Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: A Glass Shard and Memory, by J.J. Steinfeld

It was really great to settle back into a new book of stories by my good friend J.J. Steinfeld. A Glass Shard and Memory is his first full-length collection of short fiction since 2003’s Would You Hide Me? (A short novel he published in 2009, Word Burials, did, however, include a handful of short stories at the back.) As I mentioned in a review last year of his latest poetry book, I’ve known J.J. for a while now and always hesitate to label what I write about his stuff a “review.” But this is a writer whose work I very much believe in, and it deserves more attention than it gets.

A Glass Shard and Memory is in some ways similar to previous collections of J.J.’s, but in other ways very different. Many of his reoccurring themes – preoccupations that have permeated his work over a publishing career that now spans some 30 years – are in evidence here. There is the lugubrious pall of the Holocaust hanging over the children of its survivors. There is the lingering effects of the past on the present. There are also the surrealist twists, the dark humour, the characters obsessed with the works of Franz Kafka and with the very absurdity of existence itself.

But I also see J.J. experimenting with other tropes and themes. Forgive the wretchedly academic term, but there is a certain “intertexuality” on display in a number of these stories. The title piece, for example, about a literary scholar who is traumatized with memories of a childhood impacted by the Holocaust, makes reference to J.J.’s very first published book, a collection of stories called The Apostate’s Tattoo. Another piece expands upon a poem that J.J. published in one of his poetry collections, a surrealist tale about a chance encounter with a very-much alive Marilyn Monroe in a Halifax library in 2002. These examples of “slippage” are a wonderful, cheeky wink from the author to his previous works and the audience that has read them.

There is also some reoccurring images very specific to A Glass Shard and Memory, and they help to pull the collection together. Several stories have references to ladies’ stockings, providing a unifying air of ribaldry to the book. (In fact, I’d say that this is J.J.’s most sexually charged collection to date.) And in a number of stories, we see repeated incidence of people who remind characters of other people they’ve known in the past. It’s very subtle, but these moments – where characters feel they have met someone before, or someone looks exactly like someone else from a previous time in a character’s life – create an atmosphere of unease, a sense that these stories’ realities could split open at any moment, become something disjointed and beyond the characters’ control.

My favourite pieces in the collection are actually stories I’ve encountered before. “Estimating Distances” and “Nowhere to Be Found” were first published in the previous iteration of The Danforth Review. The first is a gentle, beautiful story about two former lovers who live at opposite ends of Canada and whose lives have gone in very different directions. The second is just about the funniest story you’ll ever read about clowns and the clowning profession. Also included is the piece “Fantasy Apparel”, a tense, nerve-wracking tale about a graduate student’s encounter with a sex worker, first released as an audio story with Rattling Books’ EarLit Shorts audio anthology series. (RR’s story “Christmas with My Mother” is included in the same edition as J.J.'s piece.)

With 28 stories in all, some united by theme, others disparate in circumstance, A Glass Shard and Memory offers a lot for readers to chew on. This is a fine collection of short fiction crafted by one of this country’s most underappreciated purveyors of the form.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: Gunmetal Blue: A Memoir, by Shane Neilson

Perhaps the best way to describe what Gunmetal Blue is, is to describe for you what it is not. Poet, critic and family physician Shane Neilson has not written a pat memoir making pat connections between medicine and literature. Nor has he written a densely academic treatise about the role poetry plays in healing. He hasn’t written a sensationalized tell-all about his patients and how their suffering informs his poems. He hasn’t written a feel-good story about a depressed young man who overcomes adversity.

What he has written is a raw-boned, devastating, unflinching, uncomfortable and fiercely honest portrait of his life as a doctor and a poet. Neilson describes these duo careers (it’s unfair to call them hybrid careers, since he works so hard at them both) without a hint of sentimentality or pretension. Medicine is a matter of life and death, but for Neilson, so too is poetry. He weaves its importance into the very fabric of his life, treating it not as a pleasant adjunct to his existence but as a core component of it. Gunmetal Blue is about a man finding his voice both as a physician and as a scribe. It is cold-eyed and elliptical. This is a memoir as memoir should be.

It begins with Neilson’s suicide attempt not long after he has finished medical school. He has already started the unrelenting grind of working in a Halifax emergency room by day and writing poetry at night. He also has, if that were not enough, a wife and young daughter vying for his attention. Through his nascent writing, Neilson attempts to exorcise a past coloured by an abusive and alcoholic father. (You can find several of these poems in his very good 2009 collection Meniscus.) His description of this burgeoning and concomitant depression is rife with objective distance, and yet it is no less emotional for it. It culminates with Neilson writing a note to his family and then jumping off the third-storey roof of his house.

He survives, obviously, but awakens in the hospital severely injured and deemed a further threat to himself. During his long recovery in the psychiatric ward of Halifax’s QEII Health Sciences Centre, Neilson finds himself now on the receiving end of medical science – its care and its indignities – and once again turns to poetry for solace. He finds kinship in the work of fellow Maritimers Milton Acorn and Alden Nowlan, two poets who were not unfamiliar, respectively, with mental and physical illness. Indeed, Neilson begins to ask what role madness itself might play in the creation of art:
Life on the ward may be like life anywhere, but there is one special question here for poets. Does madness generate creativity? Is madness creativity’s sponsor? Or is the truth rather that madness ruins the expression, that it is author of the experience but has no authorship of the poem? Is Wordsworth’s emotion recollected in tranquility actually spiked lunatic punch? I stared at the ceiling for hours, sedated, and decided that I couldn’t tell.
Throughout Gunmetal Blue, Neilson questions these impulses, what he aptly describes as the “dog whistle of poetry.” He says that, as a doctor advising patients about their health, he often feels like a leader of horses to water. But he also knows that it’s the same for poetry, its abilities to re-sensitize us to being alive, to provide small moments of illumination, to give us some semblance of control over our existence. And yet poetry is not something that most people are naturally inclined towards.

Fast forward several years and Neilson is now a family doctor working in rural Ontario. He gives us a window into his relationships with patients, relationships that are at once very intimate and very clinical. Much of the narrative describes Neilson imparting advice onto his “flock” and then watching the consequences when it is dully ignored. One story is especially devastating. A man has had a minor stroke and yet will not take the medicine that Neilson has prescribed because he doesn’t like its unpleasant side effects. Neilson strenuously advises the man to reconsider, but he won’t. And so, the inevitable eventually happens:
Jimmy, silently singing that swan song of denial, had a much bigger stroke, and became hemiplegic and aphasic. I visited him in hospital, and he expressed surprise that I would want to see him, since he “didn’t listen to me.” I sat beside him as he stuttered and stopped, only partially coherent. But I got one message clearly: that now he was very, very sorry. And when he expressed this, it was with an awareness of how much he had lost, and how difficult the future would be.
So where does poetry fit into all this? For Neilson, the answer does not lie in the glib offerings that medical journals (some of which publish poetry) make to the craft; and I suspect he’d also have no truck with the endless parade of turgid, jargon-laden, crypto-political academic writing that gets produced on Medicine and Literature. For Neilson, the answer is more akin to poetry itself – what he labels a “benign optimism.” Using Nowlan’s brilliant piece “The Boil” (“now/ at last/ master/ rather than/ servant/ of the pain”) he makes this plea for poetry’s purpose within a medical context:
I want to show you the spirit of what I mean when I wax rhapsodic about what poetry can do. Instead of providing a happy-news message that cure is forthcoming, that despite the odds the patient will overcome, poetry can provide a more benign optimism: that the patient can understand her illness for what it is, and thereby steal from it its mastery. One can exchange servitude, if not for dominance (the boil, though pierced, may form again), then at least for a measure of control.
This failure of a “happy-news message” may sum up Gunmetal Blue itself, but what it offers instead is far richer, far deeper, far more honest.

Sadly (but not surprisingly), the book has thus far been excluded from this year’s major nonfiction prize lists. But somehow I doubt Shane Neilson cares. I suspect he’s content with what he has given us. Gunmetal Blue is a memoir that does what a good doctor does, what good poetry does. It offers us, through assuredness and understated honesty, a chance to make ourselves better. If only we’d listen.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review: Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

As everyone probably knows by now, Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues has gotten nods from pretty much every major literary award it’s been eligible for, including the Man Booker (announced later today), the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Literature. For a novel to pull off that kind of feat, one could argue, it needs to be about more than just one thing, to have more than one essence at its core.

Half-Blood Blues certainly fits the bill. For some, this book will be a richly researched historical novel about the terror that the Nazis brought to every aspect of daily life in Europe during the late 30s and early 40s. For others, it will be about the golden age of jazz and the inherently seditious spirit of that music. For still others, it will be about the problematic issues of miscegenation, statelessness and bigotry.

I got something much more basic and primal out of it. For me, Half-Blood Blues is a yarn about good old-fashioned jealousy. Male jealousy, no less. Edugyan has nailed with pitch-perfect tenderness the sort of rivalry that can arise between men when one’s talent is not equal to one’s desires and self image. The story, about a group of black musicians recording jazz in Nazi Germany and France, is narrated by Sid, who finds his abilities dwarfed by his fellow band mate Hiero. Edugyan articulates Sid’s envy in a passage I had to read over and over again for its brilliance:
He got genius, he got genius in spades. Cut him in half, he still worth three of me. It ain’t fair. It ain’t fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales. It ain’t fair. Gifts is divided so damned unevenly. Like God just left his damn sack of talents in a ditch somewhere and said, Go help youselves, ladies and gents. Them’s that get there first can help themselves to the biggest ones. In every other walk of life, a jack can work to get what he want. But ain’t no amount of toil going get you a lick more talent than you born with. Geniuses ain’t made, brother, they is. And I just was not.
Edugyan does many things well in this novel and only a few things not so well. She really captures the nuances of Sid’s voice and the way it changes between the two time periods in the book. She’s done an excellent job rendering Louis Armstrong into a full-fledged character, putting together apt descriptions of his mannerisms and then shading them with her own imagination. And she creates incredible tension in scenes where the band encounters Nazis in an official capacity, the helplessness and terror of it all.

I did find that the novel dragged a little during the build-up between Sid and his love interest, Delilah: the narration dwells a bit too long on his adolescent emotions when so many more interesting things are happening around him. I also thought there was a bit too much philosophizing near the end of the story: Edugyan would have done better to leave us alone to come up with our own conclusions.

But these are small quibbles about a brilliantly executed book. What I loved most about Half-Blood Blues was the way that Sid’s rivalry with Hiero isn’t just an end in itself; it plays a pivotal (but not contrived) role in the plot. Petty jealousies have life-altering consequences in this story, and the passing of decades does little to dull the need for admission and forgiveness.

Edugyan has written a great book that will hit readers on a multitude of levels. It’s definitely worthy of the accolades it’s received.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My kooky ideas about improving literary award juries

So it looks like there’s another fracas developing around the shortlist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry here in Canada. Whenever I see stories like this, my mind begins filling with all kinds of thoughts on how we might improve literary judging in this country, to make it less incestuous, more objective, more considered and less prone to conflicts of interest.

The problem is, I’m never convinced that the recommendations I’d make would ever work. I’ve only judged a small handful of writing contests and have never sat on a major jury for anything, so this is mostly pie-in-the-sky stuff. However, if you happen to run a major literary award and are in the mood to have a complete novice tell you how to do your job better, then this is the blog post is for you.

And even if you don’t run a major award but have opinions on these recommendations, I encourage you to leave a comment below. I’m especially interested in hearing why these ideas would never work.

Without further adieu:

Recommendation 1: Pick a five-person jury, no less. Make sure your choices come from a good mix of occupations within Canada’s broader literary infrastructure – academics, literary journalists, head librarians, published authors, arts administrators, etc – and also make sure there is a good regional, gender and (increasingly important) generational mix on your list. Vet the list for obvious conflicts of interest (e.g. you've accidentally picked an author who has a book in the same category she's judging.)

Recommendation 2: Get your five-person jury to read all of the given books under consideration. Don’t rush them – it’s gauche and totally beneath you to force your jurors to race through a mammoth fall list and make their decisions in time for a holiday shopping rush. Any award worth its salt won’t reveal a calendar year’s winner until the following spring. The reading should be a full-year undertaking, with decisions not happening until the first couple of months of the new year.

Recommendation 3: This is the most important one. Do not reveal the jury list during judging, even to the jurors themselves. I cannot stress this enough. Jurors should work at every stage of the process in complete isolation and ignorance of one another. There is no legitimate reason for jurors to interact with one another whatsoever. I would posit that if jurors discover who else is on the panel with them, it could taint how they read and judge the books under consideration. And if biases, agendas or axes to grind do exist, they will most likely wreak their havoc during ‘discussions,’ so eliminate discussions entirely. Instead, do this:

Recommendation 4: In lieu of a discussion, have each of the five jurors make their decisions based on a simple points system. This is what I suggest: from the full list of books under consideration, each juror picks a top 10 list, and each book on it gets 1 point. From his or her top 10 list, each juror then picks a top 5 list and gives those books an additional 2 points each (for a total of 3). Then, from that top 5 list, each juror picks an overall winner, which gets an additional 3 points (for a total of 6).

Recommendation 5: Allow each juror to also have a “worst 5” list. This can be comprised of books that he or she thought were awful, over-hyped or otherwise undeserving of the award. For each book on this list, he or she will award minus 3 points. This step is important, since it can help neutralize the biases or agendas that arise even when jurors work in isolation. After all, one juror’s “worst 5” selection might effectively nullify another juror’s overall winner. What remains can be a truer and more objectively achieved consensus. Once all the lists have been made, jurors then send them to your independent curator for review and tallying.

Recommendation 6: If conflicts of interest in the judging arise, the curator should resolve them at this stage. For example, let’s say one of the jurors is a writer who published a collection of short stories with a small press two years ago, and has now given three slots on his top 5 list to short story collections from that same press, then your curator may want to send the lists back to him and tell him to reconsider.

Recommendation 7: Once any conflicts of interest are resolved, the curator tallies up all the points from all books on all the jurors’ lists to come up with a master list of the top 5 books (this is your shortlist) and your overall winner. In the event of a tie (either for first place – i.e. the winner – or fifth place – i.e. the last slot on the shortlist) go back to the jury and ask them to re-rank the tied books (and only the tied books) to break the deadlock. Award points accordingly. No need to reveal the broader results of the voting or even who their fellow jurors are, even at this stage. Just ask everyone to reassess the tied books and get them to say “I rank this one first, this one second, this one third, etc.” Keep sending books back to your jury until the necessary tie(s) are broken. Finalize your shortlist and overall winner.

Recommendation 9: Reveal the shortlist at a press conference sometime in, say, early March. No need to reveal the jury list, even now.

Recommendation 10: Six weeks later, in mid April, reveal the winner and (finally!) the jury list at a gala celebration. Broadcast it nationally on CBC. Bring in ice sculptures and free booze. Toast the nominees and the winner.

So if anyone can help me punch holes in this, I’d definitely appreciate it. Leave comments below.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Review: Hitting the Charts – Selected Stories, by Leon Rooke

I think it must be a lot of fun putting together a collected works of Leon Rooke. Such a wide oeuvre to choose from, hundreds of stories written since the 1960s. So much zaniness – and so many different kinds of zaniness – to be read and reread, and then selected, and then arranged into an order that answers to its own logic, its own peculiar arc.

Hitting the Charts brings together 19 of Leon Rooke’s better-known stories written over the last 40 years. Those already familiar with his work will recognize many of the titles: “Mama Tuddi Done Over”; “Sixteen-Year-Old Susan March Confesses to the Innocent Murder of All the Devious Strangers Who Would Drag Her Down”; “Some People Will Tell You the Situation at Henny Penny Nursery is Getting Intolerable.” And for those who, like me, have limited experience with his short stories, this collection is an excellent place to start.

To say Rooke is a proponent of voice appropriation is both an understatement and, paradoxically, inaccurate. He doesn’t so much appropriate voices as he inhabits them, letting the narrative tone be subsumed by the consciousness of his characters, their backgrounds, their milieu. Take, as a random example, this passage from his story “Hanging Out with the Magi”:
Velma spooned more lard fat into the skillet and stood for a few seconds with her feet planted in utter concentration, her lips puckered, stirring with a frenzy. Then she ladled the egg lumps onto a flimsy paper plate and brought them over.

“Here are your eggs,” she gaily reported, blowing hair up out of her face and into his eggs too if that was where hair had a mind to fall. “Here they are, hard and greasy and not fit for a buzzard and just like your mama used to cook them when she was up and able.”
I think it’s the “gaily reported” that gets me every time.

Most of Rooke’s ventriloquisms are informed by the cadences and patois of the Southern United States – he was born and raised in North Carolina, though has lived in Canada for decades – and it’s impossible to read his work without being swept up in those rhythms and intonations. In fact, when I got to “Henny Penny”, having not read it before, I decided quite arbitrarily to read it aloud to myself, and within a few lines had adopted a thick, Kentucky-fried accent. Within about a page, I had started gesticulating wildly with my hand as I read, much like Rooke does during his public performances of his work. (These are quite a sight to see. Anne Michaels, in a rare instance of lucidity, provides an apt description of them here.) There was no question that this should happen when reading “Henny Penny.” The accent, its rivers of tempo, cannot be ignored.

Of course, to pigeonhole Rooke as strictly a “voice” writer, as a barker of the absurd, as a post-modern trickster, is to do him a disservice. There is a highly crafted structure and pacing to each of these stories, a careful balance to the ingredients that make them so good. It’s also worth noting that Rooke is as unafraid to take risks with his subject matters as he is with his voices. One the stories, for example, called “Sidebar to the Judiciary Proceedings, the Nuremberg War Trials, November, 1945,” is comprised almost entirely of an exchange between Martin Heidegger and a craniologist.

And if all this sounds deeply complex and somewhat inaccessible, rest assured that Rooke is also capable of straightforward descriptions that bring sudden bursts of recognition in the mind. Here he is describing one of the characters in his story “Biographical Notes”:
Robin found little in life about which to be enthusiastic. He was fond of reminiscing over the recent past. If I went out with Robin and Wanda for a night of drinking and relaxation after a grueling day on the set, Robin’s sole delight was in reminiscing over what the three of us had done the previous evening.
Even if you don’t know somebody like that (and for me, I do) then you can at least concede that such a person can and does exist.

Rooke’s literary reputation has experienced a lot of ebbs and flows over the last 35 years. But I reckon (there’s that damn accent creeping in again) that he has just as much of a chance of being read 50 years after his eventual death as any of the so-called heavyweights in Canadian literature. Hitting the Charts is another solid example of why this is the case.

Related link (speaking of voice appropriation): My review of Rooke’s novella Pope and Her Lady.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The real question I want answered this literary awards season ...

... is what the hell is proper style for referring to the terms "long list" and "short list"? It seems we're all over the map. I was prompted to ask after spotting this piece on Michael Christie's The Beggar's Garden on, which, if you include the web abstract, makes four inconsistent uses of the terms - longlist, long list, short list and, most inexplicably, short-list (as a noun) - in the span of about 350 words.

Does anyone know what the correct usage is? Is it based on grammatical context, e.g. "the shortlisted (or short-listed) authors are the ones who make the short list", or is it British vs. American style? If you can shed some light on this, leave a comment below.