Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

It goes without saying that Alice Munro pretty much wrecks the curve when it comes to the contemporary short story, but perhaps she has started wrecking the curve even for herself. This thought passed through my mind, very briefly, as I read the first few pieces in her latest collection, Too Much Happiness, a book rife with jarring twists in plot, occasionally inexplicable behaviour from characters, and themes that seem just a shade too direct. Far be it for me to even suggest that Munro can write anything less than a perfect short story, but I did wonder through those first few pieces whether these were as good as Munro at her best. Had she hit a plateau? Can we even judge short fiction in such linear terms?

Thankfully, these thoughts proved fleeting as I worked my way through the pieces in Too Much Happiness. After reading these tales – stories of women (and occasionally men) encountering abrupt moments of violence or strangeness, tough decisions or off-kilter relationships – I felt that feeling I always get after completing a Munro collection, that I had been taken on the most exquisite ride by one of the world’s most accomplished storytellers.

My favourite piece had to be “Some Women”, a story of a young girl who goes to work in a house where a man is dying of leukemia. This is classic Munro – the deeply explored dynamic between various tiers of womanhood: in this case, our smarter-than-thou protagonist, the dying man’s mother, the dying man’s wife, and a brass masseuse who provides everyone with a reality check. Munro is superb at handling the various nuances of her female characters, and she shows this talent off in several other stories as well – specifically “The Wenlock Edge”, which contains a very bizarre ‘naked dinner party’ at one point, and the aptly named story “Fiction.”

One of the many delights of reading Munro is the way she is able to assess and describe a character in such succinct and devastating ways without ever coming across as overly judgmental. I’m thinking of one passage in particular, from the story “Fiction”. Here the protagonist, Joyce, has gone to a book signing for a young authoress who has just published her first collection of short stories. Joyce encountered the girl many years earlier (as well as recently at a dinner party), and there is a story in the collection based on an encounter she had had with Joyce all those years ago. This is how the description of her at the book-signing table unfolds:

There was not a scrap of recognition in the girl’s face. She doesn’t know Joyce from year ago in Rough River or two weeks ago at the party. You couldn’t even be sure that she had recognized the title of her own story. You would think she had nothing to do with it. As if it was just something she wriggled out of and left on the grass. And as for whatever was true, that the story came from – why, she acted as if that was disposed of long before.

Christie O’Dell sits there and writes her name as if that is all the writing she could be responsible for in this world.

It’s such a cutting description, one of an ice-cold ingĂ©nue whose success as a writer may have been based on sheer luck as much as anything else. And yet Munro does not judge her in this moment; she simply captures her through Joyce’s eyes.

There are a couple of stories in Too Much Happiness that didn’t quite do it for me. Her piece “Face”, which tells the story of a man born with a large birthmark on his face, has a number of problems: it’s told from a first-person male perspective, which I didn’t quite entirely buy in this case, and I never quite accepted the hatred that the man’s father feels towards him. And the last story in the collection, the title story, seems oddly out of place in the rest of this book. It tells the story of famed 19th century mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalevsky, who was one of the first women ever to teach at a European university. Here, Munro relies a little too heavily on her research and keeps an arms-length distance from her subject. We never really get inside Sophia’s psychology as a character, and the story is weaker for it.

But overall, Too Much Happiness remains one of Munro’s strongest collections. She sets the bar very high for herself, but she happily clears it in almost every instance.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Event: Reading in Moncton NB

Just got word tonight that I'm confirmed to do a reading in Moncton, New Brunswick on Monday, December 27. Here are the details as I know them:

Where: Botsford Station - 232 Botsford St., Moncton NB
When: Monday, 27 December 2010 at 8 p.m.

The venue is apparently a former warehouse that has been renovated into a kind of nouveau cultural centre. They've recently held a winter bazaar there and are trying to organize various other artistic events for the city of Moncton, of which this reading is a part.

Not clear as to what other writers I'll be sharing a stage with, but I'm assuming one of them will be my close friend the poet and playwright Art Moore. Always a good time when us two clowns take to a stage. I'll probably read an excerpt from the new novel, so if you're in the Moncton area and can come out, you definitely should.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Review: Come, Thou Tortoise, by Jessica Grant

I have to admit, I’m a real sucker when it comes to a well-written “voice” novel. This term, which I encountered after reading Martin Amis’ Money, describes pretty much what you’d think it describes – a novel written in the first person but with a voice so irresistibly original and startling in the way it processes and interprets the world around it. The joissance of a good voice novel is, of course, having your own consciousness subsumed by the narrator’s while you’re reading the book. Jessica Grant’s debut novel, Come, Thou Tortoise, published to much acclaim in 2009, actually doubles the pleasure: it offers two idiosyncratic raconteurs – Audrey (nicknamed “Oddly”) Flowers, who races home to Newfoundland from Oregon after a freak accident has killed her father, and her pet tortoise Winnifred, whom Oddly needs to leave behind.

Oddly is what we call a ‘leapling’ – meaning she was born on February 29; so while she is in her mid twenties during the contemporary sections of the novel, she has only had about six official birthdays. Grant cleverly uses this fact to parallel what we come to quickly realize about Oddly: that she is most likely a “developmentally challenged” young woman with a low IQ and child-like take on the world. Or is she? Oddly confounds us time and again because, despite her apparent ‘handicap’ of perpetual youth, she is exceedingly quick, clever and articulate when dealing with her family and the people she meets. Her zest for life and impulsive behaviour is charming to the extreme. It’s such a delight to live vicariously through her mind, the mind of a true eccentric; for whatever reasons of upbringing or circumstance, it appears Oddly never had those playful eccentricities grinded out of her by parents, teachers, employers, etc., like the rest of us.

The title of the novel comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and there are many tempests that Oddly must confront over the course of her story. She loves a good mystery (she’s obsessed with the game Clue) and sets herself on a mission to solve a number of mysteries from both her past and her present: the death of her father, the familial relationship with her beloved uncle Thoby, and most quirkily, the disappearance of a pet mouse who may very well be 20 years old or more. The brilliance of Come, Thou Tortoise is that you’re only given a narrow window of perspective on what exactly Oddly is trying to overcome. Her point of view is limited because of her ‘disability’, and the reader gets the sense that there are bigger mysteries, broader mysteries that hover high above Oddly’s level of understanding. Grant supplements Oddly’s narration with that of the tortoise to give us some extra perspective; but even Winnifred’s view is limited because she is, after all, just a tortoise.

This all culminates around Grant’s ongoing preoccupation in the book with aging and the attempt to perpetuate life for as long as possible. Oddly’s father is/was a “bio-gerontologist” whose life’s work was dedicated to reversing the inevitability of growing old – an obsession perhaps bourne out of having a daughter trapped in a kind of endless childhood. Winnifred is, of course, the perfect counterbalance to Oddly’s circumstances because she is a tortoise much older than any human could live to be. She is wise because of this fact, and yet not fully privy to what’s going on in the novel. The missing 20-year-old mouse may very be Oddly’s dad’s crowning achievement in science – or it may just be a lab rat replaced several times over the years to spare Oddly from dealing with the grief of its death. And the book’s sort-of villain, Oddly’s grandmother in England, comes to aging and her own death in the most graceless way imaginable.

Come, Thou Tortoise’s great strength is not, as some readers may imply, its ‘quirkiness’ or lightheartedness. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say this isn’t a lighthearted read at all. It is a profoundly serious novel dealing with the idea of complex mysteries that need solving, mysteries that are so often undone by our limited perspectives and the racket of our inner worlds. It’s also about how time runs out on all of us to figure these mysteries out before it’s too late. What a feat of intellectual vigour that Grant has been able to hold all of these themes in her mind at once and then render them into a phenomenally complex and well-structured novel. There is a craftsmanship behind this book that may play second fiddle to its 'quirkiness'. Come, Thou Tortoise will get you in the door with its ‘voice’; but you will stay for the joy of exploring its many depths and contradictions.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Review: Pope and Her Lady, by Leon Rooke

What the fook is dis?

Now hold yer horses a sec—

Dis! Rooke. Leon Rooke, writin' a novella exclusive-like in the grimmy street slang of a Glaswegian lesbo. Has he gony nuts in the pate?

First of all, Rooke donay say ‘fook’, nor does he say ‘dis’. Sometimes it’s ‘fuckt’ – but hey, sometimes we all fuckt.

We baith know I ain’t blethering. It’s not natchril, natural.

Oh, would ye go have a fag. Auld Rooke knows what he’s doin’. Sampson, he wuz writin’ books when you wuz still just an ache in your daddy’s nits. Trust me. He gets doon the vocab and cadence of that Glaswegian street slang and he sticks thereto it. This book ain’t fuckt – it’s fuckin’ genius!

Ye daffy poop!

Sit doon before I bash ye with a pipe.

What pipe?

Now listen. This novella has its own language, eh. And it’s a mystery like. Think A Clockwork Orange meets sumthing by Raymond Chandler. The polis has pullt in auld Pope on accusations that she boinnged her lesbo lover Madeline Powrs in the head with a pipe. Foul play and all. They grill her greit gude; they keep sendin’ her back to her cell; there’s a snitch there. It’s classic stuff.


But there’s more to it than that. Naybody is what they seem. Rooke is more clever than me and you poot the gether.

Okay. But go shite in a bag and punch it! What else does he give us?

What doesn’t he give us? This is Rooke doin’ what Rooke does best. That is to say – analyzing the nature of love. Real love. Deep and complicated love. It’s a whatchamacallit – reoccurring theme. A preoccupation of his, but.

So then … so then …

So then what, you canay get ower that it’s a lesbo couple in Glasgow this time? Fuck you. Rooke knows what he’s doin’. This novella sings. What other Canadian writer today has such a playful approoch to language? What would you do, Sampson? Fuckin’ artsyfy the lingo of PEIsland, probably …

“I was just givvin’er. And the road was right slippy.”

Oh, fuck you! Give it oop. Let’s not Waldorf and Statler this ting to death. Can we not just agree that Pope and Her Lady is better than gude. It’s greit, and has a lot goin’ awn innit.


Fine indeed. I can live with that. Say – did we ever figure out the mystery of the pipe?

What pipe?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Review: Winterkill, by Catherine Graham

Every now and then, you get to meet a poet who reinforces the idea that a welcoming and generous personality can sometimes translate into welcoming and generous verse. I met Catherine Graham a number of times around literary events when I first moved to Toronto and was grateful for her curiosity and her warmth. I was happy to attend the launch of her new poetry book Winterkill a few weeks ago and to pick up a copy. While the collection is small and the poems therein are sometimes very short, the gifts they offer are expansive and reward close attention.

The chief strength of Winterkill’s poems are they way they can often present a brief, singular snapshot of an extremely complex moment. Graham does this time and time again in this collection, with poems like “He Goes Everywhere with You, Your Brother,” a story about spreading the ashes of a dead sibling, or in “Boy and Lawn”, a poem about having a crush on the young man your father has hired to mow the yard. (“I wanted every day/ to be Saturday, for the grass/ to grow high like the waiting/ inside me …) Winterkill is adept at allowing the reader’s own imagination and experience to do most of the heavy lifting; Graham gives us just enough words to cause a little burst of recognition, or knowledge, or speculation, in our minds.

Take, for example, the poem “I Almost Laughed at Mother’s Funeral.” It contains only a single, italicized line: She’s not in there. But the combination of that line and the poem’s title does a lot to your brain. Maybe you conjure up the image of a solemn but awkward funeral, a gathering of mourners sitting before a minister who’s just a wee bit out of place in his role, perhaps because he didn’t know the deceased personally. And maybe, in a moment of feigned familiarity, he said something mildly gormless, and it caused a suppressed chuckle from the grieving daughter. Who knows. But that’s the beauty of this and so many other poems in Winterkill: you’re given lots of space to fill in the blanks on your own.

Another thing I loved about this collection is the way it makes subtle references to popular or everyday culture without naming them outright – once again, allowing your brain to tease these things out on your own. I’m thinking specifically of two back-to-back poems: “Eat Me,” which, if I’m not mistaken, makes reference to Trix brand cereal – “I wanted the box with/ the white rabbit on it … Rabbit played his next trick./ His laughter shook/ all the boxes on the shelves”; and “My Only Dance with My Father”, which alludes to the braying croon of Chris DeBurgh’s “Lady in Red.” Skillful allusions, both.

Despite its chilly imagery and sepulchral overtones, Winterkill is a warm, generous and welcoming collection of poems. If, like me before I read this book, you aren’t familiar with Catherine Graham’s work, this would be an excellent place to start.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Review: Combat Camera, by A.J. Somerset

Attention holiday shoppers: if you’re looking for a great gift this year for the man on your list who may have given up hope on the contemporary novel, a man who has felt a little shut out of the Canadian literary conversation over the last few decades, a man who has been looking for a book that explores the surprisingly complex inner world of one of his tortured and taciturn brethren, then A.J. Somerset may have the perfect gift idea for you.

Somerset’s novel Combat Camera, winner of this past year’s Metcalf-Rooke Award, is as raw and rugged as Canadian books come. It tells the story of Lucas Zane, a former combat photojournalist burnt out after 20 years of covering some of the world’s most violent wars, who has been reduced to taking pictures for low-budget porn in Toronto. Despite the trauma and hopelessness that permeates his current situation, Zane soon finds himself roped into rescuing one of the set’s young starlets (who goes by the name Melissa) after a sex scene turns violent. The two flee on a road trip to Vancouver – a journey that forces them to confront the violence and failures of their respective lives as well as the complex relationship they have with each other.

Make no mistake – Combat Camera is not for the lighthearted, despite the infusions of pink on its cover. This novel is relentlessly masculine and offers an unflinching look at violence, sex and the inglorious torment of a traumatized person. I cannot think of a single character from Canadian literature quite like Lucas Zane – a man whose inner tumults are at such odds with the reserved, aloof persona he presents to the exterior world.

One of Somerset’s many gifts is the way he is able render Zane’s post-traumatic stress disorder in such a believable and uncontrived way. There are numerous examples of this. A simple visit to a supermarket turns disastrous for Zane when a broken egg on the aisle floor triggers the memory of a war victim shot through the head. Zane is forever haunted by his own near-death experiences (he often recalls a bullet zipping past his own head during particularly stressful moments) and by the death of a mysterious woman named “Christine” who constantly lays on the fringe of his memory. The narrative itself abets Zane’s discombobulated inner world by constantly switching from the past to the present and shifting effortlessly from the first-, second- and third-person perspectives. In lesser hands this would be jarring, but Somerset is able to use this back-and-forth technique to lend credibility to Zane’s unstable self.

Combat Camera is also interesting because it sometimes feels like it’s at war with itself – fighting hard not to give in to some obvious temptations. I’m not talking strictly about whether Zane and Melissa will give in to the troubled and complicated attraction that binds them together on their road trip across Canada. I’m speaking more of how hard the book works to eschew sentimentality at all costs. I often believe that sentimentalism, in very small and very controlled doses, can help open up the dimensions of a story – much the way a couple tablespoons of tap water can open up the flavours of a fine Scotch. Somerset would probably disagree with this take on sentimentality, and I reluctantly admit that his book is all the better because he does. Zane and Melissa never have a singular moment of catharsis between them, an instance of clear-cut pathos. Their relationship just sort of peters out, the way real relationships often do. When I finished the last page, I found myself oddly pleased that this was how the author chose to end things.

Combat Camera probably won’t get the kind of attention it deserves, but it deserves to be read and enjoyed by people looking for something a little different in a Canadian novel. It’s rough and raw and unapologetic. And, consequently, extremely refreshing.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Reading independently for Canada

Over at Pickle Me This, Kerry Clare has just announced the line-up for her 2011 Canada Reads Indies Picks. For those of you who don’t know, this is a campaign that Kerry first started on her blog last year where she gets a group of talented readers to discuss an eclectic mix of independently minded fiction titles. It’s a program intended to be a kind of mirror to the CBC’s Canada Reads initiative, which has left Kerry and others a bit underwhelmed in recent years. And for those of you who don’t know, Pickle Me This is a delightful books blog chock full of great reviews and other musings about the reading life. If you haven’t already checked it out, you totally should.

The lucky panelists for this year’s campaign have assembled some really fascinating picks. Myself, I’ll be rooting for Lynn Coady’s Play the Monster Blind, which remains one of my favourite Canadian short story collections of the last 15 years. Titles by Mavis Gallant, Thomas King, Stacey May Fowles and Darren Greer round out the excellent list. I’m really looking forward to the discussions in the coming months.