Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Based out of Vancouver and Hong Kong, Doretta Lau, is an author of many modes. She is currently working on a screenplay and a novel. She has interviewed the likes of Tao Lin, Erica Jong, James Franco, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor (and more) for the Wall Street Journal Asia & The South China Morning Post. The title story from her debut collection How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (Nightwood Editions) was shortlisted for the 2013 Journey Prize. Here, she graciously tangles and unravels some of these many threads around a curiosity for khipu and an empathy for story. 
- Brad de Roo  

Many of your stories - such as 'Rerun,' 'Left and Leaving,' and 'Robot by the River' feature characters who have been adopted or who adopt others for love or guidance. Do characters with a sense inquiry into restless origins speak to you? Does their almost archetypal character development towards familial self-discovery (even when that family is found outside of the biological family) provide an analogy to anything greater - like particular cultural forces or the role of the modern artist? Is there a real tension in which an author is an adopter or adoptee - whether of characters, voices, or cultures? If so, does one side of an adoptive creative process win out?

"Rerun" started as a story about a biological mother and daughter, but one day a friend in New York, a filmmaker, was telling me about the audition process for her latest film. She was looking for a child actor of Asian descent. One of the children who auditioned was a transnational adoptee from China. My friend was telling me how the whole thing was incredibly uncomfortable: the mother kept talking about her child's "doll-like exotic looks" and generally treating the child like an object instead of as a human being. This dynamic seemed perfect for a story, so I began a new draft of "Rerun" and changed their relationship. A few years later I realized that the entire plot, as well as the secondary characters and the voice of the protagonist, needed to be overhauled in light of this change so I did one more drastic rewrite. 

As for the question of an author as an adopter of characters, voices or cultures, the key thing for me when creating a character is empathy. Why am I writing about this person in this specific situation? Am I coming from a place of compassion or of derision? Am I treating my characters like human beings or am I acting as if I'm superior to them and coming from a place of judgment? When derision comes into play, then there's a chance that the work can be read as racist, classist, homophobic, misogynist—that's the antithesis of what literature should do.

Yao Ming
Certain stories in this collection present direct interactions with real, historical people or actual works of art or both. 'Two-Part Intervention' imagines Glenn Gould on the dating scene. 'Days of Being Wild' recounts many classic films as the narrator tries to write a screenplay in New York. 'Writing in Light' intersperses the narrative with detailed meditations on selected photographs by Jeff Wall. 'Robot by the River' cites a Smog (Bill Callahan) lyric. The titular story is allegedly named after a quote by basketball star Yao Ming in response to a journalist. Having suited up as a journalist yourself, does a researched attention to fact play a central role in your fiction? Do you approach/present fictional and journalistic stories in comparable ways? Are there instances when certain journalistic pieces substantially inform particular stories? Have the described modes of inter-textuality ever offered any technical problems in story-writing? Is it ever difficult to integrate another artist's aesthetic into your own, for example? Or, in the case of Gould, does the glut of autobiographical material about the icon initially hinder developing the icon as a character, not to mention developing another character's opinion of the icon?

The title of the book is a translated line of Tang Dynasty poetry by Meng Jiao that Yao Ming used in an advertisement he took out in newspapers when the Shanghai Sharks retired his basketball jersey. It's about maternal love. I thought, how strange and lovely—one day I'd like to write something and use that as the title. I tend to gather phrases and ideas and images and place them in my work when things fit. In some ways, I think of my book as a salute to the Asian Canadian and Asian American writers who did the hard work and carved a space for me to write about anything. I don't need to write tragic, multigenerational sagas because that has been done. Instead, I have the freedom to expand on what I think fiction can be. In the case of "Writing in Light", that story began as a series of prose poems. Then I started to think of it as an essay that has been repurposed to be a story. I need to start with some real thing, like a text message or a work of art, and then leap from there to the fantastical.

Sometimes I think I turn to research as a form of procrastination from doing actual writing. I love the chase, the accumulation of information, uncovering the quirks of real life. In order to write "Two-Part Invention", I had to read the books the narrator reads. I wanted to look at how other writers dealt with the same character, in this case Glenn Gould, and put my own particular spin on him. The fact that there are so many works of art devoted to him made the endeavour easier rather than harder. 

I've always thought of my own fiction practice as a response to other writers. My stories reflect what I was reading at the time I was writing them. I suppose they also reveal my obsessions with art, film, and music.

My journalism and fiction come from very different places. When I am profiling a person, I'm trying to present information I've been given about them directly or indirectly. For fiction, I can make everything up and shape things to serve the story. I have never had any of my journalistic work inform my fiction. I'm more likely to build a story based on an overheard conversation on a train or an absurd premise that comes to mind when I'm out drinking with friends.

Doretta Lau

Having conducted a number of interviews yourself, do you ever take issue with the way you are interviewed? Do you find yourself or your work framed or contextualized by gender or culture or age or genre in ways that unsettle you? Are there questions you are simply not asked? Are there questions you would like be asked? Is there an ideal model or style of literary interviewing you favour? Would you want this method applied to yourself?

I was talking to a friend about this the other day. He was saying that as a straight, cisgender white male, interviewers and reviewers tend to focus on craft and his work; he told me that he's found it annoying to see instances where journalists are putting my identity before my work, as if my writing doesn't merit attention on its own.

At the moment, I'm reading Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit and she puts it so well in the title essay: "Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of fact and truths, to have value, to be a human being." I'm just a person, writing about the world around me.

I don't take issue with people asking what I've come to think of as "the Asian question" because a lot of the time, the journalist is under pressure from their editor to frame the story a specific way. Most of the time people are really just trying to make a connection and understand—I can't fault them for that. This, however, doesn't negate the fact that the whole thing at core presupposes that the default person is white, and anyone who is outside of this needs to be measured against this standard, which is highly problematic.

I've done interviews with writers where I've been forced to follow up after the fact with questions about Asian audiences, family reactions, that sort of thing. A novelist who had a commercial hit was telling me that the one question he's gotten in every single interview with English-language media outlets around the world has been about being Asian and choosing to write about Asian characters.

An interview is a conversation. When I conduct one in person or on the phone, I tend to ask very basic, boring questions and see where the interviewee goes with it. I listen.

In the titular story, the narrator 'The Sick Man of Asia' (as he calls himself) speaks self-defensively about reclamation. "I've taken the slang of the West and altered the meaning of my own usage, thereby exercising a certain mastery over the language of the colonizer,” he says. Do you ever find this mastery a challenge to achieve in your work? Have you ever artistically caught yourself voicing what you later felt to someone else's reclamation? In compiling this very urban and multi-culturally aware collection of stories, was it hard to limit cultural perspectives for the sake of a unified narrative voice? Or is this in-itself an undesirable or overly abstract framing of your work?

I wrote the story "How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?" in response to the fact that some Asian Canadian and Asian American men feel alienated and alone and misrepresented in popular culture. At the time I read a lot of message boards and I was thinking about A Clockwork Orange (both the book and the film) and the Wells Tower Story "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned." I thought it would be funny to have the Sick Man of Asia talk in a really grandiose way.

Language is a difficult thing. I want every sentence to have an urgency to it. I also want to write beautiful, searing prose. My skill level doesn't match up to the kind of sentence that I wish I could write. In many ways, my prose is a record of my attempts to deal with my linguistic shortcomings; the stories are the solutions to the various language puzzles I'm faced with in any given story.

I read in your bio that you are working on a screenplay. Do you think that short fiction is a film-friendly genre, compared to, say, novels or comics? Would you ever consider adapting any of your stories for screen? What would such a rewrite look like? What would end up on the cutting room floor, what would remain digitally untouched, what would be further developed?

There have been cases where short stories have translated into great films: "Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx (directed by Ang Lee) and "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro (Away from Her, directed by Sarah Polley). 

The screenplay I'm working on is based on the short story "Rerun" that's in the collection. It's going to be a romantic comedy, so I've been developing additional characters and a secondary plot line. The third act of the film is going to be different from the story. I think the film version I'm working on is warmer and more inviting in many ways. I want it to be funny without being silly.

Your story 'God Damn, How Real Is This?' has the narrator Franny Siu receiving critical and directive text messages from her Future Self in a telecommunications time travel tale. Given your involvement in many forms of media, I wonder if you would share some of the text messages you are receiving from your Future Self about the state of the short story in the world to come. Do people still spill beer on borrowed copies of books? Have 'video game' and 'Haruki Murakami' become inseparable phrases? Are you, and we, archeologically surprised by some enduring story bone-structure as we decipher texts of light from tomorrow? 

I'd like to think my future self still believes in the short story form. I'm in the middle of doing the research for a novel about the textiles history and its impact on our world and its post-colonial implications, but I'm working on two new short stories. I'm spending my July in Toronto, where I'm conducting research at the Textile Museum of Canada. My future self keeps telling me to write the novel instead of reading about khipu, an ancient form of record keeping that appears to be on first glance nothing more than a simple textile, but is really a mathematically complex technology. This is my latest obsession.

I've never had the problem of friends spilling beer on my books; I do think that paper books will continue to exist, because it's a superior reading experience. (I say this as someone who has been using a Kindle for the last four years.)

For me, a story is all about the emotional arc; I end stories when I think the character has reached some new emotional plane. I don't think this will change.

Monday, June 30, 2014


How often are Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, an analysis of the 2008 financial crisis, and the iniquities resulting from the West’s invasion of Afghanistan discussed in a single novel?  There is all this and more in Zia Haider Rahman’s amazing debut novel.   

Does anyone else catch a whiff of Donald Rumsfeld in the title?

Outwardly, In The Light of What We Know is the story of two South Asian friends, both educated at Oxford and Harvard (I know, this really is too much for the rest of us mere mortals, but it does mirror the author’s personal experience) and thereby condemned (if that isn’t too strong a word) as conscripts in the army of Enlightenment. Here the similarity ends. The unnamed narrator, of Pakistani heritage, is born into a loving home and the privilege of wealth; while Zafar, a Bangladeshi, conceived in the most violent circumstances, from an immigrant working-class family, is the true exile. It is September 2008, our narrator, an expert in collateral debt obligations, is being consumed by the global financial collapse, not to mention a failing marriage. One day, after an absence of seven years, Zafar shows up on his doorstep. The proximate causes for this absence, told through repeated digressions like peeling back the layers of an onion, evoking Conrad and Greene, make this novel utterly intriguing and shocking.
It is a novel of ideas - from subatomic particles, free will and the nature of reality, to the politics of the 1971 war that gave birth to Bangladesh. But at its core is the yearning for belonging and the inevitable feelings of betrayal, anger - the anger of the exile, the outsider, the colonized and oppressed – and violence that ensue, when that longing is extinguished.  Look for a Booker nomination. You read it here first!

- Brian

Sunday, June 29, 2014


Anna Leventhal has been a visible, vibrant presence in Montreal circles of literature and theater for quite some time now. Her inclusion in Journey Prize #20 was a promising hint that maybe she'd start receiving wider exposure. The next most visable volley was a humdinger of a chapbook with Paper Pusher Pres, Moving Day & Other Stories. Just in time for it to be about damn time, Leventhal has published her first collection of short stories with the nerdlingers at Invisible Publishing. Andrew Hood (admittedly the author of these italics) said "Sweet Affliction is--no big deal or anything--one of the most successful, high-function, sometimes perfect collections of short stories I've read in recent memory."

Email-oriented investigative short-story journalist Brad de Roo asked Anna Leventhal some loosely factual questions about her capaciously funny short-story collection Sweet Affliction (Invisible).

Most of your stories quite explicitly take place in Montreal or reference its surroundings. I have sadly not spent much time there in person, but have spent a fair amount of time wandering its celebrated fictions from Mavis Gallant to Leonard Cohen to Clark Blaise to Neil Smith etc. What do you think of past fictionalizations of Montreal? Do they capture an enduring element? Do they shadow or augment your detailed descriptions and references of the city? 

The Montreal in Sweet Affliction is a fictional place, like all places in fiction. It's necessarily filtered by my experiences, which are partly shaped by what I think is important and valuable, and also by more haphazard and less intentional factors like weird jobs I've had or places I've ended up by accident while biking around or visiting my great aunt at the end of the 161 bus line. Presumably this is the case for everyone who writes a city - not just Leonard Cohen's Montreal but James Joyce's Dublin or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Lagos or Christopher Isherwood's Berlin or Michael Ondaatje's Toronto - the fictional map grows out of some combination of desire and need. There are blocks you could describe foot by foot, and areas where there's just a big sign that says Here be monsters. The fictional city exists to serve its characters and may look nothing like the place where you or I live.

Leventhal's Montreal
The Montreal of my literary imagination, geographically and culturally, was shaped early on by Leonard Cohen, Mordechai Richler, Gabrielle Roy, Michel Tremblay, and David Fennario - this was either before I lived here or in my first few years, when I mostly just went to school and Mile End was the outer limit of the known universe. People who helped round it out later were Saleema Nawaz, Jeff Miller, Gail Scott, Louis Rastelli, Erin Moure, Kathy Dobson, Heather O'Neill. It's hard to say something cohesive about such a diverse group of writers, but one thing that's evident is that Montreal has a strong tradition of writing from the underclass. Pretty much everyone on this list writes about poverty or working life, about the struggle to find housing or a job, to take care of their family, to keep it together - if not a day-to-day struggle to survive, then the struggle to find work that's meaningful or at least not too degrading, or choosing not to work and seeing how else you can get by. The hustle. There's definitely some of that influence in my book, as kind of a psychic geography. I also read a lot of nonfiction about Quebec's social and political history, which set some crucial groundwork in terms of understanding the city's imagining of itself and contextualizing the social codes and values.

Even more than writers writing Montreal, I've been influenced by writers who write at the intersection of people and cities, who are trying to map social networks and loose affiliations of people drawn together by blood, sex, politics, passion, class, addiction and predilection, work, coincidence - like Joyce and Isherwood and Ondaatje, and also Evelyn Waugh, Grace Paley, Pasha Malla, Ralph Ellison, Denis Johnson, Miranda July, Jennifer Egan, Mary Gaitskill.

Sweet Affliction is a book of stories that are linked with repeating characters in different times and geographies of their lives. The incidental or epiphanic reappearance of characters made me re-read stories and passages looking for newfound relevancies and subtleties among them. Is this the trick of the linked stories or story cycles? Do they exploit coincidence and time in complex recursions? Or do they point to the unreliability of many of our narratives about ourselves and our lives? In the fourth story of the collection, 'Horseman, Pass By,' the third person narrator suggests (when referencing a tv show): 'But the best stories are the formulaic ones, the ones where you know what's going to happen next but you watch anyway, to have that itch rubbed out, to pour full the empty glass in your head.' Is this seemingly comforting impulse towards narrative formulas complicated by the new perspectives that come with story links? Or do we get to pour full our heads anew while retaining the overall curve and heft and brim of the glass? 
I think that's a nice and generous way of thinking about the recurring characters, that they pull the rug out from under the idea of a master narrative, and I definitely support that interpretation, but I wouldn't say that's why I did it. It was mainly because I'm a bit lazy and didn't always feel like coming up with new characters. I thought, well, I like this Alex person a lot, I wonder what he'll be like when he's forty. So I put him in a story as a teen, and a twentysomething, and a thirtysomething, and we get hints of him when he's in his forties too. Even though he never gets to be a narrator we see him through all these different lenses and that's kind of fun, and also reassuring for me as the writer, like I won't be abandoned by characters I'm just getting to know.
Also, because I was trying to record something about what sticks people together, I wanted to keep this loose group of friends and lovers and roommates around for a few decades and see what happens to them under the various tectonic stresses of time. Maybe that's what you mean by the last part of your question?

Stories like 'Moving Day'; 'Horseman, Pass By'; 'Wellspring'; ‘Frenching the Eagle; 'A Favour' (and more) bristle with political awareness. References to Marxism, Chomsky, feminism, queer rights, environmentalism, animal rights, multiculturalism, sex worker rights dance along side their extreme opposites and milder middles. Does an author have a responsibility to interact with these supposedly radical politics? Are the sometimes dually proposed ideas that art is by nature apolitical, and short stories are hermetic, socially esoteric forms (i.e. epitomes of the apolitical), full of shit?

I'm not sure that I've come across the idea that short stories are by nature apolitical. I think writing is inherently political, because it's an attempt to communicate across a divide. That's political. You can't believe in that if you're apolitical. That said, I don't approach my writing with a specific political agenda, or with a checklist of issues that I think need to be addressed. I try to write accurately about what I see and experience. I'm not writing about queerness or sex work because I'm trying to advocate their right to exist. I'm writing about queerness and sex work because these things are part of the fabric of the world I live in. It's not a responsibility - it's just that writing would be boring and inaccurate if these things were removed from it. I don't think politics, or ethics, if that's an easier way to think of it, is a rarified realm that belongs to intellectuals and activists. It's everywhere, in every decision you make. So whether or not your writing addresses what people think of as politics, your politics are there. Chekhov is political because he wrote about class. Alice Munro is political because she writes about the inner lives of women. It's always there.

There's this Annie Dillard essay where she's talking about being the only woman in a group of men on a journey through South America, and how they expected some kind of nurturing "female" behaviour from her (which they didn't get) and then she says "These things aren't issues. They're mysteries." That's kind of how I feel about it too. Gender and sexuality and how we interact with the world and with each other are mysteries, more in the esoteric spiritual sense than the Angela Lansbury one, and I approach them as mysteries in my writing, as much as I can.

Birth and parenting - their deep avoidance, sudden termination, mild acceptance, and fraught prolongation - are interwoven forces in many of your stories. In 'Gravity,' a pregnancy test is smuggled into a wedding by two very close sisters. In 'Well Spring,' a hospital visit to a mothered, ill parent is slivered between one of the sister Angela's remembered abortion and an educational dialogue with a Hassidic teen. In the collection's final story, 'A Favour,' a lapsed doula Lynnie and her sex-worker friend Raelle share their history of child-bearing experiences. Did you find the character's variable responses to both sides of the womb helped you understand something about character development? Do variations on this theme show you unexpected things about the fictional world you have created?

I write a lot about fertility because I think it's one of the biggest mindfucks of being a person with a uterus. It's just crazy that we don't have control over it. I don't think it's a question of there being sides - everyone with the potential for getting pregnant has surely dealt with a spectrum of feelings about it over time. Fearing pregnancy, desiring it and not getting it, wondering why you don't want it, wanting it and feeling weirded out by your urges. You might experience all of these, in any order, or concurrently. I had a friend who miscarried at seven weeks, and around the same time another friend had an abortion, also at about seven weeks. And one person felt she had lost someone, and grieved for that loss, and the other felt mainly relief and like she was back in control of her life after an undesired physical aberration. And both of them are right. How can that be? But there it is. It's one of the great mysteries of being a modern person.

So in terms of how that plays out in characters, I guess it's just a way of giving the story an emotional hinge. Maybe it's a bit of a cheat, in that it's an easy way of ramping up the Feelings quotient of a story. Like the narrator of "Gravity" says, no one takes a pregnancy test without having some pretty strong feelings about it. They might be opposite feelings, but no one just shrugs and says, well, it is what it is. Though I would like to write a story about that person too.

Is there a question you always wanted to be asked in an interview? Revealing the question or not, can you answer it for me? 

I've always wanted someone to ask me why so many of my stories are set at parties. I asked myself that once, and I realized it's because I've been trying to rewrite Joyce's The Dead for about ten years. Why are my characters always drinking and carrying on while snow falls outside? Why is there always a turn where someone realizes that what they thought was going on was actually not even close to what was going on? Once I realized what I was trying to do, I decided I had to get it out of my system by writing what I thought was an explicit homage, which I did in "The Shirt." I don't know if I've cured myself yet. But anyway I guess it wasn't as explicit as I thought, because no one's asked me about it yet.

I read a piece about your writing group in the National Post. In what ways is this community important to you? If you could invite two current authors, two deceased authors, two fictional authors, and two authors who don't yet exist to expand your circle, who would they be? What kind of stories would the writers tell, especially the non-existent ones? Could they, perhaps, be story-writers in comic book or video game or some other form? 

First of all, that's too many writers for a writing group. We wouldn't have time to read everyone's work, and we'd run out of chips. Too much ego, too few chips. But, okay, if I could share a beer and a chat with some current, deceased, fictional and non-existant writers, they would be Grace Paley, Annie Dillard, Franz Kafka, my biographer, Sherman Alexie, Morag Gunn, the person who writes a book on the sexual politics of Labyrinth, Jack Torrance for when someone needs murdering.

If you're asking about video game writers or comic book writers because you want to know if I value them as storytellers, then yes, sure - there are all kinds of media in which to tell a good story, and you can learn a lot from painters, filmmakers, editors, animators. But no, I wouldn't invite them to join my writing group, because there are certain technical aspects of writing that are particular to the form. I wouldn't ask a bike mechanic to fix my computer or vice versa, because even though both of them value speed and efficiency and a well-built machine, I don't think there'd be a lot of crossover in terms of the tools and the actual mechanics. And a big part of the writing group is not just having your work critiqued but offering critiques, and I'd be a shitty video game critic. I don't have the experience or vocabulary. I'm as good at Galaga now as I was in 1992, which was pretty good. That's about it.

How is my writing group important to me? It's sort of like a healthy relationship. Sometimes it pushes me to be better, calls me on my shit, challenges me in the best possible way, and other times it just quietly holds my hand through a rough patch.

Do you ever consider writing or art-making to be something of a 'sweet affliction' - a toil or labour or illness or scavenging addiction with some lovely or vital or entertaining consequences? 


Okay, more fully, the character in the title story comes up with that phrase because she's randomly assembling words to try to describe something that is, to her, indescribable. Which is a pretty concise description of having a writing practice in general.

Download the--ahem--free audiobook of Anna's story "Moving Day" HERE.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Frustrated with Canadian Politics? So are your neighbours.

Here at the Bookshelf, we’ve certainly heard our share of how disgruntled our customers are with the state of politics in this country. Why did Andrea Horvath have to force an election? Can the Liberals be trusted? Can Tim Hudak even do simple arithmetic? Additionally, there was continued anxiety regarding the senate scandal, supreme court judge nomination, and the fact the Green Party was left out of the debate - in summary, plenty to kvetch about.
Michael Macmillan and Alison Loat founded Samara, a non-partisan charitable organization that works to improve political participation in Canada. In their book Tragedy in the Commons, they interviewed 80 former parliamentarians who shared a wealth of fascinating revelations – more than you would glean by reading official propaganda. Michael and Alison’s book utilises the gathered anecdotal information to consider how Canadians can make things better. 

Please join Michael in The Bookshelf eBar on Wednesday June 25 at 7. Frank Valeriote will be the moderator for the evening. We need to work together to become more politically aware and politically active. While it was great to see voter turnout improve by 3% for this year’s Ontario election, we’re still just barely above the 50% mark. Join us on the evening of the 25th, for some thought provoking talk about the state of the nation, and how each of us can get involved in positively impacting Canada’s future.

There is no admission for this event, so come enjoy an evening out and talk to your neighbours!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Deepening Community Author Paul Born Appearing at The eBar June 2nd at 6:30 PM

What’s the most important thing you can do to make a difference in the world?
“Bring chicken soup to your neighbour.”
Yup. You read it correctly.

In the recently released book, Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times, author Paul Born says the answer to this tough question is to bring chicken soup to your neighbour.

“The answer is simple,” Born says, “But the act of bringing soup…well, that takes work. It requires that you know your neighbour. It requires that you know they are not vegetarian and like soup. It requires that you know them well enough and communicate regularly enough to know they are sick. And you must have enough of a relationship to know what they prefer when they are sick, whether it is chicken soup, pho, chana masala, or even ice cream.”

Join us for a FREE evening event of sharing stories, experiences and food in community.

Monday, June 2, 2014 from 6:30 - 8:30pm at the
eBar above the Bookshelf. All are welcome, so bring your friends, neighbours, family members, and colleagues!

RSVP today so we have a sense of numbers for food.

We will have books for sale and Paul will be on hand to sign your copy.

We look forward to seeing you there,

Paul and the Deepening Community Team

Monday, May 26, 2014


This spring, it was announced that the Constantines were sort of getting back together. If this announcement means anything to you, then it means a lot to you. Especially here in Guelph, where in the early noughts this power outage love-child of Fugazi and Springsteen gave a playful but meaningful shot in the arm to the local music scene, and quickly went about chucking everybody everywhere on the bicep. The quiet declaration a few years ago that they were not going to be a band anymore was a a bummer, but now they're sort of back and reissuing a cherry version of bonkers second album, Shine A Light. Good for the Constantines, and good for everyone who loves the Cons.

Now that that's out of the way, Bry Webb has a new album out, you guys. The announcement of the Cons reunion dropped around the same time as news that the follow-up to Webb's first album, Provider, was imminent. The Cons coming back is a big deal, but so is the release of Free Will, and these big deals should not compete. One is the celebration of an old important thing, the other is a celebration of a new important thing.

For all the Constantine's joyful havoc, maybe the deftness of songcraft might've been lost on some kids. Webb's solo work--as well as fellow Con Steve Lambke's Baby Eagle stuff--makes that prowess clear, laying out the clarity, caring, and intelligence that always thrummed under any flexing the Cons did. In this way, Provider was not really a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention, but a soft and strong affirmation of Webb's chops. These were the songs of a new father, a new provider, and the songs sound hushed, as though they're being played to get a child to sleep or in the other room, careful not wake one up.

As a sophomore solo release, Free Will, is the proof-ful pudding of a twenty year career. If Provider was a new voice with an old confidence, then Free Will is all the way assured. The advances made from that first album are not outrageous, as there wasn't a whole lot to improve on, but they are important. Maybe the best example of this gentle shift is the amount of softness and care Webb's allowed into his voice. His gravel road is naturally curving into a green space where we're all welcome to come hang out. 

Webb's allowance of fragility and lightness into a notoriously burly vocal complements the small, casualness of his subject matter. It's biographically convenient to drag fatherhood into talking about Free Will, but in some ways Provider does sound like a guy carefully and proudly learning to be a father--or a guy learning to be alone with his voice--while Free Will sounds like a man comfortable with his fatherhood, comfortable with how he sees the world (which, of course, includes concerns about the world) and how he and his fit into that place.

That's great that the Constantines are playing some shows again, but holy hell, don't let that get in the way of what an accomplishment Free Will is.

Andrew Hood is the author of the short story collections Pardon Our Monsters and The Cloaca and a forthcoming book about Jim Guthrie, Who Needs What.


After first reading Salzberg’s Lovingkindness, I thought it was okay—another decent spiritual book. However, after working with the ideas and techniques for many years, it has become one of my favourites. Again and again, I return to her practical advice and insights that have emerged over decades of study, meditation and teaching. Lovingkindness is an exploration of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, and how to actually cultivate these in your own mind and heart. The instructions are impeccable. Highly recommended to just about anyone.

A few years ago, Sharon released Real Happiness, a simple introduction to the nuts and bolts of meditation. It is intended for beginners, a general audience, and is decidedly humanist. Real Happiness is laid out as a 28 day program which you can follow or not, and includes plenty of FAQs, scientific evidence, and a CD with guided meditations. In my opinion, this book covers all of the essentials required for a personal practice at home. Strongly recommended to any beginner whether you are an atheist, religious or Buddhist.

Finally after years of research, Sharon’s Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement and Peace was published this March. Here she takes on the often formidable obstacles to being happy at work multi-tasking, distraction, conflict, compassion for self and colleagues, integrity, meaning and balance. With rising work demands, job insecurity and burnout on the rise, it is becoming critical for almost everyone to change their relationship to work.    

I hope you can join us in June, and listen to one of North America’s leading meditation teachers! Salzberg rarely makes Canadian appearances, so get your tickets soon!  


The Bookshelf presents Sharon Salzberg at St. Georges Church, Saturday June 7at 1pm. Tickets are $10 and available in the bookstore.