Books Reviewed. By Gordon Phinn


Books Referenced:

The Dig, John Preston (Penguin2007/21)
My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff (Knopf 2014)
On Opium, Carlyn Zwarenstein (Goose Lane 2021)
Bread and Water, dee Hobsbawn-Smith (University of Regina Press 2021)
Books Wars, John B. Thompson (Polity Press 2021)
Everything and Less, Mark McGurl (Verso 2021)
The Collected Poetry of Carol Shields, ed. Nora Foster Stovel (McGill-Queens, 2021)
Meta Stasis, Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews (Mosaic Press, 2021)
Mechanical Monkeys, Darrell Epp (Mosaic Press, 2021)

Often, as readers, we can be disappointed in the film adaptations of fine literary texts.  The compromises necessary to the genre switch can easily upset the apple cart of our language centered pleasures, replacing them with rapid fire imagery unsuited to our own imaginings.  Of course, there are cases where the opposite is true: low brow fictions transformed into art by inspired script writers and passionate directors.

     This season I was fortunate to uncover two examples of great art brought forth from fine literary endeavours.  John Preston’s The Dig, a short but penetrating novel from 2007 retelling the details of the famous Sutton Hoo archeological discoveries in the Norfolk England of 1939.  With Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan leading a well oiled ensemble through the character conflicts and power struggles over the almost perfect though skeletal thousand-year-old remains of an Anglo-Saxon burial ship, the evocation of a well trodden era of British history is as good as can be expected, given the previous clichés of brave Brits facing the dark onslaught of ruthless Nazi power.

     Having the film tie-in reprint close at hand I was thrilled to see a novel as fine as many of its contemporaries, carefully conceived and stylishly rendered, with only the film’s imagery somewhat dictating my reader’s imagination as a possible drawback.  The same could be said of Joanna Rakoff’s memoir My Salinger Year from 2014, now filmed with Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley.   In the Manhattan of the 90’s, with computer technology slowly replacing IBM selectrics in an old fashioned literary agency captained by the crusty Sigourney, whose main stars are keeping the place alive from its glory years decades before, include the mysterious icon Salinger, whose visits and phone calls from his rural retreat are rare indeed, providing only cameos compared to the 2017 biopic Rebel in The Rye.  Margaret Qualley’s heroine, courageously dumping her parental college expectations for the life a real writer scraping by in the city she comes to worship, with its layers of literary history leaning out from every block, is charming and convincing.  From this I was pivoted to the original memoir, which I am happy to report was as smooth and real as one would expect from the revered house of Knopf.


     On the subject of memoirs I was also recently gifted with dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s book of memoir-essays of her life as a foodie keener trained by her grandmother from about age five, on through culinary schools, cook, sous chef and chef work to the pinnacle of restauranteur, a triumph of art and craft over financing, as is often the case.  Foodie memoirs, made glamourous and sexy by Anthony Bourdain’s  infamous Kitchen Confidential, go back many more decades than folks not in the loop realize. Of course there’s Julia Child, rendered almost immortal by Meryl Steep’s recent portrayal in Julia and Julia.  So I was very gratified by Hobsbawn-Smith’s homage to the great writing of M.F.K Fisher, long a personal favourite.  But I will have to admit, she takes the biscuit with Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s 1825 The Physiology of Taste.  Apparently he was both a lawyer and gastronome.   Ah yes, more to explore.

     The essays are as much about family life and the rigors of prairie summers and  winters as they are about all the usual foodie memes of local produce, sustainable and sensitive animal husbandry, toxic male kitchen behaviour, cranky stoves and overindulgence in alcoholic beverages, but the author’s devotion to every aspect of food production and preparation redeems her from the fate of the genre’s clichés, leaving us with a charming and engrossing ‘remembrance of things past’ conveyed with an elegance that is as often graceful as it is rough hewn.


     Carlyn Zwarenstein’s On Opium is equal parts memoir and social activist reportage.  As we all know by now, the blessed benison of the poppy has accompanied humanity throughout much of its historical trek through the rise and fall of empires and inevitable onslaught of disease and pain.  Zwarenstein writes telling and touchingly of the sufferings endured by those of us condemned to the malformation and collapse of bone, nerve and muscle, their search for understanding, acceptance and the ideal pain killer that will leave them with sufficient consciousness to pursue both family and professional life.  Her personal saviour turns out to be Tramadol, although there are many others which connect to other equally oppressive conditions.  A steep learning curve for this reader I shall confess.  Or course, addiction, overdose and suicide are primary concerns in this nether world that most of us remain untouched by, and eventually the fates of the pain avoiders and pleasure seekers become one in the subculture of staying alive and relatively sane in a world of denial and snooty disapproval.  Required reading if one wishes to stay abreast of developments, this volume belongs on every library shelf.

     Two further worthy items you will also find on library shelves are John B. Thompson’s Book Wars – The Digital Revolution in Publishing and Mark McGurl’s Everything and Less – The Novel in the Age of Amazon.  Both are impressively deep dives into the mysteries and revelations of modern publishing, both intellectual heavyweights of a distinctly academic leaning who are not ashamed to include Fifty Shades of Grey, Netflix or Paranormal Romances in their assessments, and are sufficiently up to date to see the newest trend, audiobooks, already challenging the eBook for market dominance.  And although we are all familiar with the general outline of developments in what we used to call the ‘field’, these two works take the interested party to a whole new level of engagement with what Thomson calls book wars but what seems to this reader merely an extension of the last two or three centuries of those marketing strategies of producers trying to discover the most effective method of identifying their publics and distributing their product more efficiently than their competitors.  The two prime developments that strike me as notable and irreversible are the democratization of taste and a level playing field for all genres.  And perhaps, as an afterthought, social media as faster chatter.


     We have already noted in this column the painstaking research of Nora Foster Stovel in the Margaret Lawrence archives and in the interim another triumph has arrived: The Collected Poetry of Carol Shields.  Shields poetic oeuvre will be less well known to readers familiar with her prize winning novels, with which she once captured the national attention, snatching it away from Atwood and Munro from what now seems like a precious oasis.  While her work doesn’t grab the reader with either stentorian utterance or the seduction of impressive complexity, it can charm the unsuspecting with its celebration of quotidian insignificances, the cheering on of dust and clutter.  Much is made by Stovel of the early Philip Larkin and Emily Dickinson influences, and to be honest, the point is not without merit.  Yet as an early adopter happily returning I felt my old pleasures revived by the likes of this:

Some Old Friends Who Flew To England

From where we sat
over the wing, we saw
our shadow floating flat
on the waves like a flaw
on film through the stirred
breath of weather, then blurred
in the first dark and drowned
without leaving a mark or sound,

To pass the time we revived
that old argument,
which plane is real?

But it’s a formal exercise
since we’ve already survived
so long in the brickwork,
growing middle-age wise
to these abstract quirks,

certain only of steel,
and knowing that planes meant
for drowning are for the drowned



With Meta Stasis, Oakville poet Josie Di Sciasio- Andrews expands her range dramatically as she explores the wars between bodies and illness.  Peppered with appropriate and provocative quotes from the likes of Cicero, Tagore and Beaudelaire, this quantum leap from her earlier verse, most of which seems tame in the light of her current warrior stance, but which was actually calm and celebratory, these poison pen letters to all that would mercilessly invade and destroy our integrity are the battle charges of a proud sentience that will not submit to the depredations of disease in its various disguises.  No threats untested, no provocations unanswered.

Diagnosis II

It always begins with an unexpected diagnosis.
The culprits having embedded themselves
In some compilation of your body’s network.

And to them it didn’t matter who you were.
How nice you were.  What face you had.
All they wanted was the treasure in you.

Those little nuggets of gold they could sift
Out of you to sustain their oeuvre, inflate 
Their sagging sails with, to point their egos

Towards glory.  The only thing you can be sure
Of is that you will be incorporated.  No two ways
About it.  The corporation’s corpus will make you

Part of their foundations.
You will see bits of you glowing,
Standing out like radioactive isotopes

In the neoplasms’ latest, winning tomes.
Tumefactions.  Aggressive. Progressive.
Metastasizing.  Incurable.  Terminal tumours.




I’ve been following the development of the Hamilton poet Darrell Epp with a keen interest for some time now and am happy to report that his fourth collection Mechanical Monkeys continues to collaborate with the world’s endless chaotic celebration of itself in any and all of its giddy manifestations.

     Every subject matter, if that all-too convenient designation can be applied to such a delirious circus, is taken at a roaring pace as the hand behind the pen excoriates convention, simplicity and perception in favour of some psychedelic explosion of verbal gymnastics that is guaranteed to destabilize all rational assumption.  As they used to say of 19th century works for young ladies, it’s an improving book.  This reader certainly felt shaken and stirred.

Seed Of A Rose

thought I’d finally got on top of things
but then I heard about those two black
holes eating each other out in the centre
of the galaxy and all bets were off.

this is your brain.  This is your brain
on fire.  This is a rose, with height,
width, the whole nine yards.
imagine it. Before thorns drew

blood, before subterranean
roots clawed at the sun, a
seed lonely and dreaming
in a world gone ravenous.

and my seatmate back from gatwick
drinking too fast and ranting about
area 51, his stories didn’t add up
but oh how I loved him,

at least he was dangerously alive,
his mind wasn’t owned by disney.
after the fourth bottle of claret
he told me I was beautiful,

told me the captain was lizard.
only his fire mattered, not the
facts, nor the arcane physical
laws that kept is from crashing. 


Return to Journal

Gordon Phinn has been writing and publishing in a number of genres and formats since 1975, and through a great deal of change and growth in CanLit.  Canada’s literary field has gone from the nationalist birth pangs of ’65 – ’75 to its full blooming of the 80s and 90s, and it is currently coping as well as it can with the immediacy and proliferation of digital exposure and all the financial trials that come with it. Phinn’s own reactions was to open himself to the practices of blogging and videoblogging, and he now considers himself something of an old hand. His Youtube podcast, GordsPoetryShow, has just reached its 78th edition, and his my blog “anotherwordofgord” at WordPress continues to attract subscribers.

Phinn’s book output is split between literary titles, most recently, The Poet Stuart, Bowering and McFadden, and It’s All About Me. His metaphysical expression includes You Are History, The Word of Gord On The Meaning Of Life.

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Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie's first novel, Stillwater, will be released in the spring of 2023. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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