John Belshaw, ed., 240 pgs, Anvil Press, anvilpress.ca, $20
For some, it may be hard to imagine Canada having a seedy past. Turn-of-the-century urban woes like racial tensions, violent picket lines, unruly mobs, political upheaval, and crime conjure up associations with American cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. But… Canada? It couldn’t be!
Professor and historian John Belshaw aims to set the record straight in his anthology Vancouver Confidential, a set of 15 essays that explores the dark and salacious side of the city during the early to mid-twentieth century.
Belshaw and his contributors regale us with sensational backstories of Vancouver’s brothels, hobo jungles, and vaudeville theatres and unearth tales of the city’s forgotten murderers, mobsters, and crooked politicians. Several common threads emerge throughout, notably, the challenges faced by Chinese and Japanese immigrants due to xenophobic public policy; the important role played by Vancouver’s bootlegging moguls during Prohibition; the bloody battles waged between union leaders and capitalists and the difficulties municipal leaders encountered as destitute out-of-work migrant laborers flooded the town in search of jobs.
The highlight of the collection is Belshaw’s tribute to James Crookall, a self-taught amateur street photographer who captured the bustling cityscapes of Vancouver during the Depression and Second World War. A dozen of Crookall’s stunning black and white photographs are included and offer the reader an honest glimpse into the lives of mid-century working class Vancouverites.
Interestingly enough, only three of the essays are authored by “card-carrying academics,” while the rest are written by crime researchers, journalists, tour guides, musicians and independent historians. The diversity of voices certainly strengthens the collection. Each writer demonstrates a passion for the details and brings to life key figures and events that would otherwise be lost to history. (Melissa Hergott)
Thomas Page McBee, 172 pgs, City Lights, citylights.com, $15.95
In April 2010, Thomas Page McBee and his then-girlfriend, now-wife Parker were held up at gunpoint near their Oakland, CA neighbourhood. They survived the attack, but its aftermath left McBee in a tailspin, reflecting on the nature of maleness in the face of violence. Two other important points colour this realization: McBee was also the survivor of sexual abuse enacted by his father, and at the time of the attack, he was grappling with the decision of transitioning from female to male. What does it mean to be a man when violent, flawed men feature in your strongest memories, burrowing into your core? This is the question posed in McBee’s wrenching, candid and deeply lyrical memoir, which is both a fictionalized exploration of trauma and reconciliation, and also a story of a person reclaiming their own identity, making strides towards their truest self.
The search sends McBee traveling — post top surgery — to the sweltering South Carolina town where his father lives, enduring the stares and hostile vibrations of strangers. But their stares pale in comparison to the task of peeling back the layers of a situation coloured by fictions and half-truths, and as we accompany McBee, these revelations twist the knife of self-knowledge and self-analysis. This is an awful pain, but it is necessary for McBee’s development, and necessary for us, the readers, to understand who he was then, and who he is now.
McBee is a lovely writer who leaps expertly between scenarios, memories and time frames. Alongside his journey home, the narrative flips back to Oakland and the trial of McBee’s attacker, who is arrested for murder; memories of McBee’s painful, silent childhood in Pittsburgh, and his present reality, moving to a new city with Parker and working through his preparations towards transitioning. A less gifted writer could stumble amidst all these threads, but McBee’s narrative voice is clear and sure, and weaves through each moment with an aching surety.
“It’s not fear that kills you, but what you do with it,” advises McBee’s personal trainer at one point in the book. McBee has opened himself and shown his fear to the world, and turned it inward, a knife point to remind him where he’s come from, what he’s endured. Empowerment feels like a hollow word to describe such a naked and moving experience, but Man Alive nonetheless provides a revitalizing, strengthening affirmation of self-knowledge, of understanding, and yes — forgiveness. (Alison Lang)
Tuesday, July 28
Bring your pencils and pens for the monthly comic jam!
Come celebrate the launch of This’ Summer Reading Issue, curated by Dani Couture. Readings from Kate Sutherland, Sara Peters and Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer.
Wednesday, July 29
It’s the third issue! Come support!
Toronto’s favorite indie gamers and game makers meet up! This month, N++ from Metanet, next-gen screenshots of Pluto and shia_labeouf_do_it.gif So obvi…. DO IT! Thursday, July 30
Co-editors Kier-La Janisse and Paul Corupe launch a collection of essays and articles unpacking the bizarre cultural paranoia around satanism in the 80s, including a piece by BP Editor Alison Lang!
Saturday, August 1
A week of maker events culminates in this big maker fair at the reference library! Also runs Sunday 11-5pm.
Sunday, August 2
Help raise funds for the Toronto Queer Zine Fair! A day long event featuring queer/trans zinesters in full effect!
“Little Train Pyjamas” illustration by Jayesh Bhagat, issue 64.
Presenting five of Broken Pencil’s most notorious/memorable pieces of short fiction, as chosen by fiction editor Richard Rosenbaum.
by David Burke (Issue 36 —2007)
“Funny that, with all the girl trouble, Ben should find himself underneath a moose rack staring at a long, pointed antler and the pink cotton of a dangling pair of panties.” In that first line alone you’ve got images of Canada, coitus, and confusion—all important elements of so many Broken Pencil stories. A kid from the city ending up at a northern lodge searching for he-doesn’t-know-what and not finding it; minimal and moodily familiar. Read it here.
by Ian Rogers (Issue 40 — 2008) Ian Rogers is best known today as an award-winning horror author, but when we published “Camp Zombie” the awards hadn’t yet been won, and Ian was just a great writer. He counts this among his favourite stories (and so do we) because, despite the “zombie” in the title, it was one of his first non-horror pieces. In fact it’s a comedy about sleepaway camp for insomniacs, and we loved its unexpected realism and paradoxical sweetness. Read it here.
by Janette Platana (Issue 42 — 2009)
The Clash are playing in Edmonton tomorrow night and Mom is dying of cancer. This piece (reprinted in Janette’s collection A Token of my Affliction, reviewed in Issue 68) proves that remembrance doesn’t need to appeal to the cliché of nostalgia, that writing can be substantial and serious and at the same time urgent and humane. It’s also punk as fuck. Read it here.
by Braydon Beaulieu (Issue 51 — 2011)
“I stole my neighbour’s newspaper this morning. He has never noticed my compound eyes or mandibles.” This Indie Writers Deathmatch semifinalist has something else of which we just can’t get enough: super weirdness. Broken Pencil stories thrive in that zone where genres collide (because it gets harder every day to tell the difference between science fiction, psychological horror, and realism…and I don’t mean in fiction, I’m talking real life.) It’s risky and bizarre and uncommonly relatable for all that. Makes your head buzz a little. Read it here.
Little Train Pyjamas by Leita McInnis (Issue 64 — 2014)
“My neighbour, Cheryl. I often wonder what she would do if she knew what kind of games Alex and I play while she works double shifts. She trusts me. Because I’m a woman.” Like Lolita or American Psycho, “Little Train Pyjamas” is legitimately dangerous, but that’s also exactly why it’s necessary — and why we knew it belonged in Broken Pencil. Sometimes art will make you feel bad, you know? And then what are you supposed to do when empathy seems more frightening than indifference? Read it here.