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Three Books in Three Days (3): John Calabro’s An Imperfect Man

ImperfectMan_v2-split-copy-145x218For the last book in this three-day roundup, I’ve picked a novella — one of my favourite literary forms. Too often, reviewers treat novellas either as mini-novels or bloated short stories (if they bother with them at all). Yet if you’re looking for a textbook example of classic novella form, John Calabro’s An Imperfect Man has it all. A compelling and tightly focused plot, a strong, first-person narrator and not a wasted word — this is a model novella and a compelling read.

Set in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, the story concerns Jack Hughes, a teacher who (we gradually learn) is tormented by the belief that his left arm does not belong to the rest of his body. He lives alone in the house where he grew up, the child of a single Irish mother who was exiled to Canada as a pregnant teen. A somewhat reclusive man, he reluctantly makes the aquaintance of his married neighbour, Lisa, a nurse who eventually confronts him with the fact that he suffers from a psychological disorder. (A check with Google shocked me with the fact that Body Integrity Identity Disorder or BIID is a real condition, accompanied by a desire for and pursuit of amputation). Throughout the story, we feel the presence of Jack’s dead mother and her amputee boarder who was kind to him as a child. Stories of failed relationships (and Jack’s anxious attraction to Lisa) thread their way through the fine weave of this novella until it reaches its inevitable conclusion.

What may seem like a grim subject is balanced by a solid, detailed grounding in the Parkdale neighbourhood near Toronto’s King Street and Lake Ontario. In the end, the clash between Jack’s apparent body delusion and this evocation of a vital, living world out of reach drives the story forward and keeps us reading. What makes it even more compelling is this reader’s sense that the story might serve as a cautionary tale for a do-what-feels-good culture. Those who’ve read Calabro’s previous novella (The Cousin) know that this writer is no stranger to the extreme edge of offbeat subjects. In An Imperfect Man, he shapes a troubling plot with great compression and emotional control, all marks of a fine novella that deserves a wider audience.

An Imperfect Man by John Calabro is published by Quattro Books (2015).

In closing this mini-series, I should explain that I have been very busy with a tsunami of writing (a novella — Here Comes The Dreamer — due out next week, plus a completed novel and an embryonic one). I’m ridiculously behind on reviewing books, with no hope of catching up! But I keep trying. Other things mop up time (marriage, friendships, eating, sleeping and laundry). I’ll continue my attempt to be The Thoughtful Blogger rather than the negligent one. Happy autumn!            

 

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Three Books in Three Days (2): Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation

UnknownDay Two of Thoughtful B’s three-day book marathon brings us The Meursault Investigation by Algerian author Kamel Daoud. This is a rich and thought-provoking work that invites a second reading. Translated from the French by John Cullen, it is both a novel of ideas and a generous depiction of human complexity. It’s intended as a riff on Albert Camus’ The Stranger — the classic novel set in colonial Algeria in which a Frenchman (Meursault), apparently estranged from social mores, defies convention by failing to mourn his mother’s death. Later, for the flimsiest of reasons, he murders an Arab.

Daoud’s book gives Meursault’s victim a name — Musa — and a younger brother — Harun — who, seventy years later, still grieves both his brother’s loss and the man’s anonymity. Speaking in the first person, Harun reminds us that Musa has been written out of history, while his killer, Meursault, was made famous by one of the twentieth century’s best-known books. By bringing that unfortunate Arab to life, Daoud confronts the effects of French colonialism in Algeria. (At the same time, he nails those of us who were more intrigued by the moral questions in Camus’ novel than by the fate of its Algerian victim).

Yet Harun has other grievances, including religious extremism and it is here that we see the first hint of his resemblance to Camus’ character, the atheist Meursault. That similarity grows; it’s not a spoiler to disclose that days after the liberation of Algeria from the French, Harun murders a Frenchman — and is rebuked by the authorities for failing to kill in the context of the war of liberation. Just as Meursault felt condemned as much for his failure to grieve his mother’s death as for the murder, Harun bears criticism for poor timing rather than for taking life.

There’s a wonderful alchemy at work here. Like two images fusing into one, the two fictional characters — Harun and Meursault — gradually merge into a composite picture of human frailty. Harun comes to understand that he — and by inference, everyone — mirrors Meursault in such moments of indifferent cruelty. His honesty in the face of so much sorrow, regret and pain embraces both Camus’ moral intentions and Meursault’s truthfulness. To Camus’ rather clinical precision, Daoud adds warmth and passion to his flesh-and-blood character of Harun/Meursault.

A worthy companion to Camus’ The Stranger, this is a novel of great humanity, addressing both the inner life of a human soul and the troubled state of our world.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen, is published by Other Press (New York, 2015).

Tomorrow: An Imperfect Man by John Calabro

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Three Books in Three Days (1): Danila Botha’s Too Much On The Inside

Too-Much-on-the-InsideFC-FINAL-220x346Before the gorgeous summer of 2015 passes into autumn, I’d like to review three unusual books that brought me special pleasure this season. Two novels and one novella — each in its own way quite unique and deserving of attention — one a day for three days.

It’s always a treat to read a fine first novel, and Danila Botha’s Too Much on the Inside is no exception. At first glance, its premise is common enough: three young immigrants to Canada (and one Nova Scotian) try to get a foothold in Toronto, reaching out, connecting, building lives for themselves. Originally from South Africa (and a number of other places), Botha is no stranger to newcomers’ dilemmas. Her characters often made me think of those Contents Under Pressure labels on spray cans — people about to burst open from the force of their untold, richly layered stories. Botha has the gift of equally rich language to bring them to life, and her wonderful descriptions of downtown Toronto’s colourful vibe make for vivid three-dimensional reading.

In brief, there’s Marlize, a South African who aspired to be a dancer, then fled home, a victim of rape. She’s a student who works at a bar owned by Dez, a passionate Brazilian who lives a life infused with the paradox of sexual adventure and a longing for goodness; the two become a pair. Nicki, an Israeli army vet from an unhappy family, and Lucas, a man from the Maritimes who did time for assault likewise make a tumultous couple. Each of the four has a distinct and lively voice; Botha’s decision to rotate the story through four points of view adds momentum and a gritty texture to events as they unfold.

The only thing that didn’t work for this reader was the consistent use of apostrophes to emphasize the dropped endings in Lucas’ Maritime speech. Since the accented voices of the other three characters were left for us to imagine, it seemed unnecessary and distracting to single him out in this way.

Nevertheless, the ins and outs (and ultimate destiny) of these characters are complex, and make for compelling reading. The novel’s energizing conflicts rest not only in the characters but also in the reader’s psyche. If you’re an older resident of Toronto (or any globalized city), you’ll be struck by the sparks that fly when your more sedate notion of urban life is zapped by the author’s raw, sensate version of Toronto as it is now. In Too Much on the Inside, Danila Botha explores the universal themes of loneliness, belonging and home. The reader’s in good hands with a writer who never stoops to sentimentality; whose characters, however troubled, struggle for goodness and connection.

Too Much on the Inside by Danila Botha is published by Quattro Books (2015).

Tomorrow: The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

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Motion Sickness: An Interview with Ursula Pflug

UnknownSomething new today, dear reader (and perhaps a bit longer than usual) — an interview with author Ursula Pflug about her brand-new flash-fiction novel, Motion Sickness, published by Inanna. Neither a graphic novel nor a conventional one, her book deals with the simplest of things — a young woman’s meanderings through friendship, work and love — in whimsical, complex and poetic ways. I can’t imagine a conventional “review” for this unique and original work, so instead we’re speaking with Ursula, a critically acclaimed author in many forms, including two novels and a short story collection.

For your novel Motion Sickness, you’ve used the flash-fiction format; each chapter is exactly 500 words long. Why did you decide to do this?

I’m an overwriter, so I have plenty of experience creating everything-but-the kitchen-sink narratives that then require massive scaling back. The ceilings were a nice way to prevent that before the horses even got out of the stable. The precise word counts were just for fun; they gave the writing a puzzle-like quality.

Along with shaping the story, this format builds dramatic tension. Your off-the-wall characters have to work against a very tight structure. For the reader, that contrast between form and content is an engine that drives the story forward. Could you comment on this?

Along with being an overwriter I’m also the kind of person who believes an internal shift in your protagonist counts as a plot point. The rigid structure was a reminder that something had to happen in every chapter; I needed to counterpoint Penelope’s poetic perceptions about life with external hurdles, and I think this made for more of an event-filled book.

Could you talk more about your writing process? What planted the germ of this story in your mind?

I won an award in the UK for a flash piece some years ago and thought I’d do more but I wasn’t happy with the results. I have collections of old hard drives and even filing cabinets spilling over with works-in-progress that I hold on to — we’ve all got them — stories that never quite held together but had enough spark that we couldn’t abandon them…

So there I was, wanting to do more flash, but not finding inspiration for the content. I poked around in my archives and came across a short story called “Lunch with Nathan.” It appealed to me because it was already written in the short sentences and punchy style that suited the form. As I began work and a longer story started to emerge I realized I could try a flash novel.

The illustrations are very effective. Did you conceive of Motion Sickness as an illustrated, large-format work?

I did! Illustrations yes, large format, no. That was Val Fullard, the Inanna designer’s particular genius. Once I began the writing I became more and more sure I wanted to have drawings. I envisioned it just as it is, a chapter with a facing illustration. Motion Sickness is a hybrid, not techincally a graphic novel, but it’s closely related — the prose sections are short and the drawings are paramount.

There are so many difficult real-life elements in the story — a creepy stalker, unhappy sex, drugs, abortion — that in other hands, might have made for a grim read. Yet with your central character Penelope, you’ve managed to avoid clichés and tell her story with a light touch. Was this your intention?

Well, humour is what gets us through, often as not, isn’t it? Thanks for saying I avoided clichés; it’s important to me that’s noticed and appeciated, not least because of some of the books that have done really well the last few years. I’m hoping there’s a bit of a pendulum swing back towards quality; the recent success of writers like Ruth Ozeki and Jeff VanderMeer are inspiring.

I believe every story is worth telling, and every story is brilliant if told in a way that does it justice…While it’s true that events or accomplishments make some lives stand out more than others, our perception of life is unique to each of us…It’s Penelope’s idiosynchratic take on things that helps her to survive, providing distance when necessary.

In the end, did the book surprise you? I’m speaking here of the poetic sense that rises out of the story. It feels in some ways surreal and even whimsical at times.

I’m basically a literary writer whose work is infused with elements of the fantasic, whether fantasy, science fiction or magic realism. Motion Sickness is actually the least fantastic of all my books. Heather Spears said it takes place ‘on the verge of the real,’ which I adore. She also said the titles read like poems. After she pointed it out I thought about why I’d done that — and this is a process note, again. The style for the texts was necessarily one of short sentences, but the titles weren’t subject to restrictions, so I had room to create wandering poetic phrases. I enjoyed the counterpoint.

The poetic sense you noticed comes from style but also from character. Right at the beginning we learn that Penelope’s a scribbler, kicking her way through fallen leaves to get to park benches where she can chew on pencil ends…Maybe she would have changed her life sooner if she hadn’t been a scribbler, but it’s also what made her notice Theo, a fellow writer and eventual soul mate. “Hearts on ropes and flowers on telephone poles,” as he likes to remind us.

As to the surpises — I was contantly surprised! Half the time when I sat down to write I had no idea what was about to emerge. Penelope had all kinds of crazy things happen to her that were unforseen to me, and she also had original ways of processing experience that delighted me. I ended up wishing she was someone I knew in real life. I wanted to sit in a leaf-strewn November park with her, drinking takeout coffee and talking about life, or maybe share a beer at Al’s Fish n’ Chips in the wee hours past closing time. Maybe that’s why I finally managed to finish writing her story: it was the only way I could spend more time with Penelope.

Thank you, Ursula…Ursula Pflug launches Motion Sickness at Inanna Publications’ Fall Launch #3: Monday evening, November 17th from 6 to 8:30pm at the Supermarket, 268 Augusta Ave. (Kensington Market), Toronto.

 

 

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Modern Folklore: Jerry Levy’s Urban Legend

795908When a new work of fiction’s described as “gritty,” I’m on alert for a pseudo-streetwise collection loaded down with drugs, despair, bad sex, etc. etc. Been there, done that, says my Good Reading gene and I move on. But don’t make that mistake, dear reader, with Jerry Levy’s debut collection of stories, Urban Legend. Gritty it may be, with an assortment of aggrieved and even demented characters, but Levy’s wit and his assured, confident voice allow the reader breathing space and even a chuckle or two in the company of messed-up people.

As the book’s title might indicate, the structure of these stories owes much to the telling of folk tales, often setting up what feels like an archetypal legend spiked with a wry, contemporary twist. In “The Golem of New York,” a man who suffers the death of his fiancée begs a rabbi to bring her back to life in the form of a mythic figure made of mud and clay — a golem who, in Jewish lore, comes to assist communities in times of crisis. The rabbi obliges, but the golem’s “assistance” both backfires and heals.

The title story involves an elusive young woman who suspects she might one day become an urban legend, a bank robber with “no marketable skills” who displays, among other things, the author’s gift for snappy opening sentences. “The way I’ve always done it is to insert three Valiums into balled-up hamburger meat,” says the female narrator who, like many of Levy’s characters, is under-(or un-) employed, bookish and angry at society’s indifference. Thank God for her droll sense of humour. “There are pros and cons  to robbing banks for a living,” she says. “It’s easy money. I mean, it’s not like working nine-to-five. The hourly rate is quite good.”

Folklore takes a literary turn in “Margellons,” the story of a poverty-stricken writer (critiqued as a highly derivative one) who takes a bizarre job which not only makes him ill but pushes him over the edge, turning him into a cheesy copycat of a brilliantly realized Dostoyesvky character. And In “Stolen Words,” a man asked to claim the effects of a woman he met in group therapy uncovers a stash of first-rate unpublished fiction. Publishing the stories under his own name, he achieves easy fame — a vicarious thrill for any writer reading this tale. Read it and find out what happens.

There’s an underlying fatalism in these stories. They inform us that our world doesn’t treat its young well. Sisyphus rolls the rock up the hill, only to see it slide down again. Life hasn’t much to offer these bright kids, all of whom are endowed with a profound sense of the ridiculous. If a character must grow and change (as writing workshops tell us) then why not change for the worse?

In “The Anarchist,” a young woman from a comfortable but unhappy family background gets caught up in the G20 riots that rocked Toronto in 2010. Later she comes upon an injured animal which she can’t identify. She nurses it back to health and returns it to the wild, but when it doesn’t survive, neither does the gentle world she’s begun to experience. There’s a direct parallel to this story in “Phoenix Rising,” in which a woman about to jump off a bridge spots an injured cat on the highway below and rescues it, becoming a local celebrity. Her luck changes; her sculpting career gets a boost, she makes friends, and a carpenter offers free repairs on the ceiling beams she pulled down in a failed attempt to hang herself.  While the cat’s fate loads the ending with grim irony, the scene when the woman wrecks the ceiling in her hapless suicide attempt is a true gem of black humour.

If there’s a problem with this book, it’s one shared by many first story collections that follow through on a theme (including my own Missing Persons). Jerry Levy is writing, albeit in a quirky and imaginative way, about varieties of loss and after a while, it’s almost inevitable that elements of repetition would enter the stories. In Levy’s case, almost all of the characters are middle-class, well-educated, often aspiring artists, all on society’s edges. The writing is assured and clear, and the characters are, for the most part, sympathetic, but it’s not always easy to distinguish one individual voice from the next.

Yet his material is also the stuff of legend, where it’s OK (up to a point) to generalize, to create character types and to draw conclusions about human nature. Levy is currently at work on a novel. I’m looking forward to more of his quirky voice, his uncommon hybrid of old-fashioned mythmaking and postmodern irony.

Urban Legend by Jerry Levy is published in Saskatoon, Canada by Thistledown Press (2013).

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Miah: Julia Lin’s Stories of Fate

ImageBack from a thought-provoking trip to China, I was more than happy to read Miah, Julia Lin’s first collection of short stories. The title means fate, and the characters are Taiwanese, who, like many Asians, suffered for years under the dominance of both China and Japan. Most of us are latecomers to the story brought to life by many of Lin’s characters. Long before Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, Taiwan had to cope with the savagery of  Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Party and of imperial Japan in the Second World War. These provide the context for much of the suffering of the Taiwanese family whose members narrate much of this book. Apart from history, the power of fate grips the imaginations of Lin’s characters. Predetermined destiny is an unfamiliar concept to most westerners, but it’s the theme of this collection. Faced with crushing oppression, these people find it as a good an explanation as any. For those who leave Taiwan for Canada, fate becomes an internal demon to battle — and seldom to defeat.

Through several linked stories, the author adds unexpected dimensions to characters we thought we knew, and these shifts in vantage-point enrich the whole. In “Miah,”, Mei-Xing, an immigrant to Vancouver who speaks halting English, is about to go to Taiwan with her grown daughter Tracy (the narrator) for her mother’s funeral, one which stirs up distressing memories of her own brother (Ah-Bing) who died a horrible death. We meet Mei-Xing again in the second story (“Ah-Ging”) as a young woman, friend of her niece and witness to her anguished love affair, and we realize the terrible suffering that lies hidden behind her monosyllabic English in the first story.  Likewise, her daughter Tracy, a mature woman, shows up later as a bratty fourteen year-old in “White Skin,” in which we learn that the now-dead grandmother Ah-Hong emigrated to Canada and then returned to Taiwan, unable to adapt to cultural differences (including two generations of disrespectful children). Her experience startles us; we’ve already met Ah-Hong in an earlier story (“Departure”), as an elderly lady in Taiwan before we learn that she’d once crossed the ocean to challenge her fate.  By re-introducing various characters in this way, the author prods us to realize that human beings are far more complex than they appear.

To my mind, most of the stories set in Vancouver are less successful than those rooted in Taiwan. In part, this has to do with the contrast between a relatively benign Canadian society and the extreme gravity of the political crises in East Asia. Lin’s good people, up against cruel, unmoveable power in Taiwan, create dramatic tension and great empathy in the reader. Yet as serious as they are, the current troubles facing immigrants to Canada — racism, bullying, loneliness — arise in a context where fate does not determine their outcome, where hope is a possibility. For this reason, the reader begins to question the frequent tragic outcomes and sense of hopelessness that plague these characters. It’s disconcerting that one can often predict how these stories might end.

Nonetheless, Julia Lin has a rich vein of literary ore to mine as she gives expression to Taiwanese voices with both compassion and restraint. We stand to gain much insight from these stories and from her future work.

Miah by Julia Lin was published in Toronto in 2012 by Tsar Publications.

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An Extraordinary Novel: Rosemary Nixon’s Kalila

9780864926524Few books that have come my way are both as heartfelt and as disturbing as Rosemary Nixon’s novel Kalila. The beauty of its stark and poetic construction is a stunning match for the raw honesty of its characters in dealing with one of life’s most painful subjects. A young Calgary couple, Maggie and Brodie, are the new parents of an premature baby girl born with a range of ailments — an enlarged heart, high blood pressure, malfunctioning lungs, an enlarged kidney. The infant lingers on in her isolette in the neonatal ICU —  in a tangle of tubes and wires and distressing medical jargon — while her parents attempt to grasp what’s going on and to resume their lives as best they can.

For the most part, two points of view shape the story: Maggie’s first person voice is edgy, frightened and tender, suffused with both maternal instinct and irritation with the lack of clear answers (“I imagine myself one day fading toward the exit, melting out the sliding doors, vanishing to nothing. I feel it coming, my body, dissolving into light. Pretend you’re not here, I tell myself. They do.”). Brodie, who’s a physics teacher, tells his story in the second person. His use of “you” addresses the world — including both the comic relief of his mouthy students (“I heard Newton was gay!”) and the cosmos, evoked by Schrödinger and Einstein, which, for all its beauty, has given him this suffering child. Eventually, the couple decide to bring the baby home, drawing in family, doctors, further medical interventions and the conclusion, which you must read — and experience — for yourself.

Experience is at the core of this book. As readers, we live this story, and Nixon’s graceful truth-telling compels us to feel its beating heart inside our own. The couple’s suffering, juxtaposed against Brodie’s ruminations on the physical world offers us a moving glimpse into the age-old problem of evil, of the innocent who suffer. “A room full of babies who cannot see the stars,” says Brodie, arriving at the ICU from physics class. “You…peer down at the child breathing in great gulps, as if the air were uncertain, retreating from her. Einstein never accepted Schrödinger’s quantum mechanics. Einstein said God doesn’t play dice with the world.”

Hope and sorrow, panic and grief, a few spare, powerful words on the silence of a blank page speak to the human condition with the eloquence of Job. It’s significant that along with the well-meaning and sometimes saccharine consolations of religious faith offered the couple, the author includes the profound literary works of Hebrew scripture — the psalms, the great passion of Solomon’s song and the voice of Rachael, forever weeping for her children. Brodie implicitly understands their weight — along with the falsehood of trying to “redeem” such a tragedy — when he describes history as “no story with a beginning, middle, end. It is a string of simultaneous events, past leaking into future; the future into past.”

At the novel’s end, the reader understands why an unnamed narrator identifes Maggie and Brodie only as “the man” and “the woman.” The story is humankind’s, embracing some of our most grievous questions and sorrows. It’s a courageous piece of writing that concludes in poetry and silence.

It is an absolute must-read.

 

Kalila by Rosemary Nixon was published in 2011 by Goose Lane Editions in Fredricton, New Brunswick (Canada).

 

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