Happinesswise by Jonathan Bennett could just as easily have been called Intimatewise or Intimacywise or some such thing. While the poems are all over the map when it comes to style and subject matter, at their core they are glimpses into the secret lives we all carry within us.
The book opens with a series of poems called Palliative Care Reflective Portfolio, which yes, are about death, but in that are also about entire lives lived. The poems feature notes about end-of-life care and the mundane minutia of death, or at least of putting off death for a few more ragged heartbeats: “the machine drone, the urine sting, the sour C. diff smell, the pump throb, the infection control, latex-free signage.” But the clinical language of the palliative care experience are countered in the same poems with the beautiful, transcendent moments of life, the memories that actually make us what we are: “tinkling wind chimes, your still-beautiful clavicle” and “My son’s first steps – across the lichen at the lake.” In an interview, Bennett states these poems are inspired by his own experiences working in a hospital and reading doctors’ portfolios: “Somewhere in the fog of pain meds and held hands, of DNR’s and oncoming grief, people retell stories that have bound them to one another over the course of a lifetime. Or else they sit in silence and just know, together. Is this happiness? Is it the end of happiness? These are the things the poem pursues.”
While the Palliative Care Reflective Portfolio is not specifically about Bennett, other poems do provide more intimate glimpses into his life. The poems found in Neurotypical Sketches offer insights into Bennett’s relationship with his autistic son – and insights perhaps into his relationship with autism, or at least autism as he has experienced it. There’s a map drawn by his son, Thomas, and moment after moment of a life transformed by something ultimately unknowable:
“He asks: Do cyclops blink or wink?
We laugh and and I ask him to tell me
the riddle of Theseus’s ship again
because I can’t get enough of him
charting his way through a paradox.
And to hear him argue the case
for Bigfoot is to doubt everything
you thought was true in the universe.”
There are other examples of this intimacy throughout the book – the series Concession Line Signs uses signs in Bennett’s region for inspiration, and as a vegetarian I certainly found a connection with his poem “Vegetarians Use the Back Door.” But really, it’s one of those collections best read and not talked about too much, because its true power is in how you will find yourself in the poems. How are you doing, happinesswise?
It’s almost impossible to describe Hysteria by Elisabeth de Mariaffi, for it moves not only through a wide range of genres but also beyond their limits, into strange and uncharted literary terrain. Domestic thrillers, psychological thrillers, fairy tales, ghost stories, historical fiction, detective stories – they’re all present in Hysteria in one form or another. But they’re also transformed into something else, a narrative of resistance for a world gone mad, for a world that has perhaps always been mad. The book’s title is a clue to the eerie nature of its story: it’s a state of mind, not a fixed and stable plot with the clear and unambiguous ending of a conventional thriller. In other words, Hysteria is a book better experienced than described.
That said, here’s the book description if you want to learn more:
Heike Lerner’s life looks perfect from the outside: she’s settled into an easy routine of caring for her young son, Daniel, and spends her days wandering the woods near their summer house, while her nights are filled with clinking glasses and charming conversation. It all helps to keep her mind at ease—or at least that’s what her husband, Eric, tells her. But lately, Heike’s noticed there are some things out of place: a mysterious cabin set back in the trees and a strange little girl who surfaces alone at the pond one day, then disappears—while at home Eric is becoming increasingly more controlling. Something sinister that Heike cannot quite put her finger on is lingering just beneath the surface of this idyllic life.
It’s possible Heike’s worries are all in her head, but when the unthinkable happens—Daniel vanishes while she and Eric are at a party one night—she can no longer deny that something is very wrong.
Desperate to find her son, Heike will try anything, but Eric insists on a calm that feels so cold she wonders if she can trust him at all.
Could Eric be involved in Daniel’s disappearance? Or has some darker thing taken him?I Remember You sales cover The closer Heike gets to the truth, the faster it slips away. But she will not rest until she finds her son.
And there’s also a Walrus piece on the book for more thoughts. Excerpt:
Hysteria is a novel about many things—a mother’s love, the institution of psychiatry. But at heart, it is a novel about the ordinary corruptibility of plot: how certain men wield narrative to manipulate women, to convince them that they are crazy and the world that denies them their happiness is sane. De Mariaffi purges this corruption, turning one genre against another, fighting plot with plot.
One of the last things I do in the writing process of any new story or novel is to read my work aloud. It helps me find missing words, typos and, um, poorly worded sentences such as “He panted heavily in her rear.” I mean, technically not a typo but….
Reading my works aloud also helps me to figure out how I want to pronounce weird names and such when I read in front of live audiences as opposed to the mannequins I keep stored in my basement. With my new book, Has the World Ended Yet?, I decided to skip that with one of the stories: “We Are All Ghosts,” a sort of Lovecraftian superhero tale. It’s a bit long for readings and hard to pull sections out without over-explanation. Also, there’s a lot of strange language in it, such as “ia ia ftagn” and my own takes on Lovecraftian language: “Wgahst’nar phl’unk!” So I decided just to never read that one aloud. Pronunciation problems solved.
And then the other day I talked to the woman who will be recording the book for an audio version and she had some questions.
“On page 168, how do you pronounce….” she asked.
“Right. Urbl’phhar mypr’ttsh urbl’phhar,” I said. “Like it sounds.”
OK, I should have thought about the audio versions. Live and learn.
Anyway, we figured out an approach for pronouncing the unpronounceable. It went something like this:
“Just do your own take on it,” I said. “But make your own take sound like a fish. An angry fish – you know, deep tones, like the Deep Old Ones. Burbling and moaning. None of that high-pitched Dory fish stuff. This is the voice of a fish that has seen it all and knows everything ends in tentacles.”
So there you have it. Always read your works aloud, if for no other reason than to avoid awkward conversations about your sanity. I get enough of those at home already.
(Re the image: It’s called Into the Depths by Patrick Reilly, and it’s one of those illustrations that haunts me.)
Followers of this blog likely know by now that I’m a fan of Sebastien de Castell’s Greatcoats series, about a ragtag band of wandering magistrates trying to save a fallen land. And I’m not just a fan because of that one time de Castell bought me beach French fries! These are damned fine books – solid fantasy novels written by a literary master who’s concerned about real-life issues of honour, ethics and what makes a person good rather than just law-abiding.
Now de Castell has a new series out – the Spellslinger books. They follow the misadventures of Kellen, a young man in a society where almost everyone is a mage – except Kellen. Sounds like high school, doesn’t it? It has certainly has that YA vibe about it, but like the Greatcoats series there’s plenty of politics, interrogations of history, ethics, philosophy and Issues with a capital I here. De Castell is that rare kind of writer who tells a good tale while also exploring the things that matter in real life to all of us. I don’t want to talk about the first book in the series too much because the plot is all about the twists and surprises. I’ll just say if you like your fantasy worlds complex and your characters flawed and fallen, then you’ll want to read Spellslinger. Plus, there’s a talking, homicidal squirrel cat! (I’m personally convinced it’s a stand-in for de Castell himself, but that’s a subject for another blog post….)
I don’t know what to say about to say about the Terry Goodkind cover controversy, other than it seems in poor taste. I’ll just say again how happy I’ve been with all the covers of my books, and how great and respectful the publishers have been. I wouldn’t have any books without the covers!
It’s that time of year again in Canada: PLR! I’ve written about it before, but it bears repeating again, so here’s my original post once more.
I recently received a payment cheque from the Canada Council’s Public Lending Right program, which compensates Canadian authors for the free public access to their books in libraries across the country. I always love receiving this cheque, for a few reasons. One, I always forget it’s coming, so it’s an awesome surprise! Two, it comes after Christmas, when I need it the most. Three, it keeps me writing.
The third reason is perhaps the most important one. The stated goal of the PLR program is to pay authors for works they’ve already written and that other people get to read for free, courtesy of our great library system. But it’s more than just compensation: it’s also an investment. Those cheques that get sent out at the beginning of every year help writers across the country keep writing. The books we’re getting paid for? Those books are already done and published. The PLR money we get for them helps buy us time to write our next books. Every spring, I get a cheque in the mail that makes me think, “To the writing cave!”
So thanks, PLR and Canada Council! And thanks to all you readers who keep buying books and checking them out of libraries! Without you, I’d just be a crazy person locked in a room arguing with imaginary people.
A few years back, I wrote The Warhol Gang, which featured gun theme parks, viral shooting videos and rampaging shooter drills – among other things. At the time, I worried that maybe I was overdoing it a little, that readers would find it unbelievable. I never truly imagined a world where we’d be watching livestreams of school massacres, a world where people argue it’s their human right to own weapons of war intended for no other purpose than killing large numbers of fellow human beings quickly. We now live in a strange, broken and disintegrating reality where school children go on nationally televised livestreams to beg for their right to live and their leaders refuse them that simple request – or attack them with bizarre conspiracy theories that the children are not really children, that they are crisis actors. Imagine being told that you do not exist because someone else has fantasies that they are some sort of weekend Rambo.
It’s mainly an American problem, but it’s not contained there. Madness, fear and anxiety know no borders. I recently asked my oldest son what he had done at school that day and he told me his class had a hiding drill, where he hid in his cubby in case a gunman attacked the school. A six-year-old boy learning how to hide from a gunman because people want to own weapons of war.
I wish it were fiction.
I wish people found this unbelievable instead of acceptable.
After each mass shooting happens, I usually find myself looking for solace in art. I look for creation in the world rather than destruction. I saw this in my feeds and it spoke to me, although I wouldn’t exactly call it solace:
Now we wait for the next one.
One of my favourite events from last year was the Vancouver Writers Festival (check out the Facebook Live I did), where I appeared with Lydia Kwa and Sean Cranbury to read from my new book, Has the World Ended Yet? Great festival, fascinating writers and thoughtful audiences!
Just because the festival is over doesn’t mean it has to end, though! Alli Vail is currently reading all the books from the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival and posting thoughts about them at Reading Writers Fest. Of course, I am partial to the entry on my book.
This is wacky and weird and I kind of loved it. The answer to the question: Has the World Ended Yet (great question, aside from being the title of the book), is yes. We probably just haven’t figured it out. The ending is just out of sight, until it’s not.
It was a busy weekend of writing in old Apocalypse HQ! I finished the rough draft of a new Cross short story, and it was a fun ride. I’ve now got around 35,000 words in Cross stories – maybe the next book will be a story collection!
I also finished the rough draft of a new stand-alone holiday story. I’ll let you know more about that when it finds a home.
In other news, Google’s Arts and Culture app thinks I look like former president Gerald Ford. Which is interesting because I just listened to the Radiolab podcast about Oliver Sipple, who saved the life of Ford in an attempted assassination only to have his life ruined by his act of heroism.
Probably a story in there somewhere….