Reviews and Interviews

MAD HOPE

Reviews

In her new collection, Mad Hope, Birrell puts her talents on display once more, exploring characters whose reasonable expectations of the world have been devastated by sudden death (sometimes violent) or other tragedies. The losses her characters experience leave them yearning for alleviation of grief, pain or even regret.  (…) Birrell achieves a seemingly effortless originality and accuracy. (…)  Some of her characterizations are so arresting in their exactness they caused me to pause.

— Kelli Deeth, in the Globe & Mail

There’s a voyeuristic quality to Heather Birrell’s stories.  The Toronto author seems to have mastered the art of writing about universal themes and subjects — marriage, family, motherhood, death, sex — in a manner both familiar and unsettling.  Her prose is dense with detail yet fluid, carrying the reader into the inner workings of her characters’ carefully constructed lives.  That’s where the sense of peeping comes into play: these people are so wonderfully accurate, so blatantly human, that to bear witness to their hurts and despairs, ecstasies and triumphs, elicits the same discomfort one feels overhearing the neighbours having an afternoon romp or catching a friend giving her child a smack on the bum in a moment of anger or frustration.  Birrell peels back the layers of civility to expose the dark and messy bits we all hide, but she does so with such finesse that we are simultaneously captivated and repulsed by the intimacy of it all.

— Dory Cerny, in the May issue of Quill & Quire

Birrell is a writer with audacity, flair and vision. Mad Hope hosts a sense of whimsy, a keen eye for details and precise crafts- manship. Birrell has an exceptional knack for the short story. Where the cast of characters in I know you are but what am I? (Coach House, 2004), sought meaning, Mad Hope captures the sheer madness of it all.

– Sandra Webb-Campbell, in the St. John Telegraph-Journal

Mad Hope is an exhibition of control. Birrell carefully weaves through the central themes of the book, using their commonality as a springboard rather than an anchor. More often than not, she succeeds, beautifully.

— Andrew Wilmot, on his blog backlisted

No book is perfect, of course. But Heather Birrell’s latest, a collection of short stories called Mad Hope (published by Coach House), is so good, the writing so strong and skilled, I kept thinking,These stories are perfect.

— Steph Vander Meulen, at Bella’s Bookshelves

(…) a collection of 11 stories that beautifully illustrate the fragility of existence.  Death is a recurring character, as is birth, motherhood, grief and resilience.

The book could be described as a collection of fictional reflections on the search for truth in grief, yet the stories are never dreary. They transport the reader to emotionally corrosive places, yet are alive with a sense of levity even within their darkest passages.

— Rachel Harry, in The National Post

Toronto writer Heather Birrell has tapped into our dark Canadian psyche like a country witch with a crooked divining rod.

Her sublime stories are drawn from the margins of society but they are sure to capture a wider audience. Mad Hope, her second collection, is a sure-footed and mature exploration of modern life.

(…)

Mad Hope is best read during the clean light of day. You don’t want to miss any of the nuances, dense language or caustic political commentary.

Read it one story at a time. This collection requires quiet concentration as each tale resonates like a tiny, perfect novella. Mad Hope is hopeful yet realistic, wordy yet sublime. It contains everything a demanding reader wants from her short fiction — wickedly accurate, open-ended portraits drawn from life.

— Patricia Dawn Robertson, in The Winnipeg Free Press

I’ve never had a rating system on this blog, but if I did have one, Heather Birrell’s Mad Hope would receive a 5/5 – it was that good!

— Lindsay Reeder at Reeder Reads

And this month we’re still talking about hard realities, albeit in fictional form (thank goodness), in Heather Birrell’s sharp, insightful, and totally wonderful collection of short stories, Mad Hope. Have a look.

The Keepin’ It Real Book Club, Jen Knoch and Erin Balser, in an introduction to a video review of Mad Hope

Best in my view is the title story about a woman waiting for a mammogram who makes an unexpected connection with a black teenaged boy slouched on a chair in the waiting room. Birrell excels at being surprising, here in very poignant ways.

An excellent collection and proof again that small press Coach House matters deeply.

— Susan G. Cole, in NOW magazine, NNNN rating

Sobering but crafty…  Funny but sharp…

— Brett Josef Grubisic, in a Vancouver Sun omnibus review also featuring Mike Barnes’ The Reasonable Ogre and Anne Fleming’s Gay Dwarves of America

Wonderful lines of humour and noteworthy aphoristic phrases…  The characters [of ‘Frogs’] are fascinating enough to appear in further stories.

— Jay Miller, on the blog literatured

It is wonderful stuff:  black, witty, and edgy.  (…)  Originality is Birrell’s main strength.  She crafts imaginative metaphors, but is never heavy-handed.  She gives us just enough, parceling out fresh turns of phrase that keep the work timely and interesting, and her prose flows with remarkable ease.  I hope, madly, that a third collection is soon on its way.

— Amy Stupavsky, in broken pencil magazine

When tackling huge subjects, such as birth, mourning, human frailty and resilience, a smaller, tighter format is ideal. Each of the short stories in Heather Birrell’s collection wrestle with big difficult things, from pregnancy and contraception to teen angst and murder, like Jacob wrestling his angel, and the condensed form serves them all well. Birrell devastates and then shows mercy. She wields words like fishhooks: bits of shiny loveliness to lure us in, catch in our lips and gills, and, though once she has us she works the silver barbs out and set us free again, we are deeply wounded in the process, spitting blood.

— Natalie Zina Walschots, in This Magazine

Mad Hope, by Toronto writer Heather Birrell, is a collection of 11 short stories that gives the unshakable sense that life, death, love, and grief are being felt and experienced at the highest pitch, all around you. From family relationships, to lovers’ quarrels, intimate forms of loss, and the many shapes parenthood may take, these narratives are linked through the questions they relentlessly seek answers for: what is it that connects us to one another, and when do relationships wane, when do they wax? Why do people break down, break up, come together, stray apart, or stand still? Birrell’s prose deftly manages these sprawling questions with candour, humour, and a seeming recognition of the fact that we rarely get the answers we hope for.

[Mad Hope] is completely enthralling, and profoundly grounded in an empathy for the traumas and moments of relief of simply being human.

— Julia Cooper, in The Toronto Review of Books

When I read “No One Else Really Wants to Listen” I had to put the book down beside me every page or so. I didn’t want to walk away from it, Ineeded to read it in one sitting, but I also knew I needed to savour it. That I was only going to have the experience of reading it first the one time and I wanted to enjoy it, take it in as much as possible. I don’t do that often with fiction. This story was a discovery, a beautifully uncomfortable mirror held to my life. I know I’m going to carry some of those characters with me for a long, long time.

There is so much in Mad Hope that is great, how deftly Birrell navigates relationships–the comfortable and uncomfortable; the fleeting and the life-long; the ugly and the beautiful. I especially loved how she writes about children and parenthood. This may sound strange, but I feel like I trust her completely.

— Marita Dachsel, on her blog All Things Said and Done

Defiantly, and refreshingly, Birrell sidesteps the “shoulds” of short story writing.  (…) Birrell’s environmental consciousness and bottomless empathy are on full display, but she never oversentimentalizes. For instance, one of the most accomplished stories in the collection, “Frogs” — palpable in its veracity for anyone interacting with teenagers on a daily basis — handles the topic of abortion through a multicultural lens, which bypasses moralizing in order to deliver a tough, poignant candor. Ultimately, the stories in Birrell’s collection will challenge you, entertain you, and keep you always on the razor’s edge of revelation — that cusp of hope where we all dance, madly.

— Michael Belcher, in Matrix Magazine

Stylistically Birrell’s prose is well crafted, tight and lacking superfluity, as well as injected with just the right amount of humour.  (…)  The youth of her stories are not brainless or hollow; they really seem to have personalities of their own in ways that much of the fiction I’ve read doesn’t seem to manage.  They’re gripping as well as daring, and the way Birrell draws them is satisfyingly sympathetic, as if these are the same kids you’ve met or seen walking to school every day.  (…)  They have a refreshing depth, and I suspect that Birrell’s experience as a teacher and mother has provided her with a large amount of insight as fuel for her writing. As I read I believe that I’m seeing something fresh yet true.

— J.E. Stintzi, in The Winnipeg Review

These stories explore the broad themes of life and love, family, friendship, betrayal and death, but Birrell’s settings and situations are specific and peculiar, and her voice is precise and authentic. From a Canadian classroom to an Ecuadorian jungle, she examines human behaviour in its most mundane or macabre extremes, always with a poignancy that creates reader empathy. (…) Sometimes humorous, sometimes heart-breaking, the voices are vital and persuasive.

— Carol Matthews, Event Magazine

Technically speaking, these are tightly focused miniatures: taut, controlled, economical. They almost all revolve around a traumatic incident of some kind: a neighbourhood child murdered, a student pleading with her teacher to help her arrange an abortion, the murder of a gay teenager. As studies of human relationships under duress, they present themselves with a remarkable clarity. We see these characters living beyond the ending, as it were: carrying trauma into the everyday, or at least wondering how to do so, or struggling not to.

— Lorraine York, Canadian Literature, A Quarterly of Criticism and Review

There is an honest intimacy that Birrell has with each of her characters, and the subtle nuances she captures in the detailing of their personalities and reflections; solitude and interactions; actions and omissions, are so consistent and vulnerable that they practically breathe.

— Anna Toth, www.annatothmusic.com

People Talkin’

Birrell can write stories that feel as though they actually thump you in the chest.

Slightly Bookist, ‘Six Canadian writers I wish would hurry up and publish another book’

I’m still trying to figure out how Heather Birrell built her beautifully intricate stories in Mad Hope. So far no luck, and it’s driving me crazy. So I’d like to sit down and grill this woman. The thing about her writing is, there are all these layers of original detail and insight – and then she’ll go and blast you with another observation that’s so stunningly phrased, it leaves you shaking your head. And yet she manages all that without being overwhelming. Mad Hope is an incredibly entertaining read, which for me is just as important as a smart one.

— Jessica Westhead, author of And Also Sharks, in the Globe and Mail

Mad Hope (done with nice paper and a pleasing font by Coach House Books) is Canadian Heather Birrell’s second collection. She’s a perceptive, precise writer who catches the moments of pain along with the snippets of joy and wraps the lot up in astute portraits of people and lives. The stories are inventive without (hurray!) using idiosyncracies–either of behaviour or settings–to add interest to a tale that otherwise is pretty feeble (something I find is a common fault in short stories).

— JC Sutcliffe, on her blog, Slightly Bookist

Then I received an email from Evan Munday at Toronto’s Coach House Books, asking if I had interest in reading from Heather Birrell’s latest collection. Let me assure you now that a response of “WOULD I?” does not come across to full effect in email if not accompanied by a look of wide-eyed promise and a rare display of teeth (even with the interrobang). Some of you might remember my enthusiasm at reading Birrell’s Trouble at Pow Crash Creek (from I Know You Are But What Am I?) a couple of years ago. I promise you that the new collection,Mad Hope, is, impossibly, even more beautifully wrought, more intellectually finely tuned, and more gut-wrenching. You’ll see what I mean when you listen.

Miette, of Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast, in an introduction to her wonderful audio recording of ‘Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning’ 

I enjoyed it so much that I became irrationally angry whenever I had to put it down at the end of streetcar ride. Mad Hope made me feel like Toronto’s traffic flow is too swift and efficient. That’s saying something.

I’m having trouble choosing a favourite story in the book, because each contains memorable characters and well-crafted turns of phrase.  I was particularly impressed by the way Birrell writes about teenagers in several of the stories. Being a high school English teacher has obviously given her insight into their voices and concerns. Mad Hope feels very authentic in that regard.

— Cailin Cooper, on the Word on the Street Toronto blog

The Globe and Mail names Mad Hope one of 23 top fiction titles of 2012!

 

Interviews

Pickle Me This

The Rusty Toque

The Book Fridge

The Danforth Review

Grace O’Connell

Open Book

Slightly Bookist

Finn Harvor/Conversations in the Book Trade

Salty Ink

49th Shelf

Writers at Night

rob mclennan’s 12 or 20 questions

Hart House Review/Kira Wronska Dorward

NEW WORK

But in the end I chose the piece that stayed with me longest, the one that most rewarded my repeated readings. Heather Birrell’s “The Mr. Shredder Man” begins as a dryly amusing story about a chance encounter with a stranger, but by its end has become a poignant tribute to her dead father and a meditation on loss and what binds us together. The narrator sets out for an inoculation, anticipating pain of the “acute-yet-fleeting, needle-induced variety.” Instead, she’s hit with pain of the numb-and-enduring, death-induced variety, and discovers that nothing inoculates us against grief, which “never comes full circle” but “lies there like a toppled figure eight, sideways snowman curving round itself forever.” Playful, discerning, compassionate, and skillfully constructed, “The Mr. Shredder Man” reminds us that death always comes as an awkward and unwelcome stranger, but that in dreams and memories, our relationships with our loved ones continue on. Heather Birrell is a writer to watch; I can’t wait to read what she comes out with next.
Susan Olding
Edna Staebler Award Announcement
The New Quarterly

Of non-fiction pieces he admires, Ira Glass says, “they make the world seem like an interesting place to live.”  Couldn’t think of a better way to say this myself.  Heather Birrell’s stories make me want to look more keenly and kindly on my very ordinary human life…
Rosalynn Tyo
Salon des Refusés, The New Quarterly

Bright urgency surges through “BriannaSusannaAlana” like an electrical charge. Here is the heady fizz of a writer doing a loop-de-loop with language – the alphabet a yo-yo, a Slinky, a spinning top a-fire under Heather Birrell’s nimble guidance. Three sisters, a murder, swing sets, sexual initiation, and a rocket pod. The world’s tallest free-standing structure hovering like a sentinel in the distance. This is childhood both as paradise before the fall and as a state of emergency. This is only the beginning.
Zsuzsi Gartner, Steven Galloway, Annabel Lyon
2006 Journey Prize Jury

I KNOW YOU ARE BUT WHAT AM I?

Heather Birrell’s sentences conjure worlds. These stories scintillate. Smart, sharp, alluring, they’re full of the chance encounters, mysteries, missed connections and unexpected tenderness of contemporary life.
Catherine Bush

Heather Birrell’s bewitching stories wield a potent double-edge: each story left me feeling both soothed by beauty and devastatingly alone in the world. The unsettling push-pull between blithe forgetfulness and bittersweet awareness makes for a collection that yields many pleasures: a pleasure to read, a pleasure to contemplate, a pleasure to unthinkingly, happily consume.
Heidi Julavits

My favourite beach read so far this summer has been Toronto writer Heather Birrell’s short story collection, I know you are but what am I? Birrell’s writing is full of tastes and colours and zingers like ‘the slow red sun’ that ‘bursts into the white light of southern hospitality. ‘Y’all,’ says the sun, and really means it. ‘Y’all!’
Annabel Lyon
The National Post

(…) A girl who can write, too! Heather Birrell has collected nine of her smart and sassy stories of the urban condition in yet another well-packaged outing for the fully revived Coach House Press. (…) Birrell has a grand eye for the small detail that is the hallmark of the well-made story. Best of all, there’s little Chick Lit preoccupation with the sad lot of sexy young singles in a collection that features both kids and adults, ‘kleptomaniacs, convicts, roof-walkers and homicidal hippies.’
Toronto Star

Heather Birrell’s first collection of stories is a charming and fluid read. (…) Summarizing the plots of these stories and their themes is a somewhat futile exercise as much of their success lies in Birrell’s humane, idiosyncratic prose. Birrell’s style is curiously contradictory: both incisive and vague, philosophical and prosaic, it denies its characters easy redemptive endings. The stories are often as individual and fragmented as childhood memory itself. Birrell also has a great ear for dialogue, and the intimacy between characters is artful as well as poignantly rendered. (…) IKYABWAI firmly establishes Birrell as a quirky and talented young writer to watch for, on and off the playground.
Ibi Kaslik
Matrix Magazine

As in all the stories in this marvellous, elliptical collection, where the story begins gives hardly any sense of where it will end, or what it might be about. (…) The reader follows the scenes, all of which are ‘swift, shiny, and vulnerable to vantage point’ willingly, because of Birrell’s precise and inventive descriptions (a woman has ‘legs like tree trunks and a mouth like a rip in a mattress’), as well as her acute sense of psychological intricacies. This is story by juxtaposition rather than strictly linear narrative, and if the stories in this collection owe something to the marvellous circularity of Alice Munro, they also pay tribute to Raymond Carver for their quiet, restrained accumulation of meaning. (…) In these wonderfully written stories, it is the unshakeable rendering of life and its random vantage points that yields meaning.
Goldberry Long
University of Toronto Quarterly

Time and again in this nine-story collection, Birrell weaves patterns of flashbacks, walk-on characters, best-ever similes (an airplane windown like an eyelid), and — most importantly — struggling, complicated protagonists. This creates little universes both vast and intimate. (…) I will read this book again, and soon; Birrell has a talent matched by few others for tapping the rich details of our experience.
Adam Lewis Schroeder,
This Magazine

I was immediately seduced by Heather Birrell’s first collection of short stories. It’s true that the pleasurable texture of the definitive Coach House laid-finished paper made me purr, and the quirky collaged sourpuss girl on the cover stood out while the book taunted me with its bratty title. But the stories could have been scrawled on loose leaf paper and they’d still hold their own. (…) If you normally shy away from short stories because you fear they don’t offer the weight or journey of a solid novel, make this your exception. Birrell is a bright new talent to watch out for, and a pleasure to discover — hers is a read that incites breathless absorption within the quirks of her offbeat narratives.
Zoe Whittall
Women’s Post

(…) All nine stories in I know you are but what am I? are to be savoured for the quality of their writing, the sheer sentence-by-sentence pleasure to be wrung from their wit and insight. Like 9-year-old Maddie in “The Captain’s Name was Ned,” Birrell “squints the meaning into things” by viewing them sideways, whether it’s childhood’s “dirty, adorable, dismembered dolls … graffiti and growth spurts,” or the dizzying expanse of an unknown country, its “licence plates and other people’s laundry.” More significantly, there is a refreshing courage to Birrell’s light touch, a pay-off to her decision to eschew self-conscious profundity. For, at its best, her fiction strings a tightrope between comedy and tragedy, and encourages us to walk that vertiginous edge. (…) [ I know you are but what am I?] seduce[s] with a series of witty, well wrought, yet deliberately off-kilter stories that investigate questions of identity through the keen, absurdist lens of a literary Lynda Barry, and, in doing so, shed far more light on the absurd conundrums of Canadian-ness than your average award-winning intergenerational family saga. Take this book with you on your next flight to Florida, pack it along on the Greyhound to New York. I know you are but what am I? may sound like a needlessly confusing question, but Birrell’s debut collection is more than well worth the read.
Cathy Stonehouse
Books in Canada

The first thing I loved about Heather Birrell’s tight little collection of stories was her characters. She conjures up for us nine very different, disparate universes, and the humans she populates them with are all delicious. (…) [They] are kids and adults, men and women, freakish and familiar, complicated and mundane. But I believed in every one of them. With I Know You Are but What Am I?, Birrell takes a playschool taunt and in nine stories turns it into a mantra that her characters use to reveal themselves to us.
Ivan Coyote
The Georgia Straight