Archive for the ‘Events & Encounters’ Category
It’s the night the race for the White House finally ends. (The temptation to add “thank god” is irresistible. Done.) Early returns suggest that Obama might take Florida but it’s too early to call. I’m leafing through notes I made back in September when David Frum made an appearance at the Toronto Public Library. He was there to pitch his novel, Patriots, to a packed house. Alison Smith, the CBC correspondent, introduced him. She called him thoughtful, provocative and gentlemanly. As it turned out, she was right.
He was on a book tour but a good part of the audience was less interested in his novel than in his political insights. Frum, after all, was one of George W’s speechwriters, infamous author of the phrase “axis of evil,” and a defrocked high priest of the Republican Party (forced to resign from right-wing think tank, the American Enterprise Institute). He knows a thing or two about the American right. Indeed, the novel comes (metaphorically speaking) as a kind of bitter Dear John letter at the end of a long and loving correspondence with his former Republican Party-girl paramour, now tragically besotted with a ruthless libertarian hedge fund magnate. Or something like that. Not that Frum described the book in precisely those terms.
What he said was that some stuff is too strange for fiction and some stuff is too true for journalism. Only satire would suffice.
Florida, as I write, is still leaning slightly to Obama. This would be a coup. Virginia appears to be going the other way.
How could Romney be doing so well? Frum’s comments on the Mittster were hardly flattering. Romney’s virtue, according to Frum, was his competence. He recalled Rudolf Giuliani’s backhanded compliment, that Romney would have made the greatest secretary of transportation of all time. But Romney wanted desperately to be president. (This was obvious.) Frum lamented that Romney had capitulated to the Tea Party—he had been “remoulded and remade” by the forces of the radical right. “The feeling out there that he is inauthentic,” said Frum, “is true.”
“It takes an enormous amount of presence of mind to be consciously hypocritical,” he added. Energy, one supposes, that might have been put to better use.
Frum had intriguing things to say about the women’s vote. (Intriguing, that is, as a reflection of Republican thinking.) He said that women are uninterested in the part of politics that is a substitute for the NFL. Women, he said, don’t watch the news shows; they don’t like the conflict style of politics;they prefer a consensus approach. Too bad for the Republicans who are so enamoured of conflict. He also noted that married and unmarried women were different from each other. Republicans depend on the support of married women because they are less dependent on the state.
Meanwhile, as I write, more than 80 per cent of the vote having been counted in Florida, the two candidates are separated by a statistical hair. Wolf Blitzer is thrilled.
At the end of his talk at the Toronto Public Library, Frum declared that he would still vote for Romney. Something about the business of America being business and Obama having no sympathy for entrepreneurs. For a lover spurned, Frum showed admirable devotion to his first love. Perhaps when the votes all have been counted, they can be reconciled.
My book for young readers, Canada’s Wars: An Illustrated History, didn’t win the Ontario Library Association’s White Pine Award on Tuesday. It was nominated. Nice things were said about it. Didn’t win.
The OLA’s program, Forest of Reading, assigns a tree to each age group, ranging from tykes to teens. White Pine is for the oldest group, 11 to 14, I think. Volunteer librarians and teachers read through piles of newly published books and come up with a shortlist for each age group. Actually, two shortlists: one for fiction, the other for non. When the lists are announced, teachers across the province encourage their students to read the books selected for their age group and then vote for their favorite, which gets the award. It’s a genius program.
For the students, part of the incentive to participate is a day off school. The OLA takes over Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, buses in kids by the thousand and encourages them to rub shoulders with the writers whose books they have been reading. Some authors hold workshops. All are given the opportunity to do signings. And for each award there’s a ceremony at the Westjet Stage where the authors are marched in beneath a banner, introduced by a young person, and generally feted and cheered. Then the winners, fiction and non, are announced.
Part of the brilliance of the concept is the way books are selected: there’s something for everyone. Among the contenders for the White Pine non-fiction award this year were a graphic memoir, a hockey book, the biography of an addict, the autobiography of a comedian (Russell Peters), a polemic about the environment, a collection of true-adventure stories, an upbeat self-help manual and a collection of inspirational vignettes drawn from everyday life.
All tastes are catered to, from celebrity follower to sports fan to science nerd and everyone else. And that, clearly, is the point. The OLA’s motivation is not to give a boost to authors’ egos. (Though it’s entirely possible that they get a kick out of watching authors bask in all that manufactured adulation.) The real point is to get as many kids as possible to pick up and read a book. And, from the evidence at Harbourfront, they’re succeeding admirably.
At the other end of the stage from where I was sitting, someone won the award for fiction. I was sitting beside the ultimate winner of the non-fiction prize. Neil Pasricha, author of The Book of Awesome, is a charming guy who had the audience roaring their appreciation for the young woman who introduced his book. You have to admire a man who can manage a crowd like that. The rest of us cheered too.
I didn’t win. But did.
The event at Ben McNally’s bookstore on Tuesday (May 8) evening was billed as the media launch for Jan Wong’s new book, Out of the Blue. The public launch was held on Monday at the North York branch of the Toronto Public Library. Both were hosted by CBC personalities: the public event by Matt Galloway and Tuesday’s by Shelagh Rogers.
The central issue dealt with in the book is workplace depression. Wong’s experience and research have led her to believe that a huge number of people are afflicted by the condition, just as she was. The problem is serious and it’s made worse by a couple of factors. First, employers and, often, the insurance companies that handle their medical benefits, routinely either downplay or reject claims made for depression. (Wong was told in effect that she was malingering and her claim denied.) Second, in cases where companies have come to terms with employees who have fought for the benefits they are entitled to, legal gag orders invariably are attached to the settlement. The employee gets the compensation but can’t talk – or write – about what led to it. Wong says that, as far as she can tell, hers is the only book that addresses the issue head-on. Read the rest of this entry »
The lion dance was an unexpected bonus.
The occasion was the launch of Vincent Lam’s debut novel, The Headmaster’s Wager, which was held last night (April 23) at the Pearl Court Restaurant on Gerrard Street East in Toronto. I’ll leave it to others, better qualified than I, to explain its significance. What I saw was a larger than life-size papier mache lion, backed by emphatic drums and cymbals, perform a series of rhythmic and acrobatic creeps, leaps, and leonine lunges. Apparently the two dancers inside the costume often are martial arts practitioners: it was clearly a workout and not for softies. The author, forewarned of what was to come, occupied a chair in the center of the room and responded ritually to its advances, first placating and then befriending it. An offering was involved, which the lion spat out, but in a good way, judging by its posture. Exit lion, preceded by evil spirits.
Lam’s speech was gracious. Rather than read from the book, he read instead from Gontran de Poncins, (see review) quoting a passage in which the Frenchman is surprised to have been presented with a bill for 14,000 francs for a single night’s lodging at his hotel in Cholon. His guide explains that he mustn’t complain. The management understands that de Poncins is a man of the highest rank – a writer. The special charge merely reflects his status. To charge less would be insulting.
The writers in the room—there were several—all joined in the hearty, ironical, perhaps slightly jaundiced, laughter.
There was a solid turnout of CBC personnel for the launch yesterday (April 17) of a book by one of their own. Nahlah Ayed has written a memoir that integrates her personal history with an account of her reporting from the Middle East.
The personal part started in Winnipeg, where her Palestinian parents settled after immigrating to Canada, and was followed, remarkably, by a seven-year sojourn in a refugee camp in Syria, to which the family returned so that the children would be imbued with the language and culture of their people. Eventually, they came back again to Canada where Nahlah, then a teenager, completed high school, attended university and embarked on a career as a journalist and broadcaster. For a time she was based in Ottawa where she worked for the Canadian Press.
She was with CP when she accompanied then-Prime Minister Chretien on a tour of Middle East countries and came up against the heritage that she had never really left behind. Her book, A Thousand Farewells: A Reporter’s Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring (Viking, $32), chronicles many journeys over a period of years that encompassed the aftermath of 9/11, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a period as resident correspondent based in Beirut. Over the years, Ayed witnessed and reported on sectarian division, anti-government riots, political murders and all-out wars. And, sometimes, through the tumult and terror, she glimpsed the yearning and restlessness that ultimately erupted in the extraordinary popular uprisings of the Arab Spring.
She seemed a little overwhelmed by the turnout yesterday. In her brief remarks, she compared the gathering to a wedding because so many of her friends were there. Perhaps the comparison was apt for another reason: because there was so much emotion invested in what she has written, because it meant so much.
Margaret Atwood remembered Irving Layton falling asleep and snoring in the back row when she gave a public reading; later, unrepentant, he told her off for being boring. Barry Callaghan, as books editor at the Toronto Telegram, received a letter from Layton roundly abusing him (“you idiot, you half-baked goy…”) for making changes to his poems before admitting that, after all, Callaghan was right. Rosemary Sullivan and Joseph Kertes were students of Layton at McGill and York universities respectively: Sullivan said he combined literary and film criticism on the principle that both were part of life. Michael Mirolla missed an opportunity to introduce himself when he saw Layton in animated conversation with a young woman on the Montreal metro. Anna Porter, Layton’s editor at McClelland & Stewart, said, “I think ‘irascible’ might describe him best. Even at his most peaceable he was somewhat irascible.” And Dennis Lee, who worked with him on his collection, A Wild Peculiar Joy, admitted to being “totally exasperated” when Layton compared himself to Shakespeare, Milton and Goethe. Others on hand to celebrate his centenary were too young to have encountered the poet in life. Julie Roorda said sweetly: “I never had the pleasure—or the peril apparently—of meeting Irving Layton.” Her reading was among the evening’s best. Read the rest of this entry »
There’s more than one way to shut down the press.
You can kill journalists, harass and imprison them or—conversely—co-opt them by making them your confidants. You can block their access to sources of information or shut down the sources themselves. You can adopt a technical approach by licensing the medium they work in, whether it’s a newspaper, a magazine, a radio or television station, and then deny a licence to those you don’t like. If you’re China, Myanmar, and in an emergency probably America too, you can shut down the Web. Perhaps the subtlest approach of all is the one that most readily comes to mind when we think of controlling the news: you can appoint a censor to review and revise journalist’s dispatches before anyone else reads them. All these methods have been used at one time or another to varying effect.
Mark Bourrie has written a book* that focuses on the role played by censors in Canada in the Second World War. His recently awarded doctorate attests to the authority of his historical work. He also has long experience as a journalist, including a decade-and-a-half as a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa, which qualifies him to comment on at least some of the other techniques just described. His broad-based expertise led the Writers Trust and Book & Periodical Council to build an event around him on Tuesday (February 28) as part of Freedom to Read Week. He was interviewed on stage at the Gladstone Hotel by novelist Susan Swan. Read the rest of this entry »
“He [Campbell]’s a good guy. He’s smart and knows how to drive a car. He is able to bear hardship.”—Kang Mao, vocalist for garage-punk band, Subs
Jonathan Campbell earned a B.A. at Mount Allison, an arts M.A. at some school in the United States and then, having nothing better to do with his impressive but impractical academic qualifications, moved to Beijing, intending to learn Chinese. Because he is also a musician, he got involved in the music scene, playing drums with a few bands and then organizing gigs, concerts and festivals involving others. He became more and more interested in Chinese rock and its cultural significance in a country that was closed for generations to all outside influences. The result of his investigations, inevitably, is a book, Red Rock: The Long Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll (Earnshaw, $22.95).
Campbell’s presentation at the Toronto Reference Library yesterday was a bit scattered. He apparently had meant to organize his remarks around the handful of images and video clips clumped conveniently on his laptop. These audio-visual fragments, admittedly, were intriguing, even as the commentary wandered down hutong-like alleys. One clip showed a farmer’s field fenced off for a festival at which sheep outnumbered fans: an early failure. Another showed ten thousand ecstatic Chinese youths attending a more recent event. Music appreciation in the Hidden Kingdom has come a long way in a short time.
How short? Rock got its start in China on May 9, 1986, when singer Cui Jian shocked millions on state television by presenting them with their first rock’n’roll concert. Before that, there was nothing. The Chinese have no memory of Elvis on Ed Sullivan or of the Beatles’ first American tour. They missed the significance of Dylan going electric. They missed the Summer of Love and Woodstock and its violent antithesis at Altamont. They missed Disco entirely so, obviously, seclusion has its benefits. But if they never were exposed to the early, liberating excitement generated by rock music’s Western pioneers, they also missed its gradual absorption into the mainstream. They missed the cynicism engendered by corporate advertisers who used rock anthems as a sales tool. They missed rock music’s decline.
And so, according to Campbell, Chinese musicians are making rock music new again. Rock is revolutionary for its Chinese fans in a way that it hasn’t been, for Western audiences, since the 1960s. It has the capacity to change people’s lives.
Campbell is a low-key, thoughtful and enterprising man. His presentation was a bit unstructured, but so, perhaps, was his personal journey and look where that has taken him—long way from Mount A.
This year’s edition of Canada Reads, CBC Radio’s annual series of debates to determine which book Canadians most need to get their heads around, has drawn more than its share of controversy, thanks mainly to panellist Anne-France Goldwater’s calculated insults. Now Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, writing in the Globe and Mail, has jumped in to condemn the whole enterprise. The Corp, she writes, “is bottom-feeding on culture.”
It’s an unpleasant charge.
Kuitenbrouwer starts her argument with a reference to the pathetic monetary returns that typically accrue to writers in this country. There is, of course, no arguing with this contention: scribbling for a living and itinerant farm work are about equally remunerative careers. Then she notes that the writer whose work is chosen by contest judges has a chance at seriously cashing in. Making it to the final five, she says, means garnering renewed attention and reviews. All good news, one might think. But, no, apparently not. Read the rest of this entry »
They were a knowing and critical audience. The speaker, Mike Bechtold, calmly fielded a variety of questions from the floor, but you knew eventually someone was going to stump him. He had mentioned that in the early stages of the battle, forty-gallon drums of oil were thrown into the city of Lens where they were somehow ignited so that the burning fuel spewed black smoke across the battlefield and shielded the Canadian assault. So how were the drums launched? someone asked.
Bechtold turned the question back to the room. And sure enough, another man had the answer: Livens Projectors, a kind of mortar. So there you go.
Bechtold, who is communications director at the Wilfrid Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, was speaking at the newly opened Guelph Civic Museum last Thursday. His topic was Hill 70, a minor First World War battle in which the Canadian Corps under General Arthur Currie fought for control of high ground overlooking the city of Lens. The operation, mounted in August 1917, was intended as a diversion from the main thrust of the campaign, which was aimed north into the Netherlands and the Channel ports, and would lead presently to the bloody morass of Passchendaele. The Canadians task was to distract the Germans. Read the rest of this entry »
“‘The Canadian Publisher’ is such an out-of-date term,” Doug Pepper told Judy Stoffman of the Globe and Mail. It was spring 2004 and Pepper had just been installed as publisher of McClelland & Stewart after a spell as a senior editor at Crown Publishers in New York. He had a mandate to shake things up. The first thing to go, he told Stoffman, would be the company’s stuffy and self-important catch line. He meant to shed old shibboleths and lead M&S into the great new world.
Pepper’s appointment was part of a difficult transition. Mall magnate Avie Bennett, who had taken over the company from Jack McClelland a decade or so earlier, divested himself of ownership by giving three-quarters of the firm to the University of Toronto and selling the rest to Random House. With its share, Random House took on contractual responsibility for sales.
The trend since Pepper’s arrival has been to ever greater integration with the American- (and ultimately German-) owned company. With the announcement last week that U of T was giving up its stake and Random House assuming full ownership, the process was complete. M&S is officially a branch plant’s imprint.
Am I sad? My novel was published by Jack McClelland. I worked at M&S for close to a decade. Many people I count as friends also have worked for the company. Some still do. Read the rest of this entry »
There were four writers and about forty listeners in the room. So, doing the math, it would appear that each writer was able to inveigle about ten friends to gather for a couple of hours at the back of Super Market, an Augusta Street boîte, on a Thursday evening. I missed the first two, Rob Benvie and Patricia Westerhof. This left Mark Lavorato, a nattily barbered and sturdy gent, and Shari Lapẽna, who was bespectacled and bookish.
Lavorato has written three novels, but he read from Believing Cedric, his second. Lapẽna read from Happiness Economics, the most recent of her two works of fiction. Both addressed the quietly attentive audience with impressive conviction. No one rushed to the book table afterwards, but these folks almost certainly had their signed copies already. The evening’s proceedings were not primarily commercial.
So what were they? Both authors have better-than-decent websites. Both have posted intriguing trailers on YouTube. Lavorato does what he calls “street photography,” which also is showcased on his internet home. It’s terrific. Shari has a blog to which she appends occasional entries. (“I know I don’t blog much,” she wrote recently, apologetically.)
They take their vocation seriously. They use the instruments the digital age has provided. They are in the process of building a professional persona, becoming public people. A reading like this is another opportunity to assert ownership of the work, road test a few excerpts and consider refinements to the image. Author, after all, is a malleable role, but a writer had better look and sound like the work he or she produces or the consequence will be a fatal dissonance. The big show requires that every player command their part. So this was a rehearsal.
Seriously. Consider a few of the high-flying literary figures who’ve blown through Toronto this autumn. Eoin Colfer was puckish – naturally. Michael Hollinghurst was smartly turned out but still slightly raffish. Patrick DeWitt was casual but sensibly shod. Lawrence Hill was the consummate downtown hipster. Each has synchronized public mind and public body. Their personae appear to have been effortlessly assumed but that’s misleading. Acquiring the authorial aura takes practice.