26
Friday
Oct
2012

The Ever-Present Past

In a packed hall at the Knox Presbyterian Church, we were privileged to listen to three highly respected authors and follow the ensuing question and answer session that Charlotte Gray, well-known Ottawa-based writer and a Writers Festival board member expertly and firmly moderated. It is worth mentioning here that all three authors in some way have started out using part of their own history and their family's history as one aspect from which to build the fictional lives of their characters.

 

Christine Pourtney's Sweet Jesus tells the story of two sisters and their adopted brother, addressing moral and religious questions that come to life during a road trip and in the relationships between the siblings and their surroundings. In response to the question on placing religion centrally in the novel, Christine Pourtney answered that she wanted to explore the "meaty soup of opinion, beliefsin a strong framework," and write a book "in which both camps (believers and non-believers) could co-exist." Linda Spalding's novel, The Purchase , also centres on religious and moral issues as it follows the life of a Quaker family who have to confront slavery as a fundamental personal question.

 

Finally, M.G. Vassanji's The Magic of Saida takes the reader to the coastal area of present-day Tanzania and its rich history, its mythology, and magic. His protagonist, a medical doctor from Edmonton, returns to the places of his childhood in search of his childhood friend. Reading this novel currently, I was especially taken by his explanations of the moral quests that are contained in the story.

 

The selection of the novels paired for the session could not have been better in my view. Not only did they have at the centre protagonists in their personal struggle with a quests or search for clarity in their lives, they represent excellent examples how the past informs the present and how the present also can shed new light on the past. In fact, as the moderator stated at the outset: History is not the past, it is all around us.

 

Interestingly also, when they were each asked how they begin a novel and what aspect was most important at that point, they each answered that they were most interested in a question that the novel attempts to answer or not. It could be a deep moral or religious question or one of identity and belonging. As they also agreed, the initial question did not necessarily find an answer at the end of the novel. It was as important, or even more so, to follow the protagonist's quest for the answer, to understand the individuals whose lives were influenced by the search for an answer. "To get into the question and build a world around it," this reflection by Christine Pourtney reflects the general agreement among the authors.

 

Finally, from the general discussion some salient points for me deserve to be highlighted. Historical fiction can be seen as a hybrid between fact and fiction. Is that a problem for the fiction writer? For Christine Pourtney, "writing about the present is a historical act." It is what it feels like here and now, whether it is set in the present or the past. She writes out of "intuition, not history." For Linda Spalding, the question is about moral judgment. "Trying to understand the complications of people in their time
and environment. I have an expanded sense of the decisions and actions of the time for the reader to have a better understanding." For M.G. Vassanji his book is "not historical fiction, more a quest - questions about the past. At the end you learn about the question and the person who asked the questions." That does not suggest that some form of historical reality is of course necessary.

 

In summary, having heard the readings and the discussion, I can only recommend all three books. I will certainly add the two I don't have on my bookshelf yet.

26
Friday
Oct
2012

The Natural History of Canadian Mammals

 

When Donna Naughton first told her partner Diana that she intended to write a book
on Canadian mammals, Diana assumed that Donna would be writing a field guide, and need one or two years to complete it. Instead, over the course of eleven years, Donna turned out the definitive volume on Canadian mammals for this generation. The Natural History of Canadian Mammals (University of Toronto Press, 2012) has already riveted all kinds of readers. It was one of the main attractions at the Frankfurt Book Fair; at its Canadian launch on October 25, it packed the 3D Theatre of the Museum of Nature with eager readers, young and old, professional biologists and amateur enthusiasts.

 

A.W.F. Banfield’s 1974 volume, The Mammals of Canada , also came out of the
Canadian Museum of Nature and the University of Toronto Press. It has been a great
resource for scholars for four decades – but it was time for an update. Donna Naughton
explained three pressing reasons for this updating. The mammal species living in Canada have changed since 1974; Canadian mammals are on the brink of a dramatic possible change in climate; and the illustrations which drive The Natural History of Canadian Mammals needed to come to light.

 

The Vancouver Island marmot is one of five mammal species found only in Canada;
it was not officially classified as a species when Banfield went to press. While Canadian
Mammals was in preparation, the number of the rare marmots in the wild increased, from only thirty-five to between 300 and 350! Changes in species classification are not the only reason to include new species; one Pacific dolphin species has recently begun to appear in Canadian waters, as its range moves further north due to the warming of ocean waters.

 

Several American species of shrew can now be found in southern B.C., as their original
habitat becomes hotter and drier. The Natural History of Canadian Mammals provides
us with a vital baseline, giving a snapshot of Canadian fauna at the beginning of a shift in
climate.

 

The marvellous watercolour illustrations are at the heart of Canadian
Mammals; their story demonstrates how this book is a product of the whole institution of the Canadian Museum of Nature. When Museum of Nature staff members were asked whether they had any ideas for books, Donna leaped at the opportunity to publish a neglected collection of breathtaking watercolours, done by Paul Geraghty and Brenda Carter. A book format was just the thing to showcase the illustrations, and to bring the museum’s treasures to a wide public. The natural history illustrator Julius Csotonyi was brought in to provide pictures of about forty species that the two original artists had not had time to cover; he used a sophisticated digital watercolour programme, so that his work would blend in perfectly with his predecessors’. Donna declared that his picture of a wolverine was the most accurate she had ever seen.

 

Canadian Mammals also drew on talents from all over the Museum of Nature. The dental illustrations, which are crucial in mammal biology, were done by a staff member from the paleontology preservation lab. Micheline Beaulieu-Beauregard works in the museum’s world-class Herbarium – but stepped away from her usual plant specimens to illustrate mammal skulls, drawing between three and six diagrammes per species.

 

Micheline told me that her contribution to Canadian Mammals will probably be
the most tangible and lasting of all the work she has undertaken at the Canadian Museum of Nature. She and Donna Naughton think alike; Donna sees Canadian Mammals as the pinnacle of her work for the museum, and considers it in the light of a public servant’s retirement gift to the nation. It was wonderful to hear how digital technologies and people’s artistic and research talents could combine to save art from obscurity, and to save species from ignorance – and how all this could be accomplished through that most old-fashioned medium; an illustrated book.

26
Friday
Oct
2012

Acts of Love, Despite Everything: Midnight's Children

Empire 7 at the World Exchange Plaza, acted as our venue for the Ottawa film premiere of Deepa Mehta's audacious adaptation of Salman Rushdie's landmark  Midnight's Children . Rushdie had also recently released the memoir Joseph Anton - an alias made up of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. It was a name he had to adopt to avoid suspicion while under the protection of the British police after the infamous fatwa or religious edict from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, while on his deathbed, for the publication of his other well known novel, Satanic Verses . It is a remarkable feat that Rushdie has not only survived in the physical sense, but has been able to project an equally staggering body of work to counteract the ignominy and notoriety of "the Rushdie Affair" as the whole brouhaha came to be dubbed. Haroun and the Sea of Stories , which Rushdie wrote for his son following a separation from him in the aftermath of the fatwa, is not only remarkable for the conditions under which it was written in, but also for being one of the finest children's book of any era. Yet out of all his numerous opuses, it is Midnight's Children, as one of the most decorated novels of twentieth century, that stands apart.

 

Deepa Mehta herself, being no stranger to threats and suppression of her art, found a kinship with Rushdie whom she met relatively recently in Toronto when Rushdie was promoting The Enchantress of Florence . While enthusing about a potential collaboration, Mehta had suggested  Shalimar The Clown , possibly Rushdie's most film-able book. Then almost as a self-whispered dare, Mehta said, "How about Midnight's Children?" to which Rushdie quickly consented. Rushdie, as Mehta would tell us in her Q & A session after the film, sold the rights to the script for just a dollar.

 

Midnight's Children is the story of Saleem Sinai, and how by virtue of being born at the very same moment of his country's independence at the midnight of August 15th, 1947 he is "handcuffed to history." Saleem and 420 other children are bound by magical powers which bind them to each other, but ultimately to their country. Rushdie explores the emergence of not only modern day India, but also of Pakistan and Bangladesh. 

The film itself is a wondrous palette of colours - with Sri Lanka being the setting for over 64 locations as diverse as Kashmir and Bengal spanning several decades. Mehta stated the her focus on particular colours and slowly intensifying them were thematic choices. For instance, in the part signifying The Emergency of Prime Minister the Indira Gandhi, blue particularly resonates over the grim darkness, caressing the viewer's eyes with a sense of calm. Rushdie himself narrates, his voice exhibiting the calm energy of a man thrilled to bring a work which is almost 30 years old to a new generation.

 

The Walrus feature on Mehta in the November 2012 issue, written by the very observant and thoughtful Stephanie Nolen, states that Mehta, "loves the book, and understands it deeply." At the Writers Fest event, she called it the "first great novel of post-colonial literature." Hari Kunzru goes on to say that it was Rushdie through Midnight's Children who "proved, once and for all, that English is an Indian language." While any literary hyperbole for Rushdie is usually warranted, this overreaches. Early Indian writers such as Mulk Raj Anand and particularly R.K. Narayan have defined India in English in a way that is as relevant today as it ever was, decades before Rushdie. Moreover, A House for Mr. Biswas , by Indo-Trinidadian Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul, is a more likely claimant of the first great post-colonial novel.

 

The integrity of the film is assured by Rushdie's own close involvement. The acting in the film, is understated and superb. Satya Bhabha exhibits a tenderness and toughness which is a jarring contrast to Matthew Patel in the peerless Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Shriya Saran and Shahana Goswami are impossibly elegant, and makes one wonder why every wedding isn't Indian. The breakout role may be the one of Darsheel Safary in his precocious portrayal of a 10 year old Saleem.

 

When prompted by a question by a local filmmaker Jith Paul, Mehta describes how she trains her actors based on the ancient Indian arts text the Natya Shastra. The rasabox from the shastras consist of 9 key emotions, her favourite being "wonderment." Mehta describes how she challenges actors to learn how to say "I love you" while being in the grid of hatred. "Every emotion carries nuance, even love has parts of revulsion and doubt in it." It is indeed her and Rushdie's exploration of nuances which seem to dent their popularity, particularly in India, a culture still not used to critical self-examination, particularly to outsiders.

 

“A child and a country were born at midnight, once upon a time. Great things were expected of us both. The truth has been less glorious than the dream. But we have survived and made our way. And our lives have been, in spite of everything, acts of love.”

 

Apparently Rushdie shed a few tears when he saw the first screening of Mehta's film. It's not hard to understand why.

 

 

25
Thursday
Oct
2012

The Fast and the Flavourful

 

Every seat Side Door Restaurant was taken and the rest of the floor was packed with people standingand listening to Chef Michael Smith passionately talk about how we have become so removed from the food we eat. Joined by the executive chef of Sidedoor and Top Chef Contestant Jonathan Korecki, the two casually reminisced about growing up and learning about where food comes from.

 

“Go to your grocery store and look at where the fruit and vegetables come from,” Korecki says. “Most of the time the town or province is written in the smallest writing.” Smith is an advocate for food literacy. He was frustrated with how we were so into watching the TV shows and following the food blogs, but was so quick to make excuses as to why we couldn’t or wouldn’t prepare food at home. “There is no excuse, you can cook.” And it is true; we can cook. Even though I now cook professionally, I've always cooked at home with my mother. I grew up eating her so called mistakes, and loved every bite. I learned that just because it didn’t’ turn out how it was planned, it is still palatable and time and love and were put into it. I always believed that food is the strand that holds us all together.

 

As many small canapés were passed around, we were full of smiles, chatting amiably while we gobbled up every new round that was served. There were baby scallops on the half shell with black bean sauce and citrus. Meatballs, and various mini tacos from pork, beef, to tuna tartare. It was food that brought us all together and a great atmosphere that kept us there. Unfortunately the short time constraint cut what would easily have been a late-night stay, yet Michael Smith found some time to sign copies of his new cook book, Fast Flavours .

 

 

We need more people like Smith pushing the message of eating local food that comes from our farmers, and our soil. With all the resources at our finger tips we can easily find out about the many great foods we have the choice of buying. We could even start a garden and really understand the time that goes into getting us our food. Just build up some confidence, ask someone over to help, and I guarantee the meal won’t even be the part of the experience you remember most. It’s about bringing people together. The food is just an added bonus. Bon appetit.

 

Isaac Adamski is a cook at Beckta dining & wine.

Photo credit: Daniel Bezalel Richardsen

3
Sunday
Jun
2012

Slow Motion: Jeff Rubin and the End of Growth

Former Chief Economist and Managing Director of CIBC World Markets, Jeff Rubin spoke to a mid-sized crowd on a Friday evening at Southminster United Church to promote his new book, The End of Growth , but the discussion was about much more, often referring back to his first book, Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller . Rubin was an engaging speaker, a story-teller able to describe economics in laymen’s terms; sparking very thoughtful audience questions and handling them with poise and confidence: speaking of the future as if it is a sure thing. He makes thoughtful, well-reasoned arguments in favour of his predictions, but ultimately, he is predicting the future, and thus could stand to be proven wrong (or right) in the years to come.

 

The general premise of his argument is that higher oil prices, a necessity given that the world’s current oil supplies cost more to take out of the ground than they yield in profit, will lead to the end of growth. Rubin outlined how globalization has been made possible by affordable oil. Oil is the source of transportation and without transportation, globalization would not exist. He further pointed out the rise in oil prices will make shipping goods from around the world no longer the most cost effective way of producing and distributing the things that we use on a day to day basis. He predicts this leading to more manufacturing locally and a return to the economy pre-globalization.

 

Rubin predicts that the means to dealing with this will involve things like job-sharing and adjusting our expectations of a reasonable standard of living. To quote Rubin on this, “Perhaps it is better to learn to do with less than always wanting more.” He notes that we can’t keep pace with the physical demands that we are making of the world. While I agree that we want too much and that these would be superb ways of equalizing out resources, it seems highly unlikely that in the competitive and materialistic culture that we currently live in that people will willingly accept living on less in the interests of the whole.

 

Until this happens, Rubin predicts regular bubble and bust cycles, all related to oil poking the bubbles, which will be made worse by the lack of financial regulation; which he (correctly I believe) identifies as a major problem. When banks can gamble with people’s investments without fear, knowing they can pass losses off on their millions of customers - we all lose. Rubin is a promoter of more regulation and a return to the days when those managing investments must back them up with their own money. On this point, I whole-heartedly agree, but unfortunately, getting these rules changed will be an uphill battle given the power of the people who maintain them.

 

While Rubin predicts that prices will force this cycle to end because the people will rise up and demand change, I have my doubts. The government has already hit some legal blocks in their attempt to bring about some more regulation, and I would imagine that they will likely hit more in the future. He puts a lot of faith in prices, and while his arguments do have some merits, they may be an overly simplistic view of the economic picture. It would be interesting to hear him debate this point (and his others) with fellow economists.

 

An audience member raised the point that the majority of money in the economy is out of the hands of the majority of people, floating around in financial transactions and not being put to any real use. The audience member called for taxation of this money in order to spread the world’s resources around so that we all can survive and thrive in the world and perhaps if this was the case, then growth might still be possible. Her point was very well received by the crowd. Rubin appeared to be in agreement about getting that money out of the financial realm and into the hands of the people, but he failed to answer as to whether this would permit some growth.

 

A difference of philosophy between Rubin’s world-view and that of the mainstream, and especially certain other economists, emerges. Economics is founded on the premise of growth. The discipline strives to find ways to maximize this growth. But Rubin raises the ultimate question: how will we re-think economics when we remove the growth factor? Ultimately, only time will tell.

 

31
Thursday
May
2012

The Namesake

 

With a sun-splashed spring evening in full strut outside, those who gathered within Southminster United Church for the first post-festival event could be forgiven for missing the patio. For they were more than compensated by the regal, radiant Nazanin Afshin-Jam; here to promote her book The Tale of Two Nazanins , which she co-wrote with the esteemed writer and journalist, Susan McClelland.

 

While her profile is outsize – she is after all a former Miss Canada and a recording artist – it is her efforts to be a humanitarian, tinted with earnestness, which really sustains her listeners' receptivity. Nazanin begins by sharing the all-too-familiar story of the flight of Iranian dissidents after that country's Islamic Revolution of 1979, with all its ensuing disappointments. Having a father who managed Tehran's Sheraton, what with all its mingling, boozing and fun, did little to bestow any favours from the new theocratic regime and its imposed morals. It was only the twist of fate, whereby her tortured, impisoned father's executor met with a car accident; allow a window of opportunity for Nazanin's family to flee Iran to Canada, by way of Spain.

 

“A senstive child”, Nazanin displayed early signs of activism and empathy. She undertook a political science and international relations degree, in her adopted home of Vancouver, at UBC. Lucky the person to whom it falls a clear clarion call to pursue justice. Nazanin's involvement with her namesake in Iran – the Kurdish teenager Nazanin Fatehi – began with a chance reading of an e-mail from a stranger (whose message apparently and thankfully got through the spam filter) who shared the story of this young girl's tragic entanglement.

 

Nazanin Fatehi's lot was to be born in a culture where women face the stark alternatives of being a hidden, voiceless womb or a dishonorable whore; the judgement solely and sternly asserted by the men in their lives. As it happened, the 17 year old and her 15 year old niece were strolling in a park when a gang of three thuggish men harrased and attempted to rape the young girls. In the ensuing struggle, Fatehi managed to stab one of her assailants, leading to his death. For the alleged 'crime' of self-defence, the still teenaged Nazanin Fatehi, was sentenced to death for murder.

 

Under international law – to which Iran is a signatory – the execution of any person(s) under the age of 18 is illegal. However, Islamic law as applied by the state of Iran supersedes any “man-made” laws. This wrong-hearted judiciary system not only holds a girl of 9 criminally responsible, it also adds insult to injury by alloting half-weight to the testimony of a woman. To corroborate a woman's accusation of rape, the testimony of four men of good standing is mandatory (leading one to wonder what men of “good standing” were doing in idly observing a rape occur in the first place). The suffocating, shallow strain of shame and honour deeply distorts the worldview of many – savaging the lives of both women and men.

 

Nazanin immediately felt drawn to get involved and help Fatehi from prison. There is a type of boldness in taking on a powerful regime which is commendable. Nazanin did face anonymous threats regarding her campaign to free Fatehi. Nazanin pressed on: a petition to force the government of Iran to grant a stay on the execution, netted over 350,000 signatures. Engaging the European Parliament and the United Nations to place pressure resulted in exoneration of Fatehi of murder charges; but not before a bail of $40,ooo had to be paid. Apparently, two out of five judges did completely clear Fatehi sans bail; a glimmer of a humaneness that exists even within Iran's legal system. Descriptions of Fatehi's treatment in prison brought to the fore jarring images from the film Incendies . A now liberated Fatehi, kept in touch with Nazanin in the ensuing years before vanishing without a trace. Mixed endings populate our experience more so than happy ones. While Nazanin hopes that Fatehi is alive and well somwhere, she can never know for certain.

 

Nazanin firmly opposes external military intervention to effect regime change in Iran. She believes that the use of targeted sanctions and the freezing of assets will be effective in allowing the youthful Iranian population (70% under the age of 30) to eventually form a more democratic and liberal government. Even in this wished-for renewed nation (as one of her interlocutor's pointed out) there is also the necessity of a plural state to make room for its conservative, religious population – of which in Iran there are legion. A challenging tension in every society.

 

While the dominating issue with Iran has been its nuclear program and its tit for tat against Israel, Nazanin feels that this sadly distracts from human rights issues within Iran. While Nazanin cites the many examples of counter-revolutions that have been successful, the tense, unfinished unfolding of revolutions in places like Egypt and Ukraine into illiberal directions, paired with the heavy suppression in places like Syria and China, dims hope.

 

Then I remember the extraordinary if imperfect changes in Burma. Nazanin's book and her message seeks to emphasize, in Bismarck's words, “the art of the possible.” Nazanin's lifestory and work embody these very possibilities, however circumscribed.

8
Tuesday
May
2012

Cultivating Poetic Sensibility with Phil Jenkins

Phil Jenkins started the final afternoon event of the Writers Festival by limning the question of what “poetic sensibility” is and why it is such an essential quality to have in not only literature, but in life itself. The architecture of religious texts, such as the Bible, were presented as the archetype of what we gropingly classify as ‘creative non-fiction’ at the slightest hint of imagination.

 

According to Jenkins, the heart of the desire to suffuse an inventive quality that breaks the mould when writing or making an artistic statement, is to really get at the truth; not capital T truth but truth nonetheless. Or in James Wood’s words, “...the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.”

 

Jenkins makes the astute observation that almost everyone who is literate, writes but what distinguishes a writer is that (s)he re-writes; with poets perhaps re-writing the most. The anecdote of Jenkins’ poet friend who takes an hour-long stroll for every line of poetry summons up images of the painstaking work of historians like Robert Caro, who has spent decades on a single subject – in his case the life of Lyndon B. Johnson.

 

When it comes to documenting reality, too often the dogged stance of being objective “has got in the way”. As Gloria Steinem put it to Moses Znaimer, as “the new journalism” which promulgated a personal style came into vogue in the 1960s, “some of the tears need to get into the story” - when speaking of a New York Times reporter who sobbed while recounting President Kennedy’s assassination, over the telephone. While professing the vital role of the poet in “conducting emotional research and development” what Jenkins is implying is that the role of bringing lyricism should not be left to the poet alone (or alternately, that poets need to get busier!) Michael Ondaatje’s memoir Running In The Family and Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri Di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) were held up as examples as works of documentary that transcended stale objectivity whilst simultaneously not betraying it in a fit of artistic license.

 

This is no easy task; anyone who remembers the defrocking of James Frey in the wake of his mostly fabricated memoir A Million Little Pieces can understand the tension inherent in Ken Kesey’s statement, “it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” Ondaatje describes his grandmother dying by being consumed by a tsunami whereas the real cause of her death was alcoholism. Not literally true but poetically so. On closer inspection, James Frey’s attempt evokes sympathy when considered alongside a very creative profile on the man and his later endeavours.

 

Jenkins accidentally uttered the phrase “poese” (an amalgam of poetry and prose). And it stuck – with him joking that if Shakespeare were permitted his numerous neologisms, then surely he was entitled to one.

 

As the hour wore on, Jenkins himself got personal. When discussing other books, Jenkins stated that he felt uncharitably towards Noah Richler’s This Is My Country, What’s Yours? since it fails to discuss works of poetry in its survey of Canada’s literary landscape. Jenkins also called for “poese” to sink into our political life. “When was the last time a politician’s speech made you cry?” was a preamble in reference to Jack Layton’s farewell message.

 

He was on shakier ground however in decrying “conservative” politics as being devoid of compassion and thus immanently incapable of the “poetic sensibility” he was espousing .T.S. Eliot would have surely been surprised to be told he lacked it. Jenkins is certainly entitled to his political views, even have them influence his oeuvre: but his implicit assumption that everyone in his audience shares them brandished an unfortunate lack of decorum and open-mindedness. 

 

Jenkins ended by taking some questions from the audience. One of his suggestions mentioned that writers should learn how to weld, so as to appreciate the craftsmanship required with words. His delightful characterization that “a well-written sentence is like a lozenge” left an urge to consume, encounter and produce words which get at the real. An experience for which in some places, the courageous are dying to live

3
Thursday
May
2012

'It's good to be here': Lunch with Vincent Lam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3
Thursday
May
2012

When We Talk About War

Noah Richler, who is the former Books Editor of the National Post was interviewed by Mark Medley, Books Editor of the National Post.  They discussed Mr. Richler’s book What We Talk About When We Talk About War .  I don’t know how much these two knew each other from before the interview, but they both conducted the interview with an obvious friendliness and respect for the other which led to a great event.


Richler's talk was not made of memorable talking points or simple slogans.  Noah was concerned with communicating complex ideas, examining how subtle changes in language can have large ramifications, and exploring how and why those changes in language occur. Just as the man himself is nuanced and hard to turn into a caricature, his talk is difficult to summarize precisely because its values lies in its nuance.


I had never met Mr. Richler, but from what I knew of him, I expected him to be more of a firebrand.  So, I was naturally a little disappointed to find that he was a reasonable and considered man.  To use his own words, he “love[s] the idea of doubt” because he sees doubt as the source of intelligent inquiry.  I would describe his tone regarding the language of war not as angry but as indignant.  He seemed to feel that the shift in language has been illegitimate and manipulative.  He also seems disgruntled that it had fallen on him to address this issues of language and to offer a different narrative. He felt that this represented a political failure: that the responsibility of the political opposition to provide an opposing narrative, has fallen short.

 

Mr. Richler’s focus was on the the language surrounding war, and not on the war itself.  The war in Afghanistan was always present, but it is our understanding and expression of that conflict here in Canada that Mr. Richler is concerned with. 

 

Mr. Richler felt that peacekeeping became associated with a wimpy kind of failure, and was presented as a failed vision.  Yet he pointed out that while this image if the Canadian Forces as a Peacekeeping force is still prevalent, it has rather been co-opted into recruitment ads with combat images.  This is a picky distinction.  Not that he is a fan of the Afghan mission, but that he thinks that the language has been shifting in ways that are dishonest.


I think that the source of Mr. Richler’s offence that generated this book would be the oversimplification of how the war has been presented.  Noah Richler is not a man who over-simplifies.  He felt that the war was presented in the media in the same way as sports; where it is assumed that we are all cheering for the home team.  Where every dead Canadian soldier is given full coverage in the media and added to the tally of lost soldiers.  The accompanying list of dead Afghanis is glossed over.  No tallies are kept.  Noah went so far as to invoke the Lord of the Rings.  Pointing out that no one morns the dead orcs, or sympathizes with their families.  While this analogy drew laughs, it was also a sobering moment for me, because this was the point where I decided that I agreed with him, and that we seem to have decided at some point which human beings are more valuable than other.  This is the language of war that Noah is repulsed by.  He prefers the language of peacekeeping, where the dignity of a shared humanity is far more inclusive.

 

Event Review by Benjamin Martin 

2
Wednesday
May
2012

Big Finish: All In A Day Songwriting Circle

The venue is packed; it's the final event of the Ottawa Writers Festival, and the audience atmosphere is a mix of anticipation for the Songwriters' Circle, and regret that the whole thing will soon be over. Alan Neal of CBC's All In A Day introduces the theme of the night: the Stage Name Summit. Sure enough, all of the guests usually perform under stage names. Tonight will be a bit more informal, as we learn how these monikers came into being (and see some incredible musical prowess along the way).

 

The evening, it turns out, is to be divided into three “rounds”, each one having its own theme. Round one: perform any song about a name (or involving names thematically). First to perform is Oh Susanna (born Suzie Ungerleider), whose song “Zoey” is delivered with strident, alt-country tones and music-box delicate guitar accompaniement. Next to the mic is Socalled (Josh Dolgin), whose plan to perform “Richi”, a particularly angry song about heartbreak, has to be derailed briefly due to technical difficulties. Socalled is up to the challenge however, and bangs out a sidesplitting cover of Ira Gershwin's “Tchaikovsky” until the sound crew can get his equipment working. Joey “Shithead” Keithley (original last name “Keighley”, pronounced with a “th”), frontman for D.O.A., regales the audience with a ballad about early 20th century BC coal mining union martyr Ginger Goodwin. The ground-breaking punk artist, acoustic guitar plastered with a “This Machine Kills Fascists” decal, sounds like a counter-cultural Gordon Lightfoot giving the finger to the establishment. Masia One (Mei Xian Lim), whose sound equipment is also out of commission, instructs the audience to accompany her with a boom-clap, as she performs “Model Minority” a capella. Finishing up round one is Snailhouse (Mike Feuerstack), who pulls no punches in getting to the sentimental, low-key, introspective tune “Homesick”.

 

Round two invites the musicians to perform their first song (performed or recorded) under their current stage name. Oh Susanna starts it off with “Crooked Down the Road” from her first EP, confident and soulful despite her assertion of not having played the song in about 10 years. Socalled breaks out a track from his album “The So Called Seder” entitled “Chad Gadya” - Yiddish for “One Little Goat”. His fusion of hip-hop beats with klezmer melody keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, despite having no clue what the lyrics mean. Joe Keithley explains why his earliest material may not be the most edifying – consisting mainly of repetitive swear words and little content – and instead gives an acoustic rendition of D.O.A. classic “The Enemy”. Masia One follows up (her sound equipment finally working) with “Split Second Time” - her Much Music debut – switching it up midway through by instructing her DJ, DJ 2 Creamz to change the backing track. Snailhouse rounds it off with a twist: rather than performing his first Snailhouse tune, he gives a preview of his new album – the first to be released under his actual name, Michael Feuerstack.

 

Between rounds, the winner of the All In A Day songwriting contest gets a chance to perform. Each artist provided, in advance, a single word. The winning song had to contain all 5 words: hospital, important, ninja, willfull, and Agamemnon. The winner was Cape Breton musician Brett Maclean, with his harmonica-infused, folk-heavy entry “Why Can't Everybody Get Along".

 

In Round three, the songwriters have to showcase a song with a 4 syllable word in the title – though most of them have to stretch the definition of “4 syllable word” to meet the requirements. Oh Susanna follows the rule to the letter (to the syllable?) with her song “Alabaster”. Socalled joins in on piano, and the audience lets out a contented sigh. This sets the tone for the remainder of the evening, as gradually, the musicians become more and more comfortable collaborating onstage. By the end of the event, the musicians are all adding their own improvisational touch to a raucous cover of “Taking Care of Business”. The audience sends them (and the Ottawa Writers Festival) off with resounding applause, and the lights come back up. It's a cheerful end to a wonderful festival, and as we all part ways, we're sorry it's over – but not sorry that it was, that it happened.