Thursday, August 30, 2012

Reading Journal: Parasites Like Us, by Adam Johnson (2003)

A wacky picaresque with poor jacket copy: "After trashing his '72 Corvette [which doesn't happen until Page 136], illegally breaking into an ancient burial site [page 120] and snacking on 12,000-year-old popcorn [page 232], Hank Hannah finds he's inadvertently unleashed the apocalypse." I expected these big events to be the book's best three - and for what it's worth, they are - but in a book that's almost 340 pages, to me, the apocalypse comes way too late, leaving only about 100 pages for us to see What Happens Next... and before them, we take an indifferent slog through 100-plus pages of not much happening at all: we learn about Hank, and his family, and his position as an anthropologist at the University of Southern South Dakota, but none of these details are particularly interesting. To the novel's credit, the narrator occasionally addresses the anthropologist of tomorrow, who will come across this and ask what it all meant, and there is some seriously funny writing, but the marketing department had to go and get my hopes up for a Misery-like opening car crash. It's not an awful book, but "exciting" isn't a word I'd use to describe it.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Reading Journal: Delicate Edible Birds, by Lauren Groff (2009)

Unfortunately, this was a collection I struggled to get through; as a general comment, I found that Groff's florid descriptions tend to write around the action, as opposed to seeming like they are the action. The shortest of the nine stories comes in at 16 pages, and during most stories, I found my eyes glazing over somewhere in the middle. The best of the bunch may be the closer, from which the collection takes its title, in which a few journalists, all from different countries, flee Paris in the middle of the Second World War, only to wind up prisoners on a Nazi sympathizer's farm. And though the first story, "Lucky Chow Fun," was unique, about a brothel in a small Pennsylvania town fronting as a Chinese restaurant, and "Blythe" told of a complicated friendship with a very disturbed artist, several stories - "Majorette," "Sir Fleeting," and the Best American Short Stories-selected "L. DeBard and Alliette" - were too plain for me, telling too ambitiously of complete lives and forsaking the snapshot-like strength of the short story, often having to fastforward many years into the future to conclude. Perhaps a victim of its marketing department - floral cover on quilted paper, rough-cut pages, link on the back jacket - the stories are daintily written pieces of Americana, but rarely do they rise above their prettiness and truly say anything about their subjects. Most of them read like aborted starts to novels, rushed out in the wake of her successful debut, The Monsters of Templeton. I will read her novel, and I think I'll like it more; her talents don't seem particularly suited to this form.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Reading Journal: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (2012)

The first psychology book I've read since being peripherally assigned them in under/graduate literary courses, and one that walks a tightrope between academic-level analysis and the pop non-fiction of a Malcolm Gladwell. There are extensive notes in the back end, so I trust the author, though her theories seem dangerously simplfied. Particularly in its first chapters, the book ably takes down the Extrovert Ideal, and explains that though the introverted work very differently, there's no reason that their superiors at work, or worse, their spouses or parents, should write them off. Introversion is not the same as shyness or neurosis, but Cain's work draws some interesting conclusions from a wide body of selected studies to show how dichotomies as diverse as, say high vs. low reactivity, or our varied dopamine processing abilities, play a role in the way we approach our lives. The findings can't help but repeat themselves sometimes - she is, after all, trying to prove a point - but the book is nevertheless interesting and highly accessible to the layperson's understanding of psychology: there's a bit of Jung, a little more Kagan, and nary a Freud in sight. Cool read.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reading Journal: Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology, Vol. 2, ed. Gloria Vanderbilt (2012)

Twelve new stories from this year's Exile magazine competition, including "Mercy" by some guy you might be reading right now. The purse is divided into two prizes - $3,000 for best story by an emerging writer, $2,000 for the winning established writer - and as in the first year the prize was awarded in Canada, the final judge's indecision and generosity doubled one prize and named co-winners. The winning established writers include Leon Rooke's "Here Comes Henrietta Armani," a brilliantly-structured story of a very odd woman like only he can write - very much form over content - and Sean Virgo's bewitching modern fairy tale, "Gramarye." Emerging writer winner Christine Miscione's "Skin, Just" is a musical lightning-strike of a story, about discovering a mole one believes to be cancerous, and a more than worthy winner. Other highlights? Amy Stuart's "The Roundness," (which won the 2011 Writers' Union of Canada Short Prose Competition, too), about giving up the baby in a teenage pregnancy; Kris Bertin's gritty "Tom Stone & Co.," about a bouncer who moonlights for his father-in-law's trash removal business; Martha Batiz's "The Last Confession," about emigrating after being a Latin American political prisoner, and Jacqueline Windh's "The Night the Floor Jumped," a lively account of being trapped by earthquake debris in which, though not a lot can "happen" in the static situation, every sentence keeps moving, leanly and declaratively, to make for an exciting piece. I liked almost every story in this collection, and it's an honour to be published alongside this varied group of talented Canadian writers.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Three projects you should know about

Three of the brilliant and talented writers I worked at SLS Vilnius last year are embarking on bold new ventures, and seeking our help:

1. Blair Bourassa, winner of the SLS Fiction Contest in 2011, is having his short story "A Dream on Fire" adapted into a short film. More here.

2. In Santa Cruz, CA, Catherine Segurson is spearheading a new journal, the Catamaran Literary Reader. More here.

3. Nikita Nelin, winner of the SLS Non-Fiction Contest in 2011, is sharing a story from the deepest of undergrounds: Burning Man. More here.

Check them out, and give them money - they will amaze us.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Reading Journal: Fantastic Women: Eighteen Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House, ed. Rob Spillman (2011)

"Sublimity is the echo of a noble mind," wrote Longinus, somewhere around the first century, C.E.; as my dusty old Norton crit anthology summarizes, to him, "writers and orators achieve greatness not just by rhetorical techniques but also by deep feelings, profound thoughts and natural genius. [...] Often the experience of reading a great author or listening to a greet speech leads us to a feeling of ecstasy or transport (ekstasis), which is distinct from the more rational effects of persuasion, the goal of rhetoric." Effectively, if a story connects with you - elicits enough pathos that it sweeps you away - you can call it sublime. It's a murky notion in a post-Romantic world.

And what of surrealism? Think of a Dali painting and you get the idea: such work seeks "a reality above or within the surface reality, usually through efforts to suspend the discipline of conscious or logical reason, aesthetics, or morality in order to allow for the expression of subconscious thought and feeling," as my Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia says.

Personally, few of these stories connected with me. The collection features two of the New Yorker 20 Under 40 - Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum and Karen Russell - as well as critical darlings Aimee Bender, Miranda July, Lydia Davis, and Lydia Millet. None of their stories were my favourite, though a second read of July's "Oranges" - on its face, little more than a collection of exchanges with survey people on the street - redeemed it a little, as the title may tell you which of the questions asked is most important. Bynum talked about dreams, but her story was hardly surreal... at least not compared to Samantha Hunt's "Beast," in which a woman is bitten by a tick and, in her dreams, begins becoming a deer, a welcome escape from a rather dreary life. It reminded me of the truly sublime story "La Femme Adultère," by Albert Camus. I also really enjoyed Julia Elliott's "The Wilds," about a girl growing up next to a family with several boy children who may literally be beasts. That was kind of it, though; they could have just as easily called the collection Women Writers You've Heard Are Good, in a Magazine You've Heard Is Good: collected over eight years, and mainly from three issues therein, this set seems more like a "We published them first!" boast than a well-grouped collection. On their own merits, more of these stories might work for other readers than did for me, and though it was preferable to get acquainted with these writers in shorter works, (as opposed to long debut novels), as a themed collection, I thought it was a dud.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Imagining Currie Township: A Photo Essay

On a recent trip home to small-town Southwestern Ontario, I captured a few of the places that are indispensable when imagining my work. The photos were all taken with my Stone Age Blackberry, but if the quality's not too bad, and if you've read my stories, you'll likely recognize a few places.

Baseball Diamond 1, Appin, ON

It's hard to tell from this angle, but the back fence is probably 10 feet tall - and up close to it, you can see where the top six feet were joined to the bottom four. When the fence was that low, locally, the park was nicknamed The Homerdome. Beyond the fence, there's a playground, the Appin Museum, and a pavilion full of picnic tables.

Baseball Diamond 2, Appin, ON

The view from left field, with the canteen beyond the first baseline, as an ominous cloud moves in...

Appin Museum, Appin, ON

Derisively called "The Ol' Plaque-n-Shack" in "Mercy," and home to the murder wall from "The Seven Confessions of Constable Tom Burford," (should I ever finish that story), the interior of this little building - and its newer friend, (right), which used to house Ekfrid Mutual Insurance, on the main drag (Waterloo Street, now called Thames Road) - is nothing like its fictional rendition. I presume. I haven't been inside since I was about 10. 

Wellington - Appin's Only Backstreet

Can't have a Waterloo without a Wellington. This old truck (and somewhat related scrap pile) caught me by surprise, as it wasn't on my mind when writing "Bondo," but when I saw it I realized that it's all been there as long as I can remember.

Former Gas Station, Appin, ON

The one business left in Appin is Cookie King, as you can vaguely read on the reverse of this sign. They, too, were on Waterloo for years, with a storefront, before moving it here and taking over the gas bar - see the island in the centre? That used to be pumps. Nowadays the original building, as well as this one, are primarily used for cookie storage. To my knowledge, the Cookie King still has a booth at the Gibraltar Trade Centre, in London, but I can't say for sure - even Google doesn't know.

Former Gas Station with Former Movie Theatre, Glencoe, ON

I didn't work in this gas station - not exactly. But my father did. And one summer, when I was eight or nine, in order to stop people from walking into the building - not pictured, sorry - and helping themselves to cigarettes from behind the counter, I manned the cash register, as a deterrent and, believe it or not, when the pumps were lined up with cars, a second employee. Years later - when I was in high school - a girl in the eighth grade walked up to the counter and committed an armed robbery with a two-by-four, whacking the eleventh-grade girl working there and making off with the money. (I presume there was money.) How either of these elements haven't surfaced in the book yet - and yes, it's almost finished! - I don't know.

(Former) Fox Theatre, with Main Street, Glencoe, ON

Briefly, when I was a teenager, in the town of Strathroy - where I went to high school, west of London - there was a movie theatre. I don't recall exactly, but in my memory its grand opening and its final showing were about a year apart. And another thing I don't remember - I vaguely remember Donald Duck on the big screen - is seeing a movie at the Fox, in Glencoe, when I was around three years old, which I'm told I did. What I actually remember is the Fox having always been closed. Last I knew, it was empty, but I discovered that it now houses a dance studio. By the way, Main Street probably doesn't always look like this - this was an overcast Sunday morning - but it certainly resembles what I describe in "Projections," my collection's opening story.