I recently revisited No Country for Old Men, one of the most gripping films I’ve ever seen, often lacking the music that would faintly remind the viewer that you’re watching a film. Spoilers, ahoy: two of the main characters the viewer has followed and presumably cheered for – at least, more than the chilling assassin Anton Chigurh – are killed off camera, as though to emphasize the way the world casually carries on without you, and for most of the film the only character who seems to be very much in control is Chirugh with a careful, thorough and even inventive approach to killing. The scene he grills a hapless gas station owner who only wanted to make conversation about the rain must be one of the best I’ve ever seen, demonstrating (without spelling it out) how little time Chigurh has for irrelevancies even as the other man utterly fails to understand what’s wrong, but senses his life is on the line. Until, of course, the second last scene of the film gives us Chirgurh in a sudden car accident, which I assume to mean even the most cautious of us can’t anticipate everything in a complex and fast-moving world. With that in mind, it’s possible that ironically enough the baffled gas station owner is wiser if he recognizes the only thing worth doing is relaxing and trying to enjoy the ride as you make your contribution. 

Growing up, books were in my house the same way there were potted plants. Nobody really talked about books. It was in university I started to find them appealing as a physical object but also, of course, as vital parts of a larger conversation. And I wanted to make my contribution. That was in the 1990s, and I’ve since learned what experienced writers know, that you need to celebrate your successes, because indifference is always around the corner. And it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the quality of your writing, work is turned down by magazines for a variety of arbitrary reasons. Maybe they published something similar recently, and maybe they simply didn’t find room for it after the lineup of better connected, more famous or more fashionable writers. On Writing and Failure is a potent and articulate reminder of all this – or a handy but somewhat jarring initiation for new writers – as provided by Stephen Marche: “Persistence is the siege you lay on fortune,” and “You have to relish the rejection. Rejection is the evidence of your hustle. Rejection is the sign that your are throwing yourself against the door.” Or more troubling is the idea “the marketplace doesn’t test talent. It tests timing.”

A good novel takes years to produce, and most become old news in about three to six months. My novel sold fifty copies at the launch, but now sits at a modest twenty-two ratings on Goodreads. And to be honest, that’s because I encouraged friends to give it a rating and gave it one myself. “I’m pretty sure Goodreads exists only to torment writers,” jokes a novelist and friend of mine. But I’m still proud of it. I know it reached people and continues to reach people. I maintain that a book is always new to someone, and buy a copy on a monthly basis to give away or leave in a Little Free Library. Marche writes, “It should not be surprising that it’s hard to sell your feelings. What’s surprising is that there are sometimes buyers.” 

A writer enjoying intermittent success can at least know they may be remembered – even if most of us won’t – and for now, they don’t deal at all with the spotlight of anticipation. Marche quotes John Updike on the subject: “Celebrity, even the modest sort that comes to writers, is an unhelpful exercise in self-consciousness.” Writing in Unreliable Memoirs, Clive James notes, “generally, it is our failures that civilise us. Triumph confirms us in our habits.” He also notes a work should be judged by “it’s interior vitality, not by its agreed prestige.”

To add another layer of complexity, there has probably never been a worse signal to noise ratio, with more writers publishing more books at a time there’s more emphasis on those already famous and marketable, and more distractions. Huxley describes a world in which people “adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think,” and while I don’t want to go into it here, the fact we all carry computers in our pockets is certainly something I wouldn’t have anticipated as a child, and even dedicated readers find it eats into their time. 

So what’s left for a largely unknown writer? What’s left is being a part of a community, giving a cheer regularly for the work you appreciate, believing in diplomatic criticism and relishing the moments you give language the kind of elegance we simply don’t manage most of the time. You can only submit your work and let the rest of it hang in the wind. Marche doesn’t get into the joy of capturing something effectively, maybe because he assumes writers already care about this, or that it’s already in the heart of those dedicated writers the world troubles to notice, and can be found in the work. Marche does offer this, however: “You shouldn’t envy any writer, not because it’s bad for your soul but because it’s stupid. You have no idea what people are going through. You have no idea how things will work out.” 

Writing in his book of essays The Difficult, the late Stan Dragland put it like this: “The struggle is not about winning, though that is exactly how some critics behave. It’s about testifying, sharing, working to be an active, responsible member of a cultural community that values art for itself and also has a way of reading the world. It’s about paying dues, putting in that necessary effort.” Thanks for that, Stan. I’m sorry I never had a beer with you. 

Very glad to have a poem in the current (May) issue of The Walrus that you can read here. I’m in good company considering there’s also an excellent poem by Vanessa Stauffer (both poems are about fathers) and if you don’t subscribe it’s a great Canadian magazine covering relevant issues every month. I’m honoured to have a poem in it.

There’s also, by pure coincidence, a first poem of mine in The Fiddlehead, where I’ve submitted on and off since the 1990s (which is the only record that breaks how long I’ve submitted to The Walrus) so I’m also pleased and honoured to have a poem in Canada’s oldest literary magazine. And again, it’s a poem about my father. Of course, it’s also well worth subscribing to The Fiddlehead and please check in to the site because I’ve also contributed a review under Stop! Look! Listen! that should appear before long. I’ve taken a look at On Browsing by Jason Guriel.

Now that I’ve managed these two publications I’m honestly not quite sure where to turn next, but apparently I should have been writing more poems about my father as people have found them poignant. To be clear, he’s a very honourable, quiet man I happened to find a complete mystery as a child. These poems capture something of the love I continue to feel for him and the endlessly fascinating way we can be a mystery to each other, even under the same roof.

I think highly of work by Ray Bradbury. I’d say the novels stand up better than the stories, which come across to me as a little keen to get their point across, often something poignant and a trifle heavy-handed about how sad it will be when nobody cares about art or reading books. Still, as we’re headed in that direction anyway (particularly thanks to smartphones, I think) it seems a churlish complaint to make that he so desperately cares in his stories. I admire the way a lot of his work is infused with love for books and reading, as well as a firm belief libraries provide access, so that equality comes from freedom of information, freedom to read.

It’s worth exploring The Last Interview for some of the quotes here. Bradbury strikes me as quite a lucky writer in some ways, with a skilled and well-connected agent for most of his life (literary agents are like unicorns to me, I send out an occasional email just to see if one will reply) even as Bradbury really hustled, trying to make connections and practicing writing continually. It’s a reminder you can have talent and develop your skills by reading like a writer (and watching how others do it) but ongoing effort to get your work out there is also required. How many writers do all three?

Here’s Bradbury on reading The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck: “He taught me how to write objectively. He doesn’t tell you what a character thinks or feels. You never get any thoughts of characters. What a character looks at or notices is how is how you get the entire feeling of atmosphere and emotion. You rarely get a character’s thoughts. The reader guesses at them by what a character sees or does.” 

Asked why he elected to examine so many themes in stories set in the future instead of today, his reply is a concise summary of reasons for writing “ideas” fiction: “If you write an ordinary story in ordinary times, people are not going to read it. If you write a fantasy, people will think you are not writing about them, and in doing so, you will get to their guts and to their hearts. You want to stay away from appealing to minds – you want to reach their hearts. And when they are reading the book and they finish it, they realize, My God, that is me! I thought he was writing about the future, but this story is just pretending to be about the future.”

There are only a few sour notes in the book. Bradbury’s mini-essay on his architectural influences (specific to various projects) just kind of comes across as boasting from an already-famous writer, though it may have been meant joyfully and it’s explained by the fact that he’s obviously driven. For Hollywood to get a bit run down and be compared to Hiroshima is quite appalling, and at another point he seems to feel change is needed because the Obama administration is not “for the people,” so you’re forced to wonder what he’d have thought of the assortment of changes the American people eventually got.

But it’s only fair to say, it’s an admirable book for his repeated statements about love: do what you love, write for love and not for money. “Everything I did was pure love. Pure love. And if you live that way, you’ve had a great life.” I guess I’m getting that part right, at least.

James Pollock has published poems widely in many journals and his awards include the Manchester Poetry Prize and the Magma Editors’ Prize. He’s the author of You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada (2012) and the book of poems Sailing to Babylon (2012) but his most recent book of poems (on everyday technology) is called Durable Goods (2022). 

These are carefully crafted and imaginative poems about everyday items. Recently I came across a couple of Auden quotes, including the idea no one can create a work of art “by a simple act of will… but must wait until what he believes to be a good idea for a work comes to him.” And “there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening.” With all this in mind, how long did it take to write a collection like this, and could you elaborate on the value of turning your attention to everyday objects?

Thanks for your question, Alex, and your kind words.

I’ll tell you how I got the idea to write Durable Goods. I was sitting in a meeting at my college with my English colleagues. We were discussing some randomly-selected essays from our first-year College Writing classes, to decide whether or not our students were learning what we wanted them to learn. 

An essay by one of my own students was projected on the screen at the front of the classroom. The student’s name, and my name, had both been removed, but I recognized it. A couple of my colleagues began criticizing the essay for being written in first person, arguing that we should be teaching students to write academic arguments in the disembodied, disinterested voice of reason, not the subjective voice of an interested person. To my mind, the disinterested voice had certainly been conventional for academic writing throughout most of the twentieth century, but my view was that for some decades it had been gradually superseded by a more embodied, culturally-specific, first-person point of view, at least in the humanities, and I saw that as a good thing. In fact, I spent a lot of time in my classes encouraging students not only to write about things they cared about, but to write in first person, and to bring their own identities and experiences to bear.

I left the meeting feeling thoroughly annoyed and baffled, and as I passed a drinking fountain in the hallway, and gazed at it for a while, filled with emotional heat, it suddenly struck me that I could write a poem by imagining my way into the subjective existence of a drinking fountain, and all at once I felt tremendously excited. It felt very much like something Keats writes about in one of his letters, where he describes feeling despondent, and then, seeing a bird outside his window, “take[s] part in its existence” by a joyful effort of the imagination, “and peck[s] about the gravel.” 

I realized that I could write a whole book of poems about such things: not birds or flowers, but tools and appliances and machines. So the idea for the entire book came to me all at once, standing in a hallway, staring at a drinking fountain. 

After that, to answer your question, it took me about three years to write and revise the book, although I wrote most of the poems over the course of two summers when I wasn’t teaching. 

As for the value of turning my attention to everyday objects, I have two answers for that.

First, I’d say it’s a way of moving past autobiography in English-language poetry. I’ve written some autobiographical poems myself, and of course there are a lot of wonderful poems that have come out of this Wordsworthian tradition that Keats calls “the egotistical sublime”; but I’m interested in finding ways to do something else in poetry. Keats identifies an alternative tradition of the “chameleon poet”—that is, the kind of poet who, like Shakespeare, disappears into the subject of the poem—and that tradition strikes me as the most exciting way forward in our own time. Of course, there are various ways of doing this: dramatic monologues, for example, or certain narrative forms like the verse novel. For lyric poetry, one way to do this is with the thing-poem, which is descended from, and related to, the riddle. This is the approach that excited me when I was writing Durable Goods.

Another way to answer your question has to do with the value of engaging imaginatively with technology. When we use the word “technology” today, we tend to mean recent computer technology—blockchain, smart phones, quantum computing, artificial intelligence—and we forget about all the older technologies we use all day long, so that they have become almost invisible to us as technological: umbrellas, mirrors, teaspoons. It’s all just hardware, appliances, “products,” and before long, junk. In other words, most of us live immersed in a thoroughly disenchanted world of objects that we use and then throw away. Even though these things often help us, and sometimes hurt us, and require our care, we tend not to think of ourselves as having relationships with them.

The poems in Durable Goods, in adapting the thing-poem tradition to tools and appliances, bring an imaginative animism to these things, so they become enchanted subjects in their own right, not just disposable objects. When William Blake writes, concerning a thistle, that “With my inward Eye, ’tis an old Man grey, / With my outward, a Thistle across my way,” that’s a Romantic thing-poem, a visionary animism of Nature. There’s a whole tradition of thing-poems in modern poetry, too, including poems by Eduard Mörike, Rainer Maria Rilke, Marianne Moore, D.H. Lawrence, Francis Ponge, Eric Ormsby, and others. In Durable Goods, I’m innovating on that tradition by writing, not about plants or animals, or even works of art, but tools and appliances and machines.

As for your first quotation from Auden—his assertion that no one can create a work of art “by a simple act of will . . . but must wait until what he believes to be a good idea for a work comes to him”—I agree. Still, I try never to forget that Rilke learned the opposite, or at least a complementary, lesson when he worked for Rodin in Paris. In Rodin’s words, “Il faut travailler, toujours travailler,” or in English, “One must work, always work.” So, practice is crucial, too. It certainly had a profoundly beneficial effect on Rilke’s poetry, which improved rapidly from that point on, as he started to write the two volumes of New Poems, where most of his thing-poems are to be found. Whereas before—when apparently he was always waiting for inspiration—his poetry was relatively vague and sentimental. Later, when he received the inspiration for the Duino Elegies, walking along the wall at Duino Castle—I believe the story is that he had some distressing financial business to take care of, and then suddenly he heard the opening lines of the first elegy—he was ready for it; he had the technique he needed to turn the inspiration into a masterpiece, because he’d been practicing for years.

Still, today I would revise the lesson Rodin taught Rilke, at least a little. Yes, writing Durable Goods was a great deal of work, involving endless drafts, endless revisions, trying to make it all feel effortless. But really, it wasn’t work so much as play. It gave me great pleasure to write these poems, imagining my way into the experience of a ceiling fan, and then a sewing needle, and then a framing hammer. Each poem was like a new game of backgammon or chess. There were certain rules I set for myself, like iambic pentameter lines, rhymed quatrains, and so forth. Sometimes I’d win, sometimes I’d lose—that is, sometimes the poem would fail—but if I lost, I could always just clear the board, or part of it, and start over again. 

Finally, that second quotation from Auden strikes me as clearly wrong: “poetry must praise.” Tell that to Juvenal or Catullus or Alexander Pope! Not to mention Paul Celan. Anyway, I reject commandments about “all poetry,” especially if they try to restrict the freedom of the poet—in this case apparently to forbid all poetic satire and invective. As for my own attitude toward the things I write about in Durable Goods, I think it’s fair to say the aspersions I cast in that book, however playful, are sown almost as thickly as the praise.

Story collections: The Running Trees (Amber McMillan) was impressive for the variety of techniques used in quietly meaningful stories, and description that’s sparse and potent: We’d let the hurtful things we’d said sit between us like tacky lawn ornaments. Ill-fitting, grotesque.”

Take Us To Your Chief and Other Stories (Drew Hayden Taylor) is an intelligent, biting and meaningful collection of stories that provide an Indigenous take on a set of science-fiction stories. 

Middle-Aged Boys & Girls (Diane Bracuk) struck me as a skillfully crafted book of stories, though it also felt like a fairly cynical one and a book that hints at a certain amount of distaste for people in the description, with a “dull-looking teenage girl behind the counter.”

The Dead Are More Visible (Steven Heighton) is a carefully crafted set of meaningful stories and for Heighton to have passed away this year is an appalling loss. I’m sorry to say I only met him once back when I hosted a reading series and he gave a reading, but we traded emails sometimes (as recently as December of 2021) and he was always considerate and helpful. 

Honourable mentions to Damned If I Do (Everett), The Stone Thrower (Marek) and The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell (Evenson), and in particular here, the opening story “Leg.” 

Novels: Estates Large and Small (Ray Robertson) is both timely and finds profound moments, as the story of a bookstore owner struggling through the pandemic, middle-age and a rapidly changing world. I finished the book with a list of assorted albums and books I wanted to explore. 

The Red Pony (Steinbeck, really a novella) is the kind of concise, poignant and timeless book I adore. 

A brief, incomplete tour through Canadian classics: As For Me and My House (Sinclair Ross, 1941) has an assortment of striking, poignant moments but also felt a trifle ponderous, and as an early Canadian novel I can’t help but feel it helped set a tone as the only kind of fiction that won awards for decades: be serious and historical. But there are many standout moments here in a story set in Saskatchewan in the 1930s during the depression: “It’s been nearly dark today with dust. Everything’s gritty, making you shiver and setting your teeth on edge. There’s a crunch on the floor like sugar when you walk.” It has been a while since I read it, but I think I prefer Barometer Rising (Hugh MacLennan) published the same year. 

Hetty Dorval (Ethel Wilson, 1947) was concise and quietly meaningful book I took to be a story about finding your own way despite overwhelming nearby personalities, and so perhaps understandable as the kind of story we have wanted to tell ourselves in Canada.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (Richler, 1959) struck me as having so much more vitality and humour even as it carried meaning, though it apparently made little dent in the perception of what Canadian fiction should be. The scene Kravitz buys all the Beethoven symphonies, listens to them all and date stamps each album every time he hears it is the kind of moment that perfectly illustrates a character even as so many other writers prefer to plainly state what someone’s about. 

No Great Mischief (Alistair MacLeod, 1999) explores the bonds of family through adversity, and I eventually really enjoyed it after finding the beginning quite slow. The novel takes its title from James Wolfe apparently commenting this way on sending Scottish soldiers into battle: “they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.”

Theatre: J.M. Barrie may be best known for Peter Pan but I thought Mary Rose was superb, both for an unsettled feeling throughout even as some poignant comments were made on the inevitable passage of time. Apparently seeing it as a young man had an influence on Hitchcock, though he never made it into a film. 

Graphic novel: Mazebook (Jeff Lemire) is a thoroughly engaging and superbly well-realized story about love and loss. 

I’d also really recommend The Holy Ghost (John Hendrix), a collection of charming philosophical comics: “Perhaps joy, without suffering, is too cheap to understand.”

Essays: The Difficult (Stan Dragland) is a collection on Canadian literature that’s a trifle rambling at times but finds its way to some great quotes: “Rouse the faculties, keep an open mind – to appreciate difficult work, certainly, but also to receive worthy accessible work on its own terms.”

Nonfiction: On Browsing (Jason Guriel) is a concise look at what we lose by giving up browsing and boredom, and it comes strongly recommended. After reading it, I wrote my first review of a book in a very long time for The Fiddlehead site. Here’s a quote from the book: “A mind whose baseline is boredom is well primed to feel, with acute sensitivity, the slightest stimuli. A mind that’s buffeted by novelty, on the other hand, is the fender of a beater: it absorbs a lot of undifferentiated dings.”

The Last Word: Reviving the Dying Art of Eulogy (Julia Cooper) is more about grief and our society’s impatience with it than anything else, but it’s a worthy, articulate book. 

Galleria: The Mall That Time Forgot (Shari Kasman) is a fascinating historical document featuring both photos and the perfect amount of accompanying text. 

The Book of Malcolm: My Son’s Life with Schizophrenia (Fraser Sutherland): I lived a few blocks from Fraser and his family near Bathurst and St Clair for a number of years. This is what I expected: a poignant memoir about struggle, loss and love that remains as a record now that they’re all, sadly, no longer with us. I will continue to miss his friendship, honesty, and passion about books. 

Genre: The Left Hand of Darkness (Le Guin) plays with gender brilliantly, and does what all superb science-fiction does by both imagining a new world and grounding it in impressive details and characters that give you a real, everyday feeling. 

Poetry: Little Housewolf (Purdham), Ox (Christopher Patton), Ninety-fifth Street (Koethe), Hail the Invisible Watchman (Alexandra Oliver), Primitive Mentor (Dean Young), Ninety-Fifth Street (John Koethe), Infinity Network (Jim Johnstone) Boxing the Compass (Richard Greene), Deepfake Serenade (Chris Banks), Morning After You (Carmelo Militano). 

Amber McMillan has won a Penguin Random House award for fiction and has been shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. She is the author of the memoir The Woods: A Year on Protection Island (2016) as well as two poetry titles: We Can’t Ever Do This Again (2015) and This Is a Stickup (2022). This question concerns her book of stories, The Running Trees (2021) available from Goose Lane Editions.

I’m impressed that your quietly meaningful stories use a variety of techniques, including description that’s sparse and precise, but sometimes (even most often) dialogue as a way to get everything across. What appeals about that particular technique? 

Approaching writing in terms of sparsity and precision comes from my practice as a poet in which the idea is to see what can be effectively communicated in as little words as possible. I want to communicate but I don’t want to be the authority; that is, I want there to be an interpretive relationship to the text available to the reader that bypasses the author, or whatever authority on the text the author is thought of to have.

I made a particular point in The Running Trees not to assign gender to the characters as often as it was meaningfully possible because I wanted the thoughts, behaviours, and words of the characters to be experienced out of that (out-dated) context. For similar reasons, I also eliminated descriptions of age, race, body type, hair colour, profession, and other characterizations to see – as a kind of experiment – how much of what we’re used to being told about a character is actually unnecessary to the story. I’m still thinking a lot about the idea of an “author” and the ways we not only allow but expect them to take on the role of narrative expert, leaving us, the readers, as passive receivers and interpreters.

I’ve been troubled by the cultural notion that an author’s aim for a book is the aim that most matters – and so that is the aim that gets unpacked in, say, a Creative Writing class. What is the author’s intention? What is the author trying to tell us? What does the author mean? When I’ve been faced with questions like that I think to myself: who cares? As an author, I can admit that I have aims when I write, but I’m not convinced that what I meant to do is worth doing, nor that what I meant to say is worth interpreting. I’m far more curious about how my work is interpreted, how it reaches or doesn’t reach you, how it fits or doesn’t fit into the current milieu.

When I write poetry, I’m interested in atmosphere. I create atmosphere by word choices, rhythm, and imagery. I feel the same way about writing stories. Like other authors I have a narrative focus, I have intellectual aims, I have “a message” in mind, but… who cares?

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.