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Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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Inside the CBC Tower of Babble with Richard Stursberg

“Through the course of my happy six years there,” began Richard Stursberg, former head of English Services at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “I was variously described as bad man, a sociopath, a spineless rat, and, on a number of occasions, even recently - a sort of mass murderer.” His book, The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC , is a memoir of his tumultuous six-year ride at the helm of “English Canada’s greatest cultural institution”.

 

Tonight, Stursberg at first glance certainly appears to be an  “amiable fellow”, to borrow the words of Rob Russo, the evening’s host and Ottawa bureau chief of the Canadian press.  He wears glasses and looks a bit like an uncle, if your uncle were the type to wear tailored suit pants with a sheen.  It’s a rainy evening at Knox Presbyterian Church on Elgin, and the audience laughs easily when Stursberg, in a funny, staccato voice, recounts a comparison between himself and his successor, Kirstine Stewart, “she may seem milder than Richard,” he recounts part of an article in Toronto Life Magazine, “but then Khrushchev looked better after Stalin.” Stursberg smiles, “I thought it was a little bit tough to be compared to one of the great mass murderers of the twentieth century for the sin of wanting to make television shows that Canadians might actually want to watch.”

 

Dictator-themed jabs aside, Stursberg is clearly proud of his time spent at the CBC.  Knowing what he knows now, would he take the job over again?  Absolutely.  Would he do anything differently?  Perhaps one thing. “Faster, further.” he says with reference to the changes made to Radio 2’s musical offerings.

 

Stursberg is direct and intense.  Even when friendly, his posture and inflection betray a fierce negotiator.  What’s more, he deflects criticism with humour, and, while entertaining, it’s a sure-fire way to raise the ire of people who don’t share his views.  It’s clear, however, that his fierceness is channelled in many ways.  Taken at his word, he is fiercely passionate about the CBC and its role as a public broadcaster.  When the question of the CBC’s mandate is broached, he is fiercely opinionated.  Direct approval from the Canadian public, he argues, is not only the ultimate litmus test of the public broadcaster’s success, but it was and is overwhelmingly good for business and for morale within the Corporation.

And so the debate opens.  Mandate and ratings.  Internal culture at the CBC and ‘the outside’.  Cultural distinction and popularity.  Are these pairings destined to be at odds?  Stursberg says simply no.

 

The ‘capital M Mandate” of the CBC that Stursberg recalls encountering in 2004 was in his view misguided, sporadic in its successes, and fundamentally disconnected from the public the Corporation was meant to serve. It had to be left on the cutting room floor. The Stursberg regime saw the introduction of a holy trinity of worthiness.  Programs had to be culturally relevant, distinctly our own, and, mostly importantly, consistently bring in ratings. “The root of the entire strategy,” he said, was to provide an as yet unprecedented “sustained push” in the development of quality Canadian television; a marriage of popularity and quality.

 

There was much resistance, there were “great flops”, but there were also resounding successes.  Unprecedented numbers of Canadians tuned into CBC television and radio, and are tuning in still.  Ask Stursberg and he’ll tell you that CBC is enjoying its golden age.  Radio and television are promoting one another, programs are not only popular, but they are smart and distinctly Canadian.  There is no compromise between numbers success and quality.  The two are mutually reinforcing.  On the April 22nd airing of Michael Enright’s The Sunday Edition, Stursberg defended television and his quest for a revision of the old CBC mandate, “We should respect television. We should admire it for what it is.  It’s an entertainment medium. This is the greatest popular medium that there is.”

 

So what’s next for the CBC? At the height of the success Stursberg describes, it has faced more budget cuts. A poor reward and a confusing message. Its future ought to be secured by a different funding system, he suggests. Out with arbitrary budgets and in with surveys of Canadians to define its role clearly and thus determine an appropriate allocation of funds.

As Stursberg’s talk comes to an end, he speaks with a warm intensity. He champions the CBC. "No organization does what the CBC does." "No one offers this quality of prime-time Canadian television, no one does CBC radio talk, no one offers CBC news coverage, no one provides such a varied portal to the arts, no one does Hockey Night in Canada." Like it's erstwhile executive, the CBC’s uniqueness is its armour. So long as the CBC’s content is unparalleled, there will always be a place for the public broadcaster.

 

 

A(nother) Tale of Love and Darkness: The earnest, insistent satire of Sayed Kashua

“Something must be wrong about me if so many Jews like my work!” quipped Sayed Kashua, with a tinge of shy mischief, as he was in conversation with Kate Heartfield of the Ottawa Citizen. Kashua is the author of 3 well-received books, the latest of which, Second Person Singular, has recently been translated into English. He is also a screenwriter whose TV show Arab Labor   (transliterated as Avoda Aravit in Hebrew) the title being an appropriation of the disparaging term for “shoddy work” in the Israeli vernacular, is now in its third season since debuting in 2007. Its distinction is that it is the first sitcom in Israel to feature an Israeli-Arab/Palestinian citizen of Israel as the protagonist. And so it was with the first episode from the third season of this irreverently observed comedy of manners and station, the afternoon at the Mayfair began.

 

The ice being broken, Kashua took the stage to discuss aspects of being an artist who enjoys varied success as a columnist, screen-playwright and author in a nation with which his relationship could best be described as ambivalent. Embodying the voice of the minority has long been the calling of writers in the Jewish diaspora, whose ‘otherness’ often fuelled an incandescent emission of literary energy. From the haunting, lyrical visions of Bruno Schulz to today’s sardonic bite of Howard Jacobson, Jewish writers often communicated insight in the subtle, subversive manner which is the hallmark of all great writers; minority or otherwise. Kashua firmly placed himself within this tradition, whilst simultaneously pulling for a solitary grimness in the reality of the Palestinian minority. Writing primarily in Hebrew, which Kashua considers his first language, draws one to make the not-so-grasping parallel to Maimonides who wrote much of his work in Arabic with the Hebrew script. Attending on scholarship at the Arts and Science Academy and later the Hebrew University – both in Jerusalem, Kashua admitted the difficulty of being immersed in a world solely in Hebrew, yet the process opening literary doors to authors (many who happened to be Jewish) such as J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow and Franz Kafka.

 

Using the language of the majority inevitably lends on to charges of going native: receiving Jewish praise may result en revanche in Arab criticism. He blithely observes that Amjad, the protagonist in Arab Labor, doesn’t even have to be successful to invite criticism. This unenviable place is a lonely one. More so than ardently wishing to convey the world of one’s belonging, there is also the fearful self-doubt of the artist who must wonder if acclamation is the fruition of being great or merely being “exotic”. How else to explain something like V.S. Naipaul’s bold yet vulnerable boast that “...in 1954 he began to write, and since then has pursued no other profession.”? When Heartfield asked Kashua if he saw any parallels between himself and other “minority” writers such as Canada’s Mordecai Richler, he spoke of how much of his favourite writings have come from these very writers. Kashua has been called “the most Jewish of Israeli writers”, his response being that perhaps being the majority in Israel has left its Jewish populace bereft of its once indispensable gaiety.

 

It is rather remarkable that the ever-active cultural arm of the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa, would choose someone who doesn’t share the basic raison d’être of the state, as its ambassador. Kashua joked that a picture taken next to the embassy’s banner might “destroy one year of (goodwill) work” with the Palestinian population.

 

The theme of loneliness and jealousy run thick in the narrative of Second Person Singular: the title itself an accidental arrival at the theme of the angst Kashua wishes to convey. Despite his many successes and his relative youth (Kashua is 37), the borderlands he straddles will perhaps only self-inspire rather than offer clarity. However, in his portrayal of inter-ethnic interaction, there is hope that the erosion of prejudice is advancing; albeit slowly.

Cairo Time

Ahdaf Soueif prefaces her talk with the admission that this not a book she took on voluntarily, and that she wrote it primarily because she had signed on 15 years ago to write a book on Cairo and had long since spent the advance payment. That said however, when Ahdaf Soueif begins to read from Cairo: My City, Our Revolution and answers questions, it is immediately clear that it is not only her guilty conscience that is put to rest but that her publishers too must be glad that she had not fulfilled her obligation earlier.

 

Having been on the ground during the 18 days which punctuated Egypt's momentous revolution, and having marched alongside the masses; Soueif manages to mingle her awareness of the event and all its intricacies with the poetic sensibility of her earlier works, allowing her to bring the reader right to the centre of Tahrir (Liberation) Square. Furthermore, and what is equally important, is that in spite of all her attention to the movement, Soueif is constantly aware that the revolution, not unlike any other major event, will soon be dropped from television screens and that the world would forget about it. “This book,” says Soueif as she reads from Cairo , “is not a record of an event that is over, but an attempt to welcome you in to, make you a part of, an event that we are still living (through).”


What was perhaps the most noteworthy point of the talk, although the Mayfair theatre resounded with several of those that evening, was that Soueif’s work does not treat the revolution as an end by itself, as a standalone phenomenon. Rather, as the title of her book reveals, the revolution is but the subscript to the bigger envisioned picture of Cairo. This is why she stresses the point that even though it was beautiful in the way it came to life and stood up from the ground - a beast powered by the will of the masses, the revolution was  in the long run however, a failure. In spite of its success in being an expression of the people unlike anything before it, “we had failed in the 18 days,” says Soueif, “failed to put forward a leader.”

 

But it is perhaps this admission that makes the reader realize that we are indeed dealing with “an event that we are still living (through).” Hence the author herself finds the writing of the book problematic on two levels. One is that while the 18 days of the revolution are locked in the past, the fight to keep its spirit alive continues. Soueif says that the other obstacle to the book is that although during the time of its writing the reader is absent and unknown to her, she wants that reader to connect the events in the book to the reality of Egypt at the time he/she is reading Cairo.

 

While the revolution may have fallen short of its ultimate prerogative, and though the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) - which initially helped oust Mobarak from power - has taken control and has stalled every possible move forward in this struggle for democracy, and many have lost their lives in this struggle, Soueif remains optimistic. On a personal note, it was inspiring to hear her say - in response to a particular question - that she saw no contradiction between an Islamic State and a democracy: a voice quite unlike the others which shrill the opposite. She mentioned that the Muslim Brotherhood has not only long provided social services to Egyptians but had also been the main opposition to Mobarak.

 

“On the ground,” says Soueif, “people are insisting on a new way of being, and if you witness this, you would have no choice but to be optimistic.” While at the end of the day, this is indeed a movement of and for Egyptians, Soueif remains hopeful that the world would read and acknowledge that, change has come to Egypt.

 

Say Amen, Somebody

“Progressive, female, mainline church minister, non-theist”:  this is the unique combination of credentials Gretta Vosper brings to the pulpit and specifically, to the subject of prayer. The first pre-festival event kicked off at Southminster United Church with Vosper speaking on her newly released book Amen: What Prayer Can Mean In A World Beyond Belief .  Vosper gained prominence with the founding of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity in 2004 and later fanfare (or notoriety, depending on whom you ask) for her 2008 book With or Without God: Why The Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe. 

 

Vosper began by recounting how as a child, when told that she could say her prayers lying in bed rather than having to kneel with hands folded, she sensed that an indelible line had been traversed.  From there, the notion of prescribed constancy in forms of prayer devolved to a state of flux. Stemming from the premise in her first book, Vosper maintains that it is our actions alone that matter.  While she believes that the idea of an “interventionist” Deity is wishful thinking, or worse, the action of prayer with the human community as referent could still be relevant.  So long as we’re clear that a certain Who is not being addressed. 

 

Poised and graceful, Vosper is a latter day halfway-Meursault, whose courage goes far enough to castigate fellow liberal ministers for not being more forthcoming regarding their doubts about dogma and belief, yet not quite cast off institutionalised religion. In this matter, her candour is refreshing. While her pronouncement may ring heretical to orthodox ears, the clarity of her message – that we, not an external ”divinity,” are the sole source of goodness – leaves no room for second-guessing her position. Where ambiguity does emerge is in the task of extrapolating her views to where the progressive life she proclaims leads.  Beyond a set of admittedly admirable “values” in the human community, she is very candid that she does not know.

 

The view that we alone define and delineate compassion, beauty and truth appears freeing at the outset. But there is a Mr. Hyde which bespoils this Jekyllian balance: it implies that we are also solely responsible for the hate, ugliness and lies which wait to snare us on the other end of the spectrum. When Vosper stated that “we, as humans, are merely potential” there wasn’t a serious exploration of why someone would choose one direction or the other. Bearing the singular custodianship of the burden of redemption (however one legitimately defines it) is onerous indeed. The success of twelve-step programs in sustaining the fragile cord holding an addict from the dark, descending spiral seems to require us to admit the importance of dependency on a source beyond the human arena.  Vosper calmly stated that the church is not essential; it is only important to the extent that it performs some ‘good’ in the world, namely, creating a community where people can share their experience of life.  Otherwise, as her interviewer suggested, she is working for her institution’s obsolescence.  In many regards, this is a beneficial notion. A church where the congregation feels no connection to the proceedings of the service, or no purview larger than themselves, is a dead one. There was a sense, however, that the idea of the church as a distinct space was hastily dismissed. While many social media outlets bring people together to cause revolutions, or raise awareness and funds, they also foster a false sense of intimacy. Moreover, actions don’t emerge from a vacuum but from deeply held beliefs. Indeed, by Vosper’s own admission we cannot simply demolish belief; her task is to substitute tired, oppressive dogma for a “progressive” set of values which would enable us to live better.

 

Nothing must annoy a physician more than self-diagnosing patients who, having frantically searched WebMD, present the doctor with the medical verdict Q.E.D. This does not have to be a bad thing. After all, Vosper pointed out that recent times have greatly broadened the access laity have to information - both theological and secular. She also bemoaned the difficulty that clergy often face following their training:  bringing their congregations “up-to-date” from their “Sunday School thinking”. While one wants to accord theology and divinity studies the respect it deserves, this view couldn’t help but come off as condescending to laypersons. This amounts to a jarring paternalism, particularly pointed since Vosper, as a woman, espouses kinship with the marginalised “outside the circles of power”.

 

What Vosper does not do is denigrate prayer as play-acting or placebo – she affirms that it can have a positive effect and that we’d all be better off if we practiced it more, so long as we don’t harbour the notion that it has any effect on the “natural” course of life. She remains adamant in drawing the line in the belief in an interventionist God (or any god beyond the human community).  In the end, Vosper holds a brave, honest posture, but, to this reviewer, serves largely to precipitate the diminishment of the hope meant to be imbued. In Donne’s words, “A fancy, a chimera in our brain” will then neither trouble us in our prayer(s) nor move us to pray at all.

Violence Against Women

Flags are flying at half mast as we remember the 14 women killed at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal 22 years ago today.

 

And in Kingston the Mohammad Shafia murder trial of his three teenaged daughters and first wife continues to stagger the imagination.

 

Shahla Khan Salter is a lawyer, mother of three, and chair of Muslims for Progressive Values Canada. She lives in Ottawa. We wanted to share her thoughts today:

 

As a Muslim woman raised in Canada it’s hard to pick up the paper and read about the Shafia murder trial.


I feel that Zainab, Sahar, Geeti and Rona are our daughters, our sister.


I feel sick reading that the one person they should have trusted the most in the world could do this.  And overwhelmed when I think about the burden we carry right now in trying to making sure this tragedy does not happen again and again. 


My fellow Muslim community members – including my family and Muslim friends – we know we have a problem in our community. We know that this is not about domestic violence alone. It’s about a cultural gap between parents and kids. It’s about acquiring the strength to embrace differences. It’s about making sure others remember that the greatest tenet of our faith is not the honour that comes from guarding one’s modesty, but the love that arises from spreading compassion.


I believe that part of our responsibility now means that second generation Muslims, like me, have to come out of our Muslim closets. We have to tell the story of what happened to us, when we were growing up and how our parents coped with differences.


Not all Muslim men are Mohamed Shafia. Most are like my dad, Asad Ullah Khan - who raised three daughters, rarely raised his voice and never used force.


For the sake of all the Zainab, Sahars and Geetis out there - I wish all Muslim dads were like mine. The story of my dad and me is in this poem. 

 

I am a Canadian Muslim Woman

My Muslim father came to North America from Pakistan before I was born

My Muslim father prays five times a day

My Muslim father reads the Holy Quran

 

My Muslim father taught me to value my body

And not let just anyone touch me or see me

 

But I did not listen

When I was sixteen I secretly wore a bikini on the beach

My Muslim father was disappointed that my shorts were too short

 

When I was eighteen I had a boyfriend

My Muslim father waited up all night for me to come home

 

When I was twenty six I moved out of his house

My Muslim father was sad when I refused to marry the man of his choice

 

When I was twenty nine I married my husband

We had been in love for two and a half years

 

My Muslim father put me through law school

My Muslim father walked me down the aisle on my wedding day

My Muslim father told me he was proud of me

My Muslim father loved me no matter what

My Muslim father never harmed a hair on my Muslim head

 

My Muslim father helped make me the woman that I am today.

 

- Shahla Khan Salter

 

Civilization and Its Contents – an evening with Niall Ferguson

The topicality of Niall Ferguson’s books possesses an uncanny - bordering on conspiratorial prescience - quality. As with Colossus and the war in Iraq and the Ascent Of Money following publication after the 2008 financial crisis, Civilization dances in concert with the events of the Euro Zone crisis in Athens and Rome as well as the increasing sense that ‘the West’ led by the United States is on a relative decline vis-à-vis Asia. Ferguson, whose is as able a public speaker as a weaver of grand narratives from seemingly disparate sources, made a teasing allusion to this very timing as he opened the post-festival session at a packed audience at Southminster United Church.

 

The very premise that Ferguson poses needs to be underscored: why is it that a group of countries on the western corner of the Eurasian landmass, come to dominate the ‘rest’ of the world in the past 500 years? The very telling of a grand narrative, especially clothed in the supposed derisive clothing and viewpoint of success tends to elicit a collective pooh-poohing from Western intelligentsia (interestingly, this self-denigration also seems to be a very ‘Western’ phenomenon. Many Indians, Arabs and Chinese often don’t feel an inkling of shyness in touting their respective civilizations contributions to the world). Ferguson’s approach is to first address why this supremacy occurred. Many vexed discussions have already taken place on instances of European colonization’s injurious effects. However, an analysis as to the evident ascent or the “great divergence”; which was not at all evident in the late fifteenth century, is of greater utility. As Ferguson explains in his preface

 

This is not a history of the West but a history of the world, in which Western dominance is the phenomenon to be explained...No serious writer would claim that the reign of Western Civilization was unblemished. Yet there are those who would insist that there was nothing whatever good about it. This position is absurd...We must also resist the temptation to romanticize history’s losers.

 

While many commentators have blithely (and obligatorily it seems) dismissed his use of the term “killer apps” as uncouth, it does appear on sustained reflection as a rather robust yet elastic analogy in that “apps” appear straightforward whilst simultaneously being a multi-factorial and complex code of software. Besides, while his teenage children may yet have to slough through his fairly demanding book, the accessibility of his oral presentation and TV program win the day with their clarity. These apps, responsible for the sudden paradigm shift, are competition, property rights, the rule of law, science, modern medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic.  

 

While the approach is different from Kenneth Clark’s classic Civilisation from the late 1960s (Ferguson’s first history book) with its fixation on art and architecture, Ferguson is more interested in the factors which directly led to the material prosperity of common citizens. Art and architecture after all are the visible expressions of a civilization, not its sinews.       

 

The app of internal competition is of note since Europe was far from monolithic the way the Chinese Ming dynasty or the successive medieval caliphates and the later Ottoman Empire were. The fragmented nature of different regional city-states meant that there was a great deal of localised autonomy of not only in government, but also amongst the active mercantile class. This meant that the search for greater access to desired goods à la “the spice race” spurred an intense innovation which was rooted in this internal competition. In contrast, the large centralizing authority in China for instance, was what cancelled the great naval captain Cheng He’s voyages after the death of Emperor Yongle. As Ferguson states

 

From 1500, anyone in China found building a ship with more than two masts were liable to the death penalty; in 1551 it became a crime to even go to sea in such a ship.

 

This scenario would be impossible in Europe where no reigning monarch, not even the Holy Roman Emperor could limit, let alone prohibit overseas exploration. In Shusaku Endo’s seminal novel ‘Silence’ set in 16th century Japan, the only ostensibly fictional Father Rodrigues - a Portuguese Jesuit priest writes, “The feudal lord (in Japan) has unlimited power over his people, much more than any king in a Christian country...the landowner has absolute power...and he can kill at will anyone he does not like and confiscate all his property.” (William Johnston translation from the Japanese).

 

The second aspect, if one uses the Endo quote as a launch-pad, is the primacy of the rule of law which guaranteed property rights which was not subject to arbitrary appropriation by anyone wielding power. Some of the more pointed criticism of Ferguson on property rights has been on the dishonouring of land treaty agreements in the Americas between European and Aboriginals. The discussion of property rights in the context of current Native Americans, the reserve system and the problems these communities face merit serious discussion, but it would need far more space that this column allows. The distinction of the economic success of the British influenced North America which extended property rights and the southern Spanish and Portuguese colonies which did not, is clear. Ferguson goes to great detail in this chapter of the book as to what could have happened had the properties colonized by the respective powers were reversed and his conclusion that it was indeed “widely distributed property rights and democracy” (which was embedded in the notion that owning property led to rise of representative government) of the British which proved superior to the “concentrated wealth and authoritarianism” of the Spanish and Portuguese. Indeed, Brazil’s current rise is tied to the reforms of property laws in that country.

 

It is also in this chapter where Ferguson dissects the impact of slavery in both societies. As host Adrian Harewood would open with this very question in his interview and discussion, Ferguson notes that slavery itself was not one of the 6 apps because while it did lead to a level of profit for the exploiters, it was not a novel phenomenon: many other societies practiced it without experiencing the “great divergence”. He would go on to say that it may have even be

 

Far from being indispensable to its success, slavery and segregation were handicaps to American development...

 

While it is a “great stain” on Western Civilization, it alone couldn’t account as distinguishing feature contributing to Western dominance.

 

The Scientific Revolution does owe a great debt to medieval Islamic empires which not only preserved classical Greek and Roman texts but also produced much original contribution. However, the advent of modern science was a Western European phenomenon. The advent of the printing press (which the Ottoman Empire banned for over two centuries) and the openness to texts and information buoyed the spread and rooting of knowledge. One of the key components of this advantage was the translation of this knowledge into military advantage. It seems almost certain that with the decline in the education of science and while the rest of the world’s progress is apace, it is far from certain how long this edge will endure.

 

The consumer society (while sounding pejorative) was and is essential in ensuring that the Industrial Revolution actually occurred. Without demand, especially starting with the mechanised production of textiles, the need for industrialization in other areas would likely not have occurred. A very vivid anecdote as presented by Ferguson was how the Soviet planned economy seemed incapable of producing blue jeans which many of its citizens wanted. Ferguson further extrapolates this point in stating that the backlash against Western clothes in places such as Turkey and post-revolutionary Iran as indicators of deeper loathing of the symbolism they embody (pun intended).

 

The final app of the work ethic has been one espoused by Max Weber in his study of the American Midwest where the now famous “Protestant work ethic”. While this is indeed tied to religious faith – where a modern day equivalent would be the numerous Chinese Christian entrepreneurs who’d prefer to deal with their coreligionists – Christianity and its Protestant variant alone is deems insufficient to fully account as a change, according to Ferguson. For Christianity was indeed present in Europe long before the 15th century, and yet much of it was the Dark Ages. Ferguson does admit that the decline of religion in Europe did coincide with the decline of working hours. In the United States, religious observance seems to continue unabated – perhaps a reason being that no one denomination was from the nation’s inception, monopolized; again bringing the app of competition into the religious marketplace. While Ferguson would later impishly pronounce that religion as a factor “is not that important”, he sounds as if he doesn’t fully mean it. While professing to be an atheist, Ferguson displays remarkable fluency in the practices and phenomenon of religiosity. This is a topical concern in China, where a growing Christian population leaves the Communist leadership unsure as to how it relates to their position of authority. Post-Maoist China requires an ethical framework, and religion does appear to lend it structure to fill this need quite ably. A follow-up question which is equally pertinent is whether economic liberalization leads to political liberalization as well. Family structures while important, do not seem to be a standalone factor as well since for every Cosby Show and Leave It To Beaver, there’s Sicily and Somalia.

 

Ultimately, it’s the rule of law which can’t be imitated or mimicked in a sustained manner without a commitment to ethics and liberty. This is the app which emerges as the ‘X factor’.  

 

While being accused by more than a few of imperialistic snobbery Ferguson in fact hardly what caricatures often make of him. His provision of bewildering detail from many angles is surprising not only as it evinces circumspection but in how he manages to not come across as convoluted but cogent. The latest controversy involves a spat with Pankaj Mishra whose essay in the London Review of Books casts a sweeping, caustic stroke. While sandwiching a review with quotations from F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby evinces literary sophistication, it does little in contributing to the conversation of the shifts that are taking place, especially as it seems to come from a worldview espousing any concession to ‘Western’ beneficence as heresy.   

 

It’s important to note that Ferguson’s narrative is not triumphalist. These apps are ideas which are surprisingly “open sourced”. Indeed, the first country to ‘download’ then en masse was Japan and even with the set-back of its defeat in WWII, it still overtook the UK’s overall GDP in 1964. The path blazed by Japan is now teeming with many others, notably India, China and Brazil with Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, Chile and Russia all not too far behind. Ferguson does admit that this means that the overall dominance of the West after its run of 500 years is coming to a close. But it would seem a certain folly to delete the apps that made the West successful while others eagerly download it.  

 

Far from prophesying that the current trends as inexorable (“I am not proclaiming a Chinese century”) Ferguson’s work instead is a paean to the notion that nothing need be inevitable. That economic and civilizational emaciation can be reversed. That it is institutions bereft of corruption composed in promoting the aforementioned killer apps which are consequential. That historical literacy, along with a renewed vigour based not on false hope, but on what has worked before, and what continues to work, need to be embraced and practiced. If we try.

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.

Wade Davis' Into The Silence

On a bright sunny Sunday afternoon, the lower half of the Mayfair filled up for a post-writers festival talk by a festival favourite, Wade Davis. Davis has graced us with his presence many times before, the last time of which was a packed house in this very venue. That event was much better attended as I found myself sitting on the floor in the back of the theatre. Today there are plenty of empty seats, but the fact that there are people here at all is a testament to Davis’s popularity. Several audience members commented on the way in that if it was not for it being Wade Davis, they most certainly would not be giving up what is likely to be one of the last beautiful days left before winter.

 

The room is dark in order that we can see the beautiful archival images on the powerpoint better; however, the darkness of the room mixed with eloquently spoken stories gave it a sleepy atmosphere polar opposite to the world outside.

Davis talks of the subject the same way that he speaks of all his other subjects, with passion, well-researched statistics, but yet intensely human stories that pull you in and make you want to know more. The theme of Davis’s speech was the need to make the most of life, that life is about living more than about the quantity of time lived. He altered between talking about the men (boys) involved, how he came to find their stories, and reading straight from his book. The transitions, as usual for Davis, were seamless, one story flowing into another almost without pause, one theme or idea leading into another theme or idea that might seem unrelated had anyone else been telling them, the pace of the stories having a sense of adrenaline that you might get from trying to climb a mountain.

 

Davis painted the historical picture of the Great War, Mallory, and climbing Everest in detail, but he also delved into bigger ideas such as imperialism, war tactics, politics, and even mentioned the differential calculus used to calculate about Everest. He tells us the stories from their personal lives and manages to connect those to their public lives and their journeys. The stories he tells are fascinating, about the permission to climb beginning as an arms deal, about the need to walk 400 miles off the map just to get there, about the men who tried to sneak their way there earlier, about the boys while they were back at school experimenting in life and fornicating with each other. Each of the men has lived an incredible life, certainly experiencing things that many of us can only imagine.

 

“The price of life is death.” Quoted directly from the book, and I sense directly from one of the men involved. The story emerges from a time in history when death was common, a daily occurrence in multiple numbers. Davis finishes with these thoughts and his own into the mystery of whether or not Mallory made it to the top. While nobody (except Mallory) will ever know this definitively, I will leave it to the reader to find Davis’s take on the controversy. Ultimately it appears that Mallory and his pals had a life that made the price worthwhile. We should all strive to make our lives as such.

 

Scottish Crime Night

Scottish Crime Night at the Ottawa International Writers Festival kicked off in style as the esteemed authors, Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, and Stuart Macbride, were piped in to the fittingly Scottish Knox Presbyterian Church.

 

A rainy October evening should have been the perfect backdrop to an evening of crime, examining the darker side to human existence, but inside the mood was jovial; lightened by the foreign Scottish accents and the delectable sense of humour shared by all three of the evening’s authors. Host Alan Neal did a remarkable job of connecting the three stories together, often pulling a quote from one of the books to ask a question of all three. Responses from the writers were intelligent, thoughtful, and often quite funny, keeping the packed house laughing through a rather lengthy discussion that journeyed through the author’s books to the current financial situation to the tendency of the world to constantly find new threats to fear. By the end of the evening, I had determined that I needed to read the books myself.

 

The books ended up being harder to acquire than I had hoped they would, but it was a worthwhile experience to do so.

Denise Mina’s The End of Wasp Season wove together the stories of many people, from the boy who committed the murder to the leading detective on the case - Alex Morrow, to an old friend of Alex’s who ended up being quite close to the victim. The layers upon layers of sub-plot going on around the main case enriched the story and added an extra layer of depth to the characters. It is this depth of character that makes the reader want to keep reading, to find out what happens to each of them. Mina commented that crime writing is a great way to play out the continuous struggles between our demons and our better natures. This is precisely what she has done, and remarkably well, in her book. (See http://www.denisemina.co.uk/contents/books/endofthewasp.htm for more plot details or to read the first chapter for free.)

 

Stuart MacBride also plays out this struggle in Shatter the Bones, but in a very different way. MacBride writes a much more suspenseful and action packed double-mystery with two simultaneous investigations being handled by his Grampian Police Force. First there is the abduction of two of Scotland’s most famous musicians, contestants on Britain’s Next Big Star; second, there is a drug raid and the drug underworld. The story takes a turn for the personal, affecting the home life of the leading detective on the case. MacBride’s novel was the most Scottish in language of the three, but that certainly did not detract from the twisted and ever-evolving plot. It is MacBride’s ability to twist the plot around that is his greatest gift as a writer. Shatter the Bones is the seventh book in the series, but I had no difficulty picking it up and reading it without knowledge of the others. (See http://www.stuartmacbride.com/books.php for more details about this book or others by Stuart MacBride.)

 

Ian Rankin’s The Impossible Dead is also based on a returning character, but again it was quite easy to pick up and jump right in. Rankin’s central characters here are members of Complaints, the police officers who investigate the impropriety of other officers, the ultimate way of playing out the conflict between the inner demons and better natures of human beings. In this case, a standard investigation takes a turn to the past, to a case that was never properly investigated in the first place. The book twists and turns jumping back and forth between past and present. What is remarkable about Rankin’s book is the smooth and natural way in which he manages to weave the many cases together. (See http://www.ianrankin.net/pages/content/index.asp?PageID=175 for more details about the book.)

 

What strikes me about all three novels are the detectives. Alex Morrow, Logan McRae, and Malcolm Fox are all excellent police officers, dedicated to their jobs, working tirelessly and often without the requisite breaks - risking their lives even - in order to bring justice and solve their cases. Each displays valour, intelligence, quick wits, bravery, and determination, having successful careers and moving up the ranks. Each does an excellent job of solving the case. Yet at the same time, each makes moves that are not standard procedure, that could cost them the case. Each displays a degree of malice, occasionally making a move that is selfish, underhanded, or that may seem shady in one way or another. Despite these human flaws, each character is easy to like, which is probably why they have maintained their staying power with the authors and readers. If part of the joy and beauty of crime fiction is to play out the inner conflict between each person’s darker side and desire to do the right thing and be a hero, these three authors are artists, displaying a remarkable talent for just that.

 

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the financial aspect to these crime novels. Alan Neal, in his interview with the authors, points out that each contains an element of the financial world, and asked how the global “economic crisis” has an influence on their writing. For Denise Mina, one of the dead is a major financial player who was part of the problem of the collapse. It is interesting that this character also had two families and a mistress and was smuggling money around. In MacBride’s book, the financial world comes out in the current need for celebrity status, pulling in the new reality show culture. For Fox, his criminal is a very successful businessman, high up in financial circles. Rankin goes so far as to point out that the attributes needed to be successful in business are the same as those needed to succeed in criminal enterprise: “I saw something on the internet during a trawl: the qualities you need to succeed in business are the same ones cold-blooded killers have. No empathy, no emotion … whatever it takes to get the result you want” (pg 353). In the discussion with the authors, they talked about how crime writing often gives people a way to deal with their fears in the world in a safe way. With the current economic situation, what many people fear is for their jobs and having enough money. In these novels, high finance and cold-blooded criminals are linked and people can subconsciously process their fears for both at the same time.

Regardless of whether the authors intended to play out people’s inner natures and help others to process their fears or not, all three of these Scottish authors have written interesting, suspenseful crime novels that keep the reader engaged to the very end.

 

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.