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?