After twenty-five years of rather stylishly rolling out the red carpet for a lot of impressive writing (including fiction, poetry and non-fiction) Taddle Creek is calling it a day after the latest issue, set to launch on Sept 9, after 6pm in a park near Jet Fuel at 519 Parliament St. I’m honoured to be reading, and the evening will also feature Chris Chambers, Jessica Westhead and Alexandra Leggat. I’ve always saved my favourite poems for my favourite magazine, and I’m looking forward to seeing a poem of mine published in Taddle Creek one final time.

This year I had an essay published on life as a bookseller with quotes from Orwell on the subject. It’s in the current issue of Canadian Notes & Queries if you subscribe now. It was a difficult year personally that included my friend Fraser Sutherland passing away (I have him to thank for suggesting I submit the essay, more on Fraser below) but as I enjoy doing it, I’ve gone ahead with a listing of my favourite books of the year, including fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, poetry and books for kids.

Fiction: Seven Down (David Whitton) was my favourite novel of the year. It’s a witty, sharply written and concise story told in seven interviews (with seven people) about a failed assassination attempt. Whitton is skilled at reproducing the imperfect way people often speak, and I found it a strangely delightful dose of cynicism and a story that unfolded in a fascinating way.

The Sea (John Banville) has an impressively original narrative voice and finds profound moments of consideration. Some novels have no patience for small talk, and this is one of them. Winner of the Booker. 

Convenience Store Woman (Sayaka Murata) is a novel written in a fairly charming and convincing voice, even as it examines societal norms and expectations. I only wish I could have read it without it conjuring up rotten memories from when I worked in retail. 

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore is the kind of novel I really enjoy: poignant, concise, and loaded with arresting images. Looking forward to reading more of her books. 

Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow (Jason Heroux) is concise and just the right amount of experimental for my taste: different enough to be interesting but far from incoherent. 

Loving (Henry Green) is interesting for conveying a lot through dialogue, generally dropping even descriptions of characters, and Green is a smart, witty writer. When brief moments of description arrive it’s often startlingly good: “The room was dark as long weed in the lake.” 

I went on to read Back (also Henry Green) about a WW1 soldier returning to England and found it slow-paced — almost meditative — but involving. And in a sudden reminder the novel is over 70 years old, I was startled by a moment of racist description brought forward by the narrator near the end.

Why Birds Sing (Nina Berkhout) is a novel that seems to understand life can be both appallingly difficult and sublime, even as the story is engaging and the characters feel quite real. 

The Student (Cary Fagan) had characters that felt immediately real and a compelling story that interestingly (for me, anyway) includes snapshots of Toronto, starting in the 1950s. 

Catching Desire (Carmelo Militano) was a concise, compelling and personal novel about Modigliani, and as Militano is a friend there’s a One Question Interview below to be found earlier on the blog. 

Fauna (Christiane Vadnais) is a climate disaster novel that has startlingly good moments of description and inventive twists. It’s a fascinating blend of realism and fiction in a far-sighted way. Here’s a moment a character has a vision: “She feels the sun and the moon blinking, faster and faster, as if the earth’s rotation has sped up and days contracted to mere hours, minutes, seconds. The sun seems to cross the sky at breakneck speed … Laura has found the secret to seeing how the townspeople are born and die by the hundreds, like the crackling of some eternal fire.” 

Graphic novels: Rust (Royden Lepp) is four volumes but reads as a quick, compelling reimagining of history: a First World War with robots, though really the aftermath and a family’s struggle to survive on a farm provides the backbone of the story, done in a skilled, highly filmic way. 

Stay (Lewis Trondheim) is not, I hope, based on a true story about a woman trying to continue to enjoy a vacation spot after her partner is almost immediately killed. 

Slaughterhouse-Five (Ryan North) is a superb graphic novel adaption of the novel by Vonnegut. 

Victory Point (Owen D. Pomery): beautiful artwork accompanies a story about returning home. 

Big Black: Stand at Attica (Frank “Big Black” Smith) is a graphic novel memoir of a 1971 rebellion against the injustices of the prison system, and a historical moment that should not be forgotten. 

The Stringbags (Ennis, Holden) is the true story of antiquated biplane torpedo bombers used by England in WW2 that nevertheless enjoyed some important successes. Well illustrated and compelling. 

Graphic novel biography: Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula (Koren Shadmi) is an excellent graphic novel (by the same creator as Twilight Man about Rod Serling). 

Orwell (Christin, Verdier) looks at the life of one of my favourite writers and only really stumbles in the opening pages with a sweeping statement about “woman’s novels” being “sad and sentimental.” Hey, I like a good solid dose of sad and sentimental. 

Lon Chaney Speaks (Pat Dorian) is another worthy graphic novel biography, though because parts of his life are a mystery the book is forced to dwell, at times, on his assorted films.

Genre: I finally read The Lord of the Rings (not a huge fan of fantasy) which I generally called Lord of the Onion Rings as I read it to my daughter in the evenings. I had to fast-forward through some of the remarkable amounts of description, and it felt a little like trying to show her a TV show from fifty years ago in terms of the pace, but there are also remarkable moments in the description and she found the story and characters compelling, particularly Frodo and Sam. I was nearly moved to tears when reading aloud Gandalf’s wonderful return, and the moment Frodo and Sam say they’re glad to be with each other “at the end of all things.” 

Consider Her Ways and Others (John Wyndham): inventive speculative fiction stories from an author I admire, though sometimes the kind of story or general idea we’ve seen produced as a film in all the decades since. 

Dr. No (Fleming) suffers from the usual sweeping generalizations (culturally speaking), but I can’t imagine who’d read it as an accurate portrayal of Jamaica – particularly all these years later — it’s an entertaining Fleming novel. 

Hombre (Elmore Leonard) is a gripping Western told in precise, straightforward language I found both admirable and compelling. 

Stories: Zero Gravity (Sharon English) is a superb set of stories: well written without being flashy and meaningful without being heavy-handed. I’m fifteen years late to the party, but a great book is a great book. 

Tiny Deaths (Robert Shearman) was a dark (and by that I mean really dark) inventive collection I enjoyed. 

Instruction Manual for Swallowing (Marek) is another inventive collection I found refreshingly original and unpredictable. My favourite was about a huge talking centipede full of regret. 

Nonfiction: On Decline (Andrew Potter) clarified some important ideas for me, including the idea that when media outlets post bizarre articles (that sometimes left me scratching my head) the outrage is the point. It’s concise, and part of the new Field Notes series by Biblioasis. 

A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson): don’t know how I took this long to read Bryson, but this is funny, thoughtful, charming and immensely readable. It was perfect summer reading at a cottage.  

My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (Christian Wiman) had me reaching for my highlighter frequently: “I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe.” 

Unreliable Memoirs (Clive James): James is good company here, though I would not consider it his best book. I also picked up Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language and enjoyed it. 

The Unreality of Memory and other Essays (Elisa Gabbert): a set of impressively thoughtful, articulate essays that addresses, in particular, our deeply troubled times. 

Poetry: Manual for Emigrants (Fraser Sutherland) is a book I enjoyed and found skillfully done, but more importantly a book very kindly signed and dropped in the mail to me by Fraser a few months before he passed away early in the year. He was a talented poet and a supportive friend. I’ll always remember him editing my first book of poems and calling it “Good stuff,” as well as insisting on buying me every coffee on a patio, saying “The writer doesn’t pay” (though of course he was a writer as well). I’m glad I made it to the launch of his 2019 poetry book, and that his book about his son (The Book of Malcolm) was completed and will be out in 2022. 

Looking back on the year I’m surprised at how many poetry books I read even as I drifted away from writing poetry: Elephant Rocks (Kay Ryan) We Can’t Ever Do This Again (Amber McMillan), Mere Extinction (Evie Christie), All the Daylight Hours (Amanda Jernigan), Strangers (Rob Taylor), A Tunisian Notebook (Russell Thornton), The Id Kid (Linda Besner), The Suicide’s Son (James Arthur), Dunk Tank (Kayla Czaga), How Long (Ron Padgett) Lucifer at the Starlite (Kim Addonizio), The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, Troubled (R.M. Vaughan). 

I revisited The Stovehaven Poems (Rick Patrick) and below on this blog I’ve reviewed the debut book The Pit (Tara Borin).  

Books for young kids: Through with the Zoo (Jacob Grant) was, remarkably enough, a book about being an introvert as far as I can tell, and really the first one I’ve come across in ten years of reading to my kids.

Other books my young son enjoyed included Bear Meets Bear (Jacob Grant), On the Other Side of the Forest (Robert, DuBois), The Barnabus Project (Terry Fan) and a series called Big Words Small Stories (by Judith Henderson). 

I’ll have an essay on what it was like to work as a bookseller (“Paper Problems”) with quotes from the Orwell essay on the same subject (“Bookshop Memories”) in the next Canadian Notes & Queries. If you don’t subscribe, it’s easy to do online and the affordable price gets you a pile of thoughtful book reviews and articles at least a couple of times a year.

Carmelo Militano lives in Winnipeg and is the author of a number of books, including poetry such as Morning After You and The Stone-Mason’s Notebook. Most recently he has published a novel about the life of the painter Modigliani, called Catching Desire.

In your novel on Modigliani and his work, you have striking moments of description even as you make use of a blend of different perspectives, including your own. The title Catching Desire could also be said to reflect your desire to know the artist and the story of his life a hundred years later. It feels purposeful that looking back through history was a perspective, almost a character, but was it a suffocating feeling or a most positive one

Thanks for the question. To begin with let me say a few words about description. I like description for description’s sake simply for its sensual and emotional zing even though it may not add to anything to the story or character. Yes, the title does include or suggest my desire and curiosity to capture Modigliani, to understand his ‘desire’ to paint; to ‘catch’ or discover what was the spirit behind his reach in art. It was a positive experience and I deliberately limited the amount of books I worked with to avoid being overwhelmed by research.


I was not interested in writing a detailed academic work. I was more interested in getting under the skin of Modigliani, to discover the essence of his artistic and personal reality and how both evolved. This was not ‘suffocating’ so much, to use your term, but at times exasperating. He could be so difficult, fickle, and inexplicable yet he possessed an incredible work ethic; romantic, and madly cruel to his ex-lovers, generous to his friends. His rebel behaviour in Paris at times seemed unnecessarily self-destructive. But, along with all that he was imbued with a type of pure artistic desire and when all is said and done it was great learning about him. He would have made a fun drinking companion if you avoided talking to him about Picasso.

Set in and around “a small-town, subarctic dive bar,” The Pit is a superb debut.

It’s a book of poetry that finds impressive focus in spare, precise language that leaves implied connections hanging in the air. A church key quietly carried around is a source of comfort and “secret to speed,” while working. In a poem about fathers (“Father’s Day”) a possible tragedy is foreshadowed in four concise lines from what I assume to be two voices: “she’s on the honour roll / he gets into a lot of trouble / if anyone hurts her / that’s my boy.”

There are poignant and empathetic portraits here, as the poet ponders a particular drinker and wonders “who he’d be / in a kinder timeline,” and readers are introduced to a night janitor who “Hears God / in the electricity.”

But as fascinating as the people are here, the landscape is also a character, and a refreshingly different one for many readers, particularly in strong poems like “Flood,” in which “Neighbouring buildings lift / from their cribbing and jostle / against each other / like drunks commiserating / in the street.” And this particular poem has an ending that may or may not be poetic exaggeration, but regardless, it’s perfect. 

“We’ll Never Have Enough of This,” is a found poem using graffiti from a washroom, and while it’s not quite clear if the title is also found poetry, it doesn’t matter because it works well. 

Personally, I’ve troubled to put my own poems in a particular order rather than group them into sections that seemed a bit arbitrary, but here I thought it worked well to have sections like “The Regulars,” and “The Hard Stuff.” Is it possible to have section envy? I’m not quite sure.

Here’s what’s important: this is a mature, self-assured and sharply written book. I hope it finds readers, because it quite clearly announces a new talent. 

This year a couple of my poems found homes: The Undertow of the World is over at Cypress, and a poem called “Dictators at Night” can be found in the new, winter issue of Taddle Creek. It’s easy to subscribe online (not to mention quite affordable in Canada). As always, here are some thoughts on favourite books of the year including nonfiction, novels and stories as well as graphic novels.

Essays: Notes of a Native Son (James Baldwin) is a collection of essays published in the 1950s but still relevant today. I reached for my highlighter often. Here’s one of the many statements that struck me as very perceptive: “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.” 

The Mystery Shopping Cart (Anita Lahey) is both essays and interviews. Lahey deserves thanks for so frequently engaging with other writers over the years.

Be Scared of Everything: Horror Essays (Peter Counter) is a set of concise, articulate essays that actually draws from a variety of cultural sources, from horror films to some of the more bizarre alleys of the Internet. A full review can be found a little further down on this blog. 

Impossible Owls (Brian Phillips) is series of long, thoughtful and well-written essays on obscure subjects – like Sumo wrestlers – and comes highly recommended.  

Novels: True Grit (Charles Portis) and Hard Rain Falling (Carpenter) were two of my favourite novels of the year. Both were hard-hitting, compelling and highly descriptive in an accessible style. 

An Artist of the Floating World (Ishiguro) is a quietly compelling and flawlessly written story, not to mention a poignant one.  

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Siegfried Sassoon) is what I assume to be a memoir wearing a thin disguise as a novel. I was struck by description like this: “In 1917 I was only beginning to learn that life, for the majority of the population, is an unlovely struggle against unfair odds, culminating in a cheap funeral.” This after a description of a British soldier with “a horribly smashed head.” Sassoon describes a mug of “reviving but trench-flavoured tea.” Meeting the Colonel during a conflict he feels he has “no business to be there at all, let alone helping to make a hole in the Colonel’s cake, which was a jolly good one.” Or the absurdity of a fairly sadistic doctor who appears to enjoy upsetting the soldiers under his care. Sassoon asks about a few weeks in the country and the reply comes: “You’ll stay here; and when you leave here, you’ll find yourself back at the front in double-quick time. How d’you like that idea?” Sassoon feels like hitting him, but in the end assumes someone else will do it. 

Mr. Bridge (Even S. Connell) is a superb portrait of a flawed character and borderline fascist. I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as Mrs. Bridge (written earlier) given the earlier novel has a more sympathetic character and manages more poignancy. But a portrait of a narrow-minded character is still relevant and both are quiet American masterpieces. 

I found both Moon of the Crusted Snow (Waubeshig Rice) and Split Tooth (Tanya Tagaq) to be absolutely compelling reading.

Life of Pi (Martell) is a novel I’d been meaning to read for I don’t know, twenty years? I loved it, and it’s always a pleasure to discover a book that’s a philosophical adventure worthy of all the hype. 

Stories: Robert Walser spent decades simply wandering, and I really like his meditative, short (sometimes very short) stories that find their way to reverence frequently. This year I read Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories. Here’s a moment he contemplates a matchstick: “And what would the reader say to the little match or matchstick, just as dear as delicate, a sweet, odd little person, lying in its matchbox next to its numerous comrades, patient, proper, well-behaved, as if adream or asleep.” 

Speaking of concise work, Collapsible (Tim Conley) really impressed me for being both concise and so inventive I was rarely able to assume they were based on the author’s life. 

Flying Home and Other Stories (Ralph Ellison) is a set of stories not collected after his death, which is surprising given how potent they were. 

Jesus’ Son (Denis Johnson) provides lessons in rarely having a dull sentence, as demonstrated by this transition when a character has been picked up as a hitchhiker: “Under Midwestern clouds like great grey brains we left the superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City’s rush hour with a sensation of running aground.” 

Dark Tales (Shirley Jackson) is a well-written, inventive and perhaps somewhat cynical collection, something like entering a literary Twilight Zone. 

Genre: Somewhere in Time (Matheson) felt long to me, and somewhat clumsily written even as latching on to a woman quite desperately and having her respond with the same feelings stretched believability. I’ve admired other books by Matheson, but this one felt like it needed more work. 

Station Eleven (Mandel) is a thoroughly compelling take on a possible apocalypse, and I particularly loved the way some characters ended up living in what should have been a pit-stop along the way, but at that moment civilization happened to crumble. I thought the end seemed a little movie-like, which was a trifle disappointing. 

Nonfiction: Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three (David Plante) is a pretty fascinating memoir that plucks interesting moments from the lives of three fascinating women. Here’s a quote from Jean Rhys, late in life: “I want to tell you something very important. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy … and there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters.” 

Man-Eaters of Kumaon (Jim Corbett) was a bestseller decades ago, and these gripping real-life stories of hunting tigers that had turned (unnaturally) into man-eaters were remarkable. Frequently the tigers were quite old or wounded in a way that forced a change in diets. Corbett reveals that tigers are sometimes a bit incompetent at killing porcupines and injure themselves that way. In some tigers he finds porcupine quills “over nine inches in length and as thick as pencils.” 

The Invention of Solitude (Auster) is an incredibly gripping read in the first half for its remarkable portrait of his father. I found it a topsy-turvy experience, though, with a second half more dense and, for me, suddenly less enjoyable. 

Graphic novels: Kingdom (Jon McNaught) was simply among my favourite books of the year. Not much happens to a family on holiday in the UK, but that’s entirely the point of this exquisite book with entire pages that decline to have any dialogue. 

The New Ghost (Robert Hunter) is a short, delightful and slightly trippy graphic story that isn’t easy to track down. I ordered three copies by mail in a pandemic and the first two simply didn’t make it to me. But I understand there will be a new edition in the spring of 2021. 

The Twilight Man (Koren Shadmi) is a graphic novel biography of Rod Serling that’s well worth tracking down. 

Black Hammer (Jeff Lemire) is a series I finished this year and I loved everything about it, from the artwork to the refreshingly different take on the superhero genre. 

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (Stephen Collins) is perfect: a profound book hiding beneath a somewhat silly (but at least refreshingly unpretentious) title. 

Both Goliath and Mooncop by Tom Gauld are well worth checking out as well as his brilliant cartoons, of course. 

Pulp (Brubaker, illustrated by Phillips) manages to pack meaning into a short story that blends the Western and hard-boiled detective genres in a satisfying way. 

In Waves (Dungo) has clean, calming images that are used to blend the history of surfing with a touching personal story. 

I’m a little torn about horror. There’s something magical about the old Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff films, and I like the Hammer horror films that came later and were elevated by actors as credible as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. But I discovered all that after growing up on a series of empty-feeling 1980s slasher films I don’t want to revisit. I gave up on The Walking Dead after they killed the most civilized character near the end of the second season – I think zombie stories aren’t about the zombies but the values survivors mange to keep – and because generally if I want to be anxious these days I can look at headlines. I was impressed with The Fireman, a novel by Joe Hill, given its subtle message about choosing how compassionate you want to be and choosing how to live your life in difficult times. It’s particularly important considering the possibilities on the horizon. 

Reading Be Scared of Everything I expected a breezy, enjoyable examination of horror films but the book easily surpassed those expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find a series of concise, accessible and articulate essays that look at much more that film. Peter Counter blends his personal experience and struggles with everything from sharks to video games and some of the more bizarre alleys of the Internet. There’s even astute literary analysis to be found here: “To Lovecraft, we’re all worthless, but some of us are more worthless than others.” In short, it’s a book that illustrates the way horror is relevant to daily life and springs from daily life, even if not everything manages to have a level of quality. 


Live involves sitting “in the middle of a story” with a certain amount of accompanying anxiety, and horror movies reflect this: “Like life, horror begins with oblivion, is animated by human resistance to that terrible lifelessness, and finally urges us to accept death as inevitable.” Counter talks about our tendency to tell personal stories of the unknown and supernatural somewhat apologetically before going the book goes on to say “horror can liberate us from the shame of trying on different existential frameworks to see what fits. It can give us the tools to respect our experiences. Horror suggests there isn’t an objective metaphysics we can know as humans. It posits belief as decentralized, that all spooky stories, no matter how conflicting, are legitimate.” 

Counter takes a moment to touch on funerals, including the idea that what’s quietly interesting, even pleasant about them is the way they celebrate “something real, non-institutional, and fully inclusive.” He’s no stranger to loss and trauma, giving these essays all the more authority. His own personal struggles are detailed in a handful of essays where it’s relevant to the topic, including a piece called “The Shattered Teacup:”  “After trauma, safety looks like a cheap illusion, and people who feel safe appear naïve for not having also realized that catastrophe can visit at any moment.”

Film and TV also get their fair share of coverage, though again wherever a particular show can be woven together with a particular idea. X-Files gets an essay, along with a piece that touches on the “authority porn” of the assorted CSI and Law & Order shows. And here’s Counter on the assorted Hannibal Lecter appearances in film and TV: “Will Graham and Clarice Starling both want the same thing: they want to be normal. Hannibal Lecter’s gift to them is denying what they want on principle, saying that the source of their pain and confusion is that they’re right and the normative world is wrong.” 

I learned about The Cloud of Unknowing, a text by an anonymous fourteenth-century monk concerning our inability to comprehend God, and religious and secular horrors are examined in “Manufacturing Mephistopheles:” “Our insignificance as people is the nuclear core that holds all horror together, and that core is made manifest by independent non-human annihilators.” 

Orwell wrote model essays: articulate without being overdone or impenetrable, and thoughtfully engaged with each subject so that the topic becomes interesting to any reader, even those who weren’t particularly invested at the start. That’s the kind of worthy writing I found here, in a book that rewards attention assuming the reader isn’t dismissive of everything connected to the genre. I certainly hope we hear from Peter Counter again. 



A shorter version of this essay was published in The Globe and Mail in 1999. I’m currently looking for a publisher for a book of thoughtful, inclusive essays. 

There are only occasional moments in life that feel like an abyss. You step out of your old life and for a moment don’t know where you are. We can’t mentally prepare for the sudden loss of a loved one or any other surprising, significant change. Soldiers returning from World War Two on ships had some time to process the experience, and adjusted to civilian life better than soldiers returning from Vietnam, flown home in a matter of hours. The spring that I graduated from university was my first experience with an abyss. I was handed a diploma, crossed the stage, descended the steps and stood there, stunned. Needless to say it doesn’t compare with fighting a war, but it’s fair to say the arrival of this day felt like the air after a precipice. I’d been in school for nearly twenty years since childhood while only thinking vaguely beyond it.warehouse

But there were bills to pay. A heartbeat later I’m standing in a warehouse. It’s a new job and every inch of the place seems to scream out to me that I don’t belong. On my first day a man named Tony, tall with thinning dark-hair, is showing me around, patiently explaining the routines. Each man puts on a snowsuit and cap, boots and gloves before launching out on a small, motorized truck. You take a list with you on each trip and sail the aisles of a cold warehouse, collecting a dozen cases of frozen orange juice here, frozen pies there. Finally you deposit the load, destined for a grocery store somewhere, and start out on another trip.  Sounds simple, but I felt ridiculous, wearing a snowsuit and trying to get the scooter-thing out of the tight parking spot, banging back and forth between another scooter and a pillar. I pictured myself knocking the pillar over and bringing down a part of the ceiling, stressed and sweated it out as Tony waited patiently. It only occurred to me later he was perfectly happy to be paid to train. A short, toadish is behind me, glaring quietly, and in the anxious hope he can get out I raised an arm and said, “After you.” but he only blurts, “You gotta go first!” So this is life, and I’m already failing.

Over the next few months I complain to my friends constantly about how sophisticated little me doesn’t fit in at the warehouse. Much like residence in my first year of school – or anytime when you get a lot of men together – some guys are easygoing and comfortable while the ones with something to prove swagger around. I’m not only new, I’m part-time, several strikes against me. In the staff room a full-timer walks slowly towards me, making eye contact and nodding “No.” I’m completely baffled until he tells me I’m in the seat he always gets. Oh. They talk sports and I don’t speak the language, so I just throw in a few basic statements when I can. On the job, Tony tells me “The way you stacked those boxes is what the fuck.” As two men pass each other on scooters, they exchange “Fuck you” with “No, fuck you!” I don’t smoke, but bring cigarettes to offer one to Tony. “Cigarettes are a way to bond” my girlfriend tells me.

At a meeting with one of the “suits” the men are accused of purposely slowing down as a way to register dissatisfaction and they explode into anger and swearing. It seems to me that the accusation isn’t justified. Or at least, it isn’t a good idea to throw this at the men when it can’t be proven.  At the coffee truck the man gives me the change saying, “Thanks, brother” and I wonder if he does it purposely – it seems a little forced. Try as I might I can’t get myself to call anyone “buddy.” One of the truck drivers tells me I’m supposed to get in the cab of his truck so that he can show me “where the stores are.” When I refuse he keeps slapping me with loud verbal requests, finally setting a date when I’m supposed to meet him. A few days after I don’t show up he’s coming after me in the warehouse saying “Hey buddy! You stood me up, man!” A supervisor laughs and tells me that he “gets some of the guys running the other way” though I’m not sure what this means, exactly. At the end of one shift I get a lift with another part-timer. He walks all around his car to check it, and then talks about it the whole ride home. Telling a few of the guys in the locker room about what I took in school, one of them says he’s going back to school. “Oh yeah?” I ask, “What are you going to take?” He answers, “I’m going to take the inter-course” and there is much laughter and pounding of lockers.

This is a place where the homophobia is out of control. There is not one woman in the place, and you can’t bend over to pick something up without somebody saying “You know what he wants!” I suppose a real man picks something up using a piece of gum on a string. An older guy named Stan joins me where I sit alone on a bench outside and asks me how I’m doing.  Stan tells me that he’s worked seven years at the warehouse, only enough to have a little of the all-important seniority. He asks me about my interests, what I took in school, assuming I should want to move on from the warehouse and go somewhere else. He tells me he wouldn’t have spoken that way to the suit if he weren’t part of the union. It’s one of the few real conversations I’ve had with someone, and he’s simply calm and pleasant but minutes later a small knot of men are walking by and someone declares “Stan’s after one of the young guys!” In an instant, the only reasonably warm, comrade-building moment I’ve had there is replaced with low-level anxiety and paranoia. One of my gay friends narrows her eyes and says, “Oooh, it’s good you’re reminding me there are places like this.”

On the TV in the staff room a woman grabs a man’s ear and leads him away.  “I’d slap any woman that tried to treat me like that,” someone says. When I tell a few of the guys I can’t join them for a staff baseball game (played at eight in the morning after working the all-night shift), making up the excuse that my girlfriend needs my help, they respond “Don’t let the woman rule you, man.”

Before the end of the summer I talk about quitting, and friends are supportive but my mother tells me it’s “time to grow up” and face reality.  She feels I should work there for the whole summer and then go to college next year. It’s nice that I graduated university (with a degree as vague as English literature, and that’s part of my whole problem), but now I need a skill. After not particularly enjoying the academic world but pushing through, I’m upset that my Mom doesn’t understand my desire to find someplace to fit in, someplace I want to be. As far as I’m concerned I went to school for those years so that I could at least come close to doing something that I want, and I deserve a break from school.

Finally, the job has paid well enough that my few remaining debts are gone and I’m in my supervisor’s office making up the excuse that I find the workload to be a physical strain. Eventually he slowly comments “Maybe you’d… be happier somewhere else.” Amen, brother. He almost seems a little sad. More than once that summer I’d overhear my mother on the phone, feeling the need to justify to someone that I’d quit my job – he paid off all his debts, he hasn’t had a vacation in a while. In the locker room at the end of my last day I’m talking to one of the men who has heard I’ve quit and he asks “So, this job not good enough for you?” I consider, and then say, “No, actually it’s the other way around.”

It was meant to be diplomatic, but it wasn’t a complete untruth. Although impatient to get to what I believed I deserved after finishing school, I discovered a respect for the job and some of these men. They take care of work nobody else takes care of, but someone needs to do it, and they get very little recognition or respect for it. I don’t believe they deserve less respect because anybody with motor functions can do it. If nobody was willing to sweep the streets and they became unbearable, it isn’t as though all the lawyers would leap to take care of it. It reminds me of the “I could have done that,” response to a piece of art produced in a relatively straightforward fashion. The best response I’ve ever been able to come up with was “Maybe you could have, but you didn’t.”

And while I charged through the experience without pausing to consider, the reality was that I’d already started the rest of my life. Mark Twain said, “I’ve never let school interfere with my education.” I’m glad to have studies English literature and dabbled in psychology, but the depth of my experience has come from living outside the academic world, enhanced by further reading. The warehouse had a majority of indifferent men, a few deeply hostile one, and a few men like Stan, who generally ran with the rest of the herd, but had also tried to be kind. I should have said something to defend him, and in time, I’d have done more to be supportive of him, and those others I trusted. After school, the rest of anybody’s life involves dropping into one new environment after another, negotiating your way around, finding those people you’re comfortable with, and investing your time and energy in the people and projects you believe in. In retrospect, the shock of such a different environment was a valuable new experience – a good way to wake up.

This year I did a few final readings from Army of the Brave and Accidental, my retelling of The Odyssey, though the best moments came when I was invited to Thin Air, a Winnipeg literary festival in the fall of 2018. I’m still feeling proud of the book and while it wasn’t quite the response I hoped for, the book didn’t go without acknowledgement. I wrote some thoughts on it for Goodreads, mainly to include some comments from a Canadian Notes & Queries review by Alex Good that was really positive.

Here’s my annual list of books I enjoyed this year, including fiction, short stories, nonfiction and graphic novels. Mereading

Novels: It was a little hard to be patient with the slowly unfolding plot of Brooklyn (Colm Toibin) but ultimately it’s easy to enjoy as a well-written novel and a great example of a pace that allows characters to feel real.

Speaking of Ireland, The Wonder (Emma Donoghue) forges a very compelling novel out of real historical incidents: someone believing they don’t need to eat because God sustains them. Compelling and carefully written.

The Bookshop (Penelope Fitzgerald) is concise and meaningful, subtle, deeply British and enjoyable, even if the ending leaves the reader wanting more.

The Little Snake (A.L. Kennedy) is a quite remarkable short fable, clearly written in the modern age but designed to be timeless. The writing is very precise but I was most impressed with Kennedy’s way of capturing the kind of human she admires, even if the mirror-image appalling human is basically left out, their military aggression mysteriously unexplained. Perhaps that’s fair, as there’s no decent explanation, is there?

The Pleasure of My Company (Steve Martin) is a small, quiet and pretty much perfect novel. The Magician (Maugham) was utterly compelling with subtle meaning, as usual for Maugham, and I was reminded I’m really impressed when I read one of his novels, this one apparently based on Aleister Crowley. Bottled Goods (Llewyn), is a concise novel that employs a bit of magic realism in telling the story of struggles in 1970s communist Romania.

Titus Groan (Peake). An opening paragraph demonstrates how superbly and carefully written it is, even as it creates a world of its own. A remarkable book that’s quietly and deeply symbolic of different elements of society, and part of a trilogy I hope to continue soon.

Assorted Canadian Novels: The Sisters Brothers (DeWitt) was really well written and something I thoroughly enjoyed, particularly as someone who loves Westerns. Inventive, entertaining and grim with real-feeling characters, this felt to me a little like watching a Coen brothers movie.

Small Claims (Kaufman) has a character in personal crisis even as he’s mildly obsessed with the fairly pitiful struggles found in small claims court. It always gets on my nerves a little when novelists write novels about people writing novels, but ultimately like a good poem this hints at some important ideas about the daily struggles we face as humans.

Dear Evelyn (Kathy Page) is an impressive, empathetic account of a long marriage that has remarkable moments bringing the characters – and humanity with all its flaws – to life, even as I found it a little unsatisfying for the jumps in time that required the reader to resettle fairly routinely.

All My Puny Sorrows (Toews) is loaded with empathy for the characters it creates, and the world in general, and tells a compelling tale of a close family. Sometimes I’m tempted to resist when a novel so thoroughly and plainly tugs on my heartstrings, but I did ultimately enjoy this one.

Congratulations on Everything (Nathan Whitlock). I don’t think it’s as easy as it looks to write a concise, everyday epic that includes characters, dialogue and events that feel quite real even as insights are slipped into a straightforward narrative (Simply put, a character opens a bar and meets assorted people along the way). Whitlock provides the occasional sublime line, but the reader gets the sense he prefers a straightforward style, and story. In fact, overlong and overdone novels get a jab at one point, when a character is reading one: “It was the size of a small briefcase, and so heavy it made her wrists ache when she read it.”

I suspect Whitlock likes everyday people and quiet heroes. Stalin gets a mention, but only because a character is reading a plump biography of him. For once, the historic personalities are in orbit of the everyday people living their lives, trying to carve out a bit of space to be happy while the clock ticks, aware they have a finite amount of time: “Their father didn’t like to talk about getting old. Getting old was getting old — what alternative was there? It was as pointless as trying to imagine the forms life might take at the far end of the universe. We’ll know when we know.”

Short stories: Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (Richard Yates) was sad and beautiful and superbly written. The kind of good writing that didn’t draw attention to itself. The Ways of White Folks (Langston Hughes) was both a historical lesson and a superb set of stories. How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (Lau) is an inventive and well-written set of stories. All three come highly recommended.

Graphic novel series: Irredeemable (Mark Waid) imagines a Superman-like hero turned evil and destructive and it’s very compelling (ten volumes), though his destructive acts are so appalling (particularly the first one) that later attempts to explain and humanize him don’t quite work as well as they might be meant to work. Wild’s End (Dan Abnett and I.N.J Culbard, who is among my favourite illustrators) puts an anthropomorphic twist on The War of the Worlds in a story set in and around small English villages and it’s gripping stuff (three volumes). Sweet Tooth (Lemire) is a grim, post-apocalyptic tale of struggle and survival well suited to the art Lemire produces. I found it compelling, even if I had to brace myself to read another volume.

Stand-alone graphic novels: Twists of Fate (Paco Roca) is a superb account of a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and then World War Two, using first-hand accounts of the events as told to the artist after meeting an alert, elderly veteran everyone assumed to simply be the local eccentric.

I’ve continued to really like Black Hammer (a refreshingly different take on the superhero genre) but Frogcatchers by Jeff Lemire is precise and poignant: at once accessible, profound, and like a meaningful dream.

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World: An Introvert’s Story (Tung). Simply put, this thoroughly enjoyable series of anecdotes from an introvert helps explain introverts, and might actually help extroverts understand. We don’t dislike people, all right? It’s like having an inner battery that runs down, and then we’re emotionally wiped.

Memoirs of a Book Thief (Tota) may or may not be loosely based on a real story, but it’s a compelling story of a curious character entering the literary life of Paris in what would appear to be the 1950s. Not, apparently, the story of a famous writer but the story of the guy who was hanging around.

Clyde Fans (Seth) was promoted as decades in the making, and it was worth the wait. It’s a superb, subtle, poignant and beautiful story of two brothers over the decades and the fan company they ran. There’s something very Canadian about it, though not in a heavy-handed way. It’s nothing that ruined the experience, but in a handful of moments the print was too small for me to read, so I do wonder if it could’ve been packaged differently.

Nonfiction: Typhoid Mary (Anthony Bourdain) is a concise and readable account of an unfortunate life.

On Writing (Stephen King) is accessible, enjoyable, useful and curmudgeonly, beginning with the statement this is a shorter book because most books about writing are filled with “bullshit.” And here’s another line: “When it comes to scene-setting and all sorts of description, a meal is as good as a feast.”

Born a Crime (Trevor Noah) is an immensely readable account of life in apartheid Africa. Noah is skilled at both writing well and leaving out irrelevant moments, so that it’s both a personal journey and historically interesting.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Valeria) is “structured around the forty questions the author translates and asks undocumented Latin-American children facing deportation.” It would be hard to overstate how insightful and important this book was. I have a better understanding from this brief book, even as I continue to feel helpless.

James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations was a short book that routinely sent me looking for my highlighter given the number of remarkable quotes from Baldwin, particularly on life in America.

The Great War and Modern Memory (Paul Fussell) is a book I’m glad to have finally finished. I started it years ago and thought some of the anecdotes lifted directly from the experience — Fussell was among the first to go through diaries and journals from the war, some still with mud on them — were the most remarkable and memorable I’d read. For some reason I didn’t finish the book, maybe because it becomes more dry in the second half, but as a more mature reader I found it remained fascinating throughout.

Memoir: Born Standing Up (Steve Martin) reflects on his experiences working out his standup routines and how the experience was sometimes useful later in life when acting. More importantly, Martin is good company, briskly moving through interesting anecdotes. Not My Father’s Son (Alan Cumming) is a troubling (considering what Cumming went through) but well-written memoir of growing up in Scotland. There’s immense sadness here, and yet a struggle to understand.

Genre: Semiosis (Sue Burke) is an impressively imagined, compelling story of a human colony on another planet, each chapter taking place a generation later. Not only does this allow for the long view, in terms of the decisions characters make and the consequences – not even in their lifetimes – but each chapter becomes like a related, well-realized short story. Or it feels that way until the final chapters detail the fate of the entire brief civilization in some of the most compelling reading I’ve done in years. Don’t believe online reviewers saying the science overwhelms the plot. A few dull passages aside, Burke knows the science should be the spice, not the main course.

The Fireman (Joe Hill) had a great premise: a new plague has people simply burning up, quite literally, and society is in chaos as a result of all the spontaneous combustion. Hill creates memorable characters and presents a stark reality that blends well with a society headed for climate disaster: choose if you’ll be meeting the problem with grace and dignity or panic and prejudice.

Moonraker (Ian Fleming) was, I thought, one of the better Bond books I’ve read, with only a light smattering of the sexism that sits in some of his other books like lumps in your oatmeal.

Sherlock Holmes: last year I really enjoyed a new Holmes novel called The House of Silk but this year I found The Patchwork Devil (Cavan Scott) to be a pleasant surprise. It ain’t easy to play with the toys created by the giants of literature and manage to look pretty good, but I found lots to appreciate here: a brisk pace, a style that feels like Conan Doyle, and a 1919 setting that allows for some commentary on life after the war, even as the Great War isn’t simply used casually for backdrop but portrayed as the appalling loss of life it was. Add to that a bit of a distinct, older and somewhat more sassy Watson narrating the story, and a crossover with another famous genre novel (possibly franchise would be the word) you can probably guess from the title. On top of that, clearly some research went into portraying the setting and the era. This was an excellent diversion laced with some meaning as well, and so thoroughly enjoyable on more than one level.

Poetry: Bad Habits (Fraser Sutherland) is a new collection broken down into a dozen subjects, and carefully measured poems.  I also really enjoyed How to Avoid Huge Ships(Julie Bruck), and very much look forward to the new Chris Banks collection.

One final note: when looking for something for a Kindle or Kobo search “” for affordable, inventive and well-written SF short stories, and “Vintage Short” for another impressive series, this one a mixture of fiction and non-fiction.

Bad Habits


I’ve been reading Bad Habits by Fraser Sutherland. Such carefully measured poems, and a book broken down into a dozen subjects. Sutherland has written for decades, and these are such a pleasure: “it is good to have a garden / and someone in it.” New from Mosaic Press and highly recommended. Here’s a link to a question I asked him about a previous book of poems and a meditative quality they enjoy.