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Vancouver Review defies the odds Add to ...

One of the great mysteries of our day is how anyone survives in the magazine business. Certainly the cultural macrotrends seem to be heading in the wrong direction. Attention spans are shortening. The advertising sweet spot has shifted to newer media. And just last Friday, Toronto-based magazines Wish and Gardening Life folded.

So the fact that the Vancouver Review is going to be five years old at the end of the year is an accomplishment.

Published by editor Gudrun Will and her partner, creative director Mark Mushet, the Review will release its 20th issue in January of next year. If you've never heard of it, and you're interested in the arts and culture of the city and the province, the magazine is worth a look. Beyond even the accolades - one National and two Western Magazine Awards this year alone - the Review, which is still published out of the couple's house in Kitsilano, has come to stand out as a magazine that is both a hard-edged literary and a sleekly packaged design object. Smart, in other words, but sexy too.

The Vancouver Review in its present form emerged from the ashes of a failed earlier incarnation. Ms. Will, who had interned at the original Review (having responded to an ad seeking a "sucker cum editorial assistant") before going on to work as a news reporter at the Vancouver Courier, decided to restart the Review in 2004. Part of her motivation, she says, was that she couldn't find places to either read or publish the kinds of articles she was looking for: "literary non-fiction essays demonstrating a willingness to be critical."

It speaks volumes about that vision that the first cover story was a piece called "Graveyard of Ambition: Does Vancouver Murder Dreams?" Unpacking what I've come to think of as Terminal City Aspirationalism - the writer, Paul Delany, describes this as the direction of "fantasies and desires into a transformed future" - the cover story was illustrated with a Mushet cover photograph of an open drawer at the city morgue from the set of Da Vinci's Inquest.

The fatalist "in" humour was not accurately predictive, in the end. In fact, the Review quickly attracted attention and talent, literary and design. Celebrated illustrators such as Roxanna Bikadoroff and Marian Bantjes, and local authors such as Annabel Lyon, Charlotte Gill and Terry Glavin, began to appear.

Throughout all this material could be found that unsentimental literary-journalistic edge.

In the Winter 2005 issue there were two such articles, perfectly nailing the pretensions that other publications tended to overlook. In one, Bonnie Bowman's "Goodbye Good-lookin'," the city got a Dear John letter from a long-time resident. ("Basically, you're sporty and way too concerned with your looks for me.")

In the other, John Moore took apart "Whistler's instant alpine village" which, he noted, "looked more like something prefab-ed by schnapps-maddened elves in the Ikea Hall of the Mountain King."

Then there was that little matter of leaky condos. The Review could have gone in over the transom with facts and arguments. But that wouldn't have captured the hybrid literary-journalistic spirit it was going for. So how did it tackle the topic?

With novelist and short story writer Lee Henderson, naturally, whose short story "Mold" ran in the magazine and begins: "The handicap on the first floor was famous online before he died of the black mold. Really, it was the 1990s that killed him, the stucco pioneers who developed all Vancouver's condominiums that decade used blueprints meant for the San Fernando Valley where the annual rainfall is one blue drop."

This is not to say that the Vancouver Review is always negative. "We're controversial in the spirit of raising real discussion, not just to be inflammatory," Ms. Will says.

Many other articles point to this quality. I'm thinking of Kristen McCarthy's gripping portrait of a cocaine addict living on the Downtown Eastside, who is revealed near the end of the piece to be the writer's uncle. Or Charlotte Gill's wonderfully evocative portrait of her own life as a tree planter, "Eating Dirt."

If I had to choose a favourite piece, an exemplary piece, however, one that captured the spirit of the magazine while pointing to its central concerns, I would have to choose Terry Glavin's harpooning of Greenpeace pieties in the Fall 2004 issue. There would have been any number of counterintuitive ways to illustrate the piece. But Ms. Will's and Mr. Mushet's idea seems somehow beyond improvement.

They chose a recipe: "Minke Whale with Juniper Berries."

Here's to five more years.

Timothy Taylor is a novelist

and journalist based in Vancouver. His latest book is the novel

Story House.

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