possibilities at the same time that she’s awakening to the mistake she’s made of marrying a man, the religious scholar Edward Casaubon, whom she cannot love. This time around, the characters of Fred Vincy and his vapid sister Rosamond, the desperate physician Lydgate (who marries Rosamond and then promptly regrets it) and the landowner James Chettam, all come off as well drawn and rich in dimension. I also spotted the great comic turns latent in the text, borne from antics of the drunkard John Raffles and the cursing Mr. Hawley, who pits himself against the town banker Nicholas Bulstrode. In many ways, Middlemarch is a very funny book.

Yet a pulse of severity throbs throughout this text. What I saw 20 years ago as simple marital tediousness now strikes me as something far more sinister. Middlemarch is, in many ways, a story about the tests our fidelity goes through in the face of poor decision-making. This affects many characters, but none feel it more succinctly than Dorothea. She owes much to her marriage to the frustrated Casaubon, and yet cannot escape the fact that she has sold herself a bill of goods by handing her life over to him. I doubt the following passage, taken from a scene when the two are on their extended honeymoon together in Rome, would have struck a cord with me when I read it the first time. But this rumination hit me between the eyes now, reminding me of how grateful I am that I married someone who opens doors in my world rather than closes them:

How was it that in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither? I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight – that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.

One suspects that this sentiment captured the mindset of many 19th century couples – men and women both. This is the other telling aspect of Middlemarch that I missed the first time around. The book frames the individual lives of people struggling with their decisions into a broader social context – that of societal reform happening in England in the first half of the 19th century. This is not something Eliot merely Frankenstitches onto her plot. Electoral reform, challenges to class distinction, and policy changes to public health all play a crucial role in showing how evolution in the community of Middlemarch is happening right under its citizens’ feet. Indeed, one gets the sense that these characters are trapped in a kind of interregnum between an old period and a new, and that they will not be the generation that enjoys the fruits of these societal changes. This lends the story a certain air of tragedy.

But still, love conquers all – and Dorothea answers the challenge that comes in the wake of her husband’s sudden death: should she now marry for love (that is, marry the artistic Will Ladislaw, whom she’s been pining for), thus forfeiting the estate that Casaubon left for her? The novel’s various statements about loyalty and change all culminate in this final point. We’re not surprised when Dorothea’s ultimate decision scandalizes the town, but the town is not surprised when the scandal passes and a new norm seems to emerge. Maybe love does matter. Maybe fidelity has several dimensions, not to mention a statute of limitation. Maybe the world moves on whether we want it to or not.

These ideas are the sum of the novel’s guts. I’m not shocked that they didn’t resonate with me when I was 20 years old. And I’m not shocked that they do resonate with me now.

Monday, March 2, 2015

How much did I love Under the Visible Life, by Kim Echlin?

Well, to find out you could read my Quill & Quire review of this new novel, wherein I turn phrases like "[this book] delivers a clinic on how to conjure emotions readers didn’t even know they had" and "as powerful as any depicted in fiction" and "This book is nothing short of a masterpiece."

Or you could check out this humorous exchange that erupted last week on Twitter between Quill & Quire reviews editor Steven Beattie, Globe Books editor Mark Medley, and myself:

Or you you just got out and pick up a copy of Under the Visible Life and see for yourself. Reading this novel in advance of its release, I felt like I was let in on a delicious secret that the rest of the world is going to wake up to very shortly. Few books have affected me in a way that this one has. It is a devastating portrait of two friends and the lengths they go to liberate their own creative agency. Simone de Beauvior once wrote that it is better to be free than to be happy, and this novel lives those words on every page. Do yourself a favour and give it a read.

PS: Apologies for the radio silence here on the blog for the last few weeks. In my defence, I've been re-reading Middlemarch. More on that soon.

Monday, February 9, 2015

My Quill and Quire review of The Green Hotel, by Jesse Gilmour ...

... is now posted to the Q&Q website. Jesse Gilmour is the son of novelist David Gilmour, and The Green Hotel is his debut novel. Actually, it's a novella, as this book clocks in at just 120 pages. And while I did find the first 30 or 35 pages really spun their wheels - a high proportion, considering how short the book is - things do pick up after that and this tale turns into a taut, gripping one about a son's complicated relationship with his dad. A daring debut to say the least.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Publication: Front&Centre magazine #29

Yesterday held some mixed emotions as I received my contributor's copy of issue 29 of Front&Centre magazine, which contains my short story "In the Middle." Happiness, obviously, over having the story out in the world. (As you may recall, the journal accepted the piece almost exactly a year ago.) But sadness, too, to read editor Matthew Firth's editorial and hear that he is shutting down the journal: the next issue, #30, will be its last.

Front&Centre has been around for nearly 15 years and has published a number of "dirty realism" authors that I've admired. I myself had a couple of rejections from them, including a near-miss for my short story "Itaewon" (It made the penultimate cut.) So I'm very glad to have "In the Middle," a story about a Toronto hit man who travels to Quebec City for a meeting with a two-bit rube from PEI, included in its pages. Anyway, go pick up a copy while you still can. And yes, both "In the Middle" and "Itaewon" are included in this spring's short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare

… What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?

These are the first lines out of the mouth of Caius Martius, the doomed anti-hero of Shakespeare’s late play, Coriolanus. This aphoristic insult is directed at a group of Rome’s plebeians, a rabble who envy and despise the soldier Martius, and who see him as a chief threat to their existence. This barb struck me as both brilliantly comic (thinking, as I was, of so many people on Twitter who I often feel need to hear these very words) and deeply caustic, summing up so much of the mood of this dark and ingenious play.

Coriolanus, which is a title Martius takes on after a particular victory on the battlefront, is called Shakespeare’s most political play. In Martius, we see a hardened, battle-scarred warrior being wheedled and browbeat by his domineering mother and various advisors to take on the role of a politician. He is ill-suited for the job, especially when he must prostrate himself in front of the loathed plebeians and their representative tribunes in Rome in order to gain their favour. Martius cannot shake the cunning from either his words or his deeds, and soon finds himself expelled from Rome and teaming up with his own sworn enemy, Aufidious of the Volscians. What ensues is a desperate mother’s plea for peace, a double cross, and, in true tragic fashion, a surprising and brutal death.

I first got interested in this play after seeing the Ralph Fiennes’ film version a few years ago, which sets the action of the story in a contemporary period. There is a deeply primal pulse to this play, a commentary on the animalistic side of masculinity and the need to strike a balance between diplomacy and one’s deepest held convictions and rages. Needless to say, it struck a number of cords for me. Now, having read the play itself, I can say without a doubt that this obscure and rarely staged Shakespeare play is my absolute favourite. Coriolanus’ inability to hold his tongue, to put on airs of compliance in front of those he despites for the greater good, and to navigate his desperately complex relationship with his mother, Volumnia, makes this play a raucous tour de force.

And for all of the story’s darkness, Shakespeare leavens many moments with wry wit and biting humour. I grew deeply invested in the relationship between Coriolanus and Meneius, his oldest and most trustworthy advisor, even as the latter’s comic alcoholism pivots much of the action towards tragedy. There are a number of delightful “near misses” in this play whereby Martius could have saved himself from disaster. And I was with him every step of the way as he made the decisions that helped to seal his fate. A riveting and deeply provocative masterpiece. Go read it if you haven’t already.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

More love for The Secrets Men Keep

Coming on the heels of yesterday's news that a review of The Secrets Men Keep appeared in the latest issue of Publishers Weekly, I'm also stoked to see the book included in the 49th Shelf's 10 Short Story Collections You Should Be Reading This Spring. It's great to see the book included with such illustrious company, including collections by Mark Anthony Jarman, Priscila Uppal, Russell Smith, and others. Wee!