It’s been a long time since I was able to attend a book event. In fact, the last one was five months and ten pounds ago already—switching jobs, as well as a seriously misguided $15 purchase of Cadbury’s mini eggs, has proven distressingly detrimental to my waistline—at Kingston’s Grad Club, when I met John Lavery, Stuart Ross, Anne McLean, and Ben Walker.
As I wrote in that post, I’d never heard of, let alone read, Stuart Ross, in spite of the fact that he’s got an informal, selective bio that reads like this:
Toronto writer, editor, publisher, and creative-writing instructor. Co-founder of the Toronto Small Press Book Fair and founding member of the Meet the Presses collective. Proprietor of Proper Tales Press. Fiction & Poetry Editor for This Magazine. Runs the “a stuart ross book” imprint for Mansfield Press. Author of a bunch of books [over ten].
Call me embarrassed. But fate would fix that soon: it wasn’t long after Kingston that ECW Press assigned me Ross’s debut novel, Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew to proofread. It was my pleasure! I enjoyed it immensely, and that was while proofreading it, rather than reading for pleasure, which is saying something.
SDJ is the story of a performance artist struggling with a memory he has of his Jewish mother killing a neo-Nazi. That in itself is interesting, but what compelled me more was the non-linear way the story was told, the fact, which the narrator realizes, that memory cannot be trusted, and the brilliant organization of the novel, either a result of Stuart’s skilled writing or Michael Holmes’s and Emily Schultz‘s editorial talent, or both. Likely both.
On that note, I obviously disagree with at least one review that complains about the very thing I found excellent. For instance, Jonathan Ball, an English prof at U of Winn. and a poet, says that SDJ is “not as good as it should have been” (that comment boggles my mind, but I assume it meant in comparison to what he sees as Ross’s earlier success): “Ross’s writing compels, but his story doesn’t cohere or build, because the novel lacks shape. Its formal approach — a story told in disjointed fragments of memory and dream — is unmotivated.” I struggled with this when I first read it, wondering if perhaps what Ball noted could be a result of Ross’s experience as primarily poet and short story writer. But then I realized I needed no explanation; I simply didn’t agree with Ball’s statement.
Ball also maintains that the story would have been better told from the point of view of the protagonist’s brother, with which I heartily disagree since, for one, that is asking for the book to be something else altogether, and two, this brother, Jake, is mentally inept and would hardly add any structural meaning (it would be further disjointed) or stability; it seems, thus, that this would make for a more frustrating story than frustrated character. The fact that the protagonist has no one he can trust (his parents are dead) in terms of sorting out the memory (Jake lends much to this idea) focuses the main character’s narration, his drive to sort things out, in terms of both his Jewish heritage and the memory of his mother murdering a man. I’d argue that the approach, then, which I found anything but formal but rather successfully experimental, is quite motivated. But that is one reading. Perhaps I missed something. Then again, perhaps not. I have my doubts that Ross, as veteran as he is, as poet as he is, would have written this book without careful consideration of form and word choice. Even segue from one chapter to another was particularly effective: Ross ends one chapter with this paragraph: “Hedy’s mother reached out with her left hand to take Hedy’s hand, and I could see that her right hand was pale and waxy, and stuck in a position like it was about to strangle someone.”
He begins the next chapter, an entirely new set of memories, with the line: “I remember touch.”
Trust me, this is more effective when you see it for yourself. But it’s this kind of careful…planning I appreciated most. In spite of being non-linear, everything was yet connected in several ways, everything was relevant, nothing was left untied, and what seemed perhaps at first confusing was later referenced so as a reader you could make the associations, almost like sorting out a puzzle. Had the novel been not only experimental and fragmented but also unconnected, then I can see the criticism it’s unjustly suffered as valid. But such is not the case: as a whole, it absolutely works. And very well.
Needless to say, this is a gem of a book, one of those good enough that I feel I could quote extensively from it, but I’d rather you read it all in context. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for something original, heartfelt, funny, and rather surreal, which is, I should add, Ross’s specialty. Also, Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew is only 180 pages—perfect, say, as a commuter’s novel.
After working on this book I wanted very much to attend the virgin launch, in Cobourg at organic café The Human Bean, on May 21. EWC Press editor Michael Holmes, who had nothing but the highest praise for Stuart and his writing, has known him for half his life, and was hosting, and I wanted to meet him as well as ECW publicist Sarah Dunn. Cobourg is about an hour from Belleville, maybe 45 minutes or so away from Toronto, and it’s in this lovely town Ross now lives, after residing in Toronto all his life until recently.
I’m not sure Stuart expected this but it’s no surprise to me that the place was bustling, and by the time we arrived straight after work, there was standing room only. I ordered a tea, brought out my book and camera, and went to mingle.
You know what I love? When an author takes time to thoughtfully sign your book rather than just scribbling his or her name. I don’t care about getting a signature for future value; I get a book signed because of the experience I had reading it and I view meeting the author as part of that positive experience. Understanding this, Stuart wrote a lovely, meaningful message in my copy of his book—which by the end of the night was marked with copious pieces of torn napkin on which I’d scribbled things like “Stuart reminds us to be good writers, to stay true to our own work” —Mike Holmes; “book and launch dedicated to his mother, who passed away 16 years ago this very day” (that made me teary!).
First up was local singer/song-writer Shannon Siblock, who gave us four or five tunes on his guitar and sang to much applause. Michael Holmes then stood to welcome us and present Stuart, giving one of the warmest introductions of an author I’ve ever heard. It’s obvious that Stuart is a well-respected author, one with not only genuine talent but also an honest and humble dedication to his love for words and writing, including that which isn’t his own. And Stuart’s been with ECW for about 15 years, I think, so the relationship here is by now long and very supportive.
With that, Stuart stood up, thanked us for coming, gave an intro to his book, and began to read. I wish you could have heard him. He’s such a dynamic reader! He reads with force and conviction and I found myself hanging on every word, listening to what I’d already read come even more alive. Best of all, he read my favourite chapter, in which a (fantastically rendered) bully comes upon the protagonist (as a child) reading Black Like Me, and makes him rip up the book and trash it. This chapter is so powerfully written I cried while proofing it.
In all, it was a successful and very enjoyable launch, a thing I’m sure every author would appreciate since putting their baby out there is such a vulnerable act, and it was clear that Ross has many enthusiastic supporters, perhaps more than he knows how to deal with (a good thing, as Martha would say), since he seems a bit uncomfortable with the praise. His gratitude for our presence and encouragement, however, was palpable.
If you’re interested in hearing him read, and I do recommend both the book and an event, Stuart plans to launch in Toronto on May 11 at ECW’s Spring Literary Party, and in Windsor, Kingston, Ottawa, and Montreal. I believe he’s also planning on heading out west. Watch his blog Bloggamooga or his Facebook page for news, and keep an eye out for his books whenever you’re out shopping. SDJ currently sits on our “staff picks” display at the store where I work.