Sunday, November 29, 2009

Novelist from Another Planet: The Nation reviews Dance With Snakes

Over at the Nation, Natasha Wimmer reviews our Moya title, Dance with Snakes, alongside New Directions excellent She-Devil in the Mirror. The entire review, which lays out both the political and literary background to both novels, is well worth a read, and can be found here. Below is the section which deals most directly with Snakes.

If El asco is a torrent of inspired vitriol, Dance With Snakes is an extra helping of venom. It's Castellanos Moya's only overtly fantastical novel, and a different kind of revenge fantasy. Instead of working the intellectual angle, it goes for the jugular. Eduardo Sosa is an unemployed graduate in sociology who develops a fascination with a yellow Chevrolet parked on his street. The windows of the car are covered with cardboard, and its inhabitant, a grimy individual called Jacinto Bustillo, emerges only at night. Shortly after befriending Bustillo, Sosa stabs him to death in an alleyway and takes possession of the Chevrolet. He feels strangely comfortable in Bustillo's smelly hideout, where he's surprised to discover four poisonous but friendly snakes in residence. Beti, Loli, Valentina and Carmela--ladies all--fill him in on Bustillo's story. Before Bustillo took to the streets, he was a prosperous accountant, but then he began an affair with his secretary and her husband had her killed.

Curious, Sosa sets out to visit Bustillo's former wife and his lover's husband, but he and the ladies get sidetracked by a visit to the mall. The snakes are thirsty for action, and guards and wealthy customers are slain left and right. A stop at the market in the city center is even more deadly: the ladies slither through the stalls, leaving behind dozens of bodies. Sosa knifes Bustillo's wife and then moves on to check out Raúl Pineda, the husband who had Bustillo's lover killed. After a temporary setback and another snake attack (plus a giant fireball) at a fancy Esso station, Sosa and his snakes massacre Pineda and a roomful of his friends, who turn out to be narcotics agents partying with bags of dope.

By this point, Deputy Commissioner Handal is on the case, and the novel turns into a police procedural. Handal is one of the many recurring characters in Moya's novels (he'll show up again in The She-Devil in the Mirror); another is Rita Mena, an ambitious reporter for the newspaper Ocho Columnas. In the fictional climate that Castellanos Moya conjures up, the idea that there are policemen and reporters who go about their business in a more or less efficient way is almost harder to believe than the possibility that four talking snakes and a rogue sociologist might terrorize a city. In fact, the snake attacks come to seem almost plausible--just another tabloid horror tale--that is, until the lurid, outrageous denouement, which begins with a dose of marijuana-inffused snake-flesh soup and ends with a graphic episode of man-snake love.

The snakes are a living, writhing embodiment of the paranoia that Castellanos Moya so often channels. Nothing could be as terrifying and unpredictable (and faintly ridiculous) as a gaggle of poisonous snakes. In the novel, all of San Salvador lives in fear of a new attack. Even Rita Mena, the tough reporter, is spooked by a false sighting of a yellow Chevrolet ("'The snakes!' she shouts. 'They're coming!'"). Precisely because they're so ludicrous and so terrible, they're the perfect stand-in for real-life violence that's too extreme to be credibly portrayed in fiction. And Sosa might easily stand for those Salvadorans who were seduced by the culture of violence during the war; who took on new wartime identities (everyone assumes it's Bustillo who's committing the crimes); and who resume their civilian lives in the end, with no repercussions.

Castellanos Moya's writing is plain and colloquial, even calculatedly artless. Often it achieves a pleasingly jittery, caffeinated rhythm, but the satisfaction of these novels is less in the prose than in their cleverness and the sharpness of their bite. And the no-frills language serves a purpose: it signals that nothing is hidden in the trappings of eloquence. Like Roberto Bolaño, who was a friend, Castellanos Moya is an anti-rhetorical writer, determined not to settle for smooth turns of phrase (though Bolaño's oblique lyricism otherwise has little to do with Castellanos Moya's bluntness). The plainness and the slang make his work tough going for translators, but both Katherine Silver and Lee Paula Springer acquit themselves admirably. Springer tackles the snake mayhem with relish and delicacy, and Silver (who also translated Senselessness) grapples valiantly with the chatty flow of The She-Devil in the Mirror, which is a monologue of the sort that makes translators tear their hair out.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Globe 100

Though it's not officially out until tomorrow, if you're a compulsive snoop and head over to the Globe & Mail Books Pages, you can see that they are publishing their annual Globe 100 list tomorrow. Biblioasis has two inclusions in the top 100 for 2009. Terry Griggs's fabulous farcical slacker-cozy of a literary novel makes the cut of the Canadian novels, as it well should, sitting alongside titles by Annabel Lyon, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and company. Sally Cooper enthuses:

Chockablock with winks and digs at the literary set, Thought You Were Dead is a gleeful Russian doll of a novel. Reading it, one trips along, revelling in its wordplay, its wit, its puns and allusions, and its jokes. Then there are the characters: the inventors, writers, realtors and reputation-management specialists who people the antic “sleepy town” of Farclas, Ont. The story is equal parts comic murder mystery, hero’s journey and layered intellectual puzzle, and it satisfies on every level.

Perhaps a bit more surprisingly, Kahn & Engelmann has made the cut as well, this time in the Best Foreign Fiction Category, alongside titles by Zoe Heller, A. S. Byatt, Aleksander Hemon, William Trevor, Lorrie Moore, Nicholson Baker and several others. Very good company indeed. (We have, incidentally, received some even potentially better news about Kahn & Engelmann this eve, though I shall not share it quite yet, for fear of jinxing things. Stay tuned, and I will say more when I can.)

Of Kahn & Engelmann Chris Scott writes: A fascinating family saga, Kahn & Engelmann chronicles five generations of Jewish life. Beginning in 1880 near Lake Balaton, Hungary, the narrative moves episodically from turn-of-the-century Vienna through the 20th century’s convulsions, culminating in the Holocaust, the foundation of Israel and the battles for the survival of the Jewish state.

Other Biblioasis alumni made the cut for books with other presses. Leon Rooke was listed for his collection of short fiction The Last Shot, as was Ray Robertson, for David, both published by Thomas Allen. And though it may be a bit much to claim Annabel Lyon as an alumni, we did publish a chapbook of hers back in 2005, a few copies of which are left. Congratulations to all.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Best Canadian Essays

The first volume in Tightrope's Best Canadian Essays launches in Toronto this evening at Revival (783 College St.) at 7 pm. CNQ: Canadian Notes & Queries has contributed two essays to the collection, the only publication, other than the Walrus, to be granted multiple slots. Not bad for a journal the Department of Canadian Heritage will stop funding next year because we do not fit their definition of cultural relevance (ie: our circulation numbers are no match for Chatelaine's or, even, the Walrus's). Fuck 'em.

Kamal Al-Solaylee's essay on Theatre, and Nathan Whitlock's essay on Fiction, both from issue 75, are included in the compilation, alongside work from Katherine Ashenburg, Kris Demeanor, Jessa Gamble, Nicholas Hune-Brown, Chris Koentges, Anita Lahey, Alison Lee, Nick Mount, Denis Seguin, ChrisTurner, Lori Theresa Waller and Chris Wood.

I should say, I am quite excited by, and envious of, Tightrope's vision in putting together this and other 'Best Of' anthologies. I'd thought of doing something similar, and never got around to it, daunted by the task. I think they should be congratulated, as these volumes fill much needed voids, and have been handled in a very prefessional and engaging fashion. I'll be picking up a copy and urge you handful of Thirsty readers to do the same. These are publications we should support in any way possible.

On Transition (A Cynthia Flood Post)

Transition quite recently became a verb.

Parent has been one for a while.

Concerning used to be a preposition but sometime in the last 18 months or so it turned into an adjective.

These changes make me feel as if the floor is tilting, though not as steeply as some of the grammatical and idiomatic shifts of the past couple of decades. People now say without embarrassment, "They invited him and I for dinner," or "The twentieth is Mary and I's anniversary." They declare that, "Greedy bankers played a big factor in the global meltdown" and that "Each applicant has to bring their resume," and "No less than nine demonstrators turned up for the protest."

Of these surely the silliest is each/their, because a plural would so easily resolve the mismatch -- "All applicants must bring their resumes." But that resolution will not occur. Also, in the remainder of my lifetime I don't expect to be able to write the words passion, vision, terrible, or awesome in their "true" senses. I accept all that. Part of me doesn't care much anyway; I'm not as upset as Madame the concierge in Muriel Barbery's remarkable novel "The Elegance of the Hedgehog." She's truly horrified by what she sees as not simply imprecision or carelessness but as actual abuse of language.

I do though remember with much love my aunt Isabel Wilson, a fine editor and broadcaster who was never in her long life able to write a sentence starting with But (as I did in the previous parag) or with And. She tried, but just couldn't leave those poor co-ordinating conjunctions out on the ice-floe with no help at hand. So then I feel guilty because my standards have slipped; I am part of the process of change, perhaps even of the general deterioration. I haven't parented my language well.

Like many writers who've been at it for decades, I use far less punctuation than formerly. My diction includes fewer formal words. My paragraphs overall are shorter, I think. Less, more, shorter, longer -- for good or ill these all have to do with writing fiction, which is supposedly what I do with my life. I am however transitioning between the publication (end) of one book, The English Stories, and the creation (beginning) of another, possibly titled Red Girl Orange Boy.

So here I am. I hate this in-between place, this flux. I'm afraid to go into my writing studio. The stories there, whether half-first-drafted, many times drafted, sent out and rejected, or only present in the form of a few scribbles in my notebook, could easily all be dead. And if I find one or two in the morgue that have a pulse, I don't feel confident about applying the paddles with any skill. So I dither and avoid, and I daydream about grammar. Yes, it's concerning.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Introducing A. J. Somerset

The winner of the 2009-2010 Metcalf-rooke Award is A. J. Somerset.

Combat Camera by A. J. Somerset is that very rare thing, a really superbly realized Canadian novel. It concerns Lucas Zane, a celebrated photographer who has burned out emotionally after covering battles in most of the wars of the late twentieth century. He has come to the end in Toronto, drunk, hallucinatory, all ambition fled. He earns the rent by taking photographs for Richard Barker, an impresario of shoestring-budget pornographic movies. On the set he meets "Melissa" and the novel explores their involvement.

Zane says at one point in the book:

I'm sure you'd like a nice, pat explanation for my life. Something to tie up all the loose ends: I left it all behind after witnessing unspeakable horrors, etcetera, that left me reduced to a whiskey-soaked shell. You'd like to think you're in some tale of sin and redemption. I guess we all like to think we're walking through some grand, redemptive story. Well, we're all going to be disappointed. Disappointment is one of the two fates that we must all eventually meet.

I ran out of horror a long time ago. You start with conviction, and then you just end up sad. You know you aren't going to stop anything. You'll be off to cover another war tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that and the day after that until you retire, until you just give up and leave the job to the next quixote. You realize that all the things you thought and believed were all bullshit. You just get tired out, and you can't feel anything anymore but a kind of distant sadness.

God looks down on his children and shakes his head. Free will, he thinks -- what was I smoking when I came up with that one? You drop one tab of acid, eight days later you got snakes in the Garden of Eden.

Zane tries to make a comeback by constructing a photo-essay about "Melissa's" life, a stripper and porn-chick utterly lacking a heart of gold. Zane's reflections on camera angles, available light, film stock and shutter speeds -- all the by now obsolete technology of his years of fame -- form a hymn to the beauty of art. Though Zane himself would deny that.

But the power of the book lies in its voice, a voice that is restless, ceaseless, meandering, tragic, sometimes very funny, a mind and voice that maintain an almost hypnotic grip on the reader.

Combat Camera is one of the finest Canadian novels I have ever read.

-- John Metcalf

A. J. Somerset has been a soldier, a technical writer, a programmer, and a freelance photographer. His non-fiction has appeared in numerous outdoor magazines in Canada and the United States, and his articles have been translated into French and Japanese. He lives in London, Ontario with his wife and children. Combat Camera is his first novel.

As the winner of the Metcalf-Rooke Award, A. J. Somerset will receive:

- a $1500.00 cash prize, presented by Steven Temple Books
- a publishing contract with Biblioasis, with publication set for September 2010
- a leather-bound copy of Combat Camera
- publication and profiles in The New Quarterly, Maisonneuve, CNQ: Canadian Notes & Queries and elsewhere
- a U.S. and Canadian marketing Campaign
- a Toronto TINARS launch, an Ottawa International Writers Festival appearance, as well as other festival appearances
- a regional book tour

The other shortlisted authors for the 2009-2010 Metcalf-Rooke Award were:

Laura Boudreau. A Cat Starving Its Way Through Winter (Short Fiction)
Daniel Griffin. Stopping For Strangers. (Short Fiction)
Lauro Palomba. Measuring Spoons. (Novel)
Cathy Stonehouse. Something About the Animals. (Short Fiction)

For further information, or to arrange an interview with A. J. Somerset, please contact Dan Wells at

The Seth Non-Canadians Don't See

An interesting post over a tthe Comics Comics blog on the work Seth has been doing as a designer. Several of the entries focus on the design work he's done for Biblioasis. This might also be the time to announce that he is completely redesigning CNQ: Canadian Notes & Queries, hopefully in time for issue 79 (May, 2010). More on this to follow.

From the Comics Comics article:

Seth’s commitment to Canada also extends to the publishers he works with. Drawn and Quarterly is a Montreal firm, although of course one with an international reach. What non-Canadian readers might not know, however, is that Seth is also closely involved with several other Canadian imprints and magazines, often in his capacity as a book designer but sometimes as a writer. This work is often done for quite small presses, such as the Porcupine’s Quill and Biblioasis (in my opinion two of the best publishers not just in Canada but in the world).

Since Seth has fans all over the world, I thought it might be a useful service to call attention to some of the work he’s done that non-Canadians wouldn’t necessarily know about. If you care at all about Seth’s work, all these items are worth tracking down. Even when working with small specialty presses, he lavishes on each task the same care and attention that he gives to projects for The New Yorker and Penguin Books.

For the entire article, please go here.

His latest design project, Zach Wells's Track & Trace, also comes up for some praise of the Freefall Magazine blog:

Opening a small package in the FreeFall mail I was immediately enchanted by the little book that came out. The cover a textured white stock with embossed shoe prints wandering around the grey title plate, literally tracks in a snowy white background, how wonderful. I ran my fingertips over the textured surface embracing the promise of an absorbing experience with the enclosed poetry. The decoration continued inside with a single snowflake dangling at the end of a dotted white line on a black page, how elegant. The decoration continues throughout the volume with wintery scenes that say so much in their sparse nakedness. Seth has decorated this volume beautifully, I can’t wait to discover the poetry enclosed. It is everything that my tactile sense wants in a book. I’m now off to explore the contents.

Another publisher and book design teacher told me a few weeks back, upon seeing this volume, that no one has done design work like this on a trade poetry book in Canada since the 1940s. It remains to be seen if the extra details will help to sell any more copies: it is painfully hard to even get many independents to stock poetry these days, let alone at Chapters or Indigo. But it seems to be helping in getting people to pick it up. That, at least, is a small victory.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Zach Wells Reading: Collected Works Edition

Last Saturday Zach Wells read at Collected Works in Ottawa, a well attended event where he recorded his reading. You can listen to it here.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Vermeersch on Track & Trace

from Paul Vermeersch's blog:

This is, without a doubt, one of the most beautifully produced trade paperback editions of a poetry book I have ever seen published in Canada (and with publishers like Gaspereau Press, Pedlar Press, and this book's publisher Biblioasis on the scene, there are more beautiful trade paperbacks around than ever before). When I first heard it was being illustrated by Seth, I worried the result might be a little too gimmicky, but no. Seth's stark, simple illustrations work well as a counterpoint to Zach's meticulous craftsmanship. As for the poems themselves, Zach has definitely built on the burly aesthetic he demonstrated in his first book (which was edited by me, incidentally). This is an aesthetic generally characterized by an assertive (even, at times, severe) approach to metre that is enhanced by an ardent attention to sonic effects like alliteration, syncopation, rhyme, etc., and his control over such a severe metre is both admirable and remarkable (only on a couple of occasions does it sound too conveniently clippity-cloppity to my ear). And verse with such a robust physicality is well-suited to his subject matter: woods, ponds, floods, cormorants, slugs, briars, ice floes, etc.

I'm recommending that you order one today.

Metcalf-Rooke Award Shortlist

Laura Boudreau. A Cat Starving Its Way Through Winter. (Short Fiction)

Daniel Griffin. Stopping for Strangers (Short Fiction)

Lauro Palomba. Measuring Spoons (Novel)

A. J. Somerset. Combat Camera (Novel)

Cathy Stonehouse. Something About the Animals (Short Fiction)

The winner of the Metcalf-Rooke Award will be announced November 23rd.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Off the Road (A Placeholder)

Finally back in the office after about two and a half weeks of events. There's not been much activity around these parts for a while, though I'll do my best ot change that in the coming days. I have photographs from launches in Toronto, Montreal, and Windsor, among other places; a post on the Metcalf-Rooke shortlist (soon, soon) which we announced in Montreal last week, and much else. There's the new website we should be launching within the next several weeks, the new issue of CNQ which should hit newsstands and mailboxes later this, news about our current titles, forthcoming titles, a guest post or three, among many other things. So stay tuned ...

Friday, November 06, 2009

Parsons Legacy Inspires Words, Music

by Ted Shaw: Windsor Star

The truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels will gather tonight at Phog Lounge.

There's a unique event planned linking popular music to the literary arts, celebrating the music of Gram Parsons in song and the spoken word.

Novelist Ray Robertson, who is in town promoting his latest book, David, at Bookfest Windsor at the Art Gallery of Windsor, will slide over to Phog, 157 University Ave. W., at about 10 p.m. to join a Parsons tribute staged by local musicians, Kelly Hoppe and Greg Cox.

The event was put together by Bookfest, Phog's Tom Lucier, and Robertson's local publisher, Biblioasis Press.

Robertson, originally from Chatham, wrote a 2002 novel, Moody Food, which was based on the life of country-rocker Parsons.

The first line of this column was taken from Parsons' 1974 song, Return of the Grievous Angel, one of the tunes Hoppe and Cox will perform during tonight's set.

"I was a big fan of Gram Parsons all through the wilderness years of the 1970s and '80s," said Robertson, 43, who now lives in Toronto.

During that time, Parsons was often mistaken for the British pomp-rockers, Alan Parsons Project.

But Robertson was a purist who was drawn to Parsons' unique talent for blending many styles of American 20th- century music.

"I was drawn to it because, for me, (Parsons' music) consisted of all the stuff that makes up popular music. It had rock, it had country, it had R&B, it had gospel.

"It also had a quirky, psychedelic vibe to it."

Parsons is credited with being one of the originators of the country-rock sound. Born in Florida in 1946, he formed the Boston group, The International Submarine Band, in 1967, then got hired to join The Byrds the following year.

His time in The Byrds resulted in the seminal album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which pop musicologists regard as one of the first country-rock records.

Parsons was in The Byrds a mere four months before splitting to form The Flying Burrito Brothers with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman and future co-founder of The Eagles, Bernie Leadon.

The wayward Parsons, whose fast life was fuelled and eventually felled by booze and drugs, was also a friend of Keith Richards, and his influence can be heard on The Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street albums.

Parsons died at the age of 26 of a drug overdose in a motel room in Joshua Tree, Calif.

But in his last two years he managed to produce a pair of stunning solo works -- GP and Grievous Angel -- with the help and guidance of Emmylou Harris.

Today, Parsons is a patron saint of alt-country, and his influence is evident in the likes of Old 97's, Drive-By Truckers, Uncle Tupelo, and The Waco Brothers.

In Moody Food, Robertson used Parsons as the inspiration for his fictional character, Thomas Graham. (In a famous Rolling Stone Magazine article at the time of Sweetheart of the Rodeo's release, Parson's first name was misspelled as Graham.)

The novel is set in Toronto's downtown Yorkville neighbourhood in 1966. It was a time of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, and Yorkville was a mecca for aspiring musicians, American draft dodgers, wannabe hippies looking for a score, and college dropouts -- like Bill Hansen, the narrator of Moody Food.

Those who lived through those times have praised Robertson for his accurate portrait of the Yorkville scene in the late-1960s.

But it was all a work of the imagination -- Robertson was born in 1966, so he has no direct knowledge or experience of the period.

The character of Graham, his band The Duckhead Secret Society (Parsons produced the debut album of short-lived New Jersey band, Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends, in 1973), and the formative months in Yorkville are purely fictional.

There is no evidence, said Robertson, that Parsons visited Toronto in the late-1960s, although some of his contemporaries, including Jesse Winchester and Bill King, emigrated north to escape the U.S. draft.

Robertson will read passages from Moody Food at The Phog, and sign copies of the book.

Kelly Hoppe, meanwhile, was only too happy to prepare the musical appetizers.

He and Cox will have acoustic versions of, among others, 100 Years From Now and Hickory Wind, from the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album; Hot Burrito #1 and Dark End of the Street, from The Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace of Sin album; and Return of the Grievous Angel and In My Hour of Darkness from the last two solo records.

"I like Gram Parsons," said Hoppe. "But I don't think of him as a huge influence on my music."

For his inspiration, Hoppe goes back to the same sources, namely the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

Hoppe also uncovered a passion for covers in his research of Parsons' discography.

He will include many of those in the set, such as The Louvin Brothers' The Christian Life (covered by The Byrds on Sweetheart), The Bee Gees' To Love Somebody, and Haggard's Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down.