Book Reviews

Drawn & Quarterly Showcase #1-4
Drawn & Quarterly

Mome #1-3

Hotwire #1

Read by Joe Ollmann

The comics anthology is an uneven, lumbering brute that has a long tradition in comics history. It started when the father of William Gaines (Mad Magazine) collected a lot of old newspaper strips together from his distribution business, stapled them together and the idiot bastard child known as the comic book came into the world, breech-birth. It's been a mixed bag since then, from the guilty pleasure dungheap of Archie Double Digests to the sublime of obscure but highly-acclaimed anthologies like Joe Sacco's Centrifugal Bumblepup, and Glen Head's Snake Eyes, most-noted for their "short-gevity" than anything else.

However, the comics anthology has been enjoying a renaissance in the art-press world with the highly acclaimed Kramers Ergot and the McSweeny's comics issue. These are not little stapled newsprint comics, but beautifully printed, capital A Art books with spines. More recently, the big, indy presses have responded to these new Graphica Anthologies with their own versions of the modern comic anthology, sharing formats, sensibilities, and often the same contributors.

Drawn & Quarterly Showcase seems to have replaced the Drawn & Quarterly comics anthology which in turn grew out of the original comic version of that which slowly morphed over years from a stapled, indy showcase to a squarebound high art volume. Each issue of D&Q Showcase features two or three artists in the usual insanely elegant style that Chris Oliveros' books always appear in. So far, the choice of artists and their contributions have been exceptional. This is always a solid anthology series.

Mome is the Fantagraphics' anthology series. It may not be too unkind to say that it is a direct response to Drawn & Quarterly Showcase (the same could be said of much of the art direction and almost every move by Fantagraphics over the past few years). This is not to say that the anthology is without its merits. Mome is a quarterly book with regular entries by the same revolving stable of artists each issue and an interview with one of them in the center of the book. Using the same artists gives the creators a chance to have a go at longer sustained narratives, without having to sustain their own series. It also creates a familiarity, which, if you dislike any specific contributor, will inevitably lead to contempt.

I like Mome. The stories by established names such as Jeffrey Brown and Gabrielle Bell have been solid and enjoyable. But some of the most inventive and surprising for me have been cartoonists that I wasn't familiar with, such as John Pham, Martin Cendreda and Jonathan Bennett, who have become some of my favourite cartoonists of late. The Sophie Crumbs and the David Heatleys of each issue are, for me, the parts that breed the aforementioned contempt, but to be fair, the balance in Mome is more to the side of good. And to go further and be all hippie, flowerchild-y, there must be people out there who "dig" even these.

Lastly, there is Hotwire from Fantagraphics, edited by Glen Head. This is an anthology that comes out of the corner fighting, with a manifesto criticizing comics in general and touting themselves as "something different on the comic rack" (their italics).  It's my feeling that if you come out swinging, you'd better have some punching power. Hotwire does have some serious contenders, some well-known (Robert Sikoryak doing Faust as Garfield), and some really interesting unknowns to add their lefts and rights. But there's a lot of flabby material in here that left me thinking what a lot of work to draw something so pointless. This is the stuff that keeps Hotwire struggling against the ropes, but hey, it's the kid's first fight.

A Small Dog Barking and Other Stories
by Robert Strandquist

Anvil Press, 2005

Read by Mark Paterson

Bold, on a variety of levels, only begins to describe Robert Strandquist's exceptional short story collection, A Small Dog Barking. There's an irresistible swagger to this book, yet for all its audaciousness, Strandquist deftly leaves out the arrogance. Instead, we are treated to a healthy dose of stylistically daring stories that are extremely diverse in theme.

In "Dryer Sheets," Steve escapes the city's choking odours and plastic existence for the British Columbian wilderness where he encounters a corpse, vast nature, and Susan. In "The Shift," told in three parts, we travel to a vicious and violent post-apocalyptic future where water is so scarce that urine is recycled and towering "collectors" reach high into the sky for precious little scraps of water molecules. In "Attack of the Fifty-Foot Man," a mystified entomologist receives communications from army ants in southern Brazil. Throughout, it is Strandquist's skill that holds together these variations in setting, subject matter and time, allowing these stories to reside in the same collection with remarkable consistency.    

Strandquist's characters often exhibit an alluring brashness. Men lay down pickup lines that, out of context, seem ludicrous, but in the universe of each story, they materialize as the exact right words at the exact right moment, spoken to the exact right person: "Your beauty seems to come out of nowhere... in the vicinity of a streak of lightning" ("Dryer Sheets"); "Did you mean to release my soul from its jar?" ("Tents"). Others are aware of what they like and what they don't with refreshing candour: "Lance hated people, particularly people under nuclear family conditions." ("Attack of the Fifty-Foot Man").   Even minor characters manage to stand out, like a second-rate drummer abandoned on stage by his exasperated bandmates in the four-part finale, "The Unbelonging": "'I was paid to drum,' he said, valiantly, when one of the waitresses asked him to stop."

A Small Dog Barking is Robert Strandquist's third book, following the novel The Dreamlife of Bridges and his debut story collection, The Inanimate World. His is a voice to look forward to for future forays into brave writing.

Whispers The Missing Child
by D.O. Dodd

The Mercury Press, 2005

Read by Kelly Ward

Google D.O. Dodd and the only biographical information that you'll come across is: "D.O. Dodd is a reclusive Canadian writer and author of Whispers The Missing Child, who has lived in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland." In fact, you will find no events, readings, or launches at which you may lay eyes on D.O. Dodd. S/he is a mystery, so to speak, appearing only on the pages of Whispers The Missing Child.

Whispers is not so much a mystery as a riddle. We meet Sarah Dodd, a woman who is haunted by her own and other children's abductions, while simultaneously capitalizing on tragedy as a reporter whose lover is a true crime writer.   She is torn between the poles of pathos and fear, as well as the public desire to consume these stories of abuse. Her "haunting" is both literal (children follow her everywhere she goes) and emotional (the scenes climax from a physical landscape to a troubled, surreal, psychic one).

Dodd juxtaposes scenes in such a way as to reveal the answer to the riddle posed by the shifting and startling content. Children are abused, William writes about it and becomes famous.   Sex and love take place over the backdrop of a crime scene. Sarah's own abduction story fuses and slides into the stories of countless other children.  

            Ultimately, Dodd paints a culture obsessed with horror as spectacle.   This motif may not be shockingly new to many readers, as writers have been grappling with our voyeuristic culture since at least the early 90s, but Dodd's rendering is unique. As readers, we can usually make some tenuous connection between the position of the author and the position of the text. Dodd, however, does not allow us this comfort. S/he disappears behind the text, into the Dodd family of Shearstown. This inability to "get out" of the story and its self-referential nature makes Dodd's cultural critique that much more potent. S/he forces the reader to confront her/his own compliance in this very contemporary, very cyclical culture of abuse and entertainment.  

Miss Lamp
by Chris Ewart

Coach House Books, 2006

Read by Maria Giuliani

The world of Miss Lamp is one densely filled with conundrums. A story in vignettes, the reader is taken from present to past, experiencing the life of Miss Lamp, a Young Miss Lamp, and a Young Young Miss Lamp. Along the journey we are introduced to a cast of characters who provide for a little illumination into the true nature of the protagonist. With names such as Room Service Boy, Banana Tray Hair and Paper Boy, the characters are all finding their way out of a bind, finding their way into a pickle, or dealing with some form of emblematic physical dysfunction.  

Ewart's poetic prose is so concise that all 165 pages necessitate being read aloud. It can't be helped, your lips will move whether or not you intend them to do so. The vignette titles, in and of themselves, are crisp quips that draw you in to both tone and jest, leaving you hungry for more. Lines such as, "Soup is good food," "Sweaty toes are bad news," and "What's best for a breadboard isn't best for a back," are brilliant in their simplicity.

The characters are intentionally obtuse, purposely childish. Their naiveté is enhanced by themes of numerical and monetary values, the wasting of time, inconsistencies of fact and truth, soured maternal relationships, and first loves gained and lost. Juicy fruits and complementary colours create a visceral and salivating experience for the reader. It seems only Ewart can create a sex scene from the depiction of a peach-eating lamp. This is a world of efficient metaphors, dirty dresses and wrinkled shirts. It's a world where goodness does not always triumph, where providers struggle with takers, where nothing can be taken at face value, and where you can never judge a person by their shoes.

Miss Lamp is "a perfect specimen" of humour, humanity and morality. In the words of Miss Lamp herself, "Ahh, that's good times."     

False Maps for Other Creatures
by Jay MillAr

Harbour Publishing
Nightwood Editions

Reviewed by Jesse Ferguson

The eyes of some readers may glaze over at the mention of yet another book of Canadian nature poetry, but this collection reminds us that it is not so much the matter but its treatment that makes or breaks a poem. MillAr deals mostly in the natural world, but he keeps it fresh by means of linguistic verve.  

In some ways, False Maps deals in the archetypal, the primordial. In such poems as "One Afternoon," MillAr draws us into the elemental realm of birdsong, rock, fire and tree, and we hold our breath as "the ground expands a little wiser / waiting for a foot to arrive." Again, in "Facsimile," one of the collection's most memorable poems, MillAr's imagination strives to reclaim an almost prehistoric conception of nature: "it's morning / and I still cannot remember people." This is not to say that the poet never draws on the realm of the urban or the technological, but that nature invariably takes centre-stage in his creations.  

As mentioned, much of the interest of these poems is derived from the way MillAr toys with language. Many, such as "Canoe," rely on careful line breaks to cast new light on what could otherwise be boring ("a wind / in sects / the butterfly / sun or / beam / turn slow"). Some such pieces recall that expert line-breaker, W.C. Williams. The reader is also encouraged to "fill in" linguistic and logical gaps, which at times can be fun and engaging.  

One problem with MillAr's clipped style and inventive syntax is that they sometimes confuse the reader to the point of irritation. Poems such as "Fact's Mile," "Dragonfly" and Part III of "Variations on a Sentimental Poem" are obscure and fail to deliver a "meaning" beyond the pleasure of sound (a pleasure that certainly has its place, if not out of place). The relative failure of some of these poems can be chalked up to the kinds of experimentation practiced by MillAr; he takes syntactical risks, and when they work, they work well (and vice versa). False Maps, then, is a stimulating and tight collection, well worth picking up.  

by Anne Fleming

Raincoast Books, 2005

Read by Nita Pronovost

1) An irregularity.
2) An anomalous circumstance or thing.

And for the purpose of this review, I add a third definition of the word not yet catalogued in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary: 3) The fitting title of Anne Fleming's debut novel.

As a short story writer, Anne Fleming has established a reputation for well-crafted fiction that challenges the reader to delve beyond the polished veneer of the contemporary middle-class lifestyle. Pool-Hopping and Other Stories was a Governor-General's Award finalist, and "Unicycle Boys," an oddly haunting story about adolescent self-discovery earned a coveted spot in the 2004 Toronto Life fiction issue.

In Anomaly, Fleming turns her hand to novel-length fiction, with irregular results. The thematic terrain will be familiar to Fleming's readers: sibling rivalry, awkward teenage awakenings, taboo trysts, all set against the backdrop of a typical Toronto neighbourhood in the late 70s and early 80s. The four protagonists whose stories we follow are all "anomalies" in their own ways, but little else unifies their otherwise separate journeys, and the frequent and sometimes lumbering changes in point of view from one character to the next hinder the reader's ability to identify fully with any of them.

The novel opens in 1972, narrating the evolution in the relationship of two sisters, Carol, an albino, and Glynnis, her younger sister, who suffers a shocking childhood injury that leaves her with a deformed leg. Their pious mother, Rowena, when not singularly consumed with worry about her daughters' emotional and physical well-being, studies to become a minister.

The reader watches the metamorphosis in the sister bond between Glynnis and Carol as they travel through Girl Guide intrigues, public school betrayals and teenage identity crises, all the while haunted by a seminal event from their childhood that threatens to cast a pall over their relationship forever. The story intertwines with their elderly neighbour, Mrs. Balls, a closet lesbian who continues to mourn the loss of her one unconsummated love, a comrade who died decades earlier during World War II.

Fleming succinctly conveys the stigma and claustrophobia of growing up, but since the narration lacks a novelistic arc, the book feels more like a collection of linked short stories than a novel. Anomalies in Fleming's believable and charming misfits are most endearing, but the anomalous story structure is not.

The Sweet Edge
by Alison Pick

Raincoast Books, 2005

Read by Susan Briscoe

Since Alison Pick was widely acclaimed as a fine young poet, I was fully prepared to be dazzled by plenty of sparkling prose, complex characters, and deeply mined themes in The Sweet Edge, her already lauded first novel. Almost immediately, I was delighted to find writing as fresh and clear as the cold Arctic water her character Adam paddles through, "drinking straight from the boat." But I was soon disappointed to learn that Ellen, the dumped girlfriend Adam has left behind in Toronto, is thin and pretty with blond, straight hair: immediately, I pictured the Globe and Mail's Style columnist Leah McLaren.

Now, while I have nothing against Leah, I don't especially want to read a novel about her. Of course, Ellen is not Leah. But she is a surprisingly conventional chick-lit heroine. A forlorn princess-type, she is an abandoned heiress who practices retail therapy and paints her nails pink. She has trouble stuffing envelopes. And she is utterly lost without her man, who is -- I am no longer surprised -- a big, capable, womanizing sort with a fear of commitment. For the young chick-lit reader, this might all be fine. But I expected, perhaps unfairly, something else from Pick. I also didn't expect clichéd characters like the goofy granola woman who serves only to contrast with Ellen's boss, the stereotyped bitchy art gallery owner.

There is, though, some moderate depth in these pages. Over the couple's summer of separation, Adam is testing the ideas of Thoreau and other serious thinkers against his own experience of solitude in nature. His real epiphany comes, however, from humbling human encounters. Meanwhile, Ellen is taken in by a bunch of artsy lesbians who drag her to evening Buddhist meditation. Ellen learns her big lessons from these new, rather unlikely friends: they show the submissive Ellen how to get mad about and then get over being cheated on and dumped. Nothing so new here, but Pick's story should appeal to the under-thirty reader who wants a more literary romantic tale.

Creamsicle Stick Shivs
by John Stiles

Insomniac Press, 2006

Read by Kelly Ward

I picked up John Stiles' latest collection expecting, due to its title, to meet a mischievous Tom Sawyer type lying in wait, with homemade weaponry drawn, ready to attack another freckle-faced boy. Instead, I found poems that hinge on the daily, often fleeting, relationships between adults in three distinct settings -- The Maritimes, Toronto, and London, England -- and how their modes of communication colour their relationships. Each section has a distinct oral flavour, though the voices of the first section, "Halifax Snowstorm," are the most vivid and engaging.  

In his notes, the author says that "the title is derived from the idea that... our natural inclination is not always to be a good boy, do the right thing." In this vein, Stiles attempts to steer his poems toward these not quite "right" things. These poems are often drunken and sometimes horny. Where these themes are given depth and quirky, amusing life in "Halifax Snowstorm," the later sections generally fall short of the first's colloquial beauty. While the lyrics of the second (Toronto) section have undeniably endearing moments, the section set in London felt, for this reviewer at least, forced in its orality.  

Stiles uses his incarnation of Maritime jargon to craft common images in ways that may never have been conceived of in any other idiom.   In what other poem could the line, "that stunnin church of a tit" actually be charming, with not a whisper of sleaze?   In the "Meritimer in London" section, the linguistic devices do not flow nearly as smoothly. Some characters become English caricatures, rowing blokes who say "matey" a lot. This is not to say that I considered the poems of this section to be without merit, but they seem to be made somewhat impotent by what precedes them.  

Crafting poetry that embodies the "vulgar tongue," as Dante called it, is an endeavour well worth the inevitable pitfalls. Too often poets tend toward language that many think "universal," and in so doing, sacrifice the nuance and specificity of the colloquial. For avoiding this pitfall Stiles should be commended, and many should follow in his search for a colloquial poetics.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
-- A Guerrilla Filmmaking Manifesto
by Melvin Van Peebles

Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004

Read by Lateef Martin

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song helped to spark the whole Blaxploitation movement in the 70s. These movies depicted exaggerated black characters as hood heroes fed up with The Man (AKA the White Establishment), or as badasses just doing their thing. On the surface, Foxy Brown? Shaft? Superfly? and the like gave black audiences pride, as before that, they were seen as nothing but slaves, mammies, pimps or thugs. Underneath the glossy veneer, however, these movies were hollow homages, written and directed by whites who knew nothing about nor cared for black struggles.

Black and white critics alike constantly compared these movies to Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which was anything but exploitive of the Black American Experience. This movie was raw. Shot in a little over two weeks, most of the crew wore many hats, most of which were worn by Van Peebles himself: writer, director, actor, editor, producer, and that's to name just a few. Melvin Van Peebles chronicles it all in this book, an inspiration to aspiring filmmakers.

Although the techniques in front of and behind the camera -- the pure genius involved in beating the naysayers at their own game and even beating slacker production staff into submission -- do not apply to today's way of filmmaking, one can still glean some clues about what it takes to create an uncanny work and make it a success. From assembling a crew and maintaining a productive work environment, to tricking the union spies who peppered Van Peebles' crew but left him alone after his first scene was "proof" that he was shooting a porno (fare the union didn't touch back then), this was only half the work. Then there was the marketing. The fact that an all-white jury had rated the movie X was useful as an ad campaign. Van Peebles connected directly with the black community, hustling to bring this movie beyond the only two theatre houses in America that would accept it, to make Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song a runaway success and a legend. (Warning! There is dialogue from the movie at the book's end. It's best for the reader to watch the movie first).

Talk Back: The Bubble Project
by Ji Lee

Mark Batty Publisher, 2006

Read by Taien Ng-Chan

I first read about The Bubble Project in the magazine Giant Robot. I was excited to discover Lee's ongoing interference with the glut of advertisements that pollute our communal spaces (culturejamming, as Adbusters would say). Ji Lee had printed over 30,000 blank bubble stickers, and stuck them on ads in bus stops, phone booths, subways, or anywhere there was advertising; the bubbles, like empty thought balloons, invited public discourse. Lee returned later to photograph the filled-in bubbles. Talk Back collects some of the best, so far.  

The comments written into the bubbles are, as might be expected, often irreverent, more often crude, but they are also erudite and funny. The authors are all anonymous, passersby who thought of things to say and had writing implements with them, but some of these people are extremely witty and probably great fun at parties. The book is divided into chapters such as humour, art & philosophy, politics & religion. Some chapters are smarter and funnier than others - there are, for example, far more interesting bubbles in the social commentary section than in the sex & drugs section, as dick and Viagra jokes get tired fast.  

Further dialoguing begins to occur as someone writes one thing and another responds, or alters the original comment. The bubbles play off the images and slogans, sometimes with anger, sometimes with humour. There are, over lines of CGI robots from the movie poster for I, Robot, bubbles saying "SHUT UP AND SHOP!" The Major League Baseball logo sprouts a bubble that says "They might let a nigger play, but they'll NEVER let them in the logo!"  

The book ends with a few pages of bubble stickers for your very own use and amusement, an invitation to bring bubbles to your city. There is also a link to the website, where you can download templates to print and make bubbles yourself. The Bubble Project is one of the most creative, fun ways to interrupt what Lee calls "the corporate monologue," and a worthy hobby to take up. At the back, there is a disclaimer that "the author and the publisher of this book do not support vandalism." Matrix, of course, does not condone vandalism either, and the opinion expressed here is solely my own: vandalism, schmandalism. Talk back, and go bubble some ads.