REVIEW: Where Bears Roam The Streets

Where Bears Roam the Streets
by Jeff Parker
Harper Collins (2014)
Reviewed by Lizy Mostowski

Jeff Parker captures post-Soviet, pre-Sochi Olympics Russia through the lens of both an outsider and an insider—he is not Russian-born—Parker was raised in Florida—yet he isn’t the Western journalist who coined the hashtag #sochiproblems either. He began travelling with an international writing program—Summer Literary Seminars, founded by Concordia University Professor Mikhail Iossel—to St. Petersburg in 1998, and has had a taste for Russia ever since.

This book is the fruit of ten summers’ (and a couple of winters’) worth of travelling through Russia with his friend Igor, Where Bears Roam the Streets shows two perspectives on the same experience: Parker’s own American perspective as well as Igor’s Russian perspective. Parker’s lens transitions from that of an investigative reporter, to that of a tourist, and finally to that of a writer, all while giving readers simultaneously a tour of and a guide to Russia that is both humourous and practical, allowing for lighthearted yet weighty insights, for example the difference between how Russians and Americans use the metric system: “Russian bartenders measure alcohol in the units North Americans reserve for cocaine and saturated fat.”

In writing Where the Bears Roam the Streets: A Russia Journal, Jeff Parker himself inhabits a characteristic that he recognizes in his Russian friends—what he calls “the Duality”, or put simply, the tendency to contradict yourself—he is an insider to Western readers and an outsider to Russian readers—his take of Russia is at once honest and critical. First Parker calls Bruce Hopper’s accusation that Russians are “a contradictory animal” politically incorrect and soon echoes the idea: “Russians are known simultaneously for their great capacity for hospitality to strangers and for hard-core xenophobia.” His narrative voice is always aware of itself, unafraid to reveal the spaces where he is unable to guide his reader. “Much of this performance is either beyond my Russian or untranslatable”, Parker admits when transcribing a conversation. This model of duality is used to discuss various aspects of Russian society: “I do not know any poetry by heart, and I am an English professor,” the beauty of a Russian education is allowed to shine through when Parker notes that you cannot expect an American farmer to know Whitman, but can expect a Russian farmer to pick his favourite among the Russian greats. Though memorization is not acclaimed as the best method to teach literature, Parker still allows the old model a nostalgic place in his commentary. Concurrently, Parker critiques American society and culture while drawing a realistic portrait of contemporary Russia. Both his perspective and his character as it appears throughout the book have a certain contradictory quality: he admits to being perceived as a spy to some and to others a celebrity while travelling through Russia.

Though he is not perfectly fluent in Russian, he is mistaken for a Russian by fellow Americans visiting St. Petersburg for Summer Literary Seminars: “You hardly have an accent,” they told him. Parker admits to never having mastered the Russian slang called mat, however is proud of master speaking English with a Russian accent. Whether through meticulous research, experience, or personal knowledge, Parker is a perfect translator from his Russian experience to written English, explaining linguistic nuances in Russian language as well as he explains the politics of cultural rituals in Russia. He explains krolik is “domesticated rabbit, not hare” and diminutive forms mean not only that we are friends, but “My fish are cuter.” The physical and psychological benefits of the Russian banya—the steam room, the birch beatings, the cold bath—are recognized as well as humourized in the book, “There were Russian jokes during World War II suggesting that if they could only get Hitler into a banya, they could end the war.”

Russia is portrayed in a light that is neither condemning nor valourizing—the encounters with the types of cops my parents remember from Communist Poland, the beauty of the Eastern European belief that vodka cures everything, and the shadow that is domestic abuse are all equally explored with careful attention. Parker is able to smoothly transition between serious and whimsical aspects of contemporary Russian culture. His comments on Russian society are both overt and subtle: “The problem is people have nothing to live for,” he writes in his examination of Russian “democracy”. “I saw a theatre-beggar at the coat check retrieving a mink coat,” Parker notes of a beggar that spent his earnings on a theatre ticket. “Russians confuse power with sexiness,” Parker cleverly states, noting that the post-Soviet, pre-Putin desire to escape that resulted in the stereotype of the Russian mail-order bride diminished after Putin’s election along with the desire to escape Russia. This is the book that should have been (if only it came out a year earlier) on the required reading list of every Western reporter who travelled to Sochi to cover the 2014 Winter Olympics. If the reporters who tweeted #sochiproblems had read of Igor’s experience staying in a hotel in Britain, I doubt that we would have so many photos of Russian bathrooms with sarcastic taglines archived on the internet. Igor’s reaction to Western luxury would allow Westerners a new perspective: “‘Everyday, we were sitting and wondering why she is giving us every day two rolls,’ Igor says. ‘Like we were shitting all day.’” The culture shock that Igor experienced is well conveyed by Parker: “Did the cleaning lady imagine Russian men like them went through two rolls of toilet paper per day? Was it some kind of insult?” Through Igor and his experience, Parker is able to tell Russia’s truth that some of these journalists were not able to perforate. Cultural symbols and phenomena that seem familiar to a Western audience are translated to the reader to a Russian perspective: “McDonald’s is popular here because of its bathroom,” Igor tells Parker, “People all over the city go there to pee.” Where the Bears Roam the Streets allows Western readers to read Russian society through a lens that is neither entirely foreign nor entirely familiar to them, allowing them to experience Russia without the pretention of Western expectation.

REVIEW: The Geography of Pluto

The Geography of Pluto
By Christopher DiRaddo
Cormorant Books (2014)

Read by Su J. Sokol

The surface terrain of The Geography of Pluto, Christopher DiRaddo’s debut novel, is a deceptively familiar landscape. Will, the main character, is gay, Italian, a geography teacher, and the only son of a devoted mother. He seeks connection in his life, suffers loss, and gains understanding of himself and the world. We even have a kind of “boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy finds boy” plot device.

Yet, despite these ordinary trappings, this is not your run-of-the mill novel. It’s the story of a gay man growing into middle adulthood in a very particular place — Montréal. DiRaddo writes about Montréal as though it were a character in the story, bringing it to life even for readers who aren’t familiar with the bars and stretches of sidewalk that his characters inhabit. The tone DiRaddo evokes is unmistakably Canadian, with long, cold winters and drawn-out moments of darkness and light. Even Will’s pet peeve — people who air their dirty laundry in public places — exhibits a very Canadian sensibility.

What is also noteworthy about this novel is its versatility. It can be categorized as an urban story, as gay literature, or as a mainstream Canadian novel, equally comfortable on any of those shelves. This is a neat trick. In this niche world, it’s easy for books that try to be many things to end up falling through the cracks. Somehow, DiRaddo has not only managed to avoid this hazard, he’s done the opposite by creating bridges. Because of this,The Geography of Pluto has helped to bring gay literature into the Canadian mainstream. It is able to do this precisely because the story is written in an ordinary literary style about an ordinary person facing challenges that are also, by and large, ordinary, no less so for the fact that they are difficult and poignant. At the same time, DiRaddo has succeeded in mainstreaming this story without sanitizing or heteronormalizing his characters’ lives.

The title of DiRaddo’s book — The Geography of Pluto — brings to mind that popular-culture bestseller of the nineties: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Are gay men from Pluto or are we simply “all one race, the human race”, as the popular aphorism would have it? The beauty of this book is that it helps to answer that question in all its complexity with a resounding “both.” Will’s story is universal, and the ordinary way in which it is told emphasizes this universality while making it accessible to a large constellation of readers. Yet, the content of Will’s story diverges from the usual narratives found in the majority literary culture. For some, this will be a sneak peak into an alien world; for others it will feel like their story has finally been brought from the margins to the centre. In the end, whether the reader is familiar with the geography of Pluto or whether this is a first visit to foreign territory, it will still be a voyage well worth taking.

REVIEW: The Uncertainty Principle

The Uncertainty Principle
by Roxanna Bennett
Tightrope Books (2014)

Read by Julie Mannell

Roxanna Bennett’s debut poetry collection The Uncertainty Principle is a solitary basket of trinkets and memory souvenirs exposed through solemn confession—inviting you to participate in its unrealized possibilities, the magnetic imagining of a mystical mind.

The confession and fantasy starts with a poem that pays homage to the father of confession, Leonard Cohen, but the voice is not Cohen’s; this is not Cohen’s longing. There are portraits of men and it is not difficult to perceive the voice behind the words sitting alone at a bar, looking at strangers, and constructing elaborate fables of potential romance, adventure, and some kind of actualization of the wholeness the voice so unabashedly yearns for.

While the poems possess both whimsy in their fantasy and frank bodily imagery of gorged aortas, fresh organs, and shocks of skin, it rests in the emotional displacement of the present. I don’t believe this is an accident on the part of the writer, it gives the text room to conceive and reflect, that intense space of breathing, turning inwards in awareness of that breath and how it has rhythmically kept time in conjunction with past feelings, both positive and negative, while allowing for a possible reconstitution of breath in the many futures yet unrealized.

Some of the poems are cautionary. The voice does not want to present fantasy and carelessly throw you to the wind. It wants you to be aware, ever aware, of the dangers of possibility, while it urges you to move forward through the reflections and into the explosive and often catastrophic maw of time.

This is the voice of a person who does not just examine ash or reflect on its divination, but, with childlike curiosity, “slips from slaughter’s nest [and] follow[s] the trail of ashes” (21) to an elusive endpoint she simply calls “home” (21). When the narrative occupies the body of “every cum covered porn star you’ve ever jacked off to,” (25) she is still looking beyond the present into future possibilities which roar forward through adamant instruction and unabashed demand: “subdue your hunger, eat the rage you carry” (27).

This is as much a book of desire as it is a tale of warning. Perhaps the sentiments that carry throughout each poem are best articulated in the opening line to the poem Inamorata: “If it’s love you covet don’t forget what you paid for” (29).

Take Bennett’s box of people, in it there is a universality to the specificity, bad boyfriends and good boyfriends, mental and physical illness, mothers and fathers—both dead and alive, both good and bad—grandparents, births of children, children growing, pets…also both dead and alive. Take the box of souvenirs and sympathize with the millions of homes the voice enters, occupies, and leaves. Then sit at a bar, order yourself a drink, talk to a stranger, and, cautiously, hope for the best.

Bitches Be Crazy

Bitches Be Crazy by Chandra Mayor

“Bitches be crazy,” the butch says, shaking
her head. Her grey tie is tight around her neck
like her own fingers pressing greedily into
the windpipe of the Hot Nurse just before
she comes. This butch is made of Lego,
her shoulders stiff, neatly snapped
into place each morning. She is always
rehearsing for the longed-for camera,
the good dyke porn. She imagines
she is turning her head to attend to the tight
body of the hired redhead, the one who is rumoured
to smell like candy; her whole body will pivot
at the waist. Her nails trimmed, her small
fingers pointed and melded together like GI Joe
in the basement, her arm will piston at the shoulder.
She is a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot with a secret
lever in the small of her back. In her head she counts:
1, 2, 3, 4
1, 2, 3, 4
She reminds herself: “I am fucking the shit out
of her,” and the sound of her own voice excites
her, makes her hard.

Now she leans forward on the couch to take
another hit off the bong, slippery smoke and thick
glass hard against her lips. In her mind she is sorting
and stroking her dildos: the dolphin, the rabbit,
the buzzing nest of bullets and batteries. The thick
black cock with corded veins for the Yoga Teacher
when she bends her hard over the ledge of bed.
The world is best when bisected, sorted
into two tidy bins with fitted lids:
The girls who want her cock.
The bros who do not.

There are other creatures who come
to her in nightmares, women who fuck
themselves gorgeously with their own messy
hands. They open their mouths wide and grunt.
There are no pretty, breathy moans.
They are laughing at her. They are slick
and glistening wetly with sweat like enormous
slugs, sucking and smacking, rubbing each
other urgently. In the nightmare, this butch
is a tiny red speck of ant, her tie is a taut leash
and her insect fingers scrabble uselessly at the knot.
All their cunts are cavernous maws, undulating,
inescapable, and slap down onto her face. She can’t
breathe, she panics and she cries. She is drowning
in salt and mucus, the muscles of her sleeping thighs
clamped together until they ache and seize.

Back on the couch in her apartment with her bros,
she knows she is not asleep now. She knows
it is the smoke that has blurred her precise
edges, smudged the clean gaze of the camera,
accelerated her pulse until it races. It sounds
like a hockey card smacking the spinning spokes
of a BMX. She thinks of the girl with long hair and
tattoos, the one who left a red handprint
on the butch’s smooth egg face when she slapped
her at the bar. The butch took a picture of her
red check with her phone, shows it now
to everyone in the room. “I’m taking out
a protective order against that crazy bitch,”
she says. “I don’t know what she’ll do next.
What if she burns down my apartment?
What if she’s waiting for me tonight, outside
my door, with a fucking bat?” The friends
nod; they are stoned and they don’t really care.
The butch feels her cheeks flush, and she is angry.
The sting, the speed, the surety of that flat-handed
slap; the dark room of witnesses, whispering; the girl
laughing. Someone has to teach her a lesson, tie
her burning hands behind her back, seal up all
her duplicitous mouths. The butch smiles, tucks
her shirt a little tighter under her belt.
1, 2, 3, 4
1, 2, 3, 4

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Can Lit

Rachel Rose
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Can Lit
                                                                                   for the pack
Let’s say it, then. Let’s make it explicit. Let’s lick the clit of it. Let’s fornicate it.
The way you fuck and the way you write are exactly the same. Isn’t it a relief to have it out in the air? Not a metaphor, but a critical difference, a preference, not a simile but a simulation, a seduction of the ideal reader with a piece about some pieces.
and some of us fake it
and get away with it
and some of us are very quiet
and regret it
and most of us are insecure about it
and some of us do it in public
and some of us are very private
and some of like to experiment
and most of us do it the same way over and over
and some of us like it rough
and some like to blog about it
and for some it’s just a way to pay the bills
and most of us would rather do it
than write about those that do it,
would rather read it than read about those who’ve read it.
Some of us make love and some of us get screwed
and some of us praise too highly the body of the beloved
overlooking the flaws, because they wish to so be praised,
they wish when their time comes, to be sung into the great book.

Let us presume that she can,
that she is capable of strapping it on
and giving as good as she gets
planting her steel-toed boots
taking her place with the Classicists, the Greeks,
the Romantics, the Beats
in any circle jerk. But there’s the rub:
she doesn’t want to.

I caught this poem like a cold, a virus from a computer, it brewed and festered for a decade, then burst its blister.

Let us presume that we have named the problem, that the bitch pack has been brought to heel. Hounds will now speak like humans. Speak!

When you broke my book in public, don’t tell me it didn’t titillate. You wouldn’t meet my eye first time we met, the night before your review came out. I held out my hand and you looked at it like a dead bird. Let me refresh: “lesbian love poems/ gushy/ unsubtle/indulges in heavy-petting/forced effusion/lacking adrenalin/sex seeming forced/ crude/overreacting/oversweet/vanity rather than negligence/I myself would rather see a little less gorging on emotion and a little more chaste, unself-centred and memorable artistry.”

Admit it. You gorged. You effused. What a flood of adrenalin! It made you hot to write. I carried that shrapnel for years, under the skin. Never mind. It worked its way out tonight.

But to say you want it chaste is a lie.

To say it didn’t turn you on, slipping it to me like that, twisting the text to suit your fantasy, is a lie. I confess, I’m aroused now, warmed by our exchange, though the only transgression I’ve performed is to repeat your words back to you.

No critic in the great white north has ever told a male writer to stop indulging in verbal heavy-petting.

O my enemy. Do I nullify? Do I gush? Do you wish me sanitized? What chaste verse will you canonize, Patron Saint of Lost Causes? O my frenemy. Do I invaginate? It’s me, Hound, come to sniff your private cracks again.

What kind of Pussy Riot is this? Let’s not skirt the issue any more. Let’s not beat around the bush.

But the question must be asked, the essential question: how, when we published first books only a year apart, when you came out swinging, did you know that you would be gatekeeper?

And why did I choose the gauze of silence?

Honestly, I couldn’t be fucked.

What kind of answer is that?

I was never so cocksure.

I didn’t call myself an expert.

I wanted to be kind.
That position doesn’t stimulate.

And there was the baby, that turning in and in, that birth the year my book came out, that push into motherhood, which is another name for silence. Suddenly I was dragging the meat home, scruffing the cubs, hackles always rising, always on alert, never looking up from the den.

I can do it if I plug my nose and swallow because it’s good for me. I can do it if I lie on my back and think of tenure.

I can do it as a means to an end, but would always rather not.

Are you feeling chased now? By the pack? O fuck.

What do you believe, lover? What sensibility do you bring to the Canadian bed? So grow some stones already. Grow a pair of scruples.

Not the teeth of your tool, but the depths of your soul. The exchange of thoughts in pursuit of mutual pleasure; a critical reading that allows one door to open to another, where both are changed by the dance. Let’s have a juxtaposition of ideas, where metaphor asks so much of you that you are shattered making the leap. Like chastity belt and wolf pelt. Like apples and truth, honeycomb and song, the spine of a wave and the bones of a building where a coyote hunts city rats. Like pack and promise. Because chaste makes waste in the end. Because a kill by any other name still smells like meat.
“The dogs lick their way up the ditch” howling daintily. The dogs lick their way up the devious crotch. The dogs struggle their way up the critic’s uncomfortable haunch.

She gushed her maddened lust over the lettuce.

Do I have to chew this meat for you, too? Stroke my throat, I’ll cough it into your mouth, pre-digested so you can grow up big and strong and wise.

I took my pet lesbian to Lake Wobegone so she could rest in the rarefied air. Because once you’ve fucked every gender, you never judge a person by her member. Because those who have something to prove make lousy lovers.

Sir! There’s a trick with my sheath I’ve been learning to do. I can peel a banana, flip a coin: heads you lose, tails I win. There’s a trick with a hook I’ve been meaning to prove. Lend me your eye, citizen!

Methinks the Lady doth gush too much. Is she chaste? Does she protest?

Be still, my twat.

Listen, I’m serene; some of my best fucks are women.

“Drink piss,” dyke. “Citric bitch is dripping gism.”

What do you believe? Do you write crit to show how thick? Can you make a mistake and admit it? And if you fumble in bed or on the page, do you punch the wall, do you deny the girl, do you rage?

Try, perhaps, being vulnerable.

Do I dare step into the breach?

I hear the critics howling
each to each. I do not think that they
will sleep with me.

In short, I was afraid. That is not what I meant, at all.

I ate a tome of silence instead. My ideal reader closed her eyes. She would rather suck at the wrong book then stare at the train wreck, the glorified gore. Yawn.
What wry friction. How small the bowl, how small your heart. No wonder she turns away, half embarrassed, half depressed at that quick sucker punch, flash of wit. Is that all she can expect?

Chaste not, wanton not. What literal heavy-petting have I caught you at? Zip it.

Do I fuckify?

I am a poor white cunt who never got more than a crust of literary recognition. I graduated in Victim Studies with a minor in Abuse Memes. My role models are
the Matchstick Girl, The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, all dead pale maidens. I read Our Clitics, Ourselves, Our Bodies, Our Shells, Our Poems, Your Hells.

It is all I can do to write about myself; I can’t speak for anyone else.

My role model is Snow White, who has no opinion. She’s choked by that poisoned bite. My role model is snow, that Great Canadian Hush of things not to be said. White, frigid, silent: unique only microscopically.

I see no colour or gender or difference of any kind. I am Snow Blind. Rose Dead.

O I am young & chaste & undeflowered. Empower me, please.

When I panic I gush panties O so chastely. I count genders, it soothes me, and when I’ve counted I have a nice cup of tea. Because what is chick lit to dick crit after all. Am I caustic? Am I citric? Do I shrink it?

We’ll not have any loose canon here. We’ll teach no women here. “If you want women go down the hall/What I teach is guys/Serious heterosexual guys/ I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love/Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women.”

You only teach texts you love and those you love are exactly like you.
You love the serious heterosexual guy you’d go fishing with. Because women can’t be men and Chinese can’t be guys and homosexuals can’t be the best and you only teach the best. It’s a math proof and the answer equals you. Because it’s all about love, true love, those whom you truly, truly love.

Isn’t that unfortunate? Isn’t that serious? Because the best by any other name is still you, squared.

Shall I quantify? Shall I cuntify? O you pricked my fine finger. It seems I woke from thick slumber with a broken rosebud but still I insist on an essentially level playing field with each of my three wishes: assistant, associate, professor. Look: I fucked the beast and lost my beauty. See how brave? I could almost be mistaken for a hero. Whine.

Call me Hansel’s sister, Hetero.

Must I prove it? I followed that trail of crumbs down the hall. I opened the door of the forbidden room. I lay down in bears’ beds, I civilized beasts, I kissed the steam from porridge, I spoke the tongue of my fatherland until I gained a working knowledge, I walked on knives, I paid to have my tongue cut out, all for love.

Exactly the same, writing and loving. Which is both a relief and a source of anxiety, depending. I’m sorry I faked it. Too bad I was such a tentative lay. Sorry I didn’t swallow. Sorry this poem won’t leave me alone. Such a sticky, uncomfortable feeling, like an unexpected period, you know? Like coming in your pants in line at a book signing. Tonight I can’t sleep. I’ve had to pull over three times just to take dictation from my muse, I’m so hot and bothered by this ideology.

Exactly the same.

Hey, critic, just who are you trying to get off here?

Too bad your groping is adolescent. So sad our rage is incandescent.

Really it’s just the rock bands every writer wants to be in: The Narcissists, The Didactics, The Lazy Bastards.

“The only animal that takes off its clothes and reports to the mirror” took off its clothes and sniffed the air, pregnant with the scent of blood and snow. The only animal that writes literary criticism opened its legs. The only animal that provides its young with summer camp put down its mirror and reported to the ethics committee.

Hey, I’m just a misunderstood pundit surrounded by a pack of bitches who lick below the belt. If we could barbecue something together I’m sure we could find common ground. If you could pour a sense of humor I’d clink with you because who wants to be misquoted when all I really love is the written word and everything I do, I do for love. Let’s settle this once and for all with artisanal beer.

How do you do it, then: make love to the language? When you touch the alphabet, when you disrobe the vowels, when you arrange the letters, bend or break the line,
when you rune the incantation, tell me, what faith animates?

“The art of losing’s not too hard to master.
Though it may look like (write it!) like disaster.”

Thanks for criticizing it to make it neuter. Because what doesn’t kill it makes it stronger.

The art of fucking isn’t hard to master.

“Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them,” said Rilke.

Only love. So critic: be useful. Touch the body of work with sure but careful hands. If the body of work is unlike your own, be less sure and more careful.

And what if we empower old women instead? Post-menopausal, overfed, well-read, opinionated. Becoming unattractive and therefore unafraid.

What if we hold open the door and step out of the way? Mentor ourselves as we wish we’d been mentored, then pass it on? What if there’s a flowering of deep listening? What if the body of literature down the hall is so much greater than you ever imagined?

What if there’s a canon of chaste men? What if there’s a pack of fierce bitches charging under a critical moon?

Hey there, great empowerer, gentle flamethrower! Seriously, dude: try again.
As what kind of lover will I be remembered?

As what kind of lover will you be remembered?

With reference/borrowed lines from T.S. Eliot, “Prufrock,”
Franz Wright, “The Only Animal,”
Elizabeth Bishop “The Art of Losing”
Carmine Starnino, The Montreal Gazette, May 13, 2000.
Zachariah Wells “Citric Bitch’s Thinking is Shit.”
David Gillmour “On Building Strong Stomachs” Hazlitt/Random House.
Michael Ondaatje “There’s a Trick With a Knife I’m Learning to Do” and “the linguistic war between men and women.”
Margaret Atwood “You Fit Into Me.”
Plath, “Lady Lazarus.”
Stein, “A Rose By Any Other Name.”

REVIEW: Chris Eaton, a Biography

Chris Eaton, a Biography
By Chris Eaton
BookThug (2013)

Read by Caitlin Stall-Paquet

Chris Eaton, a Biography, is not that. Just below this title appear the words ‘A Novel by Chris Eaton’. This juxtaposition reveals much about the book right off the bat. Its blurb divulges some of the inspiration for the book: that is, mainly, the question “What happens when we Google ourselves?” Chris Eaton, a Biography is an attempt to answer this question through an endless-seeming thread of stories and pieces of lives. It might be a biography after all. The thing is just that it’s fiction.

On the first page, a vague narrator tells us about one Chris Eaton amongst many others, about his family and its men that went to war “And oh, how they died!” That sentence not only hooks from the start, but also sums up the book. We are invited to episodically follow various ridiculously extravagant and eccentric people or boring, vain and selfish ones throughout their lives that, big surprise, end in death. But that exclamation point also forewarns as to the incredible humour with which this often sincere and painful book is carried out.

As might be expected due to its vague subject matter, this novel is a cornucopia of anecdotes, adventures, comedies, tragedies and facts both true and completely made up, but all very real within the world of the story. Eaton has an amazing way of telling the reader that he is lying by weaving myth into reality quite obviously and successfully. One of the characters who has lived underground his whole life tells us that he does not know if he is under “New York, or Arkansas, or Colorado, or Atlantis” or even is this dimension. Eaton places mythical mysteries along the same lines as things (and locations) we accept as self-evident truths, throwing his hoard of Chris Eatons into the mix, while retaining perfect tone and wit. The result is an addictive, often insane and incredibly creative version of the world that could very well be true, but for some reason isn’t quite.

There is much about Eaton’s writing that ties its ambitions to the great authors who have had fascinations with “everything,” be it David Foster Wallace, Vladimir Nabokov or Roberto Bolaño. There is a similar passion and obsessiveness in Eaton’s writing. Regrettably, however, Eaton tends to lapse out of the narration’s thread and too explicitly defines the story’s themes through direct address. Eaton needs to trust his reader in these moments rather than directing a giant figure to “the point.” It’s a shame, but only a small one because even at those moments, the writing is smart and engaging and makes the reader want to search for the clues that tie all of the threads together. Ultimately, Eaton’s book has probably sent many readers back to the great question engine of our era, the true hub of fact and fiction: Google.

REVIEW: The Devil and the Detective

The Devil and the Detective
By John Goldbach
Coach House Books (2013)

Read by Tom Burke

John Goldbach’s debut novel, The Devil and the Detective, cannot easily be folded into one genre. It’s a detective novel at its core, yes, but it’s not an iconic Raymond Chandler detective story. It’s not really in the vein of an offbeat Jonathan Ames caper, either. It’s noir, yes, but, as Padgett Powell’s dust jacket blurb purports, “it’s noirtire, or satoir.”

The story begins with a straightforward detective novel-punch. “Robert. Bob. Bob James. The Detective,” a.k.a., our whiskey-pickled protagonist narrator, receives a phone call in the middle of the night. There’s been a murder. James’ newest client, Elaine Andrews, exclaims, “Gerald has been stabbed in the chest!”

Cue the bullheaded, contemplative gumshoe who accepts the gig with little to go on, other than his own chronic fatigue and high-octane head fog. But don’t let the ham-handed actions of the protagonist be confused with the sharpness of his narration. Goldbach’s writing is tight and aware throughout.

The plot takes interesting turns—deceit, corruption, brutality, sex, etc. But the book isn’t just plot-driven; Goldbach’s exploration of the human condition takes interesting turns as well—love, loss, lust, friendship, aloneness, etc. Indeed, there is a curious thrust of emotion that fuels the novel’s urgency, and it does so in subtle, highly effective ways. Desperation is a key theme of the book—a detective’s desperation, a seductress’s desperation, life and death desperation, and, more to the point, how desperation motivates and modifies human behavior.

Goldbach bends heavily towards philosophical inquiry. But instead of weighing down the narrative, he provides relatively bite-sized philosophical tidbits within the text. This kind of philosophical discourse is sometimes delivered via the narrator’s internalizations, but the bulk of the rumination appears in dialogue between the detective and his trusty flower-delivery-boy-sidekick, Darren. Darren—a young dude with an old hatchback—may not be the first character one would expect to engage in any sort of philosophical conversation, but Goldbach makes it work.

The sum total of this story’s detective-narrator’s philosophical contemplation of existence and morality has weight. Bob James is a bona fide loner, but in the end, his empathy outweighs all else. Smart twists in the story require the detective to exercise his resolve—to not only make decisions, but to act on them, too.

Like the empathetic loner Bob James, The Devil and the Detective is a book that treats its readers very well. The novella-type length feels right for this story. It’s highly engaging and moves quickly; I read it in one sitting. The prose is ultra clean. Its ideas may appear simple on the page, but they’re actually quite dense. Plus, the book is funny, smart-funny, great-funny, it’s its own kind of funny, like jokes about Rick James and Magnum P.I., and a drunk’s irresistible compulsion towards ice water to combat his hangovers.

REVIEW: Bone and Bread

Bone and Bread

By Saleema Nawaz
House of Anansi (2013)

Read by Fazeela Jiwa

Saleema Nawaz’s debut novel, Bone and Bread, explores the “deep trenches” of familial bonds. Sisters Beena and Sadhana are orphaned early in their lives; their father dies of a heart attack in his Montreal bagel shop and, years later, their mother chokes on a meal prepared for her by her daughters. This trauma manifests itself throughout the lives of both sisters in opposing but intertwined ways.
The novel opens with a contemporary tragedy: it’s been six months since Sadhana died suddenly in her Montreal apartment. At this time, Beena and her 18-year-old son, Quinn, live in Ottawa, avoiding each other in silent guilt.

Nawaz contextualizes Sadhana’s death by revealing, little by little, the chronology of Beena’s life, and every memory revealed contours Beena’s present-day narrative. Movement between time periods occurs without warning, as Beena’s past is intricately connected to her present. Nawaz repeats the spaces of the past in the present; the bagel shop, the apartment above it, and the streets of the Mile End are common settings throughout.

In the tangled web of Beena and Sadhana’s relationship, feelings of intense closeness and frigid separation exist simultaneously. Nawaz captures the complexity of blood bonds as the fundamental tension between intimacy and distance, and her tale is littered with examples. For instance, Beena and Sadhana’s menstrual cycles are synced. As teenagers, they stop bleeding at the same time, but for vastly different reasons: Beena has become pregnant at 16 after a tryst with one of the “bagel boys” from Uncle’s shop, while Sadhana battles her first round with anorexia. In the same hospital that night, they are separated by their conditions: one nears death as the other gives life.

Later, the sisters and Quinn move into their own tiny apartment. Here, their physical proximity is countered with emotional distance, a chasm created by “Mama’s absence” combined with secrets and lies. Beena muses, “Maybe too much closeness keeps people apart…Self-preservation.” This is Nawaz’s culminating analysis of the blood bond: bound by histories of death and illness that no outsider can comprehend, the sisters use silence to build walls and define their identities.

Bone and Bread is a deeply interior novel. Despite Nawaz’s eloquent descriptions of Beena’s existential crises, Beena’s dialogue is benign and sparse throughout the book, giving the impression that much is left un-communicated. The heavy silences that pervade muffle what little is communicated, resulting in misunderstanding and obfuscation.

Though at times relieving, silence is never the resolution. If the noise represents the weight of everything unspoken in Beena’s life, then her relief is fleeting because it is fabricated—in her life, silence becomes just as jarring as noise. In this novel full of mis(sed)communication, Nawaz infuses the act of dialogue with healing. The end of the novel hints at a more communicative future. In the character of Quinn, who “thinks he can get to the bottom of everything if we just keep everything if we just keep talking,” Nawaz imbues hope.

REVIEW: The Politics of Knives

The Politics of Knives

By Jonathan Ball
Coach House Books (2012)

Read by Katherine Sehl

Jonathan Ball’s oeuvre is quickly subsuming every form of art, his previous poetry collection, Clockfire (2010), having explored the violence of theatre and in Ex Machina (2009)—a book about books. The Politics of Knives chooses film as its medium of focus and as with his previous publications, Ball interrogates the medium by bringing its mechanics under scrutiny and exploring the ways in which it enacts violence through its mode of communication.

The conceptual framework behind the book and much of his other work is in part Ball’s extension of a meditation Žižek puts forth in his book Violence: “What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?” As Ball explains in an interview with Open Book Toronto, “I think a further violence, a more personal and political violence, occurs when we use language to develop narrative.” For Ball, there is a parallel to be drawn between the way language and narrative are elicited for the same purpose as violence: to impose an order on things.

The project behind The Politics of Knives, then, is twofold: to poetically examine the violence of cinematic narrative while remaining conscious of the capacity language has for violence in doing so. As a result, language becomes slippery and ruptured. Near-narratives either falter and break off or linger edgily on syntactical ambiguity and the poetic line cuts sharply, like a knife.

This process is most evident in the poem “Psycho” which rather evidently, is a poetic “re-watching” of Hitchcock’s classic horror film. Much like the steady lens of a camera, the poem presents images intended to educe setting and possibly tone: “Water falls thrumming, hard on motel. Vacancy wet, / mother in window” (39).

As Norman Bates (the soon-to-be-knife wielder) looks on through a peephole into Marion’s room, the reader and riled poetic narrator are forced into complicity, “in holes place our eyes”… “watching as he watches” (43). When the poem reaches the dramatic murder scene, although the camera’s passive gaze is still coldly persistent, the reader/watcher has transgressed from merely watching to violently entering the narrative, conflated with the scene’s murderer: “She’s dead while the camera / keeps looking, as we stalk through this room mopped so clean” (45).

All of the collection’s poems are connected by themes of violence, but they range in form, voice, and content. The titular piece of the collection enacts a violence of censorship, appearing as if some government agency used black censor bars to occlude portions of the poetic text. “K. Enters the Castle” following Kafka’s The Castle, imagines K. entering the Castle by becoming a camera.

As with all of Ball’s books, The Politics of Knives was released under Creative Commons license, with remixes allowed and encouraged—an appropriate gesture that enables Ball’s readers to brandish their own knives on his text.

REVIEW: 1996

By Sara Peters
House of Anansi (2013)

Read by Sarah Burgoyne

“From the beginning / you should know I’m embellishing / but was I ever twelve?” –Sara Peters’ 1996.

The violent pinks and blues in cascading chevrons on the front cover of Sara Peters’ debut collection, 1996, is the reader’s first clue that these poems are not afraid to be in your face. What is striking about Peters’ debut collection is her ability to marry the childlike and the sinister. Peters’ poetry shifts the gaze from the luminous kitchen of traditional childhood poetry to the ragged screen door against which June bugs slam like dark and threatening secrets. Realities of vulnerability, beauty and cruelty are brought to a child’s eye-level, in which the reader is simultaneously on the “brink” of everything and has already gone too far.

Peters presents us with traditional-looking lyrics cranked to scalding at points where two sisters practice for their “future rapes,” and the mother of Jérémy Bastien (a four year-old beaten to death in Montreal in 2008) dresses him in long sleeves to hide his wounds, turning the radio on full-blast. The poet lets night enter her poetry, following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Bishop (like Peters, a child of Nova Scotia) and Frank Bidart whose poem “Ellen West” one cannot help but think of when reading Peters’ “Mary Ellen Spook”, which is based on the life of 67-times exorcised Anneliese Michel. Peters’ poetry aligns itself with Bishop’s in its miniaturist’s attention to detail; each image is as meticulous as the lettuce which in “I Understood Our Time Was Running Out” is chosen “carefully / as a ball gown, comparing ruffles.” The precision and simplicity of Peters’ writing leaves no room for affectation, making the poems refreshingly insightful and new, bringing to light that second (yes, there is one) when “the sparkling water goes still.”

1996 creates a new symbolic language for thinking about childhood. The “X’s” that remain on the child’s calves after the ballet laces are taken off, the sunburn in the part of a young girl’s hair, and the seabound doll torso “armless legless sucked and beaten clean” function as name tags. What’s more is there is no surprise or naiveté in the voice of Peters’ speakers, giving the poems a certain agelessness that echoes the line from “Mary Ellen Spook”: “and always / these questions.” The undomestication at work in 1996 is enough to cause any reader to rethink a purely optimistic aestheticization of childhood. The questions 1996 confronts us with are tragic, volatile, and utterly important.

1996 takes Canadian poetry off the beaten track, running it hotter than we can stand. Childhood sheds its pretty scales to reveal bones as sharp as needles. As a new voice, Sara Peters is refreshing, brave and profound. She pulls us through the familiar field but does not lead us to a magical grove or secret wardrobe, but rather to a house “burning unattended in the dark.”