Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review: The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

During the years I lived in Seoul, South Korea, I often picked up a copy of The International Herald Tribune, one of the three English language dailies available in the city at the time. Even if I didn’t have an undergraduate degree in journalism, it would have been easy to notice the struggles that this small, feisty international paper had in filling its pages with genuine news. I often lamented to anyone who’d listen that nearly half of the paper’s daily page count was dedicated to advertise-friendly subjects like business and entertainment. So when I heard that Tom Rachman, who used to work for the IHT, had made a fictional rendering of the newspaper the setting for his debut novel, The Imperfectionists, I leapt at the chance to read it.

The Imperfectionists has received a number of glowing reviews since its release – notably from The New York Times, The Globe and Mail and The New Yorker – and I’m happy to add my voice to the chorus of praise. Rachman’s novel is a near-perfect exploration of the gritty, stressful and often hilarious world of daily journalism. The book captures both the ideal of journalism as a concept and the (increasingly sad) reality of journalism as a business.

Each chapter of The Imperfectionists is named after a newspaper headline that is vaguely a propos of the chapter’s content itself (examples include “World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126” and “The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists”) and features a character who is associated with the unnamed newspaper in Rome in some way. There’s the washed-up, old-school freelancer Lloyd Burko – he still doesn’t own a computer, types everything on a word processor – who struggles to score one more big bi-line by exploiting his own son. There’s the paper’s tyrannical corrections editor, Herman Cohen, who is in charge of pointing out to staff writers and editors (“nit wits”) their various violations to the in-house style guide (“The Bible”), and he often goes around randomly yelling “Credibility!” when he’s especially pissed off. There’s the feckless young Cairo stringer Winston Cheung, who is bullied and exploited by a much more seasoned journalist. And then there’s my favourite character, news editor Craig Menzies, a man who appears never to leave the newsroom at all – he’s there long before anyone else arrives in the morning, he’s still there at night after everyone leaves – and yet he has a profoundly complex and problematic personal life that no one sees.

Each of the characters in Rachman’s novel is beautifully crafted and bang-on accurate. Anyone who’s worked in a newsroom will recognize the motley ensemble of up-tight eggheads and fucked-up posers whose combined efforts put out a paper day in and day out. There’s also little touches of newspaper history in this book that give it such personality. Example: in a flashback scene, some of the guys in the newsroom use the pneumatic tubes – prior to computers and networks, this was how copy was transported from one department to another – in order to fire live mice into the secretaries’ typing pool. (Newspapers also used to have typing pools.)

Ultimately what makes Rachman’s novel special is the way he balances the quotidian detail of a daily newspaper’s operation with the larger social impact that the concept of newspapers has on the world. It’s ultimately a sad story – the fate of newspapers, including this one, seemed to be sealed by apathetic, even hostile corporate conglomerates – but it is a story worth telling. Bravo to Mr. Rachman for telling it so well.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Lisa Moore's February on the Booker Prize long list

Interestingly, Lisa Moore's novel February - which received what could be best described as mixed reviews here in Canada - has made it on the long list for this year's Booker Prize. I know this book has caused quite a bit of debate on this side of the pond about its various merits, but it's good to once again see Canada get recognized for this major international award.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Review: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

It’s one of the worst clichés that a reviewer can spout: that a book comes along that makes you believe in the power of the novel again. I for one have never doubted the power of the novel, but it certainly is great to read a book like Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and have one’s beliefs reaffirmed.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand tells the story of Major Ernest Pettigrew, British fuddy-duddy of the highest order, and his sudden and consuming romance with local Pakistani shopkeeper Mrs. Jasmina Ali. The two are aging and widowed and just beyond the edge of caring about what kind of scandal their budding relationship causes in the small English village where they live. But what a scandal it does cause – muted but no less detectable.

What makes Simonson’s novel so great is the way it uses the small to illuminate the large. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is full of the manipulations of grown children, petty squabbles over property and possessions, obsessions about religion and dinner parties and climbing the social ladder. But the relationship between Pettigrew and Ali stirs up the much bigger issues of race and class, multiculturalism and tolerance, progress and tradition, colonialism and religious extremism. It is a humorous comedy of manners that owes a debt to the great British novels of the Victorian period, but it is also a novel that very much belongs to the 21st century, tackling so many of the complexities of our modern world.

It isn’t a perfect book, mind you. Simonson has a tendency to overwrite and explain too much about what her characters are thinking. There is an entire swath in the middle of the book where nearly every instance of dialogue is accompanied by a gesture, a thought, or a judgment occurring below the surface of what’s being said. Sometimes these extrapolations are necessary but for the most part Simonson needs to trust that her carefully crafted dialogue says enough on its own. A better editor could have come along and excised so many of these redundant add-ons to the characters’ exchanges.

But it’s a petty grievance. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an accomplished novel and very serious literature. You’ll fall in love with the Major and Mrs. Ali as they fall in love with each other, and you’ll marvel at how their simple lives can teach us so much about the modern condition and how to find the humanist medium between so many competing extremes.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review: Crossing Lines - Poets Who Came to Canada in the Vietnam War Era

I tend to hold a lot of skepticism toward poetry anthologies with really specific themes or criteria for entry. I find their exclusionary nature a bit problematic; and the so-called unifying force behind these types of books can often drown out the merits of individual poems. Crossing Lines, edited by Allan Briesmaster and Steven Michael Berzensky, does have a rigid formula for inclusion – poets born in the United States but who immigrated to Canada during (though not necessarily because of) the Vietnam War – but aims at the broader theme of Canada’s relationship with the United States in times of conflict and the impact of such a mass exodus of poets-to-be from one country to another during a specific time (1965 to 1975). In their introduction, the editors confess that these are somewhat wobbly premises on which to build an anthology, and have wisely allowed their poets to explore the themes however they choose, or to not explore them at all.

There are a number of extremely talents poets included in this anthology. These include Leon Rooke, Ellen Jaffe, Dave Margoshes, Bernadette Rule, George Amabile and George Fetherling. The work from these poets is nothing less than what you’d expect from them, and their high quality make up the heart of this book.

But like any anthology of this size and type, you’re also going find a mélange of poems that just don’t work, that are undone by their attempts to answer the book’s perceived themes. The subjects here are war, migration, a lost sense of home, as well as activism and protest, and the results are mixed. I can say the poems that explore the current war in Iraq or George W. Bush are uniformly bad. The conflict is too close in our collective conscious, the emotional response to its perpetrator too blunt and trite. Other poems spin their wheels trying to say something truly new about the Vietnam War, a cultural touchstone that has been blown well beyond its historical significance simply as a result of the dominance and hegemony of the Baby Boomer generation.

The best poems in this anthology are the ones that don’t forget to, well, be poems. That is, they don’t get bogged down by the theme to forget all of the techniques and artistry that can make a poem sublime. Thankfully, there are plenty of selections in Crossing Lines that stand up well on their own, that would count as great poems no matter where or under what circumstances they were published.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Review: The Grammar of Distance, by Ian Burgham

I had the great privilege of reading with Ian Burgham back in April at the Draft Reading Series, and was so impressed with his performance that I picked up his new poetry collection, The Grammar of Distance. Ian did a tremendous job reading from his text, providing just enough explanation between each poem and really imbuing his lines with energy and professionalism. He and I had a great chat afterwards and he seemed thoroughly impressed with the excerpt of my new novel that I had read. (Yes, I read from the new novel. If you missed it, you suck!)

And while I do admit that The Grammar of Distance worked better for me read aloud in miniature than it did as a whole volume, I think most readers should be able to find something to like in this collection of highly personal, sentimental, self-ensconced poems. Ian’s words traverse both an emotional and a physical landscape and speak to many of the concerns and preoccupations of his generation. Several of these poems jarred and challenged me in unexpected ways and made me reexamine the approaches I take to my own poetry.

I should as well send out a big kudos to Ian’s publisher, Tightrope Books, for putting his verse together into such a beautiful physical object. The cover has a gorgeous design and the selected typeface is simple and elegant, a perfect complement to Ian’s thoughtful words. It certainly makes reading a collection of poems a much better experience when such care gets put into the creation of the book itself.

Another Maisonneuve pick-up

I'm happy to report that Maisonneuve magazine has re-posted another blog entry of mine - specifically yesterday's review of Paul Vermeersch's new poetry collection. That's the second one in as many months. I could get used to this ...

Another review of Woodpecker

So another review for my Retro Reading Challenge has just been posted. Kerry Clare has reviewed Still Life with Woodpecker, which incidentally is the same book I chose, and our assessments of it are pretty much in the same ballpark. Good job, Kerry. This, I think, is the last of the reviews to come in from people who said they'd participate, but it's never too late. If you want to take your own Retro Reading Challenge, by all means go ahead and then send me a link to where you've posted your review.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Review: The Reinvention of the Human Hand, by Paul Vermeersch

A lot of people talk about Paul Vermeersch behind his back. I’ve seen them do it. I’ll be hanging out in the clatter of some literary event here in Toronto and inevitably meet poets who have been edited by Paul in his capacity as the poetry editor at Insomniac Press. They’ll speak about him in almost hushed tones, as if they’re afraid he’ll overhear them from his place at the other side of the bar. I nearly have to lean in to catch the gossip they spread about him. The rumors are almost universally the same: that if you’re an up-and-coming poet, there is no better editor to have in your corner and to go to the mat for your work. There is no better editor to help you shape a group of seemingly disparate poems into a strong, cohesive collection of verse. Discussing such things, these poets seem almost embarrassed – not at how brilliant Paul is, but rather at how adept his skills are at helping others see the brilliance in themselves.

So I came to Paul’s freshly released collection, The Reinvention of the Human Hand, wondering if he can do for his own work what he has reportedly done for so many others’. I had heard him read a number of these poems at various events here in Toronto and knew they were strong as individual pieces. But it wasn’t until I had read the collection in full that I realized exactly what we’re dealing with here. The Reinvention of the Human is, quite simply, a powerhouse book of poetry, an astonishing feat for a poet who has not yet turned forty. The unifying vision is that of the animal in man and man in the animal. The book examines our human relationships with and interpretations of the rest of the animal world, and draws connections between our so-called rational actions and the more primordial impulses to which we are also subject.

There is a deep, abiding love for animals in this book, and Paul does a phenomenal job contemplating their inner worlds. In poems like “Ape,” “Sorrow for Frogsong” and “Dogstar,” he either speaks to or for the beasts he has imagined, often as an elegy for their embattled situations, a result of their subjugation to the human hand. He also explores the boundaries of what that human hand is capable of, the edges of man’s consciousness, reason and even physicality. Many of the poems are a reflection in both senses of the word: a contemplation on man’s place in the animal world and also a refraction back from the animals themselves.

One can’t help but notice a sad, almost pessimistic air to much of the collection, but Paul mitigates this lugubriousness with lines of pure eloquence. In “Boys who Envy Werewolves”, we get a glimpse into the minds of young men prone to violence, an unblinking assessment of their inner consciousness:

The boys who envy werewolves do not
want to change. They only want the freedom
to be the monsters they know they are,
harbingers of the justice that seethes
inside them, the storm of bile unleashed…

Of course, not all of the poems are so dark. My favourite was the more lighthearted “Three Anthropomorphic Studies,” in which Paul provides a poetic rendering of three characters from Looney Tunes – Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny. I was impressed not only with how well these pieces fit into the overall vision for the book but also at the sheer craft shown in creating them. Paul resists the urge to give in to camp or cheap humour in these poems. I did chuckle reading them, but it was more at how skillfully he lays a seriousness atop these absurd cartoon worlds. From “2. Call Me Coyote”:

I’ll come for you again today refreshed,
with birdseed loaded with buckshot
and a magnet that could rip the very iron
from your blood. I’ll grease my heels
and slide like light toward my prize,
unencumbered and missile-swift,
with dead-eye aim and avarice.

The Reinvention of the Human Hand does what every good collection of poetry should: it gives you a new, enriching perspective on what it means to be human. Paul has taken his profound love of animals and used it to teach us something fundamental about ourselves. I’ll definitely be chatting this collection up with other bookish types that I see around Toronto’s literary events. And I may not even wait until Paul’s gone to the bar and out of earshot before I do it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Review: My Animal Life, by Maggie Gee

I picked up this memoir by British author Maggie Gee after reading a thoroughly engaging review of it in the UK Guardian back in March. For those of you who don't know, Maggie Gee is one of the writers who was included in the original Granta list of Best Young British Authors (along with Martin Amis, Ian MacEwan, and others) back in the early `80s. She has published about a dozen books and has been up for the Orange Prize and other awards. While on the surface it seems she has had a flawlessly successful career as a novelist, the reality of her situation is a much different story. The review above described My Animal Life as a tale of a woman lost in the literary world's mid-list, mid-career shuffle. Despite her early successes, few around London's literary elite had actually read Gee, and she at one point had a manuscript out-and-out rejected - not only by her publisher HarperCollins but by virtually every other mainstream publisher in Britain.

Gee's memoir does describe this ego-shattering experience in riveting detail, but it takes its sweet time getting there. Instead of limiting itself to this most compelling aspect of Gee's story, My Animal Life takes a more pedestrian and well-worn road - that of the "long view" memoir. Gee can't help but inundate the reader with ponderous background on her parents and grandparents (right down to the kinds of hats they wore), cliched observations about breast feeding her daughter, and other random domestic minutiae.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favour of the quotidian when it serves a higher function in a story. But one has to wonder what Gee was trying to accomplish in the first third of this book. If there was a greater structural function in describing the petty squabbles of her parents and the wardrobe norms of her grandparents, it was lost on me. Gee writes in a voice that captures the very worst stereotypes one might conjure about the Baby Boomer generation: self-absorbed, solipsistic, sanctimonious, and convinced that any typical life event, no matter how shopworn, is worth describing for the simple reason that it happened to them.

The biggest issue with My Animal Life, before it finally arrives at its gripping section on Gee’s struggles in the literary jungle, is that it lacks any cohesive organization. She hops around from topic to topic – childhood, parenthood, ancestry, her writing life – with no discernible pattern to the choices she’s made as the narrator. Indeed, I often felt there was a lack of continuity from one paragraph to the next. Even at the level of the sentence, Gee can’t seem to settle into a style. Her sentences are at one point fluid and complete, then veer suddenly into fragmentation and ellipsis.

Still, there is a lot to admire about this memoir. Gee writes a harrowing scene where she is almost raped while on family vacation in France by an army conscript home on leave. And her description of her mother’s death is as heartbreaking as it is memorable. Gee can write a compelling scene when she has to; she just can’t seem to tell the difference between what constitutes a gripping anecdote and what doesn’t. Again, she’s clearly a product of her generation.

I think there’s a valuable lesson that any would-be writer can take away from My Animal Life, but it isn’t the one promised in that UK Guardian review. The lesson here is that a memoir need not be – in fact, should not be – a life told in total. Rather, the best of this kind of literary personal nonfiction is the kind that identifies the truly interesting, the truly fascinating aspects of the author’s life, and focuses on those and those alone. Leave out your long rambles about grandparents and the kinds of hats they wore. If you're Maggie Gee, your story is told better by leaving them out.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Retro Reading Challenge Update

I'm pleased to report that I've had another participant in my Retro Reading Challenge from earlier this year. As promised, Amy Jones has written, or at least has attempted to write, a review of The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley on her Listophelia blog. Amy is tough on herself for not finishing this tome, but her caustic assessment of the experience (written in the form of a list, natch) is well worth a read.

Amy posted this a few days ago but I missed it because I've only just now gotten back from my vacation on the East Coast and have spent the last two days in a car. Actually, I'm not complaining - the trek from Toronto to Charlottetown and back again is long but invigorating, and I really did appreciate two weeks home with access to my own vehicle. So, in honour of Amy Jones, I offer up my Top 12 list of things I learned on my summer break:

1. Leaving Toronto on the morning of the first day of the G20 summit is a BRILLIANT idea. Somewhat ruined, however, by turning on CBC News in our hotel room in Riviere du Loup that night and seeing a burning cop car.
2. The sunset in Riviere du Loup is spectacular.
3. My GPS completely craps out between Edmunston and Fredericton, NB. I mean, that poor machine had no idea where the fuck we were!
4. Crossing the Confederation Bridge to PEI is even more fun when your passenger has never done it before.
5. Visiting Anne of Green Gables House in Cavendish is surprisingly entertaining, despite being subjected to L.M. Montgomery's sugary affirmations in pull-quote form on plaques scattered throughout the Balsam Walking Trail.
6. Halifax is STILL THE FUCKING COOLEST CITY IN THE WORLD. Hats off to RR for enduring what essentially turned into a walking tour of Off Book.
7. Peggy's Cove looks somewhat ominous when viewed through a GPS. Getting out of car and walking along the rocks is strongly encouraged.
8. Poet Art Moore throws just as awesome a party at his Moncton, NB home in summer as he does at Christmas time. But from this experience, we have learned:
8a. RR and I suck at backyard croquet.
8b. Moonshine goes surprisingly well in a Jell-O shooter.
8c. Certain people, when they've had a few too many moonshine Jell-O shooters, will accuse both RR and me of being "postmodern writers". Umm - what?
9. Jumping off the bridge at Basin Head beach on PEI never gets boring, no matter how old you are.
10. Perth-Andover, NB is red-neck central. See camouflage decal on pick-up trucks at the Tim Hortons.
11. Rolaids now come in a chewable candy form, and is a delightful balm to soothe road trip-related heartburn.
12. It's nice to see one's own kitchen back in Toronto again, and even nicer to see one hasn't accidentally left any food out on the counter to rot while one's been away for two weeks.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Vacation mania

If you're all wondering why things are so quiet here on FRR, it's because I am currently on vacation back home on the East Coast. RR and I drove down from Toronto last weekend, spent a chilly but fun few days on PEI, and are now in Halifax. In fact, as I type this we are relaxing at the Garden Inn, just a couple blocks from my beloved Spring Garden Road, recovering from an invigorating hike around McNab's Island. We're here in Halifax until tomorrow morning, and then we jaunt off to Moncton to spend some time with poet Art Moore. Then back to PEI for a few more days before driving back to Toronto.

But you'll be happy to know that I've continued reading like mad (after all, what else are breaks for?) and am a couple books behind on my reviewing. Stay tuned - I may try to find some time to write while we're still on break; otherwise, expect a flurry of reviews when I get back.