Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Reading Year in Review

Well, we've reached the end of another reading year here on the blog, and you know what that means. Yes, I throw together a roundup of how the year shaped up in terms of the books I read. With so much going on with Sad Peninsula this fall, I felt like I wasn't really able to give the reviewing part of the blog the attention I've given it in previous years. Still, I was able to put together what I think is a pretty solid Top 10 list. And unlike in previous years, I've decided to exclude my usual Top 5 Disappointments list. This is not to say I didn't read a slew of duds in 2014 - because I did - but I thought I'd keep those off the post this year in order to keep the good vibes around here going.

Anyway, without further ado here's my list. As in previous years, this is not a 1 to 10 ranking: the books below are merely listed in the order in which I read them.

  • The Kindness of Women, by J.G. Ballard: I didn’t do an actual review of this book on the blog, as I had been thinking about doing a long essay on Ballard’s biographical writing and the way it spanned two novels (this one, plus Empire of the Sun) and a memoir (Miracles of Life). I abandoned the idea after I realized that others had written about this very topic far better than I ever could. But The Kindness of Women remains my favourite of the three books: this novel spans much of Ballard’s fascinating life – including the part in a Japanese concentration camp (covered in more detail in Empire) as well as a fictionalized version of the death of his wife. A riveting read from cover to cover.
  • When Is a Man, by Aaron Shepard: “Virtually every beat of Shepard’s prose is bang on. His sharp dialogue, well-drawn characters, and incisive descriptions work to make this tale highly believable. He captures both the sclerotic inanity of grad school and the insularity of small-town life with equal gusto. The novel is tightly plotted, yet leaves room for convincing moments of reflection.” Full review.
  • Honey for the Bears, by Anthony Burgess: “There’s much to admire in this garlicky, rambunctious romp of a tale. Burgess, for the most part, doesn’t overplay his hand in pointing out the Cold War differences between the Soviet Union and the culture Paul would be accustomed to in Britain … Burgess’ humour is spot on in these pages; you probably need to speak fluent Russian—plus about three other languages—to catch all the puns here.” Full review
  • This Location of Unknown Possibilities, by Brett Josef Grubisic: “The real star here is the novelistic voice that Grubisic has created, so assured and observant and full of erudite wit. This Location contains a richness of language that immediately establishes a trust with the reader: no matter the twists and turns of its off-the-chain plot, you’re happy to follow them wherever they leads you.” Full review
  • Career Limiting Moves, by Zachariah Wells: “Ultimately, I think Zach will continue to be a controversial figure in Canadian criticism, if for no other reason than he holds up the dual torches of cogency and honest appraisal, which makes him a target for those who value neither. Zach’s largest critics tend to be those who not only fail to match his chops on the great Scrabble board of book reviewing, but who have a vested interest in incoherent criticism itself. Indeed, some have built entire careers around it. But for the rest of us, a book like Career Limiting Moves reminds us about the strengths – and the dangers – of standing behind one’s opinions. Of being honest. Of being clear. And of loving a good fight.” Full review.
  • All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews: “All My Puny Sorrows will most likely be counted as Toews’ masterpiece, and deservedly so. The ending especially good, as it reaches for something ineffable about death: that life does not stop in the face of a heart-wrenching tragedy, and yet the tragedy can do nothing but remain with us even as time progresses. Toews finishes with moments of levity, and yet an almost unspoken absence remains. There is no way to fill that void, no way to get pass it. Death lives in us as much as life does. There is no way to spin it, no flurry of affirmation to get us beyond it. It is a loss. It is a loss.” Full review.
  • The Walking Tanteek, by Jane Woods: “One can’t help but spot the exuberance of Woods’ style here and in other places. The Walking Tanteek (the title for which is taken, maybe, from a mondegreen that Maggie overhears in a Bob Dylan song) bursts with wild, elastic sentences that loop and spin and twist with baroque enthusiasm. Maggie is a deeply conflicted woman, and this narrative style helps to reveal just how all over the map she really is.” Full review.
  • All Saints, by K.D. Miller: “Miller knows two things very well: the effort and precision it takes to make a short story both its own isolated world as well as part of a larger narrative; and the emotional landscape of the Anglican faith, with all its anxieties and contradictions. She weaves these two elements into a powerful whole, creating memorable tales populated by characters full of both doubt and certainty.” Full review.
  • The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis: The term satire seems wholly insufficient to describe what Amis has done in this, his latest outing. The Zone of Interest not only skewers the various tropes and clichés of Holocaust fiction, but it also pierces through its own parody to reach a level of transcendence rarely seen in literature. Ignore the mostly negative reviews this novel as been getting. Read The Zone of Interest with an eye for its caustic panoramas on evil, human morality, and the very language of fiction itself. The master has returned to form. (Full review to come.)
  • Invasive Species, by Claire Caldwell: I had the great pleasure of sharing a stage with Claire Caldwell back in November at the Pivot at the Press Club Reading Series. Her book was buried at the bottom of a stack of review copies but I plucked it out after hearing her read. These poems are as poignant, assured and cagey as poetry gets. Caldwell shows an incredible deftness for building the tension and emotion in a poem up to a pulverizing finish. On several occasions, her closing line left me short of breath. A startling debut. (Full review to come.)

  • Full reading list for the year:

    56. December 30. The Stag Head Spoke, by Erina Harris. 91 pps.

    55. December 27. Cipher, by John Jantunen. 299 pps.

    54. December 22. [Sharps], by Stevie Howell. 87 pps.

    53. December 17. Invasive Species, by Claire Caldwell. 69 pps.

    52. December 15. The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis. 306 pps.

    51. December 5. The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis. 225 pps.

    50. November 29. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O'Neill. 403 pps.

    49. November 17. All Saints, by K.D. Miller. 222 pps.

    48. November 6. The Green Hotel, by Jesse Gilmour. 112 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire.)

    47. November 4. The Eve of St Venus, by Anthony Burgess. 122 pps.

    46. October 30. FreeFall magazine Volume XXIV No. 3 (Fall 2014). 106 pps.

    45. October 28. CNQ 90 (Summer 2014). 80 pps.

    44. October 20. Four English Comedies, edited by J.M. Morrell. 414 pps.

    43. October 9.  Paths of Desire, by Emmanuel Katton (translated by Kathryn Gabinet-Kroo). 175 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)

    42. October 4. The Walking Tanteek, by Jane Woods. 446 pps.

    41. [September 17. The Secrets Men Keep proofs. 178 pps.]

    40. September 9. Stowaways, by Ariel Gordon. 95 pps.

    39. September 5. Play: Poems about Childhood, the Kid Series: Volume One, edited by Shane Neilson. 81 pps.

    38. September 3. The Search for Heinrich Schlögel, by Martha Baillie. 261 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)

    37. August 26. Sweetland, by Michael Crummey. 322 pps. (For review in Canadian Notes and Queries.)

    36. August 16. Leaving Tomorrow, by David Bergen. 277 pps. (For review in The Winnipeg Review.)

    35. August 8. The Antigonish Review 177 (Spring 2014). 144 pps.

    34. August 2. Look Who's Morphing, by Tom Cho. 126 pps.

    33. July 29. Everyone Is CO2, by David James Brock. 63 pps.

    32. July 26. All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews. 321 pps.

    31. July 14. How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, by Doretta Lau. 119 pps.

    30. July 9. Prism International, Spring 2014. 85 pps.

    29. July 7. Prairie Ostrich, by Tamai Kobayashi. 200 pps.

    28. July 1. Sons and Fathers, by Daniel Goodwin. 230 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire)

    27. June 25. He'll, by Nathan Dueck. 94 pps. 

    26. June 23. Anthony Burgess, by Roger Lewis. 470 pps.  

    25. June 14. Emberton, by Peter Norman. 295 pps. (For review in The Winnipeg Review.)

    24. May 26. The Fiddlehead No. 259, Spring 2014. 119 pps.

    23. May 20. CNQ 89 (the Montreal issue). 80 pps.

    22. May 17. Career Limiting Moves, by Zachariah Wells. 331 pps.

    21. May 8. This Location of Unknown Possibilities, by Brett Josef Grubisic, 342 pps.

    20. April 27. More to Keep Us Warm, by Jacob Scheier. 79 pps.

    19. April 24. The Age, by Nancy Lee. 281 pps.

    18. April 14. David Foster Wallace Ruined My Suicide and Other Stories, by D.D. Miller. 246 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire)

    17. April 7. The Strangers' Gallery, by Paul Bowdring. 349 pps. (For review in The Fiddlehead)

    16. March 25. The Bear, by Claire Cameron. 221 pps.

    15. March 19. Honey for the Bears, by Anthony Burgess. 272 pps.

    14. March 11. When Is a Man, by Aaron Shepard, 279 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire.)

    13. March 11. From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents, by David Gress. 610 pps. (for research)

    12. March 3. The Antigonish Review, No. 176 (Winter 2014). 144 pps.

    11. February 28. Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, by J.G. Ballard. 250 pps. (For possible essay)

    10. February 23. The Kindness of Women, by J.G. Ballard. 343 pps. (For possible essay)

    9. February 13. Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard. 279 pps. (For possible essay)

    8. February 4. Dear Leaves, I Love You All, by Sara Heinonen. 174 pps.

    7. February 1. Archive of the Undressed, by Jeanette Lynes. 79 pps.

    6. January 29. All the Broken Things, by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. 330 pps.

    5. January 22. Strip, by Andrew Binks. 281 pps.

    4. January 13. Winter Cranes, by Chris Banks. 64 pps.

    3. January 11. CNQ 88 (Summer/Fall 2013). 80 pps.

    2. January 4. Left for Right, by Glen Downie. 101 pps.

    1. January 2. The Art of Sufficient Conclusions, by Sarah Dearing. 222 pps.

    Wednesday, December 10, 2014

    Reminder: Maritime reading tour

    Okay, with less than a week to go I thought I'd send out a reminder about the reading tour in the Maritimes. If if you're in one of these three cities and are free on the respective nights mentioned below, please come on out. I would love to see you.

    When: Tuesday, December 16, 2014.
    Where: Peter Wilson Common Room, the University of King's College, 6350 Coburg Rd.
    What time: 7 pm.
    Sales by the King's Bookstore.
    Come one come all. See the Facebook invitation.

    When: Wednesday, December 17, 2014.
    Where: The Confederation Library, 145 Richmond St.
    What time: 7 pm.
    Sales by the Bookmark.
    Come one come all. See the Facebook invitation.

    When: Thursday, December 18, 2014.
    Where: Folio Books - 110 St. George St.
    What time: 7 pm. See the Facebook invitation.

    Monday, December 8, 2014

    Upcoming: Twitter chat #CanLitQA

    UPDATED: Event takes place Friday, not Thursday. So I'm very excited to announce that I'll be taking part in a live Tweet chat this Friday over the lunch hour as part of a discussion on literary journals with Magazines Canada. This is the first time I've ever done this in my capacity as an author, so I'm very much looking forward to it. If you're on Twitter and would like to follow along, here are the details:

    When: Friday, December 12
    What time: 12:30 to 1:00 pm, Eastern.
    Hashtag to follow: #CanLitQA
    Moderated by: @MyCdnMags

    And for those of you who don't know, you can always find me on Twitter at @freerangesamp.

    Anyway, special thanks to Natasha Malloch at Magazines Canada for inviting me, and publisher Chris Needham at Now or Never Publishing for setting this up as a bit of promotion for my forthcoming short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep.

    Hope to see you all (virtually at least) on Thursday!


    Sunday, December 7, 2014

    Review: The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis

    I read David Bezmozgis’ new novel right on the heels of finishing The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill as part of my Co-habitational Reading Challenge with my wife, which I blogged about here. Both books were shortlisted for this year’s Giller, but a person would be hard-pressed to find two contemporary novels that were more different. Whereas O’Neill is a master of whimsy, of flakiness and of small, quotidian details, Bezmozgis’ book navigates the grimly serious terrain of geopolitics and its influence on individuals trying to do the right thing. Both novels are brilliant in their own ways, and I actually valued the jarring impact of immediately going from one to the other.

    The Betrayers tells the story of Baruch Kotler, a former Soviet dissident turned Israeli politician. In a flight of conscience, Kotler turns on his own political party and speaks out against the dismantling of an Israeli settlement in Palestinian territory. As revenge, his former allies expose an affair Kotler is having with a much younger woman named Leora. The two lovers flee together to Crimea, where Kotler encounters a man he knew decades ago named Tankilevich, who was responsible for exposing Kotler as a Soviet dissident in Russia in the 1970s and getting him sent to the Gulag for 13 years. Meanwhile, back home, Kotler’s son Benzion, who is serving with the Israeli army, is about to go against orders in the tearing down of the Israeli settlement. He reaches out to his father for wisdom, but Kotler’s own predicament interferes with him giving his son good counsel.

    The themes here are, obviously enough, issues of loyalty versus betrayal, and each character grapples with the double side of this coin. Some readers may find this thematic thread a bit too obvious, but Bezmozgis counteracts a lot of that by working hard to build the emotional tension between his characters. As a writer, he is very good at using a wide lens to show how larger forces and personal history can rewrite a character’s morality. The compelling interactions between Kotler and Tankilevich transcend the basic themes in the novel and leave us shaken by the damage both men have done to each other.

    The Betrayers, while dismal in its set up, is strangely uplifting in its conclusion. Bezmozgis leaves us with a sense that hope is possible, that loyalty can withstand betrayal, and that good choices can follow bad ones and still do good.

    Thursday, December 4, 2014

    The Secrets Men Keep available for pre-order!

    So I discovered over the course of my daily (yes daily, sigh) Internet snooping that my short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep, forthcoming in April from Now or Never Publishing in Vancouver, is now available for pre-order from a major online retailer. I do realize that this sort of thing is driven mostly by metadata in a database feed somewhere, and I also realize that we're still four months out from the launch date (April 15, 2015, to be exact), but it's still fun to see the book up on its legs and walking around. Anyway, if you're one of those obsessive types who loves to order books far in advance of their release, well, you know what to do.


    Monday, December 1, 2014

    This year’s Co-habitational Reading Challenge: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O’Neill

    So RR and I decided to do another of our Co-habitational Reading Challenges. If you’ve followed along in previous years, you know this is where she and I read the same book at the same time and then blog about the experience. This time round, we wanted to choose one of the books on this year’s Giller short list. Happenstance found me purchasing a copy of Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (her follow-up to Lullabies for Little Criminals) at the same time that RR was taking it out of the library. So that sealed the deal on which book we’d pick.

    Unlike in previous editions of the Co-habitational Reading Challenge, we completely failed to blog about the reading experience in real time. Our lives have just been too dang busy this fall – what with me doing a variety of promotion for Sad Peninsula at the same time that I’m working a busy day job AND writing a new novel, and her working a busy day job and doing hefty rewrites on the novel-in-stories she is slated to publish in 2016.  ALRIGHT THEN – shameless self promotion out of the way. We more or less finished the book at the same time last week (I was about a day and a half behind her) and shared our thoughts with each other along the way, even if we failed to share all those thoughts with you.

    Anyway, we both liked the book a lot, though found it flawed it all kinds of slight but obvious ways. With the creation of Nouschka Tremblay, O’Neill proves beyond a doubt that she is a master of the flakier-than-thou narrator. Nouschka, positioned in some unmentioned period in the future, is relaying the story of her and her twin brother Nicholas being 20 years old and living in Montreal around the time of the Quebec referendum in 1995. The two of them, inseparable for the first chunk of the novel, are celebrities by default: their father is a famous folk singer named Etienne Tremblay (completely unknown in English-speaking Canada) who used to bring his children on shows only to abandon them to pursue his career, but still pays intermittent visits to their lives when he’s in between gigs.

    Young Nouschka pursues (or is pursued by) a number of men in her rundown neighbourhood in Montreal, but ends up marrying a handsome, alluring ne’er-do-well named Raphael. Meanwhile, Nicholas falls in with some rather nasty characters and eventually plans a bank heist. Along the way, Nouschka falls pregnant, finishes her long-delayed high school diploma, finds her true calling in life, and learns more than a thing or two about familial love.

    With its cast of quirky, off-kilter characters, this novel aims to charm, and for the most part it succeeds. There is a certain narrative energy to seeing the world through Nouschka’s perspective. Even the most mundane interactions become charged with a kind of mythic quality: the visiting of a strip club, the taking of night courses, a stroll down a Montreal street in blistering winter. Nouschka lends a certain magical quality to it all. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is about a young woman who is aware of her flaws and the flaws of her family but still aims to hold things together while trying to carve a place out for herself in the world – that evergreen theme of finding individual agency while at the same time recognizing collective obligation.

    For all its compelling ups and downs, this novel did leave us scratching our heads at times. There were the repetitive appearances of cats throughout the first part of the book that didn’t really amount to much. The opening section is pretty slow: the real “plot” doesn’t start to unfold until the last third of the book. We’re never sure from which period Nouschka is telling her story, as the whole narrative is framed like one giant flashback. And we’re still not entirely sure what the title of the book means either.

    But overall we enjoyed The Girl Who Was Saturday Night well enough and were glad we picked it for the Challenge. It was fun discussing what we thought of Nouschka’s various choices through the story and how she kept things moving along. This won’t be the last time RR take this Challenge, so stay tuned to our blogs to find out which book we’ll do next.

    Friday, November 28, 2014

    Two new reviews of Sad Peninsula

    So I thought I'd share a couple lovely reviews of Sad Peninsula that came over the Internet transom this week. The first is from blogger Steven Buechler on his site The Library of Pacific Tranquility. In his review, he writes:

    This is a frank story told with vivid details. It deals with a lot of desire, hurt and shame. Sampson did a fantastic job with enlightening his readers not only with some of lesser know historical facts about Korea but also with some of the cultural ideals and prejudices that exist there. And in doing so, makes us look at our own failing norms here. A great piece literature that goes beyond what any historical essay or journalistic piece could do.

    Meanwhile, over on the book's Goodreads page, author Maria Meindl posted this very touching and beautifully written review. In it, she says:

    The book is also dense with issues. At first, the connection between the stories is not explicit, yet the juxtaposition tingles with irony. Michael, seeking to restore his lost pride in a foreign environment, is unaware of the violence unfolding in the rest of the story – and in his host country’s past. The result is a chilling meditation on sex and violence, oppression and love. When the characters finally meet, there are questions about the aftermath of trauma: when and how to talk about it – and ultimately who has the obligation, or right, to tell the story.

    Anyway, great to see two more reviews out there in the world, and a big thanks to them both for their thoughts. I'll keep y'all posted if there are any more of these.


    Monday, November 24, 2014

    Reminder: Reading at Pivot at the Press Club on Wednesday

    Hey Toronto readers,

    Just a friendly note reminding y'all that I'll be on the bill, along with three other fabulous readers, at Pivot at the Press Club Reading Series this Wednesday as it wraps up its 2014 season. Here are the deets:

    When: Wednesday, November 26, 2014
    What time: 8 pm start.
    Where: The Press Club - 850 Dundas Street West, Toronto
    How much: Pwyc (suggested donation: $5)
    Readers: Claire Caldwell, Kayla Czaga, Daniel Scott Tysdal and yours truly.
    Hosted by: Jacob McArthur Mooney
    See the Facebook invitation here.

    If you're free Wednesday, come on out. I would love to see you there.


    Sunday, November 23, 2014

    Review: All Saints, by K.D. Miller

    The collection of loosely connected short stories remains a fascinating subgenre of literature, one that still feels ripe with possibilities and permutations. I was reminded of this while reading K.D. Miller’s All Saints this past week, a work of fiction that centres around a struggling Anglican Church in Toronto and the lives that intersect with it. Miller knows two things very well: the effort and precision it takes to make a short story both its own isolated world as well as part of a larger narrative; and the emotional landscape of the Anglican faith, with all its anxieties and contradictions. She weaves these two elements into a powerful whole, creating memorable tales populated by characters full of both doubt and certainty.

    Indeed, “doubtful certainty” might be a good way to describe the heart of your average church-going Anglican. Miller’s characters spend much of the time battling competing forces in their lives and trying to reconcile what they want with who they think they are. We see numerous examples of this throughout the book. In the tale “Ecce Cor Meum” (a Latin phrase meaning “Behold My Heart”) a woman named Kelly is in the middle of a health scare at the same time that she’s realizes that she’s in love with the priest at All Saints, a man named Simon. The fear she feels over the small polyp growing on her cervix is pared with the intense confusion she has over her feelings for Simon, feelings that both excite her and make her uncomfortable at the idea of finding love at this advance stage of her life.

    In the story “Kim’s Game,” Miller introduces us to a unpublished poet named Owen, who gets roped into going on an excursion to a cabin with some fellow writers after taking a creative writing class at All Saints, and who subsequently gets lost in the woods around the cabin while out for a walk. This is one the strongest pieces in the book: Miller gives us incredible insights into the contradictions of Owen’s inner world: he loves to write but does not publish; he lives alone but seeks companionship; and he is lost (both literally and metaphorically) and yet is hesitant to cry out for help. Miller handles well the central metaphor of this story: that of Kim’s game, a creative writing exercise in which you stare at a number of objects on a table and then turn your back while one is taken away, and then try to identify which one is missing. It’s a clever symbol for Owen himself, who feels unnoticed and discarded by his companions on this trip. Miller also shocks us with a completely unexpected – and rather scatological – ending to this tale that catches us off guard and yet fits so well with where the story was building to.

    Speaking of shocking, there is nothing that can quite prepare readers for meeting Miss Alice Vipond, the protagonist of “October Song.” Alice, a former school teacher, is exchanging letters with Simon, the priest at All Saints, where she had attended decades ago as a young girl. We soon learn that Alice is writing these letters from an insane asylum, where she has been incarcerated for most of her life after murdering her entire grade-two class with poisoned juice back in 1957. We only get her side of the letter exchange, but we slowly learn just how deeply complex this woman and her motivations are. “Vipond” as a name may conjure images of a viper, but there is more to Alice than meets the eye. Her murder of these children reminds one of that great quote from science fiction writer J.G. Ballard, “In a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom,” and Miller hints that she may be just as much a victim as anyone. Yet we can also tell that Alice unnerves Simon with questions about his love life, which involves the situation with Kelly touched upon in “Ecce Cor Meum.” The message we’re left with as Alice and Simon’s correspondence peters out is that both acts of love and acts violence are not simple, and sometimes we can put into words the emotions that move or motivate us.

    There are similar themes spread throughout All Saints, and it makes for a powerful collection of interlaced stories. Miller writes with quiet grace, and her strong voice leads us through the careful layering of these tales. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

    Thursday, November 20, 2014

    Interview with me on the Jane Day Reader blog

    So I thought I'd share this interview with me that was posted earlier today on the Jane Day Reader blog, hosted by the inimitable Ariel Gordon. In this piece, I talk about Sad Peninsula, my days in Korea, my days in Winnipeg, and what I'm working on right now. Thanks for Ariel for conducting the interview. Go check it out! 

    Thursday, November 13, 2014

    Publication: The Fiddlehead

    So I was very happy to open my mailbox last night and find  my contributor's copy of the Autumn 2014 issue of The Fiddlehead, which contains a book review from me of The Strangers' Gallery by Paul Bowdring. This huge, expansive and very digressive novel, set in the mid 1990s, is about an archivist living in St. John's who discovers that an old acquaintance he knew fifteen years earlier as a student in Europe has shown up suddenly on his doorstep. The book is full of wonderful writing and lots of beautifully crafted scenes; and while I did find it a bit too digressive at times (the novel is chalk-a-block with tangential asides that take us away from the main narrative), there's no doubt that The Strangers' Gallery is a huge accomplishment. You should go check it out.

    I was also pleased to see many familiar names in the Table of Contents: this issue boasts works by Brian Bartlett, Catherine Graham, John Wall Barger, Kerry-Lee Powell and other writers I admire. It also, as you can see, has the recently deceased Alistair MacLeod on the cover, with a number of tributes inside. Anyway, this issue should be on news stands shortly, so you should pick up a copy.

    Tuesday, November 11, 2014

    Maritime tour update!

    Okay boys and girls, I just wanted to provide you with an update on the book tour I am taking in the Maritimes next month for Sad Peninsula. Some places and times have been confirmed. Here we go:

    When: Tuesday, December 16, 2014.
    Where: Peter Wilson Common Room, the University of King's College, 6350 Coburg Rd.
    What time: 7 pm.
    Sales by the King's Bookstore.
    Come one come all. See the Facebook invitation.

    When: Wednesday, December 17, 2014.
    Where: The Confederation Library, 145 Richmond St.
    What time: 7 pm.
    Sales by the Bookmark.
    Come one come all. See the Facebook invitation.

    When: Thursday, December 18, 2014.
    Where: We are still TBD on this one. The Attic Owl Reading Series, which is hosting the event, recently lost its regular venue and is now searching for a new home. I will post an update as soon as I learn where it will be, as well as who I will be reading with.
    What time: 7 pm.
    See the Attic Owl Reading Series Facebook page for more details.

    That is it for now. So if you are in one of these three cities, please come on out. I would love to see you!


    Friday, November 7, 2014

    Sad Peninsula review in the Literary Review of Canada

    So I'm very excited to report that there is a lengthy review of Sad Peninsula printed in the November issue of the Literary Review of Canada. The review, written by Laurentian University's Tomasz Mrozewski, is not online unfortunately, but here is a sample of what it has to say:

    Sad Peninsula, Sampson's second novel, after Off Book, draws on the author's three years in Seoul to paint a fabulously rich picture of expat life revealing what Facebook posts and email from your sons and daughters abroad might not. Sampson's Seoul will be instantly recognizable to many expats, whether they had participated in the hedonistic throb of Itaewon, Hongdae or any one of a dozen bar districts across the country, or just saw their colleagues limp into work after nights filled with cheap drinks and drama.

    Mrozewski, who taught in Korea in 2007/08, goes on to praise my characterizations and several of the themes weaving their way through Michael's section of the novel.

    The review isn't all positive. In the last quarter or so, it criticizes Eun-young's entire thread of the novel, calling it "dry and didactic" and lacking in the rich nuance of Michael's section. It's interesting to hear a reviewer say this, as the exact opposite critique has been levied against the book from some commenters on Goodreads and Library Thing. It just goes to show that different readers can come at material from different - or, in this case, completely opposite - angles and with different expectations. At any rate, I'm grateful for Mrozewski's honest appraisal of the novel, even the parts he didn't like.

    Anyway, the issue of LRC is on news stands now, so go check it out for yourself!


    Tuesday, November 4, 2014

    Reminder: Plasticine Reading Series

    Just a reminder, Torontonians, about my next reading event: it's part of the Plasticine Reading Series and will happen on Sunday, November 16 at Pauper's Pub. The line-up looks great and includes my lovely and talented wife Rebecca Rosenblum, along with Phlip Arima and Yvonne Blomer. There will also be an "open mike" portion of the evening, for those whose gate swings that way.

    Anyway, see the accompanying flyer for all the deets. It should be a blast. Hope to see you there!


    Sunday, November 2, 2014

    The Anatomy of Patience

    To be a writer is to wait. It seems like that’s a big part of what we do. We wait for inspiration. (Well, I don’t really – though I suspect I’m more promiscuous than some with my inspiration.) We wait for one idea to be become many, and for those ideas to coalesce. We wait for details to emerge, to connect themselves to the larger superstructure of our narrative. We wait for the right time to begin a first draft. We wait until the first draft is done.

    We wait through a second draft. And a third. And a fourth. We wait until we’ve rewritten our book so many times we just can’t rewrite it anymore.  We wait a bit, and then we show it to someone we love, an eagle-eyed reader who will be honest and kind to us, but also tough and thorough. Then we wait for her feedback. And when we get it, we rewrite the book once more.

    We make a submission, and then we wait. We wait until it comes back, rejected. And then we make another submission. And then we wait. And we wait. And then it comes back, rejected. We wait, and maybe we do another draft. (What is that now, the sixth? The seventh?) And then we make another submission. And we wait. And we wait. And then it comes back, rejected. We wait. Then we make another submission, and we wait. And we wait. And then it comes back.


    We wait to sober up. We wait to come down from this high.

    Then we wait. We wait for the contract to come. We wait to hear about a launch date, a production schedule. We wait. Then we wait for the editor’s edits. We wait for her to rip the book to shreds and tell us how to put it back together. We wait through that eighth draft. Then we wait for her to tell us how amazing the book is now, and how proud she is to be publishing it. Then we wait for her copyedit.

    We wait. We wait for the proofs to come. We wait to get a gander at the cover art. We wait for the launch party venue to be confirmed. We wait. We wait for author copies to arrive. We wait. And then. And then. And then. The book is here. It is there. It is OUT.

    And then we wait for the reviews. And we wait.


    Okay. So what I’ve described above is an exaggeration, and certainly not indicative of every author’s experience. Lord knows I hold no resentment toward those writers who whip up two or three drafts of a book, get it accepted it right away, and have the thing out six months later to glowing reviews. It happens. But for most authors, understanding the anatomy of patience is vital to their career, and their sanity. This is not really something they teach you in creative writing workshops or master classes in writing, but it’s something that that most writers will have to do. So much of what gets your book into the world involves remaining in a near-perpetual state of polite stasis. If you’re the kind of person who always needs things to happen RIGHT NOW, then writing and publishing literary fiction may not be for you.

    Sad Peninsula - draft 1. What a mess.
    I meet these types from time to time, these Johnny Rush-Rushes, and they always gape at me when I tell them how long it took to get each of my novels out, start to finish. Seven years. Each. They’ll ask: How is this possible? And I kind of explain it, and I kind of make excuses. For the first book, I did stop and go do a master’s degree, so there’s that. With the second book, my latest, it was different. There was a lot more research to do, and a lot more complexity to the narrative. When people read Sad Peninsulaif they read it – I hope they’ll walk away thinking that, yes, I can see how that book took seven years, start to finish.    

    But many won’t. That’s okay. I think it’s perfectly natural to stroll through the aisles of your local Indigo and not be aware of just how much time, effort and, yes, patience it takes to get a book out. This may be the furthest thing from your mind, especially as you spot those 28% off stickers.

    But here’s the thing: if you want to write, or if you do write and you’ve kind of hit a wall with your novel, you need to know how to be intimate with the anatomy of patience. You need to touch every groove, every hollow, every long, slow swell of its chest. You have to know every square inch of an empty mailbox. You need to know the acidy dread that every writer knows of finding an envelope in that mailbox with your address written in your own handwriting. And most of all, you need to know that wherever you are with your book – maybe you’re stuck on the ending, or its opening sentence, or you’re waiting endlessly to hear back from a publisher, or you’re lost somewhere inside the fourth draft – that place still only represents a small part of the corpus of waiting that lies ahead for you. To write is to wait. It’s what you do. So get on with it. Get on with the work that comes with waiting.

    Fair draft of Sad Peninsula, marked up by my wife.
    Okay. That sounds a bit harsh. In the interest of providing some solace, I’d like to share something with you. Like I said, the scenario I described above is a bit of an exaggeration. So for what it’s worth, let me show you the exact timeline, based on my memory and my chapter logs, of Sad Peninsula. Actually, this will be kind of boring, so you can stop reading here if you’re not really interested. But if you are, I think this might give you an idea of how much persistence it might take, to put a book out.

    Initial idea(s)

    First half of 2006: The idea or ideas for the book begin to emerge in my mind while I’m living in Australia. My first novel has yet to be accepted for publication, so I’m pretty skeptical about whether I’ve got the chops to pull off what is clearly a complex narrative emerging out of these ideas. I convince myself that, nope, I’m not good enough to write that book. Nope. Forget it. Not going to happen.

    Second half of 2006: Okay, fine. Maybe it’s going to happen. Maybe. Well, no. Nope. Well, maybe. What if I just stuck a toe in, began doing a bit of research into Korea’s comfort women and doing a character sketch of Michael, my protagonist. Let’s see.

    Research and character sketching

    2007 and early 2008: Okay, fine. Definitely going to write this book. What the hell. Research is incredible, harrowing. So many ideas rushing in. Also: not only have I created Michael’s character, but now Eun-young’s has emerged as well. More character sketching – all the secondary characters. Learn everything about them.  More research. Harrowing stuff. How can I write this? How can I write this? How can I not?

    1st draft

    April  15, 2008 – Michael chapter 1

    April 25, 2008 – Michael chapter 2

    May 2, 2008 – Eun-young chapter 1

    May 22, 2008 – Eun-young chapter 2

    Juy 7, 2008 – Polished first two chapters enough to make submissions for grants and literary agents. Failed to secure either.

    August 6, 2008 – Michael chapter 3

    September 4, 2008 – Eun-young chapter 3

    October 15, 2008 – Michael chapter 4

    November 4, 2008 – Eun-young chapter 4

    November 28, 2008 – Michael chapter 5

    December 10, 2008 – Eun-young chapter 5

    January 15, 2009 – Eun-young chapter 6

    January 23, 2009 – Eun-young chapter 7

    February 6, 2009 – Eung-young chapter 8

    February 21, 2009 – Eun-young chapter 9

    March 11, 2009 – Eun-young chapter 10

    April 8, 2009 – Michael chapter 6

    April 17, 2009 – Michael chapter 7

    May 4, 2009 – Michael chapter 8

    May 23, 2009 – Michael chapter 9

    June 11, 2009 – Michael chapter 10

    July 6, 2009 – Michael chapter 11

    July 27, 2009 – Eun-young chapter 11

    August 17, 2009 – Michael chapter 12 (UNFINISHED!!)

    September 21, 2009 – Eun-young chapter 12

    October 16, 2009 – Michael chapter 13

    November 4, 2009 – Eun-young chapter 13

    2nd draft

    December 11, 2009 – Chapters 1 and 2

    January 7, 2010 – Chapter 3

    January 29, 2010 – Chapter 4

    February 12, 2010 – Chapter 5

    March 2, 2010 – Chapter 6

    March 23, 2010 – Chapter 7

    April 8, 2010 – Chapter 8

    April 14, 2010 – Chapter 9

    April 30, 2010 – Chapter 10

    May 26, 2010 – Chapter 11

    June 1, 2010 – Chapter 12

    June 7, 2010 – Chapter 13

    June 23, 2010 – Chapter 14

    August 6, 2010 – Chapter 15

    August 17, 2010 – Chapter 16

    August 27, 2010 – Chapter 17

    September 8, 2010 – Chapter 18

    September 22, 2010 – Chapter 19

    October 1, 2010 – Chapter 20

    October 22, 2010 – Chapter 21

    October  29, 2010 – Chapter 22

    November 11, 2010 – Chapter 23

    3rd draft

    February 2, 2011 – full edit completed

    4th draft

    March 24, 2011 – Rebecca’s suggestions incorporated up to chapter 10

    March 29, 2011 – The rest of Rebecca’s suggestions

    April 4, 2011 – Art’s suggestions incorporated

    April 14, 2011 – More suggestions from Rebecca

    (Other friends' feedback comes later)


    April 18, 2011 – Submission to Publisher #1

    August 29, 2011 – Decision from Publisher #1 – rejected!

    September 12, 2011 – Submission to Publisher #2

    May 2, 2012 – Decision from Publisher #2 – accepted!! Ack – this shit’s getting real!

    5th draft

    July 17, 2013 – Sad Peninsula sub-edits

    September 18, 2013 – Sad Peninsula edits finished

    6th draft

    December 13, 2013 – Sad Peninsula copyedit done


    January 7, 2014 – First proofs

    February 12, 2014 – Cover finalized

    Late February, 2014 – Advance reading copies (ARCs) sent out

    Pre Launch

    Mid August, 2014 – first advance reviews appear. This shit is getting real!

    Late August, 2014 – Author copies arrive. This shit is getting really real!


    September 6, 2014 – Book officially goes on sale. ACK!!!!

    September 30, 2014 – Launch party in Toronto. Double ACK!!!
    The final product. Imagine!

    Thursday, October 30, 2014

    Rethinking the Restoration and 18th Century

    So I literally found this book, Four English Comedies, edited by J.M. Morrell, on the ground while stumbling home from the pub. It was in a box of other discarded books that my drinking companion and I came upon in my neighbourhood , which isn’t really known for its literary tastes. My companion, arguably less tipsy than me, managed to nab an arguably more interesting book out of the pile, but the one that caught my eye did hold an Old World sort of attraction. Too Old perhaps, since this faded Penguin paperback practically disintegrated in my hands as I read it last week, and by the end I had to use Scotch tape to keep its 414 pages together.

    But I confess to having a soft spot when it comes to English plays written in or around the 18th century. I took an undergraduate course 20 years ago in this very subject and got to read one of the plays included in this anthology: Ben Jonson’s raunchy satire Volpone. The other three plays included here – The Way of the World, by William Congreve, She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith, and The School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan – all fit into the mold of what one expects when thinking of drama from this period: garlicky puns, lots of drinking and spouse chasing, and more than one case of mistaken identity.

    When I first read the works of the Restoration and 18th century as a 19-year-old undergraduate, I thought that this was a time in English history where man coming to grips with the looming de-individualization of the industrial revolution. I was somewhat obsessed with spotting the self in conflict with the collective, with the gains earned during the Age of Reason being lost to an ever-increasing reliance on emotion and groupfear.

    Reading these plays now, 20 years on, I can see something completely different, as one would expect. In each of these four pieces, one can help but sense the era battling with the definition of “transaction,” and how this translates to the very human emotion of love. There are numerous instances in these four plays of one’s heart being something that can be bought, sold, or exchanged, and the anxiety around an unfair transaction (think theft; think marrying someone from outside your class; think, God help us, rape) permeates each of these plays. I suppose it’s to be expected, what with capitalism slowly rising to the fore during this period.

    Still, these undercurrents are not as grim as all that. Volpone has always struck me as a play that shares a great kinship with King Lear, and it was more evident this time around how the machinations of dividing up one’s estate can impact the matters of the heart. She Stoops to Conquer and The Way of the World are deeply comic and touching in their emotional transliterations of love. And the gossip detailed in The School For a Scandal seems as relevant to the rumour, ruined reputations and innuendo of the 21st century as it was back then.

    So, yes, I enjoyed these plays a great deal, and am glad I plucked this book from the oblivion of that box. Its crumbling pages won’t stand up to another reading, sadly, but they will stand up to some occasional contemplation.

    Wednesday, October 29, 2014

    My Quill and Quire review of The Search for Heinrich Schlogel, by Martha Baillie ...

    ... is now online at the Q&Q website. I found this a difficult novel to give a fully positive to, only because it takes a rather sharp turn and becomes something much richer and more emotional by the end. But I did find this story, about the search for a man who falls through a hole in time during a hike in Canada's high north, to be compelling and highly admirable in many ways. Baillie knows how to pull at the strings of pathos, and Heinrich Schlogel is worth checking out.

    Monday, October 27, 2014

    Sad Peninsula reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press

    So I was very pleased to see that a review of Sad Peninsula ran in this weekend's edition of The Winnipeg Free Press, written by poet, essayist and English prof Jonathan Ball. As some of you may know, I lived in Winnipeg from 2000 to 2002, where I earned my MA in English at the University of Manitoba, so it was great to see my work featured in that lovely city's lovely daily paper. In his piece, Ball writes, among other things:
    Sampson deftly negotiates the varying chapters and their viewpoints, surprising us with character revelations without tipping into melodrama, and forcing us to look more closely when we might prefer to turn away.
     Anyway, great to see another review the book, especially one in a mainstream daily publication. Hopefully (fingers crossed) there'll be more to come.


    Saturday, October 18, 2014

    Review: The Walking Tanteek, by Jane Woods

    There is a scene of starling simplicity early in Richard B. Wright’s Giller-winning novel Clara Callan when his titular protagonist comes to a sudden, irrefutable realization that God does not exist. As young Clara documents in her diary:

    I was sitting at the kitchen table after breakfast looking out the window at the snow on the bare trees and the blue sky through the branches. I was thinking of how the light is returning and of how different the morning sky now seems from only two weeks ago. And then it came to me as I sat there at the kitchen table looking out at the trees and the snow and the sky—I no longer believe in God. I have been feeling such intimations for some time now, but today, at twenty minutes past seven, it came to me clear and whole. God does not exist.

    I was reminded of this passage over and over again as I read Jane Woods’ debut novel The Walking Tanteek, since it offers up a kind of inverse story (and writing style) to Clara’s stark, straightforward recognition of her atheism. There is nothing straightforward about The Walking Tanteek’s Maggie Prentice as she battles the competing forces of religious belief and secular materialism in this expansive and deeply comic novel. Mag Mary, as she is sometimes referred to (perhaps as a play on the Bible’s own Mary Magdalene), is an alcoholic voice actor living in Toronto who gets roped up with her twin brother Gerard, a fire-breathing and intolerant Christian minister who leads a kooky cult of misfits called the Untouchables. The story opens on the senseless death of a group of children in a car accident, and the sheer randomness of this tragedy looms over Maggie’s messy internal world through the course of her story. She constantly challenges the extremism of her brother’s religious beliefs, and by middle age falls back in love with an old flame from her hippie days named Liam, and marries him. But Liam’s own materialistic atheism (not to mention his shallow twit of a mother, Gail) soon awakens a need in Maggie to recognize the possibility – indeed, the inevitability – that there may be some higher power guiding our lives and all of existence itself.

    Woods handles Maggie’s ongoing battles with great zest and aplomb. She perfectly nails so many aspects of her protagonist’s life – the careerism of acting, the soulless condo existence above Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, the student life in Montreal’s McGill ghetto in the sixties – and weaves them well into this novel’s broader themes. She does an especially good job of capturing Maggie’s alcoholism in all its slurred speeches and bumbling clumsiness. Here’s a sample:

    Yes, okay. I drink. And have for quite a while now, from long before I ever saw the inside of Gerard’s tumble-down, haunted house of holiness. Drinking feels like lighting a crackling fire inside my cold glass box. It feels, at the beginning anyway, like someone’s moving all the heavy furniture out of the way, clearing the dance floor for big fun and frolic that almost materializes every single time.

    One can’t help but spot the exuberance of Woods’ style here and in other places. The Walking Tanteek (the title for which is taken, maybe, from a mondegreen that Maggie overhears in a Bob Dylan song) bursts with wild, elastic sentences that loop and spin and twist with baroque enthusiasm. Maggie is a deeply conflicted woman, and this narrative style helps to reveal just how all over the map she really is. Here is an example of how her inner world is shaped:

    Five years of supposedly learning the nature of Divine love. Five years of clawing myself bloody in search of faith, of cringing before Gerard’s lacerating harangues, and suddenly love, actual love is standing right smack in front of me. Love with a  scrubbed face, walking up to say hi in the inscrutable language of heaven. There are no signs, no wonders. No repentance is required. There is just love, scrabbling a message like Anne Bancroft in my Patty Duke palm while my heart bursts like a supernova and all the crooked ways are instantly made straight. 

    Yet, despite this virtuosic writing style, there were times when the book seemed a bit elusive, if not overwritten. There is a long, rambling section in the middle describing Maggie’s student days in the sixties, and much of it feels like a pervasive Baby Boomer nostalgia rather than anything necessary to the plot. There were also times when I felt like I wasn’t really sympathizing with Maggie during her narration, since she appeared motivated mostly by the need to validate and sustain a life of indolence. She has several problems, of course, but many of them seem to stem from the fact that she really doesn’t want to do anything, ever. It was hard to take her side in her arguments with Liam, for example, since he seemed to be the one doing all the work (both literally and figuratively) in the relationship.

    Still, there is no denying that The Walking Tanteek is a powerful, cosmic, and often very funny read. Woods seems to defy gravity itself as she sets up scenes of both hilarity and poignancy. I was surprised, in fact, that this book didn’t receive a bit more attention upon its release earlier this year, as it possesses a wholly original voice whose prowess is hard to deny.

    Wednesday, October 15, 2014

    Reminder: Reading tomorrow night in Guelph

    Just wanted to send out a friendly reminder that I'll be reading tomorrow night, Thursday October 16, at the Bookshelf (in the E-bar) in Guelph Ontario. The festivities start at 7 pm and there promises to be food, cask ale, music and, of course, fantastic literature. I'll be sharing the stage with Guelph author John Jantunen, who has just published his debut novel with ECW Press, called Cipher. We'll also be joined by local musician Jason Sheffield.

    Many of you may not know this, but I lived in Guelph for a year, back in 2006-07, and while there I was a regular at the Bookshelf and consider it one of my all-time favourite bookstores in Canada. I'm looking forward to seeing a number of familiar faces tomorrow night, and to reacquaint myself with the city and the bookshop. Anyway, if you live in Guelph or the surrounding area (or heck, even if you don't - it's only a 75-minute drive from Toronto if the traffic gods are kind), then come on out. I would love to see you there.

    And as always, you can check out my full list of upcoming readings by visiting my events page.


    Friday, October 10, 2014

    Introducing: The Secrets Men Keep cover!

    So I am very happy and honoured to reveal the cover design for my forthcoming collection of short stories, The Secrets Men Keep, slated for release with Now or Never Publishing of Vancouver on April 15, 2015. Eagle-eyed readers will no doubt spot the unmistakable influence of René Magritte in the design, which is a-okay by me. I love the sharp red of the colour, the semi obscurity of the title's lettering, and the overall vibe emitting from the presentation. I think this is really going to pop off the bookstore shelves. Anyway, many thanks to Chris Needham and his team at NoN for a superb job. I'll post more news about the collection as it becomes available, so stay tuned to the blog for that.

    Thursday, October 9, 2014

    Interview in The Toronto Quarterly

    So I've got one more Sad Peninsula-related interview to share with you, this time with Darryl Salach at The Toronto Quarterly. Here's a snippet:
    TTQ – There's an interesting passage in the book where you talk about writing and dealing with the past as being an act where you could not muster enough egotism and narcissism to do it properly. What encouraged you take these as you describe 'horrific leaps of faith' in order to properly tell the story of the 'comfort women'? 
    Mark Sampson – I think any act of literature, any work of fiction, is a tremendous leap of faith. It takes a certain amount of assuredness – if not outright arrogance – to think that what we concoct out of our imaginations would be of interest to other people. I really believe that you need that cockiness just to get past the fifth paragraph, no matter what your fiction is about. But what I’m doing in Sad Peninsula is a bit beyond even that, because half the story I’m writing is in no way related to me or my own experiences. But there was something in the character of Eun-young that really spoke to me, and so once I mustered up the courage to tell her story (and it took a while) I knew that it was all a leap of faith. It still is. But I guess in that scene, Michael is maybe acknowledging the power that fiction has to put us inside the mind of someone else – and, this case, someone very different from ourselves.
    Anyway, thanks so much to Darryl for showing such interest in the book. Read the full interview here.

    Monday, October 6, 2014

    Reminder: Reading tonight at the Rowers Reading Series

    Just a quick, friendly reminder that I'll be reading TONIGHT as part of the Rowers Reading Series, in in its new location at The Central here in Toronto. I'll be sharing the stage with three other amazing writers, John Barton, Binnie Brennan and Margaret Sweatman. Here are the details:

    When: Tonight, Monday October 6th.
    What time: 6:15 to 8:45. (Readings begin at 6:45)
    Where: The Central - 603 Markham St. Toronto, ON

    Come on out if you can!

    Sunday, October 5, 2014

    My review of David Bergen's Leaving Tomorrow ...

    ... is now online at The Winnipeg Review. Long-time readers of this blog know that I've tackled other Bergen books in the past - The Case for Lena S. here in 2010, and The Age of Hope for Quill & Quire in 2012. This new novel landed somewhere in the middle for me: better than the The Age of Hope, which I considered a serious misfire, but not quite as enjoyable as Lena S. or Bergen's masterpiece, The Time in Between. I also used this review to interrogate the genre known as the bildungsroman and question whether it has any life left in it, as it's a form that Bergen both uses and, I think, satirizes in this novel. Anyway, overall Leaving Tomorrow was a compelling read and I'm sure, like the rest of Bergen's work, it will find a wide audience.

    Saturday, October 4, 2014

    Sad Peninsula review in Publishers Weekly

    I'm very pleased to be able to share this lovely review of Sad Peninsula, which appeared last week in Publishers Weekly. This marks my first review in a U.S.-based publication, and a big one at that. The reviewer writes: "The harrowing and deeply moving sections of Sampson's (Off Book) sophomore novel describe the traumatized life of Meiko, born Eun-young, as she survives atrocities and spends later decades 'barren as a rock' as well as mutely suffering, poor and ashamed, on the margins of conservative, male-dominated Korean society. Alternating but equally engaging chapters describe Michael, a disgraced journalist from Halifax fleeing personal failures and squandered opportunities while 'slinging English like hamburgers' at ABC English Planet, a rigid ESL school in neon-lit Seoul." Read the entire review.

    Thursday, October 2, 2014

    Publication: FreeFall magazine

    Have I told you lately  how much I love contributors' copies? Well, I do. And mine for the fall 2014 issue of FreeFall magazine arrived today in my mailbox. The issue contains my poem "lusus nature," which is a Latin phrase meaning freak of nature. The issue looks lovely, with works by George Elliot Clarke, Alice Major and others. Very much looking forward to tucking into it. So check it out, available where fine Canadian magazines are sold.

    Tuesday, September 30, 2014

    Tonight's the night!

    Okay everybody, one last reminder from me. Tonight is the Toronto launch party for Sad Peninsula. If you're free and can make it out, I would love to see you. Here are the details:

    When: TONIGHT, Tuesday September 30.
    What time: 6 to 8 pm
    Where: Ben McNally Books - 366 Bay St., Toronto


    Friday, September 26, 2014

    Interview with me in Open Book Toronto

    I just want to alert y'all to this lovely interview with me that appeared on the Open Book Toronto website yesterday. Not only do I talk about some of the themes and characters in my novel, Sad Peninsula, but I also let readers in on my daily writing rituals and what I've been reading lately. Anyway, thanks to OBT for giving me some digital ink. Check it out.


    Tuesday, September 23, 2014

    An interview with Ron Schafrick

    So I'm back on Canadian Writers Abroad today, this time to interview fellow Toronto author Ron Schafrick about his killer debut collection of short stories, Interpreters (Oberon, 2013). These seven tales take a fresh, unique approach to the standard expatriate narrative, told mostly from the perspective of gay men trying to find a sense of self and of belonging in a foreign country. In this interview, Ron talks about the extreme emotions that his time in South Korea engenders in him, and how the country continues to shape and influence his imagination. Anyway, thanks to Debra Martens for asking me to do this, and thanks to Ron for being such a generous interviewee. Check it out!

    Monday, September 22, 2014

    Review: Stowaways, by Ariel Gordon

    I feel like this review requires more than one ‘full disclosure’ from me. I’ll confess that I’ve known Ariel Gordon since the 1996/97 academic year, when we were journalism students together at King’s in Halifax. I’ll also confess that I myself have entered into a relationship with her publisher, Palimpsest Press, which I’ll be making an announcement about in the coming weeks. What else? Should I mention that I spotted a number of Ariel’s poems when they were first published in literary journals, and admired them immensely? That they whetted the appetite to read a full collection of hers? Is that something one needs to disclose?

    At any rate, I would still say that Stowaways is a delightful and energetic sophomore outing even without these tenuous connections to its author. The poems in this collection grapple with both the wild and the mundane, the animalistic nature of nature and relentless responsibilities of parenthood. Many of these pieces, especially in the first two parts, are in fact about collisions between the feral world and the domestic one. In poems like “Wingless Females”, “Little Pig,” and the collection’s title poem, Gordon (switching to the surname now; this is a review, after all) shows us how the natural world can insinuate itself into small, household moments. From the latter example:

    I was glaring at the roof of the car
    when I saw the wood tick
    on your neck & when you lowered
    the window & tossed it out, its legs skittered
    against the dray ridges of skin
    on your thumb

    In each of the poems mentioned above, we see how the feral and domestic are not separate spheres that never touch; they are in fact informed and influenced by each other, in lots of small, startling ways. As if to remind us of the omnipresence of nature, Gordon peppers a number of her pieces with little asides of birdsong, from geese, grackles and other fowl.

    There is also a great deal of playfulness to be found in Stowaways, especially in Part 3, which is a compilation of how-to poems. We get everything from “How to Make a Collage” and “How to Treat Leprosy” to my favourite, “How to Be Angry in Public”: “For use when women are on opposite sides of busy roads or being successfully restrained by spouses or members of one’s book club.” Here, Gordon is unafraid to stretch her funny bone for the pure zest of it.

    I did have a few gripes, here and there. A few how-to poems bled into Part 4 of Stowaways, with no real explanation as to why they weren’t included in Part 3 with the others. There were some questionable punctuation decisions with a number of the pieces, especially in Part 1. And I also felt the collection would have ended much more strongly on “Apparent Magnitude: the Finlay 15P,” rather than making it the penultimate poem. This piece is a tiny tour de force about the astrologer William Henry Finlay, and its lines loop and swing and sparkle across our night sky like the very comet it describes. It also ends on the single-most devastating line in the collection, “(My father died alone)”, which would have been a much stronger note to finish on.

    But small quibbles about a strong book. Gordon shows she’s got the chops to write in a number of modalities, and has a rich variety of subject matter in her brain to keep us guessing what she might write next.