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Visceral: A Book List, Part I

Some books, more than others, prompt visceral reactions among readers via the extraordinarily powerful images they bring forth and the way they speak to every sense. Here are some of our favourites.

The word "visceral" originated in the 1500s, and it was defined vaguely as "affecting inward feelings," with these feelings said to stem from our "gut."  In modern times, the interpretation of visceral has extended beyond our bellies to encompass other parts of our bodies: the hair at the back of our necks, a shiver running down our spines, deep physical reactions to feeling unsettled, enlivened, repulsed, electrified, aroused.

Some books, more than others, affect readers via the extraordinarily powerful images they bring forth and the way they speak to every sense. These are books we feel in our bodies as much as our brains, and they can span a wide range of focuses, from hard-hitting stories of war and other miseries; erotic passages; razor-sharp, evocative poetry; shocking challenges to the status quo; sensual descriptions of food, land, bodies, etc.; and of course, stories of love and loss. Not surprisingly, these are some of the books we remember most.

Here are a few favourites including excerpts from jacket copy and reviews, with thanks also to Vicki Ziegler, Dee Hopkins, and Steph VanderMeulen for their ideas. But there are more: wait for Part II later this week.



Vs., by Kerry Ryan: Ryan has a fairly rare distinction (we think?) of being a writer who's also ventured into amateur boxing. Throughout this poetry collection she reflects on what it means to be a woman and a fighter, as well as a poet and a fighter. But, ultimately, Vs. is about the fights we all face: brain vs. body, intention vs. action, perceptions vs. identity, and who we are vs. who we want to be.

Of the collection, Robert Kroetsch wrote, "Muhammad Ali, keep your guard up. You're being measured by a better boxing poet. Kerry Ryan has the clarity of vision that comes with a boxer's discipline and daring, the grace of a true poet's music of body and mind made one."



My White Planet, by Mark Anthony Jarman: Of the title story in this collection, Elisabeth de Mariaffi wrote, "This short story about the men left behind at a long-forgotten arctic station ... features one of most weirdly erotic relationships you could hope to find in fiction of the Canadian north, and in general, Jarman does the visceral very, very well." The Literary Review of Canada noted, "He writes with immediacy and verve, cutting out the unnecessary to leave only the most vivid."



Dead Girls, by Nancy Lee: Just three of the stories in Dead Girls: Two angry women in a minivan act out their frustrations as they rampage through the night. A pill-dependent nurse juggles neuroses, infatuation, and exhaustion while supervising a high school dance-a-thon. A quiet tattoo artist takes in a homeless woman, and stumbles upon the true nature of beauty, jealousy, and love.

From a Quill & Quire review: "Dead Girls heralds the arrival of a bold and audacious new voice in Canadian writing ... A disturbing, threatening, and ultimately thrilling debut.”



1996, by Sara Peters: Sara Peters' debut collection is a book about obsessions—about desire, violence, sex, beauty, and cruelty, about how they lace through our days, leaving us changed. In these startling poems of mystery and terror, we meet remarkable characters enduring unspeakable things, confronting the raw reality of existence through fearless candor."

From a review in the Coastal Spectator: "... this exceptionally brave and fierce first collection left me shaken." And from the Los Angeles Review: "Wildly gripping and honest, 1996 conveys the same daunting feeling in thirty distinct ways."



With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn, edited by Amber Dawn and Trish Kelly: Starting off where other lesbian erotic anthologies end, these are not your typically delicate, lace-and-feathers kind of stories; instead, they're blunt and hard-hitting and challenge traditional notions of gender roles when it comes to getting off. Unabashedly raunchy, these stories prove that femme porn can be sexy and smart at the same time.

From the Ottawa Citizen review, "It can be safely said the writing here is superb, far superior to that of many 'erotic' anthologies."



Ablutions, by Patrick deWitt: A nameless barman tends a decaying bar in Hollywood and takes notes for a book about his clientele. Initially, he is morbidly amused by watching the regulars roll in and fall into their nightly oblivion, pitying them and their loneliness. In hopes of uncovering their secrets and motives, he establishes tentative friendships with them. He also knocks back pills indiscriminately and treats himself to gallons of Jameson's. But as his tenure at the bar continues, he begins to lose himself, trapped by addiction and indecision. When his wife leaves him, he embarks on a series of squalidly random sexual encounters and a downward spiral of self-damage and irrational violence. To cleanse himself and save his soul, he attempts to escape ...

From the review in January Magazine: "... Ablutions is a seedy, boozy haiku. Reed thin, yet razor-sharp and as muscular as can be. This earliest deWitt is brilliant."



How the Gods Pour Tea, by Lynn Davies: This collection abounds in departures: words and communities die, trout-lilies and passengers vanish, even the King and Queen of Fairies disappear. Squirrels paddle away on twig-rafts; giant horses take to the sky. Some poems give simple weight to the details of everyday life; others evoke an imaginative world inhabited by giant beavers, elf-thugs, and the great caw-dragon. Throughout the collection, the ocean, the rain, and the river suggest something big on the move in our lives even when we feel stranded.

Vicki Ziegler wrote: "These simple, elemental words and phrases ... and many more ... will vibrate in your mind, in your cells, long after you reluctantly turn over the last page."



The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden: The Orenda opens with a brutal massacre and the kidnapping of the young Iroquois Snow Falls, a spirited girl with a special gift. Her captor, Bird, is an elder and one of the Huron Nation's great warriors and statesmen. It has been years since the murder of his family and yet they are never far from his mind. Christophe, a charismatic Jesuit missionary, has found his calling amongst the Huron and devotes himself to learning and understanding their customs and language in order to lead them to Christ. As these three souls dance each other through intricately woven acts of duplicity, small battles erupt into bigger wars and a nation emerges from worlds in flux."

Steven Galloway wrote: "The Orenda is not only Boyden’s finest work, it is one of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read.” John Ralston Saul wrote, "Joseph Boyden has taken our memory of the past—myth and fact—and ripped it inside out with elegance, violence, emotion, and understanding until before us stands a new myth, a new memory, of how we became who we are.”



Sweetness in the Belly, by Camilla Gibb: In this epic story that takes place across countries and continents, Lilly, an English/Irish orphan, is brought up as a Muslim and ends up being sent to the ancient city of Harar, Ethiopia, where she stays in a dirt-floored compound with an impoverished widow named Nouria and her four children. In Harar, Lilly earns her keep by helping with the household chores and teaching local children the Qur’an. Ignoring the cries of “farenji” (foreigner), she slowly begins to put down roots, learning the language and immersing herself in a culture rich in customs and rituals and lush with glittering bright headscarves, the chorus of muezzins and the scent of incense and coffee. She falls in love with a doctor named Aziz, but the couple is wrenched apart when Haile Selassie is deposed by the brutal Dergue regime. Lilly seeks exile in London, and the powerful story continues.

From the National Post review: "Full of life and keen observation of women and how they rise above the terrible things that can happen to them, how they form communities, how they find strength to begin again. This may be Lilly’s story, but behind her stands the larger story of her Muslim friends. They are what make the novel so extraordinary, so rich."



High-Water Mark, by Nicole Dixon: Ten varied stories of contemporary women learning what they want from sex, love and partnership. Ali Bryan wrote, "This short story collection is a quick, sensuous read that will simultaneously stroke your hair and slap you in the face. Dixon's female characters, much like her writing style, are stripped down, raw, and real. She writes with a refreshing feminist bent and has a knack for capturing the raunchy and intimate with an honesty and grit reminiscent of Lena Dunham's Girls. I was left with a hot face on more than one occasion, yet her stories are also infused with moments of tenderness, grief, and conflict that are palpable. The kind of details that resonate weeks after the read. I can still smell and feel the tiny butter yellow toque that belonged to the dead infant from the collection's title story. Strong settings-both rural and urban-are also one of Dixon's trademarks. Ultimately High-Water Mark was a bit like reliving my twenties-noisy, intense, and colourful-minus the Kraft Dinner and the walk of shame."



Savage Love, by Douglas Glover: Savage Love shatters then transforms every conventional notion we've ever held about that cultural-emotional institution we call love. Absurd, comic, dream-like and deeply affecting, Glover's stories are of our time yet timeless, spectacular fables that stand in any era, any civilization. Savage Love exposes the humanity lurking behind our masks, the perversities that underlie our actions.

Steven W. Beattie wrote in the National Post, "This was, hands down, the best book I read in 2013." The Los Angeles Review of Books called it "eclectic and obsessive, abrasive and majestic."



On Earth as It Is, by Steven Heighton: The interlocking worlds of the erotic and the religious are explored in the novella and ten stories in this collection. The stories range through time and space, from present-day Toronto to the nineteenth-century high Arctic, from the Greek Islands to Kathmandu, from a tunnel under Vimy Ridge in 1915 where a Canadian sentry hears his enemy singing through the wall, to a tourist town in the Rockies where a painter and her dying husband make love for the last time.

From a review in the Times Literary Supplement: "Heighton writes convincingly ... switching smoothly between lyricism and the erotic, between grandeur and elegiac mood. He can carve out a scene of beauty in a few words, but is also able to realize the unremarkable with a vivifying simplicity." In Quill & Quire: "There’s not a wilting word in On Earth As It Is; these stories are real and rooted and vital."



Maidenhead, by Tamara Faith Berger: Myra, naive and curious, is on a family vacation to the southernmost tip of Florida—a mangy Key West full of Spring Breakers. Here, suffering through the embarrassments of a family on the verge of splitting up, she meets Elijah, a charismatic Tanzanian musician who seduces her at the edge of the tourist zone. Myra longs to lose her virginity to Elijah, and is shocked to learn he lives with Gayl, a secretive and violent woman with a strange power over him. Myra and her family return to an unnamed, middle-class, grey Canadian city and she falls in with a pot-smoking, intellectual anarchist crowd. When Gayl and Elijah travel north and infiltrate Myra's life, she walks willingly into their world: Myra continues to experiment sexually with Elijah, while Gayl plays an integral part in the increasingly abject games. Maidenhead traverses the desperate, wild spaces of a teenage girl's self-consciousness. How does a girl feel scared ... What is she scared of ... And how does telling yourself not to be scared really work. As Myra enters worlds unfamiliar of sex, porn, race and class, she explores territories unknown in herself.

Sheila Heti wrote in the Globe and Mail: "Maidenhead is a mesmerizing and important novel, lying somewhere between the wilds of Judy Blume, Girls Gone Wild, and Michel Foucault. It's a thrilling, brilliant, and really hot place to be." From Quill & Quire: "At the risk of sounding grandiose, Maidenhead is a masterpiece: a richly layered, complexly rendered, rhythmically written, and brilliantly executed meditation on power, desire, and consciousness."


Check out Visceral: Part II!

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