My thanks to Alex Good for reviewing Army of the Brave and Accidental and calling the book “timely, original, and profound.” It’s a very thoughtful review, and if you don’t subscribe to CNQ, you should consider it: you get three issues a year of longer articles and reviews. This particular issue has an impressive number of 2018 titles reviewed, not to mention a celebration of fifty years of efforts.

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Time once again for my annual look at the books I count among my favourites in the last year. All the graphic novels are available through the Toronto library if that particular system can be put to work for you too.

Fiction: Mrs Bridge (Connell) is a remarkable portrait of a character and an era, told in precise chapters sometimes short enough to fit on a postcard. So Much Love (Rosenblum) is as compelling as it is well written and Pockets (Stuart Ross) was poignant and beautiful. Sister Carrie (Dreiser) is a novel I didn’t finish as an undergrad, but I found it immensely readable this year. It’s hard to think of another novel that had me cheering for the main character more than this one, even as there was a growing sense of apprehension.leonard

The Moon and Sixpence (Maugham) is apparently based in part on the life of Gauguin, and it’s a story I found fascinating as an examination of societal expectations and the self. I also really enjoyed The Sense of an Ending (Barnes), which manages to capture something meaningful about life’s struggles to be self-aware and find meaning, even if the accompanying cynicism is fairly pervasive.

Nonfiction: One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery (Karyn Freedman) has great value, not only because Freedman is a skilled writer but because rape is so often mentioned in passing it’s meaningful to have an account of the impact on a life.

What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism (Dan Rather) should be requited reading in America and elsewhere given that Rather has a thoughtful and noble way of detailing all that matters, in terms of keeping society civilized and functional.

A couple of thoughtful meditations are well worth tracking down: Birds Art Life (Maclear) and One Year Wiser: An Illustrated Guide to Mindfulness (Medaglia) which takes the form of a graphic novel guidebook and attempts to show the reader the path to greater wisdom.

Essays: Moranifesto (Moran) collects work that ranges from light pop culture analysis to very poignant and passionate (not to mention articulate) attacks on more significant societal problems. Through the Window (Julian Barnes) is a set of largely literary but very well written and insightful essays. Me Talk Pretty One Day (Sedaris) needs no promotion from me, but I enjoyed it.

Mystery: The House of Silk (Horowitz) was a pleasant surprise given that I’m a Sherlock Holmes fan. Horowitz has managed a novel that reads like Doyle returned to tell another story that’s a little more biting and meaningful. Aside from that, it’s a really enjoyable mystery.

Graphic biography: Pablo (Birmant) takes a look at the life of Picasso. The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman (Voloj) is excellent. Superman is ultimately an immigrant story undoubtedly inspired by the lives of his creators, but beyond creating the character the rest of the story is quite interesting too. The Arab of the Future (Sattouf) is an autobiographical tale and very compelling reading.

More graphic biography: It’s a Bird (Seagle) is a different kind of Superman graphic novel, telling a personal story of a period of time the author was contemplating an offer to write the Superman comic. Laika (Abadzis) tells the story of the charming dog the Russians sent into space, back when they did that sort of thing.

Christophe Chaboute: I thought his graphic novel The Park Bench (with its focus on one park bench over time) was charming, but I also read his gripping, short adaptation of the Jack London story To Build a Fire. Certainly planning on reading more by him.

Graphic novels: Sabrina (Drnaso) is the best graphic novel I read all year, capturing feelings of dread, disorder and paranoia. In short, our modern malaise. Poe (Hinds) adapts stories and poems by the great man. Killing and Dying (Tomine) is an excellent set of stories in graphic form. Essex County (Lemire) tells a fairly simple tale elegantly and manages to capture something about the Canadian spirit.

Speaking of Lemire: Black Hammer (two volumes, so far) is a compelling twist on the superhero story, with some unique and troubled heroes trapped in a place they don’t quite understand. It’s dying to be a mini-series of some kind, though the art in these comics is wonderful, and I only hope it wraps up in a satisfying way at some point instead of going off the rails or going on forever.

And yet more graphic novels: A Thousand Coloured Castles (Brookes) is a tasteful examination of Charles Bonnet syndrome and the accompanying hallucinations. Out of Nothing (Blandy) is trippy, philosophical and inspired, making it perfectly suited to graphic novel format. Coyote Doggirl (Hanawalt) was a stylish and thoroughly fun story. And finally How To Be Happy (Davis) is a set of sharp, brief and worthy stories with an impressive range.

Poetry: I really enjoyed The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory (Chris Banks) Know Your Monkey (Friedman) Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit (Harvey) The Wellspring (Olds), Rue Du Regard (Todd Swift), Be Calm, Honey (David McFadden) Blue Horses (Mary Oliver) as well as Penelope in the First Person (Goyette) and Complete Physical (Neilson).

SF: Embers of War (Powell) tells the entertaining and inventive story of a living ship and its crew in the aftermath of a great war. Borne (VanderMeer) had me sold on it as soon as I knew it was about a giant bear ruling a city in a post-apocalyptic future. Speaking of a fairly troubling portrayal of the future, True Born and True North (Sterling) are the first two volumes in a trilogy I plan to finish reading for the compelling story that skillfully keeps the reader engaged with its characters and themes.

Finally, Child of Fortune (Norman Spinrad) is a trifle long, but Spinrad (who wrote an original Star Trek episode before this was published in the 1980s) develops a futuristic language and finds unique moments in the story of a young woman leaving her home planet to find her path in life.


It was a bit magical to be out on the water as part of Word on the Street, reading from water-themed books on the Kajama along with Kerri Sakamoto (Floating City) and Andrea Curtis (Big Water). Deborah Dundas of the Star had particularly good questions. I also spent a few days as part of the Thin Air book festival in Winnipeg to participate in book discussions there with Sue Goyette (Penelope) Kevin Chong (The Plague) and Will Aitken (Antigone Undone). Great to have the chance to meet all of them and spend a few days discussing why we trouble to retell stories (I think, to be concise, we do it to reexamine who we are now). Happily, Army of the Brave and Accidental has also had a review in the Globe in an article that takes a look at three new literary time travel novels. Perhaps there was something in the drinking water. I have just a couple more readings from the book planned at this point, including this Wed, Oct 24 after 7pm at the Farside Studio. Also reading are Sam Shelstad, Jennifer Chen and Victoria Hetherington.

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Word

15Sep18

Very glad to say I’ll be a part of Word on the Street for the first time on Sunday September 23rd as part of a brief cruise called Across Water, Through Time. I’ll be discussing Army of the Brave and Accidental but the audience will also hear from Kerri Sakamoto (Floating City) and Andrea Curtis (Big Water). We set sail on the Kajama for about an hour. Seems like it will be a lot of fun, and if you wanted to climb aboard, tickets are available here. ArmyCover


Launched

15May18

It was an excellent turnout at Another Story Bookshop for the launch of Army of the Brave and Accidental. I’m pleased with the book as a modern retelling of The Odyssey, and look forward to some feedback from people (I’ve been texted “moving and enjoyable,” by a poet friend, so I hope it’s a comment that becomes a trend). A brief article about what helped inspire the book has appeared here on All Lit Up with a lot of emphasis on pop culture, though it occurs to me now I really should have mentioned other literary influences like Ray Bradbury. By pure coincidence I’ve just heard about the first translation of The Odyssey by a woman, Emily Wilson (reviewed here in The Guardian) which I’m now very much looking forward to reading.

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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


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.