B. Mining the Winnipeg Review (some excerpts)



The Town that Drowned by Riel Nason
: December 12, 2011

Reviewed by Victor Enns (Excerpted)

Goose Lane Editions is gaining a reputation for spotting good writers early, such as Winnipeg’s own Joan Thomas and her prize-winning debut Reading by Lightning. The Town that Drowned is Riel Nason’s debut novel, though she has had short stories published in prestigious national literary journals such as The Malahat Review, Grain and the Dalhousie Review.  This is an impressive first novel.

Nason’s most compelling accomplishment is the realization of the characters and the relationship of brother and sister, the eccentric Percy Carson, described as being “nine years, two months three and a half-days old. Believe me that’s what he’d say if you asked him,” and his sister Ruby, who is doing the describing. She looks after her younger brother, and their relationship, built on love, is refreshing and distinctly different than the sibling rivalries in other Canadian books this fall such as The Sisters Brothers (deWitt) and Infrared (Huston). The danger for Nason is sentimentalism, love in literature seeming to attract cheese like a mousetrap.

The novel could be categorized as historical fiction, if your idea of history includes the 1960s. The narrative is a fictionalized account of the decision of the government of New Brunswick to construct a damn on the St. John’s River flooding several communities, including the one imagined for this novel. The descriptions of the impact of the flooding on the town are aided by Nason’s own experiences growing up in that very real drama.

The story is straight forward.  Ruby falls through the ice while skating and has a vision of her town completely underwater, which turns prophetic when the government of New Brunswick decides to damn the St. John’s River and “drown” the community. Ruby is ostracized for her vision and the peculiarities of her brother who shows some characteristics of OCD or autism; school is a hell of bullies for them both.

Ruby’s status as an outcast is cast out when her vision proves real and a stranger comes to town. The handsome teenage son of an antiques dealer who has come to pick the bones of the town falls for her, and takes her out. This relationship may remind readers of “My American Cousin” or their own summer romances. Surprised, the bullies are silenced and Ruby gains confidence.

The drama of the flooding is muted, the river an ominous menace with the water rising gradually to subsume the town. More interesting is how the residents of the community respond to this situation. There are opportunists, there are families setting their empty houses alight inviting everyone in town to the occasion, and at least one man who cannot bear the thought of relocation. Resignation is the most common response as it may have been with Manitoba Aboriginal communities swallowed up by the water unleashed by the Northern Flood Agreement, or more recently the flooding of Lake St. Martin First Nation.

Excerpt 2.

by George Bowering

Posted: November 16, 2012
Winnipeg Review

Reviewed by Victor Enns (Excerpted)

Bowering’s always had a knack for presentation in print, and has published in at least as many genres as Joyce Carol Oates and as many books. In this case you can’t judge the book by its cover, however brilliant, because setting pins in a five-pin bowling alley in Oliver, BC barely even provides a setting for the book. The cover’s really cool though, like George and most fifteen-year-old-boys in small towns wanted to be, and as a title Wanker would be either too revealing, or too much of a marketing challenge for his publisher.

Bowering knows how to tell a good story as befits a writer fond of Robert Kroetsch’s approaches, and is as unreliable as a narrator. So as long as we keep that in mind, Pinboy reads easily, breezily, as a memoir or a novel, or Spalding Gray-like monologue. Still the smartass with the usual pomo tricks, and then of course, the reference to the pomo tricks with my favourite pun being “Spill, Memory,” of which he seems inordinately proud. Once a smartass always a smartass.

Despite Bowering’s disparaging remarks regarding psychology, he does end up admitting there may be an unconscious, and a psychoanalytic framework would provide a mildly rewarding reading. Gender studies specialists, though, would have a field day and maybe a bit of fun with Bowering’s posturing, and awareness of posturing, trying on different masculinities, looking for one that will fit.

Most irritating aspect of the book

Bowering’s devotion to the many slang variations of choking the chicken is tiresome. (This is the line Bowering has chosen ffrom this review for his website regarding Pinboy.)

Excerpt 3.

The Art of Sufficient Conclusions
Sara Dearing
Mansfield Press, 222 pages $19.95

Last night two dreams. The first was a heavy rain, beating on the roof of our house and pouring out of the downspouts as peeling Letraset spelling “should”, over and over again, into a galvanized steel bucket. The second was at sea, me overboard, a life buoy thrown marked SS Sufficient Conclusions, while the novelist as mermaid dances backwards on her tail saying, “…it’s only a book you ninny, a book will never save you! Just write the damn review.”

The Review

Newspaper review editors hunger for an adjective or two in the first sentence, and not just any adjective, but one that provides a solid understandable value judgment, saving the reader the time and trouble of reading the rest of the review. Let’s see if I still know how.

This acerbic third novel by Sara Dearing explores contemporary issues of gender relations affected by the ever-increasing genetic information now available to couples. Her protagonist’s search for identity, an absent father who died when she was ten, and sex are served up with wry self-deprecating humour.

We are rushed into the novel quickly by Abbie Strafe, rattling on in a fast-paced, monologue, a cross, say between Elvira Kurtz and Caryl Churchill. This book would make a fine four-hander stage play, which would be more interesting than, say, a public reading. The book, the words in it, and the story are so well suited to the novel the clue “A Novel” on the cover is unnecessary. Perhaps Dearing was concerned it could be construed as a memoir for its purported autobiographical elements.  

Either the author or editor should also have looked harder for an epigram;

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” [1]from Didion’s The White Album, continues the special pleading from the cover, insisting contrary to my dream last night, that this story will save, like Scherazade, at least the author’s life, if not the reader’s. I am tired of reading stories telling me how important stories are, especially the one in my hands. I pledge on my (mostly unread) copies Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference, never to refer to this again.


Buying Cigarettes for the Dog
by Stuart Ross
Winnipeg Review (Excerpts only_)
Posted: December 28, 2010

Reviewed by Victor Enns

I am buttonholed by a heavyset newspaper book critic at a glittering late-season literary reception on Ellice Avenue.

“What do you think about this Stuart Ross character and his Buying Cigarettes for the Dog? You’ve got to read it, it’s like Kafka with a sense of humour.”

Gently removing his yellowed fingers from my rabbit fur Burberry lapels, with his apologies for his uncharacteristic Winnipeg enthusiasm ringing in my Phonak hearing aids, I turn and slip into the night.

I am not surprised when a copy of the Ross short stories falls out of my coat pocket as I hang it up in my walnut closet. Let’s see what he’s got. I pour some whiskey over just the right amount of ice and settle in for a read as the holiday lights of the Wolseley street filter in through leaded windows.

I hold the book in my hand. It’s nearly pocketsize with real coffee rings on the cover designed with a cigarette burn or two and chalk drawn cigarettes stubbed into a dog’s dish. I am obviously not the first person to handle this cultural artifact, likely moved hand to hand as if in some northern gulag. Even so, the binding is stiff, my thumb isn’t up to it. Clearly this is going to be a two-handed job.

Right off there’s a war and arms blown off. Three Arms Less. I am engaged. I keep reading. I’ve heard about writing like this, but it is very rare in Canadian literature, English Canadian literature that is. The Quebecois who read Rimbaud in their cradles wearing their FLQ toques, and publish manifestos in their teens, well, they might have seen this before, but from southern Ontario? Pfft.

Suffering a momentary lack of self-confidence, which I allow myself only in Wolseley, to fit in with the neighbours, I check Surrealism in Wikipedia and yes, as I thought. It doesn’t have to make sense. Non sequiturs, startling metaphors, shifts in time and space acknowledging nothing but the alphabet. I read the manifestos. I will read the rest of the stories.

The newspaper critic is right. To a point. Not so much Kafka as Hans Arp crossed with Archie Andrews comics, the insect references excepted. But yes, jokes, and bad puns, with apocalyptic revelations modified by pop culture references.

Wherever the stories are set, they’re not set here. Just too wet. The rain outside drops gently “like Tabasco sauce” or heavily “explodes like fireworks,” clearly not Winnipeg where the snow impeded my progress home. I unlace my braces, pull the suspenders over my shoulders and get comfortable.

The flexibility of Ross’s language survives even the most severe New Critical, modernist, postmodernist, post-post-modernist, lens. I wipe my tortoise shell rimmed glass, glad to be able see truth in the pages before me. Vivid images, juxtapositions like a bicycle wheel on the base of a chair (or say, yellow chicken feet on Lana’s tanned belly at poolside standing in for a little wooden mule Greenbaum had carved in a Nazi concentration camp). Yes, I thought, yes. Bring it to me.


[1] There is another near the end of the novel, the source for the lugubrious title, “Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises. ” Samuel Butler (214)

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