Monday, June 30, 2014


How often are Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, an analysis of the 2008 financial crisis, and the iniquities resulting from the West’s invasion of Afghanistan discussed in a single novel?  There is all this and more in Zia Haider Rahman’s amazing debut novel.   

Does anyone else catch a whiff of Donald Rumsfeld in the title?

Outwardly, In The Light of What We Know is the story of two South Asian friends, both educated at Oxford and Harvard (I know, this really is too much for the rest of us mere mortals, but it does mirror the author’s personal experience) and thereby condemned (if that isn’t too strong a word) as conscripts in the army of Enlightenment. Here the similarity ends. The unnamed narrator, of Pakistani heritage, is born into a loving home and the privilege of wealth; while Zafar, a Bangladeshi, conceived in the most violent circumstances, from an immigrant working-class family, is the true exile. It is September 2008, our narrator, an expert in collateral debt obligations, is being consumed by the global financial collapse, not to mention a failing marriage. One day, after an absence of seven years, Zafar shows up on his doorstep. The proximate causes for this absence, told through repeated digressions like peeling back the layers of an onion, evoking Conrad and Greene, make this novel utterly intriguing and shocking.
It is a novel of ideas - from subatomic particles, free will and the nature of reality, to the politics of the 1971 war that gave birth to Bangladesh. But at its core is the yearning for belonging and the inevitable feelings of betrayal, anger - the anger of the exile, the outsider, the colonized and oppressed – and violence that ensue, when that longing is extinguished.  Look for a Booker nomination. You read it here first!

- Brian

Sunday, June 29, 2014


Anna Leventhal has been a visible, vibrant presence in Montreal circles of literature and theater for quite some time now. Her inclusion in Journey Prize #20 was a promising hint that maybe she'd start receiving wider exposure. The next most visable volley was a humdinger of a chapbook with Paper Pusher Pres, Moving Day & Other Stories. Just in time for it to be about damn time, Leventhal has published her first collection of short stories with the nerdlingers at Invisible Publishing. Andrew Hood (admittedly the author of these italics) said "Sweet Affliction is--no big deal or anything--one of the most successful, high-function, sometimes perfect collections of short stories I've read in recent memory."

Email-oriented investigative short-story journalist Brad de Roo asked Anna Leventhal some loosely factual questions about her capaciously funny short-story collection Sweet Affliction (Invisible).

Most of your stories quite explicitly take place in Montreal or reference its surroundings. I have sadly not spent much time there in person, but have spent a fair amount of time wandering its celebrated fictions from Mavis Gallant to Leonard Cohen to Clark Blaise to Neil Smith etc. What do you think of past fictionalizations of Montreal? Do they capture an enduring element? Do they shadow or augment your detailed descriptions and references of the city? 

The Montreal in Sweet Affliction is a fictional place, like all places in fiction. It's necessarily filtered by my experiences, which are partly shaped by what I think is important and valuable, and also by more haphazard and less intentional factors like weird jobs I've had or places I've ended up by accident while biking around or visiting my great aunt at the end of the 161 bus line. Presumably this is the case for everyone who writes a city - not just Leonard Cohen's Montreal but James Joyce's Dublin or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Lagos or Christopher Isherwood's Berlin or Michael Ondaatje's Toronto - the fictional map grows out of some combination of desire and need. There are blocks you could describe foot by foot, and areas where there's just a big sign that says Here be monsters. The fictional city exists to serve its characters and may look nothing like the place where you or I live.

Leventhal's Montreal
The Montreal of my literary imagination, geographically and culturally, was shaped early on by Leonard Cohen, Mordechai Richler, Gabrielle Roy, Michel Tremblay, and David Fennario - this was either before I lived here or in my first few years, when I mostly just went to school and Mile End was the outer limit of the known universe. People who helped round it out later were Saleema Nawaz, Jeff Miller, Gail Scott, Louis Rastelli, Erin Moure, Kathy Dobson, Heather O'Neill. It's hard to say something cohesive about such a diverse group of writers, but one thing that's evident is that Montreal has a strong tradition of writing from the underclass. Pretty much everyone on this list writes about poverty or working life, about the struggle to find housing or a job, to take care of their family, to keep it together - if not a day-to-day struggle to survive, then the struggle to find work that's meaningful or at least not too degrading, or choosing not to work and seeing how else you can get by. The hustle. There's definitely some of that influence in my book, as kind of a psychic geography. I also read a lot of nonfiction about Quebec's social and political history, which set some crucial groundwork in terms of understanding the city's imagining of itself and contextualizing the social codes and values.

Even more than writers writing Montreal, I've been influenced by writers who write at the intersection of people and cities, who are trying to map social networks and loose affiliations of people drawn together by blood, sex, politics, passion, class, addiction and predilection, work, coincidence - like Joyce and Isherwood and Ondaatje, and also Evelyn Waugh, Grace Paley, Pasha Malla, Ralph Ellison, Denis Johnson, Miranda July, Jennifer Egan, Mary Gaitskill.

Sweet Affliction is a book of stories that are linked with repeating characters in different times and geographies of their lives. The incidental or epiphanic reappearance of characters made me re-read stories and passages looking for newfound relevancies and subtleties among them. Is this the trick of the linked stories or story cycles? Do they exploit coincidence and time in complex recursions? Or do they point to the unreliability of many of our narratives about ourselves and our lives? In the fourth story of the collection, 'Horseman, Pass By,' the third person narrator suggests (when referencing a tv show): 'But the best stories are the formulaic ones, the ones where you know what's going to happen next but you watch anyway, to have that itch rubbed out, to pour full the empty glass in your head.' Is this seemingly comforting impulse towards narrative formulas complicated by the new perspectives that come with story links? Or do we get to pour full our heads anew while retaining the overall curve and heft and brim of the glass? 
I think that's a nice and generous way of thinking about the recurring characters, that they pull the rug out from under the idea of a master narrative, and I definitely support that interpretation, but I wouldn't say that's why I did it. It was mainly because I'm a bit lazy and didn't always feel like coming up with new characters. I thought, well, I like this Alex person a lot, I wonder what he'll be like when he's forty. So I put him in a story as a teen, and a twentysomething, and a thirtysomething, and we get hints of him when he's in his forties too. Even though he never gets to be a narrator we see him through all these different lenses and that's kind of fun, and also reassuring for me as the writer, like I won't be abandoned by characters I'm just getting to know.
Also, because I was trying to record something about what sticks people together, I wanted to keep this loose group of friends and lovers and roommates around for a few decades and see what happens to them under the various tectonic stresses of time. Maybe that's what you mean by the last part of your question?

Stories like 'Moving Day'; 'Horseman, Pass By'; 'Wellspring'; ‘Frenching the Eagle; 'A Favour' (and more) bristle with political awareness. References to Marxism, Chomsky, feminism, queer rights, environmentalism, animal rights, multiculturalism, sex worker rights dance along side their extreme opposites and milder middles. Does an author have a responsibility to interact with these supposedly radical politics? Are the sometimes dually proposed ideas that art is by nature apolitical, and short stories are hermetic, socially esoteric forms (i.e. epitomes of the apolitical), full of shit?

I'm not sure that I've come across the idea that short stories are by nature apolitical. I think writing is inherently political, because it's an attempt to communicate across a divide. That's political. You can't believe in that if you're apolitical. That said, I don't approach my writing with a specific political agenda, or with a checklist of issues that I think need to be addressed. I try to write accurately about what I see and experience. I'm not writing about queerness or sex work because I'm trying to advocate their right to exist. I'm writing about queerness and sex work because these things are part of the fabric of the world I live in. It's not a responsibility - it's just that writing would be boring and inaccurate if these things were removed from it. I don't think politics, or ethics, if that's an easier way to think of it, is a rarified realm that belongs to intellectuals and activists. It's everywhere, in every decision you make. So whether or not your writing addresses what people think of as politics, your politics are there. Chekhov is political because he wrote about class. Alice Munro is political because she writes about the inner lives of women. It's always there.

There's this Annie Dillard essay where she's talking about being the only woman in a group of men on a journey through South America, and how they expected some kind of nurturing "female" behaviour from her (which they didn't get) and then she says "These things aren't issues. They're mysteries." That's kind of how I feel about it too. Gender and sexuality and how we interact with the world and with each other are mysteries, more in the esoteric spiritual sense than the Angela Lansbury one, and I approach them as mysteries in my writing, as much as I can.

Birth and parenting - their deep avoidance, sudden termination, mild acceptance, and fraught prolongation - are interwoven forces in many of your stories. In 'Gravity,' a pregnancy test is smuggled into a wedding by two very close sisters. In 'Well Spring,' a hospital visit to a mothered, ill parent is slivered between one of the sister Angela's remembered abortion and an educational dialogue with a Hassidic teen. In the collection's final story, 'A Favour,' a lapsed doula Lynnie and her sex-worker friend Raelle share their history of child-bearing experiences. Did you find the character's variable responses to both sides of the womb helped you understand something about character development? Do variations on this theme show you unexpected things about the fictional world you have created?

I write a lot about fertility because I think it's one of the biggest mindfucks of being a person with a uterus. It's just crazy that we don't have control over it. I don't think it's a question of there being sides - everyone with the potential for getting pregnant has surely dealt with a spectrum of feelings about it over time. Fearing pregnancy, desiring it and not getting it, wondering why you don't want it, wanting it and feeling weirded out by your urges. You might experience all of these, in any order, or concurrently. I had a friend who miscarried at seven weeks, and around the same time another friend had an abortion, also at about seven weeks. And one person felt she had lost someone, and grieved for that loss, and the other felt mainly relief and like she was back in control of her life after an undesired physical aberration. And both of them are right. How can that be? But there it is. It's one of the great mysteries of being a modern person.

So in terms of how that plays out in characters, I guess it's just a way of giving the story an emotional hinge. Maybe it's a bit of a cheat, in that it's an easy way of ramping up the Feelings quotient of a story. Like the narrator of "Gravity" says, no one takes a pregnancy test without having some pretty strong feelings about it. They might be opposite feelings, but no one just shrugs and says, well, it is what it is. Though I would like to write a story about that person too.

Is there a question you always wanted to be asked in an interview? Revealing the question or not, can you answer it for me? 

I've always wanted someone to ask me why so many of my stories are set at parties. I asked myself that once, and I realized it's because I've been trying to rewrite Joyce's The Dead for about ten years. Why are my characters always drinking and carrying on while snow falls outside? Why is there always a turn where someone realizes that what they thought was going on was actually not even close to what was going on? Once I realized what I was trying to do, I decided I had to get it out of my system by writing what I thought was an explicit homage, which I did in "The Shirt." I don't know if I've cured myself yet. But anyway I guess it wasn't as explicit as I thought, because no one's asked me about it yet.

I read a piece about your writing group in the National Post. In what ways is this community important to you? If you could invite two current authors, two deceased authors, two fictional authors, and two authors who don't yet exist to expand your circle, who would they be? What kind of stories would the writers tell, especially the non-existent ones? Could they, perhaps, be story-writers in comic book or video game or some other form? 

First of all, that's too many writers for a writing group. We wouldn't have time to read everyone's work, and we'd run out of chips. Too much ego, too few chips. But, okay, if I could share a beer and a chat with some current, deceased, fictional and non-existant writers, they would be Grace Paley, Annie Dillard, Franz Kafka, my biographer, Sherman Alexie, Morag Gunn, the person who writes a book on the sexual politics of Labyrinth, Jack Torrance for when someone needs murdering.

If you're asking about video game writers or comic book writers because you want to know if I value them as storytellers, then yes, sure - there are all kinds of media in which to tell a good story, and you can learn a lot from painters, filmmakers, editors, animators. But no, I wouldn't invite them to join my writing group, because there are certain technical aspects of writing that are particular to the form. I wouldn't ask a bike mechanic to fix my computer or vice versa, because even though both of them value speed and efficiency and a well-built machine, I don't think there'd be a lot of crossover in terms of the tools and the actual mechanics. And a big part of the writing group is not just having your work critiqued but offering critiques, and I'd be a shitty video game critic. I don't have the experience or vocabulary. I'm as good at Galaga now as I was in 1992, which was pretty good. That's about it.

How is my writing group important to me? It's sort of like a healthy relationship. Sometimes it pushes me to be better, calls me on my shit, challenges me in the best possible way, and other times it just quietly holds my hand through a rough patch.

Do you ever consider writing or art-making to be something of a 'sweet affliction' - a toil or labour or illness or scavenging addiction with some lovely or vital or entertaining consequences? 


Okay, more fully, the character in the title story comes up with that phrase because she's randomly assembling words to try to describe something that is, to her, indescribable. Which is a pretty concise description of having a writing practice in general.

Download the--ahem--free audiobook of Anna's story "Moving Day" HERE.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Frustrated with Canadian Politics? So are your neighbours.

Here at the Bookshelf, we’ve certainly heard our share of how disgruntled our customers are with the state of politics in this country. Why did Andrea Horvath have to force an election? Can the Liberals be trusted? Can Tim Hudak even do simple arithmetic? Additionally, there was continued anxiety regarding the senate scandal, supreme court judge nomination, and the fact the Green Party was left out of the debate - in summary, plenty to kvetch about.
Michael Macmillan and Alison Loat founded Samara, a non-partisan charitable organization that works to improve political participation in Canada. In their book Tragedy in the Commons, they interviewed 80 former parliamentarians who shared a wealth of fascinating revelations – more than you would glean by reading official propaganda. Michael and Alison’s book utilises the gathered anecdotal information to consider how Canadians can make things better. 

Please join Michael in The Bookshelf eBar on Wednesday June 25 at 7. Frank Valeriote will be the moderator for the evening. We need to work together to become more politically aware and politically active. While it was great to see voter turnout improve by 3% for this year’s Ontario election, we’re still just barely above the 50% mark. Join us on the evening of the 25th, for some thought provoking talk about the state of the nation, and how each of us can get involved in positively impacting Canada’s future.

There is no admission for this event, so come enjoy an evening out and talk to your neighbours!