31 May 2009

Cigarettes reviewed in the Vancouver Sun

Yesterday, the day of the Vancouver launch of Cigarettes, a review appeared in the Vancouver Sun, by M.A.C. Farrant, a writer who I admire a great deal. So I was pretty relieved she liked the book. The last time I was reviewed in the Vancouver Sun, it was for my first poetry collection, The Inspiration Cha-Cha, and it was a merciless evisceration by Susan Musgrave.

Wisdom and whimsy break out all over

In stories with droll titles, Stuart Ross nails our plight

MAY 30, 2009

By Stuart Ross
Freehand Books/Broadview Press, 192 pages ($19.95)

- - -

"I will write a book about rocks and sadness," a Stuart Ross character says in the [third] story of his new collection, Buying Cigarettes for the Dog. And though it's true that a strong vein of melancholy is present throughout the book and rocks do appear, he offers much more besides.

Stuart Ross is poet, novelist, anthologist and essayist. A tireless literary activist for decades, he co-founded the Toronto Small Press Book Fair and is the fiction and poetry editor at This Magazine.

A writer with an original sensibility, he's got a gazillion curious, funny and disturbing things to say about our lives and our world. Read this book — you'll see.

An example: In the very funny story, [Howie Tosses and Turns], a murderer with a philosophical bent appears and takes up residence on a hapless man's couch, this being "just a regular day on the planet."

Typically, Ross's characters are hapless men. Also, middle-aged and single.

In having "lost track of one's existence until the cigarette burns one's fingers," they typically wander off to the corner store for smokes one afternoon and return years later, barely able to remember where they've been.

And isn't that just like life? One minute you're swinging on the monkey bars and the next, you're digging in your heels at the open grave, yelling, "Stop! Not yet!"

Stuart Ross nails it. Nails our fate.

In the title story, he writes: "You never know how the years are going to shove you around."

There you are in the seventh grade, happily reading your Archie comic and, before you know it, you're obsessed with transcribing Don Quixote, using dead flies to spell out the words.

Dead flies frequently appear in his stories, most memorably in the superb Guided Missiles, where they anoint the eyes of a dying street prophet. This story — a 46-page rhapsody, a hymn — is about transcendence, metamorphoses and the quest to find a "place of calm" by listening to late-night radio and hanging out in donut shops.

Terminal estrangement. Lives that follow "a predictable pattern, with few surprises." This is Stuart Ross territory.

People are "condemned to watching this speeding world, these cars that whip by as metallic blurs." The characters live sleepwalking lives — that is, until they are blown awake by the inexplicable: body parts falling off; cows appearing in grocery-store aisles; a band of Latin American revolutionaries fighting it out as fleas in the matted fur of a Mexican dog; humans becoming an endangered species; a deranged street prophet screaming about "the horrible, crippling, oozing illness"; a numbat, a remora, a tiny black thrip.

Beneath Ross's droll story titles — Howie Tosses and Turns, Elliott Goes to School, Shooting the Poodle — a fickle and riotous world exists.

And, when it comes to the body, watch out. There's "always something to fuss about." Bodies are unreliable as hell. And so are minds, for that matter, and memory, and time, which is fluid, like rainwater rushing toward a drain.

Yet human beings exist to maintain the balance of the universe, Ross is telling us. In fact, he's saying, reaching out to one another in love and tenderness is how we do this. What's more, it's how we can change the course of world events.We should try that some time. Soon.

M.A.C. Farrant is the author of The Secret Lives of Litterbugs and other books.

Stuart Ross will be one of two authors reading today at 7 p.m. at Cafe Montmartre, 4362 Main, Free.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

The launch last night was nice: excellent to see Mark Laba and Clint Burnham, Laura Farina, Brian Kaufman, Renee Rodin, Ameen Merchant, Dennis Bolen, Jenn Farrell and lots of others. And to share the evening with Alexandra Leggat, who was launching Animal from Anvil Press. Her reading from the book, all too short, was fantastic.

Over and out.

29 May 2009

2nd printing, New Denver, Mansfield

My last day in the Kootenays. On Wednesday I went back to visit the Grade 5/6's I worked with a couple weeks ago. They all made books of their poetry and stories and wrote me individual letters. So I read the books, wrote them back individual letters, and popped in to drop it all off. I love those kids. They have such amazing sensibilities. Even the troublemakers are wonderful.

Good news from Sarah at Freehand. Buying Cigarettes for the Dog is going into a second printing. The first printing was 1,500 copies so this is incredible news for me, especially given that the book has been out less than two months. A friend from the Randy Newman listserv is buying it on German Amazon!

Yesterday spent a nice couple hours visiting with Diana Hartog, a writer I have admired for a couple of decades, but who I've only met briefly in the past few years, since I've been coming to New Denver (where Diana lives). So we finally got to talk, and it was real inspiring.

Also excited about the next installment of the Mansfield Revue, the blog that Denis, Leigh and I have been developing to let people know about Mansfield and to help promote good Canadian poetry by other presses through our monthly guest reviews. Anyone wanting to get on the Revue email list can drop a note to info@mansfieldpress.net.

I didn't get as much done on my novel as I had hoped while out here in the Kootenays, but I did have a few minor breakthroughs. The perhaps-success of Cigarettes gives me some hope now for the novel. I'll soon need to decide where to send the thing, which should be done, in this new version, by the end of June.

Over and out.

27 May 2009

A very unusual review, and a launch in Vancouver

Michael Bryson wrote a very unusual review of Buying Cigarettes for the Dog on his intriguing blog. I think that's review #7. The next is due in Saturday's Vancouver Sun. What's goin' on?

Speaking of Vancouver, I'm launching my book there this Saturday, and I'm really happy to be sharing the occasion with Alexandra Leggat, who is launching her new story collection too. Here's the guff, McDuff:

Saturday, May 30, 2009 at 7:00 pm
Cafe Montmartre, 4362 Main Street
Vancouver, BC

Anvil Press and Freehand Books are joining forces to launch two of the coolest books you'll read this year: Animal by Alexandra Leggat and Buying Cigarettes for the Dog by Stuart Ross.

More info: 604-876-8710

About the books and authors:

By Alexandra Leggat

In a style reminiscent of Raymond Carver, the stories contained in Animal depict people on the brink of major life change. They stand at crossroads they are often oblivious to; they suck thick air in rooms filled with palpable tension. Leggat's characters often seem captured in a cinematic slo-mo, teetering on the edge of something unknown, heroically resisting the ever-present pull of Fate. It matters little whether the characters take action or refuse to act; life acts for them. The reader is left to wonder: When does "meaning" cease to have meaning? Like travelling a mountain highway at night, what's just around the next bend is never known. The stories in Animal never fail to deliver potent surprises.

By Stuart Ross

A man steps out for a pack of smokes and winds up walking around the planet; a woman sun-tanning by a pool finds herself covered in chicken feet; a guerrilla army of cows infiltrates a big city; a man hires a bodyguard to protect him from his poodle. The first book of fiction since 1997 from the consummately underground Stuart Ross blends an unflagging penchant for experiment with the measured skill of a seasoned, highly disciplined craftsman. Buying Cigarettes for the Dog is anything but a collection of linked stories in a homogenous voice: instead, Ross offers us fables, letters, political tracts, gems of minimalist surrealism, and even a post-gothic novella. Throughout, he draws from the same deep, dark sense of humour that has earned him acclaim as Canada's foremost surrealist poet. Ross's strange, strangely compassionate stories engage the emotions as well as the intellect, giving the reader no choice but to participate. Buying Cigarettes for the Dog holds a mirror to the absurdities of 21st-century Earth; here is an absurdism so true that it becomes real.

Over and out.

19 May 2009

Kootenays launch for Cigarettes

Every year for the past five years, I've come out to the Kootenays to teach writing in schools in New Denver and Nakusp, as well as the occasional foray into Kimberley, Invermere, and Golden. I've been welcomed into the community in these places, especially in New Denver, where I've spent most of my Kootenay time. So it seemed like a good place to hold a launch for Buying Cigarettes for the Dog. Well, just one town over, in Silverton. Here's the guff:


Stuart Ross, who has become a familiar fixture in New Denver and Nakusp schools, where he teaches creative writing each spring, will launch his acclaimed new short-story collection in the Kootenays on May 21.

The launch for Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, published in April by upstart Calgary press Freehand Books, takes place at 7 pm at the Cup and Saucer Café in Silverton. Ross will read from his new book, and will be joined by two special guests, local writers Diana Hartog and Peter McPhee, who will read from their poetry.

Diana Hartog, a New Denver resident and one of the guest readers at the May 21 launch, has been a major figure in Canada’s literary landscape for decades. She is the author of four acclaimed books of poetry, most recently Ink Monkey (Brick Books, 2006). Hartog has won both the BC Book Prize and the Gerald Lampert Award for her poetry. Her novel The Photographer’s Sweetheart was released in 1996 by Overlook Press to rave reviews.

Peter McPhee, also reading at the launch, moved from Toronto to Slocan Park four years ago. He is the founder of the Scream in High Park, a legendary poetry festival in Toronto, and the author of the poetry collection Running Unconscious (Coach House Press, 1998). He is currently working on a second book of poetry and a novel.

The launch for Buying Cigarettes for the Dog takes place at 7 pm on Thursday, May 21, at the new Cup and Saucer Café in Silverton. The event is open to the public.

At the end of next week, I'm launching in Vancouver, along with Alexandra Leggat, who has a new collection out with Anvil Press.

Meanwhile, an interesting and mixed review of Cigarettes appears in the current issue of Quill & Quire:

Buying Cigarettes for the Dog
by Stuart Ross

Publisher: Freehand Books
Price: $19.95 paper
ISBN: 978-1-55111-879-6
Page count: 200 pp.
Size: 5 x 7½
Released: April

Buying Cigarettes for the Dog is the latest short fiction collection from Toronto writer and tireless small-press activist Stuart Ross. A considerable number of these stories have appeared in various periodicals, anthologies, and chapbooks since Henry Kafka and Other Stories, Ross’s previous fiction collection, was published in 1997. Though the stories vary widely in form, from parable to epistolary to minimalist surrealist fiction, there are recurring thematic concerns: pop culture and celebrity obsession, mid-20th-century nostalgia, family, and South American politics.

Like many of the stories in the collection, the first, “Three Arms Less,” begins in medias res, deftly establishing narrative focus with its opening sentence: “When there was a war, a little brown boy had his arms exploded right off the sides of his body, where they were attached at the shoulders. He was ten years old. It hurt him a lot.” By the end of the first paragraph, we’ve learned this boy has lost not only his arms, but also his entire family, and that he has become a cause célèbre, a poster boy for children who have lost limbs and loved ones in explosions. The third arm in the title belongs to a climber trapped on a mountain. In order to save himself from starvation, he is compelled to use the blade of a pocket knife to saw off his arm over the course of several days.

Despite the absence of specifics and the stretching of believability, the twin stories of limb loss are compelling in their humanity. We are told, matter-of-factly, that the boy will never be able to pursue the occupations he once dreamed of, like carpentry or music, while the mountaineer, an avid reader, is now forced to turn the pages of the novels he reads with one hand. The only authorial inflection in this story is the narrator’s naïveté, which is itself reflective of the style in which the two remarkably resilient characters might describe their fates themselves.

As so often happens in this collection, the fictive reality of the story gets pushed one step further, into the realm of the untenable. The loss of the multiple arms has bizarre repercussions that reach much further than the immediate circumstances of the amputees, throwing everything in the world off balance: “Buses were late and a guy fell on his head and Miss November’s left breast was a little bigger than her right breast and someone got a hamburger with a safety pin in it when they ordered a hamburger.”

On the other hand, the story maintains a balance between Ross’s penchant for the imaginatively absurd and absurdity of the kind we encounter on the evening news (such as a child victim in a war zone losing his arms in an explosion). The final result is memorable and affecting in a way that is difficult to pin down.

“The Suntan,” another standout, describes a poolside scene at a senior’s residence, as Albert Greenbaum attempts to invite the desirable Lana for “maybe a bagel and some potato salad.” Though it contains a few moments of amusing perversity – Albert attempting to prod a non-compliant testicle back into the leg of his swimming trunks, an aphid “frying gently on the large, brown expanse of Lana’s shining forehead” – this story at first appears to be one of entirely effective, straight-ahead realism. When Albert gives a heartfelt account of how his father survived imprisonment during both the Russian Revolution and the Second World War, one can’t help but hope he will be successful in his bid for Lana’s affection.

The climax of “The Suntan,” however, is entirely odd and seemingly antithetical to all that precedes it. Though inventive, the turning point in this tale is less successful than that of “Three Arms Less,” for there is nothing subtle or revelatory about its absurdity. It is difficult for the reader to reconcile the scene of Albert applying “chicken foot after chicken foot” to Lana’s flesh, when what comes before seems so sincere and uncontrived. Of course, it is entirely possible that this disjunction is the author’s very intention.

In their surreal brevity, many of the stories are reminiscent of the fiction of celebrated Israeli writer Etgar Karet. Others, such as “A City, Some Rain,” or “Shooting the Poodle,” are less successful. Occasionally, for example in “So Sue Me, You Talentless Fucker,” the heavy idiosyncrasies of the narrative voice completely overpower the virtues of the story.

A 45-page story entitled “Guided Missiles” accounts for a considerable chunk of the collection. The story is divided into a dozen separately titled sections, which alternately feature a late-night radio DJ and a deranged street preacher, the storylines eventually intersecting in a violent climax. There is some effective character observation, but this sustained narrative falls short of the appeal of the best shorter pieces, and its inclusion detracts from the overall quality of the collection.

Ross’s fiction, always at least slightly absurd or surreal, is frequently humorous. Occasionally, it is more deeply affecting. The reader who appreciates Ross’s aesthetic – as well as the challenges it poses — should mostly enjoy Buying Cigarettes for the Dog.

Reviewed by Devon Code (from the May 2009 issue)

Over and out.