Friday, May 18, 2012

Acceptance: Dundurn Press

It is with tremendous joy (and a great deal of relief!) that I can finally announce to the world that Toronto's Dundurn Press has accepted for publication my new novel, Sad Peninsula, set for release in the spring of 2014. The manuscript, completed about a year ago, has been under consideration with the press since September, and I received and signed the contract earlier this week.

Sad Peninsula, set in South Korea, explores two interconnected stories: that of a former Korean “comfort woman” named Eun-young, a sex slave from the Japanese occupation who struggles with her past of rape and violence; and that of Michael, a troubled young Canadian arriving in Korea to teach ESL, whose principles and humanity are tested by Seoul’s seedy expatriate underbelly. An excerpt of the novel was published about a year ago in the literary journal The Quint, which you can read here.

Dundurn Press is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Traditionally known for its nonfiction, the press has been building out its literary fiction line over the last number of years and I'm very excited to be working with the talented editor Shannon Whibbs. Dundurn published more than 100 books last year, running the gamut from military histories and memoirs to literary novels, YA books and mysteries. By sheer volume of annual titles, it's one of the largest publishers in Canada.

So stay tuned here to the blog for more details as they develop. Needless to say, I'm very excited and will be screaming this news to the rafters in the coming weeks and months.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review: Attack of the Copula Spiders, by Douglas Glover

Writing manuals fall into two general categories: those that teach you how to write from the tip of your pen and those that teach you how to write by showing you how writers should process and function in the world around them. The most extreme case of the former would, I suppose, be Strunk and White’s seminal The Elements of Style, and an example of the latter would be something like Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction. Both are dedicated to helping writers improve their craft; but one works at strengthening the sheer technique that occurs at the writer’s point of contact with the page, while the other works to help the writer understand what she must do (or become, or witness) before she can even begin to write.

While Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders straddles both of these camps in certain essays, his allegiances remain with good writing that comes via the tip of the pen. In both the title essay and the bluntly named “How to Write a Novel” and “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise,” Glover offers a clinical approach to strengthening works of fiction at the level of the sentence. His sortie on the verb “to be” in “Attack of the Copula Spiders” is particularly brilliant: he shows how overusing of this verb and its variants (is, was, am, etc) can really weaken a work of fiction and make it appear devoid of any legitimate action. By identifying these verbs and coming up with alternatives, any writer can introduce more forward momentum to his or her prose.

Glover also dissects thematic patterning, plot structures and dialogue writing, and introduces a nifty explanation of sentence-level conflict or tension called the “but-construction.” A lot of this is highly technical and may be somewhat off-putting to the novice writer just starting to learn elements of the craft. But for those who feel ready to graduate from, say, Jack Hodgins’ A Passion for Narrative or Stephen King’s On Writing, then Attack of the Copula Spiders can provide a more in-depth look at how writers plan, structure, write and improve their fiction.

To counterbalance the highly technical side of the book, Glover has also included some thoughtful essays on the works of Alice Munro, Mark Anthony Jarman, Leon Rooke and others. The pieces examine these writers’ works at the level of craft, getting under the hoods of some excellent writing to show us exactly how they function. It was interesting to read his essay on Alice Munro’s “Meneseteung” very shortly after I read K.D Miller’s brilliant piece on Munro in the most recent issue of CNQ. The differences between these two explorations typify what I mean by the writing-from-the-tip-of-the-pen-versus-not mentioned above. Glover is concerned more with the minutiae of Munro’s craft, the small devices that elucidate meaning, the turns of phrase, and the way the time sequences in the story are so carefully layered. While Miller’s essay also covers many of these things, she’s more interested in taking a bird’s-eye view of Munro’s feats—that is, the type of person Munro needs to be in order to write this kind of emotive, empathetic and highly charged fiction. Miller is concerned more with the soul of the writer; Glover is concerned more with what happens below the writer’s wrists. The two essays are wonderful complements to each other.        

If I had one criticism of Attack of the Copula Spiders—if this even counts as a criticism—it’s that many of the excellent technical bits that Glover provides often lack concrete examples from the world of literature. I often found myself wanting to write “For instance?” in the margins of the book, especially during the “How to Write a Short Story” essay, where there is a paucity of quotes from canonical short stories that would help illustrate the (very fine) points Glover is making. If Attack of the Copula Spiders shares a kinship with any one writing manual, it would be James Wood’s How Fiction Works; but whereas Wood appears to have the entire body of English literature at his fingertips, serving up examples hand over fist, Glover seems sometimes to limit his examples to just a handful of books in any particular section. Often, these examples come from his own works of fiction.

But this doesn’t detract much from the overall value of Attack of the Copula Spiders as a resource for both intermediate and experienced authors. It can hold its own with any of the writing manuals mentioned above, and is as rich and engaging as they come. Glover is a pro and well worth paying attention to.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

Review: No End in Strangeness: New and Selected Poems, by Bruce Taylor

In his luminous and bewitching new collection of poetry, Bruce Taylor uses his artistic eye to find the big worlds contained within little things. In a suite of 30 new pieces that complement a selection of older work going back nearly 25 years, Taylor examines the macro complexities that exist inside small, everyday objects or experiences.

The title of the collection, No End in Strangeness, comes from the second poem in the book, a long piece called “Little Animals” (“And there is no end to them,/ no end in numbers,/ and no end in strangeness/ no end to their appetites…”) where Taylor writes about the clockwork machinations of scientific exploration and the bodily richness one finds in the animal world. The poem begins with

That old book has a million moving parts,
and when you open it to look inside,
they all spill out, like the escapement
from a sproinged clock,
spelling up the life and correspondence
of a Dutch cloth merchant called van Leeuwenhoek

and goes on to obsessively track the minutiae that connects the visceral discoveries of biology with the automations of the machine. This could be a metaphor for Taylor’s book as a whole. Indeed, this obsession with the small permeates many of these poems: from the glimpse the poet gets of his own heart in “Echocardiogram” to the experiment of growing mold in the opening piece “Nature”, the poet provides us with a window into the hidden worlds that surround us all.

Taylor is also adept at painting a picture of human behaviour inside a framed microcosm of experience. Anyone who has ever been trapped in a flame war on the Internet will recognize their ordeals in “Entities”, where the narrator goes online to get some simple gardening advice on tomatoes and finds himself embroiled in, among other things, mudslinging about the US Civil War. The dynamic is as hilarious as it is apt.

Not every poem in the collection worked for me. Sometimes the subject of a piece warranted a tighter, more concise execution, and a few of the poems—especially “Our Things”, a poetic personification of everyday objects—felt a tad overwritten.

As for the older poems in the selection, while they don’t hold together with as much of a common theme as the newer poems do, there are still some real gems here that stand on their own. I’m thinking specifically of “Tackle”, a beautifully descriptive romp through a fisherman’s box of lures, and “March 1”, a meditation on both time and Time as the author turns 35.

Taylor’s gifts are apparent in nearly every poem—a keen eye, a talent for metaphor, and a quiet, understated ability to lift an object up to get a view of its fascinating underbelly. No End in Strangeness will provide the reader with no end in treasure.

Reminder: Reading tomorrow night in St. Catharines

Just a reminder that I'll be reading, along with RR, tomorrow night in St. Catharines as part of the Virus Reading Series. Here are the specific details:

Where: MahTay Cafe, 241 St. Paul Street, St. Catharines
When: Tuesday, May 8 2012, at  7:30 pm.

Hope to see you there!


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Three poems in This magazine

I'm very happy to report that the new issue of This magazine has landed on newsstands, and inside you'll find three poems by yours truly. The issue also contains poems by Helen Guri, a piece on new ways bosses can screw you, and lots of other delightful stuff. Go check it out.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Review: Middlesex, by Jeffery Eugenides

Through which lens do we capture the best glimpse of our identity? Through the lens of gender, that fraught binary more cultural than cosmetic? Through the lens of biology, the prenatal release of enzymes that dictate our physiological and dispositional fate? Is it family history, the mores and traditions that get coded into our very reflexes? Or is it the gravitational pull of our specific time and place, the external forces that threaten to crush us if we don’t abide?

The answer, as Jeffery Eugenides will rightly tell you, is all of the above and more. Through his wildly spacious and brilliantly written 2001 novel Middlesex, Eugenides tackles the prismatic influences that come to bear on a single self. The book tells the story of Calliope Stephanides, an American of Greek descent who is born, unbeknownst to her family, a hermaphrodite—her underdeveloped male genitalia hidden inside the labial folds of her female ones. The model for Callie’s first-person omniscience is clearly David Copperfield, but Eugenides takes this narrative strategy to whole other level. Without explanation or apology, Callie is able to dive deep into the history and psyche of three generations of her family to explore the underlying forces that helped shape her transformation from a girl into a boy.

Before I praise this novel to the rafters, I do want to get a quibble out of the way. The framing story that Eugenides sets up—with the adult Calliope (now referred to simply as Cal) working as a diplomat in Germany and living life as a man—seems, if not completely extraneous, at least undone by a paucity of detail and narrative tension. The present-day bits of Middlesex are as inchoate as Callie’s penis, as inaccessible as a pair of undescended testicles, and Eugenides could have either ditched these sections or reworked them to contain a stronger raison d’etre.

But it’s what resides within that frame, the remarkable storytelling and elaborately drawn characters, that make Middlesex worth reading. I love the way Eugenides successfully throws narrative balance out the window when explaining how inbreeding has caused Callie’s condition: he dedicates nearly a full third of this novel to the relationship between her grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty, who immigrate to America from Greece and settle in Detroit. The sensuality and raw lust between Desdemona and Lefty do what they’re supposed to—make you overlook the fact that they’re brother and sister, not to mention third cousins. In fact, the entire small Greek village where they come from has a history of incest and inbreeding, and this precipitates the genetic mutation that shapes Callie’s life three generations later. There is a wonderful metaphor in this section—that of gestating silk worms that Desdemona raises to earn some money on the side—and Eugenides uses it without over overdoing its significance to the nascent gender inside Callie.

As Callie works her way up the generations to her own story, we get a broader and more detailed sense of what shapes her identity. Part of this, of course, involves the history and strife of her native Detroit. With breathtaking descriptions of assembly line monotony, Eugenides puts us right inside the culture of the Ford Motor Company. Lefty works there briefly in the 1920s and learns first hand how capitalism rewrites the very code of what it means to be human. Later, Callie’s parents, Milton and Tessie (who are also distantly related) escape the race riots of 1967 and move to the affluent suburb of Grosse Pointe. Eugenides makes a connection (but again, not overdoing it) between the burning city of Detroit and the conflict in Greece that first forced the Stephanides family to move to America. Meanwhile, Milton starts up a successful hot dog franchise and becomes enamoured with his own “self made” image, imbued by the arrogance and blinders that only entrepreneurship can bring. All of this sets the stage for the identity crisis Callie will experience as she moves into puberty in the early 1970s.

And what an identity crisis! Callie falls in love with one of her female classmates, referred to euphemistically as the Obscure Object. Are they just friends? Are they teenage lesbians in the throes of experimentation? Or is there something more complex happening? Callie gets an inkling of her biological situation when she has a very stunted (and painful) sexual encounter with the Object’s brother. This in turn leads to an accident that hospitalizes Callie and finally reveals the truth about her condition. A visit to a renowned expert on hermaphroditism in New York goes especially disastrous: the doctor recommends that a) Callie undergo a simple procedure to remove her male bits and that b) Milton and Tessie continue raising her as a girl. In a moment of existential clarity, Callie realizes that she is a boy—not a girl—and flees, running away on a hitchhiked journey across the country.

Here Middlesex slips into a bit of implausibility: Callie (now Cal), sporting a short haircut and boy’s clothes, finds his way to San Francisco, first living in a park with homeless people before finding work in a bawdy house for freaks. His double genitals becomes a star attraction and Cal seems to relish—or at least be indifferent to—his newfound life as a transgender exhibitionist. A police raid on the joint eventually reunites Cal with his family in Michigan. But meanwhile, Milton is tricked into thinking Cal has been kidnapped, and this leads to a far-fetched confrontation with an old rival that results in an implausible car crash atop the Ambassador Bridge into Canada.

Thankfully, the novel redeems itself once Cal gets home. Middlesex’s most beautiful moment comes when Cal confronts his grandmother, Desdemona, who is now very old and very senile. At first his transformation into a boy baffles her. But with a confession that is neither monumental nor banal, Desdemona admits to her incestuous past and that of the Greek village where she was born, and how this history of inbreeding often resulted in children with confused gender physiologies. It is a touching moment because Eugenides strikes so many perfect balances in this one encounter: in her sea of senility, Desdemona states what she states with a kind of matter-of-fact flippancy, and yet this does not take the wind of the sails of the novel’s climax. And Desdemona’s final acceptance of Cal as Cal is perfect—all that history has led up to this change and she states that as something to be accepted, even welcomed.

The many complex threads of Middlesex come together in the end to make a deeply satisfying whole. Eugenides has crafted an exquisitely complex novel that serious readers will love losing themselves in. A massive achievement in 21st century American literature.