Monday, 31 December 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Chris Czajkowski’s 'Ginty's Ghost'

  Ginty's Ghost and Annette Lapointe's Whitetail Shooting Gallery were the last books I wrote about in 2012. The Vancouver Sun will publish the Whitetail review next week; the one for Ginty ran on Dec. 29. 

Friday, 14 December 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Twelve+ Favourite Readings of 2012

   As someone who teaches lit and writes reviews of it, my reading habits tend to result less from browsing book aisles than in receiving review assignments and preparing for new courses. The benefit is that I read material that falls well outside of what I already know I enjoy (while the disadvantage can be having to force myself to finish books I feel are actively wasting my time and which—
were I not writing a review—I would likely have stopped reading after the first chapter). 

   The titles that really stayed with me in a positive way are listed below, in no particular order. A sub-category resulting from class readings and published as far back as 1974, deserve mention because they're so damned terrific.
   Throughout the year I reviewed a few titles that stayed with me like a taste that triggers a mild gag response. Mentioning them in a Least Favourite Readings of 2012 section was a temptation with bad karma, I figured. Then again, Margaret Atwood once asked, "If you see a person heading toward a huge hole in the ground, is it not a friendly act to warn him?" But her hole in the ground metaphor was referring to the political activism of dystopian novels, and not a book she didn't like. Is it best to let sleeping dogs lie? 

   New Readings, Published in 2012—

   Alain de Botton — Religion for Atheists
   Patricia Cohen — In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age
   Cheryl Strayed — Wild
   Tamas Dobozy — Siege 13
   Alix Ohlin — Inside
   Douglas Glover — "Attack of the Copula Spiders"
   Anne Fleming — Gay Dwarves of America
   Candace Savage — A Geography of Blood
   Anakana Schofield — Malarky
   Augusten Burroughs — This is How
   Cheryl Strayed — Tiny Beautiful Things

   Re-Readings, Dating From Before 2012—

   Alice Munro — Lives of Girls and Women
   J.J. Lee — The Measure of a Man
   J.M. Coetzee — Elizabeth Costello
   Don Hannah — The Wise and Foolish Virgins
   Jonathan Safran Foer Eating Animals 
   Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon — The 100-Mile Diet

Monday, 3 December 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Twelve+ Songs of 2012

  A song of the year...and some runners-up separated by thin line of hyphens that also represents a hair's breadth. The list makes no claim to quality. I'll leave that to music journalists. Instead, the motivation seems to be sharing the love. (And included for the sake of asymmetry: two guilty pleasures and one favourite discovery, dating from 2009.)

   1. "Pyramids" - Frank Ocean


   2."Night and Day (2 Bears feat. Trim Edit)" — Hot Chip
   3. "Kiko" — Dead Can Dance
   4. "All That is My Own" (feat. Cosey Fanni Tutti) — X-TG
   5. "Reason with Me" — Sinéad O'Connor
   6. "Wulfstan II" — Beak>
   7. "House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls" — The Weeknd
   8. "Her Fantasy" — Matthew Dear
   9. "NYC: 73-78" — Philip Glass & Beck
   10. "I'm a Sinner" — Madonna
   11. "A Ring on Every Finger" — Liars
   12. (tie) "Loner" — Burial / "Luxury Problems" — Andy Stott / "Ahora" - Daphni


   GP1. "Those Who Live for Love Will Live Forever" — Prince Rama

   GP2. "Payphone (feat. Wiz Khalifa)" — Maroon 5


   FDDF2009. "Let's Practise" — Lindstrøm & Christabelle

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Tips for Writing Success: Source Material (#3)

   Just past a damp alley on Abbott Street near Pender (Vancouver, Canada), 22 November, approximately 9:30 pm.
 Two leashed dogs are entangled with one another and a parking meter. The men walking the confused beasts—late 20s, indifferent to fashion—have abandoned that friendly sort of awkward exchange normally accompanying snafus like this
   It's possible they already know and dislike each other. Whatever the case they're furious and beginning to puff up and posture, and the verbal highlight could be heard as far as two blocks away—

    "If you touch my dog, I'll murder you. I WILL FUCKING MURDER YOU."

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Short Fiction Installment #1 (Humour Division): "Amazon Bestsellers Rank #525,448—Market-Driven Sequel Strategies"

    Last seen facing an uncertain but no doubt pained future of secrecy or self-denial in ho-hum River Bend City, Canada circa 1965, Winston Wilson—high school librarian, mamma’s boy, melancholic closeted homosexual, and protagonist of The Age of Cities—became part of that long history of literary heroes afflicted by oppressive circumstances and scant opportunities. 
    Wilson’s inventor, meanwhile, receives a royalty cheque ($37.71) on November 19, 2012, six years after publication; the accompanying statement of total sales brings him up to speed (891 copies worldwide, ebooks included).
    With the contemporary market in view, he maps out lucrative follow-up novels.

    The Age of Cities, Volume 2: Dangerous Crossings
    Surviving well past the age he expected, a weary, grizzled Winston travels by foot with a pale mute called the Boy. To the casual eye the pair might be father and son, and the landscape they trudge on a reflection of an unrelenting cold snap’s brute fact—thin drifts of snow, gusting winds, desolation.
    Winston and the Boy cross a stubbly corn field, ears and eyes alert, worried the visibility will draw unwanted attention from mortal foes hellbent on annihilating one another and any of the pitiful remnants of human civilization coming between them. The Boy tugs at Winston’s tattered sleeve, pointing in the direction of a skeletal poplar stand; the two sink to the ground. They expect to lay until nightfall, feeling only fear and damp cold seeping into their bones.
    Silent, Winston stares at the sky; blanketing grey clouds threaten snowfall. He recalls his mother Alberta decades before, walking towards the mailbox at the driveway’s entrance, spry and sharp-tongued as ever. Winston’s new existence of heartbreaking decisions and grave necessities began with her disappearance. The arrival of the alien Visitants and their unspeakable atrocities changed the tide of human history. Worse, the hubris of science and religion unleashed fearsome predators—heartless mechanical soldiers that turned against their very makers, and The Carmilites, a coven of heretical nuns whose unholy dabbling in black magic led to soulless ghouls with an insatiable thirst for blood.
    Winston has heard whispers about Discovery, a hidden sanctuary for survivors. If they can outsmart death-dealing patrols of Visitants, Mechans, and Carmilites, he and the Boy might reach safety.
    Tagline: Caught between a rock and hard places, two men undertake a perilous journey... toward Discovery.

    The Age of Cities, Book III: A Beautiful Winter Solstice Mystery
    Winston arrives home, bushed from the squabbling of the Library Committee. Preparing afternoon tea, Alberta tells him of a letter, an unexpected inheritance, and an offer too tempting to refuse.
    Months later they’ve left behind Canada and the dark doorway to their pasts for Stornoway Manor, situated in the northernmost reaches of Scotland. Overlooking the turbulent Sea of the Hebrides, the Wilsons gradually transform the Manor into an exclusive getaway, though one whose daily arriving guests—with unsavory motivations and weighty secrets—provide ongoing trials to the taxed but beloved innkeepers.
    When the stern abbot of the Obanpool Monastery at the far end of the valley is murdered, Winston and Alberta resolve to calm their guests by investigating the shocking crime. Along the stony passageways of the ancient building that supplies the Manor with renowned goat cheese, they discover hidden rooms as well as greed and deceit.
    As the doors to their own pasts open, the Wilsons must face unpalatable truths. With compassion and warmth, mother and son plumb the depths of the human condition, learning and growing as they restore order to the valley.
    Tagline: Seeking to solve a crime, mother and son unravel the mystery of the human heart.

    The Age of Cities—Reprise: Five Steps to Heaven
    Chaos! Global war! The epic struggle for souls! Reeling from the terrors that have overtaken the entire planet since the Day of Disappearances, Winston recalls events after a near fatal childhood accident, which he related to his mother while recuperating. Voice raspy in his hospital bed, Winston shared his remarkable experience: he’d visited Heaven. Skeptical at first, his patient mother saw the truth of his words when he revealed secrets about a miscarried child and a runaway cousin she’d never before shared with anyone.
    After watching his mother praying over his unconscious form, Winston’s young soul had floated up to a Land of Light. Wandering through the golden spires and lush peaceful forests, he came upon God and His kindly Son on majestic thrones. Before Winston drifted back to Earth, Jesus whispered in his ear that he’d soon be returning—with love and fire in his heart—for one final engagement with the Antichrist.
    Surveying the ravages to his home town and way of life since those days of childhood innocence, Winston falls to his knees in prayer. He knows Heaven will answer his call, but when?
    Tagline: The moment of truth is dawning. Are you prepared?

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Digression: Books I'm Not Reviewing—Freebies Sent from Media Relations, Or, "No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth."

   Though I don't drive and have in fact have never been the owner (proud or otherwise) of a driver's license, I'm moderately interested in car design. I read car reviews regularly, too, despite understanding that driving the model under assessment is little more than a pipe dream and that my knowledge of engine stats could fit inside a spark plug gap.

   One front-and-centre convention for publishers of new model reviews is the full disclosure. Here's one, for example, from Jalopnik

   (Full Disclosure: Ford wanted me to drive the new Fusion so bad they put me up in a delightful hotel room overlooking the Pacific Ocean. At dinner I ate pasta and was serenaded by a man with a guitar. I found it uncomfortable. Awkward. But at the same time strangely entertaining. Weird.)

   The idea for the declaration is self-evident: by revealing a potential cause for bias—in this instance being flown to the west coast and provided with luxe accommodations—the writer testifies to their lack of bias. The flight and hotel, while appreciated, in no way affect the outcome of the review.

   A few weeks ago a novel showed up at my office. Unsolicited, as all conglomerate and many independent publishers phrase it (as in: "We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts"). 

   No note accompanied the novel, but I guessed a minion from Media Relations had sent it to me because they were aware that I write reviews. I supposed their assumption, furthermore, was that I'd review the book, and, preferably, rather than simply writing a blog review, I'd contact a books section editor of a real newspaper and tell him or her, "I'd really like to review this book." Regardless of whether the review turned out to be laudatory or scathing (or somewhere in between), by choosing to write about it I'd be getting the word out about it in the most public of forums and basically performing a public relations service for the publisher and its author.
   By the way, the publisher of this book was esteemed, and also a subsidiary of a British multinational with over two billion dollars in revenue last year.
   The incentives to write, I presume, are the gift of a free book ($32.00; accepting 40% standard retail mark-up, that's $19.20 in wholesale costs to the publisher + shipping) and the pleasure I might receive from spending many hours reading it contents and then (hopefully) writing a review extolling its myriad virtues. 
   Perhaps as well there might be the 'vanity bonus' for me of seeing my name in print, or exerting some kind of enviable power—as in that old timey legend of inquisitorial theatre or restaurant critics who could singlehandedly make (or break) the reputation of a stage production or newly christened restaurant with a single column of glowing (or condemnatory) words.
   Including reading the novel and writing about it, the effort looked to be no less than twenty hours of labour. Hardly backbreaking and admittedly the kind of work I already perform, the (unasked for) contract being established by the Media Relations person began to sound like this:

   Dear Dr. Grubisic. Please accept this gift of a book from us. As a favour to us, we'd appreciate your writing a review of it. In doing so, you will greatly assist the author and, of course, the publisher. We took in over $2 billion last year, and for 2012, we'd like to beat that record! As a token of appreciation for your labour of love, this work you'll undertake, please enjoy your copy of the novel. We're certain you're likely to enjoy it. 
   We understand that reading the book and reviewing it takes up valuable time. While we'd like to fly you to a hotel in California where you could enjoy the view as you read, we cannot do that. Instead, here's the book, gratis, and delivered right to your door! 
   Although you may calculate that we're actually paying you about 96¢/hr (that is, if you make the effort to sell the book at a secondhand shop), we'd prefer you think of the contribution you are making to literary discourse. We're all in this for the love of literature, after all. Right?
All the best,

Media Relations

   The novel is currently sitting unread on a bookshelf in my office. I considered returning it, but then remembered the second half of the publisher's demand for no unsolicited manuscripts: "If you send an unsolicited manuscript it will be recyled unread."


Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Tips for Writing Success: (Copyright Protected) Source Material (#1)

   Hmm, for all the overheard conversations on a given week that can be utilized by the aspiring writer, sometimes a published phrase—as little as a single sentence—really nestles in the ear. 

   This week, for instance, the majority of conversations I heard before and after classes and on crowded, overheated buses to and from campus conveyed (1) complaints about being exhausted, (b) complaints about being overworked, and (c) expressions of yearning for vacations and/or the end of the semester. 
   In contrast, Janet Maslin's perfectly tart review of Justin Cronin's "epic and gripping tale of catastrophe and survival" (that description courtesy of his publisher)—the second book of The Passage Trilogy—includes a sentence composed of four words; it strikes me as concise and yet eloquently condemnatory. 
   Two of those words are—to borrow another word, which appears several times on every episode of Project Runway—inspiring: encouraging the creation of a character who embodies that very trait, or else a scene in which a character sees a play or attends an art opening or sits through a class lecture (or, indeed, reads a book) that's suffused with that quality.  

   Here's the sentence— 

   "It had insufferable pretensions." 

   Thanks, Ms. Maslin.


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Scott Hutchins' 'A Working Theory of Love'

   My review of a widely-hyped American debut novel ran this weekend
   Though the Sun's headline says something about the book falling flat, my own headline would suggest that the novel is okay and well-written, but not exactly the kind of story that grabs you by the throat while dazzling your mind with fresh ideas. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Tips for Writing Success: Source Material (#2)

    Swing Space, Class 103 (University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC), 30 October, approximately 10:45am.
   Two students have just presented a critical response to Jessica Mitford's "Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain," a chapter from The American Way of Death. Amongst other topics, the essay explains in grisly detail the process of embalming.

   "I'd never heard of embalming. I thought when you die they wipe your face a bit, put on some makeup, and then stick you in a coffin."


Sunday, 28 October 2012

Tips for Writing Success: Source Material (#1)


   [Frankly, I'm bored with posting comments about other people's books. Ditto for posting snippets of my own ill-starred novel. In the interests of blog evolution and giving back to the (literary) community, I'm embarking on a new endeavour: guaranteed overheard and relatively context free phrases trouvés
   If you like one, feel free to use it. The postings are a public service, and I consider them public domain.]

   Holiday Inn Express (Bellingham, Washington), 28 October, approximately 9:30 am.
   Two fiftysomething women and one of their mothers are seated at a table in the breakfast area (see photo for revealing details).

   "When they take jobs overseas, that's an act of terrorism. Giving jobs to foreigners while we're looking for jobs. It's plain terrorism."

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: The Rejection Letter

   Were there a new, adult-oriented volume in the Hardy Boys series called The Mystery of the Ambiguous Rejection Letter, I'd read it in a heartbeat. Others would too, I imagine: there must be a  ready market for the revelatory sleuthing of those two brothers.
   While knowing the truth isn't always what one actually desires (re: "Your ass does look fat in those jeans and you're a lousy lover and not a single soul welcomes your 'world-famous' fruitcake at Christmas"), having the ongoing mystery of rejection letters solved—or at least decoded—is something I'd welcome. (I think that right now; by tomorrow I might desire all the pretty white lies publishers send my way.)

   Consider Exhibit A (there's also Exhibit B, Exhibit C, Exhibit D, and so on; this example is merely the most recent to have appeared in my inbox):

Dear Brett:
Thanks very much for sending us [name of writing project] and sorry to have taken so long with it.
[Name of writing project] is certainly audacious, well-written and wonderfully cynical about the business of making movies. Despite its merits, however, we have reached the conclusion that the book just isn’t the right fit for our publishing program at this time. We wish you the best of luck placing this quirky insider novel of yours. It deserves to find a home.
Best wishes,
[Name of Acquisitions Editor]

  A letter such as this instigates a number of responses, not least of which is the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief (minus the acceptance part, which arrives much later if at all).

   There's also the Accept-at-Face-Value Response that tries to be rational and accepting (though in fact reading the words feels like being dumped by someone you felt attracted to, and the reason given for the breakup something terribly empty and vague, like "It's just not working out" or "We're not on the same page at this time, that's all"). 
   With a face-value reading, you (tragic, dejected, rejected, self-pitying) understand that there's your novel in front of you and their "publishing program" over yonder and, well, as Kipling wrote, "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." 
   You calmly tell yourself, "No big deal" and "It's the nature of the business" and hum (maybe after catching a Kelly Clarkson song while buying a carton of soy milk), "What doesn't kill you makes me stronger/Stand a little taller." 
   You remind yourself it's not personal, it's just business, and that the rejection in no way reflects your lack of talent. 
   Later, though, despite all the adult maturity and temperate acceptance, questions may arise. Such as: "What is this doctrinaire 'publishing program' exactly and why is it so narrowly defined?" and "What specific qualities does my writing have that make it a non-fit, a quirky outsider that the cool kids take pains to exile?" Even in the face of knowing better, these questions persist.

   Another reaction is the Classical Seer Manoeuvre. Ancient seers, you'll recall, read farm animal guts (in the manner of tea leaves today) for signs from the gods. The seer's interpretation would be heard by VIP generals or kings about to make empire-building decisions; after hearing what the guts spelled out, General A or King X proceeded accordingly. 

   Repurposed for letters of rejection, the seer/neurotic recipient of said letter, stares at the words with grave intent, seeking to extract the precise Platonic truth that floats below the illusory surface of the words themselves. 
   Stare, ponder, see beyond the mirage of surfaces: "audacious," now, does not mean "showing a willingness to take bold risks." Since it's part of the rejection, there's another, truer meaning to the word. Rather than being a positive, an indicator of admirable risk-taking or literary daring, then, it means "unsalable" or "too sexually graphic" or "this crosses the line into vulgar bad taste." 
   (There are compelling reasons for believing in the seer's strategy. If you don't, and prefer the face-value reading, the publishing is essentially stating, "Your book is audacious, but since our publishing program is categorically against audacity of any sort, you are not a good fit for us." You're correct to doubt that a publisher will say or believe that.) 
   Each word—"quirky," "well-written," "wonderfully cynical," "merit"—requires study, interrogation, interpretation in order to find its true meaning. Study all of them long and hard enough, and their truth will seep out and enlighten your previously befuddled mind. (All the while try to suppress the knowledge that often times seers were and are wrong.)

   Still other possible readings exist. 
   There's the every-word-is-diplomatic-doublespeak reading. 
   In this case, the truth is entirely absent from the letter. The truth is in fact simple: the publisher didn't like your book for reasons A, B, and C, and, furthermore, the publisher cannot imagine anyone who will so there's no aesthetic or economic reason to pursue a contract with you. 
   Instead of that painful, brutal response, the heart-of-gold letter writer opts for flattery ("It deserves to find a home") that, unfortunately, is so laudatory the recipient might mistake it for a letter of acceptance. Good means bad, maybe, or else good means good, but also something else...
   You'll go crazy with this approach. Think of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, maybe, and that trying to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time is one of the bases for that dystopia. 

   I was watching a documentary on PBS the other night, The Botany of Desire, and one of the segments discussed how marijuana's THC mimics a chemical that the brain produces naturally, all the time. Released to neural receptors, this chemical (and likewise THC) encourages us to forget. 
   The scientist theorized that evolutionary value of the chemical, speculating that humans need to forget because with so much stimuli (visual, auditory etc), our systems need to forget most of it to prevent us from being overwhelmed. Forgetfulness, then, is adaptive, a benefit of the evolutionary process.
    Take heart, you might tell yourself, knowledge of the rejection letter in your inbox will degrade and disappear, just like the knowledge of what you ate for dinner three Sundays ago. 
   Forgetfulness is good.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Ian McEwan's 'Sweet Tooth'

   [This commentary about Sweet Tooth refers to the particular 'secrets' of the novel's final chapter. If you dislike when people reveal plot twists the author purposefully leaves out until the conclusion, then please don't read what I've written because...well, for the obvious reason.]    

   Though I don't normally procrastinate, I did with my review for Sweet Tooth. Thankfully, my deadline wasn't really looming: the review is for an American publication, and the novel will not be released in the U.S. until November. As I was circling around my desk and readying myself to write, I realized two questions that bothered me needed to be answered beforehand. The first was "What is Sweet Tooth about, really?" and the second was "Why aren't I warming very much to McEwan's writing strategies?" Both questions seem straightforward until the final chapter. The revelations in that last bit force readers to reconsider the entire book.

   At a glance, the mechanics of the plot involve narration from the present day. The apparent narrator, Serene Frome, recalls her days in MI5 in the early 1970s. As for her life between 1975 and 2012 we learn nothing. As such, the novel invites us into that seductive world of espionage and superpower rivalry and secret missions and double agents, and so on, and, better yet, from the point of view of a lowly clerical worker (who's also regarded as a beautiful but ultimately lowly woman in a manly man's world). 
   As the plot progresses she's given a secret mission that requires her to deceive a young author: Serena poses as a representative of a funding agency that will enable this guy to write novels (and in doing so, he's also expected to produce literature that will serve the needs of democracy, capitalism, and generally the dominant ethos of the West). Serena falls in love with this graduate student, Haley, and grows more focussed on the state of her heart, her relationship with him, etc. And when, at (near) last, a journalist uncovers this secret plan (codenamed Sweet Tooth), MI5's scheme and her deceit become public knowledge.
   The final chapter reveals that the novel Serena's writer lover has been feverishly working on for the preceding several chapters of Sweet Tooth is none other than the story of Serena's history at MI5 and her stewardship of the Sweet Tooth operation. In other words, the novel is not McEwan narrating as Serena Frome. It is McEwan narrating as Haley who is narrating as Serena. The story, then, is not Serena's. Haley has wrested the story from her; and apparently for her betrayal of him he's told her story (and in doing so, arguably, made her appear vain and shallow and tiresome with her stereotypically feminine concerns). 

   After the initial surprise of that last chapter, any reader is forced to re-evaluate the preceding story. If until the final chapter you've wondered (as I did) why Serena's narration seemed to move increasingly away from the subject that might appeal most to a reader (early 1970s spy games told from a woman's POV) and instead veer toward "Does he love me?" and "And then we made love," well, mystery solved. Ditto the lack of information about Serena after 1973. 

   The novel shifts from one genre (ie, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy and its brethren) to a story about unreliable narration as well as, I suppose, betrayal and retaliation. When she re-rendered as a character in someone's plot (both McEwan's and Haley's) the personal investment Serena you've made in the story is necessarily reconfigured too. No longer truly about MI5 or espionage or the Cold War, Sweet Tooth turns into a small house of cards whose intricacy isn't especially dazzling or, to me, interesting. And when this edifice blows down, the loss barely registers.

   As for why I didn't close the book and say, "Wow, that twist sure caught me off guard and left me intellectually stimulated," it's because I felt tricked. And instead of being intrigued or mesmerized by the sleight of hand, my sentiment fell closer to being conned and ripped off. 

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Fiction Installment #32: (Part II, Ch 4, Jake) "Grunt Work"

 A Red Bull canister fell and clattered on the asphalt as Jake swung open the door. He tossed it into the pick-up’s empty bed. “Hey, Pig Pen,” he said, observing the litter—balled napkins and food wrappers lining the dash, empty energy drinks crowding the floor, and Styrofoam take-out strewn alongside water bottles on the bench seat. Nicos maintained the lustrous exterior of his vehicles with the anal-retentive standards of a military boot camp CO, but expressed a profound shift in philosophy for interiors. The weird split always struck Jake, who thought a mid-point between extremes seemed realistic, closer to cosmic balance; anyone comparing his desk and bedroom would notice matching tidiness levels.
    “Hey, boss, you know me. I like to nest.” Nicos swept discards to the floor and patted the seat. “Okay princess, now here’s a safe place for your hairy Royal Doulton ass.”
    Jake, bested by the subordinate’s rapid-fire brain, slid into position without a reply. Nicos revved the engine.
    “We ready to rock now?”
    “Go,” Jake said, relieved that the interior’s air-conditioner blew away any stench from Nicos’ putrefying snacks. As for the heavy smoker’s residue, he’d just man up about that and hold his tongue. He unlocked the phone and tapped out a message to Lora: “Tell me again, why’d we hire this guy!?!”
   A life-of-the-party personality, Nicos’ compulsion to talk ballooned exponentially when he’d passed long hours alone. Jake calculated that the Location Manager must have been solitary overnight in a motel and likely granted minimal contact during breakfast despite firm efforts at the quick fix of chatting up the waitress or diners at nearby tables. Sharing the cab now would not be too different from circulating in a room of desperate speed-daters eager to spill as many words as possible in their three-minute allotment of “Let me tell you all about me, please.” Stalling for time was possible, Jake could see, but texting work missives could grab only a few moments of privacy.
   Nicos’s mouth switched on as he shifted out of Park. “The compound’s not even ten kliks away,” he said, louder than necessary, “but the crash site is a fair bit of a haul. It’s out of the way for sure, but I figure the pay off is worth it. You’ll see. It blew me away, that’s for sure. A-f-ing-mazing, considering what we had to work with, anyway. It’s not exactly the Himalayas out there—it’s a fricking desert, well kind of a desert, technically the Osoyoos Arid Biotic Zone, but everyone says Okanagan Desert—so finding a sheer mountain face was no small feat. I mean, c’mon, Christ, talk about unreasonable expectations. Dunes woulda been a cinch. Even CGI woulda been easier, way easier.” Nicos turned to face Jake, drawing attention to the sloping Bob Hope nose—another incongruous item for slow-day office speculation. “But I lucked in anyway, chatted up these hippie wannabe dudes on longboards and they told me about this retired gravel pit that I would never a found by looking at any map. Sometimes I’m pretty impressed with myself. Yeah, it’s a gift, that’s all I can say.”
    From past truck ride episodes, Jake was fully aware that Nicos could—and would—say much more. “Hold on a sec. I need to get this sent,” Jake said. He tapped the glass, scanning old online profile messages and photos and waited for Lora’s reply. Being on location and away from city amenities always made his testosterone levels spike, he’d swear. Hormonal torment: maybe the herbal pill magic had begun kicking in, after all.
   “So, you were saying there’s nothing closer, eh?” Jake said, no longer able to ignore Nicos’ swiveling head and quests for eye contact.
    “You saw the pictures, right?” Nicos turned to Jake again, expression obscured by shuttered mountaineering sunglasses. “There’s some hills with a few scattered rocks, right, but nothing epic as per orders.” Nicos flipped through a binder, steering with one hand. “Here it is. See, the list of requirements actually put in ‘grandeur’ a couple of times, so that’s what I looked for. Grandeur, Christ! And found, kinda sorta, you’ll see.” He detached the copy of the email and thrust the sheet toward Jake. “Anyway, the other option was way the hell over there in the sticks”—he thumbed southward—“and that would of pissed off everybody. All the talent pussy footing around and complaining would of been a sight, though. But the cost...killer. K-i-l-l-e-r. Not to mention the fact that we’d have to hire helicopters or a fleet of Humvees to access it. In no time we’d be hitting James Cameron territory with budget overruns. Hell to pay and all that, your head on a silver platter, the whole nine yards.”
    “Right,” Jake said, sending a second message: “The tide is rising.” Jake thought he’d let Nicos spew it all out. Like a baby, Nicos would tire eventually and maybe hit some kind of equilibrium after a painful few minutes of squalling. That strategy also worked when Hurricane Lora approached.
    Lora’s text opened with a smile emoticon: “With great power comes great responsibility. Reward him with a gold star and Good Luck!!! Rearranging YOUR schedule now so can’t talk. ttyl bitch!!” Jake smiled. Schadenfreude: he would have typed the same.
    Jake stared out the window while Nicos spoke, unconcerned about the failure to contribute. Nicos didn’t expect an exchange of sentence for sentence reciprocity; a second body created the necessary illusion of conversation.
    As the truck passed a barely there trailer park on a low sandy rise, Jake followed the abrupt change to greenery, a hand-planted oasis promising reassurance in an otherwise unaccommodating—though harshly striking—environment. In place of imposing barren rock outcrops and the invariable parched grass plains between them grew countless trees—vibrant, groomed, and healthy, a domesticated wilderness planted in fertile, easy-access grids. The layout appeared ingenious in its efficiency, but unlike the cold brutality of an auto plant, the orchards and their fluttering summer grace invited attention. Jake foresaw entranced drivers slowing and pulling over, eventually giving in to the desire to stroll around the luminous unthreatening forest, blithely setting aside the important lessons about the malevolence that awaits in stands of trees learned by Hansel and Gretel or those doomed kids in The Blair Witch Project. And that duo from the bible too.
   Jake made a mental note to wander through a few rows before the shoot wrapped, ideally during the weak light at sunrise or sunset. A roadside sign—“U-pik fruit”—offered a handy solution to the trespassing problem.

 [Part 3 of 6 of this chapter.]

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Tamas Dobozy's 'Siege 13'

   Personal bias and plain ol' prejudice always come into play when picking out what to read. Given a choice—a novel set on a cold, wet, and bloody battlefield during WWII and one involving dragons and magical amulets and a wicked king, for instance—I'd probably opt for reruns of The Simpsons or American Dad, since neither of those literary genres ordinarily gets my heart racing.
   I felt a bit apprehensive, then, at the prospect of not just one but thirteen linked short stories centred on the Siege of Budapest in 1944. This dread, despite the fact that I'd read, reviewed, taught (and both enjoyed and respected) Dobozy's last short story collection (2005's Last Notes). Maybe August was telling me to take in the remaining fine weather and enjoy my bumper crop of nasturtiums (now either aphid-coated or withered), but angst and starvation and brutality and rape and death, death, death had about as much appeal to me as a meal of haggis. 
   One story in, my reluctance vanished. First, that opening story is set in roughly contemporary New York City. Secondly, it features plenty of the deadpan humour I've noticed American book reviewers use to describe Dobozy's work. While Hungary and WWII are hardly absent in the story (they're central to it in many ways), they're utilized subtly, since part of the story's interest is the relationship between the past and present (and our inability to wholly understand that past, a theme hit upon in "Tales of Hungarian Resistance," a terrific piece from Last Notes). Of the remaining stories a few are set in Budapest in 1944, and the rest feature war survivors who fled to North America (with mounds of baggage, naturally), or else their descendents.
   There is rape and brutality and death, death, death in Siege 13. And many characters seem quite awful, even decades past the Siege. There's also a great deal of lingering resentment (basing your understanding of the Hungarian temperament on Dobozy's stories, you'd be inclined to believe you'd find intractable molecules of it—along with grief, trauma, anger, and despair—in each of their cells). The collection by no means offers an ebullient, life's-a-banquet philosophy. The complexity of the stories (even when they're seemingly direct slice-of-life episodes) requires a puzzle-solving state of mind and the perspective in them seems tinged with sadness (or hopelessness) about humanity's colossal follies and affinity for foolish, selfish choices.
   Alongside that tour through corridors of misery, Dobozy throws in welcome bits of humour, of outright magical weirdness, and fable-like storytelling that's inspired and inspiring. And in refusing to tie together each story neatly, he leaves you with intriguing images, connections, and mysteries that encourage you to turn back fifteen pages and begin again.

[My review of Siege 13 appears in the National Post.]

Friday, 14 September 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Candace Savage's 'A Geography of Blood'

   After a stint of teaching Honda execs, affluent housewives, and USA-bound university students in Tokyo, and then travelling eastward (from Koh Chang in southeastern Thailand by fishing boat to Jaisalmer in northwestern India by train), I arrived home in Victoria, where an unfinished university degree and Profound Questions About My Future awaited me.
   My then boyfriend, who'd taught in the same school with me in the ritzy Aoyama district of Tokyo but could not ultimately bear living in such a crowded and consumeristic metropolis, had returned much earlier to Canada and decided to settle halfway between the city he'd left (Victoria) and the one he'd grown up in (Windsor). He chose Saskatoon. 
   Probably quite happy to continue avoiding Profound Questions About My Future, I spent the summer with him. Until that point the furthest east I'd been inside Canada was Calgary. My prejudiced expectations about Saskatchewan were founded on tried-and-true images familiar to all Canadians: immense fields, long straight roads that eventually merged with the horizon, infinitely boring flatness. (Though "flyover states" is a dismissive American concept invented to distinguish east coast and west coast cultural meccas from the supposedly inferior middle, I'll bet that there's an analogous idea that applies to Canadian attitudes toward prairie provinces.)

   That July and August we drove around the province in a finicky, backfiring emerald green VW pickup (from the Flower Power era) that ran fairly well on highways but tended to stall at intersections (at which point I—the non-driver—would have to get out, run to the rear, and heave the beast forward until the engine finally turned). To this day I harbour no love for that vehicle. 
   Besides the heat, what struck me most about the prairie countryside was the vast emptiness. Between huge parcels of cultivated land we'd pass by an occasional truck or tractor. We saw few people and even less wildlife.

   When I returned later that year, the situation had changed: compared to Victoria, December weather in Saskatoon had demands: "Brace yourself," it seemed to say, "and prepare to submit." We drove away from the city one night and at a point where the city lights were no longer visible we pulled over and walked into a field of grain stubble and snow drifts. If that moment of being so little, so absolutely insignificant didn't exactly precipitate an existential crisis, it did manage to violently shake my sense of confidence about my pivotal centrality. (Okay, okay, that I'm writing a blog and have established a career of teaching in classrooms might indicate to that once this moment passed, I rebounded quickly and returned to my usual sense of self-worth!)

   Where is Candace Savage's book in all this paean to self-absorption, you may be asking. Well, it's here. During my prairie summer, we visited the southern edges of the province. My sense then was not much different than the expectations I'd arrived with months earlier: I, a bit bored of wheat fields, and fond of sea and mountains and coniferous forests, saw emptiness, flatness, vastness. Such was my sad creativity then that I didn't bother to envision this place in another epoch. It looked as though the landscape was eternal, so I assumed that was the case.
   One of the terrific aspects of Savage's book (and the sentence construction is meant to imply that there are several terrific aspects to the book) is that through her accounts of wandering near her second home in Eastend, she makes the reader who holds that commonplace view of the prairies (re: emptiness, flatness, vastness) understand the falseness of the impression. 
   Digging around, and visiting seemingly unremarkable lakes or piles of rock and then talking of their history, she manages to repopulate the area with the thriving cultures and dynamic ecosystems that existed there for millennia; she draws attention to the immeasurable loss that resulted from the arrival of European settlers and, well, capitalist enterprise. 
   Savage's book provides the best kind of education: you fully enjoy the experience and walk away not only with an alternate view of your reality but an openness to ponder the significance of your newly acquired insight.

[My review appears in the Globe and Mail.]

Monday, 10 September 2012

Fiction Installment #31: (Part II, Ch 4, Jake) "Grunt Work"

    Jake re-read an old delivery from Exconfessio he’d been scanning during the call.
   Ex A.W. (Vancouver, BC)—
   1. I pissed on my ex-boyfriend’s new female roommate’s bed before I moved out.
   2. I put dog shit under some asshole’s car door handle (he he he).
   3. I threw dog shit at my neighbour’s house.
   4. I rubbed my ex’s mom’s hand mirror all over my snatch and asshole before returning it.
   5. I hate women who either marry into money or inherit money and have a nanny to take
    care of their kids five days a week so they can go to the gym (cunts).
   6. I hate men that comment on how great of shape these bitches are in.
   7. I’m a bitch and an asshole driver.

   Jake figured that the final admission counted as two, technically. He deleted the staggeringly vindictive message—he believed in an absolute line between titillating misbehaviour and non-stop ugliness—and emptied the computer’s trash. Today’s confessor sounded dire; the poisonous admitted bitch looked like a juggernaut of trouble from the Fatal Attraction school and gave nothing to savour, only depressing, mouth-puckering bitterness.
   Jake saved the lively confessions and revisited them in the same way as he imagined other people turned to a newspaper’s Daily Smile quotation with its tacky retro humour—“What is practical nursing? Falling in love with a rich patient!”—and kept each of the miniature episodes archived and ordered (and, when restless, reordered too: “I would be happy to handicap any able bodied person who imagines they have a right to park in the handicapped parking spot” recently losing priority status to “When I worked in an unsupervised position at my current job, I would do things like take off to the casino for hours and smoke a joint on the way”). Intoxicating snippets from the lives of strangers, they never lost their caustic zing. Stitched together, the scenes would make for an awesome, unsettling movie.
    The envy-consumed turd handler, though, merely stood out as an unpleasant reminder of how awful and twisted people could grow. The woman—or a guy text-transvestite: Exconfessio made no claims to verify the legitimacy of the confessor, and Jake had read many supposed admissions that triggered suspicion about the writer’s true motivation and real identity since guilt or braggadocio seemed beside the point—reminded him of the coffee mug of Mick, his second boss in the industry: “Yeah, I’m an Asshole. Just Try Me.” Though forthright the mug’s honesty didn’t compensate for hours spent under the unbearable man’s hairy thumb. At least, Jake hoped, he’d never meet this scheming malevolent creature face to face. He felt leery of anyone who acted like an asshole and patted himself on the back for possessing brutal directness. Such wastes of space made his sac contract tight. Cruelty dressed up as courage: another performance the world could get by without.
    Jeremy had sent just one bit of trivia. A slow week, Jake guessed.
    The subject line: “FW: ‘Roid rage?”
   “Muscled Pumped and Raging - 38
   I’m a ripped, very well muscled guy looking for other muscular guys only! If you’re fat, fuck off! If you’re soft and flabby, fuck off! If you’re thin and don’t work out, fuck off! I’m only interested in other guys with the mojo to dedicate themselves to work out and invest in what they have. If you have the cojones to not be offended by this ad, then I’d like to hear from you.”

    Jake thought he might have seen this hulking tool at the gym, fatuous and infantile in his unending self-absorption. He imagined the swaggering testosterone worshipper trapped in an elevator with the hateful could-be hag from Exconfessio. It’d be a caged death match for sure, bloody, despicable, and no-holds-barred—Japanese fighting fish in a puny tank but substantially less graceful.
    “Hey, Jake your chariot awaits,” Lora yelled from the kitchen. “Jake?” His phone gonged seconds later: “Hey, did you hear me?”
    “I’m on it, panic button,” Jake said. “What’s up with you, anyway? Did you forget to take your meds this morning?”
    “You know I take them religiously,” Lora said. “‘A centred worker is a productive worker.’”
    “Man oh man, I wished you’d never taken that seminar. Motivational speakers are just cult leaders minus the polyester suits. It’s best to avoid contact with them. Besides, the whole deal was probably underwritten by PharmaGen BioLabs as a cheap human trial experiment. You sound like you’re about ready for the grape Kool Aid. Hello?” Jake spoke to a dead line.
    “We’ve been over this, Jake.” Lora stood glowering at the doorframe. “We all have our crutches, mister one night stand.”
    Jake related anecdotes from time to time during morning lulls at the office. He selected bits cautiously, an educated guess being that if Lora—for whom going braless would be a tour-though-the-wild-side act of sexual bravado and who grew pursed and distant whenever he used the word monagony and visibly unsettled the one time he had in the spirit of earnest but jokey disclosure categorized himself as trysexual—discovered that she had been exposed to the iceberg’s mere tip, she’d be appalled (low probability), astonished (high probability), or merciless as Ming with jibbing (100% certainty).
    Lora embraced the rare poetry of birds that mate for life. Her visionary’s third eye wide open, she’d call for the looming conclusion of Jake’s galavanting; the stars predicted it plain as day. And he’d be wise to prepare for the moment true adulthood began. “Your horoscopes have been making that claim for years, woman,” Jake always replied, “time to find a better system. Tea leaves maybe. Tarot cards.”
    “Okay, okay, touché, Madame.” He stood. “I should get out there or Nicos won’t shut up about it. I’ll call from the second site and we’ll get a game plan in order for the afternoon.”
    He disconnected the laptop and pulled open a drawer. The tussle with Lora reminded him about his own daily regimen. He grabbed two chubby capsules from the messenger bag and washed them down. He’d been assured by the natural pharmacist that the arginine, tongkat ali, and catuaba bark combo added up to a “surefire male enhancement.” On a whim, he’d also bought a year’s supply of Enzyte after catching ads on TV promising suburban guys that they’d be walking hard-ons, the envy of all the other Joes on Pine Crescent and secret wish for the unfulfilled Janes.
    While the vision of a pill-popping middle age drew his breath short, the strong throb of a lower centre of gravity possessed supreme appeal. As with in-your-face D-cup cleavage, Jake found a too visible big package to be crass but unnerving provocation: people typically stared and turned away nervously, primly judging the display to be crude while helplessly responding to the voluptuous contour over and again, animal instincts triggering a gush of saliva and compelling them to bend over and take a sniff, or else cop a feel.
    Jake had used up half the pill supply. Each day he swallowed the doses half-heartedly: he hadn’t noticed the constant hum of enhanced vigor or suffered terrible side effects; he figured there must be something to them. Even placebos yielded positive results, everyone understood that.
    Knees, heart, hair, career, looks, sex appeal, good fortune: anything is a feeble house of cards that can collapse into a heap at any moment. Years ago Jake had shared philosophy over beers with Randall, the accountant Warner Brothers had sent to supervise the weekly budgets of a superhero series, the studio’s globally syndicated moneymaker. Jake’s senior by a half a decade, the man spoke as a war-weary veteran: “You know what, man, one day you wake up and you notice your skin. It’s different, looser, like the elastic waist of old underwear. Sagging steadily and then, I guess, just gone. Bibs and diapers at Sunset Manor creeping nearer every day.” When Jake attempted to counter the accountant’s fatalism, Randall had brushed the logic aside as smoke and mirrors, the fruit of inexperience: “Come talk to me when you reach my age.” You can keep your resignation, Jake had thought, viewing such passivity as a fatal character flaw.
   He tugged at the legs of his jeans and passed by Lora. Spillage: going full commando with low-hangers could be painful. “Oh, where’s good coffee?” he asked.
“Working, Jake,” she said, “working.”
    Outside, Nicos sounded the horn at the impatient regular intervals of a New York City cabbie sent over from Central Casting. “You’d better run,” Lora said. “Christ, any minute now a representative of Oliver’s finest might show up here waving a badge. Say hi to Nicos for me. And Jake?”
“I’m glad you’re enjoying my Christmas present, really, and I know you like to smell pretty, but we could all live happier here with you applying one less splash of Terre in the morning.”
“Okay, ma’am.” Although firm, Lora’s mothering was well intended.
    “Talk to you soon.”

[Part 2 of 6, "Grunt Work"]

Friday, 7 September 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Zadie Smith's 'NW'

   I finished reading NW a week before the London 2012 opening ceremony, and now I'm left with impressions (as Walter Pater called them back in the day) rather than a strong sense of plot or clear emotional response to the story Zadie Smith unfolds. While the seeming failure of detailed memory in this case might be related to this (aging) or that (recreational after-class activities during university), I'm inclined to believe that this circumstance closely relates to Smith's storytelling. And that leads me to my first impression.

   Like one of the Fringe performances in which the actor takes on The Ten Commandments or King Lear in twenty minutes and by himself, NW is, um, memorable for Smith's literary exertions: each of the novel's five sections is structured and narrated quite differently; the longest segment contains 184 chapters, some of which are as short as a single sentence. Representing the thoughts, actions, and memories of one character, these brief chapterettes (I suppose) attempt to capture on paper the way we go through life: a phone call followed by a brief conversation with a colleague, followed by a memory, followed by a random thought, followed by an errand during which we notice a beggar on the street and run into an acquaintance and remember to send an email and then text a friend to remind her we're meeting for lunch... 
   As true to life as that may be, as narrative (or narrative bits, I guess) that much trivial detail spread out  over so many pages is exceptional difficult to hold as a coherent unit. Smith may be intending exactly that, but just as watching 184 YouTube clips in which cats play musical instruments, at a certain point the mind slows, unable to distinguish one from the next and unable to comprehend what it all means

   My second impression branches from my first: to me, Smith's visible-on-every-page technique overshadows her story, its characters, and their plights. As with the Fringe performer analogy, the supposed virtuosity of the guy's rapid costume switches and instantaneous vocal shifts (now God, now Moses, now Rameses, now Nefretiri) is what ultimately attracts most of the attention. 
   As one of NW's readers I ended up thinking about her writing strategies, puzzling about the success or efficacy of those choices, and wondering about questions of textually representing contemporary reality. While those ideas are interesting in themselves, they seem to belong to an essay: "Writing the Metropolis Circa 2012: Speculations on Contemporary Narration." In foregrounding her technique and her writing talent, though, Smith seems to me to do a disservice to the core aspect of her writing project: her characters and the crises of existence they must face.

   The novel's reviews have been strangely divisive (from "clunky" and "predictable to the extreme" to "falls so far short of being a successful novel" to "a joyous, optimistic, angry masterpiece, and no better English novel will be published this year, or, probably, next"), and if nothing else that tells me other reviewers are struggling to make sense of its qualities—which might also mean it's a dazzling experimental performances whose brilliance can confound lesser readers, or an impressive experiment that didn't really work out as expected.

[My review, the proper one, appears in the Vancouver Sun.]