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July Books

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Issue: 38 Section: Literature & Ideas Geography: Canada Topics: poetry

June 26, 2006

July Books

by Pierre Mérot, translated by Frank Wynne
Anansi: Toronto, 2006

"A body is a thing composed entirely of words. As science occasionally reveals, it is a poetic construct." The same thing can be said for Mammals, a novel which has a very contemporary feel. This is partially due to the frequent use of the present tense, and partially to the sparingly employed post-modern techniques – the odd footnote or graphic dropped unobtrusively into the text. An anti-hero story, it follows the heartbreaks and screw-ups of forty-year-old Uncle—educated but unemployable, perpetually drunk. The major question about this novel: Is the use of the second person really sustainable throughout? But the answer doesn't matter. With passages like "And he sees her auburn silhouette again, and failure whistles through his blood, sees the black Warsaw crows like fatal blood clots, People's Square, the trams, the cold, the measureless snow. It is enough to make you cry, because when love goes so badly wrong the wound is an ever-open flower," readers may choose to be annoyed by the device or to focus instead on the funny, witty, consistently wry and beautiful language.
--Matthew J. Trafford

game_web.jpgDe Niro's Game
by Rawi Hage
Anansi: Toronto, 2006

"Ten thousand bombs had landed on Beirut, that crowded city, and I was lying on a blue sofa covered with white sheets to protect it from dust and dirty feet." This is our introduction to Bassam, Hage's protagonist, and to Beirut, a city lost in civil war where every gesture is a symbolic one. De Niro's Game chronicles Bassam's decision to leave behind Beirut, the war and his past. It's a record of what it takes—the decisions he makes, the torture he endures, the violence to which he must submit. It's Bassam's burden to relate a city thick with complexity, with religion, with contradiction, and he does so by piling up descriptions. At a butcher shop, he observes, "… women in black, with melodramatic oil-painted faces, in church-goer submissive positions, in Halloween horrors, in cannibal hunger for crucifix flesh, in menstrual cramps of virgin saints, in castrated hermetic positions, on their knees and at the mercy of knives and illiterate butchers." Hage's loose prose style wanders, following Bassam's whims as he slips in and out of consciousness, in and out of reality. It reads, at times, almost like a chant.
--Ben Hart

essays_web.jpgInterim: Essays & Mediations
by Patrick Friesen
Hagios: Regina, 2006

"Mediations" is the more apt description of the pieces contained in this book than "essay"; here Friesen follows the meandering track of his train of thought through subjects like whistling, his Mennonite childhood, Angels in America, and poetry. Music pops up everywhere in these pieces, and one of Friesen's more penetrating questions about how our society has changed is, "What happened to whistling?" It's a mild, good-natured book by a poet who values art and the creative process highly, but the great lines tend to be other people's. Friesen quotes crisp pronouncements from Henry Miller, Nijinksy, Saul Bellow and others, but his own thinking seems muzzy, and the writing itself contains such inelegant constructions as "this hasn't been thought out carefully by me." His choice of choppy sentence fragments also works against a coherence of thought, keeping the reader too busy jumping punctuational roadblocks to relax into the ideas presented. Once in a while, however, Friesen comes through with a closing line that justifies the circling non-sequiturs of an article: "What can you do with the fact of a dog, no longer seen, and an aftertaste of miserable longing?"
--Linda Besner

by Tim Bowling
Gaspereau: Kentville, NS. 2006

Bowling's seventh collection reads like a hot damn, converting the rhythms of work in the Fraser River salmon fishery into clipped, sound-rich language: "We stood in the stern on the slack/ and peeled and picked/ the hide of scales/ off our hands. Both/ our shirts were sopping/ red and held the shape/ of each dead fish". The power of many of these poems lies in Bowling's tricks with time; in "One of the Last Years I Worked with a Knife", Bowling sets a past scene of gutting fish while his friend dozes at the wheel, then vouchsafes the reader a peek into the future: "Mike's a big man. In twenty years/ he'll beat his wife and sons/ with all his strength, then cry/ to be forgiven. Beat them again." Fathom is arranged chronologically, beginning with poems like "Gym Class" and "In Youth, Lonely" then muscling its way to "Growing Older" and "Today". The language in the earlier poems is looser, less urgent, and occasionally the repeated use of words like "youth" and "Time" verges on nostalgia. Nevertheless, this collection will draw you in, "as wasps to a sugared rim."
--Bren Simmers

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