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March Books

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Issue: 51 Section: Literature & Ideas Geography: Canada Topics: poetry

March 4, 2008

March Books

New works by Trussler, Adamson, Snider, and Friedman

by Linda Besner, Robert Kotyk

Accidental Animals
Michael Trussler
Hagios: Regina, 2007.

There's an openness to Trussler's stanzas that's oddly relaxing—his speakers seem willing to accept whatever comes, even defeat. The unabashed autobiographical bent of these poems provides continuity and context, which allow some of the most difficult moments to resonate. A recently divorced parent writes to his daughter about the mistakes made by “your Mom and Dad, and the other/big people around you—all of who/ will never touch who you really are.” Though this kind of pronouncement occasionally verges on preciousness, it's not all sentiment; there are also some great lines like, “My face sweats so much sometimes it's/ like snails are copulating on the lenses.” The engaging authenticity of the content allows the reader to look past some awkwardness in the form. Trussler uses devices that other poets have employed to great effect, but here the slashes and numbered stanza breaks that don't actually divide the poem feel like exercises. Trussler's meditations, however, feel fruitful, and the collection gives a refreshingly honest sense of reflection rooted in experience.

--Linda Besner

The Outlander
Gil Adamson
Anansi: Toronto, 2007.

The Outlander, set in the early 1900s, chronicles the adventures of “the widow,” a 19-year-old woman who has killed her husband and is now fleeing his vengeful twin brothers across Western Canada. Adamson has done a fine job of endowing the widow with a complicated character, giving her so many faults it's a wonder the reader manages to like her—but we do. The niggling technical question in Adamson's execution is a distracting inconsistency in point of view. The narrative voice stays, for the most part, fairly close to the protagonist, but occasionally bolts into startling omniscience, remarking, as the widow fails to recognize the edible plants surrounding her in the forest, “Abundance lay about her, but she starved.” This, paired with phrases like, “August dandelion seeds floated across their path, as if nature itself hoped to bewitch them from their purpose and dream them into the trees,” lends The Outlander a kind of Hardyesque grandiosity, at the heart of which is a ballad's tall tale of a love story. Gather around the campfire and listen to Adamson spin this one out.

--Linda Besner

On Performing
Bob Snider
Gaspereau: Kentville, 2007.

This is intended as a self-help book: Bob Snider, the Canadian folk musician, gives a series of tips for whoever, in his words, wants to learn to be “a ham.” Here's a sample of his prose style:

Timing is the art of saying or doing the right thing at the right time. Let's say you're standing one the street with a friend and you decide to tell a joke.'I always wanted to be a tree surgeon,' you say, 'but I faint at the sight of sap.' This is a good joke and will probably get a laugh or a smile. But if your friend happens to mention that he had some tree surgery done in his yard and you then tell him your joke it will benefit from the addition of good timing.

This earnest explication doesn't seem to match what most people mean by the word “timing” in comedy. There is a vagueness here that plagues the book from the outset, as Snider gives would-be performers generic, flatly phrased advice like, “Anecdotes are interesting and illustrative.” Snider may be an entertaining performer, but he's not much of a writer.

--Linda Besner

Long Story Short
Elyse Friedman
Anansi: Toronto, 2008.

The situations depicted in Elyse Friedman’s new collection of funny and often unsettling stories are mounted with droll, crisp dialogue. Particularly likable is the Journey Prize-nominated “Truth,” which imagines a dating world in which the commitment to spoken veracity (Him: “My self-esteem will be temporarily boosted if I get you into bed tonight, and that waitress is making me horny.” Her: “I have masochistic inclinations and I’m feeling self-destructive.”) exposes the everydayness of game playing and self-deception. While amusingly told, the collection’s novella, “A Bright Tragic Thing,” about a young man who befriends a washed-up sitcom actor for the inside joke-generating potential afforded by their taped phone conversations, is overlong and, in the end, verges on preachiness. Cruelty aside, doesn’t the occasional lending of a disingenuously sympathetic ear to a bad-tempered friend constitute a necessary, even quasi-noble component of lasting companionship? Friedman privileges empathy in the story, upbraiding a youthful culture of detachment, but her targets feel too easy here, straw men (boys, really) who never quite evolve out of a caricature of their videogaming demographic.

--Robert Kotyk

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