Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Faith, Family, and Longing


A title like “Sweet Jesus” evokes a variety of responses, some of them strong.  Perhaps a dismissive snort from the sceptic who assumes it to be a soft-headed work of religious devotion.  Perhaps a sigh of frustration from the Christian who assumes that any novel so titled must inevitably deride faith as mouth-foaming fanaticism.  Perhaps neither even picks it up, wishing to avoid engagement with the perceived target audience.  For this book, such reactions are part of the point.


The novel tells the story of three siblings from an evangelical Christian family with a host of cracks and pitfalls.  Connie is a well-heeled mother of three, and committed Christian whose worldly security suddenly disappears. Hannah is a free spirit by turns sceptical, and open; frustrated in her desire for a family of her own.  Adopted and much younger Zeus (short for Jésus) is a recently bereaved hospital clown whose relationship with his adoptive family has been complicated by his being gay.  Connie and Hannah decide to visit a mega-church in Kansas where their mother Rose had a profound religious experience years before.  Zeus accepts their offer of a ride part way south as he seeks his birth parents.  All three struggle with profound loss and deep longing; all three hit the road looking for something.


A primary theme of the book is spiritual and religious faith, and the interaction between those who have it and those who do not.  Each sibling has different struggles with it, and these are explored against the backdrop of a trip through middle America to a church representing a spiritual, social, and political voice with which each traveller has an uncertain relationship.  Pountney handles this topic very well, taking faith and religious experience seriously while communicating the ambiguities of seeking God where there is both “ugliness and an appetite for the divine.”  This deft treatment is nowhere more evident than at the point where Connie and Hannah both seek prophetic ministry while Zeus, having concluded that “[t]his is bullshit,” and left the building, meets a young evangelical uncertain about his sexuality.  For Connie, there is a sense of coherence and insight, of God speaking.  Hannah is moved but has little clarity or sense of connection, less authenticity.  Zeus is tempted to confront a Christian culture that seems bent on making being gay so hard.  Is each simply seeing and hearing what he or she wants or needs or expects to hear?  Is God in one experience, or another, or all, or none?  Why do some receive confirming experiences of faith or spirituality or the divine and not others?  Pountney asks such questions without insisting on a particular answer, rather inviting her reader to wrestle with them.


Her achievement is greatly enhanced by addressing faith within the context of family.  The countless laughs and irritations and pleasures and woundings come through in spades, such as when Rose has suggested that Connie and Hannah visit the church in Kansas and we read that

…Connie didn’t enjoy hurting her mother.  It made her feel awful, but she couldn’t banish her own cruelty and impatience.  Why are you always trying to fix everyone? she said.  Why can’t you just support me without shoving your opinions in my face?


I’m not trying to fix anyone, Con, that’s not what I’m saying.  Rose looked so injured.  This is just something I thought would be really good for you.  Something I wanted us to share.


Connie pulled her hair back away from her face.


You don’t have to go – Rose took another quick suck on the little snorkel of her inhaler – it was just a suggestion.


Clumsy, unintentional scraping across old wounds, and inflicting new ones, even in a heartfelt effort to help and succour; for many, such experiences are indivisible from family.  Add disagreements over spiritual beliefs and the associated risk of hard words or even a break in relationship and you have a potent brew indeed.  Pountney handles the combination with tremendous skill, allowing her characters to be themselves rather than anyone's bullhorn.  This is helped by description and imagery that is vivid without being overwritten, for example her account of a worship service where “[t]he music gradually faded and the congregation, exhausted, subsided into their seats, like a wave sinking into the sand.” Pountney’s journey through this country rings true.


That said, the book isn't a home run.  The depiction of Connie's faith feels thin; here is an orthodox Christian who virtually never reads her Bible or prays outside liturgical formulas (and I speak as someone who loves liturgy).  Taking the perspective of Harlan, Norm, and Rose didn't seem to advance the story much, with the possible exception of Rose.  Perhaps most significantly, it is difficult to identify ways in which the characters changed, grew, or developed.  This might be thought unfair; part of Pountney’s apparent purpose is to show conversation about faith and family that is neither proselytization nor condemnation (in any direction), and “development” in this space easily becomes polemic on the author's part.  Still, there is an unsatisfying notion in the book that “we are all becoming more of who we are,” as if who we are is independent of our responses and reactions, as if interacting with those who differ from us can or even ought to be completely free of polemic.  As if the arcing that occurs between different and often conflicting narratives were that tidy.


The novel is more about Zeus than the others.  His journey sparks those of his sisters, and continues after theirs end. As he approaches his childhood home, he indeed moves into more of what he has known, more “newness and change, and loss.”  Is this all that is given him?  Will he find home, family, faith?  As the book concludes, such questions are as palpable as Zeus’ longing to see them answered, not intellectually, but in tears and an offered embrace.  That questioning and longing are ours too; we all have holy names that others have shortened for us.  Pountney beckons her reader into reflection and conversation about that.  She is to be thanked for the artful invitation. 

Peter Behrens' The O'Briens

A friend of mine loathes most Canadian fiction, decrying the same tropes that seem to be recycled time and time again. In all likelihood, she would not enjoy The O’Briens, Peter Behrens follow-up to his 2006 prize-winner Law of Dreams. For those of us who do enjoy a finely-written historical doorstopper, recycled tropes be damned; The O’Briens fulfils the desire for an enjoyable if familiar read.


Spanning the length and breadth of the continent, The O’Briens centres on Joe O’Brien, a descendant of Fergus O’Brien from Law of Dreams, who pulls himself and his family out of the Pontiac lumber camps to establish himself as an early industrialist. His central purpose and defining characteristics are established early on, following the news of his father’s death in the far-off Boer War.


Joe understood that his father had left his power behind, and that he, as eldest son, had inherited it. He believed this without having to think about it. The power was nothing supernatural or even extraordinary; it was just a sense of his own inner strength. It gave him self-confidence and boldness. And he wouldn’t squander his power the way his father had; he would use it to protect them all (8).


This matter-of-fact realization directs much of the plot as Joe positions himself as a would-be patriarch. Not only does he decide his siblings’ futures, quickly dispatching them off to convents and college, he attempts the same unilateralism with the family he creates with his wife Iseult, who later observes


This is how he expressed his love for them: by organizing them into his plans and rhythms, his own needs (326).


Yet Joe is far from an ogre and the push-pull with his family delivers little actual conflict. Indeed, though he is portrayed as a man with a forceful personality, this reader never quite felt his power. If anything, the ambition that drove him out of the woods becomes quickly domesticated by his easy success. Therein rests one of the central weaknesses of the narrative; namely, Joe serves as the lynchpin for the wider story but his own character is so capable and loyal that any conflicts he does encounter results in minimal dramatic tension. Even his flaws seem hastily manufactured as if to counterbalance his otherwise golden ascent from the poor backwoods to the echelons of Montreal society.


Fortunately Behrens’ development of other characters in the text is more daring and consequently read as more interesting. Iseult, Joe’s realized vision of a “clean girl whose family wouldn’t let her have anything to do with a fellow from the clearings. Not until he had made something of himself, done something powerful” (39), is a fully realized woman of privilege who roughs it in the railroad camps with her new husband while Joe’s brother, Grattan, a directionless veteran and his long-suffering wife Elise also hold the reader’s attention. If anything, one wonders if the narrative would have been more compelling if it followed the younger brother rather than the elder. With the next generation of O’Briens, the story does lose some of its momentum. We anticipate what the Second World War will bring and how it will fragment or fuse the family together.


Such are the limitations of a novel that follow the familiar arc of the early and mid-20th century, a pattern well trod in the Canadian canon. In the end what saves The O’Briens is Behrens’ craft; he is an elegant writer who is able to balance the voices of multiple characters across decades. His pacing is strong and many of the images he creates are vivid. The O’Briens is a finely written novel that is epic in scope and comfortable in execution, recycled tropes or not.

David Gilmour's The Perfect Order of Things


Although the vignettes and opinions in this thinly-veiled autobiography appear somewhat randomly, they are united by Gilmour’s unrelenting candour.  This is a book that will not let a title as exacting and vague as The Perfect Order of Things go unchallenged.  At one point, the words are placed as the last thought of a man about to meet his self-inflicted end, as the pool of blood spreads around him.  On the cover, water streams out from a set of drawers, defying their neat catalogue.  What follows is a bold look at life’s disorder. 


The collection begins with the laudable goal of the narrator travelling back to every moment of his life (and he and Gilmour are often hardly distinguishable) where he had previously suffered.  This is a venture to see what had been missed, what his self-enclosed misery had blinded him to, an attempt to pass through the pain of events to gain some measure of wisdom and even empathy.  This has an element of bravery in a hedonist culture that too often settles for cliché with reference to greater meaning, or the lack of it.


In revisiting these sites of pain, the narrator is incisive about the vacillation between insecurity and ego, which he sees writ large in celebrity culture.  Whether shadowing his (then) spouse at TIFF or relating his experience in arts journalism (“disguised boosterism”), his candour unsettles any sense that these people have “arrived.”  Gilmour is particularly good at naming the nagging sense of being constantly kept out from the “inner ring,” as well as the emptiness one can encounter when closest to it.  The book is perceptive at challenging preconceptions and desires many of us never question, accomplishing this with its sense of humour largely intact. 


There are also moments of genuine pathos how the fault lines in human experience are named.  This is seen from the way Gilmour describes the physical triggers in a site of past failure through to his recurring sense of “that odd mixture of euphoria and sadness, of being terribly close to but still on the outside of something terribly, terribly important.”  The book’s most harrowing encounters come in the deeply tragic life of his father, or the absurd and violent sequence where an old friend comes apart at the seams.  Any surface testimony to perfect order, to things always working out for the best, is rightly and rigorously dismantled.  


Mingled in with the book’s candour, however, there are some significant blind spots.  The narrator’s ironic tone implies that he often seems to be accounting for such naïveté in not acknowledging it, but there are instances his brashness suggests he doesn’t know any better.  For example, an entire episode is dedicated to the experience of a bad series of reviews in the Globe and Mail, where a reviewer had the gall to write that “he’s just not that good.”  Leaving aside the tactlessness in a writer recounting such a tale in the first place, it is instructive to observe his reaction.  Rather than, say, having another look at his writing to see what might be done better, he goes to the editor and suggests that the reviewer is upset at him for, yes, high school sexual envy.  The rest of the chapter is then devoted to his quest to seek out the reviewer in order to hit him.  After having disavowed violence earlier in self-congratulating tones, he nevertheless carries out his plans and feels not a twinge of regret for his role in the reviewer’s comeuppance.  While I certainly wouldn’t want to call reviewers impeccable, I can’t help but wonder what opportunity for self-improvement was missed here.


Speaking of sex, it is the most significant cause of the narrator’s suffering in the book.  At the exchange with the Globe editor, when asked about the quest to “get enough girls,” he replied, “does one ever?”  It could serve as a tagline for the book.  At times Gilmour is perceptive about the pain he causes women, but too often his sights are set on the way they have hurt him.  Still, his appetite for them remains exuberantly strong.


Along with the company of women, the other circle Gilmour’s narrator seeks is that of the great artists and writers.  This sometimes helps the story, such as when he cites Montaigne’s apt description of friendship.  Too often, though, the references distract from the narrative, becoming extended reviews or opinions in their own right.  In “My Life With Tolstoy,” for instance, his opinion on which lesser-known work requires more attention doesn’t coincide with much.  The opinions and background are sometimes interesting in their own right, but here, as elsewhere, the author needs to decide what sort of book this is.


While it’s right and good for Gilmour to seek to frame his experience with reference to our better writers, this should be deployed in subtler allusions.  What’s more, his citations of others sometimes releases Gilmour from having to articulate this experience himself.  This lack of effort can be seen in a description of “short bald men who looked like Picasso” walking by.  Perhaps he should be more ambitious, and yet ambition is clearly not in short supply elsewhere in these references.  In one bizarre drug-fuelled journey, he is not sheepish about adding a touch of grandeur: “How Tolstoyan it all seemed, in fact!”  Elsewhere, it’s not Proust but Marcel et moi.  His winsome shyness about meeting Robert De Niro at the film festival ought to extend to these other greats, I’d suggest.  Still, his references to such famous figures are so evidently those of a fan that it’s hard to fault him for posturing.  Moreover, that unabashed tone has its infectious quality.


Back, though, to talk of order.  The book makes regular reference to God, that once presumed giver of order.  On matters divine, here’s the early reflection that sets the posture for the others:


All my life I had had the suspicion that I was a bad boy and that I was going to be punished for it, that one day a kind of giant fly swatter was going to come down on me with a terrible whap.  And now here I was, being truly bad, midway across the bridge, a rule breaker of the first order, a middle finger extended to law and order and … and nothing.  There was no fly swatter.  No God, no hell, no punishment.  Nobody even paying attention, much less punishing.


This furtive experience endows the narrator with what he calls the “rule breaker’s freedom for life.”  Little does he expect that such freedom could be its own judgment, but after several relational fallouts one begins to wonder.  One particularly hurtful one left him feeling as though God was giving him a “kick in the groin.”  “It seemed to me that there couldn’t be a God,” he reflects nevertheless, “that no one could be so spiteful as to have my Molly leave me for—of all the humans on earth—a man who sat a few desks away.”  Leaving aside the jejune quality of this theology, an old Hebrew proverb comes to mind: “a man rages against God, but by his own folly is he destroyed.”  Folly is exactly what Gilmour’s narrator is not afraid to name elsewhere, so why not here? 


As the imperfections mount, the candour becomes more penetrating.  “The ugliness was in me,” the narrator reflects at one point, and I appreciate this continued willingness to see his own faults.  It’s also out there, which is evident in his description of an island resort as “Paradise disfigured.”  In the face of this, the book’s final chapter includes a statement of his love for his son, which brings with it his appreciation at the beauty of the world.  Unfortunately, God is treated to something of a double standard here: blamed when suffering occurs, but not blamed for the moments of beauty or genuine human encounter.  Where does the love between father and son come from, though?  Given all the suffering, what preserved this particular observer through it all for the book’s last happy encounters?  I can’t help but feel that some underlying order, even love, must have been missed along the way. 


Dionne Brand's Ossuaries


I first picked up Ossuaries late at night after getting my 7 month old to sleep, in that semi-conscious state that all young parents understand brought on from extended sleep deprivation.  It’s a state where you are easily taken to fits of wonder and confusion, your emotions manipulated with no effort.  I read the first part and had the same feeling I had after watching Donny Darko – “I don’t really know what just happened, but that was cool!”  I found much of my reading of Ossuaries, the latest book of poetry by Dionne Brand, to have a similar effect. 


I don’t have much experience with poetry.  It’s something that I’ve been exploring over the last several years, but this is not an art form that is simple to connect with.  It was my graduating ceremony from university that struck my curiosity.  The Kipling ceremony (the graduating ceremony for Engineering Students in Canada, based on the work of Rudyard Kipling) gave me a sense of the weight that words can have.  Brand has incredible skill in choosing her words for their power.  She arranges words like a painter arranges light and dark in an image.  Here are specular highlights next to shadows and darkness, giving the two dimensional image an appearance of three, tricking the mind of the reader or perhaps just manipulating for the purpose of affect on the reader:


nearsighted she needs her glasses yes, to summarize

the world, without them she’s defenceless,

that’s why they’re always at the precipice of the bed


Ossuaries is a long form poem exploring our consumptive nature as humans.  For the most part it’s spinning around a narrative about Yasmine, a young woman who escapes one ossuary (an abusive marriage) for one she creates for herself.  I found it easy to fall into the narrative when it was being told, but would find myself lost when Brand wasn’t speaking about Yasmine.  With my first few readings I felt like I would be reading along and then fall right off the page.  I expect that this is more a result of my inexperience with work of this depth, but it does give me pause when considering if I would recommend this to someone else. 


I found the imagery used in this poem incredibly powerful.  Yasmine is consumed by her husband: “You’re nothing, Yas; I made you something by fucking you; other than that you’re nothing”, which she escapes only to become the consumer herself.  She robs a bank and kills a security guard in the process, and then flees for safety.  She ends her running by taking a job, at the heart of our consumption as a society, on the killing floor of a meat packing plant.  In the poem, there’s reference to the September 11 attacks, and many socialist references as well.  Like any good work of art, Ossuaries is full of parallels to life that is actually lived.    


I think my favourite scene and section of this book is when Yas and her co-conspirators are in their car, and they see the cops behind them, giving chase.  The youngest member, a 19-year old, is showing his callousness to the situation.  He’s been in jail, he knows what it is like, and doesn’t care.  It’s at this junction when Brand says:


they suddenly see their wounds in him,

the gashes in their skins, the gouging, scraping

places left, open raw cavities of their long, long losses


history will enter here, whistling like train wheels,

boat winches,

the road will either end or won’t, the cops catch up or not


they will arrive wherever

they will be at war with their veins,

at war with all accounts, at war, so what


and, look, anyway, they’re all composed in bony anchors

at the feet, they’ll escape or they won’t,

those are eternal cops behind them, glacial and planetary


It’s this that summarizes the poem to me; hopefully we will see our wounds in the character of Yasmine, but whether we do or not, we are being constantly chased by the consequences of our consumption.   We can run, and we don’t know if those consequences will ever catch us, but is this the life we want to live?


This is a poem I likely won’t be sharing with a lot of people.  It’s a dark work and it has a complicated narrative storyline which doesn’t lend itself to easy popularity.  But, I will excitedly share with those that would take the time to engage it.  It took me about four reads of Ossuaries to begin to make sense of it on the whole.  Reading this work one word at a time was like looking a photo one pixel at a time, so it took me a while to appreciate each colour’s relation to the whole.  Because of this effort, I’m likely to appreciate it all the more. 

Johanna Skibsrud's This Will Be Difficult to Explain


“This will be difficult to explain,” a father told his children on the revelation that their road accident was somewhat shockingly not what it first appeared.  The statement is embedded in a story about a family’s dissembling, an experience haunted by fragmented and veiled memories of an SS raid on their father’s childhood home.  The complexity of the title story fulfills the whole collection’s promise: no simple statement can be made as to what this book is “about.” 


Author of the 2010 Giller Prize-winning novel The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud is also author of two poetry collections, the latter genre being the subject of her present doctoral work.  In between these two forms, the short story serves as an effective tight focus for her characters’ epiphanic moments, whether they would acknowledge them or not.  It also helps highlight the skilled poetic density of her language, such as her description of trees in the Japanese streets that were cultivated to appear wild: “Toward their own very specific, requisite immoderation.”  


Explanations are not the only things that prove elusive, as the title of this collection suggests; the prior stage of self-perception proves just as difficult.  In the opening story “The Electric Man,” a young woman working at the Auberge DesJardins has a series of encounters with an enigmatic guest whose quirky self-description is troubled by a harrowing revelation at the story’s close.  Still, his elusive identity seems more substantial than her own attempts to “place” herself, or even to be captured in a portrait.


“The Limit” begins with a piercing description of a father driving around his estranged thirteen-year-old daughter.  Having joked about getting her to drive he immediately wants to treat it as a joke, “but then he can’t because he hates the kind of man who would laugh like that, even if he is that kind of man.”  Such a sad impasse later leads to the memory of a buffalo hunt from the man’s youth.  There he recalls an emerging ambivalence about the right course in life, which proved part of the reason he’d stayed in the same confined geographic area.  Skibsrud could certainly treat this “kind of man” with a simplified, even dismissive judgment.  As the story reaches its close, however, we find her narration to have shown a sensitivity alert to the complexities, even the awkward winsomeness, hidden in his provincial outlook.


The problem of untranslatability, present in each story, is given a linguistic turn in “French Lessons.”  Martha’s language training in her host city of Paris was supposed to come from the grammar charts covering her bedroom walls.  Instead she learns, in ways alternately funny and tragic, the deeper gap between herself and her host—a blind Frenchwoman whose minutely ordered life contains an untouchable sadness.  The story, with an epigraph by Roland Barthes, is a deeply personal take on linguistic theory.  Although more overt in this case, all of Skibsrud’s stories have a philosophical and contemplative cast.  The premises and events are significant, but it is often the internal movement, or lack thereof, that receive her incisive treatment.


Many of the stories treat characters who have transplanted themselves.  Whether the character has relocated or not, however, the borders of the self are what Skibsrud appears most interested in.  In “Cleats,” for example, a woman leaves her husband and daughter to move to Paris.  As her husband attempts to draw her back, we see that her confines remain well in place:


She had, Carey said, over and over again, “chosen a life”—and now, he said, a touch of hurt in his voice, like a child, that life needed attending.  It caused in Fay, briefly, in the moment that she heard it—that thing quivering there in his voice, canned in the telephone, on the other end of the line—a sweeping sadness, the depth of which she was not brave enough even to properly feel, let along gauge or understand.


It only took a moment for her to forget this tone of the conversation, however.  When she recalled his actual words she felt no more for him than for a neglected houseplant. 


For all Skibsrud’s skill in articulating a character’s inability to feel the import of what is happening to them, she is also able to let the reader feel on the external opaqueness of a character.  After an event threatens financial ruin for a couple in “Angus’s Bull,” the husband repeats only a deflated “H-yep” as his table companions look silently on.  For all the impasses and missed cues, however, meaningful encounter does occur in the book, and usually all the more vividly for being in such bold relief.  The wife in this same story briskly seduces her husband on the cusp of their realization of a new life of hardship, showing a brash, liberating love in the face of constraint. 


This freedom is shown at numerous junctures when, in contrast to either external or internal restlessness, characters are given a task or relationship where they feel ready for the appropriate action.  This is seen in how the husband in “Angus’s Bull” feels after his wife’s expression of love and a fortuitous turn of events, or the way the young boy in “The Limit” comes to know in the hunt “exactly who he was—the precise limits of his body—and what to do.”  For all the characters’ ruminations, there are clear points when no explanation is forthcoming, but neither is any further reflection needed. 


It should be pointed out that several of the characters’ thoughts are in abstractions that seem to float free of the stories’ inciting incidents or any later plotted resolution:


She was caught, at that exact point of intersection between impossibility and desire.  Trapped into it, just like everyone else, no matter how—or how variously—she attempted to extract herself.  Without faith, and yet…an errant sense of direction, and of purpose, all the same.  Always that—yes.  The very process of everything as it occurred (always as if for the first time, and so without contrast) leading to the perpetual and most likely false conviction that there actually existed, at the under-layer of things, something infinitely resilient, immutable, and forgiving; that it would be possible, always, to pause…to defer…to destroy, even, if necessary; begin over again.


As nicely as this is phrased, some readers will have a harder time following these trains of thought as they proceed beyond the story’s limits.  Granted, such passages could at times be more rooted in the particular language of the character or the tangible elements of the setting.  I would argue, though, that a strength of these stories lies in taking time to probe beneath the often false constancies of place or self, attempting that common human pursuit of synthesis—a search for self-knowledge that spans settings as different as the titles “Signac’s Boats” and “Angus’s Bull” suggest.  Moreover, the collection shouldn’t be overly criticized for being too little driven by the plot.  Several of the stories achieve a satisfyingly surprising twist that completely disrupt the reflective trajectories begun in the stories. 


Finally, these stories are tremendously personally challenging, however subtly deployed.  Through Skibsrud’s matter-of-fact articulations of a character’s self-deception, I was often jarred into wondering what I was missing and how I might go about naming it with like care.  Meanwhile, her celebration of the small but meaningful gestures evoked a sense of hope towards the beauty of human connection.  Moving from text to the contours of our lives will prove a difficult task.  Nevertheless, Skibsrud’s humane precision as a writer draws us to seek encounter beyond the chasms that exist—whether between persons or within the self—even should the explanation itself remain an open question. 


Chris Turner's The Leap


The thought of jumping from one speeding train onto another is not something on my bucket list.  Yet, this is the central metaphor that Chris Turner is using in his new book The Leap.  This is hardly something easy to encourage everyone to do, but that’s what Turner is hoping – that we all will make a leap.  Perhaps, it’s overly dramatic, but he does make his case that the direction our current society is going is questionable; and for many, it looks like we are headed for a cliff.  So what is this other train we are to jump onto?  It’s the sustainability train. 


Turner starts this book with a critical analysis of what he feels are the three biggest issues facing humanity now: economic collapse, energy scarcity, and climate change.  While the book contains the usual apocalyptic visions if we don’t change how we deal with these three issues, that’s not definitive of what this book is about.  Fundamentally this is a book about sustainability in its truest sense – a situation that can maintain itself indefinitely.  I’m a big fan of the ideas shared in this book, and have read about many of them previously.  To be honest, I’m a cheerleader for sustainability.  What I think is original about The Leap is that Turner is making an economic case for sustainability.  In many senses the message of this book is this: sustainability is far better than anything we have now regardless of the environmental benefits that would come as a consequence.  Moreover, he does a good job when he isn’t in environmental evangelism mode.  Thankfully this language is limited in The Leap.  It’s the use of this evangelistic language that I worry which could be a barrier for those who need to hear about these ideas.


Turner spends a considerable amount of time talking about energy, the policy surrounding it, the way we generate it, and the way we use it.  Rightfully so, as it is what drives the modern economy.  In many senses, it’s the track underneath the train.  Turner does a good analysis of why certain policies that are in use in Canada and the US are limiting the growth of renewable energy generation, and why in Germany and Denmark they are succeeding to a point that they have become integral to the growth of these economies. Turner makes a great case for the Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) model, and how it’s been central to the growth of the renewable energy industry in Germany.  Case-in-point, the FIT effectively is a user pays model, such that the average user pays an extra 50€ per year, but Germany now produces 20% of its energy from renewables and is on track to generate 35% of its energy needs by 2020.  The jobs that have been created from this industry have made whole-scale change in the unemployment situation in the Former East Germany, generating 300,000 jobs in this sector alone.  The solar industry in Germany generated revenues of more than $13 billion dollars in 2009.  Germany is not a particularly sunny country, but the Feed-in-Tariff has transformed the nation. It’s not just this piece of legislation, but the fact that the whole country has had a mind-set change to see a new model for power generation. 


This book is about success stories, and I appreciate that.  They are good stories, and hopeful ones.  But as I was reading, I was thinking about some failures in the sustainability game.  Not too long ago, I read about some of the policies that Brazil is trying to implement.  Most notably, Brazil has implemented a “car-free day” policy that requires people who own cars to not use them one day a week.  The side-effect of this policy is that it has just encouraged people to go out a buy a second car so they can continue to drive[i].  In The Leap, Turner makes the point that for the world to make the leap to a sustainable engine, it’s not about technology or legislation, but it’s about a change in mind-set.  To use his language, it’s not about a disruptive technology, but a disruptive technique.  Here, Turner is describing “a fundamental shift in point of view” that allows everyone to see what is trying to be accomplished, so that everyone buys in and don’t just think that they are losing out.   


The Leap contains plenty of anecdotes (some historical) to show how a “leap” of this scale is made, and many that are in progress now: showing how businesses like Wal-Mart get it, countries like Denmark and Germany get it, and even some communities in the US get it.  I like that The Leap is not a prescription.  While there are some things that work, Turner isn’t trying to suggest that every city try to become Copenhagen or Melbourne.  There are elements of these cities that everyone should emulate, but they aren’t specifically the cycling infrastructure, or the laneways. Speaking of Copenhagen, Turner states: “Copenhagen is not perfection, not some tidily packaged finished product of flawless city living, because sustainability is a process of change and adaptation, not a destination.”   I like this approach to sustainability because it can be a conversation about what we are trying to accomplish, not a fixed way of doing things.  For every example in The Leap, Turner makes an effort to look at the underlying reasoning so that the reader can take away the good and apply it to their own situation. 


I enjoyed reading this book, but it’s not without its flaws.  Turner is no Annie Dillard, and the language in it is forced at times (I understand his use of “FAIL”, but it really made that section feel more like a blog post than a book).  However, these ideas shared in the book are still great.  It’s the kind of book I wish could be required reading for everyone in politics, and the public service, because more people need to see alternative options to current policy.  In the wake of Steve Jobs’ death, The New York Times had a great post that I think connects well to The Leap.  In the article, Jobs is quoted to have said “it’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want”[ii].  The same can be said of cities, and economic policies – people know at a high level what they want, but don’t expect the most voters to understand the intricacies of the carbon pricing, or energy policy.  “Mr. Jobs tried to understand the problems that technology could solve for his buyer; he wasn’t going to rely on the buyer to demand a specific solution just so he could avoid ever having to take a risk.  This is what’s commonly known as leading.”[iii]  After reading The Leap, it will guide those in the position to make decisions to understand what technology and new thinking can do to solve the problems we are facing in modern society.  Then it will just be up to them to lead as we take the Leap.



[iii] ibid.

Getting a taste of Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen


Chef Michael Smith is back on the shelves in time for Christmas with his newest cookbook, Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen, 100 of My Favourite Easy Recipes. Filling his book with no-fuss directions and simple flavour punches, this is another addition to his collection that’s sure to please both the newly initiated and old-hand in the kitchen.

Ever encouraging us to relax in the kitchen, Michael Smith places emphasis on the joy of cooking rather than recipes themselves, and in turn suggests that through food, stories can be weaved. But instead of recounting the time he discovered caramelized chicken, or remembering his farmer friend who grows tomatoes in Tim Horton cups, Michael Smith encourages us, the readers, to form our own stories . This cookbook is our outline, and we are the ones who compose the narrative.

“Our food tastes best when we taste its story. When our cooking becomes personal, it grounds us to our community and connects us to life.” Encompassed within the creation stories, Michael Smith has hidden some big ideas amongst his 100 easy recipes. Tucked between his pages are cues for forming a connection at every stage of the meal: from meeting those who produce food, to the experience of cooking, to the joy of a dinner shared with friends of family.

This isn’t just a cookbook, for Michael Smith, it’s a philosophy for life. (Though he’s hidden his message of gathering, preparing and sharing next to food that looks so darnned good, I blame no one for becoming swept up with imagines of Raspberry Red Cabbage or Apple Pie Rice and failing to notice his championing of food as a catalyst to better living.)

One of Canada’s top chefs,  a host of several cooking shows, and with several cookbooks under his belt, Michael Smith has a dedicated following who store their spices in jars and love to keep things simple. In Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen they’ll find familiar flavours mixed into new meals as Michael Smith puts forth 100 of his favourite newest recipes. (Including the concoctions produced on Iron Chef, so you can personally sample his food and decide who really won that battle.)

But with every cookbook the final word on quality (regardless of overlapping philosophy) is all down to the food. And it’s a pleasure to see that supporting his good ideas, the chef has infused his book with recipe after recipe of delicious yet simple meals. Selecting several items from Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen we prepared and enjoyed a beautiful menu (which, listed below, will read like poetry to any writer or foodie):

Baby Spinach and Bacon with Spicy Pickled Red Onions and Feta, 

Slow-Baked Salmon with Honey Mustard Glaze, 


Apple Pie Brown Rice. 

Not only was the food “delish”, but it was simple (honest: it was easy and quick to prepare), with the majority of items already in our fridge and most of the recipes involving only a few key flavours. When Michael Smith says this cookbooks is for everyone, he truly means it. No master chefs are necessary, everyone who’s willing to pick up a teaspoon (or tablespoon, depending on quantity) can prepare some excellent food.

With the book divided into eight sections ranging from breakfast to salad to mains to treats, it’s quick to dip into the pages and retrieve a needed idea. The pictures are lovely and in themselves instructive, and the recipes are simple to follow. But it’s crucial to remember – as Chef Michael Smith consistently emphasizes – that the recipes are solely a starting point. What happens between reading the book and making the meal is up to you. Remember, this is all about building a story and connecting with the food. Experimentation, diversion, and adventure are encouraged.

My own story during this past Michael Smith (à la Catherine Brunelle) meal involves my grandmother who’s ninety-two asking for second helpings of the honey-glazed salmon, my aunt commandeering the book, to pour over recipes, and my husband high five-ing me on another awesome meal (after which I high-fived him on another awesome clean-up).  It involved time with family, and gathering around the dinner table. Ours was a good story with happy diners.

Following the chef’s tribute to those who “gather, prepare, and share food”, and cooking from the pages of his latest book, Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen, 100 of My Favourite Easy Recipes,  he invites us readers (i.e. cooks) to become involved, try new ideas, connect with food, and give ourselves a break. Along with 100 recipes of simple deliciousness, how can this not be a cookbook for your shelves? It’s certainly found a place on mine.

Frances Itani's Requiem


You are youngest, number-two son, born in the year of the tiger. A tiger may be stubborn, but can chase away ghosts and protect […] But because your time of birth was at the cusp of the year of the rabbit you are destined to be melancholy, and you will weep over nonsensical things.


So notes Bin Okuma’s father in the opening chapter of Frances Itani’s most recent novel, Requiem. This dubious fate is made more complicated by the wide sweep of history. Born to a Japanese-Canadian family in the years leading to the Second World War, Bin and his family along with thousands of other Japanese-Canadians are deemed enemy aliens by the government and forcibly relocated to an internment camp in the B.C. interior. There they are forced to live in primitive conditions for the duration of the war, stripped of their possessions and their freedom. 


A talented artist struggling in the wake of his wife’s recent death, the adult Bin continues to be haunted by both this collective betrayal as well as an individual betrayal that shattered his family. His impulsive decision to revisit the site of the camp and subsequent journey from Ottawa to the Fraser Valley mirrors his psychical journey in which he strives to reconcile grief, memory, and history; themes that are conveniently bundled in the figure of his dead wife, a history professor in life. 


Switching among multiple time periods, which serve to mimic the fragmentation of memory, Itani explores the short and long-term impact of the internment; both practical and psychological. While she successfully conveys the day-to-day details of camp life, the harshness of the environment seems paradoxically minimized due to the efforts of the internees as they attempt and largely succeed in forming a functional community. The hardships faced by internees are not glossed over but they make do. Still one gets the sense that from the viewpoint of another character, or a slightly older protagonist, even more hardships would be evident. 


Interestingly, it is Bin’s experiences in the immediate post-war period that prove most compelling and the reader is left wishing that more attention was given to this phase of his life. Indeed, this failure points to the core weakness of the text; namely, the generally dull characterization of the adult Bin who dominates the narrative. Unlike the joyful realization of Grania O’Neil, the protagonist of Itani’s 2003 bestseller Deafening, the characters in Requiem sometimes struggle to transcend the weighty themes that the author explores making for a ponderous and slow-moving first half. The repeated symbolism of rivers and continual references to Beethoven, though providing insight into the development of Bin as an artist, occasionally prove irritating, not to mention Basil the dog. Similarly some specifics about the wider internment policy might have been better left in a postscript as they pull focus from the narrative’s momentum. 


Fortunately a significant revelation at the halfway mark creates a much more engrossing story as the reader gains greater insight into Bin’s psyche. Seemingly secondary characters are thrown into sharp relief and Bin’s conception of himself as a husband, father, and son are more deeply enriched. Moreover in the end Bin’s fate, the fate of the tiger-born, is finally realized.