Krista Foss Reviews Randy Boyagoda's Original Prin

Randy Boyagoda.  Original Prin.  Biblioasis. $19.95. 224 pp., ISBN: 9781771962452

Randy Boyagoda. Original Prin. Biblioasis. $19.95. 224 pp., ISBN: 9781771962452

Before he collapses in a drunken swoon, the protagonist of Kingsley Amis’ 1954 classic satire Lucky Jim, delivers a lecture on Merrie England “…with smothered snorts of derision…spitting out the syllables like curses, leaving mispronunciations, omissions, spoonerisms uncorrected, turning over the pages of his script like a score reader following a presto movement, raising his voice higher and higher.”

The lecture-gone-wrong has shown up in campus novels ever since, a nod to Amis and the trope’s satiric gold. So it’s not surprising that Randy Boyagoda resurrects it in his new book, Original Prin. In this comic novel, the first of a planned trilogy, the writer inches his main character, Princely St. John Umbiligoda, a “not very prominent” faculty member of a small Catholic university, ever closer to a distant podium.

Prin won’t own it. But he doesn’t have to because the novel’s first line — “Eight months before he became a suicide bomber, Prin went to the zoo with his family” — promises something more surprising, even original from him.

When we first meet Prin, he’s fresh from prostate cancer treatment and reluctant to return to work. But then finds out his employer, UFU (University of the Family Universal), is teetering on a very modern precipice: it has run out of funding.

A consultant’s already on the payroll. This turns out to be Wende, the girlfriend Prin lost before he met his wife Molly in a church basement. Prin is voluntold to be the faculty representative working with one-too-many-buttons-undone Wende to deliberate on UFU’s best options. There are only two: partnering with a Chinese developer interested in turning UFU’s grounds into an upscale elder-care facility or becoming an on-line satellite campus for Dragomans, a fictitious Middle Eastern nation rebuilding itself after devastating civil war.

When the opportunity to combine both options arises, Wende urges Prin to deliver the first in-person lecture by UFU faculty in Dragomans — accompanied by her. Prin doesn’t need the temptation of Wende to convince him, because God, like a divinely intervening wing man, tells him simply, go! 

The comic novel triumphs using “wilful artificiality” according to British author Jonathan Coe. It takes finesse to dance on that razor’s edge of credulity – too much believability can be depressing, too little feels slapstick. On balance, Boyagoda gets it right. His comic set pieces show Prin as hapless and well-meaning. (Okay, a tad earnest too: Prin may be original, but his sin’s in short supply.)  When Prin joins his dad Kingsley in a trash-talking pickleball match against two Kiwis on Good Friday, the tournament is more fun, than funny. But here Boyagoda combines the madcap with the tender, momentarily inhabiting Kingsley’s point of view:

“All these years getting from Sri Lanka to Canada, and all the struggle here, up through running the convenience store and losing his marriage and raising a son who wasn’t an actual doctor. And the loneliness. But today he’d defeated white giants. He’d won a pickleball trophy. He had an obedient son, a proud ex-wife and also a Muslim man asking for his advice on convincing the Aga Khan to make pickleball a priority of his faith…This was a damned good Friday.”

Later, Prin finally delivers his lecture: four hours of musing on Martin Buber, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the penis-as-seahorse imagery in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. (You can practically hear the glee with which Boyagoda, the author of five novels and a real-life prominent faculty member, skewers the beard-scratching bloat of the academe.)

After Prin’s marathon oration, the story veers toward ironic tragedy to make good on its first sentence. It’s as if Boyagoda’s determined to drag the campus novel kicking and screaming from Lucky Jim’s preoccupations with romance and pints to the absurd realities of the present, including the extremities of faith, fundraising and men jogging with serious faces.

Getting ready to leave Dragomans, a disillusioned Prin finds himself in a small church wanting to be “…shattered, warmed, found, kept, filled, spared caught and released, explicated, expiated, saved and sent home.”  The reader suspects he might get every bit of it, and then some.

Darrell Doxtdator Reviews John Terpstra's Daylighting Chedoke: Exploring Hamilton's Hidden Creek

John Terpstra.  Daylighting Chedoke: Exploring Hamilton’s Hidden Creek.  Wolsak & Wynn. $18.00. 175 pp., ISBN: 9781928088721

John Terpstra. Daylighting Chedoke: Exploring Hamilton’s Hidden Creek. Wolsak & Wynn. $18.00. 175 pp., ISBN: 9781928088721

John Terpstra’s Daylighting Chedoke weaves together various exploration stories of one particular watershed. The author’s search for a near extinct waterway is paralleled by an imagined historical arrival at one of Hamilton’s many creeks.

Accompanied by family members and assorted companions, Terpstra attempts to trace the natural pathway of Chedoke Creek, no longer in its original incarnation, after being artificially re-constructed.  Reduced to concrete, culverts and other man-made structures, it has long since become a conduit for civic water management. The Frankenstein version of its former self.

Terpstra tells the reader that daylighting “… is the term used when buried creeks are freed to run in the open again. A different relationship between running water and the urban environment can then be entered, one in which the landscape is part of the conversation.”  According to his research, several cities around the world have been experimenting with raising their waterways back into the light, reaping  “ … surprising civic benefits from having water run freely beside their streets and past their front doors.”

The author is quick to acknowledge that to actually daylight Chedoke would be unrealistic.  “I don’t hold out much hope that Chedoke Creek will be cleaned and uncovered any day soon,” he writes, “… Our way of thinking about how we urbanize a landscape would need to become more flexible, but our way often seems set in concrete.”

Therefore, he makes the personal undertaking: “I damn well better do its brave waters some justice.”

To emphasize his commitment, Terpstra cites Lee Maracle, from her work My Conversations with Canadians:

Some of our people wish Canadians would move back to their original homelands.  Not me – I hope they fall in love with the land the way I have:  fully, responsibly, and committed for life.

Unfortunately, Terpstra’s love for the land is shared by few others. He quickly discovers that the waterway is polluted with sewage, garbage and chemicals.  E.coli counts are too high due to sanitary sewer lateral cross-connections (or “illegal hook-ups”). Consequently, Chedoke Creek has been dubbed “Shit Creek”; Terpstra notes wryly that a “certain percentage of the population always wants to pee into the stream.”  Or worse.

“People with such a level of geo-incomprehension need to be protected from themselves,” he observes.

Based on an earlier, shorter work called Citizen Geography (awarded the Hamilton Arts & Letters (HAL) Small Works Prize for Non-fiction in 2016), Daylighting Chedoke will complement this Hamilton poet’s other non-fiction works Falling into Place and The House with the Parapet Wall.

While Hamilton readers may be familiar with the geography and place names, other readers would benefit from detailed maps. The inclusion of current and historical maps would aid in understanding the author’s references to waterways, geological features, and current street names.

Terpstra never again cites Maracle, nor any other Keepers of Traditional Knowledge.  He fails to acknowledge the circular aspect of the Life of Water.  If he had, he would realize that there is no end.  And there is no beginning.  It is a continuous cycle, one that encompasses every living being — water, creatures, plants, animals and humans —within its life path. So, what happens to Chedoke Creek will eventually happen to all of its inhabitants; the cycle will continue.

Despite his initial passionate undertaking to do Chedoke creek some justice, Terpstra can only observe that, in terms of justice, the creek itself is wrongly blamed for flooding, rather than the inadequate, poorly maintained infrastructure that surrounds it.

With global warming, flooding will intensify in severity and frequency.  The world will have to contend with the various Frankenstein monsters it has created.  It may not be what Terpstra was seeking, but it is one form of poetic justice.

John Terpstra’s Daylighting Chedoke is a lament for the loss of our environment in general – and the loss of a local waterway in particular.  It is a meandering tale of an attempt to uncover a (once) meandering stream.

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Darrell Doxtdator is an author, artist and advocate.  A citizen of the Oneida Nation of the Six Nations Confederacy, he grew up on the Haudenosaunee territory of the Grand River.  A graduate of McMaster (‘86) and Osgoode Hall (‘89), he had his call to the Bar in 1991.  Darrell refused to swear the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen.  Instead, he re-affirmed his commitment to Mother Earth.  After considerable debate, the Law Society of Upper Canada (as it then was) made that Oath optional.  Darrell continues to "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable” and finds that singing karaoke can be an effective instrument in achieving both of these objectives. 

Jessica Rose Reviews Melanie Hobson's Summer Cannibals

Melanie Hobson.  Summer Cannibals.  Penguin Canada. $24.95. 288 pp., ISBN: 9780670068357

Melanie Hobson. Summer Cannibals. Penguin Canada. $24.95. 288 pp., ISBN: 9780670068357

Stately homes that shelter family secrets have long been familiar in literature. With creaky floorboards and winding corridors, some dwellings become characters with personalities independent of their inhabitants. However, when thinking of such settings, one might think first of Misselthwaite Manor or Jay Gatsby’s West Egg mansion. Less often we think of a home in our very own city.

Perched atop the Niagara escarpment and weathered by years of neglect, the three-storey home in Melanie Hobson’s debut novel, Summer Cannibals, has three floors, two staircases, seven bedrooms, a coach house, a library, a butler’s pantry, and many secrets. While David and Margaret Blackford, the husband and wife who live inside the house, are fictional, the house itself is not — it is created in the likeness “with a few embellishments” of Hobson’s childhood home on Hamilton’s mountain brow.

It’s to this Georgian-style mansion, owned by the Blackford family for more than 30 years, that David and Margaret’s three adult daughters — Georgina (known as George), Jacqueline (Jax), and Philippa (Pippa) — are summoned. Pippa, the youngest, is pregnant with her fifth child, having left her husband and children behind in New Zealand. She is unwell, and her sisters plan to tend to her, but very quickly, readers discover that Pippa isn’t the only Blackford sister desperate for an escape. The result is a dark, twisted tale of long-buried secrets, unquenchable lust, vengeance, and greed.

In Summer Cannibals, each self-centred member of the Blackford family is more awful than the next, with the exception of David, the most arrogant and unpleasant of them all, with his contorted sense of reality and his unrelenting ego convincing him of his superiority. “David likened himself to a duke who’d made a pile of money that would become, with his eventual passing, Old Money, which could be used to maintain The Estate,” writes Hobson. Prone to childish tantrums, David thrives on controlling others, which includes the rape of his wife. At times, Hobson seems to almost romanticize his violence. “The violence was a periodic necessity of their life together, like a climate oscillation — a prolonged freeze hit by a sudden thaw,” she writes.

Without exception, every character in Summer Cannibals is weighed down by the life he or she might have led. Some of the book’s many subplots include Pippa’s interest in polyamory, Jax’s eagerness to meet an ex she hasn’t seen in twenty years, and Margaret’s failed career as an artist. While the first half of Summer Cannibals is steadily paced, the plot becomes more haphazard as it progresses. The book feels crowded with so many problems existing under one roof. Hobson’s seeming attempts to be scandalous and seductive instead read mostly as melodramatic.

Summer Cannibals, at times, feels slapsticky, during rare moments when Hobson infuses comedy into the plot. This is especially true when David hosts a garden tour for tourists that ends in chaos. However, despite the book’s shortcomings, what makes it a worthy read is Hobson’s stunning prose. “Dew was holding the petals down and making leaves droop, and each blade of grass, as the weak sunbeams hit them, looked beaten,” she writes in one of the book’s many metaphorical phrases. With an ability to make readers feel as if they’re inhabiting the Blackford mansion and its surrounding gardens, Hobson creates a world that is difficult to look away from — even if the characters inside can be exhausting.

Jennifer Rawlinson Reviews Larissa Lai's The Tiger Flu

Larissa Lai.  The Tiger Flu.  Arsenal Pulp Press. $19.95. 334 pp., ISBN: 9781551527314

Larissa Lai. The Tiger Flu. Arsenal Pulp Press. $19.95. 334 pp., ISBN: 9781551527314

Like Madeline Ashby’s 2016 sci-fi novel Company Town, Larissa Lai’s new novel The Tiger Flu is set in a nigh-unrecognizable future version of a present-day Canadian city. For Ashby, Newfoundland’s St. John’s has become New Arcadia, an oil rig off the coast of the province that doubles as a city. The Tiger Flu has a different vision for the west coast. Set in the year 2145 by the Gregorian calendar, Vancouver has transformed into Saltwater City, a place full of shifting weather patterns that struggles to keep its infrastructure standing after oil disappeared from industrial use 127 years prior (for those of you keeping count, that’s 2018).

Saltwater City is being ravaged by the tiger flu, a mysterious illness that affects men more often than women. It is in this city that we meet Kora Ko, a teenage girl living with her family in a crumbling apartment building. Her brother K2 is already sick with the flu, and her mother and uncle are rapidly running out of resources to care for them both. They make the difficult decision to send Kora to the Cordova Dancing School for Girls, an institution that teaches young women the strength and power inherent in dances that fight back. Heartbroken, Kora determines to leave the school to reunite her family.

Outside the city is the hidden Grist Village, a place populated exclusively by women whose mutant clone ancestors abandoned Saltwater City before the outbreak of the flu. Kirilow Groundsel is the village’s best doctor. Skilled in both surgery and naturopathy, Kirilow cares for her lover, Peristrophe Halliana, whose unique self-repairing organs make her vital to the future of Grist Village. When a mysterious woman from Saltwater City infiltrates Grist Village, she brings with her the illness and sets off a chain of events that leave the village devastated and Kirilow alone on a journey to Saltwater City to find a way to rebuild her former life.

The depth of world-building in The Tiger Flu is apparent. The cultures and characters are clearly thought out and defined. This may be due in part to the fact that The Tiger Flu is Larissa Lai’s first novel in sixteen years, her last being Salt Fish Girl (Dundurn Press) from back in 2002. The science fiction universe in The Tiger Flu has had the time to form into a place so rich with detail and history that it supports the epic scale to which it aspires.

Observing Lai’s world from the perspective of the two young women, Kora and Kirilow, the immensity of the society’s structural issues and the futility of trying to effect real change in a meaningful way loom over the simple tasks each has set out to accomplish. Both of them simply want their lives to go back to normal, but in a world where the weather changes every two weeks and satellites are falling from the sky, normal must be something they define for themselves.

The Tiger Flu reimagines what science fiction can be when viewed through a female lens. The technology is biological, the settings are earthy, and the women are powerful leaders of cities, villages, societies, families, dancing schools, and more. Our heroines Kora and Kirilow are motivated by love rather than duty, their emotions are where they draw their strength from, and it is also their desire to put their families back together that leads them to confront the systems of power that are destroying the world.

In building a uniquely female bio-cyberpunk thriller, Lai has exposed the biases inherent in traditional science fiction, and the ways in which women are generally excluded from it and undervalued within it. Using the tiger flu itself, she turns this trope on its head. By sidelining all male characters with illness, Lai allows the reader to form a sense of how female characters are generally marginalized in a male-dominated genre like science fiction. By interrogating this dynamic, Lai finds the intersections where femaleness and science fiction can come together to create something new and ultimately refreshing.

Shazia Hafiz Ramji Reviews Dionne Brand's Theory

Dionne Brand.  Theory.  Knopf Canada. $27.95. 240 pp., ISBN: 9780735274235

Dionne Brand. Theory. Knopf Canada. $27.95. 240 pp., ISBN: 9780735274235

“Can we say that we know anything of another person’s interior?” asks the unnamed narrator in Dionne Brand’s latest novel, Theory. She continues, “What else is there but interpretation?”

Circumscribed in the setting of academia, bound by heteronormative and patriarchal structures, Theory is a novel which writes its own awakening as it interrogates false but rigid dichotomies such as those between aesthetics and politics or the creative and the critical. It insists on the difficult question of what it means to know another, in all their beauty, intelligence and sensuality, despite the doubting, uncompromising momentum of the mind’s reflexivity and questioning.

From beginning to end, we form a bond with the first-person narrator as the story unravels in four parts. The first three parts are named after her lovers: the stunning Selah, who takes pride in her beauty; the whimsical activist, Yara, who cares for troubled and battered women; and the spiritual and secretive Odalys. All three women hold views that trouble the forty-year-old narrator, who is writing her “life’s work,” her PhD thesis-in-progress, which is anything but modest in its ambition. She hopes to create change in the world through an interdisciplinary approach that infuses each philosophical critique with the intersectional experiences of race, class and gender. She says, “My aim at the time was to write the bomb of a thesis that would blow up the little buildings.” These buildings are the institutions of academia, which the narrator recognizes as a “a place for training up the ruling classes so they could continue ruling.”

Through honest and unsparing critiques — that are just as relevant now as they are in the world of the novel — coupled with the narrator’s uncompromising vision and dark sense of humour, we are able to negotiate the insular, solipsistic quandary in this novel of ideas.

Questioning the limits concerning the knowledge of another’s interior told through a self-aware first-person narrator is indeed a trope of meta-fictional writerly narratives, but the trope itself is a struggle that the novel works through — without pretention. It finds its way out literally: outside the text through the work of others, as seen in the last section titled, “Theory/Teoria,” which relies on italics and footnotes heavily, bringing in the language of theory as the narrator works towards finalizing her thesis. In addition to citing post-colonial writers such as Frantz Fanon, the narrator also cites practicing writers and scholars such as David Chariandy and Christina Sharpe. This revives the staid practice of citation by creating a dialogue with works in the world of the novel that is also a world we inhabit.

Theory is entirely surprising, not only because an award-winning and prolific writer like Brand has continued to reinvent herself while staying true to an uncompromising vision that gestures towards the potency of the novel in the real world. It is also surprising because of its ability to enchant, simply through its telling of scenes we could often take for granted, such as those inhabited by our lovers, our families and our cities. Though the last chapter offers a challenging tonal shift and may especially resonate with academics and writers, for those who love a challenge, Theory is a novel that will do something: it will guide us to resilience.

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Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s first book, Port of Being, received the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry (Invisible Publishing, 2018). She recently appeared on CBC North by Northwest and will be a writer in residence with Open Book in March 2019. She lives on unceded Coast Salish land (Vancouver) where works as a publishing consultant and editor for various presses across Canada. She is at work on a novel.

Steven Beattie Reviews K.D. Miller's Late Breaking

K.D. Miller.  Late Breaking: Stories . Biblioasis. $19.95. 288 pp., ISBN: 9781771962476

K.D. Miller. Late Breaking: Stories. Biblioasis. $19.95. 288 pp., ISBN: 9781771962476

In the massive Taschen omnibus Art of the 20th Century, Karl Ruhrberg assesses the work of the late Canadian painter Alex Colville, whose output is deemed to be “proof of the fact that a realism of content need have nothing in common with naturalism, that the serious realist does not unthinkingly reflect reality, but analyzes it.” Ruhrberg goes on to observe, “Colville’s silent images are static. Yet practically all of them tell a story, in a brief, concise plot that does not always have a resolution.” This cogent distillation of the visual artist’s technique could be applied, with minor variations, to the short fiction of K.D. Miller.

Indeed, Miller finds vast reservoirs of inspiration for her latest stories in Colville’s paintings – in their aura of mystery and expansiveness, their figures that appear constantly in motion. Though that motion is captured in brief moments that are left unfinished, and the figures are rarely seen straight on; they are more frequently turned away or held at a distance. Like Colville’s images, Miller’s stories often resist closure and, to somewhat echo Ruhrberg, the author’s realism is apparent on the level of the prose, though the content and style of the work often tugs at something beyond strict mimesis. How else to explain “Octopus Heart,” about a retired widower in the aftermath of a cancer scare who becomes convinced he has developed an emotional interspecies attachment to an octopus at the local aquarium? Or “Lost Lake,” which veers into the supernatural as a novelist and his family are increasingly haunted by figures that appear to arise out of his book?

The novelist in “Lost Lake,” Leo Van de Veld, appears in the earlier story “Olly Olly Oxen Free” (also the title of Leo’s novel). In that story, Leo encounters a woman named Miranda, who remains a virgin at age sixty-five. Miranda agrees to tell Leo a traumatic and transformative story from her childhood in exchange for his having sex with her. The story she tells him – about going into the woods as a young girl along with her best friend, who is raped and murdered by a stranger – becomes the subject of Leo’s book. The way “Lost Lake” and “Olly Olly Oxen Free” refract and chime with one another is emblematic of the intricate care Miller has taken linking the various pieces in her collection: in both stories, the woods adopt a traditional Shakespearean or fairy-tale resonance as a locus of chaos and danger and various details (the brown shoes, tweed jacket, and cap the rapist and murderer wears) are repeated across the two stories with subtle variations in tone and meaning.

The subject matter here is undeniably dark, though Miller’s stories are not devoid of humour, most especially surrounding the travails and pretentions of the writing life. Before becoming the receptacle for Miranda’s confession, Leo plays at being a novelist, using money his wife makes at her office job to finance the purchase of gourmet meals and fine wines: “After all, fictional characters do eat, don’t they? So did he not have to educate himself as to the flavours, aromas, and textures of as great a variety of cuisines as possible?” And in the title story, two competing book prizes vie for cultural influence and importance: “Something called ‘the Olympia effect’ has been identified. Unlike ‘the Biggar Effect,’ (BE), which causes book-sale figures to balloon, the OE attacks authors like a psychological virus.”

Humour and dread are peppered throughout Late Breaking, but the more dominant emotion is melancholy. Many of the characters in these stories are old and spend their time glancing backward at lives that have proved disappointing or painful, or looking forward to foreshortened existences of loneliness and regret. The supportive words spoken by a husband to his injured wife at the end of “Higgs Boson” – “On the count of three. One. Two …” – recur in the story “Crooked Little House,” but in the latter context they are applied to an elderly widower who has had to put down his sole remaining companion, a dog named Sister, and is attempting suicide by rolling off a dock into the icy water below.

But if Miller is unafraid to subject her characters – and her readers – to situations that appear remarkably bleak, there is nevertheless a pervasive strain of hope that runs through Late Breaking. The closing story, “In the Crow’s Keeping,” features a ninety-year-old mother who has lived with the grief from her daughter’s murder for decades. In the final moments of the story, the woman rejects the notion of paying a funeral home to schedule an assisted suicide and instead determines to write a book: “And she’ll write it, too. If it kills her.” These stories plumb the depths of sadness and despair but never lose sight of their obverse: the quiet resilience and dignity of the human spirit, which doesn’t fade with age.

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Steven W. Beattie is the review editor at Quill & Quire magazine. He lives in Toronto.

Sarah O'Connor Reviews Lauren B. Davis's The Grimoire of Kensington Market

Lauren B. Davis. The Grimoire of Kensington Market. Wolsak & Wynn, $22.00, 324 pp., ISBN: 978-1-928088-70-7

Lauren B. Davis. The Grimoire of Kensington Market. Wolsak & Wynn, $22.00, 324 pp., ISBN: 978-1-928088-70-7

Fairy tales speak to readers, no matter what age. Maybe it’s the magic of them - the talking flowers, animal companions, and daring quests that add some imaginary excitement into our lives. Maybe it’s the inherent darkness that has always been present at their core no matter how many people try to scrub it away: the mothers who die and the evil stepmothers who replace them, the wolf lurking in the woods and bed, the stranger who pretends to be kind. Maybe it’s the belief that we can be brave and fight the darkness that life throws at us, regardless of how hopeless it may seem.

Fairy-tale adaptions, especially in adult fiction, allow readers to escape into the strange innocence of fairy tales while relating to adult topics and conflicts. After all, “That’s what a story is: a kind of spell we cast over our lives, and the lives of those close to us, it’s the effect we have on our world and the effect that world has on us.” Lauren B. Davis achieves this effect in her new novel The Grimoire of Kensington Market by using a fairy-tale adaption to tell a story about familial love, guilt, and drug abuse.

When thinking of fairy-tale adaptions and metaphors of drug abuse, one might think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, long associated and overanalyzed as a story about drug abuse. Davis, however, frames her story with a different fairy tale – Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen – adapting it to discuss drug abuse and addiction, partly inspired by her own brother’s death by suicide.

The Grimoire of Kensington Market follows Maggie, the current owner of the Grimoire, a strange and magical bookshop that holds the world’s stories and appears to those who need it. Recently rehabilitated from the dangerous drug Elysium, which has infiltrated downtown Toronto and sends users into an irresistible dream state, Maggie enjoys her quiet life at the Grimoire reading books and helping the few patrons who manage to find the shop. But one day Maggie’s old dealer Srebrenka returns and tries to tempt Maggie back on the pipe. Though Maggie refuses, she learns that her addict brother Kyle needs her help, and she’ll have to travel to the Silver World of Elysium and Srebrenka to do it.

Davis’s novel tackles drug abuse in a beautifully heartbreaking and honest way that also manages to discuss guilt, acceptance, and responsibility without the story feeling clunky. These issues and topics are discussed through the lens of magic. The magic in Davis’s novel is already a very real part of the world that Maggie is more than familiar with it. She knows how dark magic can be through her experience with Elysium, how it twists and turns and can pretend to be beautiful. Throughout the novel, Maggie learns of its many faces, how it can be destructive and addictive as it was for herself and her brother, but also lovely and healing, depending on how one interacts with it.

And therein lies the heart of Davis’s story: the weight of the choices we make, and our responsibility to accept their consequences. Maggie comes to acknowledge her own guilt for her brother’s condition and their responsibility for the choices they’ve made in life. As Maggie comes to recognize in the novel, “We are all responsible for the mess in the world, and we are all responsible for cleaning it up. It’s not either-or, is it? It’s both-and. We harm and we heal.”

The Grimoire of Kensington Market is a stunning novel and a great experimentation with magical realism. Davis brings readers into this genre flawlessly, using a purely Canadian-flavoured magical realism that makes the novel unique among Canadian literature and other fairy-tale adaptions. Readers won’t be able to help but fall under its spell, because the Grimoire only appears to those who are meant to find it, and if you’re lucky that will be you.

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Sarah O'Connor is a writer from Hamilton, Ontario whose work has been published in The Hamilton Spectator, Incite Magazine, and The Hamilton Youth Anthology: Volumes 1 and 2. In 2015 she co-created "Stuck in a Story Productions" with her sister and their web series can currently be watched on Youtube. Her play "Beep" will be performed at the HamilTEN Festival in 2019. If you'd like to read more of Sarah's work you can do so on her blog: www.notsarahconnorwrites.com.

Gary Barwin Reviews Shazia Hafiz Ramji's Port of Being

Shazia Hafiz Ramji.  Port of Being . Invisible Publishing, $16.95, 96 pp., ISBN: 9781988784120

Shazia Hafiz Ramji. Port of Being. Invisible Publishing, $16.95, 96 pp., ISBN: 9781988784120

Einstein used the phrase, “spooky action at a distance” to describe “entanglement,” one of the very strange concepts in quantum physics. Particles even light-years apart seem to be mysteriously connected. Observing one will cause the properties of the other to instantly change. The poems in Shazi Hafiz Ramji’s brilliant debut collection, Port of Being, explore the many ways in which the self is “entangled,” in the world and the world is entangled in the self by observation, and whereby both are changed. 

 In the information age, the individual is observed—surveilled—constantly. Sometimes this observation is threatening and controlling (e.g. the male gaze or state and commercial surveillance). Indeed the book originated when Ramji’s laptop and phone were stolen and the thief contacted and followed her for months based on information gleaned from the stolen items. From this experience, Ramji began exploring the relationship between the personal and the public particularly with regards to the observer and the observed, the inward and the outward gaze.

 The poems in the “Container” section “contain” phrases overheard in public or quoted from public sources (“Watch your step.” “Don’t let him get away”), and contextualize them in a network of phrases taken from contemporary culture and various registers of language:

                                                                                    to beat East Van rents

            make us swoon like Ivanka at Trudeau                  the roses infrared

for the future-proofed deep dream

 We are connected to the world by the sea of information—imagery and language—which surrounds us—beams at us—but we have to learn to navigate it. It creates what we think is the world, and also how we conceptualize ourself (“it filters through us, because we’re made of it,/the language, I mean” — “Astronaut Family.”) We can become icons of ourself:

                        Monroe was assembling

an RP-5A drone in LA

when a photographer

saw her and made her

      Marilyn.

                                    (“Watch your step.”)

Monroe becomes the sign “Marilyn” to herself and to us. Place (and our place in the world) is process, is a histogram, a map of continously arriving data, from which we infer who we are and what the world is.

In the “Flags of Convenience” section named for the foreign flags under which ships are registered to avoid financial charges, Ramji explores the duplicity of language and quotes from Claudia Rankine, “The fiction of the facts assumes innocence.” Facts (AKA information), as evidenced in these poems about global shipping represent (or overwrite) belief structures. “Columbus’s first landing/Guanahani.     baja mar.      San Salvador.” The “innocent” naming of something (like a ship’s place of origin) frames its reality for the viewer. It changes the viewer’s view of the world.

 In “Hollerith” (named after the inventor of the data punch card) in the “Surveiller” section, we see how information can empty out lived identities and turn them into mere data—erasures, lacks, holes in the data card:

Hole 3: Homosexual

Hole 8: Jew

Hole 9: Anti-social

Hole 4: Execution

So what are we to do, allow ourselves to be stalked, surveilled and changed by the flow of false flag information bombarding us like cosmic radiation, and, spookily, changing us? The arc of the book seems to argue that we must realize our own agency: the self, the spooky actor, also observes the world. A port (a port of being) is a window, an opening from which we can look out as well as look in. We become a poet of being, for these poems are surveillance: of the person, the poet consciousness, our place of being in the world. The poet has to constantly echolocute:  experience the world and their mind and then speak and wait for bounce-back. They receive signals and bounce them back—make poems—to understand and locate themself. We create the shape of the world by articulating it.

Indeed, the last two sections in Port of Being are increasingly focussed on the self. From the self mediated by others’ view (consider the jaw-dropping phrase, “Smile’s reverse panopticon” —“Gerrid”) to the self considering itself.  While the penultimate section, “Spooky Actors at a Distance,” is all “we,” the last eponymously named section of Port of Being explores for the first time, first person singular:

I want to remember

I’ve done this

for myself in the morning,

because I’ve been surprised

by my own innocence:

I cried silent and easy

when my amends were

refused.

                                    (“Poem of Failed Amends”)

As Ramji has stated in an interview, “the book has a clear arc (at least to me) that moves into the lyrical”[1]: “Let me be afraid/ of myself for a little while.” (“Cub.”)

The poet navigates in first person, sometimes claiming the duplicitous but alluring falsehood offered by society as a way of claiming agency: “I imagine you jerking off to parts/from The Society of the Spectacle”; or trying to take control of all of the data: “watch me make the mistake of thinking//I can out-think everything” (“Poem Beginning with a Falsehood,”); but ultimately taking agency through their own subjective experience: “It makes me/small, sad,/and comforted” (“Parents poem”) and “this is the construction of an act of love.” (“Astronaut Family”)

In the notes, Ramji writes of her experience with clinical depression and how these poems originated from—and, I’d argue, are ultimately—a therapeutic act of self-awareness and agency. What is the experience of depression if not a navigation between information coming from inside and outside, the self’s spooky entanglement?

In charting the navigation from being passively observed to becoming an empowered observer, with captivating rhythms and energized juxtapositions, through a process of triangulating our culture and self, formal invention, captivating images, and an intriguing and wide range of subjects and reference, Ramji has created an insightful, thoughtful, engaging and inspiring guide to being in the digital age.

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The author of twenty-two books of poetry, fiction and books for children, Gary Barwin is a writer, musician and multimedia artist from Hamilton, Ontario and the author of the nationally bestselling novel, Yiddish for Pirates (Random House) and No TV for Woodpeckers (poetry; Wolsak & Wynn, 2018). Publications next year include, A Cemetery for Holes, a poetry collaboration with Tom Prime (Gordon Hill Press, 2019) and For It is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe: New and Selected Poems, ed. Alessandro Porco (Wolsak and Wynn, 2019.) Barwin will be the Edna Staebler writer-in-residence at Wilfrid Laurier University in Winter 2019.

 

[1] http://trainpoetryjournal.blogspot.com/2018/07/an-interview-with-shazia-hafiz-ramji.html

Jennifer McCartney Reviews John Miller's Wild and Beautiful is the Night

John Miller.  Wild and Beautiful is the Night . Cormorant Books, $22.95, 296 pp., ISBN: 978-1770865105

John Miller. Wild and Beautiful is the Night. Cormorant Books, $22.95, 296 pp., ISBN: 978-1770865105

Author John Miller has incorporated his experiences working in hospice care, with street youth, with people affected by HIV, and with social work policy, into a focused, sensitive novel portraying the relationship between two friends – both sex workers and addicts – working and living together on the streets of Toronto in the mid-2000s.

According to Miller, (A Sharp Intake of Breath, Dundurn Press, 2007), his latest novel grew from interviews with a woman named Kim, a friend from his time working with marginalized populations in Toronto. One gets the sense of Miller wanting to get it right, to honour Kim (who passed away before the novel was published) while grappling with, in Miller's words, the "moral residue" of using her experiences as a sex worker and addict for his own art. I was, as he may have suspected some readers would be, a bit skeptical – he is after all, a male author, writing about the sex trade, partly from the perspective of a woman of colour. But we are not in William T. Vollman or Chester Brown territory here. Miller is committed to the female perspective, and he does the subject matter, and his characters, justice.

It's simply a beautiful book, well-researched, and written with care and sensitivity. Wild and Beautiful is the Night joins a long list of recent novels that aim to humanize, rather than sensationalize, the world of sex work, including Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin (Harcourt, 2002), Kirstin Innes’ Fishnet (Freight, 2015), Katherine Faw’s Ultraluminous (MCD, 2017), and Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room (Scribner, 2018).

What permeates the narrative, as the two friends struggle to meet their immediate needs, is the sense of women looking after one another. While the men are there, they are an afterthought – the violence of the johns and uselessness of the absent fathers are not the point. The women rely on each other, on neighbours, colleagues, dealers, and sponsors, and on their own determination. They rely on the community services available to them – the needle exchanges and Maggie's and the abortion clinics and disability payments and food banks. Miller gets women right, mostly, although I wondered about privileged Danni-from-Forest-Hill’s inability to apply her own make-up (the results are “horrendous and clown-like.”)

When things go wrong, the women acknowledge their own failures, their bad choices – Miller is careful to show these women with agency – but it’s also systemic, of course. They don't have the resources to fight the social workers, the courts, the decision makers. “Rosalie helped me to sort through it all, to distinguish between the chunks that had fallen off me, that were mine to own and make amends for, and the mess of cracked concrete and girders that were part of a substructure stacked against people of colour and immigrants,” notes Paulette.  “Against lesbians and women in general. A foundation whose unsteadiness I couldn’t be held responsible for.”

But they do have power, Miller demonstrates. Paulette and Olive participate in protests advocating for the rights of sex workers. The transients of a tent city advocate for housing rights. Danni is able to see herself and her situation through a feminist lens, thanks to her women’s studies classes at Trent. After intervening in a brutal attack involving two strangers, Danni laments the status quo. “‘Fucking guys.’ She pointed. At darkness. ‘Always pinning us. Fucking assholes.’” And yet women are complicit, too. A female police officer comforts Paulette in the moments before her child is taken away: “‘It’s going to be okay,’ she lied.”

People working in the sex industry face an extraordinary risk of violence on the job. According to advocacy group POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa / Gatineau Work Educate and Resist), 78 percent of street-level sex workers have experienced a physical assault during their careers. We see Danni learning basic safety strategies – leaving a car door open, noting a strange john’s license plate, etc. A reader can’t help but think of the disappeared women from Vancouver’s Lower East Side, murdered by Canada’s most prolific serial killer. Women whose disappearances were largely dismissed by the authorities, whose families and friends and caregivers frantically searched for them after they vanished, only to be told by police they'd likely run away, were on a bender, had hitchhiked somewhere else – to Winnipeg or Calgary. Loved ones were asked to believe that these women would voluntarily vanish from the community. Miller’s skillful illumination of the daily lives of these women is to know how appalling that official narrative was. In Miller’s work the reader knows, and the characters know, the possibility of a violent outcome is always there.

Thankfully, Miller resists moralizing, lessons learned, and neat endings. Families are not reunited. There are no resolutions – Paulette doesn't show up at her ailing mother's door, asking forgiveness or demanding apologies. Her children are not returned to her. Addiction is ongoing, a daily challenge. Things are left broken and unresolved, a show of restraint in our digital age that often feels devoid of nuance and ambiguity.

Ultimately, though, this is a book about a complicated friendship between two loving, funny, women from very different backgrounds. As a street-wise Paulette observes slyly while the two work their corner one cold Toronto night, “Danni claimed to be a true Canadian who loved winter, but she’d never had to love it this much.”

PS: A small quibble from a Hamiltonian writing for the Hamilton Review of Books. I’d have loved a bit more of the Hamilton of Paulette's childhood. Toronto is so fully realized, yet the Hammer remains vague. Barton Street gets a mention, as does Ancaster and the City Centre Mall (at the time this would have been the Eaton's Centre, or probably just Jackson Square, although perhaps the reference is to the old Centre Mall). But ultimately Paulette’s Hamilton home is little more than a signpost – a signifier of her lower socio-economic status. Residents looking for a little taste of their hometown will be left disappointed. A small price to pay, however, for an otherwise lovely read.

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Jennifer McCartney is the New York Times bestselling author of The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All Over the Place and 8 other books. Born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, she lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Mark Grenon Reviews Michael Nardone's The Ritualities

Michael Nardone. The Ritualites. Book*hug, $20.00, 120 pp., ISBN: 9781771664554

Michael Nardone. The Ritualites. Book*hug, $20.00, 120 pp., ISBN: 9781771664554

Dubbed on the dust jacket as “a book-length poem on the sonic topography of North America,” Michael Nardone’s debut full-length book of poetry, The Ritualites, published by Book*hug, follows the publication of excerpts of the book in other iterations.

The thematic and geographic genesis of the book interrogates the quasi-religious nature of American ritual and its civic mythologies, for instance in the symbolic force of the flag, the anthem, the atomic bomb, militarism, etc. This, despite the fact that The Ritualites is partially based on site-specific recordings across Canada, perhaps because Nardone originally hails from rural Pennsylvania.

 In “O, Or Plains, Pennsylvania,” a re-titling of Nardone’s chapbook, O. Cyrus & the Bardo, a sonnet sequence that falls just short of being a crown of sonnets, Nardone proceeds by working within the limits of this strict form, but by the ninth sonnet, a drastic shift, a sonic quaking, has occurred.

            Variation: soaks down dandelion, marigold

               Punctures, spreads. Rises, bursts. Blends. Again

            The blond lobs against the glare. Again the.

               Again the firecracker timpani. Everything

            In fits. Flares fleshed to the pole star fade. A wind

               Change. Inflection: left perspectives right,

            Holds, gold and silver fold, fold. Everything fits.

               And did the feeling? Did it was it true

            For you? O say you see it too. Sure the dead

               Don’t undress and swim in their bleeding. Cracks

            Red, red and blue. What should be the Old Glory

               Blows away while forming. Send me down

            Where the winds roll over. Burnt white, a wind

               Comes avalanche. Smoke screens the atmosphere.

The variation, the breaking up of syntax, strikes at the heart of American ritual / the American dream. The colours of Old Glory, the American flag, become disjointed as the flag itself is blown away, a distress signal even more extreme than its being flown upside down. The sonorousness of “O say can you see ....” becomes “O say you see it too.” In a society bound by its mythologies and rituals, to break up the incantatory quality of the national song is, in effect, to take the knee.

“Tower 1, Tower 2,” a winner of Lemon Hound’s prose poem prize under its original title “Deathless Nuclear Family of the Spangled Mind,” is a tour de force akin to e.e. cummings’ “i was sitting at mcsorley’s” and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Nardone creates the distinct feeling that you’re at a real dinner table, with its objects and conversational cross-currents, yet it’s as if the message has been suffused with static, or caustic noise, perhaps as a result of the implicit terror of the nuclear bomb being at the emotional heart of the American dream. That is, behind that dream, the promise of the shining city upon a hill, a nightmare is lurking, one which splices together the good-time vibes of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” (“— A dark desert highway,” for example) and the immanence of the nuclear threat:

                                                                                                    Those inner voices.

            — Same one he wore on the Enola Gay! — Inner voices? What a lot of talk!

            —  Woulda been one hell of a parade.   —  We should do some kinda toast.

              You know it’s not every day we’re all here together. — Less and less I fear.

The family’s deathlessness seems merely rhetorical compared to the ebullient spirit of Whitman’s “I know I am deathless,” and his romantic quest for a union between self and cosmos across time and space. For all the arcane allusions and source material of its transcriptions, the long poem that is The Ritualites is, like Song of Myself, epic, or at least mock epic, in scope, given its traversal of vast swaths of a vast continent. The “nuclear family” of the original title of “Tower 1, Tower 2,” puns on the warmth of the microcosm of the nuclear family unit and the nuclear implications of the Enola Gay, the plane used to drop the infamous bomb, Little Boy, and “Those inner voices” haunt the gap between the two meanings of the word.

The Ritualites employs transcription as a means to destabilize essentialist language, as, for instance, the kind of language found in airport novels, or the linguistic ritualization of the military industrial cultural complex. Nardone points out in the Notes + Sources section of the book that he “utilized a number of sound recording and transcription processes”. This is certainly all very interesting from a critical viewpoint, though at times the transcriptive method can be impenetrable, and the fragments can be offputting, given how nonsensical the source material is, as in the “Far Rockaway” section of “Topologies/Otographies”. 

In The Ritualites’ missing Table of Contents, we end up with more a scramble of contents, a sonic scramble, a poetic, and at times anti-poetic, assemblage. In the lengthy sections “Airport Novel” and “Unfixed Territories,” which are broken up and interspersed throughout the book under the same titles (three sections under the former and two sections under the latter), Nardone re-frames temporary prison-like conditions in an act of sonic disobedience. Detained by the Canada Border Services Agency at the Edmonton International Airport in 2011, Nardone turned the print media of his surroundings back onto the environment, picking up pamphlets, brochures, and books and dictating fragmented samples to create oral palimpsests that employ a mix of restraints and chance operations, effectively turning transcriptions of text-based speech into an act of defiance.

In “Topologies/Otographies,” we get a bird’s eye view of areas of the U.S. that have not fared as well under globalization as many major cities. The knotted nature of the text may send otherwise willing readers packing, especially if we lack the geographic, historical, and personal referents that could unravel it. Nevertheless, by googling things, it’s possible to co-create an intertextual Nardone-guided poetic road trip, where co-guides such as YouTube and Wikipedia, may take us to fascinating places. From the disastrous and bizarre ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania[1], to the mediated sonic/textual intensity of Times Square as somehow the beating drum of the song of America, to Cactus Springs[2], a locale noted for its proximity to the largest-scale nuclear tests in American history, and so and and so on, there’s this sense of a weave of sound and text, and a sense of the 21st-century American self being dislocated against the wounded vastness of this landscape.

In the Centralia section, the elusive character of “O” introduced in the chapbook O. Cyrus & the Bardo returns; this character is an Osiris figure that straddles life and death in the liminal state of the bardo realm. The speaker says “Let’s hunt O / Let’s see what we find,” as if the hunt for experience, perhaps to be found in the fragments of consciousness, needs a companion, even if an invented one. Maybe the speaker is Nardone, a parodic millennial stand-in for Whitman on a search for the elusive sense of the poem that is his self, or the poem of a post-industrial-ravaged America; perhaps in the detritus they’ll find a way to make it all new again, “We’ll eat wind O stones / Scavenge what’s left of this city”.

It’s clear some readers will feel scepticism regarding the relevance of conceptual methods and the aesthetic outcomes in parts of this collection. In that case, the modernism of “Tower 1, Tower 2” and postmodernism of “O, Or, Plains, Pennsylvania” should supply them with more meat regarding how to enter the work. But the challenge, and lingering affectivity, of Language poetry and conceptual work is that they don’t play the usual language games, nor do they follow prescribed notions of taste and judgement. The work, potentially, offers itself up as an object from which the reader may depart into her own games or critiques. This is self-consciously the case in “UNFIXED TERRITORIES,” where the assemblage of cut-up fragments is a set of instructions regarding how the reader can turn the work into their own work:

            So don’t just read this book.

            Interact with it!

            Underline your favorite passages!

            Make this book your book.

            Try writing your thoughts in the margins.

            Personalize it!

To engage the reader in breaking through the destructive repetitiveness of unexamined ritual, The Ritualites is framed by a poetics that invites reading as misreading, or the book as departure point for an improvised reading in which references reverberate, and the referee of the book, its binding, its being bound, may come apart, and you can read forwards, backwards, or any way you want.

In an interview with Sina Queyras in Lemon Hound back in 2010, Nardone mentioned he was thinking of Auden’s “Paysage Moralisé” when writing “Deathless Nuclear Family of the Spangled Mind.” Auden concludes his sestina with the striking tercet, “It is our sorrow. Shall it melt? Ah, water /
Would gush, flush, green these mountains and these valleys, / And we rebuild our cities, not dream of islands.” Through the radical transcriptive methods of its sonic disobedience, The Ritualites is admonishing us that it is high time to rebuild the city on a hill, instead of creating a walled country, a bitterly divided Fortress America[3]. It remains to be seen how the story of America will unfold, and how Nardone will draw upon the foundational work of The Ritualites in scoring that narrative, as he continues what is meant to be the first in a series of such works. Stay tuned. Don’t obey. Sounds good.

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Mark Grenon's poetry and reviews have appeared in The Antigonish Review, filling Station, MatrixThe Puritan, and Vallum, among others. His collaborative video poetry has been screened at the Visible Verse Festival, the Rendez-vous cinéma québécois, and the anti-Matter Film Festival. Although his home town is Ottawa, he's a long-term Montrealer, and has lived in the Czech Republic, Taiwan, and Chile.

 

[1]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSIjB96H4Sc&vl=en

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nevada_Test_Site

[3]https://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/23/magazine/fortress-america.html