Spotlight On: THE YEAR OF NO SUMMER by RACHEL LEBOWITZ

With a new month comes another addition to the Biblioasis Spotlight series! For May, we’re weaving through time and place, and history and memory in Rachel Lebowitz’s haunting collection of essays, The Year of No Summer.

THE YEAR OF NO SUMMER

“Darkly fascinating…Lebowitz highlights the parables, fables and myths we humans created in order to weave meaning into our lives and to which we return for comfort.” —Atlantic Books Today

On April 10th, 1815, Indonesia’s Mount Tambora erupted. The resulting build-up of ash in the stratosphere altered weather patterns and led, in 1816, to a year without summer. Instead, there were June snowstorms, food shortages, epidemics, inventions, and the proliferation of new cults and religious revivals.

Hauntingly meaningful in today’s climate crisis, Lebowitz’s lyric essay charts the events and effects of that apocalyptic year. Weaving together history, mythology, and memoir, The Year of No Summer ruminates on weather, war, and our search for God and meaning in times of disaster.

Rachel Lebowitz is the author of Hannus (Pedlar Press, 2006), which was shortlisted for the 2007 Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize (BC Book Prize) and the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction. She is also the author of Cottonopolis (Pedlar Press, 2013) and the co-author, with Zachariah Wells, of the children’s picture book Anything But Hank! (Biblioasis, 2008, illustrated by Eric Orchard). She lives in Halifax, where she coordinates adult tutoring programs at her neighbourhood library.

Get your copy of The Year of No Summer here!

A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR

What does it mean to be human?

Photo Credit: Nancy McCarthy

“What are you writing these days?” In Fall 2019, I took a leave of absence from one of my day jobs, so I could have time to figure out where I needed to go. I was taking a “writing leave,” I told people, but that of course was a mistake, because the expectation from all of us was that I would write, and then not doing so felt like a failure. We need to give permission for writing to encompass walking and thinking and reading and sitting with a mug of tea, watching the crows. As Rebecca Solnit puts it, “Remember, writing is not typing.”

I walked, I thought, I noticed birds and the sound of the wind. I thought about how noticing is an honouring. And I read. I read and read and put sticky notes in books and then typed them up into my ever-growing notes file, and then, five months later, just when I thought maybe I’m ready to write, the pandemic hit, and I homeschooled my kid and read escapist fiction instead because my brain stopped being able to process anything. Then my leave ended and I went back to working almost full-time in a pandemic, which meant moving from online to in-person to online to in-person, and that’s how it’s been for two years. I have written bits and pieces in that time, but nothing that coheres.

Lately, however, I’ve been obsessively thinking about this book-to-be which is always a good sign. So what am I working on these days? Like many artists, I am trying to make sense of the world. With this climate emergency, I asked myself, “How did we get here?” I asked a question that started with The Year of No Summer: “What does it mean to be human?” I wasn’t done with this question and I wasn’t done with fairytales, either. So, from these has come a grappling. I am using the ancient Greek idea of the elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water and linking each with specific fairytales (some of our oldest stories). I am writing—or thinking out—essays that use as a jumping off point a fairytale to then delve deeper into humans and our relationship with the natural world, moving from the Neolithic Revolution to 19th Century mariners. Lately, I have read about the California and Klondike gold rushes, the history of spinning, and the Middle Ages. I am a frail thing, watching the crows in the trees, and the tide coming in.

Spotlight On: LET THE EMPIRE DOWN by ALEXANDRA OLIVER

Spring is here and so is another title for our Biblioasis Spotlight series! To celebrate Poetry Month, we’ve decided to feature a quietly eerie collection of poetry from Alexandra Oliver, taking a trip across the ocean and slipping into homes, movies, and memories in Let the Empire Down (April 12, 2016).

And don’t miss a special note from Alexandra below, on her new collection Hail, the Invisible Watchman, which releases April 5!

 

LET THE EMPIRE DOWN

In her second book, Alexandra Oliver takes us on a journey of escape from the suburbs of Canada to Glasgow, Scotland. Training her eye on the locals—on the streets, by rivers, in museums, on playgrounds, in their own homes, in the ill-starred town of Lockerbie—Oliver travels back into her past while reflecting on issues of exile, memory and identity.

Excerpt from Let the Empire Down:

THE MEGABUS GOES BY SHERBERT LAKE

There’s the water tank that bears its name.
There’s its purple edge: the shore, the ship
that crossed the lake, beneath a heap of lime.
I went away. I gave the place the slip.

There’s the mall where I would watch and wander;
there’s the bench where I would go and cry;
there’s the Polish deli that went under;
I left it all. It won’t remember me.

There’s the strip of mansions on the lee;
there’s the strap that ravaged my behind.
There’s the corner which they saved for me;
I made it out, and nobody will mind.

There’s the pier where people disappeared;
there’s the field of seven hundred crows.
The wind blows now. Convenient, ill-starred,
there it goes, forever. There it goes.

Alexandra Oliver was born in Vancouver, BC. She is the author of Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway (Biblioasis 2013), winner of the 2014 Pat Lowther Memorial Award, Let the Empire Down (Biblioasis 2016), and the chapbook On the Oven Sits a Maiden (Frog Hollow Press 2018). She is the co-editor (with Annie Finch) of Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters (Penguin Random House/Everyman’s Library 2015). A PhD candidate in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, she lives in Burlington, Ontario with her husband and son.

Pick up your copy of Let the Empire Down here!

A WORD FROM THE AUTHOR

On Her Latest Collection

Hail, the Invisible Watchman is my third book; I suppose, loosely speaking, you could say it forms a triptych with Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway and Let the Empire Down, in that it deals with the grimmer underside of the suburbs, those elements which puncture the myth of cultivated, middle-class perfection. The fictional town of Sherbet Lake keeps coming up in all three collections, so perhaps you could call the whole lump The Sherbet Lake Trilogy. Just a fanciful thought.

What informed me in writing this particular book (and I suppose what makes it different from its predecessors) was that I found myself thinking specifically about what it is to be haunted—in this case, by loneliness and fear and isolation and what that does to one’s state of mind. The pandemic upped the ante. When it hit, people were driven indoors. There was this initial pot-banging “We’re going to beat this!” performance of enthusiastic resistance that took hold at the beginning, but then it wore off. People become afraid of going out or else went into complete denial. The political divide became a gaping chasm, and public discourse turned vicious, illogical. When I speak of the “Invisible Watchman”, I initially thought of that which watches us—consumerism, social media, the alt-right, the spectre of totalitarianism—but now I think it really means that hidden side of the self that threatens to cannibalize you at every turn if you’re shut away and living with uncertainty. I think being judgmental is one of those toxic threads—that particular theme weaves through the whole book but particularly through the last two sections.

Having mentioned all of this heavy stuff, I wanted the poems in the book to have a cinematic/tableau-like quality to them and an element of humour. I sort of imagine my reader holding up a View Master (remember those?) to the light and clicking through the reel thinking Okay, well that’s weird, I wonder if it’s going to get any … no, I guess not.

Order Hail, the Invisible Watchman here!

Take a look at Alexandra’s other work here!

Spotlight On: WHEREVER WE MEAN TO BE by ROBYN SARAH

Ring in the new year with another fantastic title from Biblioasis’ Spotlight series! For January, we’re featuring a collection of poetry from Robyn Sarah, the arresting and beautifully sensory Wherever We Mean to Be: Selected Poems 1975–2015 (November 14, 2017).

This month we’re also including a special reading of several poems from this collection by Robyn herself! Listen in below.

 

WHEREVER WE MEAN TO BE

A four-decade retrospective from the winner of the 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry.

Spanning forty years and ten previously published collections, Wherever We Mean to Be is the first substantial selection of Robyn Sarah’s poems since 1992. Chosen by the author, the 97 poems in this new volume highlight the versatility of a poet who moves easily between free verse, traditional forms, and prose poems. Familiar favourites are here, along with lesser-known poems that collectively round out a retrospective of the themes and concerns that have characterized this poet’s work from the start.

Warm, direct, and intimate, accessible even at their most enigmatic, seemingly effortless in their musicality, the poems are a meditation on the passage of time, transience, and mortality. Natural and seasonal cycles are a backdrop to human hopes and longings, to the mystery and grace to be found in ordinary moments, and the pleasures, sorrows, and puzzlements of being human in the world.

Robyn Sarah is the author of eleven collections of poems, two collections of short stories, a book of essays on poetry, and a memoir, Music, Late and Soon. Her tenth poetry collection, My Shoes Are Killing Me, won the Governor General’s Award in 2015. From 2011 until 2020 she served as poetry editor for Cormorant Books. She has lived for most of her life in Montréal.

 

A WORD FROM THE AUTHOR

Special Reading of Seven Poems

Wherever We Mean to Be is the first selection of my poems since The Touchstone in 1992. A forty-year retrospective of my work as a poet, it is again my own selection, a new winnowing of my first five collections and of four published since. I chose the title because, in revisiting where I’ve been, it struck me that this phrase—the last line of a poem called “Station”—seems to embody something that runs through all of my poetry.

In “Station”, a couple—”two travellers, refugees/ of our own pasts”—contemplate a space ship on the lawn of the science museum. They have not come to visit the museum; they are just passing, here for the day on business. They don’t know why they feel compelled to stop; something inarticulate attends this moment as, hand in hand, they gaze blankly at the “mute ship poised for flight/ it will not take.” The poem ends:

… The thought
that beats, propeller-like
above our heads
is that we’re here—
wherever we were before,
wherever we mean to be.

We’re here.

“Here” is where we are now—a moment in time, a position on the globe. But the present moment is nearly always infused with some awareness of past and future: memory and imagination are part of it. I think this is how humans live: with one foot in the past and one directed towards a future or an elsewhere made of promise and intention. Unlike animals, we live in a present that embodies consciousness of where we’ve been, and hopes/fears/schemes/dreams of where we one day may be.

We are where we are, and it isn’t necessarily where we mean to be. It’s this ambivalence, integral to the human moment, that fascinates me as a poet: the tug between immediate particulars and a mind that can project backward or forward in time. Those same particulars can make time stand still if we’re paying close attention to where we are now. Yet stresses that thwart or divert intention can give a moment its aliveness.

A walk along a beach at dusk leads to a scramble up a cliff face to escape the incoming tide. The search for “something perfect” comes up against the demands of domesticity. A man on a scaffold and a woman below give up trying to have a conversation that way. A woman at the top of a staircase contemplates stairs that “end in mid-air, halfway down” after the man at the bottom has cut off a section he wants to reconfigure. In the mirror on a bureau that once belonged to the father she lost in childhood, a woman sees how her own face has come to resemble his mother’s as she remembers it from when she was a child…

“We are where we are”—for now. In the accompanying sampler of poems I’ve recorded as audio, these are a few living moments caught on the fly.

 

Get your copy of Wherever We Mean to Be here!

Order her latest work Music, Late and Soon here!

Have a look at Robyn Sarah’s other fantastic titles here!

 

Spotlight On: BLUE FIELD by ELISE LEVINE

Welcome back to Biblioasis’ Spotlight series! For the month of December, we’ve chosen to feature Elise Levine’s claustrophobic and visceral novel Blue Field (April 11, 2017).

BLUE FIELD

When her friend Jane dies while exploring an underwater cave with her husband Rand, Marilyn takes up diving again, to honour—and outdo—her late friend. Marilyn drags Rand with her as she increasingly pushes herself far past her limits and skill level, endangering them both in their private underwater version of hell.

More than two decades after the release of her sensational, critically acclaimed collection Driving Men MadBlue Field marks Elise Levine’s much anticipated return to form.

Elise Levine’s Say This: Two Novellas is forthcoming in March 2022. She is also the author of the recent story collection This Wicked Tongue, the novels Blue Field and Requests and Dedications, and the story collection Driving Men Mad. Her work has appeared in publications including PloughsharesBlackbirdThe Gettysburg Review, and has appeared four times in Best Canadian Stories. She lives in Baltimore, MD, and teaches in the MA in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University.

 

A WORD FROM THE AUTHOR

On New Work

Who gets to say? What’s it like to begin—to even just begin to begin—thinking and living in terms of your own story, and not the one handed to you? What desires might you inhabit if you were free to own those desires?

These are the questions that animate Say This: Two Novellas, due out in Spring 2022.

Here’s a little more about how the book goes, which also asks, What do we owe each other?

A celebrity journalist hopes Eva will tell him everything about the sexual affair she had as a teen with her older cousin, a man now in federal prison for murder. Thirteen years earlier, Lenore-May answers the phone to the nightmare news that her stepson’s body has been found near Mount Hood, and homicide is suspected.

I think of the book as a set of portraits that speak to one another. There’s the portrait of Eva’s unsettling ambivalence towards her confusing relationship. And the portrait of her cousin’s victim through a collage of the perspectives of the slain man’s family—and a portrait as well of their various lives, filtered through the lens of grief and joy and love.

Writing a book is like taking a sustained flying leap. You get an idea, a sense of character, circumstance. So many questions. The obsessive desire to follow where they lead. And off you go, hoping for the best. Hoping in the end that you’ve sufficiently looked your characters’ complexities in the face to accord them the freedom to rise and meet their self-determined fates.

Now that Say This is close to landing—in book form, that is—I’m kiting similar questions about desire and identity in new work I hope takes off and catches the light and reflects new angles.

It’s early stages, but here’s what’s on my mind.

GIANT: Stories. Nine stories, in fact. About ambition, will, self-creation—and their discontents. Stories about brazenly going off the rails. Stories that might go off the rails. That might have a blast.

You can find the first story, “Arnhem”, in Best Canadian Stories 2021. Maybe you’ll look it up?

Elise

 

Get your copy of Blue Field here!

Pre-order Say This here!

And why not check out Elise Levine’s other fantastic titles here?

Spotlight On: ALL SAINTS by K.D. MILLER

Welcome to Biblioasis’ Spotlight series, a new monthly feature highlighting our brilliant backlist titles! This also includes a brief word from the authors themselves on their past work, an update on what they’re up to now, or thoughts on future projects. Our featured title for November is the short story collection All Saints (April 15, 2014) by K.D. Miller.

 

ALL SAINTS

Shortlisted for the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Longlisted for the 2014 Frank O’Connor Award

In a linked collection that presents the secret small tragedies of an Anglican congregation struggling to survive, All Saints (April 15, 2014) delves into the life of Simon, the Reverend, and the lives of his parishioners: Miss Alice Vipond, a refined and elderly schoolteacher, incarcerated for a horrendous crime; a woman driven to extreme anxiety by an affair she cannot end; a receptionist, and her act of improbable generosity; a writer making peace with her divorce. Effortlessly written and candidly observed, All Saints is a moving collection of tremendous skill, whose intersecting stories illuminate the tenacity and vulnerability of modern-day believers.

K.D. Miller is the author of two previous short story collections, Give me Your Answer and Litany on a Time of Plague, and an essay collection, Holy Writ. Her work has twice been collected in The Journey Prize Anthology and Best Canadian Stories, and she has been nominated for a National Magazine Award for Fiction. She lives and writes in Toronto.

 

A WORD FROM THE AUTHOR

On Alice Drive by K.D. Miller

Out my study window, I can just catch sight of a little street called Edith Drive. I frequently incorporate Edith Drive into my daily walk. I have tried, and failed, to find out who Edith was and why these two short blocks are named after her. And several years ago, I spent a good part of New Year’s Eve watching half of one of Edith Drive’s semi-detached houses burn. The adjoining house came out of it unscathed and still habitable, while the one that caught fire was a blackened shell for two years or more.

I can’t remember exactly when Edith became Alice in my imagination, or Alice Drive the working title of what I hope will be my next collection of stories. But the neighbourhood is growing as more and more characters move in.

I have published four collections of linked short stories. In each case, I have come to regard the characters as imaginary friends—a community I work with and get to know and miss, once the manuscript is in my publisher’s hands. Any writer will tell you that a fictional character has a life of their own, and exercises more than a bit of control over what happens to them.

Whenever I’m working on a collection, there comes a moment when someone playing a minor role in one story convinces me that they deserve to star in a narrative all their own. In All Saints, for example, Gail, a church receptionist who is briefly mentioned in “Still Dark,” takes centre stage in “Spare Change,” demonstrating that there is more to her than typing, filing and picking up an office phone.

Characters don’t just migrate from story to story, either, but from book to book. I was pleased to welcome Kelly into two of the stories in All Saints, twenty years after she made her debut in my first collection, A Litany in Time of Plague. It was fun to find out what she had been up to, and what was going to happen next. Right now, as I’m working on the title story of Alice Drive, I’m getting reacquainted with Pete Aspinall. Pete had a brief mention in All Saints’ “October Song,” then a major supporting role in the same collection’s “Heroes.” A lot has happened in seven years. He retired from teaching, moved into a house on Alice Drive, met René, the love of his life, and is now mourning René’s untimely death. Add to that the fact that his house seems to be haunted …

But I’ll let Pete tell you his own story. Once he’s finished telling it to me.

 

Get your copy of All Saints from Biblioasis here!

And why not check out K.D. Miller’s other fantastic titles here?