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Archive for the ‘Stuart McLean’ Category

For me and many other Canadians (and enlightened Americans living near the border), one of the much-anticipated pleasures of the holiday season for many years was listening to Stuart McLean debut a new Christmas story on his CBC radio show.  You knew you could tune in and spend half an hour that would lead you from collapsing with hysterical laughter to blinking back surprisingly emotional tears.  It was a wonderful tradition.

Stuart passed away from cancer in February 2017 so intellectually I know there are no more stories coming.  But emotionally, I know nothing of the sort.  I long for his characteristically humorous and touching stories this time of the year and, even if Stuart is no longer around to read them, we still have his books to keep us company.  And so, earlier this week, I found myself reaching for Home from the Vinyl Café.

Published in 1998, this was Stuart’s second volume of Vinyl Café stories.  The Vinyl Café was the name of his radio program but it was also the name of the record shop run by Dave, the hapless hero of his stories.  Dave, his wife Morley, and their children, Stephanie and Sam, were the focus of twenty-odd years of radio stories as Stuart chronicled their lives in a normal Toronto neighbourhood with stories of neighbourhood rivalries and friendships, social faux pas (something Dave was particularly subject too), Stephanie and Sam’s growing pains and Dave and Morley’s nostalgia for their own childhoods.  They were wonderful stories and this book is a particularly wonderful collection of them.

It begins with the first – and one of the very best – of the Vinyl Café Christmas stories: “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  This appears to be available on the CBC website (here – this story starts around 24:30) so if you’re able to listen, go now and do so.  It will be time well spent.  Just make sure you’re somewhere you can laugh uproariously without alarming too many people.  Dave’s wife Morley, after years of carrying the burden of all the holiday preparations as well as the day-to-day administering of their busy family, accepts Dave’s offer to help with Christmas this year: Dave can cook the turkey.  He commits, happy to make a small offering towards marital harmony, but realises only on Christmas Eve that he has forgotten to buy the turkey.  Determined to have the perfect Christmas dinner ready for his family (who are conveniently out of the house volunteering for most of Christmas day), he uses all of his ingenuity to acquire and cook a bird.  But the path he takes is far from conventional and the results are hysterically funny.

The next story in the collection is one of my all-time favourites and could not be more different from “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  “Holland” tells the story of how Dave and Morley met in the 1970s and their early married life.  It’s a story about the struggles to combine lives and traditions, and the work – and love, and patience – that is required to make that happen.  It’s a beautiful story and one that has stayed fresh in my mind ever since I first heard all those years ago.  Someone has helpfully uploaded it to YouTube so you can listen here (it’s been split into two parts).

There are some other equally classic stories in this book – “Burd”, about what happens when a rare bird decides to winter in Dave and Morley’s backyard, and “Polly Anderson’s Christmas Party”, which involves an awkward neighbourhood gathering and a mix up with the eggnog bowls – but others I’d forgotten.  So many of the stories look at the anxiety Dave and Morley feel as parents, worrying about Sam and music lessons, or Stephanie and teenage romances, and they show what Stuart could do so well: make fun of the little things while always staying true to the heart of the matter.

I love these stories.  I have read them countless times and I will read them countless more, alongside all the other volumes of Stuart’s books.  They bring me great pleasure at this and any other time of year and I hope, if they’re not already a part of your life, you will give them a try.  I can’t imagine them not bringing you joy.

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Revenge of the Vinyl CafeThere is an art to telling a simple story.  Some people cannot do it.  They need to tell you all about the inner lives of their characters, even the aspects that have nothing to do with the story; they must describe the setting down to the smallest drop of dew on a leaf in a forest that none of the characters ever enter; and they must make absolutely sure that you appreciate the brilliance of the them, the author, as much as you appreciate their creation.  But it is usually the simplest stories that attract me the most, which is why I was so happy to read Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean.

For almost twenty years now, McLean, a Canadian writer and broadcaster, has been telling stories on his CBC radio show, the Vinyl Cafe.  And for many of those years, I have been listening.  The highlight of any episode is the “Dave and Morley Story”, though these days the stories are just as likely to be about one of their children – university student Stephanie or preteen Sam – or neighbours.   They are humourous stories, particularly the ones focused on Dave (an enthusiastic record store owner who has never encountered a sticky situation he could not make infinitely worse), but they are so fondly and tenderly told that I more often than not find myself tearing up, sometimes even as I am laughing.

I love all the characters in Dave and Morley’s world and I love how their world is recognizable but also just a little bit different, a little bit nicer and warmer.  Nothing is perfect but everything is comfortable.  McLean is nostalgic but it is just the right level of nostalgia: for every story Dave recounts about his youth, there is a corresponding eye-roll from one of his children, wondering why dad has to tell that story again for the hundredth time:

Dave wasn’t fussed by that.  He knew he had told them before.  He knew what he was doing.  You have to tell stories over and over.  It is the creation of myth.  The only road to immortality.

It was the “road to immortality” stories in this collection that made me tear up.  For every screwball sketch about one of Dave’s antics (getting stuck on a treadmill, riding a bicycle on top of a moving car, finding himself trapped in the sewers, being mistaken for a patient when visiting a friend in the hospital) there was another story about memories and traditions being passed on to the next generation.  I cried over “Fish Head”, which does not seem a promising name for an emotional story but was, in the end, about Dave remembering his father and passing that memory on to Sam.  “Rosemary Honey” also got to me, a story about Dave and Morley’s ninety-year old neighbour Eugene.  Eugene longs to taste rosemary honey again, a flavour he remembers well from his Italian childhood, and enlists Sam and Sam’s friend Murphy to track the bees who congregate around his rosemary bushes back to their home.  And by the end of the book, exhausted by all the belly laughs and blinked backed tears from the previous stories, I had no energy left to withstand the final story, “Le Morte d’Arthur”, about the death of the family dog.  I cried when I first heard that story on the radio and I cried again reading it.  But they were good, healthy tears and I finished the book happy.

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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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