Sunday, December 14, 2014

2014 REVIEWERS' PICKS

"Bible dam" by Jacek Yerka

Throughout the year, a cadre of dedicated reviewers wade hip-deep through the ceaseless torrents of upcoming, not-yet-vetted books. Some they love, some they like, and some just aren't for them. But now that the year's coming to a close, the faucet has been somewhat cinched, the torrent's calmed, and a few of our reviewers used the docility of the season to look back at everything they read and hip us to what really stood out.

If you have any interest in the joining the ranks of book-sloggers, get in touch: contribute@bookshelf.ca

Revolutionary Russia: 1891-1991 A History 
By Orlando Figes

For those Russophiles who can’t handle, let alone pick up, Riasanovksy’s 820 page History of Russia, Figes’ Revolutionary Russia is a good place to start. It’s a clear and thoughtful survey of a century of unprecedented change in Russia. Although Figes is too easy on Russia’s current Tsar. A reworking of Orwell’s picture of the future, may apply to Russia: “If you want a vision of the future of Russia, imagine Putin’s boot slamming on a human face – forever.” 
China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa 
By Howard W. French

There isn’t enough land and food on mainland China to feed China’s swelling population. Even with the Chinese government policy of forced abortion for mothers who are about to bear a child beyond the government’s permissible level. In response to a range of restrictions in China, more than a million Chinese are building new lives in Africa. French is an old Africa hand, with a lively writing style. He brings an under the radar story out into the clear light of the dark continent’s sun.
   

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt 
By Michael Lewis 

If you read Lewis’ Moneyball, or saw the film adaptation, or read his The Big Short you’ll remember how enjoyable and informative he can be. Flash Boys looks at the high frequency trading on Wall Street that almost led to yet another financial collapse. One of the colourful people who helped to prevent that collapse was a modest Canadian, modestly named Brad. Yes, Brad, who worked for RBC, the Royal Bank of Canada. You can’t make this stuff up, because nobody would believe you if you did. I couldn’t put this book down!


Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End 
By Atul Gawande 

Have you completed your list of end of life requests? No, eh? That means that your loved ones and caregivers will stand around wondering which of the ever increasing end of life interventions they should plug you in to. That’s not fair for them. And its thoughtless on your part. Read Gawande’s compassionate description of many situations where there were no instructions, and family members were left to wonder what to do, with no knowledge of whether or not their decisions honoured the nearly deceased. Being Mortal is the most important book I read in 2014.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History 
By Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction is an update that follows Kolbert’s 2006 Field Notes From a Catastrophe. The Sixth Extinction is a careful and measured look at the coming end of our world as we will cease to know it. For the latest from Kolbert, see her take on Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, in the New York Review of Books, December 4, 2014. 

 

Read more from James Reid at www.jamesedwardreid.ca



Sweetland
By Michael Crummey
 

Set on a remote Newfoundland island, Sweetland explores place, memory and familial responsibility. As the island is slowly depopulated, I was moved and haunted by the commitment of the titular character, Moses Sweetland, to stay where, and with whom, he belongs.

 





The Bone Clocks
By David Mitchell
 

Without spoiling too much: the book opens with (the hilariously captured 80s British schoolgirl) Holly Sykes as she experiences psychic phenomena and a ruinous encounter with her boyfriend. Spanning seventy-odd years, the novel takes the reader through characters bound to Holly all while exploring what it means to be a person, a person-in-relation-to - what it means to be in time and to be "of" a particular time. Somehow Mitchell manages to convey the beauty of intimate moments that feel inconsequential as you're reading them, only to have these moments reverberate and expand across the sweep of the narrative in a way that broadens the scope of the story from private lives to a sort of ontology of time and ecology.


Us Conductors
By Sean Michaels


You’ve probably heard all about the plot by now (espionage, American in the 20s, successful men and the things they can buy, romance-lust-and-longing, war stories and suffering), but in reading Us Conductors you’ll hear fiction in a whole new way. The novel’s use of language to evoke sound and rhythm is extraordinary, but certainly not the most exquisite thing about this book. Instead, look to the nuance in character and the unique narration. 


When's she not reading, Erin Aspenlieder is teaching, running or eating cookies (sometimes all at once). She prefers fiction and books made of paper. She blogs at literaryvice.ca



All My Puny Sorrows
By Miriam Toews 

Miriam Toews' novel All My Puny Sorrows (the title taken from a  Coleridge poem which refers to the loss of his siblings) has received many accolades and as far as I’m concerned she deserves them. Toews' trademark dry humour and exquisite writing skills hammer a tale from the real life experience of her own family. Describing the yin and yang of sisters in a tight-knit family is in itself the craft of writing at its taut best, but Toews drives the family dynamic still further with the haunting parallels between a father who died by suicide and his gifted musical daughter Elf. The fact that Towes’s own family trod this very same despairing road creates a tension and a truth to this literary treat that holds you like that other famous Coleridge character the Ancient Mariner. Whether you have experienced directly or at first hand the dementor-like pull of chronic depression, Toews renders brilliantly the inexorable nature of this devastating disease. It seems strange to revere a book with such a dire subject matter but the warmth of the family relations, the sheer humanness of the  sisters Elf and Yoli will bring you to a fresh appreciation for how joy and pain are bedfellows and how a  sunny outlook can easily be overwhelmed. What will thrill and delight you is the humour, the craft and the love that shines through. I always imagine Toews to be somewhat disinterested in what reviewers might say about her writing, she sounds like a truth speaker, holding a brave mirror to the world so we can more accurately see the truth of how we live which in turn makes it more bearable to go on despite tragedy and setbacks. This book is inspiring as only great writing can be, it has a music of its own and an inner truth that would indeed have held its own with the romantic poets ideals: “Beauty is truth and truth beauty / that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know”.

- Rosslyn Bently


The String Diaries
by Stephen Lloyd Jones

You’re in a car. Your husband is bleeding out in the passenger seat, your daughter is being hunted by a murderous shapeshifter, and your only defense is a pile of old, leather-bound books in the trunk. What do you do? So begins The String Diaries, a wonderful contemporary fantasy novel published earlier this year. The book is packed with tension and intrigue, and I particularly love the idea of shape-shifting humans living alongside us. A touch of the mystical grounded in reality, so to speak. The book deals with Hannah, a descendant of a special family, being hunted by one of these shapeshifters, and how she attempts to protect herself and her family. Adventurous, action-packed, and intriguing, definitely a top pick of the year.

 

The Quick
by Lauren Owen

Vampires have received a lot of attention in recent years; some flattering, some not-so-much. Owen attempts to restore the power and mystique of vampires in a Gothic-style novel that draws on both mystery and legend to create a vivid, powerful story. In this world, vampires operate out of a club in London, hunting down those they believe less than themselves and inviting the more powerful to join their ranks. Into this walks Charlotte, a young girl searching for her brother, whom the vampires took. A gold star is awarded to this book for containing a believable homosexual romance – it makes a refreshing change, and I hope that trend continues. One warning to the reader though – if you get emotional, the ending will wreck you.
 

Of Bone and Thunder
by Chris Evans

I reviewed this book fairly recently, so I won’t say too much about it other than to give it extremely high praise. War in fantasy is always complicated to deal with, as you can never see it from everybody’s viewpoint. Evans tries to rectify this though, writing from various viewpoints from common soldiers to aeronauts to officers, and everyone in between. The result is a gritty, bloody novel that feels real simply because of the detail and attentiveness that’s poured into it. You know this war isn’t going the way it’s supposed to, you know everything that’s going right or wrong, and that creates a sensation of a real-life event rather than fiction. A hat tip to Evans having several characters die “off-screen” so to speak…having them die meaningless, stupid deaths (as they would in a real war) makes the situation in the novel feel that much more dire and that much more hopeless. Truly a wonderful read.
 

My Real Children
by Jo Walton

Choice defines us as humans. It defines who we are and who we will become. But what if you could remember what happened to you for either choice you made? In Walton’s novel, this is what happens to Patricia Cowan. It’s 2015, she’s in her 90s, and she fondly remembers raising four children with her husband, Mark. But she also remembers raising three children with Bee. She remembers her friends calling her Trish, and them also calling her Pat… She remembers Kennedy’s death in 1963 and also his re-election in 1964. When she was very young, she was told “now or never.” She remembers choosing “now” and also “never.” This book is a fascinating journey into the realms of choice, time travel, multiverses and self-awareness - all through the eyes of an old woman who doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not. The sensation is carried on through the reader successfully until they don’t know either what’s for certain. It’s a very rare book that can keep you guessing right to the end, and I don’t think anyone’s going to guess correctly. Which is the real world? What really happened to Ms. Cowan? Well, you’ll just have to choose to read the book and find out. Or maybe you won’t….and remember both…


Endsinger
by Jay Kristoff

I love this book. It’s a fantastic conclusion to the amazing Lotus War trilogy that begun with Stormdancer and Kinslayer. It’s a Japanese steampunk novel that details the adventures of Yukiko and her griffin companion Buruu as they attempt to deal with various factions intent on being victorious in wars fought both on battlegrounds and in boardrooms. These factions include everything from would-be sorcerers to technocratic idealists, and the way in which Kristoff shows Yukiko dealing with them is nothing short of masterful. Buruu remains one of my favourite fictional characters…every time his sardonic wit comes into play I cheer a little inside. By combining machines, magic, politics, and blood, Kristoff crafts an amazing novel that has earned the crown of greatest fantasy novel of 2014.


Robert Green is a confirmed bibliophile and aspiring writer whose love of sci-fi has caused him to own many more books than he has physical room for. He is also the owner and creator of the up-and-coming company Verity Books, which can be seen at various cons throughout the year. Any questions or comments can be sent to veritybooksanddvds@gmail.com or facebook.com/veritybooksanddvds.


The Rise & Fall of Great Powers
by Tom Rachman

Cloud
by Eric McCormack

The Rook
by Daniel O'Malley
The year just past was an interesting one, reading wise. I rekindled my love of reading just for me; that’s something that has been with me all my life, but waned as I read more and more for work. The books that particularly stood out don’t come from any one genre, but border on the fantastical and speculative. What is common to them all, however, is that they come at their explorations through the eyes of an intriguing (if flawed) protagonist. Their story becomes yours, and they let you inhabit their world, if just for a while.













Mark Mullaly is an avid reader, sometimes writer, enthusiastic motorcyclist and lover of wine (and endeavours to engage in only one of these pursuits at any given time).

Sunday, December 7, 2014

2014 STAFF PICKS

Any Questions Marie-Louise Gay

A gorgeous over-sized picture book that gives kids a glimpse into the engine of imagination. Through collaboration, playful illustrations and many edits, a story comes together. Should be in every primary classroom. (Hannah)











Pastoral
André Alexis

Pastoral is an enriching antidote to our high speed frantic digital world. The beautifully crafted real book is printed by the highly acclaimed Coach House Books and is truly a perfect amalgam of form and function. Alexis could be channeling Jane Austen as this is a unique novel of subtle emotion and not so subtle mores rubbing up against each other. Father Christopher Pennant is assigned to a sleepy town in Eastern Ontario. Liz Denny is one of his young parishioners, and it is through her character that Austen is whispering the wisdom of another time and place. The natural landscape is also a vibrant character. Pastoral was nominated for the Roger's Trust Writer's Prize for Fiction. (Barb)



 
The Secret Place
Tana French

If you haven't read her and also happen to be looking for a new crime novelist, stop looking - you've found her. French is Irish and holds in her writing the particular lyricism and deep Irish intuition about the psyche. Her Dublin detectives carry a lot of baggage - surly, sarcastic, and outrageously outspoken. An unsolved murder committed a year previously between the grounds of a private girls' and boys' school comes to life again in "Cold Cases." Lead detective Conway, a woman in a macho man's world and a seeming dominatrix, was was part of the initial stymied investigation. As she and her partner spend a day interrogating a cult of teenaged girls from the school, you will probably agree that French may even have surpassed Margaret Atwood in understanding the dark side of young womanhood - but updated for the texting generation! (Barb)



The Burning Room
Michael Connelly

Connelly is a favourite of many writers. That tells you a lot. Again L.A. detective Harry Bosch has a few months before full retirement - kind of a miracle because he breaks all of the rules and basically pisses off the upper echelons while always solving the case. Here Connelly has provided Bosch with a sassy young partner, Lucy Soto. Harry Bosch books are not slam crash bang, but are built carefully on tediously sussed out details and depth of character. This cold case has been revived because a casualty in a shooting in the original crime, committed years before, has died and now it is a full-blown murder - which of course shines a light on corrupt politicians. An interesting read in light of all the procedural issues of the Michael Brown case in Ferguson. (Barb)



Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening 
Joseph Goldstein

One of my favourite book recommendations for a beginner to meditation is Seeking the Heart of Wisdom. Definitely Buddhist in content, it is written in a way that many people from most worldviews can enjoy and benefit from. Joseph Goldstein, one of the authors (Jack Kornfield is the other) has written a new book called Mindfulness. It is a commentary on the Buddha's Satipatthana sutta, and is wonderful without exception. This is the original mindfulness text, and the interpretation by Goldstein represents 40 years of his practice, study, and teaching. Openhearted. Crystal clear. Insightful. I recommend it to all Buddhists and to any mental/physical health practitioner who wants to take their mindfulness to the next level. (Ken)



Mãn 
Kim Thúy

A beautiful slip of a book, from the cover art to the beautiful tale of belonging to the food - Mãn is an absolute delight to read. The pages turn themselves as we learn about the intricacies of Vietnamese dishes and quiet dreams of hardworking and inspired chef Mãn. (Hannah)











Sweet Affliction 
Anna Leventhal

You don't have to take my word for it anymore, because the Quebec Writer's Federation just gave Leventhal's first collection of stories the award for best first book. They have money, so they know what's what. Intricate, loving, strange, Sweet Affliction is one of the best books - first or otherwise - of this year. Fun fact: Leventhal comes out of the same Montreal writers' group as Giller-winner Sean Michaels. (Andrew)








The Road Narrows As You Go 
Lee Henderson

I like to think that there's an alternate CanLit, where Lee Henderson's a heavy, where his new books are hotly anticipated. Alas, his new novel arrived pretty quietly this year. Following his debut collection, The Broken Record Technique, and first novel, The Man Game (both award-winning, if you're into that) Henderson proves with The Road Narrows As You Go that he's a writer you need to keep tabs on. Set in 1980s San Francisco, the novel explores the relationship between business and art, but never gets tedious or pedantic about it. (Andrew)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Q&A: MARTHA BAILLIE



Martha Baillie’s fifth novel The Search for Heinrich Schlögel charts the titular character’s dream journey from a small German village to the Canadian Arctic where he seemingly disappears on Baffin Island at the age of 20.Through the obliquely persistent archiving efforts of a unnamed narrator we explore the photos, letters, journals, keepsakes, moods, and Skype-friends of our once romantic traveller. Instead of abrading against the growing collection of recovered objects, Heinrich’s identity gathers the keen sediment of myth.

Who is this archivist? Is this person believable? Is it someone Heinrich knows? Why did he leave the seemingly idyllic hop fields and hedgehogs of his cycling youth? What happened in the river en route to Thor Peak? What has become of his beloved linguistically gifted sister Inge? What is the strange machine Vicky Pitsiulak is typing on? Why does Sarah Ashevak have so many clocks in her home? What did Samuel Hearne say about heroes? Are those giant hares real? Why’s that randomly appearing lady keep getting her fingers chopped into seals? What do the photos tell us? His sister’s letters? Is Nunavut really like this? Do they still make uluit? If everyone is an other, who do we relate to?

Between the unreliable narrator and the story, a whole world of stand alone possibilities begin to overlap like glacial erratics in time-lapse multi-exposure. Somewhere along these questioning lines, I asked to Martha, herself, about the presence of erratics, misrepresentation, time, and the Other in her work.


- Brad, who should probably dip into his media archives to mention that The Search for Heinrich Schlögel was just voted one of the Top 100 books of 2014 by the Globe and Mail, and that Martha will be reading in The Bookstore on Wed Dec 3rd with Kate Cayley at 7pm.

BdR: In the "Archivist's note" preceding and framing the narrative, the central subject, Heinrich is described as a person who is "often mistaken for someone else" and as someone who "notes how gratifying it feels to be enthusiastically recognized, even as someone he isn't". I found myself prone to mistaking the narrator for someone else as well. What is it in us that relishes being so wrongly recognized?

MB: When we are briefly mistaken for someone else we slip into a place of contradiction and surprise, of friction and possibility. This can be pleasurable if the person we are believed to be is someone liked and admired, less so if the person we are taken for is loathed. In either case we enter a lie without having to tell one. We are relieved of responsibility. Inadvertent imposters, suddenly cloaked in someone else’s identity, we are stripped of our flawed usual self. To be seen yet invisible. You ask if the narrator would relish this? Instinct tells me, that the idea of it appeals to her but she’s aware that the experience offers only short-lived delight. The gratification Heinrich feels is quickly replaced by regret, as loneliness and isolation reassert themselves. We want to be appreciated for who we truly are but fantasize that were we to be recognized as more courageous, more intelligent, more beautiful than we know ourselves to be we might become the superior being the other person sees in us. It’s partly about the power of someone else’s gaze.

Certain features of your book resonate with portions of continental philosophy - particularly of the post-structural texture. A quote by Barthes about photography opens the book. Schiller is mentioned. Perennial continental concerns like cultural genealogy, intertextuality (of reference and self), identity in the face of time and death, the Other, etymology, the ambiguity of ethics are considered. Were thinkers like de Beauvoir, Foucault, Derrida, or Heidegger at all on your mind while doing research, reading around this narrative? How does such philosophy fare in the current climate of Canada's actual or imagined attempts at pluralism?

Perennial concerns of continental philosophy, to borrow your term, act as backdrop in Tettnang. If they seep throughout the novel, and I agree that they do, it is because they are part of my mental baggage. No I wasn’t re-reading de Beauvoir, and my knowledge of both Foucault and Heidegger is scant, but I did go back to Barthes’ Camera Lucida, knowing how central photography was going to be to the novel. I did want to look at how siblings carve out territory for each other, when it comes to identity, and to explore how similar dynamics may come into play when a culture is confronted by or fantasizes about the Other. In Canada we like the idea of embracing the Other, and valuing the attempt to do so is central to our sense of national identity, but this certainly doesn’t extract us from an entrenched failure to respect and acquire a more than superficial understanding of First Nations cultures (with emphasis on the plural).
 

Is this in an essential way a Northern book? The North plays a central geographical and cultural role throughout its entirety. Is there a literary genealogy it follows? Walking around the bookstore, I have noticed more and more writing addressing the concerns of the Arctic. Most of it appears to be travelogue or ecological. Some is sociology. Does fiction's oblique snapshots and characteristic anonymity offer something essentially other to these 'factual' modes? To repurpose a metaphor from your book, does fiction pile up the erratics of the world into markers of direction, of identity?
 

What a poetic question. I love it. “Does fiction pile up the erratics of the world into markers of direction, of identity?” As a reader, that’s one thing I ardently hope for when I open a work of fiction, the piling up of “erratics of the world into markers of direction.” As for your observation that many of the numerous books being written, now, about the Arctic are non-fiction is very interesting. Why is this? I can only hazard a guess. The North begins as a place of the imagination for southerners; it hangs, unreachable, a vast, sublime canvas. You arrive in the actual north and its scoured immensity overwhelms. To cling to “reality,” to non-fiction, to the rational world of verifiable evidence, seems an understandable, self-protective response to the Arctic’s unreadable hugeness, its surprises, its harsh winds, luminosity, and darkness. But for the Inuit, story is a necessary approach, as central to survival as other acts of close observation and listening. Yes, my novel certainly has a literary genealogy. But it’s the work of contemporary visual artists that most directly inspired the novel – Nadia Myre’s Medicine Project, the works of Brian Jungen, and of Kent Monkman, and of course Inuit understanding of time and death through storytelling.

While you undeniably explore the colonial instinct Westerners have had toward the North were you ever worried about misrepresenting Inuit culture or interests? What measures did you take towards ensuring a respectful mimesis?
 

How could I not worry about misrepresenting Inuit culture and interests?

Before and while writing, I debated with myself and others regarding my “right” to put words in the mouths of Vicky Pitsiulak and Sarah Ashevak – both crucial characters in the novel, both Inuit, one a teenager the other an elder. I decided I had the “right” to make the attempt, and that what mattered more than my “right” was the integrity of my intention. Mine could only be an outsider’s perspective. Respectful contributions from outsiders are a necessary part of dialogue. I read, I researched on the Internet (the Pirurvik Centre’s site was particularly helpful), I travelled to Iqaluit then to Pangnirtung, and spent two weeks hiking in Auyittuq, I lingered on in Pangnirtung, listening, observing, over the next two years I picked the brains of Connor Goddard, who speaks Inuktitut, works year-round in Kuujjuaq with Inuit youth, and is a seasoned hiking and kayaking guide, I was put in touch with Marcus Wilke, another Inuit speaker, who lives in Pangnirtung where he has been working as a nurse for over twenty years, he read and critiqued my manuscript. I tried to find an Inuit reader, and one young woman from Pangnirtung, now studying nursing in Iqaluit, expressed interest then was swamped with school-work. Someone from the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre said they were willing but didn’t find time, which I understood. I was starting to hear in my voice: “Hi, I’m really interested in your culture, what can you give me? What can you do for me?” I didn’t like what I heard in my voice. I was asking busy Inuit women with whom I had no established relationship to make time to read my manuscript. Why should they do so? I stopped asking. It takes time to grow relationships that are reciprocal and respectful. Is the novel I’ve written respectful in its mimesis? Who do I ask to be its judge? No individual reader can speak for all Inuit readers. That said, I’d be very interested in hearing from any Inuq who does, generously, take the time to read my novel. What I’ve created is a fiction and one that openly declares as its subject the act of imagining, a work that clearly sets out to explore how we respond to each other’s realities, twisted as we are by our fears, desires, impatience, and ambition.

Photography is almost a character in the novel. Heinrich is an avid, yet, reluctant photographer. Are you a photographer? How do you think photography and other digital capturing has effected us? Do we now archive at the expense of experience, of human intimacy? 

 
I’m not a photographer. I dislike using a camera. Photographs fascinate me. Yes, I’m very curious about how the ease of digital capturing may be altering our experience of reality. Certainly we are producing abundant material to archive.

Just this morning, I read an essay posted by Toronto writer, Heather White, in which she notes that both Edward Hopper and the Impressionists before him were influenced by looking from the windows of moving trains. She remarks, “Of course, the camera had intervened itself between Hopper and the impressionists. Its invention promoted a sacrifice: the total experience of a moment for the privilege of keeping that instant forever, in detail impossible to notice in ‘real time’ — one eye on the device, concerned with the capture. Photographs can facilitate us poring over what we had briefly or never quite had, missing what we missed out on then.”
 

Can you describe some of the motivation for and process behind the Schlogel Archive online - presuming you have some involvement in it and it is not being webmastered by your tricky narrator? 
 
The archive is a playful, collaborative exploration. Many of the postcards were donated and I amused myself seeing how I could pair passages of the novel with the pictures on the postcards, hinting at another layer of meaning, historical or psychological. Postcards allowed me to dip into the iconic images sold in souvenir stores. I also created postcards, using photos from the National Archive of Canada, taken in the Arctic in the 1920s and 50s. Travellers’ snapshots of Tettnang, taken from Internet photo sharing sites, a few of my own shots taken in Auyuittuq, and photos of my father, on a cycling trip along the Rhine, in 1937 or 1938 – onto all this photographic material I transcribed the evolving novel over a period of two years, mailing each postcard to someone invited to record themselves reading the text on the card. I wanted to scatter Heinrich, as if I were tossing his ashes, with the Inuit myth of the Fox Wife in mind, a tale that figures in the novel. I wanted to create a non-commercial space where the novel could find readers who would contribute and confirm that a text is never complete until read, and is completed differently by each reader. Postcard receivers could make audio-palpable that fragments of the text now inhabited them; they could do so by reading aloud, and being potentially heard by other readers. All this was figured out along the way. In a bar, I read a postcard out loud, and a friend remarked that hearing it made it easier to connect the words on the back to the image on the front of the postcard. Aha. Heinrich leaves home in 1980. People are still writing postcards and letters. He’s yanked into the digital present. I scanned all the postcards before mailing them. But all this is explained here.


And I’m still transcribing and mailing the last postcards. Care to receive one?

This will also tell you what led to this project. The webmaster is humble but not fictitious. His name is Greg Sharp.

Were you wanting someone to archive your life, what would you leave out? What kind of questions would you wish they asked about you and your work?

Ha!! I’d rather have nobody archive my life. I keep meaning to destroy my old journals and letters. If any of my published novels survive me, that will be trace enough.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A STUFFED CROW, A SOCK MONKEY, AND A BABY DOLL WALK INTO THE WOODS...


Tony Millionaire's Maakies comic strip has been running for 20 years now, chronicling the debauched, depressed, repugnant, bleak, diseased adventures of Drinky Crow and Uncle Gabby. Maakies is murky and not for the feint of heart, but it's also hilarious and smart--an equal to Calvin and Hobbes for how lovingly drawn and intelligently written it is. The knife of Tony Millionaire's mind might be rusty and filthy, but it's also scalpel-sharp.

Even if Millionaire's sense of humour and despair isn't your cup of booze, his woodcutting-like pen and ink prowess is impossible to deny. If you're not directly familiar with his work, surely you've encountered his portraiture somewhere or another. He has an antiquated sensibility, is drawn to old Victorian houses and ships in bottles and ornate glass door knobs. This slightly arcane, seemingly proper visual sensibility worked and still works in consistently interesting opposition to the crudity and cruelty of the Maakies reality it depicts.


At first blush a Maakies spin-off, Millionaire introduced Sock Monkey in 2001. Drinky and Gabby ostensibly appear, though rarefied and plush versions of those ne're-do-wells, the "toys" of kind, young Ann-Louise, who lives in a roomy Victorian home based on Millionaire's grandparents'. Though still a grump, Mr. Crow is a far cry from the drunken self-annihilator Drinky, and, aside from the hat and the simianness, Gabby shares little in common with his vile Maakies counterpart. Really, Sock Monkey is worlds apart from Maakies. "Sock Monkey is me trying to rise above all that bullshit," Millionaire has said of his departure, "to be more poetic, looking at the bright side, remembering the things that used to delight me as a child." 


Many of Gabby and Mr. Crow's--with their baby doll friend Inches's--adventures take place indoors, where they interact elaborately with the commonplace details of the old home. The prismatic light cast by the glass door knob, the old grandfather clock in the hallway, the model ships in the study. The discovery of the chandelier in the foyer elicits Gabby's purple wonder: "Zounds! A castle hanging int he clouds!! A succulent starry place!! Crystalline halls, sparkling corridors! Hmm... Dare I traipse through heave's constellated wilderness?" Their world is animated--as they themselves are--as it might be by an imaginative child passing time in a many-roomed, many-detailed house.

The Sock Monkey adventures are sweet, filled to the meniscus with the senses and sensations of being little. The art, the quaintness of detail, and the diction suggests classic children's books, stories of how large the world gets when put under the microscope of idle wonder. Whether of not it's suitable for children depends on whether or not you're willing to accept that your child is smarter and weirder than you maybe give them credit for. Really, the worst that might happen is your squirt begins to say things like Zounds and Gadzooks or take an interest in scrimshaw.

Into the Deep Woods arrives on the heels of a beautiful Treasury of the 11 Sock Monkey books, and is a departure from the past decade of visual storytelling. Millionaire has teamed up with Matt Danner, who chums around with the Disney and Pixar folks, to create a long-form prose adventure. 

This new story is something of an origin story, where we find out how the toys were enlivened and how they found their way to Ann-Louise. Millionaire's art is consistent throughout, but it rides shotgun to the story. This may to a bit of a letdown to readers who come to the book out of an all encompassing, Maakies loving love for Millionaire. But for those who who are thoroughly charmed by Sock Monkey for Sock Monkey's sake, Into the Deep Woods is a worthy addition to the story. Find Ann-Louise gone, worried she's been taken by the beastly Amarok, they set out on an adventure--"Forge ahead!" becomes the toys' motto--through the woods, under the water, into the air, where they encounter sea monsters, bear inventors, and harpies, and always just narrowly duck the Amarok.

Of all the Sock Monkey books, Into the Deep Woods gets the closet to being best suited for kids. Millionaire's eccentricities are still present and sturdy, but the addition of Danner goes a ways to making the story more inclusive, opened it up to younger readers. Maakies loving, older readers can still get into it to, but they'll probably have to go in on their hands and knees.

- Andrew



Saturday, November 1, 2014

INSIDE IS FUNNY THINGS


"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. When I have failed miserably, that, too, was on the shoulders of giants--giant fuckups, that is."

                       - Sir Issac Newton (from "Famous Quotations--Unabridged")


Even if you've never heard of Bob Odenkirk, I'd say it's likely that you've seen him before. Maybe you're a die hard Mr. Show fan, or maybe a How I Met Your Mother fan, or a Breaking Bad fan. Odenkirk is the often schmucky, often be-suited, half-witted character, wearing the suit--you figure--to try and distract people from how inept, or half-ept he is. Odenkirk, like Dave Foley on The Kids in the Hall, owes much to the vaudevillian straight man. He'd be a stuffed shirt, if his shirt weren't so rumpled.

Many of the pieces in A Load of Hooey are shot from that schlubby hip: inept politicians, unprepared orators, convocation speakers who become increasingly obsessed with the future porn careers of many of the graduates. The content is all in the title: this is a load of hooey. Poppycock and twaddle and flimshaw. But honed, sharp versions of all that nonsense.

Comedian books are on the rise, but many of them err on the side of biography. Bossy Pants, or Yes Please or Zombie Spaceship Wasteland--even Odenkirk's most visible comedy partner, David Cross, keeps most to personal opinion in his book I Drink For A Reason. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it relies on your familiarity with that comedian as a personality. Odenkirk--who began his writing career on Saturday Night Live in the mid-80s, was able to flex his weirder muscles on Mr. Show and I think might be the only source of structure conscience on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!--keeps entirely to set pieces, skits, conceptual monologue. It's a writer's book; a character actor's book. "This is stuff I wrote in between writing TV pilots and movies no one made," is how he describes the book on a recent Nerdist podcast. "Sometimes I'd send them into the New Yorker, but often times I wouldn't, because honestly a lot of the pieces are too crude for the New Yorker."

A Load of Hooey is much more in line with the randomness of 70s classics like Side Effects or Without Feathers or Cruel Shoes--and I'd even argue that there are hints of Leacock's Literary Lapses or Nonsense Novels in all of these comedic grab bags. Without those contexts, Odenkirk's load might feel a bit half-baked, hurried. It's a book of characters and ideas that you wouldn't want to last more than a few pages. Like the use of "hooey" in the title, the approach may be a bit antiquated now that comedians are putting out full fledged self-help books. But Odenkirk knows what he's doing. Whether or not you enjoy this load of hooey relies on whether or not you know what Odenkirk's doing.

- Andrew

Q&A: SALEEMA NAWAZ


Every year the Writers’ Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize is awarded ‘to a new and developing writer of distinction for a short story published in a Canadian literary publication’. Prior to the Prize three finalists are announced and a diverse anthology of notable stories is selected by three acclaimed jurors. The Journey Prize Stories 26 (McClelland & Stewart) was released on October 7th. This year’s finalists are Tyler Keevil for “Sealskin”, Lori McNulty for “Monsoon Season”, and Clea Young for “Juvenile”. The winner will be announced on November 4.

I asked juror and Journey Prize 20 winner Saleema Nawaz (Mother Superior & Bone and Bread) to give us a hint about what goes on behind the lauded book.

- Brad de Roo, who almost neglected to mention that he’s first read many of Canada’s many celebrated short fiction writers, like Lee Henderson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Neil Smith, Doretta Lau, Anna Leventhal, and Saleema Nawaz in Journey’s bustling pages.

Can you talk a little about the process of selecting this year's anthology?

All the jury members have several months with the stories. I read all the stories several times and made detailed notes. The others, I’m sure, did the same. Then I submitted a longlist, which was compiled by McClelland & Stewart along with the longlists of the other jurors and sent out to each of us. Altogether, this gave us a list of around 30 stories – around a third of the total number of stories that had been submitted and read.

Once we had each been sent that list, we went back and re-read all of those stories, including our own initial selections. I know I did a lot of careful evaluating and reassessing at this stage, and my own sense of the relative merits of the pieces definitely shifted and evolved as I spent more time with them.

A number of our choices overlapped, but we didn’t find out which ones until several weeks later when we got together. It was only at that point that it was revealed which juror(s) had selected each story. 

How much discussion was there between the jury, which this year also included Craig Davidson and Steven Beattie?

There was a full day of discussion between the jury members. We went methodically through the list of 30 stories, spending as much time as necessary in order to achieve consensus – even if the consensus was that we were not all in agreement and needed to return to it later. Generally, one of the jurors who had included a story on the longlist began by discussing that story’s merits and the conversation would go on from there.

We all tried to be open about our preferences and blind spots (as much as we were aware of them, I suppose!), and it was a really productive and interesting deliberation. I think we did each engage in a little bit of strategizing and horse-trading (e.g. it would make sense to let go of a favourite that the other two didn’t like nearly as much, in order to make a stronger case for another that might have more traction), but what I liked most about the process was that it was truly collaborative, respectful, and non-combative. I fully support all of the stories we ended up selecting, and I think the other jurors would say the same thing.

I think it is also worth mentioning that the process was completely anonymous until all the decisions had been made. The system is even more stringent than I had guessed, as I thought we might find out who the authors were once we were all assembled to discuss our longlist. But we had no idea who had written the stories or which journals had published them until afterwards.

Was the process of sequencing stories at all comparable to how you assembled your own collection, Mother Superior? Or does the flow of the anthology take a backseat to selecting the right stories?

For the Journey anthology, I can definitely say the flow took a backseat to the selection. The selection process took most of the day, and the sequencing came at the end and it happened quite quickly. I actually don’t remember very much about the sequencing decisions except for a basic desire to space out the funnier pieces.

For Mother Superior, there were fewer stories to contend with. I placed the novellas last because it felt most natural, due to their length, and the title story first, for similar conventional reasons. As for the ones in the middle, I’m afraid no longer have any memory of what factors may have come into play!
 

Besides, the Journey Prize Anthology, where's the best place to find Canadian stories these days?

If you take a look at the Table of Contents of the Journey anthology, it will give you a good idea of some of the excellent journals you should be reading: The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, etc.

Occasionally, I've seen literary prizes described as devaluing individual artistic expression by putting it in competition? Do you see any truth in this criticism? If not, why are prizes important?

I think prizes celebrate, not devalue, artistic expression. But it’s true that sometimes a jury is forced to compare apples and oranges. Depending on who wins, maybe the oranges or the apples will feel devalued that year. But overall, I think the dissatisfaction with prizes comes from the premium placed upon them in the culture. If you’re a writer, it’s easy to feel as though everything hinges upon your novel being shortlisted for the Giller. And given how hard it can be to get the public to notice a book in the first place, it’s hard to blame anyone for feeling that way.

The sad truth is that there are many worthy titles that come and go without ever managing to attract public attention. That being said, I don’t think eliminating prizes is the answer. Prizes put much needed funding in the pockets of writers and bring welcome attention to their books. I’m all for celebrating the hard work of writers – it’s important in such a solitary vocation in which one can rarely expect very much in the way of external rewards.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

CYNISISM WAS MY WHISKY, AND I'D HAD A FEW


In my house growing up there was a room just off the foyer with a TV in it and a door that locked. It was in there that I watched Kids in the Hall--am I wrong remembering it aired on Monday nights? 

I watched with the door locked, of course. I can't recall being specifically forbidden to watch the show, but I certainly remember thinking it was a half-hour my parents wouldn't be thrilled that I was gobbling like I was. It was the only place on TV--that I knew about--where people could say fuck. As a verb no less. And it's likely that I heard fag here for the first time, too--though used casually, lispingly, by Scott Thompson's Buddy Cole. The show was weird and debauched, but also transgressive and educational in a sort of important way. At nine years old, I was explaining to my friends, who had been calling all the Kids gay, that only Scott was; there were nuances to these things. The humour wasn't derogatory, but it wasn't precious either. Like with The Simpsons, everyone was equal because everyone was strange and terrible--the white male a bit more repugnant and buffoonish than the rest. I guess I just assume that kids who grew up watching the Kids came out smart and sensitive to how absurd all humanity was.

Not that anyone was forcing me to choose, but Bruce was my favourite Kid. (It had maybe been only a year or so since I'd been into the Ninja Turtles, of whom Raph' had been my favourite.) Bruce was jockey-sized, fidgety, and a bit effete in a blue collar way. He was the abstract one; the one who would probably get mad at you if you hadn't seen Eraserhead. I'm sure it was more the tone and cadence of his delivery--pronounced, but lilting--that I was drawn to than his basement apartment worldview, which was a little over my head at nine. 


Brucio--as he affectionately called himself--put out an album called Shame-Based Man in 1995. I would have been about twelve years old at the time, and I duly memorized and internalized those bits. I don't really remember what sort of person I was before that album--judging from photos, I smiled a lot--but however I was before, I wasn't the same after I heard Shame-Based Man. Bruce McCulloch was my Jack Kerouac, my The Doors. I can't be sure if I adopted Brucio's view of the world's weird woe before I had my own opinion of it, my own experience in it--the same way the pop punk of the time introduced tweens to anger before they actually felt angry--or whether he just described it to me ahead of time, so I'd know it when I saw it.

 

Brucio's was a world of futons, crashed Corollas, and hangovers; of housewives, drunk dads, and jean jackets; of drinking as much as your drunk dad, but differentiating yourself by not drinking just rye; of lonely, lost people who are about fifteen years too old to be sleeping on futons. Brucio's Brucey cadence was as important as the writing, but the writing was also so good, so sharp, and as I acclimated to his pronounced, emphatic delivery, I found and came to seriously appreciate the rich vein of sadness in it all, the indefatigable bleakness of his purview. Observations like, "Life is sad when you wear sweat pants and a raincoat" or, "Our love is like Santa Claus. The only ones who still believe in it are small children who don't know how the world really works" really started to hit home. It was just so true, you know?

It's odd to think that I'm about the age now that Brucio was at the time of Shame-Based Man. That album is sort of Brucio in amber to me. In the years after Kids in the Hall dissolved and resolved, Bruce--in my eyes--never did anything as good as that album, or anything that matched the stride of his sketch and monologue work. Movies like Superstar and Stealing Harvard and Dog Park were a let down. But I was a kid. What did I know? It never occurred to me that Brucio needed to work, that Brucio was maybe selling the best stuff ever that no one wanted to buy. And so I come to Let's Start a Riot as the sort of guy it sounds like Bruce was, or played up that he was, when I loved him most: wry and odd, identifying on most days with Bruce's brilliant line from "Vigil", a monologue about Kurt Cobain's suicide, "Cynicism was my whiskey, and I'd had a few."


That cynical sprite with the over-sized flannel and waistline of a nine year old is in his 50s now, married with two children--one of whom apparently serves him drinks. The Brucio wit is still present and--though it's a bit puffier and probably doesn't ride a bike much anymore--still sharp, the observations troubling and true. For instance: "Wearing pyjamas in public. It's one of those things that you feel in your heart may be wrong, but you aren't sure why. Like masturbating in front of your dog." If you're a Brucio fan, you'll notice more than a few instances of recycled material--see: "Vigil" and "The Beautiful Day You Beat Up Your Dad"--but otherwise, the book is composed of vignette-sized ruminations on having a family and not exactly having a real job, on Brucio's fractured childhood, on his moves towards and away from Kids in the Hall, on his coming to grips with the fact that he's sometimes a disaster, and figuring out how come.

The kid that memorized Shame-Based Man, who would often perform "Doors Fan" to himself with no shortage of brio if the album wasn't handy, would probably be let down by Let's Start a Riot. The cynicism here feels like more an affection than a lifestyle. But the sort-of-man that that Brucio boy became is starting to see the unsustainability of that lifestyle. A realization that Brucio himself made just a few years beyond where I am now, which he documents--bare with me--almost touchingly in Let's Start a Riot. It's not that Brucio has become lachrymose and simple; he's just become... Sober's not the word I'm looking for. Let's say he's become self-aware.

In a perfectly Brucio piece about tolerating a Radiohead concert for the sake of a comely nurse, Brucio--who's just on the verge, and maybe hanging over the lip of being too old for this--is unwittingly fed anonymous drugs and taken to a rave by said nurse. When the nurse abandons Brucio to talk DJing with the DJ, he's left to ramble at some straight edge tree planters: "I don't trust myself. I'm going to have myself followed." "Sleep is remembrance. Breath is forgiveness." "I've always thought that the love I feel has trouble leaving my body." "Who cheers up the cheerleaders?"

Up all night, abandoned by his nurse, Brucio puts in a call to his agent in Toronto. "Did you know that sometimes the love I feel has trouble leaving my body?" The agent responds matter-of-factly: "Yes. Everyone knows that about you..."

Maybe that's all that's changed. Though a little stumbly and not always on point, Let's Start a Riot eventually figures out it's a story of Brucio trying to have less trouble letting the love he feels leave his body. And there's a surprising amount of love that makes it out in the book, considering how wee he is.

Cynisism no longer seems to be Brucio's whisky. Cocktails are apparently now his whisky. Let's Start a Riot is not the book that I imagined twenty years ago that Brucio would write, and thank god for that. It augurs well for me. 

- Andrew