lee-kvern-200Earlier this year I was a juror for the Writers Guild of Alberta, 2013 Howard O’Hagan Award for the Short Story.

It was all a big secret, but the awards were announced on May 25th.

Here’s a story from the Edmonton Journal, which doesn’t say much.

Here’s the PDF of the Guild’s news release of the short lists.

I’ve been on a couple of juries and never run into any controversy. How boring!

This jury had two men and one woman, and we picked a short list of three women. How progressive!

Lee Kvern won for In Search of Lucinda.

The short list also included Lynn Coady’s Dogs in Clothes, a kick-ass story.

All we really tried to do was find consensus on the three best stories of the 30+ or so we read. It wasn’t difficult.

It’s true, though, that a different jury could have come up with a different result. Such is the subjectivity of the thing, and also the general parity of the submissions. Some were better than others, though. Each of the jurors had slightly different preferences.

I’m happy to support the consensus of the short list. It was a good, thorough process, and a satisfying result.

To the writers who were not short listed, I want to offer on-going encouragement.

Rock on.

Levels of Life

barnesLevels of Life
by Julian Barnes
Random House, 2013

Early in life, Barnes writes, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven’t. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven’t. Later still — at least, if we are lucky (or, on the other hand, unlucky) — it divides into those who have endured grief, and those who haven’t. These divisions are absolute; they are tropics we cross.

He also writes, “There is the question of loneliness.” Then a few sentences later, “Nothing can compare to the loneliness of the soul in adolescence.”

Together, these quotations seem to beg the question, Is loss of a spouse like a return to adolescent confusion?

Yet, he is unambiguous. Adolescent loneliness is the worst.

Before I address this question, I should say something about the book as a whole. It is slim, a mere 118 pages. A quick read, it is divided into three sections. Ostensibly, it is about grief; specifically, it is about Barnes’ grief for his wife of 30 years who died in 2008, after a 37 day illness. Cancer in the brain.

But to say the book is a memoir would be mistaken. It is part memoir, part essay, part fiction. The three sections are titled: The Sin of Height, On the Level, and The Loss of Depth. Levels of life, as the title says.

The balloon on the cover is another hint. There is a survey of 19th century balloonists, and also 19th century photographers. This is all interesting, well told, precise in description, alert in metaphor, and … all preamble to Barnes’ use of the first person to describe his experiences following the death of his life-partner.

There is the question of grief versus mourning. You can try to differentiate them by saying that grief is a state while mourning is a process; yet they inevitably overlap. Is the state diminishing? Is the process progressing? How to tell? Perhaps it’s easier to think of them metaphorically. Grief is vertical — and vertiginous — while mourning is horizontal.

Me, I like this distinction. Grief has nausea; mourning, sadness.

Let’s get back to the question of adolescence, which Barnes doesn’t develop, but which I would like to push deeper. In my own case, as my wife approached death (and I mean her final months, so there was a period of extended awareness of doom many times longer than Barnes had), I had feeling I hadn’t felt in a long time. When you are living with the awareness of doom, yet trying not to be consumed by doom, you focus on the day-by-day. Watch the flowers grow. Take pleasure in the laundry. The future goes blank. You cannot plan. You cannot take for granted that you will be together six months from now. Maybe not even two months from now. “I’ve been here before,” I told Kate. “I know this feeling. I feel twenty-two again.”

History did not record what she said in response. I don’t remember. I don’t think she said anything. “Do whatever you need to do, honey,” or something along those lines.

The future, then, was blank. Full of possibility, yes, but blank. Lonely, too. One quests for love, to relieve the loneliness. Having found love, one can always lose it. It is part of the marriage contract. One must go first. The marriage contract becomes a caregiver’s contract. I will look after you. I will not abandon you.

Barnes writes, “There were 37 days between diagnosis and death.” In my case, there were 21 months. Grief is not competitive, and I don’t mean to be stern; however, the structure of this book is limiting, where it could be broadening. Barnes is careful to say each grief is specific, each experience is unique, yet the book reaches for general conclusions also. Levels of life.

I was not married for three decades, yet I inherited two step-children (and a new partner in her ex-husband), and the future is blank. Full of possibility. It must be. The children demand it so.  As they should.

At one point, near the end of Kate’s life, I was speaking to a psychologist. She asked me how I was doing. I said I was listening someone compulsively to the music I used to listen to when I was 15 years old. I told her that for some reason I felt it important to reconnect with that adolescent. He had the whole world in front of him. He had all of his options open. I needed to live like that, I said. I needed to be ready for anything, and I trusted my 15-year-old self to get me through it. She was disagreeable. “We’ll see how that goes,” she said. I would like to report now, in that regard, things went just fine. I have been horribly, horribly sad, but I survived adolescence, and I’ll survive this. (At least, until I don’t. Time comes for all of us.)

I would have liked to have seen Barnes develop this line of thought (find arguments that contradict his absolutes), yet he is fanciful and metaphoric, an auteur, and, let it be said, brilliant. Earnest to a fault. Besotted with love. A true hero. Bravo.

I saw him once, at the Harbourfront Reading Series in Toronto. Late-1980s I would guess. It was the slightest of connections, yet I bleed for him, having read of his heartbreak. I wish him happiness, and healing laughter.

Keep passing the open windows, Julian. You know what I mean.

Best Canadian Stories 12

Toronto-20130416-00407It has been a long time since I’ve attempted even a basic book review. Somehow last summer I wrote a piece on Hamlet. What?

My mind, meanwhile, is on the folks in Boston and beyond. Unneeded catastrophe. Devious murder.

“A tale of sound and fury.”

And then the last thing I wrote here was all about savoring the beauty of life. Well, keep doing that. While also giving your heart to those who are suffering.

And so, a book review. Seems right. Living fully, open heart and mind.

I’m not sure if these were the best short stories in Canada from 2012, but some of them are very, very good.

The anthology includes 10 stories, and I would like to celebrate what I consider the best of them.

Caroline Adderson’s “Poppycock” opens the book. Holy cow. This story will have me quivering for the rest of my life. It wouldn’t be out of place alongside the stories of Thom Jones’ The Pugilist at Rest. Paragraph by paragraph, it terrified me. The protagonist is a woman, a divorced mother of two, whose has been alienated from her family (father and sister, mother deceased) for over two decades. Her daughters are young adults and moved out. One day, her father shows up. She hasn’t seen him in 20+ years. He’s extremely unwell. Is this a chance for redemption? A corrective? A chance for explanation?

The whole thing tore my heart out. Unbelievable.

Or as Justin would say, Unbeliebable.

Lynn Coady’s “Dogs in Clothes” is another boot shaker. Ostensibly the story is about a young female publicist who shepherds a famous male (deep thinker) publicist around a metropolitan city (which seems a lot like Toronto during the G20 summit, when there were fences all over downtown and paranoid security apparatus[es] all over). Meanwhile, the publicist is texting a (female) friend and (married-to-someone-else) boyfriend and her brother (who is at the hospital where her father is under the knife for heart surgery). Grace under pressure? Is this Hemingway all over again? Are Coady and Adderson taking the same drugs?

Once again, a story about full catastrophe living. And not a Buddhist in sight.

Shaena Lambert’s “The War Between Men and Women” seems, at first, more straightforward. We’ve all lived through Phase I, II, III, IV, V, VI Feminism(s), so we all get this, right? Well, this is more like Faulkner’s “the human heart in conflict with itself” Nobel Speech (1949). [And isn’t that great? Isn’t the internet useful for something, once and a while?] “Endure and prevail.” Words post-Boston. Post-catastrophe. Eternal.

Lambert’s story starts: “It was 1968, and there was a war between the men and the women.” Holy crow. The story is told from the point of view of the child of two parents at war. As readers, we are once again in the middle of it all. In the middle of a war of all against all. Is it total destruction? Is there a chance for safety? Is peace an option?

What does all of this have to do with Canada, circa 2012?

“The story is constantly changing,” says the back cover, “and readers have to change as well.”

Well, okay, but why does it all seem so 1918?

Douglas Glover’s “The Sun King and the Royal Child” offers historical context as respite. In perhaps the “deepest” story in the collection, Glover offers (again, like the others) a narrator under pressure. Here is a young man who has had an long-running affair with another man’s wife. The other man is an archaeologist who has become famous as a researcher of pre-European contact Iroquois history/cosmology in southwestern Ontario. The “Sun King” and “Royal Child” of the title are Iroquois “artifacts,” except maybe they’re not, as the story eventually explains. Like much of the Glover-opus, the “present” of the story is both now and “then.” Or, to quote Faulkner again, “the past is never past.” (Though the quote is often paraphrased, as I have done here, according to Wikipedia: the real quote is from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”)

Oh, Hemingway. Faulkner. Canada. 2012. What gives?

I don’t know. But it makes for a startling collection of short fiction.

Check, that.

Could use something by Tony Burgess, though. A little zombie ice fishing.

Just sayin.

Feb 10 2007

The ROM, Feb. 10, 2007Today is the 6th anniversary of the day I met my children.

Feb 10, 2007, at the Royal Ontario Museum.

I reminded them about this the other day. Owen remembered Naomi’s first words to me: “Ginnie died.” Ginnie was Kate’s cat. It had died the previous September.

Owen didn’t remember that going to the ROM was his idea. Kate and I had been dating for four months, but we’d kept the kids out of it. But Owen figured something was up, and he confronted her. “Do you have a boyfriend?”

When she said she did, he said he wanted to talk to me, so Kate called me and said, “I have someone here who wants to talk to you.”


“Is this Michael?”


“This is Owen. I’m Mummy’s son.”

He then proceeded to ask me what I was doing the following Saturday, and if I would like to meet them at the ROM.

Sure thing.

The rest, as they say, is history.


Today I also found this file on my computer …

Monday, February 9, 2009
Michael here:

This is a simple story about siblings. Last night, Naomi was in the bath. She was telling me about Owen’s new fort.

“He’s just getting used to it,” she said.

I said, “It’s good to have a big brother, isn’t it.”

She nodded. “Yup.”

Then she said, “It’s hard sometimes.”

Later, I climbed in a steaming hot bath with Owen. We filled the bath right to the top. He called for Mummy. He wanted a glass of cold water. Naomi heard the plea and wanted to be the one to fulfill it.

Owen said, “This isn’t going to be good. With Naomi, you never know what you’re going to get.”

But second later, she appeared with a glass of cold water. Owen took the glass and drank it.

Mummy stood watching. She said, “Owen, what do you say?”

Naomi stood, expectant.

Owen said, “Thanks.” Then dumped what was left of the water into the tub.

Max and Beatrice Wolfe Children’s Centre

We have been engaged with the Max and Beatrice Wolfe Children’s Centre at Mount Sinai Hospital since two months before Kate died.

Truth be told, they didn’t always come through as promised, and only later did I find out that was because they were going through a funding crisis.

Still we went to this event before Christmas (check out the video: THAT US!), and I think the connection has been, on the whole, good for the kids.

So I recommend anyone who is looking for a charity, here’s the link (choose Max & B Centre from the “designation” list).