Review of “Emberton” by Peter Norman in National Post

emberton

Peter Norman’s debut novel, Emberton, is named after a crumbling building that houses the offices of the titular dictionary company.

Although Lance Blunt is illiterate, he’s offered a job as a lexicographer. Not long after starting work, Lance is befriended by the company’s eccentric owner, Mr. Emberton, who lives upstairs in the penthouse.

You can read the rest here: http://arts.nationalpost.com/2014/03/28/emberton-by-peter-norman-review/

Review in Quill and Quire: ‘Bite Down Little Whisper’ by Don Domanski

Bite-Down-Little-Whisper-191x280– Starred review – 

Bite Down Little Whisper is a lush and resonant collection about the spirit and science of the natural world. It encompasses Taoism, Greek mythology, Egyptology, and the Celts, all seasoned with a sensibility steeped in the rugged Canadian East Coast, where author Don Domanski has long resided. Domanski has established himself as one of Canada’s most original and consistent poets, and Bite Down Little Whisper further enhances that status. The book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award in English-language poetry.

Numerous critics have remarked on Domanski’s talent for lucid metaphors. He draws connections that continually surprise, yet make immediate sense. In “A Bright Fable in a Dark Wood,” he writes vividly of “sunlight falling on its sword in a hayfield.” Elsewhere he has us conjure a “coyote the colour of Pythia’s vapour” (for those who may need a refresher on the more obscure references, there are notes included at the back). Equally essential to Domanski’s work, though much less discussed, is its dynamism. From the title on down, so many of the lines are about movement, birth, growth, decay, or destruction.

Domanski’s writing is so energetic and spirographic it cannot be cast simply as an extension of sentimental nature poetry. On the contrary, this book shrugs with a monkish detachment, defers to science over a possibly mythical Creator, and locates tension in unbalanced forms. The presentation s undeniably contemporary: irregular lines, chock-a-block with enjambment, and minimal use of capitalization or punctuation.

Bite Down Little Whisper is haunting and re-readable. The cover, to which Domanski contributed, is a useful indicator of what lies ahead: if you are capable of deep appreciation of everything from sleeping stags to Venn diagrams, Domanski’s verse offers great riches.

Reviewed for Quill & Quire, December 2013

Review of Whirr & Click by Micheline Maylor

whirrThe title of Calgary resident Micheline Maylor’s new collection is a nod to the visual: the words and accompanying cover image suggest a camera lens. And poems such as “Ammonite” and “Borderlands” speak of the Banff region’s key visual characteristics: “On the verge of a cliff / is a view of the peak, a view of the river. / And if I fell, if I decided to fly / those features would still have little to do / with each other.”

However, the book’s focus is primarily interior, and the dynamism suggested in the title rarely finds its way into the text. The narratives roll out languidly, for the most part in free verse, although there is one villanelle. Maylor reflects on her early rural life, first loves, and family. The poet lingers over a lost love: “Did I tell you about the time I spied / you in the vegetable market passing / the peppers, on your way towards / the cucumbers? I gripped a cob of corn / until I creamed it.”

The final part of the book is an elegy called “Starfish,” in which the “whirr and click” motif morphs into a metaphor involving a watch (in which I expected the numbered sections to run out at XII, but they went beyond this). Following the death of the poem’s subject, Maylor inherited a watch, and she remembers: “You were never late for me / not once / were you late for me.”

Certainly, it is not difficult for most of us to relate to loss or inheritance. But ultimately the forces of sentimentality are relied upon too heavily in Whirr & Click, rather than the artful framing of the scenes or the unbound energy of the line.

Reviewed for Quill and Quire (from the July 2013 issue)

 

Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) Count: How I Add Up

 

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One does not go into psychology — as I have — unless you can at least learn to love statistics — as I do. But writers do not have to remotely love statistics. Writers were the first psychologists, really, and psychology as a discipline remains complementary to writing in certain ways — personality disorders can sure come in handy! — but science and art have long-been, or often are, antithetical; I’ve often felt like a rider between worlds because my interests stradle both.

Inspired by the VIDA count in the US, Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) opened lab in 2012 and quickly exerted considerable influence in the Canadian publishing landscape with their interest in studying the presence of bias within the community of literary criticism. I became a member of CWILA and have followed their work very closely, so it only makes sense to apply their lens to my work as a reviewer.

In 2012, I published 17 reviews, which appeared primarily in Quill and QuireGlobe and Mail, and National Post, as well as in The Rumpus (US). 11 of those reviews (65%) during that year were of female writers, 5 reviews (29%) were of male writers, and one was of an anthology with a fairly even gender split.

My stats go further than an inversion of CWILA’s findings according to the gender of the author, in which the books that get reviewed are 52% male-authored and 47% female-authored. I’m not entirely sure why that is! In fact, the marvel of statistics is how clinical, absolutely non-magical, they are: I would not ever have said I had an inherent preference for female writers. And I’m not sure I do — I’m not saying every review I wrote was favourable. But for reasons that were not apparent to me, I gravitated more toward female writers, and I could have just as obliviously gone the other way. Like any tendancy, that’s worth looking at more closely.

According to CWILA’s survey of  2012:

A) the majority of reviews are written by male reviewers, and B) the majority of books reviewed — whether they’re reviews by male or female critics — are books by male writers.

Why? There are many reasons for this, both large and small, but none that cannot be changed with a minimum of conscientiousness and a bit of cold hard math.

 

 

Double-review for Quill and Quire: “The Ends of the Earth,” by Jacqueline Turner and “Letter from Brooklyn” by Jacob Scheier

Some of the best poetry I’ve ever encountered was not on the page, but heard at a spoken-word night at New York City’s Nuyorican Poets Café. I was making a teenage pilgrimage in the sloshed footsteps of the Beats, but I found something more valuable there: poetry that was vital and thriving. A grandma brought the house down by reciting a sexually charged poem, and, later, a truck driver from Staten Island sitting beside me ground out tears on his cheek with his knucklebone. What has all this got to do with new books of poetry by Jacob Scheier and Jacqueline Turner, you ask? Everything and nothing, actually.

. . .

SheierYou may remember Scheier’s first book of poems, 2008’s More to Keep Us Warm, which won a Governor General’s Literary Award. There was some controversy over a juror’s perceived conflict of interest. In the time before and since, Scheier lived in New York, worked as a journalist and writing instructor, and produc

ed a follow-up collection. Letter from Brooklyn is a cross between a diary and an epistolary volume. There’s a strong confessional influence: Scheier quotes Lowell, but the poetry feels more like Sexton.

Confessional poets were masters of form as much as sentiment, but Scheier neglects the former to the detriment of the latter, and many of the poems would have benefited from greater intensity. Overall, the book holds back too much, which results in frustration. Jacqueline Turner, a poet with a lower profile but three previous collections to her credit, also has a new volume of poetry. Her book is concerned with some kind of nebulous apocalypse that’s part environmental, part technological.

The Ends of the Earth is a trite phrase, but in the context it fits. Although this book positions itself as avant-garde, it is shockingly conservative in its rigidity and judgment. Its apocalyptic vibe is downright religious in its convolutions. In a poem about “garbage island” (a reference to plastic that has collected in the ocean), Turner writes:

“plastic floats like islands on digital screens
everywhere somewhere in the ocean
it churns through tides like soup you
we care via Twitter or Paypal depending
on the day pack reusable latte cups”

 

imagesThe willful pettiness Turner displays in lines that rail against the suburbs, gated communities, businessmen, TV-show themes, and 40-year-old divorcees made me wonder: can one ever grind an axe artfully? Scheier is politicized too: he comes from a line of American Jewish Communists, so it’s in his genes. “The world-changing business,” he writes, “was the family business.” There are three tedious poems about the flatlined Occupy movement, and a fantastic piece about an older Communist reacting to the collapse of the Berlin Wall: “I  didn’t know / what ideology was, but I understood / you were against joy on principle.”

Scheier sees himself as a populist poet, which creates some issues. The need to be accessible relies on the use of non-alienating language and imagery, but this tempering undermines many of the poems’ effects. In spots, the result is a simplistic corniness: “Maybe you were that kind of person, all along – / just waiting for me to deliver the perfect line. That’s what I like about movies.” As uneven as Letter from Brooklyn is, it is honest about love and loss in ways that are wise. Some of the most successful pieces, such as “Actual Pingpong” and “1989,” are about parents, expectations, and loss. Turner’s book moves into softer areas, too, including a series of poems that almost go Harlequin: “i want to translate your pain into beauty, want to inhale your longing and keep it safe within me. we are alone in this, but who is more connected than a sailor and a castaway.” The shift is jarring, and the scene described is emotionally  unmoving.

. . .

 I’m reminded yet again of how hard it can be to write something candid that’s not naked, definitive without being alienating, and passionate yet somehow fresh in expression. And I remind myself that it’s a good goal to want to write something honest and ferocious and tender enough, all at once, to make a truck driver bawl. Between these books, one seemed covered and smouldering, the other an unchecked open flame. If only Scheier had a bit of her fire, and Turner a bit of his heat.

Review for National Post: “The Truth About Luck” by Iain Reid

iainLast Saturday, my grandparents were sitting in the half-light of their awning-shaded, giant picture windowed, little bungalow living room. Kris Kristofferson was crackling from a boombox that used to live in the garage, and now rests on a chippendale-style side table. My grandparents were born in 1928; I’ll spare you the mental math: this makes them 85 years old. They were talking, yet again, of “down east”—an expansive term that actually refers to the microscopic abode of Blackville, New Brunswick, where they were born. But this day’s story was a brand new one, spurred by the recent death of Stompin’ Tom Connors: it turns out they knew and grew up surrounded by his entire extended family. Suddenly, the room was full of laughing reminiscences—how Stompin’ Tom looked just like (and was apparently named after) a certain uncle; how one family member, my grandfather exclaimed, told so many fibs he just  had to keel over. And so on. Spending time with your grandparents as an adult is different than as a child: it moves from all-comfort, to large-part revelation.

Iain Reid’s newest book, The Truth About Luck, rejoices in this blend of intergenerational familiarity and serendipity. He is from a close-knit family and has long-known his 92-year-old grandmother; this is in part what leads him to try and think of a meaningful gift for her fairly significant birthday. For a moment, he settles on a scented candle—everyone likes candles, right? But, in brainstorming with his brother, it dawns on him: why not, instead of buying things, spend time? From there, he decides to take Grandma on a trip, maybe a road trip. But the this idea contracts soon after the rush of discovery: Reid begins to reconsider the logistics—his beater of a car, his lack of funds—and scales back the idea back somewhat. He decides to bring Grandma from her town, Ottawa, to his, Kingston. That’s still a trip! This turns out to either be a prescient or genetically-motivated move: Grandma recounts how she and her husband George (now deceased) used to love to take micro trips—one time going only as far as a motel a few blocks away. Grandma is just as happy to go to Kingston as anywhere else.

When we write about older people, there can sometimes be that distancing “otherness” creeping in, or an obligatory nostalgia, or clichés about wisdom, but Reid avoids all of this shorthand precisely because he is so mindful and earnest. My heart clapped when he wrote: “Oldness wasn’t a negative. It was just a verity I was aware of. I didn’t fear or resent it.” While he frets about how to keep Grandma entertained or what he should cook, in his descriptions of her, you can feel his genuine love and respect. It’s is a far cry from, say, something cynical like S**t My Dad Says. The Truth About Luck has no sensationalism, no outrageous insensitivity that compels you laugh out of guilt. Just two people getting to know one another better, being considerate of one another, enjoying three square meals, and…reminiscing about adventures during the war?

It turns out, Grandma, for all her sweetness and amenability, has a decisively challenging—and impressive—backstory as a nurse on the frontlines. She speaks openly of missing her siblings in those tumultuous times (and now—she is the last surviving member of her siblings), and of her deceased husband, George. This is the heart of the book, really—Grandma’s memories (both before Iain, and of Iain), and her insights. Reid, for all his initial nervousness over silence between them or rain drowning his plans, begins to relax and starts prompting her to talk more about her life.

And there’s so much to be gained from spending time with Grandma. At one point, she advises that, with your partner, you must sometimes go to bed angry. But, there’s a workaround: “…[if] you’re mad at your wife, wait for a while, until she’s definitely fallen asleep. Give it a bit of time. Then roll over and just have a look at her. Then you’ll know how you feel. That’s the important part, the looking.” I was reminded slightly of a DeLillo line: “Watching children sleep makes me feel devout, part of a spiritual system.” Certainly, we should try to maintain this feeling—perhaps keep up this activity—through our lives. I did what Grandma said, after it made me tremble. And it worked.

Ian Reid, full disclosure, writes regularly for the National Post; I’ve never met him. But those of you who’ve read his articles, as I have, will recognize his trademarks—his unfussy language, his dry sense of humour, his sincerity. Many writers would probably agree with Grandma’s observation that the important part is the looking. That’s another outcome of this book: how inspiration emerges for a writer. Reid wasn’t looking for a book when he arranged this 5-day hangout with his grandmother. But by paying close attention, he realized how remarkable Grandma really was, that this deserved recording and sharing. That quote from Leonard Cohen, “If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash” turns out to be true both for Grandma’s stories, and Reid’s book.

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Posted March 21, 2013 at The National Post: http://arts.nationalpost.com/2013/03/22/book-review-the-truth-about-luck-by-iain-reid/

Review of “The Atlantic Ocean” by Andrew O’Hagan

atlanticocean-175x250In a recent, short article, I itemized a few need-to-know UK-based writers; almost inevitably, someone took umbrage with my exclusion of certain names. A few suggestions were not known to me—though they were prominent and successful in their native land. I pondered how it is culture gets exported across the ocean—how successful game shows can get syndicated within a season, or tabloid media as far the U.K. regularly chase down Pitt-Jolie, but one of the world’s greatest living essayists, Andrew O’Hagan, is not yet a household name in North America.

O’Hagan has written for the London Review of Books for twenty years and is also a successful novelist and dramatist. Much (though not all) of O’Hagan’s material has oriented itself in literature and within the UK (his birthplace is Scotland, and he resides in London). O’Hagan has just signed on to contribute regularly for the Times, so his reputation as a literary critic will continue to grow. But The Atlantic Ocean, an anthology of essays from the past 20 years that was published in the UK in 2008, has just been released in North America, and that is the real news, as this book encompasses the breadth of depth of his oeuvre: it includes plenty of London and plenty of literature, yes, but it also covers the Iraqi war, Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, James Baldwin, Hurricane Katrina, the demise of farming, metero magazines, and more.

The title serves as a metaphor for both the physical distance, and the cultural ebb and flow, between US and British cultures. However, the book opens not into an expansive but rather a claustrophobic setting: by the Liverpool train tracks, just out of CCTV range. O’Hagan recounts his (and the public’s) reaction to the infamous murder of a toddler by a pair of ten-year-old boys in 1993. The case was noted for the defendants’ shocking youth and for the justice system’s unpreparedness in handling child offenders. O’Hagan’s essay divulges how struck he felt by the ordinariness of the two accused, how banal violence was for him in his youth. He confesses to terrible acts he and his friends performed with other friends and helpless animals, out of sheer lack of anything else to do, and countless unsupervised, unstructured hours to fritter away. As he announces elsewhere in the book: “There is something very English in the marriage of boredom and catastrophe.”

This essay makes for an unsettling introduction, not only in what it shares but in what it demands. O’Hagan’s gift as an essayist is not only for argument, but for developing the reader’s capacity to feel enormous empathy. Through his own confession, we are forced to trust a seemingly morally ambiguous narrator, yet we are also forced to remember whether weever did anything cruel or senseless in our youth, something that could have all too easily escalated; whether we knew anyone who was dangerous, who could have led us down the dead end of violence in the name of fun. Are any children truly innocent? And the adults outside the trial, calling for the boys to be hung—are they justified in their blood-thirst? Did these kinds of people perhaps create this kind of children?

O’Hagan, like any good artist, asks open-ended questions of his audience. But he also makes firm assertions: he lays a lot of blame for societal change and breakdown on the ascendancy of Thatcherism/Reganism. The widely accepted (and long-debunked) myth of “trickle-down-economics” perhaps didn’t invent, but bolstered, some part of the stingiest part of a people’s spirit, and assuaged any shame that people may have felt over the primacy of “self-interest.” Thus we have, in “On Begging,” a thorough exposé of homeless people trying to navigate the social safety net, which like a sieve is designed for dripping.

Since that era, rampant homelessness has remained a normalized feature of our daily lives, in major cities on both continents. We don’t have to consider what the presence of street people says about us, or how easy it may be to wind up there; instead, we devise handy post-rationalizations for why we need not help. This logic is revealed in O’Hagan’s original online post of this essay at the London Review of Books site, in 1993. Someone commented (I paraphrase): ‘You’ve given me one more reason not to give to homeless people; after all, they could merely be journalists in disguise.’ The only other comment on the article, for good measure, was from the great essayist Christopher Hitchens, who shares an anecdote about a vegetarian politician who didn’t give handouts in case the needy spent it on meat!

In “The American Dream of Lee Harvey Oswald,” O’Hagan revisits the scene of the JFK assassination. At museums and historic sites, he is overcome by America’s ability to turn tragedy into identity—to make narrative out of senseless events. You could say this holds an appeal for him—after all, the narrative impulse is part of a writer’s synaptic structure. He is, however, repulsed at the triviality of people selling JFK trinkets along the grassy knoll—and perhaps this speaks to his guilt, as writers are thieves, somewhat, or at the very least opportunists. He warns more than once about the danger of permitting a writer into your home.

One reviewer called this book “an elegy for the pastoral,” but that is not expressly true. What makes this book so fascinating is that there are two knotted threads about the past that the reader must unravel, related to the public versus the private spheres of life. In terms of the public sphere—politics, economics, mass entertainment—O’Hagan feels Great Britain may have been better before, without so much foreign influence. In “On the End of British Farming,” O’Hagan demonstrates how domestic policies and international treaties have been devastating British production for decades.

But in terms of private life, O’Hagan most certainly has no nostalgia for Great Britain’s historical, fierce class divisions, having crawled out from the underbelly. “Everyone is middle class,” is something I remember Michael Moore saying with sarcasm, and something Romney said this past election campaign earnestly. England ascribes to this as well, as untrue as neighborhoods like Notting Hill prove it to be.

One of the most connective threads in this book—without ever saying that dirty word—is class. In an essay that served as an introduction to James Baldwin devastating book, Go Tell it on the Mountain, O’Hagan speaks bleakly about James Baldwin’s life as a descendent of slaves, victim of segregation, and long-suffering resident under the church’s fire-and-brimstone thumb. James Baldwin had to work his entire life to be recognized for what he was most naturally: a black, gay, brilliant man. No doubt O’Hagan relates on some level to his class struggle and much admires Baldwin’s ability to transcend other grave and unjust limits the world tried to place on him.

Class and guilt are the two most recurrent and riveting themes in this book, and most of these essays can be viewed through these dual-prescription lenses. “After Hurricane Katrina” follows two foul-mouthed men who volunteer to participate in the clean-up. No one invited them, but they feel a calling; in their flawed way, they are overcoming the alienation of being no-accounts, becoming in that American way, their own heroes. In “Saint Marilyn,” O’Hagan writes of how she thought, tragically, that acting “could save her from self-doubt.” In both essays, characters perform a role in order to compensate for an early-life injustice, to re-write their own narrative; and great machines (the military, the entertainment industry) are fueled by that unending need.

The book is almost bookended by the piece, “The Boy Who Mistook His Life for a Crime,” which, seventeen years later, revisits his first essay about the child murderers who have haunted O’Hagan. He feels he escaped a similar fate almost by luck. It sounds bleak, but optimistically, he writes: “It’s said you can’t unmake your childhood. But you can. You can unmake it every day of your adult life.” For a writer, and for readers, that unmaking might be the vastest and most important expanse any of us ever have to cross.

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Reviewed for The Rumpus. Published Feb. 21, 2013