Thursday, March 29, 2012

On the Stand (& in Your Mailbox): CNQ 84

After a range of delays, CNQ 84 has finally hit news-stands and mailboxes across the country.  And last Saturday the issue came in for some early love from James Adams over at the Globe & Mail:

I'd but the latest CNQ just for its cover, a fabulous gate-fold of more than a dozen Canadian superheroes, conceived and drawn by the inimitable Seth.  All hail the King of Kanuck Kartoonists! As ever, though, with CNQ, there's plenty of interesting stuff inside.

And is there ever! Adams highlights K.D. Miller's exceptional Growing Into Alice, Alex Good's look at Douglas Coupland and Aaron Gibreath's On Discovering CanLit, but he could just as well have highlighted Phil Marchand's Faith and Literature, or Patricia Robertson's Against Domesticated Literature, or Brian Busby's continuing Dusty Bookcase look at Basil King, or Devon Code on Alvin Shcwartz, or the first of a new column by David Mason called Secrets of the Book trade, or our own Tara (no stranger to Thirsty readers) Murphy's look at the 2011 Griffin Prize, or the North Wing take on Robertson Davies's Fifth Business, or Alex Boyd's poems, or Shaena Lambert's story Clams, or.... and I haven't even made it to the reviews yet!

And what James Adams could not tell you about in his Globe column is this issue's collectible, as it is not available on the news-stand. But you, dear Thirsty reader, could get it for free with your paid subscription to the journal.  This issue's collectible is a hand-bound chapbook of the title fable from Mike Barnes's forthcoming The Reasonable Ogre.  You'll be hearing a lot more about this book in the coming weeks and months, but this story will hopefully whet your appetite for more.  It's a lovely little production (though our attempt to produce the cover letterpress on the old platen press in the garage failed miserably.  Give me time, give me time.)

The website has been updated with some new content from the current issue for readers to test drive.  And there are more plans afoot there, as well, that should help bring CNQ well into the ... err....  20th century.  But all of that will keep for a time and for another post.

Sideswiped by spring reading

Brian Lynch over at the Georgia Straight has dished up a handful of nummy spring reads, including our own Malarky. Here's what he has to say about AK:

The Irish-born, Vancouver-based writer, essayist, and critic serves up a bold, fragmented first novel filled with grief, politics, black humour, and a sense of the powers and limits of memory. Its axis is an Irish mother, most often referred to simply as “Our Woman”, whose world is sideswiped when she discovers that her son is gay and that her late husband was unfaithful. But she is, as the author puts it, “a woman who refuses to be sunk by what life serves her”, and as her story widens to include issues like the war in Afghanistan and immigration from the Middle East, it joins a long line of ambitious writing that turns the peculiarities of Irish life into a mirror for the world. Due out in April.

Some of those peculiarities might be listed in the anthology you see above & to the right. Maybe? Mebbe not. For previews of new fiction by Amelia Gray, Yasuko Thanh, Ellen Ullman, George Dyson, Bernie Krause, and more, head down the Straight. Turn left at Gibraltar. & last but not least, don't forget AK's launch at the People's Co-op this Sunday, from 3-6 PM! Our fb page tells all. Much like a gossipy woman.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"Not for the faint of heart" (Part 2)

Well it was in reference to a certain bell-lettrist from Kingston that I used the faint-of-heart phrase on Monday, but I suspect really what put it in mind was a recent review of Cathy Stonehouse's Something About the Animal. Not for the faint of heart indeed. The Literary Review of Canada is now offering a lengthy, thoughtful, & commendatory look at Cathy's work:
Whether examining the impact of generational cycles of violence, the psychic trauma of warfare or the coming of age in a Lawrencian working-class town, Stonehouse has written a collection of superbly crafted and keenly insightful stories.

The review's available in the print version only, I'm afraid, though a few other essays are available for download via the LRC website. It's a good issue, and worth hunting down. (Especially--she says, elbowing in a plug--since it also features work by Robyn Sarah. Way to go LRC!)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Terry Griggs read for The Fanshawe College Letters and Arts Society on Thursday March 12th, 2012. Her selection of readings included selections from Nieve and Thought You Were Dead.

Check out the video to sample her "deliciously clever and provocative style."

This Week on the Biblioasis Translation Blog

We've relaunched the Biblioasis Translation Blog in a new magazine format that we intend to update on an (almost) weekly basis.  This week's content includes:

Douglas Glover's Pedro, the Uncanny: A Note on Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo ( a web exclusive, from Attack of the Copula Spiders)
Mike Barnes, A Real Spaceship From Across
Love Poems: An Interview with Colin Carberry
A selection from Jaime Sabines Love Poems

The new issue of the Biblioasis translation series magazine can be found here.

Forthcoming issues of the translation blog magazine will include an essay by Andrea Labinger on translating Liliana Heker's The End of the Story, alongside the first chapter of this latest Biblioasis Translation Series title; an essay by Goran Simic, from CNQ's translation issue, On Exile; Zach Wells's Spanish translations; an excerpt from Catherine Mavrikakis's Flowers of Spit (Book Thug), alongside an interview with the author; alongside contributions from Steven Heighton, Hugh Halzelton, David Helwig, Colin Carberry and many others.  

Monday, March 26, 2012

See what happens? A little fanfare and we all pass out.

G'morning, folks, from the Bibliomanse, where it's a nippy 10 degrees and there's malarky in the air. Okay, fine: Malarky in the air, and maybe (sigh) a touch of influenza. There're just 6 measly days till AK's launch at the People's Co-op in Vancouver! It's Sunday afternoon between 3 and 6. That's April 1st, for those of you too congested to count, and it's after noon, which means all Fool's Day hijinks will be over and done with. Ain't nobody putting saran wrap on the toilets of the People's Co-op while AK's in the house. No sir. Really. No pranks. We promise.


April 1st also means we'll be (oh bliss!) kicking off National Poetry Month. I thought I'd set the stage with a little vignette that ran Saturday in the Kingston Whig Standard, and which features our own David Helwig in its listing of local literati. Be warned: it's not an anecdote for the faint-of-heart. Or the pregnant. Or anyone who dislikes loud noises. Helwig, the article notes, was hired at Queen's by George Whalley, who was (apart from a poet) a secret intelligence agent; prior to Whalley Kingston's poetic eccentric-par-excellence was Wallace Havelock Robb. And Robb? Well ...
Robb dressed in robes and struck a ceremonial bell on his property on Abbey Dawn Road when a poet or a pregnant woman came to visit. A visiting Montreal poet died within minutes of striking the bell.

Al Purdy also stopped by but (it seems) was not so easily felled.

A lesson for the ages, folks. Be careful when the trumpets sound. And keep an eye out for David Helwig's translations of Chekhov, which (appropriately enough for spring) are called About Love, and on whose illustrations Seth is now hard at work. It'll be a beaut!

The Danforth Review interviews Douglas Glover

I must start with, what's up with the title?

The title of the book is also the title of one of the essays which is about writing sentences, especially paying attention to verbs.

I found a while ago that if I could circle all the instances of the verb to be on a page of student writing and connect them up in a spider diagram (copula spiders), then I could teach the student something concrete about improving the prose by showing him how to rewrite some of those sentences using active, interesting verbs.

I quote from some of letters to students (acerbic, comic). I think I actually manage to make writing sentences sound exciting.

For the rest of the interview, please go here.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Salty Ink Spotlight: Laura Boudreau

Salty Ink's Canadian Affair this month is our own Laura Boudreau and her Suitable Precautions.  Chad raves about Precautions as "quite fantastic" and offers up the following:

Her deeply human and deftly crafted stories feature the right balance oddness and ordinariness to make them both original and universally appealing. Not to mention poignant and memorable. Her fine balance of humour and profound humanity — the kind that defines the best of ultra-modern Canadian short fiction — shines like stars here. I’m not alone in thinking so. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, including The Journey Prize Stories 22GrainThe New QuarterlyPRISM internationalCanadian Notes & Queries, and Oberon’s trustworthy Best Canadian Stories series.
Her fresh writing and engaging stories show good range, and are unified by, to quote the backcover, “a sense for the strange, tenuous fragility of human bonds.” Laura Boudreau is among the next wave of Canadian writers to watch for. That’s a fact. The thing with all the good first books coming out lately is they’re pumping new blood into CanLit, and diversifying it. I would, comfortably, place this book into the hands of any reader curious of what I mean by the new wave of contemporary CanLit. Suitable Precautions, among other things, captures  what it is to be human in an unfair and unpredictable world.

He goes on to interview Laura about her collection, process, and the origins of several of the stories in the collection, including The Meteorite Hunter, which he's just published online in a web exclusive.  Here's Laura on the origins of the story:

“The Meteorite Hunter” was inspired by a magazine article about, well, a meteorite hunter. This man’s quest to collect space rocks struck me as both noble and fruitless, and I wanted to capture that dichotomy in my main character’s struggle to connect with his daughter. I found it difficult to focalize the narrative through David, a divorced man and estranged dad (that’s pretty far from my own experience, and subject position), but I must have done something right because the story seems to resonate with readers, particularly men. I think it’s healthy for writers to stretch their voices. If you find you’re writing endless incarnations of yourself, you’d probably be better off investing in a private diary. As one of my teachers used to say, nobody cares about what it feels like to be a potato.

If you would like to read the whole interview -- and you should -- please go here.  To read 'The Meteorite Hunter' please go here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Craftwork: Douglas Glover at The Center For Fiction

Douglas Glover, author of the just-released Attack of the Copula Spiders, gave a seminar on novel-writing in New York last week at the Center for Fiction, and that fabulous place has just posted his talk online. This talk is based on one of the chapters in Spiders; if you like what you hear here you should pick up a copy, as it has some of the best advice on writing (& for that matter on reading) I've read anywhere.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Blaise on a Plane

This morning the inimitable Margaret Atwood did a guest blog for The Huffington Post, where she commented on her favourite places to read. Now the where is pretty cool: on a plane, sans email, sans phone (or in days gone by, sans electricity--seems there's a relationship between kerosene & concentration? Gas lamps and social obliviousness? #heygradstudents! #futureMAthesis!). Still, it's the what of it that's got me hooked. Yes that's right: "What I last read on a plane," she declares, "was The Meagre Tarmac, a group of stories by Clark Blaise, of which I am writing a review." If that didn't light up the Bibliomanse for the past hour! Not everyone would read a book so-titled in the air--sounds like tempting fate to me. Thanks to MA & a happy Thursday to everyone!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Anakana Schofield & the Snuggly Snuggly Dark

Check out the Vancouver international Writers' Festival blog for the latest installment of the Proust Questionnaire, featuring our own Anakana Schofield! What makes Mrs. Malarky tick? The vacuum cleaner? Morning gymnastics? Carpentry videos? Have a looksee and find out.

(And, um, in case you're wondering what happens when you do a google image search for "gymnastic vacuums" ... cast yr. gaze stage right. If you're looking upstage centre, on the other hand, then you have the fabulous AK doing a bounce-about. Who knew authors were so springy?)

Monday, March 12, 2012

I got down low and looked: Quarterly Conversation on Eric Ormsby

Issue 27 of Quarterly Conversation is running a lovely profile of Eric Ormsby's poetry. How are words like teeth and almond skins? How vital is rhythm and sonority to verse? The write-up is a review of The Baboons of Hada (Carcanet), but it also contains a nice shout-out to our Collected Works (2007):"Time's Covenant is the volume to acquire if you find Ormsby’s work to your liking.... none of his poems is without merit."

Indeed. Check out the piece. There's a hella good poem there on skunk cabbage (which is, by the way, what you're looking at to the left. This one was painted by Georgia O'Keefe).

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Corpse Pose: The Rover on Suitable Precautions

There's another rave review of Laura Boudreau's Suitable Precautions over at the Rover.  Mark Paterson offers this take on Boudreau's dark humour and style:

In his essay “The Monster Mash,” David Sedaris recalls, as a child, repeatedly exhuming the bodies of dead hamsters and guinea pigs. His motivation for grave-robbing? A genuine aesthetic interest in what his dead pets’ corpses looked like in various stages of decay. As gruesome that sounds, adolescent fascination with death is, as Sedaris points out, not all that uncommon. “At that age, death is something that happens only to animals and grandparents, and studying it is like a science project, the good kind that doesn’t involve homework.”
A similar unshackled attitude about death is at work in Laura Boudreau’s debut short story collection, Suitable Precautions. Most of Boudreau’s characters’ lives have been shaped by the deaths of others, the operative word here being “others.” Death, in Suitable Precautions, happens to a father we barely knew, the former owner of our house that we never met, the drowning victim we read about remotely in a newspaper account. In this way, Boudreau employs death as a deceptively simple foil; her characters come alive because they are not dead. And rather than use the abundance of death in her stories to create a dark or morose ambiance, she does the exact opposite. Like a child who inevitably finds a way to amuse herself at a funeral parlour, Boudreau’s writing is playful and oftentimes fearless.
For the rest of the review, please go here.  

Friday, March 09, 2012

Introducing the Biblioasis International Translation Series Website

We're pleased to launch the new online home of the Biblioasis International Translation Series website and blog over at  You can find excerpts, reviews and further information on all current and forthcoming Biblioasis translation series titles on this site, which is also accessible through the Biblioasis Press website.

We have also started a Translation series blog, which we hope can become a key resource for anyone interested in translation in Canada.  It will not be Biblioasis-title specific, but will cover translations from other presses as well, in addition to translation-related news, links, reviews, interviews, excerpts and general commentary.  We'll be bringing in a range of contributors for this blog from both inside and outside the press, so do check in from time to time to see what's new.

Forthcoming content over the next few weeks will include Sheila Fischman's short memoir 'A Life in Translation', an essay by Andrea Labinger on the translation of Liliana Heker's The End of the Story, Mike Barnes's fascinating 'A Spaceship from Across' (from the translation issue of CNQ), as well as contributions from Hugh Hazelton, Colin Carberry and many others.

We are also open to contributions from others: if interested, please email me at

This week's major offering is a talk by translation series editor Stephen Henighan, given at the University of Guelph October 27th, 2011.  Worth reading in its entirety, here is a taste:

On October 27, 2011 , writer Clark Blaise visited  the MacDonald-Stewart Art Gallery in Guelph, Ontario. As a nomadic bicultural author who has spent much of his life translating himself across boundaries (and who is also published by Biblioasis), Blaise provided an apt catalyst for talking about translation, and the Biblioasis International Translation Series.  Here's the talk I delivered at the time. 

                                            THE FALL OF TRANSLATION/ Stephen Henighan

Clark Blaise’s visit to Guelph is an ideal opportunity to talk about translation. There are at least two good reasons for this. The first is that although the translator’s word-by-word struggle is with the different ways in which languages carve up reality, the ultimate goal of literary translation is to carry one culture across a border while balancing it on your shoulders in a way that makes it visible to the culture on the other side of the frontier.   This is exactly what Clark Blaise does in  short stories such as “North,” “I’m Dreaming of Rocket Richard,” and dozens of others; one of the stories in his book Resident Alien is even called “Translation.”  Blaise’s short stories are full of characters who translate their names from Boisvert to Greenwood –  or from Blais to Blaise. 
The second reason to talk about translation today is that Mr. Blaise’s publisher, Biblioasis, is the home of the Biblioasis International Translation Series.
In 2006 Dan Wells asked me to help him set up and run a series of literary translations with an international flavour. Nobody had ever made a sustained attempt at doing anything like this in Canada.  Canadians were content to let New York and London and a few university presses in the U.S.  decide what got translated into English; to set the tone, the references and the language. This passivity was reinforced by the Canada Council. Where both the United Kingdom and the United States have granting agencies that fund incoming translations, the Canada Council funds English-French or French-English translations within Canada, but does not fund Canadian translations of writers from other countries. Nor does the publisher receive his usual grant to support book publication if the book’s author is not Canadian. In the absence of support for either translation or publication, and given the need to purchase English-language rights to the work from hard-nosed  literary agents in Frankfurt, the cost of publishing translations in Canada is inordinately high. It could be lowered by judicious policy making.  Yet in our desire to strengthen our culture, we have forgotten that in an era of accelerated globalization, strength flows not only from bolstering that which is ours, but also  from forging our own interpretations of the world. Committed to the idea that translations must come from the margins of linguistic cultures as well as from the power centres, the Biblioasis International Translation Series is dedicated to publishing world literature in English in Canada. We believe that translations are the lifeblood of literature, that a language that is not in touch with other linguistic traditions loses its creative vitality, and that the worldwide spread of English makes translation more urgent now than ever before.  
Above all, we were aware that there was a lot out there to translate because English is the most insular language in the world. From my own trans-linguistic reading, I was familiar with quantities of good writers whose works were available in half-a-dozen or more languages, yet not in English. Only Arabic-speaking cultures publish fewer translations than Anglophone societies, and the Arabs at least have the excuse that most of their citizens are poor and speak dialects as their mother tongues, which makes it difficult or impossible, without specialized training, for them to read the Classical Arabic in which books are published. English-speaking societies have no excuse for their disdain of the rest of the world’s literature. Many English-speaking countries are among the world’s most prosperous, most of our populations are reasonably well educated, and our literary language is only a heartbeat away from that spoken on the street.  Unfortunately, as the inheritors of the two empires that have dominated the world for the last two hundred years –Great Britain and the United States– speakers of English are infected with the bizarre notion, which prevails nowhere else on earth, that their mother tongue is all they need to know to understand the world.  Commentators invariably cite economics as the culprit for the paucity of translations in English, yet those same commentators tell us that in English-speaking countries economics is based on the market. If the market for translations in English is weak, this suggests the presence of certain innate characteristics in English-speaking culture, one of which is an ingrained disdain of foreigners and what passes for their culture.

For the rst of this talk please visit the blog here.  

Thursday, March 08, 2012

New Fairy Tales Unearthed

The Guardian reports that 500 new fairy tales have been unearthed in Bavaria, including a new one that they have published online called The Turnip Princess.   A new collection of these tales, to be translated into english, is in process.

Fairy tales seem just about everywhere right now, which is a very good thing for us.  We're getting set to launch our own collection of new fairy tales in late April, from the rather magical pen of Mike Barnes.  The Reasonable Ogre: Tales for the Sick and Well, is going to be a stunning publication: not only does it include twelve fantastic new fables by Mike Barnes which stand up to anything being unearthed in Bavaria (or anywhere else), it's a fully illustrated collection, with 70 drawing from the equally magical pen of Segbingway (two of which are above).  We'll be launching it in Windsor April 24th, and at Type Books in Toronto April 26th, with more events to follow.  For those of you who wish an early peak please visit the book's website.

One of the leading names in the current fairy tale renaissance concurs that Mike's collection is remarkable.  Kate Bernheimer offered this endorsement earlier this week:

If you are looking for that once-upon-a-time feeling, to be captured inside an adventurous book, The Reasonable Ogre will satisfy you over and over. It is a marvel, and a tribute to the power of story. The illustrations and language are so entwined as to be inseparable, and they cast a beautiful spell. Mike Barnes is a real fairy-tale creature: that reasonable ogre you hope to meet, whose intentions are good. 

Books should be in shops everywhere in late April.  A chapbook of the title fable will be making its way to CNQ subscribers next week.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The San Fran Book Review Loves A Very Small Something

The San Francisco Book Review gave David Hickey's and Alexander Griggs-Burr's A Very Small Something a glowing review in their current issue, saying, in part:

David Hickey plays with language like few others ever have. This sweet story is written in a strangely syncopated near-rhyme with quirky, clever combinations of words and modifiers. The charming illustrations by Alexander Griggs-Burr are the perfect complement to Hickey’s unconventional rhymes.

Will, the reviewer asks, Olive ever learn how to blow a bubble?  Give it a read and you'll see.  

Get On Up: A Claire Tacon Guest Post

I didn’t start writing fiction until my mid-twenties. Before then, I was more interested in poetry and drama—completing an undergrad in theatre studies and working for a few years at CanStage. I’d swallowed the theatre Koolaid by the pitcher and kept a copy of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space on my nightstand. When I wrote a script and showed it to my mentor, however, she said she liked the writing but didn’t think it was a play. Why didn’t I rework it as a story?

At the time, the comment was devastating. It felt like my characters were being sentenced to a lesser existence—they’d never live in print as fully as they would on stage. They’d be robbed of the tension that theatre creates between the performer and the audience, the marriage of textual and visual elements. I went out with friends that night and got wasted. After sobering up over noodles at Swatow, I went home, opened a new Word doc and tried to rewrite the play as prose.

What’s stayed with me as I’ve focused on writing fiction is an appreciation for seeing the written word performed. In those five, ten minutes at the mic, non-playwrights get to snatch some of the magic of theatre. Some readers are able to push the spectacle—Allen Ginsberg reciting Blake, or Daniel Tysdal leading the crowd in a collective reading of a Cohen poem. Others, like Jessica Westhead or Suzanne Buffam succeed with understatement, letting their writing do the heavy lifting. No matter how subtle or bombastic the reader, listening to text filtered through the human voice rarely fails to yield new insights.

For writers, readings give us the rare opportunity to see people react to the work as it’s being read. (Unfortunately, most readers bristle when the author hovers over them, assessing their every twitch.)

It also brings unpredictability to a fixed form. Alongside the potential to connect with an audience lurks the possibility of disaster—what if no one laughs? What if there are fewer people every time I look up? What if I’m struck with the runs mid-sentence? After one reading, which I thought had gone well, a sweet, older gentleman informed me that he was familiar with the road I’d mentioned in the passage. His aunt and uncle had died in a horrific car accident on it. There wasn’t much to say after that.

This spring, I’ll be touring In the Field with Jamella Hagen, whose blisteringly good poetry collection Kerosene came out last year with Nightwood. Honestly, I’m looking forward to every minute of it. Three people more interested in the free cookies? Great! Forty people being polite? Sure! For better or worse, there’s a feeling of being present that comes from standing in front of a group and putting one’s writing on display. In theatre school, I was always a terrible actress. Somehow now that I’m reading my own words, it feels more comfortable. Even when the vibe is less than electric, there’s still a thrum, an intensity of feeling alive that’s rare and precious.

The Tacon/Hagen Tour, Spring 2012 

April 24: Windsor (w/ Mike Barnes)
April 29: Ottawa, Ottawa Writer's Festival/ Plan 99
May 1st: Art Bar, Toronto
May 2nd: Pivot, Toronto
May 6th: LitLive, Hamilton
May 7th: Virus Series, Niagara Falls,
May 8th: Cobour Poetry Workshop, Cobourg
May 14th: Regina
May 15th: Pages on Kensington, Calgary (w/ John Lent)
May 16th: Kelowna, BC
May 24th: Robson Square Reading Series, Vancouver
May 28th: Bolen's Books, Victoria

Other events in London, Guelph, Waterloo, and elsewhere forthcoming ...

Monday, March 05, 2012

Shenandoah reviews The Accident

One of the pleasures of AWP - more on this in a later post - was meeting readers and reviewers and booksellers in the flesh whom we've corresponded with, in some cases, for many years.  This included Anca Szilagyi, who offered up this brief review of one of our most recent translation series titles, Mihail Sebastian's The Accident, in the current issue of Shenandoah.  Here's a taste:

The Accident glimpses a lost world of inter-war, pre-Communist Romania, and it also delicately foreshadows the war. Celebratory imagery is often eerily militaristic, such as when popping champagne corks are described as “detonation” and droves of holiday skiers, dressed in similar ski suits and piled into special skiers’ train cars, are compared to troops.
Even setting historical background aside, The Accident remains a powerful work of art. Descriptions of landscape are lush (“Clouds flowed down towards Poiana like buoyant lava”), encounters with local fauna glint with incandescent magic, and the reader is intimately engaged with Nora and Paul – the undulations of their fears and their doubts, their desires and, however ephemeral, their exaltations.

For the full review please go here.

The guardian Reviews Light Lifting

A rave review of Alexander MacLeod's Light Lifting appeared in The Guardian this weekend.  chris Powers writes, in part:

Canadian author Alexander MacLeod's debut collection opens with a story titled"Miracle Mile", a nod to the 1954 Vancouver meeting between Roger Bannister and John Landy, when for the first time two competitors in the same race managed to run a mile in under four minutes. The race was unprecedented, not merely in athletics, but in popular culture as well: it was the first international sporting event to be broadcast live across North America. Monuments were commissioned and headlines were made, most of which featured phrases such as "the eyes of the world" and "a date with destiny". MacLeod's story isn't about those two runners, but about a couple of contemporary professional sportsmen who've been training with and competing against each other since grade school, and who run four-minute miles every day. That is, when they're not flopped out in motel rooms drifting along with daytime TV, or clinic-hopping for steroid shots, or packed into a courtesy bus with other oddly shaped athletes ("Each of us had one of those strange bodies designed to do only one thing"). Their achievements and sacrifices are now commonplace. The world may not be watching at all.

The question implicit here – how or why even a little thing might matter, and to whom – runs through every story in this book like ore through rock. (For runners, "the smallest numbers meant more than the bigger ones" and quirky pre-race rituals are critical; for bricklayers, "it's the light lifting that does the damage", wrecking knees and ageing workers prematurely.) So too does an intense interest in the body, its exploits and its depredations. When MacLeod's characters aren't out-running freight trains, or night-swimming in the Detroit river, they're kids sporting sunburns that seep through clothing "like grease coming through waxed paper", or autoworkers "so twisted up with tendonitis they couldn't tie their own shoes", or – perhaps most memorably – a father wrestling with his sick child's nappy in a service station ("Liquid shit blasts out of her diaper, runs all the way up her back to the neck … Lines of men waiting for the urinals, watching me").
This last incident is from "Wonder of Parents", both the most abstract and accomplished piece here, where MacLeod allows his interest in minutiae to dictate the form of the story. A fragmentary, non-chronological account of regular parenting tasks (combing for nits, collecting Happy Meals at the drive-thru, queuing for flu shots) co-exists alongside the narrator's nightly reading of Hans Zinsser's Rats, Lice and History (itself a tribute to Laurence Sterne, that great theorist of contingent association), and overtly stakes a claim for the abiding influence of small, concrete matters over grand narratives and premeditated outcomes. What random assortment of circumstances (a girl in a Clash T-shirt, a college fumble) leads people to embark on a lifetime of exhaustive – and exhausting – commitment? MacLeod's point here is that there are no epiphanies as such, merely a series of events that swiftly becomes everyday discipline, and significance – if it exists at all – is always imposed retroactively. "Who are we to these people?" the tired parent asks himself of his children. "Genetics. A story they make up about themselves."

For the rest of the review, please go here.