Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Has Ford driven a city (off the cliff) lately?

I sometimes push back against the reflex mocking of my adopted city, but if this man becomes mayor - and I think he will - we deserve everything anyone says about us from now on:

I will say this: his grasp on municipal budgeting is as firm as his grasp on the importance of appearing relaxed and confident on video.

I've seen more natural-looking performances in an S&M dungeon.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Memories of 2010's Word on the Street (Toronto)

Stuart McLean reading in a nearby tent, making me think someone had CBC Radio on too loud.

Yann Martel in the audience, bouncing a baby on his lap, while I moderated a panel on YA writing that included his wife.

My ugly mug on the Toronto Star's billboards all over the park. (Thought about stealing one.)

A chat about circumcision in the VIP Lounge (hello...) with Andrew Kaufman and Steven Beattie.

An old man wandering around the park wearing a skull cap with a fake, blue mohawk - for no apparent reason.

Dan Smith of the Star, answering an audience member's question about whether her self-published book could get reviewed in the paper thus: "Not with a ten-foot pole."

Human feces all over the inside of one porta potty, which I later used as a metaphor for the life of a book reviewer. (VIP Lounge notwithstanding.)

A child of about five, not wanting to go home and crying "No no no no no no no no no..." For about ten minutes.

A veteran author saying hello at the end of the day and asking, "I was on the jury that gave you some prize, wasn't I?"

Trevor Cole and Ken Finkleman - a double-shot o' murder

My double-review of the new Trevor Cole and Ken Finkleman novels is in today's Toronto Star. If you disagree, come tell me at the Word on the Street TO Star tent today at 4. Come one, come all.

A taste:

Murder mysteries are among the most conservative of literary genres. Though their plots revel in crime, corruption, lies and death, the understanding is that murder happens for a reason, and those reasons are discoverable, even if the perpetrators are not always apprehend able. There are many brilliant exceptions to this formula — most sophisticated mystery fans will already be silently mouthing them — but that is the formula at its simplest.

Comic writing, especially the black-hearted kind, is possessed of a much more anarchic vision, one that delights in disorder and sees no reason to correct it. When a murder occurs in a comedy, the reason behind it is often irrelevant or non-existent. Simply put: Nobody really cares why or how Bernie died, they just want to watch two goofs spend a weekend with the corpse.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Let freedom reign!

Given that the Tories feel the long gun registry represents wasteful and unconscionable interference by the govt, I assume they will next be supporting marijuana legalization, abandoning their opposition to things like gay marriage, stripping anti-terror laws of anything that undermines the justice system and legal protections, stop muzzling their own scientists (not to mention their own MPs and bureaucrats), drop all moral or ideological objections to instances where potentially "controversial" art receives public funding, and making a formal apology to all those detained during the G20.

That's the shortlist, but it's probably where they'll start. Right?

(What's so funny?)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Andre Alexis, c'est moi

There are many, many things upon which Andre Alexis and I disagree (one might say furiously), but on this, he and I are like two bitter, occasionally impulsive, and potentially career-damaging peas in a pod:
"i hate the literary community so much, i hate its “careful you might insult so-and-so” very much. so much that i’d love to be something other than a writer. vomiting things up on a blog allows me to contemplate a desired outsider-ness. a good thing, a helpful thing, in the end."
As for the rest of that comment, in which AA takes about 800 words to say "sometimes it feels good to talk shit about your cultural enemies online," well, birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, literary writers gotta literaryize.

(I am reviewing Alexis's new book for a easily guessed daily newspaper, btw. Coming soon.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Topsy Turvy

Some say that one of the great things about the Internet in general, and social media in particular, is discovering who else shares your own deeply felt cultural enthusiasms.

Those people are wrong:

In my best Captain Kirk: "Jiaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnn!!!"

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I plan to write about this here at greater length later on in the week, but having seen the new Mike Leigh movie last night (with Leigh in attendance: my pants are still peed), I can only say this: lengthy, autumnal films that employ cello-laden soundtracks, gardening scenes to represent the passing of time, and nothing but long scenes of dialogue in kitchens and living rooms, and that focus on slightly self-satisfied older couples and their desperately lonely friends, should not be so fucking entertaining.

Uncorking the imagination

Got another good email from a publicist:
Authors Reveal Step-by-Step Plan for Wine Tasting Party at Home
All authors have such a plan: it's called "alcoholism."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tell me about the war book, Grampa

Steve Galloway, in the process of reviewing Alison Pick's Far To Go in the Globe, writes this:
It’s very popular these days to declare historical fiction irrelevant, a wallowing in nostalgia, rife with over-moralizing and easy answers. Perhaps this is occasionally true, even often true, but this position strikes me as intellectually lazy, and dismissive of the obvious fact that everything that’s ever happened is now history. To suggest that writing about the past is somehow dismissive of the present is the literary equivalent of teenagers rolling their eyes when grandparents try to tell them what things were like when they were children.

The teenager believes that everything he needs to know about the world is happening right in front of him, that what he sees at that moment is all there is or ever will be. The grandparent is trying to tell him something about the world as it once was and therefore is now – the past is a story that exists in its connection to the present.

Now, being one of the people who argues that historical fiction is very often "rife with over-moralizing and easy answers," I have to admit I'm a little surprised to discover that this is the "popular" opinion these days. And not only that, this position is "often true."

(I am also surprised to discover that it is also "often true" that historical fiction is "irrelevant." I would not go that far myself, but hey, facts are facts.)

But then, having been told that my opinion is both often true and the popular one, I am informed it is also intellectually lazy, the equivalent of the arrogant, impatient, baseless certainty of a teenager.

I'm confused: if it's often true, how is it intellectually lazy? Am I lacking in the mental energy and stamina required to believe something that is very often not true? And really: when did this impatience with the middlebrow sentimentalities that so often form the basis of historical fictions become the popular position? As far as I can tell, the people expressing this impatience tend to be a small minority of cranky reviewers, writers, and readers - and often all three in one. (Hello.)

Now, I will readily concede that there is probably a lot of opposition to historical fiction that comes in the form of simply not caring about any time other than one's own. There are enough readers out there who won't bother with books that don't describe the comings and goings of their own narrow, self-absorbed cohort. But that's not my own feelings toward historical fiction, and nor is it the position of a number of writers who have argued that literature should be more concerned with engaging with the present, less so with revising or unearthing the past. Not solely concerned, just more so than it is at the moment.*

The paradox is that a lot of readers and critics (like myself) who argue for more contemporary-minded fiction spend a lot of their time reading books written decades, if not centuries, ago. And that is because what these readers and critics are looking for are not books that grapple with their own times in some way (though that's nice to have once in a blue moon), but books in which an author grapples with his or her own times. Which is why some novels written a hundred years ago feel so much more alive and fresh and contemporary than last year's historical doorstop.

There is no substitute for the feeling of reading someone who is writing their own society into literary existence, who is writing into a void, as it were, and having to do most difficult thing, which is establish a point of view in relation to a world that is still in the process of coming into being.

* The reign of the historical fiction in Canada has weakened slightly in the past decade, and there seems to have been a bit of a peasant's revolt in the form of a lot of very sharply contemporary (or at least non-historically minded) novels appearing and getting some attention, but that reign is far from over.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Is our children yearning?

Given my day job, I get a lot of kid/book/literacy-related e-mail, most of it instantly disposable.

But every once in a while, there is a gem - an unintentionally dirty, greasy gem - such as the message I got this morning that asked,

Is Lap Reading to Children Still Important?

(The answer to that question is: of course! Cuz all kids like a happy ending.)

Monday, September 06, 2010

A Labour Day at the races

Thanks to my daughter - that is, thanks to my unrelenting efforts to fill my children's heads with the ripest fruits of klassic komedy - Charlie Chaplin has reared his bechapeaued head in my life after a few years' absence. (My son currently prefers Mitchell & Webb, and I went through a period of finding Chaplin too sentimental, especially as compared with Buster Keaton*.)

It being Labour Day, I should probably post something from Modern Times, but I would much rather post this, a short that I still think about every once in a while, and have done so since I first saw it in the Concordia University library AV department nearly two decades ago [pause for stunned silence] while skipping an evening class. The set up and premise is so dead simple - some people just love to get in front of a camera - and he doesn't exactly stretch the idea very far, but I find there is something hypnotically funny about the bit. (It also, I think, anticipates much of the satirical hay made in the past few decades about the lengths ordinary people will go to to get on TV.)

*I still get impatient with some of Chaplin's later reflex sappiness and heart-tugging, but am more willing to see that all as merely the inevitable excesses of genius. Isn't that big of me?

ADDED: And by "sappiness I am impatient with", I don't mean the ending of City Lights, which even a UFC champ would tear up over. That's the good stuff. (Talking to myself, now...)

Sunday, September 05, 2010

In the land of the blind, the four-eyed man is king

PM Harper starts wearing glasses. The Toronto Star sends out a reporter. Hilarity ensues.

From the article:
So what is motivating Harper?

Allergies? Astigmatism? Fatigue? Focus group?

No one could or would answer that question — or even share the make and the model of the glasses, despite a valiant attempt by Harper press secretary Andrew MacDougall, who said he “scoped” them but discovered no brand name.

“I don’t know and I don’t care!” Geoff Norquay, former Harper director of communications, said with incredulous laughter that did not stop until the short conversation was over. [Emphasis added.]
As much as I detest the man, I'll give this to Harper: he has a way of making otherwise intelligent people look completely ridiculous. (See: Martel, Yann.)

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Victor Wulpy prepares to countersign

"Victor, the perfect lion, relaxing among Evanston admirers while he drank martinis and ate hors d'oeuvres, took in the eager husband, aggressively on the make. and the considered the pretty wife - in every sense of the word a dark lady. He perceived that she was darkest where darkness counted most. Circumstances had made Katrina look commonplace. She did what forceful characters do with such imposed circumstances; she used them as a camouflage. Thus she approached Wulpy like a nearsighted person, one who has to draw close to study you. She drew so near that you could feel her breath. And then her lowering, almost stubborn look rested on you for just that extra beat that carried a sexual message, It was the incompetency with which she presented herself, the nearsighted puzzled frown, that made the final difference. Her first handshake informed him of a disposition, an inclination. He saw that all her preparations had been set. With a kind of engraved silence about the mouth under the wide bar of his mustache, Wulpy registered all this information. All he had to do was countersign. He intended to do just that." -from "What Kind of Day Did You Have?" by Saul Bellow

(Latest in a series of Random Passages I Like From Things I'm Reading. If I can't be bothered to write anything clever on this site, I might as well offer up bits from writers who are more than clever.)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

If you worked here you'd be bored by now

Great news! There's a job out there that's perfect for any journalist willing to hole up in a chilly backwater country: The Wall Street Journal is looking for a bureau chief. That sounds pretty impressive, and you can tell the position's a prestigious one by the fact that they are advertising on, right next to notices that Alberta Health Services are seeking a Communications Advisor, Youthink is seeking a High-school liaison, and Voice of Pelham (in beautiful and presumably typographic-rich Fonthill, Ontario) is seeking an Ad Builder.

From the notice:
Canada, despite its low-key reputation, is a fascinating economic story; it is one of the few robustly-growing developed economies, thanks to its mining and energy sectors, which have attracted much international interest, including from China. The strong Canadian dollar is of special interest as the Journal and wires ramp up global forex coverage. Multicultural and land-rich, Canada is also a font of features, both quirky and socially resonant.
In other words, we're a little boring, but we're economically stable, thanks to all the shit we have buried underground that real countries like China want to scoop up and make millions off of. We've got lots of people from other countries and lots of space, we're loaded with "features", and we're all a little goofy. (I have no idea what "socially resonant" means.)

I'm thinking of snapping up the job myself, especially since my ad building days are over (bad back), and the cops have threatened to pick me up if they catch me high school liaising again.