Off the Shelf: David James Brock


David James Brock doesn’t actually have any books on my shelf. Yet. He does though, have a few books off my shelf. Namely, two poetry chap books that are stacked on top of one of my book shelves along with other chap books. The first, Gasmask Summer, was published in 2009 and released by The Emergency Response Unit, a chap book press run by Leigh Nash and Andrew Faulkner. The second, Black Metal Melody (featuring illustrations by Patrick Larkin), was published in 2011 by Ferno House Press (run by Spencer Gordon, Mat Laporte, and Arnaud Brassard).

Full disclosure, Brock will be a press mate of mine, launching his first full-length work of poetry, Everyone is CO2with Wolsak and Wynn.

Gasmask Summer published by The Emergency Response Unit.

Gasmask Summer published by The Emergency Response Unit.


Brock is probably most widely known as a playwright and librettist, whose work (including the super cool Glasgow Pub Operas and the incredibly important Cystic Fibrosis inspired Breath Cycleboth in collaboration with composer Gareth Williams) has been featured in cities across North America and in the UK. However, he’s been quietly publishing poetry over the past few years in a build up to his first full-length collection.

There is a surprising range to his poetry as well, Gasmask Summer focuses on, for lack of a better descriptor, fashion, touching on styles of shorts (cargoes vs. cut offs), thrift store leather jackets and even an exploration of the unfortunate banana hammock (“this brash thong reveals as little as an Italian widow,/ where power lies in brevity”).

Brock's Black Metal Melody was beautifully illustrated by Patrick Larkin.

Brock’s Black Metal Melody was beautifully illustrated by Patrick Larkin.

In contrast, his second chap book is a series of linked poems that create a kind of coming-of-age story, chronicling one teen’s fascination with black/death metal (“One night in Toronto, the black metal lead wore a Slash t-shirt on stage./ The fans booed him, but forgave when they took it for irony”). It’s actually incredibly readable, with a clear narrative that follows the protagonist’s immersion in “the scene” and an intense relationship with a slightly older woman. It’s also got some very cool illustrations by Patrick Larkin.

Dinosaur Porn, an anthology produced by a collaboration between Ferno House and The Emergency Response Unit (2010)

Dinosaur Porn, an anthology produced by a collaboration between Ferno House and The Emergency Response Unit (2010)


David James Brock and I share a lot of life-experience similarities, going all the way back to family/childhood connections to North Bay, Ontario. We also both graduated from the University of Victoria’s BFA and the University of Guelph’s MFA programs (though at different times) and we also both worked at the amazing Russell Books while we were living in Victoria.

Here in Toronto, we find ourselves once again working together, this time teaching at the same college; also, we were both signed to the same press for our first full-length works, and we both appeared in the weirdly excellent (not to mention beautifully crafted) Dinosaur Porn anthology in 2010.

Actually Brock was one of the first people I met in Toronto. Having gone to the wrong place for an interview at the college we now work at, he ended up walking me to the English department just in time for the interview. The rest, as they say, is history.

David James Brock will be launching his first full length work of poetry, Everyone is CO2, at The Gladstone Hotel on April 16th, 2014, at which point his book will be included on my book shelf.



John Barth

20140319_100508I have more books by John Barth than I do any other author. Nineteen, actually. Seventeen of which are fiction. The other two, The Friday Books, are in my literary non-fiction section. The majority of the texts were accumulated during a brief, but pretty in-depth relationship I had with his work during my contemporary-lit-heavy undergrad degree at Mount Allison University. Most of the editions of the texts I bought–many of which were long out of print–were picked up at a smattering of interesting east coast used bookstores. Specifically, I remember finding quite a few of them at Amy’s Used Books in Amherst, Nova Scotia, and at the old Halifax location of JWD Books.

The obsession carried over to my time in Victoria, where Russell Books came in to my life (I worked and shopped there), and I was able to complete my collection of John Barth books. Of my seventeen fiction titles, I do actually have some doubles. I have both a pocket book and a trade paperback edition of the short story collection Lost in the Funhouse (The first Barth book I read). I also have multiple paper back editions of The End of the Road, one of his early novels, and The Sot-Weed Factor.


The opening Story from Lost in the Funhouse (1968). Instructions about cutting the page and connecting the opposing corners. It forms a moebius strip that reads "Once upon a time there was a story that began Once upon a time there was a story that began Once upon a time..."

“Frame Tale” is the opening story from Lost in the Funhouse (1968). The text tells you to cut along the dotted line and connect the opposing corners. It forms a moebius strip that reads “Once upon a time there was a story that began Once upon a time there was a story that began Once upon a time…”

In terms of his literature, there are actually two fairly distinct Barths. The first, more darkly humorous, yet formally traditional Barth, published a handful of plot-heavy nearly absurdest yarns starting in 1956. Despite heavy existential themes, his books were playful and even shallow in some ways, but became increasingly complex and cryptic in the early 60s. Yet despite their complexity, they were often driven by fast-paced almost frantic prose.

In the late 60s, specifically after the publication of his 1967 essay “Literature of Exhaustion”, Barth became (in)famous for his helping shape late 20th century postmodern literature. Although he won a National Book Award for his novella trilogy Chimera in 1973, his overly intellectual metafictions began to alienate readers in the 80s, most notably Letters, a massive, dense tome that contains a series of letters between characters from his previous books and the author himself, and is the most overt representation of his deconstructive bent.


The image from this 1967 edition of The End of the Road is tattooed on my right arm.

The image from  the cover of this 1967 edition of The End of the Road is tattooed on my right arm.

When I was first introduced to John Barth, I was an undergrad and completely enmeshed in contemporary lit and theory. I fell in love with his experimental short story collections such as Lost In the Funhouse (this remains an incredibly important work for me, and, I believe, is a landmark of late 20th century fiction) and On with the Story. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve mostly lost interest in his experimental work and have moved back to his more traditional, yet cynical, novels from the 50s.

His work was so influential to me (and I encountered it at such an influential time of my life) that I actually have the cover of the 1967 Bantam paperback edition of The End of the Road tattooed on my arm (there was an apparently really strange film adaptation made of this book starring Stacey Keach that I have never seen). But his influence pops up in other aspects of my life as well.

Perhaps most notably, a copy of Barth’s first novel, The Floating Opera briefly appears in the title story of my short story collection David Foster Wallace Ruined My Suicide and Other Stories. In it, the novel is being read by a bookstore owner that the protagonist frequents. My story, obviously, is about suicide, and Barth’s novel is about a character who wakes up one morning deciding that will be the day he takes his own life: the novel charts his consideration of this idea over the course of that day. The novel was both thematically and tonally an influence on my title story.

Just in case you haven’t read either my story or Barth’s novel, I won’t tell you how either ends.

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Shelf Series Volume 2: Grace O’Connell

Grace O’Connell’s novel Magnified World (Random House 2012) lives on my fiction shelf, tucked between a couple of notorious Can Lit’ers. Canadian publisher, critic, and writer Hal Niedzviecki’s novel Ditch is on one side and Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero is on the other.

Magnified World CoverHER NOVEL

Magnified World is Grace’s first novel, published by Random House Canada in 2012 under its “New Faces of Fiction” imprint. In the novel, the protagonist Maggie begins to have unexplainable blackouts after her mother’s suicide. This eventually leads to an investigation of her mother’s past. But, of course, it’s about much more than that and not quite as straight forward as it sounds. It’s about grief at its heart, and the blackouts enhance that off-kilter, foggy feeling it causes.

But it’s also very much a novel about, or at least very much in, Toronto. The settings are so clearly Toronto and the people are beginning to feel more and more familiarly Torontonian to me all the time. It has been books like this that have helped me get to know the city in the five or so years I’ve been living here.


Grace is a fiction writer based here in Toronto. I met her while we were both doing our MFAs through the University of Guelph, where we had a few classes and a workshop together. She’s involved in an embarrassing (to the rest of us) number of things in the Toronto writing community, including serving as an Associate Editor with Taddle Creek and writing for This Magazine.

While Magnified World is her first book, Grace has had a lot of other writing published as well (both fiction and non). Her story, “The Many Faces of Montgomery Clift” (originally published in Taddle Creek) was nominated for the Journey Prize in 2012, up against, as usual, an excellent assortment of writers including Nancy Jo Cullen and Kevin Hardcastle (Alex Pugsley ended up taking home the prize that year).

Vladamir Nabokov

All eight of my Nabokov books.

I have seven books by Vladamir Nabokov in my fiction section and one (Speak, Memory–a memoir) in general non-fiction, all of which were purchased during a Nabokov-obsessed period in the early 2000s. All of my editions are pocket book editions and were purchased in the book-loving towns of Victoria and Sydney, British Columbia. I have the Viking Portable Nabokov Reader too, which includes essays and poetry as well as excerpts from novels and some short stories.

Lolita Crest Giant Edition Nabokov is best known for Lolita (1955), a masterpiece of a novel. Along with being extraordinarily written, it is nearly undefinable as a genre; it’s a road book, a melodrama, a comedy, a story of abuse that borders on horror and, of course, a first-person confessional with the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. One of the most remarkable things is that it was one of the first books he wrote in English (his second language).

Lolita is one of my favourite books, read at an important moment in my life when I was first starting to read as a writer and could appreciate the complexity of the prose.

I have a pretty standard edition that I bought for a class I was taking called “Sex and Death,” an excellent lecture course in the University of Victoria’s Writing Department that was taught by Lorna Jackson. It’s a later printing of the 1958 Crest Giant pocket book.

While it’s not my favourite of Nabokov’s books, my edition of Mary is physically my favourite of the texts of his that I own. A story of a “love-triangle,” perhaps the most interesting part is that Mary never actually appears in the present of the story. Mary was Nabokov’s first book, published when he was 26 years old under his common pen name V. Sirin. My edition is a first printing of the 1971 Fawcett Crest edition, which was the first paperback translation of the book published in Canada. The translation was a collaboration between Nabokov and Michael Glenny.

The beautiful 1071 Fawcett Crest edition of "Mary"

The beautiful 1971 Fawcett Crest edition of “Mary”

Shelf Series Volume One: Kevin Chong

Kevin Chong's fiction situated between John Cheever and Lynn Coady

Kevin Chong’s books reside in two different sections (fiction and general non-fiction). His fiction finds itself in good company, flanked by John Cheever’s Collected Stories on one side and the works of Lynn Coady on the other. His works of non-fiction are flanked by Denise Chong’s The Girl in the Picture and Wade Davis’s Serpent and the Rainbow.


Baroque-a-nova; published by Penguin Canada in April 2001.

Baroque-a-nova; published by Penguin Canada in April 2001.

Born in Hong Kong, Kevin Chong grew up in Vancouver and still lives there now. He went to UBC where he did his BFA and then went to Columbia (yes that Columbia) for his MFA.

Kevin is a pretty interesting and varied writer. He’s got two novels under his belt and two works of memoir/creative non-fiction, plus he’s written a ton of stuff for various publications and if you read book reviews in the Globe and Mail, odds are you’ve read reviews that he’s written.

With the excellent fiction writer Peter Darbyshire, Kevin Chong was also involved in either the most important staged fight in Can Lit history or the second most (there seems to be an east/west divide on the issue, with those in the east placing Nathaniel G. Moore and rob maclennan’s notorious Throwdown in O Town in top spot in the Can Lit Fake Fight Power Rankings).


Beauty Plus Pity published by Arsenal Pulp Press in August 2011.

Beauty Plus Pity published by Arsenal Pulp Press in August 2011.

Baroque-a-nova is a fairly traditional coming of age story centred around the Vancouver-based son of members of a(n) (in)famous 60s-70s era folk-rock group. His second novel, Beauty Plus Pity, published ten years later, is a non-traditional family drama where the main character deals with the death of his father and the discovery of a half sister born as the result of an affair.

Both novels are entertaining, “breezy” reads, and I say that in the most complimentary way possible. They are contemporary Can Lit page turners that manage to be incredibly enjoyable without treating readers like idiots. They are exactly the kinds of novels you don’t think of when you think of traditional Can Lit.

His non-fiction works are excellent. The first, Neil Young Nation, chronicles Kevin’s journey tracing Neil Young’s route from Winnipeg to LA early in his career. It is a fascinating road-trip, buddy story that is essential for Neil Young fans but entertaining for those who aren’t as well (I’m no hardcore fan, but I loved the book). My Year of the Racehorse fascinatingly chronicles Kevin’s year-or-so-long foray into racehorse ownership but is actually a pretty in-depth memoir of a man of a certain age.


D.D. Miller snoozing on the floor of a boat that is cruising down the Mekong River in Laos. This is the pocketbook edition of Baroque-a-nova.

D.D. Miller snoozing on the floor of a boat that is cruising down the Mekong River in Laos. This is the pocketbook edition of Baroque-a-nova.

I met Kevin while I was living in Victoria through some writer friends (most notably, Tim Horner). We really got to know each other one night when I and a few others “crashed” the author’s lounge at the Victoria Writer’s Festival after his reading there sometime in the early ’00s. I spent most of the evening on the patio smoking cigarettes and drinking beer with Guy Vanderhaeghe and his wife. It was awesome.

In the summer of 2011, while travelling through Laos and Vietnam, I brought two books that I wanted to reread with me. One of those books was Baroque-a-Nova (I’d bought the travel-friendly Penguin pocketbook edition to take with me). While in Mui Ne, Vietnam, I ended up trading my travel edition of Baroque-a-Nova and a copy of Russell Smith’s How Insensitive for a copy of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. That was a pretty awesome trio of books to read back-to-back-to-back. Editions of all three remain on my book shelf.