Saturday, November 30, 2013

“What is the one novel that could change our nation?”

Whatever one makes of CBC's Canada Reads contest,* the question it poses this year is a jolly thought-provocation. And although I've not yet finished the novel, I am gratified to see Joseph Boyden's The Orenda among the contenders.

Contenders: Wabi Kinew (left) defends
Joseph Boyden (right)

I intend to produce an attentive critique later, but here are a few early, superficial observations on (appropriately enough) the packaging:

Book blurb — here it is, in its entirety:

From the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of Through Black Spruce comes a literary masterpiece — a defining, epic story of first contact between radically different worlds, steeped in the natural beauty and brutality of our country's formative years.

The Orenda opens with the kidnapping of Snow Falls, a spirited Iroquois girl with a special gift. Her captor, Bird, is an elder and one of the Huron Nation's great warriors and statesmen. Although it's been years since the murder of his family members, they're never far from his mind. In Snow Falls, Bird recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter; he sees that the girl possesses powerful magic, something useful to him and his people on the troubled road ahead. The Huron Nation has battled the Iroquois for as long as Bird can remember, but both tribes now face a new, more dangerous peril from afar.

Christophe does not see himself as a threat, however. A charismatic Jesuit missionary, he has found his calling amongst the Huron, devoting himself to learning and understanding their customs and language in order to lead them to Christ. As an emissary from distant lands, he brings much more, though, than his faith to the new world.

As these three souls dance one another through intricately woven acts of duplicity, small battles erupt into bigger wars, and a nation emerges from worlds in flux. Powerful and deeply moving, The Orenda traces a story of blood and hope, suspicion and trust, hatred and love. A saga nearly four hundred years old, it is at its roots timeless and eternal.

God love the hacks who write this blather, but sheesh: does this ever dampen my desire to read the book. “Literary masterpiece . . . steeped in the natural beauty and brutality of our country's formative years . . . three souls dance one another through intricately woven acts of duplicity . . . timeless and eternal.” This pitch is aimed at the Forest Hill Book Club set, assuring them that Boyden retains his capacity to engage, while ratcheting up the social significance factor. In other words, don’t worry: it’s good for you.

I’m more of a “If it’s good to you, it’s good for you” sort of reader: to determine whether or not I’ll give a book a go, this style of blurb makes me work harder than I’d like. But there remain signifiers that I’ll probably dig this. First of all, I occasionally enjoy taking on Big Ideas. The intersection where a Pantheist culture first encounters a Monotheist evangelist and his culture ought to be pertinent. Throw in some sex and violence, and I’m all yours. “Brutal” assures me of the latter, but Canadian publishers remain prim about reader prurience, alas. Thankfully, I’ve read Boyden’s other work. He’s a candid, primal-urges sort of dude — so count me in.

Could The Orenda “change our nation”? That's all speculation, of course, but in Boyden's writing there is a distinctive moral heat quite similar to Victor Hugo's (whose Les Miserables unquestionably spurred significant changes in his nation). Also, The Orenda brings to mind — in a salutary way — John Gardner's assertion: “No ignoramus — no writer who has kept himself innocent of education — has ever produced great art. One trouble with having read nothing worth reading is that one never fully understands that the argument is an old one (all great arguments are), never understands the dignity and worth of the people one has cast as enemies.” Boyden, also a writing teacher (even Scotiabank Giller Prize-winners have to pay the bills), clearly does understand just how ancient his chosen arguments are, and comprehends the issues of dignity and worth with greater depth and sensitivity than do most of his lit-fic contemporaries.

But let's skitter back to the surface of things. Here's the (Canadian) dust-jacket for the hardcover:

That appears to be a dense rainforest of birch trees (or maybe poplar, but I doubt it). Again, I'm not encouraged by the art, even if I can understand the “why” of it. For my tastes it evokes too much of Can-Lit's “Lamp At Noon” all-is-lost dreariness. But that's just me. To compare, there isn't a single cover to any of Jim Harrison's novels** that appeals to me, either, but I usually devour whatever he produces.

There's a solution to every problem, though — take off the jacket:

Handsome looking book, no? More to follow.

*I think Canada Reads is usually a well-executed novelty: an “insider's view” of a Literary Contest. It doesn't always work (last year was a bust), but usually it's an entertaining nudge to get me reading one or two contempo-Can-lit novels I would have otherwise given a pass.

**The cover to Harrison's memoirs, however, is a winner.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How To Roger Canada's National Game

Rogers Media is set to take exclusive broadcast control over all NHL content in Canada. The CBC retains their Hockey Night In Canada brand — and that’s about all, really. For the next four years the Corp will be broadcasting Saturday night games and the Stanley Cup play-offs, but Rogers is in charge of all aspects of production, and receives all the ad revenue.

What this means for Canadian hockey fans is still a matter of speculation. Four years from now, if you want to watch hockey, you may have to subscribe to Rogers for the pleasure. Or, if your ISP is non-Rogers (inevitably, for some of us, since Rogers’ purview does not yet cover every square inch of our home and native land) perhaps they’ll cook up a pay-as-you-watch scheme. The details are yet to be worked out. In the meantime, casual fans can tuck into Rogers’ table-scraps, humbly reheated by our national public broadcaster.

What this means for CBC Television is also a matter of speculation. They’ve just lost half their ad revenue.

I’m old enough to be nostalgic about HNIC and CBC Television. I’m also just young enough to realize nostalgia is no way to go forward. Other people with deeper pockets were doing a better job of broadcasting hockey (TSN was the best, IMO). If the only edge the Corp had over them was Don Cherry, it was way past time to focus — keenly — on innovation elsewhere.

What does this mean for the game? The medium is the massage, after all — the optics of pro hockey affect the play of the game. And up here, nobody watched HNIC without sitting through commercials for The Nature of Things. The same people who made David Suzuki made Don Cherry, and in that weird melange viewers were often forced to consider aspects of the National Game they might otherwise have given a pass.

If you think I exaggerate (“Nobody makes Don Cherry except for DON CHERRY!”) ask yourself: how many minutes has Rogers devoted to misty-eyed salutes to fallen Canadian soldiers?

Rogers might take Grapes on-board (I’m not holding my breath), but I’m pretty sure David Suzuki isn’t part of the deal. The Corp delivered Canada’s yin-and-yang with those two, and one thing Rogers will be keen to eliminate is any hint of the sort of second-guessing Suzuki’s “yang” brings to the enterprise — any enterprise.

Rogers has four years to prove itself a capable host of Canada’s Game — and all the bizarre, conflicting ideologies tangled up with it. Which brings me to my last thought. Let’s see a show of hands: how many people are fans of Rogers? OK, now how about fans of Gary Bettman?



Buddies in bad threads.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Barbara Park, RIP

I am working on a large and unruly post (related to Michael Walker's What You Want Is In The Limo -- among many, many other things) and it, alas, cannot be pared down into individual installments.

So here is this week's post: a lamentation at the passing of Barbara Park, whose Junie B. Jones books were the light of this family's life for a crucial stretch of years when the only words we read were shortly before the kids' bedtime -- and thus our own. Those books were so funny, and so touching, and so filled with life. Adults and children alike went to bed giggling, or dabbing at stray tears, thanks to Barbara Park, at a stage in life when it was all a grown-up could do to keep up with the laundry.

Barbara Park made the world a better place for everyone to live in. God love you, woman.

CBC "I'm not actually sure I'm grown-up enough for grown-up books"NYT.

Friday, November 15, 2013

"I guess we can't feel superior to Italy, anymore."

Let’s get the obvious out of the way.

1) I don’t like Rob Ford. I don’t live in Toronto anymore, so I couldn’t vote against the man, but if I could’ve I would’ve.

2) Rob Ford is incredibly likeable. I’m talking “off-the-charts” likeable. Not 24/7, of course. These days it’s all he can do to muster up that level of likeability for three straight hours in a single week. And I’d go further and assert that the burden of proof now lies on the other extreme of the spectrum: he has consistently proven himself a profoundly unlikeable character. But despite all that I don’t doubt for a second that, given the right circumstances, I would find myself coming around and, gosh-darn-it, liking this guy — this guy I would never in a thousand years vote for.

The hard-core “Ford Nation” types liked him right from the git-go, and because of this they will not be swayed — ever. They all possess a singular characteristic that Born Again evangelists learn to recognize very quickly when proselytizing: these nice people will not be moved. They Are Going To Hell and nothing you say will change that, so smile, politely thank them for opening their door to you, wish them a nice day and move on to the next house.

But geez-Louise: everyone in this guy’s inner circle is either quitting, or going to jail, or getting whacked. It’s time to stop liking the guy, and start thinking straight.

So far as I’m concerned the salient talking-points are only secondarily related to his penchant for substance abuse (now entirely in hand, we are assured). When he’s being unlikeable, he’s a bully and a goon who consorts with gangsters in a fashion that is less-than-reformatory. The video that the Star and Sun both ponied up for is disturbing, I think, not because the man is in a drunken rage (with a tad more energy than I typically associate with buckets of alcohol), but because he’s talking rather persuasively about killing someone — to associates who seem rather persuasively able to do something about it.

Even casual observers (and none of us are that, anymore) have to admit the guy has a seriously compromised capacity for judgment. The world learns of a potential “crack smoking tape,” so he knows he’s being watched — and he still escorts his driver in “drop-off” runs? It hardly matters what he’s dropping off, that’s just incredibly stupid.

So now the city council is basically stripping him of whatever residual mayoral powers remain, and I find myself getting bothered by that. The mayor’s powers are pathetic to begin with! For all the Toronto Council virtues that people praise, it is a ridiculously hamstrung chamber at the best of times. For my voting currency, I wish previous mayor David Miller had had a bigger bat to swing during his tenure — he’d have got more done that the Fords could take a swing at (like garbage contracts, for starters). With his friends reduced to a measly five, Ford can’t get anything done in chamber anyway — why not just consider him persona non grata and get on with business as usual?

Actually, it all seems kind of obvious, doesn't it?

Anyway, as has now become the norm, the Neo-Puritans at VICE have done the best job of culling and summarizing the local-now-gone-global news. Read it and weep.

*The heading is a quote from my wife, said this morning, in reference to the apparent undying popularity of Silvio Berlusconi. So yuk it up while you can, Taiwan:

Nick Lowe's Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For The Whole Family

It's Christmas, at one of those massive family gatherings that requires a rented hall. Grand-parents, great-grandparents, uncles and aunts, nephews, nieces and cousins, and an incomparable host of distantly-removed cousins to boot. The Pater Familias went ahead and hired a band to show up for an hour. They trudge in — seasoned veterans to a person — set up their equipment and tune up.

The band leader knows exactly what he's in for. The Pater Familias is old enough to remember what an electrical jolt it was to see Elvis on Sullivan. There's the usual group of grizzled aunts and uncles who have staked their claim at the bar at the back, where they guzzle VO and Coke between begrudging trips outside into the weather for a smoke. And there are the young parents, anxious for anything just a little hipper than what the purple dinosaur is offering, and bracing themselves because their kids are going to cry when the music gets loud. And, of course, there are the hipster yoots, milling at the edges of the crowd and smirking because they're sure this is going to be bad — in a bad way.

All present and accounted for.

The band leader clears his throat, strums the opening chord, and approaches the mic. Howls: “Children go where I send theeeeee...”

It's old-timey rockabilly and it . . . kinda . . . cooks!

With this opening note, Nick Lowe gets the entire crowd on-side — and keeps 'em on-side for the remaining 45 minutes, covering all the bases from the sentimental, to the sincere, to the inevitably acerbic (because how can you not be?) with just enough base-line rock 'n' roll to keep the hip young things from leaving the room. It's a hell of a show, and it leaves everyone smiling.

And it closes all-too-quickly, because too short is better than too long. The usual music sweeps in and takes over the sound-system. It's the Christmas everyone is familiar with.

But speaking as the Pater Familias who's hired that band, I think I got my money's worth. In fact, I want to throw them a Christmas tip. So this is it: go get that record, sit back and enjoy the show while you're driving home from work. And see if your crowd doesn't find a song or two — or more— that they want incorporated into the family's seasonal playlist.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

You know that moment when...

…you scroll through the recent additions to your subscription service, and spot a performer/album that came with a high recommendation, so you hit “Select” then “Play”…

…and the first song is over, the next song has begun, and you’re thinking, “Mm … meh,” but you’re elbow-deep in soapsuds, so you let it keep playing…

…then you catch yourself thinking, “Actually, this one isn’t so bad”…

…and four songs later, you’re thinking, “Oh boy — I think I really, really dig this. I mean: the whole enchilada!” so when it’s all done, you hit “Replay” — several times?

Jonathan Wilson’s Fanfare is that moment.

"See, dude? You just gotta give it time."

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

SILK SPECTRE by Darwyn Cooke & Amanda Conner

Silk Spectre's pages open shortly after The Minutemen's close. I hadn't known until I opened the book that Cooke was not taking on the artwork of this story. Figuring this exercise might be as pathetic as some of the non-Cooke material in The Spirit v. 2, my expectations dropped accordingly and I started scanning the panels.

Amanda Conner could not have asked for better conditions to an optimal introduction.

I became ravenous for the work, flipping from one page to the next and devouring its sequences like they were fistfuls of hot, goopy poutine. Midway through the book I grudgingly forced myself to stop, return to the beginning and read the words to get the full effect. This is fabulous stuff.

Here’s a typical Conner panel, early in the narrative — Los Angeles, 1960. Girl meets boy:

Notice how the bulk of the drama is in the girl’s face. Her half-lidded eyes are searching for clues, not so much in her exterior environment (her gaze rarely settles on anything inside the frame) but somewhere else. She's trying to figure out where she's at: with this boy, with his future — their future — and with each other's dominant, physically abusive parent. Then, smooch, the eyes open up: revelation! as embodied by that last “too-large-for-the-panel” expressionist frame. These are motifs that Conner returns to and plays with again and again.

The girl is Laura Jupiter, the daughter of the original Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter. Sally's control of Laura is near-pathological, particularly in her concern (entirely understandable to Watchmen readers) for her daughter to protect herself against would-be rapists. Until now, Sally has held all the cards in the relationship: emotionally, sexually, athletically. Laura is squirming out from under her thumb. She and her boyfriend run off to San Francisco.

Conner-Cooke's '60s San Francisco is a colourful melange of the expected tropes, including Kool-Aid courtesy of Kesey & his Merry Pranksters, mixed in with bad guys that are a mash-up of Adam West Batman and, well, Alan Moore pervi-tude. Meet “The Chairman”:

In this setting, Silk Spectre Jr., discovers that emasculating bad dudes is a squeamishly satisfying activity. She also discovers that drugs can be unpleasant — and that’s about all. The reader, of course, is privy to a great deal more. The art itself conveys aspects of Laura’s larger environment that she is oblivious to. It surprises me not at all to learn that Conner has spent time in the Archie Comics stable. The playfulness of the art, and its exploration of these groovy young things as they lay claim to the world, is the smartest portrait of early hippie culture since MAD magazine. These kids are dropping out of Riverdale High, while clinging tightly to a childish naivety that will do many of them grievous harm in the mischief that follows.

I think this is all note-perfect for the larger Watchmen story-arc. The fact is Laura Jupiter, like most of her fellow Watchmen, is predominantly clueless to the larger machinations at work. That some readers deem this a “Coming of Age” narrative is highly ironic. There is no age to come to. Laura is fated from the get-go to make seemingly spontaneous choices that do not end well for her, or anyone in her orbit. Conner, following the lead of her story-editor, closes with a final frame that is creepy in its self-congratulatory sense of happy potential. Readers know exactly where this is all going (note clock on the upper right) — and it is not pretty.

And yet, isn’t it pretty to think otherwise?