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Articles by Peter Darbyshire:

Fuhgeddaboutit!: Gandolfini to play Hemingway in latest adaptation
Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, September 26, 2004
Page: C12
Section: The Citizen's Weekly

Hollywood has long mined comics for screen-worthy superheroes. The result? A few good movies and a lot of dreck. The horrible miscasting of Keanu Reeves as John Constantine in the upcoming Hellblazer should finish the trend.

So where will Hollywood turn next? Sopranos star James Gandolfini is set to take on the role of Ernest Hemingway, moving from one brooding man obsessed with violence to another. The as-yet-untitled film will focus on Hemingway's love affair with war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, who allegedly inspired For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Also in the works is the long-awaited film version of Don DeLillo's White Noise, a dark comedy about a Hitler Studies professor and his dysfunctional family during a toxic disaster.

Fans are skeptical. The film is being made by Barry Sonnenfeld, the man behind Men in Black and the abomination known as Wild Wild West. To be fair, Sonnenfeld is also responsible for critical faves Get Shorty and Out of Sight, adapted from Elmore Leonard novels.

In the I-don't-know-what-to-make-of-this department, U.S. author and self-proclaimed literary legend Neal Pollack has sold the film rights of his music journalism satire Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock and Roll Novel to Warner. The novel is a sort of absurdist Forrest Gump, following the life of rock critic Neal Pollack as he becomes involved with every major musical figure of the 20th century, from Elvis to Seattle's grunge rockers. It will either be brilliant or the worst film ever.

Neil Gaiman, the eerie genius behind the phenomenal Sandman comics, has sold the rights to Coraline, a children's book about a young girl who travels behind a bricked-up wall in her home and finds another world and another set of parents. The film will be made by Henry Selick, who directed Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The most eagerly film adaptation may be Ang Lee's version of Brokeback Mountain, an Annie Proulx short story from the stunning collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories. Lee has a lot to answer for after his abysmal adaptation of The Hulk, but he has a good track record with turning novels into great films. His adaptation of Rick Moody's The Ice Storm was the most emotional, gutwrenching portrait of the 1970s yet.

Brokeback Mountain follows two cowboys who fall in love and carry on a secret affair for the rest of their lives. The film has generated a lot of buzz, not only because of the scenes starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, but also because nude photos of Ledger appeared on the Web.

(discuss)


 

Perfect 10: More must-reads of fall
Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, September 19, 2004
Page: C10
Section: The Citizen's Weekly

The Logogryph: A Bibliography of Imaginary Books
By Thomas Wharton
Gaspereau Press, $27.95

Thomas Wharton established himself as Canada's equivalent to Italo Calvino with the publication of Salamander, a book about a madman's quest to make an infinite book. Wharton follows up that complex, literary tale with The Logogryph, a collection of stories about books. The tales in The Logogryph move across the globe and through genres, in the process serving as a meditation on the act of reading and an exploration of imagination itself. A perfect bookshelf companion to Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi's Dictionary of Imaginary Places.

Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2
By Annie Proulx
Scribner, $36

Annie Proulx stunned the literary world with Close Range: Wyoming Stories, a collection of mythic tales about an eerie and frequently grotesque modern-day Wild West. In December, Scribner releases Bad Dirt, more of a companion piece than a sequel. Expect more of Proulx's encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the West and its inhabitants, startlingly original characters and wild plots. In "The Contest" a group of men have a strange, patriotic beard-growing contest, while in "That Trickle Down Effect" a man's optimism has catastrophic effects. As an added bonus, the collection features one of the best story titles of all time: "What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?"

The Nine Planets
By Edward Riche
Viking, $34

Edward Riche is Canada's least-known satirist, but that should change with the release of The Nine Planets. His first book, Rare Birds -- made into a film with William Hurt -- was a farce set in Newfoundland and poked gentle fun at everything from Maritime culture and the CBC to right-wing American politics. With his latest novel, The Nine Planets, Riche takes a turn to the savage. Following the lives of Marty Devereaux, a vice-principal of a private school, and Cathy, his teenaged niece, The Nine Planets tackles globalization, the Columbine killings, love, Newfoundland history, pop culture and the dismal state of the movie industry -- pretty much life as we know it, in fact. Make sure you read it before it's made into a film and the book ends up with some ugly cover.

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
By Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon, $25.95

Marjane Satrapi's first graphic novel, Persepolis, told the story of her childhood during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. It was a harrowing account of terror and oppression, and was as much a history text as a comic. The sequel follows her move to Europe, but it is not the tale of progress and freedom readers may expect. Instead, it illustrates the deep divide between East and West as the teenage Satrapi struggles to negotiate the secular world, eventually winding up selling drugs and homeless. In a startling move, she returns to Iran and begins the difficult process of coming to terms with her culture -- a culture that, for all its failings, she still loves.

My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere
By Susan Orlean
Random House, $34.95

Susan Orlean has established herself as a guide to American subcultures, and in My Kind of Place she takes readers into the familiar -- grocery stores, music shops -- and the strange -- taxidermy, fertility ceremonies. Orlean's got a knack for discovering the weirdness hidden away underneath the everyday and making it seem understandable and natural. Simultaneously portraits of curiosity and meditations on fascinating, unusual people, these essays are as pleasurable to read as they are informative.

In the Shadow of No Towers
By Art Spiegelman
Pantheon, $27.95

Art Spiegelman practically invented the graphic novel genre with Maus, a fable-like account of his fatherís experiences at Auschwitz. Now Spiegelman grapples with the 9/11 tragedy and once again searches for new ways to describe the indescribable. In the Shadow of No Towers re-imagines the iconic scenes of that day by filtering them through multiple esthetic lenses -- noir pulp, comic art, realism, surrealism, old comic strips. The result is a fragmented montage of imagery that is alternatively horrific and beautiful, a haunting account of the chaos and terror that marked the tragedy -- and perhaps the first work of art to address it that is truly cathartic.

The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
By A.J. Jacobs
Simon & Schuster, $36

Esquire editor A. J. Jacobs spent a year reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica in an attempt to become the smartest person in the world. The result is a tongue-in-cheek memoir that pokes as much fun at Jacobs as it does the culture of intellectualism. Jacobs visits chess clubs and Mensa meetings to show off his newfound knowledge, with humorous results. Best of all, he saves you the trouble of reading the entire 32-volume encyclopedia set yourself.

Urgent 2nd Class
By Nick Bantock
Raincoast, $26.95

Nick Bantock has made millions off his best-selling Griffin & Sabine series -- now he shows you how to do it as well. A collection of Bantock's work and various found images, Urgent 2nd Class is what Bantock calls an "inspirational book for outsider art." It's also a bit of a philosophical text, as Bantock urges readers to find the beautiful and the artistic in everyday life -- and to unleash their own inner artists upon it.

The Coyote Kings of the Space-age Bachelor Pad
By Minister Faust
Del Rey, $22.95

Question: What do the following have in common: a dishwasher with a graduate degree, his video-store clerk/inventor roommate, magic, patois, science-fiction, Egyptian mythology, pop culture, the 1990s, Edmonton, the CFL, comic books, role-playing games, black history and a plot about a love affair leading to a quest for an ancient artifact and a battle with some supernatural drug dealers? Answer: The most exciting Canadian debut in decades.

Jimbo in Purgatory
By Gary Panter
Fantagraphics, $44.95

Pop culture meets Dante in Jimbo in Purgatory, the first 21st-century graphic novel. Jimbo, a stand-in for Dante's Virgil, must make his way through an infotainment centre modelled on Dante's Mount Purgatory and infused with Boccaccio's Decameron. Every character he meets is a character from The Divine Comedy and/or a cultural icon, such as Alice Cooper and Yoko Ono. The artwork is a weird juxtaposition of comic strip and illustrated medieval book and, perhaps not surprisingly, the text is one literary allusion after another, from Christopher Marlowe to Raymond Chandler. Hell never looked so good.

(discuss)


Poetry that makes readers care: Carmine Starnino keeps the human element in the forefront as he considers the past's role in the present
Montreal Gazette
Saturday, September 11, 2004
Page: H7 Section:
Weekend: Arts & Books

In the latest issue of Quill & Quire, the trade journal for the Canadian publishing industry, Carmine Starnino acknowledges he has earned a reputation as an "angry" reviewer. He's understating the issue considerably. In review after review, Starnino has eviscerated practically all the recent idols of Canadian poetry, from critical darling Anne Carson -- in the pages of this paper he once said she had a "deaf ear" -- to avant-garde rock star Christian Bok, whose Griffin-winning Eunoia he dismissed as "pointless."

But as Starnino explains in his Quill essay, "In praise of the sharp word," his outrage comes from a genuine concern about the state of Canadian poetry. A sworn enemy of "blandness" and the "incomprehensible," Starnino laments the fact that the country's poetry scene has been taken over by uninspired, clinical language games and flat, prose-like verse. He wants our poets to return to a standard of excellence, one grounded in fresh language and verve.

Interestingly enough, Starnino demonstrates his theories by reconsidering traditional poetic forms and focusing on objects from the past -- a curious choice for someone who dismisses the last 30 years as dominated by poets with feeble imaginations.

But With English Subtitles is preoccupied with finding new value -- new substance -- in the past, as is the case with "Money":

This old currency
returns us to first principles, to a time when poverty
had heft, when debt was assigned its correct weight.

In fact, the reinterpretation of the past is a recurring subject. Starnino repeatedly uses images of decay and rust throughout the poems, but they are always used in a way that suggests rebirth and reuse, of adapting old devices to new circumstances. This is the central focus of "The Winepress," in which the history of the printed word itself is explained through such adaptation. As the narrator says, "one thing is always being wrecked to make another."

The clash between Canada's tradition of nature poetry and the modern age is even subtly invoked in "Junkyard," a meditation on the detritus of our culture:

you'd think all this
would foul a sunny spring day but this junk has lived here
so long beside the half-darkened wood it's now one more
disbursement of nature, the weather taking metal back to its
first motive, becoming a new growth, a small rust blessing.

This is not to say Starnino is advocating a return to the lyrical tradition of the past. The poems here are interrogations of the past's role in the present, not nostalgia. But Starnino does seem to be advocating a poetic experience that keeps the human at the forefront, that is more than a series of logical constraints to be overcome or mere gimmicks to be recorded.

Nowhere is this more clear than in "The Kettle," the opening poem of the book, in which Starnino echoes the abstraction of avant-garde poetry but subordinates it to human rituals and emotion:

The handle was always raised for your grip,
so that when steam screamed the spout's note
you could swing it like a censer to the table.

Starnino is also dedicated to the musicality of the line, to the play of language and meaning. Consider, for example, the ways in which words and phrases aurally express their subjects in "On the Obsolescence of Caphone":

I recall words all backwater squawk, recall
the curmudgeonly clunk and jump of their song,
a language dying out but always, someplace,
going on, surfacing in a shoe salesman's patter
or a grocer's chitchat.

It's worth reading the poems aloud to appreciate the care that went into the sound of each line.

With English Subtitles is unlikely to satisfy those who lean toward experimental poetry, the kind that favours deconstruction for deconstruction's sake. It will, however, appeal to those who like their theory cut with the personal and the emotional. With English Subtitles doesn't reinvent poetry by any means, but it certainly makes you care about it again.

(discuss)


 

Character and other assassinations: U.S. politics hot reading in election year
Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, August 8, 2004
Page: C12
Section: The Citizen's Weekly

Thanks in large part to the recent Democratic National Convention and the Fahrenheit 9/11 phenomenon, the book news of late has largely been dominated by politics. Nicholson Baker's new novel, Checkpoint -- which features characters discussing plans to assassinate President Bush -- continues to be the hot topic and has drawn the ire of right-wingers such as Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh, even though it's not out until later this month.

Limbaugh went so far as to dedicate a section of his radio show to Checkpoint, which he called an example of the "vile hatred" of the left and the "dog Democrats." In the same broadcast, and without any apparent sense of irony, Limbaugh urged a journalism student to write an article in which her left-leaning professor is shot down by the Secret Service after a botched assassination attempt -- motivated by the fact she is a Democrat "concubine" and had read Al Gore's book Earth in the Balance, which focuses on saving the environment. If this were fiction, nobody would believe it.

As political ideology continues to split the American reading audience, it's no surprise to see book clubs spring up to cater to these specialized groups. The Boston Globe reports the launch of the Progressive Book Club (www.progressivebookclub.com), an online book club for lefties that is meant to be an answer to the right-wing American Compass (www.americancompass.com) book club, launched earlier this year by AOL Time Warner, and the popular Conservative Book Club (www.conservativebookclub. com), which features such titles as Michael Moore Is a Big Fat Stupid White Man.

Of course, some publishers shy away from politically loaded books for fear of repercussions. The Telegraph reports that Random House has backed away from publishing House of Bush, House of Saud in Britain, despite having paid a substantial sum for British rights to it. The book, an examination of the relationship between the Bush family and the Saudi royal family, became an instant bestseller in the U.S. thanks to the popularity of Fahrenheit 9/11, and seems set to become a bestseller in Britain as well. Random House declined to explain its decision, but insiders suggested fears of libel suits in the British courts may have been behind the decision.

Nor is Random House alone in avoiding any possible controversy over the book. Amazon UK has decided not to sell the book, even though British customers can still order the book from the American site.

While some publishers may be wary of taking political sides with their books, almost all U.S. publishers seem happy to take a piece of the action from The 9/11 Commission Report. The report has become a bestseller since its recent release, and W.W. Norton, the official publisher, has already gone into a second printing. Because the report is free, however, any publisher may produce its own version, and everyone from Amazon.com to the New York Times is publishing an edition. With estimated profits of a dollar or two per copy sold -- and no pesky authors demanding royalties -- the report may be a godsend for the U.S. publishing industry.

Perhaps the oddest intersection of literature and politics comes in the form of John Kerry adopting Langston Hughes's poem "Let America Be America Again" as the slogan of his campaign. Now, poetry is nothing new in recent politics -- think Maya Angelou reading "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" during Clinton's swearing-in ceremony or even Pieces of Intelligence, the "poetry" book made up of some of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's more surreal press briefings, such as "The Unknown": "There are known unknowns/ That is to say / We know there are some things / We do not know. / But there are also unknown unknowns, / The ones we don't know we don't know."

But Kerry's choice is a curious one. While using some lines from the poem in rallies -- "bring back our mighty dream again" -- Kerry omits others, such as "America was never America to me."

In fact, Kerry omits the fact that the poem largely condemns the American past with such lines as "There's never been equality for me" -- Hughes was black, after all. And Kerry also neglects to mention the poem was likely meant to inspire sympathy for the communist movement, which Hughes supported.

Perhaps Kerry should have stuck with Robert Frost, who read a poem at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. I suggest his classic line from "The Road Not Taken: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- / I took the one less travelled by, / and that has made all the difference."

(discuss)


 

Weird-o, Daddy-o!: Tetherballs, circus freaks and eerie portraits of fatherhood
Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, June 20, 2004
Page: C8
Section: The Citizen's Weekly

The agonized relationship between fathers and their children has been a mainstay of literature since Odysseus abandoned his family to go warring. Just in time for Father's Day, here is a roundup of soon-to-be classics that offer a particularly modern perspective on family relations.

Super Flat Times
By Matthew Derby

Perhaps the weirdest book ever published. Set in a dystopian future, it is composed of the memories of people executed in a mysterious purge. A boy goes back in time to save his father's life only to discover he doesn't really like him; a snow tester mourns the daughter he lost in a mall; a couple are hunted by authorities when they try to have a secret baby. A beautiful, eerie portrait of a world -- our world -- gone mad.

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
By Chris Ware

The stories of four generations of men and their fumbling attempts to understand each other. Starting with nine-year-old Jimmy who is abandoned at the 1893 world fair and ending with his present-day lonely grandson, the graphic novel filters through their stories and the shifting iconography of the 20th century. A portrait of men coming of age and of an age itself.

The Sleeping Father
By Matthew Sharpe

The Sleeping Father establishes Sharpe as the successor to Kurt Vonnegut. After a nuclear family meltdown, teenaged Chris must look after his father Bernie, who is comatose after taking the wrong antidepressant. When Bernie wakes with the capacity of a newborn, Chris must teach him how to be a man -- while first figuring it out himself. An absurdist romp through everything from family values to school violence.

Razovsky at Peace
By Stuart Ross

Stuart Ross is best known for surreal poems ridiculing our guiding values. In this commemoration of his father, Ross's work takes a more personal -- and poignant -- direction. From poems about bodies buried beneath Elgin Street to strangers meeting in coffee shops, Ross turns the lonely setting of the city into an emotional landscape. You'll never look at suburbia the same way.

The Tetherballs of Bougainville
By Mark Leyner

The Freud of the MTV generation, Mark Leyner chronicles the tabloid dreams and television fantasies of a cultural mind gone mad. Tetherballs stars a 13-year-old Leyner who is turned on by the coming execution of his father. When his father refuses to die and is released, young Leyner embarks on a quest. He eventually discovers his father disguised as a script-writing chimp, and the pair team up to write bestselling novels. Then things get really weird.

The Dead Father
By Donald Barthelme

William Faulkner meets Monty Python in this tale of a group of people hauling the "dead father" -- a giant, godlike figure "dead only in a sense" -- across a surreal, wasted land to his grave.

One Hundred Years of Solitude
By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The story of the village of Macondo, founded in the jungle by Jose Arcadio Buendia and occupied almost exclusively by his descendants. The village is home to a ghost, a levitating priest and a woman who ascends to heaven while doing her laundry. A masterful book from the father of magic realism.

Emporium
By Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson is the first master satirist of the 21st century. In this debut collection, the owner of a body-armour shop worries about his daughter, who wants her lover to shoot her as a sign of love; a cop-turned-zoo-guard tries to regain the respect of his violence-obsessed son; and a woman bonds with her father while they wait for the ATF to raid their home. These stories are so real you'll forget they're fiction.

Ascension
By Steven Galloway

A family saga that focuses on Salvo Ursari, a Romany high-wire walker. The novel opens with him on a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center, then takes readers through his past. It's a dramatic life, interwoven with the story of the 20th century and featuring the murder of Salvo's parents, his rise to fame and a son who threatens to bring down the family.

Geek Love
By Katherine Dunn

A bizarre tale of a family of circus freaks who tour small-town America. The carnival owners breed mutant children to earn a living, but one of their prodigy becomes a cult leader for the deformed and leads the carnival to an apocalyptic end. A dark satire that dissects family values, Geek Love is a 21st-century Frankenstein.

(discuss)

 


 

The blogs on the bus: Politicos and pundits take campaign trail to cyberspace
Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, May 30, 2004
Page: C2
Section: The Citizen's Weekly

If 2003 was the year of the blog, 2004 is the year of the election blog. Political websites are proliferating faster than campaign promises. Here are the frontrunners in the race to help you make an informed decision at the ballot box. Each blog links to countless others, so get ready to surf.

Andrew Coyne

National Post columnist Andrew Coyne is not fond of Stephen Harper, but he likes him better than Paul Martin (and a lot better than Stockwell Day). Coyne backs his convictions with statistics looking at taxation rates and the like. The site frames the stories of the day in a broader political and historical context. The site features lively discussion boards and excellent links to other election sites. Media types will appreciate his breakdown of campaign coverage.

Inkless Wells

Maclean's correspondent Paul Wells posts updates several times a day on subjects ranging from campaign-bus food -- every politico's favourite subject -- to analysis of the candidates' media presentations. He also provides useful links to policy documents, such as the Liberals' plan for health-care reform. Wells is sometimes accused of being a Liberal shill, but he targets Martin as often as he does Harper.

MediaScout

MediaScout, a blog run by Maisonneuve magazine, collects links to election stories and provides brief but critical analysis. Another reason Maisonneuve is the Canadian magazine to watch.

Warren Kinsella

Former Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella offers an insider's perspective on the Liberal campaign -- with the clear caveat that he's not a Martin supporter. More gossip than analysis, the site is useful for its frequent links to election-related news stories and its not-so-veiled references to Liberal infighting.

Across the Board

The National Post's editorial board presents "real-time impressions of the day's major news stories." Translation: The Post's editorial board provides brief opinion pieces on the stories of the day. The conversational tone is a nice change from the hysterical partisanship that dominates most blogs, but the best feature is the discussions between the bloggers, who frequently argue points with each other, especially about whether or not Paul Martin is anti-American.

Blogs Canada Election Group Blog

Blogs Canada, a sort of Google of Canadian blog links, has put together a group blog to cover the federal election. It has a mixed focus: While some bloggers cover the same news stories as every other site, others weigh in on issues such as the visual appearance of candidates and how the media cover smaller parties like the Greens. Blogs Canada E-Group Blog has a discussion board and also offers RSS, XML and Atom feeds for techies who know what those are.

The Citizen has its own bloggers covering the election. Check out the Robb Blog by veteran journalist Peter Robb. He's joined by columnist Susan Riley, whose Riley on the Road blog currently details life within the Martin campaign.

If you want to check the candidates' track records, a couple of websites present their positions in their own words. The Liberals created StephenHarperSaid.ca, which points out Harper's intolerance and various policy contradictions. The Conservatives responded with TeamMartinSaid.ca, which points out Martin's intolerance and various policy contradictions.

Want to comment? (discuss)

 


 

Don't buy this book: Download it free, says author and tech guy Cory Doctorow
Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, May 30, 2004
Page: C10
Section: The Citizen's Weekly:

A little more than a year ago, Cory Doctorow released Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a futuristic parable set in Disney World that was praised by almost every science-fiction magazine and writer around. Even Amazon chief Jeff Bezos praised the book. Thousands have since read it, quite an accomplishment for a first-time novelist. How did Doctorow pull off such a feat? Simple. He gave away digital copies of the book on his website.

The publishing experiment just may change the future of the industry. You'd assume a publisher would not want its author to flood the market with free versions of a book it was trying to sell. And yet Tor publishing gave Doctorow the go-ahead.

A little about Cory Doctorow: He's a Canadian who lives in London. Doctorow, who has been at the centre of emerging technologies since the birth of the Internet, now works as the Outreach Co-ordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit agency that works to ensure the free dissemination of information and to limit corporate control of technology. He's also a co-editor of Boing Boing, a tech culture website that gets more than 250,000 hits a month. Doctorow, who understands new technologies better than anyone, is convinced we're entering an era in which the methods, distribution and ownership of art are changing.

Doctorow was one of the first writers to license a work with Creative Commons, a group that allows artists to set the copyright terms for their art. The goal, in the words of Creative Commons' mission statement, is "to build a layer of reasonable, flexible copyright in the face of increasingly restrictive default rules." Think of it as a next-generation Napster controlled by the artists.

The organization is growing in popularity not only with writers, but also with visual artists, musicians and filmmakers. Licensed work spreads quickly on the Internet because it's free, easy to access and legal. Anyone can go to Doctorow's site, download and read his book, then pass on the file without worrying about copyright issues. In fact, that's exactly what Doctorow hopes you will do. The fact that Tor has gone into multiple printings for Down and Out suggests such exposure can lead to increased sales of commercial versions of the artist's work.

Is this the future of publishing? It's hard to say because the technology is still in flux and the question of digital rights is still before the courts. But the venture has certainly paid off for Doctorow. Tor has just released Doctorow's second novel, Eastern Standard Tribe, a tale of love and intrigue set in the social networks of the future. While the publisher is supporting the book with marketing, the free versions that circulate on the Web will be its best publicity.

Doctorow has made a digital version of Eastern Standard Tribe available on his website. He invites you to download the book, pass it on, convert it to other formats and to experiment with the future of the book.

And, of course, he invites you to buy Eastern Standard Tribe. You know, if you want.

Want to comment? (discuss)

Three writers who may change the way you read
Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, May 30, 2004
Page: C10
Section: The Citizen's Weekly:

Jim Munro
This former managing editor of Adbusters magazine is a champion of the do-it-yourself method. He published his first book, Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gas Mask, with HarperCollins, then decided he didn't want to be involved with corporate publishing and went solo. Munro proceeded to self-publish two more books -- Angry Young Spaceman and Everyone in Silico -- both of which were well received by critics and the public.

Munro offers Flyboy for free download on his site, but what's most interesting are his essays on self-publishing. He offers instructions on how to professionally make and distribute books, including how to get them into bookstores. Munro's an invaluable resource for those who want to go the alternative publishing route.

Scott McCloud
Comic guru Scott McCloud, best known for his books Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics, is trying to revolutionize the comics industry. McCloud believes the future of comics lies online, and he's experimenting with various ventures selling comics on his website. The latest is a strip called The Right Number, which he sells for 25 cents.

How is an artist supposed to make a living by selling work so cheap? McCloud hopes the low price point will win over readers reluctant to purchase online, and he'll make his money on sheer numbers. Check it out. It's only a quarter, after all.

Neal Pollack
Neal Pollack figures the best way to become a successful author is to first become a celebrity. So Pollack has created an alter-ego: Neal Pollack, the "Greatest Living American Writer." Pollack's first book was the Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, a collection of his essays, which was followed by Never Mind the Pollacks, a rock and roll novel. Realizing the true celebrity artists of today are rock stars, Pollack has put out a musical version of Never Mind the Pollacks, and his appearances are more concerts than traditional literary readings. Throw in his penchant for nude photos, and you've got the first celebrity author of the 21st century.

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Operation Funny Business: Cartoonists launch campaign of shock and draw
Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, May 23, 2004
Page: C3

With the world fixated on images coming out of Iraq, dramatic images are appearing on the homefront as well. A number of prominent comic artists are using their strips to wage war against the Bush administration. These pen and ink assaults have been met with shock and outrage.

Garry Trudeau led the charge in Doonesbury with a storyline in which B.D., a major character, loses a leg in an ambush in Iraq. The strip was pulled by several papers who cited everything from concerns about the language used when B.D. discovers his amputation to accusations Trudeau was exploiting the wounded to make a political point.

"I want to show the process of recovery and rehabilitation ... and the impact on family and friends," Trudeau responds. "B.D.'s life will never be the same."

A severed head appears in a Doonesbury strip that was to run today. Several newspapers, including the Citizen, pulled it and opted for a replacement supplied by Universal Press Syndicate, which explained that the original cartoon was drawn in April, before Nicholas Berg was beheaded in Iraq.

Younger artists are also taking aim. Aaron McGruder, who caused an uproar when he called Condoleezza Rice a mass murderer, has used his Boondocks cartoon to criticize the handling of the war.

In a recent strip, President Bush is stymied when he tries to return Iraq to a Pottery Barn. "You break it, you own it," he is told. Another strip featured a satiric treatment of the Iraqi prisoner-abuse scandal: "A bunch of men stripped, humiliated and abused physically and sexually? Sounds like every prison I've ever heard about in America."

The most controversial cartoon of late comes from the pen of Ted Rall about Pat Tillman, an ex-NFL player turned soldier who was recently killed in Afghanistan. Rall criticized the lionizing of Tillman in a column on his website -- "the media's decision to genuflect to a cult of death is terrifyingly similar to the cult of Palestinian suicide bombers in the Middle East" -- and called Tillman an "idiot" and a "sap" in the cartoon.

MSNBC.com, the host site, removed the strip after thousands of outraged readers wrote in (thanks in large part to prompting by the Drudge Report). Rall received death threats and suggestions he move to Canada. Ironically, Rall's far more contentious strips -- some featuring U.S. soldiers threatening Iraqis or torturing them in rape chambers -- have caused nowhere near the same outcry.

With the American presidential election coming up in a few months, you can bet that this battle is in the early stages.

Want to comment? (discuss)

 


 

Revenge of the Midlist Author: Writer's lament spreads faster than an e-mail virus
Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, April 4, 2004
Page: C11
Section: The Citizen's Weekly

Just a few months ago, lit lovers had all but abandoned Salon, condemning its bland and irrelevant book coverage. That changed when the website began to publish provocative articles that seemed designed to initiate lively, sometimes vicious, debate. From a savage attack on Chuck Palahniuk to a recent article pitting hip-hop against traditional poetry, Salon got people talking -- yelling, even.

Current outrage is directed at "Confessions of a Semi-Successful Author," a piece that appeared on the site last week. The article, written by "Jane Austen Doe," bemoaned the fate of the midlist author in an industry increasingly driven by a Hollywood-like quest for blockbusters.

Doe's story is a fairy tale gone awry. She received a $150,000 advance for her first book. After it sold a disappointing 10,000 copies, she couldn't secure a second deal. "What once was about literature is now about return on investment," she writes. She ultimately is forced to consider the worst scenario: Getting a job.

Doe's tale spread faster than an e-mail virus. Salon was deluged with letters, most condemning Doe for her audacity to complain about deals for which most writers pray. Almost everyone asked the same question: "Most writers can't make a living at their craft, so why should you?"

Self-proclaimed superstar author Neal Pollack pointed out in a letter that most writers in the U.S. earn an average of $4,000 a year -- and that's factoring in authors like Stephen King. By comparison, the $200,000 that Doe earned over 10 years looks pretty good. What seemed to aggravate critics most was Doe's fixation on her blockbuster potential. She barely discussed her books or her love of writing.

Yet Doe did raise serious questions about publishing and the future of literature. First and foremost: Why would anyone bother to pursue the life of a writer if there's no chance of making a living at it?

This question was followed up earlier this week in a Globe and Mail column by author Lynn Coady, who asked a number of writers, including me, why "Confessions" caused such an outcry. Most seemed to agree the article exposed problems with the industry and the increasing inability of writers to make a living at their profession.

While Doe seems content to blame publishers, the real culprit may be booksellers. In the essay "What's Wrong with Publishing," which Doe quotes in "Confessions," literary critic Jeff Kirvin argues the advent of big-box retailers created a "writing crash."

Kirvin argues a healthy midlist used to be crucial to a publishing house because it subsidized front-list losses. Big-box retailers -- with high turnover rates, crippling return policies and demands for steep discounts -- force publishers to concentrate on potential blockbusters at the expense of the midlist. The situation will only get worse as Wal-Mart ramps up the bookselling side of its business. Doomsayers like Kirvin expect the world of publishing to collapse, bringing down both publishers and bookstores.

In the end, Doe presents a cautionary tale that raises many questions. What does it mean for literature when innovation and artistic experimentation are stifled because they're not considered a good return on investment? What does it mean when a few authors are billionaires while most won't earn a cent from their writing? What does it mean when writers give up because the only thing that matters to publishers is the bottom line?

Is "Confessions" about the death of the midlist author? Or is it about the death of literature? Let the debate begin.

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The dark heart of the urban dream
Vancouver Sun
Saturday, April 3, 2004
Page: D18
Section: Books

With the publication of her first book, Oxygen, Annabel Lyon established herself as this generation's answer to Alice Munro. A master of wordplay and storytelling, Lyon takes readers deep into the hearts and secret desires of her characters, exploring the gaps between the lives people want to lead and the lives they are forced to lead. As in Munro's writing, perspective plays an important role, if not the central one, in Lyon's work.

Lyon's voice, however, is entirely her own, and she's crafted a new language of emotion with it.

The novellas collected in The Best Thing for You present three different visions of Vancouver. The first, "No Fun," is set in the present and features a young professional couple leading a dream life.

Kate's a doctor, Liam's a film professor. They live near the beach and are the envy of their friends. They make love frequently and hire landscapers to recreate Tuscany in their yard. But when their son becomes a suspect in the beating of a mentally handicapped man, the fantasy quickly turns to nightmare.

The more Kate and Liam try to determine whether or not their son was actually involved in the attack, the more uncertain they become about their lives, and they begin to question their relationship with each other, their middle-class existence, even their own identities. Liam retreats into the world of his films, while Kate drifts around the edges of an affair.

The carefully constructed narrative of their life is revealed to be just one possible version, and they are overwhelmed by conflicting stories. Their son provides one account of the night of the attack, while their lawyer composes another. Liam deflects his colleagues' concerns about the stress in his life by making up lies about Kate having cancer. Even their memories are revealed to be no more than heavily edited tales they've convinced themselves to believe.

"No Fun" raises more questions than it answers, but that's exactly the point. It's a thoughtful consideration of the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives and impose meaning and order where there is none.

Storytelling is the focus of the book's middle novella, "The Goldberg Metronome." This story is itself made up of a series of stories that a young couple, Anika and Thom, tell each other to explain the discovery of a metronome taped to some pipes in their new apartment. They imagine a dramatic history for the metronome, tracing its origins through Nazi Germany and the anarchist movements of the '60s and '70s to its eventual arrival in Vancouver.

That the stories they tell have no basis in reality doesn't matter to them; what does matter is the escape they provide. By attaching the metronome to moments of historical significance, they also attach some import to their own lives, which are dreary and uncertain as they struggle to find employment and a life they can afford. And as they continue to elaborate on the metronome's past, it becomes a key part of their history together, and even a metaphor for their shared life.

Anika and Thom eventually lose the metronome, but they do so when they find employment and success. Lyon deserves credit, however, for refusing to end on a note of romantic escapism, or even certainty. Anika and Thom finally get to live their lives in a significant historical moment, one that defines their lives and relationship. But, unbeknownst to them it's a moment doomed to end in failure and disaster.

The novella thus raises questions about its own ending. Happy? Tragic? Again, it depends on how you look at it.

The book's title novella is the most overtly concerned with perspective. Set in 1940s Vancouver, it follows a housewife's plot to murder her husband with the help of her lover, a young butcher. The story is told from the viewpoints of the housewife and the son of an insurance agent who is ruined because of the scheme, and each has a very different understanding of events.

But the heart of the story lies less in the murder plot and its aftermath than in the characters' examinations of their lives. Their yearnings, secret desires and sense of things lost -- of lives not lived -- are summed up in what they choose to see in the world around them. The psychological effect of this is further heightened by Lyon's heavy use of dramatic adjectives and adverbs -- the morning is "limpid yellow," the minutes fall "like dominoes." This stylistic choice is off-putting until it becomes clear that she is deliberately overwriting in order to adopt a historical voice appropriate to the time frame and subject matter.

The tale is all the more remarkable for Lyon's ability to make us understand, if not sympathize with, all the characters involved, who are often at odds with each other.

The Best Thing for You is a book that should be read widely, but it's a special treat for Vancouver residents, who will recognize many of the city's landmarks, from Kitsilano's beaches to Delaney's coffee shop. The city is a character in the book, one that is made up of all the secrets and dreams of its residents, and never runs out of stories to tell.

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Endnotes: Dare to get graphic: From bestsellers to Hollywood adaptations, this was the year of the graphic novel. Of course 'popular' doesn't always mean 'good.' PETER DARBYSHIRE considers a list of the year's critical hits
Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, December 7, 2003
Page: C14
Section: The Citizen's Weekly

The Fixer
By Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco pioneered "comic book journalism" with Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, harrowing documentaries of life in war zones. Here Sacco tells the story of Sarajevo that the media couldn't -- or wouldn't -- tell about the siege of the city. In this Pulitzer-worthy book, he uses the accounts of Neven, a footsoldier, to reveal a complex reality in which allies preyed upon each other and fact became indistinguishable from fiction. (Raincoast, $36.95)

The Sandman: Endless Nights
By Neil Gaiman

Returning to the critically acclaimed comic series that made him famous, Neil Gaiman presents seven new tales of the Endless, immortal beings who personify such concepts as Destiny, Dream and Desire. A different artist illustrates each tale -- assignments that were perfectly matched to story and character. Endless Nights lacks the complexity and breadth of the original series, but Gaiman fans will love it anyway. (DC Comics, Little Brown, $37.95)

The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist
By Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon teams up with Dark Horse comics to present The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, a comic anthology series featuring characters from his Pulitzer-winning novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Presented in the style of comic book eras from the '40s to the present, the series pays homage to the forgotten pioneers of the form. (Dark Horse, $8.95 U.S.)

Quimby the Mouse
By Chris Ware

Thanks to Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, graphic novels are being taken seriously as an art form. Quimby the Mouse is a collection of comic strips featuring the misadventures of a cartoon mouse who endures a Beckettian existence of suffering and despair. Ware infuses Quimby's tales with fake ads and animation iconography, deconstructing the very medium of comics and reassembling it as a hybrid art form that is part autobiography, part existentialist tract and part meditation on the creative process. Ware is the James Joyce of comic artists. (Fantagraphics Books, $24.95 U.S.)

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
By Mariane Satrapi

Persepolis tells the story of the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath from the perspective of six-year-old Mariane Satrapi. Part autobiography, part history of Iran, Satrapi reveals the human impact of the revolution by focusing on the struggle of her family, wealthy secularists, to adapt. The story is beautifully complemented by the artwork, a simple but elegant mix of western and Middle Eastern art styles. Persepolis is simultaneously an elegy for Iran and a celebration of the spirit of the Iranian people, especially those who continue to resist the rule of the mullahs today. A must-read for all members of the Bush administration. (Pantheon, $26.95)

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
By Alan Moore

While the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an older book, it deserves a mention because of its recent re-release and film adaptation. Moore creates a bridge between the literary and comic book worlds by casting characters from classic novels -- Dr. Jekyll, Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain -- as the equivalent of superheroes. The plot follows the quest of the League to thwart the destruction of London, but this is just an excuse for Moore to explore his favourite subjects: the responsibility of power, the human side of myths, the perils of conformity. Along the way, Moore throws in nods to comics history and enough literary allusions to keep even Harold Bloom happy. A modern classic. (DC Comics, Little Brown, $37.95)

The Boulevard of Broken Dreams
By Kim Deitch

Destined to become one of the canonical texts of the genre, Boulevard follows the growth and decline of an animation studio, whose employees are driven mad by a hallucinatory cat that is kind of a composite of Mickey Mouse and his countercultural opposite, Felix the Cat. Equal parts history, allegory and artistic romp, Boulevard is both an exploration of the role of the artist and a sharp critique of the ways animation has been drained of artistic merit and social value by the entertainment industry. (Pantheon, $32)

Summer Blonde
By Adrian Tomine

Adrian Tomine is the Raymond Carver of comics. Summer Blonde collects eerie tales of urban life, despair and isolation. While Carver identified the failures of the American Dream, Tomine charts its transformation into nightmare. Tomine's characters, all damaged in some way by society, explore the casual brutality of teenagers growing up in the media bombardment of the first Gulf War and the alienating effects of office life. A chronicle of the CNN generation. (Drawn & Quarterly, $26.95)

Nufonia Must Fall
By Kid Koala

A 21st-century love story and a musical novel, Nufonia is created by Montreal DJ Kid Koala. The story, which comes with a CD to be played while reading, follows a near-obsolete robot who falls in love with a human office worker in a world where everything is on the brink of a breakdown. Only daydreams offer solace. The story is told in black and white and without dialogue, but it has all the tenderness of a Charlie Chaplin silent film. Encore. (ECW Press, $29.95)

Louis Riel: A Comic-strip Biography
By Chester Brown

Chester Brown depicts the story of Louis Riel in spare black-and-white panels with a minimum of nuance -- the characters are mainly ciphers -- but the result is anything but simple. Brown takes Canadian history and manages to make it (a) entertaining and (b) a bit more complicated thanks to the attention he pays to construction of the Riel myth. Brown explores Riel's lesser-known characteristics. A "comic book" that should be required reading in history classes. (Drawn & Quarterly, $36.95)

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Stuart Ross poet-in-residence: Toronto writer to make himself at home in hospitality suite of Ottawa writersfest
Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, September 28, 2003
Page: C7
Section: The Citizen's Weekly

In Hey, Crumbling Balcony, Stuart Ross makes the life of a poet seem like a dangerous, adrenaline-fuelled affair. He describes days spent dodging fists while selling his books on the streets of Toronto and nights spent in passionate conversations about art. This is a man who lives poetry.

It comes as a surprise then to discover Ross had to be talked into releasing a selected works of his poetry.

"It felt embarrassing," he says from his home in Toronto, where he has spent a day wandering used bookstores. "It wasn't like there was a huge demand for my books."

The fact that Ross has had little mainstream media attention, to say nothing of the fact he is arguably only in midcareer, does raise the question why he merits a selected works -- especially considering it's one of only three poetry books to be published in hardcover this year.

But Ross is no ordinary poet. With his leading role in Canada's underground lit community -- he co-founded Toronto's Small Press Book Fair -- and more than 35 books to his credit, Ross has a diverse and complex career that would take several anthologies to capture.

Despite the challenges, Hey, Crumbling Balcony succeeds. Not surprisingly, many of the poems here display Ross's signature absurdism, such as "The Shopping Mall," in which a boy and a mall become fused together, or "The Telephone Call," in which a man uses an oyster to call Jacques Cousteau.

What the selection makes clear, however, is that his poems are less exercises in surrealism and more eerie, critical takes on our society.

"I like the idea of banality turned inside out," Ross says, and adds he enjoys provoking readers with unsettling images and odd twists of language, in order to make them rethink their lives. It's a strategy he calls "deliberate annoyance."

But Ross admits there an utopian impulse to his work. "My poems often seem to be about the impossible becoming possible." This tendency manifests itself in a tenderness that runs through the book, as well as a quiet yearning.

In "Frank Poem #1," a man becomes smitten by a woman in the office cafeteria: "we both work in this office building, / though for different companies, / but we find ourselves approaching / the same cashier so often. Is this alone / not reason for love?"

Inevitably though, the love, or at least connections between people, is distorted and frustrated by our commercialized, sterile world. One of Ross's most requested poems at readings, "Home Shopping," features a "transcendental love" that is replaced by an obsession with the products sold on late-night television -- the Deluxe Toilet Splatter Shield and the Arnold Palmer Hair Restoration Kit.

Ross reveals that "Home Shopping" was written in Ottawa. "I had been profoundly in love there," he says, "and then things fell apart in Toronto. The next time I visited Ottawa, everything reminded me of that. It was a long day of emotional sightseeing, of my past and broken hopes and things, and then at the end of it I was sitting around with some friends and some infomercials came on. And they admitted to buying one of these things that completely didn't work. Then they went to bed and I started writing."

In fact, Ross has a strong connection with Ottawa. He visits frequently and is a regular reader at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. This year he will be poet-in-residence and a featured performer at the festival jam on Oct. 11.

It would be safe to say Ross is preoccupied with exploring the tension between the community we want to live in and the community we find ourselves in. It's a subject he turns to again in his later poems, after his mother, a brother and then his father died and he spent more time in the Jewish community as a way of re-examining his roots. Some of his most thoughtful and moving poems come from this period.

"Even in the case of an atheist like myself, there was a real comfort taken in my religion," he says. "In the rituals and everyone coming together. My mother's death was the most profound thing that had happened to me at that point, so it became a bigger part of my life and started creeping into my writing that way."

The question Hey, Crumbling Balcony raises, of course, is where Ross goes from here. Fiction.

"The 'selected' feels like such a milestone," he says, "which is, I think, why I've begun a novel.

"It may be a year or two before I get back to writing poetry again." He pauses. "I'll be really interested in seeing what form it takes."

So will we.

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Taking CanLit to the Next Level: Peter Darbyshire presents 10 good reasons to read away your summer
Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, July 6, 2003
Page: C8 / FRONT
Section: The Citizen's Weekly

Caught up in a swirl of patriotism on Canada Day, we asked Citizen staffer Peter Darbyshire to identify Canada's up-and-coming writers. So who is Darbyshire to judge? For starters, he's the author of Please, which was published to enthusiastic reviews last fall by Raincoast. That makes him an up-and-comer. Takes one to know one, we say.

Darbyshire's novel, set in the world of alienated young people in Toronto, has been praised in a starred Kirkus review as "a winner of a debut."

The review added: "Darbyshire has a sharp eye for the absurd, and he's ruthless in holding the ridiculous up to ridicule."

Citizen humour columnist Charles Gordon praised Please as "hilarious in a dark, but always humane, way."

"Please," said the Toronto Star, in a favourable review, "has the texture of a recurring slow-motion underwater dreamworld."

Darbyshire's novel was recently honoured with the 2003 ReLit -- that's Regarding Literature, Reinventing Literature, Relighting Literature -- an award that celebrates the best in books published by independent publishers. So that makes him a writer to watch.

When people talk about Darbyshire's writing, names get dropped: Carver, Tarantino, Bukowski, Palahniuk (minus the rage) and, well, Eddie Van Halen. So who better than Darbyshire to name some names? Put Please at the top of your reading list this summer, then add these 10 names:

George Murray
'Language from the chaos'

George Murray wrote two books of poetry before his latest collection, The Hunter.

Carousel and The Cottage Builder's Letter were well received, but in his latest work Murray casts off all he has learned and draws a new language from the chaos and uncertainty of our time. The Hunter is a collection of philosophical musings on ... well, it's difficult to sum up. The book takes fragments of history, both recent and distant; snippets of mythology; excerpts from religious texts; thoughts on modern life, and assembles them into a meditation on apocalypse.

The poems almost read as aphorisms, only Murray refuses to invest them with any degree of certainty or even wisdom, opting for more ambiguous proclamations imbued with an eerie, prophetic spirit. The influence of 9/11 is present everywhere here (even on the cover, which features the sundered skyline of New York City), and it's no surprise -- Murray works near the World Trade Center site, and he was caught up in the events of that day. Yet many of the poems in the book predate 9/11, as if Murray sensed the coming storm. He returned to Canada on July 1, a move he says that is entirely symbolic.

Tamas Dobozy
'Fearless writing'

Tamas Dobozy's debut novel, Doggone, was a freewheeling romp about a man's obsessions with killing a diseased dog and tracking down an ex-girlfriend. Along the way Dobozy shattered every rule of fiction, as comfortable with experimentation as he was with storytelling.

If Doggone reveals a young writer learning his craft, Dobozy's new collection, When X Equals Marylou, displays a master. The stories are mainly character studies, but Dobozy resists straightforward storytelling, offering up his characters through a prism of hallucinatory language and temporal shifts.

Dobozy gives us fractured glimpses into the lives of his weird, crazed losers -- each character's worth a novel. There's a teacher whose roommate is a crazed boxer who wants his dreams, a woman who slowly goes mad and loses her child because of her obsessions with libraries and literary theory, a pyromaniac child who becomes a pawn in the struggle between his aunt and her not-so-secretly gay husband. They embody the frantic, chaotic nature of modern life, and it's no surprise that all they really want is to escape themselves.

Absolutely fearless writing.

Derek McCormack
'His anonymity is a national loss'

Derek McCormack may be Canadian literature's best-kept secret. He's the author of two linked short-story collections (Dark Rides, Wish Book), a collaborative text with poet Chris Chambers about the CNE (Wild Mouse) and several beautiful chapbooks.

Yet most Canadians haven't heard of McCormack, except for perhaps the time he trashed Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces in the Globe and Mail. His anonymity is a national loss, given his concerns with questions of Canadian identity. McCormack's stories feature a gay narrator wandering about small-town Ontario of the 1940s and 1950s, and his misadventures in sexuality are simultaneously absurd, brutal and hilarious. McCormack's style is uber-minimal, but he invests each line with layers of subtext. McCormack reworks the tropes and themes of earlier Canadian works, undermining many of the social assumptions upon which our literary history is grounded.

Don't mistake McCormack for yet another Canadian writer preoccupied with history, though; his sensibility is entirely contemporary.

It would be hard to find a book more relevant to our time than Wish Book, a catalogue-inspired collection that explores the relationship between sexual identity and the ideology of consumerism. Pick it up, pass it on.

Zsuzsi Gartner
'Original, visionary writing'

Zsuzsi Gartner has but one book to her name: the short-story collection All the Anxious Girls on Earth. Everyone's waiting for the second book, though, because Anxious Girls is some of the most original, visionary writing to come out of Canada in the past few decades.

Gartner takes aim at our literary tradition in the first story, "How to Survive in the Bush," which playfully takes apart the wilderness themes that have dominated Canadian writing. After that, she takes readers on a trip through modern culture that's as surreal as it is deeply social. "City of My Dreams" imagines an apocalyptic end to Vancouver that will appeal equally to both those who hate and love the city, while "The Nature of Pure Evil" follows a woman who makes up bomb threats to get even with her ex-boyfriend. Some of the stories almost defy description, such as "Pest Control for Dummies," which features a woman trying to describe her life to a fetus that is actually her brother, who died when she was born.

It's a mad world, and Gartner revels in it.

Seth
'A romantic at heart'

Seth is a master of what is quietly becoming the most innovative genre around these days: the graphic novel.

While many people still think that anything with illustrations must be entertainment for children, Seth is producing beautifully rendered works of art that double as social criticism.

He is perhaps best known for his comic series Palookaville, but his finest work to date is It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, an elegantly rendered tale of Seth's attempts to track down an elusive comic artist from the 1950s. The quest -- and it's a quest in the best Joycean sense -- is really a meditation on contemporary culture, as Seth struggles to find something genuine and real in our generic, prepackaged world.

Seth's not all social commentary, though; he's also a romantic at heart, and It's a Good Life is full of love stories -- not only of poignant human relationships, but also of the passions people choose to follow in their lives.

It's the whole human condition, really.

Sheila Heti
'Defies expectations'

Sheila Heti became one of the most talked about new writers in Canada on the strength of a handful of stories. In 1999, she sent five pieces to the underground lit journal McSweeney's. Publisher Dave Eggers liked them so much he released them as a mini-book in McSweeney's, alongside such writers as Rick Moody and Haruki Murakami. Heti expanded the mini-book into a collection, The Middle Stories, which received widespread acclaim. Even those critical of Heti's loose, dreamlike style had to admit that she was charting new ground in the predictable landscape of CanLit, and that perhaps she'd left the land entirely.

Heti's stories defy expectations, while at the same time rewriting literary conventions. The book is a collection of postmodern fairy tales and fractured parables: a princess and plumber have an unorthodox, and deadly, relationship; a woman wakes up with two men she doesn't know and tries to figure out what it means; another woman, or perhaps the same woman, finds herself in the middle of a strange relationship between a poet and a novelist who live together.

They're tales for a world that no longer makes sense, that is in the middle of a transition to something else, something unknowable. Rather than succumbing to the usual angst and uncertainty displayed by so many other young writers, Heti finds her home in the moments where it all comes apart.

Gil Adamson
'A shot of adrenalin'

With her first book of fiction, the collection of linked stories Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, Gil Adamson delivered a shot of adrenalin straight to the heart of the tired, faltering suburban dystopia genre. Adamson used much of the same subject matter as Raymond Carver and company -- dysfunctional families, meaningless social rituals, futile quests for meaning -- but viewed it through the surreal lens of late 20th-century popular culture. Bars are decorated with the parts of lost NASA satellites, children read TV Guide for entertainment, and young men play Miami Vice in the streets. The narrator, a young girl, drifts through this world of confused, lost people in a coming-of-age tale that is as equally eerie as it is comic.

There are also hints of poignancy here, as the narrator's emotional growth comes not from any great voyage of self-discovery, but in her slow understanding of the failed dreams of those around her.

Although Adamson is not exactly new on the scene, she certainly deserves more recognition. Her new book, the poetry collection Ashland (or short, short story collection, depending on how you look at it), has just been released by ECW Press. It features a demented preacher, a crazed woman sniper, talking lice, a father who can't wait to die and escape his family, and a god who wants nothing to do with us.

Michel Basilieres
'Magic'

Michel Basilieres' debut novel, Black Bird, is one of the most visionary books ever to come out of Canada. It tells the tale of the Desouche family, three generations of English- and French-Canadians who live together in the same Montreal house during the October Crisis.

Rather than rehashing history, Black Bird transforms this chapter of Quebec's past into a mythic tale. The elder Descouche men are graverobbers who sell bodies to a mad doctor, until they embark on a mission to steal a dead saint's heart, which miraculously still bleeds, from a Montreal church. The youngest son is a writer whose play about the family is turned into a political manifesto by separatists. The youngest daughter is herself a separatist guerrilla with delusions of grandeur, while the mother of the household cannot wake up from a mysterious coma. The story of this family is interesting enough on its own for a novel, but Basilieres raises the stakes by mixing them up with the kidnapping of British diplomat John Cross and the subsequent imposition of the War Measures Act, an event that shaped the history of Quebec. Toss in a reanimated corpse, a cunning crow and a ghost for good measure.

Realism? No.

Magic? Yes.

Kevin Chong
'Unpredictability and irreverence'

Kevin Chong's debut novel, Baroque-a-Nova is a coming-of-age novel, a satire of suburbia and a dry, ironic take on pop culture. While this may sound like a lot to tie together in a single book, Chong pulls it off.

The novel is fuelled by a steady mix of unpredictability and irreverence, and a sense of the absurd that will make readers wince with recognition as often as they laugh.

Baroque-a-Nova is narrated by Saul St. Pierre, the teenaged son of a mildly successful folk duo who split up long ago and have since fallen into obscurity. Their reputation is resurrected when a German political-pop band samples one of their songs, but the attention causes Saul's mother to kill herself, and forces Saul into an overdue attempt to understand his family and its past. Saul goes from being a cynical observer of his surroundings into an actual participant in life, but Chong makes sure the book never descends into the usual CanLit melodrama. Saul's concern for his mother is overshadowed by his attempts to seduce his father's house guests (a pair of women who travel the world by asking celebrities if they can visit) and the politics of high-school life, which feature an anti-censorship demonstration with a rented mob.

Chong's also made a name for himself as a critic, in large part due to an article he published in the National Post complaining about the state of book reviewing in this country. Buy the book now, because you'll be reading a lot more of Chong in the future.

Nancy Lee
'Eerily sensitive to the undercurrents'

Nancy Lee takes subject matter that has been beaten to death -- generation gaps, the angst of teenaged girls and the boys who want them, the violence of relationships -- and invests it all with new life in her debut collection, Dead Girls. The result is a Frankenstein-like mixture of the grotesque and the beautiful. The stories in Dead Girls orbit loosely around the capture of a serial killer and the discovery of his female victims, and the sense of unease created by this backdrop seeps out of the television news and into the lives of the characters.

A woman searches for her missing daughter among the prostitutes of Vancouver, fearing the worst; a pair of women in a minivan strike out against all the male abuse they've endured; a woman's relationship with her father is unravelled through sections named after her body parts.

Lee's Vancouver is a world of strip malls and sterile suburbs, where the beauty of the natural world is glimpsed only from afar, and sex and violence are inextricably linked. Yet the stories are also tied together with, if not love, then quiet longing.

Dead Girls is a tender portrait of a cold, incomprehensible world, and it establishes Lee as a writer who is eerily sensitive to the undercurrents of loss and desperation that direct all our lives.

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It's a marine thing: Timely memoir, reveals a life that can only be described as inherently mad
Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, March 23, 2003
Page: C7
Section: The Citizen's Weekly

The old saying that war is good for the economy certainly rings true for book publishers. The first Gulf War created a subgenre, and now, more than 10 years later in the war's sequel, the books keep coming.

The latest entry is Jarhead, a memoir by marine sniper Anthony Swofford. The book's cover image -- a marine gazing across the desert at burning oil wells -- suggests it is a narrative primarily about the Gulf War, but in fact that conflict is only one part of the book. Swofford details his journey through the world of the Marine Corps itself, and a stranger and more surreal place you will not find.

From his anecdotes of marines viewing war movies to get psyched for battle to his accounts of the branding of new recruits, Swofford describes a life that can only be described as inherently mad, a way of life fundamentally alien to those outside of it but strangely comforting and intimate to those within it, many of whom have no other family.

Absurdity is the rule, such as when a commander orders Swofford's platoon to play football in chemical protection suits in the desert. And life and death is a matter of chance, as when Swofford survives friendly fire simply because of where he is standing.

As fascinating, and sometimes comical, as these moments are, the heart of the book lies in Swofford's attempts to negotiate a system intended to break down individuals into extensions of their weapons, to make them interchangeable cogs in the war machine. Swofford becomes a sniper primarily because snipers are allowed to be individual -- that is, odd. No one thinks it odd to find a sniper sitting in the desert reading The Iliad.

Like any good narrative, Swofford's struggle to maintain his sense of self in the military machine is dramatic and filled with tension. He entertains fantasies of his own brutalization at the hands of the Corps (he has visions of his drill sergeant beating him to a pulp), which eventually evolve into suicide fantasies.

The only people who understand are other marines, who help him to cope by slapping him around and taking him on all-night runs. It's a marine thing.

Perhaps the most haunting part of Swofford's struggle is the guilt he feels for not having killed anyone directly while in the Corps, despite being in a number of battles. Swofford expresses the feeling in the Corps that killing is what makes a man a true soldier and, while he is able to intellectually grasp the problems with that kind of logic, he can't get over his failure to live up to the idealized super soldiers of the Hollywood war films.

Even after he has left the Corps he has fantasies about the people he could have killed and what he would have told people back home if he were a killer.

Swofford is as literary as he is journalistic. Jarhead is a layered, impressionistic book that could as easily be a novel for all its complex themes and evocation of a fantastic, hyper-dangerous world.

The real tribute to Swofford's skills as a writer is the fact that he makes the reader understand the weirdly addictive nature of this world, and the fact that once you enter, you can never leave.

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