Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Publication: The Puritan Issue 24 - Winter 2014

So I'm super excited to announce that I have a new review essay published in the latest issue of The Puritan literary journal, released just this morning. My piece, called "The Thatness of This", covers three recent Canadian poetry collections: Ash Steps, by M. Travis Lane, Grunt of the Minotaur, by Robin Richardson, and The Crystal Palace, by Carey Toane. I loved each of these books in different ways, and was able to frame an argument around why using a quote from a foreword that Lane herself had written and published in a previous poetry collection. Anyway, give the essay a read and let let me know what you think.

This issue also includes some corking new work by Garry Thomas Morse, Jenny Sampirisi, Pasha Malla and others. I'm very proud to be included among such talented writers and looking forward to reading the issue in full. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Upcoming event: Hart House Review launch

Just letting y'all know that I'm slated to read at the launch of the latest issue of The Hart House Review, which will be taking place on Wednesday, April 23 at Hart House in Toronto. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, there will be an excerpt from my new novel as well as an interview with me in the next issue of the journal, so I'm very much looking forward to that. I'll provide you with more details on the launch when I get them.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Acceptance: Front&Centre magazine

So I was just in the midst of my post-Antigonish Review contributor's copy celebration when I checked my email to find another acceptance letter for a short story--this time from Matthew Firth and the good folks at Front&Centre magazine. This journal is known for publishing work within the vein of "dirty realism," and my short story "In the Middle" seems to have fit the bill. Anyway, very excited to have a piece coming out with these guys later this year. And yes, the story will also be included in the collection I'm publishing next spring.

In other news: RR and I had a wonderful time last night helping Ron Schafrick launch his debut short story collection Interpreters here in Toronto. The readings went well and there was a great crowd of friendlies out to join us. I highly recommend checking Ron's book out if you get a chance.


Friday, February 14, 2014

The Antigonish Review 176 ...

arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Actually, three copies arrived, because of course the issue contains my short story "The Fantasy", and you always get a couple of extras when you're a contributor. It's a real beaut of an issue, with a wonderfully apropos winterscape on the cover and lots of interesting stuff inside. I'm excited to read new works by John Wall Barger, Matt Robinson, and Shane Neilson, and there are a ton of unfamiliar names for me to discover as well.

"The Fantasy"will be included in the short story collection I'm releasing next spring with Now or Never Publishing in Vancouver. In terms of the writing, the piece was the rarest of experiences for me: it didn't require rewriting four or six or eleven times over; it pretty much came out in its final form in one shot in December 2012. This has never happened in my 23 years of writing fiction. It also got picked up by the first place I sent it, which is becoming a more regular occurrence, thankfully. It makes me feel like I'm on the right track.

Anyway, The Antigonish Review 176 is available on better news stands around the country. Give it a read and then come back here and let me know what you think.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sad Peninsula update: finalized cover and pre-order options

So yes we're still seven months out from publication, but my second novel, Sad Peninsula, has a cover! I'd been in discussion with Dundurn over the last number of weeks about three separate concepts they were working with, but this is the one that rose to the top. I'm probably the least design-oriented person in the world, so I got a lot of help from my wife and some friends in formulating my opinions on the various options. In the end, I have to say I like this a lot, and there are a couple of scenes in the book where this kind of display of Hangul and Hanja lettering is pertinent. (I also love the treatment just below my name of the blurb supplied by novelist Ann Ireland, who uses a word that I consider one of the great compliments in describing my book: bawdy. Definitely a term that doesn't get tossed around enough these days.) Anyway, special thanks to my editor Shannon Whibbs and in-house designer Courtney Horner for all their work on this.

And despite being seven months out, the book is available for pre-order from various online retailers. Of course, I encourage you to support your local independent bookseller whenever possible.

The next step is the printing of advance reading copies (ARCs), which will happen over the next couple of weeks. The ARCs get distributed to various book reviewers, festival organizers, and awards committees for consideration. It's great that they'll be done this early in the process, because it increases the chances of some buzz ahead of the official launch. I'll keep you all posted as more news develops.


Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: Dear Leaves, I Miss You All, by Sara Heinonen

Sometimes one needs reminding that there’s more that can unify a short story collection than just the reoccurrence of characters. I often feel tempted to dump collections of short fiction into one of two boxes: either the stories overlap in very literal ways, with characters interacting with one another across tales to form a broader narrative; or each story stands monolithically alone, its own singular world that may, at best, carry thematic ties across the rest of the book.

So it’s nice to read a collection like Sara Heinonen’s Dear Leaves, I Miss You All, which shatters that simple schism and shows us a third way (and a fourth, and a fifth) to hold a book of stories together. That’s not to say there aren’t reoccurring characters in Dear Leaves. There are: they take the form of the delightfully dysfunctional but no less loving couple Barb and Benny, who gently (and humorously) battle one another for dominance in their marriage across several of these tales. But there is a larger emotional arc at work in Dear Leaves, a journey that Heinonen is taking us on to explore one of the chief preoccupations of our post-modern age.    

That preoccupation, of course, is anxiety. This emotion hums like white noise in the background of nearly all of these stories. For Barb, it is the anxiety of environmental catastrophe, an obsession of hers that plays itself out in stories like “Ultra”, “Night of the Polar Fleece” and especially “A Little Nut Thing” (which I had previously read, with great relish, when it first appeared in the literary journal Event.) For the characters in “The Edge of the World”, it is their tenuous grasp on a middle-class future, symbolized by the image of a growing sinkhole. For the narrator of “Walking Along Steeles after Midnight”, it is the anxiety of self-reliance, of being able to stand on one’s own in the face of relentless inner isolation.

What impresses most about Dear Leaves is the multiple ways this emotional arc exerts itself without merely being a quick thematic thread strung loosely between the stories. It’s as if Heinonen is taking us through an evolution of modern-day anxiety, hitting it from various angles and perspectives. Many of these stories do inhabit their own worlds that don’t necessarily align with other worlds in the collection. I’m thinking specifically of “The Bloom”, which is an almost supernatural tale about a woman who is dying because there is a tree slowly growing out of her chest.

There are other oppositions that harmonize rather than jangle with one another. Some pieces are long and detailed realisms; others are short and more elliptical. There are some stories about married couples in frozen Toronto, and others about singletons living in steamy Hong Kong. My single favourite piece in the collection, “The Blue Dress”, falls into that latter category. I love the way it undermines where my allegiances would naturally fall: it’s a story that is literally about a girl who leaves her partner for his best friend. But the emotional journey that the girl, named Nance, takes in the process of doing that illuminates yet another aspect of modern-day unease.

In the end, these stories point to the root cause of so much of this anxiety: a loss of personal agency. It is, again, something that crops up over and over in Dear Leaves, but without being heavy-handed. Even Barb, in all of her altruistic intention around protecting the planet, worries about how environmental collapse might impede her own journey toward self actualization.

If this all sounds heady, rest assured that Dear Leaves is also quite light on its feet, and deeply, deeply funny in places. In fact, I don’t recall the last time a short story collection won the Stephen Leacock Medal, but here’s hoping Heinonen’s publisher puts this book into contention for it. Readers will find much to love, and much to root for, in this hilariously unsettling debut.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sad Peninsula update: Excerpt and interview forthcoming in The Hart House Review

I'm pleased and excited to announce that a short excerpt from Sad Peninsula, as well as an interview with me, will be appearing in the upcoming issue of The Hart House Review. I was quite flattered that the journal's editors approached me to submit something for their "featured author" section, and they've decided to go with the first few pages from Chapter 11.

For those of you who don't know, The Hart House Review is a literary journal published annually out of the University of Toronto by students who belong to the university's Hart House. It has published a ton of great work over the years by emerging Canadian writers, including my lovely wife.

Anyway, the issue is due out in the spring. I'll keep y'all posted when it comes out.


Saturday, February 8, 2014

Review: Archive of the Undressed, by Jeanette Lynes

One of the better poetry books I read and reviewed last year was Jeanette Lynes’ collection It’s Hard Being Queen, a kind of poetic near-hagiography of the pop singer Dusty Springfield. In that review, I mentioned seeing Lynes’ work in various literary journals over the years and was anxious to finally read a full-length collection. It was with that sentiment that I dove into another book of hers in less than a year—this time the 2012 collection Archive of the Underdressed.

Like its predecessor, Archive picks a pop-culture preoccupation to give it its unifying focus—this time, the phenomenon of Playboy magazine. The collection offers up a mixed bag of lyric poetry, fragment, experimental verse, and personal confession to take a multifaceted glance at this salacious periodical and the empire it has spawned. In her introductory essay, Lynes describes her research at great length, and what it is about Playboy that inspires her.

But the results, at least in comparison to It’s Hard Being Queen, are a bit disappointing. The mixed bag structure actually muddles rather than elucidates Lynes’ vision for this book. I could never get a fix on anything concrete that Archive was trying to say about Playboy. If the collection is meant to be a straight-up tribute to the magazine, it falls a bit flat. If it’s meant to be a feminist critique of Playboy and its readers’ objectification of women, it doesn’t really see that vision through, either. There are some snippets of poetic memoir about Lynes’ own love life, but these are quite patchy and predictable. And you would think that the poems in this book would at least try to mirror the bawdiness of Playboy itself—especially considering the rich tradition that the bawdy has in poetry—but it’s a style of writing that Lynes doesn’t seem comfortable with or capable of.

In fact, a lot of the verse in Archive comes off as, well, listless. Take, for example, this excerpt from the piece “Hugh Hefner, Boy”:

To dumb animals please be kind
the message of his childhood poems. His mother
marvelled at his artistry, that tadpole of hers,
his drawings – flying men in capes and cowboys.
Outlaws …

Beyond the obvious cliché (“marveled at his artistry”) and the clanking syntax of this poem’s structure (shouldn’t it read “His mother/ marvelled at that tadpole of hers/ at his artistry, his drawings”?), there is a lack of heft to the Hefner portrayed here. Lynes writes with a noticeable tentativeness in this and in other pieces. It’s as if she’s afraid to say anything substantive about her subject or to transmute the magazine’s own predilections and peccadilloes into her verse. I got the sense that in most of these poems, Lynes was trying to be very careful in what she said about Playboy, rather than letting her imagination go free to have at it.

That’s not to say there aren’t some gems in this book. I really loved the flippy, skipping rhythm to, say, “How to Read Playboy”, or the cheeky opening salvo of “Thinking of You during Security Screening at Calgary Airport.” But these delights are few and far between. Too many of the poems fail to grasp their inner burlesque. Some feel overwritten without saying very much. And more than a few end on some cringe-inducing puns. Oral sect, anyone?

I still consider myself a fan of Lynes: I will always think fondly of the clarity with which she wrote her Dusty Springfield book, and the way she really pushed the hagiographic line without crossing it. But Archive of the Undressed, by comparison, comes off as a misfire. Like Playboy itself, it shows much but doesn't quite reveal enough.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Upcoming event: Ron Schafrick's launch at the Old Nick

So our good friend Ron Schafrick is launching his debut collection of short fiction, called Interpreters, in a couple of weeks at the Old Nick here in Toronto, and he asked if RR and I would read with him to help warm up the audience. We of course said yes, and would love it if folks are able to join us. Here are the details:

Where: The Old Nick - 123 Danforth Ave Toronto (Danforth and Broadview)
When:  Saturday, February 15, 2014 at 6 pm.
Admission: FREE!

Looking forward to seeing you all there!


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Review: All the Broken Things, by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

I should admit off the bat that I have a real soft spot for reading (and, frankly, writing) stories that weave two seemingly unconnected tropes into a cohesive artistic whole. So needless to say Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s new novel, All the Broken Things, hits a number of buttons for me. Despite being out for barely a month, this book has already received ubiquitously glowing reviews: in the Globe, the Post, the Star, etc. etc. And I have no qualms adding my voice to the chorus of praise. This is a solid outing from an immensely talented writer.

The two tropes in question—in case you’re one of the 11 literate people in Canada who hasn’t heard yet—is bear wrestling and the lingering affects of America’s use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. The novel, set in 1983, tells the story of Bo, a 14-year-old Vietnam immigrant living near High Park in Toronto with his mother Rose and severely disabled younger sister Orange. A scrappy kid, Bo gets recruited one day by a carnie named Gerry to be a bear wrestler after he witnesses Bo tussling in the street with a schoolmate.

Gerry introduces Bo to the world freaks and sideshows, of travelling entertainment and the carnival life. He even gives him his own bear cub, named Bear, to raise. But he also introduces him to his morally questionable boss, Max. Max eventually meets and begins a relationship with Rose, but his interest in Bo’s family proves to be far more nefarious: he’s looking to exploit the physical deformities of young Orange in his freak show. Her name, in fact, has several meanings in the novel: her Vietnamese name means Orange Blossom; but her deformities are caused as a result of America's use of Agent Orange during the war a decade and a half earlier—a chemical that, ironically enough, was manufactured in one of the small Ontario towns that the carnival travels to.

All the Broken Things soon takes on a fantastical quality as Bo sets out with Bear to rescue Orange from Max’s clutches. The two hide out in High Park, take advantage of the help of Bo’s gentle-hearted teacher (there’s an absolutely devastating scene early in the novel, involving her attempt to get Bo to talk about his Vietnamese heritage and immigration experiences with the class as a way of curtailing the bullying he suffers), a pretty classmate named Emily, and a derelict he and Bear meet in the park called Soldier Man. Kuitenbrouwer stretches the realistic framework of her tale to make way for scenes and interactions that can only be described as miraculous. A lot of the success of this novel requires us to suspend our disbelief to allow the magic in. For the most part, it works. Bear wrestling, for example, was actually banned in Ontario in the 1970s, but we allow Kuitenbrouwer’s fudging here because it’s integral to the plot. We also allow images of Bo and Bear together from High Park to the CNE grounds because, well, we believe it in the moment.

But while there are several large improbabilities that we let go, there are other, smaller improbabilities that threaten this novel. Gerry, for example, is literally some guy that Bo meets off the street, and yet this carnie faces virtually no resistance from Rose when he wants to take her son away to a small town to show him the carnival life. I mean, I know it’s the 1980s and she’s most likely an alcoholic, but I did wonder why kidnapping and/or sexual impropriety never crossed her mind. There is also a scene where Bo learns of a death in his family—not that I want to give the plot away—and yet has no real visceral reaction of grief or even dismay. This struck me as a bit of a false note.

But what keeps these improbabilities from wrenching us out of All the Broken Things’s fictional world is, of course, Kuitenbrouwer’s incredible skill with language. Her ability to create mood and emotional resonance with her style is top notch; and her prose, for the most part, resists the urge to become self-consciously literary. She is deft at showing us Bo’s inner landscapes, and she weaves together the various thematic threads of this book marvelously. As we close in one of the novel’s final miracles—Orange gaining the ability to communicate with Bo—we soon forgive any of the near-contrivances that came earlier. The depth of emotion at the book’s climax is very real, and very moving.