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April 18, 2011

We read Room Magazine 34.1

I wasn’t planning to make a project of this, but I encountered so many wonderful things as I read through the latest issue of Room Magazine that I really had to share them. The cover, first of all, whose colours go so perfectly with the title, and this eye for detail is reflected in the design of the magazine all the way through. And it’s the case with every issue of Room, which is a feminist magazine run by a volunteer collective of women in Vancouver (and used to be called A Room of One’s Own, but decided to open up onto the world more).

Issue 34.1 is themed “Momentous”, and it’s their contest winners’ issue too. Though it reads more cohesively than you’d expect from that, and I forgot about the contest until I finished reading the magazine and reread the cover. I enjoyed Amy Kenny’s story “Chocolate Season” about a woman in an East Coast tourist town carrying on the family business after her father’s death. The full text of Chantal Gibson’s “The Mountain Pine Beetle Suite” is available to read, and it’s great, brutal, subtle and scary. And “The Goddess of Light & Dark”, which won the creative non-fiction category and one of the best things I’ve read lately, full stop, about the education that comes when the author becomes a clinical teaching associate at BC Women’s Hospital, a model and guide for students learning how to do pelvic exams: “Maybe revolutions are about knowledge”.

Sigal Samuel’s “Love and Other Irregular Verbs” is by a woman whose father has seen the women he’s loved as a portal to new languages, and how she learns these languages to erase the distance between them. I enjoyed the interview with Cathleen With about how her experiences teaching in Northern Canada have influenced her fiction, and the ethics of the decisions she’s made: “It’s about bearing witness; because there are many potential storytellers up there, and yet a lot of these kids are too busy being in it to sit down and write about it.”And I liked Wendy Marcus’s “Just John” about a mysterious neighbour and his legacy of plum trees.

I tried to read Nalo Hopkinson’s “Chance” but just couldn’t. I mention this only because Nalo Hopkinson has enough readers that she won’t even notice this one missing, but more because I am fascinated with my inability to read science fiction. I have so little patience with unpacking these stories, when I can find it for so many other works/genres. It is like the fantastical elements of these stories construct a barrier between me and the meat of the story, and I just can’t be bothered scrambling over it. Part of this is definitely my fault, but it’s also that there are some kinds of readers we were never meant to be.

The issue ends with several pieces that resonated with me: Laurie D. Graham’s poem “Say Here, Here”, about words, place and the depths beneath your feet; Christy Ann Conlin’s “Album”, which whisks its reader across decades and a continent; and “Six Reasons I Miss Being Pregnant” by Anne Panning and not just the “A free pass–however briefly– to wear giant corduory overalls”. And then Room’s backpages, which I always enjoy, which gives me the sense that as a Room reader, I am most certainly part of a wider community.

October 21, 2010

We read The Dalhousie Review

In The Dalhousie Review Summer 2010 issue, editor Anthony Stewart writes that the magazine has started a return to its roots: the print issue design has been streamlined to fit with the magazine’s online presence (though I have to admit the blah minimalism seemed lacking to me, but alas); digital archives will soon be available back to 1921 when the magazine was born (fabulous); and though they continue to publish high quality prose and poetry, there has been a shift in their non-fiction from academic to more general-interest, which had been the intention of the magazine’s first editor 90 years ago.

Though they’re still mid-shift, I suppose. Jason Holt’s “Partworks” begins with promise– a list of great works of art, “all deservedly famous, all provocatively unfinished.” He then attempts to find a place for these works within aesthetic theory, but I confess that I didn’t understand anything in the entire piece. I think I became officially lost at, “If trying to preserve an intuitive view of partworks as occupying a middle-ground between non-artworks of the quotidian kind and bona fide artworks has such drastic theoretical consequences*…, then this might be taken as a reductio of the intuitive view.” (*I love the idea of “drastic theoretical consequences” though– what might they be? Getting your Adorno in a knot?)

Philip Beidler’s “History and Memory in the Great War Paintings of John Singer Sargent”, on the other hand, is accessible, fascinating, and accompanied by colour prints(!) of three of the paintings. Beidler takes into account the different nature of Sargent’s commissions, who they came from (British vs. American), and when in his career they came in order to understand the diversity of his WW1 portrayals. This is exactly the kind of stuff the Dalhousie Review should be after– devourable to those of us who didn’t know John Singer Sargent from a sewing machine, but after we’ve read it, we do.

Many of the stories in this issue take on “History and Memory”, as Beidler does. Julia Zarankin’s “The Fabric of Nostalgia” ruminates on language, letter writing, and how we assemble ourselves and others from words written on a page. (Full disclosure: Julia is my friend. I thought she was brilliant before she became my friend, however, so my bias means less than one might think.) Lynda Archer’s “A Heart in Saskatoon” takes what could be saccharine premise (a woman going to meet a man who long ago received her dead brother’s heart), and enlivens it with a dose of suspense and an interesting treatment of heart imagery. Andrea Bennett’s “The Falls” is also a reflection on the past, and though the story lacks depth where we’d like more, Bennett skirts cliche in all the right places and her ending is absolutely perfect. Alexis Lachaine’s “Gas” is situated in the present, but a present that is decidedly fixed and sepia-toned, backward looking (though less so than it supposes– something is going to happen, but this is not the point), and featuring some of the strongest writing of the bunch. Patrick Hick’s “Buster” was a small town hockey story that reminded me of Finnie Walsh.

Two other stories in the magazine were “Napoleon’s Eyes” by Vanessa Farnsworth, and “Dress Up” by Drew McDowell, both unconventional domestic comedy/tragedies. In the former, a wife watches her husband desperately try to insurance payout, putting their lives and home at risk in the process. McDowell’s story is about a husband who follows his wife too far into drugs and risque sexuality, and features two truly stunningly powerful moments, but lacks a satisfying ending.

(The poetry didn’t do it for me. I must say that I didn’t work very hard to make it do it for me, so the fault is probably my own rather than the poetry’s)

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of postings on literary magazines, as I venture outside of my comfortable subscription list for a single issue of something that’s new. I’m pleased to picked this one up, and to glimpse a magazine in transition, in the hands of an editor whose vision and passion underlies the entire issue.

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