Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Shut Up in the Ottawa Citizen

An article published Monday in the Ottawa Citizen about the release of John Metcalf's Shut Up He Explained. Beyond the gadfly comment -- John's a bit tired of that one, folks (I am not, he said recently, a tiny stinging thing...) better than expected. And a little more charitable than Nathan Whitlock's take on the tome in the present Quill & Quire. (Though thankfully that review means we've finally broken through the Q&Q defence: t' is the first time they've reviewed one of our titles. Would that they waited one!)

A gadfly revitalized
A new book and a new job give critic and writer John Metcalf new energy -- and new outlets for his caustic views

Charles Enman
The Ottawa Citizen

Ottawa writer and literary critic John Metcalf felt a few years ago that he was running out of energy after decades of tilting at windmills in Canada's literary establishment. But now, at 69, he is re-energized after meeting Dan Wells, the owner of a small Windsor press for which he has become fiction editor.
CREDIT: Bruno Schlumberger, The Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa writer and literary critic John Metcalf felt a few years ago that he was running out of energy after decades of tilting at windmills in Canada's literary establishment. But now, at 69, he is re-energized after meeting Dan Wells, the owner of a small Windsor press for which he has become fiction editor.

John Metcalf -- fine short story writer, mentor to a generation of upcoming Canadian writers, and gadfly to the Canadian literary establishment -- is back with a new book and a set of opinions as pointed, uncompromising and heartfelt as ever.

Metcalf will be reading from his latest book, Shut Up He Explained, at the Manx Pub on Saturday. That will be the book's launch, part of the Plan 99 Reading Series that has been running for seven years.

For years, Metcalf was senior editor at the Porcupine's Quill, perhaps the country's premier small press. Now 69, and newly installed as fiction editor at Biblioasis, a small press based in Windsor, he says he's caught new breath at an age at which he was starting to feel he should fade into the background.

The new book, he says, is "something strange, something that goes in three or four directions -- part memoir, part history, part criticism, and part an attempt to engage people with good prose and show them how to read it."

Canadians, he's been saying for decades, have never really learned to read well. They've been seduced by the belief that Canadian writing takes its virtue from being Canadian, and not from any intrinsic merit in the quality of the prose.

"We've had almost a total confusion between literature and nationalism. Large claims have been made for books simply because they are written by Canadians -- and I have irritated many people by insisting that this is an appalling basis for judgment."

He spends a good deal of time demonstrating, persuasively, that Morley Callaghan, "the father of the Canadian short story," as he's often called, is, in fact, a second-rate writer. And he's scandalized that M. G. Vassanji has twice won the Giller Prize and is again on this year's short list for The Assassin's Song.

"It's peculiar that this country's most prestigious prize has been given twice to a man who really is barely capable of writing a sentence in English," Metcalf says. "And this isn't a matter open to dispute -- all you really have to do is read a paragraph, and it's awful."

People sense more negativity in his work than is really there, Metcalf says. He's never disputed that there are many fine Canadian writers -- Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Leon Rooke, Clark Blaise and Norman Levine, among others. And he sees many up and coming writers -- "at least 30" -- who are doing work respectable according to any international standard.

Sitting in a sunlit room in his art-filled Centretown home, Metcalf, all reputation for ferocity aside, is a picture of owlish amiability, listening closely to questions and often laughing as his mind makes connections as names are mentioned and old controversies revisited. His English origins -- he came to Canada in 1962 -- are evident in his accent and unusual precision of speech.

He smiles when a line in his book about his mood of four years ago is read to him: "It was a cumulative exhaustion," he writes, "the exhaustion of years. I was feeling deeply weary of swimming against the tide, deeply weary of living embattled."

"That's not the feeling I have today," he says, as he talks about Dan Wells, the owner of Biblioasis, for which Metcalf plans to serve for several years as fiction editor.

"I was going to withdraw, but then I met Dan and was quite revitalized by his enthusiasm, his youth, and his energy. I think we can make Biblioasis the best literary publisher in the country, just as I believe I'd done with Porcupine's Quill."

Metcalf says he's always told the Canadian literary establishment "not to circle their wagons, but to straighten them out and look outward." And Biblioasis, he's happy to say, is already looking at the wider world.

"We will have lots of Canadians on our list, but we've already moved to publish some Americans, and in fact we're just moving to publish a writer from Angola, in a translation from Portuguese. We don't plan to be inward-looking at all."

There will be lots of space for young Canadian writers, many of whom he quotes in brief passages in the new book.

"I want to celebrate a whole generation of new young Canadian writers," he says. "And when I quote pieces of their prose, I want readers to treat it as a buffet, where you sample something, find you like it, and perhaps get the book that it was taken from.

"If I can be instrumental in getting even a handful of people to read those books, then that is reward enough."

Among the writers are Mike Barnes, Mary Borsky, Ann Copeland, Keath Fraser, Lisa Moore, Diane Schoemperlen and Russell Smith. (There are also such old hands as Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Hugh Hood, Margaret Laurence, Alistair MacLeod and Norman Levine.)

In the book, he writes of feeling several years ago that, by 70, he would no longer be on top of the game, "perhaps too hidebound" to hear the voices of emerging young writers.

Now only one year away from that milestone, he finds that fear has vanished.

"I think I'm hearing the new voices loud and clear," he says. "And I'm perfectly confident that Dan Wells and I are going to produce a very interesting list."

As part of the Plan 99 Reading Series, John Metcalf will be reading at the Manx Pub, 370 Elgin St., on Saturday, Sept. 29 at 5 p.m. Seating is not guaranteed.

The Late Report...

Several weeks late, here are some photographs form this years Eden Mills. A rainy affair, it was a less than average crowd -- usually measured in the thousands, it would be a surprise if there were more than a few hundred. Still, the rain held off for most of the day, and it proved a lovely

time. Book sales were brisk, considering, and it was good to see some familiar faces, including a couple of regular Thirsty readers. I met Kathleen Winter for the first time and we launched her new collection, boYs. She read beautifully, from a History of Zero, one of the stories in the book, and despite the small audience of 100 sold out the festival bookstore and then some.

Leon was in fine form, reading from a powerful new story. Goran Simic was supposed to be there as well, as part of a PEN panel, but got waylaid in Sarajevo, passport-less. Caroline Adderson was also there in support of her latest collection -- Pleased to Meet You, one of the best books of 2006 -- and it was delightful to spend some time with her again. She's just published her first children's book, Very Serious Children, which I picked up and am currently reading to my boys. It's a tale about two boys who grow up with their circus family, and are desperate to escape their rollmops and pink popcorn for lives as accountants and broccoli. Very funny, and a hit with the kids.

I met Steven Price for the first time, pictured at the Biblioasis booth with Chris Banks; also met Paul Glennon, pictured above with Leon, Stephen Henighan and myself. The bottom picture shows Kathleen with Neil Smith of Bang Crunch fame.

Kathleen brought with her E. M. Forster bookmarks, crocheted page markers she made and we gave away with each sold copy. I have a few signed copies left, with a Winter original bookmark loosely inserted should anyone be interested. They are quite lovely.

Kathleen is currently in Winnipeg, reading at the Thin Air festival with her brother. If you're in the area, check out her reading. And give her book a chance: in awarding her the 2nd Metcalf-Rooke award, John and Leon welcomed "a new and distinctive voice in Canadian writing." Her voice is certainly distinctive; I'd also add fresh and varied. There's more than one voice between these covers, though all are worth reading and savouring.

We're two for two with this Metcalf-Rooke Award thing. Can't wait to see what the current batch brings in.

Monday, September 24, 2007


Away this past week on LPG -- that's Literary Press Group -- business. I've never been to Alberta before, let alone the Rockies. The thin air made me feel even more out of shape than I actually am. I brought a lot of work -- copy-editing, mostly, spring's titles -- but couldn't stomach the thought of getting to it. A lot of time, alas, was spent indoors in meetings -- over 20 hours over 2 days -- but I got out each day for a short hike. Spent dinner and several evenings with Steven Heighton, who was leading a fiction writing workshop, and the rest of my fellow publishers/board members. Sampled prairie beer each evening. On my last night I was able to hook up with Jack Illingworth, former PQL intern and current ACP point guard.

Friday morning saw the first of what I expect will be several rounds of the Biblioasis-ECW squash tourney. I feel it my duty to report, sadly, that team Biblioasis fared not at all well. Round two will take place December 6th to 8th for any of those in the Toronto area who would like to see me get a bit of revenge.

Back in my onion field for a few days before heading up to Ottawa for Metcalf's launch of Shut Up He Explained. The book came in while I was away. It's our most ambitious production yet: 400 pages, plus 32 pages of b&w photographs, hardcover with dust jacket. The cover photo by Thirsty reader Brenda Schmidt looks swell. I'll be sending her a few copies next week -- but thought I'd wait and get John to inscribe one to her while I'm up in Ottawa. The rest of you, they've already left the warehouse, and should be in bookstores across the country by next week. Rush out will you and pick up a copy. We've a hefty printing bill to pay and could desperately use your money.

One last thing: while I was away a fabulous, short little novel by Alexander Scala hit my inbox. I read it, and accepted it immediately. I Arrive in Burgos is an brilliantly perverse tale of the Spanish Inquisition, and something I'm incredibly happy to land for Biblioasis. I've not yet read his only other published novel, Dr. Swathmore, published by the Porcupine's Quill, but Steven Heighton told me that it is equally brilliant. I've got a copy in an as yet unpacked box, and intend to find it immediately. It might be worth looking up a copy yourself.

Correction: Shut Up Launch at 5 pm, Saturday September 29th at the Manx Pub, at 370 Elgin in Ottawa

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Cold-cocked on Hockey/ Shut Up He Explained Launches this week

Just a quick note to let you know that Biblioasis will be launching two titles this week. On Monday, September 24th Lorna Jackson will be launching Cold-cocked: On Hockey, a book Dave Bidini has blurbed as among the best hockey books of the era, at Bolens Books in Victoria BC at 7 pm. Marty the Marmot, of the Vancouver Salmon Kings will be in attendance will freebies, including tickets. If you can make it, please attend, and pass along word to any and all who might find it of interest.

Biblioasis will also be launching John Metcalf's memoir Shut Up He Explained in Ottawa on Saturday, September 29th, at 7 pm, at the Manx Pub on Elgin street. No free hockey tickets at this one, alas, but the Manx is perhaps the best scotch bar in the nation's capital, and it's certain to be a memorable event. I'll be making the trek to Ottawa, so please, if you are in the area, stop by. And again, pass along to any and all who might be interested.

Airstream Review in Canadian Literature

A good review of Airstream in Canadian Literature. If you haven't picked up a copy at your local bookstore, or at the very least borrowed it from a library or friend, perhaps this and the Victoria Butler nomination will help you make the right decision.

Unfortunately, this review is also coupled with a poor review of Clark Blaise's latest, published by the Porcupine's Quill. Though we have no stake in this one -- beyond the fact that we first published one of the stories, The Sociology of Love, in the Biblioasis chapbook series -- Blaise is one of the most important Canadian writers of the last 40 years, and one of a handful -- along with Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, and Norman Levine -- of the best short story writers in the country. This collects some of his best, along with a few new stories. In fact, the whole PQL Blaise project is a necessary purchase for any and all interested in short fiction, in Canada or elsewhere.

My own personal CanLit journey began with Blaise's Tribal Justice and North American education, his first two books, and still among the best collections of short fiction ever published in Canada. Understanding how one thing leads to another, I'm not at all sure that Biblioasis would exist today if I'd not read those collections.

Epiphany vs. Exploitation

Patricia Young (Author)


Buy this book from

Clark Blaise (Author)

World Body: Selected Stories: 4. Porcupine's Quill

Buy this book from

Reviewed by Jennifer Fraser

Airstream follows in the tradition of the Joycean epiphany, whereas World Body exploits both world and body. Patricia Young’s Airstream evokes through poetic language nuances of emotion leading to a decision; with each story one is startled by what Joyce would term the “revelation of the whatness of a thing.” Young has the command of language and the depth necessary to discover, as Joyce would put it, “the radiant soul” of “the commonest object” or person. Reminding the reader of the diverse characters of Dubliners, in Airstream, the narrators vary, and the voices in which they think and talk vary; thus, although not packed full of international reference, the fictions of Airstream are far more foreign than those of World Body. Dubliners explores paralysis; Airstream examines betrayal.

A child is abandoned by her mother: “Hanging upside down from her knees, she rolls her eyes back and the woodchip playground becomes a sky. She flutters her eyelids and chants the new unlisted number, hoping her mother can hear her wherever she is.” A 20-year-old falls in love and stops caring what people think: “every cell in my body was a small closed monastic room that had thrown its door open.” A widow explains: “Doctor Whitely suggested I write these letters. He said I needed to find a way to hold onto the love while letting go. I have no intention of letting go, but I agreed to write letters in exchange for sleeping pills.” A boy hides the toy gun he’s been given by his father: “Mick loves the gun and hates it, which is sort of how he feels toward his mother because of the divorce.” A foster-parent protects her child: “A metal plate slides down over my eyes and a horrible stink hits me like a blow to the head and something long and supple slips off a shore and into the water, and then my hands are around Butchy’s neck.” A hitchhiking teenager discovers: “The afternoon sun is a column of light pouring through the arched window at the end of the hallway, and she thinks she could tell this boy that she wishes she’d chanted at her father’s bedside, she wishes she’d chanted and sung and prayed day and night, she wishes she’d pressed her mouth to his ear and begged him not to give up, to please please hold on.” A young girl yells in defiance: “All the other girls wear leggings” and her Scottish immigrant mother answers back: “I don’t care if the Pope of Rome wears leggings.” A teenager faces her boyfriend: “Trudy accepted all of it. She looked into his eyes, the pupils like tiny imploding black holes, and she saw the truth clearly: She was as wired to Dill as he was to heroin.”

These quotes cannot capture the epiphanies which begin with the first word of the story and build with each phrase, sentence, paragraph. As suggested by her title, Young draws the surrounding oxygen in order to create each story’s combustion. The words of the stories are like air particles joining to form a high-altitude wind that blows apart characters’ beliefs and hopes. It is this wind that an agoraphobic woman blows when her husband announces he’s leaving her and the kids: “She might have been someone with somewhere to go, a woman who, having just applied nail polish, was blowing it dry.” The terrified becomes the brave.

When you finish a Patricia Young story, your bones hurt. You ache. And it’s because of the knowledge you now carry.

In contrast, the stories in World Body read like resumes, case studies or obituaries. Everyone is a stranger to everyone, even parents and children. Dr. Lander is trying to reach his son who has become an extremist Buddhist monk in Japan, but he’s attracted to his son’s girlfriend: “We were standing in a Tokyo subway, I was staring into cleavage and a warm zombie had just propositioned me.” Dr. Lander next visits a colleague who has left his wife and children to marry one of the breathtakingly beautiful women who are a dime a dozen in Blaise’s stories. Alas, Lander fails to secure her attentions for the night, so he takes next best: “And so that way they spent the night, his stiffened cock up the bitch’s cunt, her jaw clamped firmly on his wrist.” One realizes in World Bawdy that if gorgeous young women aren’t available, one always can consider their pets. Another narrator, Picard, breaks his own code of conduct in Jakarta and has sex with a 15-year-old prostitute three times, but unfortunately for him, her arm gets blown off in an uprising.

The tone and diction of World Body are often clinical and academic until an occasional twist at the story’s end. The narrators are so similar and the stories so formulaic in the pattern of sexual yearning and fulfillment or failed conquest that perhaps the collection should be thought of more as a repetitive novel. Sometimes the stories read as possibly brilliant academic essays on memory, but without the references or documentation, they seem a hodge-podge of ideas that tend to collapse when a woman “fresh from her shower” or a blushing “ex-student,” now elderly prof’s wife, enters the room.

Sometimes Blaise’s stories reach the rhythm of a meditation and resonate with striking insights as in “Kristallnacht”: “No guns, the violence is more intimate; chains swung in an arc then down on a skull.” Another powerful line is thought by a man who hears the story of a humiliated female stranger when they sit side by side on an airplane: “Leap, Saint Patty. I present myself to you like a tethered bull in a pasture. Rip my stupid throat out.” Unfortunately, these potent ideas do not receive exploration; they surface in the story only to sink again. These stories recall a tabloid where tawdry sex occurs in different cities that function as backdrop to the same shallow human gestures.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Airstream on Victoria Butler Shortlist

Patrica Young's collection of short fiction, Airstream, published last Spring, has been shortlisted for the Victoria Butler Book Prize. It's nice to see that this collection made the cut against a very stacked list, when it's been so regularly overlooked up to this point. The inaugural Metcalf-Rooke Award winner, it's one of the books I've been most proud to have been a part of here at Biblioasis, and that is really saying something.

The winner will be announced October 17th. The remaining short-listed authors and books are:

Bill Gaston. Gargoyles. (short fiction) Anansi
P.K. Page. Hand Luggage. (poetry Porcupine's Quill
Terence Young. Moving Day. Signature Editions
Mark Zuehlke. For Honour's Sake (Canadian Military History) Knopf.

A strong, varied list. Wonderful to see Terence, Patricia's husband, also on the list for his collection. He'll forgive me if I keep rooting for Patricia.

Airstream can be purchased directly from the Biblioasis website, on Abebooks, or here, at

An additional note: I learned today that Patricia has had another story accepted for publication in the Best Canadian Short Fiction Anthology published by Oberon Press. Congratulations are also in order for that accomplishment.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Cold-cocked: the media blitz begins

Cold-cocked: On Hockey, Lorna Jackson's most recent book, and a tome Dave Bidini has blurbed as "one of the best hockey books of our era" is officially out. The Victoria Times Colonist kicks off what for us here at Biblioasis is a veritable shock of media attention with an article; I understand that the Vancouver Sun did something small as well. This week will see Lorna on CTV's Breakfast television in Vancouver, interviewed by the Vancouver Sun, on BC's most popular radio show -- the Bill Good show on CKNW -- on CBC's BC Almanac, CFUN's Jenn and Joe Show and on CBC Victoria's On the Island. The book gets officially launched at Bolen's books in Victoria on Monday, September 24th. Then next week there's an appearance on CFAX Radio's Talk it Over, and later an interview on Studio 4. We expect much more once the ball gets rolling.

The Victoria Times -Colonist article:

Hockey inspired author to make life changes
Sharie Epp
Times Colonist

Author Lorna Jackson's estrangement from hockey ended after watching Team Canada win the gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
CREDIT: Ray Smith, Times Colonist
Author Lorna Jackson's estrangement from hockey ended after watching Team Canada win the gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

Happy times for Lorna Jackson were evenings spent with her dad in the '60s and '70s, watching Hockey Night in Canada. With a teenage crush on Boston Bruins bad-boy Derek Sanderson, she followed hockey with a passion.

But life took some sad and confusing turns, and Jackson abandoned the sport for 30 years, before Team Canada and the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics changed everything. The result: A book entitled Cold-Cocked on Hockey.

The book, which will be launched on Sept. 24 at Bolen Books, is written from a woman's perspective, but is not a puff piece. Jackson enforces that slant by using the "f" word in the prologue.

"I wanted the voice to be authentic. I wanted it to be the way I communicate. I wanted it to be pretty gritty," said Jackson, an author and creative writing teacher at the University of Victoria. "I didn't want it to be a girlie book."

"It's not just men who use those words."

Growing up in Vancouver, Jackson's childhood was as normal as anyone's, until she was 12. Then her sister became ill, eventually dying of cancer. Her dad, a Second World War pilot and prisoner of war, faked suicide and disappeared for a time, a result of post traumatic stress syndrome, and Jackson cracked her knee in a fall, an injury that threatened to cripple her later in life.

As a young woman, Jackson drank hard, married and divorced, and travelled in a band, before finding her niche. Now 51, she's been teaching for a dozen years, and lives with her dogs, sheep, and 16-year-old daughter Lily on a Metchosin acreage, where she talked about her relationship with hockey.

"I love the game," Jackson said, but her love is the angles and perspectives missing in the Don Cherry Rock'em Sock'em version. She thinks the NHL does a "lousy" job of promoting the game to women, despite the fact approximately 40 per cent of ticket buyers are female. "I think women get left out of the conversation."

"I wrote about how hockey can inspire us, including women, in a lot of different ways."

Years ago Jackson, who is fine with a good clean fight, was turned off by the violence and aggression in the sport. But in 2002, she became mesmerized by the skill and thrill of the Olympic tournament -- by Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi and by the way players carried their kids after winning the gold medal.

"I thought, 'That's not Phil Esposito going out to strip joints after the game,'" Jackson said. "I just loved watching hockey again, and it came out of nowhere."

Along with hockey, came a desire to get fit, and strengthen her knee. Jackson worked out at Juan de Fuca Recreation Centre, and immersed herself in hockey. She watched closely as the Canucks endured first the lockout, then the Bertuzzi incident and its circus-like aftermath, followed by the new regime.

"It was interesting to watch [coach Alain Vigneault] change the systems on the team, trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and he did."

Like every other Canucks fan, Jackson is anxious for the season to begin. She expects the Canucks to ice the best defence in the league, and is looking forward to seeing the magic of "beautiful players" Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Whether or not the Canucks make the Stanley Cup is immaterial, as far as she is concerned.

"I'm not a Stanley Cup watcher. The ending is not the most important part," Jackson said. "I like the journey."