Friday, August 29, 2014

Sad Peninsula Toronto launch party

So here are the details for next month's big launch party for Sad Peninsula here in Toronto. If you're in the city and can make it out, it would be great to see you. There will be a reading by yours truly, some wine and (possibly Korean-based) nibbles, and lots of mingling.

Where: Ben McNally Books - 366 Bay St, Toronto. (At Bay and Queen)
When: Tuesday, September 30, 2014.
What time:  6:00 - 8:00 pm (Reading starts at 6:45)
RSVP?: Yes, please RSVP on the event's Facebook invitation page. If you're not on Facebook, just drop a comment here on this blog post saying you plan to attend, just so I can let Ben McNally know a rough estimate of the number of expected guests.

Also: there are other dates coming, including a brief tour in the Maritimes later this year, so stay tuned for that.

And finally: if you're an literary-based organization and are interested in having me out to read from or discuss the novel, please drop me a line.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sad Peninsula update: Early reviews!

So I thought I'd share a few advance reviews of Sad Peninsula that have been making the rounds over the last little while. Here's hoping there'll be reason to do this several times over the coming months, but I'll try to group them in bunches so I don't hijack the blog with each one individually (if it comes to that!).

Up first is Stephen Knight's review from the July/August issue of Quill and Quire. In his piece, Knight says that the novel handles its take on both Korean culture and Seoul's expat nightlife well, and states: "The fact that readers are so emotionally engaged in discovering the answers to [novel's] questions indicates that the author has done a lot right here." It was great to see the book get reviewed in this long-standing industry magazine, as I've been reviewing for it myself for a number of years now.

The book blogger behind the site "Whatifknits" ran a review of Sad Peninsula a couple of days ago under the headline "The Necessity of Reading that Hurts." Here, the reviewer praises the novel but notes several times that it's a "painful" read - painful in a necessary way. She says, "While this is a painful novel to read, it is also a very worthwhile read. The history of the 'comfort women' needs to be told and retold precisely because it is a painful history, the sort that societies attempt to wish away through forgetting ... [T]his kind of cross-cultural understanding, the placing of one’s self into the experiences of others, is essential to a world in which sexual violence may someday be eradicated."

A less favourable review appeared a few weeks ago on the Brenda Agaro book blog. Ms. Agaro places a series of "trigger warnings" at the top of her piece about the novel and expresses some concerns about the sexual violence described in the book and about Michael's likability as a character. While her strongest criticisms are based on a couple of factual inaccuracies (Michael doesn't successfully kiss Jin on their first date; and it's Jin, not Michael, who expresses concerns with her wearing traditional Korean hanbok clothing), she does make some valid points throughout her thoughtful review. While she only gave the book 2 stars on GoodReads (where the review is cross-posted), I do appreciate Ms. Agaro taking the time to read the novel and share her insights with her audience.

That's it for now. Just a reminder that the book is officially on sale September 6 and I'll be doing a number of reading throughout the fall and early winter. See my events page for the latest.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Review: Look Who’s Morphing, by Tom Cho

There is an unspoken observation in the literary circles I run in that that when a relatively unknown writer puts his own photo on the cover of his book, we’ve officially entered amateur hour. I’m happy to report that Tom Cho’s short story collection, Look Who’s Morphing, bucks this fairly reliable prejudice. Yes, his book does sport a rather pouty picture of the author with grandiose bouffant, leather jacket and a slash upon his cheek dripping a freaky neon purple blood. But these stories don’t, for the most part, fall prey to the pitfalls most associated with self-published works by authors with an overinflated sense of themselves. Indeed, Look Who’s Morphing found some acclaim in Cho’s native Australia and has been recently released here in Canada by Arsenal Pulp Press.

Pop culture provides the cornerstone to Cho’s subject matter and sensibility. Many, of the stories in this collection take their premise from a well-known Hollywood movie or TV show and twists it into something bizarre and slightly startling. The opening tale, “Dirty Dancing”, recasts the classic film as a kind of surrealist gay love story when Patrick Swayze’s dance partner becomes a man, not a woman. “The Exorcist” involves the narrator’s Chinese aunt who buys a haunted apron that has fake plastic breasts on the front and becomes possessed by a demon as a result. “I, Robot”, set in the year 2136, is a gleeful romp of destruction when our narrator is transformed into a mechanical being as part of an Australian make-work program.

I have to admit that a lot of Cho’s pieces felt a bit too easy in their attempt to be weird for the sake of being weird. I often thought that the concepts for these stories, in their attempts to be “transgressive” (a term that grows more tedious with every year that passes) didn’t really challenge the writer, and therefore didn’t challenge me as a reader. Still, one cannot deny that Cho has some serious writing chops: his stories have a way of being funny, sensitive, rebellious and revolting all at once, and he shows great control over his form.

The final story, “Cock Rock,” borrows heavily from various pop culture incarnations of Godzilla, and is, in Cho’s hands, almost entirely unadulterated id. The story is about a gigantic rock star (standing 50 metres tall) who ends up getting tied down like Gulliver and pleasured by a group of women. The story has little emotional resonance, but one can’t help but be impressed by Cho’s zestful and insouciant approach to prose.            

Publication: Play - Poems about Childhood

So I came home yesterday to find in the mail my contributor's copy of Play: Poems about Childhood, the Kid Series: Volume One, a new anthology edited by Shane Neilson and published by Frog Hollow Press out of Victoria, BC. The book has republished my poem "Tragedies of Stillness," a slightly different version of which first appeared in This magazine back in 2012. 

I'm very excited to tuck into this anthology, as it contains work by a whole trove of poets I deeply admire, including Milton Acorn, M. Travis Lane, Alden Nowlan, Zachariah Wells, Ken Babstock and others. 

Anyway, thanks to Shane Neilson and Frog Hollow Press for plucking me and my piece from the weeds of obscurity and including us in this delightful who's who of Canadian verse.      

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sad Peninsula update: Reading at Rowers in Toronto

I happy to announce that I've been added to the bill for the Rowers Reading Series here in Toronto this coming fall, just shortly after Sad Peninsula is published. Here are the details:

Where: The Central - 603 Markham St., Toronto Ontario
Date: Monday, October 6, 2014.
Time: Doors open at 6:15, readings begin around 6:45.

Please stay tuned to the blog for further updates as they develop. I also wanted to mention that I'm in the middle of getting some tour dates confirmed for the Maritimes in December. To keep abreast, check in with my Events page for updates. As always, if you are associated with an event, reading series, school or festival and you would like me to do a reading, please drop me a line.


Friday, August 8, 2014

Review: Everyone Is CO2, by David James Brock

I had the great privilege of reading with David James Brock back in April at the launch of this year’s issue of Hart House Review (which published us both), and he really did steal the show. While Everyone Is CO2 may be Brock’s first full-length collection of poetry, you wouldn’t know it from either the book or his reading that night. There is a well-seasoned sense of accomplishment to this work, a trickster’s confidence in knowing exactly how to elicit the response he wants that belies the debut nature of this verse.

It may also have helped that I read this collection while in Las Vegas last month. It seemed an apt setting for a series of poems that balance the low and the high, the intricate layering of lyrical verse with relentless references to pop culture. Indeed, I actually read his piece “Las Vegas Mothers” while lounging poolside at a third-rate hotel on the strip while trying to choke down a $16 piƱa colada. The solace the poem provided proved immeasurable:

Each knows who her Las Vegas mother once was when the hoots
come from limousines wrangling tourists off the strip
to the titty bars. The Las Vegas mothers remember
the marquee’s hot gas glowing five colours. Having never seen

a rainbow on the outskirts, the prettiest daughters wait beneath
that neon cowboy while his arm jerks a lasso.
The Las Vegas mothers fear for a city learning its lesson,
that maybe this is the time, the boulevard won’t let go.

Notice here the oscillation between our standard perception of Las Vegas and its cold-eyed reality: the lethal gas used in neon promotes an image of a cowboy; a rainbow-less grit and dullness exist just beyond the city’s gaudy limits. Brock knows how to braid two opposing images into a cohesive whole, giving his subject an entirely new life of its own.

This is no more true than in the poem “Adam Yauch (Eightfold)”, a small masterpiece that weaves a loving tribute to the now-deceased member of the Beastie Boys with Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path. There are eight stanzas here – one for each of the Noble Paths as well as one for each of the Beastie Boys’ studio albums, quoting a lyric in italics. What emerges from this unconventional amalgam is actually small, lapidary bits of wisdom, testaments of how to conduct one’s life or see the world that surrounds us. Even in the seventh stanza, based on the Beastie Boys’ instrumental album, Brock manages to find words that keep the propulsion of the poem going:

If a vow of silence helps this mix-up, I’ll try. The mind might fight
that silence. I will visualize brain folds as elbows, keeping bullies
from butting to the front of the line. No words for this part. The
instrumental comes from the sound of static, a solid stretched taut,
sublimating … then disappearing. Am I doing this right?

Everyone Is CO2 taps into very specific periods of pop culture: from TLC’s “Waterfalls” and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation to the Rob Reiner film Stand By Me, the references here will resonate most with those born in the 1970s and `80s. Yet what comes of all this? An entirely new and fresh existence for these cultural touchstones, infusing them with an agency of their own. This is something that Brock does exceedingly well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Review: All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

As I write the opening paragraph to this review, I am listening to Rachmaninov’s Prelude op. 23 no. 5 in G minor, a piece of classical piano that is at once virtuosic and oddly crushing in its intensity. It makes sense that this bit of music looms large in Miriam Toews’ devastating new novel, All My Puny Sorrows, a book about one woman’s emotional journey with a sister who is desperate to commit suicide. There are a number of ways to interpret the knuckle-dragging loops in Rachmaninov’s masterpiece – life affirming? ominous? – and this mirrors what we’ve come to expect in a Toews’ novel: a balancing of light and dark, of humour and pathos, of richness and repetition.

The story introduces us to Yolandi, a single mom and middling author of rodeo novels (do such things exist?) who escapes her suffocating small town in Mennonite Manitoba only to careen fecklessly through her love life, career and child rearing responsibilities. She clearly idolizes her older sister Elfreida, who is everything Yoli is not: wildly successful in her own career as a classical pianist and married to a solid, reliable man who worships the ground she walks on. Yet Elf’s own existence is fraught with disaster: Yoli watches her sister suffer from the most debilitating clinical depression imaginable (inherited from their father, who was also suicidal) that leads her to make several attempts to end her life. After Elf is nearly successful while home in Winnipeg getting ready for a world tour, Yoli engages with her sister from her hospital bed in a number of gripping exchanges about whether Elf should continue to fight her depression or whether Yoli should help her commit suicide.

It’s no secret that Toews took much of the inspiration for All My Puny Sorrows from tragedies her own life: both her father and sister suffered from depression and both ended up committing suicide. Yet despite this close hewing to the bone, Toews manages to keep her novel very much within the realm of fiction, dazzling us with her incredible eye for description, her ability to modulate between the comic and horrific, and a pristine sense of how themes and ideas in a novel can braid so perfectly together.

One of passages from this book that just floored me was this one, a succinct description of the anguish that Elf deals with on a near-daily basis:

I asked Elf if she was thinking about all of the reasons to stay alive or if she was only trying to figure out an exit. She didn’t answer the question. I asked her if those forces were constantly battling it out in her mind and she said if they were then it was a lopsided fight like Rodney King versus the LAPD.

Everyone I have known who suffered from depression or committed suicide would find much resonance in this passage. It encapsulates so perfectly the helplessness and sheer resignation that comes with the disease.

While All My Puny Sorrows dazzled me with its emotional heft, there were a few flaws that I found sprinkled throughout. I would have liked to see more about Yoli’s own life earlier in the novel; we really don’t get to truly know her until much later in the story. I also thought that the ironic binary established between these sisters’ lives – Yoli’s the fuck-up and Elf is the success, yet it’s Elf who wants to commit suicide – was overdone in places.

But these are minor grumbles. All My Puny Sorrows will most likely be counted as Toews’ own masterpiece, and deservedly so. The ending especially good, as it reaches for something ineffable about death: that life does not stop in the face of a heart-wrenching tragedy, and yet the tragedy can do nothing but remain with us even as time progresses. Toews finishes with moments of levity, and yet an almost unspoken absence remains. There is no way to fill that void, no way to get pass it. Death lives in us as much as life does. There is no way to spin it, no flurry of affirmation to get us beyond it. It is a loss. It is a loss.

It is a loss.