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May Books

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

May 14, 2008

May Books

New works by Wickers, Vuong-Riddick, Boyko and Bryan

by Linda Besner, Matthew J. Trafford, Sam Fraser, Bob Kotyk

Stations of the Lost
Brian Wickers
Mansfield Press: Toronto, 2006.

This book offers readers something remarkable: the chance to engage with a captivating voice and enlist the experience and lifetime observations of an extremely erudite and affable poet. Here we have a complicated and finely textured emotional landscape of ex-wives and teenage daughters, elderly fathers and the children who look after them. There is a solid quality to the voice in these poems, a sense that the speaker has withstood life’s inclement weather and will live to withstand more. In addition to carefully wrought images and phrases, Wickers is adept with sound; in the lyric “A Seashell From the Seychelles,” the ‘s’ sounds mimic the sea, and the resulting miasma of sound and meaning is beautiful. Wickers shines when he’s being ostentatiously humorous, as in “Marginal Questions, Winter, English 101, Frost.” The poem riffs off questions a teacher might ask students – mentally and verbally – while teaching Frost’s famous poem: “Who owns the woods – in which of several senses?/ do you own property have you ever tended to animals.” These poems span the pains and joys of life while reflecting on what it is to be human.

--Matthew J. Trafford

The Evergreen Country: A Memoir of Vietnam
Thuong Vuong-Riddick
Hagios: Regina, 2007.

As a child in Hanoi and later a student in Saigon, Vuong-Riddick witnessed Vietnam's turbulent changes in the second half of the 20th century. Historically under French colonial rule, Vietnam was occupied by Japan during World War II, then reoccupied by France, only to be split in two after Communist rebels led by Ho Chi Minh captured Hanoi. The Evergreen Country is Vuong-Riddick's vivid memoir of these times, brimming with historical, cultural and personal insights. The tone is straightforward: events are presented chronologically, with occasional welcome asides to describe relevant cultural details or social practices, including feet binding, teeth dyeing, betel chewing, and the use of the "shame pole" to punish immodesty. Vuong-Riddick casts both sides of the political conflict in a suspicious and violent light, and only hints at where her biases may lie. Vuong-Riddick is a likeable narrator, and we become interested in her personal growth and family, even as we're drawn into the larger historical narrative. Despite the ever-present tension of war, what emerges from the book is a colourful picture of a vibrant and dynamic country.

--Sam Fraser

Craig Boyko
McClelland and Stewart: Toronto, 2008.

First short story collections often possess a restless quality, as the developing writer casts out his or her net as widely as possible to determine just what sits within reach. In Blackouts, individual sentences often show signs of overextension, falling into the kind of exploratory wordiness that signals a young writer straining to broaden or discover the range of his abilities. Occasionally this effect works: “It sounded like a word she’d borrowed from her husband, the psychiatrist, the psychologist, whatever.” As this sentence from “Black Ink” presses outward, each word becomes essential to one character’s conception of another: first a tossed off statement of designation, then a frustrated amendment, and finally exasperation. At other moments, the unchecked forward momentum weakens the impact of some of the poetic passages. Subtle differences between the modifiers notwithstanding, sentences like “Science pursues truth impersonally, dispassionately, disinterestedly,” from “In the Dark,” would benefit from greater concision. The stories in Blackouts are extraordinarily varied in style and subject matter. Given the ambition of this collection, it may only be a matter of more time spent in the workshop for Boyko’s trials to yield major results.

--Bob Kotyk

Gerbil Mother
D.M. Bryan
NeWest Press: Edmonton, 2008.

D.M. Bryan’s first novel is a marvel. From the first few sentences—“Take it on trust—the moment's a bad one. Not Greek tragedy, but ordinary doctor's office despair, regular as a diagrammed digestive system”-- the narrative voice jerks us awake. Bryan has taken a classic character—the harassed mother of small children overwhelmed with noise, sleeplessness and loneliness—and, with the use of a judiciously chosen device, both heightened and deflated its pathos. Gerbil Mother is narrated from the point of view of a foetus, which is unusual in itself, but Bryan has gone one better and made this foetus a bully. The foetus tells us from the beginning “I see at once what a bad mother we have,” and it takes us several chapters to realize how unreliable this narrator is. This judgement mimics the actual voice a selfish toddler might use were it capable of eloquent expression, and the effect is startling. Bryan's language is sophisticated and vigorous, and every paragraph pops with images like this one: “Ref in a dirty diaper, shaking the ropes of the ring. The crib.” A tough and imaginative debut.

--Linda Besner

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