Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People: A Broken Pencil review

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People, Joe Ollmann, 242 pages, Conundrum Press, http://www.conundrumpress.com, $20.00

With his new collection of graphic short stories, Hamilton based cartoonist Joe Ollmann returns with his peculiar brand of dark humour and biting cynicism. Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People is anything but; we are thrown into a world where the boredom of living is replaced by the horror of living. Do not expect any heroes or knights in shining armour, just a ragtag collection of men and women struggling past their fair share of existential angst and, even if only for a short while, rising above it. 

You sense a bit of Ollmann in all his characters. His penchant for self-deprecation and self-reflection is made apparent in his short introduction, presented in the same style as his stories. His illustrations are rather rough and cartoony, quite fitting considering his rather capital A Absurd (think Camus) plots.

Loyal fans will recognize some of these tales from his older short story collections Chewing on Tinfoil and This Will End in Tears. His newest additions, “Johnny Pinetop” and “Otherwise, Arachis Hypogaea”, are just as representative his rather bleak vision of the human experience. The first follows Gary Bunet, less than mediocre cleft-lipped ventriloquist. The second depicts the life of Devi, a young southeast asian girl with a deathly allergy to peanuts.

These characters do not invite us to pity them. On the contrary, their acute self awareness reveals a sense of stubborn perseverance in the face unending trials and tribulations. They may be broken but they survive, a somewhat hopeful message in the midst of all this darkness.

And Sometimes They Fly: A Broken Pencil review

And Sometimes They Fly, Robert Edison Sandiford, 186 pages, DC Books, http://www.dcbooks.ca, $18.95

Step aside Justice League, there’s a new super team in town. Called to action following the cataclysmic events of 9/11, it’s up to David, Frank and Marsha, three young bajans, to accept their destiny as The Elect and restore balance to the world.

Myth and reality come together in “And Sometimes They Fly” to delivery a powerful narrative that explores the nature of good and evil, fate and courage. Our three protagonists do not pretend to have it all figured out. They are afraid, they doubt – which quite frankly is a natural reaction to being told the fate of the planet rests in your young inexperienced hands. Guided by Milton, a mysterious mind reading Elder who poses as a lecturer at their university, they navigate through a treacherous world slowly taken over by dark forces.

Set in Barbados, not only are we treated to beautiful descriptions of its landscape and people but we also discover characters like the obeah women, Heart Man and the Steel Donkey, prominent figures in caribbean folklore and culture. No matter where you come from these colourful people will ignite memories of your childhood bed time stories. Much like Sandiford himself, our heroes’ lives are also linked to Canada. Montreal even becomes the stage for one of the most poignant part of David, Frank and Marsha’s Journey.

Sandiford’s prose reads like poetry. Part patois, part english, his writing may be a challenge for some less familiar with the language but all the more beautiful. He leads you into a world full of magic, danger, action and presents us with the first truly caribbean superheroes.

Running The Whale’s Back: A Broken Pencil review

Running The Whale’s Back, Andrew Atkinson and Mark Harris, 303 pages, Goose Lane editions, http://www.gooselane.com, $19.95

Editors Andrew Atkinson and Mark harris have accomplished a great feat with this anthology. It often is hard to discuss issues of faith without sounding overly preachy or cynical but “Running The Whale’s Back” does just that. This collection of short stories and novel excerpts puts a mirror to Atlantic Canada, reflecting the life of its inhabitants as they navigate – sometimes literally – through their lives.

A common man buries two frozen travellers while a nun refuses to perform funeral rites. A baby is miraculously found by the river banks while another drowns in one. This idea of duality is a running theme in the anthology and reflected in its structure. The sacred seems ever present, perhaps in part due to the almost god like force of nature and the religious legacy left by the early settlers in these small communities.

While most stories are more realistic in nature one stands out in particular. “My husband’s jump”, a ski jumper who takes off never lands. In one of the anthology’s weaker pieces, “Doves”, the narrator’s inner monologue is punctuated with culturally inaccurate images that slightly detracts from the story.

Despite this small hiccup what we have here is a strong body of work whose subject matter is relevant in a society where the role religion is constantly in question. The writers do not shy away from the raw and the gritty. Nothing is black and white and we are invited to explore this greyness through diverse and unique voices.