Andrew Wilmot reviews Mad Hope on his blog backlisted.
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.
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.
Read the rest of the review by Kelli Deeth here.
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
Read the rest of the review in the May issue of Quill & Quire, on newsstands now.
I had such a wonderful time at my book launch. The Dakota Tavern is underground. People slowed a little as they came down the stairs. They blinked and squinted as they adjusted to the room. The lights made everything all blurry and starry, which was exactly how I felt. My friend Kathryn interviewed me on stage, the good folk from Coach House sold some books, we all drank beer. It was perfect.
You will come out to this tomorrow night! Please help me celebrate Mad Hope’s emergence. I would love to see you!
On April 11th (my birthday!) I had the great good fortune of reading at Harbourfront as part of their weekly reading series. I was joined by fellow writers Yejilde Kilanko and John Boyne and Catherine Bush (a friend and former thesis advisor) hosted. It was pretty darn perfect — reading a story (that I wrote!) to a room full of people who were really listening. On my birthday. C’mon.
Here are some pictures. The smiling woman behind me brandishing my book is my Auntie Ann. But for the purposes of this blog, she is a stranger. Hear that? Complete stranger. Fan? Oh, what a fan.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about what fairy stories mean to me and what they might mean to my 3 1/2 year old girl as she grows. I remember when she first learned to use the word ‘once’ and the particular magic of that word (although ‘please’ is also pretty nice as magic words go). And then yesterday she told me this story:
Once upon a time there was a princess who got ate by a shark. And then a good mermaid saved her and the bad mermaid didn’t get burned in the fire. The end.
And then I picked up AS Byatt’s wonderful The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and read this from ‘The Story of the Eldest Princess’:
‘You are a born storyteller,’ said the old lady. ‘You had the sense to see you were caught in a story, and the sense to see that you could change it to another one. And the special wisdom to recognise that you are under a curse — which is also a blessing — which makes the story more interesting to you than the things that make it up. There are young women who would never have listened to the creatures’ tales about the Woodman, but insisted on finding out for themselves. And maybe they would have been wise and they would have been foolish: that is their story. But you listened to the Cockroach and stepped aside and came here, where we collect stories and spin stories and mend what we can and investigate what we can’t, and live quietly without striving to change the world. We have no story of our own here, we are free, as old women are free, who don’t have to worry about princes or kingdoms, but dance alone and take an interest in the creatures.’
And I thought, I think we’ll be okay. Maybe not happily ever after, but definitely okay. Happy Easter to you and all the creatures!
My story ‘Frogs’ is now available from Kobo as a free e-single! The full ebook is up, as well, and there’s a link in the free download to purchase the full version. You can find it here. Enjoy the story and please pass it along to anyone you think might be interested.
The very smart and funny Meg Wolitzer has this to say about ‘women’s fiction’ in the New York Times book review. I think she’s right on the money and could quote multiple bits, but here’s a couple of choice excerpts. On book covers:
I took semiotics back at Brown University in the same heyday of deconstruction in which Eugenides’s novel takes place (he and I were in a writing workshop together), but I don’t need to remember anything about signifiers to understand that just like the jumbo, block-lettered masculine typeface, feminine cover illustrations are code. Certain images, whether they summon a kind of Walker Evans poverty nostalgia or offer a glimpse into quilted domesticity, are geared toward women as strongly as an ad for “calcium plus D.” These covers might as well have a hex sign slapped on them, along with the words: “Stay away, men! Go read Cormac McCarthy instead!”
And this on short stories:
Over centuries, the broad literary brush strokes and the big-canvas page have belonged mostly to men, whereas “craft” had belonged to women, uncontested. It’s no wonder that the painted-egg precision of short stories allows reviewers to comfortably celebrate female accomplishment, even to celebrate it prominently in the case of Alice Munro. But generally speaking, a story collection is considered a quieter animal than a novel, and is tacitly judged in some quarters as the work of someone who lacks the sprawling confidence of a novelist.
I’m pretty happy creating ‘quieter animals’, but certainly have felt some of the tacit judgment Wolitzer describes re: the relative ‘smallness’ of short stories, and their assumed domestic nature. I feel like the conversation needs to be reframed. What’s wrong with small and quiet anyway?
I’ve written a post about Canadian books that have bolstered or challenged me as a mother. It’s up now at 49th Shelf. Go take a peek, but be warned, there are a lot of cool things to look at 0ver there — it won’t be a quick visit! An excerpt:
Two poems about breastfeeding, from two fantastic collections have been touchstones of sorts for me during those first beautiful – and, let’s face it, often marathon and mind-numbingly boring – breastfeeding sessions.
A Fortress of Chairs : Elisabeth Harvor’s poems are notable for their moody sense of the physical; I love how she finds sensuality in the everyday and explores the female body in a way that is both wanton and careful. The poem ‘Madame Abundance’ is a gorgeous, unsettling, sleepy meditation on what it means to nourish a baby – and how closely this action hews to the baby’s beginnings.
Joy is so Exhausting: This collection was a revelation to me. It’s a book whose tongue is out waggling at the world when not firmly planted in cheek. I adore its intelligent play and the way it worships words and excavates essential truths through mischievous humour. But in the context of this list, it is the prose poem ‘Nursery’ that shines. Structured around the back-and-forthing of a feed, and addressed to the narrator’s baby, the poem is an unpretentious meditation on what it means to be so essential, so connected, so literally and figuratively drained that your story becomes inextricably twined (and twinned) with your baby’s rhythms. And it’s funny!
Here’s a taste (81): Right: I’m no athlete but I could pitch for the La Leche League. Left: All soft skin similes would have nowhere to go but right back to you. Right: Imprint of my sweatshirt zipper across your chin, Frankenstein’s baby. Left: You thrash around in your sleep until one leg flaps flat and the other is packed with knees.
Read the rest here.