Category Archives: Reviews of the written word

Harris examines what has been lost in Internet age

The End of Absence:
Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection

By Michael Harris

Published by HarperCollins

243 pages, $29.99

Reviewed by JoAnn Dionne

I loved The End of Absence the moment I heard of it, sometime late last summer, through an email linking to the Can-Lit website 49th As the non-owner of a smartphone, as a person who dearly misses her pre-Internet brain, I felt like this book had been written just for me.

And what a relief to learn that someone, namely 30-something author Michael Harris, eleven years my junior, thought the same way I did about our tech-saturated world. It made me feel less alone, less an old fuddy-duddy, less a Luddite. Indeed, it seems Harris did write this book for people like me, those of us born prior to 1985, who knew life as adults before and after the rise of the Internet. The “straddle generation,” as he calls us. The last of the daydreamers.

We are, as Harris points out, witnessing a unique moment in history. Soon, there will be no living memory of a time without the Internet. In the first half of his book, Harris reminds us that for everything we’ve gained from the Internet, something has been lost. And what we’ve lost most is absence. Remember when, he asks, we used to read books on grassy hillsides then gaze up at shifting clouds? Remember when we could hike for weeks in England and no one knew where we were? Remember when we poured our souls into private diaries and not into video confessionals on YouTube? Remember when we could savour a moment without tweeting it? Remember when we used to remember? When we used to forget?

Harris tries to break away from the on-line world in the second half of his book, to find some of this absence lost. To retrain his attention span, he sets himself the task of reading War and Peace in two weeks. I laughed out loud at spots in this chapter, and again in the chapter where, after duct-taping his cell phone to an old phone cord and duct-taping the cord to his kitchen counter, Harris embarks on an “Analog August,” a month of no-Internet-anything. At the end of both exercises, Harris feels calmer, more awake—and more acutely aware of just how “irrevocably, damnably, utterly wired to the promise of connection” he is. We all are.

My inner-Luddite was hoping for a call to arms by the book’s end, a mass rejection of all things on-line. But no. Harris’s advice is more sage, more practical than that. Technology is here to stay, he reminds us. Our job is to live intelligently with it. We must be mindful of the absences we’ve lost, and choose, daily, when and how to connect. Perhaps, then, this book wasn’t written for people like me, but rather for “digital natives,” those born post-1985, who will never know life without constant connection, who will never truly understand absence, and may never realize they have a choice.

JoAnn Dionne is the author of Little Emperors:  A Year with the Future of China, and teaches at the University of Victoria.

Adderson reveals the dramatic, messy world of Ellen

Caroline Adderson’s novel Ellen in Pieces has been nominated for a 2015 B.C. Book Prize. She is the author of three previous novels, A History of Forgetting, Sitting Practice, and The Sky is Falling, two collections of short stories, Bad Imaginings and Pleased to Meet You. A two-time winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, Adderson’s work has also been nominated for many awards including the Scotiabank Giller (longlist) and the Governor General’s Literary Award. Recently Adderson answered Traci Skuce’s questions for The Coastal Spectator.

Each chapter in Ellen in Pieces reads like a short story. In fact three of the chapters won, or were long listed, for various magazine awards. At the same time, there’s a cohesion and propulsion that moves the reader from one chapter to the next. Can you comment on your choice of form? Did it grow out of the character, Ellen, or did Ellen grow out of the form?

Neither, actually.  The idea of the form came about as a kind of protest. In 2009, I read Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which I thoroughly enjoyed, except for the fact that it was touted as a novel when it is obviously a collection of linked stories. The next year I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I loved even more, but again, there was that word on the cover — “novel”. I was irritated for two reasons. First, did publishers think readers wouldn’t notice that they were reading stories and, second, were they so ashamed of the form (my favourite) that they wouldn’t even admit to publishing it?  Once I got over my irritation, I started to wonder if it was possible to write a novel wherein each chapter is a stand-alone story. That’s what I set out to do. Once I finished the stories and put them in order, however, I had to do a lot of cutting and shaping, mostly to eliminate the repetition of background material that each stand-alone story needed.

How Ellen came to me was quite dramatic.  I write for children, as well as adults. (I’ve published 12 kids’ books now.) Kid lit is a genre, meaning simply that it has rules. One of the primary rules is that the child protagonist, or the child-substitute (the squirrel or the bear), must solve her problem on her own, not have an adult solve the problem for her. In other words, she must be active. As soon as I grasped that principle, I recognized a flaw in my own writing – that my protagonists tend to be, while not necessarily passive, quite reflective.  Suddenly a door kicked open in my head and there stood Ellen, Super-Active Protagonist. She acts. She messes up her life, and then she fixes it, and everyone else’s while she’s at it.

The novel also breaks down into two parts: Act One and Act Two. The first two-thirds of the novel (Act One) is told mostly from Ellen’s point of view (with the exception of two chapters), but none of Act Two is. When in the writing did you realize you’d have to break out of Ellen’s point of view? Or had you intended it from the outset?

I intended it from the outset.  I wanted to make readers feel that Ellen was their close personal friend.  When the event happens which forces Ellen to retreat inside herself, her point of view disappears and we see her through the eyes of other people.  I was trying to mimic what happens when we actually lose a friend, how the stories about her are all we have left.

So when I started reading the book, I glanced at the blurb on the cover by Annabel Lyon: “Sexy, searing, and very, very funny.” And, of course, Ellen is so outrageous and bawdy in some moments that I laughed out loud. The sex is funny. The lice. Her father’s constipation. At the same time, the beauty, the real art of your work, is that you balance this with tragedy. My heart ached for these characters. I thought and worried about them—even dreamt about them! Can you talk about this balance between tragedy and comedy? Why striking that balance is important for you, and also the reader?

I’m sure there are readers who won’t go near my books after hearing what some of them are about: Buddhism and spinal cord injury (people actually recoil when I tell them that one!); the fear of nuclear war; hairdressers who make a pilgrimage to the Auschwitz Museum.  I’m a tragic-comic writer. I’m interested in dark subjects, but I explore them with a lot of humour. Life is suffering. Better laugh when you can.

I found Ellen to be incredibly self-aware. Anger, her default emotion, flares frequently, and sometimes she acts upon it, and sometimes not. But she’s able to name it, cool it out when she has to. She also reflects on the past, sees her part in things (particularly strained relationships) even if she doesn’t like what she sees. She’s also in her mid-forties. So I’m wondering how reaching mid-life impacts the way Ellen mulls over the past?

The book is really about middle-age and the great contentment that’s waiting there, unseen by the young. It’s so freeing to get some distance on what you’ve already lived and see that the things that seemed so important at the time, aren’t, and as a consequence, that the things ruffling you in the present perhaps aren’t going to turn out to be very important either. So why not just get on with life? That’s one road anyway. The other is bitterness and regret, such as Larry, Ellen’s ex husband, feels. Ellen, being an active protagonist, chooses life. So could we.

Many many writers have been directly (or indirectly) influenced by Chekhov. And in Ellen in Pieces, there’s a chapter where Ellen takes in a stray dog and in her search to name him pulls Chekhov’s “Lady with the Lap Dog” off the shelf and rereads the story. I loved that she did that, that you showed this character engaged with a story, both remembering the feelings she’d had reading it when she was younger and the new insights she gained as a dog owner. Can you talk about the ways you feel Chekhov has influenced you? And about the process of integrating literature—particularly Chekhov—into your stories and novels.

My last novel, The Sky Is Falling, was partly about the love of Russian literature. I worried about doing a similar thing in this book too, but it seems that Ellen is reaching more readers, so perhaps those who connect with that chapter might like to pick up the last book and really indulge themselves. Apart from the fact that Chekhov revolutionized the short story by making it about character instead of plot, quiet moments instead of dramatic revelations, it’s his tone that draws me.  Again, the stories are incredibly sad, yet so funny, which is the balance that moves me as a reader and a writer.  Also, in Russian writing — Chekhov and Tolstoy especially — there are continual references to both writers and literary characters. Yet in contemporary writing, there is very little of this. The characters rarely even read books. I’ve always found that odd. Ellen is very much a reader; she even has an old-fashioned dentist chair specifically to read in. I enjoyed rounding out her character through her literary tastes. In one chapter, for example, she manages to shake off a crush on a man because he offers her a Dean Koontz novel.

Traci Skuce lives in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.

Zombie tale served with literary twist

All Day Breakfast

By Adam Lewis Schroeder

Douglas and McIntyre

378 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Aaron Shepard

Zombies, as cultural icons go, are surprisingly durable and versatile: they can do straight-up horror or gross-out comedy horror. And they seem to have something more to say about us humans than the one-note, sexy vampires. Their shambling gait and rotting flesh suggests the entropy of society, the emptiness of our consumer culture. Their mindless rage reflects the futility and irrationality of our own. Zombies are the scapegoats we send out into the wilderness (and decapitate when they come stumbling back).

But what if zombies weren’t just the brainless seeking brains? What if they were just like you and me, only more flippant when losing a body part? What if their rage could be entirely– well, mostly – justified? What if they didn’t need to eat brains at all, just a bottomless supply of bacon?

That, in a nutshell, is Schroeder’s premise. When substitute teacher, vegetarian and recently widowed father Peter Giller leads his grade 11 class on a field trip to a plastics factory, an accident seems to trigger bizarre changes in them, including a ravenous urge for nitrites, and limbs that randomly fall off (“I must have slept on it funny,” one student mumbles nonchalantly about her missing arm). When it becomes apparent that someone – a mysterious corporation, the military – is hunting down everyone involved in the accident, Peter leaves his two children with his mother-in-law and hits the road with his fellow undead in search of a cure. Along the way they struggle with identity crises, anger management issues and their imminent decay.

Given Schroeder’s well-acclaimed past works – two novels and a short story collection that offered new takes on historical literary fiction – the question arises: is he merely slumming in the horror/comedy genre with All-Day Breakfast? Or is this literary fiction in disguise?

The answer is that he’s bringing the best of both genres together. While there are nudges and winks toward the CanLit scene (the name “Giller” is likely no coincidence), including a sly allusion to the late Paul Quarrington’s band, Pork Belly Futures, the story is heavier on action and plot than your average CanLit read. In fact, with subplots that include genetic experimentation, military contracting and the Congolese civil wars, All-Day Breakfast has more twists and turns than most horror novels. Packed with dense prose, the long ending threatens to lose steam while tying up loose ends, but is salvaged by a satisfying act of revenge. This is a loose, anarchic read tempered by intelligence and wit.

What really sets the book apart, though, is the depth of characterization. Schroeder’s characters, armed with razor-sharp dialogue and exquisite attention to detail, are (ironically) so full of life, the reader becomes quite attached: a dangerous thing in a novel where not everyone gets to live, true, but this lends his story a surprising poignancy. Peter Giller’s grief for his dead wife, absent children and undead students, serves to unify and enrich the often horrific imagery. As Giller frequently tells us: We each fall apart in our own time and in our own way.

Aaron Shepard’s first novel When is a Man is published through Brindle and Glass.

Memoir paen to Newfoundland

Street Angel

By Magie Dominic

Wilfred Laurier University Press

150 pages, $22.49

Reviewed by Marjorie Simmins

The first thing you need to know about Magie Dominic’s memoir, Street Angel, is that it is a poetic and circular windstorm, both humorous and disturbing. The second thing you need to know is that the tale is steeped in Newfoundland language and sensibility. Third, Newfoundland has been called “the other Ireland.” If you know these things, all else becomes clear.

The title is a part of an old Irish expression, “street angel, house devil.” This describes a person who is charming in public and abusive in private. At the heart of this life story is Dominic’s mentally ill mother, civil on the street, but violent and volatile at home. The reader will hear much of the mother’s “affliction,” which manifests as terrifying nighttime hallucinations, and in futile, repetitive measures to ward off the evil. Dominic, whose father was a Lebanese Catholic, and mother a Presbyterian Scot (“a mixed home” it was damningly called), was schooled as a Roman Catholic. The nuns, too, are street angels of a sort, gentle while abroad in the community but punitive, even sadistic in the classroom.

Dominic includes a glossary of Newfoundland terms for those unfamiliar with them. The book’s style is pure Irish-origins Newfoundland: energetic and tragi-comic, with an unusually dexterous use of language and dialogue. Donna Morrissey’s fiction came to mind as I read Dominic’s work.

Dominic also uses the literary technique, parataxis. Paratactic writing is used to convey a rapid sequence of thoughts in poetry and prose. Phrases and clauses are coordinated without conjunctions. This is the cadence of conversation, and our thoughts. Dominic writes as Julius Caesar spoke (“I came, I saw, I conquered.”), as Dickens wrote, and as Toni Morrison writes. The style is immediate and emotive. It also makes for a fasten-your-seat-belt read. Eleven-year-old Dominic, who begins the narration, is all eyes, ears and ragged nerves–as children from abusive homes often are. Dominic sustains the young voice believably, making good use of repetitive inner dialogue. The voice of the older Dominic comes and goes unobtrusively.

For a memoir, the scope is wider than usual, ranging from Dominic’s birth year of 1944, to the present. This is no “chapter of a life,” as memoir is commonly described. Dominic’s two-part structure is also unusual, using first a short-term and then a long-term lens. The 10 chapters in part one relive 10 days in Dominic’s young life, but she also explores earlier memories. While the foreshadowing seems to be steering the reader to something wretched, the “event” is in fact revelatory. Dominic experiences a home with peace and quiet–where there’s always “a cup of hot tea and something homemade at the end of the day.”

The twelve chapters of part two are a bricolage of personal memories, Newfoundland history, cultural and media touch-points, along with the events and highlights of seven decades. Dominic matures, leaves home, lives in Pittsburgh, New York and Toronto. She has a child. She becomes a peace activist, a writer and artist of note. Throughout all, she remains a staunch Newfoundlander, even including the island in her acknowledgements, calling it “rugged, majestic, fearless, and exquisitely beautiful … my home.” It is, she says, a strength she carries with her wherever she goes. Her memoir is a song of love to that same island.

Marjorie Simmins is a Vancouver-raised author and teacher of memoir writing, now based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her memoir, Coastal Lives, was published by Pottersfield Press.


Adams’ debut breaks first-novel conventions

Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother

By Hollie Adams

NeWest Press

186 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Traci Skuce

Form and how to tell the story are critical choices for a writer. Some might say the only choice. And in writing her first novel, Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother, Hollie Adams has boldly tossed most first-novel conventions out the window.

Hollie Adams lives in Calgary where she completed her Ph.D. in English. She has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Filling Station, The Antigonish Review and The Windsor Review. She was a finalist for the Broken Social Scene story contest organized by House of Anansi in 2013.

At the outset of Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother we’re with our narrator, Carrie, and her mother at the hospital, in the last days before her mother dies. The relationship is strained and funny, Carrie’s mother demanding a specialty coffee, without dairy or soy: “Did she believe that if she drank cow’s milk now in the throes of one type of terminal cancer, she would also develop another type of terminal cancer? Did she think switching to almond milk would cure her incurable cancer?” Trying to make sense of this insufferable relationship prompts Carrie to write a self-help book: “A how-to self-help manual. For daughters dealing with their impossible dying mothers.”

But the book doesn’t explore the dealings with impossible mothers so much as explore the hilarity of a grief-induced breakdown. The writing is infused with puns and punctuated with a mish-mash of lists, surveys, pie charts, bold-faced trivia and useful facts about mice. In fact, the inventiveness is part of the novel’s charm. At one point, Carrie muses about cobbling together the book, deciding a “Choose Your Own Adventure” format might work best:

“Wouldn’t human existence be exponentially easier if for every scenario, a set of words would flash before your eyes offering you just two choices? A fifty-fifty chance to do the right thing, every time.”

Adams’ then proceeds to pepper the book with italicized choices, like: “Choose to go for a nighttime jog: turn to the last page of this book and then close the book because you have clearly chosen the wrong book.” Coupled with “Choose to go for a nighttime walk to the gelato shop two blocks away from your house: keep reading, this book is for you.

The biggest convention-breaker Adams uses is a second person narrator. This point of view has its drawbacks, calling immediate attention to itself and implicating the reader. On one hand, though, it works for this particular story because Carrie refuses to face her grief; the use of second person burying Carrie further beneath the rubble of her denial.

However, Carrie is also an “unlikeable” character. In the middle of her nervous breakdown, she’s constantly making poor choices. Like the Madonna-From-the-Eighties outfit she wears to her mother’s funeral. Or lying to her family about losing her job. Or not telling her sixteen year old daughter the truth about her father. Lies get heaped one on top of the other—she blurts out a marriage proposal to her boyfriend to cover up her lie about not working, suggests a trip to Disney World to avoid telling her daughter about the engagement—and, after a while, I grew tired of identifying with Carrie. Instead of loathsome in a compelling way, she became, well, just annoying.

While there are times Adams is downright funny, the strength of the story comes in the flashback scenes in relationship with her mother. The fact that Carrie got pregnant at seventeen, concealed it for seven months. The fact that Carrie’s mother took care of that baby while Carrie went off to college. But these moments are doled out in too-small doses and I didn’t get enough information to appreciate Carrie’s human complexities. Instead she’s mostly there for the sake of the joke. Which always, it seems, is on her.

Traci Skuce is a writer based in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.

Ex-Mountie tells story of sexism, harassment

No One to Tell:
Breaking my Silence on Life in the RCMP

By Janet Merlo, Edited by Leslie Vryenhoek

Breakwater Books

218 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by Lynne Van Luven

Journalist Linden MacIntyre encapsulates the essence of No One To Tell in his introduction: “The institution Janet Merlo went to work for in 1991 was a troubled place.”

This memoir, part therapeutic retelling, part analysis of workplace harassment, lays out the whole sad story of a police force unable to change its values to encompass female members, undermined by males in management unable to offset a poisonous work atmosphere by courageous leadership. Has the RCMP under new management changed substantively since Janet Merlo was a fresh-faced recruit? Outsiders may never know. I’d say many RCMP worksites are still troubled places–and now perhaps feeling even more defensive in the wake of recent Mountie killings.

Janet Merlo, who grew up one of three Farrell children in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, learned on Christmas Eve, 1990, that she had been accepted into RCMP training. She already had a degree in sociology with a certificate in criminology. Eight months later, she was among 29 new Mounties completing the graduation ceremony at the RCMP training depot in Regina (formerly Pile of Bones), Saskatchewan. Among her fellow recruits was Catherine Galliford, who would one day gain media attention as “another of those bitches” who could not “hack” the demands of the force. (In November 2011, Galliford told a CBC reporter that, “If I had a dime for every time one of my bosses asked me to sit on his knee, I’d be on a yacht in the Bahamas right now.”)

From graduation, following RCMP policy to post members away from their home communities, Merlo went directly to the Nanaimo, B.C. detachment. In 1991 she believed “I’d joined one of the most amazing organizations in the world. . . . More than two decades later, I still carry that pride though it’s buried beneath years of disappointment.”  That’s a controlled understatement. Once I finished reading No One To Tell, I could not help thinking that joining the RCMP pretty much ruined her life. It certainly contributed to her ill health and the destruction of her marriage.

Even though her Recruit Field Training in Nanaimo lasted only six weeks before she was on her own policing in the community, Merlo experienced more than usual new-recruit pranking because of her diminutive size and her Newfoundland accent. When she started to date Wayne Merlo, who was a municipal employee of the RCMP, she did attract the attention of her fellow officers: one of her supervisors told Wayne that she was “the perfect girlfriend–just the right height for giving a blow job with a beer balanced on my head.” And so it began.

Janet Merlo’s memoir is not a work of genre-challenging creative nonfiction, but it is a straightforward piece of personal reporting.  Merlo takes readers through the increasingly noxious events as her life progresses: when she is pregnant, one of her colleagues starts a rumour she has had an abortion; when her pregnancy progressed beyond five months and wearing the heavy gun belt became risky, Merlo’s operational officer said “What the fuck am I supposed to do with you now?” rather than simply reassigning her to an office job.

The harassment and disrespect continued, but so did Merlo, gamely trying to make the force deliver the dream she expected of it. She had a second child and kept on trying to hold her marriage together, even when it became plain that Wayne was also under stress at work and was becoming mentally ill. The RCMP regulations are allegedly consistent with the Canadian Human Rights Act: Harassment is defined as “rude, degrading or offensive remarks or emails, threats or intimidation.” And the federal Treasury Board Policy on the Prevention and Resolution of Harassment in the Workplace states workplace harassment “will not be tolerated.”

However, William Elliot, the new civilian commissioner appointed in 2007, failed to respond to Merlo’s letter asking for “a new style of leadership.” With Galliford’s public declaration of abuse in 2011, Merlo had hope. In March 2012, Merlo filed a class-action suit in the B.C. courts. Within months, hundreds of women stepped with tales of abuse and career derailment. The lawsuit is now working its way through the courts.

Readers of Merlo’s story will end her memoir impressed with her strength: she has a new life now and is living with her nearly grown daughters in St. John’s, far from the scene of her humiliations. RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has introduced new training protocols to confront the force’s 40-year entrenched sexism, but unless the force continues to focus on bullying based on race, gender or beliefs, the besmirchment of the RCMP scarlet will continue. As will the destruction of individuals who enter the force with hope and resign in despair.

Lynne Van Luven teaches creative non-fiction at the University of Victoria and is the co-editor of the anthology In The Flesh (Brindle and Glass).

Jang’s memoir shows brutality of North Korean regime

Stars between the Sun and Moon:
One woman’s life in North Korea and escape to freedom

By Lucia Jang and Susan McClelland

Douglas & McIntyre

287 pages, $32.95

Reviewed by Julia Leggett

Stars between the Sun and Moon, Lucia Jang’s memoir (as told to the journalist Susan McClelland) is an engrossing account of Jang’s childhood and early adulthood in North Korea, before her escape to Mongolia, then South Korea and eventually Canada. In the face of hardship, hunger and the grinding drudgery of oppression, Jang, or Sunhwa as she is known, shows herself to be spirited and resilient. Surviving two imprisonments (in appalling conditions that quite frankly boggled my mind) and an escape from a human trafficker, she remains unbowed and determined to find a better life for her child.

Jang’s North Korea is portrayed as almost hermetically sealed, claustrophobic, a world without horizons, where entire families are disappeared on a whim and what you truly think can never be spoken.There’s no sense to why North Korea is the way it is, the logic of the regime is deliberately hidden from view and people’s suffering appears arbitrary and meaningless. Life is reduced to the physical needs of the body. The bonds between people are worn thin by desperation and pain. Close and loving personal relationships become almost impossible under a persecutory State.  

Jang shows how hard it is to rise above such all-encompassing cruelty, and act from a place of kindness and integrity when our own basic needs are not met and we live in constant fear. And yet Jang strives again and again to support her family, to find solidarity with fellow prisoners and to resist being broken down to her basest instincts.

While Stars between the Sun and Moon gave me a glimpse of the anguish and adversity within North Korea’s borders, I thought that insight into the conditions in North Korea was missing from this memoir. It was a story told in close-up and I wanted the camera to pull back, so I could take in the whole view in order to gain some understanding about how and why North Korea continues to function as it does. I would have liked to learn more about how Jang processed and made sense of this kind of despotism, of how as a child and young adult she reconciled the disjunct between Kim Il Sung’s representation of North Korea as the best place on Earth and the grim reality she actually faced, and of how her perceptions changed as she adjusted to life in Canada.

Though perhaps I am asking too much, perhaps this kind of oppression, by its very nature, is beyond comprehension, its madness and depravity inexplicable. Either way I was continuously awed by Jang’s grit and resourcefulness and her refusal to succumb to the helplessness and sheer injustice of being born into a totalitarian and autocratic country, where your life is never your own and where even the smallest comforts must be fought for.

Julia Leggett is a Victoria-based writer. Her debut short fiction collection, Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear, is available from Mother Tongue Publishing.

Babstock’s new collection explores poet as spymaster

On Malice

By Ken Babstock

Coach House Books

94 pages, $17.95

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

How can you tell signal from noise? What are fair and foul ways to assemble knowledge? Ken Babstock sets his exacting and accomplished fifth collection of poetry, On Malice, at the confluence of just these questions. Named a Globe & Mail Best Book of 2014, the collection has its immediate genesis in a year spent in Berlin, but the poems harness the language of observation across several centuries. Babstock reminds us that acts of decryption are essential both to espionage and to poetry.

Babstock’s earlier work–in, for example, 2011’s Methodist Hatchet, winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize–wears its critique more openly, employing narrative formulae that seem transparent by comparison with what I might call the rigorous whimsy of On Malice. The new collection’s cumulative effect is something like parsing the paranoid hierarchies in the novels of Thomas Pyncheon, though Babstock’s voice is cool rather than feverish.

I felt challenged to find ways into reading On Malice. I sometimes felt like a codebreaker myself. These poems insist on duration, repetition, and process. They demand re-reading. Floundering, readers may cling to the lucidity of observations that illuminate “a correction in the architecture / any ordinary person felt as cause” (“Perfect Blue Distant Objects”). How disconcerting and ultimately wonderful, then, to observe finally the precise way these small mechanisms drill down into the concealed territories beneath the ideologies of nations, of poetic form, and (but this we ought to expect from poetry) of language itself.

The book’s end notes present a tantalizing seriocomic summary of the methodology and context for these poems. Much of their vocabulary is repurposed from external sources–a formal index of Babstock’s inquiry into surveillance, data collection and decoding. Walter Benjamin’s diary of his son’s language acquisition is reassembled into a haphazard deciphering of signal from emotional and political noise in “Sigint”. William Hazlitt’s essay about the pleasures of distance transmutes into a scrolling text about the hazards of mediation in “Perfect Blue Distant Objects:” “all relation / a port/ of affection and the will towards an instantaneous deed.”

The NSA website defines “sigint” (short for “signals intelligence”) as “collecting foreign intelligence from communications and information systems and providing it to customers across the U.S. government.” On Malice opens with a heterodox sonnet cycle of this name, followed by three long poems or poem series. (Form is strictly observed, yet always exceeded, in On Malice.) “Perfect Blue Distant Objects” explores the self-alienation of screentime and the way it facilitates our projection of fantasies and abstractions onto others. “Deep Packet Din” refers to the filtering of network data, used both to channel and to spy on information transmitted over the Internet. “Five Eyes” is one of many names for an alliance of five countries (including the US and Canada) sharing signals intelligence under a multilateral agreement.

Shortly after the publication of On Malice, Babstock was awarded the first annual Latner Writer’s Trust Poetry Prize, “in recognition of a remarkable body of work, and in anticipation of future contributions to Canadian poetry”. In the era of the highest noise-over-signal ratio ever experienced in human communications, combined with the cyclical revelation of omnipresent government surveillance, we need writers like Babstock to demonstrate how poetic work can be done with integrity and without escapism. We are surrounded by, as Babstock reminds us repeatedly, “the art of the ill,” and On Malice is both self-aware symptom and an attempt at inoculation.

Julian Gunn is a Victoria poet, essayist and reviewer.

Poet dissects the history of Frog Lake

Massacre Street

By Paul Zits

The University of Alberta Press

107 pages, $ 19.95

Reviewed by Lorne Daniel

Don’t expect a smooth lyrical narrative from Calgary poet Paul Zits’s first book, Massacre Street. The book takes an off-kilter look at the Frog Lake massacre of 1885, an event early in the North-West Rebellion in which a group of Cree men killed government Indian agent Thomas Quinn and shot eight other white settlers dead. Many writers have grappled with the telling of this defining event in Canadian and First Nations’ history, approaching it through poetry, fiction and various forms of non-fiction. Here, Zits pulls apart the pieces of history and patches them together in a jagged collage.

This is the author not as storyteller but as provocateur and questioner. Using archival records and sources like William Bleasdell Cameron’s The War Trial of Big Bear (a key source, as well, for Rudy Wiebe’s novel The Temptations of Big Bear), the poet invites the reader to create new meaning from the juxtaposition of voices and documents. Zits was recognized with a Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry at the 2014 Alberta Literary Awards for his work.

Unlike much contemporary poetry, this is not a personalized, internalized exploration. Zits, the author, is not highly visible in Massacre Street. Certainly, the writer’s hand is evident in the selection and placement of the pieces that form this collage and in the poems that stitch the historic segments together. Consider, he says, the wildly differing worlds of those who participated in the rebellion, the police and informal militia, the court functionaries, the Metis people who remembered some of the events, or oral accounts of them.

Any writer trying to address multiple viewpoints in this clash of cultures must consider and integrate the perspective of “other” cultures – ones he doesn’t belong to. In this case, understanding and representing cultures that thrived on oral storytelling is particularly difficult. It is inevitable that a writer using primarily written archives, as Zits does, will be limited in expressing voices from an oral culture. To address this, Massacre Street pulls Metis and First Nations voices from tapes and transcripts and makes creative use of their different cadence and content to offset the dominant English Canadian voices.

In one section, “The Inadvertent Poetry of Major-General Thomas Bland Strange,” the book pulls phrases from Strange’s 1896 autobiography, Gunner Jingo’s Jubilee, and repurposes them in a newly fractured syntax.

The resulting book is challenging, in all senses of the word. Massacre Street is not an easy read. It forces readers to bridge the gaps and implicitly invites them to dig more deeply into questions of the post-massacre Canadian psyche. As is the way with works of deconstruction, it asks us to start over and reconsider what we thought we understood.

Lorne Daniel is at work on his fifth collection of poetry and a book about Alberta oil country that braids poetry with non-fiction.

Johnston’s stories an exercise in brevity

We Don’t Listen to Them

By Sean Johnston

Thistledown Press

144 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Cole Mash

Continuing with the spare but complex minimalism that made Sean Johnston’s other works so satisfying to devour, We Don’t Listen to Them is a collection of stories with blind-depth that holds you at every turned page. Johnston was born in Saskatoon and grew up a few miles from the small town of Asquith. He is the author of two novels, two books of poetry, and two books of short stories, and was the 2003 winner of the ReLit Award for Short Fiction for A Day Does Not Go By. His newest offering of beautiful and fleeting short stories is a powerful example of the brevity that makes the form moving, and, arguably, the hardest to work in. Johnston has mastered the medium to the point of appearing effortless.

The plots of Johnston’s stories are subtle, often taking a back seat to characters, ideas and insight into the ontology of human existence. Each story is an opportunity for Johnston to explore the act of being. In the story “He Hasn’t Been to the Bank in Weeks,” he writes, “we make copies of all our legitimate responses to the material world, we see the copies we make the copies from on huge movie screens, loud as hell, or alone with tiny earbuds in our ears and the personal screens inches from our face. We have lines to say and whatever we say we know it is the approved expression from a genre we despise, and yet we do feel, we do”. Johnston makes moments feel like eternity, and then inhabits and examines those moments. This is the case right from the first story, “How Blue,” which takes place on a suburban sidewalk on a hot day in so little time that the young boy-protagonist’s ice cream cone doesn’t even melt.

Both directly and indirectly many of the stories are a reflection on the act of writing itself. “We Don’t Celebrate That,” follows a writer and his colleagues on the day they have “received the new rules” for writing. The story explores the fallacy that there are regulations that dictate the process of writing in a very literal, but almost satirical manner, exposing the ridiculous notion that the creative process can be boiled down to a set of rules that must be followed in order to be successful writing. In this story, Johnston writes almost as if describing the stories you hold in your hand, “These stories inhabited this very world, they grew out of our own concerns but they were about love, for instance.”

Other stories don’t tackle the subject of writing directly, but contain snippets that transcend plot to talk about craft. For example, in “It Cools Down,” a story about a man moving to a small town so his children can be closer to their biological father, Johnston writes, “There was nothing to do but your mind goes on. I could picture it all. The real story was in the car. A road trip gets things moving.”

When speaking of books they love, people often say, “I couldn’t put it down.” Such is not the case with We Don’t Listen to Them. In fact, after reading almost every story in the collection I had to put the book down, as it was all I could internalize in a day. I found myself living with the stories, often re-reading lines, or full stories to unravel the complexities of each one. A small disclosure: a few years ago I took a class with Sean Johnston and experienced first-hand how meticulous he is in the creation of fiction. He taught me a lot about the craft of fiction in a very short time, and reading his work does the same. If you read in order to learn to write, and you are looking for a blue print, or “the rules,” look no further; Johnston has offered you something better than a blue print: a finished home.

Cole Mash is an English and creative writing student at UBC Okanagan. His poetry has been published in The Eunoia Review and The UBC Okanagan Papershell Anthology.