Friday, February 13, 2015

Anita Lahey

The Mystery Shopping Cart
by Anita Lahey
Palimpest Press, 2013

This book is subtitled "Essays on Poetry and Culture," which is sort of true, but there is enough variety in this collection of literary non-fiction to also make it untrue. 

The middle section includes a number of interviews, for example, one with Alice Munro about on one particular short story. 

The title also comes from a remembrance piece, a eulogy, which is touching and poignant. 

Then at the end of the book is an extended - and excellent - essay on eulogies. 

Which is to say, there is much more than poetry addressed here, and to sum up the rest as "culture" is misleading.

But what a quibble! 

Instead let me sum up this book by praising Anita Lahey for her calm, cool erudition and for sharing her evident passion for Canadian letters, both recent and in the deeper past. We get considerations of P.K. Page and Gwendolyn MacEwan. We get an interview with John Barton and Stephanie Bolster. We get Alice Munro. And much more. 

Poets who kickbox, box and weight lift!

Lahey avoids the poetry wars, only saying at one point she like reviewers to take a stand. Don't be boring! Lahey is not boring, but her tone is often detached, ruminative. Her deep dive into the eulogy as a form is no accident. She has a reflective mind and a curious one. The mystery of the shopping cart is, therefore, an appropriate title image. 

There is an oddness in the every day and Lahey is determined to contemplate it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Mark Sampson

I participated in a literary reading series in 2010, and Mark read from his manuscript in progress, which later became Sad Peninsula (Dundurn, 2014).

It was impressive in progress, and it remains impressive in final form.

The sad peninsula is Korea, and the story cleverly riffs on John Donne's famous line, "No man is an island," noting on a peninsula you are always connected to something larger.

Connection and its challenges is a theme deeply engrained in the two main stories that alternate chapters in the novel. In one, the first-person narrator, Michael, tells of his two plus years in Korea as an English teacher. He eschews the dance clubs and fast sex chased by many of his North American colleagues and instead recounts his slow moving romance with a young professional Korean woman, Jin. They bond initially over a common admiration for the work of Milan Kundera.

The second story reaches back in history to tell the story of a teenaged girl taken from Korea by the Japanese military during the Second World War. She becomes one of many "comfort women," who exist in stalls in compounds to be raped by Japanese soldiers upwards of 35 times a day, day after day. According to Wikipedia, "Estimates vary as to how many women were involved, with numbers ranging from as low as 20,000 to as high as 360,000 to 410,000."

Spoiler alert. Ultimately, the two stories converge. It is Jin's great aunt who was forced into sex slavery.

But there's more than this neat narrative hookup that connects the parallel stories. For one thing, the entire novel is saturated with sex, from the extreme torture of multiple rape, to the casual pickup culture of the dance clubs, to the slow burn sexuality of Jin and Michael as they date for months and months before consumating their forbidden love.

Forbidden? Not really, but the tension between the modern and the traditional is never far away. And here, of course, is where Korea is struggling with its soul. What to be? Which is the second thing that connects the two narratives. Before WWII, Korea was a colony of Imperial Japan, and its identity was weak. Following WWII, Korea was divided between the West and the Communists. After the Korean War, the South is strongly aligned with the USA and implements a ferocious capitalism. The modern and the traditional, at the macro and micro levels, struggle to co-exist, caught in an endless feedback loop.

As narrator, how much of this does Michael understand? He is smart, sensitive, caring, alert, but also sometimes in over his head. Jin brings him into her life, into her family, tells him things she has told no other, but - spoiler alert - ultimately decides she cannot stay with him: "I need to be Korean."

The reader can only wonder what she means by this. She is approaching thirty, and she tells Michael she will never marry because she has had relations with too many men. She is laden with shame. This is the third thing that connects the two stories, because shame is what burden's Jin's great aunt, though - it must be noted - she does find a husband following the war, and she has a complicated marriage that fails. Eun-young's experience is extreme, yet Jin says she is caught in the same tide of cultural expectation and control ... a control she chooses to remain tied to (she decides not to go to Canada with Michael when he returns home).

Sad? For Michael, yes. For the reader, sure. For Jin, who knows. One wonders what will become of her. Will her retrenchment into a cultural nationalism make her life happier, more meaningful? Or is she just repeating the errors of her family, her mother in particular?

Interestingly, it is Eun-young, the one who is most broken, most alienated, who moves farthest to reconciliation at the end of the novel. She visits, finally, the institution set up in Seoul to house aging comfort women, a place that includes a museum and the thing that Eun-young had been lacking all of her adult life, community. On a peninsula, you are always connected to something larger than yourself.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Leanne Simpson

Fragmentary in structure and written without the standard capital letter at the start of sentences, Islands of Decolonial Love (ARP, 2013) is what it proclaims to be in its title. Some of the pieces present as short stories, some present as poems. There is an audio component, which can be found at the publisher's website.

The pieces frequently make use of Indigenous words, which are translated in footnotes. The overall experience is one of entering the colonial space that is being deconstructed by storytelling, or maybe just call it the reality of Indigenous Canada.

"right off the bat," begins the story *buffalo on*, "let's just admit we're both from places that have been fucked up through no fault of our own in a thousand different ways for seven different generations and that takes a toll on how we treat each other. it just does."

Many of the pieces are as short as a couple of pages, some a bit longer, but not much. Love and the search of intimacy between people is a frequent concern. Though (obviously) written, many of the pieces are examples of oral storytelling, and include a diversity of voices presented on the page.

There is much complication here, much intensity, even in the relative simplicity of the pieces themselves. The focus is not just interpersonal, it is, as the quotation above suggests, the legacy of the past on the present and pressures on people to live well, thrive, and sustain communities and places.

Hooray, Leanne Simpson. Check out her other work!


Gender Failure

I'm giving this five out of five stars because I can't imagine how it could be different. It is pretty perfect in what it is and does.

Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon alternate short chapters through the book, telling a range of stories about how they were born assigned female and then left that identity behind, or tried to.

The tried to part is, of course, dealing with other people, dealing with social expectations, getting caught in the gender binary, where you only have two options, M or F.

Both Coyote and Spoon tell about how they moved through many different options. They each call themselves gender failures. Spoon writes powerfully about how they (meaning Spoon, who has adopted this pronoun) has retired from gender. Each repeatedly tells stories about how they were misidentified, misrepresented, left to explain themselves over and over, often giving up and going with the socially expected flow, simply to board an airplane, or complete any number of ordinary activities. Make a living.

For the reader, this constant misrepresentation is exhausting and deeply saddening. One can hardly imagine having to perpetually live it.

This book began as a multimedia show that Coyote and Spoon toured. It includes song lyrics and photographs from that show. As a book it works fine. The stories of the two run parallel and sometimes cross. Their voices are distinct, and they also amplify each other. Coyote tells the story of having breast removal surgery, after two decades of binding them. Spoon writes of the evolution of her musical career.

Evolutions, shifts and changes is the key here. How each captures the unfolding of their lives underscores the unknowingness of selves. We are never one thing, singular, locked down forever. The book is the stories of two trans, but it also reveals universals, if we care to listen. How to be a self, how to connect that self to others, how to overcome and protect oneself from other people's bullshit. The building blocks of life. Great book.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shawn Syms

Nothing Looks Familiar
by Shawn Syms
Arsenal, 2014

Eleven strong, tender short stories that follow the contours of the every day, including sending out shockwaves of the unexpected, which, after all, is part of every day.

Put another way, there is much in Nothing Looks Familiar that is familiar. These are not stories that strain towards oddness. If anything, they are comfortable in their normalcy, until suddenly they're not.

Syms has a plainspoken style and a painterly eye for detail. The reader is easily placed in each scene and is connected well to every character. Motivation is never a mystery.

These are stories warm of heart that eschew cynicism, but neither are they shy or "safe." Portraits of our contemporary world, these stories help us face ourselves and feel alive. Here and now.

Did I have a favorite? Maybe "Family Circus" - a mother of young children is scheming how to escape her drug den / ID stealing household ... Okay, not so "normal", but the narrative voice is calm, cool, collected. All goes to hell, but the kids end up alright, which was all the mother wanted. A happy ending, but an unfamiliar one. It's really quite brilliant. Bravo.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Sheila Heti

How Should a Person Be?
by Sheila Heti
Anansi, 2012

So I liked this book, quite a lot, but as I've thought about what I would write about it, I've become muddled about why.

What should a review be?

Clear? Concise? Searching? Uncertain? Open to interrogation? Defiant?

Enough with the question marks.

First off, the fact that the protagonist is named Sheila and the author is named Sheila is a fact that I am not going to consider from this point forward, but readers beware. Something is afoot.

What? Don't ask me.

Sheila (protagonist) is pretty fucked up. She's graduated high school, plus quite a bit more, and she doesn't know how to "be." Poor her, except not really.

Sheila's pretty stuck up, she's pretty self-involved, she's narcissistic as all get out. At least she is at the beginning, where she tells us she entered a three-year marriage for not the best of reasons. Ended it without really explaining why, either to the readers or her husband. And this is where we find her, divorced, twenty-something, lost, seeking an ideal state of "being," discovering a female best friend, something she's never had before, Margot.

Margot is a painter, brilliant by all accounts, and she enters an "ugly painting" competition with another young painter. This competition frames the book. The painters seek beauty in their work, and they challenge themselves to make the most ugly painting they can. Margot's competitor (male) doesn't think she can. She delays doing so for nearly the entire length of the book. He yanks it off quickly.

When I was at the University of Toronto for a Master's Degree in English, I took a seminar on teaching at the university level. It was really for the PhD students, but I was interested. One of the senior academics, a world-renowned critic, told a story about how she had put a book on her syllabus that she hadn't read. On the first day of class she asked the students: "What can we learn from the first page?"

For some reason, this story came back to me as I was reading Heti's book. You can tell a lot about this book from the first page. It's a fantastic first page. But on page three, there's a phrase that rivals the "prostitute" quote at the beginning of Catcher in the Rye: "We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists." Except the use of prostitute is explicitly metaphorical, and the use of blow-job artist is not quite. But should be read that way. But not quite.

Read the first page, and BAM! You're on your way. And what the fuck is up with Sheila? I mean, really. Is it all in her head?

Dickensian this novel is not. The sensory details are all but absent. You want description, sights, smells, taste, touch, any sensory details at all ... this novel is not for you. Existential dread is what this novel is all about. And THANK GOD someone else in Canadian literature has done THIS. Heti is not alone, but THANK GOD ALMIGHTY AND THE SEVEN DWARFS that she undertook this project. Break free of memory, loss, and historical realism, please, please, please the rest of you.

Okay, I've gotten another glass of wine, and I've calmed down.

Yes, there is sexual frankness in this book. Heti told the Guardian she loves "reading people who write well about sex. I love dirty books! I think there's a way of talking about the human that can be quite profound. I tried Fifty Shades of Grey but three pages in I realised I just couldn't read it. It was like every sentence was written by a different writer."

That quotation begins with the four words: "I love Henry Miller." The Guardian apparently loves Sheila Heti, because what a trove of links! Here's a complete summary of the book under review. And a quotation from that summary:

Email from Israel to Sheila. 1) I want you to gag on my cock again. 2) I want you to show off your pussy to a tramp.
Email from Sheila to Israel. 1) OK, but on one condition. 2) You let me put my head up your arse.

Oh, Israel. What are we to make of this? Metaphor? Hot guy?

He's hot. He's misogynistic. Sheila repeatedly complains about "another man who wanted to teach me something." She also compares herself to Moses, who is her leader, not Jesus, who is the leader of the Christians. In case you were confused about that.


Ah, there's something going on here that is above me. I've decided to just flounder. Floudering is a strategy often deployed by Sheila. I can't say it often works for her. She leaves her husband without much explanation, then she leaves Margot without explanation either. Sheila takes herself to New York (from Toronto, yay), deciding it's best for her and everyone else that she leave. Not that she discussed this with another else.

Did the burning bush tell her? Are we expected to think so? Briefly, I think. Then Sheila realizes not. Margot is really fucking pissed off at her. Sheila begins to realize that her identity is not cast in some idealized sphere, but it is dependent on her closest, most loving relationships.

But I may be projecting my own crap on that.

Judaism. Let's not lose sight of that. This is a diaspora novel, which I didn't expect. It's not a "late-capitalist" novel, as one back cover quotation claims. Well, maybe it is, sort of. But while Sheila has some money anxiety (she works for a while in a hair salon), she frames even that experience as an opportunity to "be" in the best possible way, and the best possible way is to be Jewish. Like Moses. Lost in the desert. Called to greatness but ill-suited for it. Driven to exhalation and struggle.

Wow. This book goes from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs. Henry Miller? Whatever.

Heti has pulled something off here that is unique and remarkable. What? Fucked if I know.

*** Bonus track: Jeanette Winterson on Henry Miller. What?!

Oh, I read the "new and expanded paperback edition." Thought I should note that. 

Also, my buddy who teaches Cegep in Montreal assigned this book to his students without reading it. I told him my UofT story. His students were only 16-17. I said, Oh, boy. Look out. 

Funny story, I noted on Goodreads that I'd started to read this book and a couple of days later I got notice asking if I wanted to take part in a forum or something about Heti's new book, women's clothes or something. No, thanks. Freaky.

What should I wear? I dunno. We live in an age of some really great dressers.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Michelle Berry

So Rob Ford, mayor of Toronto in name only for another five weeks (until the election), has cancer. His cancer may or may not be lethal. He started chemotherapy this week, and from what his doctors have told the media, I gather no one knows what is going to happen. I wish him well.

Ford's doctors have told the media that his cancer is aggressive (which is bad), but it generally responds well to treatment (which is good). Three years ago I sat in small clinic room at Princess Margaret Hospital and heard a doctor describe the exact same scenario to my wife, who had breast cancer.

"What would you rather have," he asked, "a non-aggressive cancer, or one that doesn't respond to treatment?" (We agreed that having a cancer that responds to treatment sounded better. Not having cancer, wasn't on the menu.)

The best article I've read that describes this impossible-to-be-in dilemma is a piece called "Living with Cancer: Truthiness" by Susan Gubar (NY Times, April 4, 2013).

The disjunction between feeling all right and not knowing what verdict will come down causes all sorts of disruptions in the lives of the women in my support group. Judy finds herself fragmented by anxiety: whether she is watching a movie or dining out, part of her mind wanders off, worrying about a recurrence. Diane engages in “serious culling”: she keeps on going through her closets, bagging the stuff she hasn’t worn, and hauling it to Good Will so “the kids won’t find a mess afterwards.” Alison, no longer trusting her body, finds her world narrowing as the house becomes “her nest.” Like Sarah, I fear the interminable lining up for security surveillance and the coughing crowds at airports. But now at take-off, when (as always) I picture the plane crashing in flames, I joke to myself, “Not a bad way to go!”

Not knowing, sometimes called denial, sometimes called normal.

My wife died in May 2012. The aggressive cancer responded well to treatment, but it also never went away. Cancer is ingenious. It evolves to evade the poison. As my brother-in-law said after his sister died, "I take some satisfaction from the fact that the cancer died, too." There wasn't anything else that could kill it. Not for nothing, is cancer The Emperor of All Maladies.

Among other things, as Mr. Ford is now experiencing, cancer is an interference of the best made plans, and it is only one of the interferences that play like flies to wanton gods with a collection of neighbours in Michelle Berry's powerfully quiet new novel, Interference (ECW, 2014), set in a town very much like Peterborough, Ontario, where the author lives.

Truthiness is a common element among the cast of characters Berry introduces us to in this ensemble novel. There is no single protagonist, and no straight through line. As a novel, it resembles another newly released creative work, Richard Linklater's movie Boyhood, which is framed around the life of one character (boy, ages, from 6 to 18), but is really a portrait of a collective, the family. Interference takes place over a winter, and it is rife with anxiety, often related to the safety of children. Violence often appears to lurk around every corner, but the slasher (figuratively speaking) never appears.

Any parent will recognize these feelings as par for the course. Berry's brilliance here is to make us care about so many people all at the same time. She speaks truth about the prevalence of fear, and also battens down the anxiety with a flavour of hope that doesn't resort to sentimentality or naivete.

I could give more plot summary, but why give anything away. Here's how the publisher frames it:

From fall to spring, the inhabitants of Edgewood Drive in the small town of Parkville prove that the simplest lives can be intricate and complicated. The interwoven, layered narrative of Michelle Berry’s Interference moves between Senior Ladies Leisure League hockey, the unsure and awkward life of pre-teens and teens, suspected pedophilia, disfigurement, and cancer. In Interference, there is always someone watching, biding their time — and as this suspense builds the vivaciousness of a congenial neighbourhood, full of life and happiness as well as fear and sorrow, becomes at once more humorous, frightening, and real. 

Does the empty swing and the splash of red on the cover make your stomach churn? Good. Berry explores that churning with a sensibility fine tuned with calm reality (which is different from truth). She displays a sensitivity that is as large as it is remarkable.

Each of the chapters begins with a "found text." An email. A note home from school. A message to the team of female hockey players who stumble to a winning season over the course of the book, no matter how few pucks they put in the net. The tone of these notes is frequently jovial, and contrapuntal to the gist of much of the other action. The humour enlivens the book, and serves as a reminder, too, that even in the midst of catastrophe (or the fear of catastrophe) the beat of the absurd stampedes on.