I’m pleased to say my first novel will launch on Thursday, May 3. It’s a retelling of The Odyssey as modern mythology about friendships, fatherhood and finding your way, and I love the cover, courtesy of Carleton Wilson and Nightwood Editions. Hope you’ll join me after 7pm at Another Story Bookshop on Roncesvalles. ArmyCover

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My David Copperfield failure: I came grinding to a halt about halfway through, despite having enjoyed other Dickens books. It’s really just long enough that I can’t help but be aware of the other books I could read in the same amount of time. I was moved, though, by Copperfield’s last memory of his mother: “I was in the carrier’s cart when I heard her calling to me. I looked out, and she stood at the garden-gate alone, holding her baby up in her arms for me to see. It was cold still weather; and not a hair of her head, nor a fold of her dress, was stirred, as she looked intently at me, holding up her child.”

Also, it seems clear Tolkien must have read Copperfield, as the character of Uriah Heep is remarkably Gollum-like. He’s repulsive and writhes, is described as a “creature,” and a “wretch,” and uses a fawning manner. A sample of his dialogue: “It’s like the blowing of old breezes and the ringing of old bellses to hear you say Uriah.”Hjun2017

Fiction I admired: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Jackson) All the Broken Things (Kuitenbrouwer), Swimming Lessons (Fuller). Mark Sampson is both smart and funny in The Slip, a relevant and entertaining look at modern life and its digitally unforgiving nature. Very glad to see Things Not to Do, new short fiction by Jessica Westhead (there’s a One Question Interview, below). The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (McCullers) is a classic I’d been meaning to read for some time and it’s a poignant, empathetic story that deserves its status.

Genre: Around the World in Eighty Days (Verne) is pretty thoroughly entertaining, and What Dreams May Come (Matheson) is both a good novel and an involving exploration of possible worlds after death. Matheson had clearly done a lot of reading on the subject. You may have seen his memorable original Twilight Zone episodes, or other films based on his novels. The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Giant Rat of Sumatra (Boyer) is a fun read that hits all the right notes for Sherlock.

Nonfiction: The Inconvenient Indian (Thomas King) is a conversational but articulate and important book. Hiroshima (Hersey) follows the story of a number of survivors quite closely, and single-handedly began changing American opinions on the use of atomic bombs when it was published. Truly, a remarkable book. The Promise of Canada (Gray) was an enjoyable book that revisits different historical figures, some well known, others nearly forgotten. A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden (Stephen Reid) is a memoir of life and jail time that has moments that struck me as Orwellian clarity (thinking of his essays here) like the simple but important reminder it’s the wounded who go out and wound others.

Essays: Revolutions (Alex Good) is a set of opinions on Canadian literature not tied to the kind of received wisdom people usually spit out when asked (if asked at all) about Canadian literature. Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens, was an excellent selection, and I was also impressed with the latest in the Canadian series: Best Canadian Essays 2017. Glad to see the series continuing thanks to the efforts of Tightrope Books, Christopher Doda and guest editors. Essays After Eighty (Donald Hall) shows a charming, calm intelligence at work.

The state of the world: A.A. Gill is Away is both a funny and perceptive travel book, with some surprising opinions on how deeply screwed up he finds parts of the supposedly civilized world. A Green Reef: The Impact of Climate Change (Henighan) is an alarming, important, concise download everyone should be checking out. Hope in the Dark (Solnit) is a worthy, intelligent book, though I long for the time things were as dark as all that.

Remarkable women taking notes: Notes from No Man’s Land, American Essays (Eula Biss) is an excellent, perceptive set of personal essays that nevertheless relate to the wider world, and Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life (Erin Wunker) is an honest, articulate work that’s also important. While very accessible overall, I thought the occasional term was only fleetingly explained. But more importantly, it enhanced my understanding of what women go through, sometimes just walking home from work. Field Notes: A City Girl’s Search for Heart and Home in Rural Nova Scotia (Sara Jewell) is valuable in a quieter way, taking the form of a thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable memoir.

I found The Highly Sensitive Person (Elaine Aron) valuable. It’s refreshing to be referred to not as weak or flawed, but as the “the royal-advisor class,” or “priest class, supplying some kind of ineffable nourishment to our society. I cannot presume to label it.” Generally speaking, the HSP is not valued: “In our culture we are not just a minority but one that is considered to be far from the ideal.”  And yet “we HSPs do a great disservice to ourselves and others when we think of ourselves as weak compared to the warrior. Our strength is different, but frequently it is more powerful. Often it is the only kind that can begin to handle suffering and evil. It certainly requires equal courage … nor is it always about enduring, accepting, and finding meaning in suffering. Sometimes actions involving great skill and strategy are called for.”

The Tiger (John Vaillant) is a riveting account of a man eater, but it’s also fascinating for the glimpse into Russia: “Under communism, there was room, albeit strictly controlled, for aspiration, and there was a State guarantee of basic security in terms of education, employment, housing, and food. But most of these assurances disintegrated after perestroika. Replacing them, along with crime, alcoholism, and despondency, were satellite dishes offering multiple channels that allowed you to see just how far behind you really were. Nowadays, in many parts of the world – not just Soboloyne – it is possible to starve while watching television.”

Graphic novels: I enjoyed a couple of graphic novel biographies, including James Joyce, Portrait of a Dubliner (Capico) and Lennon: The New York Years (Foenkinos). I’d also recommend Snow White: A Graphic Novel (Phelan) and How to Survive in the North (Healy).

Jason (who goes by this name only, professionally) is a Norwegian cartoonist skilled at telling utterly unpretentious, concise but fascinating stories in more then one genre. I loved a number of titles: Why Are You Doing This? and The Last Musketeer as well as I Killed Adolph Hitler and On the Camino. The Toronto library had all these graphic novels.

Poetry: Class Clown, by Pino Coluccio, is a terrific and utterly unpretentious collection I’m so pleased to have. I read Leviathan (Carmine Starnino) and found it superb, as meaningful as it was carefully crafted. Allegheny, BC (Rodney DeCroo) is a collection with refreshing focus, and I managed to get out to celebrate new collections by Jim Johnstone (The Chemical Life) and Shane Neilson (Dysphoria) as well as, remarkably enough, a new collected Aldwn Nowlan. Yes, finally, a collected Alden Nowlan. I’m really enjoying the meditative and thoughtful work of Chris Banks again with The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory, and there’s a One Question Interview, below.


Jessica Westhead’s fiction has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards, selected for the Journey Prize anthology, and nominated for a National Magazine Award. Her stories have appeared widely in major literary journals. Her first novel Pulpy & Midge was nominated for the ReLit Award. Her critically acclaimed short story collection And Also Sharks was a Globe and Mail Top 100 book and a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Award. Her new collection of stories is called Things Not to Do.

I’m really enjoying these stories, in particular the way they’re peppered with excellent observations and description. People on a dance floor at a wedding are “shaking everything God gave them.” And your dialogue rings true. Henry Green said that when he heard conversation “people strike sparks off each other,” and “that is what I try to note down.” Do you do research at times? Or is it just a matter of keeping eyes and ears open, as a writer?

Thank you! I love writing dialogue. It’s a really effective way of showing a character’s personality, and it’s fun to find the right voice. Over the years, I’ve figured out how to write realistic dialogue by eavesdropping constantly. That’s my research. Going out in the world with my notebook and (covertly!) observing how people relate to each other, and noticing that it’s often the things that go unsaid that are the most compelling parts of a conversation.Westheadcover

It’s so interesting, the way we dance around certain subjects that are loaded for us; very rarely do people come out and say exactly what’s on their minds. I’m fascinated by all the stuff that’s so clearly there, just under the surface. Once I overheard a mother say to her small son, “And sometimes Daddy takes off his ring and forgets to put it back on, and Mommy teases him about it. Because it’s fun to tease.”
One-sided phone conversations are great too because then you’re trying to imagine what’s being said on the other line. This is one of my all-time favourites: “So I was talking to Barry.” (Pause to listen.) “Yeah, I know you’re not comfortable, I told him. If you don’t feel comfortable, I’ll protect you. I told the guy.” (Pause.) “Barry’s cool. He’ll just come over, we’ll shoot the shit. I mean, just trust me. I’ve known the guy since I was twenty-four.” (Pause.) “If there was ever anybody you could trust, it would be Barry. He’s my best friend.” (Pause) “No, he’s not going to do that again, I swear.”
Even people’s self-talk can be wonderfully revealing. Once I saw an unhappy-looking older woman in my doctor’s waiting room, flipping through a Canadian Living. She stopped at a page spread, sneered at it, and then muttered to herself, “Ten-minute homemade ice cream. Yeah, right.”
When you listen closely, also, you start to absorb some of the rhythms and cadences that differentiate people’s speech, and that will start to find its way into your written dialogue. Plus you just might stumble upon a bonus line like this: “I don’t really eat soup. I don’t think I properly take advantage of soup.”

Chris Banks is the author of four collections of poems: Bonfires, The Cold Panes of Surfaces, Winter Cranes, and most recently The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory. His first full-length collection, Bonfires, was awarded the Jack Chalmers Award for poetry by the Canadian Authors’ Association in 2004. Bonfires was also a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award. His poetry has appeared in the New Quarterly, Arc Magazine, the Antigonish Review, and the Malahat Review, among other publications.

I see conscious links in these poems between time and identity: both personal details and larger world events are linked to identity. It’s as though people are going up an escalator, fixed in a set of memories, but aware of the present. Some poems are about getting older. Is this process of getting through life more complex than ever? 

You cannot escape identity is what I have discovered in poetry. As much as I wanted The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory to be about the cognitive dissonance created by a world of thirteen year old Youtube stars, a giant replica of Noah’s Ark, genetically engineered Glofish, climate change, parallel universes, and on and on, it all boomerangs back to how I feel about these topics. No matter how much wisdom I can squeeze out of a poem, I still have to deal with myself at some point.

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It’s hard to talk about identity for me as I am extremely introverted and suffer from dual disorders: major depression and alcoholism which I am recovering from. To say this makes my life challenging is an understatement. I have been accused of being too narrative, too honest in the past, not formal enough, which is hilarious when you think many poems in my last collection were written in perfect syllabics. However, I really wanted to try something different with this new book.

In the poem “Confessionalism”, for instance, I tell a myriad of rapid-fire lies and then one or two sincere things. I hint at this strategy in the the collection’s title poem when I say “I tell elaborate lies to ascertain the truth”. If the zeitgeist is a kind of information over-load, a newsfeed anarchy, then it seems to me this is only way to get that flavour into your poetry.

Because I am a depressive, my brain tells me the world is in bad shape. It is also easy to retreat into nostalgia, to revisit those ghost places which haunt your personal mythlogy, as it reminds you that life was much simpler at one time, or you felt a more Oceanic connection to the world as a child, the world before addiction or depression, but nostalgia itself will not save you. Only connections to living people will.

Identity is somewhat fractured in my new book as I stack my poems with lost things, replicas, viral videos, road rage, but I am still somewhere in the frame. I have a poem entitled “Selfie with Ten Thousand Things” which seems like an apt metaphor for the book. How much awkward bundling of images can I produce to replicate how we take in information without losing myself in the process?  Life may have become more complex but what I really want from poetry, those underpinnings, have stayed the same. “That sweetness in you starts talking to /  a sweetness in me. We infect each other.”     


Coming in 2018

14Nov17

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The stars aligned so that I read a number of short, potent non-fiction books at the start of the year: Between the World and Me (Coates) is an articulate and powerful letter on growing up black in America. It offers no easy answers, nor should it. Men of Action (Howard Akler) is an intensely thoughtful and personal meditation on consciousness, memory and family, triggeredeck2016d by the death of his father, and a quietly remarkable book. The Nearest Thing to Life (James Wood) is a set of four essays largely covering the joys of fiction. Aside from giving you a number of ideas for books to read, it has coherent thoughts on fiction like this: “At the service, I was struck by the thought that death gives us the awful privilege of seeing a life whole; that a funeral or even an obituary is a liturgical home for that uneasy privilege; and that fiction is the literary genre that most powerfully offers a secular version of that liturgical hospitality.”

Nonfiction: With an opening chapter about a new, “unstoppable” fungus making its way around the world and killing nearly every species of frog, The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert) is articulate, accessible, well-informed and important. I found much to admire in The Danger Tree (David MacFarlane) which blends family history and the overall history of Newfoundland, including some of the most poignant writing I’ve seen on the First World War, written in a way that gets beyond the statistics into the loss to families and communities.

More nonfiction: A. A. Gill is a smart, amusing travel guide in A.A. Gill is Away, describing Wildebeest as “God’s extras.” But he’s also interested to comment on the larger world through his specific observations. I Was Hitler’s Chauffeur (Kempka) has an awkward title but it’s a fascinating account from a man who was by his side from the beginning to the end. How does a man who remembers to bring treats for his chauffeur also become one of the most despised men in history? Letters to a Young Contrarian (Hitchens) is a worthy book, and Sixty (Ian Brown) is smart, honest and immensely readable, nor is it self-indulgent given that Brown relates his experiences to the wider world. The Hatred of Poetry (Lerner) is concise and insightful. I also read Mortality by Hitchens, and while excellent it is also quite sad for obvious reasons. I dearly wish we had his commentary on our current political climate, and events since his death.

More non-fiction: The Loss of the S. S. Titanic (Beesley) is not my favourite account but nonetheless it’s a very readable book by a survivor who reportedly tried to crash the set of the film A Night to Remember decades later, interested to go down with the ship this time. Boy: Tales of Childhood (Roald Dahl) is recommended as a charming memoir. It turns out Dahl and his childhood friends were used for product testing, which helped inspire Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Anyone with a passing interest in Oakville or for that matter anyone with aging  parents should read They Left Us Everything (Plum Johnson). Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Wiman) is a fine, engaging memoir.

Fiction: Dept of Speculation (Jenny Offill) is a short novel, wonderfully concise in how it skips through to all the relevant moments, or just switches to a brief quote from Einstein if it damn well feels like it. And Offill is funny: “It’s true that I am feebleminded at the grocery store. I write lists that I forget, buy things we don’t need or already have. Later, my husband will say, did you get toilet paper, did you get ketchup, did you get garlic, and I will say, no, no, I forgot, sorry, here is some butterscotch pudding and some toothpicks and some whiskey sour mix.”

Honourable mentions for fiction: The Man Who Was Thursday (Chesterton), Whale Music (Quarrington), The Warden (Trollope), Outline (Rachel Cusk), Cassandra at the Wedding (Dorothy Baker), The Train Was On Time (Heinrich Boll), Sweetland (Michael Crummey).

Oh, and Shirley Jackson, Shirley Jackson, Shirley Jackson. I read both the short story The Lottery and the short novel The Haunting of Hill House and loved them both. A great writer who led a fascinating life. It’s writing with the same hard-hitting potency as a new writer I picked up: Debris is a collection of short stories by Kevin Hardcastle (new from Biblioasis).

Genre: Six-Gun Snow White (Catherynne M. Valente) is a thoroughly enjoyable, charged retelling of the fairy tale with great language: “Her hair was braided up nice. It had a color like good whiskey.” Neverwhere (Nail Gaiman) has creativity to spare: creativity as embroidery at the edge of the main body of creativity. The Paper Menagerie (Ken Liu) smoothly blends SF ideas, a graceful imagination and literary meaning for terrific stories. Skin and Bones (Thorne Smith) is depression-era fiction, and a curious tale of a man periodically turning into a skeleton. While longer than necessary, some of the language is great: “slop-fed thugs” comes to mind. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Becky Chambers) takes its time and creates real-feeling characters before involving them in an engaging plot.

Essays: Shame and Wonder (David Searcy) begins with a remarkable essay about a coyote so experienced it is only eventually fooled (and shot) by a farmer employing a recording of his infant daughter’s cry. Some of the other essays, while extremely worthy, enter such a meditative state loaded with digressions it may require a little patience from the reader. Eating the Dinosaur (Chuck Klosterman) is a quirky, intelligent collection of essays. On his distaste for laugh tracks “The voices recorded on modern laugh tracks were often the same original voices recorded by Douglas during pre-ancient radio shows like Burns and Allen, which would mean that the sound we hear on laugh tracks is the sound of dead people laughing.”

TV: The Crimson Field is a somewhat melodramatic by worthy BBC series about nurses behind the front lines of the First World War, cancelled too early, though more troubling is the BBC cancellation of The Hour, among the best TV dramas I’ve ever seen. It’s the year I finished Mad Men, Downton Abbey (both excellent historicals) and, well, Stargate SG1, which is entertaining and enjoys good camaraderie between the characters.

Film: I was impressed with many films in 2016 (really too many to mention here) but as I watch them I do tend to comment on them on Twitter, if you’d care to get in touch: @alexboydwriter

Graphic Novels: Dark Night: A True Batman Story (Paul Dini) tells a personal story by the talented writer behind some excellent Batman stories over the years. Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie (Martinetti) feels a bit brief but is nonetheless worthwhile. We Stand On Guard (Brian Vaughan) imagines a U.S. invasion of Canada in the future and while a bit nasty and heavy-handed it’s also engaging. Cruising Through the Louvre (David Prudhomme) is so inventive and charming it really should not be missed.

You can stop reading now if you don’t give a rat’s ass about Star Trek, but as it was the year the original show turned 50 I picked up a few books about it, including the BFI Classics book on the original series, Star Trek (Ina Rae Hark) which comes across as appreciative but unafraid to be critical: “One thinks of the typical cliques that form in high schools, their members rarely interacting. Kirk is the sports hero who is also president of the student council, Spock the brainy geek who runs the chess club and McCoy the regular guy with lots of friends who hangs out at the corner soda shop (or, now, the shopping centre). Probably more utopian that any of its social theory was Star Trek’s insistence that there was a community where all three types mattered and respected what each other could contribute.”

More Trekking: In his memoir The View from the Bridge, Nicholas Meyer is good company: “I am still absorbed by stories, which I thought would never go out of fashion, dating as they do back to Homer. But lately narrative has been replaced by rides. Endless action sequences, unrelated to character or plot, are just a different kind of pornography, one in which standalone episodes of violence are substituted for standalone episodes of sex. The stories that nominally link these episodes are of little interest because – at least to me – they are unconnected or unrelated to life, which is what appeals to me. I am interested in heroes, not superheroes. Caped crusaders and movies that end with the word “Man” strike me as rather pathetic attempts to dial out an encroaching reality that most Americans appear unwilling to confront. The movies I am interesting making – and watching – are all attempts to confront reality, however quirky, peculiar, hilarious, or unpleasant.”