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.

M.

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.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Details: Toronto launch of The Secrets Men Keep

Okay folks, the details are confirmed! Poet Liz Ross and I will be co-launching our new books together on May 28th at Another Story Book Shop in Toronto. The Facebook event page is up and live, so please visit it to see all the details and let us know you're coming. It's going to be a great night, with guest speakers, a reading by both Liz and me, and what I'm sure will be some lively conversation. See you there!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Upcoming event: The Kingston Writers Festival

Hold on to your hats, Kingston. I'm so happy to announce that I'm heading your way this fall for the 2015 Kingston WritersFest, slated for September 23-27, 2015. Although the exact date and details of my appearance have yet to be confirmed, I'm stoked to be on the bill for this wonderful event in the wonderful city of Kingston. (True story: it was the first place my wife and I ever traveled together to, back in 2009.)

I'm also really chuffed and flattered by this delightful profile of me that the organizers put on the website. I hadn't actually known about the piece until I stumbled upon it this weekend via my obsessive self-Googling, and it causes all manner of blushing at my desk. Anyway, if you're in the Kingston area (or even if you're not!) I hope you can make it out and say hi.

M.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Review: YAW, by Dani Couture

Disaster can come on sudden as the weather. This is the overarching theme in Dani Couture’s dark, compelling third collection of poetry, YAW, a book that feels at once deeply personal and wide open to the unsettling fears that can reside in us all. Catastrophe looms in both the large and the small in this tight, terse book as we move from abrupt highway crashes and descending tornadoes to the loss of friends and brief but unforgettable moments of abject aloneness.

Much of this collection pivots on grief and its often baffling aftermaths – captured in the book’s strongest and most telling poem, “Fact Check.” Told as if via a magazine editor’s disinterested attempts to verify details in a feature article, it instead reveals a torturous story of a stalker’s suicide and the complex emotions that unfurl for his victim in its wake. Can we have anything other than a litany of questions after such an event? The poem reveals that some of these queries come couched in the very specific:

did your friend sweep your vibrating cellphone into her purse?
did you leave the stove on, a candle lit, the iron plugged in?
did you take the bus home to check?
did you check again?
did he call from a pay phone in London?

while others reveal more generalized – and perhaps more permanent – terrors, questions that one cannot shake no matter how much time has passed:

did you lose the taste for sleep?
do the dead walk in your dreams?
do they still call you?
do the dead still call you?

One thing that YAW reminds us of over and over again is how thin the membrane of normality can be, and how easily disaster can puncture it, can let in a darker, more sinister reality. “Interview with a County Reporter” describes in horrifying detail a car crash that brings destruction even as it imbues a sense of forward momentum: “A body propelled/ through molared window./ We all have places to be.” The poem “F-Scale, Ohio” carries the same abrupt jolt, showing how a tornado can touch down on an unsuspecting populace and blow a whole town “out like a wish.”

Yet, despite these jarring catastrophes, there is much hope available to us in YAW if we go hunting for it. It’s there in the closing lines of “Carp,” where, despite the obvious arrival of cancer, “we can see how good we are/ how we always knew/ what was best, what, in the end, could be saved.” We can spot it in a poem like “Corrections,” one that reminds us – almost scolds us – that we get things wrong, horribly wrong, and yet can still touch a little bit of the truth if we try hard. In its closing piece, YAW lets us know that, for all the banal horror and abrupt changes of life, we do have blank walls to write on, that we can reclaim our stories and make them ours to tell again, to repopulate ourselves with the stories we wish to share with others.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Review: The Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov

I had scant experience with the short stories of Anton Chekhov prior to tackling this lengthy collection translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I had read one much-slimmer collection more than a decade ago, but comparing the tables of contents between it and this new purchase (as well as another volume that belongs to my wife) I saw virtually no overlap in terms of the stories included. In other words, I was long overdue to correct this oversight in my reading history.

Pevear does a great job in his thorough introduction of putting Chekhov’s work into both the broader context of Russian history at the time he was writing and the enduring influence of his work on the short story form throughout the 20th and, now, 21st centuries. Russian literature in the 1800s reflected a lot of the social and political upheaval occurring at the time, and authors were often expected to be (as it sometimes feels now, too) didactic, moralizing, and politically engaged via their fiction. As Pevear puts it, “The writer was seen first of all as a pointer of the way, a leader in the struggle of social justice; his works were expected to be ‘true to life’ and to carry a clear moral value.’” Chekhov wrote against this tradition, embracing what Pevear refers to as a kind of literary impressionism:

In fact, just as Chekhov created a new kind of story, he also created a new image of the writer: the writer as detached observer, sober, restrained, modest, a craftsman shaping the material of prose under the demands of authenticity and precision, avoiding ideological excesses, the temptations of moral judgment, and the vainglory of great ideas.

The results took the Russian reading world by storm, and also created the template for what we now refer to as psychological realism. This collection lays out Chekhov’s groundbreaking work in strict chronological order, beginning with pieces he published while barely in his twenties. These early stories, like “Death of a Clerk” and “Small Fry,” do seem very much in the vein of juvenilia, and deal with the theme of a young person struggling against the power or presence of someone older and from a higher social rank. But even these early sketches reveal a writer consumed with capturing the inner world of his characters with succinct exactness, and we can see flashes of the genius that was to come.

The collection moves through the short decades of Chekhov’s oeuvre, republishing such classics “Peasant Women,” “Gooseberries,” “The Lady with the Little Dog,” and “In the Ravine.” It’s interesting to watch the darker side of Chekhov’s astute eye come out in this later stories. He was obsessed with capturing small, telling moments, the keen revelations in the lives of the people around him, whom he knew intimately. Each piece creates its own inner world, as detailed and harrowing in 20 pages as anything you would find in a long Russian novel.

My favourite pieces here include the ironically titled “A Boring Story,” which tells the tale of a middling medical academic who navigates the irksome, mediocre relationships in his life and his own disappointments. I also loved “Ward No. 6,” set in a Russian mental asylum, in which it’s the crazies incarcerated within, and not the doctors who treat them, who tell the greatest truths. And finally, there is “The Bishop,” about a clergyman who reunites with his estranged mother and the psychological tests that the experience puts him through. In each of these pieces, I found men who were thwarted by life and yet keenly aware of what redemption might look like should it land on their doorstep.

A collection like this can help to remind us of the masterful power of such canonical writers like Chekhov, and take us on a tour of their developing art. There is no mystery after this long, detail collection as to why this man’s work endures.