Monday, June 21, 2010

Canuck Book 13 - Holding Still For As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall

I finished my troika of Toronto novels with this Zoe Whittall book. Whittall is a writer I've known of for a while. I almost bought her first novel (Bottle Rocket Hearts) on a number of occasions but never quite got around to it. After reading Holding Still, I realize I will have to pick up her first book soon.

The story revolves around a group of friends and lovers who live around Parkdale, the slowly gentrifying neighbourhood near the west end of Queen Street. Billy - a one-time teen pop starlet - has split with her longtime girlfriend Maria. She is trying to go to school but suffers from severe panic attacks. Josh is a transgendered paramedic who is starting to grow apart from his girlfriend Amy (who is a filmmaker). There are a few other friends that come and go but these are the main three.

I'll be honest. The book took a while to grow on me. Each section starts with interludes describing an emergency that paramedics are attending to. There's a very detached feeling to these that had me guessing, trying to figure out why they were there. There was no need to question anything, though. Whittall knows what she's doing. The more I read, the more I realized how well she put this story together.

Stringing the last three books in the Canada Reads challenge together like I did was an interesting experience. I witnessed three different takes on Toronto (four if you count Consolation's split narrative) that had surprisingly little overlap. I wonder how many other Canadian cities this can can be said of? Montreal, for sure. Vancouver? Probably. Any others?

Canuck Book 12 - Consolation by Michael Redhill

After reading Girl Crazy, I thought I'd stick with the Toronto novel theme. I'd been meaning to read Consolation for a long time. I was a big fan of his earlier novel, Martin Sloane, so I knew I would likely love this book. Of course, other books kept popping up so Consolation just never reached the top of the pile by my bed.

I'm glad I finally got around to it. Consolation tells two stories. The first involves a family coming to terms with the patriarch's death in late-90s Toronto. The father was a "forensic geologist" who spent his career sifting through the layers of garbage and debris on which the city stands, looking for clues to the past. Stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease, he left behind clues for a potentially crucial find on the site where the city is building it's new hockey arena.

The other story follows the life of a young chemist who moved to Toronto from England in the 1850's to run a store he bought sight unseen. As his main business fails, he gradually moves into the new field of photography.

The strange thing about this book is that, as much as I loved it - and I did love it - I couldn't help wishing the author would have focussed on one of the stories instead of splitting the book between the two narratives. Of course, as the book progresses, you do see why the author has set the book up this way. Quite frankly, this is one of the best Toronto novels I've read in a long time. It's a book that sticks with you and makes you look at the city and its myriad construction sites in a very different light.

Canuck Book 11 - Girl Crazy by Russell Smith

I have a weakness for Russell Smith novels. It's funny because, in a lot of ways, Mr. Smith writes books I feel I shouldn't like. They are always full of characters who are big on flaws but short on redeeming qualities. Add to this the fact that Smith sometime writes like a caricature of the knowing hipster - the one who knows all the right bars and all the right people and all the reasons why most people don't measure up to some invisible yardstick of the trendy - and you have a writer who should be avoided.

Only it doesn't work out that way. I buy his books as soon as they come out and tear through them. While I rarely wind up liking the characters, the stories pull me in and the details, those precious details, begin to ring true. What I like most about his work is that he is a Toronto writer through and through. It's hard to imagine his stories and characters without Toronto looming in the background. Each book offers me a chance to look at the city in a way that is both completely valid and yet totally different from what I normally see.

That's why I picked up Girl Crazy as soon as I saw it in a bookstore.

Basically, the story goes like this - Guy falls for girl. Girl comes from wrong side of tracks (if that's possible anymore). Guy becomes obsessed. Sex. Drugs. Some danger. Some confusion. Some bad decisions. That's about it.

Oh yeah. The guy isn't just obsessed with the girl. He seems to be obsessed with women in general, hence the book title. Don't worry. It's not as creepy as it sounds.

Of course, it's the details that make the story and Smith scores big. I really don't want to give you more information than that loose outline because I wouldn't want to ruin any part of what is a very good book. There were times when I thought he might have gone too far with things, might have slipped from character to caricature, but he manages to walk the tightrope yet again.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The 100K Club

For those of you who do not live in Ontario, the province of Ontario is required by law to post the names and salaries of any provincial employee who earns more then $100 000 a year. Every April, the list is released and the Toronto Sun gets all hot and bothered with righteous indignation because. . . well because that's what the Sun always does. It's just another part of Mike Harris' dubious legacy that Ontarians have to live with, like the 407 and megacities.

The actual premise of the 100k club isn't that bad. It's nice to get an idea of where the money goes. Ostensibly, it should help to keep people accountable for their use of public money. That's all well and good. Unfortunately, the list is seriously flawed for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that the threshold is too low nowadays, making the list too large. I know that 100k is a lot of money but it's not as large a sum as it was in 1996 when the list was created. Where the list was once the domain of managers and bosses, you now have large numbers of the workers winding up on the list because of overtime payments. If the threshold was adjusted each year for inflation, you would have a much smaller list.

A smaller list would be more useful. Right now, the list has grown large enough that it gets tuned out. Sure, the comments section of the newspapers will be overflowing for a few days with people venting about the waste. Soon enough, though, it will all die down for another year. A smaller list would serve to highlight the worst offenders, making it harder for them to hide amongst the masses.

The other reason why the list is ineffective is that there is no context. You have the name, the organization, the position and the salary. That's it. No explanation of why the person earns what they do or what they do to earn it. No differentiation between those who crack 100k by working lots of overtime and those whose base salary is already above 100k.

It's easy to gasp about the nurse or the TTC ticket collector who makes 125k a year when all you have is a number. If we were told how many hours that person worked in a year to earn that sort of money, I'm sure it would seem a little less excessive. We would then have to look at the institution and not the individual to find out why there was that much overtime available in the first place. More than likely, we would find out one of two things. First, that it's cheaper to pay the overtime than it is to hire another person. Second, that some positions are short-staffed because of shortages of skilled employees. This means that the ones with the skills and the willingness to work long hours can earn big money.

In the case of people whose salaries are already above $100 000, I'm sure that most of the people are earning a fair salary for their skills and expertise. With the way the list is set up, however, we have no way of understanding that. There's just page after page of people earning lots of money with no explanation of why they earn that much. It's hard to get a balanced understanding of the issue when we are offered the bare minimum of information.

I'm not opposed to the list. Someday I'd like to be on it. I just think that it needs a revamp if it is to be of use to anyone other than newspaper headline writers.

If you want to check the list out for yourself, go here :

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Canuck Book 10 - The Diviners by Margaret Laurence

I'm going to keep this one simple - If Margaret Laurence must be taught in high schools, then this is the book to teach, not The Stone Angel. Don't get me wrong. The Stone Angel is a very good book. The problem is I couldn't accept that fact until I was in my mid-20's. In high school, I hated the book because it just didn't seem all that relevant or interesting.

Now, I'm not sure that The Diviners would be a great fit for high schools, but it would be better than The Stone Angel. I wish I would have read it in high school but I've always been a little bit different that way.

The Diviners is one of my all-time favourite books. It's one of the few books I do go back and reread every now and again because it has never stopped amazing me.

This time was no exception.

Canuck Book 9 - Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler

The great thing about spending much of this challenge re-reading books is that I feel I've had a chance to become reacquainted with some old friends. It's interesting to see how they've changed for me over the years. Sometimes I've forgotten things, sometimes I've remembered things differently. The past is such a fluid thing, even for books.

This is especially true with the fictional memoirs of Barney Panofsky. Barney is writing his memoirs to refute the soon to be published memoirs of his one-time friend turned enemy Terry McIvor. Divided into sections named after his three wives, the novel jumps back and forth between the past and the present while Barney gives his version of his life, including the disappearance of his best friend Boogie (for which Barney was tried and acquitted of murder). It's a shambling mess of a tale with myriad digressions and asides.

But that's the thing. Rereading this book, I see how well Richler put the tale together. The second time around, it's easier to see how much thought was put into each digression, each outburst. Richler takes the reader for one hell of a ride with just the right number of drops and twists to keep the reader going until they come up against an ending that killed me even the second time around.

Barney's Version is an incredible book and one that leaves me seriously divided. On the one hand, you read this book and wish that Richler had finished one more book. On the other hand, it's great to see that he went out in fine form, shouting and punching and landing more than a few good ones.

Friday, March 05, 2010


I have to admit my initial reaction wasn't much different from the last guy on the video. This got me to thinking about how strange our perceptions and prejudices can be. I've had no problem over the years eating this product knowing it comes from a female cow. When it comes from a female human, however, I'm a lot less enthusiastic. Weird. Even now, the best I could say is I might try it, but not without a little squeamishness.

Of course, this could lead to a digression about how strange the whole dairy industry is - the fact that we are constantly being bombarded with ads telling us how essential milk is to our lives when it is really only essential if you happen to be a baby cow - but I won't go there.

In other news, it's looking like we are going to have a beautiful weekend here in the city. Time to get truly acquainted with my new camera.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Reasons Number 1 - 10 Why I'm Glad The Olympics Are Over

1. No longer having to hear I Believe 50 times a day.

2-10. See above.

It wasn't a very good song to begin with. Having it on a constant loop for two weeks was torture.

Canada is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to music. Surely, we could have done better.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Yup. I'm a Geek

But I love this:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Good and Bad

The good thing about CTV's Olympic coverage is that it's everywhere. CTV, TSN, Sportsnet, OLN - I can switch from sport to sport to sport whenever I feel like it. I switch a lot because, while I will definitely get caught up in the marquee events like hockey and downhill skiing, I also love getting caught up in events that don't often make it to tv like biathlon and ski jumping.

The bad has to be the announcers. From the MTV Canada idiots who are more interested in athletes' sex lives then their sports lives to the commentators of the snowboard races who spent lots of time talking about the track but no time talking about the racers who were going down the track at the time, it's been a bit of shock for someone who grew up on CBC broadcasts.

And then there was the early morning discussion of Lindsey Vonn. Rather than talking about how one of the fastest woman skiers in the world is going to deal with a deep bruise on her shin - you know, relevant Olympic dialogue - the announcers decided to bring up her Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot for the millionth time.

Now I'm not the world's most enlightened individual. I won't lie. I have no problem with photos of a beautiful woman in a bikini. I just think that, at the world's biggest sporting event, there are probably more important things to talk about. This is a woman who has made a career out of racing down the side of mountains at speeds I only reach in a car on the 401. Talk about that.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Friday Random 10 - A Day Late

Barb, mastermind behind the blog Bad Tempered Zombie posted something yesterday that I couldn't resist trying. The set-up is this - you take your music player of choice, set it to play all songs randomly and the first 10 become your Friday Saturday Random 10.

Without further ado, I offer up my 10:

1. Wolfgang - Elliott Brood
2. The Happiest Song (Dum-Dum) - Otis Redding
3. Lord Send Me An Angel - Blind Willie McTell
4. Young Folks - Peter, Bjorn and John
5. Mozart Piano Concerto 11 - 1. Allegro - Vladimir Ashkenazy
6. I Can’t Turn You Loose - Otis Redding
7. Winter in July - The 6ths
8. Paper Lanterns - Green Day
9. The Man I Love - Billie Holiday
10. Sunshine of Your Love - Jimi Hendrix

I could parse this to death but that seems to defeat the point.

Instead, I took the number one song on my list and made a Itunes Genius Playlist based on that song, curious to see what comes out.

Here is the Genius list based on Wolfgang by Elliott Brood:

1. Wolfgang by Elliott Brood
2. Holy Shit (What A Relief) by Hey Rosetta!
3. Wait, Wait, Wait by Joel Plaskett
4. Sisters of Mercy by Serena Ryder
5. Home For A Rest by Spirit of the West
6. Dance Dance Dance by Neil Young
7. My Father's Home by Bruce Springsteen
8. Second Chance by Liam Finn
9. Chest Fever by The Band
10. Beginning to See the Light by The Velvet Underground

Now it's off to the gym where my playlist will be a little bit faster, a little bit louder.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Canuck Book 8 - February by Lisa Moore

There's a woman I work with who thinks all the books I read are depressing. I argued for a bit but there was really no point. Our opinions diverge and that is all.

If pressed to explain, I would have said that I actually have a tendency to avoid the overtly depressing books on my shelf. I know I should read them because they are supposedly good but I have a hard time forcing myself to open the covers. A lot of what I read isn't depressing at all, at least to me. It's honest.

The funny thing is that, once I read the darker books, I usually wonder why I stayed away from them for so long. Maggie Helwig's Girls Fall Down comes to mind as an example of this. A story about a photographer losing his eyesight to diabetes while a strange affliction takes hold of the city didn't portend to be the sunniest of reading choices. Once I opened the cover, though, I was hooked, drawn in by a story that, while dark, was not without hope.

The same thing happened with February, Lisa Moore's novel about a woman and her family after the husband dies on the Ocean Ranger. It kept getting bumped by other books on my TBR pile. Finally, I couldn't postpone it any longer and I dug in.

Frankly, it's an incredible book. Dancing back and forth between the present and the past, the book is an honest imagining of what happens when the world changes suddenly.

The book shifts between Helen, the wife, and John, her son. Helen is in her mid-fifties and still coming to terms with the loss. She has moved on in a number ways but her thoughts and emotions are still tied to that event. John is in his thirties and is dealing with the unexpected news that he is going to be a father.

I strongly recommend this book. Sure, it's not the happiest book out there but it is honest. For me, it's this honesty that makes makes it worthwhile. When there are moments of happiness (and there is happiness), they feel well earned and somehow more rewarding than a book those found in a book that takes the easy way.

Checking In

I've been a bad bad blogger. I admit it. I've been neglecting this blog for too long. Don't worry. It's not you. It's me.

Basically, my already dwindling output has kind of dried up in the past month because I've been spending more time away from the computer than I once did. I joined a gym and I've been learning a few things:

First - biceps and triceps are not just abstract concepts. I have them. They hurt. So do a number of other muscles.

Second - even a big guy like me can spend time in a gym without feeling too out of place. I'm still not totally comfortable but at least I can walk into the gym knowing what I'm doing and how to do it at least fairly well, a vast improvement in just a few weeks.

Third - weightlifting sucks. See the part about biceps and triceps and pain. Fortunately, I'm stubborn and that's what keeps me going back to the torture machines.

Fourth - personal trainers are expensive. The upside is that now that I've committed the money, I'm much more likely to show up and work out.

Fifth - The Dead Kennedys didn't really work for me on the cardio machines, which kind of surprised me. The Dropkick Murphys were better. A nice big playlist of songs ranging from rock to pop to country works best. The downside is I'm pretty sure I'm going to belt out a rousing off-key rendition of Dan Mangan's Robots at some point while sweating away on the elliptical machine. This likely won't endear me to my fellow gym-goers.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Traces of a Empire

I've really become a fan of podcasts. I keep my ipod stocked with a number of musical and literary ones at all times. They make the boring days at work much more palatable. At home, they make doing dishes almost bearable.

My current favourite is the World Book Club from the BBC World Service. Try it out. An author reads from his or her work and then answers questions. Simple enough. What I love about this podcast is that the questions come from the studio audience and also from listeners around the world. There is just something so cool about hearing people from five or six continents talking books with an author. It makes reading almost seem like a communal exercise.

I also like this podcast because it is a reminder of just how much our world was and continues to be influenced by the British Empire. While there are readers calling in from other countries, most of them come from Great Britain and its former colonies. It's been close to sixty years since the empire finally disintegrated and yet a common language and, in some ways, a common world view remains. It almost feels like the dress down day at a school with uniforms - all those kids anxious to show their individuality but, when the day comes, they all show up wearing the same pair of jeans.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Canuck Book 7 - All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

Forget reading this post. If you haven't already read this book then you must go out and get a copy. If you can't find it in your local bookstore, get it from here ( While you are there, pick up Bok's Eunoia and Helwig's Girls Fall Down if you can but mostly just buy this book. It's a treat.

I tend to look at most books as meals. Really good meals, the kind you want to linger over. I read slowly and immerse myself fully in the experience. This book, however, is a really decadent dessert. It is short and moves fast. It's also a book that I have read a few times, partly because it's quick and mostly because it is a really smart story.

Basically the title says it all. All of Tom's friends are superheroes. Tom is not. From the Couch Surfer to the Sloth, they all have their special abilities. I won't ruin it for you by discussing their particular abilities as that is part of the fun of this book.

On the night Tom marries the Perfectionist, Hypno (the Perfectionist's ex) hypnotizes the Perfectionist so that Tom becomes invisible to her. The story takes place six months later when the Perfectionist has given up on trying to find Tom and flies to Vancouver to start over. Tom has the length of the flight from Toronto to Vancouver to convince her that he has not disappeared or he will lose her forever.

What follows is a book that is cute, funny and smart. The superhero conceit works amazingly well. Read it.