Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: Gaspereau Gloriatur - Volume II: Prose, edited by Michael deBeyer, Kate Kennedy and Andrew Steeves

If any readers of CanLit were unfamiliar with the Kentville, NS-based publisher Gaspereau Press prior to 2010, that ignorance quickly evaporated when Johanna Skibsrud won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel The Sentimentalists, which Gaspereau had released the previous year. Suddenly this artisan publisher became known as the little press that could; it also became known as the little press that wouldn’t—mass produce its books that is, despite the additional demand that the Giller win had engineered.

Yes, you would know a Gaspereau volume just by the feel of it: their hand-made tomes, created in small runs of a few hundred copies each, are exquisite to hold in your hand and have won numerous awards for their breathtaking design. But what of the press’s literary sensibilities? Can we find some overarching statement to make about Gaspereau’s tastes in novels, short stories, poetry and nonfiction? Maybe, maybe not—but a good place to start looking would be with this Gaspereau Gloriatur anthology series. Published in 2007 in two volumes—one for poetry and one for prose—to celebrate the press’s tenth anniversary, these anthologies collect some of Gaspereau’s best work from its first decade in business. I received the prose volume as a gift a few months back from my good friend J.J. Steinfeld, whose charming story “Outliving Hitler” is included in its pages.  

Prose, for the purposes of this anthology, is defined as short stories and novel excerpts, as well as personal essays and other forms of nonfiction. These parameters give the book a bit of a hodge podge feel, but a delightful one for the most part. Indeed, I was pleased to find a number of real gems from both familiar names and writers I had never even heard of. This is part of Gaspereau’s allure: whether publishing a small-press veteran or an emerging new voice, the press doesn’t resort to attention-hustling or elaborate promotional schemes; it quietly allows the work to speak for itself.

One of the stand-out pieces for me was Jonathan Campbell’s novel excerpt Tarcadia—a writer and a book I was hitherto unfamiliar with. Campbell’s tale, set near the Sydney tar ponds in the early 1970s, could have easily slipped into the clich├ęs of a dour, regionalized rumination on place and self. Instead, his prose is lively and humourous, the dialogue sharp and pitch perfect as he captures the lives of young boys trying to make their way in a small, isolated place. Campbell is a natural storyteller, and this excerpt—which involves a rafting trip along the polluted tar ponds—is riveting.

I was also impressed with Don McKay’s nonfiction excerpt “Vis a Vis: Fieldnotes On Poetry & Wilderness.” McKay is mostly known as a poet, and I’ve read a bunch of his verse and like it well enough. But this personal essay is a cut above: from the title you might assume it details one of McKay’s frequent contemplative walks through the natural world; but he kicks things off with a brilliant description of a yard sale he held while living in New Brunswick. The essay then moves seamlessly into an analysis of metaphor and the role it plays in “the normal traffic of events.”

Other standout pieces in the anthology include Elaine McCluskey’s brilliant short story “Queen of the Losers”, which contains the most perfect description of a Halifax tall ships festival; John Ralson Saul’s talk “Joseph Howe & the Battle for Freedom of Speech”, delivered at my undergrad alma mater, the University of King’s College in Halifax; a wonderful piece on cycling by the chronically underappreciated author and scholar Kent Thompson; and Glen Hancock’s surprisingly original memoir excerpt “Charley Goes to War,” about his time in WWII.

There are, as with any anthology, a few disappointments along the way. I’m a huge fan of John Terpstra’s poetry (see my review of his collection Disarmament) but his personal essay “Falling into Place” was both incredibly dull and utterly baffling. I found the prose and preoccupations of Susan Haley to be somewhat dated and unoriginal. The piece on songwriting by Bob Snider was so vague and generic as to be virtually unreadable. And the ramblings of Nova Scotia poet Peter Sanger had me lost within the first couple of paragraphs. Overall, I also felt the volume could have benefited from more stand-alone short stories, rather than an imbalance of excerpted pieces from longer works.

Still, there’s a great deal of value in this anthology and in Gaspereau Press as a whole. It’s hard to pinpoint that overarching sensibility I mentioned above, but one can try. Most of these pieces deal with, in some way, the off-the-beaten-path aspects of our Canadian experience. There is, for the most part, a privileging of the rural over the urban, of the slowly ruminative over the quickly familiar quotidian. These pieces are, by and large, quietly brilliant rather than, well, loudly brilliant. But one can only take these statements so far. Gaspereau is like most small presses: it’s trying to cast a wide enough net in order to publish some of the best writing in the country, while still staying loyal to a particular taste in writing as a whole. This anthology is a great view into that aesthetic microcosm. Here’s hoping the press puts out a similar volume in 2017 to celebrate 20 years in business.

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