Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Poetry to Warm the Wintry Soul

An article on the poetry of Patricia Young appeared in yesterday's Victoria Times-Colonist. If you go to the Times-Colonist website, there's a audio recording of her reading the poem printed here.


Patricia Young has been writing poems for as long as she can remember. Her early poems, fragments of which she can still recite, were about nature. Her mom was her first audience.

"She was nice enough to listen to them," says the 54-year-old Young, who was born and raised in Victoria. "When I look back, I don't think they were very good, but it gave me enough encouragement to continue."

oday she writes for a larger audience. So far she has published nine books of poetry and one of fiction. The quality of her work has also improved. The list of her achievements since 1987 include being nominated twice for the Governor General's Award for Poetry and winning the Pat Lowther Award, the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award and others. Her first collection of fiction, Airstream, also won the Metcalf-Rooke Award.

She has been a writer in residence in several universities, the latest at the University of New Brunswick. It was during a hard winter in New Brunswick that she was inspired to write today's poem.

Young lives in Fairfield with her husband, Terence, who is also an award-winning poet. The couple met when Patricia was only 16; they have two grown children.

The husband-and-wife team occasionally spend time at their other home in Highlands, using it as a retreat for their writing.

"We help each other out," Young says. "It makes life easier when your spouse understands your work." -- Pedro Arrais, Times Colonist

- - -

The Times Colonist asked six Victoria-area poets to create poems for the winter season.

Today we present the fifth, Patricia Young's Cherry Tree in Winter.

The last will follow tomorrow on the front page of the Life section.


By Patricia Young

Icicles hang from the eaves, the size of a man and twice as lethal.

Today I trudge through the snow-deep city in my landlord's parka.

Within its sheltering hood I hear nothing but rustling inside my head.

Here, winter goes on and on and I'm tired of my own thoughts.

Through snow-deep streets I trudge in my landlord's down parka.

On the other coast you get out the lopper, prune the cherry tree.

Here, winter goes on and on and I'm tired of my own thoughts.

On the phone you say, So much light. Now the leaves won't shadow the deck.

On the west coast, you get out the lopper and prune the cherry tree.

For years I've asked you to take it down -- too much foliage, too little fruit.

The light, you say on the phone. Now the leaves won't shadow the deck.

Tonight I love that its branches still hold our daughter's tree fort aloft.

For years I've asked you to take it down -- too much foliage, too little fruit.

And the trunk serves as a post for our son's Guatemalan hammock.

I love that its branches still hold a childhood tree fort aloft.

Beneath three quilts I dream I'm a tree riddled with blossoms and birds, a diamond-weave hammock swaying in a Guatemalan market.

Inside my sheltering head: the sound of rustling green. Husband,

you are the riddle beneath which I dream blossoms and birds, but

when I wake, icicles hang from the eaves, the size of a man and twice as lethal.

- - -

- To hear Patricia Young reading her poem, visit

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An Idle Self-Interview: Mark Kingwell

From this Saturday's Globe & Mail:

Mark 1: So what's with the interview?

Mark 2: Well, I wanted to write something about why the idle life is the best life, especially now that we're spiralling headlong into an economic meltdown. It's also the natural time of year to think about the direction of your life, to take stock. But the thought of structuring a formal essay, arguing the position, made me feel tried. And no wonder: "Essay" is from the French essai, for try; an essay on idling seemed like a contradiction in terms.

Mark 1: So now I have to do the work of thinking up questions for you? And transcribing the answers?

Mark 2: Don't think of it as work! One of the common mistakes people make about idling is assuming that it's always inactive. On the contrary, there are lots of idle activities. Thinking and writing about ideas like this is a perfect example.

Mark 1: So what makes that idling rather than work?

Mark 2: Enjoying it for its own sake, for one thing. The reason idling is often closely associated with aestheticism or even dandyism - Baudelaire, Huysmans, Stevenson and Wilde were all accomplished idlers - is that idling sees the possibilities of life being lived as a work of art.

Mark 1: Hmm. Is that what distinguishes idling from slacking?

Mark 2: Yes, exactly! The problem with the slacker is that he is, in the very act of resisting them, wedded to the norms of work. In avoiding work, or pretending to work, or hiding from the supervisor in the mailroom, the slacker is implicitly granting the world of work a dominant position. He gives work power as that which he should be doing even as he does not do it.

Mark 1: And idling?

Mark 2: Idling establishes an independent scale of value. It's like the difference between dozing - falling asleep from overwork - and napping, which we all know is an art form. The true idler enters the moment of not-working and takes it into a new realm of not even thinking about work, of strolling away from that collective addiction of the past 2,000 years.

Mark 1: I sense a philosophical reference coming.

Mark 2: Well, yes. Aristotle's claim of the contemplative life as the most divine life, as well as his idea of peripatesis - philosophy done while walking - suggests an idle disciple. The issue of gait is essential, actually: strolling, ambling, dawdling, flânerie - these are all an idler's actions. Aristotle also emphasizes political activity, but this is not work; it is action in the service of friendship and justice. Entirely consistent with idling.

Mark 1: What about the Eastern traditions?

Mark 2: Absolutely. I think Lao Tzu is perhaps the greatest idler of the ancient world. "Move along old ruts," he advises us in Tao Te Ching. "Blunt the sharpness." We know he's right - we still talk about "taking the edge off" after a hard day's work. Typically, we do it with temporary self-medication - a sitcom, a martini. Not that I have anything against martinis, but diversions like these just serve to recharge the batteries for the next bout of work. Addiction reinforced.

Mark 1: You make it sound easy. What about making ends meet, now that unemployment is spiking so high? Aristotle, after all, had slaves to do work for him. Lots of people are simply out of work, not not-working. Isn't idling revealed as an elitist pursuit, an aristocrat's indulgence?

Mark 2: It's true Aristotle had slaves. He saw them as the bearers of repetitive actions, the boring features of the realm of necessity. My point is that nowadays, most of us are self-enslaved. And each one of us, jobless or otherwise, has some portion of what the Germans call Freizeit, free time. The real issue is how we use that time. Or rather, whether we see that it should not be used at all.

Mark 1: You're saying we should live for the weekend?

Mark 2: No, no, on the contrary! The weekend was created, through collective action and forward-looking legislation, to ease the burden of work. But look what's happened to it. It has annexed leisure - what the Greeks called skholé, the root for school - into a form of consumption. We have reduced forms of play, like sports, to mass spectacles that offer reward for the past week's work and rest for the coming one. Everything entails the production of consumption, with ourselves as the final product, consumed by our desires under the sign of the consumer. Not only is it obvious now that we can't go on this way, it has been obvious all along.

Mark 1: What? Give me an example.

Mark 2: Well, notice the etymological traces contained in the English words "negotiate" and "otiose." Otiose means redundant or useless. Negotiate means to transact affairs, to conduct business. But the shared Latin root tells the story. Neg-otium, the negation of that which lies beyond use, is the origin of business. Business is an obliteration, a nulling, not a positive value in its own right. And what is negated? The very thing, idling, which we now condemn as useless. We have got it exactly backward.

Mark 1: Suppose everyone was idle, though. How would society function?

Mark 2: Think of it this way. Any market economy is a failed attempt to distribute goods and services exactly where they are needed or desired, as and when they are needed and desired. That's all markets are, despite the pathological excrescences that nowadays attach to them: derivatives funds, advertising, shopping as leisure. If we had a perfect market, idling would be the norm, not the exception, because distribution would be frictionless. Most work is the result of inefficiency, not genuine need. In other words, idling is consistent with capitalism's own internal logic, which of course implies, even if it never realizes, the end of capitalism.

Mark 1: Huh. But surely idle hands are the devil's work. You don't have to be a hard-line Calvinist to appreciate that people need things to occupy them, limits and purposes. Otherwise they fall into ennui or worse.

Mark 2: True, all art is about the tension between constraint and possibility, between discipline and freedom. But work is too often deadening rather than purposeful; that's why it cycles with boredom. We should get over this perverse need to locate people in work terms, to fix them under occupations, the way English proper names make identities: Smith, Cooper, Fletcher. When you meet someone at a party, don't ask "What do you do?" Instead ask, "What are you thinking about?"

Mark 1: You keep using words like "should" and "backward" and "can't." Aren't you ensnared in a performative contradiction, enjoining this normative change of attitude, while talking about idling?

Mark 2: In philosophy, we prefer to call these "tensions" or "aporias" rather than "contradictions." Still, you've put your finger on a real problem. It has two distinct aspects.

Mark 1: That is exactly what I'm talking about! Distinction, the lever of philosophy. A lever is a machine, a tool for work! You're working right now!

Mark 2: Take it easy. You need to relax. This is supposed to be fun.

Mark 1: Fun? Ha.

Mark 2: As I was saying, two aspects. The first is what we can call The Idler's Conundrum. That's when idling, pursued too normatively, becomes a form of work. Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, was described in one biography as "having a talent for organized leisure." It was meant as a compliment, but it makes my blood curdle. The sort of person who herds you from one "pleasant" activity to another, chivvying you along.

Mark 1: Yeah, I get it. The second?

Mark 2: The second follows from the first. Let's call it Positional Goods Creep. That's when your idling becomes a form of conspicuous consumption, the sort of thing Veblen analyzes so brilliantly in The Theory of the Leisure Class. Here leisure is not only a form of work, but, disguised - even to oneself - as not-work, it becomes a form of publicly exhibited wealth. And we're right back into the false value system.

Mark 1: Okay, I get that, too. But still - "false value system"? Seems as though a basic contradiction is still there. This idling business looks like a program, an ethical system.

Mark 2: It's a program in a sense - a recovery program. I once composed an 11-Step Recovery Program for Idlers, because I was too lazy for 12. That was an intentional paradox, because you can't really program idling. But maybe these steps will make you start thinking about what matters most in life.

Mark 1: Meaning?

Mark 2: Meaning you must change your life. But no pressure. Take your time.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Nostalgia, Inc.

A former customer posted a shot of one of the aisles of Biblioasis in October 2003 on his blog. A year before we made the leap into publishing and the shop went all to hell. There are days that I really do miss the quiet of that place, the routine, sorting through the dusty and mildewed boxes of magazines and books to find a gem. A gem need not be a first edition Kafka, or Darwin, or Munro, though these came my way from time to time as well: merely a Blaise story in an early Tamarack, a Gallant in a New Yorker, or somesuch. Used booksellers are the first line of defence in the preservation of a culture; their sifting and sorting and annotating and cataloging ensure that so much that would not otherwise survive will do so. There was a time I was even a pretty good one, I think. Bookselling in the spare moments not consumed by publishing, working out of the basement, dealing entirely online, isn't the same. Though the basement is getting to the point where it looks similar: the same shelves are up, and they are beginning to get as crowded. In 2009 I hope to get that side of things up and running fully, helping to carry the weight of the publishing. And to perhaps provide a bit of the refuge that that shop once was.

Review Round Up

The Winnipeg Free Press, in their annual poetry round-up, has called Zach Wells's Jailbreaks the best anthology of the year.

Zach Wells' anthology Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets (Biblioasis, 160 pages, $20) was the year's best Canadian anthology. It reminds us how much variety is possible in this venerable Renaissance form, since everyone had the same 14-line structure to work with.

The New York Times has listed Bruce Jay Friedman's Three Balconies as among its editor picks in the December 28th issue.

Rebecca Rosenblum's Once was mentioned in the Toronto Star Best of round up as well, and was reviewed glowingly in the Westmount Examiner. It was also reviewed quite warmly in the Rover.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Phil Marchand weighs in on the Salon des Refuses

One last bit on the CNQ Salon in this morning's National Post:

Let us Compare Anthologies...

In the literary world, as in the everyday world, the end of the year is an occasion to make resolutions for the future - to try to get certain things right.

What do we need to get right?

An anthology of short stories

Let us begin with the object of this year's finest literary kerfuffle, the publication of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by novelist Jane Urquhart. A hefty book, weighing in at 700 pages, Urquhart's anthology featured 60 writers. Because of the importance of the Penguin brand name, and because of the sheer number of contributors, the anthology attracted close attention, particularly from writers not included. Goaded by critic and noted short-story author (not included in the collection) John Metcalf, some 20 of these banded together for public readings under the rubric Salon des Refusés, after the 1863 exhibition of painters rejected by the Paris Salon.

This is a matter of no small importance. Much of Canada's finest literature is in the short-story form, and publication of a first-rate anthology of short fiction would be like the appearance of a new literary classic on the Canadian landscape. It would solidify our sense of possessing a vital literature.

Over the years, attempts have been made. In 1929, the novelist Raymond Knister produced Canadian Short Stories, featuring such stalwarts of early Canadian literature as Charles G.D. Roberts, as well as the likes of Henry O'Higgins and Walter McLaren Imrie, long since forgotten. This was followed by the late Robert Weaver's 1958 Canadian Short Stories and a 1978 anthology titled The Best Modern Canadian Short Stories, edited by Ivon Owen and Morris Wolfe. This last was a brave effort, but a sentence from the editors' introduction such as, "The central character in Dave Godfrey's The River has to leave the city and step again into a river he frequently visited as a youth before he can truly understand that life is a process," indicates just how mildewed was some of the lumber they had to work with.

In 1990, Michael Ondaatje weighed in with his anthology From Ink Lake. Many of his choices were unexceptionable, but he displayed a fatal taste for eccentricity, including part of a memoir by diplomat Charles Ritchie, a long-winded speech by an Ojibway Grand Chief named John Kelly and incomprehensible musings by the late pianist Glenn Gould titled The Search For Petula Clark. (Sample sentence: "The principal motivic cell unit of that ebullient lied consisted of the interval of a minor third plus a major second, alternating, upon occasion, with a major third followed by a minor second.")

Urquhart, unfortunately, has adopted the same licence for eccentricity in her anthology, including an excerpt from that same Ritchie memoir, as well as two excerpts from Ondaatje's semi-fictional memoir, Running in the Family, and a short story by Adrienne Clarkson, who can no more write fiction than I can play the oboe. Also, 60 writers are too many. Such quantity indicates that Urquhart has an uncertain grasp of quality - even assuming that her 60 are superior to Metcalf's 20, which, by the way, I do not believe. Writers in the history of Canada capable of writing a great short story are simply not that numerous.

In fairness, the difficulties of compiling an anthology are formidable. The number of Canadian published short stories with literary pretensions is stupendous, and a sizeable portion of them have genuine merit - with the growth of creative writing courses in this country, crudities and excesses in short stories are often shaved off by reasonably competent instructors, and the end result looks quite presentable. To separate the great from the good in this mass would be daunting. My own view is that you would need two editors. A model might be the 1950 anthology Poets of the English Language, edited by W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson. This means that a Canadian publisher would have to find a scholar with the brilliance of Pearson and a first-rate literary artist with the breadth of appreciation for different literary approaches possessed by Auden.

Good luck. We may be faced with an impossibility at this point, but we can't give up the task - it is too important to get this business of a Canadian anthology of short stories right.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Rebecca Rosenblum: Maclean's CanLit Rookie of the Year

CanLit Rookie of the Year:
Just about everyone, prize juries apart, loved 30-year-old Rebecca Rosenblum’s book of short stories, Once. Granted, it’s possible that many critics, older and better off than Once’s characters—mostly young people leading seemingly random lives in dead-end jobs—thought it was the sort of realistic fictional world they ought to appreciate. But if that’s what drew them, it’s Rosenblum’s strong, spare writing that kept them immersed in it.

The Last of the Summer Wine: A New York Times Review of Friedman's Three Balconies

by Charles Taylor

A friend of mine had an uncle who, years after surviving a concentration camp, would respond to every petty inconvenience and irritation by exclaiming, “First the Holocaust. Now this!” That expectation of suffering, greeted with more shrug than outrage, is at the heart of much Jewish humor. You can find it in many of the stories that make up Bruce Jay Friedman’s “Three Balconies.”

Just listen to these opening lines:

“It was a dark time for Dugan.” “Herbert Plotkin did not so much appear in Jacob’s new neighborhood as he seemed to loom up out of nowhere.” “Alexander Kahn, a failed novelist, and at best a marginal producer of off-Broadway plays.. . .” “The blindfold had been removed.” And, of course, the ever-popular “The Jews killed Christ.” Hear any of those — but particularly that last one — and you’d have to be a little touched to feel like whistling “Maytime.”

Friedman, whose work includes plays (“Scuba Duba,” “Steambath”), novels (“A Mother’s Kisses”), nonfiction (“The Lonely Guy”), and screenplays (“Stir Crazy”), is in something of a dark mood. Which isn’t to say that he’s stopped being funny, only that we still have to point out that darkness and comedy are not a contradiction. Friedman is aware of that. Why else start one of the three stories here about his old protagonist, the screenwriter Harry Towns, with the sentence “As is the case with most men, Harry wanted to be taken seriously and resented the suggestion that he was not a serious man.” In the novella that ends the book, “The Great Beau LeVyne,” a writer rises in self-righteous indignation at a literary conference, points to Beau, the narrator, and announces, “I’m not funny.” As a declaration of somber intent, that’s a pip, but see if anybody wants to have a drink with you.

That blowhard is remembered with more amusement than indignation. Friedman turned 78 this year, and many of the protagonists in “Three Balconies” are older, looking back on their lives, remembering old rivals and allies — the difference, at this distance, seeming not so great as perhaps it once was. Even the ones ruing lost time are caught up in the comedy of aging rather than in its tragedy. The story “Neck and Neck” reads as an illustration of the old adage “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” You can’t help laughing at the protagonist, a writer paralyzed by the success that seems to come effortlessly to his chief rival. The writer in “Joined at the Hip,” driven to murder by the slick-talking theatrical producer who costs him his confidence, is described in terms that we’ve come to associate with the image of the leonine Hemingway­esque writer, linking his productivity to his virility. Friedman treats that as grandiloquent delusion.

Writers, as a group, are so vain and so given to complaining that it’s no wonder there’s practically a subgenre of fiction about the suffering of writers. That’s why it’s always such a treat when a writer like Friedman (or Stephen King in “The Dark Half” or “The Shining”) puts that kind of self-pity in its place. (And it’s why Harry Towns, largely free of that self-pity, is so appealing a character.)

Some of the stories here are a bit too clever. The opener, “The Secret Man,” and a few others, like “The Convert” and “The Investigative Reporter,” rely too much on easy, and heavy-handed, ironies. The intent to instruct gives the killjoy the upper hand over the entertainer.

Friedman saves the best for last. Perhaps the model for the protagonist of “The Great Beau LeVyne” will be obvious to readers who, like Friedman, were part of the New York literary scene of the 1960s (or the Hollywood scene in the ’70s). You don’t have to know who he was, though, to recognize the sort of wildly charismatic, self-destructive, marginally crazy figure who gravitates to the fringes of the arts, sustained by friends and contacts and, often, a con man’s charm. It’s easy to believe in the sort of madman so hyped up on his own macho fantasies that he chooses restaurants as the place to challenge both Bill Russell and Crazy Joe Gallo.

“The Great Beau LeVyne” — the very name conjures up someone who’s half good old boy, half gigolo — is one of those pieces of writing rife with the names of cities and restaurants and the people who inhabited them. But Friedman isn’t name-dropping. He’s evoking the glamour and cachet they once possessed, and doing it in the name of affectionate, though cleareyed, remembrance. On the last page he writes of LeVyne, “If his intention was to make us feel his absence, he succeeded brilliantly.” That’s what Friedman has done for the era he remembers so vividly.

Friday, December 19, 2008

T'is the Season

A Christmas card, from Terry Griggs, using an illustration by her son Alexander. Sort of captures the day, doesn't it?

Monday, December 15, 2008

CanLit 2008: It Didn't All Suck

Or so says Steven Beattie over at That Shakespherian Rag. He's posted the five Canadian books which didn't suck here, and -- I know, you were waiting for it -- one of ours placed. Of Rebecca Rosenblum's Once Beattie writes:

On Matt Galloway’s CBC Radio One show Here and Now this past September, your humble correspondent referred to Rebecca Rosenblum’s debut collection as the most exciting first book of short stories by a Canadian writer since Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades. This is not to suggest that the two writers are similar in terms of themes or approach: to the contrary, they couldn’t be more different. Rosenblum tells edgy, urban stories about listless twentysomethings trying to find their way in the world. But she writes with such concise vigour, and includes such moments of crystalline beauty, that her stories belie her relative youth and inexperience. Once would be a superior fifth or sixth collection. As a first book, it is nothing short of remarkable.

Rich Fare for Lean Times

A short review of The Idler's Glossary from The Boston Globe.

"The Idler's Glossary," by Joshua Glenn and Mark Kingwell, illustrated by Seth (Biblioasis, paperback, $12.95), could not be more timely. Both writers take pains to distinguish idling from laziness, sloth, or acedia - to use three words for not quite the same thing. According to Kingwell in the book's introduction, "Lingering is what the idler excels at." That point nailed down, Glenn takes over, defining and exploring 300 words, from "absentminded" to "working-class hero," each shedding light on the condition and varieties of idleness and, in general, helping to free it from the odium of being defined against work. I like this, in particular - "Intellectual: A man whose wife has a job" - but shall leave you with these words of reassurance on "Unemployment": "To be unemployed doesn't simply mean 'not engaged in gainful occupation'; etymologically, it means 'not being used.' Keep that in mind!"

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Odysseus as We've Never Seen Him Before

Another rave of a review for Grant Buday's Dragonflies, this one from The Vancouver Sun.

As a broad description, "a novel about the Trojan War" suggests two distinct possibilities. It could be a page-turning cast-of-thousands romantic epic, like Colleen McCullough's 500-page The Song of Troy. Equally possible is an economical and sly revisiting, one similar in spirit to that undertaken by Margaret Atwood in The Penelopiad.

At 165 pages, Grant Buday's Dragonflies, an unfailingly attractive character study of one Odysseus of Ithaca, forgoes pages of historical detail, fierce battle scenes and intricate plotting in favour of a spare but pithy meditation on one of literature's archetypal heroes.

As though in answer to Atwood's hard-done-by Penelope, this sympathetic portrait figuratively strips off the hero's imposing armour and reveals the complex workings of the flesh-and-blood man beneath.

Buday does present readers with an invigorating account of the creation of the fabled wooden horse that ended the infamous war, but it's his characterization of Odysseus and his ethical demons that's so completely gripping.

Having written novels about a renowned explorer's tangled relationship with a Mongol emperor (The Venetian), a miserable shift worker in a commercial bakery (White Lung), a floundering pot farmer (Rootbound) and a perplexed boy beginning elementary school (A Sack of Teeth), Mayne Islander Buday has clearly spent time pondering males caught in a bind.

And his Odysseus is exceptionally bound. Coerced into service a decade before to protect his family and subsisting on the losing side of a ridiculous war ever since, he is embittered, lonely, fearful, resentful and exhausted.

What's worse, his miserable circumstance is compounded by life-threatening politicking. Already tense and volatile, Odysseus's allegiance to Agamemnon is further complicated by the king's murderous and scheming generals and by a soothsayer who uses poisonous words to undermine his credibility. Besieged by mosquitoes, snakes and jackals, Odysseus can't help but admire the dragonflies at the encampment. "Admirable hunters," their single-mindedness and success inspire envy.

With little in the present day except misery, bad meals (seaweed and meat scraps) and ceaseless political intrigue, Odysseus is sombre and thoughtful, anxious that he's repeating his father Laertes's wandering ways and failing as both father and husband. His single hope for a comfortable retirement with his family is tethered to the war's completion, and as the novel opens there's no armistice in sight.

The hero's mind also drifts, with bittersweet emotions, to Helen, whose otherworldly beauty is the root cause of the entire conflict.

Throughout Dragonflies, Buday endows Odysseus with a captivating eloquence. Whether he's making observations ("Palamedes was shark-smiling. He enjoyed seeing me squirm. He had a narrow skull, a crow's nose, eyes close-set and small, a short damp black beard that made me think of pubic hair") or being introspective ("And yet such thoughts make me nostalgic, and with nostalgia comes regret, an enervating indulgence to which I'm growing all too prone, another reason I admire cats, they seem impervious to self-doubt"), the self-described "bow-legged runt" of a storyteller is wonderful company.

Because he's so eloquent and lyrical (not to mention gifted with a sharp tongue), pensive Odysseus's personal account renders literary themes -- love, war, fate, retribution -- immediate, heartfelt and real.

Philip Marchand reviews Once

For the second time in as many weeks, Philip Marchand has reviewed a Biblioasis title for The National Post. Previously, I think we'd only had one National Post review in four years. Something is going on there, and not just because of the attention being paid to our own books (there was also a large excerpt in the reviews section from The Idler's Glossary a few weeks ago.) The book coverage has been expanding, and the quality of it, especially since Philip moved over, has increased dramatically. It's beginning to look like I'll have to start buying the Saturday Post regularly from now on. A bit of good book review news in what has otherwise been a very disappointing year.

ONCE: The Way People Live: close to the bone

Talk about disenchantment. In Rebecca Rosenblum's story, "Massacre Day," an 11th-grade teacher believes her students are "only a few cc's of dopamine away from mentally ill." In their capacity for self-damage and mood swings - "Blasé or hysterical, their only settings," the teacher observes - her adolescent students are not all that different from adults, however. We just rationalize better. One 11th grader, who understands this, reflects on the gunman who went on a killing spree at Virginia Tech (a real incident that occurred in 2007), and hopes the killer had a reason for what he did, however absurd. At least, she thinks, "he would've known there was such a thing as a reason. He would've lived in the world the way people live in the world."

The way people live in the world is explored by Rosenblum, a Toronto woman, in her first book, a short-story collection titled Once (Biblioasis; 210 pp.; $19.95). We recognize it is our world because of Rosenblum's grasp of detail and behaviour - "Joe was confused by the parking meter for five minutes before they could go inside," she writes of a man taking his daughter to a movie. But this world, as portrayed by Rosenblum, is also slightly skewed, an effect partly conveyed by an endless sequence of toxic smells, tastes and colours. A woman's martini tastes like "throat lozenge and paint." Perfume counters smell like "bathroom cleanser."

What really stands out in this skewed world is the physical pain Rosenblum's characters inflict on themselves, usually in connection with their low-paying jobs. These inflictions include: chronic fatigue and headache due to overwork and irregular hours; itching and throbbing feet from waitressing; cuts on the feet due to walking on shards of glass, cuts on the hand due to dicing onions, blisters on the hand due to an attempt to barbecue chicken breasts; various accidents due to skateboards, Exacto knives, staple guns and radiators; a nose bleed due to a character being hit in the face with a calculator; and a rash due to wearing a crucifix with a coating of faux silver. (That last is a new one on me.) When her characters are unhurt, they seem to long for injuries, like the teacher who "wished there were a cut on her body, a gory wound that would stun her every time she looked at it. Something she could feel she'd survived."

Worse than physical pain is a sort of linguistic mutilation shared by many of her characters, including one young woman whose verbal difficulties are actually caused by a blow to her jaw and subsequent biting of her tongue. The injury makes her sound like a drunk when she tries to speak. She's not much worse off than characters who pantomime communication because their English is faulty (in the case of a Vietnamese waitress), or because noise drowns them out, or because their speech is no longer adequate to their rage, or because, as an emotionally troubled girl muses, her mother "didn't teach me enough words." In one striking scene, a violent couple escalate their battles with incendiary, monosyllabic utterances that sound, coming through the wall of a semi-detached house, more like animal cries than words.

Things in this world aren't all bleak. Skateboarders recur in a number of stories almost as symbols of freedom and exhilaration in a world of stifling work and awful jobs. One boarder is described as "impossible to injure, like a robot or an angel." As we have seen, that's no small triumph in Rosenblum's terms. A Vietnamese restaurant also recurs in some of the stories, where food is prepared by an unlikely proprietor by the name of Koenberg. It's good food, however, and good food here possesses an almost sacramental efficacy.

These are consolations for the characters - what about rewards for the reader? Rosenblum, like any good fiction writer, has a knack for slyly establishing correspondences in her narrative that suggest an underlying coherence to the world, after all. In "Tech Support," for example, there's a parallel drawn between blood and red wine that seems unforced and that underlies the poetic justice of the story's conclusion.

But it is the language that primarily engages the reader of these stories. Rosenblum cuts as close to the bone as possible in her construction of sentences, paring away all but the most essential words. (This is a procedure, no doubt, encouraged by her apprenticeship in the English and creative writing masters program at the University of Toronto.) Often, it results in a knife-edge-thin difference between banality and a kind of poetry in plain dress. "Days are like days are like days," she writes at one point. "When you wake up at four-thirty in the morning, it's a lot like not waking up at all." That has the makings, with some small adjustments for rhythm, of a fine blues lyric. And it is just this sinewy quality of her prose that is the most promising aspect of her fiction debut.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Books for Christmas -- Part One

I know: a bit self-interested. But in addition to the jolly old man in a red suit this season, there's those less than jolly men and women clad in lord-knows-what calling me on the phone. And then, should it come to that, there's those downright frightening men in one-size-too-small suits packing aluminum. And then there's the zebra striped suit I'll end up wearing if I don't pay them all off, or if I end up killing the next damn one who calls and asks, ahem, might we be expecting a cheque sometime soon?

Besides, a couple of our books have been popping up on Christmas Buying Guides, so it's not all self-interest. I am merely reporting. If they think that Biblioasis books make good Christmas gifts then, gosh-darn it, so do I. (The latest appearance was Once on the Toronto Star book gift list, the ONLY Canadian authored book to make the cut (Jim Harrison was there as well, but as much as I might wish to allow it, an Upper Peninsula Michigander is not really Canadian, even if he does still smoke his own moose meat and occasionally wrestles bears. E. Annie Proulx wrote about Newfoundland as well, but hasn't in a while. From what I gather she's moved on to gay cowboys in Wyoming. Or somesuch. So, nope: Rebecca is it.)

It's been scientifically proven that people who receive Biblioasis titles for Christmas -- or really at any other time of year -- are 77 3/4 percent happier with their gifts than those who receive other books from other presses, large or small. And nearly 100% happier than those who receive non-books as gifts (if only these people knew what they were missing.) There's some margin of error here, of course, as there always are with these surveys, though the general point remains true enough. So I think any of the books in this Thirsty-exclusive shopping guide would make great gifts. The blogger software would only allow me to upload four covers, so the rest will follow in another post. Likely tomorrow.

Anything but Hank has become a staple around the Bibliomanse. We read it twice last night alone. It appeals to kids of all ages, especially those with a fascination for great pictures, rhyming verse and slightly scandalous language ("twit" elicits a hand to the mouth every time.) It's also great for the soon-to-be parents -- Russell Smith, perhaps, or Kerry Clare -- who will soon learn the true meaning of sleep deprivation. And they can read about it hear first. It's a hell of a lot more entertaining and insightful than yet another What to Expect book.

Dragonflies is that rarest of all beasts: a historical novel actually worth reading. Its appeal is wide, and it would make a wonderful gift for the literary or historical reader, as well as the classicist or military buff. Like it's narrator, Odysseus, it's a tricky little book: the perfect gift for an unsuspecting or infrequent reader, its deceptively simple style, its fast paced narration and humour will win over just about anyone. And you can feel good about it: there's a lot more going on here, after all, than simply another retelling of one of the most important stories in the western canon. Though there is that as well, and if it's the only way you can slip it to them... Perhaps the best novel Biblioasis has published, it deserves a wide readership.

Almost every review we've had of the Idler's Glossary in the last month has made reference to the fact that this is the perfect stocking stuffer, and we here at Thirsty couldn't agree more. It's also the perfect title to receive just before New Year's, that time of re-evaluation and resolution. Despite its Wodehousian charm and wit, this is a subversive little book which might just get its recipient thinking about what really matters in life: at this time, food, friends, family and a continual supply of single malts (which will help you get through the friends and family part of the equation quite well. Or so it always does me). And good books, of course, of which this is a fine, fine example.

A Quill&Quire Top 15 listing, an honourable mention in the Globe 100, with raves from coast to coast, this has been one of the books which has helped to restore my faith, at least a little, in what we're trying to do here, proof that occasionally, very occasionally, excellent books get at least part of their deserved due. We've nearly sold out of our initial and sizable print run of 1500 copies, almost unheard of for a first collection of short stories, so those book collectors out there better grab theirs while they can. And, as Geoff Pevere wrote yesterday in his Toronto Star Book Gift Guide (did I mention Rebecca's was the only Canadian title he highlighted? I did? Good.): "Canadian writer Rebecca Rosenblum's first collection of short stories suggests a beginner hitting the road with a trunkful of chops. Set in a Toronto defined by desolate bus stops, depersonalizing service jobs, dead-end relationships and discombobulating hangovers, Once is one of those collections that feels both entirely realized and enigmatically opaque. These are lives glimpsed on their own terms, and lived by people with no idea they're as fascinating as they are."

So, dear Thirsty readers, what are you waiting for? There's only 13 days left to Christmas, which means there's only 12 buying days, and if you are like me you haven't even started yet. I, for one, will put my money where my mouth is and will be giving out these books -- and those which will follow in part two -- as my gifts at Christmas. That won't help me much with the phone callers (another from an angry printer as I write this) or bat wielders, alas, but your own purchases certainly will, keeping Biblioasis above its garage (if not exactly in its onion field: now I can't even keep that illusion going for myself. Too many of you have been here!) for at least a little while longer.

Part two to follow.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Time Out Chicago on The Idler's Glossary

It’s no accident that the people most ardently advocating for idleness are philosophers. Søren Kierkegaard was for it. Bertrand Russell was all about it, even going so far as to write a book called In Praise of Idleness. In fact, a philosopher requires idleness—defined here as not acknowledging the worthiness of the standard idea of work. The philosopher needs to be free from the idea of work as a means to making money, to investigate things like, well, idleness.

So now come Kingwell and Glenn— respectively, a University of Toronto philosophy professor and a former editor of the philosophy zine Hermenaut— to offer a contemporary defense of idling. In his opening essay, Kingwell writes, “The idler is not lazy…. [T]he genius of idling is not its avoidance of work but rather its construction of a value system entirely independent of work.” And then Glenn gets to work creating a glossary that defends the space cadet and condemns the workaday routine. In the entry for “Asleep at the Switch,” Glenn writes, “Why demonize those unfortunate souls who lose focus and zone out while on the job? No matter how focused their caffeinated colleagues may be, aren’t they sleepwalking through life?”

Etymology is certainly an amusing way to defend a lifestyle, and Glenn has fun with both everyday and arcane slang. So if the book proves one thing, it’s that idling is good for the wit.

Carmine Starnino on the Pangborn Defence

Over at the Vehicule Press blog, Carmine Starnino has posted on our very own Pangborn Defence. You can read his post here. The most important bit, of course, is the praise: Framed as a series of verse-letters to various friends, Pangborn Defense is one of his best collections to date. Rollicking and linguistically unrelenting, the poems are full of strong feelings and sharp observations ("Hobbyists of the pleasures, part-time ingenues, / These women on a Sunday, paunchy and pasty, / go for broke, bedenimed, high-heeled").

Monday, December 08, 2008

More Praise for Buday...

... this time from the Vancouver Sun's Weekend review section. Mentions an upcoming review, which I'll bring to Thirsty as soon as it runs.

For now, from The Vancouver Sun:

To Be A Man. By all accounts, Grant Buday's slender new historical novel, Dragonflies, is a stunning work. Buday reconstructs the last days of the Trojan War, focusing on Odysseus. Our review, coming soon, sees it as a companion piece to Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad and says much of its excellence lies in its "subtle and clever interrogation of masculinity." Buday wrote of males caught in a bind in earlier books such as White Lung and Rootbound.

Praise for Buday's Dragonflies

Horse of a Different Colour

A review by Philip Marchand in The National Post

At the start of Dragonflies, Grant Buday's novel about Odysseus and his invention of the Trojan Horse, it has been 10 years since the Greeks began their siege of Troy. No end is in sight. Nature itself seems ill-disposed to the besiegers. "It's spring, the time of dragonflies," Odysseus reflects. "They're admirable hunters, patrolling the meadows, hovering, darting, killing. It's a dangerous season for men as well, for the jackals and wolves are on the move, and when we venture inland we wrap our ankles in leather against snakes. The days grow hot, the mosquito breeds and the season of fever is near."

This crisp, summary style is characteristic of the novel's first-person narrative, in which not a detail or metaphor is superfluous, the narrative pace never lags and the prevailing tone is gloomy. Buday even manages to create a certain suspense, although we all know the outcome of this story -- in revisiting the figure of Odysseus, Buday is tapping into the wellsprings of Western literature, vivifying a motif that Pound and Joyce, among others, exploited in the 20th century. Three years ago, in her novel The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood adopted the point of view of Odysseus's wife -- confirming once again that the meaning of this story is inexhaustible.

Atwood, it is needless to say, took a distinctly unheroic approach to her material, and so does Buday -- his Odysseus is crafty and a liar, which is not far removed from Homer's conception of the character. Neither Atwood nor Buday, in fact, can be accused of gratuitous debunking. Even the ancient Greeks probably thought there was something ridiculous about the idea of 10 years of brutal warfare because a Trojan stole somebody's wife, and Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida is only the best known of satirical treatments of such Homeric blowhards as Agamemnon, Achilles and Ajax. Buday also owes something to the cynical tone of another historical novelist, Gore Vidal. Like Vidal, Buday avoids subtle or deeply rounded characterization in favour of stark, dramatic portraits of male combatants in a highly political world.

Two main themes inform Buday's tale. The first is the theme of "reputation," an unceasing imperative in the world of these Greek warriors. For all his wiliness, Odysseus ends up sacrificing his wife and son and 10 years of his life to the bubble reputation, realizing too late that even a fool like Menelaus, Helen's injured husband, can defy reputation if he has sufficient determination.

The second theme is the nature of the "gods." Odysseus is accused by his enemies of disbelieving in their very existence. This is not quite true. When Penelope gives birth to their son, Telemachus, Odysseus smears his house with pitch against evil spirits. In general, however, it is true that Odysseus prefers practical schemes to propitiating the favour of the gods or divining omens.

It's not as if Odysseus invents the scientific method in this novel, but he does display an observant, relatively detached attitude toward his environment -- at one point he finds himself "reading the exposed strata of rock and soil in all its variety" -- that heralds the onset of what we think of as Western man.

Buday manages this development convincingly, without setting up some facile conflict in the narrative between modern-minded Odysseus and a bunch of superstitious morons. "Let's face it," he muses at one point. "All men are fools for Signs." We all want the cosmos to communicate with us in some fashion, mostly through omens or "Signs." The Trojans let that desire get the better of them by viewing the Trojan Horse as a "Sign," instead of using their heads. But Odysseus is not sneering or patronizing in this observation. He knows we're all caught between a rock and a hard place. Reflecting on his misfortunes, Odysseus asks himself, "Is this the work of cruel gods, blind fate or simply chaos?"

Buday, who lives in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia and has authored half a dozen novels and short-story collections, lays on this theme a bit thick, but then 10 years of futile siege warfare would make anybody turn philosophical. The only consolations in Odysseus's world are narcotics ("poppy water"), wine, memories of his wife and child and their pastoral life back home in Ithaka, a bit of song and storytelling. The last is particularly important. Odysseus "rates no prize higher than a good story."

Stories make irony bearable. But Buday's deftly constructed and convincing tale has a final irony, fat and juicy, in store for its hero. It crops up in the last sentence of the novel, after Troy has been sacked and the war is over. "Soon, very soon, in a month at most, I will be at home," Odysseus thinks, ignorant that the Odyssey is coming down the pike, and more years of wandering. Clever Odysseus's wrestling match with cruel gods, blind fate and chaos is just beginning.

-- reviewed by Philip Marchand

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Anything But Hank launch this Saturday in Toronto, TINARS for Tots

Pages Books & Magazines presents TINARS For Tots

Award-winning playwright and novelist Claudia Dey hosts the first Annual TINARS For Tots Extravagant Holiday Bonanza! Do you like puzzles, mazes and blobs? Then don't miss Clayton Hanmer’s fun-filled unveiling of CTON’s Super A-maze-ing Year of Crazy Comics! (Owl Kids). Ruth Ohi will show us how to make play-do creatures based on Chicken, Pig, Cow (Annick Press). And, what’s in a name? Zach Wells and Rachel Lebowitz will share their tale of a baby that needs a name, Anything But Hank (Biblioasis). – A TINARS For Tots event presented by Pages Books & Magazines, Annick Press, Owl Kids, Biblioasis, Bunch, Gladstone Hotel and The Little Paper.
Gladstone Hotel Ballroom, 1214 Queen St West, Toronto
Sat Dec 6; 10AM (doors 9:30 am) PWYC Cover

Idleness as a Point of Conscience: Nice Not Work if You Can Get It

from Crooked Timber. by John Holbo.

My friend Josh Glenn has a new book, The Idler’s Glossary [amazon]. An acquaintance of mine, Mark Kingwell, wrote the introductory essay. And Seth did the illustrations. (I love Seth.) The whole svelte, 3.7×6 in. unit would slip snugly into someone’s X-Mas stocking, mayhap.

It’s a glossary: entries on absentmindedness and acedia through to working-class hero. (Shouldn’t there be an entry for ‘zzzzzz’? With no gloss? I think that might have been an elegant way to end the book.)

Right, the philosophy of idleness. First, I will note that Kingwell and Glenn have diametrically opposed theories of boredom. Kingwell quotes a passage from a Kingsley Amis novel: “My wife accuse me of thinking her boring. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that this might be because she’s boring … To her mind, her being boring is a thing I do.” Kingwell takes the husband’s side, but Glenn goes on to take the wife’s: “Go ahead and blame your dull companions, but being bored [a slang term that appeared among London’s smart set in the late 18th century, perhaps derived from the French for ‘triviality’] is your own fault. It’s the state of being too restless to concentrate, while too apathetic to bust a move.” Which, come to think of it, is a pretty stable Kinglsey Amis formula.

So who’s right: Kingwell or Glenn? In philosophical terms, if a tree is boring in the forest, and there is no one there to be bored by how dull Nature is … ? In Humean terms, is boringness a matter of (we shouldn’t say ‘gilding and staining Nature with our sentiments’) dulling and drearing Nature with our sentiments. Or was existence already dull and drear when we lay down on it?

Let us proceed to our second topic, which is of even greater significance: idleness, per se. Kingwell wants to distinguish Idleness, as a positive spiritual condition, from mere laziness and slackerdom. The latter, he correctly notes, are cases of second-order desire failure. You want to want to do something, but nothing happens. Idleness, by contrast, makes a virtue of not-doing. As he says, there is a world of difference between not working and not-working. But it seems to me we need to take another step at this point. To explain: Kingwell quotes Russell, from In Praise of Idleness, about the two kinds of work: moving stuff around on or near the surface of the earth; or ordering/advising other people to do it. But then he faults Russell for ultimately being trapped on the gerbil wheel (if you will) of work ethic talk. ‘Idleness’ just becomes another word for not working. It does not escape into some proper value sphere of its own, not-working. And so Russell ends up confusing idleness with laziness. And yet: is not Kingwell himself making the same mistake. (!!) The trouble with ‘idleness’ is that it, too, still sees from the point of view of work. Idlers – from Socrates asking annoying questions, to Nerval, walking his lobster, to that fellow sleeping on the bench – are all the same from the point of view of work. These people are not working. What is missed is the distinction between doing nothing and doing something that is, from the point of view of work, conspicuously profitless – like philosophy, or walking a lobster. ‘Idleness’, applied to Socrates or Nerval, is a careless, inaccurate term of abuse, a tactical refusal to acknowledge what distinguishes the doer of nothing from the doer of something seemingly pointless. It seems to me that, when we shave off mere laziness, on one side, and various forms of active strangeness, on the other, you reduce the category of true Idleness, positive not-working, to a relatively small, hard core of soft indolence. You have to limit your cases to philosophers of Idleness. I think there should be an entry for ‘Taoism’, some quotes from Chuang Tzu. (On the other hand, there is an entry for ‘Cunctation’, which is a word I like.)

Now, contemporary public policy implications. The LA Times reports:

Reporting from Washington – The outgoing Bush administration is planning to announce a broad new “right of conscience” rule permitting medical facilities, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare workers to refuse to participate in any procedure they find morally objectionable, including abortion and possibly even artificial insemination and birth control.

For more than 30 years, federal law has dictated that doctors and nurses may refuse to perform abortions. The new rule would go further by making clear that healthcare workers also may refuse to provide information or advice to patients who might want an abortion.

It also seeks to cover more employees. For example, in addition to a surgeon and a nurse in an operating room, the rule would extend to “an employee whose task it is to clean the instruments,” the draft rule said.

An older NY Times article adds another significant element to the picture:

The Ohio Health Department said the rule “could force family planning providers to hire employees who may refuse to do their jobs” — a concern echoed by Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Under the Civil Rights Act, an employer must make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious practices, unless the employer can show that doing so would cause “unduehardship on the conduct of its business.”

In a letter commenting on the proposed rule, Mr. Ishimaru and Ms. Griffin, from the employment commission, said that 40 years of court decisions had carefully balanced “employees’ rights to religious freedom and employers’ business needs.”

The proposed rule, they said, “would throw this entire body of law into question.”

I think we see here a chance, in the waning days of the Bush administration, for a massive embiggening of the Republican Big Tent. A coalition of the Unwilling, if you will. Nihilcons – or Taocons, or Dronecons if you prefer. Republicans can pivot from being the party of Emersonian self-reliance to the Bartlebyan party of ‘I would prefer not to’. (Think how much clearer things would be if that had been FEMA’s official, rather than unofficial, motto. ‘Heckuva not-job, Brownie’ and all that.)

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. You may reasonably say: this is all well and good, and obviously I should buy The Idler’s Glossary for anyone in my family who is planning on going to medical school, or working at or near a hospital or pharmacy. But what about the rest of us? What about Main Street, to say nothing of Wall Street? Can the denizens of these alternative avenues cultivate Idleness as an obscure point of positive philosophical conscience, to the point where – by the terms of this new HHS rule – one could simply refuse to work, without being fired?

At this point I suggest coming up with some hoo-ha about how the whole economy is all intertwined – making sandwiches for doctors, teaching the children of doctors, to say nothing of the Interstate Commerce Clause, etc. etc. If a butterfly idly refuses to flap its wings, and this causes a storm half a world away, or causes the aftermath of a storm to not be cleaned up, then … stuff from Chuang Tzu:

‘Caves and dells of hill and forest, hollows in huge trees of many a span in girth; ‹ these are like nostrils, like mouths, like ears, like beam-sockets, like goblets, like mortars, like ditches, like bogs. And the wind goes rushing through them, sniffing, snoring, singing, soughing, puffing, purling, whistling, whirring, now shrilly treble, now deeply bass, now soft, now loud; until, with a lull, silence reigns supreme. Have you never witnessed among the trees such a disturbance as this?’

‘Well, then’, enquired Tzu Yu, ‘since the music of earth consists of nothing more than holes, and the music of man of pipes and flutes, ‹ of what consists the music of Heaven?’

‘The effect of the wind upon these various apertures’, replied Tzu Ch’i, ‘is not uniform. But what is it that gives to each the individuality, to all the potentiality, of sound?

‘Great knowledge embraces the whole: small knowledge, a part only. Great speech is universal: small speech is particular.

‘For whether the mind is locked in sleep or whether in waking hours the body is released, we are subject to daily mental perturbations, ‹ indecision, want of penetration, concealment, fretting fear, and trembling terror. Now like a javelin the mind flies forth, the arbiter of right and wrong. Now like a solemn covenanter it remains firm, the guardian of rights secured. Then, as under autumn and winter’s blight, comes gradual decay, a passing away, like the flow of water, never to return. Finally, the block when all is choked up like an old drain ‹ the failing mind which shall not see light again.

‘Joy and anger, sorrow and happiness, caution and remorse, come upon us by turns, with everchanging mood. They come like music from hollowness, like mushrooms from damp. Daily and nightly they alternate within us, but we cannot tell whence they spring. Can we then hope in a moment to our lay our finger upon their very Cause?

And if not, can we be unjustified in our Idleness? CAN WE!?

Then make sure to nod off again, abruptly, while your earnestly work-favoring interlocutor clutches vainly for any objection.

And so it turns out Kingwell speaks nothing but the sober truth when he write, in his introduction: “Henceforth all further glossaries are superfluous because everything you need to know about how to conduct a life lies within these covers.” Just show your employer the book and claim a ‘right of conscience’ to pure Idleness.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Canadian Literature reviews Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant

Though the reviews have been universally positive, as one would expect, I was disappointed with the number of reviews Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant has garnered over the past year and a half since it was released. Arguably one of a handful of the best poets writing in english today, and there seems only a couple of hundred people who are aware of it. But we can add one more review to the shortlist, from this summer's Canadian Literature, brought to my attention a few minutes ago by Robyn Sarah (who edited the Essential George Johnston, also reviewed). For the full review please go here, though I'll copy what was said about TC below.

Eric Ormsby’s Time’s Covenant: Selected Poems is a lengthy compilation (281 pages spanning from 1958 to 2006) of this remarkably cosmopolitan poet’s best writing. The lyrics, as great poems are apt to be, are so rich and complex as to defy summation. Simultaneously concrete and abstract, optimistic and pessimistic, prayerful and irreverent, truthful and deceiving, Ormsby’s creations are singular, layered, and exciting. His poet persona Jaham says, “I drive the syllables before me” and “The colts of my sinuous vowels tug against the leather of my consonants”; Ormsby’s identifications with Islam and his poetic negative capability have particular contemporary force in the post post-9-/11 world on which parts of this volume provide a courageous commentary. These poems are, above all, earthy, and they celebrate milkweed, moths, pigs, lichen, moss, a potato, spiders, shells, a big toe, skunk cabbage, a dachshund, and all the other wonders of the natural world through intensely metaphorical language revealing meaning in every specific detail. The sheer density of the language and imagery is sometimes reminiscent of Keats or Spenser, but the humour and the irony are thoroughly modern and postmodern. The imagistic force of many lines rivals Ezra Pound’s; there is an obvious painterly (and sculptural) pleasure in studies such as “Wood Fungus”: “Jawbone-shaped, inert as moons, neutral entablatures, they apron bark and pool rain.” The poetic voice is unsentimentally committed to a semantics of the terrestrial and the implicit personifications of nature are subliminal and latent. There is something of a Renaissance cosmology in Ormsby’s contemplative perspective on the relation between microcosm and macrocosm, but he inverts the traditional hierarchy by valorizing the microcosm: “I love everything that perishes. Everything that perishes entrances me.” Hence “Lazurus” poems open the volume with the beauty of the reduction we call death: “Death, here, / Means curling back into that / Simplicity of shape.” The book’s title poem “Time’s Covenant,” second from last, frames a community of fear in which Ormsby is a participant after 9-/11. He wears a beaded muslim cap, symbolic of the Islamic traditions he weaves into poems, in order to keep his “brains together.” Time’s Covenant brings us into community with things with which we do not normally identify. Ormsby’s poems, “calligraphic patterns of decay,” witness the paradoxical liveliness of the inanimate as they work a tactile magic to animate the dead: “cessation itself is a fragrance of time.”

-- reviewed by Monika Lee

The Ideal Idler: from Concordia's Link

by Christopher Olson

One of the perks of being your own boss is not having to deal with deadlines. On that note, I confess to handing this review in late, but doing anything else would be going against the spirit of everything that is The Idler’s Glossary.

Born from a cocktail column in a men's magazine, The Idler’s Glossary is a collection of slang speech and words meaning lazy, inactive, non-committal, and generally slow to action.

Usually a glossary comes with a text, but “this is a glossary without a text,” says Mark Kingwell, a columnist for the National Post who teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto. “In a sense, the text is life itself.”

When Kingwell was asked to write the book's introduction by long-time colleague Joshua Glenn, “these thoughts that had been in mind for so many years just crystallized,” says Kingwell. “It wrote itself. There was no work in making it. [Doing so] would have been contrary to the spirit of the book.”

Kingwell makes a strong distinction between idleness and procrastination, which he describes as feeling compelled to do something, but not desiring to do it. For an idler, however, “doing nothing is what he’s not doing.” In essence, idleness is being free from the expectations set upon us to do something with our lives.

“We’re not defending idleness as a route to productivity,” says Kingwell, although some statistics have shown that added leisure time can have positive effects on our output, just as a lack of leisure time can have its adverse effects. The word “death,” notes Kingwell, is implied in words like “deadline.”

“An idler’s utopia would be a place where you only did things that were beautiful and that really mattered,” claims Kingwell. Like all utopias, true idleness is an illusion brought on by the desire to escape the grit of the daily grind. In reality, affirms Kingwell, “Idleness can only exist as an aberration, as an opposition to some other form of activity.”

As a professor of philosophy, Kingwell is paid to ponder the ineffability's of life, and claims to live the ideal of comfort espoused by The Idler’s Glossary. But if he had it his way, grading his student's papers would be a simple matter of pass or fail. Grades are another example, says Kingwell, of the “relentless quantifications of people's lives.”

Like an erudite Tyler Durden, Kingwell believes the “way we live nowadays is sick,” and that the true path to happiness is finding ways to let go of the things that demand so much of our time.

As a connoisseur of popular culture, Kingwell points to an episode of “The Simpsons” as an indication of what's wrong with forcing idleness onto a world that demands responsibilities from each of us as a whole.

“It’s the episode where Springfield announces a “Do What You Feel Day” which of course, replaces “Do What We Say Day.” On the one hand, it seems like an obvious message, but what happens is everything collapses.”

However, “there's a danger that creeps up when you turn idleness into work,” warns Kingwell. “We spend so much time keeping thought at bay, that even the weekend becomes another kind of work.”

With students buried in exams and research papers stacking up, the upcoming holidays will be a welcome reprieve, what with all the endless shopping and accruing of financial debt, followed by the emotional exhaustion that’s synonymous with the season. The transformation of the holidays into the busiest time of the year is a telling sign that idleness is missing from our lives. The Idler’s Glossary was published in pocket-sized form for “small moments of openness,” says Kingwell, but would also make a welcome stocking stuffer.

Like most procrastinators, Kingwell’s work is never done, as he hints at the ongoing evolution of The Idler’s Glossary: “People have sent us recommendations for new words, which means a new edition could be done relatively fast.”

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Amy Jones wins 2008-2009 Metcalf-Rooke Award

For Immediate Release

December 2, 2008



Emeryville – Biblioasis, along with judges John Metcalf and Leon Rooke, are pleased to announce the winner for the 2008-2009 Metcalf-Rooke Award for fiction. What Boys Like & Other Stories by Toronto author Amy Jones, was selected from more than 90 entries.

Originally from Halifax, Amy Jones is a graduate of the Optional Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at UBC. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in several Canadian publications, including The New Quarterly, Grain, Prairie Fire, Event, Room of One’s Own, The Antigonish Review, and 08: Best Canadian Stories. In 2006, she was the winner of the CBC Literary Award for Short Story in English. Amy currently lives in Toronto.

In addition to the $1,500.00 cash prize from Steven Temple Books, Jones will also be given

- a publishing contract with Biblioasis

- a book tour

- a profile in the New Quarterly

- a leather-bound copy of their winning book

- an appearance at the Ottawa International Writers Festival

- featured reading at a TINARS launch (This Is Not A Reading Series) hosted by Pages Books and Magazines in Toronto

Judges John Metcalf and Leon Rooke write that:

We were struck by her narrative drive but taken mostly by the crispness of her dialogue and a humour we found irresistible. As with all talented writers, there is something idiosyncratic about her vision of things, something difficult to pin down but recognizably Amy Jones whenever it occurs.

This sort of thing: A mother and daughter dressing to go to the funeral of the daughter’s husband. Lilly, the mother, is nearly lost to reality:

For a moment, Georgia thinks she sees some sort of recognition in Lily’s eyes: that this is not a dress rehearsal for some school play, that this hat, this veil are more than just a costume, that the event that they are preparing for has some kind of meaning attached to it. But then it is gone, and she pats Georgia lovingly on the shoulder and says ‘You look beautiful Gigi’ humming a little as she packs up her sewing kit, and Georgia just wants to smack her, pull her hair out, pinch her earlobes, anything, anything to make her cry.

Georgia drives them both to the funeral. Lily still has a driver’s license, but Georgia has not let her use it since that day last summer when she drove her car off the road and into a sunflower field just outside of Truro. “It was beautiful,” Lily had said. “All that yellow. Like being under water.”

Funny, yes, but hauntingly more.

-- John Metcalf and Leon Rooke


Also named last week on the Shortlist for 2008-2009 Metcalf-Rooke Award were: Daniel Griffin. Mercedes Buyers’ Guide and Other Stories; Dave Margoshes. A Book of Great Worth: Stories from My Father; Ryan Turner. What We’re Made of; and Terence Young. The Garden of Fugitives.

Previous winners of the Metcalf-Rooke Award are Patricia Young for Airstream, Kathleen Winter for boYs, and Rebecca Rosenblum for Once. The Metcalf-Rooke Award is sponsored by Biblioasis, Steven Temple Books, The New Quarterly, TINARS and Pages Books and Magazines and the Ottawa International Writers Festival.

For further information

Dan Wells, Publisher, Biblioasis at (519) 968-2206 or e-mail,

The Danforth Review reviews ONCE

Reviewed by Peter Davidson.

When I read The City & The Pillar in 1996 I sought the book out because of a review I’d read in which the book was described as unsentimental. It was the first time I’d ever heard this word to describe a book. At that stage of my life I thought any sort of writing was a form of sentimentality; there is something to be said about casting away navel gazing urban middle class malaise and trying to get to the heart of what counts, even if its awkward. There is something to be said about doing it almost sixteen times in a debut collection.

Hamilton, Ontario-born Rebecca Rosenblum’s Once is an achievement and a bit of a signal post for Biblioasis. The press is proud of the book, and goes out of its way to let you know. Rosenblum’s writing is popular because it doesn’t seem to be put on. Rosenblum’s writing is a success and is excellent because it attempts and succeeds at being heard. It is concise, loquacious and brilliant. It does not mimic the prehistoric 1990s sarcasm genre of fiction or attempt to partake in the cheeky rash of David Sedaris worshippers/ wannabes who roam the hipster halls of CanLit boy writing. Her language is clean, gritty and at times poetic. Her dialogue is sharp and when required, arrowhead cruel.

Like all fiction collections, there are flaws. Some of the stories tend to meander on and on with their capable hard working and hard thinking characters but its not enough. The inconsequential actions appear inconsequential, bordering on self-absorption or vacuous physicality. There are characters here that, no matter how well written they are, are simply not charismatic enough to sustain interest. However, because Rosenblum writes them so well, I am convinced that I am not interested in them. Like being described a person and thinking, wow, I never want to meet them. Thankfully almost the entire collection is brimming with interesting people.

The best part of the 16 stories that make up Once is they vary in tone, style, POV and subject matter; for the most part being hyper-melodramas or expanded vignettes of the working class. But it’s the intricacy that Rosenblum uses in her work that makes any skeptic of her trail-blazing debut balk in acceptance. It isn’t just working poor romantic situation we’re reading, nor the arbitrary pedestrian observation but a genuine concern for detail and a deliberate attempt to clean the reader’s road as they set themselves down to witness her character’s journey.

In "Linh Lai", and "Pho Mi 99", you get the sense that Rosenblum, winner of the Metcalf-Rooke Award, really worked and suffered to create a thoughtful and authentic separation of state between her the conscious creator, and the non-existing cerebral core of her characters. A marvelous book, full of lively rage and occasionally dense, always daring and perhaps most importantly, in today’s young urban writing showcasing an onslaught carnival of "you know" and other cheap turns of phrases, Once seems original and genuine.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Buday reading tomorrow night in Victoria (Thursday night in Vancouver)

Grant Buday will be launching his novel Dragonflies tomorrow evening at the Cornerstone Cafe, 1301 Gladstone Ave. Victoria, at 7 pm. Also on the bill, A. S. Penne, author of Reckoning, Samantha Warwick, author of Sage Island, and Craig Boyko, the author of Blackouts. It'll be a night of fine fiction.

Grant will be launching December 4th in Vancouver at Cafe Montmartre on Main Street as well. 6:30 to 8:30, with Michele Adams, author of Bright Objects of Desire, and long-time Grant Buday fan, stepping in to be the official press representative and emcee. For which I heartily thank her.

Grant's novel is a stellar one, perhaps the best novel we've published here at Biblioasis. Stephen Henighan wrote to me about it in a note this weekend, and I hope that he won't mind me quoting from him here: "I just finished Buday's Dragonflies. I really enjoyed it. As you know, I often feel too many historical novels are published in this country, but this one is original enough and human enough to count as art. I think it's one of the best books you've published."

Stephen also told me that the Literary Review of Canada has it included in their best of the year list. I haven't been able to confirm that, but t'is a deserving book, and really does deserve a wide audience. So for any in Victoria or Vancouver when he's reading, please head on down and lend him an ear. For the rest of you, it should be at the closest bookstore worth its salt right now.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Globe 103 & SFU's Peak

In the Globe 100 Rebecca Rosenblum's Once received an honourable mention from Jim Bartley. It gets much more than that from this SFU Peak reviewer, who writes "... these stories stand out as some of the best I’ve ever read." Very astute reader.


Once, a collection of short stories by Rebecca Rosenblum, was published in September, 2008.

Simply put, this collection of short stories is pure pleasure. The characters and their situations are so real that by the end of each story you’ll feel like you know everything about their life. Rebecca Rosenblum has managed to capture the essence of everyday life through the lens of various unique and well-defined characters. From the girl who can barely understand English working in a Vietnamese restaurant to the boy who lives in a burnt-out shack, these lives resonate off the page with stunning authenticity.

All the relationships portrayed in these 16 stories are confusing, heart-wrenching, or tragic, and all of them cause the reader to empathize greatly with the protagonist.

“ContEd” tells the story of Isabel, a waitress who takes a night school tax class. She thinks she has a thing for the instructor, Mr. Denby, but maybe she just wants to have a crush on someone or maybe it is the girls at work that want her to.

“Linh Lai” is a girl who has been sent to live with her Uncle in Toronto and given a new name. She is now called Jinny, an excellent Canadian name. Her new boss at Pho Mi 99 gives her a name tag that says “Xing” which is supposed to be unpronounceable in order to satisfy the customers. When Linh/Jinny/Xing finally talks to the cute skateboarder, he calls her Jimmy. Her helplessness in her new environment is portrayed exceptionally by Rosenblum.

Jamesy is probably the most tragic character. In “Wall of Sound” he is depicted as a hobo and loyal grandson in one. He must squeegee windows on the highway to buy his breakfast, but he never lets his grandparents know, and faithfully does their yard work before taking advantage of their shower.

Some of the stories have overlapping characters or settings, making them feel less isolated from each other and giving the book more cohesion. Pho Mi 99 is the focal point of a few stories, but each has different characters and new points of view which make these stories all the more inventive and wonderful. After Linh Lai is only the waitress (a background character) in one story, she becomes the protagonist in another.

The Canadian setting and perspective is a nice change, and the realism of the characters and their lives makes these stories stand out as some of the best I’ve ever read. Rebecca Rosenblum uses dialogue, everyday settings, and mundane events to create evocative and genuine characters that people will relate to. These stories start in the middle of life and end there as well; they show the lives of these characters unapologetically and without judgement. One would not think that the daily activities of a fruit factory or tech support department are all that exciting, but when Rosenblum writes about them, they gain a whole new level of meaning and interest.