Featuring hand-picked selections by authors we admire for all the readers on your holiday gift list, our Gift Guide Week is as lit as it gets. Today's book recommendations come from super-cool (and not just because he makes his home in the frosty land of Sudbury) playwright and author Matthew Heiti who shares five picks for everyone from over-dramatic neighbours to archvillains-in-law.
“Maybe she’s a little uncomfortable in the heart and also between the legs, but love is shit like that…”
This line from The Russian Play—one of the short plays in this collection—perfectly captures the dark humour and painful brilliance of Hannah Moscovitch’s work. Substitute any (or all) one of her later plays—East of Berlin,
Infinity (although my favourite might be the ambitious horror/speculative collaboration
The Mill)—but this, her first published collection, is crackling with raw energy. Anytime I lead a playwriting workshop, at some point I end up engulfing the participants in Hannah’s work. There is a sublime distillation of the art form in her writing: terse, evocative dialogue, bare but soaring images, characters who twist away from our embrace. They say plays aren’t meant to be read; they need to be performed. But then, there are plays by Hannah Moscovitch. The words don’t sit flat on the page, they’re tearing their way out into the world. This book is a good reminder that it is an exciting time to be (re)making theatre in Canada.
For my second-cousin (the wayward soul wandering north of Chapleau): Arvida by Samuel Archibald (Biblioasis)
This collection, translated by Donald Winkler and deservingly nominated for a Giller in 2015, has had Samuel’s writing compared to that of Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. It’s the most starkly Northern writing I’ve come across since reading Patrice Desbiens’ L’homme invisible / The Invisible Man. A stunning mix of genre and literary fiction, Arvida perhaps doesn’t single-handedly invent a Northern Gothic literary tradition, but it defines a new shape for it. Samuel finds the simple horror present in the daily revolutions of nature and industry in a small town in lines like: “He’d died deep in the woods and they’d taken him to the funeral parlour to try and deal with the damage.” The reinvigoration of Northern literature will come from writers like Samuel Archibald, who are able to write truthfully about the experience of living up here, satirizing blue-collar lifestyle, and inverting the clichéd majesty of nature with the desolation of human landscapes. Work that evokes place as keenly as this does makes me excited to be living and working in the North.
For my archvillain-in-law (planning world domination in my attic garret): Social Acupuncture by Darren O’Donnell (Coach House)
This book begins with just about one of the best opening lines I know: “The world is a collapsing shit factory.” Half treatise, half electric one-person show, Darren O’Donnell’s Social Acupuncture is a reckoning of the "passive" contemporary theatre experience, while simultaneously redefining the essential, immediate magic that still makes theatre our most potent artistic weapon. I first encountered Social Acupuncture in a graduate playwriting workshop, where it served as our textbook. It has been a gift I’ve continued to launch at students, colleagues, friends, enemies, frenemies, and strangers on the street. So often we have heard “theatre is dead” whined from the rooftops (or buried in comment sections), but it is through our country’s visionary creators, who are pushing and evolving the form, that I remain convinced the tool is being reanimated. And if you need further encouragement, why not grab Jordan Tannahill’s discussion of the further reinvention of theatre:
Theatre of the Unimpressed (or his new one for that matter:
The Videofag Book). Then hit the streets and start making things.
“’Two Knives, One Thousand Demons?’ he read. ‘Intriguing title…’
‘It’s a horror story,’ October explained, as though Mr. O’Shea was going to mistake it for a self-help book.”
Author Evan Munday is a superlative artist who—when he is not gearing up for a horror movie marathon in the name of charity or illustrating a new inspiring story-in-a-portrait every single day for his series called #365Canadians—is unleashing this series of playfully dark mysteries about a teen girl embroiled in supernatural hijinks in Sticksville.
To paraphrase Mitch Hedberg: I used to read children’s books; I still do, but I used to, too.
For those who say children’s fiction is not "serious," I’d argue no literary genre has as direct an access to mainlined narrative imagination. At its best, writers of children’s fiction don’t write for children, they write as people who used to be children—who can still see the world as a place of glorious, limitless possibility. Evan is onto something in this series that giddily reminds me of the twisted mysteries of John Bellairs. Almost as enjoyable as the books are the appendices at the back which illuminate all the 1980s pop culture references to young readers of today, all with a trademark ironic sensibility.
For the whiny author in need of another great book to add to the pile (me): In Search of New Babylon by Dominque Scali (Talonbooks)
Did I mention that my MA was a modern reworking of the myth of the Mad Trapper of Rat River, using the aesthetics of the Spaghetti Western genre (specifically the films of Sergio Leone) as a basis for a Canadian parallel I called a Back-Bacon Northwestern? I haven’t read this book, but I’ve heard nothing but good things, as it joins a recent tradition of fantastic Canadian revisionist westerns (see Patrick deWitt, Fred Stenson, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Gil Adamson). At its best, the Western can be a tool for unspinning our quaintly held beliefs of traditional masculinity, critically analyzing the invasion and subjugation of traditional lands and people, and rethinking our society’s fascination with violence as a solution. Oh my word, Joulupukkil, please lodge this book in my stocking.
Lastly, for anyone: this time of year, please think about supporting your independent presses. I’ll be buying liberally from
Latitude 46 and Prise de parole, our two fine literary publishers here in Sudbury.
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Born in a meteor crater, Matthew Heiti is a writer, teacher, and theatre creator roughing it in Northern Ontario. He holds a BFA in Acting from Ryerson University and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of New Brunswick. His writing has appeared in many of his favourite journals. His first novel,
The City Still Breathing, is published by Coach House Books. He was named one of CBC's "Writers to Watch" in 2014. Find him online at
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