Ian Williams’s latest poetry collection, Word Problems (Coach House) takes its name from those exercises from grade-school math class, but here the questions posed are unsolvable for being either too big or too small. A quote in the epigraph poses the biggest question of all, from W.E.B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Typographically, these poems circle around themselves, they cut diagonally across text, they run across pages like cable-news tickers. It ensnares the reader – there is no escaping this question, and the solution is bigger than any of us alone.
I understand why some people are motivated to read stories of plagues right now – I am just not one of those people. I would rather rush ahead and know what comes after the time some might call the apocalypse. Love After the End (Arsenal Pulp), an anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer speculative fiction edited by Joshua Whitehead, delivers. Standouts for me were stories by Adam Garnet Jones, Gabriel Castilloux Calderon, Mari Kurisato and David A Roberton.
Seven (Dundurn) opens as Sharifa and her family are preparing to leave New York for a sabbatical trip to India. The months stretching ahead of her, Sharifa plans a research project on the family patriarch, but ends up learning more than she ever anticipated, about both her family tree and khatna, the practice of female genital cutting within her small religious community. Despite its subject matter, no part of this novel was especially difficult to read, and author Farzana Doctor includes moments of humour, even eroticism. With that said, be prepared for this novel to stay with you for a long time, especially its ending.
Some of the stories in Kristyn Dunnion’s latest collection are loosely linked by character, but what really unites Stoop City (Biblioasis) is its punk ethos, the way even a well-ordered condo careens towards anarchy with the addition of one feral cat or a dead girlfriend’s ghost. These are stories about love at the margins, set in those spaces, literal or figurative, where the private meets the street.
The challenge of any work of art is to make us pay attention, and therein lies the difficulty of a novel set in New York: How to make the reader see this storied city anew? Joni Murphy does it by replacing humans with animals. Talking Animals (Book*hug) follows Alfonzo, a heartbroken alpaca finishing his dissertation while working in the basement of City Hall, when his friend, a llama, involves him in a revolutionary plot. This is Animal Farm but better and set now, about how capital renders the city unliveable and neo-liberalism is boiling the planet alive.
A related premise underlies Mark Sampson’s All the Animals on Earth (Buckrider), set in Toronto some time in the near future, as the world depopulates. This isn’t a Children of Men, mass-infertility type scenario. People could have children but … who wants to? It’s only when a biological experiment turns the world’s creatures into human form that human society undergoes a crisis.
Dany Laferrière, a member of the Académie Française (thus nicknamed an “immortal”), is one of my favourite writers, so Adam Leith Gollner’s Working in the Bathtub: Conversations with the Immortal Dany Laferrière (Linda Leith) was always going to interest me. What I was not expecting was to enjoy most Laferrière’s commentary on finance. And it is true, what he says (I paraphrase): Banks don’t understand money. You want to understand money, you ask a writer.
Dede Crane’s One Madder Woman (Freehand) recaptures the artistic and political radicalism of the Impressionists before they were Impressionists, focusing on the life of painter Berthe Morisot (1841–1895) and her intense love for her sister Edma, which later turned into rivalry and then a nascent feminism. A historical novel moving at the pace of a water lily this is not. Under the pretty pictures is the Siege of Paris and the “Bloody Week” that ended the Paris Commune.
Eamon McGrath’s life-on-the-road novel, Here Goes Nothing (ECW) describes the euphoria and masochism that fuels the band on tour. In some ways it’s a coming-of-age novel of a young guitarist who thinks he’s seen the worst, only to discover new depredations in the form of a middle-aged rocker desperate for his big break. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as McGrath’s 2017 debut, the similar Berlin-Warszawa Express, which had the added aspect of contemplating Eastern Europe. Still, McGrath writes as someone who knows this life from his own experience.
I’ll end with two French novels from Quebec recently in translation. The tale of how Réjean Ducharme’s 1966 novel L’Avalée des avalés is only now available to English-Canadian readers is a novella in itself. In Madeleine Stratford’s brand-new translation, as Swallowed (Véhicule, 343 pages), this classic of Quiet Revolution lit is here at last. Ducharme was a Salingeresque recluse, and his heroine, Berenice Einberg, is a bit of a Holden Caulfield mixed with sometimes-vicious little tornado.
Tatouine (QC Fiction, 235 pages), by contrast, has a much slower pace, but it is a novel of inventive, self-deprecating humour. Its narrator is a man with some similarities to its author, Jean-Christophe Réhel: a poet living in Montreal with cystic fibrosis. As he goes from minimum-wage job to medical appointment, he daydreams, imagining his ideal planet: “I’d call it Tatouine, almost the same as the real one, but just different enough.” Katherine Hastings and Peter McCambridge translate this Prix littéraire des collégiens winner.
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