Tag Archives: book review

Book Review: Always Brave, Sometimes Kind

Those of us in the states tend, especially in these days of division and hyper-partisanship, to think of our neighbor to the north as a land of relative calm, where problems of oppression, race, and abuse have long since been solved. But Canada has its share of chronic ills, and in Always Brave, Sometimes Kind (Touchwood Editions), Katie Bickell illuminates those issues, particularly one of the country’s most protracted, the mistreatment of Indigenous women.

I first met this Alberta writer (virtually) through two stories she published in another journal I used to edit, Tahoma Literary Review. Both pieces were tales of life on the margins in Canada. Bickell has expanded on that theme in several other published short stories, and in this novel she’s tied them together, creating a saga that touches on the lives of her characters over the period from 1985 to the present day. Bickell’s ability to weave the original, stand-alone short stories into a novel speaks to her evolution as a writer. She has taken glimpses into an alternate reality and built them into a vivid and compelling world that few writers have, until now, understood.

Many of the stories are painful to read. They portray tales of hopelessness, born of valuelessness. The people in these pages are not so much disposable as disposed. For me, the toughest aspect to digest was the characters’ inability to move away from their present existence, even when they wanted to, and even when they have planned their escapes. Better futures seem possible at times, but these characters find themselves barred from fully engaging, forcing them to stay where they are.

Where do those barriers come from? It speaks to the power of culture to bind its members to a certain perception of self-worth, especially in relation to the larger, dominant culture of the nation. More importantly it identifies the systemic separators entrenched in Canada that make it virtually impossible to move beyond economic and cultural boundaries. The parallels to America today seem obvious, where ossified, arcane systems serve the status quo and reinforce those economic and cultural differences. When the systems become too resistant to change, progress stops. That we often don’t see it in our everyday lives is, to a certain extent, understandable. We need writers like Bickell to remind us of the injustices that lie outside our personal experience, and to prod us to take action to remedy them.

A major theme in this book is the plight of indigenous women in Canada. The issue has long been an afterthought in the country’s cultural evolution. For example, between the years 1980 and 2012, Indigenous women and girls represented 16% of all female homicides in Canada, while constituting only 4% of the female population. Statistics regarding sexual abuse and missing women among the indigenous are similarly shocking. Bickell treats this national disgrace as a part of that embedded culture.

The flaw inherent in culture is its belief that for a group to prosper, another group must not. Someone must be cast aside, left behind, and often this precept is extended to assign blame: It’s their fault for the problems between us, and their own fault for not being able to adjust.

Here is the evidence, in Bickell’s novel.

– Joe Ponepinto

Book Review: Spider Love Song and Other Stories

How much did I enjoy the stories in Nancy Au’s new collection, Spider Love Song and Other Stories? I’ll put it this way: I had published the title work when I was fiction editor of Tahoma Literary Review a couple of years ago, and being a typically overworked, under-motivated editor, I reasoned I could save some time by skipping that story (it is a long one, about twenty-five pages) since I’d read it before. But when I came to it about halfway through the book, I scanned the opening paragraphs, and was immediately back into its pages, and read it with as much fascination as the first time.*

Such are the stories throughout this collection, Au’s first. They’re filled with what might be called emotional intrigue: no flat characters, every one of the people who populate her fictions unique and unusual in the way we all can be, and it’s a remarkable talent to both recognize that trait and be able to inhabit the minds of such a diverse cast.

From this there spawns no end of plots, all relatively simple in their progression, yet deeply complex in their characters’ psyches and interrelationships: In “The Unfed” an old and toothless woman recounts the deaths of neighbors in her rural town who sought magical ways to rebuild a mountaintop destroyed by a mining company. “The Richmond” focuses on a young girl who tries to convince her mother to move to a more upscale area of San Francisco. And there’s the title story, regarding a girl whose parents have gone missing (the result of foul play or abandonment no one knows), who lives with her eccentric grandmother and copes with her loss by regarding the world from inside an elephant costume.

Conclusions? Revelations? Not of the traditional or genre sort. Instead each tale comprises something like a visit to the home of an acquaintance, only made during those times which are typically private. Pull up a chair and observe.

Once you leave, of course, their lives continue; new problems, surely, will occur for these people, and while we don’t know what they are and how they’ll play out, we can know how they’ll try to deal with them. Ultimately, that’s all we really need to know about a person.


* Disclaimer: A few months after initially publishing the story my wife and I had the opportunity to meet Nancy and her husband in San Francisco for lunch, and I would now consider her a friend. That may influence my opinion about the book, but I suspect I’d be convinced of its excellence had we never met. Acre Books (connected to the august Cincinnati Review) doesn’t publish just anything.

– Joe Ponepinto

Book Review: The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form

In every writer’s life there are a few books about craft that have a profound and lasting influence. One of those, for me, was Douglas Glover’s The Attack of the Copula Spiders (Biblioasis, 2012), a sometimes humorous series of essays that focused on the many and frustrating beginning writers’ mistakes he has endured as a college creative writing professor. His advice has cured many budding writers of their bad habits, and shown them the difference between sloppy, unfocused writing and clear, accurate, meaningful prose.

At the far end of the writing spectrum, though, is a world that only a few writers and critics understand, and Glover, a prominent Canadian writer and teacher, shows his mastery of this aspect of literature as well in his latest collection of essays, The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form (Biblioasis, 2019).

Here the writing is focused primarily on author intent and technique, rather than the basics, and Glover chooses some of literature’s greats from which to draw his observations: Alice Munro (of course), E. Annie Proulx, Jane Austen, Albert Camus, and others. He puts these writers under his microscope to explore the foundations of form and meaning.

It has always struck me, though, that the basis of form is recursion, which has its roots in rhythm, eros, and memory (memorization), and that the basics of form extend back in human history, long, long before the invention of writing and our current state of historical understanding. We’ve been writing down stories since the Sumerians. Prior to that, for tens of thousands of years, we told them over hearth fires, accompanied perhaps by drums, flute, and lyre, dance or call-and-response chants (you can imagine all the possibilities because many cultures still deploy such rhythmic performances today). That’s a hundred thousand years or more of storytellers and audience practicing together, hammering out form and response in an endless feedback loop, which, one speculates, has hardwired the brain. The reader knows without knowing.[1]

Who benefits from something this detailed and admittedly arcane? The casual reader—even many practiced writers, I think—will ask this question after a few pages, and will likely keep asking it the longer they read. Who needs to know that Plot = (d/r) + (d/r) + (d/r) time>>>[2] apart from a few academics whose careers hinge on the ability to generate this stuff? After all, most writers will say, writing is about understanding character and sympathy. It’s created in the imagination, in the soul. Writing, say those who don’t care to examine at this depth, is intuitive. It’s form from the formless, something like the creation of the universe—or alchemy (and it’s fascinating to listen to these writers try to explain the genesis of a story they’ve written).

But really, from where does this intuition come? Every writer has a core of cultural and experiential knowledge on which their stories and their outcomes are based. These factors influence every work, every sentence, even if the writer isn’t aware it’s happening during the creative process. And if that’s true, who’s to say we can’t add to that knowledge base and therefore begin our fiction from a more enlightened place? Where might we go from there?

That’s the value of Glover’s essays. His deep analysis of great works of fiction is more like the study of, say, quantum physics: the details are fascinating, and on the surface they don’t seem to have any purpose in one’s daily life. And yet, comprehending the underpinnings of our existence in relation to the evolution of storytelling creates perspective that leads to mindfulness, an understanding of what resonates in the human psyche—what words, what phrases, what desires. If a writer can assimilate the knowledge within Glover’s essays—to know it without consciously thinking of it while writing—it empowers her to create works of deeper, more effective meaning, works that engage on both conscious and subconscious levels.

I’m tempted to say that this is not a book for the beginning writer. The concepts discussed are complex, and the examples Glover uses to illustrate his essays are among the most deeply psychological and nuanced in the literary canon. And in fact if a writer is looking for nothing more than formulaic nuts and bolts advice, or a fuzzy sense of encouragement, then there are hundreds of how-to-write primers on the market. But isn’t the goal of writing to produce work akin to the quality of the authors analyzed in these essays? If the answer is yes, then I take it back—dive in, immerse, understand as much as you can, and trust that Glover’s expertise is moving you closer to that goal.

– Joe Ponepinto


[1] –From Glover’s analysis of Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” in “Anatomy of the Short Story” (page 81).

[2] d = desire; r = resistance. And in Glover’s analysis, each successive instance of desire in a story is more profound than the one that came before. (page 29).

Book Review: The Uprooted

The Uprooted and Other Stories
By Michael Washburn
Adelaide Books

Time was some decades ago when American influence around the world was a given. Anyone who’s read books like The Brothers (regarding John Foster Dulles and Allan Dulles) knows of our clandestine operations to prop up or bring down regimes as befit our interests. In fiction our operatives were thought of as cut from the Our Man Flint mold, macho types who didn’t hide, didn’t have to, because Americans, whatever their motives, were too clever, too powerful, too feared to be defeated.

Times have changed. A lot. In The Uprooted and Other Stories those men and their relationships to the countries in which they find themselves have been updated to reflect the way the world looks at Americans today, and that long latent mistrust and outright hatred renders them far less aggressive than they used to be. No longer secret agents, they are instead often journalists or travelers out there looking for experiences rather than promoting American hegemony. But that fact doesn’t deter their hosts from traditional suspicions.

It’s a refreshing, necessary take on Americans in the larger world. Washburn’s stories offer characters with a far less secure sense of self, men who are curious about people in other lands, and do their best to fit into a culture, rather than manipulate it.

The writing in these mostly-published stories is thoughtful, and reflective of the modern American dynamic, but there’s still the air of mystery that made the old spy tales so popular decades ago. It’s an effective combination for the most part, although the premises from story to story—lone American finds himself immersed in foreign intrigue—tend to repeat, and at nearly 400 pages some may find that bit too much. Readers looking for women protags or people of color will be disappointed too. In that respect not much has changed in those fifty years.

– JP

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