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Reading British Columbia: Fiction & Poetry
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Reading British Columbia: Fiction & Poetry

By craigriggs
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There are ways to know a place, and among the best of these is reading it—reading it from every angle and from multiple genre and authorial vantage points. This list encompasses great poetry & fiction that helps readers come to understand this astoundingly beautiful, complex, and iconic province. Also check out the non-fiction companion, Reading British Columbia: Non-Fiction.
The Pornographer's Poem

The Pornographer's Poem

edition:Paperback
tagged : literary

As a grade seven student living in an affluent suburb of Vancouver, our unnamed narrator and his closest friend Nettie, are introduced to the exciting world of super-8 filmmaking by a progressive young teacher. Together Nettie and the narrator find in film a means of expressing their somewhat skewed world views.

At the age of sixteen the narrator shoots his first adult film, surreptitiously capturing his neighbours having sex. He believes that through representations of sexual activity he can com …

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Excerpt

1.1

Sixteen years old. My first porno. Pornos, really. There were three: The Blue Balloon, something starring Clint Westwood, and another one whose name I can never remember. Cut together. And continuous. From noon to midnight. Seven days a week.
So: first porno was pornos. About fifteen minutes' worth. The cops threw me out before I knew what I was watching. But which one out of three? Does it matter? You'd think it wouldn't. But it does, in a way. I think.

This is what I know I saw:

EXT. THE VENUS THEATRE. NIGHT

A brick building. Her busted marquee. Purple curtains in the windows. Posters, too. A Hindu woman (40) stares from the booth. I approach, camera-right.

WOMAN

Five dollars.

I give her the five, she tears off a ticket.

INT. THEATRE

A small lobby dressed in pink drapes. A popcorn machine with a CLOSED sign taped to the counter. An older Hindu man (70) sits at a card table. In front of him, a shoebox. For the stubs.

He reaches out. I give him my ticket. He rips it in half, then points to a slit in the drapery.

MAN

There.

Static pops. Low groans. Some "oh" sounds. And some high-sucking "ahs." Snippets of dialogue. But they are so muffled, so scratched, the voices seem sexless, indistinguishable.

INDISTINGUISHABLE VOICE #1

Can you feel it?

My heartbeat. Beating harder. In 2/4.

INDISTINGUISHABLE VOICE #2

Yes.

I step into the light. The silver light. Hundreds of seats. The backs of ten heads. Silhouetted. I adjust, though I'm slow to focus. I think: Silver makes the darkest shadows. I still can't see. But I end up front-and-centre. A mystery to me. To this day.

INDISTINGUISHABLE VOICE #1

Here ...

The brightness of the first row. Skin completely white. The pores of my flesh. The stiffness of each arm hair.

This big guy takes the aisle seat. To my right. Creaking. An old guy. Fifties. The speakers hang above us. His crunchy coat like thunder.

taste it.
An interior scene. A woman and a man. She shuts the door. Not a crack of daylight. Just a candle by the nightstand.

INDISTINGUISHABLE VOICE #2

I'm gonna wanna smell it first.

The guy on the aisle. He crosses his legs. Then he uncrosses them. Then he crosses them again. And again. The heat off his body with each uncrossing. The salt in the air. From his lap. Different from the rest. I mean the others in the building.

IV #1

Okay.

His hands in his pockets. The whole aisle creaks. A sustained creaking. Then this ticking. Like a metronome. Then a note ascending. Chromatically. This tick ... tick ... ticking.

IV #2

Okay, then.

Soundtrack. Bass first. For two bars. High-hat. Then a close-up on her face. Eyes. Wow! Organ fills. Horns. Then wah-wah. Fuzz. And him. So funky.

His hands grip the armrest. The aisle creaks. The bolts strip. I feel me. Sliding down to see. To where I can't be seen. I scratch my cheek to see. Him. Leaning. Arching. Toes pushing out. Heels dangling down. His pushing pushes me. Jiggling my seat.

IV #1

Oh ... ohhh!

His eyes closing. His breathing. With my fingertip, touching. I trace the outline where I've grown to be. The strain against my jeans. And me. Leaning. Into this moment. Creaks. Everything.

IV #2

Ah-ah-ah.

An exterior scene. A blast of streetlight. His coat slides away. He pulls from his body. This monster. Holds it forth. The boldest I've seen. To this day. Mottled. Uncut. Big balls bobbing. Jumping for something. Right out of his goddamn pants!

IV #1

I'm coming.

In spurts. Three. The first between his feet. Then one straight up.

Disappearing. The last one a drop off the top of the stage.

IV #2

Yeah. Oh yeah!

An interior scene. Pitch black. The lighting of a match. A cigarette. Mumbles. Chuckles. One voice high, trailing off at the end. Suggests a question. Then another. Low. Monotone. Not inclined. Bored.

IV #1

You'll have to go now. You know you can't stay here.

IV #2

I've got a feeling you're right.

He adjusts his coat. Gets up. Goes.

IV #1
Do you think I'll ever see you again?

Footsteps.

An exterior scene. A car pulls away. From an old brick building. He's gone.

NEW VOICE

Young man?

ME

Huh?

NEW VOICE

Can I see some ID?

Two cops. One talking. One holding the flashlight. Asking me to leave. The flashlight in front. His partner behind continues ...

TALKING COP

It's for your own good, son. These people - they're perverts. You never know what one of them's gonna do in the heat of the moment.

EXT. THE VENUS THEATRE. NIGHT

Outside. The talking cop. His lecture. To the woman in the booth. She nods. Looks barely there. A ghost car pulls up, jumps the curb. The flashlight cop makes the OK sign. Talking cop calls out ...

Detective!

The guy from the aisle seat. He gets out of the ghost car. Looks right through me. To the talking cop, the detective says ...

What do these kids see in this shit?

And from the flashlight cop ...

If we knew, we'd be detectives.

1.2

- Sorry. I've forgotten the question.

- We asked you how old you were when you saw your first pornographic movie.

- Oh.

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The World

The World

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged :

Weaving together five heartbreaking stories, Bill Gaston transforms the cruelty of life into something not only beautiful but heartwarming.

A recently divorced, early retiree accidentally burns down his house on the day he pays off the mortgage, only to discover that for the first time in his life he’s forgotten to pay a bill: his insurance premium. An old friend of his, a middle-aged musician, prepares for her suicide to end the pain of esophageal cancer. Her father, who left his family to st …

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Dead Girls

Dead Girls

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary

Infused with eroticism, poignancy, and insight that cuts to the bone, these stories lead us into a tipping world of emotional wagers, loss and discovery, power and impulse. A marriage is tested as a mother struggles to cope with the disappearance of her prostitute daughter. 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 arti …

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Excerpt

At the edge of the parking lot, a group of skate kids sat huddled on a low railing, hunched over cigarettes, their feet on their boards. Scrawny junior–high boys with long hair and baggy jackets, drawn like insects to the glow of the gym. I loitered near the doorway, gripped the metal bars of the emergency doors, indecisive. The open night pushed gently at my back, reminded me of cool sheets and the limitlessness of sleep, while waves of indoor heat, heavy with cologne and sweat, rolled against my face. The bass beat of dance music shook the wood floor, made the painted red and blue lines jump like pick–up sticks. The walls were alive with swirling coloured lights. My equipment bag felt full of bowling balls and rocks.

The centre of the gym was a dense and elastic mass of moving bodies, each back flagged by a thick black number on white paper. Small groups of teens gathered around the perimeter, their frames slouched and curved into apathetic question marks. Girls and boys sipped water from an array of containers: sports bottles, spigotted strap–on reservoirs, spring water bottles, thrift store canteens. It was almost too much, the relentless beat of the music, the careful attention to water fashion. I had just finished another double shift at the hospital, my ears trained to the quiet moans and requests of patients, my eyes on the keys to the pharmacy cabinet.

Up in the bleachers, the supervisory fathers stuck out like a herd of buffalo, sturdy ungulates in cotton pants and expensive sweaters. They were gathered together, mouths yawned wide in over–enunciation, heads nodding slowly.

I spotted Janet barrelling down the bleachers. Tonight she wore a rippling silk creation, a tent of a thing, with flowing, trailing pieces, all in a kaleidoscope of blues and greens; around her neck, a massive garland of seashells. It was either the pills or the lights playing off her fabric, but she looked like a giant tidal pool moving across the room. She opened her arms and splashed against me. The seashells scratched my collarbone, dug into my chest. She wiggled my paper hat, “This is great!”

Janet took my hand and dragged me across the gym floor. The heels of my duty shoes stuttered along the wood as I tried to keep step. She hauled me up the bleachers and I watched my feet as they dipped in and out of the alternating slats in a haphazard pattern. I was sure I would fall, take a header into the bleachers and be the first to require medical attention. Things like that happened to me. Things that made my face burn red, my saliva taste like lighter fluid.

The parents stood as we approached. Janet introduced me as “Mary, the single nurse who lives next door.” The pills kicked in and for a second the world tilted away, the entire row of parents tipping back so that I overshot a handshake and poked a rotund father in the stomach. I apologized and said something about cholesterol; he flushed with embarrassment.

I said hello to a petite woman with short, black hair and Scottie dogs on her sweater and my peripheral vision flared, a huge spotlight turned on behind me, my throat pulsed. I talked myself through the usual fears, I will not have a heart attack, I will not stop breathing, any moment now this will feel good. And even as I said it, the high broke out across my body like a prickly white sweat. Everything around me looked suddenly brighter. I held it together, except for the sweating – I had no control over that. I shook hands with my arm pressed firmly to my side and silently cursed polyester.

I had struggled out of my unit scrubs and into the white tights and traditional white uniform in the front seat of my car. A conversation piece, an ice-­breaker. The uniform was snug; I hadn’t worn it since the Halloween before nursing school, back when a stranger told me I looked good as a nurse, a compliment that led me to consider the profession. The costume included an old–fashioned paper hat and a “Florence Nightingale” name tag.

“Do you wear that to work?” the woman beside Janet asked, her finger waving in the air.

I shook my head.

I could tell the mothers hated the outfit. They gave me that disapproving mother look, the look that said, I was once spread–eagled in front of strangers with piss and blood and amniotic filth squirting out of my body, but this, this offends me. The fathers seemed somewhat more appreciative, though none of them appeared to be the skirt chasing, sports car driving type. These were men who had reached the fork of middle age and taken the high road. They were fact collecting types, men in comfortable sweaters and cushioned shoes whose lust for information, statistics, and useless trivia replaced a waning libido. These men were history buffs.

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Jade Peony, The

Jade Peony, The

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary

"In China, [Choy] tells us, a figure called the 'dark storyteller' reveals 'hidden things not seen in the glare of daylight.' Working in a new country and a new context, Wayson Choy has deftly continued that tradition...a fine debut novel." -- New York Times

"A true and touching insight into a largely unrecorded wartime world...A genuine contribution to history as well as to fiction." -- Margaret Drabble

"An exquisite novel...The craftmanship is glorious." -- Globe & Mail

Chinatown, Vancouver, in t …

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Stanley Park

Stanley Park

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary

A young chef who revels in local bounty, a long-ago murder that remains unsolved, the homeless of Stanley Park, a smooth-talking businessman named Dante - these are the ingredients of Timothy Taylor's stunning debut novel - Kitchen Confidential meets The Edible Woman.

Trained in France, Jeremy Papier, the young Vancouver chef, is becoming known for his unpretentious dishes that highlight fresh, local ingredients. His restaurant, The Monkey's Paw Bistro, while struggling financially, is attracting …

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Excerpt

The Canvasback

They arranged to meet at Lost Lagoon. It was an in-between place, the city on one side, Stanley Park on the other. Ten years of rare contact, and they had sought each other out. Surprised each other, created expectations.

Now the Professor was late.

Jeremy Papier found a bench up the hill from the lagoon and opened a section of newspaper across the wet boards. The bench was between two cherry trees, the pink blossoms of which met high over his head forming an arch, a doorway. It wasn’t precisely the spot they’d discussed–the Professor had suggested the boathouse–but it was within eyesight, within shouting distance. It was close enough. If he had to wait, Jeremy thought, settling onto the paper and blowing out a long breath, he was going to sit. He crossed one long, aching leg over the other. He fingered the tooling on a favourite pair of cowboy boots, ran long fingers through tangled black hair.

He sat because he was tired, certainly. Jeremy accepted that being a chef, even a young chef, meant being exhausted most of the time. But there had also been a family portrait taken here, on this bench, years before. Also early spring, he remembered; the three of them had sat here under the cherry blossoms.

Jeremy on the one side, seven years old. His mother, Hélène, on the other. The Professor had his arms around them both, feet flat on the grass. He looked extremely pleased. Jeremy’s mother was less obviously so, her expression typically guarded, although she made dozens of copies of the photo and sent these off to relatives spread across Europe from Ireland to Spain, from the Czech Republic to as far east as Bulgaria. Documenting settlement. He wondered if his father, who had no relations other than those in the photo, would remember this detail.

Now Jeremy lit a cigarette and watched an erratic stream of homeless people making their way into the forest for the night. When he arrived there had been seawall walkers and hotdog eaters, birdwatchers, rollerbladers, chess players returning from the picnic tables over by bowling greens. Then lagoon traffic changed direction like a freak tide. The flow of those heading back to their warm apartments in the West End tapered to nothing, and the paths were filled with the delusional, the alcoholic, the paranoid, the bipolar. The Professor’s subjects, his obsession. The inbound. Four hundred hectares of Stanley Park offering its bleak, anonymous shelter to those without other options.

Of course, Jeremy didn’t have to remind himself, the Professor had other options.

They had discussed meeting on the phone earlier in the week. When Jeremy picked up–expecting a late reservation, maybe his black-cod supplier, who was due into Vancouver the next morning–he heard wind and trees rustling at the other end of the line. Normally reticent, the Professor was animated about his most recent research.

“… following on from everything that I have done,” he said, “culminating with this work.” From his end, standing at a pay phone on the far side of the lagoon, the Professor could hear the dishwasher hammering away in the background
behind his son’s tired response.

“Participatory anthropology. Is that what you call it now?” Jeremy was saying. “I thought it was immersive.”

“Like everything,” the Professor answered, “my work has evolved.”

He needed help with something, the Professor said. He wanted to meet.

“How unusual,” Jeremy said.

“And what advice can I give on running a restaurant?” the Professor shot back.

“None,” Jeremy answered. “I just said there was something I wanted to talk to you about. Something that had to do with the restaurant.”

“Strange times,” the Professor said, looking into the darkness around the pay phone. Checking instinctively.

Very strange. The stream of those inbound had slowed to a trickle. A trio of men passed, bent behind shopping carts that were draped and hung with plastic, heaped to the height of pack horses, bags full of other bags. Jeremy could only wonder at the purpose of them all, although the Professor could have told him that the bag itself captured the imagination. It held emblematic power. For its ability to hold, certainly. To secure contents, to carry belongings from place to place. But even the smell of the plastic, its oily permanence, suggested the resilience of things discarded.

Jeremy watched the three men make their way around the lagoon and disappear into the trails. He glanced at his watch, sighed. Lifted his chin and breathed in the saline breeze. It brought to mind the ocean beyond the park, sockeye salmon schooling in the deep, waiting for the DNA-encoded signal to turn in their millions and rush the mouth of the Fraser, the tributary offshoot, the rivulet of water and the gravel-bed spawning grounds beyond. Mate, complete the cycle, die. And then, punctuating this thought, the rhododendron bushes across the lawn boiled briefly and disgorged Caruzo, the Professor’s manic vanguard.

“Hey, hey,” Caruzo said, approaching the bench. “Chef Papier.” He exhaled the words in a blast.

He dressed for the mobile outdoor life, Caruzo. Three or four sweaters, a torn corduroy jacket, a heavy coat, then a raincoat over all of that. It made the big man even bigger, the size of a lineman, six foot five, although stooped a little with the years. Those being of an indeterminate number; Jeremy imagined only that it must be between fifty and ninety. Caruzo had a white garbage bag tied on over one shoe, although it was only threatening to rain, and pants wrapped at the knees in electrical tape. His ageless, wind-beaten face was protected by a blunt beard that fell to his chest. Exposed skin had darkened, blackened as a chameleon might against the same forest backdrop.

“The Professor,” Caruzo announced, “is waiting.”

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Red Dog, Red Dog

Red Dog, Red Dog

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary

A National Bestseller and a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year
One of the most powerful, gripping works of fiction to come out of Canada, Red Dog, Red Dog is Patrick Lane’s virtuoso debut novel.

An epic novel of unrequited dreams and forestalled lives, Red Dog, Red Dog is set in the mid-1950s, in a small town in the interior of B.C. in the unnamed Okanagan Valley. The novel focuses on the Stark family, centring on brothers Eddy and Tom, who are bound together by family loyalty and inarticulat …

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It was stone country where a bone cage could last a thousand years under the moon, its ribs a perch for Vesper sparrows, its skull a home for Harvest mice. The hills rose parched from the still lakes, the mountains beyond them faded to a mauve so pale they seemed stones under ice. Sage brush and bitterroot weathered the September night. In the desiccated grass of a vacant lot, a rattle snake followed in the tracks of a Kangaroo mouse, a Fiery Searcher beetle clambered over the dried body of a dead Wood rat in the dust, and a magpie slept inside its wings on a branch of dying chokecherry, the berries hard as dog knots. Stars shone like sparks thrown from shattered quartz, Orion reeling in the southern sky and Mars sullen and red in the west.

In the heart of it was a valley leading nowhere out but north or south. North was going toward narrower cuts of rock, deeper winters, darker forests, and even more desolate towns that turned into villages, villages into clusters of trailers and isolated shacks in the trees, nothing beyond but bush that ran clear to the tundra. South was going toward the desert states where there was no place a man could get work unless he was Indian or wetback, someone willing to take cash wages half what anyone else might ask. The only way you could stay alive down in Washington or Idaho was to break your back in the onion fields and orchards, set chokers on a gypo logging show, or steal. East were mountains piled upon mountains, the Monashee giving over to the Selkirks and Purcells, and finally the Rockies and the Great Plains. To the west was a rolling plateau where nothing lived but moose, bear, and screaming, black- headed jays. At the edge of the plateau, the rolling forest rose up the Coast Range until it dwindled against the scree, and on the other side of the peaks and glaciers was the sea, something most people in the valley had only heard of, never seen, the Pacific with its waves rolling over the dead bodies of seals and salmon, eagles and gulls shrieking.

The town squatted in a bowl beneath desert hills, its scattered lights odd fires stared at from up on the Commonage where a rattlesnake could be seen lifting its wedge head from the heat- trail of a white- footed mouse and staring down at the three lakes, Swan in the north, Kalamalka to the south, and Okanagan in the west, the Bluebush hills and mountains hanging above them in a pall. Against the sky were rocky outcrops with their swales of rotted snow where nothing grew but lichens, pale explosions that held fast to the rough knuckles of granite as the long winds came steady out of the north. In the valley confluence where the lakes met were the dusty streets and avenues of the town shrouded by tired elms and maples. What the snake saw only it could know.

It was the hour after moonset, dawn close by. The darkness held hard on the Monashee Mountains. Eddy walked thin down a back alley halfway up the east hillside, his eyes blinkered, their blue faded to a mottled white, the colour of the junk in his veins. Ankle- deep yellow clay lifted and swam around his boots. Silica whirlwinds, they shivered behind his heels as they settled back into soft pools. He moved slowly between broken fences and sagging, fretful sheds. The open windows of houses gazed blind into backyards, sleepers heavy in narrow beds, sheets damp and crumpled at their feet. In the alley, wheat grass and cheat grass draped their seed heads over the shallow ruts. A single stem of spear grass brushed against Eddy’s pant leg and left two seeds caught in the wisps of cotton on his worn cuff. He waded on through dust, the seeds waiting for their moment to fall in what might be some giving dirt, some spot where life might find a place to hide in winter. The alley held the illusion of water, thin waves of powdered clay shot through with the dead leaves of grass and chicory.

A slender ghost, lean as a willow wand, Eddy flowed in the languid glow of the heroin he’d shot up a half-hour before. Sergeant Stanley’s German shepherd slept uneasy on its paws in the run next to the ashes of a burned- out shed. Eddy had set the shed on fire the week before. He’d watched the flames from his car on the hill above and imagined Stanley in the dark staring at the wild fire, raging.

Sergeant Stanley was nowhere around. Eddy knew he was likely taking his usual time with some frightened girl he’d picked up and squired out to the west side of the lake on some false, misleading threat or charge. Eddy had seen Stanley’s women. The cop took his due with all of them, each one owing him her body in unfair exchange for the cell she didn’t want to see, the father, friend, or husband she’d never tell. When he was a boy, he’d crouched behind a chokecherry bush up on the Commonage and seen Stanley with his pants open, a scared girl on her knees beside the police car, working for her life as she bruised her knees on rock shards in the clay.

The shed had been the first thing.

The dog would be the second.

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Beggar's Garden

Beggar's Garden

edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook

Longlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Brilliantly sure-footed, strikingly original, tender and funny, this collection of nine linked stories follows a diverse group of curiously interrelated characters—from bank manager to crackhead to retired Samaritan to web designer to car thief--as they drift through each others’ lives in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside.

These engrossing stories, gleefully free of moral judgment, are about people who are searching in the jagged margins …

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Home Schooling

Home Schooling

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback eBook
tagged : literary

From the acclaimed author of Visible Light comes a collection of seven outstanding stories, each set against the rural landscape of Vancouver Island and the cities of the Pacific Northwest. In these stories the memories and dreams of characters are examined, revealing them to be both cages and keys to the cages.

The life-lessons learned by the characters are often as complicated and painful as they are illuminating. In the title story, two sisters fall in love with their math tutor on one of the …

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