Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Q&Q review of The Amazing Absorbing Boy, by Rabindranath Maharaj

My review of The Amazing Absorbing Boy, by Rabindranath Maharaj has been posted on the Quill & Quire website. This book has been getting a lot of attention this season, with feature-length pieces in The Post, The G&M and The Walrus, among other places.

My review of it - which is almost entirely negative - was tough to write and it took me a while before I was ready to submit it. I struggled to pin down what it was that I felt was so lacking in the book; and I was never completely satisfied that I had (in my albeit very short review) gotten to the crux of my problem with it. Ironically enough, about six weeks after finishing the novel, I read another, better novel about the immigrant experience - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz - that helped me to clarify my negative reaction to Maharaj's book. Reading the Diaz work reinforced the fact for me that, no matter how noble or strong the intended theme (or dare I say, agenda?) of a novel is, it still needs to have real characters who live and breathe in their own skin. Diaz's creation, the ultra-nerdy Oscar Wao, is about as memorable as they come. Maharaj's Samuel comes off like a finger puppet by comparison.

For a while there, I thought I was a bit out to lunch to compare the two books in my mind. But then I saw that Donna Bailey Nurse had done the same in her review of The Amazing Absorbing Boy in the The Globe & Mail a couple of weeks ago. So go figure.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Event: Draft Reading Series – April 18, 2010

A little note to Mark Sampson fans, if any: I received confirmation earlier this week that I will be reading as part of the Draft Reading Series event in Toronto on April 18th. The good people at Draft have changed the venue from their usual location: it’s now taking place at The Merchants of Green Coffee Café. Never been there, but I’ve been told it’s nice. They’ve also asked me for some writing to include in their semi-annual publication. The theme: Rejection. A subject I am eminently knowledgeable of, on a number of fronts.


At any rate, I hope you all can make it for what will most likely be an afternoon of literary merriment. Here are the particulars:

When: Sunday, April 18th at 3pm.

Where: The Merchants of Green Coffee, 2 Matilda Street, Toronto.

The lineup:

Michael Bryson
Ellen S. Jaffe
Dani Couture
Mark Sampson

Admission : $5 (includes a copy of Draft’s publication.)


"But in the present climate ... " a salon des refusés

Rejection ain't what it used to be. For one thing, there's a lot more of it going around. And editors often refer to "the present climate" as their reason for saying no. For our April 18th reading, Draft celebrates rejection, as we take a sounding of our notorious "climate" in work, art and -- oh yes! -- love.

Hope to see you there.

Update: "We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and The League of Canadian Poets."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Review: The Night Is a Mouth, by Lisa Foad

There was a fair bit of hype surrounding this book when it first came out, but it was my belated reading of Lisa Foad’s short story “Lost Dogs” in an issue of Exile: The Literary Quarterly that convinced me I should pick up this short story collection. (Oddly, that particular publication credit is absent from the book’s acknowledgements page. An oversight?) “Lost Dogs” tells a horrifying story of a young girl on the lam in search of the mother who abandoned her, and the brutal hardships and sexual abuse she suffers in the process. What makes the piece so powerful, beyond Foad’s sparse language and elliptical storytelling style, is the fact that it couples the girl’s sexual exploitation with her sexual awakening. This lends a intriguingly complicated dimension to her victimization, and Foad navigates us through this with pitch-perfect sentences and a descriptive prowess all her own.

Make no mistake that The Night Is a Mouth is a raw and powerful collection of short fiction. The same fierce writing style and nervy subject matter in “Lost Dogs” is evident in the other nine stories. There are girls in dubious relationships with each other, children raging against their parents’ general uselessness, and lots of sexually charged scenes. The general approach here is urban cool and evasive, tightly written dialogue, strong, sexually aware women, and occasional flights into the surreal. Foad holds it all together with a relentless commitment to the voice she’s achieved for the collection as a whole.

Having said all that, I did feel somewhat disappointed with The Night Is a Mouth by the time I reached the last page. Part of the problem is that I felt Foad was a bit too committed to the voice, style and subject matter of her stories. I understand that it’s these things that are meant to hold this collection together, and yet I longed for a bit more versatility in Foad’s performance: a character who falls outside the established mould, a refreshing interlude of realism, a moment of straight-up emotion instead of icy ellipticisms. True, Foad has mastered something in this collection and does it so incredibly well, but it’s still only one thing – an approach she’s skillfully cornered and then replicated across 10 stories. This gives The Night Is a Mouth a bit of a one-trick-pony sort of feel. It would have been better to see more modulation in the book’s tone and subject matter, to show that Foad is capable of seeing her characters and the world they inhabit beyond the narrow (albeit original and unnerving) prism she dangles over her authorial eye.

Despite my final dissatisfaction with the book, I still feel it worthy of the praise it’s received, and I do recommend it. Foad holds her own with other young writers taking the short story in exciting new directions. I look forward to seeing whatever she produces next.

And speaking of great author interviews...

... as I was a few weeks ago: Jacob MacArthur Mooney has done it again. Check out his totally bitchin' interview with poet Paul Vermeersch over on The Torontoist website.

Notice how Jake keeps his questions focussed almost exclusively on the literature in question: in this case, Paul's new poetry collection, The Reinvention of the Human Hand, due out next month. There isn't a canned query ("Are you a morning writer or an evening writer?", "What advice would you give someone wanting to be a poet?", "How has your childhood informed your work?") anywhere to be found. Each and every question is tailored to the interviewee, and confirms that Jake has read the poetry at hand closely and given it a great deal of thought. His questions help to centre Paul's work both within the context of other poets (Hughes, Boorson, Lilburn) and within the cultural events that helped inform the poems (Koko the gorilla; Laika, the dog that the Russians sent into space). He also keeps trivialities and canned emotion out of the discussion. It isn't until the very end of the interview that he ventures to ask Paul something resembling a "personal" question, and it's a thoughtful one at that. Perfect.

Jake definitely gets my Worthy of Wachtel Award of the Day. Looking forward to more of his literary interviews in The Torontoist.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: The Waves, by Virginia Woolf

I always come to the works of Virginia Woolf with a great deal of trepidation. This isn’t simply because of her high modernist style and all of the challenges that it entails. A Woolf novel has the tendency to wreck the curve for other books, other authors that I will read immediately after it. Such is the virtuosic power and precision that Woolf achieves in nearly every paragraph of her prose. The Waves is no exception. While not as strong as her incomparable Mrs. Dalloway, it does cement her place at the very top of modernist writers.

The Waves’ crowning achievement is the way it undermines the notion of character hierarchy. Instead of having a single protagonist and slew of secondary characters, Woolf instead gives us six main characters - Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis – all of whom are given equal footing in the text, telling their stories in long, lyrical soliloquies.

There is a seventh character, Percival, who is not given his own voice in the novel and yet is just as real, just as immediate as the other six people in the text. When Percival dies halfway through the book, the sense of loss is abrupt and palpable.

Woolf is capable of utter magic on the page and I found myself swept up in the descriptions, allusions and metaphors that she weaves into her prose. While Woolf maintains a distinct consciousness for each of her characters, she is also playing with the idea of a shared consciousness that forms the backbone of this novel and a sense of life-long community between her six voices.

If I have one quibble, it’s with the edition I read and not with the novel itself. Molly Hite has written a lucid and illuminating introduction to the book, but I found her annotations to the text to be on the heavy-handed and intrusive side. While they do include helpful notes explaining, for example, Rhoda’s various references to the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley or how the basis for each character may correspond to people whom Woolf knew in her life, they also include basic definitions for words like moor, fulvous and censers – words you’d be able to find in any decent dictionary. In the case of these annotations, less would have definitely been more.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Take the Retro Reading Challenge

Yesterday I read The Globe and Mail’s review of Peter Straub’s new novel, A Dark Matter, and it gave me an idea. In talking about the challenges of writing good horror stories, the reviewer says: “Harder still is writing an effective horror novel in which the main events occur in the past … Stephen King achieved this masterfully in his magnum opus It, although the sense of peril in the childrens’ [sic] storyline in that novel was bolstered somewhat by the simultaneous adult storyline featuring the same characters.”

I read King’s novel It when I was fifteen and would have agreed wholeheartedly with this assessment. Back in those days, I was a thin and gawky teenager, all teeth and shoulder blades, and was very poorly read, even for my age. Upon completing It, I was convinced that it was the greatest work of literature ever created in the known universe. I mean, I was enamoured with this novel. But I wonder: if I were to go back and reread it now, nearly 20 years later, what would my reactions be? I’ve probably read more than a 1,000 books since then; I’ve lived on three continents, published my own novel, watched loved ones die, eaten dog meat, seen friends marry and divorce. Surely all of my accumulated experiences would affect my impressions of this book.

So here’s the idea, which I’m calling the Retro Reading Challenge, and I hope you all will play along. The idea is to pick a book that you read and adored years and years ago, then reread it now and write a review of it to capture your impressions. Did you still love it? Did you see flaws (or strengths) that you missed the first time? Did you have an “Oh God, what the hell was I thinking?” moment?

For the record, I will NOT be rereading It for this challenge. I’m just not prepared to commit myself to 1,000 pages of King’s hurried, harried prose at this point in my life. I will be finding a different book in which to review. (Stay tuned to find out my selection, once I figure that out.) But I will be sticking to the following rules, and I hope you’ll do the same.

Rules for the Retro Reading Challenge:

1. You read the book at least 15 years ago – i.e. the spring of 1995 or earlier. (Much earlier if you were born, say, before 1980.)
2. At the time, you loved the book. Thought it was brilliant and greatest thing since Pop Shop soda.
3. You’ve read the book just once – i.e. rereading it for this challenge will be only your second encounter with the text.
4. The book should be one written and marketed for adults. No YA novels or children’s books for the purposes of this challenge.

Write a review and either post it on your own blog and send me the link or put it as a comment on this blog. Make sure to include the timeframe in which you first read it, what your impressions of the book had been at the time, and how your current reaction to it is different or the same.

Good luck!


Monday, February 15, 2010

Acceptance: The Prince Edward Island Poet Laureate website

Just found out that my poem "Charlottetown" has been published on the PEI Poet Laureate website. Go check it out. This online project started back when David Helwig was PEI's poet laureate and has been continued now that Hugh MacDonald has taken over the role. There's lots of cool stuff on this site, including audio of Milton Acorn reading from a number of his works. Definitely worth a visit.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Review: A Ruckus of Awkward Stacking, by matt robinson

I feel that matt robinson (or Matt Robinson, if you prefer) is one of those names I see around a lot, a reoccurring float in the parade of literary journals that find their way into my house. It was with that in mind that I picked up his first poetry collection, A Ruckus of Awkward Stacking, wondering how a poet’s work that has been published so widely in the “little magazines” will hold up when assembled together in a book. There was an added element of intrigue: like me, Robinson is a Maritimer and writes about various familiar locales.

Ruckus is broken up into five sections, each with a distinct thematic focus. While the first section did leave me a touch underwhelmed from its listless pretensions, the collection as a whole is very strong. Robinson covers familiar subject matter for Canadian poetry – the dying mother, the weather, hockey, airport travel (this peculiarly Maritime anxiety about moving just one province over) – but does so with fresh insights and a descriptive power all his own. I love his “zamboni’s liquid absolution”, his “black morning with its pink/ meniscus dawn”, his “importance/ of purple at easter”.

Robinson’s strength lies in his employment of the cento (or, at least, the semi-cento) in a number of these poems. The patchwork selections include lines from Michael Ondaatje, John Ashbery, Susan Goyette and Don MacKay. Robinson has a real knack for taking these borrowed lines from other poems and giving them a muscled, kinetic life of their own.

Often a poetry collection can be judged a success if it possesses even one poem that makes you stop and read it over and over (and over) again. For me, A Ruckus of Awkward Stacking had this: the Goyette semi-cento entitled “a move to liquid”. Ostensibly about injuring oneself while doing the dishes, this poem is really about the unexpected pain that can erupt from even the most quotidian of moments. It’s about the wear and tear that our everyday comforts endure over time, to the point of stress, to the point of breaking, and how they do break in a not-entirely unexpected way, the “sudden ceremony” of a shattered glass, interrupting the “murky pools of our days” and leaving us cut and hurting. The poem is a masterpiece.

Review: Badlands, by Robert Kroetsch

I got to meet Robert Kroetsch a few times in 2000-2002 when I was living in Winnipeg, doing my masters in creative writing at the University of Manitoba. I was surprised to learn (after the fact) that he was born in 1927: the man I met didn’t look a day over 60, and was so full of energy and enthusiasm for young writers and their young work.

Despite my allusions to his What the Crow Said in my own novel Off Book, I’m actually more familiar with Kroetsch’s poetry (Seed Catalogue, The Hornbooks of Rita K.) than his other work, and I came this week to his 1975 novel Badlands with a certain amount of hesitation. Maybe it was the bland brown cover of my New Press edition, but I was half-expecting prose as dry and austere as the prairie itself; I was expecting a novel written strictly for the academic set, for the prairie academic set no less.

What I wasn’t expecting was a book rich in hilarity and tragic adventure. Badlands tells the story of paleontologist William Dawe and his haphazard crew sailing down the Red Deer River in 1916 on the hunt for dinosaur bones in the Albertan badlands, told through the prism of Dawe’s estranged daughter Anna years later. The novel details Dawe’s single-minded obsession with finding a hitherto undiscovered fossil (a “Daweosaurus” as it were) and what such mania costs him as a father, a husband and a leader of men. The influences are obvious – Moby Dick with a dash of Heart of Darkness and The Caine Mutiny thrown in – but this is still a quintessentially Canadian novel, preoccupied as it is with notions of history and with relics.

Here, the bones that Dawe digs up represent a past that has become his present, has become what he has replaced his real present with. His expedition is complicated when a young aboriginal woman (referred to here by that horrid and antiquated slur squaw) meets the crew and becomes sexually involved with Dawe. The girl’s name is also Anna, and the connections and allusions between her and the framing narrative told by Dawe’s daughter reverberate throughout the text. The novel ends with the two Annas going on a very giddy road trip together through the badlands to make sense of the damage that Dawe’s expedition has done to them both.

If this all sounds a bit much, rest assured that there are fantastic moments of levity sprinkled throughout Badlands. These manifest mostly through a crew member named Web, whose oversexed mindset (oh, so many puns on the term “bone”) are as comical as his many instances of benign idiocy.

I’m quite pleased for taking a chance on this novel, and I’ll be reading more of Kroetsch’s prose in the future. Don’t be surprised if you see his earlier novel, The Studhorse Man (which won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1969) crop up in my reading log before too long.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Blaming Frank McKenna

I found myself enrapt reading this review of Harvey Sawler's biography of Frank McKenna posted on the G&M's website earlier today. Brian Lee Crowley, (that ultra-rightwing pro-business think-tanker of AIMS fame, whom I remember from my days writing about the Altantic Canadian business community a decade or more ago), does a compelling job distilling the McKenna story and the former NB premier's various temptations to lead the federal Liberal party.

I think Crowley (and by extension Sawler) are bang on in describing McKenna as what the Libs need but will never have. Unlike Ignatieff, (and Dion before him) McKenna is the one Liberal fully equipped to challenge and stop Stephen Harper and the changes he's bringing to our country. McKenna could not only defeat Harper; he could probably crush him, reunify the Liberals and restore them to their (some would say rightful) place as Canada's governing party - and with a majority government. Only, McKenna doesn't want to run. He has never really wanted to run; he probably will never want to run. He is not prepared make the personal and reputational sacrifices that come with angling for the PMO.

Crowley casts McKenna's story as something almost out of Shakespeare (or at least a season of The West Wing): a man so fully suited, so perfectly qualified to be a nation's leader, and yet with so many obstacles standing in the way. Chief among them, of course, are McKenna's own convictions not to drag himself and his family into the tactless, no-holds-barred arena of federal politics, to sacrifice himself for the betterment (some would say salvation) of our nation at large. It makes for some pretty compelling stuff.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Learning to read

A couple of weeks ago RR posted an interesting piece telling the story of how she learned to read and asked her audience to respond with their own stories. I’ve been meaning to do so ever since but have only now gotten around to it. Like her, I find those really, really early childhood memories hard to access; and like with her story, I suspect that my own parents might quibble with the following account.

I can say for certain that I was not yet fully literate by the time I arrived for the first day of Grade One (funny Canadian expression, that; Americans would say “the first grade”), but I was familiar with the alphabet and how it could form words, which in turn could form stories. While neither of my parents were or are readers, we did have story time most nights before bed and I did have my own bookshelf full of kids’ books in my baby blue boyhood bedroom.

Strangely enough, though, up until Grade One I lived under the misconception that the books on those shelves were the only books that existed in the world. Imagine my shock when I arrived at school (West Kent Elementary, class of ’87 baby!) to discover that there was an entire room in the basement full of books that I’d never even seen before. Not only that, but this magical room seemed to be solely dedicated to the storage and promotion of books, and to the engagement of my newly acquired skill, reading. Not only that, but I was allowed to borrow books from this incredible room and take them home – home, mind you! – to read at my leisure. Good lord, there had to be a catch. Surely there was a cover charge or three-drink minimum (milk tickets, naturally).

Of course, West Kent’s library provided me with my earliest independent reading experiences. My memories of that time include several books on World War Two, a biography of Elvis, a whole slew of Gordon Korman (for the male bonding) and of Judy Blume (for the dirty bits). I’m almost certain that I also filched a copy of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens to read to myself each year on Christmas Eve after everyone else in our house had gone to bed.

But what I find really interesting is the pronounced demarcation that exists in my mind between my early reading experiences and my reading experiences once I decided to enter the arena of literature. It was in my mid teens that I came to accept that I was going to be a writer, and that discovery forever influenced the way I read books. It was then that I found myself on the long road (still not over entirely, I don’t think) of learning not how to read per se, because I already could read, obviously, but how to read like a writer – i.e. from the backstage area.

This is how I liken my experience with books now: that if the story were a play, I am no longer sitting out front with the rest of the audience, but rather watching the show unfold from the wings. I’m still seeing the same play as everyone else, but I’m also seeing all the mechanics and machinations behind the scenes that others don’t necessarily see. (While this has deepened my relationship with literature, it also makes me an often-snarky curiosity at dinner parties when the conversation turns to reading; and I’m the last person you’d ever want as a member of your book club.) I think this kind of reading is vitally important to anyone trying to write fiction. There’s a wonderful book that I discovered in the last couple of years that articulates perfectly this whole idea of reading from the backstage area: Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. It has cemented the feelings I’ve held for years about reading and writing.

So while I do treasure those memories of my early reading, I guess I have to admit that I was a late bloomer (think 15 or 16) to realizing reading’s connection with the joy and possibilities of the storytelling craft.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Review: Nothing Like the Sun, by Anthony Burgess

Shakespeare In Love it ain’t! No offence to Tom Stoppard and his noble work on that noble film, but Burgess’ 1964 novel, subtitled “A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-life”, is in a whole other category. No author living today, with maybe the exception of Will Self, can come anywhere close to Burgess’ linguistic pyrotechnics on the page. (It helped that the man was fluent in 17 languages.) Here, he embraces with uncanny verisimilitude the nuances of Elizabethan English – including mind-twisting puns, arcane vocabulary and slang right off the streets of 16th-century London.

Burgess takes the basic biographical framework available to him and fleshes it out with a fictitious yet wholly plausible story. Burgess’ Shakespeare comes from a brew of glove makers, suffers from creative anxieties, falls madly in love with a woman from India named Fatima (describing her not as “black” but rather “golden” – brilliant!), gets cuckolded by his own brother and, near the end, contracts a venereal disease from his beloved. All in 235 densely packed pages of prose. Burgess melds his own narration with Shakespeare’s thoughts in seamless perfection, and doing so gives him a chance to spout off about the writerly process in the bard’s own words: “It was glove-making all over again, a craft only. Not, perhaps, so mean a craft but still a matter of fitting, taking orders – five feet instead of five fingers. And certainly a more corrupting craft.”

Evident through it all, of course, is Burgess’ lifelong obsession with the relationship between the creative impulse and the impulse toward cruelty – convinced, he was, that they arise out of the same place. He presents this version of Shakespeare as a bit of a womanizer, an adulterer for sure, perhaps even a misogynist; but also as a nascent genius about to face the full brunt of his own creativity. Burgess asks for no forgiveness. He lets his art, and that of the bard, stand up on its own. And it does. Wow, does it ever.

Friday, February 5, 2010

And speaking of good journalism...

Fascinating interview with Ian Brown about long-form journalism versus the more "competitive and cut-throat part of the news business." I couldn't get interested in Brown's long essays about his son (who suffers from cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome) when they first appeared in The Globe & Mail, but the points he raises in this inteview are very good ones.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Questioning the Email Interview

It was one of the first things I ever learned in journalism school: When preparing for an interview, you should never come with more than three or four core questions to ask as your baseline. All other questions you raise over the course of the interview should arise naturally from the discussion, responding to whatever it is that your subject has said. This advice made instant sense to me. Maybe it was because I had already been practicing some journalism on my hometown newspaper before I arrived on campus as a wet-eared undergrad, but I already had a sense that the best interviews were ones conducted like a conversation of discovery, with the journalist letting the discussion steer the interview, diving in with reactive follow-ups whenever possible and lots of thinking on his or her feet.

So I guess something in me bristles a bit whenever I see the increasingly prevalent “this interview was conducted by email” that prefaces so many author interviews. I have never conducted an interview by email, and have only ever participated in one, and with much reluctance. (I held my nose and did it anyway; my novel and I needed the publicity.) But my instinctive reaction to email-based interviews is to see them as lazy journalism. After all, how much thought or skill does it take to cobble together four or five (or 10, or 12, or 20) questions and fire them off to an author via email, have the author write his or her answers out for you and email them back? E-mail interviews are an easy way for literary journalists to get copy fast, but that doesn’t make them good interviews.

I do understand the arguments in favour of (or, at least, tolerance of) email interviews, especially for online articles. The journalist and the author, for example, may not live in the same city and email is just the most efficient way for the two to communicate. But even this doesn’t really hold water for me. There are plenty of electronic devices out there that allow you to record telephone interviews; and even if you can’t afford those devices or long-distance charges to another city, there’s still Skype (free to download off the web) and various add-ons that allow you to record the conversation.

Then there’s all that pesky transcription. It’s true: depending on how fast you type, transcribing an interview might take as much as one hour for every minute of tape. It’s incredibly boring and repetitive and no journalist enjoys doing it. But careful transcription is the price you pay for conducting a thoughtful, nuanced interview in person; it’s part of how you earn your byline.

There are other drawbacks to the email interview. It provides the author time to “spin” his or her responses to your questions, to mull them over, polish them up and make them reflect the image he or she wants to present to your audience. This may make for cleaner copy to read, but it certainly isn’t an honest act of journalism. Interviewing a writer shouldn’t be any different than interviewing a police chief, a lawyer or a PR flak. You don’t necessarily want them to have time to practice their responses, and by sending them the questions in advance you essentially allow them to do just that. Impromptu questions – and a real discussion – will do a much better job of capturing insights about the author and his or her work, which is what you owe to your audience.

An interview via email should only be a last resort for the journalist – i.e. when there are positively no other means to conduct the interview. And even then there is a way to do it properly. The journalist should act as if it were an actual in-person interview – sending only one or two questions at a time and responding to the answers that come back with deeper, more thoughtful questions. Jacob MacArthur Mooney did this to great effect when he recently interviewed fellow poet Susan Holbrook for The Torontoist’s books section . This is an example of an email interview done very well.

Of course, the biggest beef I have with email author interviews is this prevailing trend of what I’d call the “series interview” – i.e. online interviews that ask the exact same group of questions to a variety of authors. These types of smash-and-grab interviews are not only grossly offensive in the way they fail to engage with each individual writer’s work, but they also tend to focus on a writer’s creative process and personal history, and not much else. I’m a huge fan of Eleanor Wachtel’s radio show Writers and Company for the simple reason that every question she asks proves conclusively that she has read the author’s actual work closely, spent a serious amount of time thinking about that work, and has tailored her questions accordingly. The canned-question interview is the antithesis of this: homogenous, thoughtless, and infinitely repeatable - rather like a sausage factory. Wachtel really does set the benchmark for all author interviews. Any literary interviewer – no matter which medium he or she chooses to use – could learn a lot from her.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Review: Bang Crunch, by Neil Smith

You know, some books just come with really high expectations. When I began compiling an end-of-year list (started here and here on Facebook and continued here on this blog), I deliberately avoided including a “worst-five books I read this year” list; instead, I called the more negative side of my summary the “top-five disappointments of the year”, i.e. books that arrived on my nightstand with a high level of expectation and, while not necessarily bad (although some definitely were), for whatever reason came up short or left me wanting.

Neil Smith’s short story collection Bang Crunch had the potential of ending up on this year’s list. I had heard and read so much about this book before cracking its covers, knew its short stories had been widely anthologized and won prizes even before they were collected together, and that everyone who read the book had, as the saying goes, loved it loved it. Could it possibly live up to so much hype?

Rest assured that it absolutely does. Bang Crunch is a tour-de-force and Smith is the real friggin’ deal.

The collection opens with the story “Isolettes”, a hilarious and heart-wrenching story of a young woman and her gay male friend who have a child together that ends up being born prematurely. The account of the baby’s time in intensive care reminded me a lot of Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” for all the right reasons: that feeling of helplessness that a parent feels when an unwarranted illness inflicts itself on a defenseless child, counterbalanced with strong, fully realized characters and insightful writing.

Smith tackles a number of other heady subject matters, including cancer, alcoholism, a school shooting, and a young man discovering his own unwelcome homosexuality. (Did anyone else find that Ruby-Doo in “Green Florescent Protein” had a certain Owen Meany quality to him?) The final piece, a novella called “Jaybird”, is a wonderfully polished and honest look at the Montreal acting scene. Even the weakest piece, the title story, still gave me lots to chew on and admire.

With Bang Crunch, Smith stakes out his territory as one of the freshest and most original voices to come along in a long while. I’ll be waiting with breathy anticipation – like so many other people, I ‘m sure – for his next book, whatever it may be. I have a feeling I’ll be following this writer wherever he goes.