#59 – Varieties of Disturbance, by Lydia Davis

I hate to say it (you have no idea how much, I assure you), but I was not particularly impressed by this book. “We Miss You,” the remarkable piece Mr. Beattie wrote about in August was one of the few bright lights for me in this collection. The kind of work that so impressed me in Samuel Johnson is Indignant, the one or two sentence prose-poems, the meditations and koans, often seemed little more than filler here. The longer works, like “Cape Cod Diary” and “Helen and Vi,” length not being one of Davis’ strong points to begin with, seemed to collapse under their own weight like dying stars. Another story I disliked, and this is most likely due almost exclusively to my own prejudices as a reader, since I find that Diane Schoemperlen has one or two stories that I dislike for similar reasons, was “What You Learn About… Continue Reading

#58 – Cockroach, by Rawi Hage

Packed deep in the centre of Cockroach is a powerful moral disconnect, a narrator struggling to place himself in a world of shifting rights and wrongs, all wrapped in the framework of the immigrant experience. Rawi Hage never glamourizes immigrant life in Montréal, but despite the frankness with which he depicts its various confusions, humiliations and consolations, he writes with such verve, with such wit and energy, that Cockroach never feels dreary or oppressive. Instead one is swept along by the narrator’s amazingly compelling voice; it makes even the most fantastic elements of the novel feel genuine. I found myself missing that voice long after I finished the book. Hage’s characters are not likeable people; if I met any one of them on the street I’m certain that I wouldn’t like a single one. I doubt I would even find them all that interesting. But on the page they crackle… Continue Reading

#57 – Rust and Bone, by Craig Davidson

I find myself frequently on the lookout for books, Canadian books in particular, that deal explicitly with issues of masculinity. Given all the controversy in the last several years over things like the ratio of male to female prize winners and bylines in magazines (not something I put a huge amount of stock in, but whatever), you’d think books like that would be pretty easy to find. It turns out they aren’t. Rust and Bone isn’t really about masculinity, of course. It looks like it is, what with the emphasis on various blood sports and failed or failing relationships (no matter how stoic the man, no matter how rough-and-tumble, we can each of us be swiftly and thoroughly demolished by a woman). This book is about anatomy. The titular story opens with a fascinatingly detailed description of the bones of the hand that leads into an equally detailed and fascinating… Continue Reading

#56 – Once, by Rebecca Rosenblum

I’d been anticipating the release of Rebecca Rosenblum’s debut book since I first read her work in The New Quarterly‘s Salon des Refusés issue (it turns out that I’d been running into her on the blog circuit for quite a few months prior to that, though). I don’t often keep my eye on what’s being published in any given year. I don’t make very much money, and since new books cost more than old books, and I still have a great many classics that I want to read, as a rule I tend to buy and read older books almost exclusively. Once is a worthy exception to this rule. I suppose I might be spoiling the plots of a few of the stories I discuss below, but like with most literary fiction, the plot really isn’t the point (nor is it the best part or Rosenblum’s fiction, so I don’t… Continue Reading

#55 – Adult Entertainment, by John Metcalf

Being a relative newcomer to the Canadian literary scene (I think it’s safe to say that I’ve only been aware of “the scene” for about six or seven years, which makes me a definite newcomer), John Metcalf’s books are like UFOs. People talk about Metcalf and his books. Some people even claim to have read them (especially people who have been around since the ’70s). Bringing up his name is always controversial. But what happens if you go out looking for his books on your own? You’re not likely to find one at all. Bad UFO metaphors aside, here in Toronto, the capital of Canada’s publishing industry, I had to go to nine bookstores to find even a single copy (I found two, both used and both nearly two decades old), and the staff at less than half of those stores even knew who I was asking about. Mr. Metcalf’s… Continue Reading

#54 – Flight Paths of the Emperor, by Steven Heighton

Flight Paths of the Emperor marks my third consecutive book by a Salon des Refusés author. I was much impressed by the short story, “Five Paintings of the New Japan”, which was reprinted in the New Quarterly‘s contribution to the Salon, and when I found a copy of the first printing of this book two weeks ago I jumped on it. (The image on the cover of my edition is the same as the one shown, but the design and layout of the cover as a whole is quite different.) It’s not difficult to explain what holds these stories together; they all seem to be about Canadians experiencing Japanese (or in one story, Chinese) culture, and butting heads with that culture, and with their own assumptions. Many of the characters and settings seem to carry over from one story to the next. That doesn’t sound very exciting, I know, but… Continue Reading

Point of Order

Regular readers (or even readers who have read none of this site except the last post) will know that I’m currently reading Steven Heighton’s Flight Paths of the Emperor, and should be done with it in the next day or so. When I am finished with that, I will begin reading Rawi Hage’s Cockroach, which arrived in the mail this morning. I was given the book so that I would write a short review to be published elsewhere, and as such I don’t want to post a full review here until after the short one has been published in that venue, which will not be until October at the earliest. So: though it will actually be book #55 for the year, my review will have it labeled as #56 or more likely #57. This may not be a particularly important detail to most of you, but it’s important to me… Continue Reading

#53 – Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, by Mark Anthony Jarman

I picked this book up because of Mr. Beattie‘s appreciative essay in the Salon des Refusés issue of Canadian Notes and Queries. I hope that he won’t mind my quoting from it. He wrote: The only thing that can be said definitively about Jarman’s stories is that they do not resemble the kind of blandly naturalistic pieces of psychological realism that are normally associated with Canadian short stories. […] Some writers write from the head, others write from the heart. Jarman writes from the gut. Jarman’s stories are not places to turn for comfort or succour. He is a ridgidly unsentimental writer, who eschews pat resolutions and reassuring platitudes. […] Instead, he writes subversively about outcasts and roughnecks, men who are desperately trying to eke out an existence on the margins of a society that seems ferociously inimical. The stories are told with a heightened awareness of language and its… Continue Reading

#52 – Red Plaid Shirt, by Diane Schoemperlen

Diane Schoemperlen is one of my favourite authors. Her short story collection, Forms of Devotion, is among my favourite volumes of short fiction, Canadian or otherwise. I’ve had Red Plaid Shirt sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for quite some time now, alongside Our Lady of the Lost and Found. I was saving it for a time when I felt really excited about short fiction, and thanks to the recent Penguin/Salon controversy, that time is now. Imagine my disappointment, then, to learn that many of these stories are from previous collections. It was only outweighed by my joy at learning that Schoemperlen had written more than four books. For some reason, when Forms of Devotion was released, none of her works before In the Language of Love were ever mentioned. I can only imagine that’s because they are out of print, but I now at least know there… Continue Reading

#51 – The Girls Who Saw Everything, by Sean Dixon

I read The Girls Who Saw Everything based almost solely on Mr. Beattie’s recommendation, and was well rewarded. Dixon’s novel was playful and witty, absurd and serious, emotionally complex and fully engaged with literary culture (though not disconnected from how that culture is viewed from the outside). I was quite shocked then, to learn that Dixon is not primarily a writer of prose fiction, but rather a playwright and actor. Dixon seems quite at home in prose, and the book was a joy to read. Were it not for my inability to look away from the CBC’s coverage of the Olympics I would have finished this days ago, perhaps even on the day I began it. The brilliantly named Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Women’s Book Club is a collection of fascinating eccentrics, though their taste in literature is at times questionable (In the Skin of a Lion their favourite novel?… Continue Reading