Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

It goes without saying that Alice Munro pretty much wrecks the curve when it comes to the contemporary short story, but perhaps she has started wrecking the curve even for herself. This thought passed through my mind, very briefly, as I read the first few pieces in her latest collection, Too Much Happiness, a book rife with jarring twists in plot, occasionally inexplicable behaviour from characters, and themes that seem just a shade too direct. Far be it for me to even suggest that Munro can write anything less than a perfect short story, but I did wonder through those first few pieces whether these were as good as Munro at her best. Had she hit a plateau? Can we even judge short fiction in such linear terms?

Thankfully, these thoughts proved fleeting as I worked my way through the pieces in Too Much Happiness. After reading these tales – stories of women (and occasionally men) encountering abrupt moments of violence or strangeness, tough decisions or off-kilter relationships – I felt that feeling I always get after completing a Munro collection, that I had been taken on the most exquisite ride by one of the world’s most accomplished storytellers.

My favourite piece had to be “Some Women”, a story of a young girl who goes to work in a house where a man is dying of leukemia. This is classic Munro – the deeply explored dynamic between various tiers of womanhood: in this case, our smarter-than-thou protagonist, the dying man’s mother, the dying man’s wife, and a brass masseuse who provides everyone with a reality check. Munro is superb at handling the various nuances of her female characters, and she shows this talent off in several other stories as well – specifically “The Wenlock Edge”, which contains a very bizarre ‘naked dinner party’ at one point, and the aptly named story “Fiction.”

One of the many delights of reading Munro is the way she is able to assess and describe a character in such succinct and devastating ways without ever coming across as overly judgmental. I’m thinking of one passage in particular, from the story “Fiction”. Here the protagonist, Joyce, has gone to a book signing for a young authoress who has just published her first collection of short stories. Joyce encountered the girl many years earlier (as well as recently at a dinner party), and there is a story in the collection based on an encounter she had had with Joyce all those years ago. This is how the description of her at the book-signing table unfolds:

There was not a scrap of recognition in the girl’s face. She doesn’t know Joyce from year ago in Rough River or two weeks ago at the party. You couldn’t even be sure that she had recognized the title of her own story. You would think she had nothing to do with it. As if it was just something she wriggled out of and left on the grass. And as for whatever was true, that the story came from – why, she acted as if that was disposed of long before.

Christie O’Dell sits there and writes her name as if that is all the writing she could be responsible for in this world.

It’s such a cutting description, one of an ice-cold ingénue whose success as a writer may have been based on sheer luck as much as anything else. And yet Munro does not judge her in this moment; she simply captures her through Joyce’s eyes.

There are a couple of stories in Too Much Happiness that didn’t quite do it for me. Her piece “Face”, which tells the story of a man born with a large birthmark on his face, has a number of problems: it’s told from a first-person male perspective, which I didn’t quite entirely buy in this case, and I never quite accepted the hatred that the man’s father feels towards him. And the last story in the collection, the title story, seems oddly out of place in the rest of this book. It tells the story of famed 19th century mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalevsky, who was one of the first women ever to teach at a European university. Here, Munro relies a little too heavily on her research and keeps an arms-length distance from her subject. We never really get inside Sophia’s psychology as a character, and the story is weaker for it.

But overall, Too Much Happiness remains one of Munro’s strongest collections. She sets the bar very high for herself, but she happily clears it in almost every instance.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Event: Reading in Moncton NB

Just got word tonight that I'm confirmed to do a reading in Moncton, New Brunswick on Monday, December 27. Here are the details as I know them:

Where: Botsford Station - 232 Botsford St., Moncton NB
When: Monday, 27 December 2010 at 8 p.m.

The venue is apparently a former warehouse that has been renovated into a kind of nouveau cultural centre. They've recently held a winter bazaar there and are trying to organize various other artistic events for the city of Moncton, of which this reading is a part.

Not clear as to what other writers I'll be sharing a stage with, but I'm assuming one of them will be my close friend the poet and playwright Art Moore. Always a good time when us two clowns take to a stage. I'll probably read an excerpt from the new novel, so if you're in the Moncton area and can come out, you definitely should.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Review: Come, Thou Tortoise, by Jessica Grant

I have to admit, I’m a real sucker when it comes to a well-written “voice” novel. This term, which I encountered after reading Martin Amis’ Money, describes pretty much what you’d think it describes – a novel written in the first person but with a voice so irresistibly original and startling in the way it processes and interprets the world around it. The joissance of a good voice novel is, of course, having your own consciousness subsumed by the narrator’s while you’re reading the book. Jessica Grant’s debut novel, Come, Thou Tortoise, published to much acclaim in 2009, actually doubles the pleasure: it offers two idiosyncratic raconteurs – Audrey (nicknamed “Oddly”) Flowers, who races home to Newfoundland from Oregon after a freak accident has killed her father, and her pet tortoise Winnifred, whom Oddly needs to leave behind.

Oddly is what we call a ‘leapling’ – meaning she was born on February 29; so while she is in her mid twenties during the contemporary sections of the novel, she has only had about six official birthdays. Grant cleverly uses this fact to parallel what we come to quickly realize about Oddly: that she is most likely a “developmentally challenged” young woman with a low IQ and child-like take on the world. Or is she? Oddly confounds us time and again because, despite her apparent ‘handicap’ of perpetual youth, she is exceedingly quick, clever and articulate when dealing with her family and the people she meets. Her zest for life and impulsive behaviour is charming to the extreme. It’s such a delight to live vicariously through her mind, the mind of a true eccentric; for whatever reasons of upbringing or circumstance, it appears Oddly never had those playful eccentricities grinded out of her by parents, teachers, employers, etc., like the rest of us.

The title of the novel comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and there are many tempests that Oddly must confront over the course of her story. She loves a good mystery (she’s obsessed with the game Clue) and sets herself on a mission to solve a number of mysteries from both her past and her present: the death of her father, the familial relationship with her beloved uncle Thoby, and most quirkily, the disappearance of a pet mouse who may very well be 20 years old or more. The brilliance of Come, Thou Tortoise is that you’re only given a narrow window of perspective on what exactly Oddly is trying to overcome. Her point of view is limited because of her ‘disability’, and the reader gets the sense that there are bigger mysteries, broader mysteries that hover high above Oddly’s level of understanding. Grant supplements Oddly’s narration with that of the tortoise to give us some extra perspective; but even Winnifred’s view is limited because she is, after all, just a tortoise.

This all culminates around Grant’s ongoing preoccupation in the book with aging and the attempt to perpetuate life for as long as possible. Oddly’s father is/was a “bio-gerontologist” whose life’s work was dedicated to reversing the inevitability of growing old – an obsession perhaps bourne out of having a daughter trapped in a kind of endless childhood. Winnifred is, of course, the perfect counterbalance to Oddly’s circumstances because she is a tortoise much older than any human could live to be. She is wise because of this fact, and yet not fully privy to what’s going on in the novel. The missing 20-year-old mouse may very be Oddly’s dad’s crowning achievement in science – or it may just be a lab rat replaced several times over the years to spare Oddly from dealing with the grief of its death. And the book’s sort-of villain, Oddly’s grandmother in England, comes to aging and her own death in the most graceless way imaginable.

Come, Thou Tortoise’s great strength is not, as some readers may imply, its ‘quirkiness’ or lightheartedness. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say this isn’t a lighthearted read at all. It is a profoundly serious novel dealing with the idea of complex mysteries that need solving, mysteries that are so often undone by our limited perspectives and the racket of our inner worlds. It’s also about how time runs out on all of us to figure these mysteries out before it’s too late. What a feat of intellectual vigour that Grant has been able to hold all of these themes in her mind at once and then render them into a phenomenally complex and well-structured novel. There is a craftsmanship behind this book that may play second fiddle to its 'quirkiness'. Come, Thou Tortoise will get you in the door with its ‘voice’; but you will stay for the joy of exploring its many depths and contradictions.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Review: Pope and Her Lady, by Leon Rooke

What the fook is dis?

Now hold yer horses a sec—

Dis! Rooke. Leon Rooke, writin' a novella exclusive-like in the grimmy street slang of a Glaswegian lesbo. Has he gony nuts in the pate?

First of all, Rooke donay say ‘fook’, nor does he say ‘dis’. Sometimes it’s ‘fuckt’ – but hey, sometimes we all fuckt.

We baith know I ain’t blethering. It’s not natchril, natural.

Oh, would ye go have a fag. Auld Rooke knows what he’s doin’. Sampson, he wuz writin’ books when you wuz still just an ache in your daddy’s nits. Trust me. He gets doon the vocab and cadence of that Glaswegian street slang and he sticks thereto it. This book ain’t fuckt – it’s fuckin’ genius!

Ye daffy poop!

Sit doon before I bash ye with a pipe.

What pipe?

Now listen. This novella has its own language, eh. And it’s a mystery like. Think A Clockwork Orange meets sumthing by Raymond Chandler. The polis has pullt in auld Pope on accusations that she boinnged her lesbo lover Madeline Powrs in the head with a pipe. Foul play and all. They grill her greit gude; they keep sendin’ her back to her cell; there’s a snitch there. It’s classic stuff.


But there’s more to it than that. Naybody is what they seem. Rooke is more clever than me and you poot the gether.

Okay. But go shite in a bag and punch it! What else does he give us?

What doesn’t he give us? This is Rooke doin’ what Rooke does best. That is to say – analyzing the nature of love. Real love. Deep and complicated love. It’s a whatchamacallit – reoccurring theme. A preoccupation of his, but.

So then … so then …

So then what, you canay get ower that it’s a lesbo couple in Glasgow this time? Fuck you. Rooke knows what he’s doin’. This novella sings. What other Canadian writer today has such a playful approoch to language? What would you do, Sampson? Fuckin’ artsyfy the lingo of PEIsland, probably …

“I was just givvin’er. And the road was right slippy.”

Oh, fuck you! Give it oop. Let’s not Waldorf and Statler this ting to death. Can we not just agree that Pope and Her Lady is better than gude. It’s greit, and has a lot goin’ awn innit.


Fine indeed. I can live with that. Say – did we ever figure out the mystery of the pipe?

What pipe?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Review: Winterkill, by Catherine Graham

Every now and then, you get to meet a poet who reinforces the idea that a welcoming and generous personality can sometimes translate into welcoming and generous verse. I met Catherine Graham a number of times around literary events when I first moved to Toronto and was grateful for her curiosity and her warmth. I was happy to attend the launch of her new poetry book Winterkill a few weeks ago and to pick up a copy. While the collection is small and the poems therein are sometimes very short, the gifts they offer are expansive and reward close attention.

The chief strength of Winterkill’s poems are they way they can often present a brief, singular snapshot of an extremely complex moment. Graham does this time and time again in this collection, with poems like “He Goes Everywhere with You, Your Brother,” a story about spreading the ashes of a dead sibling, or in “Boy and Lawn”, a poem about having a crush on the young man your father has hired to mow the yard. (“I wanted every day/ to be Saturday, for the grass/ to grow high like the waiting/ inside me …) Winterkill is adept at allowing the reader’s own imagination and experience to do most of the heavy lifting; Graham gives us just enough words to cause a little burst of recognition, or knowledge, or speculation, in our minds.

Take, for example, the poem “I Almost Laughed at Mother’s Funeral.” It contains only a single, italicized line: She’s not in there. But the combination of that line and the poem’s title does a lot to your brain. Maybe you conjure up the image of a solemn but awkward funeral, a gathering of mourners sitting before a minister who’s just a wee bit out of place in his role, perhaps because he didn’t know the deceased personally. And maybe, in a moment of feigned familiarity, he said something mildly gormless, and it caused a suppressed chuckle from the grieving daughter. Who knows. But that’s the beauty of this and so many other poems in Winterkill: you’re given lots of space to fill in the blanks on your own.

Another thing I loved about this collection is the way it makes subtle references to popular or everyday culture without naming them outright – once again, allowing your brain to tease these things out on your own. I’m thinking specifically of two back-to-back poems: “Eat Me,” which, if I’m not mistaken, makes reference to Trix brand cereal – “I wanted the box with/ the white rabbit on it … Rabbit played his next trick./ His laughter shook/ all the boxes on the shelves”; and “My Only Dance with My Father”, which alludes to the braying croon of Chris DeBurgh’s “Lady in Red.” Skillful allusions, both.

Despite its chilly imagery and sepulchral overtones, Winterkill is a warm, generous and welcoming collection of poems. If, like me before I read this book, you aren’t familiar with Catherine Graham’s work, this would be an excellent place to start.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Review: Combat Camera, by A.J. Somerset

Attention holiday shoppers: if you’re looking for a great gift this year for the man on your list who may have given up hope on the contemporary novel, a man who has felt a little shut out of the Canadian literary conversation over the last few decades, a man who has been looking for a book that explores the surprisingly complex inner world of one of his tortured and taciturn brethren, then A.J. Somerset may have the perfect gift idea for you.

Somerset’s novel Combat Camera, winner of this past year’s Metcalf-Rooke Award, is as raw and rugged as Canadian books come. It tells the story of Lucas Zane, a former combat photojournalist burnt out after 20 years of covering some of the world’s most violent wars, who has been reduced to taking pictures for low-budget porn in Toronto. Despite the trauma and hopelessness that permeates his current situation, Zane soon finds himself roped into rescuing one of the set’s young starlets (who goes by the name Melissa) after a sex scene turns violent. The two flee on a road trip to Vancouver – a journey that forces them to confront the violence and failures of their respective lives as well as the complex relationship they have with each other.

Make no mistake – Combat Camera is not for the lighthearted, despite the infusions of pink on its cover. This novel is relentlessly masculine and offers an unflinching look at violence, sex and the inglorious torment of a traumatized person. I cannot think of a single character from Canadian literature quite like Lucas Zane – a man whose inner tumults are at such odds with the reserved, aloof persona he presents to the exterior world.

One of Somerset’s many gifts is the way he is able render Zane’s post-traumatic stress disorder in such a believable and uncontrived way. There are numerous examples of this. A simple visit to a supermarket turns disastrous for Zane when a broken egg on the aisle floor triggers the memory of a war victim shot through the head. Zane is forever haunted by his own near-death experiences (he often recalls a bullet zipping past his own head during particularly stressful moments) and by the death of a mysterious woman named “Christine” who constantly lays on the fringe of his memory. The narrative itself abets Zane’s discombobulated inner world by constantly switching from the past to the present and shifting effortlessly from the first-, second- and third-person perspectives. In lesser hands this would be jarring, but Somerset is able to use this back-and-forth technique to lend credibility to Zane’s unstable self.

Combat Camera is also interesting because it sometimes feels like it’s at war with itself – fighting hard not to give in to some obvious temptations. I’m not talking strictly about whether Zane and Melissa will give in to the troubled and complicated attraction that binds them together on their road trip across Canada. I’m speaking more of how hard the book works to eschew sentimentality at all costs. I often believe that sentimentalism, in very small and very controlled doses, can help open up the dimensions of a story – much the way a couple tablespoons of tap water can open up the flavours of a fine Scotch. Somerset would probably disagree with this take on sentimentality, and I reluctantly admit that his book is all the better because he does. Zane and Melissa never have a singular moment of catharsis between them, an instance of clear-cut pathos. Their relationship just sort of peters out, the way real relationships often do. When I finished the last page, I found myself oddly pleased that this was how the author chose to end things.

Combat Camera probably won’t get the kind of attention it deserves, but it deserves to be read and enjoyed by people looking for something a little different in a Canadian novel. It’s rough and raw and unapologetic. And, consequently, extremely refreshing.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Reading independently for Canada

Over at Pickle Me This, Kerry Clare has just announced the line-up for her 2011 Canada Reads Indies Picks. For those of you who don’t know, this is a campaign that Kerry first started on her blog last year where she gets a group of talented readers to discuss an eclectic mix of independently minded fiction titles. It’s a program intended to be a kind of mirror to the CBC’s Canada Reads initiative, which has left Kerry and others a bit underwhelmed in recent years. And for those of you who don’t know, Pickle Me This is a delightful books blog chock full of great reviews and other musings about the reading life. If you haven’t already checked it out, you totally should.

The lucky panelists for this year’s campaign have assembled some really fascinating picks. Myself, I’ll be rooting for Lynn Coady’s Play the Monster Blind, which remains one of my favourite Canadian short story collections of the last 15 years. Titles by Mavis Gallant, Thomas King, Stacey May Fowles and Darren Greer round out the excellent list. I’m really looking forward to the discussions in the coming months.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review: This Cake is For the Party, by Sarah Selecky

I had the great privilege of reading with Sarah Selecky about a year ago at the Pivot at the Press Club reading series here in Toronto. It was a fun night and she recited a fantastic excerpt from her short story “How Healthy Are You?” – a tale lovable for several reasons, not the least of which because it has a character named “Mark S.” in it. The story was, of course, part of the manuscript for her forthcoming This Cake is For the Party, a book that has since become the talk of the town, getting shortlisted for the Giller Prize and profiled in a number of major newspapers.

There are plenty of unifying tropes and character types that hold This Cake ... together. The majority of the stories are populated by urbanites in their late twenties or early thirties, coming into successes and money and finding and losing themselves, often for the first time. These stories are full of organic food and artificial friendships, expensive wines and waning love affairs. They capture with near-perfect precision the foibles of the modern-day yuppie attempting to navigate the complexities of the contemporary world.

The chief strength of Sarah’s writing is the way she is able to successfully hold up a mirror with descriptive powers that are spot on to reflect back observations that the reader has always taken for granted. In her story “Watching Atlas”, a character drinks from a glass of Coke, “… her teeth swimming through the caramel liquid.” In “This is How We Grow as Humans”, a young waitress is described “ … dressed in a black miniskirt, heavy boots and skinny bare legs. She has a piercing on her face: a small silver stud …” Each of these descriptions are instantly recognizable. Even the story “Standing Up for Janey”, which I considered the weakest of the bunch, has this wonderful way of describing expensive red wine bottles lined up on a rack – “moody.” Genius.

Of the 10 stories in This Cake ... , the strongest is clearly the final piece, “One Thousand Wax Buddhas,” a story that impresses on a number of levels. It’s written flawlessly from a first-person male perspective – without feeling misplaced in a collection that is unmistakably feminine at its heart – and tells the story of a man trying to love a woman who is sinking under the weight of her own mental illness. It skillfully examines the psychological cost of intense creativity, a kind of metaphoric and literal fire that consumes the woman at the centre of the narrator’s obsession.

The enduring strength of This Cake is For the Party is the way it lends a rich emotional life to its characters, even if (and especially if) many of those characters are faithless, lost or superficial. Everyone in the collection is drawn and examined with intense care, and it makes the book a rewarding read from start to finish.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod

I feel a little late to the game lending my unadulterated praise to Alexander MacLeod’s debut short story collection, Light Lifting. The book already found its way onto this year’s Giller Prize shortlist, received solid reviews in The Globe & Mail, The National Post and Quill and Quire, and made itself the crown jewel in Biblioasis’s fall 2010 list. There’s not a whole lot I can add to the acclaim that this fantastic book has received over the last month and a half, but I’m going to try my best.

One of the aspects of Light Lifting that got a lot of people talking was how long it took MacLeod to write the collection – by some accounts as many as 10 years. This may have raised a few eyebrows considering that the book is comprised of just seven stories spanning about 210 pages. But after finishing the book, I wasn’t surprised at all that it took him so long: the craftsmanship behind each piece is absolutely off the charts, and any close reading will reveal the time and patience it must have taken MacLeod to put these stories together.

Indeed, one of the great strengths of MacLeod’s writing is the way he is able to modulate between different modes within a single story. This is typified in his two opening pieces, “Miracle Mile” and “Wonder About Parents”: in each example, we see the narration do a number of astounding tricks with point and counter-point. His stories often move from a direct first-person point of view to a kind of second-person didacticism or universality, as if his protagonists are speaking directly to us about some aspect of life that we already unconsciously knew or understood. They also shift effortlessly from the specific to the general, and from the immediacy of a present situation to a flashback of some relevant event in the past.

This accomplishment can’t be overstated: it’s incredibly hard to achieve this kind of perfected balance between so many narrative modulations, especially in a short story. But MacLeod makes it look effortless. I imagine there must have been a proverbial cutting-room floor where entire scenes (or even whole stories) were ditched outright, and what remained was substantively rewritten and rewritten until MacLeod got each piece’s queer alchemy, its resounding equilibrium, just right. In the end, the results speak for themselves: you finish each story and know that it could not have been structured any other way; you turn the last page feeling as if the tale you’ve just read has, in some way, always existed.

Much has been made of the rugged masculinity of Light Lifting, but there is also a rugged intellectualism here too, not to mention a ton of old-fashioned authorial tenderness. MacLeod is just as adept at writing about a dad wiping poo off his baby’s backside in a gas station bathroom as he is writing about laying brick or young men enthralled by athletic competition. It’s a versatility that impresses over and over again. These are very human stories, and very humane. They are gentle and violent, specific and universal, and chock full of insight and keen observations.

I look forward to seeing what MacLeod will do next – and here’s hoping it doesn’t take him another 10 years to do it.

Beer before liquor, liquor before beer, etc etc – Toronto’s Gourmet Food and Wine Expo

So I’m spending this Monday recovering from a mild hangover after spending six gloriously boozy hours at the Gourmet Food and Wine Expo yesterday afternoon at the Metro Convention Centre here in Toronto. The event was a belated birthday present from my brother Kurt (who performs in a four-piece a capella group called Cadence - yes, it’s his full-time job and yes we are all infinitely jealous of him.) Kurt and I hadn’t seen each other in a while (he’s been on tour in Europe; I’ve been finishing the second draft of the new novel) so it was great to stagger around the Convention Centre together and get ourselves acquainted with - oh let’s been honest, make friends or possibly built life-long relationships with – a vast array of beers, wines and spirits that we hadn’t tried before.

After a perfunctory stroll around the floor to check out the various booths and kiosks, we settled in for some serious drinking. Since it was still relatively close to the breakfast hour at that point, we decided to start with an oatmeal stout from Montreal’s St. Ambroise brewing company. This was a fantastic beer and great way to kick off the afternoon. It had the same look and consistency of a Guinness but its favour was far more complex, melting its oatmeal base to the slight hints of chocolate and coffee. A solid breakfast beer if I’ve ever tasted one.

We moved along to wines and made some incredible finds. After deliberately avoiding the Ontario vineyard area and being underwhelmed by a couple of Spanish and Argentinean products, we stumbled upon something I’ve never tried before – a New Zealand pinot noir. It was called Stoneleigh and was, quite simply, the best pinot noir I’ve had in a long time – probably since living in Australia. Stoneleigh is incredibly well-crafted and impressed me with its subtlety and exquisitely fine finish. A perfect wine for, say, impressing the in-laws or serving with a meal you slaved all Saturday afternoon over. Kurt had their sister product Villa Maria and was equally impressed.

After taking a meal break (yes, very important to eat during these excursions – fried rice and a mango salad, both good for soaking up alcohol and reinvigorating the body), we switched back to beer. We tried a very tasty microbrew from eastern Ontario’s farming area called Beau’s All Natural. The guy working the booth was passionate about his product and justifiably so: the beer had a refreshing, clean taste from start to finish, a beautifully crafted beer.

We moved along, avoiding the Alexander Keith’s booth (because we’re no longer undergrads) and the Sam Adams area (because American beer is, well, American beer). It was at this point that we found the drink that absolutely stole the entire afternoon for us, that floored us with its brilliance and made us come back two more times for refills. This was a beer from Scotland called Innes & Gunn. Oh. My. God. Where has this beer been all my life? I mean serious! Discovering this beer was like discovering Atlantis, like finding a pot of gold in your living room, like meeting the girl of your dreams at a literary reading series. It was THAT GOOD. I&G makes its beers by using casks left over from other alcohol – scotch, Kentucky bourbon, etc. – and the flavours were like nothing I had ever had before. There’s no doubt that this beer, no matter what the cost (and it IS on the pricey side) will find its way into regular rotation at my house.

We took another food break (floor was beginning to wobble at this point) and then moved along to other booths and kiosks. We enjoyed a very lovely fruit wine called Muskoka Lakes made entirely of cranberry and blueberry. This would be a perfect wine for serving at dessert or to show a girl how sensitive and progressive you are. We did find a couple of duds over the course of the afternoon: there was a brandy from the former Soviet republic of Georgia that grew less potable with every sip (we should have known better), as well as a Japanese whisky that was passable at best.

Overall, the afternoon was a success and I left feeling like I had just made a ton of new friends. Kurt and I (and possibly other like-minded drinkers) will definitely be back next year.

Addendum: Advice for the hungover

Not that I was this bad off this morning, but here is a word of wisdom to those of you who suffer from the occasional drink-related malady. This is my iron-clad guarantee for recovery: Gatorade! I kid you not. Try drinking a bottle of it before you start boozing, another bottle just before you pass out for the night, and a third bottle after you rouse in the morning. If you have access to a sauna (in your gym, say, or your apartment complex), I recommend spending some time in it after you’ve regain consciousness with that third bottle of Gatorade. The combined process of sweating out toxins and drinking in vital electrolytes from the Gatorade will restore you to perfect health within minutes. Note: It must be Gatorade. None of this will work if you cheap out and use one of its many knock-offs.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Review: Reticent Bodies, by Moez Surani

Moez Surani’s debut poetry collection Reticent Bodies arrived on my nightstand with a great deal of advanced praise. There are a couple of flattering blurbs on the back cover – one from Steven Heighton and another from George Elliot Clarke – and RR had mentioned encountering Surani and/or his work and being quite impressed. He was also the recipient of the 2008 Chalmers Arts Fellowship, which is no small feat.

Reticent Bodies does not disappoint. Here are poems in an array of forms and styles – from unabashed examples of meta-poems to the deeply personal confessional lyric. Surani is comfortable in a variety of modes and is willing to write about the very big and the very small.

One thing a reader notices about this collection right away is Surani’s attempt to fit his verse into the broader context of literature in general and poetry specifically. The literary references fly fast and furious throughout this book – mentions of Neruda, Rilke, Austen, Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Cohen, Cervantes, Flaubert, Ovid and de Maupassant. They often come with more than just a brainy undergraduate’s reverence for the masters: Surani is interested in exploring how the writers he love fit in or reference his own deliberate vision for his poems.

There are deeply personal poems in this collection as well – so personal that Surani often risks skidding into impenetrable or abstruse territory. Thankfully, he has the good sense to go right up to that line without crossing it. Poems like “Packing for Montreal,” “Yardsaling with Robin”, “(walking home)”, “A Debt” and “Untitled 2” offer snapshots of small, personal, domestic moments that lend just the slightest flash of luminance. This is a poet is obviously unafraid to take virtually any personal experience and render it into an exquisitely craft wisp of illumination.

Overall, Surani shows tremendous promise in this debut collection and proves he is capable of forging a strong, singular voice for his verse. Definitely looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The fall issue of All Rights Reserved is online

So being stranded here in Toronto, I missed the launch party for the fall issue of All Rights Reserved in Halifax last night. But thankfully the new issue is now online, and it's great to see that my three lowly poems arrived safe and sound among its pages.

Also great to see a number of familiar names as I perused the poetry section this morning: Robin Richardson (whom I got to see read here in Toronto recently at an Insomniac Press poetry launch) has a lovely poem called "Time is a Slut"; the ever clever Darryl Whetter has a piece called "Over Under Over", which seems to build on the fossil-related imagery he had in a poem about Mary Anning published recently in The Fiddlehead; and of course, my good buddy J.J. Steinfeld has a beautiful little diddy in here called "Prowling." (And, by sheer coincidence, one of my poems is actually dedicated to J.J.) While I'm at it, I'd also want to draw your attention to Vassen Vassilev's cleverly titled poem "3001: a space iliad." Genius.

I do believe I'm supposed to receive the print version of All Rights Reserved through snail mail in the coming days or weeks, so I'll be able to give it a closer read then. If I spot anything else worth noting, I'll certainly let you know.


Review: Clockfire, by Jonathan Ball

I knew Jonathan Ball a little bit during my time living and studying in Winnipeg, and a few years later he was gracious enough to include some of my poems in a chapbook anthology he put together called The Martian Press Review. Clockfire, published by Coach House Books here in Toronto, is Ball’s second full-length collection of poems; the first, Ex Machina, was released by BookThug last year.

Clockfire is a collection of poetic renderings of what are essentially unstage-able plays. It’s a clever conceit maintained throughout this slim volume and taken to a macabre and absurdist extreme. The stated intention of the book is to undermine our traditional notions of theatre and what it’s capable of doing for us, to render obsolete the very pathos that the stage is supposed to provide. From the collection’s opening salvo:

You know before you sit, before you turn your attention to the stage, that nothing you see shall impress you, nothing in this darkened room will change your life … You want something from the theatre it cannot give. You want to be hammered by anvils and shaped by fire.

To this end, Clockfire answers its own charge. Here we find an array of theatrical musings that subvert our expectations of the possible and twist our brains into postmodern pretzels. We have a play where a magician makes the audience disappear and won’t bring it back (“The Magic Show”); a play where the audience is systematically slaughtered as part of the performance (“Like Lambs”); a play where the audience has its memory wiped clean (“Tabula Rasa”); a play that spans several generations of audience members, an idea oddly reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (“Seven Generations”).

One of the best plays is one where the audience is told at the beginning to turn off their cell phones during the duration of the performance, and then the unseen actors proceed to make frantic and repeated calls to each audience member’s silenced phone, mimicking the voices of their loved ones: “Improvising disasters. Begging for answer … When every voicemail box is full, the curtain falls.”

Some of Ball’s plays have downright gruesome premises, more akin to a horror novel than to an august collection of Canadian verse. But all the while, the collection is constantly challenging our imaginations.

Of course, the unstated intention of this book is to subvert its own subversion, which it does in subtle and beautiful ways. The temptation with a premise like this book’s is to eschew the idea of pathos entirely and glaze these poems in what might best be described as ‘postmodern crypticisms’. But it’s a temptation that Ball, for the most part, does not give in to. My favourite poems here are the ones that fragment or distill some aspect of the human condition, thus revealing a new perspective on it. I loved, for example, “The Mirrored Stage” (a fairly self explanatory title) and the play “Eight Minutes”, which is set immediately after the destruction of the sun, in those eight minutes that it takes for the last of its light to travel to Earth.

The most impressive aspect of Clockfire is that Ball is able to build suspense or tension with just the lightest brushstrokes of words. Unlike so many other poetry books lately that use some trendy, gimmicky conceit to hold the collection together, Ball’s work is an unmistakable page turner. Clockfire is a cogent, confident book, oddly uplifting and rarely caving in to the more cynical side of its postmodern premise.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review: Moody Food, by Ray Robertson

Rock and Roll novels aren’t exactly a dime a dozen in Canadian literature, but after inhaling Ray Robertson’s Moody Food over the last week or so I’m beginning to wonder why. In fact, after finishing the last page of this roller-coaster ride of a book, I was struck by a rather odd conundrum: how on Earth could a novel like Whale Music by Paul Quarrington, a rock and roll novel that I found daft and obvious and missing a core sense of seriousness, go on to win a Governor General’s Award, while Moody Food, which is richer, funnier, more profound and better written, just sort of slipped off the charts without much notice? Call me crazy, but I think the critics really dropped the ball on that one.

Moody Food is set in the 1960s and tells the story of Bill Hansen, an earnest young man living in Toronto’s (at the time) hippy-infested Yorkville neighbourhood, who finds himself roped into the rock and roll lifestyle by the mysterious and alluring Thomas Graham (loosely based on musician Gram Parsons). Together with Bill’s girlfriend Christine, another girl named Heather, and a witless on-again-off-again alcoholic named Slippery Bannister, Bill and Thomas form the alt-country musical group The Duckhead Secret Society. The novel details the band’s rise and fall – from playing in a sketchy dive in east-end Toronto and signing on with an excitable record producer from the United States to their maniacal tour of bars and taverns in heartland U.S.A. and their ultimate meltdown during a show in Los Angeles. Along the way, we see all of the tropes of a quintessential rock and roll story: Bill and Thomas unbraiding over their dependence on increasingly stronger narcotics (a real rainbow spectrum, actually – from the groovy green of marijuana to the soul-graying shoot-ups of heroin); the band squabbling over their creative direction; and more than a couple of free-love infidelities.

This really should be the kind of novel a guy like me poo-poos, a novel ready to fall victim to cardboard characters, predictable plot twists and mewling nostalgia. But oh man, Robertson would have absolutely none of it. This guy writes within an insane sort of zest, a deep love for the freedom of a blank page, and with a dedicated attempt to renounce dullness with every sentence. The whole believability and forward momentum of Moody Food hinges on Bill’s voice and character, our sense of who he is both morally and personality-wise – and Robertson absolutely nails it. He is relentless in getting this story out and pointing to both the humour and the sadness contained within.

One of this book’s great strengths is that Robertson, who was born in 1966, is able to write about the sixties without sentimentalizing it, without succumbing to a sort of Baby Boomer exceptionalism in the mind of his protagonist. He gives us Bill and Bill’s era, warts and all. He captures the unwashed energy of Yorkville at the time, but also alludes to the impenetrably posh neighbourhood it would become. He weaves in the hits of the day as a kind of background music in the novel without making them feel exploitative or tacked on. And he places The Duckhead Secret Society in context with the greater rock milieu of the time; there is even a wholly believable run-in at one point with Jim Morrison and The Doors.

I shutter to think how much research and effort it would have taken Robertson to build this novel from the ground up and make it feel like a part of rock and roll history, but he has done so admirably. The moments of comedy in Moody Food are well-balanced with the moments of seriousness. And I don’t say this about many novels, but this one truly did linger with me long after I finished the last page. Bravo.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Event (in absentia): All Rights Reserved Fall Launch Party

For any readers in the Halifax area, I'd like to extend an invitation to this week's launch of the fall issue of the All Rights Reserved literary journal. I have three poems published in this issue. Being in Toronto, I won't be able to attend the party myself, but apparently a couple of my poems will be read aloud in my absence.

Here are the particulars:

When: Thursday, November 18, 5:00–7:00 pm
Where: The Company House
2202 Gottingen Street, Halifax
Free admission (donations gladly accepted)

If you do end up attending, I love to get a report on how the evening went. You can leave a comment on this post if you like.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Sharing my good mood around

I'm still sort of floating around on Cloud Nine since yesterday's big accomplishment. It's a rare occasion for me to have a mood stay this positive for this long, so I've been looking for ways to keep the good feelings rolling. And I figure since it's Friday afternoon and you're all probably somewhere running out the clock and waiting for the weekend to start anyway, I thought I'd share a few things that are funny, uplifting or otherwise full of mood-altering awesomeness.

If you've got a free hour, I strongly recommend you do yourself a favour and listen to this interview with the late Irish memoirist and novelist Nuala O'Faolain. I swear, this is the most enriching and entertaining thing I've ever found online. O'Faolain is deadpan and hilarious as well as deeply emotional and brutally honest about growing up a woman in Ireland. This interview is the equivalent of comfort food for me: I've listened to it several times since it first aired on CBC last year, and it always lifts my spirits.

If reading is more your thing, then you may want to check out this article in Slate that puts a positive spin on the Democrats' big losses in the US mid term elections earlier this month. I walked away from this article feeling enriched and a bit more confident in the way the world is going. Hopefully you'll feel the same way.

Or maybe you just want to listen to an awesome catchy song, a blast from the Southern Ontario past that will get your heart racing and your positive vibes vibrating. If so, allow me to present this:

My mood is so good in fact, that I'm even willing to be hospitable to Baby Boomers. Here's another video, this time from that generation's more affable embassadors. If you aren't uplifted by this, then there's a very good chance that your parents did not have any children who lived:

Have a great weekend, everybody!


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: Sandra Beck, by John Lavery

It might be a stretch to say that Sandra Beck owes a narrative debt to Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, but it’s certainly fair to say that John Lavery’s debut novel builds upon the spirit of that earlier work. Sandra Beck is a book consumed by the idea of ‘two solitudes’ as an abstract concept, the binary that is still so encoded into the Canadian psyche.

Indeed, this is a novel obsessed with binaries, to the point where it’s hard to keep track of all the ones explored within its pages: the division between French and English within Montreal; the split between a daughter and father’s differing interpretations of a single person’s life; the grey area between police and criminals, between law enforcement and entertainment; and even a bifurcation in one man’s memory of how he came to meet the woman that he would come to marry. For such a short novel (just 261 pages), there are so many symbols to decode and mazes of narrative to work your way through.

Sandra Beck is a bizarrely structured novel that focuses on the life of its titular character without actually making her the protagonist. The book has two unevenly sized sections: the first and shorter part is told from the point of view of Sandra’s daughter Josée, written in stunningly clever and elastic-like prose reminiscent of another great Montreal novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals. The second is told from the perspective of Sandra’s husband Paul-Francois (“PF”) Bastarache, who is a police officer and host on a local TV program about policing and crime.

Readers on the hunt for a unifying plot point between these two sections will be disappointed, as this isn’t Lavery’s aim at all. Instead, his book loops around in unconventional ways to explore its deeper themes and abstract concepts. Sandra Beck is concerned with interrogating and destabilizing our preconceived notions of how a novel should be structured, or even begun. Go ahead and read the first two pages of this book and you’ll discover a powerful intellect really trying to screw around with our ideas of what constitutes a stable beginning to a story.

If this all too discombobulating for the average reader, rest assured that Lavery makes up for it with the kindling-like crackle of his prose and his bang-on descriptive prowess. We have powerful images of Josée’s “jury of dolls” lined up in her bedroom, or the insomniac red of an exit sign in a light-night hotel hallway, or this gem of a passage, taken from a scene at an airport:

He was bolstered by this small triumph. And his sense of having been abandoned by his daughter was further mollified by the appearance, at last, of his suitcase breaking through the hanging rubber straps screening the baggage entry. The suitcase wobbled towards him, concentrating on keeping its balance, as though just learning to ride the conveyor.

It might be easy to get lost in the labyrinth that Sandra Beck’s twisting scenes create, but it’s totally worth it if you lend this book a close reading and your fullest attention. Few novels today dare to disrupt our ideas of what narrative can and should do. Fewer still do it as expertly this one does.

Giller night

Had a blast watching The Giller Award last night and was surprised as anyone when Johanna Skibsrud’s debut novel The Sentimentalists won. I won't bother summarizing my evening, because RR has already done it so eloquently on her blog. This is one of her finest posts, and that's saying a lot.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Review: Forde Abroad, by John Metcalf

I actually read an excerpt of this novella on Google Books during one particularly lazy afternoon a couple of months ago, and so when I spotted a copy of it for sale at the Bookshelf in Guelph when I was there back in September, I jumped at the chance to buy it so I could finish the rest. For the majority of this blog’s target audience, John Metcalf needs no introduction: he is an author, critic, literary gadfly, esteemed editor for countless writers in Canada (RR among them), and, most recently, the target of a sideswiping by Andre Alexis in the pages of The Walrus. Due to the array of hats that Metcalf wears in CanLit circles, we can sometimes forget that he is also an accomplished fiction writer in his own right. Forde Abroad is a slim, taut volume brimming with hilarity and curmudgeonly anguish, a novella that definitely punches above its weight.

The book stars Metcalf’s reoccurring character Robert Forde, first introduced in the 1986 short story collection Adult Entertainment. In Forde Aboard, we find our cranky protagonist – a writer who may be just a wee bit based on Metcalf himself – on the cusp of a minor brush with international fame. His novel Winter Creatures is about to be translated into Serbian; he has been invited to take part in a literary conference in Slovenia; and his work has drawn the attention of a young scholarly admirer from East Germany named Karla. All of this occurs much to the chagrin of Forde’s caustic but steadfast wife, Sheila. The middle-of-the-night calls from the translator drive her to distraction; she can’t understand why Forde wants to go and ‘consort’ with academics for whom he has zero respect; and she’s deeply concerned that Karla’s interest in Forde goes well beyond what resides between the covers of his books. Forde decides to go to the conference anyway, charging himself with the duty of using this international stage to debunk myths about what literature from Canada actually is; and naturally, upon his arrival in Slovenia, a string of middle-brow amusements of the Waugh/Burgess/Kingsley Amis variety ensue.

One thing you spot right off the bat in Forde Abroad is how brazen Metcalf is in relegating the notion of ‘story’ to the back burner. This is not a tale that’s overtly concerned with a regimented sequence of events or what happens from once section to the next. Indeed, many of the occurrences in the novella could have gone the other way or been excluded entirely and it wouldn’t have taken away from our pleasure in reading this book. That’s because the joy of much of Metcalf’s writing isn’t so much in the story he’s telling as it is in the language he embraces in order to tell it. I mean, the way he uses a well-timed paragraph break or even a single piece of punctuation to infuse a scene with humour, meaning or even simple cadence is truly breathtaking. Nobody else quite writes like this. Metcalf has full command of his indirect third-person narration and in the end you simply don’t care where the story is leading you. You’re too busy enjoying how these sentences send the synapses of your brain firing.

Of course, a complaint one might have with Forde Abroad is that there just isn’t enough of it. There are lots of avenues that this novella could have explored; there were a lot of doors left open. But that’s okay in my books. Better to have 64 pages of pure textual bliss than 640 pages of exhaustive literary posturing that doesn’t appreciate the beauty of a single sentence.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Review: So I am Glad, by A.L. Kennedy

In many ways, I feel like I still haven’t recovered from the last A.L. Kennedy novel I read. When I finished her book Paradise two and half years ago, I felt like I had stumbled upon a writer whose approach to narrative and linguistic style left me both drained and exhilarated by their brilliance. For months afterward, I recommended that novel to every person I possibly could; I even brought it along when I was invited to speak to creative writing classes to read out excerpts as examples of what I thought really good writing was. And now, coming to So I am Glad – which was published nearly a full decade before Paradise, when Ms. Kennedy was just 30 years old – I have had my beliefs in this novelist and her singular power confirmed all over again.

So I am Glad is a bizarre tale of love, violence and one’s inability to fit into a time and place. The protagonist is Jennifer, a young woman living in Scotland in 1993. She shares a house with a group of friends and works as a voice-over performer at a local radio station. She also has a taste for S&M (her “dangerous enthusiasms”, she calls it), a proclivity she probably developed as a result of her parents forcing her to watch them have sex when she was a young girl. Her story takes a turn for the surreal when a man appears seemingly out of nowhere to occupy one of the vacant rooms in the house. He claims to be the 17th-century French writer and soldier Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac. As Jennifer attempts to unravel his identity and how he came to appear so suddenly in her life, she finds herself falling in love with him and questioning the paths that have led her to the situations she now finds herself in.

What makes Kennedy’s writing so astounding – both in general and in this novel specifically – is her preternatural ability to map the inner workings and profound turmoil of a troubled mind. To describe a thoroughly dysfunctional person attempting to negotiate the contemporary world is her single greatest strength as a writer. This isn’t chintzy Woody Allen schtick set on endless replay; it is honest and bold and thoroughly original. In So I am Glad, we gain the full spectrum of Jennifer’s various anguishes: everything from her tempestuous relationship with her coworker and ex-boyfriend Steve to the mysterious back pain that plagues her throughout the novel is laid out bare and raw for us. She finds a kindred spirit in Savinien because, like her, he is displaced in his current time and place – in his case, quite literally so. Their shared torment lends both a tender and terrifying quality to their relationship.

Much like Paradise, So I am Glad is not for softies or the faint of heart. There are scenes here of excruciating violence, including an S&M episode with Steve that gets way, way out of hand. But Kennedy tempers the more hostile aspects of this book with some amazing aphoristic writing and wonderful observations about the human condition. As usual, only by creating the most neurotic character possible is she able to reveal some truly profound things about the world.

Having read So I am Glad, I’m not the least bit surprised that Kennedy has cemented her place as Scotland’s leading literary writer. And it won’t surprising when I find myself reading her again, and again, and again.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

My brother and his wife gave me this book for my birthday last month, and with it came along some very high praise. As you can tell from my reading log, I don’t read a lot of narrative nonfiction, but there’s no doubt that Erik Larson is a born storyteller and in its best moments this book is truly compelling.

The Devil in the White City is set during the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, IL and tells two separate stories – that of famed architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, who played an instrumental role in designing and implementing many of the structures that turned the 1893 fair world fair into a global event, and notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes, who was murdering a whole host of young women during the same period. The book goes into painstaking detail to reveal these two interrelated stories and presents a breathtaking portrait of an era in American history that is long gone but still infinitely fascinating.

There is no way to get around the thorough research that went into creating this book. It’s almost as if every sentence required some deep and laborious act of investigation in order to be crafted into existence. Despite this, Larson’s book is not a laborious read. It clips along with the well-structured pacing of a novel, weaving back and forth between its two stories and building to a shattering climax. With great skill, Larson turns the fair itself (and its near-endless problems getting off the ground) into a character that the reader roots for. It is a book that presents one man’s drive to make his dream of the world fair into a reality, and another man’s drive to exploit, betray and ultimately murder the women he brings into his life with a psychopathic tenacity.

The Devil in the White City is also a loving tribute to the city of Chicago. The `93 world fair was the city’s way of putting itself on the map, to show the world that there was more to America’s urban life than just New York City. Larson brings as much passion to capturing the spirit of that city as he does telling the compelling stories of Burnham and Holmes. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Review: Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill

It was perhaps apt that I read this award-winning novel by Joseph O’Neill immediately after finishing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Both books deal with the personal, domestic consequences of 9/11 and America’s subsequent forays into armed philanthropy in the Muslim world. But whereas Franzen’s novel is expansive, shattershot and, frankly, overwritten, O’Neill’s book is lean, taut and tightly focused on its thesis. This goes a long way to making it a superior read.

Netherland tells the story of Hans van den Broek, a financial analyst working for an unnamed bank in New York City whose wife Rachel leaves him and flees back to London with their young son Jake in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001. Hans spends every other weekend commuting between the two cities in order to see his son and try repairing his broken marriage. But on the weekends when he isn’t doing this, he’s busy rekindling his interest in the game of cricket, which is having a resurgence in the city of New York. He gets roped in with an ambitious but shadowy fellow immigrant named Chuck Ramkissoon who is looking to turn cricket into big business for the city, but doing so using shady connections.

What struck me about this book was the way that O’Neill creates a rich and compelling tale without relying on anything resembling a traditional narrative arc. Indeed, Netherland oddly reminded me of certain Canadian novels of the 1970s that rely heavily on character and theme at the expense of a consistent “plotline” that runs through the book from beginning to end. This isn’t an insult; it is, in fact, Netherland’s great strength. Because it relies on an episodic structure, the novel is able to use a kind of literary pointillism to draw attention to its broader themes.

Some of the book’s ideas are more obvious than others. The most observable one is this notion of cricket as a civilizing force in the international community, forcing global rivals to spend long stretches of time together on the pitch in the spirit of sportsmanship. And, of course, this civilizing force is thus corrupted in the post-9/11 world by Ramkissoon’s scheming aspirations for the game. Other explorations are less easy to spot. I’m thinking specifically of the notion of men being inexplicably abandoned by the women they love, a theme I’m exploring in my own new novel. In Netherland, this fate isn’t reserved solely for Hans; it happens to at least two other men he meets through his involvement in the cricket club. One jokes that he’s actually happy his wife left him, because it means he can now smoke as much as he likes; in fact, he’s smoking five packs a day. Another man, however, is rendered practically incapacitated by his wife’s departure from his life, and it’s left to Hans, comically, to comfort him in his hour of sadness.

The episodic structure also allows O’Neill to pull off some brilliant one-off scenes. There’s a hilariously Kafkaesque episode involving Hans at the DMV trying to get an American driver’s license. The scene is played for its sheer frustrating genius, but then concludes with this astounding passage that ties it all back to the novel’s larger project:

And so I was in a state of fuming helplessness when I stepped out into the inverted obscurity of the afternoon. As I stood there, thrown by Herald Square’s flows of pedestrians and the crazed traffic diagonals and the gray, seemingly bottomless gutter pools, I was seized for the time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers. The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark.

Netherland is by no means a perfect novel. I found it, for example, highly improbable that Hans – with his high-powered career and its concomitant salary and status – would have nearly every weekend free to either play cricket or jaunt off to London to visit his son. I don’t know many financial analysts, but I suspect few would have such a succession of Saturdays and Sundays to spare. Hans also narrates his tale in a kind of elevated, literary diction, which I found unlikely for someone so ensconced in the business world, despite his background in the classics.

But these are small quibbles in a book bursting with so much brilliance. Netherland is both engrossing and unconventional, timely and timeless. It explores one man’s private, temporary loss in a world experiencing a great, more permanent loss. It shows both an expert, big-picture vision and a careful eye to the small, domestic details that comprise our deepest experiences.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review: Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

If I were one to include catchy subheads on my reviews here at Free Range Reading, I suppose the one I’d write for Freedom would read: “Lots of golden rings to be found in this big pile of shit.” If you’ve already read the novel, then you catch my reference immediately. I’m of course speaking of the section where Joey, the 19-year-old son of the Berglund family, accidentally swallows the wedding ring from his clandestine marriage to girlfriend Connie and eventually needs to wade through his own feces in order to retrieve it. For Franzen, this grotesque scene is a broader metaphor for the strife that each major character in Freedom goes through: to root through the effluence of their lives’ mistakes and bad choices to find something of value and permanence.

Unfortunately, this metaphor also sums up what it’s like trying to read Freedom itself: there is so much to admire and marvel at in this book – but man, do you ever need to wade through a lot of crap to get to it.

There have been countless summations of Freedom already posted to the web, so I won’t waste time doing another one here. But the story centers around the Berglund family: Walter, the soft-hearted father driven to near insanity by his obsession with overpopulation; Patty, the jock-turned-liberal mother who has an affair on Walter with his best friend, the intermittent rock star Richard Katz; Joey, the son who forsakes his family’s values to move in with his girlfriend Connie and her right-wing family; and Jessica, the relatively level-headed one of the crew who struggles in a low-paying job as a literary fiction editor. The novel is broken up into sections told through various points of view and through various literary devices. Franzen gives us gobs and gobs of background information on several key characters, including Patty, Walter and Richard. While some of these details and side plots are interesting, the majority of them feel like filler and a distraction from the main point of the book.

Indeed, I’m willing to go on record and say that the first 180 pages or so of Freedom could have been cut out completely, or at least substantively chopped down. My issue with this early section is its near-pointless focus on the character of Eliza, Patty’s mentally ill college roommate. Eliza’s sole function in the story, it seems, is to propel Patty into a disastrous infatuation with Richard that eventually leads to Patty deciding to marry Walter instead. Eliza plays no other role beyond that, and her involvement in the subsequent sections of the book is virtually nonexistent. Yet Franzen lingers on Eliza’s character too long, going into far more detail about her life and drug use and (frankly, less-than-believable) obsession with young Patty’s athletic prowess than we as readers really need. I nearly gave up on the novel during this section, and was not surprised when Eliza was summarily dumped from the narrative about a quarter of the way through. But the fact that she is points to Franzen’s inability do anything substantial with her once he created her.

There are other areas like this as well. The lengthy section about Walter’s relationship with his brothers could have been scaled back, as could the background on the middle years of Richard’s music career. There were just too many parts to Freedom that felt like they should have been excised from the manuscript after the first draft.

Now having said all that, the parts of Freedom that are brilliant are truly on par with the very best of American literature. Franzen has a preternatural talent for balancing his themes across multiple characters and multiple subplots until they achieve a kind of freakish literary Zen. In this case, it’s the endless, fascinating play on concepts of personal freedom: from Joey’s early capitalistic endeavours selling jewelry at Connie’s school to Patty's disastrous “creative writing” project and Walter’s bootless attempts to help an endangered bird through corporate means, this novel is constantly, endlessly about the boundaries and limitations of our own ambitions inside a so-called “free country.”

Indeed, Franzen shows tremendous force in revealing the double-edged sword of freedom and what it means at the dawn of the 21st century. It’s mostly a cynical view: that capital-F freedom ultimately means the sacrificing of your children’s future for your own present. This is played out again and again in Freedom. The worst embodiment of this is Patty herself. She constantly undermines and reproaches her children for her own in-the-moment gains, much like her own mother did to her. This is a very personal example of how corrosive freedom can be. Franzen also examines it on a much larger, more political scale: i.e. the Iraq War and the shady profiteering that was part and parcel of it (profiteering that Joey himself – improbably, I felt – gets wrapped up in.)

I think there is a brilliant novel locked somewhere inside Freedom, and it’s too bad that Franzen hadn’t worked harder to liberate (excuse the pun) it from the masses and masses of what ultimately feels like extraneous pages. The gold rings of this book would have shone that much more brightly had he wiped away a lot of the crap that surrounds them.

Four poems published in The Quint

Got word yesterday that the new issue of The Quint (Vol. 2 No.4) has just been published, and it contains four poems from yours truly. Poetry editor Yvonne Trainer originally accepted just one of my poems, "Northumberland Strait", but then ended up asking for some additional pieces from me about a month ago. I'm very pleased to see them there.

This issue is massive and includes a wide range of content. Because The Quint is based out of the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, its focus tends to lean towards Aboriginal or Northern peoples issues. But I was impressed by the range of other topics covered as well - including an essay on Yeats and a number of reviews of books from Canada and aboard.

I was especially impressed by fellow poet Garry Thomas Morse's contribution to the journal, a spiralling, dizzying experimental poem entitled "The Untitled (44)." I strongly recommend you go check it out.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"A holiday from harsh things"

From Howard Jacobson, in an interview he gave shortly after winning the Man Booker Prize last night:

"My job [as a novelist] is not to give people a holiday from harsh things
or the truth."

Here Jacobson was speaking about the difference between comedy/satire in literature and comedy in popular entertainment. But for me, this quote does a great job of summing up the difference overall between literature and pop culture: i.e. one is about illuminating various truths about our reality and perhaps finding creative ways of interpreting or processing them; the other is about escaping various truths about our reality. Very apt.

Here's the full video of Howard Jacobson's interview with The Guardian.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving, and a birthday of sorts

Well, the Thanksgiving weekend is upon us here in Canada and I for one am geared up and ready for Sunday/Monday's big dinners. Earlier this evening I purchased a massive fresh turkey and several bottles of Sibling Rivalry white wine, which, if you're curious, goes extremely well with any and all poultry.

Thanksgiving has grown into a sort of grassroots tradition for me, my brother and his wife ever since I moved backed to Canada in 2006. It was that year that the two of them came down from Montreal to visit me when I was living in Guelph and we cooked our very first turkey dinner together - we all felt so grown up! It's funny how something so enjoyable can breed an annual routine just like that, and for the last four years the three of us (as well as friends and other family) have spent everything Thanksgiving together. It helps that the three of us all live in the same apartment building here in Toronto. This year is extra special because my sister, her husband and their little daughter will be visiting from PEI.

I should also mention that Monday will be a special day for me for another reason - it will mark the third anniversary of the release of my novel, Off Book. I'm sure nobody but me is interested in celebrating this, but I think I'll be raising a glass of white wine regardless. So happy early birthday, Off Book. It's been a blast. (And the little bugger continues to sell a few copies every now and then, don't ya know.)


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Girlfriends say the darndest things ...

On last night's dinner:

"I don't know what possessed me to make a clam and tofu curry. And put it in the freezer. And not label it."

- Rebecca Rosenblum, 6 October 2010, 8:30 EST.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: Burning House, by Richard Lemm

This is the first of three books I received review copies for from Wolsak and Wynn after the Hamilton-based publisher blurbed my blog on its website back in August. I chose Richard Lemm’s poetry collection Burning House to read first because I feel a certain geographic connection to its author – he lives, writes and teaches in my home province of Prince Edward Island. I also heard very nice things about Lemm from my good buddy Trevor J. Adams, who enlisted his help in compiling the poetry contingent for Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books.

Burning House was not my first exposure to Lemm’s verse. I actually encountered three poems of his in the anthology Crossing Lines: Poets who Came to Canada in the Vietnam War Era, which I read earlier this year. (See my full review of it.) Two of those poems are reprinted in slightly different versions (and one with an entirely different title) in Burning House, and they typify Lemm’s poetic approach: strong, controlled lines and descriptions that bloom with recognition in the reader’s brain. One of those poems, “Hendrix of Arabia”, is a favourite of mine from Burning House. It opens with a sharp, imaginative description of Jimi Hendrix (“Rainbow scarves, peacock shirt, gypsy/ trousers, Robin Hood boots …) and then places him, fantastically, in heart of the Iraq War. The poem weaves in delightful allusions to some of Hendrix’s best-known lyrics, even as it presents Baghdad in the grip of sectarian slaughter. I love the image, “To escort him … past women in the foxholes of their veils.”

War and U.S. imperialism are huge preoccupations for Lemm, which makes sense considering that he came to Canada from Seattle during the height of America’s aggression in Vietnam. The ‘burning house’ behind this collection could be seen as America itself – a place Lemm may have once considered a loving home but is now engulfed in the flaming obsessions of conflict and conquest. It’s a dual image that the poet balances well – memories of idyllic childhood counterbalanced with all that is wrong with modern-day America. I must admit: at first blush I was tempted to see the images in the former category as what someone of my generation might call PBBN (Pointless Baby Boomer Nostalgia); but Lemm proves himself too talented, too multifarious to give in to such maudlin temptations. Each reminiscence in Burning House contributes to and enriches the broader, unifying themes that hold the collection together.

Plus, there’s a lot of fun to be had in this book, too. I absolutely love it when Lemm embraces his more whimsical side, in poems like “Retribution” (told from the perspective of one of Hannibal’s elephants), “In the Vincent Price Room, Journey’s End” (a poem about an undertakers’ convention in Charlottetown) and, of course, “Hendrix in Arabia.” These poems do a great job of lightening the collection’s mood without undermining its broader, headier themes.

When it comes to Richard Lemm and his poetry, America’s loss is Canada’s gain. With Burning House, he solidifies his place among Acorn, Helwig, MacDonald and Steinfeld as one of PEI’s strongest poetic voices.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Stereotypically, I don’t conform to stereotypes

Last weekend I was trolling through my various book-related news feeds and came across this well-written review by Randy Boyagoda in The National Post of Sandra Birdsell’s new novel, Waiting for Joe. The review could best be described as “tough love” but that’s not what caught my attention. Instead, it was this gem of a sentence appearing about two-thirds of the way through the piece:
Finally, we encounter some First Nations people who, stereotypically, don’t conform to our usual stereotypes about them.

Boyagoda is probably alluding to a flash of disingenuousness that he’s spotted in Birdsell’s novel, but for me this sentence stirred up some bigger questions about the craft of writing itself. Authors are, or at least ought to be, forever ensnared in what Martin Amis calls ‘a war on cliché’, but I’m wondering if this war be taken to an unreasonable extreme. Has literature, especially here in Canada, gotten to a point where undermining stereotypes in characters has itself become stereotypical?

Now, I haven’t read Waiting for Joe, so I’m unfamiliar with the scene(s) that Boyagoda is referring to. But we might assume that Birdsell deliberately eschewed First Nations stereotypes – after all, everything in a novel should, in the end, be deliberate – and did so because she either a.) was sincerely aiming to avoid cliché and preconceived notions about First Nations people in the hopes that her portrayals of them would be seen as fresh and unconventional, or b.) she was merely concerned that if she did present them in a stereotypical light, her work would be construed as politically incorrect. But is either of these rationales necessarily honest? And isn’t this what we want of our literary authors – to present characters and situations as honestly as they can, regardless of whether that presentation is clichéd or offensive?

Speaking as an author, I’d say this is part of what makes creating believable, vibrant characters so bloody difficult. On the one hand, you want a character to be as individual and multidimensional as you can make her. On the other hand, you want to capture those extremely telling details that create instant recognition of that character in the reader’s mind. It’s a tricky balance. Thinking about this reminds me of a conversation I had with my initial editor at Norwood Publishing during our first meeting about Off Book. We both got on a tangent about family and she finished hers by saying, “Of course, my mother was the type of woman who wore her best pearls all the time, even in bed.” I was struck dumb by this description. I mean, it’s a pretty horrendous way to talk about your own mom, but on the other hand– wow. Doesn’t that one line just tell you everything else you need to know about that person – what her house looked like, what kind of magazines she read, what sort of driver she was, how she might have felt about the monarchy? It encapsulated a whole human being in a one-line quip.

Of course, there’s no easy answer. Both the indulging in and avoiding of stereotypes can result in some disastrously fraudulent writing. I look at my own background and wonder what aspects of it would typify me if I were a fictional character. Yes I grew up on Prince Edward Island, but don’t bother swaddling me in seafaring images or tales of life on a farm: both of my parents were civil servants and I had a relatively standard suburban childhood. On the other hand, if I told you that my dad says ‘slippy’ instead of ‘slippery’ and my mom serves potatoes at every evening meal and can’t fathom why anyone wouldn’t, do these details necessarily scream ‘Islander’ at you?

I have very little advice to offer other than this – always err on the side of honesty. In the end, that’s what long-term readers will judge you by. Details – especially the small ones – should always have a ring of truth to them, a bigger truth that paints an honest picture.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A.J. Somerset's Toronto launch for Metcalf-Rooke winner Combat Camera tonight

Hey Free Range Readers,

If you're in the Toronto area, I want to draw your attention to a very special literary event happening tonight in the west end. A.J. Somerset will have the Toronto launch for his Metcalf-Rooke Award-winning novel Combat Camera tonight, starting at 7:30 pm. The event takes place at The Garrison (1197 Dundas Street West) and will feature an interview with A.J. conducted by none other than fellow novelist and G&M columnist Russell Smith. The evening will also include an on-stage conversation between the two men behind the award, John Metcalf and Leon Rooke, moderated by critic James Grainger.

I've seen A.J. around a few time now at various literary events - he came to a reading of mine back in the spring - and I've been anxiously awaiting the launch of this book. By all accounts, Combat Camera is one helluva read and I'm looking forward to getting a copy. (I'm also looking forward to finally meeting John Metcalf in person, whom I've been exchanging some letters with regarding an essay I've got forthcoming in CNQ.)

Anyway, if you're in the area and can come out, you definitely should. It promises to be an enriching night of literature.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Review: Baldur’s Song, by David Arnason

I was back in Winnipeg for a wedding during the long weekend in August this past summer, and while in town I was very pleased to pick up a copy of David Arnason’s new novel, Baldur’s Song. Dr. Arnason, as way of full disclosure, was my Creative Writing professor during my masters degree out there, and I considered him a bit of a mentor as I found my voice in the art of literary fiction. His wisdom, humour and generosity have stayed with me over the years and were some of the highlights of my time in Winnipeg. Baldur’s Song is his first novel since publishing the Stephen Leacock Medal-nominated King Jerry in 2001.

The book is a bildungsroman framed around the idea of an Icelandic saga. It’s set at the turn of the last century and tells the story of Baldur, an ambitious young man from the village of New Iceland in Northern Manitoba who comes to Winnipeg to make his name and fortune. While Baldur shows an aptitude for music, his real future lies in Winnipeg’s booming real estate market after he gets wrapped up with a mysterious young capitalist named Johnny Ashdown. Ashdown challenges Baldur’s sense of himself and pushes him out of his comfort zone as they chase down one big deal after another. Their exploits take Baldur from Winnipeg to Toronto and Reykjavik and back to Winnipeg again. All the while, he is haunted by his one true love, a young woman named Lara who has been a reoccurring presence in his life since childhood.

Baldur’s Song is a novel about the complexities of obligation – obligation to one’s family, to one’s roots, to one’s true love, but also to the debts one incurs while climbing the ladder of success. Baldur is a richly realized character who fights to preserve his identity in the face a rapidly changing (and increasingly competitive) world.

There’s no doubt that Dr. Arnason possesses a great deal of passion for and near fathomless knowledge of his Icelandic heritage. This novel is a great homage to those roots. But it also contains attributes that long-time readers would expect to find in his work: the humour, the light shading of postmodernism and the great sense of play that he brings to his method of storytelling. Baldur’s Song is a wonderful addition to an already impressive body of work.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

My Top 10 Banned Books

Today marks the beginning of Banned Books Week in the United States (September 25 to October 2), an annual event that, as the American Library Association website puts it, “celebrat[es] the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment.” How very a propos: With right-wing extremism once again on the march in the U.S. as well as here in Canada (and even, sadly, here in Toronto), it’s important to reflect on the effects that censorship can have on the marketplace of ideas and creativity.

Indeed, if we think that the days of people expressing their bigotry and superstitions through censorship are decades behind us, we’re dead wrong. From crackpot pastors looking to burn copies of the Quran to public schools pulling The Origin of Species from library shelves, the attack on free-range reading is very much alive. And don’t think I put the blame entirely on the shoulders of the Religious Right: liberals have had their own checkered past when it comes to sequestering books because they offend our politically correct sensibilities. My feeling has always been that anti-intellectualism is never a neutral state – it’s always an attack on intellectualism itself and the freedom to think deeply and multifariously, regardless of which side of the political spectrum the attack is coming from.

With all this in mind, I present to you my Top 10 List of Banned Books. Sleazy, sexual, sexist, violent, blasphemous, racist – the list of crimes go on and on. Going through these works again last night, I had to marvel at how I count many of them among my favourites. I think it’s a fairly diverse list, but the one thing they all have in common is that they’ve all been held up at some point in their history as paragons of corruption and sin, and have been banned, burned, or otherwise censored.

  • The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence. Canada’s religious right came after this Canadian novel not long after its publication in 1974, and Laurence was never quite the same again. In fact, The Diviners was the last full-length novel for adults she ever published, even though she lived for another 13 years. It’s hard to say, looking back now, what exactly got the churchies’ underwear in a knot – the extramarital sex, a woman who put her artistic ambitions ahead of the needs of her daughter, or the novel’s infamous “ride my stallion” line (page 365 of the mass market paperback edition, not that I keep track of such things). It doesn’t matter. The Diviners has endured, going on to be ranked #1 on various “best novels in Canada” lists.
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence. Whenever someone says something silly like “men can’t write women characters” to me, I always point them in the direction of D.H. Lawrence. I’d argue that he knew just as much about the female psyche and its desires as Austen, the Brontes, Mansfield or Woolf. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, about a woman who cuckolds her war-vet cripple of a husband with a burly gamekeeper, probably holds the record for the longest ban for a contemporary novel , at least in England – 1928 to 1960. I read this novel only a couple of years ago, and for some reason went in expecting the sexy bits to be not all that sexy. Boy was I wrong.
  • Multiple novels by Stephen King. Okay, I admit that this counts as more than one book, but it’s hard to limit oneself to a single King novel when so many of them have been banned. From the parental violence of The Shining to the 6-on-1 preteen gangbang in It, King has always pushed the boundaries of what society finds acceptable in books targeted at teenaged boys. Earning an annual eight-figure salary for at least two decades now, King has devolved into a sort of parody of a parody of himself in recent years. But his early works did ruffle a lot of feathers back in the day and found themselves excluded from library shelves around the world.
  • A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. Ah, did you think I’d exclude my main man from a list this size? Not a chance. Burgess often went out of his way to offend people in his novels – women, minorities, the British populace in general – but this book was banned pretty much for its straight-up violence and dystopian world view. Much like King’s novel Rage (published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), A Clockwork Orange has often been accused of encouraging/glorifying senseless brutality among teenage males. Well, you know what I always say: come for the laddish violence but stay for the ingenious linguistic engineering.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. I’m not going to say a whole lot about this one right now: 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird’s publication and I’m hoping to write a lengthy post about it before the year is up. But let me say this: to hear that this novel continues to be banned in certain areas of the United States merely attests to the sheer delirium affecting the brains and hearts of the hysterically intolerant.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. One of just a few books on this list attacked more by the left than by the right, Huck Finn continues to offend 125 years after its publication. I’ve never understood why some readers haven’t been able to get past the novel’s repeated use of the N-word and portrayals of a 19th-century black man, as these were vital to the accuracy of the time period about which Twain was writing. (Many people forget that this is a historical novel: while published in 1885, it was actually set in the 1840s.) Twain writes with a deep sense of empathy and passion in this book, and it is one of the most scathing indictments of slavery every published. People who censor (or even censure) this book on the grounds above give liberalism a bad name.
  • Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth. For me, the most memorable image from this novel is probably its most eyebrow-raising: that of Portnoy contorting his body into a position that allows him to masturbate onto his own tongue. (You may remember a similar feat achieved in the opening sequence of the film Short Bus.) This novel pulls no punches when it comes to describing the joys and follies of a teenage boy discovering his sexual appetites for the first time, but this wasn’t the only thing that got the censors up in arms. Roth has been accused numerous times of anti-Semitism (a “self-hating Jew” and all that) and a lot of the attacks seem to focus on Portnoy’s Complaint. But this is one of his finest novels, and not for the prudish.
  • Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. No list of banned books would be complete without this landmark of world literature, which describes with stunning verisimilitude the twisted justifications and delusions of a confirmed pedophile. Nabokov was an expert at taking the kernel of an idea and following it all the way through to its conclusion, no matter where it took his writing. Lolita has always been accused of being too much – just too close to the bone in terms of its portrayal of child seduction and the mental machinations behind it. Like any good book on a banned list, Lolita ferries in an unmistakeable and relentless atmosphere of discomfort. Why? Because we are in Humbert Humbert’s head the entire time, and cannot escape his darkest desires.
  • Ulysses, by James Joyce. Boy, ask me how proud I was of myself when I managed to finally read this classic back in 2003. Now here is an example of a novel where I felt that the sexy bits weren’t all that sexy. But considering the timeframe of Ulysses’ first publication (1918 to 1920) it’s not surprising that this book came under attack from entire governments for being scandalous. Joyce’s magnum opus is one of those books I admire for the sheer revelry of its risk-taking. In this case: the risk of having an 800+ novel set in a single day; the risk of portraying the entire human condition in a relentless stream-of-consciousness mode; and yes, the risk of delving in complex undulations of female infidelity. This book was banned and then heralded as a literary masterpiece. Today, most people are perfectly free to read it but very few people do.
  • The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. The term ‘unflinching’ gets overused a lot when it comes to book reviews/summations, but it’s wholly earned in The Color Purple – and that, of course, is what got it into so much trouble. It’s not simply the abject violence in the novel that put it on the radar of censors; it was also the source of that violence. The Color Purple has been chastised for the negative light in which it portrays black men, which essentially means that this masterpiece of African American literature has been accused of racism. I’m of course baffled that anyone would see this book as anything other than a justifiable indictment of White America and its treatment of blacks in the South. Walker writes with beauty and with grace, even when she’s describing the most horrific of circumstances.

And how about you? What are your favourite banned books?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Review: A Splinter in the Heart, by Al Purdy

I’ll say up front that this was a rare instance of me coming to a book knowing fairly well that it was going to be bad. I have a few friends who’ve read A Splinter in the Heart, Canadian poet Al Purdy’s only published novel, and their condemnation of it has been universal. Still, I wanted to see for myself if this book, written by one of Canada’s most revered men of verse, was as dreadful as all that. I’ll also say up front that I am a huge fan of a lot of Purdy’s poetry, and there’s virtually nothing that could sully my opinion of his work in that medium.

But oh my. A Splinter in the Heart really is a piece of shite. I mean, you would need to have won a couple of GGs in another medium before your publisher would release such a travesty, or even touch it with a barge pole. If this manuscript of hysterical amateurism had come in on the slush pile, nobody at M&S would have gotten past page two.

The story is set in the town of Trenton, Ontario in 1918. Sixteen-year-old Patrick Cameron is coming of age just as the First World War is winding down: he’s fallen in love with a new classmate, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jean Tomkins; he’s struck up a (mostly internalized) rivalry with fellow long-distance runner Kevin Morris; and he’s watched his mysterious, slovenly grandfather Portugee die from the outbreak of Spanish Flu. The historical backdrop to all of this is the real-life explosion that occurred at Trenton’s British Chemical Factory in October of 1918, and the novel’s various threads lead up to this one, pivotal tragedy. The model for such an approach is, of course, Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising, which used the infamous Halifax Explosion (occurring some 10 months before the accident in Trenton) for similar purposes.

Only, Purdy’s novel possesses none of MacLennan’s careful structuring and occasional flourishes of nuance. Each subplot of A Splinter in the Heart is crudely conceived and strewn through the book without much thought to purpose. Patrick’s adolescent obsessions – with Jean, with his grandfather, with the perceived successes of his rival Kevin – are told adolescently, as if Purdy (nearly 72 when he published this book) couldn’t separate his own well-seasoned, experienced mind from the naïve, immature one that inhabits Patrick’s head. Consequently, the third-person narration is a dog’s breakfast of bad analogies and unearned portent. Add in countless sections about the history of Trenton, cropping up pointlessly throughout the text, and you’ll be tempted to throw this book across the room more than once. It’s as if Purdy is writing for MacLennan’s Canadian audience of 1941 – back when any literary novel set in Canada was a rarity and we were more willing to forgive bad dialogue, inane bursts of historicism, and embarrassing sentimentality in our nation's literature.

Indeed, it is the prose that undoes A Splinter in the Heart at every turn. Never mind that the dialogue is infested with countless examples of “exposition monkeys” (a wonderful term that RR taught me) and Patrick speaks like no sixteen-year-old ever would. It’s the actual narration that drove me to distraction. If I didn’t know better, I would say that Purdy was ignorant of the rules for crafting good sentences. A random example from early in the book:

Dizzily he’d regain his desk, face slightly red. Kevin Morris’s eyes would be on him inscrutably, Billy Coons’s eyes knowingly. And the girls, demurely working away at Miss Gothard’s class assignment, would have their own eyes modestly lowered. Harold Wannamaker, star football player, winked at him delightedly from the corner of the room.
A shiny nickel for anyone who can point out the type of word, which every writing manual says to use sparingly, contributes a whopping 13.2% of that entire passage.

Also, for someone so gifted at poetry, Purdy is an utter clod when stirring a little bit of metaphor into his prose. Take this example:

Patrick had his own monster to contend with, and decided the monster was himself. Before the June exams, after which Grade 10 students were allowed to sniff the rarified air of upper academia, he dreamed his own dream. In it he failed the examination … They were all watching him, fearfully, shrinking away from the failed monster. Patrick sobbed, his mother sobbed. And he swam to safety through ten-foot waves of his own tears.

Oh, we’re crying ten-foot tears ourselves over here, Al.

The saddest thing about A Splinter in the Heart is that there is a shorter, better novel buried deep inside this one. It’s only when Purdy introduces the character of Red MacPherson – a long-lost friend of Patrick’s grandfather who shows up after the old guy has died – that the story takes on any intrigue. Red, along with his cadre of misfits, paints for Patrick a much different, much more noble picture of his grandfather for the young lad. To me, this was the heart of the book and would have made a much more interesting story. I didn’t care for an instant about beautiful Jean Tomkins, or the stresses of long-distance running, or how they went about making T.N.T. at the British Chemical plant. But I did care about how Red and his buddies undermined Patrick’s ideas about his own grandfather. I wish Purdy had thrown out the rest and just focused on that.

Alas, he didn’t. And alas, this book remains a singular novelistic blight on an otherwise admirable literary career.