Tag Archives: Quattro Books

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 (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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Novels or Novellas? Two Great Reads

imagesI’ve just finished reading two fine books, both slender volumes, both touted as novels — Ru, Quebec author Kim Thúy’s first work of fiction and The Way of the Dog by American novelist Sam Savage. More on them in a moment, but first let me clarify something: no matter what the book jackets say, these books aren’t novels; they’re novellas. That’s not because they’re short; there’s more to the novella form than length.

Nonetheless there’s a mantra in the business (with some truth behind it) that says novellas don’t sell unless they’re bundled up into a fat volume. The thinking goes that there’s not enough heft or value for the money in those skinny works. Worse, some reviewers view novellas as either failed novels or run-on short stories.

Yet marketing novellas as novels just blurs the distinction between the capacious form of the novel with its wonderful tangle of characters, plot and subplots, and the spare beauty of the novella which in its classic form entertains only one point of view and no subplots at all. Tolstoy, James Joyce, Edith Wharton, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus — and more recently, Marion Engel, Hans Keilson and Ian McEwan, to name only a few — have excelled at both forms, producing novellas that are bare-bones brilliant, with no descriptive padding or unnecessary digressions, and a laser-sharp focus on a character’s heart. As much as length, it’s these attributes that shape the novella. This is why I insist on describing both Ru and They Way of The Dog as novellas, not novels.

ruRu (which in Vietnamese means lullaby and in French means both a small stream and the flowing of blood or tears) has garnered many international awards, including the Governor-General’s Literary Award for French-language fiction in Canada. Told in the first person, it recounts the journey of a young woman who grew up in a well-to-do Saigon family, became a war refugee in Malaysia and struggled to begin a new life in Quebec. The language (exquisitely translated by Sheila Fischman) is spare and poetic, and, true to its title, the narrator’s stream of consciousness moves with the to-and-fro of memory and the present, a quiet voice that holds in reserve a remarkable inner strength. The layout of this small work creates short paragraphs broken by space, evoking a meditative sense in which the silence surrounding words is as important as the words themselves. To try to describe this work in terms of chronology would not do justice to either its ephemeral quality or the way in which it enfolds one woman’s consciousness. It is that flow of life which is the subject of this beautiful novella. Too short? Read it again. And again.

Ru by Kim Thúy is translated from the French by Sheila Fischman and published by Vintage Canada (2012).

13591794Sam Savage’s The Way of the Dog is narrated in the first person by Harold Nivenson, a wry and skeptical soul, a minor artist and collector disillusioned with the world of art, to which he’d sacrificed life and integrity. He inhabits a decaying mansion which embodies both his own declining health and the hermetic world which he and his circle had constructed for themselves. With the death of his artist friend and rival Peter Meininger, this world fell apart and Harold came to realize that he’d not been true to himself in his desire for acceptance and acclaim. As a character, Harold is by turns witty, sarcastic and depressed about the declining state of intellectual discourse, his gentrifying neighbourhood, his uptight, artsy neighbours (including a prolific novelist, producer of what he terms “literary waste products,”) and by the loss of his deceased dog with his canine gift for living life in the present moment. A cormudgeon he may be, but Harold’s voice is irresistible, shooting off sparks of wit, regret, tenderness, and just plain ornery life. As with Kim Thúy’s novella, this stream of consciousness feels far more true to the mind’s ruminations than any precise chronology. The tale is subtle and unsentimental in its inference that Harold ultimately makes peace with life.

All that artistry in the span of one hundred and fifty pages. In a novella, short is good, but attentive and loving focus is very good. This slim work has both.

 The Way of the Dog by Sam Savage is published by Coffee House Press (2013)

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 Want more of a fabulous art form? Both Melville House Books (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and Quattro Books (Toronto) specialize in publishing novellas of every description.

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Novellas at Deer Park

April is Keep Toronto Reading Month, so if you live in the city, come to the Novellas at Deer Park series on Tuesday, April 19th when I’ll be reading from my novella A Gardener on the Moon. I’ll also be talking about some of my favourite novellas and why they matter as quality reading, especially for people short on time. That’s Tuesday, April 19th from 2-3pm. Deer Park Library is located at 40 St. Clair Avenue E. (one block east of Yonge, on the north side of St. Clair), and the reading takes place in the Program Room on the 2nd floor.  Please register at 416-393-7657.

Do you write novellas? Submit four pages of an original novella with a half-page summary to Deer Park Library – marked ‘Novella’ – between August 8 to 13, 2011, to be considered for a workshop in novella writing by author and president of Quattro Books, John Calabro. The first 35 submitted will be read and the best six chosen for the workshop on Tuesday Sept 27, 6 pm.

Hope to see you on April 19th!

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Reinhard Filter’s Debut Novella: Retina Green

About a year ago, I learned that I’d been named co-winner of the 2010 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest, for A Gardener on the Moon. Months went by, my book was published, and I kept wondering who my fellow Klonskyite co-winner was. Two weeks ago, the wait ended with the publication of Retina Green by Reinhard Filter — and what a super read it is. Every word counts in this trim, lean and beautifully written feat of storytelling. It’s as if Filter took his manuscript for workouts at the gym — not a gram of verbal fat on the bone, not a wasted word anywhere. Retina Green tells the story of Henry, an executive at a power company who obeys his boss and stonewalls a coroner’s inquest into the electrocution death of a young girl. In despair, the girl’s mother commits suicide. Henry, sensing the enormity of the wrong he’s done, begins to unravel in rage. He loses his job and starts his downward roll from respectability to a seedy flophouse to a shack in the city dump with a fellow down-at-the-heels homeless man named Torben Lipp. Torben’s as bright as the glint of a razor. He knows survival skills that most of us hope we’ll never have to learn. Torben also knows that Henry hates himself for provoking a grieving mother’s death. It’s when Torben starts to exploit the fury that’s eating Henry alive that the story moves toward its startling conclusion. It ends with a rare thing in fiction — a dramatic surprise ending that’s believable and really works.

Maybe that’s because at the heart of this often witty novella is a serious battle between redemption and revenge. Henry made me think of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a man who thought that his superior intellect gave him rights denied to other human beings, including the right to kill — until he does it and comes unstrung, then later confesses his crime and seeks redemption. In Retina Green, Henry also buys into this Great Man status conferred on him as a power broker at the inquest, but when he causes someone’s death, he, too, comes apart until he realizes — maybe too late — that beyond self-loathing is a desire for redemption — in his words, “for a better purpose.” In the novella, Filter often alludes to another literary great — Captain Ahab, hell-bent on revenge in Melville’s Moby Dick, and he points to the futility of going down in rage with that metaphorical white whale.  The book leaves us wondering if forgiveness is possible among desperate people — and it does all this with wit, insight and poetry. This is Reinhard Filter’s first novella. I’ll be looking forward to the next one.

Reinhard Filter’s Retina Green is published in Toronto by Quattro Books.

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Two Novellas: Benoit Duteurtre’s Customer Service and Gale Zoe Garnett’s Room Tone

Two very entertaining — and short — reads for you today, both of them novellas. The first one is by a young French author named Benoit Duteurtre, and it has the delicious title of Customer Service. Right. Aren’t we all just waiting for someone to come along and skewer all those outrageous phone menus that lead you down some sinkhole in a parallel universe where you’ll never get any service? That’s what the book is about and since Benoit Duteurtre was a young protege of Samuel Beckett, you can guess that his sense of the absurd is fine-tuned, to say the least. The very title Customer Service has a kind of savage Orwellian cruelty, but don’t go looking for profound insights, depth of character or lyrical language. This is satire with a sure sense of the ridiculous — and it’s a very funny read. The story, told in the first person, concerns a young man whose parents give him a very high-tech cellphone that he can’t live without – until one day he loses it in a cab. Then he discovers that his parents had also bought him a plan with benefits that did not apply if the phone were lost. In other words, our poor friend would have to keep paying for this plan for a year even without the phone, while having to buy a new phone and a new plan. Got that? Has this happened to you? Read on, as the poor guy’s phone-menu hell begins. Recalling that he was a preferred customer, he fights his way through a Kafkaesque blur of telecommunications bureaucrats, becoming outraged and hysterical, only to find that the named Customer Service rep does not exist. I won’t tell you what happens after that, because the remainder of the story veers off into a wonderland of wierdness. I just wonder why there aren’t more satirists working this same rich lode of terminal idiocy. That’s Customer Service by Benoit Duteurtre, published in 2008 by Melville House in Brooklyn, New York.  Go to www.mhpbooks.com.

Now another novella, this one by Canadian writer Gale Zoe Garnett, who’s also a poet and an actor. Her book Room Tone has been out for a while now, but I’ve just caught up with this affectionate insider’s look at the world of film. The story’s told through the eyes of Nica Lind, the child of a French new-wave film star and a Danish photographer. The title of the book refers to the practice of recording the sound of a room, in case it’s required as background if some film dialogue has to be re-recorded. It also points to the state of silence on the set while this is happening, a calm which joins everyone in a co-operative and meditative state of mind.

Told in the first person, the story is written in the intimate voice of innocence lost and wisdom found, as Nica, who makes her way as a serious film actress in Europe, is invited to work in Hollywood. There’s plenty of wit in the writing, as the tone changes from high-minded artistry to Hollywood-agent bombast and ridiculousness.  How a frustrated actress negotiates the rocky shoals of money vs. art unfolds nicely in this slim book which is divided into old-fashioned chapter headings: ‘Nica Enters The Family Business,’ ‘Big Face, Small Voice,’ ‘All the Action.’ Each of these creates distance, and each hints that what follows ought to be read with a bit of ironic detachment and good humour. Over all, it works. The last scene with Nica riding the Helsinki ferry with her dad has a lovely tranquility which evokes the cinematic idea of room tone as a still moment that calms all fear and anxiety . “No past, no future. Only the early morning light,” she says. “Only the room tone.” I would have dropped that final sentence, that nudge in the ribs about the room tone. We could hear and feel it ourselves in the deft writing which preceded it. Over-all, it’s a nicely-written novella. That’s Room Tone by Gale Zoe Garnett, published in 2007 by Quattro Books in Toronto. Their website is http://www.quattrobooks.ca.

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