Friday, August 15, 2014

Review: Look Who’s Morphing, by Tom Cho

There is an unspoken observation in the literary circles I run in that that when a relatively unknown writer puts his own photo on the cover of his book, we’ve officially entered amateur hour. I’m happy to report that Tom Cho’s short story collection, Look Who’s Morphing, bucks this fairly reliable prejudice. Yes, his book does sport a rather pouty picture of the author with grandiose bouffant, leather jacket and a slash upon his cheek dripping a freaky neon purple blood. But these stories don’t, for the most part, fall prey to the pitfalls most associated with self-published works by authors with an overinflated sense of themselves. Indeed, Look Who’s Morphing found some acclaim in Cho’s native Australia and has been recently released here in Canada by Arsenal Pulp Press.

Pop culture provides the cornerstone to Cho’s subject matter and sensibility. Many, of the stories in this collection take their premise from a well-known Hollywood movie or TV show and twists it into something bizarre and slightly startling. The opening tale, “Dirty Dancing”, recasts the classic film as a kind of surrealist gay love story when Patrick Swayze’s dance partner becomes a man, not a woman. “The Exorcist” involves the narrator’s Chinese aunt who buys a haunted apron that has fake plastic breasts on the front and becomes possessed by a demon as a result. “I, Robot”, set in the year 2136, is a gleeful romp of destruction when our narrator is transformed into a mechanical being as part of an Australian make-work program.

I have to admit that a lot of Cho’s pieces felt a bit too easy in their attempt to be weird for the sake of being weird. I often thought that the concepts for these stories, in their attempts to be “transgressive” (a term that grows more tedious with every year that passes) didn’t really challenge the writer, and therefore didn’t challenge me as a reader. Still, one cannot deny that Cho has some serious writing chops: his stories have a way of being funny, sensitive, rebellious and revolting all at once, and he shows great control over his form.

The final story, “Cock Rock,” borrows heavily from various pop culture incarnations of Godzilla, and is, in Cho’s hands, almost entirely unadulterated id. The story is about a gigantic rock star (standing 50 metres tall) who ends up getting tied down like Gulliver and pleasured by a group of women. The story has little emotional resonance, but one can’t help but be impressed by Cho’s zestful and insouciant approach to prose.            

Publication: Play - Poems about Childhood

So I came home yesterday to find in the mail my contributor's copy of Play: Poems about Childhood, the Kid Series: Volume One, a new anthology edited by Shane Neilson and published by Frog Hollow Press out of Victoria, BC. The book has republished my poem "Tragedies of Stillness," a slightly different version of which first appeared in This magazine back in 2012. 

I'm very excited to tuck into this anthology, as it contains work by a whole trove of poets I deeply admire, including Milton Acorn, M. Travis Lane, Alden Nowlan, Zachariah Wells, Ken Babstock and others. 

Anyway, thanks to Shane Neilson and Frog Hollow Press for plucking me and my piece from the weeds of obscurity and including us in this delightful who's who of Canadian verse.      

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sad Peninsula update: Reading at Rowers in Toronto

I happy to announce that I've been added to the bill for the Rowers Reading Series here in Toronto this coming fall, just shortly after Sad Peninsula is published. Here are the details:

Where: The Central - 603 Markham St., Toronto Ontario
Date: Monday, October 6, 2014.
Time: Doors open at 6:15, readings begin around 6:45.

Please stay tuned to the blog for further updates as they develop. I also wanted to mention that I'm in the middle of getting some tour dates confirmed for the Maritimes in December. To keep abreast, check in with my Events page for updates. As always, if you are associated with an event, reading series, school or festival and you would like me to do a reading, please drop me a line.


Friday, August 8, 2014

Review: Everyone Is CO2, by David James Brock

I had the great privilege of reading with David James Brock back in April at the launch of this year’s issue of Hart House Review (which published us both), and he really did steal the show. While Everyone Is CO2 may be Brock’s first full-length collection of poetry, you wouldn’t know it from either the book or his reading that night. There is a well-seasoned sense of accomplishment to this work, a trickster’s confidence in knowing exactly how to elicit the response he wants that belies the debut nature of this verse.

It may also have helped that I read this collection while in Las Vegas last month. It seemed an apt setting for a series of poems that balance the low and the high, the intricate layering of lyrical verse with relentless references to pop culture. Indeed, I actually read his piece “Las Vegas Mothers” while lounging poolside at a third-rate hotel on the strip while trying to choke down a $16 piƱa colada. The solace the poem provided proved immeasurable:

Each knows who her Las Vegas mother once was when the hoots
come from limousines wrangling tourists off the strip
to the titty bars. The Las Vegas mothers remember
the marquee’s hot gas glowing five colours. Having never seen

a rainbow on the outskirts, the prettiest daughters wait beneath
that neon cowboy while his arm jerks a lasso.
The Las Vegas mothers fear for a city learning its lesson,
that maybe this is the time, the boulevard won’t let go.

Notice here the oscillation between our standard perception of Las Vegas and its cold-eyed reality: the lethal gas used in neon promotes an image of a cowboy; a rainbow-less grit and dullness exist just beyond the city’s gaudy limits. Brock knows how to braid two opposing images into a cohesive whole, giving his subject an entirely new life of its own.

This is no more true than in the poem “Adam Yauch (Eightfold)”, a small masterpiece that weaves a loving tribute to the now-deceased member of the Beastie Boys with Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path. There are eight stanzas here – one for each of the Noble Paths as well as one for each of the Beastie Boys’ studio albums, quoting a lyric in italics. What emerges from this unconventional amalgam is actually small, lapidary bits of wisdom, testaments of how to conduct one’s life or see the world that surrounds us. Even in the seventh stanza, based on the Beastie Boys’ instrumental album, Brock manages to find words that keep the propulsion of the poem going:

If a vow of silence helps this mix-up, I’ll try. The mind might fight
that silence. I will visualize brain folds as elbows, keeping bullies
from butting to the front of the line. No words for this part. The
instrumental comes from the sound of static, a solid stretched taut,
sublimating … then disappearing. Am I doing this right?

Everyone Is CO2 taps into very specific periods of pop culture: from TLC’s “Waterfalls” and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation to the Rob Reiner film Stand By Me, the references here will resonate most with those born in the 1970s and `80s. Yet what comes of all this? An entirely new and fresh existence for these cultural touchstones, infusing them with an agency of their own. This is something that Brock does exceedingly well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Review: All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

As I write the opening paragraph to this review, I am listening to Rachmaninov’s Prelude op. 23 no. 5 in G minor, a piece of classical piano that is at once virtuosic and oddly crushing in its intensity. It makes sense that this bit of music looms large in Miriam Toews’ devastating new novel, All My Puny Sorrows, a book about one woman’s emotional journey with a sister who is desperate to commit suicide. There are a number of ways to interpret the knuckle-dragging loops in Rachmaninov’s masterpiece – life affirming? ominous? – and this mirrors what we’ve come to expect in a Toews’ novel: a balancing of light and dark, of humour and pathos, of richness and repetition.

The story introduces us to Yolandi, a single mom and middling author of rodeo novels (do such things exist?) who escapes her suffocating small town in Mennonite Manitoba only to careen fecklessly through her love life, career and child rearing responsibilities. She clearly idolizes her older sister Elfreida, who is everything Yoli is not: wildly successful in her own career as a classical pianist and married to a solid, reliable man who worships the ground she walks on. Yet Elf’s own existence is fraught with disaster: Yoli watches her sister suffer from the most debilitating clinical depression imaginable (inherited from their father, who was also suicidal) that leads her to make several attempts to end her life. After Elf is nearly successful while home in Winnipeg getting ready for a world tour, Yoli engages with her sister from her hospital bed in a number of gripping exchanges about whether Elf should continue to fight her depression or whether Yoli should help her commit suicide.

It’s no secret that Toews took much of the inspiration for All My Puny Sorrows from tragedies her own life: both her father and sister suffered from depression and both ended up committing suicide. Yet despite this close hewing to the bone, Toews manages to keep her novel very much within the realm of fiction, dazzling us with her incredible eye for description, her ability to modulate between the comic and horrific, and a pristine sense of how themes and ideas in a novel can braid so perfectly together.

One of passages from this book that just floored me was this one, a succinct description of the anguish that Elf deals with on a near-daily basis:

I asked Elf if she was thinking about all of the reasons to stay alive or if she was only trying to figure out an exit. She didn’t answer the question. I asked her if those forces were constantly battling it out in her mind and she said if they were then it was a lopsided fight like Rodney King versus the LAPD.

Everyone I have known who suffered from depression or committed suicide would find much resonance in this passage. It encapsulates so perfectly the helplessness and sheer resignation that comes with the disease.

While All My Puny Sorrows dazzled me with its emotional heft, there were a few flaws that I found sprinkled throughout. I would have liked to see more about Yoli’s own life earlier in the novel; we really don’t get to truly know her until much later in the story. I also thought that the ironic binary established between these sisters’ lives – Yoli’s the fuck-up and Elf is the success, yet it’s Elf who wants to commit suicide – was overdone in places.

But these are minor grumbles. All My Puny Sorrows will most likely be counted as Toews’ own masterpiece, and deservedly so. The ending especially good, as it reaches for something ineffable about death: that life does not stop in the face of a heart-wrenching tragedy, and yet the tragedy can do nothing but remain with us even as time progresses. Toews finishes with moments of levity, and yet an almost unspoken absence remains. There is no way to fill that void, no way to get pass it. Death lives in us as much as life does. There is no way to spin it, no flurry of affirmation to get us beyond it. It is a loss. It is a loss.

It is a loss.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Review: How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, by Doretta Lau

One of the things that I tend to judge a collection of short stories on – especially if it’s a debut collection – is the level of versatility that the author shows from one piece to the next. While I’m not opposed to an entire anthology of short fiction written with a limited tonality or point of view, I prefer collections that show off the writer’s chops in handling different scenarios, a mix of themes, a good arrangement of ‘literary’ pieces with off-the-wall stuff, and characters with a variety of occupations and worldviews.

So in this sense, Doretta Lau’s debut collection, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, seems to be custom designed for me. While the marketing bumpf promises a “whimsical new take on what it means to be Canadian,” what we actually get is a wild, smash-mouth array of wholly original pieces, a deliberate hodgepodge that puts us an entire galaxy away from the staid “immigrant-as-nationalism” narrative that is so overdone in our country’s literature. Lau’s pieces run the gamut from the violent and vulgar to the tender and touching. Yes, most of her characters are Asian Canadians struggling to find their way in the world, but each tale stands on its own as a singular thing, carefully wrought with an eye toward pristine originality.

The collection opens with two very strong pieces of what we might call speculative fiction. “God Damn, How Real Is This?”, a piece that could’ve fallen straight from the pen of Barthelme or Ballard, is about characters who receive text messages from their future selves warning them about all the stupid mistakes they’re about to make. The story starts out quirky but ends on a surprisingly moving note. “Two-Part Invention”,  meanwhile, reveals a young woman who develops the ability to date men who have already died, and picks a wholly believable version of Glenn Gould to be her otherworldly suitor.

My favourite stories in Blade of Grass – I’m a bit red-faced to admit  - are the ones that tackle the sexual, or at least the sexual tension, between characters. This is something Lau handles very well. I’m thinking of two stories in particular: “The Boy Next Door,” about a young layabout who loses his job and ends up accidentally auditioning for a porno movie while on the hunt for new work; and “Robot By the River,” about two young people living in the same apartment building in Vancouver, who despite the obvious connection between them simply can not get their sexual stars to line up. The first story is played for farce and the second is played for pathos, but both show a writer capable of creating anxiety and tension within characters that arise from disparate locations.

Blade of Grass is a short book but packs a lot in it: humour and horror; comedy and sadness; lunacy and the dead serious. Lau is clearly a versatile writer, which of course makes us wonder what she’ll do next.      

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: Prairie Ostrich, by Tamai Kobayashi

Grief, displacement, immigrants living on the prairies, a taciturn father, an alcoholic mother, a precocious child narrator – put these tropes into a work of Canadian fiction and I’ll be convinced I’ve read that book someplace before. This was certainly the impression I got during the first 100 or so pages of Tamai Kobayashi’s debut novel, Prairie Ostrich. Both the story and the style seemed a touch over-familiar: a tale about hardship, cruelty and loss on the Canadian prairie, processed through the winsome mind of a child whose level of awareness and creative thinking pushes the boundaries of the realistic.

It was clear during the first half that what Prairie Ostrich lacked in originality it tried to make up with a moxy reminiscent of Lullabies for Little Criminals or Come, Thou Tortoise. Our narrator is an eight-year-old girl, inexplicably named Egg (she’s still in gestation – get it?), growing up in the 1970s on an ostrich farm in Bittercreek, Alberta. Her family – the only Japanese one on the prairies, she tells us – is in mourning: Egg’s older brother Albert has been killed in a mysterious accident, and the tragedy has reduced Egg’s mother to a whiskey-swilling drunk and her father to a grieving nonentity who refuses to leave the barn. Egg finds solace and companionship only with her older sister Kathy, who manages to be Popular (spelled, in Egg’s mind, forever with a capital P) while Egg herself faces the torments of a school bully named Raymond and the indifference of her teachers.

Kobayashi is trying to hit all the right buttons in her portrait of Egg: she makes her a lover of books and dictionaries (she wants to be a writer when she grows up, natch); she gives her a passion for Anne Frank; she makes her question, in the context of her family’s church, the purpose of life (or lack thereof) and the tragic death of her brother. Egg also grows steadily aware that Kathy is in fact a lesbian, and that there is more to her sister’s own experiences at school than first meets the eye. Each of these elements to Egg’s character is charming, but I was still left with a sense that I had seen these setups, these approaches to character and story, too many times before.

Thankfully, through the sheer will of its craft, Prairie Ostrich eventually won me over. Something happens in the second half of the novel that takes Egg’s experiences to a whole new level – one infused with such tenderness and believability that I became engrossed in her narrative. Egg’s slow realizations about what really happened to her brother and how his death has impacted her family is so incredibly gradual, yet we soon detect just how much she is growing into her own consciousness in this process. The results are spellbinding: the inner world of this child becomes such a complex place, and we move through the story wanting to find out how her realizations will alter the trajectory of her life in Bittercreek.

There is a much larger effect here as well. Egg soon learns a powerful lesson about the very words she has come to love. She learns that words can in fact deceive her, can hold multiple meanings and obscurities that can betray her and her sense of how the world works. She also learns that there is another edge to that sword – that words can be laced with a nuance that brings a deeper understanding to things, a power that makes us feel less alone in the world. It is a great testament to Kobayashi’s accomplishment that she manages to pull all this off while staying realistically inside the head of an eight-year-old, that she never pushes these epiphanies too far as to make them trite or unbelievable.

 In the end, Prairie Ostrich makes up for its somewhat predictable framework with a charm and emotional drive that cannot be denied. Kobayashi has contributed a welcome addition to the well-populated body of Canada’s immigrant literature.