Monday, January 12, 2015

Most anticipated - Spring 2015

For the second season in a row, I've made the 49th Shelf's "Most anticipated" list. This time round, it's the website's Most Anticipated: 2015 Fiction Spring list, for my forthcoming collection The Secrets Men Keep (out April 15 from Now or Never Publishing). It's great to be included in this selection, and with so many other great titles. Books I myself am looking forward to include my fellow Dundurn author Suzanne Alyssa Andrew's debut novel Circle of Stones, as well as new works from Michael Christie, Mark Anthony Jarman, Priscila Uppal, Alexis von Konigslow, and others. Anyway, it looks like it's going to be a kick-ass spring. Check out the full list here.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

My Quill and Quire review of Paths of Desire, by Emmanuel Kattan ...

... is up on the Q&Q website. It had been a while since I'd read what is essentially a crime novel, but I liked this one well enough. Here's a quote from the review: "Kattan wins us over with the sheer strength of his prose and emotional range, especially in the last quarter of the novel. What starts out as a rather contrived metaphor about Israel and Palestine couched as a mystery eventually turns into something devastating – a beautiful reflection on love, loss, and the senselessness of violence."

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review: Invasive Species, by Claire Caldwell

I had the great pleasure of sharing a stage with poet Claire Caldwell back in November at the Pivot at the Press Club Reading Series. Her debut collection, Invasive Species, was buried at the bottom of a stack of review copies I had at home, but I plucked it out after watching her performance. I’m glad I did: her poems are just as luminous on the page as they were recited aloud, and the collection ended up making my top 10 list for 2014.

Invasive Species covers a number of broad themes, from familial history and the bond that siblings share to our fraught relationship with the animal kingdom. These poems are as poignant, assured and cagey as poetry gets. Caldwell shows an incredible deftness for building the tension and emotion in a poem up to a pulverizing finish. On several occasions, her closing lines left me short of breath.

Here is an example of what I mean: this is the final stanza from her piece “A Seamstress Considers the Fourth Dimension”, a poem that plays with multiple meanings of the words skin and fabric:

Later, I’d be revered for my role
in emancipating the spiders
and silkworms. I’d live to see my silhouette
patchworked into public squares. Still,
there’s be no way to stop the great unravelling.
 I would tan my own hide to save it.

That final jolt comes out of nowhere, with a self-deprecation that startles us with its cleverness. I found something similar in “There Is Nothing Left of Your Great-Grandfather.” Here, Caldwell begins by frontloading an inventory of possessions and attributes belonging, presumably, to her long-dead Great-Grandfather – the clothing and hair and books and fingerprints that were his touchstones of individuality, now gone. Yet, watch the ironic about-face that the poem makes at its conclusion:

No, there is nothing left of your great-
grandfather but his name,
its syllables knocking into one another.

A choppy harbour,
two red fishing boats,
hulls bumping like lips.

This may very well be an allusion to an alliterative name, and a brilliant one if it is: the “syllables knocking into one another” and that explosive closer, “two red fishing boats,/ hulls bumping like lips.” The irony is that this name’s qualities do live on – in Claire Caldwell herself, since the words in her own alliterative name do exactly what these lines describe.

Beyond the references to close family bonds, what stands out most in this collection is Caldwell’s attention to the fragility of the animal world. In pieces like the title poem, as well “Bear Safety”, “The House with Snakes in its Walls” and others, we see gentle acts of metaphor and imagination alert us to this delicateness. She positions her images not to glorify animals or hit us over the head with a didactic message about protecting the environment, but to re-sensitize us to the beauty that comes with sharing this planet with other living things.

In short, Invasive Species is a startling debut and Claire Caldwell, at the age of 26, has announced herself as a natural-born poet.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A couple more Sad Peninsula reviews to share

So two more reviews of Sad Peninsula appeared on the web this week, and I thought I'd share them with you.

The first comes from a Goodreads user in the U.K. named Mandy, who wrote a lengthy post about the book on December 28. In her five-star review, she writes: "Sampson has meticulously researched his subject and relates the plight of the comfort women with compassion and sensitivity but without shirking descriptions of the atrocities they endured ... It’s a compelling and moving novel, with vivid descriptions, realistic dialogue and characterisation, well-written, thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable." Read the full review here.

The second comes from a blogger in the U.S. named Amy de Simone. In her review, de Simone calls Sad Peninsula one of her favourite reads of 2014, and says: "Sampson delves deeply into both of these characters’ stories. He paints clear pictures of the emotions and situations that both Michael and Eun-Young are experiencing. This was a book that I continually wanted to get back to reading." Read the full review here.

Thanks to both both readers for their thoughtful commentary.


Friday, January 2, 2015

Review: The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis

The term satire seems wholly insufficient to describe what Amis has done in The Zone of Interest, his latest novel and the second he has written about the Nazi death camps. Not only does this new book skewer the various tropes and clichés of Holocaust fiction, but it also pierces through its own parody to reach a level of transcendence rarely seen in literature. Amis knows the daunting task of trying to say something new, something fresh, something unpredictable about the Holocaust – he has already done so once, in his deeply experimental novel Time’s Arrow (1991) – but he also knows that satire alone is not equal to this immense task. The Zone of Interest, therefore, bends the structure of satire to nearly its breaking point, warping it in a way that creates a platform upon which a wholly original statement about Auschwitz can rest.
Amis does this by making the framework of the novel a petty love triangle set inside the petty office politics of a death camp. Only an author of Amis’ acumen would have the writing chops to pull off something so outlandish. The novel’s chapters alternate between a variety of characters’ perspectives – the main ones being the two men caught up in this love triangle: Angelus Thomsen, a mid-level Nazi official in the death camp, and Paul Doll, the camp’s alcoholic and impotent commandant. The woman caught in the middle is Doll’s young wife, Hannah. The sheer triviality of the two men’s braggadocio and posturing over Hannah gets amplified to comic proportions, but Amis does this for a particular reason. What we hear around the margins of Thomsen and Doll’s suffering hearts is real suffering – the sound of thousands of Jews being put to death all around them. The great paradox is that because Amis pushes these voices to the periphery, we hear them all the more vividly:

That last word was still on her tongue when we heard something, something borne on the wind … It was a helpless, quavering chord, a fugal harmony of human horror and dismay. We stood quite still with our eyes swelling in our heads. I could feel my body clench itself for more and greater alarums. But then came a shrill silence, like a mosquito whirring in your ear, followed, half a minute later, by the hesitantly swerving upswell of violins.

To be fair, The Zone of Interest does open with a disappointment – that is to say, it doesn’t possess the kind of breathtakingly singular opening we’ve grown accustomed to with a Martin Amis book. Is there any other writer today who knows how best to begin a novel? One only needs to read the first 500 words of Time’s Arrow, or Money, or The Information to see Amis’ immense aplomb for opening salvos. But The Zone of Interest's first page lacks this kind of immersive quality. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for the story to establish its hyper-satiric parameters. By page 25, we get this bit from Doll’s perspective, a boilerplate performance he puts on for the Jews arriving by train to the death camp. There is something very Arbeit macht frei about the tone of his deception here to innocent people he is about to lead to their deaths:

Greetings 1 and all. Now I’m not going to lead you up the garden path. You’re here to recuperate and then it’s off to the farms with you, where there’ll be honest work for honest board. We won’t be asking too much of that little young’un, you there in the sailor suit, or of you, sir, in your fine astrakhan coat. Each to his or her talents and abilities. Fair enough? Very well! 1st, we shall escort you to the sauna for a warm shower before you settle into your rooms. It’s just a short drive through the birch wood. Leave your suitcases here, please. You can pick them up at the guest house. Tea and cheese sandwiches will be served immediately, and later there’ll be a piping hot stew. Onwards!

It’s not merely our recognition of the gas chambers that makes this anti-comic passage so harrowing. It is the intonation of Doll’s subterfuge (required, necessarily, to prevent revolt there on the train platform); it’s the ironic allusion to Marx (“Each to his or her talents and abilities …”); it’s the specificity of his lies (“tea and cheese sandwiches” – such exacting detail); and it’s the implication that this is the beginning of something great for these people (“Onwards!”) rather than their grisly, barbarous end.

Of course the chief barbarian in this slaughter, Adolf Hitler, is never mentioned by name in the novel itself (Amis does name him, naturally, in his detailed afterword); he is rendered phantom-like through a series of euphemisms, and this absence lends another absurd quality to The Zone of Interest’s fictive world. The hyper-satire never wavers: the novel is rich in historical detail while still loyal to its cruelly comic diegesis; and the unspeakable-ness of Hitler’s name helps to define the boundaries of these Nazis’ self-awareness as they enact the 20th century’s greatest crime.

Martin Amis has made a habit of annoying or confounding critics with his unflinching ability to inhabit the minds of abhorrent characters, and he just can’t seem to score a break when it comes to reviews. Most critics, indolent in the face of objectivity, take shortcuts by labelling him a misogynist, sadist, or worse – not realizing that they’re constantly holding his novels to a higher standard than others because they don’t like the characters who occupy them. But readers should ignore the mostly negative reviews this novel has been getting. We should read The Zone of Interest with an eye for its caustic panoramas on evil, human morality, and the very language of fiction itself. The master is once again at the top of his form.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Reading Year in Review

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

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

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

  • Full reading list for the year:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Wednesday, December 10, 2014

    Reminder: Maritime reading tour

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

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

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

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