Friday, January 29, 2010

Brown Dwarf

One of the highlights of our 2010 list -- Spring & Fall -- is K.D. Miller's first novel, Brown Dwarf. A moving, fraught psychological drama, a murder mystery, a painfully heart-rending settling of accounts, it is one of only a few manuscripts I've read in a sitting. I found it completely unputdownable. Jeet Heer has called her, in The Ottawa Citizen and elsewhere, Canada's best short story writer; Brown Dwarf will hopefully have him and others calling her simply one of Canada's best writers.

Here's a short description of the novel, and below that, Brown Dwarf 's first section.

When Brenda Bray, better known to the world as Rae Brand, the author of the popular "Elsinor Grey Mystery Series", returns home to Hamilton, she is set upon by vivid memories of the summer of 1962 when she struck up an intense relationship with a classmate, and together they sought to track and catch an escaped serial killer believed to be hiding out on the escarpment. Brenda and Jori search for this elusive murderer, their friendship twisting as the summer proceeds, becoming tautly fantastic and pre-adolescently sexual, eventually resulting in real tragedy. As the story of that summer unravels it becomes apparent that the headlines about Jori's disappearance only touch on the truth, and that Brenda must finally face up to that summer friendship and its results if she is going to discover any peace.

* * *


Brenda stares down at her saddle shoes. Navy and white, the navy parts like twin masks. When she wiggles her toes the white leather dimples like skin.

Jori is waiting for her. The way she always does. With her hands in her pockets and her head tilted back. Staring lazy-eyed out over the city. Just as if she doesn’t mind that Brenda’s holding them up. Again.

The white parts of Brenda’s saddle shoes were clean this morning. Now there are black scuff marks on them, and a smudge of dirt on one of her socks. She wishes she had thin, plain socks like Jori’s. Popcorn-stitch makes her ankles look thicker than they already are. But there’s more to popcorn-stitch, her mother says. They’re better value.

Jori is still waiting. She walked the ledge in seconds, just as if it was nice and flat and wide like the rest of the path. She didn’t inch along the way Brenda’s going to soon, holding her breath, grabbing at weeds that might pull out, clinging to corners of rock that might loosen and come away in her hand.

The first time Brenda made it across, Jori said, I’m proud of you, Brenda Bray. Brenda couldn’t look at her. Didn’t dare open her mouth in case she’d scream or cry. She had never hated anyone, not even Annie Bray, as much as she hated Jori Clement at that moment. And every time since then, she stands for long minutes thinking, I can’t I can’t I can’t. Then all at once it’s as if her feet think, Yes you can. And she hates Jori all over again.

Now the waist band of her skirt is starting to bind. She was going to wear slacks, but her mother made her change out of them because they’d gotten too tight for her to wear outside the house where all the world could see her. They looked indecent, Annie Bray said. (Sometimes Brenda lets herself think Annie Bray instead of my mother. She’s starting to do it more and more, especially when her mother says things like indecent.) All her other slacks were in the wash, so she had to put on a skirt. And that meant she had to put on her saddle shoes, because you can’t wear running shoes with a skirt. Just like you can’t go to church without a hat, or carry a white purse before the twenty-fourth of May.

She could tell Jori was surprised by the way she was dressed. Jori was in her usual Saturday outfit – blue jeans and a white T-shirt with a tan windbreaker over it and boys’ running shoes – the black and white kind with the red rubber circle at the ankle. (I get my clothes in the boys’ department. Daddy hates it, but Mummy tells him it’s just a phase.) Brenda kept expecting her to say something – What the hell are you doing in a skirt? Or, Jesus, Brenda Bray, we’re not going to a tea party. But she didn’t. She hasn’t said any of the other things Brenda keeps expecting her to say, either. How much do you weigh? What size do you take?

Brenda’s feet still won’t move. Maybe there’s a safety rule against walking a ledge in saddle shoes. What if she fell and broke her neck? Or worse, what if she fell and didn’t die, but got hurt so badly that her mother had to push her around in a wheelchair? If you’d done what I told you. If you’d stayed away from that Jori or whatever she calls herself. Day after day, for the rest of their lives.

It’s not really very steep here. If she did fall, she’d probably just scrape her knees and elbows. But she might rip her skirt, too, her perfectly good skirt that still has lots of wear in it and that cost good money. Annie Bray would demand to know how she did it, and would keep on at her until it all came out. Who she was with. What she was doing. Where. The where would be the worst part. No. Maybe the what. Except the who would be pretty bad too. There is absolutely nothing good about what they are doing right now. Not a single thing. And Jori is still waiting.

That waist band is almost cutting her in half. Brenda hopes it hasn’t rolled itself into a rope, because then the label might show at the back and Jori might see For the Pleasingly Plump Child stitched in pink thread.

“I’m sorry I’m taking so long,” she calls. It’s what she always says when they get stuck at the ledge.

Jori shrugs. “Take as long as you want.” That’s what she always answers. As if the two of them had just stopped for a minute to look at the view.

The city doesn’t look quite real to Brenda today. The bright October sun makes the shadows sharp. The streets could have been drawn with a ruler, they run in such straight lines down to the bay, and the tiny houses look perfect from this high up. No missing shingles or broken bricks or sagging porches. The trees look like somebody painted them green then shook drops of orange and yellow over them. Even the smoke from the steel plants is like something in a painting, shooting straight up into the pure blue sky. Brenda imagines the tiny people who live down there leading perfect little lives with no Pleasingly Plump labels and no Hurricane Annies and no ledges to cross and no Jori Clements waiting for them.

Jori is still waiting, with that cool smile of hers smoothing her mouth. Why doesn’t she just leave me here? Brenda thinks. What does she want with me, anyway? Wouldn’t she be better off without me?

She looks up into the sky. This would be the perfect time for her father to come rattling down out of the clouds in his bus. He would lift his Hamilton Street Railway cap to her and say, Hop aboard, Miss Bray! Then together they would drive up, up and away, for ever and ever amen.

She’s had that daydream for as long as she can remember. But ever since she’s known Jori, she’s been asking herself stupid questions, almost as if she wants to spoil it. How would your father recognize you, since he only ever saw you as a baby? Would he be disappointed at the way you turned out? Would you still be Pleasingly Plump in heaven? Twelve is too old for daydreams. She can just hear Annie Bray – A big girl like you.

Her feet still won’t take the first step onto the ledge. “I’m coming,” she calls. “Soon.”

Jori smiles. Says, “I know you are.”

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Daily Gleaner Reviews Meniscus

In November 2009, Oromocto native Shane Neilson received the Mimi Divinsky Award for History and Narrative in Family Medicine at the 2009 Family Medical Forum in Calgary. The award, which is accompanied by a $1,000 cash prize, recognizes the narrative account of experiences in family medicine.

A second honour came Neilson's way with the publication of Meniscus which sees Neilson move away from chapbooks to his first full-length trade book of verse.

Meniscus, according to The Canadian Oxford Dictionary means (1) the curved upper surface of a liquid in a tube; (2) a lens that is convex on one side and concave on the other; and (3) a thin fibrous cartilage between the surfaces of some joints.

All three meanings could be applicable.

The first section of Meniscus features the poems in Neilson's first chapbook, The Beaten-Down Elegies (2004). These are memory poems of growing up and witnessing how life is lived through the eyes of youth.

The second section, Manic Statement, contains various utterances relating to the medical profession. Bipolar, for example, is a brief, but very poignant expression of this affliction in which "all roads/ are mad."

Life on 8 Lane is another deeply moving poem that relates existence in a psychiatric ward along side that of "the city in perpetual drizzle" as "the sun still rises and sets." There is no cure is a poem that has reflective metaphors on the parallels between farmers and doctors noting especially how "the doctors shake their heads like farmers do/ when the season's bad."

The section titled Seized records all sorts of messages from the doctor's viewpoint on such topics as open head injuries, seizures en route, the ambulance, the MRI, and the OR.

The last section, Love Life is complete with paradoxes on numerous aspects of life and its precious significance.

On Realizing his Toddler Will Become a Woman and Before Irony express well the theme of the section, which has considerable emphasis for Neilson's daughter.

Neilson, who grew up in Oromocto, attended Oromocto High School, and the University of New Brunswick before studying medicine at Dalhousie University, now lives in Guelph, Ont., where he is a family physician. Although the practice of medicine and the literary arts are not always compatible, Neilson clearly demonstrates how it is possible to be successful at both.

Meniscus has an excellent balance in which the medical practitioner spans the vital features of life and death with precision, understanding, care, and realism.

- reviewed by MICHAEL O. NOWLAN

For The Daily Gleaner

Promises, Promises

Copy-editing today our sole poetry manuscript for Spring: David Starkey's A Few Things You Should Know About the Weasel. Thought it might be a good day to share a poem:

Promises, Promises

The question, emailed from someone I don’t know,
nevertheless looms large: Dream to be a hero
in her bed? Of course, I do—this is my wife
we’re talking about. How could I fail

to be interested in the elaborate
and ungrammatical come-ons: Enlarge
you’re banana length! Don’t loose your passion
to bad potence! Get ready to the wildest nights

of your life with the original blue-pill!
Yes, she tells me there’s more to marriage
than physical love—taking out the trash,
for instance, vacuuming and laundry

and picking up after our St. Bernard—
but surely my satisfactory discharge
of those domestic duties must pale beside
a gratifying boosted performance like Mr. Sex Machine!

What minor miscalculation wouldn’t
she forgive—the compliment paid too late,
socks left in the living room, the cable bill
overdue again—if only I could lead her

into a world of boundless enjoyments,
where my splinter will be bigger and more solid,
where excellent hardness is easy and I
can stay real man even being drunk.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Blog Roll

A few happenings involving Biblioasis authors and books.

Over at Pickle Me This, Kerry picks Carrie Snyder's Hair Hat over Ray Smith's Century. All I can say to that is ... really, what can I say?

Rebecca Rosenblum of Rose-coloured and A.J. Somerset debate evil and villainy.

Mike Barnes continues to Walk the Walk with a piece on doctors.

Amy Jones continues her list-obsession.

Zach Wells has a poem in honour of P. K. Page.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Book: Still Cutting Edge least when the pages are cut. And you know how to open one. And figure out how to turn the pages.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Best of the Decade

No, no Biblioasis book made anyone's best of the decade, or not that I've come across. No Biblioasis author even made a best of the decade list, which is, in my view, a travesty. Michael Carbert over at the online magazine Encore Lit does attempt to remedy this. He chooses Terry Griggs's Rogue's Wedding and Russell Smith's Muriella Pent as being among the most egregiously overlooked books of the decade. And I would have to absolutely agree with him. Both of these books remain among my all-time favourite novels, and rank as among the best Canadian novels, in my opinion, ever published. They are two of the few books I'll probably re-read in the not-too-distant future.

Some other picks, judged by a scan of my bookshelves, that rank as among my favourite books published this past decade. I don't know if any of them made a Best of the Decade list. All of them quite easily could have:

Annabel Lyon's Oxygen
Clark Blaise's Selected Stories (Four Volumes, published by the Porcupine's Quill)
Ray Robertson's Gently Down the Stream
Caroline Adderson's Pleased to Meet You
Mark Anthony Jarman's 19 Knives
Lisa Moore's Open
Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies
Alistair MacLeod's Island
Leonard Michael's Collected Stories
Horacio Castellanos Moya's Senselessness.
Alice Munro's Hateship Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (or almost anything else by her)

Certainly, this list overlooks many, including books we've published here, books I've borrowed, books in one of the dozens of boxes still in a storage locker, books I've taken from the library, books I've loaned out and lost. Not to mention non-fiction and poetry. And it is heavily slanted to short fiction: counting Rogue's Wedding and Muriella Pent, 9 of 13 titles are short fiction collections. But it will suffice in a pinch.

Carbert, though, is right: Griggs and Smith: if you haven't read them, do yourself the favour.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Combat Camera

Though it may seem a bit early to be posting on Fall 2010 books -- I've yet to begin work on all our Spring titles yet -- t'is the way of things around here. Though not always the most organized chap, I'm often forced to juggle mutliple seasons at one time. Today, as a for instance: I met with a current author to discuss a future book, then with another to discuss a spring title, then came home and finished a couple of proposals for non-fiction titles for Fall 10 and Fall 11, read some of a ms which, at best, will see Biblioasis publication in Spring '12, then worked on some Fall 09 title promo. Now, after I finish this post: I pick up the kids. All in a half-day's work. (The rest comes when they go to bed.)

Above, though, is what I hope will be the cover photo for A. J. Somerset's Metcalf-Rooke Award winning Combat Camera. It captures so much about the book: the war photography, the violence, the beauty of his writing on photography and art, his hero's rather ... combative and thoughtful nature. A nature Andrew himself shares, or so I gather from his blog Banjaxed. It's been one of my favourites for the last couple of months, and I check in quite regularly. I suggest you do so as well. Check out his blog here, and one of my favourite posts from back in November here. And, when Combat Camera comes out in a scant 8 1/2 month's time, do yourself a favour and pick it up as well: you will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Smoke and Lilacs

Biblioasis will be distributing Norm Sibum's Smoke and Lilacs in Canada this Spring. Published in the UK by Carcanet, it may very well be Norm's best collection. Originally set for publication in Canada by Fitzhenry and Whiteside, it was a casualty when they cut their poetry program early last year, and has not seen Canadian distribution as a result. We're quite chuffed to have it. Should you like to order a copy, please put in an order with your local bookseller or contact us directly. We'll get you off a copy as soon as we receive them.

From Sibum's Smoke and Lilacs, the opening poem, 'From Propertius with Love':

Oh the days are inconstant, rich in betrayal, my language expert
In all-night kisses and your bad temper. What shall I make now
Of your lip, the sudden thundershower
Squalling across the gardens of Lucullus?
Sap that I am, optimist, I write you verse declaring my love
After I catch you at it, a swindler plying your buttocks.
'Looking for something?' you hiss. I am. Order in the cosmos. A little trust.
I want, oh I don't know, the bliss to which I'm accustomed.
And I'm always in the market for a state
With a benign and friendly face.

Monday, January 18, 2010

2010: The Good News (Rose-Coloured) Edition

I have been accused on occasion of being a touch ... dour on this blog. And in life, for that matter. A shame, that, as I must be, at the heart of things, an optimist. Why else, of course, would one continue as a small press publisher? The wages suck (wages? what wages?), as do the hours. Most of what you do is merely taken for granted. Very little of it is considered good enough. The media largely ignore you. They certainly don't give your books the attention they are due. The distributors can't get your books into stores quickly enough when they are selling, but manage to process returns and their attendant fees in record time. Authors ....

But, Wait! This is, after all, the Good News Edition of Thirsty. And despite the truth of what is above, we've plenty of reasons to be both quite happy and thankful. I thought I might take a moment and list a few of them. In no particular order...

1. Clark Blaise has been made an Officer of the Order of Canada, a much-deserved honour.

2. Sticking with Clark for a moment, he looks set to hand in a new collection of short stories, for publication either in the Fall of 2010 or Spring 2011, in the coming months.

3. Cynthia Flood's daughter Margaret recently gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Lachlan. Congrats!

4. Alexander MacLeod's first collection of short fiction, Heavy Lifting, is set for a Fall 2010 release. i've been waiting on this one for years. I'm quite excited.

5. K. D. Miller's novel Brown Dwarf, set for Spring 2010, is even better the second time through. Put it down as one of this season's must-reads.

6. We've hired some new help here at the Bibliomanse, Melissa Young, who so far seems to be exactly what we need to help get everything organized.

7. I've just read a page and a half of what will hopefully become a new Chellis Beith novel.

8. Marty Gervais's The Rumrunners: A Prohibition Scrapbook, continues to sell, meaning we should soon be able to pay off most of our creditors. Yes, that (likely) means you.

9. Checked in on the Peripatetic yesterday aft, sitting forlornly in her cradle. But there's only three months until we get her back in the water.

10. The launch date for Terry Griggs's Nieve is only three months away as well. April will be a very good month.

11. I've signed the contract for Rebecca Rosenblum's next collection of stories, The Big Dream. I'm thankful she decided to stick with us.

12. A book I found in a thrift shop should go for between $5000-7000 at auction later this year. A few more similar finds and it will be easier to remain optimistic.

13. Ray Smith's Century has found one more fan, and has the chance to be discovered by a few more. Thanks Kerry.

Wishing you all similarly good things in 2010.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Canada Reads Independently: Century: The Review

Over at Pickle Me This, Kerry Clare has reviewed the first of her Canada Reads Independently choices, Ray Smith's Century.

Its sombre cover coupled with my misunderstanding that Ray Smith had eschewed story for higher principles would have kept me from Century: A Novel, were it not for Dan Wells' recommendation. I thought this was a book that wasn't for me, not only in a "not my cup of tea" sense, but that it was meant for a more erudite kind of reader for whom the act of reading is not meant to be a pleasure cruise ("Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song... Wallala leialala").

So it is my surprise to find I love this book, that it contains everything I look for as a reader, including that most unfashionable self-contained universe. That Smith may have eschewed traditional narrative structure, but he has done so only to compress a 500+ page novel into his first 98 pages, to represent the disintegration and disorder present in the universe the book contains, to have Century be what it's meant to represent. And that his writing possesses a sympathy for and understanding of women that I found surprising, and striking, and even (dare I suppose in a book such as this?) somewhat heartening.

Heinrich Himmler didn't shock me. Perhaps I'm just being defiant in my reactions, but Jane Seymour, the young woman in 197o's Montreal who receives his ghostly visitations in her bed, the nightmares in which he touches her naked body (but oh, I was struck by the details-- "the buttons on the cuffs of his sleeve caught on the sheet when he reached under to touch...")-- there is context for her, precedent. Of course, her friends suppose that she has undergone a trauma, perhaps she has been raped, which has led to the visions, which leads to her suicide. And that may be so, but the whole thing is the extreme end, I think, of how ordinary girls become obsessed with Nazism, which manifests in more usual terms with an Anne Frank fascination and YA books about the Holocaust. As a kind of dangerous experiment in empathy, though of course the Holocaust is so sanitized in such literature, but there is a thin line there, and I just think that Jane Seymour has crossed it for one reason, or for many.

For the rest of what Kerry writes on Century, please go here.

What else can I add? Not much. Kerry fears towards the end that "it occurs to me that this response to Century has done it no favours. That its biggest problem is that no one is ever going to to say, "Hey, read this" with a snappy one-sentence reason why. That it raises questions without answers, and begins an engagement that is unceasing, and it's more like someone handing you pieces of a puzzle than recommending you a book. Except you get to rearrange the pieces over and over again, which is infinitely more interesting, but frustrating too." But I think she's mistaken. Her analysis of Century is so open and generous and engaging that she has me putting the book once again on the bedside table for another read. Hopefully she'll have convinced a few of you out there to pick it up as well.

Has anyone else read Century? Any thoughts you would care to share?

Steven Beattie has offered his own take on Century in the comments section on Kerry's blog that I'll take the liberty of quoting in its entirety:

Century is such a strange, unconventional book that I find it intensely difficult even to come up with a critical language appropriate to discuss it. And yet, its very strangeness, its very iconoclasm and idiosyncrasy, is what makes reading it such a potent experience.

Even its generic classification is open to discussion (as you point out, Kerry). Is it a novel? I'd argue yes. John Metcalf, on the other hand, considers it a collection of short stories, and certainly a case could be made. The closest Charles Foran comes in his introduction is to call the book a "tonal labyrinth," but even he admits that it's finally "unclassifiable."

What I love about the book is its morality, its honesty, and its embrace of language as a means of rescuing us from darkness. It's a deeply troublesome novel, but it's well worth the effort an engagement with it requires.

In the end, I'm convinced that a single reading is insufficient to come to a full appreciation of Smith's achievement in the book. I look forward to returning to the text and will be interested to measure my second encounter with it against my first.

But, hang on: this isn't my recommendation; it's Wells's. What am I doing defending it? Go read Moody Food, then we'll talk again.

That's right! I almost forgot. We get to do this again. Stay tuned for Kerry on Ray Robertson's Moody Food.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Malahat reviews The English Stories

A nice review in what I assume is the current Malahat of Cynthia Flood's The English Stories. Interestingly, the reviewer seems to treat it, at different times, as both a novel and as a collection. It works, I suppose, much as Ray Smith's Century does, as both. Here's to hoping -- come on you BC Book Award jurors! -- that Carol Matthews is right, and the book does indeed earn further distinctions.

Reading The English Stories ... one hears an echo of Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women in the steady voice and sharp eye of the main narrator, Amanda Ellis. uprooted from her predictable life in Toronto and Muskoka, Amanda is transplanted to England for a tw0-year stint while her parents conduct research for the "big book about the Romantic poets" that her father is ostensibly writing. They settle into a small residential hotel with tiny rooms containing obese or skeletal old ladies and men with scarlet knuckles and jagged nails. Called the Green House, the hotel is appropriately named for this time of growth and development during which Amanda experiences all the twists and turns of the classic bildungsroman: a move away from home, clashes of values, questioning of beliefs, awareness of sexuality, and a search for identity and an occupation.
Disappointment resonates through most of these lives. Unrealized hopes, unrequited love, unsatisfactory careers, and unfinished books are take for granted and accepted without complaint but, surprisingly, the last word in the novel is joy. ... Flood is a gifted writer who combines intelligent description and poignant portraits to create a rich tableau of people, of places. ... The English Stories, a thoroughly enjoyable, well-crafted collection, deserves further distinctions.

- Carol Matthews

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Mighty Angel

Jerzy Pilch's The Mighty Angel, published by Open Letter and distributed here in Canada by Biblioasis, has been shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. Over at Three Percent, Open Letter's blog on translated literatures -- an essential site for anyone interested in contemporary literature in translation, -- publisher Chad Post has been spotlighting each shortlisted title. Today's is The Mighty Angel's turn, one of my favourite books from 2009:

The Mighty Angel is a difficult book to talk about. Although, ironically, this glass of wine is totally loosening me up. BTW, I’m writing this on Saturday night—not completely inappropriate time to be drinking. But seriously, how can one relate humor, the joy that comes from reading about a writer (named Jerzy) who is a life-long alcoholic and spends most of his time either getting out of rehab or going on the bender that will send him right back? How can a novel that relates—in painfully true to life detail—story after story of people hitting rock bottom, of people destroying their lives for another drink, another high, another lost night, how can a novel with this much pain and pathos also be incredibly fun to read?

It’s Pilch’s genius to be able to craft a narrative that’s both honest and deceiving. That doesn’t pull punches when exposing his character flaws, but does so in a way that makes it seem like he might be writing himself better, so to speak. That by putting these things down, by conveying them in a way that you can relate, that you can see the problem, that if he can do that, he can cure himself.

For the rest, please go here.

Open Letter is publishing two other Pilch titles, including his A Thousand Peaceful Cities, which will be released in summer 2010. I've already read this short novel, and think it quite brilliant. For now, though, you could do far worse than pick up Pilch's Angel.

Complex Syndactyly

A short film by Russell Smith:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Know Thy Selves

It is nice to see backlist titles continuing to get coverage. It leaves me hopeful -- a scarce commodity around here these days. Kerry Clare is currently reading Ray Smith's Century for her Canada Reads Independently program, and despite the fact that the novel opens with the ghost of Heinrich Himmler coming to Jane Seymour in the middle of the night, whispering endearments and stroking her exposed shoulder, a rather brutal and horrifying introduction, she seems "hooked, intrigued, confused and wonderfully searching." Which is exactly as it should be.

Mike Barnes's The Lily Pond continues to find new readers as well. He continued yesterday with a successful talk in Cobourg, one of more than a dozen he has given over the last year. Whether or not you have read his book -- and you should -- he has been posting sections from these talks, which can work either as an excellent introduction to The Lily Pond, or as supplementary reading, over at his blog. (The blog is titled 2009, because he didn't want to commit to a blog longer than the year. The fact that he has continued into the new calendar year is a very good thing.)

You can check out some of these talk segments at his blog -- -- just go over and click Mike Barnes's name on the sidebar. Here is one of the more recent segments, "Know Thy Selves".

Know Thy Selves

“Know thyself.” Everyone has heard the ancient Greek injunction, inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. For all its wisdom, though, I still think it could be improved. It presumes, in its singular pronoun, a stable and consistent identity, when in fact identity is malleable and multiple, a condition of flux which must be constantly updated, even renegotiated. “Know thy selves,” I humbly suggest, would be a more humane and practical credo.

Something I remained ignorant about for a long time, for example, was the fact that my periodic inability to read–words, these things I loved, going dead and blank, their sequences fuzzy and meaningless–is a common symptom of depression, and doesn’t at all betoken apathy or lack of intelligence. Or at least not permanent forms of those things. What it may mean, though, is a temporary impairment of interest and cognitive ability. And there are far better ways to deal with that than simply dropping out of the life one wants.

Like what? you may be thinking. What are you supposed to do if you find yourself bottoming out just when you need yourself most? Unable to read–but an exam coming up? Unable to write–but an essay due? I can think of some practical approaches to these problems, but outlining them would take us too far astray in a short talk. And I would be the last person to say that these are not serious problems, serious threats. Fluctations in mental health still threaten my job and my personal life; they’re a minefield I am always trying to pick my way through. I have no wish to travel back in time to advise my younger self: he did the best he could, what he had to do, then. But I know a couple of things he didn’t. One is that hiding a problem–from yourself and from others–usually takes more energy than trying to manage it. Coming out is almost always a good idea. What I hope I would do now, when I felt myself slipping, is to approach someone I trust with the facts: I want to do this (finish my course, write my exam, hang on till tomorrow), but for some reason I’m unable to. I need help, something to get me through this. That would be a start. Not a solution yet, but the only sure step I know towards finding one. I don’t say it is an easy step to take.

It seems strange that my eighteen months on a psychiatric ward in my early twenties had not begun my education in these matters. That tumultuous passage had schooled me in many miseries, fears and self-doubts of every kind, but it had not taken me very far at all in developing a practical awareness of myself, how I had changed, and how I might get on with my life, given the fluctuating and rather fragile (though at the same time newly toughened and robust) creature I now seemed to be.

Strange...or not so strange. Many medical mishaps–including a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia, zombiefying tranquilizers, many electroshock treatments and a near-fatal overdose–had given me good reasons to drop out of the standard curriculum of mental health. Again, though, I was an extremist: I shunned the mental health system completely for the next decade, which included some of the lowest and most pointless wandering in my life. Some kinds of learning occur only slowly, in tiny increments. No matter how successfully it is managed, trauma takes time. Time to occur (since it occurs in waves, even if one event precipitates it)...and a long time to come back from. Long, slow time is usually not on offer in an age that idolizes speed and a narrowly defined functioning. These idols of quick-time get stamped out crudely and worshipped thoughtlessly. And is it perhaps yourself–your image and expectations of yourself–that have helped to mold this unforgiving deity? Just because what you need isn’t on offer–or doesn’t appear to be–doesn’t mean you can’t ask for it, claim it. A system may function badly–many do–but it can’t function better than we ask it to. Demand it to. And: permit it to. “Time heals,” we say, but do we act as if we believe it? It takes courage to trust time–the courage to wait and see.

After that, of course, comes the challenge of admitting what you see, and finding room to accept it. Several times each year I still experience what I call my “shut-downs.” These are the periods that have taught me how far beyond sadness depression really goes. In these dead zones my brain and body and spirit–my whole self, really–become, in stages, unable to comprehend or respond to the world. It is a lot like that famous scene in 2001, when Dave Bowman unplugs HAL, and the computer disappears circuit by circuit–busted right down to his programmed origins of “Dai-sy...Dai-sy”–though by that time I have long since lost the urge to sing. At such times I’ve learned to apply what I call the small-circle cure. This means reducing activity and stimulation to a bare minimum. Dimming the lights, unplugging the phone, cancelling social engagements. And, as I feel my ability to think in sequence ebbing away, scaling my reading down from the love life of Anna Karenina to the love life of Britney Spears...and then further down, to just flipping through books of pictures or watching reruns of The Sopranos. To return to the idea of functioning: Someone seeing me lying on my side for hours beside a single lamp, flipping pages of Rolling Stone or People, might see a very low order of functioning...and it is, in a way...but it is a much higher order of functioning than I showed in the years when I tried to keep reading and writing through these spells, which can last six weeks or more, and added terrible frustration to depression when I could understand nothing, produce nothing. Self-acceptance, I’ve come to see, involves a better understanding of one of the simplest words: and. I am a person who reads, and writes, challenging books...and I am a person who, at times, cannot read or write the simplest sentence. The two facts are not mutually exclusive; they mustn’t be, since I’m living both of them.

But that little word and can be a terribly hard word to remember. A major part of my ongoing recovery, including the therapy I do with the excellent psychiatrist I have now, involves trying to remember the truth of and. As I said earlier, there is a degree of amnesia to my condition, so that every time I lurch upward into mania or downward into depression, it feels like the first time, and I lose all memory that I have been here before and gotten through it. Retaining a thin thread of memory, enough that I can say, “I know this place; I was here before, and I left again,” is one of the most important gains I’ve made in recent years. It’s a lifeline to cling to, a thread to guide me out of the labyrinth.

I learned all this again just last fall. Ironically, after my book launch in October, and at the talks I gave subsequently, some listeners said to me, “You seem well now,” as if all the troubles I was describing were safely behind me. “I do feel well,” I said, “” But I could tell they didn’t believe me when I said I knew bad times would return, times they, and even I, could scarcely imagine. Sure enough, within a month, I was floundering, slipping into a netherworld of sleeplessness and incoherent thoughts and depression and even hallucinations. I could barely understand the book I myself had written or the talks I had given about it. But while I felt myself slipping, while I still had time, I did a useful, practical thing. Using what few verbal resources I had left, I wrote myself a letter, a sort of “message in a bottle” from my still-hanging-on self to the unwell self I felt gaining on him. I taped the letter to the wall beside my desk, it is still there, and read it often in the next two months, feeling disbelief but also comfort at its assurances that I had gone to this black place before and had returned from it. I wanted to read it as part of this talk, but it is a little too long. “Letter to Thursday” is a frank and simple statement from one self to another, saying in essence: I know you, even if you don’t remember me. We are in this together.

“In this together” is a sentiment alien to the depressed person, since a feeling of utter desertion is at the core of the predicament. One is abandoned by joy, by purpose, by others, by the world, by oneself. The last is the harshest turning in the lock. Losing this first advisor, ally, friend–this best angel, truly–confirms that the ship has indeed been abandoned and must inevitably go down. Without this “other” there is no self–only a cave where someone used to live. Heaing no word is having no word. Getting a letter, a postcard, a murmur, on the other hand, is evidence that desertion may not be absolute, or at least not final, since somewhere your self-in-health is still speaking.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Two More Reviews of Dance With Snakes

Two more reviews of Horacio Castellanos Moya's Dance With Snakes were published in the last week. The first, in a piece entitled 'Slapstick Adventure and Sharp Allegory' at the Rover Magazine, enthuses:

Dance With Snakes is a slapstick action adventure and a sharp allegory. Its targets include the paranoia of political regimes, inclined to view any sort of upheaval as part of a destabilization plot. It examines the political imperatives of police investigation, wherein government officials superimpose their own agendas upon the character of crime, dismissing the instincts of experienced investigators in favour of lines of inquiry more supportive of their own stance. The novel deals with the capacity of the media to shift the focus of news or indeed to insert itself into the story in such a way as to influence, alter, or even create events. It touches upon the ease with which a criminal is able to manipulate the media and, through it, the public’s perception of his acts. And it illustrates the ability of communities to convince themselves, or be convinced, of just about anything.

The beauty of this book, as with great works of political and social satire in all languages, is that while its messages are by no means obscure, they are injected almost surreptitiously into the bloodstream of the reader: we may well imagine that these realizations are our own, having been presented them so deftly during the course of a story that is on its surface crazed, exhilarating, grotesque, relentless and hilarious fun.

Meanwhile, in the current issue of RainTaxi, there appears a joint review of Dance with Snakes and The She-Devil in the Mirror:

Dance with Snakes is essentially a thriller, and Moya uses the conventions of the genre to create a terrific amount of suspense and terror. But once we get to what is easily one of the most bizarre and discomforting sex scenes in all of literature, it becomes clear that—as with his later She-Devil in the Mirror—Moya is only constructing a traditional thriller on the surface. As opposed to She-Devil, however, the narration here is very straightforward; we have no reason to doubt the veracity of anyone’s claims despite the fantastic nature of many of them, as when the sociologist describes his interactions with his adopted snakes, which he calls “the ladies”:

The din outside was tremendous. The ladies were in a kind of orgy, biting everything in sight. I had closed the door and window to block out the screaming, but I could still feel the terror of the fleeing crowds beating in my eardrums. In just a few seconds the street had been destroyed. There were dozens of bodies lying twisted on the ground between the vendors’ stalls, as though there’d been a machine gun attack or an earthquake. I thought we shouldn’t call too much attention to ourselves. I opened the car door and yelled for them to come back. They came in excited and out of breath. I started the car while they gossiped like maidens in a tearoom, which was unlike them.

Dance with Snakes is the more “pulse-pounding” of the two novels, for sure, but both offer up incredible characterizations and Moya’s takes on the political situation in Latin America, with plenty of barbs directed at religion and the police. Hopefully we will see more of his fiction translated in the coming years.

Friday, January 08, 2010

CNQ has a New Blog

Though I have intended to start a new CNQ blog for a couple of years now, for one reason or another -- mainly: not enough hours in the day -- I've yet to do it. But one of my New Year's resolutions for the business has been to work on the online aspects of both press and journal, so this week I've started to update the journal blog. I'll try and update it with links, occasional interviews, articles and other material at least several times a week, focusing on writing by CNQ editors and contributors, and it is my hope that some of our contributing editors may occasionally step in as well to keep things fresh. It may be worth checking in on from time to time.

Today's link is to another article by antiquarian bookseller David Mason. His Selling Civilization (CNQ 76) was probably the most loved and commented article of 2009. There's a new article by him forthcoming in issue 78 on the art of book scouting, which ranks, in my mind, as one of the most charming and informative essays on bookselling I've read in many a year. I've linked to an essay on Mason's website, originally published in Descant, on the relationship between librarians and booksellers: another charming and informative Mason piece. To read A Tale of Illusion, Delusion and Mystery please go here.

Eventually much of this material will hopefully make it into a memoir, and I for one look forward most anxiously to its publication.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Rumrunners: A Prohibition Scrapbook

I didn't update this blog enough last fall: too much to do, and too few hours in which to do it. So this may well be the first real post I've done on Marty Gervais's Rumrunners. This is quite strange, as it is -- only two months after its release -- already our bestselling title. We made it through the initial 3000 copy print run in under a month, and are now more than halfway through our 4000 copy second printing. Though things have obviously slowed a bit after Christmas, it is still selling steadily, and I think we may see it approach the 8000-10,000 copy mark in its first year. For a press quite happy to sell 300-400 copies of the average title, this has been quite an unexpected surprise.

Though I have been joking of late that this book has ruined me as a literary publisher, it hasn't yet. In fact, it has almost singlehandedly saved the press this year from the devastating cycle of scant sales and horrific returns which plague the industry. It also points to a possible path out of the grant dependency I never wanted to develop, yet to which we have somehow succumbed, and you can expect more titles such as this from Biblioasis in the coming years.

Though the book is largely a local history, and 90% of sales have come from the Windsor area, it is not really just of local interest. Somewhere approaching 85% of all booze passing from Canada to the the United States during Prohibition passed across the Detroit River, meaning that anyone who wants to understand Prohibition really needs to understand what happened here. And Marty's book takes a different tack than most treatments: it is a scrapbook, a compendium of various odds and ends, but it is also an oral history: though, as one expects, Al Capone and the Purple Gang and other criminal figures graces these pages, Marty has focused on the average man (& woman) carrying the booze across the border, in everything from drained eggs to fake gas tanks to airplanes. It's the story of Prohibition as small time local ingenuity, and, for my money, is at least as fascinating as the larger stories of Capone and company. Indeed, the latter cannot be truly appreciated or understood without it.

The 90th Anniversary of the introduction of the Volstead Act, whch made Prohibition law in the United States, is less than two weeks away, and anyone interested in understanding what Prohibition looked like from the ground could do far worse than pick up a copy of the Rumrunners. Among others, it seems Margaret Atwood has: from her Year of the Flood blog:

But speaking of criminal airs, our old friend, poet and Black Moss publisher Marty Gervais, was there, and I bought his terrific local-history book about the roadhouses and rumrunners in Windsor during Prohibition: The Rumrunners: A Prohibition Scrapbook. (Biblioasis.) Great stuff –lots of pictures. How wicked Windsor was!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Canada Reads Independently

Over at Pickle Me This, Kerry Clare has decided to run a separate book club of sorts, due to her disappointment with the official CBC Canada Reads shortlist. She asked me in December if I'd care to select a title to defend. I asked her, at least in part with my tongue in my cheek, if I might choose one of my own. Kerry said that the fact that I had endorsed a book by publishing it was good enough for her.

But: which title should I choose? I immediately gravitated to our Renditions list of reprints. I love this series, and consider it in some ways the heart and soul of the Biblioasis enterprise: to ensure that important and unjustly overlooked works of Canadian literature are brought back into print, that they are given a chance to find the audience they deserve. If Canada Reads worked as it should, it would be books like these -- overlooked classics, in my opinion -- and not recent bestsellers and more common fare -- that would be given a shot at the spotlight. If I could afford it, I'd do 3-4 of these titles a year, and you would see books by Clark Blaise, Bharati Mukherjee, Susan Kerslake, Norman Levine, Leon Rooke, Mavis Gallant, Douglas Glover, Mark Anthony Jarman, Linda Svendson and many others alongside the already existent titles by Terry Griggs, John Metcalf, Ray Robertson and Ray Smith (3 of them). I've viewed the series as a form of service, of giving back, and it is something I hope we can eventually grow as a bit of an aesthetic counterpoint to the New Canadian Library. As it is, unfortunately, I may have to take a break from the series for a year or two until my finances make it once again possible to take the hit these titles inevitably are.

Of the current Renditions titles, my favorite at the moment may just be Ray Smith's Century. I worried about selecting this title for Kerry's program: it's elicited wildly different responses from its readers. There are those who think it perhaps the most important work of Canadian fiction published: Charles Foran said as much in his introduction to the book, and a few others since the title's re-release this past Spring have concurred. Others have read it and hated it, and have not seen what the big deal is about. It is certainly an uncomfortable book: dark, troubling, sad, moral, while remaining blackly humorous, as is the case with so much of Smith's work. Steven Beattie, reviewing the book on That Shakespherian Rag this past summer, said, in part: "... the experience of reading Century is bracing, even 23 years after it was first published. Its pervasive sense of melancholy in the face of a fallen world may even carry greater impact in our post-9/11 society. In any event, it remains sui generis: a strange, searing work by one of our finest literary practitioners." It is one of the books I most hope readers of this blog -- all six of you -- will pick up. And i'm thankful for Kerry for agreeing to read it, and giving it a shot at finding at least a few more readers.

I was surprised to learn later that the same Steven Beattie chose another Renditions title, Ray Robertson's Moody Food, as the title he'll be defending. Beattie writes: "Rock and roll novels are difficult to pull off. It’s hard to capture on the page the unkempt spirit of the music – its energy, its anarchy, its ethereal, emotional immediacy. Which makes Moody Food, an extended booze- and drug-fuelled odyssey into Toronto’s Yorkville (and beyond) in the 1960s, a fairly stunning achievement ... the novel is many things: a modern retelling of The Great Gatsby; a vividly realized portrait of Yorkville in the 1960s; and a metaphor for the disillusionment of the generation that came of age pursuing a heady mix of peace, love, and marijuana smoke. Robertson has said, "I believe that no matter what artistic pursuits you have, you want to be regarded like a rock star." Ambitious and ultimately highly moving, Moody Food is that rarest of all beasts: a great rock and roll novel."

The other contestants are:

Katrina Onstad: How Happy to Be.
Martha Ostenso: Wild Geese
Carrie Snyder: Hair Hat.

To read the write ups about each book and its defener, please go here.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Nieve's World

The ARCs for one of our Spring titles arrived in the driveway this afternoon and will be going out to bloggers and book reviewers and film companies and librarians and booksellers and many others over the next several days. The first new YA work by Terry Griggs since she finished her award-winning YA series Cat's Eye Corner, Nieve is a dark, haunting, disturbingly enjoyable novel. Like last Spring's Thought You Were Dead, Nieve is fabulously illustrated, this time by her son, Alexander Griggs-Burr. Over the last several days half a dozen illustrations have made it into my inbox, and I thought I'd share a couple of my favourites.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Stop Smiling Interviews H. C. Moya

San Salvador is the home of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s literary imagination, and although he left El Salvador’s capital city long ago, its concrete tentacles often stretch a surreal length and reach the author’s mind, regardless of where in the world he happens to be.

San Salvador is as much a character in Dance With Snakes and The She-Devil in the Mirror as the humans who inhabit the two books, published in English this fall by Biblioasis and New Directions, respectively. The city is the subject and/or setting of most of Moya’s 14 books of fiction, including La diaspora (1988), his first novel and winner of a Salvadoran National Novel Award; El asco: Thomas Bernhard en El Salvador (1997), which resulted in death threats that prompted Moya to exile himself from El Salvador; and three of his most recent novels — Donde no estén ustedes (2003), Desmoronamiento (2006) and Tirana memoria (2008) — which, as a trilogy, chronicle a family through generations of San Salvador’s history.

Dance With Snakes, published in Spanish in 1997, follows a young sociologist who assumes the identity of a beggar, and with the help of a cadre of talking snakes embarks upon a giddy spree of terror that paralyzes San Salvador. The She-Devil in the Mirror, published in Spanish in 2000, is the rambling first-person account of a wealthy young Salvadoreña who describes her efforts to solve her friend’s murder and, in doing so, the unraveling of her own psyche. Both are dark and comic, at turns violent and oddly erotic, and encapsulate portions of Salvadoran society for Moya to berate in disgust, and obliquely revere at a distance.

Moya was born in Honduras in 1957 but grew up in El Salvador, which he left for good in 1997. Before his exile he lived in Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico and Spain, and afterward in Germany and the United States. His only other book available in English is Senselessness, published by New Directions in 2008.

STOP SMILING spoke with Moya via Skype in September, while the author was in Tokyo.

For the INTERVIEW please go here.