Monthly Archives: July 2010

Grain, by John Glenday

Grain, by John Glenday

The poems in John Glenday’s Grain are unassumingly stoic and plainspoken, ranging from wistful and tender to self-deprecating to harrowing (“Song” and “Grain” have, unfortunately, particularly unforgettable images). Even when he jolts the reader, though, all of the work in this succinct volume has a strong underpinning of humanity and wry compassion.

Grain was recently shortlisted for the 2010 International Griffin Poetry Prize. The judges’ citation captures well the essence of this deservingly nominated work:

“[Glenday] listens carefully to the language he works in. [His poems are] also playful: a tin can, a peculiar fish, invented translations, made-up saints all can suggest poems. It’s refreshing to discover a poet whose work is earthly, full of rivers and hills and islands, but where old ideas like ‘love’ and ‘soul’ have not been banished. Grain is the work of an unhurried craftsman; John Glenday has made poems of understated integrity and humanity.”

The Heart is an Involuntary Muscle, by Monique Proulx

The Heart is an Involuntary Muscle, by Monique Proulx (translated by David Homel & Fred A. Reed)

(translated by David Homel & Fred A. Reed)

“Nothing is simpler than to step through the doors of the universe. First, you switch on your computer. Then rapture begins, when you teeter on the edge with the world at your fingertips, gaping open like a gigantic box of candies that your two hands and your one lifetime could never hope to exhaust.”

This description sounds the first note of genuine passion in the voice of the forlorn narrator of Monique Proulx’s “The Heart is an Involuntary Muscle”. That it follows the emotionally stunted heroine’s last moments with her dying father is very telling. That Proulx is able to sustain the reader’s interest in the misadventures of a cynical, often thoughtless, only sporadically motivated and interpersonally inept narrator illustrates how deceptively accomplished and ultimately winning this book is.

Florence is a Web designer whose only other passion apart from drifting into the online ether is Zeno, the owner of the small Web design firm for which she works, and her on-again, off-again lover. Even the presumably most important and most passionate relationship in her life is intermittent at best. But it’s through the Web design business, which specializes in developing online presence for obscure or underappreciated writers and artists, that Florence finally discovers a subject worth abiding focus, interest and yes, passion. As she becomes entangled with a Thomas Pynchon-esque writer and his wife, Florence begins to confront the life she has lived thus far and assesses why she has not really invested in anyone or anything to that point.

“The Heart is an Involuntary Muscle” bogs down ever-so-slightly about midway, but the murkiness is more likely a reflection of Florence’s inarticulate bewilderment at the new feelings welling up as she becomes more enmeshed with the enigmatic writer than any shortcomings in Proulx’s (and her translators’) precision of expression. Overall, the book is very intriguing and insightful in terms of creating some rich, albeit sometimes frustrating but therefore authentic, characters. Surprisingly, the book’s plot grows increasingly suspenseful as Florence’s involvement with the writer and his wife, and her perhaps on-again relationship with Zeno reach interesting crescendos. The book also offers some intriguing asides about people and their personae and relationships or lack thereof as interactions are conducted online, which sit in striking and instructive contrast to the fumbling interactions of the characters in real life.

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman is not just an exquisitely crafted gem of a book – it’s a series of exquisitely crafted gems that each stand and glimmer gorgeously on their own, but have considerable additional power and depth arranged together in one elegant setting.

The book serves up a connected series of chapters or short stories about the people running and contributing to, with varying degrees of effectiveness and dedication, an international English-language newspaper in Rome. The main stories are set in the near present, but each story concludes with a chronological series of sharp snippets tracing the founding of the paper back in the 1950s. In addition to the particular personal or professional challenges of the central character of each chapter, there is a strong undercurrent of the overall challenges of a news organization contending (or pointedly not contending) with social, cultural and technological changes in news gathering and consumption.

Rachman’s own background as a former foreign correspondent with Associated Press gives The Imperfectionists’ clear and confident industry insights. These are coupled with Rachman’s formidably acute emotional sensitivity, gracefully understated and all the more powerful for it. With just a few brush strokes, Rachman captures the essence of each of his wide range of characters, and makes even the supporting players in each vignette well-rounded and memorable. Gerda Erzberger, the aging feminist writer who appears in obituary writer Arthur Gopal’s poignant sequence, is a standout. With just a few words, she becomes a striking presence who adds resonance to Arthur’s heartwrenching story.

Rachman combines his subtle and unforgettable character portraits – much deeper than just character sketches – with often surprisingly riveting storylines. Resolutions range from the comic to the tragic to even the vaguely menacing, but they all ring true as they are grounded in soundly believable people and circumstances.

The fact that this is Rachman’s first novel (or collection, if you prefer to view it that way) makes this reader both impatient and slightly wary of what will come next from him. The prospect of more finely honed delights like The Imperfectionists is delicious, but has he set the bar impossibly high for himself? I’m certain I’m one of many readers eager to find out.

The Certainty Dream, by Kate Hall

The Certainty Dream, by Kate Hall

The poems of The Certainty Dream by Kate Hall all have that clear-eyed, precise and utterly wacky conviction about what is right according to the opaque, hilarious and sometimes terrifying logic of dreams. This conviction (certainty, indeed) permeates almost every poem in this strong first collection, but “This is a Dream Letter” is an especially haunting standout.

Bird and flight imagery also pervades much of the work here, just as the inexplicable but perfectly logical ability to fly often shows up in many dreams. However, Hall’s birds are not always soaring and trilling sweet songs. As well, the bird imagery is sometimes slyly and perhaps menacingly counterbalanced by cat imagery.

The Certainty Dream’s inclusion in the 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize Canadian shortlist was both charmed and deserving. It was charmed in that Hall shared the shortlist with the late PK Page, who was an early mentor as Hall embarked on what will undoubtedly be a notable literary career … and charmed as well because she shared it with Karen Solie, this year’s Canadian winner who previously appeared on the Griffin shortlist with a lauded and memorable debut collection. And yes, the inclusion is deserving, because The Certainty Dream is singular and assured and explores intriguing territory, as summed up in the Griffin judges’ citation:

“As the dream world and the waking world blur, the body and the dimensions it inhabits become a series of overlapping circles, all acting as containers for both knowledge and uncertainty. At times disarmingly plainspoken, at others, singing with lyric possibility, these poems make huge associative leaps.”


Perhaps this snippet from “Suspended in the Space of Reason: A Short Thesis” suggests that Hall intends to hone further her creative acuity and demand much of herself as she embarks on her particular literary journey:

Bats basically scream
until they hear their voices
echo off bugs and trees. Then they know
where they are and exactly what and how large
the thing is they are hunting.

Yesterday I yelled at myself and
nothing came back at all.


Useless Dog, by Billy C. Clark

Useless Dog, by Billy C. Clark

This sweet-natured story of a boy and his dog is distinguished by its authentic-sounding voice of the farming and hunting communities of the Kentucky mountains. Published in the early 1960s, it captures a time, place and people, but avoids being a dated read. The bond between young teenage Caleb and Outcast, the part-Airedale hound who everyone else initially rejects but who proves himself to be a wily and reliable hunting dog, is genuinely and sensitively traced without becoming maudlin. It’s an affecting and timeless tale.