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Archive for the ‘Canadiana’ Category

I remember reading Max Braithwaite’s autobiographical trilogy of novels years ago, chronicling his (or the fictional Max’s) youth and young adulthood in Saskatchewan from the 1910s to the 1930s, and finding the books amusing but also surprisingly sombre.  Braithwaite is a humorous, colloquial writer but he is not afraid to address serious topics.  In doing so, he gives us an intriguing glimpse into the complexities of life on the prairies between the wars.

Never Sleep Three in a BedNever Sleep Three in a Bed was published in 1969 and is the gentlest of the three books in terms of the subject matter it addresses.  Covering the first eighteen years of his life, this book sees Max through infancy and childhood, his lust-filled teen years, and his emergence after graduation into a world reeling after the stock market crash of 1929.

Braithwaite is very open in talking about sex, though there’s not much to talk about given the years this book covers.  We do hear a great deal about lust and curiosity though and it is pleasingly frank.  There is nothing salacious here; just an honest record of what it feels like to be a hormone-riddled teenager in an era when adults refused to talk to children about sex.  When his father discovers Max looking at the Young Husband’s Guide to Married Sex (pilfered from his parents’ dresser), he replaces it with The Solitary Vice, a book that gave the thirteen-year old nightmares:

The writer of The Solitary Vice had the most graphic style of any writer I’ve since encountered.  He described the terrors of masturbation as they’ve never been described before.  Compared to it, leprosy, rabies, bubonic plague, syphilis even were no more than slight aggravations.  I can’t think of one catastrophe that wouldn’t befall the practitioner of this awful crime.  He would go blind, insane, hairy-palmed, impotent, until he cried out in his misery, ‘Oh who will deliver me from the body of this living death?’

I sat there on the edge of that bed, and the sweat poured off me in buckets.  I have never been so terrified of anything in my life.  Of all the good things my father did for me – and he did plenty – he came close to wiping them all out by placing that awful book in my hands.

Braithwaite maintains a cheerful matter-of-fact tone throughout the book, addressing the difficulties he faced without turning misfortunes into sob-stories.  His family was poor, constantly moving because they were behind on their rent.  In a family with eight children, there was not always a lot to go around (including beds, hence the torture of being forced to share one with two of his brothers).  With unusual anger he remembers how the teachers in Prince Albert sent his elder brother Hub back two grades after discovering that his spelling – just his spelling – was not at grade level.  An otherwise intelligent and hard-working boy, this soured Hub against the school system for life and Braithwaite takes great pleasure in ending the story by saying how successful his brother became as soon as he left school and began working.  None of this made the Braithwaite family unusual for their time and place.  In a province full of immigrants, in a time of large families and scarce jobs, they were hardly the only ones who struggled though, to a great extent, it appears that the children did not realise how difficult things were until they were much older.

Braithwaite is very proud of having grown up in Saskatchewan but does not try to ignore the problems communities faced as they tried to incorporate citizens from so many different countries, all of whom brought their own prejudices.  Catholic and Protestant, Ukrainian and French-Canadian, Chinese and Italian, there were religious and ethnic conflicts aplenty.  These are not cosy village neighbours who might spread rumours but would still be the first to help in a crisis.  No.  This is a place where the “Chink” who runs the diner is habitually scapegoated or where your angry neighbour might shoot your dog and never say a word about it.

The Night We Stole the Mountie's CarThe Night We Stole the Mountie’s Car, published in 1971, picks up four years after Never Sleep Three in a Bed (years chronicled in Why Shoot the Teacher?, which I did not read this time around), after Max has survived his first years as a teacher and acquired his wife, Aileen.   As the book opens, Max is trying to secure a teaching job in the town of Wannego.  He gets it, beating out more than fifty other applicants through a combination of determination (rather than mailing his application, he drove to Wannego to accost the school board), connections (it turned out his father knew the head of the board), and canny politics (playing the board members off against each other, farmers versus their natural enemy: the bank manager).  It is one of many reminders about the scarcity of jobs during the Depression and the lengths the unemployed were willing to go to in order to obtain a post.

The rest of the book looks at Max and Aileen’s experiences during their years in Wannego.  There are some discussions about the school and Max’s teaching but mostly Braithwaite focuses on the townspeople.  When he does mention teaching, it is usually to point out how chaotic matters were.  He had the privilege of working under an excellent principal but, even so, there was little to like about a teacher’s life:

Today, when we have better education that we’ve ever had, everybody is a critic.  Housewives, businessmen, garbage collectors, professors, sports writers – they can all tell you what’s wrong with education.  It costs too much; it doesn’t cost enough.  It’s too easy on the kids; they have too much homework.  Not enough physical education; too much emphasis on sports.  Not enough discipline; too much conformity.  Education is a hot topic in the news media.  On a slack news day every editor and television producer knows he can get somebody to make a pronouncement on education.  It beats pollution by a mile, or even the population explosion.

In the 1930’s when everything was wrong with education nobody talked about it.  Teachers were poorly trained, discontented, underpaid; school boards were made up for the most part of uneducated, sometimes even illiterate, farmers and businessmen.  But nobody cared.  When given a chance, speakers absentmindedly mouthed platitudes about how our education system was “second to none” and about how we were “building this rugged land on firm foundations.”

Only the teachers knew what was wrong and worried about it.  But the teachers were so low in the social and economic pecking order that their voices were rarely heeded.

What time Max doesn’t spend teaching is spent writing.  These years in Wannego are spent learning and refining his craft and receiving many, many rejection notices.  Though they must have been painful lessons to learn, Braithwaite is unflinchingly honest in his criticisms of his flaws as a young writer.  Having read so many plays this year and come to appreciate the skill it takes to write a successful one, I particularly appreciated his panning of his first attempt at writing one (which was staged by the town’s dramatic society):

We had our first practice in our living room, during which we just read through the play.  And I discovered a most horrible truth.  My lines were terrible.  Speeches that sounded so lively and scintillating to me as I wrote them came out trite, dull and ridiculous.  Not because the players were inept – that too – but because the lines were very bad.

Where this book really excels – and I think it is the best of Braithwaite’s three autobiographical books – is in its portraits of ordinary Saskatchewanites: their pastimes, their prejudices, and their pleasures.  There are humourous anecdotes about softball tournaments, rivalries in the rustic tennis club, and a town play (written, directed, and acted in by Max) but there are even more bluntly-told stories of the other realities of Depression-era life on the prairies: couples terrified of having another baby they can ill-afford; a pretty teenage girl whose single mother wants her to go live with one of her own male “friends” in the city; an alcoholic who tries to keep his drinking secret from a town that knows everything; and so, so many bright young men, forced to leave school early and work (when and wherever they can)  to help support their parents and siblings.  For this last group at least, there would eventually come a time when they could prove themselves:

Make no mistake about it, many of my generation of Saskatchewanites were saved by the war.  Boys I’d known at school who were brilliant and never had a chance to prove it joined the army or the air force or the navy and gained rank the way a healthy steer gains weight.  Soon they were lieutenants, flying officers, colonels.  They had a chance to prove their worth.  The war set them on a ladder of success and they never stopped climbing.

My grandfather was in this group, albeit in Ontario not Saskatchewan.  Pulled from school when he was fourteen and loaned out to neighbouring farms where he laboured in exchange for goods or to work off debts, it wasn’t until the war that he had a chance to prove his intelligence or initiative.  Like so many young men, he gained confidence there and though he stayed on the farm for a few years after the war ended he eventually ended up working as a radio and eventually television host, as well as working at both the federal and provincial levels of government.  He never stopped regretting that his schooling ended at Grade Nine but he, like many of his contemporaries, did not let that hold him back.

In both books, it is hard not to draw parallels between some of Braithwaite’s commentary on the Depression and the recession-riddled world of today.  When the Depression begins, he discusses how pervasive stock speculation had become, to the extent that “even the school-teachers, traditionally the most timid members of society, were getting into the act, and if that doesn’t indicate that something was wrong I don’t know what would.”  He also, like so many young people now, though his father and “his generation had let us down, got us into the horrible mess of the depression through neglect, stupidity, wrong values and unwillingness to change.”  Plus ça change…

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I harbour a great affection for Stuart McLean, writer and host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Café.  I love listening to his radio show and am always excited when he releases a new book so it was with pleasure I picked up The Vinyl Café Notebooks at my local library.  Unlike McLean’s other Vinyl Café books, which focus on the lives and friends of one family, this is a collection of short essays written over fifteen years with no real focus. McLean discusses summer jobs and curling, Bob Dylan and W.O. Mitchell…anything and everything, really.  And it is delightful.  Warm and thoughtful, McLean is just as engaging in print as he is on air and, as always, his encouraging but never cloying glass-half-full view of the world is the perfect antidote to the prevailing cynicism we are surrounded by:

It is not said enough, so I’ll say it again: the world is a good place, full of good people, and when we act out of that, when we act out of hope, and optimism, and faith in our fellow human, we act out of our best selves, and we are capable of doing great things, and of contributing to the greater good.

Hope and optimism are not synonymous with naivety.  We should be looking to the future with flinty and steely eyes, for sure, but they should be wide open with hope, not squinting in fear. (p. 147)

The book is divided into vaguely thematic sections (Notes from Home, Calendar Notes, Notes from the Neighbourhood, etc) including one entitled Reader’s Notes, full of bookish musings or encounters.  There’s a wonderful piece entitled “The Island of No Adults” about an eight-year old girl who, having read one of those children’s adventure novels à la Enid Blyton where the children are off having adventures with no adults in sight, decides to run away to a neighbouring town to become a waitress.  As you do.  And I love how he describes a reader’s relationship with his or her bookshelf:

A bookshelf is a highly personal thing, and often the books on it bristle with emotional connections that no one would ever guess.  There are the old friends that you put on the shelf and return to often, acquaintances that sit there for years, untouched; there are the ones that slip away and are forgotten, and those that seem to wander off on their own accord, yet remain, ghostlike, to haunt the library, like an old lover, with feelings of regret, or sorrow, or confusion.  These are the books you think of from time to time and wonder what became of them, and if you would have anything to say to one another if you were in touch again.  (p. 208)

I also really loved how personal this book was, how close you feel to McLean while reading it.  Honestly, I didn’t know that much about him beforehand, about his background or family, his likes or dislikes, and everything I learned while reading this, I liked.  Particularly his affection, which I share, for always taking the long way round.  I’ve never met a logging road I don’t prefer to a highway, a dirt road that wasn’t more appealing than a paved one, and it only seems right that McLean, whose radio show has provided the soundtrack for many of my road trip adventures, feels the same:

Before I can go further, you should know this about me: if we were in a car together, you and I, and you were driving and we came to one of those moments where you pulled over and looked at me uncertainly, and said, ‘I’m not sure, what do you think?  Left?  Or right?’ I would, reflexively and consistently, choose the back road.  Fast roads bore me.  I like it when roads are winding and narrow, and there are places you can stop that don’t feel like the place where you stopped two hours ago.  I like the slow way.  (p 219)

But, without a doubt, my favourite part of the entire book was a bit entitled “Parliament Hill”, describing a trip McLean took to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, originally with the intention of viewing two of the rather unique items in the Parliamentary Library (a cake baked more than thirty years ago for the library’s one hundredth anniversary and an inkwell used at the Charlottetown Conference of 1864).  The trip quickly becomes about more than that, as McLean explores the building and encounters some very small, very touching aspects of its history.  I love Ottawa as I love few other places in this world and I remain in awe of the Parliament Buildings, for all they have witnessed, all they represent, and all they can be.  I have quoted this essay at length (quite the typing exercise!), wanting so much to share what had touched me so much:

If you have never been to the Parliament Buildings, the best way to walk into the Centre Block is to imagine yourself walking into a cathedral.  It is all limestone marble and gothic arches, bathed in the soft light of a setting sun, or as the parliamentarians would have us believe, I am certain, an approaching dawn.  You wouldn’t be surprised as you walked around to spot a red-cloaked bishop padding down one of the corridors, or I wouldn’t.  Like one of Canada’s grand railway hotels, Parliament is all history and tradition.

I wandered into the Centre Block, into the Rotunda, and then down the Hall of Honour heading to the Library of Parliament.        

Before I got there, however, I was drawn to another corridor – one that the public isn’t supposed to use.  It is reserved for members who want to slip out the back door of Parliament when they are trying to avoid people like me.  And there, tucked away in a small alcove, I stumbled on a sculpture, a small bust by the great French artist and father of modern sculpture Auguste Renoir. 

To Canada, read the plaque on the pedestal, whose sons shed their blood to safeguard world freedom.

The plaque is signed, from grateful France.

I am moved by grand gestures made with modesty.  By small, determined things.

On I went, and soon enough came to the library, where Irene Brown, the librarian on duty, told me with obvious disappointment that the cake I had been sent to see had begun to crumble and was no longer on display.  The inkwell was gone too.  It was in storage. 

Irene was soon joined by her colleague, a librarian named Louis, and with the spontaneous enthusiasm typical of librarians everywhere, they soon enough had set aside their work and joined me in mine. 

‘We could show you our favourite book,’ said Irene.

‘What book is that?’ I asked.

‘It was sent to Canada by Queen Victoria,’ said Irene. ‘After the death of her husband.’

‘Yes,’ says Louis.  ‘It is a collection of the Prince Consort’s speeches.  It is inscribed in the Queen’s hand.’

‘What does the inscription say?’ I asked.

‘To the library of Parliament,’ said Louis.

‘From a heartbroken widow,’ added Irene.

I passed a pleasant hour in the library before saying by goodbyes and continuing my wanderings.

I headed up to the top floor, the sixth floor, to the parliamentary restaurant, which I have always wanted to see.  The maitre d’, a woman named Margueritte, welcomed me just as graciously as the librarians had.

‘That table there,’ she said, pointing at an alcove near the door, ‘is reserved for the prime ministerThat alcove is for Conservative members, that one for Liberals, and that is where the NDP gather.’

Then, sensing my interest, she said, ‘Would you like to see the New Zealand Room?’

She took me to the back of the restaurant and into a small and elegant dining room with a table that would sit a dozen, but not one more.

‘It is paneled with wood sent by New Zealand after the Centre Block burned to the ground in 1916,’ she said.

And it was at this moment, as I stood there under the green copper roof of Parliament, in that modest dining room with its magnificent view of the Ottawa River, that I had my little epiphany.

One hundred years ago New Zealand was pretty much on the far side of the moon as far as Canada was concerned.  And vice versa.  Yet, in 1916 someone in New Zealand heard that our Parliament Buildings had burned to the ground, and they responded to that news in such an odd and yet peculiarly appropriate way.

They sent wood.  To Canada, of all places.  As if wood was something Canada was lacking.  And someone here received that gift with the respect with which it was given.  And those two small acts of respect had served the greater good.

And it occurred to me, as I stood there all these years later, in what is now known as the New Zealand Room, that we have lost our understanding of that sort of respect.

In its place we have developed an impulse for cynicism.  Too quickly we look at our politics and our politicians as if everything was easy to figure out; as if compromises didn’t have to be made; as if you can always say exactly what you mean; as if a thoughtful person can’t reflect on something and then change his or her mind; as if the business of governing isn’t complicated.

Cynicism is an easy place to pitch a tent.  And it is worth remembering, when we are tempted by that soft and undemanding clearing in the forest, that there are more noble campsites.

Parliament has been, and could still be, the best of us.  And, I would put forward, it behooves us to embrace that possibility, to admit to that possibility, to own that possibility and, most importantly, to expect it.  These are important days.  This is an important place.  We owe it many things.  Our passions, our commitments, our truths and, yes, our respect.  The broken-hearted QueenVictoria showed that when she signed and sent that book in the memory of her husband.  Auguste Renoir showed it as he fashioned that sculpture for all of France.  Those New Zealanders showed it as they bundled together their little shipment of wood.  Those librarians show it as they guard that inkwell still.  And so should we, each one of us, as we come together in our todays and our tomorrows, to consider, as best we can, the great questions of our times.

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I’m afraid that Moving Pictures by Kathryn and Stuart Immonen, while much praised by other, far more knowledgeable reviewers of graphic novels, left me cold.  Graphic novels aren’t my thing.  I have enjoyed a few – I’ve been particularly delighted by Guy Delisle’s graphic memoirs – but more often than not I find the medium jarring and ill-suited to tell a story that might otherwise have captivated me.  And this story, sketched out in the barest possible terms, had all the potential to be a gripping one. 

Individually, each panel is striking.  The graphics articulately express the tension that pervades the novel.  Everything is restrained and stark except for the paintings in the museum.  These are recreated in extravagant detail.  The famous subjects bend and curve and emote, breathing life into characters’ otherwise restrained existence.  But the art provides the only real energy in the book and it is strangely at odds with the dry, vague text of the novel.  More than anything, the scenes from the book felt like vignettes from a larger tale, as though the real storytelling was taking place somewhere else.  You could piece together the story from what was there but you couldn’t help but feel that there was a richer, more satisfying narrative behind this work, something you were being denied access to.   

I went into this book knowing it had a Canadian heroine (Ila) and was set in wartime Paris where museum and gallery curators were working to ‘misplace’ items from their collections before they could be handed over to the Nazi occupiers.  I’m not sure I came out of the reading knowing all that much more, which was so frustrating!  Ila’s conflicted relationship with Rolf Hauptmann – by turns her lover, her interrogator, and her rival – seems so intriguing.  I want to know more about them, I want a full book devoted to their personal interactions.  Instead I get a few lines of incredibly restrained dialogue.  I want that novel and I want it now.  Doesn’t that sound like a book you would read?  

While I’m glad that I tried another graphic novel, this wasn’t a particularly successful reading experience for me.  There’s simply too much story – or rather, the promise of a story – for such a slim, minimalist volume.

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It’s rather trendy these days to be deeply interested in your food and its origins, to want to know where and how it was grown, even by whom, or, better yet, to do the growing yourself.  I am absolutely a fan of this new agro-consciousness.  Bring on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, The 100 Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, almost anything by the prolific but obnoxious Mr. Pollan, and dozens of new titles seemingly every month.  In the 20th Century, we learned how to feed the world’s growing population with the advancements of the Green Revolution.  In the 21st, our challenge is to continue to feed all 6.7 billion of us (or whatever the number is these days) but to do so in a sustainable manner, conserving resources.  In Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields to Rooftop Gardens – How Canadians Are Changing the Way We Eat by Sarah Elton, Elton explains the issue in her introduction:

The way we eat today is not sustainable.  In the years since the Second World War, we have industrialized the practice of farming around the world and created a polluting food system that is dependent on fossil fuels.  On the farm, we use machines powered by oil and gas, instead of human muscle and horses, to work the land and to irrigate it too.  The good news is that technology has allowed farmers to reap high returns per hour of labour they spend in the fields, which has meant a huge improvement in standard of living of all of us.  We’ve been freed as a society from the drudgery and poverty of subsistence farming that was the reality of life for so many Canadians over the centuries.  A farmer today is able to produce, per hour of labour, 350 times more than a First Nations farmer would have on the same North American soils.  To live free from subsistence farming is undeniably a good thing.  However, to support this way of farming, we use natural gas to make fertilizer to treat the soil so we can plant the vast monocultures – only one crop planted over acres and acres – that epitomizes large-scale agriculture.  These monocrops are more susceptible to pests, so we then make pesticides from oil to kill the insects.  Then we continue to use our precious resources to irrigate, transport, and process the crops. (P. 11-12)

Elton has written as fascinating survey of agriculture in Canada at the start of the Twenty First Century that is refreshingly reasonable and well-balanced.  Divided into two equally fascinating sections, the first dealing with the rural farmers, the second with consumers in the city, Elton managers to remain optimistic as she considers the struggles both groups face in the name of sustainable agriculture.  The farming section is, as was to be expected, the most depressing.  Most farmers in Canada are nearing or past retirement age with no children to succeed them on family farms often mired in debt.  Profit, if there is any, is usually minute, a lesson I learned well at University: my housemate started an agro-tourism business on his family farm while in high school and within two years it was generating more revenue than the cattle business they’d been running for generations.  It’s sad that farmers, so vital to our survival, can’t make a decent wage but then it’s a global market and the reality is you’re competing for supermarket contracts with overseas producers who pay their labour pennies a day.  What I loved was that Elton’s answer to this question – not so much hers as the farmers she interviews – wasn’t to subsidize farmers; it was to find new ways of distributing the yield and cutting out the middlemen who push the wholesale costs down so low.  Farmers’ markets, local co-op stands or shops, CSA boxes, agreements between farmers and city restaurants…there are so many creative and productive options available that have been successful all across the country, in some cases for decades.   

Elton also takes on the myth of food miles, the belief that eating something that was grown close to where you bought it is more efficient than eating something that was produced further away and shipped in because of the energy consumed in the transportation.  I absolutely agree that it’s more intelligent to eat a carrot or a potato grown near you than one shipped in from California or Idaho.  But are we going to give up eating bananas, or any number of delicious fruits, vegetables, and spices that have become a normal part of our diet over the last decades because we can’t grow them in our harsh climate?   Elton takes a wonderfully level-headed approach to the question: 

We don’t have to abandon coffee, chocolate and spices to support a new food system.  Rather, the ideal of a strong local food economy is to eat good, healthy food that is produced with the least environmental impact.  This usually means food that is produced nearby, but includes imports that are produced and transported sustainably. (P. 15)

Growing bananas in South America and shipping them north makes infinitely more sense than trying to replicate the South American climate in greenhouses across Canada.  The focus, really, should be not on eating what is produced locally but what is produced and transported efficiently.  In some cases that will mean eating what is local, in others what is imported:

Despite the prevalent belief that food grown closer to where it is eaten is better for the environment, food miles are not the best way to measure sustainability.  In fact, it can often take fewer kilocalories to grow food and ship it great distances to where it is eaten than it takes for a local farmer to truck food to a nearby market.  Because local doesn’t trump sustainable, the way we grow our food in Canada therefore must change too. (P. 14)

I thoroughly enjoyed Locavore. While I found the first section of the book the most fascinating, the second half dealing with city dwellers was equally well done, though I haven’t discussed it much here.  Given that this is a topic I’ve been interested in for years (mostly because it was one that interested my family – both of my father’s sets of grandparents were farmers and at university he was a rural land use major) it’s not a surprise that I was so engaged throughout the book.  However, it’s also a book that I would not hesitate to pass on to my only vaguely interested friends – both Canadian and foreign, since the issues facing Canada are the same ones facing most Western nations.  Elton’s journalist approach to her topic, her graceful and engaging weaving of interviews and statistics, both educates and entertains.  Indeed, I am certain that at least one person I know will probably receive this for Christmas!  

And, for anyone wondering how we can move forward towards a more sustainable model, here’s Elton’s conclusion:

On the farm, we need to move towards a holistic understanding of agriculture that takes its cues from nature, supports biodiversity and relies less and less on fossil fuels.  Farmers must make a living wage and be respected for their work, something achieved by rehumanizing the food chain and connecting farmers with consumers through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture while at the same time developing new supply chains for institutions such as universities and hospitals.  When devising our new food system, we need not dwell on the past and replicate subsistence agriculture.  Instead, we can push forward to fashion something new and innovative, using our technology and our imagination to design energy-efficient greenhouses and other novel ways of producing food.

In the city, we need to grow some of what we eat and figure out how to incorporate food production into the metropolis.  By connecting with the food chain, and eating well, we will be more likely to experience a cultural shift and watch a gastronomy of place take hold. (P. 209)

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Is there anything more fascinating than the end of the world or, at the very least, society as we know it?  I’ve loved apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction ever since my father first handed me an old, beaten up copy of Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle when I was thirteen or fourteen.  Part of the reason I’m drawn to Douglas Coupland is because he seems to share this fascination: he’s certainly touched on it in several of his previous novels and with Player One: What Is to Become of Us it takes center stage.

A story told in five hours, from five perspectives (though only four characters), Player One contains a typical Coupland assortment of oddballs and losers trapped in a suitably bleak airport hotel cocktail lounge.  Even at the best of times, is there anywhere more depressing than the hub of soulless hotels, restaurants, and bars that encircle any modern airport?  Having found myself trapped repeatedly in these places, I know only too well the loss of identity that a traveler can feel surrounded by inoffensive, forgettable décor, remarkable only for its complete lack of distinguishing characteristics.  And that is where our main characters, supplemented by several welcome and unwelcome visitors, find themselves as the world as they know it comes to an end.

Trapped inside the lounge are Karen, a single mother who flew in to Toronto to meet a man she met online in a Peak Oil Apocalypse chat room; Rick, the lounge bartender and alcoholic; Luke, a pastor who stole his congregation’s savings and fled; and Rachel, also known as Player One, a teenage Hitchcock-esque blonde incapable of normal human interaction, determined to get pregnant to prove her humanity.  They’re a strange lot and it is through their eyes that we witness a rather eventful five hours as oil prices hit unimaginable heights and society, as a result, descends into anarchy.  I am incredibly appreciative that the crisis is economic rather than a more clichéd catastrophic natural disaster or act of war/terrorism. 

The novel, perhaps disappointingly for some, doesn’t have that much to do with the chaos happening outside the lounge.  Trapped inside, the characters ponder many things – including human identity, religion, ethics, and the afterlife – little of which have much to do with their new reality.  It’s an interesting character study and I was fully engaged while I was reading it, particularly with the strange but wonderful Rachel.  Perhaps the most interesting question raised was ‘what is it to be human?’  Given that this was written for the Massey Lectures, the entire point of which is the discussion of ideas, I say that it was a success as even now, weeks after finishing the book, I’m still pondering some of the questions it raised. 

Coupland clearly has an idea of what this new world will look like, where oil will never go below $350 a barrel, as he has created a complete glossary or “Future Legend” for the New Normal.  With such a complex vision of what the future will look like, it seems strange that it’s merely tacked onto the end.  This is where the creativity went, this is where his imagination ran wild, not in the body of the text but in the appendix.  I find that both strange and wonderful.  Strange because I would have loved to have read more about the evolution of this New Normal but wonderful because it’s just barely sketched out for us and each reader can imagine it for him or herself. 

In fact, Coupland seems to have been busy writing glossaries/guides lately: The Globe and Mail recently published his “A Radical Pessimist’s Guide to the Next 10 Years”, which is as fascinating, and plausible, as it is pessimistic. 

Many thanks to Trish at House of Anansi Press for sending me a copy of Player One to review after I’d expressed an interest in my Giller Prize Longlist post.  The time between when my post went up and when I got her email (less than 12 hours) was particularly impressive – if only I could be so prompt with my reviews!

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Is there anything more frustrating than reading a good book that, with a judicious editor, could have been great?  The Best-Laid Plans by Terris Fallis skewers two of my favourite satire subjects: politics and higher education.  Daniel Addison, a young political aide for the Opposition, quits just as the country in preparing for an election but grudgingly agrees to locate a candidate for his new riding to run against the country’s amazingly popular finance minister.  Daniel gets his candidate, a dour engineering professor named Angus McLintock, by guaranteeing that there’s no way this election can be won and by agreeing to take over Angus’ much hated English for Engineers teaching duties.  But, as the title suggests, things go somewhat awry.

Daniel, as our hapless everyman, is both endearing and annoying.  He comes across as timid and susceptible.  With few exceptions, his successes are brought about by quirks of fate and have nothing to do with his intentions.   

Angus, on the other hand, is magnificent.  Plain-spoken, unconcerned with appearances, and utterly unpredictable, he is a force to be reckoned with.  He is a folk hero for a modern, jaded age, a politician with no political agenda.  And he has a homemade hovercraft, which makes him ridiculously cool.  Even if he is an engineer (as a B.Comm I am sworn to mock engineers as they were the only foes worthy of our attention on campus).  Indeed, my favourite parts of the novel might have been the English for Engineers (E for E) classes that Daniel gives to hopeless first years.

When you tire of mocking politicians, academics are always a worthy target and the following exchange between Lindsay, the object of Daniel’s affections, and Daniel discussing their prolonged adolescence/continuing education, amused me to no end:

‘…I sometimes think I’m pursuing the graduate degree because I don’t know what I want to do.  A master’s seemed like a worthwhile stalling tactic.’

‘In my humble, PhD-addled opinion, staying in school is seldom a bad idea regardless of the reasons.  I don’t think I really started to appreciate the university experience until halfway through my master’s.’ (p.82-83)

This seems to encapsulate the attitudes of so many of my friends, who, two years after we graduated, are starting their PhDs, fully planning to spend as many years as possible hiding out on yet another university campus. 

It was the first half of the novel that let me down, the over-long section leading up to the fateful election.  The narrative rambled and the so-called amusing bits about Daniel slipping in dog shit were painful: does Fallis really think people who are looking for political satire are the same to enjoy such juvenile humour?  What could have been amusing bits were drawn out for too long, belabouring a once funny point and destroying any traces of wit.  As readers are too often reminded, drama is easy, comedy is hard.  It requires restraint and a light touch, trusting that the reader is intelligent enough to understand.  The novel did settle as it progressed though and my amusement by the end was genuine and unmarred by the embarrassment of earlier gaffs.  I’m quite looking forward to the newly-released sequel, The High Road, and hopeful that Fallis’ second effort will refine on the promise of his first.     

More than anything, this book made me desperately miss Ottawa.  After Vancouver, there is no where in Canada that I love more.  With his many mentions of local attractions and favourite restaurants, Fallis made me long for a city that I once knew so well but now haven’t visited in more than two years.  That’s a desperately long time to have gone without visiting the National Gallery, eating at Mamma Teresa’s or just wandering through Byward Market or along the canal (or skating along it in the winter).  At the end of the novel, the city is brought to a standstill by a massive blizzard, watched from a room overlooking Parliament at the Chateau Laurier by two of the main characters.  As much as I loathe snow, I can’t think of a more romantic setup than that.  And whatever flaws this novel may have, I will forgive them all for this one sentence, describing Daniel’s feeling on the exquisite Library of Parliament, possibly the most perfect place in the nation for any true bibliophile: “I’d entered that place dozens, even hundreds of times and always felt a slight wobble in my knees as I passed over the threshold”(p. 166).

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Giller Prize Longlist

The longlist for this year’s Giller Prize was announced yesterday and I have read exactly one of the nominated titles: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.  I do have two others (Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart and Curiosity by Joan Thomas) on hold at the library but what’s truly sad is how many of the titles I’m completely unfamiliar with.  It’s not unusual that I’m completely oblivious to short story collections coming out – that’s par for the course – but how did I miss hearing anything about the soon to be released Player One by Douglas Coupland (based on his 2010 Massey Lecture)?  Between his writing and his art, does Coupland never rest? 

What is rather exciting here is the gender balance of the nominated authors: 6 men to 7 women.  With the never-ending discussion among bloggers and critics of why literature by men seems to be taken more seriously than that by women, it’s nice to see equal recognition. 

Here’s the full list:

David Bergen for his novel THE MATTER WITH MORRIS, Phyllis Bruce Books/Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.

Douglas Coupland for his novel PLAYER ONE, House of Anansi Press

Michael Helm for his novel CITIES OF REFUGE, McClelland & Stewart

Alexander MacLeod for his short story collection LIGHT LIFTING, Biblioasis

Avner Mandelman for his novel THE DEBBA, Other Press/Random House of Canada

Tom Rachman for his novel THE IMPERFECTIONISTS, The Dial Press/Random House of Canada

Sarah Selecky for her short story collection THIS CAKE IS FOR THE PARTY, Thomas Allen Publishers

Johanna Skibsrud for her novel THE SENTIMENTALISTS, Gaspereau Press

Cordelia Strube for her novel LEMON, Coach House Books

Joan Thomas for her novel CURIOSITY, McClelland & Stewart

Jane Urquhart for her novel SANCTUARY LINE, McClelland & Stewart

Dianne Warren for her novel COOL WATER, Phyllis Bruce Books/Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.

Kathleen Winter for her novel ANNABEL, House of Anansi Press

Have you read any of these titles?  Any predictions for the shortlist?

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Is there ever a good time to read about childbirth?  My logic in picking up Great Expectations: Twenty-Four True Stories about Childbirth edited by Dede Crane and Lisa Moore was that it was probably best to read these stories well before I even start thinking about having babies.  This may have been a tactical error.  I would absolutely not recommend reading this while pregnant but I’m now thinking the best time to read it may be once your child-bearing years are past and, ideally, once you’ve had children of your own and can scoff at the descriptions of pain.  My mother’s reaction when I mentioned the book to her was “why on earth would you do something like that to yourself?”  She knows what she’s about, my mother (though, memorably, she is also the woman who considers a bikini wax far more painful than childbirth). 

Yes, the stories are excellent and fascinating and contain incredibly informative levels of detail, but they’re also absolutely terrifying.  The few stories from the male perspective were a welcome relief, offering an emotional rather than physical interpretation of the process.  Indeed, aside from a description of trying to get to the Kingston hospital during Queen’s Homecoming weekend that brought back fond memories of my university days, my favourite passage was written by one of the fathers, Michael Redhill: 

The last moments before he arrived, when his head was out and only Anne’s last pushes were to come, the awareness washed over me that mere instants separated me from the last moment in my life when I wasn’t necessary to the first moment when I was.  This thought frightened me, as I imagine it should frighten any sensible person.  You can love those who are gong to leave you – either because they precede you or because they can leave you if they choose to – and you can love in the dark knowledge of this.  Your parents will die, your loved ones may suffer a change of mood and move on.  But to begin to love someone you know you will leave, because nature must have it so, is a very heavy thing indeed.  Here came the boy who would bury me.  Whom I would love for the rest of my life, but not for all of his.  I was bringing him into future loss.  There is nothing more beautiful or dreadful than this. (P. 189)

As much as it disturbed me, I did really enjoy this book.  I’m still not sure who the target audience is though: people I know with babies of their own are far more interested in telling their own birth stories (to the despair of their listeners) than hearing those of others.  Couples who are expecting are always eager for information but this is most definitely not the way to get it (or, rather, it’s an education that you’ll not be able to forget in time for the birth, which is what you’ll want to do).  I’ll admit that a large part of the allure for me was that it is a Canadian book and the contributors represent a who’s who of Can-Lit, with memorable entries from authors I might not otherwise have been drawn to: Lynn Coady’s tale of teen pregnancy and Jaclyn Moriarty’s inclusion of both her mother and her grandmother’s birth stories alongside her own were particularly memorable.  No two stories are alike, varying in both tone and experience.  A few of the entries deal with the worst case scenarios everyone prays to never encounter but, for the most part, the births are as normal as any life-changing event can be.

A fascinating, if psychologically troubling, read but certainly not the book to give a friend at her baby shower!

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When I started this blog in January, the first book I reviewed was Canadians by Roy MacGregor, noting that “I have a particular weakness for navel-gazing books about Canada and the elusive Canadian identity.”  While MacGregor wrote eloquently on the topic, there is no author who has done more to articulate the Canadian experience than Pierre Berton.  Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a home library in Canada that doesn’t have at least one of his history books, usually The Last Spike (personally, I’m partial to Vimy and Marching As to War).  In most of his books, Berton examines what it means to be Canadian and where that sense of national pride originates but, to my knowledge, Why We Act Like Canadians is the only volume entirely devoted to this study.  Now apparently out of print, it’s an eloquent and surprisingly undated analysis of those myths and experiences that shaped the national character.

The book takes the form of letters written to Sam, an American friend with little knowledge of his northern neighbour.  For a book written in 1982 (the first letter is dated April 17, the day the Constitution Act was signed), it’s amazing how much of what he says still resonates.  “…why did we let the Mounties get away with all those crimes?” he asks, referring to a scandal of the day.  Almost thirty years later, the RCMP is still scandalizing us with their behaviour but we’re as happy as ever to take no action.  Berton’s explanations as to the national weakness for redcoats still holds true:

The frontier Mountie was actually a solider, disguised as a policeman by a shrewd prime minister who didn’t want to annoy you Americans; had soldiers chased the whiskey traders back to Montana it might have been considered an act of war.  But the Mountie quickly became more than a solider.  Over the years he took his place as a father figure in a nation that adores father figures.  Incorruptible, adaptable, courageous, courteous, kind (he had all the Boy Scout virtues, as well as the hat), the Mounties comforting presence prevented our west from going wild.  The Indians called him ‘father’ to his face, but it was not only the Indians who appreciated his paternal qualities. (p.28-29)

“A nation that adores father figures.”  I can’t get over that description and how much it still resonates.  So much of the Canadian identity revolves around being secure, being cautious.  We love institutional authority, though hold significant contempt for the individuals who wield it – the very opposite of the American ethos, with its passionate reverence of the President.  We love authority because we love order – the one cannot exist without the other, certainly not in a country as large and as sparsely populated as Canada.  For this, we have been called socialists (still are, in fact, even by the mainstream American media) but it remains as staunchly Canadian value:

…historically, Canadians put order first, individual freedoms second.  I think it’s fair to say that for most of our history we have tended to look askance at what we considered to be a permissive society below the border.  ‘Liberty,’ in our northern view, is alarmingly close to ‘libertine’. (p. 40-41)

Immigration and nature are favourite topics in Berton’s writing and his most eloquent passages are devoted to them.  For those unfamiliar with Canada’s rather amusing nation-building attempts, Berton provides an excellent summary of our approach to immigration:

What we really wanted were well-to-do, right-thinking, English farmers.  Unfortunately these had no intention of leaving so we settled for those Europeans who came to Canada to escape intolerable conditions at home; and we lured them, in our stolid Canadian way, not with romantic slogans but with the promise of free homesteads and rich farmland.  Canada was advertised not as the land of the brave and the home of the free but as a place to make money.

            Thus, the much-touted mosaic is the result of good old Canadian compromise, an adjustment to the kind of tensions produced when reality doesn’t match up with the ideal.  We wanted proper-thinking Brits; we got Slavic peasants.  So we made a virtue out of ethnicity; and ever since we’ve gone along with those groups who want to retain something of their original culture, language, and dress – like the Quebeckers.  It’s said, for instance, that more Gaelic is spoke on Cape Breton Island than in all of Scotland.  The onion-shaped domes of the Greek and Ukrainian Orthodox churches are as familiar to our prairie landscape as the grain elevator.  In Canada, where Italian flags can outnumber maple leafs and half the short-wave radios in the Dufferin area of Toronto are tuned to Rome, the babushka is almost as familiar as the kilt. (p. 71)

And like any book about the Canadian identity, Berton takes the time to mention the Scots.  Even in the 21st Century, when our greatest waves of immigration come from Asia and not Europe, the hard-working Scot is still the ideal that so many strive for.  I remember in school how those of us with no Scottish ancestors (a large proportion, since most of my schoolmates were from Hong Kong) longed for at least one red-headed great-great-grandparent.  But why?  The Scots were hardly the first group to come to Canada and though their culture may have come to dominate certain regions, they remained concentrated, staying mostly in Eastern and Central Canada.  For whatever reason, we revere the Scottish settlers, even those of us who came relatively recently and have no Scottish background of our own:

If we are a sober people who sometimes equate ‘fun’ with ‘sin’, and liquor with the devil; if we feel guilty when we succumb to distractions; if we squirrel away our money in banks at twice your per capita rate; if we are canny to the point of overcaution – some of these qualities are traceable to the Scottish influence and the Scottish example.  For of all the immigrant cultures that form the Canadian mosaic, the most admired is the Scottish. P. 79

And as for nature?  What Canadian can’t go on for hours about the awesome beauty of our country, and of the danger it contains?  I am half convinced that it’s this theme alone, man versus nature, that drove many Canadian authors to write in the first place – it’s certainly well-represented in our literature.  But it’s inescapable.  “We are a wilderness nation; it has not been easy to come to terms with a harsh environment.  Geography has been our enemy more often than it has been our friend” (P. 104).  Wherever you are in the country, there are moments when you feel humbled by its size, its emptiness, its power.  Perhaps it is this omnipresent foe that keeps us humble, that instills in us the deferential attitude that so amuses foreign visitors:

Dwarfed by nature, we Canadians have every reason to feel like lesser creatures in a Brobdingnagian world.  Few have seen the cliffs of Baffin or the eskers of the tundra but we all live cheek by jowl with the wilderness; and all of us, I think, feel the empty and awesome presence of the North.  If we are not as cocky as we might wish to be, if we are more sober than those who live by placid, sunlit waters, it is party because of an uncanny environment that beckons even as it repels, seductive in its beauty, fearsome in its splendour. P. 109

Bowties are cool

As with all of Berton’s works, it is beautifully written.  No other author has ever captured the romance of our history as he could.  In these letters to Sam the American, he does an excellent job of praising Canada without belittling the States, no easy task and a show of restraint certainly not expected by his target audience.  And because the style is such that he looks to parallel or contrast Canada and the States, I think that makes this much more accessible for non-Canadian readers.  He gives the necessary historical information in his typically engaging way, so readers really shouldn’t need any specific knowledge of Canadian history of culture to thoroughly enjoy this. 

I can do no more to praise this than to report, truthfully, that it is the most perfect book I have ever read about the Canadian identity.  But one would hardly expect less from Berton, the undisputed authority on the history and legacy of the people who have made Canada what it is.

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At the beginning of July, when I wrote up my recommended reading Canada Day post , I wasn’t even thinking of the Canadian Book Challenge 4.  I’m not sure why: if there’s one thing I’ve felt strongly about my entire reading life, it’s promoting Canadian authors and publishers (I was a very zealous little six year old, trust me).  Finally, at the end of July I came to my senses and decided to join the challenge.  And I meant to write a post about it then, I really did.  Obviously, like most things I planned to do in July, it got away from me.

 

 

So, without any further delay, here are just a few of the titles I’m thinking of reading for the challenge (doing research for this challenge has been far too easy – most of my wish list is Can Lit):

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
From a CBC review: Set during the siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990s, the novel recounts in spare prose the struggles of three of the city’s inhabitants: a female sniper who calls herself Arrow; Kenan, a father on a trip to get water for his family and a cantankerous neighbour; and Dragan, a baker on his way to work. Connecting them is the cellist, who plays each afternoon in a crater left by a mortar shell in front of his building. In this spot, 22 people were killed while waiting to buy bread. In commemoration, the musician promises to put bow to string for as many days as there were victims.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
From Amazon: It’s the beginning of a lazy summer in 1950 at the sleepy English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Up at the great house of Buckshaw, aspiring chemist Flavia de Luce passes the time tinkering in the laboratory she’s inherited from her deceased mother and an eccentric great uncle. When Flavia discovers a murdered stranger in the cucumber patch outside her bedroom window early one morning, she decides to leave aside her flasks and Bunsen burners to solve the crime herself, much to the chagrin of the local authorities. But who can blame her? What else does an eleven-year-old science prodigy have to do when left to her own devices?

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
From the publisher: Abducted as an 11-year-old child from her village in West Africa and forced to walk for months to the sea in a coffle—a string of slaves— Aminata Diallo is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina. But years later, she forges her way to freedom, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering her name in the historic “Book of Negroes.” This book, an actual document, provides a short but immensely revealing record of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the US for resettlement in Nova Scotia, only to find that the haven they sought was steeped in an oppression all of its own. Aminata’s eventual return to Sierra Leone—passing ships carrying thousands of slaves bound for America—is an engrossing account of an obscure but important chapter in history that saw 1,200 former slaves embark on a harrowing back-to-Africa odyssey.

The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
From the publisher: A burnt-out political aide quits just before an election — but is forced to run a hopeless campaign on the way out. He makes a deal with a crusty old Scot, Angus McLintock — an engineering professor who will do anything, anything, to avoid teaching English to engineers — to let his name stand in the election. No need to campaign, certain to lose, and so on.  Then a great scandal blows away his opponent, and to their horror, Angus is elected.

Beyond Belfast by Will Ferguson
From the publisher: …the story of one man’s misguided attempt at walking the entire Ulster Way: a 560-mile path that circles Northern Ireland, from the city walls of Derry to the moorland heights of the Sperrins, from the green glens of Antrim to the Mountains of Mourne.  Along the way, Will Ferguson, grandson of a Belfast orphan, uncovers his own hidden family history. 

High Society by Dave Sim
A political satire told in graphic novel form.

Jalna by Mazo de la Roche
The first in the Whiteoaks series.  I remember learning about Mazo de la Roche while studying Canadian history in school – her Whiteoaks series, begun in the 1920s, was a cultural phenomenon.

The Promise of Rain by Donna Milner
From the author’s website: Ethie was born after her father returned from the war. She never knew him as he was before – an open, loving man and a devoted husband. When his wife dies in bizarre circumstances, he becomes even more silent and withdrawn.

Howard was one of two thousand Canadian soldiers sent to the Far East shortly before Pearl Harbor. Surviving the fierce battle for Hong Kong, he was captured and imprisoned by the Japanese.

Ethie’s father hides more than the physical and mental scars inflicted by his captors. Something happened in Hong Kong, a secret that has haunted him for two decades and one that could destroy his family should it ever come to light. Ethie – inquisitive and fearless- is determined to discover the truth.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) by Ann-Marie MacDonald
From the back cover: In this exuberant comedy-and original revision of Shakespeare’s Othello and Romeo and Juliet-Constance Ledbelly, a drab and dusty academic, deciphers a cryptic manuscript she believes to be the original source for the tragedies, and is transported into the plays themselves. She visits Juliet and Desdemona, has a hand in saving them, and finds out what these women are about. In true Shakespearean spirit, Constance plunders the plays and creates something new, all the while engaging in a personal voyage of self-discovery.

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger
From the publisher: Lady Duff Gordon is the toast of Victorian London society. But when her debilitating tuberculosis means exile, she and her devoted lady”s maid, Sally, set sail for Egypt. It is Sally who describes, with a mixture of wonder and trepidation, the odd menage (marshalled by the resourceful Omar) that travels down the Nile to a new life in Luxor. When Lady Duff Gordon undoes her stays and takes to native dress, throwing herself into weekly salons, language lessons and excursions to the tombs, Sally too adapts to a new world, which affords her heady and heartfelt freedoms never known before. But freedom is a luxury that a maid can ill-afford, and when Sally grasps more than her status entitles her to, she is brutally reminded that she is mistress of nothing.

Tamarind Mem by Anita Rau Badimi
From the publisher: Set in India’s railway colonies, this is the story of Kamini and her mother Saroja, nicknamed Tamarind Mem due to her sour tongue. While in Canada beginning her graduate studies, Kamini receives a postcard from her mother saying she has sold their home and is travelling through India. Both are forced into the past to confront their dreams and losses and to explore the love that binds mothers and daughters everywhere.

The Book of Secrets by M.G. Vassanji
From the publisher: …a spellbinding novel of generations and the sweep of history which begins in 1988 in Dar es Salaam when the 1913 diary of a British colonial officer is found in a shopkeeper’s back room. The diary enflames the curiosity of a retired schoolteacher, Pius Fernandes, whose obsession with the stories it contains gradually connects the past with the present.

The Siren Years by Charles Ritchie
From the publisher: In wartime England, Ritchie, as Second Secretary at the Canadian High Commission, served as private secretary to Vincent Massey, whose second-in-command was Lester B. Pearson, future prime minister of Canada. In a perfect position to observe both statecraft and the London social whirl that continued even during the war, Ritchie provides a fascinating, perceptive, and (surprisingly) humorous picture of the London Blitz – the people in the parks, the shabby streets, the heightened love affairs – and the vagaries of the British at war.

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