Sunday, March 02, 2014

In Search of Redemption... Brood X: A Review

I still remember my first love. She had blonde hair, blue eyes and a great smile. I had no idea why she was interested in me. I was a late bloomer, unable to form proper sentences around girls until my senior year in high school. That’s when I met Natalie, a sophomore from the French high school on the other side of town. We dated for three months, and I was convinced that our love would last forever. As with most high school love stories, ours ended badly. When she told me that she’d met someone else, I acted with as much class as I could and wished her well. I cried for days, completely and utterly devastated. Even now, twenty four years later, I still recall those heady moments of first love, the utter absorption of it, the dominating urge to be with her every waking moment. Dan Stockman’s debut novel, Brood X, not only reminded me of what that first love felt like, it drew me back to that time. Back to the times with Natalie at the YMCA and at the drive-in. At my parents’ house and my room in the basement and the hours spent on the phone.

As Brood X opens, we’re introduced to Andy Gardner, a thirty four year old manager in a cabinet making company going nowhere. He hates his life and broods often about his failed marriage, his lame house, his rundown car. If there’s a suburban hell for a divorced single man, Andy has found it. Worse, he’s aware of his failings to the point that he’s not sure why he bothers to get up in the morning. When Scarlett, the pretty single mother from next door comes knocking, he cannot fathom why she’d be interested in him. He surprises himself by not pushing her away, by revealing life and humour, two things he was certain he’d lost.

As their relationship grows, however, he begins to dwell on the most impactful relationship of his life, his summer romance as a seventeen year old with Ashley. They’d been perfect together, in love in the way we are at that age without complications or hang ups or baggage. But she’d disappeared, moved away on the last day of that fateful summer without a word, as if she’d never existed. It had changed him in a way he didn’t understand, had driven him to decisions he’d made later, decisions he’d always regretted.

Andy is certain that if his relationship with Scarlett is going to survive, he must find out what happened. Why had Ashley left so abruptly? Where had she gone? And where was she now? He sets out to find her, knowing that his future depends on this, everything from his relationship with Scarlett to the man he wants to become. He has been given a second chance to rediscover his first love. If he can just make the past right, or at least, make sense of it, perhaps he can figure out his purpose and start over.  

Of all the things that Stockman does well in Brood X, perhaps what he does best is his evocation of young love. There are moments, particularly in the scenes with Ashley and Andy, that you feel their craving for one another, their desperately joyous need for each other, their certainty within the moment. I’ve yet to read another novel that has brought me so forcefully back to my own past, to my days as an awkward teenager when that certainty was needed to overcome my lack of experience and knowledge about the world and the crashing waves of possibilities that threatened to drown me with every choice.

Good storytelling takes us away, allows us to go someplace and visit new people in different places. Allows us to be someone else for a while. Great storytelling provides an escape as well, but also takes us back or drives us forward. Great storytelling not only tells us a new story, but somehow merges it with our own so that when we’re finished, we’re no longer quite the same. That character’s story becomes part of our story. It is in this mingling that great fiction reveals its power.

Stockman, an award winning journalist, hooks you with Andy’s journey, and what starts slowly as a hissing, clattering train, picks up momentum until you’re screeching past the grassy fields in a locomotive, whistling for everything to get out of the way until the end arrives, squealing and gasping, hoping for a moment that everyone will just be quiet so you can catch your breath. And in the quiet after, when your breathing has returned to normal, you’re taken through Andy’s journey again, only this time you are able to move slowly. Contemplatively. Watching for the sights and sounds that are both new and old. This time you can smile at the faded memories, or dwell on the receding sadness of those days.

As much as I loved Brood X, it does have its faults. The chapter spent from the perspective of the cicadas doesn’t work, and while I appreciated what the author was trying to do, it comes too late in the book and feels unnecessary. There are prose issues in the first few chapters, sentences that don’t work or needed another pass, and the dialogue falls flat at times, particularly within the first half of the novel. This is not a literary work of beautiful grammarian construction, though it does have a few stunning moments of lyricism that suggest this is an issue of time, rather than ability.

In the end, however, the criticisms are quibbles. This is an astonishing debut. Somewhere in its juxtaposition of accessibility, excellent storytelling and poignancy, Brood X shakes us with surprising power. That moment we all feel when we have witnessed a great story, when we wish only to sit and reflect for a while. Think about who we are and how we got here. Think about the future and where we’re headed. And when the journey is complete, we know, as Andy does, that everything will be different when we reach the end.

****(Out of five) 
Highly recommended.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Benefit of Trying


            “I can’t do this. It’s too hard.”
            The class was loud. Thirty two students jammed into a tiny room, the space between desks so narrow that winding your way through them often felt like you were navigating an obstacle course. I patted Michael on the shoulder and repeated what I said at least once a day at school. “I know. Just do your best, okay?”
            I was chatting with my wife later that night, and reflecting why there were so many things we told kids that we didn’t tell each other as adults. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had told me to just “do my best.” Oh, we offered encouragement sometimes, usually phrasing it in an “adult” manner, like the suggestion we “pursue excellence.” And jobs required results, didn’t they? It didn’t matter if a person was allegedly ‘doing their best.’ If they couldn’t cut it, then changes needed to be made.
The more I thought about it though, the less sense it made. Most of us had jobs that were somewhat protected. As a self-employed youth worker with no benefits, and before that, a self-employed trainer, I was one of the few working in an environment with almost no protection. No union to cover for my mistakes, no recourse if someone fired me. And yet, my chances of getting fired were still slim. And if that was the case, why didn’t we encourage each other more often by telling people – our friends, our employees, our co-workers, our family – that all they needed to do was put forth their best effort. That it was enough.
            Aside from it sounding like something we say to kids – and heaven forbid we sound “childish” – it seemed to me that people felt adults needed to be motivated differently than children. That they needed to be prodded and measured and disciplined without needing simple reassurances. That applying childish axioms was just that, childish.
            And yet, in repeating this simple idea to the kids over the past year, lately I started repeating it to someone else. Me.
            Did I do my best today?
            Am I getting better?
            Yes! Today I learned something new, something I’d never seen before in my writing.
            You did well.
For me, the last five years had been challenging. Writing a book and sending it out, only to see it rejected over and over and then willing myself to get up the next morning and keep going even as my dream slipped further into the Netherland of nothingness. At the best of times it was a psychological slog, a long distance race without a finish line. It was the life most artists faced, one we chose (and in some ways, had chosen for us), and one we did not regret. And yet, when faced by this profound and utterly simple idea, I found strength gathering within me, settling over my shoulders like a cloak of warmth.
            The Takeaway
You don’t need to give more than you can.
You don’t need to carry more than you’re able.
You don’t need to bear a weight greater than your own. 
            Of all the things we forget as we get older, perhaps the most prevalent is our understanding of “getting better.” Or perhaps I should say, our LACK of understanding. We speak often of attaining things, like a new car or a new house. Or, we speak of possible achievements: a promotion at work, a gallery showing, writing a best seller. And in so doing, we forget about the simple beauty of improvement. Of doing our job more efficiently, regardless of who notices. Or learning more about our loved ones so we can be a better dad or a better friend. Why is it that society tells us to measure our life by achievement and accumulation when we tell our children to measure their success by their effort?
            Perhaps it’s time for us to do the same. This week, take a look at the areas in your life you find most frustrating, whether it’s your job or a relationship or something else. Ask yourself this question: am I doing the best I can? Forget the past. Forget the mistakes we all make in our lives. Just be honest with yourself.
            Am I doing all I can do at work?
            Do my kids get my best effort?
            Is my wife getting all I can give her?
            I say I want to be a writer. Am I doing everything I can to make it?
            If the answer is yes, then take a few minutes to congratulate yourself. Buy yourself a treat. Take yourself shopping or something else that you would consider a reward. Be aware of your effort, and notice how different the world seems when we recognize our humanity. When we acknowledge that there is only so much we can do. How much brighter the days are when we don’t spoil this beautiful life with unattainable expectations. 
            You did your best, now celebrate. It’s time for recess.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Dealing With Rejection

When I was in Grade Six, I fell in love with a girl in my class, Kathy. She was smart and pretty, and I was smart and… pudgy. I did everything I could to win her over. Notes. Compliments. Jokes. Clearly tired by my advances, she finally told me she liked  another boy in our class, Craig. Moreover, she told me she liked Craig for his body and me for my brains. (Is that why I became a personal trainer? Hmm.) I was so infatuated with her that I started hanging out with Craig. I thought whatever he had might rub off on me.

It didn’t. My infatuation didn’t fade, however, and for the next three years, until the end of Grade Nine when I switched schools, I kept trying to convince Kathy to go out with me. I didn’t know it then, but if I were to sum up my writing life in one analogy, that’d be it.

These past two weeks, I’ve sent queries and sample pages to seventeen agents. So far, I’ve received six form rejections. Not a sniff of interest. Yes, it’s early. And yes, dealing with rejection is part of a writer’s life. But it still hurts. Especially when you really haven’t had much success in the field of your choice, when you’ve been chasing the same girl, the same dream, for twenty-odd years. I suppose I could try to spin that, try to come up with some positives when those form rejections pop up in my inbox, but I already did that this past weekend. When you take the long view, you can find some light in the darkness. In the moment? Well, in the moment it just sucks, and if you can’t accept that, can’t admit that it feels like your innards are being ripped through your nostrils, then either I want what you’re smoking or there’s an American Idol tryout in your future.

Here’s the thing, though. Most of us feel that way about one part of our life. Whether it’s our kids, our relationships with our family members, problems with our friends or a situation at work, it may not show up in our inbox from a literary agency in New York, but it still smells like rejection. Hell, often it feels like life itself is rejecting us. That all of our plans, all of our hopes and dreams somewhere, somehow, got flushed in life’s sewer, and gave us THIS LIFE instead. Depressing? Yes. Discouraging? Yes. Unusual? Nope.

And it’s that last part, how “unusual” we consider our experience, that strikes me as the one place you can find silver. (Maybe not a whole lining of silver, but a few rough nuggets) When someone tells me that I “can’t possibly understand how they feel,” I am acutely aware of two things: One, they’re right. I have no idea how anyone feels because I’ve never been, not to my knowledge at least, anyone else. Second, it tells me that such a person is in for a very long life, and so are the people around them. As much as the rejection, in whatever form, completely and totally feels like a rusty blade has been jammed into my ribs, I can take some comfort in knowing that we all have knives in us. That these are the things that make us human. And that most of the plans we make, even in an ideal society, usually go awry.

Does that make the form rejections in my inbox any easier to take? Nope. Do I still want to throw my laptop out the window and scream about how I’ve wasted my life pursuing something that very, very few people ever do well enough to succeed? Yes. But it’s also the moment when I identify with more people than I usually do, when I watch someone else fail and shake my head because I know how much it hurts. Rejection draws me closer to the people around me than success. Failure leaves a different kind of stain then the times when things have gone exactly as we hoped.

Some of us experience rejection on a daily basis, and with issues far more serious than a lifelong quest for a book deal. I’ve worked with many kids over the years who experienced rejection from one or both of their parents, and for reasons that were utterly enraging.

But anger isn’t the answer. Neither is giving up. Somehow we must find a way to live in that place where the healthiest of us manage to thrive, that place of dreaming and acceptance that acknowledges our humanity, acknowledges the random nature of life and the hardness of it, without pulling us away from the bigger visions God gives us. It’s a difficult place to be. It requires a self-esteem that doesn’t need extra attention for our particular difficulties, but one that is self-aware enough to know when we need a bit more help.

I’m not sure I’ve always fallen in such a balanced manner, and I’ve been grateful over the years for people who have modeled that gracious kind of life. If I could pick one difference in the ones who modeled grace and those who haven’t, that difference would be compassion and gratitude. That is, all of them had in some way dedicated a portion of their life to helping others, and all of them were grateful for the things they’d been given. Like extra legs on a table, this provided them with stability to face the storms and purpose to keep going when their own dreams didn’t work out as they’d hoped. It didn’t allow for the Navel-Gazing Trap or the Black Hole Syndrome characteristic of people who believe that “no one will ever understand.”

Listen, we understand. We’ve all been there. So what do we do when it happens? And really, is there a question in life more formative to our character than that one?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can tell you what I’m going to do. Tonight, I’m going to allow myself to be upset for a little while and howl at the moon a bit. When I’m done, I’ll hug my wife, grateful I’ve been given such an amazing life partner. Tomorrow I’ll go to school, and on the way there, I’ll thank God for the trees and farms and the new commute to work this year, one that lets us live in a beautiful little home in a quiet section of the city. When I’m at school, I’ll encourage my kids to the best of my ability, walk with them while they negotiate early adolescence, and when I come home, I’ll make sure that our two young neighbours are doing okay. Somewhere along the way, my cats will get a number of belly rubs and I’ll share a laugh with my wife and friends.

And the next day? The next day, I’ll get up and keep writing.

Whatever your journey, wherever you are, keep going, my friends. You can do it. Even when it sucks, even when the girl of your dreams says ‘no’, your value is more than you can possibly imagine. And if we happen to meet along the way, maybe we can grab a coffee and talk about it. I’ve been there, too.

Much love,


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