Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012: My Reading Year in Review

Long-time readers of this series will probably notice a change to my full reading list for the year below: I've started to include issues of the various literary journals I subscribe to. I've always read lots of journals over the years but have done so in a very spotty, piecemeal sort of way. This year I made the decision to take a more focused approach to these journals, to keep them in the sacrosanct queue atop my nightstand and to read them cover to cover as I would any book. Seems fair, considering how much effort goes in to producing them.

As usual, I tried to be as diverse and eclectic in both my top 10 and my top 5 disappointment lists as I could be. Two of the best books I read this year were not reviewed here on the blog but rather in Quill and Quire, a magazine I’ve been freelancing for more and more it seems. I usually include a caveat with the second list about how they’re not necessarily bad books, but just books I had high expectations for. I feel that, with the exception of Wolf Hall, no such qualification is needed this year.

So without further ado, here’s this year’s list. Feel free to drop a comment below and share your thoughts.

My top 10 books this year

  • A Book of Great Worth, by Dave Margoshes. From my Quill and Quire review: “What’s remarkable about A Book of Great Worth is the way Margoshes is able to leave his own first-person narration in the background and keep the focus on Morgenstern, even while referring to him almost exclusively as “my father” …The result is a remarkable braiding of literal and literary truth, a Jewish family’s history elevated to the level of lore, and a delightfully envisioned portrait of specific times and places. Full review
  • Dancing, with Mirrors, by George Amabile.Dancing, with Mirrors, through the courage of its metaphors and the trust it places in distilled experience, is a book willing to share its quiet wisdom with us. The message could be quaint in lesser hands but here it is siren call to how life itself might be lived: “Love is a mirror/ in which we learn to dance.” Full review
  • Whirl Away, by Russell Wangersky. “Any critic who posits that Canadian writers don’t focus on the working lives of their characters really needs to read Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away. With skillful and eerie verisimilitude, Wangersky places most of the protagonists in this new collection of short stories squarely inside the dark hearts of their respective occupations. The breadth of Wangersky’s knowledge of and research into different jobs is truly astounding and worth the price of the book alone.” Full review
  • Middlesex, by Jeffery Eugenides. “The many complex threads of Middlesex come together in the end to make a deeply satisfying whole. Eugenides has crafted an exquisitely complex novel that serious readers will love losing themselves in. A massive achievement in 21st century American literature.” Full review
  • Catalysts – Confrontations with the Muse, by Catherine Owen. “[O]ne is left with the sense that Owen is a writer who feels deeply, questions everything, and channels her emotions and experience through a rigorous poetic aesthetic. Catalysts is a testament to a life immersed in poetic forms, a searching for truth through the prismatic (and often cruel) facets of circumstance and self.” Full review
  • Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. Oranges is a powerful and touching portrait of love, family and religious extremity in rural England …This novel impresses on a number of fronts. I love the fact that the title—at first blush a cheeky reference to homosexuality—is not overplayed in the text itself. Indeed, oranges become a central trope throughout the book; but with a skill that belies her age at the time of writing, Winterson is able to work it in subtly, leaving enough gaps around the trope for us as readers to fill them in.” Full review.
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. “Egan’s incredible feat of temporal game-playing really puts to shame any other interconnected short story collection I’ve read … [I]n laying down the lives of these characters, Egan shows an incomprehensible amount of versatility in her writing. She can do young and old; she can do male and female voices; she can do first-, second- and third-person narration to great effect … Indeed, finishing the last page of Goon Squad, you’re left with the impression that this book must have been written by not one writer, but seven or eight writers—all incredibly talented.” Full review
  • Libra, by Don DeLillo. “DeLillo has written a fierce and highly engaging page turner that is also one of the best structured works of literary fiction I’ve ever read. It was an absolute joy living in this novel’s world and immersing myself in its thoroughly designed characters. Libra is, in the end, a work of fiction, but its effects on the reader are very real.” Full review
  • Imperfections, by Bradley Somer. From my forthcoming review in Quill and Quire: “As they say in the fashion world, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Bradley Somer, in this sharp, funny, ribald and surprisingly moving debut novel, has it and definitely flaunts it. Imperfections is a wild send-up of the modeling industry and our obsession with the culture of beauty. With equal parts absurdism and societal critique, this book is a comic romp on par with Mordecai Richler’s Cocksure.”
  • The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín. “In this work of fiction, Tóibín is not simply adding a new twist to an age-old bible story. Instead, he is looking to completely rewire one of Christianity’s central figures, making Mary into someone who never believed in her son’s divinity and who is now overcome with rage as others attempt to turn him into an icon for the world … The Testament of Mary is a well-crafted and disturbing addition to [Tóibín’s] growing oeuvre.” Full review
Top five disappointments this year
  • Opium Dreams, by Margaret Gibson. [This novel] is undone by its obsession with high-minded and overly literary fragmentation, not to mention a protagonist strangling on a brand of solipsism that seems unique to the Baby Boomer generation. (No one else has experienced a dying parent like I have experienced it. No one else has endured sexual abuse like I have endured it.) Is it possible to feel as though a novel is too autobiographical without actually knowing very much about the writer’s life? That’s the sense I got from Gibson, that she was working out a lot of issues in her personal life with this book and often lost control of that gushing hose of sentimentality…” Full review
  • World Enough, by Lesley Choyce. I have no review of this book to link to because it was so bad I couldn’t even finish it. Choyce is a prolific Atlantic Canadian author whose relentless regional boosterism gets real boring, real fast. As for this “novel”, there isn’t a single living sentence in any of what I managed to finish, not one paragraph with a whiff of authenticity. Thin characters, a paint-by-colours concept, and lots of rah-rah fetishizing of life in the Maritimes were enough to make me quit after about 60 pages.
  • The Rise and Fall of Communism, by Archie Brown. “While Brown’s examination of the history of international communism has its obvious model—William Shirer’s far superior The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich—it possesses none of the narrative drive and small details that make the geopolitics in that previous tome come to life. Instead of sharing what the real impacts of communism were (and still are) on real people, Brown mires us in page after page of pointless backroom dealings and back-stabbings that defined various communist regimes. He relies too heavily on the long lens, the bird’s-eye view of history, rather than the nitty gritty.” Full review
  • More in Anger, by J. Jill Robinson. “In the end, More in Anger makes for a dull and uninspired read. Its trajectory holds no mystery, is never in doubt; its themes are decided for us; its “point” is hermetically sealed and does not allow readers to bring anything of their own to it. It’s almost like we don’t even need to be there. It’s almost like the jacket flap does all our work for us.” Full review
  • Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. “To my eye, Wolf Hall possesses the bloated heft of a dramatic exposition rather than the sinewy nimbleness of a novel alive to its time and place. Too often, this book gets overrun by talking heads devoid of a physical environment and used exclusively for the dissemination of historical data … I wanted Wolf Hall to grip me with the implicit significance of its characters and plot. Instead, I found myself at a lost to understand what makes this novel a novel.” Full review
This year’s full reading list:

64. December 26. The Miracles of Ordinary Men, by Amanda Leduc. 319 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)
63. December 13. The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin. 104 pps.
62. December 11. The Malahat Review, Autumn 2012. 158 pps.
61. December 6. Open Heart Runner, by Gregory Marchand. 199 pps.
60. December 2. The Puritan Compendium I. 160 pps.
59. November 27. The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schultz. 160 pps.
58. November 21. Under the Net, by Iris Murdoch. 253 pps.
57. November 13. Imperfections, by Bradley Somer. 256 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)
56. November 9. The Fiddlehead, Summer 2012. 182 pps.
55. November 4. Prism International, Summer 2012. 72 pps.
54. October 31. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. 651 pps.
53. October 16. CNQ 85. Fall 2012. 96 pps.
52. October 11. The Lava in My Bones, by Barry Webster. 377 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)
51. October 2. In This Thin Rain, by Nelson Ball. 77 pps.
50. October 1. Dear Life, by Alice Munro. 319 pps. (For review in Canadian Notes & Queries.)
49. September 17. Floating Life, by Moez Surani. 96 pps.
48. September 15. The Malahat Review, Summer 2012. 110 pps.
47. September 10. The Beggar's Garden, by Michael Christie. 261 pps.
46. September 4. Braco, by Lesleyanne Ryan. 459 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)
45. August 25. A Dark Boat, by Patrick Friesen. 119 pps.
44. August 23. Libra, by Don DeLillo. 463 pps.
43. August 14. Prism International, Spring 2012. 85 pps.
42. August 6. Arc 68. Summer 2012. 137 pps.
41. August 3. A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. 340 pps.
40. July 29. The Fiddlehead. Spring 2012. 118 pps.
39. July 26. The Malahat Review, Spring 2012. 110 pps.
38. July 24. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. 224 pps.
37. July 19. Cocaine Nights, by J.G. Ballard. 329 pps.
36. July 12. Prism International, Winter 2012. 73 pps.
35. July 9. Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse, by Catherine Owen. 143 pps.
34. July 5. Spoiled Rotten, by Mary Jackman. 229 pps.
33. June 27. Conversations with Anthony Burgess, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll and Mary C. Ingersoll. 190 pps.
32. June 21. More in Anger, by J. Jill Robinson. 237 pps.
31. June 14. The Rise and Fall of Communism, by Archie Brown (unfinished). 274 pps.
30. June 8. Worm: The First Digital World War, by Mark Bowden. (audio book).
29. May 31. DarkMarket: CyberThieves, CyberCops and You, by Misha Glenny. 296 pps.
28. May 26. PRISM International, Fall 2011. 77 pps.
27.May 23. Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, edited by Zachariah Wells. 158 pps.
26. May 20. The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes inside the CBC, by Richard Stursberg. 341 pps. For review in CNQ.
25. May 10. You Exist. Details Follow, by Stuart Ross. 116 pps.
24. May 7. Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, by Douglas Glover. 212 pps.
23. May 2. No End in Strangeness: New and Selected Poems, by Bruce Taylor. 119 pps.
22. April 29. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. 529 pps.
21. April 16. CNQ 84, Spring 2012. 96 pps.
20. April 11. Whirl Away, by Russell Wangersky. 207 pps.
19. April 3. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander. 207 pps.
18. April 2. Arc 67 (Winter 2012). 133 pps.
17. March 26. Drifting House, by Krys Lee. 210 pps.
16. March 22. Stasiland, by Anna Funder. 288 pps.
15. March 15. The Master, by Colm Toibin.338 pps.
14. March 6. The Stand-In, by David Helwig. 90 pps.
13. March 4. The Fiddlehead No. 250, Winter 2012. 118 pps.
12. February 28. The Warhol Gang, by Peter Darbyshire. 309 pps.
11. February 24. The Malahat Review. No. 177, Winter 2011. 110 pps.
10. February 21. Dancing, with Mirrors, by George Amabile. 185 pps.
9. February 19. Hannus, by Rachel Lebowitz. 170 pps.
8. February 17.Anna Karenin, by Leo Tolstoy. 853 pps.
7. January 24. CNQ - Canadian Notes & Queries No. 83, Summer/Fall 2011. 96 pps.
6. January 21. (unfinished) World Enough, by Lesley Choyce. About 60 pages. Ugh.
5. January 18. Opium Dreams, by Margaret Gibson. 237 pps.
4. January 14. The Fiddlehead No. 249, Autumn 2011. 119 pps.
3. January 10. The Truth About Marie, by Jean-Philippe Toussaint.160 pps.
2.January 6. The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011, edited by Priscila Uppal. 131 pps.
1. January 3. A Book of Great Worth, by Dave Margoshes. 252 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Annus mirabilis

Okay, so the year is winding down but I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge what an incredible year it has been. Please forgive this brief lapse in my stoic even-keeledness, but holy smokes - I can't recall the last time so many amazing things have happened to me in one 12-month period. I know that I won't find every year to be as fantastic as 2012 has been, and I know that some years inevitably end up at the opposite end of this spectrum. (2006/07, I'm looking at you!) But I think it's important to speak up and recognize when fortune shines a little luck your way.

The best and most important highlight of the year is that this woman and I got married. In your face, bachelorhood! My wedding day was without a doubt the happiest of my life and we got to have exactly the kind of celebration we wanted. So many friends and family were able to come and experience for a few hours what it's like to be on the inside of our lives together--the words, stories, music and carousing that represent the very pulse of our relationship. And I'm happy to report that the high from that day has not worn off, that we are growing happier and closer to each other with every week that passes.

One of the great things about being married to RR is that I have someone there to remind me that it's important to take a break and celebrate successes, as this is not a natural inclination of mine. The biggest success to celebrate in 2012, beyond the wedding, is that my new novel was finally accepted for publication. This came after many years of hard work and anxiety, and there is still more hard work and anxiety to come, but I was able to take a breather and really allow myself to enjoy the moment. It was sweet.

The novel's acceptance was not the only success I had, writing wise. Again, I don't have many years like this, but some of the accomplishments include:

  • Getting three poems published in This magazine in the spring/summer.
  • Getting two poems accepted in August for publication in The Nashwaak Review. (Publication date TBA.)
  • Having some nice words written about me at Open Book Ontario, also in August.
  • Winning The Puritan's poetry contest and having my piece subsequently published in their fall issue and Best-of anthology.
  • Getting a short story from my current manuscript-in-progress accepted in October by PRISM International, for publication in January.
In other awesome news, I got a new day job, at this place, which I love very much and am so happy I held out for. Oh, and RR and I got a new cat. Her name is Alice and she is extremely affectionate, especially around 3:30 in the morning.

Of course, with any moment of reflection like this, I also think it's fair to acknowledge that for many people, 2012 was in no way a good year. I know that the most recent gun tragedy in the U.S. has left many people with broken hearts and loved ones stolen from them. I saw a friend lose the love of his life to breast cancer back in May. I have a family member who has been struggling with his health all year. To them, and to any of you who may also rank 2012 as a shit year, all I can offer is this trite and wholly unproven maxim: another year, somewhere down the line, may be better for you, if you let it be. I've been in some fairly dark places (again, 2006/07, I'm looking at you!) when I believed that a year like 2012 would never be within my reach. But it was. It was. The winter does end, if you allow it to.

Lastly, I want to leave you with this festive little video I found today. Hey Rosetta! remains one of my favourite bands and this video pretty much captures the atmosphere of my inner world these days. But I also like it because it shows the work and effort that must go into a joyous life: the groggy mornings, the inane repetitions, the sometimes grueling drudgery needed to make good stuff happen. It shows it, and shows why it's worth it. As with life, this video is best played loud and at full screen. Merry Christmas everybody.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Review: The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

“They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to have noticed that I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.” So speaks Mary, grieving mother of Jesus, about the disciples who followed her son and now aim to deify him with or without her help in Colm Tóibín’s heart-wrenching new novella The Testament of Mary. In this work of fiction, Tóibín is not simply adding a new twist to an age-old bible story. Instead, he is looking to completely rewire one of Christianity’s central figures, making Mary into someone who never believed in her son’s divinity and who is now overcome with rage as others attempt to turn him into an icon for the world.

Tóibín establishes a number of challenges for himself in this book, each of which he pulls off beautifully. Chief among these is capturing the voice of Mary herself, a woman shattered with grief over the death of her son but also disgusted by what his disciples are attempting to do in the wake of his crucifixion. In Tóibín’s hands, Mary reads like a kind of proto-feminist (“It takes me weeks to eradicate the stench of men from these rooms so that I can breathe air that is not fouled by them”), a proto-humanist who looks to confront and contest the zealotry her son has left behind. She has been exiled to a house in Ephesus in the years immediately following her son’s murder, and his followers come to see her regularly, pressuring her to conform to the narrative about her son that they have already concocted.

Another challenge for Tóibín is to describe the various miracles detailed in the bible while casting doubts over their legitimacy in both our minds and in Mary’s. He does this in a number of ways: through sheer hearsay, as in the rising of Lazarus from the dead; through an elaborate slight of hand, as in the turning of water into wine at the wedding; through myth building, as in the story of Jesus walking on water and quieting a storm. In each case Tóibín leaves enough of a gap in the event for the possibility of, well, if not us believing in these miracles, then at least those who are present to believe in them. He paints of picture of Jesus as someone with a growing sense of megalomania, and each event that “proves” his divinity only feeds that belief more.

The climax of the book is, not surprising, the crucifixion itself. Tóibín describes it with harrowing verisimilitude, capturing the horror of it through Mary’s eyes. He wisely does not project the anguish of the event directly onto her: she is able to maintain perspective (“the pain was his and not mine”) while at the same time being completely destroyed by the events that unfold in front of her. For Mary, there is no resurrection – just a profound sense of loss and waste, compounded by those who need these fundamental fabrications to form the basis of their faith.

Tóibín once again proves himself adept at getting inside the minds of historical figures (see my recent review of his novel The Master, which is about Henry James) and revealing the world to us through their eyes. The Testament of Mary is a well-crafted and disturbing addition to his growing oeuvre.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

2013: A Time to Re-Joyce

With the New Year rapidly approaching, I want to announce a couple of fun campaigns that will be happening around the Free Range Reading homestead in the not-so-far future. RR and I are in discussions about doing another Co-habitational Reading Challenge (last year we did A Prayer for Owen Meany and it was a lot of fun) but I’m also hoping to reread another, more major work of literature, one that embraces the word “challenge” in every sense of the term. I’m also wondering if anyone out there in the blogoworld would like to join me in this endeavour.

That work in question is, of course, Ulysses by James Joyce. Considered by many to be the greatest single novel ever written, it is also one of the most difficult. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t read it the first time until I was 27, back in early 2003, and haven’t reread it since. But inspired by last June’s engrossing BBC Radio dramatization of the book, as well as by the fact that it’ll be 10 years since I tackled this masterpiece, I thought 2013 would be an ideal time to revisit it. The thing is – I’m not sure I want to do this alone. So please consider this a preliminary invitation to any book bloggers who are interested in rereading (or reading for the first time) Ulysses and blogging about the experience to join me.

Of course, a novel of this magnitude could never be captured in a single post like most of the reviews I do here. I doubt I’ll do an entry for each of Ulysses’ 18 distinct “episodes”; instead, I’ll probably do one post for each of the novel’s three sections, taking a break in between to read and blog about other stuff. I haven’t quite decided yet – I’ll get back to you with more details after the New Year. In the meantime, please think it over and if you want to join me, drop a comment below with a link to your blog. I’m hoping to have the campaign wrapped up by the end of the first quarter of 2013. And really – what better way to spend the dark, cold months of winter than reading a big fat tome of literature?


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

My Q&Q review of Braco by Lesleyanne Ryan

is now online. I'm not usually the sort of guy that goes in for big fat novels about war, but I found this one fairly entertaining and well-crafted. For some reason the conflict in Bosnia always strikes me as a bit too fresh to render into fiction, even though I realize we're nearly 20 years out; but Ms. Ryan does a great job bringing both the brutality and the concomitant moral issues that arise from it to life. Overall, a decent read.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Review: Open Heart Runner, by Gregory Marchand

Near-death experiences can create great fodder for memoirists, even if they don’t necessarily result in great memoirs. A brush with death can give a writer a reason to reflect on the value of life and his relationship with friends and family. But it can also breed an especially dull strain of schmaltz, one that infects every line of the narrative and creates tough reading conditions for anyone other than the writer and his immediate friends and family.

Fortunately for us, Gregory Marchand doesn’t fall into any of these traps in his memoir Open Heart Runner. The difference between what Marchand has done in this chronicle of the heart attack he suffered at the end of a race and other memoirs of a similar genre is that Marchand is a consummate storyteller. He understands the great paradox of autobiographical writing: that is, in order to generate a truer portrait of yourself and gain a level of pathos, the focus should be as much on others as it is on you.

On January 11, 1998, Marchand was a fit and active 40-year-old participating in a local race in his adopted hometown of Victoria, British Columbia. Other than the day being abnormally cold for that part of Canada, there was nothing setting this particular run apart from hundreds of others that Marchand had gone on over the course of his life. Yet as the race progressed, it became rapidly clear that something wasn’t right. He began experiencing chest pains, tingles in his arms, a shortness of breath, and other struggles as he worked to complete the run. By the time he approached the finish line, he was in serious distress. He collapsed just as he finished, and others ran to his aid to discover that he wasn’t breathing. Luckily, there were a few neighbourhood doctors participating in the race, and they took turns performing CPR on Marchand while waiting for paramedics to arrive. Marchand’s heart had stopped for roughly 20 minutes; and by any measure of reasonableness he should have died on that cold January ground.

What follows is an exploration of how such a catastrophic physical event could occur to an otherwise healthy and athletic man, and how such an experience brought on moments of self reflection during his long recovery. While he does write in the first-person, Marchand shows a remarkable aptitude for inhabiting the thoughts and feelings of the other people who play a crucial role in this story: his young family, his minister, his friends and neighbours, and the doctors who treat him. It is this detached reportage that gives Open Heart Runner its narrative heft. Marchand is able to describe with equal objectivity the science of open-heart surgery and the emotion of prayer, the anguish of his loved ones and his own bafflement over what has happened, the immediacy of the present and the importance of the past. He doesn’t treat these as disparate elements at odds with one another, but rather as parts of a knitted whole that tell a compelling and prismatic story.

The portrait that emerges is of a man who understands how complex and mysterious life can be, and how it takes an event like a heart attack to really bring it all into focus. Marchand doesn’t provide any pat answers or cheap sentimentality. He tells a very personal tale that transcends itself and sheds some light on what it means to live in the moment, to love and be loved.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Puritan Compendium I

So I just finished reading the beautifully crafted “Best of” anthology that The Puritan launched a week and a half ago at the same event that celebrated the journal’s Thomas Morton Prize for Literary Excellence, for which I won in the poetry category. The Puritan Compendium I collects many of the best works published in The Puritan over the last five years, and I don’t just say that because it also contains my prize-winning poem.

The other prize winner, for the fiction category, is a short story called “Kyle’s Place” by Nathan L. Pillman, which is a well-told (and delightfully unnerving) tale about two pre-pubescent boys who go to great lengths to spy and leer at one of the boy’s attractive older sister. Oddly, it complements my poem well—at least the first sonnet in the cycle, which is also about horny young boys.

The anthology also has a ton of other great fiction and poetry. I was pleased to see Daniel Scott Tysdal’s short story “The Poem” in there, which I read when it was originally published by The Puritan. There is a beautiful poem about a crow by Sachiko Murakami, a writer I’ve been meaning to read more of. I really enjoyed the short story “Ashes” by Nancy Jo Cullen, who won this year’s Metcalf-Rooke Award. (And as you know, I have a certain soft spot for those Metcalf-Rooke winners.) And there is a generous helping of work by other writers I’ve been meaning to read more of, including Matthew Tierney, Jaime Forsythe, Gabe Foreman, and especially Leigh Nash, whose poems I see around from time to time and always blow me away.

Overall, a solid performance by the good people at The Puritan. This compendium is a keeper and I’m honoured and pleased to be published among its pages.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Review: The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz

The story of Bruno Schulz’s death is probably more famous than anything he actually wrote and published. A Jew living in Nazi-occupied Poland, Schulz was protected briefly by a Gestapo officer who admired his drawings, only to be senselessly gunned down by a rival of his protector while Schulz on his way home with a loaf of bread. The body of literature he left behind is very small—the vast majority of his manuscripts did not survive the war—but what he did publish had an immediate and profound effect on 20th century eastern European literature.

The Street of Crocodiles (1934) was Schulz’s first foray into published fiction: it is sometimes called a collection of short stories, sometimes called an autobiographical novel. However you label it, it is a ruminative description of a small Polish town similar to the one the author grew up in, and is focused primarily on his protagonist’s eccentric father, who was modeled on Schulz’s own dad.

The book opens with a flurry of metaphoric writing, a synesthetic tour de force of description about the town, its physical peculiarities, its people and the heat of summer. The book slowly introduces its key characters and then zooms in on the father figure, revealing his strange behaviour and off-kilter obsessions (including importing the eggs of exotic birds and then hatching them in his attic) as a way to counteract the stultifying boredom and narrow-mindedness of small-town life. The book then begins to twist itself into a rictus of magic realism reminiscent of Schulz’s most obvious literary antecedent, Franz Kafka.

Unfortunately, what begins as a breathtaking display of descriptive acumen soon devolves into some fairly purple prose, and there is a restlessness to Schulz’s scene setting that never really allows the narration to find a comfortable place to sit. My interest waned as the book slowly plodded toward something resembling a plot, and I felt that the later chapters (or short stories?) could not live up to the promise of those first 10 or 15 pages.    

Part of the problem might have been the solitary nature of Schulz himself. Prior to his confrontation with Nazism, he lived alone, led a genteel life as an art teacher at a boys’ high school, and wrote and painted in his spare time. He had few friends and very little human contact over the course of his adult life. This reclusive nature shines through in his prose, and not in a good way: while his powers of observation over physical objects and settings are keen, there seems to be very little insight into his human characters, very little care taken with their psychology. I didn’t find there was enough engagement between them throughout the book to sustain my interest.

But no matter. Schulz’s work has been immortalized and cited as a huge inspiration by a number of contemporary Jewish writers. But The Street of Crocodiles left me wondering: how much of this reputation has to do with Schulz’s actual work, and how much of it has to do with the circumstances surrounding his mindless murder?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Review: Under the Net, by Iris Murdoch

There is something to be said about reading the debut novels of accomplished writers you love to see what their work was like the first time out of the gate. I’ve done this recently with A.S. Byatt and again with Anthony Burgess, and I’ve done it here with Iris Murdoch. The discovery has generally been the same each time—flashes of the genius yet to come trapped inside a deeply flawed first effort.

In Murdoch’s case, the book in question is Under the Net, published in 1954 and sub-labeled “A comic novel about work and love, wealth and fame.” The emphasis definitely should be on the ‘comic’: Under the Net is a wild and often hilarious picaresque about one Jake Donaghue, a shiftless hack writer trapped in a love tryst between a singer named Anna, her film-star sister Sadie, and a film studio owner named Hugo. Their central tension revolves around a book that Jake published years earlier called The Silencer, which he basically cribbed from ideas espoused by Hugo during a series of heady conversations they once had together.

Under the Net, while deeply comic, is rooted in philosophy—specifically, the philosophy of Plato’s The Republic. This manifests itself in a number of ways. The Silencer, for example, is written in a kind of neo-Platonic dialogue between a sage teacher and a group of eager students. What’s more, every interaction/misunderstanding that Jake experiences over the course of Murdoch’s novel is a kind of play on Plato’s Myth of the Cave: his perceptions of Anna and Sadie, his strained relationship with Hugo, and even his faith in his own work, are all nothing more that flickering shadows on the wall of a reality he never quite has access to. For good measure, the book also wrestles, as The Republic did, with the poet’s role in a utopia: in this case, the socialist utopia strived for by a rabble rouser (predictably) named Lefty, whom Jakes meets in bar while on one of his adventures.

These allusions, at least to my eye, were all a little too obvious. And while the novel’s saving grace is its humour—and there are many laugh-out-loud set pieces here, including one involving a pub crawl of epic proportions—in the end, the humour is all we’re left with. The relationships and social commentary don’t really hold together, and the revelation between Jake and Hugo at the end is too neat, too easily summed up as a simple misunderstanding.

Murdoch would go on to publish some of the sharpest and most comic novels of the 20th century (see  my reviews of two of them here and here) but this debut shows her as a novice still getting a handle on her power.              

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Reminder: Reading and launch party tonight for The Puritan

Just a little reminder that I'll be reading tonight at The Supermarket here in Toronto at an event called "Black Thursday" to celebrate The Puritan's new fall issue, to launch its recently published Best-Of compendium, and to honour the winners in the Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for Literature, for which I took first place in the poetry category. Here are the details - if you're in the Toronto area, please come out and say hello:

When: Tonight, Thursday November 22, at 7:30 pm.
Where: The Supermarket, 268 Augusta Avenue, Toronto. (map)

There will be many readers taking part and, if the Facebook invitation is any indication, a huge crowd, so please come early.

Oh, and of course if you want to read my winning poem, it's now available in the Fall 2012 issue of The Puritan. This issue also includes work from Nathan L. Pillman, Nathaniel G. Moore, Daniel Scott Tysdal, and others. Enjoy!

By the way: Tonight's event kicks off a busy weekend for me. RR and I will be off to Ottawa on Saturday, as she's doing a reading at the Carlingwood library there in the afternoon. See details here. If you live in Ottawa, come on by!


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Works in Progress: The Next (or in my case, the next next) Big Thing

If you're a long-time reader of this blog, you know I have a certain aversion to canned interview questions and other forms of lazy journalism, but there's a fun little internet meme going around and I can't help but participate. Writer Julia Zarankin wrote this one and tagged me in it, so I thought I'd give it a whirl. Note that these answers pertain to my actual current work in progress, and not the novel that has been accepted, placed in the queue and will be released a year and a half from now. Sigh. Such is the nature of the publishing world.

1.     What is the working title of your book?
The Secrets Men Keep.

2.     Where did the idea come from for the book?
It's actually a collection of short stories, so it's not so much one idea as thirteen. Most of them came from various experiences of my own and those of my friends or family - distilled, rearranged and ultimately rendered into works of fiction, of course.

3.     What genre does your book fall under?
Again, it's a short story collection. I guess the genre, though, would be straight-up literary fiction.

4.     Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
It would depend on the story, I suppose. The oldest one, which I wrote in 2001-2002 and was published in the December 2002 issue of Pottersfield Portfolio (Volume 22, number 3 - visit your library, people!) has as its protagonist a sculptor named Marlyn, and I've always thought a young Ed Harris could play him. There is a love interest in it too, a waitress named Natalie, and I always imagined her played by a young(er) version of Carrie-Anne Moss, best known (at least to me) for her role in the film Memento. As for the other stories, I'm not sure. I suppose Seth Rogen could play any number of my bumbling, shambolic heroes.  

5.     What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Hey now, don't make me do my future publicist's job! Oh fine, here goes: The Secrets Men Keep is about the secrets men keep, the comic possibilities that can arise from our shifting sense of what it means to be a man and the lies men tell themselves and others to keep their dreams and identities afloat.

6.     Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Neither, probably. I take self-publishing to mean vanity presses, which I have no interest in and consider a blight on the industry. As for an agent, it goes without saying that most literary agents have no interest in short story collections, even if (or, perhaps, especially if) you've already published one novel and have a second on the way. I think the best I can hope for is to get enough of these stories published in small literary journals, then use that track record as the shoehorn to get in with a small press that wants to put them all out in a book. That's usually how these things work.

7.     How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
That's a bit of a tricky question considering that I'm not writing the twelve stories in the collection in a single span of time. Indeed, two of the stories (including the one mentioned above) were written and published in journals years ago, before I published my first novel. Another three were written in between my first and second novels. The remaining eight are being written now, with five and a half more or less done, and two and a half to go. But even if I were writing them all together, it would be hard to say. The length of time it takes me to pound out a first draft varies from project to project. It really depends on the work. And what is a first draft anyway? I often joke that, when it comes to my stuff, it's usually a 7,000-word outline to a 4,000-word story.

8.     What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I have stumbled upon many short story collections that continue to inspire this particular work. David Schickler's Kissing in Manhattan is a book that shares a kinship with what I'm trying to do, as does the more recent collection Bullfighting, by Roddy Doyle. I think there's some T.C. Boyle that has affected me as well. I even see an influence in something like Lisa Moore's Open (which, to be fair, could be subtitled "The Secrets Women Keep"). I love that book for the way it shows how elision and ellipsis can pack a emotional wallop in a story.  

9.     Who or what inspired you to write this book?
So much. Each story has its own unique impetus. One uses magic realism to satirize the theory of the "male gaze." Another is inspired by the death of one of my relatives. One came out of my failure to be there for certain friends at certain key moments in their lives. One is based on a story a friend told me about finding a dead hawk in Union Station in Toronto. Another is pure Ballardian futurism, conjuring a world that takes hacker culture and the industry of computer viruses to an extreme. So the inspirations are all over the map, but I'm hoping they'll fit into a cohesive whole once the book is done.  

10.   What else about your book might pique your reader’s interest?
You can find a few of the stories hither and yon. As mentioned, the earliest one was published in that 2002 issue of Pottersfield Portfolio (again, go to your library, people!); another of them was published in this 2009 issue of the online journal paperplates. And another one will show up in the next issue of PRISM International, due on newsstands in January.

Okay, I know I'm supposed to be tagging other writers who have blogs to participate in this meme, but I think my contact list is pretty thin on the ground in that regard. So instead, let me just say that if you want to play along, leave a comment below and then come back here and share the link with us.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Review: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Kudos to Hilary Mantel for winning the Man Booker for both this novel and (more recently) for its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. And kudos to her for tackling such a shopworn and over-exploited topic in Wolf Hall: the role Thomas Cromwell played in securing the marriage of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in defiance of the Catholic Church. It’s no overstatement to say that this was one of the most pivotal moments in not just English history but in all of Western civilization. The marital machinations that transformed England from a papal fiefdom to a modern state have spawned a whole host of trashy historical novels, and what Mantel has done here is a cut above.

Still and all, I don’t get it. To my eye, Wolf Hall possesses the bloated heft of a dramatic exposition rather than the sinewy nimbleness of a novel alive to its time and place. Too often, this book gets overrun by talking heads devoid of a physical environment and used exclusively for the dissemination of historical data. As the novel’s key characters—Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey, Stephen Gardiner, Thomas More—engage with one another over 650 pages, I kept asking myself: where are they, physically, as these interactions are happening? Why do we not have a sense of the space they occupy as they rattle on and on in these long expository exchanges? Things do improve as the novel builds to its climax, but it takes a long time before you really get a sense of the corporeal reality of living in 16th century England.

Make no mistake: Mantel is a superb stylist and there are passages in Wolf Hall that left me breathless by their sheer poetry. What’s more, the fall of Wolsey is handled with such passion and heartache that I had to put the novel down for a day or two to collect myself. Still, these strengths could not overcome the long and disembodied tedium that I found through most of the book. I wanted Wolf Hall to grip me with the implicit significance of its characters and plot. Instead, I found myself at a lost to understand what makes this novel a novel.    

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Event: Black Thursday: Anthology, Contest, and Issue Launch

Okay, so the details for The Puritan's big bash to launch its new issue and best-of anthology, which will include my winning poem for the Thomas Morton Memorial Prize, have been announced. They are as follows:

When: Thursday, November 22, at 7:30 pm.
Where: The Supermarket, 268 Augusta Avenue, Toronto.
Who: Readers will include:

Gary Barwin
Nancy Jo Cullen
Jenny Sampirisi
Mark Sampson (me!)
Suzannah Showler
Matthew Tierney
Daniel Scott Tysdal

So if you're in Toronto and free that night, please come out and help us celebrate. It would be really great to see you.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Acceptance: PRISM International

I'm very happy to report that PRISM International has accepted my short story "Going Soft through Luxury" for publication in its next issue, number 51.2. Needless to say, I'm really stoked about this news, as I've been submitting regularly to PRISM for at least 10 years now and I'm so pleased that I'll have something included in its pages. I'm also excited because this is the first of the new batch of short stories I've been working on over the last 13 months to be accepted for publication, so it's a nice little piece of validation that I'm on the right track.

I'll send out more details when they become available.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Winner: Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for Literary Excellence (The Puritan)

So I'm very excited to announce that I have been named winner of the inaugural Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for Literary Excellence in the poetry category, put on by The Puritan literary magazine for my piece "Seasonal Sonnets." I got the news late last week and it was announced publicly this evening. I'm very excited that my poem will be appearing in the pages of The Puritan, a journal I have submitted to a number of times before and which has, over the years, published several writers I greatly admire, including J.J. Steinfeld, Catherine Graham, Daniel Scott Tysdal and my lovely wife Rebecca.

The issue will be online and in print next month, and word is there will be a launch on November 22 here in Toronto (details coming soon). If you're in the city and can make it out, I'd love to see you. I'm also looking forward to reading the works of the other writers who placed in the contest.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Review: In This Thin Rain, by Nelson Ball

Writing good minimalist poetry is hard to do, so when you find poets who can do it you just want to savour their work as much as possible. This was certainly the case when I read Nelson Ball’s new collection In This Thin Rain, a book that contains the kind of brief, meditative observations that deserve a slow and—in my case, at least—out-loud reading. Ball has honed his talent for minimalist verse across more than two dozen poetry books since the 1960s, and his latest shows his abilities at their full strength.

A lot of the power and momentum behind these pieces arise from Ball’s uncanny skill with line breaks. He understands not only how to leave space for poems to breathe but also how to leave space for our brains to breathe. The rhythm of these poems are tailored to the way the contemplative mind works, how it mulls over notions or images in a microsecond before moving on, craving reinforcement or paradox. Take for example the deceptively simple poem “Obituaries”:

I’ve been reading obituaries

don’t quite
know why

lives are
always ending


The genius is in that incredible “don’t quite/know why” enjambment. A lesser poet might have written the simpler “don’t know why” and done it as one line, but here Ball is wise enough to understand the staccato nature of human rumination. The repeated “always” is just the right amount of closing emphasis on an idea about bleakness and inevitability. It’s amazing how much verve Ball can squeeze into just 14 words.

Or take the piece “Walking”, where the line breaks and careful word choices create a wonderful verisimilitude of ambulation:

October, mild

at The Ponds

no clouds

enough to make


I am



Again, line breaks add momentum and punch, and here they work in congress with a carefully chosen simile (trees as restless as the poet). And do I need to I need to point out the quiet genius of those one-word lines that end the poem?

Another strength of In This Thin Rain is the way that Ball is able to work in reoccurring tropes and images without making them feel heavy handed. The collection is full of windmills, of houseflies in their death throes, of rain and pine needles floating on water. In true minimalist fashion, the poems don’t force us to make connections between these repetitions or see some greater significance in their use. Rather, Ball presents these as what they are—quotidian observations that do what true observations do: crop up again and again.

The book’s acknowledgements page points out that Ball lost both his wife and his mother inside of 18 months during the writing of this collection. This fact lends an unmistakable (and unsettling) tension to the book upon rereading. The passage of time and the slow accumulation of images build not so much to a climax as to a searing realization: that grief can come fast and hard, and cannot be skirted. But also this: that grief is, in the end, just another part of the natural experience of living and can, if you are wise and attuned to the heart's honest voice, be expressed briefly through a poem. Briefly, and with truth.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review: The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie

Writing about misfits through fiction is incredibly hard to do. When it comes to portraying the foibles of drug use, free-and-easy sex, counter-culture lifestyles and ne’er-do-wells with quirky stories to tell, a lot of writing can come out as either gloating and glorifying. When writers want to be perceived through their fiction as hip, urban, and more than a bit self destructive, it can often breed a prose that is at once self-conscious and a touch disingenuous.

Which makes Michael Christie’s debut collection of short fiction, The Beggar’s Garden, all the more refreshing. When he portrays the weird and the down-and-out, the slackers and the druggies, you get the sense that he comes at these characters and their experiences from a deep well of close observation and personal reflection. There is nothing in The Beggar’s Garden that is false or for show. Everything is real and painfully three-dimensional.

The nine stories in this collection are set for the most part in Vancouver’s troubled east side and really do feature a motley assemblage of delightfully weird characters. We have drug addicts (“Goodbye Porkpie Hat”), a woman who calls 911 strictly for companionship (“Emergency Contact”), a man who becomes a financial advisor for a homeless man (the title story) and a troubled mental patient (“King Me”). In each case, Christie is able infuse his writing with humour, sensitivity and an unflinching authenticity.

Take for example, his piece “The Queen of Cans and Jars.” This story features a woman named Bernice who runs a thrift shop and often helps out her homeless clientele when they can’t pay even the store’s marked down prices. Bernice’s interaction with her at-risk customers, her care in looking after the shop, and even her entire value system and worldview is pitch perfect for the purposes of the story. You can see and feel the realism of the store; you can sense her struggles with the everyday reality of her community. Christie knows his material so well and expresses it beautifully.

My favourite piece in the collection has to be “The Extra.” Here, a man who may or may not be suffering from a mental disability is living rough in an unfinished basement apartment with his friend Rick when they are both cast as extras in a movie being filmed in Vancouver. The relationship between the narrator and Rick is akin to George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, with camaraderie and exploitation being irrevocably intertwined. Christie hits so many perfect notes in this story: the unreliable narration, the well-chosen details of the men’s basement dwelling, and the complex relationship we can have with both our closest friend and our sense of ourselves.

Christie’s book was praised far and wide when it was published last year, and rightfully so. It is a sterling example of a well-measured collection of stories honed by a newbie who writes like a well-seasoned pro.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My Quill and Quire review of The Age of Hope by David Bergen...

is now online. I really loved the other books of Bergen's I've read (see my review of This Case of Lena S. here) but this new novel is a serious misfire. While I admire Bergen's attempts to inhabit a protagonist so very different from himself, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. What do other people think? Anyone out there enjoying The Age of Hope? Let me know.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Review: A Dark Boat, by Patrick Friesen

It can be easy (and common) for poets to equate old age with the fading of light. Darkness, in all its bleak black infinitude, gets treated as the end of something, the loss of richness or the vibrancy of life. Patrick Friesen, writing in his new collection of verse, A Dark Boat, has another take on the shadowy oblivion that creeps up on us all. Here, in this compilation of short, quiet poems, Friesen pulls off the impressive feat of lending darkness and shadow a fecund quality, comparing it to the fertility of soil, to the intrigue of an unanswered question, an unknown history.

The backdrop for A Dark Boat is Spain and Portugal and Friesen’s search for the ghost of Federico García Lorca, the acclaimed Spanish poet murdered by fascists during the Spanish Civil War. In a number of poems, Friesen coalesces his preoccupations with darkness with his preoccupations over the questions that still linger over the death and life of Lorca. A chief example of this would be the poem “Lorca” itself, where Friesen writes:

what can be done about a dream
of black veils and a crucifix

what can be done when you’ve
forgotten your mother’s prayer

only death listens to fear
only his body hangs on to him

smelling the road’s dust
hearing the rifle’s bolt

If this sounds bleak, it really isn’t. A Dark Boat looks to superimpose an uplifting quality to what we traditionally see as gloomy subject matter, and this is his greatest tribute to Lorca. In his poem “Night”, for example, Friesen mixes vibrant colour with a grim task when he writes “a shovel across his shoulder/ he walks through yellow fields/ toward the stream where/ night is buried.” In “Widow”, he laces together loss with a kind of steadfast pride: “she has loved death/ the widow at the window/ has lain with it/ you don’t know what’s behind her/ in the dark room.”

My best example of what Friesen is doing here actually comes from the title poem, the first in the book, when he writes, “you are alone/ and you mean precisely that// you make do/ with the night you have.” Here, night is not the end of something but rather the beginning; its shadows hold secrets and the darkness provides a test for your mettle, a chance to prove the strength you possess.

Perhaps the entire atmosphere of this small book could be summed up by simply the title of my single favourite poem: “the sun shines through the cracks of the shithouse door.” Yes, exactly. If that’s not a reason to read poetry, and to embrace the dark as well as the light, then I don’t know what is.    

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Review: Libra, by Don DeLillo

Pick a broad canvas and let your exuberance fly. This seems to be the overarching philosophy of Don DeLillo, author of nearly 20 books and doyen of what we might label the postmodern American novel. The canvas, in his case, is the United States of America itself, its vast and various contradictions. In Libra, DeLillo’s 1988 masterpiece, he tackles one of the watershed moments in the history of his country: the assassination of US president John F. Kennedy, told to a great degree through the perspective of the accused killer, Lee Harvey Oswald.

If the highly public murder of JFK was, as it has been said, the very birth of 20th-century sensationalism, then Libra looks to cut through our macro response to November 22, 1963 and get at the underlying motivations behind the day. Indeed, the fictionalization of motive is one of Libra’s chief concerns, and one of its greatest strengths. We will never know for sure what compelled the actions of Oswald, who most likely was the sole sniper shooting at Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository as the president’s open-car motorcade passed through Dallas’ Dealey Plaza below. Nor will we know the exact motives of nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald on national TV two days later. Nor will know the precise driving force behind the broader conspiracy, if there indeed was one, for Kennedy’s killing.

DeLillo takes great pains over 450-plus pages to use the liberties and artifices of fiction to fill in these blanks, and does so with tremendous literary acumen. For the record, in Libra’s version of events, a pair of disgruntled CIA agents plan to orchestrate an attempted assassination—and only attempted; the shooter(s) were meant to miss—of Kennedy in order to blame it on Fidel Castro and get a second US-led invasion of Cuba back on the geopolitical table. This premise is no more or less implausible than anything else you might hear from the crop of JFK conspiracy theorists who have been around since the sixties (and many of whom were heartened by the 1991 Oliver Stone film). Yet DeLillo treats his own (fictionalized) theories as mere guy-wires to support the novel’s true preoccupation: that of character.

And what a tour de force of characterization Libra is. DeLillo works us through the various milestones of Oswald’s life—his time in the US marine corps, his deep immersion into Marxist theory and subsequent defection to the Soviet Union, his return to the States with his Russian wife Marina, his struggles to find work, his attempted assassination of General Edwin Walker—in order to put him within a meaningful context when he aims that notorious rifle out that notorious window at Kennedy. While our historic perception of Oswald is one of an immature and naïve patsy in a bigger world event, DeLillo’s picture reveals a complex man with deeply complicated values and motivations.

And Oswald isn’t even Libra’s sole protagonist. What astounds me about this book is the way DeLillo can shift gears so effectively in between chapters and really inhabit the minds and hearts of his other main and secondary characters. We get breathtaking portraits of Win Everett, one of the disgruntled CIA agents behind the plot; of Jack Ruby, depicted here as a feckless businessman who still maintains a façade of unshakeable integrity; of FBI agent Guy Banister and supporting characters George de Mohrenschildt and David Ferrie. Even General Walker, a racist and jingoistic Texan, is given his own brief but insightful moment in the spotlight. The novel ends, gut wrenchingly, in the perspective of Oswald’s mother after Oswald has been killed as she tries to piece together the death of and the multiple meanings behind her son’s existence.

Libra is not without its missteps, of course. I never quite bought into the narrative’s contemporary-period frame of Nicholas Branch, a CIA man trying to piece together a definitive story of JFK’s assassination. There are a few times when DeLillo’s dialogue becomes wooden and more expository than it needs to be. And the actual killing of Kennedy seems, at least to my knowledge of events and understanding of DeLillo’s take on the scene, a bit inaccurate. Specifically, Libra appears to contend that Oswald managed to squeeze off two shots in the span of less than two seconds (an impossibility, based on the rifle’s make and how it fired): one that hits Kennedy in the upper back and exits his throat, and a second that hits and wounds Texas Governor John Connally, who was seated in front of Kennedy.

But no theorist, as far as I know, contends this. Either you believe that a single shot caused all the wounds to Kennedy’s back and throat as well as all the wounds to Connally, or you believe that the bullet that struck Connally was a different bullet fired from a different gun a split second after Kennedy was hit in the back/throat—hence the conspiracy of two shooters. (Those who believe this latter premise often cite what has been called the “magic bullet” theory to dismiss the former premise. But recent computerized forensics, discussed in this documentary, show how likely it actually is that one bullet did manage to cause all that damage. Those who hitch their conspiracy beliefs to the magic bullet theory do so with an incorrect presumption on the position of Connally vis a vis Kennedy in the car, and when Connally was hit versus when he thinks he was hit.)

These are, ultimately, minor flaws to Libra’s narrative. DeLillo has written a fierce and highly engaging page turner that is also one of the best structured works of literary fiction I’ve ever read. It was an absolute joy living in this novel’s world and immersing myself in its thoroughly designed characters. Libra is, in the end, a work of fiction, but its effects on the reader are very real.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


And no, I'm not talking about that recently deceased polemicist named Christopher. RR and I tied the knot about a week and a half ago at the lovely and awesome Liuna Station in Hamilton. Easily the happiest day of our lives, and we threw a fantastic party to celebrate it. Here's a pic - those smiles say it all.

We also just got back from a wonderful week-long honeymoon in Costa Rica. With the exception of a rather nasty 12 hours of food poisoning on my part, our time there was fabulous. The people were warm and generous, and there were lizards and butterflies galore. (And one cat!)

In other news: I don't tend talk much about my other life here on the FRR, but I did want to mention that I got laid off from my job in July - exactly one month to the day before the wedding. I'm on the prowl for new employment now, so if anyone spots openings in Toronto's downtown core for senior-level jobs in web content management, editorial management, online writing, editing, SEO, etc. please let me know. Here's a link to my LinkedIn profile.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Acceptance: The Nashwaak Review

Just got word that two poems of mine, called "Cleve" and "Sullivan's Pond", will appear in the next issue of The Nashwaak Review, out of New Brunswick. I'm especially pleased, since these pieces represent a slight departure for me, style-wise, from my other poems, and also this is a great journal to associated with. I'll keep you all posted when the work appears.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Every now and then a book comes along that feels like a game changer, that so completely rewires the way you think about fiction and what it’s capable of, that re-energizes your belief in the power of literature. A Visit from the Good Squad, Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “novel” from 2010, is one of those books for me. It has been a huge topic of conversation between RR and me around our house here, as we have both read it over the last month or so and have equally become enamoured of it.

A big part of the love for me is structural. The reason I put “novel” in quotes above is that while Goon Squad is marketed as a novel, it really is a collection of interconnected short stories. “Linked” collection seems too weak, and even interconnected seems inadequate. It’s probably better to say it’s a collection of intersecting and interwoven short stories that achieve the broader arc of a true novel.

Egan’s incredible feat of temporal game-playing really puts to shame any other interconnected short story collection I’ve read. The 13 stories that compromise Goon Squad take place over about a 45-year period: from about the early 1970s in the fourth story, “Safari”, to the near-future, sometime around the year 2020, in the last two stories. The pieces are organized out of chronological order and are written from 13 separate points of view. Yet it does form a single cohesive narrative, one that does not become fully apparent until you’re well into the book.

The intersection of the characters’ lives is what gives this book a lot of its narrative torque. Rather than summing up how the lives of the various protagonists of Goon Squad overlap with one another, let me simply refer you to the 2010 New York Times review of the book, which did it far better than I could:  

The book starts with Sasha, a kleptomaniac, who works for Bennie, a record executive, who is a protégé of Lou who seduced Jocelyn who was loved by Scotty who played guitar for the Flaming Dildos, a San Francisco punk band for which Bennie once played bass guitar (none too well), before marrying Stephanie who is charged with trying to resurrect the career of the bloated rock legend Bosco who grants the sole rights for covering his farewell “suicide tour” to Stephanie’s brother, Jules Jones, a celebrity journalist who attempted to rape the starlet Kitty Jackson, who one day will be forced to take a job from Stephanie’s publicity mentor, La Doll, who is trying to soften the image of a genocidal tyrant because her career collapsed in spectacular fashion around the same time that Sasha in the years before going to work for Bennie was perhaps working as a prostitute in Naples where she was discovered by her Uncle Ted who was on holiday from a bad marriage, and while not much more will be heard from him, Sasha will come to New York and attend N.Y.U. and work for Bennie before disappearing into the desert to sculpture and raise a family with her college boyfriend, Drew, while Bennie, assisted by Alex, a former date of Sasha’s from whom she lifted a wallet, soldiers on in New York, producing musicians (including the rediscovered guitarist Scotty) as the artistic world changes around him with the vertiginous speed of Moore’s Law.

If this complex interlacing of characters turns you off, don’t let it. There is so much else to love about Goon Squad. The theme here is the passage of time—time being the goon referred to in the title—and about how lives can grow and then wither, how aging awaits us all, and how both crushing failure and exalted moments of success can be waiting right around the corner for us at any moment.

In laying down the lives of these characters, Egan shows an incomprehensible amount of versatility in her writing. She can do young and old; she can do male and female voices; she can do first-, second- and third-person narration to great effect. She can also write in a variety of modes: while the majority of the pieces here are written in traditional realism, one is done entirely as a PowerPoint slide deck (and, strangely, is one of the most emotionally powerful stories in the collection); another is done as a piece of very effective gonzo journalism. Indeed, finishing the last page of Goon Squad, you’re left with the impression that this book must have been written by not one writer, but seven or eight writers—all incredibly talented.

There is no higher compliment to pay a writer than to say his or her book alters the way you’ll look at subsequent books you’ll read. But I can definitely say this about Goon Squad: it has wrecked the curve for other short story collection professing to be linked, interconnected or otherwise intertwined.

Related reading

Allow me to point you in the direction of a few other books that play similar games with either time, intersecting stories, or both. While Goon Squad tops them all, these other titles are definitely worth reading:

  • Lord Nelson Tavern, by Ray Smith. (What Smith does in this 1974 novel is very similar to what Egan does. See my lengthy essay about this book in CNQ #81.)
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.
  • Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis. (Not about intersecting stories per se, but definitely a novel that has a lot of fun telling a story out of order.)  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

Six years ago I acquired a copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, a hefty reference tome organized chronologically that provides short descriptions of literature from Aesop’s Fables (published 4 BCE) to Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (published in 2005). Like a studious reader, I flipped through the text, marking off books I had read and checking out books I had never even heard of. One of the latter was Jeanette’s Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Yes, I admit it: I was completely unfamiliar with this book. I remember being intrigued by its bizarre title and subject matter, but for whatever reason the novel soon dropped off my radar.

It came roaring back earlier this year. It seems like Winterson has gotten a lot of play over the last several months in the various literary media outlets that I follow, and I decided to pick up her debut novel to see what all the hubbub was about. Little did I know that if you’re of a certain nationality (i.e. British) and of a certain generation, then you would have definitely heard of this book and would think it strange that others had not. When Oranges was first published in 1985, when Winterson was still in her mid twenties, it was a colossal bestseller and later turned into a successful TV miniseries. She stands alongside other contemporary authors who showed great precociousness in their twenties—think Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, among others—and was duly rewarded for it.

The kudos were well earned. Oranges is a powerful and touching portrait of love, family and religious extremity in rural England. It tells the very autobiographical story of “Jeanette” who is adopted as a baby and brought up by an ultra-fundamentalist Christian mother. The mother’s beliefs, with their concomitant superstitions, suspicions and value systems, permeate all aspects of their lives—it’s practically in the drinking water. And Jeanette spends a good portion of the novel blindly proselytizing this religion to others while still only a child. The novel’s actions are complicated by Jeanette’s discovery during adolescence that she is, in fact, a lesbian. And this awakening disrupts her entire world and puts her on a collision course with her family and her community.

The theme here, while slightly obvious, is worth stating: the nature of passion, and the hold it can have on us and the meaning it can bring to our lives. With unassuming yet artful prose, Winterson really gets under the hood of passion to explore what makes it work and how it can shape the sense we have of ourselves. Jeanette’s transformation over the course of the book is, in a wonderfully paradoxical way, made more believable because of the ardor she showed towards her mother’s beliefs.

This novel impresses on a number of fronts. I love the fact that the title—at first blush a cheeky reference to homosexuality—is not overplayed in the text itself. Indeed, oranges become a central trope throughout the book; but with a skill that belies her age at the time of writing, Winterson is able to work it in subtly, leaving enough gaps around the trope for us as readers to fill them in. I also love the way the story is structured: each section is named after a book of the bible, and even as Jeanette reaches the apex of her bildungsroman, it feels appropriate that her journey be framed within a religious context.

Overall, Oranges was a thoroughly enjoyable read. I’m happy report that Jeanette Winterson is back on my radar, and for good this time. I’m sure I’ll be back to read more of her novels in the years ahead.          

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Some kind words from Open Book Ontario

Just got word that Open Book Ontario featured the blog and its most recent post on its website earlier today. It was really nice to get some kind words about the reviewing I've been doing. Thanks Open Book Ontario!


Saturday, July 28, 2012

Review: Cocaine Nights, by J.G. Ballard

I’m back on a J.G. Ballard kick and decided to pick up Cocaine Nights, one of his later and less surreal novels. After my panning of Crash and a more praiseful review of his collected short stories, I continue to be fascinated by this strange and enigmatic British writer who died a few years ago.

Cocaine Nights is framed like a literary murder mystery—call it a why’dunit rather than a whodunit—but it possesses many of the tropes that Ballard was well known for. These include passive sex and drug use, empty swimming pools, perspectives on consumer culture, violence as entertainment, and a grab at prescience by setting his work in a very near but off-kilter future.

The book tells the story of travel writer Charles Prentice who arrives in the Spanish resort of Estrella de Mar after his brother, Frank, who runs a bar on the resort called Club Nautico, has confessed to murdering five people in a brutal house fire. Convinced that his brother could never have committed such a heinous crime, Charles launches his own investigation and gets sucked into the resort’s dark underworld. There, he discovers a lolling leisure class so anesthetized that it takes vicious acts of cruelty to stir its members from their somnolence.

The novel is written in Ballard’s trademark style—the vast, sweeping diction, the plumy vowel usage, the grand blasts of description. While I did find that some of writing could have used a better edit (I lost count, for example, of how many times Cocaine Nights uses the obscure adjective ‘louche’), there can be no doubt that Ballard had his own unique and engaging voice. This book is clearly the best written, sentence for sentence, of the three of his I’ve read.

Unfortunately, though, Cocaine Nights is undone by painful leaps in plot and its own internal implausibility. Charles goes to visit Frank in prison early in the novel to interrogate him about why he would confess to a crime he clearly could not have committed. Rather than have the two brothers hash the whole thing out right then and there, Ballard makes Frank aloof and cryptic in a very artificial and unbelievable way. This behaviour is necessary to set Charles on his mission to solve the mystery himself, and thus instigate the novel’s action, but it is a huge contrivance: this never feels organic to the world or circumstances that Ballard has created.

Once you realize that the plot possesses this false front, it becomes incredibly difficult to invest yourself in the twists and turns of Charles’s odyssey. Along the way, he ends up sleeping with one of his brother’s lovers, getting attacked by the man who is really behind the strange violence in Estrella de Mar, viewing a rape during the filming of a porn movie, and various other misadventures. But none of it rings true, even in the book’s deliberately bizarre firmament. Of course the whole novel is a falsehood, but it still needs to be true to that falsehood.

Cocaine Nights hasn’t turned me off J.G. Ballard—I’ll most likely be back for more of his strange, transgressive writing—but in the end I can’t really recommend this book to fans of honest and well-structured fiction.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Review: Catalysts – Confrontations with the Muse, by Catherine Owen

BC poet Catherine Owen’s writing landed on my radar last year when we both placed in FreeFall magazine’s annual poetry contest. (She took first place; I took second.) Her winning poem, called “Reincarnation Redux”, is a beautifully unsentimental imagining of her deceased spouse coming back to life in the form of a fly. This powerful poem stayed with me, and when I heard that she was publishing a nonfiction book about various aspects of her writing life, I made sure to acquire a copy.

Catalysts – Confrontations with the Muse collects 17 of Owen’s essays written over the last dozen years or so, exploring the various travels – both literal and metaphorical – that she has taken in life, in love and in her art. While the medium here is prose, Owen (who has published nine collections of verse) brings to bear many of the hallmarks of great poetry in telling her stories, including elliptical narration, analogy and a deep engagement with the sounds and cadences of language itself.

The book opens with a delightful and thorough romp through Owen’s childhood reading. (This type of beginning reminded me somewhat of John Metcalf’s Kicking Against the Pricks and Stephen Henighan’s When Words Deny the World.) Owen establishes early on that she had a profound relationship with the written word, and this played a pivotal role in not only the poetry she would write but how she processed the world around her. From there she delves into a number of her poetic preoccupations – some relatable and familiar (a family home, a plot of land from her childhood, concerns about ecological catastrophe), others uncommon and a little obscure. A large section of Catalysts is devoted to Owen’s travels through Europe to research a troupe of female troubadours called trobairitzes who were active in Occitania in the 12th and 13th centuries. While I found my interest in the subject matter waned over the course of the essays, I was always engaged by Owen’s language and her sense of narrative drive.

For me, the strongest parts of this book are when Owen dedicates herself to serving up her core aesthetics and artistic underpinnings of her poetics. I love the fact that she doesn’t pull punches or dilute her explanation as to what she feels poetry is and why a lot of it in Canada is lacking. This is taken from her 2010 essay “Circuitry: Poetry as an Energy Field”:

Too many poems are currently being written and published that emerge from an idea, a narrative impulse, a character-driven structure and little else. In other words, poems shaped by the primary considerations of prose, not poetry. Part of the diminishment of poetry’s literary and cultural viability is in this widespread adoption of prosaic modes and in the concomitant neglect of diction, linguistic musicality and form. Poets who fail to allow their poems to propel themselves to and on the page through the channel of language … are, quite simply, not just limiting themselves as artists but betraying the unique characteristics of their chosen art.

This kind of fearlessness is peppered throughout Catalysts as Owen digs deep into what poetry and the poetic process mean to her. Even when she’s challenging, through the form of a review, her baffling exclusion from a recent anthology of British Columbia poets called Rocksalt, she keeps her argument focused on fundamental aspects of poetry and what it can tell us about ourselves and our sense of place.

There isn’t a great deal in Catalysts about the death of her long-time partner, and the parts that are there maintain that cool, unsentimental distance at work in “Reincarnation Redux.” Still, one is left with the sense that Owen is a writer who feels deeply, questions everything, and channels her emotions and experience through a rigorous poetic aesthetic. Catalysts is a testament to a life immersed in poetic forms, a searching for truth through the prismatic (and often cruel) facets of circumstance and self.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Review: Spoiled Rotten, by Mary Jackman

One of the benefits of getting picked up by a new publisher is that you’re welcomed into the family pretty quickly. Just shortly after signing with Dundurn Press back in May, I was invited to attend the launch for Mary Jackman’s debut mystery novel Spoiled Rotten, which they’ve also published. I hadn’t read a mystery in more than 15 years, but I picked up hers at the launch and decided to give it a whirl.

What fun! Jackman is a natural storyteller and she puts together her tale of murder in Toronto’s dining scene with a good structure and strong, serviceable prose. Spoiled Rotten tells the story of Liz Walker, a restaurateur whose star chef is accused of the brutal killing a meat supplier in Kensington Market. Liz, plucky and self deprecating, takes it upon herself to clear her chef and her restaurant’s name by investigating the crime herself. Along the way, she strikes up a cheeky romance with Detective Winn, the police officer in charge of solving the case.

What ensues is a fun – albeit sometimes grisly – romp through dismemberments, food poisoning, runaway gentrification in Kensington Market, thwarted love, municipal politics, and nasty blows to the head. Jackman provides a loving and diverse picture of the restaurant business as well as her native Toronto. Her descriptions of the city in all its frenetic charm are well done, as are her descriptions of Liz’s cramped office, popular-but-struggling restaurant, and less-than-perfect personal life.

But the real strength here is the story. Jackman ramps up the tension without giving up too much plausibility as Liz becomes the real killer’s next target. The ending is satisfying and leaves the door open for more Liz Walker Mysteries, one of which I hear is already on the way. Spoiled Rotten is a great book to check out if you’re a mystery fan, or just in need of a fun, fast read.      

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Review: Conversations with Anthony Burgess, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll and Mary C. Ingersoll

Readers of this blog will know that I have a real soft spot when it comes author interviews. While the vast majority of the ones found on the blogosphere these days are uniformly awful—often choked with stock questions that could be asked of any writer at any time, cringe-inducing obsessions with process, lots of literary back scratching, and a relentless need to fetishize the writerly life (“Do you have a day job? … “Do you write in the morning or at night?” … “Where do you get your ideas? … “Isn’t that interesting …” etc) rather than focus on the writing it produces—it’s good to be reminded of a time when author interviews were still treated as serious journalism. A good interviewer will ask questions that prove conclusively that he or she has read the author’s work closely. A good interviewee will provide answers that are thoughtful, engaging, tangential and most importantly, unique to the interview at hand.

Readers also know I have a real soft spot for Anthony Burgess, so when I discovered this collection of interviews edited by Earl G. Ingersoll and Mary C. Ingersoll, I jumped at the chance to read it. The editors wisely acknowledge in their introduction that Burgess had a penchant for mythomania, and part of the fun of reading these interviews (which run from 1971 to 1989) is catching him in his various flights of exaggeration, contradiction, playfulness and outright apocrypha-making.

One of the great feats of the Ingersolls’ anthology is compiling interviews with Burgess that cover a wide range of the polymath’s interests. There are interviews revealing his frustrations over the success of his best-known novel, A Clockwork Orange; there is an interview discussing his views on education (Burgess worked for many years as a teacher before devoting himself to writing full-time); there is an interview detailing his literary criticism on Joyce (his analysis of the inconsistent diction of the Molly Bloom soliloquy in Ulysses is inspired); and there are lots of disclosure about his personal life.

One aspect of these interviews that stuck out for me was the emphasis and importance that Burgess put on book reviewing. He saw it as another form of journalism, which it is. Indeed, there are several instances where Burgess says he engages in journalism to “pay the bills”, and what he means by that is book reviewing for pay. He says that reviewing did his fiction no harm, and in fact made him a deeper thinker and more astute reader. Reviewing also earned him his fair share of enemies, which of course good reviewing always should.

Still, despite the wide swath of this anthology, I did feel there were a few areas of Burgess’ life that the book beats to death. There are too many interviews, for example, that deal with the subject’s capital-C Catholic background and not enough that deal with his small-c catholic interests. After all, this was a man who spoke at least a dozen languages fluently. He composed music and had vast chunks of the classical repertoire committed to memory. He was an expert on D.H. Lawrence, various areas of linguistic theory, and East Asian culture. He also reviewed wine, food, films and even cars for the popular media. Yet the interviews tend to spend too much time on Burgess’ exploration of good and evil and free will through the prism of his Catholicism that helped shape his fiction. When the questions surround his magnum opus Earthly Powers, they at least come off as a propos. But there are times when the theological discourse just goes round and round, and come off as repetitive.

I was also curious to see how the Ingersolls transcribed Burgess’ 1985 audio interview with Don Swain, which is available freely online. Here Swain’s various flubs (he at one point confuses Monte Carlo with Monaco; at another he accuses Burgess—wrongly—of leaving Styron out his Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939) have been cleaned up, and much, I have to say, to the detriment of the interview.

Still, this was a deeply enjoyable read and a great portal into the life, work and thoughts of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating and enigmatic writers. As a Burgess fan, I found this anthology to be a welcome addition to my growing shelf of Burgess texts.

The quotable Burgess

Here are some wonderfully aphoristic blurbs from the interviews that, for whatever reason, really resonated with me:

  • “It’s typical of a young man brought up in the provinces, living in the provinces, that he should try and make a bigger man of himself than he is by indulging in fantasies and by lying.”
  • “I like authority, because children can rebel against authority. It’s much more difficult to rebel against red tape.”
  • “The counter-culture is producing a vacuum into which anybody can march.”
  • “The practice of being on time with commissioned work is an aspect of politeness. I don’t like being late for appointments; I don’t like craving indulgence from editors in the matter of missed deadlines. Good journalistic manners tend to lead to a kind of self-discipline in creative work. It’s important that a novel be approached with some urgency.”
  • “The U.S. presidency is a Tudor monarch plus telephones.”
  • “Always invent your own dialects if you can.”
  •   “One should go through a great deal of trouble to be cunningly clumsy. Joyce is cunningly clumsy … In fiction there should be an element of doubt in the sentence.” 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Review: More in Anger, by J. Jill Robinson

Fiction should never have a thesis. It should never hold an ax to grind, possess an agenda, or otherwise set to prove or disprove a hypothesis. When an author starts out on the creative path, he or she may have a ensemble of characters, an undercurrent of theme, perhaps a smattering of plot, but any interstitial value beyond these should arise organically out of the writing. A work of fiction should have a life force of its own, beyond even what its author wants for it. The creation of fiction should be as much an act of discovery for the writer as it is the reader; and an author undermines this tenet when she uses fiction to get a very narrow and inflexible point across.

I kept thinking about this as I read J. Jill Robinson’s debut novel, More in Anger – a book that does have a clear-cut argument at its root, and is much the lesser for it. The novel’s triptych structure presents us with the lives of three generations of women from the same family—Opal, Pearl and Vivien. The book sets out to show how anger and cruelty can be passed almost like a gene from mother to daughter granddaughter, and that this anger can be blamed on a single source: a deeply engrained patriarchy. This you can glean from the jacket flap. But while all three protagonists have the potential to be fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters, Robinson never allows them to escape the narrowly defined agenda she has set for them. She constructs each woman as if she were a mechanized toy, then winds her up and sets her off on her predetermined path.

The weakest of the three sections is the first. Opal is born in the late 1800s, and when More in Anger opens, in 1915, she is about to embark on a marriage to a young lawyer for CPR named James “Mac” Macaulay. Opal is both incredibly vain and breathtakingly naïve, and is thus caught flatfooted when Mac reveals his temper and misogyny after they are wed. Robinson wants to jar her 21st century audience with Mac’s ejaculations of ‘shut your trap’ (a well-selected anachronism from the period) and his opinions on female intelligence – too stupid to drive, too stupid to vote, etc etc – and how their place should be restricted to the home. Unable to penetrate the sarcophagus of Mac’s taciturn nature, Opal takes out her womanly frustrations on her children, particularly her moody, brooding daughter Pearl.

Yet there are some inconsistencies of character here. At one point, Mac implausibly purchases for Opal a fully furnished family home – complete with tea towels in the kitchen –  and she predictably unhinges at him because she won’t be able to decorate it itself. Mac’s act of gross insensitivity comes off like a false note because Robinson makes it clear he is a man who believes in clear boundaries between men and women’s roles. Why would he go to such pains to interfere in what he clearly sees as a woman’s domain if he’s such a traditional patriarch? The answer, I think, is that Robinson wants to make sure we know what a jerk he is, since this is a key component of the section’s thesis. It doesn’t seem to occur to Robinson that this isn’t likely something that someone like Mac would actually do.

The second section belongs to Opal’s now-grown daughter Pearl, who is driven to an almost psychopathic hysteria by the patriarchy that floats in the air around her. She hates her mother and everything her life represents. She grows to hate her husband. She hates her children. She hates that fact that she has children, that society made her have them rather than pursue her dream of being a teacher. She eventually goes back to school and becomes a teacher, and then hates her students and the drudgery of the job. She is in a perpetual state of suspicion and rage against everyone around her.

Now I’m not all that concerned that Pearl isn’t a sympathetic character, since I put little value on “sympathizing” with a character – that’s just not how I read. I’m not even ready to accuse her of being unrealistic. Even at her most enraged, I still bought into her as a fully formed person. (Her relentless fury and paranoia even reminded me of an ex-girlfriend or two.) But my beef with Pearl is the lack of nuance to her character. She seems to have a very myopic view on the world, and this again doesn’t strike me as organic. Rather, she’s a pawn in Robinson’s broader argument, and to give her a bit of shading would undermine what the book wants to accomplish.

The strongest section is the final one, where Pearl’s daughter Vivien takes centre stage. She is complicated and far more developed than her predecessors, and Robinson’s prose is much livelier in this section. Vivien ruminates on the complexity of her relationship with Pearl, and even tips her hat to her grandmother Opal’s experiences and how this lineage has shaped her own life. Yet the last 10 pages, in which Pearl has passed away and Vivien tries to make some sense of her mother’s existence, read like a bland summing-up, a reiterating of some underlying hypothesis. It’s like Vivien is saying, “Relationships between mothers and daughters sure are difficult,” and we as readers are there to simply nod and stroke our chins, since this is what the novel has been telling us all along.

In the end, More in Anger makes for a dull and uninspired read. Its trajectory holds no mystery, is never in doubt; its themes are decided for us; its “point” is hermetically sealed and does not allow readers to bring anything of their own to it. It’s almost like we don’t even need to be there. It’s almost like the jacket flap does all our work for us.