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January Books

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Issue: 66 Section: Literature & Ideas Topics: poetry, interview

January 29, 2010

January Books

New works by Nickerson and Bolano, and a collaborative effort by Campbell, Boyd, and Culbert

by Shane Patrick Murphy, Megan Stewart

Billeh Nickerson
Arsenal Pulp Press: Vancouver, 2009.

Sometimes I feel I’ve missed out by never working at a fast-food chain. Apart from the drudgery, exploitative wages, and perilous working conditions, these restaurants are so geared for mass appeal that they become rare meeting points for a wide range of characters and classes. With a quick eye for anthropological observation, Billeh Nickerson recalls his years as a McWorker in this short poetry collection. Cleverly divided into thematic sections reflecting the questionable quality, service, cleanliness, and value of his employer, Nickerson recounts the mixture of mundane and surreal moments at McDonald’s like a clean-mouthed Charles Bukowski. Characters almost unbelievably bizarre such as “the unicorn”—a customer who orders soft-serve cones to stick on his forehead, or the woman who eats lunch then purges in the parking lot show a grim side of the restaurant and the world it inhabits.

Accumulated anecdotes form a bleak picture, but Nickerson delivers observations with humour that sustained during his time in the trenches. "Daylight Savings Diptych" passes on a Zen-like maxim that when the clocks change in spring and fall customers will yell at you because they arrive too late for breakfast or too early for lunch. McPoems offers a smart and witty insiders view over the counter for those of us who’ve never asked, “Would you like fries with that?”

Shane Patrick Murphy

The Last Interview and Other Conversations
Roverto Bolaño
Melville House Publishing: Brooklyn, 2009.

Despite dying nearly seven years ago, each posthumous Bolaño release further cements his reputation as a literary icon of the twenty-first century. Brooklyn-based Melville House Publishing gets in on the action with this collection of interviews Bolaño gave as he rose to fame in Spanish-speaking populations. These interviews attempt to contextualize the ongoing debate over Bolaño’s acceptance by North American audiences. Is it his romantic left-leaning idealism that strikes a chord, or do his stories play into preconceived North American perceptions of a Latin America preoccupied with sex, violence, and obscure literary movements? While these interviews provide depth to his character and motivation to write, they offer only a glimpse into Bolaño’s perception of his own fame. The most in-depth interview in the collection is taken from the Mexican edition of Playboy, and depicts Bolaño as jokey and self-deprecating to a fault. Interesting to ravenous Bolaño fans, the uninitiated would do better reading The Savage Detectives or Nazi Literature in the Americas—his fictitious encyclopedia of the right-wing literati.

Shane Patrick Murphy

A Thousand Dreams: Vancouver’s downtown eastside and the fight for its future
Larry Campbell, Neil Boyd and Lori Culbert
Greystone Books: Vancouver, 2009.

A Thousand Dreams tells grim stories of missing women, sardine and cat food diets, epidemic illness and the crippled support systems that struggle to manage the situation that is life, and survival, on Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

Although they never lived in the neighbourhood of which they write, the book’s authors spent much of their professional lives in its streets, meeting its residents and uncovering its secrets. The team, consisting of a journalist, a coroner-cum-politician and a criminologist document work being done in the east end community. Careful not to overlook the positive, the book shines a light on successes like harm reduction and InSite, the supvised injection site that won a recent constitutional challenge over the Harper Government. However,the battles depicted here are largely bureaucratic, and power is accessed through political clout.

Much of A Thousand Dreams details the health and social services available in the community, yet it is not for residents of the neighbourhood, it’s an introduction for outsiders. Compelling to read but not comprehensive; the book uses case studies to illustrate how an individual navigates the system, telling stories of a few as seen through the eyes of community organizers attempting to support them.

Outside of these studies the vast majority of the east end’s poor, drug-dependant, mentally ill and desperate appear faceless in the book, shifting indistinguishably like clouds overhead. No doubt, an impression not intended, but A Thousand Dreams focuses on challenges understood by most Canadians—ineffective RCMP funding, back-room maneuvering, high-rise developments, Da Vinci’s Inquest—not cat food for dinner, a dirty needle for dessert or a damp parking garage for a bed. The remarkable stories are about the activists, writers, organizers and health professionals who fight for the future of Vancouver’s downtown eastside

Megan Stewart

Megan Stewart is an independent journalist in Vancouver, where she is completing her graduate degree at the University of British Columbia.

Shane Patrick Murphy is the former executive editor of the McGill Law Journal. He is slowly getting around to writing his first novel, Still I Dream of Grandeur.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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