REVIEWS: vol 4, issue 1

Eaten Back to Life
By Jonah Campbell (Invisible Publishing)

Reviewed by Karen Palmer

Jonah Campbell, a wine manager in Montreal and the author of Food & Trembling, is an eater focused on the small details. Not the way a few grains of spice can change a recipe’s flavour, but what rumbles through one’s mind as tastebuds brush against tastebuds while eating tongue.

Campbell’s latest collection of food writing, Eaten Back to Life, isn’t about ancient cooking techniques or, as he calls it, “the sort of orgiastic, high-sensualist, macho hyperbole” that has become the hallmark of the genre. It’s not about the dish—it’s about the experience of eating that dish, a deeply intellectual take on food that often focuses on the rituals and ambience that can or should influence how we feel about what we’re eating.

In “Hot Dogs on the Brink of Insanity,” Campbell takes us on an alcohol-fuelled trip to Niagara Falls, the sort of lark that begins with a bar-stool dare and barrels headlong into a hazy binge of watery beer and bourbon shots and his ultimate quest to find a dish amongst the gaudy chain eateries that will provide some relief from his crushing hangover. 

“Hot Dogs” is one of Campbell’s lighter pieces. He writes vividly about the mild depression that haunts the Thanksgiving table, the nostalgia of cocktail bars-cum-tourist traps, the sensation of “biting up” through a candy bar’s caramel layer, and whether the flavours often associated with Scotch—tar, peat, trawling ropes, plastic buckets—should ever, in fact, be consumed. 

The collection is described on the book’s jacket as “overly intellectualized meanderings,” and Campbell’s thoughts about anti-colonial eating, engineered meats, and trends in food and wine writing certainly qualify. His writing can veer toward the precious (“I am infatuated with this Calvados. I want to hold a cup of it between fantastically callused hands as I wake up with the sun. I want to appreciate it in a yellow pavilion between rounds of Russian roulette with a jealous baron”), but the philosophical flourishes are tempered with a clever wit and personal reflections that will challenge readers to think more deeply about their own eating experiences.   

I confess that these essays grew on me once I understood the book’s title. I’d been expecting a food memoir—perhaps a collection about eating experiences that had made the author feel more alive. Instead, Campbell explains in an author’s note that “Eaten Back to Life” is actually a reference to an album from a Florida death-
metal band. He dissects the title, eventually noting: “Food, like life, is but another ever-twisting hole down which you descend, chasing some sense of satisfaction. You never truly reach the end; you just run out.”

By Rachel Cusk (HarperCollins)

Reviewed by Nathan Whitlock

Holden Caulfield, the disaffected hero of The Catcher in the Rye, famously declared: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

Rachel Cusk is not that kind of author. Cusk—who was born in Saskatoon, but grew up and lives in England—writes books that, for all their astonishing and subtle brilliance, make you glad you’ll probably never meet her. Her work never seeks to comfort, flatter, or befriend. Instead, her prose is dark, sardonic, controlled, and intense, like someone giving you very bad news without taking any pleasure in your discomfort—she’s not a rub-the-reader’s-nose-in-it kind of writer—but making no effort to spare your feelings. 

Transit is her newest novel and a kind of sequel to 2015’s Giller Prize–shortlisted Outline. It extends and perfects what Cusk has called the “annihilated perspective” of the previous book, in which we are given very little information about the narrator, who becomes a kind of conduit for the stories of other characters. We know she is a middle-aged author, creative writing teacher, and single mom with two sons. We know, too, that she is working through the after-effects of an unhappy divorce. Almost everything else about her we learn through her interactions with others. (Her name, Faye, is only mentioned one time in Transit.)

Faye purchases—on a perverse whim—a rundown home and hires contractors to gut and renovate, while enduring abuse from the hateful old couple who live in the basement. The slow-moving renovations hold together the narrative, and also provide it with its thematic core, which is how people deal with periods of transition. (Hence the title.) In the meantime, Faye appears at a literary festival, meets a man who signals a possible shift toward romantic happiness (or not), and attends a turbulent dinner party at the home of her cousin. During it all, she keeps coming up against other people’s perceptions of change and stasis.

This seeming lack of incident is deceptive. Cusk, though on the other end of the scale of author affability from, say, Alexander McCall Smith, is the rare capital-L Literary writer who can make an entire novel about irresolution feel as gripping and binge-worthy as any thriller. 

Blue Field
By Elise Levine (Biblioasis)

Reviewed by Steven W. Beattie

In an essay examining the contiguity between the work of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges (and borrowing evaluative terminology from the latter), the postmodern novelist John Barth distinguishes between “fire” and “algebra” in fiction. “Let ‘algebra’ stand for formal ingenuity,” Barth writes, “and ‘fire’ for what touches the emotions.” Too much of one or the other results in fiction that is ineffective: too intellectual and abstruse on the one hand, too sentimental on the other. Getting the balance just right is crucial in achieving what Barth refers to as “passionate viruosity.”

It is crucial, but also damnedly hard to pull off. The critic Mark Schorer pointed out that form and content are inextricable, and this is perhaps most apparent in the work of writers who focus a bit too heavily on form—the algebra side of Barth’s equation. In her first full-length novel since 2003’s Requests and Dedications, Elise Levine demonstrates her fidelity to technique, often at the expense of emotional engagement. 

Blue Field tells the story of Marilyn, a woman who works as a medical illustrator, “reducing digital scans of diseased abdominal tracts to cross-sections.” She has recently lost her mother to cancer, and her father to a terrorist bombing on a subway. As a means of keeping her grief at bay, she takes up deep-sea diving alongside her instructor (and future husband), Rand, and her long-time friend and rival, Jane. Rand is impatient with Marilyn, who is an inexperienced and careless diver, but it is Jane who dies during an expedition to explore an underwater cave system. This exacerbates Marilyn’s grief spiral, resulting in her desire to push herself even further beyond the limits of her abilities.

This is an intriguing, if somewhat shopworn, premise: a risk-taker attempts to stave off personal anguish by indulging in increasingly dangerous behaviour. But Levine isn’t concerned with the niceties of her story: her focus is on the technical approach, which attempts to mirror the claustrophobia and paranoia of a deep dive. The author prefers short, impressionistic scenes that include heightened description (one character’s lips are “cyanotic as a winter violet”) and linguistic legerdemain (Marilyn’s layered meaning in the use of the verb raise—think: raised stakes; raised from the dead—in the context her late friend). This is difficult to sustain, and the push into overweening formalism makes the flaws that much more apparent. When the author slips into cliché (writing, for example, that a “horn blared”) or awkward simile (a motorcycle sounds “like a mosquito on steroids”), the verbal infelicities jump out as though imprinted in neon.

The idiosyncratic presentation notwithstanding, Levine is reaching for a kind of psychological accuracy here: it’s not realism, but an expressionistic truthfulness that attempts to capture Marilyn’s fractured psyche. This is effective to a point, but the story’s content gets in the way. It is not clear, for example, what narrative necessity is served by having the father die in a terrorist attack, something statistically unlikely and unconnected to other aspects of the narrative (besides giving Marilyn another reason to wallow in paroxysms of grief and self-loathing). And a formal technique that resembles the “baroquely curlicued rock” Marilyn remarks on in one late scene has the paradoxical effect of slowing down the pace of what should be a bracing, brief read. 

This Accident of Being Lost
By Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
(House of Anansi Press)

Reviewed by Amy Kenny

Everyone has lost an hour (okay, an afternoon) to tumbling down an Internet rabbit hole. Reading This Accident of Being Lost feels like that, in the best possible way.   

This new book from Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Nishnaabeg writer, musician, activist, professor, and obvious slacker) is a jumping-off point—the kind of art that, like a set of nesting dolls, leads to more and more art.

Its cover image features the work of artist Rebecca Belmore. Its endnotes cite lines lifted from or inspired by everyone from Public Enemy to writer Louise Erdrich. The acknowledgements page directs readers to the book’s companion album, f(l)ight (available on the author’s Bandcamp site, f(l)ight gives a greater power to some of the book’s poems, which, in writing, are too basic in their rhyme schemes). 

The flight-within-fight feeling hinted at by the album title is one that permeates This Accident of Being Lost. Its characters are nervous but defiant, skittish yet standing ground. The book is reminiscent of Kim Thúy’s Ru, or Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, in that its poems and (very) short stories are smoky and fragmented. Readers must pay attention to piece together the connections and tensions between recurring characters.  

A Mississauga woman sits in a firearms class full of sexist white men, seething over land, respect, and racism. In another story, she’s one of three women tapping maple trees in an embarrassingly stereotypical liberal Ontario neighbourhood. In “A Few Good Reasons to Wear a Long Skirt,” an unidentified voice cites justifications including easy-access sex, and having a good place to hide knives and axes in case you need to “attack the fuck out of the British.”   

Throughout, Betasamosake Simpson plays with perceptions of her characters’ gender, species, and even geography. 

The narrator of “Big Water” wakes in bed beside a sleeping woman and surreptitiously reads texts from a mysterious “she” who turns out to be Chi’Niibish—Lake Ontario, frantically messaging in a caps-locked rage about the way Toronto media is handling her recent flooding. 

“Big Water” also demonstrates the deft hand with which Betasamosake Simpson weaves laughs into her lyrical style.  

“Six days ago she crept over the Lakeshore and drank up Union Station,” the story says of Niibish. “And we called New York because remember the hurricane. We found places to charge our devices. She smothered the beach. She bathed the train tracks and Oshawa carpooled.”  

This dread of/dependence on technology, and its push/pull against the natural world, is another recurring theme.  

“Remember when you could get addicted to the Internet? And now it’s just normal,” someone says in “22.5 Minutes,” a story in which a woman wills herself to spend forty-five minutes thinking about anything other than an oblivious love interest. In “Selfie,” someone pores over an Excel spreadsheet, looking for patterns in the digital advances of a paramour: “…last month you instigated six texting conversations and I instigated five, but you text-abandoned me nine out of the eleven conversations. This month is different. I’m aiming for four to five abandonments at the most because I know I can quit better than you.”

Betasamosake Simpson’s characters are sharp, anxious, suspicious, frayed, fighting, funny, solitary, and still very much in need of each other.

This collection is at once sobering and amusing. It’s this interplay—the way those qualities are as separate and symbiotic as so many of the relationships in the book—that makes the funny moments shine, and the grim ones resonate.

Common Place
By Sarah Pinder (Coach House Books)

Reviewed by Bardia Sinaee

We enter Sarah Pinder’s second collection, Common Place, “Tumbling behind pleasure / on our best behaviour,” and find ourselves in a flickering setting, part-suburban, part-techno-dystopian, “using / our bottle caps to place / three-minute video calls home.” Common Place is a book-length poem broken into short fragments, most of which run less than half a page.

The speaker’s perspective is sprawling and unmoored, sometimes embodied, sometimes omnipresent, switching between meditation, reflection, and direct address. It is therefore often difficult to discern what is being talked about or alluded to. One fragment begins:

Before it had been absent, it was a task,
water ready to empty.

I was absent in the tension
throughout my body.

I didn’t discuss it. 

There is no explicit connection between this and the preceding fragments to help us get a definitive sense of what “it” might be, but the spectre looms over Common Place of some unnameable trauma, “the moment / when the worst seems to have / not happened.”

Pinder suggests that this ambiguity is not so much a failure of coherence as a rejection of coherence:

If I imagine being pinned down
as though a solid conclusion is not
just possible, but anticipated,
an anti-anthem swells out of my pores.

This is what I mean
when I tell you failure is fine.

“Pinned down” implicates the imposition of meaning (“a solid conclusion”) as an act of violence. While we might find Pinder’s ambiguity frustrating, the interpretative work it demands of us as readers is also enlightening, as we are made to question our expectations (if we’re frustrated by ambiguity, is it because we look to poetry for gratification?).

The unpindownable aspect of Common Place makes the book essentially political. A similar impulse seems to drive one of the book’s main motifs: the defamiliarization of financial jargon. Words like aggregate, account, and risk lose their obscuring, bureaucratic contemporary functions in Common Place. Instead, Pinder foregrounds the words’ more visceral connotations, reminding us, for instance, that debt and death are near-homonyms when she writes, “Digging the trough for a headstone, / a fleshy neutrality of debt.”

Upending the meaning of technocratic jargon also dredges up the intricate processes such language obscures, such as the system of violence and exploitation underpinning global capitalism. The book’s longer fragments in particular find the room to make more explicit connections between the exchange of commodities (“packed in / biodegradable foam chips”) and the treatment of humans as disposable objects (“a farm owner in Greece / […] shot twenty-eight Bangladeshi labourers / demanding to be paid at all”).

Reading Common Place is not an entertaining or immediately gratifying experience, but its stark images and complex associations recur long after the final page.

By Katherine Lawrence (Coteau Books)

Reviewed by Dory Cerny

Novels written in verse, especially when aimed at a young audience, are tricky to pull off successfully. On the one hand, tweens are still open to non-linear prose, thanks to their fairly recent graduation from nursery rhymes and picture books. On the other, if an author stretches too far into the poetic, strays too far from concrete imagery, she risks alienating readers not quite equipped to handle more esoteric language.

With her debut middle-grade novel in verse, Stay, Saskatoon poet Katherine Lawrence pulls the metaphorical rabbit out of the hat, creating a touching, balanced portrayal of a young girl dealing with her parents’ separation, her father’s cancer diagnosis, and her unyielding (and long-unfulfilled) desire for a pet dog.

The book is presented as a series of diary entries by eleven-year-old Millie, and Lawrence unleashes her poetic talent to set the scene with the book’s opening lines: “My twin is buried in a wooden box / lined with white silk / soft as dandelion fluff, the stuff I blow / to the wind, to you, / Billy / it’s me, Millie, your weather girl reporting graveside / about the latest family squall. / Did you hear the storm last night?”

Though not every entry is explicitly addressed to him, it’s clear that the diary is written to Billy (whom we later learn died in utero), as Millie sometimes crafts conversations with him. That Millie has created a voice for her dead brother is both tragic and relatable; he has become her imaginary friend and she channels him to ask herself probing questions and commiserate when her life takes unfortunate turns. 

The beauty of Stay rests wholly in Millie’s narrative voice. Lawrence creates a character who is equal parts wounded child and old soul. Her use of language is age-appropriate and possessed of a clarity that does not detract from its eloquence. The mix of poem, short prose, and conversations between Millie and Billy forms a story that is full of energy and emotion.

The central drama in Millie’s life is the separation of her parents. Millie knows her mother is having an affair (the texts Millie transcribes from her mom’s phone provide a succinct yet complete narrative arc for the relationship), and while we don’t get as much of an impression of her father, her mother is rendered as a bit of a harsh figure: not totally unsympathetic, but not the comfort Millie needs during such a difficult adjustment. 

Second only to this trauma is the continued refusal by Millie’s parents to get a family dog. When her mother finally relents, Millie learns that having a puppy is not as easy as she’d thought, and begins to doubt her decision. Help comes from a surprising source, and while the novel doesn’t end with all bows tied neatly, the conclusion is satisfying in its realistic portrayal of a family dealing with fracture, and healing in a manner that leaves scars, but no longer causes constant pain.

Posted on June 24, 2017 .