Friday, December 11, 2015

Photos from my time at Kingston WritersFest

Barbara Bell, the artistic director of the Kingston Writersfest, kindly emailed me some pictures last night of my appearance there back in September, so I thought I'd share them with you. This was my first time on the lineup for a literary festival, and Barbara and her team were all stellar in their planning and organization. Hope they have me back again some time!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Introducing - Weathervane's cover, back cover copy and pre-order details

Lordy lordy, it's technically not even winter yet and I'm already turning my mind toward spring - specifically the launch of my debut poetry collection, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). To that end, I'm very excited to finally reveal the book's kick-ass cover design, developed by the multi-talented Dawn Kresan. This rendering, I think, really captures the manic, frenzied nature of the verse within and the sense of displacement expressed in so many of the poems.

I've also got some blush-inducing back cover copy to share, crafted by poetry editor extraordinaire (and talented versifier in his own right) Jim Johnstone. Ahem:

A book of poems that’s as unpredictable as the seasons that guide it, Weathervane is part eco-tourism, part domestic nocturne, and part tempest. In a shifting world, Mark Sampson resounds like a modern Zeus, advising his readers to “wear galoshes, / even if it doesn’t rain.” Weathervane is an intensely personal, alchemical debut from an accomplished new voice.

Finally, I also want to point out that the collection is now ready for pre-order from the usual suspects, such as Amazon, Chapters-Indigo, and other online retailers. As with any other book, the faster you put an order in for a book (if you are in fact going to order it), the better.

Anyway, that's it for now. I'll post about other developments as they arise.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

My review of Arvida, by Samuel Archibald ...

is now up on the Numero Cinq website. As I mention in the piece, and as many of you no doubt know, Arvida is on the shortlist for this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize, the winner of which will be announced next week. While some consider Archibald's book an odd choice by the jury - it's a linked collection of stories, partially about the titular town in Quebec where Archibald grew up, but also full of a variety of styles and influences, from magic realism to Hemingway, right up to Stephen King-style horror - I'm not terribly surprised it's there. This is one of the better books I've read this year, and as I say in the review, it really does push the envelope in terms of what a linked story collection can and should do.

I'm also happy to announce that I've been added to the masthead of Numero Cinq as a contributor. The piece on Arvida marks my second review for this venerable online literary journal, and I'm looking forward to doing more of them in the coming months and, hopefully, years.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Madhouses in Heaven, Castles in Hell - My first dedication

Well, here's something you don't get to report every day: RR and I have had a book dedicated to us! Yes, it's true. Our good friend, J.J. Steinfeld, has affixed our names to his latest short story collection, Madhouses in Heaven, Castles in Hell (Ekstasis Editions, 2015). The book, which arrived in the mail yesterday, has a fantastically Steinfeldian title and a creepily gorgeous cover. We're both looking forward to tucking in to what I'm sure will be a madcap array of stories inside.

For those of you who don't know, J.J., who is based on PEI, has been a full-time fiction and poetry writer since 1980 and has published some 16 titles in that time. He and I met about 10 years ago when I was briefly back on PEI during one of my international jaunts. I've reviewed two of his previous titles here on the blog: his 2009 poetry collection, Misshapenness, and his 2010 story collection, A Glass Shard and Memory. I also spent a good chunk of this past summer writing a lengthy academic essay on his 2009 novel Word Burials for a forthcoming anthology on his work. Whenever we're back on the Island, RR and I always meet up with J.J. and his wife, visual artist Brenda Whiteway, along with the group I have come to affectionately refer to as the "PEI Writers Mafia."

Anyway, we're both very moved to have received this dedication from J.J. You should check out his new book, available where better books are sold.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Review: Père Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac

Social climbers are a fascinating and appalling phenomenon to watch. As a (somewhat) writer living in the (somewhat) literary city of Toronto, I have witnessed my fair share of this curious practice while whiling away hours in the mostly warm and welcoming author community that exists here. There was the time last autumn when, attending an industry event at the behest of my publisher, I encountered a go-getting thirtysomething woman, a well-known novelist and book reviewer, who took one look at my name tag and said, “Oh sorry, I just wanted to see if you were someone worth talking to.” I’ve people-watched people who know how to work the room at the Press Club. I’ve witnessed those who come to their fellow authors’ book launches for the sole purpose of networking. I’ve, erm, received many a “conversation” from writers (mostly working in the less attention-attracting genres of poetry and short stories) for whom it would never occur to talk about anything other than themselves and their own writing. For the express careerist, social climbing appears to be a kind of corporate due diligence, but I always wonder what the long-term personal consequences might be of treating people like rungs on a ladder. Sadly, I think the answer is often none.

So it’s great that we have fiction to posit a variety of what-ifs. The 19th-century French writer Honoré de Balzac, despite his mind-boggling prolificacy (he published some 20 novels in the period 1832-35 alone), still managed to be a regular and observant presence in the Parisian social scene. He seems to have channeled his take on the mores and vicissitudes of networking into his 1835 novel Père Goriot, the stand-out work in his colossal, multi-volume magnum opus La Comédie humaine. Père Goriot is a sardonic, biting take on social climbing, with a cast of characters who cover the gamut on the moral spectrum. One passage in particular, spoken by the wise Madame de Beauséant, captures the landscape of this fiction well, and may hit a cord for anyone who has encountered the nose-in-the-air types at a literary event:

There are women who love the man someone else has chosen, just as there are poor middle-class women who hope to acquire our manners by copying our hats. You will be very successful. In Paris success is everything, it is the key to power. If women believe you to have wit and talent, so will men, unless you disillusion them. Then you can set your heart on anything, every door will open to you. Then you will learn what the world is really like: an assembly of dupes and knaves. Don’t be counted with either.

The novel, set in 1819, has two main protagonists: the young law student Rastignac, who moves into a Paris rooming house and is anxious to climb the city’s social ladder; and the titular character, “old man” Goriot, who lives in the rooming house despite having wealth because he is financially supporting his two conniving and ungrateful daughters, Anastasie and Delphine. Rastignac is genuinely tugged in various directions on his moral compass – to stay true to himself and be a decent person, to abandon politesse altogether and do whatever it takes to succeed, or work to find some seemingly impossible chimeric middle ground between the two.

The plights of both men are very much wrapped up in the successes and excesses of a capitalistic, perception-obsessed society. How much you make and how you are viewed by society are clearly paramount. Rastignac’s inner commitments strike a cord that sound both idealistically hopeful and breathtakingly naïve:

Doesn’t it mean agreeing to be a lackey of those who have already done their lying, bowing, crawling? Before becoming their accomplice you must first be their servant. Very well, I say no! I want to work  with honour, with integrity! I want to work day and night, owing my success solely to my own efforts. Success will come very slowly that way, but every day I will be able to lay on my pillow with a clear conscience.

Of course, there is a devil sitting on Rastignac’s shoulder for much of the novel, and it takes the form of the cynical and manipulative escaped convict Vautrin. A recurrent character in La Comédie humaine, Vautrin speaks pristinely evil maxims into Rastignac’s ear as the young man attempts to navigate his own path through the frustrations of social-climbing and success in Paris. “There are no such things as principles, only events; no laws, only circumstances,” Vautrin tells him. “Your exceptional man adjusts to events and circumstances in order to control them. If there really were fixed principles and fixed laws, nations would not keep changing them as we change our shirts.” Vautrin has a plan to help Rastignac achieve success, one that involves subterfuge and murder.

So what are the consequences of treating people like stepping stones? Old man Goriot becomes the very embodiment of that victimhood. He is like the angel on Rastignac’s shoulder, supportive of the young man’s extracurricular interest in Delphine. But Goriot is clearly being played by his two daughters and their cruel husbands, and when he finds out that Anastasie has sold the family jewels in order to pay the debts of her lover, Goriot suffers a massive stroke out of his grief.

In what must be one of the most harrowing death scenes in literature, Goriot lies on his deathbed pleading for his daughters to come visit him, but they refuse. The realization that he has been exploited and taken advantage of is truly crushing, and the old man eventually dies without seeing his girls again, and is buried in a pauper’s grave with his funeral attended by only Rastignac, a servant, and two paid mourners.

In Père Goriot, Balzac is able to twine his themes of ambition, desire, social mores and deception effectively. There is enough intrigue involving the on-the-lam rogue Vautrin, but the novel’s true power comes from its exploration of what damage can be wrought when we put social success ahead of all else.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Secrets Men Keep gets its first Canadian review

I'm so elated (and a little relieved) that my short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep, received its first Canadian review today, over on the literary journal Malahat Review's website. I was getting a touch nervous - the book was released back in mid April - as the room to publish proper reviews continues to shrink. Thankfully, writer Colin Loughran does a thorough, thoughtful job probing the themes and ideas captured in these thirteen stories, and makes some lovely observations about the book's prose as well.

Here's a taste of what he has to say:

What’s on display in many of these stories is not only the quiet lives of desperation of these men, but also the dreadful personal and social consequences of clinging to fantasies of virility. In “Snoop,” a man carries on a petty, one-sided rivalry with a former lover—first via an alumni magazine and later by way of social media—that serves to expose his own deep-seated loneliness. And “Malware” shows us a nightmarish parody of the men’s rights movement, in which young men play a videogame called “Rape Her Now!” and participate in a “Take Back the Night counterdemonstration” dressed as a character from A Clockwork Orange and bearing slogans that read “NO MEANS buy her aNOther drink.”  
The secrets men keep are often small ones in the grand scheme of things, yet these stories feel timely in how they engage with our contemporary crisis of masculinity.

Anything, thanks again to Loughran and The Malahat Review for the time and the effort. Read the full review here.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

Review: The Unlimited Dream Company, by J.G. Ballard

There is, at last, very little to say about this 1979 novel by British science fiction writer J.G. Ballard. It’s one of those books where the back-cover blurb does most of the work for us, which is to say that there isn’t much that happens beyond the blurb worth talking about. The “story” involves a roguish 25-year-old named Blake who steals a small plane from an airfield in London and crashes it into the Thames near the town of Shepperton (which is more of a suburb of London, and the place where Ballard himself lived in a semi-detached for nearly 50 years). The crash precipitates a (very) prolonged dreamlike sequence in which strange flora and fauna begin appearing around the town, its citizens start partaking in all manner of strange sexual rituals, and Blake himself falls for a young doctor named Miriam St. Cloud.

The book is made up almost entirely of long, flowery descriptions by Blake of these dreamlike visions, and we're soon treated to Blake rabidly masturbating over everything as he strolls Shepperton’s streets and fantasizes about raping children and having sex with animals. All the while, he is haunted by the notion of how long he had stayed submerged in his crashed plane before being rescued, and whether there was somebody else hidden away in the cockpit with him at the time. Blake dwells, inexplicably, on the bruises left on his chest from the CPR that revived him, as if they might lend a clue to the mysteries behind his near-death experience.

This book was obviously written in the wake of Ballard’s break-out novel Crash (turned, in the 1990s, into a disturbing film by Canadian director David Cronenberg). But unlike Crash, The Unlimited Dream Company is provocative without being particularly interesting, and there is nothing here for a discerning reader to hang his hat on. The sexual deviance captured on its pages rings hollow and lacks the evocative imagery that Ballard was able to create in his earlier, more successful book. I’m still trying to be a fan of this writer’s work, but this tome wants to steer me in the other direction.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Reminder: Reading next week at the Kingston Writersfest

So just a friendly reminder that I'll be in Kingston, Ontario next week to read at the Kingston Writersfest and promote my new short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep. Next Friday I'll be sharing a stage with Priscila Uppal and Mark Anthony Jarman as we take part in a panel discussion called "Explore/Experiment/Invent: Short Fiction." It's on Friday, September 25th from 4:30 to 5:30 in the Bellevue Room at the Holiday Inn Kingston Waterfront. For more details, see this page on the festival's website. If you're in the Kingston area, come on out for what I'm sure will great readings and a lively discussion about short stories.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Review: The Bell and Jackson’s Dilemma, by Iris Murdoch

I was keen to get back to some Iris Murdoch over my summer vacation this year (a nice long trip home to PEI, which explains, if explanations are needed, why I haven’t updated the blog in nearly a month), as I’ve loved other books I’ve read of hers, and figured she would make for great holiday reading. I picked up The Bell and Jackson’s Dilemma more or less at random, not knowing what to expect beyond Murdoch’s penchant for off-kilter love entanglements and deep philosophical/moral cores in her books.

Both novels were, in a way, a disappointment. The Bell (1958) is by far the better of the two books: it was dull and hard to follow for about the first third, before it miraculously pivoted during a two-and-a-half-page section and became engrossing. It tells the story of a religious community ensconced around an Anglican abbey in rural England and the motley assemblage of characters involved with it. Its protagonist is the adulterous wife Dora Greenfield, who reluctantly returns to her lout of a husband, an art historian, just as he needs to travel to the abbey on a research project. We meet other characters in the process: Michael, the closeted homosexual who makes a pass at young Toby, who in turns has a brief and torrent tryst with Dora while in the community; the alcoholic Nick and his nun-to-be sister, Catherine.

The thematic landscape of The Bell is clear. We have a crew of deeply flawed and even immoral characters piously parading around a religious commune and getting into all manner of mischief. The image of the abbey’s bell – a new instalment aiming to bring much-needed attention to the church, and its competition with an older bell submerged in a nearby lake – is as an effective symbol of sire-call morality as anything. Despite its dry and often predictable turns, this novel was enough to keep my attention at a crowded beach.

I could not say the same thing about Jackson’s Dilemma, which I didn’t even get to until vacation was over. Published in 1995, just a few years before Murdoch’s death from Alzheimer’s, it is a rat’s nest of poor planning and weak prose. It’s basically about a woman named Marion and how she came to abandon her fiancé Edward at the alter. The key to this “mystery” is a needlessly complex tangle involving Edward’s servant Jackson, a former lover of Marion’s from Australia, and a bottle of wine that has been tainted by what is essentially a date-rape drug. (Murdoch makes no commentary on its use. There is even a unintentionally comic scene in which Jackson accidentally drinks some of the dregs of this tainted wine.)

The machinations of the plot bring about an array of cringe-worthy melodrama and twists and turns that even the most tolerant reader will find dull. Jackson’s Dilemma contains virtually no tension; the characters are drawn with the most ungenerous flicks of the wrist; and the ending, such as it is, just kind of peters out. It’s a shame, since this was Murdoch’s last published novel before her death, and is an embarrassingly bad capper on an otherwise extraordinary literary career.    

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review: Jabbering with Bing Bong, by Kevin Spenst

Pop culture references abound in Kevin Spenst’s debut poetry collection, a full-length trade publication coming on the heels of several well-received chapbooks. Jabbering with Bing Bong marries itself both to concrete places – Surrey, BC features prominently – and a concrete sensibility, one we could dub “Gen X nostalgia.” Spenst weaves allusions to Nintendo 64, Kmart, Judy Blume (though misspelled here as “Bloom”), Star Wars, MC Hammer and other touchstones belonging to the children of the 1970s.

I myself fall into this category, and many of these references cling closely to my own youth’s experiences and consumption. And yet I didn’t find the references possessed the heavy-handed weight of an obvious hallmark. This is both a good and a bad thing. Spenst is especially strong in the confessional-lyric mode, and he’s able to twist and bend a snatch of narrative to his own purposes. Here’s an example of what I mean, from the poem “Expo ‘86”:

The world exposition
was guilty by association. My mom
asked if I wanted to go

with my grandparents
to a preview event. I didn’t
know the whoop-di-do

contained the armature    
of a riot that would start at a concert
after the singer

of a punk band mooned
the crowd and their sound was

On the one hand, this is straight story divvied up with seemingly random line breaks. But on the other, Spenst has cannily built a momentum through a skillful arrangement of colloquial and arcane terms. He knows how to take a quirky anecdote and light it ablaze.

Unfortunately, I found myself wishing he would apply a similar inventiveness to his pop culture references. Too many times, these felt more like zeitgeist name-dropping and less like a malleable catalyst to something truly creative. “Death Star Trash Compactor” is an example of a poem where a memorable movie moment (those screaming rebels Luke, Leia and Han saved in their garbage heap trap by a quick-thinking droid) is used as stand-in for other allusions to the 1970s and 80s. But the paring seems a bit too neat – I would’ve almost liked to see Spenst go half-cocked in this poem, take the ideas around the Star Wars characters and twist them off into outer space, give us something truly weird and unforgettable rather than a staid series of easy metaphoric comparisons.

Still, there’s a great deal of fun to be found in Jabbering with Bing Bong. Spenst knows how to lure you in to his world, make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. He can also be very funny. He writes with the insouciance of a poet who has already accepted the strengths and weaknesses of his own voice, and can write a debut collection that reads like much, much more.      

Friday, August 14, 2015

My review of Mirrors on which dust has fallen, by Jeff Bursey ...

... was posted to the Numero Cinq website this morning, my first time writing for this well-respected online literary journal. I initially turned the assignment down when editor Douglas Glover (who should need no introduction around these parts - see my reviews of his work here and here) reached out to me, as Jeff has become a friend in recent years and I was uncomfortable reviewing him. But Glover sagely talked me into taking the assignment, and I thus turned it into an exercise on how to write a (at least I hope) credible and balanced review of somebody I socialize with. I have fairly fixed rules in my head about how to handle such pieces - at least for real publications like Numero Cinq, and less so for the mental dribblings I throw up here on the blog - and these rules mostly have to do with disclosure, tone, and a heightened sense of balance. Book reviewing is, for all its warts, an act of journalism, and we should stay forever attuned to the strictures of trustworthiness when reporting on those whom we know personally in the community - especially in a literary one as tiny as Canada's.  

I won't say much more about Jeff's novel beyond what's in the review, other than to stress that it's a fascinating companion piece to his 2010 novel Verbatim and a book that readers should brace themselves to be challenged by.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Three years strong

Perhaps it’s fitting that on the eve of the third anniversary of my marriage to Rebecca Rosenblum I finished reading Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion’s book is, on the surface, about loss and grief and mourning, but I also saw it as a very touching portrait of what it means for two writers to be married to each other. Marriage in general has become a lifestyle choice I’ve heartily endorsed over the last three years, but being married to another writer has not only exceeded my expectations but has become pivotal to my day to day existence. This is something I think Didion understands really well.

The truth is, before I met Rebecca I couldn’t fathom being hitched to another scribbler. The idea seemed a bit terrifying. Would we be competitive? Would our obsessions and eccentricities trip over each other? Would it constantly feel like someone else was playing with my toys? Now, I can’t imagine being with a non-writer. I can’t imagine putting someone through such a thing! Rebecca has become more than just my first reader, a tolerant roommate tolerating my early- (very early, too early) hour writing sessions, the first person to show up at my readings and the last one to leave. She is the sound the pebble makes at the bottom of the well to tell me how deep it goes. She is the soil in which all good things grow. It is no coincidence that my writing life – and my life-life – has soared since 2012. I know where all this light originates from.

There is a passage in Didion’s memoir that is especially devastating, but one that resonates so much with the atmosphere of the Sampenblum household. It is involves the last birthday Didion had before her husband John died abruptly from heart failure. He's in the living room rereading one of Didion's novels, a section very technically complicated, and he begins reading it aloud to her. When he finishes, he says,

"Goddamn ... don't ever tell me again you can't write. That's my birthday present to you."
I remember tears coming to my eyes.
I feel them now.
In retrospect this had been my omen, my message ... the birthday present no one else could give me.
He had twenty-five nights to live.

How many times have I expressed this exact sentiment to my wife? Pretty much every time she shares a new piece of writing with me. This is what it means to be married to another writer. It means having someone there who knows how complicated what you do can sometimes be, and what you have to put yourself through in order to pull it off. Someone who can say, This is what we both do. This is what we both are. So let’s go do this, and be this, together.

Monday, August 3, 2015

My Quill and Quire review of Makarska, by Jim Bartley ...

... is now online on the Q&Q website. Makarska is an interesting addition to the growing corpus of fiction by Canadian writers focused on the conflicts of Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Other titles include the Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway and Braco by Lesleyanne Ryan (which I also reviewed for Q&Q). Some of you may remember Jim Bartley as the Globe and Mail Books section's first fiction reviewer, and he proves himself equally competent in the realm of fiction with this touching and often harrowing story. Definitely worth checking out, especially if the subject matter is of interest to you.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Another review of Sad Peninsula

So this morning the Google Alert gods alerted me to a new review of Sad Peninsula posted on a blog called cnidariabloom. In this lengthy, thorough piece, the blogger says a number of warm and lovely things about Eun-young's thread of the novel, and she also includes a handy bullet list of historical data to help her readers with the context of comfort women and what they went through during World War Two and the decades after, as explored in the book. Here's a sample of what she has to say:

I loved Eun-young’s storyline. She is a strong, brave, and emotional character that you can easily connect with. She went to the meeting to help her family. I love that even though half of the book is Eunyoung’s time with the Japanese, the details rely less on sex and more on her emotions, what she thought about, day-to-day events, her relationship with her close friend (whom she calls 언니). It was less about the actual activity and more about the savagery of it all, the brutal treatment, the dehumanization. The focus is entirely on the women and their perspectives. The book begins with Eun-young cackling at the suffering of her abusers because of the atomic bomb. It continues with her life after the war, the struggles with reoccurring illness, her relationships with her husband and family, the whispers about not having children.
The reviewer has less affection for Michael's section of the story. She raises the very valid question of why nobody calls him on the way he views Jin at different points in the story (the answer, for what it's worth, is that other characters are too preoccupied with their own lives/issues to do so, and nor is it the author's job to interject with this kind of editorializing in fiction), and the reviewer doesn't feel Michael suffered enough of a comeuppance by the end of the book. Here's a sample of what she has to say:

However, I disliked the character Michael. He judged the American and Canadian white men for hounding after Korean women, for exploiting Korea, for never really getting into ~the real Korea~ even though he’s really no better. I hate that no one ever really calls him out on it. He’s an average looking, pretentious white guy who ruined his career over being dumped and yet girls like him and he spends his time with assholes. (His physical description is identical to the author, why.) His Korean girlfriend leaves him, and even though he knows about the former comfort woman in the family (who turns out to be Eun-young), the suffering of Korea under foreigners, he sees himself as different somehow.
But the reviewer ends on a positive note, giving the book 4 out of 5 stars and mentioning how much she appreciated a non-Europe perspective on the Second World War, which is always great to hear. Anyway, see the full review here.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

ANNOUNCEMENT: Forthcoming poetry collection from Palimpsest Press

So I'm very excited to officially, and belatedly, announce that my debut collection of poetry, entitled Weathervane, will be released next spring by Palimpsest Press. I say belatedly because I actually received the acceptance for this manuscript a year and a half ago, but because I was already sitting on two forthcoming books at that time, I thought it better to wait to make this news public. I have mentioned it in passing to friends and at a few readings, but I wanted to make it official here on the blog.

I'm now in the process of editing the manuscript with my stellar editor Jim Johnstone, who has brought a wealth of wisdom and experience to the project. I'm also grateful to the great minds behind the press, Dawn Kresan and Aimee Parent Dunn, for giving me the opportunity. I've been a fan of Palimpsest for a while now, enjoying titles it has released by such writers as John Wall Barger, Shane Neilson, Ariel Gordon, Jeffery Donaldson, Yvonne Blomer, and of course my friend Elizabeth Ross, whom I did a co-reading with back in May.

Weathervane compiles the poems I've been writing and publishing for the last dozen years or more. Pieces from it have appeared in The Puritan, This magazine, FreeFall, QWERTY, The Nashwaak Review and others.

Anyway, I'll keep you all posted as more details emerge about the book's release.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: The Complete Enderby, by Anthony Burgess

I have a certain anti-talent for dropping unwittingly into the middle of a book series. As I mentioned in a recent interview with Open Book Toronto, this has happened at least twice in my life: as a teenager, with Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and about 10 years ago, with Anthony Burgess’ quartet of Enderby novels.

Indeed, it was the third installment of that quartet, The Clockwork Testament, which I found in a used bookstore housed in a barn in late 2005 while living in Australia, that brought Burgess roaring back into my life. I had read his most famous work, A Clockwork Orange, about 10 years earlier as an undergrad student in Halifax, seen the movie, and read a couple other Burgess books in my twenties, but it was this slim novella that got me hooked on the man’s voice. (If you’re a long-time lurker on this blog, you know that I now read/review several of his 50+ tomes a year.) The Clockwork Testament, also dubbed Enderby’s End – a clue about its place in a book series that I should have caught, but didn’t – struck my 30-year-old self as explosively funny, linguistically daring, and wildly risqué in its political incorrectness. I went back and finally read the first volume in the series, Inside Mr. Enderby, in the summer of 2009.

This year, I decided to spend a part of the summer reading the entire quartet in the proper order. It was interesting to see how the series’ protagonist, F.X. Enderby, the slovenly minor poet and high-minded bumbler, evolved over a 20-year period. (The first volume was published in the early 1960s, the last in 1984.) It was also interesting to see how the two installments I had previously read stood up to a second engagement.

Volume the first

Inside Mr. Enderby introduces us to our slatternly hero. Francis Xavier Enderby is 45, lives alone in a dodgy flat in a southern seaside town of Hove in England, and writes poetry full time. He is able to do this because of an inheritance he received upon the death of his foul, domineering stepmother, a woman he loathed and whom he blames for a variety of his problems, including sexual impotence. The early chapters describe both Enderby’s writing rituals – he composes his poetry while sitting on the toilet, flinging drafts into the bathtub that he uses for no other purpose – and the cadence of his days. Following his lavatorial writing sessions, Enderby wanders the town thinking up new lines of verse in his head, buys bread and feeds it to the gulls, drinks in seedy pubs with withered patrons nearly twice his age, and comes home to eat a modest meal and do a bit more work. A life, the narrator tells us, that harms nobody.

The story takes its inevitable turn when Enderby is summoned to London to receive a small literary award called the Goodby Gold Medal for Poetry. At the luncheon ceremony, he inadvertently offends the award’s benefactors and ends up giving the money back. More importantly, he also meets the woman who will forever change (that is, ruin) his life. Vesta Bainbridge is a 30-year-old widow – her husband a famous racecar driver killed in a crash – who edits a women’s magazine called Fem. She inexplicably solicits Enderby to write a column of light verse for the magazine, and when he resists, she tracks him down and discovers his solitary, filthy, bachelor lifestyle. Through some fancy tap-dancing on Burgess’ part, and a generous suspension of disbelief on ours, Vesta browbeats Enderby into marrying her. She claims to want to transform him into an upstanding citizen who contributes something more useful (i.e. not poetry) to society, but it soon comes to light that her intentions are even more nefarious than that.

The novel then pivots and finds the two newlyweds on their honeymoon in Rome. Enderby and Vesta’s marriage remains comically unconsummated, and Enderby soon discovers that wedded life does not agree with him. Even worse, he learns that the poetic muse who has served him so well for so many years has abandoned him, and he can barely grind out the doggerel commissioned for Fem. Hilarity ensues and Enderby ends up fleeing his marriage in a daring, nighttime escape from Rome. But all is lost. Through their divorce, Vesta claims the trust fund that Enderby had been living off of, and, more disastrously, the muse refuses to return to him. Upon his reemergence in England, Enderby makes an unsuccessful attempt at suicide, and ends up in a psychiatric ward. As part of his rehabilitative therapy, he is convinced to abandon his old life completely – stop writing poetry, get a job, and even adopt a new identity. He takes the maiden name of his birth mother (a woman he never knew, as she died when he was still in diapers), which is Hogg, and the novel ends with Hogg training to become a bartender.

This book is unquestionably funny, and as with my first reading of it, the comic scenes of Enderby offending and farting and fumbling his way through the world had me in stitches. But one thing I didn’t notice the first time around was how this novel’s thematic arc mirrors almost exactly that of A Clockwork Orange. In both books, our hero engages in what normal society considers degenerate behaviour (for Enderby, that means not having a job or a wife, and writing poetry full time), and through the machinations of the plot, the hero attempts suicide and then is taken in by newfangled psychological treatments and reformed into a kind of lobotomized shell of his former self. When seen in this light, Burgess’ double-dipping seems a touch repetitive and a cheat. But still, this novel – and this character – endures through the sheer ridiculousness and hilarity of its episodic set pieces. We may loath Enderby for a variety of reasons, but he remains undoubtedly compelling and worthy of his own book series.

Volume the Second

Enderby Outside finds Enderby, now Hogg, working in a “whimsically named” hotel bar in London called Piggy’s Sty, having abandoned his old life of unemployment and poetry-writing on the advice of a psychiatrist. But the muse – and the writing life – still hangs high in Hogg’s mind, with snippets of verse appearing to him as he slings drinks for Rotarians, film executives, and etiolated men of the insurance business. Hogg seems under stress that his old life – his former name and vocation – may be discovered by his customers. And he despises his boss, a Spaniard named Spanish John, and the grind of working in the service industry. Compounding all this is the emergence of popular culture (the novel is set in the mid to late 1960s), which Hogg (like Burgess himself) loathes, and he directs his animus at one rock band in particular: Yod Crewsey and the Crewsey Fixers. This group is clearly based on The Beatles, with Yod himself a stand-in for John Lennon.

It comes to pass that Hogg discovers that his ex-wife and old nemesis, Vesta Bainbridge, has switched careers and become Yod Crewsey’s manager. Worse, the band has plagiarized one of Enderby’s poems, a piece he had left behind during his brief marriage to Vesta. This, naturally, drives Hogg into a rage. When he discovers that the band will be appearing at Piggy’s Sty as part of a high-profile corporate function (even the British Prime Minister will be there) he decides to confront Yod about his thievery. But like Lennon, Yod has offended the religious community by claiming to be bigger than Jesus, and at the event an apparently engaged priest shows up to do more than just confront the band. During the crowded event, he shoots Yod and then places the smoking gun into the hand of the nearest person – who happens to be Hogg. Implicated in the assassination attempt, and in possession of means, motive and opportunity, Hogg races out of the hotel and heads straight to the airport with the idea of fleeing the country.

He buys a ticket for the next available international flight, which happens to be going to Morocco with an overnight layover in Spain. On the plane, he is chatted up by a young, aggressive woman named Miranda Boland. She seems attracted to Hogg and is intrigued by why he is fleeing England so suddenly. A romance stirs between them, and during the layover he ends up in her room for a tryst. But in true comic fashion, the poetry muse returns to Hogg just as he is about to make love to Miss Boland. He leaves her bed to frantically jot these lines down, and she is grossly offended by this. Her anger soon morphs into a need to discover the secret he is clearly keeping from him, and Hogg does everything he can to hide the fact that he was involved in the shooting of Yod Crewsey.

They soon arrive in Morocco and the plot takes more twists. Hogg is able to lose Miss Boland, and he also encounters an old poetry rival, a man named Rawcliffe, living in Morocco and running a bar. Like Yod Crewsey, Rawcliffe had once filched an Enderby poem and claimed it to be his own. As apology for this, the very ill Rawcliffe leaves his bar to Hogg upon his death, which happens very soon thereafter. Meanwhile, the shooting of Yod Crewsey is revealed to be a mere publicity stunt, the muse returns to Hogg full force, and he reclaims his old identity as F.X. Enderby. With the Moroccan bar now in his ownership, Enderby has the financial means – and the inspiration – to resume his writing life.

Needless to say, the plot for this novel is somewhat more scattershot than its predecessor, and Enderby Outside relies far too heavily on a series of coincidences in order to move its story along. Still, I found this book to be even funnier than Inside Mr. Enderby, and that counts for a lot. There was one passage in particular that left me in a paroxysm of laughter, and allowed me to forgive whatever weaknesses the book possessed before or after. In this scene, Hogg, working the corporate event in Piggy’s Sty, runs into one of the poets who had been at the award ceremony held in Enderby’s honour in the first volume, a man named Shem Macnamara:

So that’s who it was. Shem Macnamara, once a poet himself but now, analogously to Mr. Parkin, reformed. ‘Scatch on the racks,’ said Shem Macnamara, like an American. He did not recognize Hogg. He breathed a kind of mouthwash as he opened meaty lips for the drink. Hogg remembered that luncheon long ago that had been given for him, himself, Enderby as he had been, when he had won the Goodby Gold Medal for poetry. Then Shem Macnamara had been very poor, only too ready for a free meal and a quiet sneer at the success of a fellow poet. Then, instead of expensive mouthwash, he had breathed on Hogg-Enderby, bafflingly (for no banquet would serve, because of the known redolence of onions, onions) onions. 
‘Onions,’ said Hogg. He frowned on in puzzlement. ‘Cocktails onions,’ he offered. Well, just imagine. Shem Macnamara deepened his frown. Something in that voice saying ‘Onions’? He did not take any onions.

Well, just imagine indeed.

Volume the third

So here we come to the slim tome that brought me back into the house of Burgess. As mentioned, my first reading of The Clockwork Testament was a revelation, one I have yet to recover from. But I can say, now, unequivocally, upon a full second reading, that it is the weakest volume in the Enderby quartet – and, in places, just a plain bad book. It feels like it was hacked out quickly, sloppily (though the sloppiness, I’ll admit, does provide some wonderful twists in linguistic humour in the opening passages), and hews a bit too closely to Burgess’ own life and prejudices. Indeed, we might argue that this is one of Burgess’ most overtly autobiographical pieces.

In it, Enderby, now a resumed poet and bar owner in Morocco, lands a writer-in-residency position at a New York City university in the early 1970s. (This too happened to Burgess.) All this comes as a result of Enderby providing some editorial support on the script for an implausible movie version of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ long poem “Wreck of the Deutschland.” But the final version of the movie, through the greed of Hollywood, has become a deeply violent and controversial work, which includes scenes of nuns being raped. (This, we can see, is analogous to the violence in the film version of Burgess’ own A Clockwork Orange.) Because Enderby is now in a highly publicized position in New York and his name is included in the film’s credits, he, rather than the film’s director, becomes the target of New Yorkers’ vitriol against the movie. (This too happened to Burgess when A Clockwork Orange became a controversial film. People directed their criticisms at him rather than at director Stanley Kubrick.)

The novel opens with Enderby awakening in his New York apartment, subletted from a radical feminist academic and novelist on sabbatical. (Burgess himself had subletted a New York apartment from radical feminist poet Adrienne Rich.) He receives threatening and anonymous phone calls from people chewing him out about the film. He teaches two courses at the university to a multicultural stew of students that he loathes. (One of them, a young coed, appears at Enderby’s apartment, looking to trade sex for an A.) The first course is on minor Elizabethan poets, and an ill-prepared Enderby conjures one of these completely from his imagination. The second is an intermediate creative writing class, and the students strike him as gormless and untalented. There is a heated exchange with a black student, a set piece that is both unapologetically and unconscionably racist. Enderby is then conscripted to appear on a moronic TV talk show to discuss the controversial film now attached to his name. (This may be a parody of Burgess’s own appearances in the early and mid 1970s on the Dick Cavett Show.) The TV interview goes about as comically as you would expect. The novel finishes with a woman showing up at Enderby’s apartment toting old copies of his poetry books acquired through a Canadian rare book dealer. She is enraged for some reason and threatens to kill him. Enderby convinces her otherwise, but then he suffers a heart attack during the confrontation, and dies.

That’s it. A mere 100 pages and Burgess kills off his most memorable creation. The book is an utter rat’s nest, and Enderby’s politically incorrect encounters and solipsistic world view have dated very badly indeed. Like the two previous volumes in the quartet, The Clockwork Testament is very funny in a number of places. And as a primer on Burgess’ daring linguistic tricks, it is as good as any in his oeuvre. And yet the book leaves a bad taste in the mouth that we cannot escape. It is a mean book in both senses of the term – harsh and judgmental towards its characters, but also impoverished of novelistic creativity and generousness. It is, in the end, a rushed and ill-conceived inclusion in this series of novels.

Volume the fourth

So thank God, then, for Enderby’s Dark Lady – subtitled No End to Enderby. Claiming to have brought back his crabby, dyspeptic hero at the request of fans, Burgess offers this installment as an alt-history version of events to the period following Enderby Outside. Instead of accepting the New York writer in residency on the strength of his film script work, Enderby instead accepts a staff writing position for a musical on the life of Shakespeare being produced in small-town Indiana. This comes on the strength of a curious literary accomplishment – one with especial interest for Canadian readers. Enderby attracts the attention of the Indiana producers after he publishes a short story in which William Shakespeare is the protagonist in a literary journal run at Yorke (sic) University in Toronto. This piece whimsically entangles Shakespeare in Ben Jonson’s spy work and the Gunpowder Plot, and it also claims that Shakespeare contributed to the King James Bible, even insinuating “shake” and “spear” into the translation of Psalm 46.

This short story is published in its entirety at the beginning of Enderby’s Dark Lady, and it is, bar none, one of Burgess’ finest literary performances. He clearly dipped into some B-roll text from his novel Nothing Like the Sun (see my review of it here) and brings this fictive version of Shakespeare vividly alive. Like the novel itself, the short story is an exercise in alt-history (Shakespeare, historians are almost certain, never contributed to the King James Bible) and it is that concept that plays an overarching role in this fourth Enderby story.

Indeed, alt-history rears its head when Enderby arrives in Indiana to contribute song lyrics to the musical about Shakespeare. The producers are convinced the actual known circumstances of the bard’s life are not interesting enough for small-town theatre goers, and Enderby is forced to play fast and loose with the facts in the interest of commerce and entertainment. He also meets and becomes infatuated with one of the stars of the show, an African-American actress performing under the stage name April Elgar. Whereas the Enderby in The Clockwork Testament was flamingly racist and misogynist, this version finds him protective of someone like April. At one point, the play’s director addresses her as “Ape” for short, but Enderby interprets this as a racist slur and comes aboard of the man. His desire for April flourishes and he even follows her to her hometown state for a holiday, gets comically conscripted to deliver the sermon at the local church, and befriends her Aunt Jemima-like mother.

But the real alt-history takes place in the play itself. Enderby is aghast at what the producers are forcing him to morph the script into, and there are plenty of hilarious set pieces in which Enderby attempts to bring some decorum and accuracy back to the production. Along the way, he insults the play’s financiers, mopes when he fails to properly bed April, and even encounters a young Canadian writer driving a cab who suggests that the tropes of science fiction – specifically time and space travel – may be a clever way to approach the telling of Shakespeare’s life. In the end, Enderby himself is comically conscripted to understudy the role of Shakespeare for the play’s dress-rehearsal performance for the local press, and the results are delightfully disastrous.

The novel ends as it began – with a short story outside the main action of the plot. It is obviously Enderby writing the very short story suggested to him by the Canadian cabbie, and involves a 21st-century scientist time-travelling back to 1595 and an alternate version of Earth to help a talentless Shakespeare find his muse. It is a fitting coda to what is clearly the strongest of the four Enderby volumes. Unlike The Clockwork Testament, Enderby’s Dark Lady is tightly organized and well-structured in its thematic explorations. Unlike Enderby Outside, its plot is not scattershot, but rather finely honed and wisely bracketed with two complementary short stories. And unlike in Inside Mr. Enderby, our hero does not merely live in the city centre of his own id, but rather battles with moral uncertainties and even shows a sensitivity to someone other than himself.

As way of summary

The Complete Enderby reveals itself to be an exploration of the creative impulse of one man and the role that others play in either encouraging or hobbling that impulse. This series of books also outlines Burgess’ own level of discomfort with women, since women are overwhelmingly cast into villainous roles in these stories – Vesta, Miss Boland, the woman who longs to kill Enderby in New York, and even April Elgar. Burgess himself had both a domineering stepmother and a tempestuous relationship with his alcoholic and shrewish first wife, and these books may be an attempt for him to exorcise some of those demons.

But in the end, we shouldn’t overanalyze these comic novels, since the comedy is the overarching value they bring. Enderby leaves us with a delightful portrait of the impulses of a man who cannot help his own behaviour. These impulses manifest themselves by way of poetry, but also by way of so much more.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review: Mothers and Sons, by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is rapidly becoming one of those comfort-food authors for me, a storyteller of such supreme skill and grace that his narratives just seem to flow as naturally as if they have always existed. In Mothers and Sons, his debut short story collection published in 2006, Tóibín shows off his versatility in tackling the short fiction form. The title is both a nod to the Turgenevian tradition (think Fathers and Sons) of laying out an explicit familial theme, and a continuation of one of Tóibín’s most persistent subject matters – the oft-complex relationships that sons can have with their mums, and vice versa. (The most telling example of this from his corpus is the short but brilliant novella The Testament of Mary, which I reviewed in 2012.)

Throw into the mix the experiences of Irishness, of homosexuality, and of the grinding travails of a workaday life, and you’ve got a potent concoction of captivating tales. The most captivating for me was the story “The Name of the Game,” about a suddenly widowed woman named Nancy who discovers that her dead husband has left behind a large amount of debt from their third-rate supermarket business in small-town Ireland. To dig herself out of her financial hole, Nancy scrounges to launch a chip shop and an off-license, and the two businesses prove to be a roaring success. Too much of a success, as it turns out, since it drives a wedge between her and high school-aged son Gerard, who wants to take over the business from her the minute he graduates. But Nancy’s plan is to sell the businesses to wipe out their debts and then move the family to Dublin to create better opportunities for her children. The scene in which Gerard learns of her true plans is as heartbreaking as it is chilling.

There are other stellar pieces in this book. The collection opens with the story “The Use of Reason,” about a professional thief who finds himself in the possession of an expensive piece of art that he struggles to liquidate into easy cash. I also enjoyed the piece “A Song”, about a musician son named Noel who discovers that his estranged mother, a much more famous musician, is playing in the small Irish club he is in. This story has a companion piece, “Famous Blue Raincoat” (a reference to the famed Leonard Cohen song), told from the perspective of that mum, a woman named Lisa, who has abandoned her musical career and the son (Noel) that she had long ago to launch a new family. The story roils back to her musician days and what it cost her sister Julie, who was also in the band. Both stories touch on this idea of how family connections may not be the strongest in our lives, or strong enough to endure the artistic dreams that we hold to be more important.

Not every story in Mothers and Sons engaged me. After such a lively combination of tales in the first half of the book, I must confess to flatlining through “A Journey” and “Three Friends.” But then Tóibín came roaring back with a great closer, a story called “A Long Winter,” about a family’s search for its missing mother who went wandering into a massive snow storm after she was called out on her hitherto undisclosed drinking problem. The grief that her son, the narrator, goes through as he realizes that she is most likely dead and her body won’t be found until the spring thaw, is truly gripping. This story touches on themes of disclosure and how far we can push the ones we love until we’ve pushed them too far. It was a strong, and strongly understated, finisher for what was (for the most part) a deeply immersive and harrowing collection of short stories.

My review of The Testament of Mary.
My review of The Master.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review: The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, by Alexis von Konigslow

Can math help to explain our relationships? This question lies at the heart of Alexis von Konigslow’s bewitching debut novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness. Using two alternating threads, von Konigslow’s narrative explores how our social networks (the old-fashioned, offline kind, that is) can make connections across years and generations, and how they can draw us together as well as pull us apart.

The first thread, set in 2003, involves PhD candidate Emily Kogan, a budding mathematician who flees grad school to return to her Jewish family’s Muskoka resort. Emily is looking to use her left-brain math skills for a very right-brain reason: to map out the various interactions and connections contained within her complicated family history. The second thread, set 70 years earlier, puts a fictionalized version of Harpo Marx as a guest at that same resort. He is there on the lam from both a sputtering film career and the outside world’s growing anti-Semitism. As he gets embroidered in the Kogan family’s history, he comes to learn that there is more to the resort than what first meets the eye. Von Konigslow sashays back and forth between these threads in a kind of dream-like waltz, creating an expert call and response between her two narratives.

While the premise for this book may strike some readers as far-fetched – can we really boil down human relationships and family influences to a series of mathematical equations? – von Konigslow wins us over with both the sheer elegance of her prose and the scope of this novel’s vision. Harpo Marx is fully imagined here, and his experiences help to provide a buttress of plausibility; Emily, meanwhile, proves a worthy lead character for her thread, a woman with a sensitive eye and an open ear. Still, with so much of her story wrapped around her training and identity as a mathematician, one thing that felt missing from her section was, well, math. It would have been interesting to see some of Emily’s actual work – human connections and relationships rendered into math equations – on the page.  

But it is a small quibble in a book that gets progressively more engrossing with each passing chapter. The Capacity for Infinite Happiness explores the importance of history without fetishizing too much the notion of capital-P Past. For a novel concerned with the long-lasting mysteries of yesteryear, its story comes to us with a gripping immediacy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

My Quill and Quire review of Swing in the House, by Anita Anand ...

... is now up on the Q&Q website. I was really hoping to like this debut collection of stories, but unfortunately I had to give it one of the tougher rides I've given a book. Lord knows there's a great deal of pressure on first-time writers to get something into print, and I always come at these kinds of harsh reviews with a tremendous amount of sympathy for what worked and what didn't. But I do encourage readers to check out other opinions than mine on this one. You can read The National Post's review of the book from last month, and watch this video interview with Anand on

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Review: Vanessa and Her Sister, by Priya Parmar

Virginia Woolf was, by most accounts, a terrible human being. Deeply classist, profoundly paranoid, unflaggingly envious of others’ success, she had a tendency to alienate those around her, including – perhaps especially – those she was closest to. Posterity has forgiven Ms. Woolf her proclivities, partly because she left us some of the most durable and dynamic works of modernist fiction, and partly because we now know that she suffered from a raft of debilitating mental illnesses, which culminated with her suicide by drowning in 1941.

There has been much documentation of Ms. Woolf’s life in the years since, as well as the lives of other members of the Bloomsbury Group, of which she was a pivotal member. So this makes Priya Parmar’s new novel, Vanessa and Her Sister, a daring act of literature: to map out, via fiction, the emotional world of characters whose real-life counterparts have already been captured so thoroughly – both by themselves (Woolf in particular was a voluminous writer of letters and journal entries) and by literary historians. Parmar places much of the weight of her narrative on Woolf’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, as she details the emergence of the Bloomsbury Group in the years 1905 to 1912. Yet the novel also takes a scrapbook approach, incorporating everything from train ticket stubs to telegrams exchanged between journalist and fellow Bloomsbury member Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf, the man who would return to England from his position in the foreign service in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to marry Virginia.

But Vanessa is a sly and engaging protagonist here, a kind of Virgil leading us through the off-kilter dynamics of her relationship to her sister as well as the other artists and intellectuals they surround themselves with. We get a wonderful portrait of the rise and deterioration of her marriage to the art critic Clive Bell; of his intense love interest in Virginia; of novelist E.M. (Morgan) Forster, whose success came early and often, much to Virginia’s chagrin; and of the dynamic between Lytton and Clive, which culminates with the former’s petitioning of Leonard Woolf to come home and marry Virginia.

Parmar is adept at revealing the small details that bring these historical figures to life. She shows Vanessa as cagey with her heart as she navigates the men in her life. She portrays Virginia as aloof, brilliant and unfailingly observant of every small human interaction. The prose here is vigorous and authentic, with turns of phrase that we can imagine the Bloomsbury Group actually saying. The book is incredibly well-researched and yet does not feel bogged down by the weight of this lived history.

Yet, as Vanessa and Her Sister went on, I did begin to wonder what was at stake for these characters. The answer, eventually, seemed to be whether or not Leonard would return home to marry Virginia. It was an odd place for Parmar to rest so much of this novel’s tension, since we already knew going in what the answer was. I also felt that the novel ended rather abruptly. Why did Parmar choose to cut off her story in 1912? In this sense, the sudden, jarring end made the book feel like a mere prequel to Michael Cunningham’s excellent novel The Hours.

Despite all this, Vanessa and Her Sister was a compelling read and I could not put it down. Parmar shows an uncanny talent for capturing both the deep, contradictory nature of her characters’ inner worlds and the external events of history. This novel is a welcome addition to the canon of work exploring the British modernist period.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Interview: Open Book Toronto

So I'm back on Open Book Toronto today with an interview as part of its WAR Series - Writers as Readers. I had a lot of fun delving into my (somewhat shameful) reading past and also making some recommendations about stuff I've loved recently. It's all, of course, in promotion of my new collection of short stories, The Secrets Men Keep, which, by the way, is launching this Thursday in Toronto. Anyway, thanks to Open Book for conducting the interview. I had loads of fun answering these questions. Read the full interview here.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Review of Sad Peninsula in the Charlottetown Guardian

So intelligence sources on the ground (as well as Google Alerts) inform me that a capsule review of Sad Peninsula appeared in my hometown newspaper, the Charlottetown Guardian, yesterday. It was the Guardian that gave me my very first paid writing gig, actually: back in 1992, when I was a high school student, I won a "Stay in School" short story contest, and the subsequent publication of the piece led to me getting a gig that summer and fall writing a column on "teen issues" for the newspaper. Great to see this whole writing career thing come full circle.

Also interested to learn about the other book discussed in the review: The Bastard of Fort Stikine by Debra Komer, published by Goose Lane. I hadn't heard of this book before, so I'll have to go check it out.

Anyway, great to see Sad Peninsula still getting a bit of press eight and a half months after release. And hey, reviewers: I do have another book, a short story collection, that was just published last month that's still looking for its first Canadian review. Just sayin'.


Friday, May 22, 2015

My Quill and Quire review of The Mystics of Mile End, by Sigal Samuel ...

... is now online at the Q&Q website. I don't really have a ton to add beyond what is in the review. I know this book has gotten some media attention over the last couple weeks and is all over the bookshops now. If it sounds like something you'd be interested in, I encourage you to go check it out. Sigal Samuel writes quite well and there are many aspects of this novel about Jewish mysticism and the binds that tie families together that are well-done and enjoyable.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Review: Cocktail Culture, by Mark Kingwell

I should state off the bat that I have no beef with philosopher Mark Kingwell. While I didn’t really get his biography of Glenn Gould, I have found the majority of his writing to be sharp, generous, witty, and incisive. His recent title, Unruly Voices, was an especially pleasurable tome, one I read as part of the research for a new novel I’m working on with a philosopher as its protagonist. True, Dr. Kingwell can be a bit silly from time to time, and yet we don’t really mind it – especially when he’s writing on a subject as frivolous as Western thought. But cocktails? Come now! You’ve got to take some things seriously.

I will also state that his 2006 book Cocktail Culture (illustrated by the always whimsical Seth) comes loaded with witty jibes, alcohol-based literary references, and, most importantly, a raft of recipes I had yet to try. (More on that in a moment.) Like any good academic, Dr. Kingwell spells out his thesis statement early, laying the groundwork for what is to follow:

The basic premise of the present book is that you should choose your drink carefully, take some care in its preparation, and enjoy it in moderation. Drinking cocktails is supposed to be fun, but not too much fun. Cocktails are associated with sophistication, after all, and whatever you may think in your own mind, you are not sophisticated after more than two stiff drinks.

As part of his introduction, he provides a good overview of the possible etymologies of the word ‘cocktail,’ and also begins serving up his many references to drinking in literary culture, making allusions to everything from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Peyton Place. It’s all very well thought-out and enjoyable.

The Chelsea Sidecar - one of the many delicious
drinks not included in Dr. Kingwell's book.
And yet, it feels as if Dr. Kingwell skirts incredibly close to cocktail sciolism in some of his biases and mixing techniques. I mean, what is his aversion to bourbon? No barman on any continent would serve up a manhattan with anything other than bourbon in it. If Kingwell doesn’t like how the stuff tastes, he should just say so. (Yes, there are bad bourbons, but this is true of any spirit.) Or perhaps his prejudice stems from bourbon’s origins in the American south – which seems silly, considering how delicious the best of this liquor can be. Why do I care if Woodford Reserve is distilled in the deepest, darkest, most racist part of Kentucky? For all I know, that’s part of its charm!

Also, readers should be mindful of Dr. Kingwell’s insistence on shaking most of his recipes. Some cocktails, especially if their constituent parts are made of a clear liquid, are better stirred than shaken. This is true of the Martini, the Gimlet, and definitely the Manhattan. In fact, I would challenge Dr. Kingwell to make himself a Manhattan using a proper, high-quality bourbon (I recommend Bulleit) and stir it rather than shake it. Tell you me can’t taste the difference! Also: readers should be wary of his repeated use of the term “cracked ice.” It conjures an image of small, shattered slivers of ice, which you should never use to make shaken cocktails. A good barman knows that you should only put nice big cubes in your shaker, as it reduces the watering down of your drink. But if you are using cracked or crushed ice, for God sake have the decency to double strain!

I reluctantly admit that the
Italian Stallion was delicious.
As well, certain tasty cocktails seem conspicuous by their absence in this book. Where is the Chelsea Sidecar? The Mancini? The transcendental Gin Sour? I would have preferred to see Dr. Kingwell’s take on these drinks rather than his baffling recipe for, say, the Mandeville Cocktail, which involves shaking cola along with the other ingredients (rum, Pernod, lemon juice, and grenadine). Good God, man! You NEVER shake a carbonated liquid in a cocktail. Always, always, always use it to top up the drink after the fact.
Ahem. Still, despite these egregious oversights, I do feel that my own repertoire has grown immeasurably after reading Cocktail Culture. I look forward to making a slew of drinks I hadn’t before, including the Harvard, the Ninotchka, the Boston, the Irish Kilt, the Fine and Dandy Cocktail (though it does sound like it was invented by Ned Flanders) and the Jersey Club. I was particularly appreciative of the chapter on drinks in boxing, as my father fought professionally in the 1960s and the sport was a big part of my family’s lore. The Italian Stallion proved formidable, though it is pretty much a version of the Boulevardier served up. With his trademark charm, Dr. Kingwell makes even the most obscure drink sound intriguing.

But most of all, this book is just full of some wonderful writing. It is reminiscent of the wittiest pieces on booze you’ll find from Kingsley Amis. (See my review of Everyday Drinking.) Here is, for example, another passage taken from the introduction,  a sharp concoction of cleverness and snark that Dr Kingwell delivers while discussing Rona Jaffe’s 1958 novel The Best of Everything:

Long before the cosmopolitan fashion of Sex and the City and its long comet-tail of associated chick-lit imitators, which made late-century New York into a kind of fantasyland of tits and tippling, Jaffe’s sad, clear-eyed tale of affairs, abortions, and advancement nailed the peculiar up-and-down thrills of the urban scene.

For God's sake, Rebecca, put the camera down
and help me to bed.
Cocktail Culture is, despite its obvious flaws and questionable inclusions, a lively and spirited book, with oodles of good recipes and some sound advice. It contains enough basic information for the tyro drinker, and enough in-depth detail to aid those who already know what they're doing. I encourage both the casual and serious mixologist out there to seek out it and experiment with some of the recipes. As Dr. Kingwell says of the Tom Collins, “Drink immediately but not quickly.” Yes. Yes indeed. Slante!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Review: Selected Poems, by W.H. Auden

I’m once again trying to fill some gaps in my canonical reading, which has led me to W.H. Auden, a 20th century poet I hitherto had shamefully little contact with. I was familiar, as many are, with what is arguably his single most famous poem, “September 1, 1939,” written in the wake of the Nazi invasion of Poland and very competently included in this anthology edited by Edward Mendelson. There is something timeless in the specificity that Auden captures in this poem, especially in its memorable second stanza:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

We can see in this piece what we can see in this entire collection – that is, the reason Auden is worth reading and why his work continues to stand out today. He is, in a word, concerned with the wide view, the bird’s eye scan of contemporary affairs and politics and culture. At a time when most poetry seems very much stationed upon the self, focused on the teeming aquarium of a single individual’s emotional experience, Auden dares to speak loudly of the larger forces shaping his world. This gives his voice a refreshing tang as we read it here, in 2015. In the stanza above, Auden makes allusion to the whole Germanic project, from Luther to Hitler, referencing the latter’s abusive childhood in Linz as well as the horror he wrought upon countless others. Auden does this with a kind of metronomic swagger, a swinging indifference to whether his subject matter and reference points will one day seem dated. Oddly enough, very few of them, in any of his poems, actually are.

Much of Auden’s early work relied on rhyme to provide structure to his ideas, and he seems to have been a late adopter of free verse. The chronological arrangement of the poems in this book allow us to view that evolution as it happens, as the poet tries to articulate both what his verse wants to convey as well as what it wants to reject. Even in the later works, the man remains ruthlessly contemporary even while he dabbles with and contorts over age-old techniques. Look what he does here in “Lament for a Lawgiver”:

Sob, heavy world
Sob as you spin
Mantled in mist, remote from the happy:
The washerwomen have wailed all night,
The disconsolate clocks are crying together,
And the bells toll and toll
For tall Agrippa who touched the sky:
Shut is that shining eye
Which enlightened the lampless and lifted up
The flat and foundering, reformed the weeds
Into civil cereals and sobered the bulls;
Away the cylinder seal
The didactic digit and dreaded voice
Which imposed peace on the pullulating
Primordial mess. Mourn for him now,
Our lost dad,
Our colossal father.

For seven cycles
For seven years
Past vice and virtue, surviving both,
Through pluvial periods, paroxysms
Of wind and wet, through whirlpools of heat,
And comas of deadly cold,
On an old white horse, an ugly nag,
In his faithful youth he followed
The black ball as it bowled downhill
On the spotted spirit’s journey,
Its purgative path to that point of rest
Where longing leaves it, and saw
Shimmering in the shade the shrine of gold,
The magical marvel no man dare touch,
Between the towers the tree of life
And the well of wishes,
The waters of joy.

Only a poet looking to make a statement about effect could pound the key of alliteration so many times across two blunt stanzas – so many times, in fact, that we are nearly hypnotized by its dizzying consistency. Only a poet who knows the force of structured lines could play so recklessly, so randomly with indentation and the precision of a line break. There is much in this poem about the “heavy world” that Auden is preoccupied with, but even if this were randomized gibberish, we’d still sit up and pay attention to what the man is doing here.

This collection aims to be comprehensive, a kind of Essential Auden – and as such there are many pleasures, and a few hiccups, along the way. The inclusion of his massive “The Sea and Mirror – A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest” may test even the most patient reader, as it moves from verse to prose over several pages. This piece forces us to delve deeply – perhaps too deeply – into Shakespeare’s iconic play in order to parse out the nuggets of meaning that Auden has planted for us. I questioned, after finishing this lengthy piece, if it was worth it. But there shorter, more succinct gems to enjoy. The poem “Oh what is that sound which so thrills the ear” (labeled poem 18 here) has a cadence and rhyme structure that stays with the reader long after he finishes reading it. Poem 35 (“‘Oh who can ever gaze is,”’) has us relishing in bon mots and aphorisms galore. Auden is always at his best when he is pointed, when he is able to crystallize a singular observation about the wider world around him.

By and large, these are poems to be relished over time, and I suspect I’ll be dipping back in to this collection for many years to come. Auden sets an impressive example for other poets, a writer who dared to say that it’s okay to write about society, about history as it is unfolding right now.