Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Beautiful Game

This morning (EST), Arsenal plays Norwich City in the Barclay’s Premier League. Gunners vs Canaries. So, of course, I’ll be watching.  I am a fan in the true sense of the word.  That is to say, a fanatic. I read Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch a year after I saw Arsenal play live at the Emirates in London, England for the first time. I understand his fever.  And I understand his pain. We cheer for the same team.  Both of us through accident of fate.

                As a Canadian, with no geographical, historical, or familial affiliation to London’s North End, my fanaticism began when I attempted to purchase tickets which coincided with a rare trip across the pond. Of the six London-area teams that float in and out of the Premier League, Arsenal happened to be the only franchise playing conveniently within my travel plans. I booked the tickets. Admittedly, I was hoping to see Chelsea.  I was an aficionado of Didier Drogba, who played for the team then. My current fandom would rather forget this misguided loyalty – unless, of course, he one day represents The Arsenal.

                I have played soccer since the age of eight.  It has always been my sport of choice. In my soccer career, I have plied every position on the field – including keeper.  In Grade Eleven, I was Most Valuable Player on my high school team. Upon graduation, I played competitively for several teams in the OCSL – as both an attacking midfielder and a striker. And over the last two decades of my slow decline, I have played mens’ recreational league, until my knees cried, “No more!” I have also coached girls’ and boys’ soccer for twenty years at the high school and summer competitive levels.

                I love soccer. I love “football.” I love Arsenal.

                Author John Doyle is another kindred spirit. His The World is a Ball captures the insanity and the socio-political impact of a sport which is embraced my more than half of humanity. It also hints at the dark underbelly of soccer economics – as do Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World, and Simon Kuper’s Soccernomics. But no author is/was as prescient as Canada’s Declan Hill in The Fix – a book which more or less foretold the eventual moral collapse of FIFA in glaring research and detail.

                So how does one remain a fanatic in a world where soccer has become as phony as the WWE? Wilful ignorance. A fanatic defies logic by definition, anyway.

                Pele called it “the beautiful game.” And I most definitely watch soccer for its beauty. Whether it be the balletic performance of Mesut Ozil, or the dynamism of Alexis Sanchez, or even the charismatic grit of Francis Coquelin (yes, all Arsenal players), I salivate over well-executed footwork, the prophetic run, the previously unseen pass.

                But as zealous as I can be about the uppermost echelons of soccer, the beauty of the sport is visible in the most far-flung backwaters of the global village, too. In games of pickup where economics can’t touch it.

                In fact, the night I watched Tomas Vermaelen score in extra time to seal Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Newcastle United – the night my Arsenal fanaticism took hold – is only the second greatest game I have ever witnessed.  The first took place more than a decade ago on an asphalt court in the barrio of Jose D. Estrada in Nanadaime, Nicaragua.  In was 38 degrees Celsius and sunny at mid day. Most of the players were barefoot or in flip-flops. The ball was a caricature – peeled and lopsided and underinflated. I was on a team composed mainly of Canadian high school students and little children from the barrio.  Our opponents were the quick and flashy teenagers from that same community.  We did not share a language, a culture, or a nationality.  Our life experiences were a seemingly insurmountable gulf.  But at one moment during that game, I stopped to wipe my brow and survey the scene unfurling around me -- the smiles and the impertinent scoffing, the heckling and the cheers.  The high fives and back-slapping. We were communicating the only way we knew how.  To this day, It remains one of the happiest moments of my life. Soccer: the universal language, the shared religion.  The beautiful game.
               Now, if only Arsenal can whip Norwich and retake the top of the table. Kick off in five.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Whack-A-Mole & The-Never-Ending-War-Against-Terror

“The war against terror is bound up in the war against poverty.” --Bono                                                                                                                                    
“Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that creates huge inequalities.” – Pope Francis

In 1939, John Steinbeck published the Grapes of Wrath – his elegy to the dispossessed farmers of the Great Depression.  Buried in that tome are what have become known as The Three Cries of History.  He said:

“And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out. The changing economy was ignored, plans for the change ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on.

This should sound eerily familiar – if not prescient – in the 21st century.  We are living in times of unprecedented wealth.  But the gap between our rich and our poor has never been so great, either. Nearly 1.3 billion people live on less than $1.25/day.  Another 2 ½ billion live on less than $2.50. That’s half of humanity.
            In this gap, terrorism festers – also on an unprecedented scale.
In 2014, after a meeting with the Vatican, John Kerry stated, “We have a huge common interest in dealing with this issue of poverty, which in many cases is the root cause of terrorism or even the root cause of the disenfranchisement of millions of people on this planet.”
In the wake of the Paris attacks this weekend, there is likely to be much sabre rattling about the War on Terror.  Canada’s new Prime Minister will be assaulted for his pre-existing stance on removing troops from Syria and resettling 25 000 refugees.  This will not be a popular decision.  But despite evidence to the contrary, we do not elect our leaders to be popular.  We elect them to lead.
According to Forbes Magazine, in 2011, the War on Terror had cost American taxpayers 1.7 trillion dollars since 2001.  Other left-leaning academics have pegged the price tag as high as 5 trillion.  However, in The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs – Director of the Harvard Earth Institute – calculated the cost of eliminating extreme poverty at $175 billion over 20 years.  This figure is roughly equal to .7% of the OECD’s gross domestic product.  That’s less than a penny from every dollar in the world’s thirty richest nations.  Even at the most conservative estimates, one nation alone (the United States) spent this amount in the first decade of its War on Terror.
Imagine for a moment that this money had been spent on building schools, creating jobs, improving access to clean water, and feeding the hungry.  What would the world look like today?  Alas, imagine is all we can do.
One thing is for sure, however, armed conflict, destabilization, and civil unrest only strengthen the conditions for terrorism.  The National Bureau of Economic Research found an even greater correlation between these conditions and terror, than it did with poverty (Poverty, Political Freedom, and the Roots of Terrorism).  It is not a secret – even if not widely heralded in the media – that ISIS/ISIL was fostered and even aided by American intervention.  Barack Obama defended his decision to support what he originally considered “moderate rebels” by “non-lethal” means.  This support transformed ISIS/ISIL, which had previously been a bit player in the region, into the force for global terror that it is today.
It is one thing to foster terror through inaction.  It is another to “spread compost on the weeds.”
We have only to ask ourselves, “Is the world a safer place today than it was in 2001?”  If the answer is no, than the War on Terror is a failure. 
The truth is, terrorism is the twisted offspring of inequality.  Bombing treats only the symptom.  To stop terrorism, we must attack it at the source.  Build schools, build hospitals, build democracies. Anything else is an absurd game of Whack-A-Mole – strike terrorism once, and it will show its ugly head again elsewhere in little time. 

Al qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS/ISIL… whack, whack, whack…

Our thoughts can be nowhere else but with the Parisians at this moment in history. #ViveLaFrance

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mahihkan Lake by R. P. MacIntyre

Mahihkan Lake, by R.P. MacIntyre (Thistledown Press 2015)

Sometimes I watch a movie without an explosion. It isn’t filmed in 3D and it doesn’t have computer generated animation.  There aren’t any death-defying stunts, either.  It’s straightforward and dependent upon character and dialogue.  Perhaps it’s something by Robert Altman or Woody Allen, or maybe it’s Denys Arcand or Jean-Marc VallĂ©.  It’s quietly funny and darkly serious all at once.  There is a touch of the absurd, and maybe even a moment of magical realism. This is a little like reading Mahihkan Lake, by R. P. MacIntyre.
              Following the somewhat mysterious death of their older foster-brother, Dave, estranged siblings Denny and Dianne are left to reassemble the pieces.  However, alcoholic Denny – the folk-singing, one hit wonder – is in dire need of an intervention.  And his younger sister, Dianne, who looks as though she stepped “straight out of a fashion magazine,” is already burdened with a rebellious teenage daughter and a floundering marriage – not to mention the care of their Alzheimer-stricken mother. 
              Reunited and argumentative, the two set out for the family cabin on Mahihkan Lake in the north of Saskatchewan, where their troubled brother once found solace.  Their intent is to make peace and scatter the remains, which are stored in a cookie jar.  At the same time, down-trodden Harold Huckaluk, the truck driver held responsible for the death of their brother, sets out on a quest of his own.  In a bizarre twist of fate and coincidence these three “strangers” are reunited on the shore of Lake Mahihkan one last time.   
              MacIntyre has a knack for concise description.  And setting plays a key role in the unfurling of this story.  The “thick green tangles” and the “low meadows of marshy drain” come alive in Mahihkan Lake.  The wild-life too contributes. A wolf, “its yellow eyes clear and forlorn,” follows Harold along his paddle north. And a pair of ravens cluck “like pebbles dropped into a wooden bucket half full of water.”  It is dialogue, however, that becomes the driving force behind this novel.  Philosophical discussions between Denny and Dianne circle around themes of happiness and memory – both as elusive as reconciliation and forgiveness amidst siblings.
              Surfacing throughout Mahihkan Lake is a secret that ebbs and flows like the river which fees it.  And there are no answers to the myriad metaphysical questions of its protagonists -- only moments which define them for good and for bad.  Mahihkan Lake is the bleak cinematic vision of an art-house film, which offers just enough illusory shimmer of hope and dark humour to keep you watching.  Or in this case, reading.

Comment on this post below, before November 30th, and automatically enter for a chance to win a free copy of this book -- courtesy of the publisher.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

Tarstopping by Christine Rehder Horne

Tarstopping, by Christine Rehder Horne (NeWest Press 2015)

Christine Rehder Horne’s debut novel, Tarstopping, is a quasi-political thriller minus the politicians.  It is a novel about environmental activism with Calgary as its epicenter. But if you’re searching for a simplistic rant about saving the world, you’ll be disappointed.  In its place, Tarstopping offers a complex argument for a complex issue.  

Middle-class Tim and Shannon find both their security and their presumptions threatened by the overnight arrival of environmental protesters in their affluent suburban neighbourhood.  The protesters have converged on Calgary in response to a kidnapping.  The messianic “Wendy and her Boys” are holding the family of an oil baron hostage in their own home.  The ransom is simple.  Shut down the Tar Sands.  

Tim and Shannon’s friends, many of whom work in fields related to the oil industry, are angry and maybe even a little afraid.  They argue vehemently and sometimes with vitriol about the best way to rid the city of its infestation.  Within their small nuclear family, Tim and Shannon occupy seemingly flip sides of the argument.  He is the director of a non-profit serving the city’s poor.  She runs her own event-planning company catering to a corporate clientele.  Their son, Armie -- a twenty-year-old university dropout – doesn’t know here he stands. 

Enter Deke, Tim’s crusading brother, a blogger and environmentalist who quickly becomes the chronicler and unofficial voice of the Tarstoppers.

Tensions run high as the city becomes the locus of a movement that draws protesters from across Canada and around the world. At first, Tim and Shannon are unwitting observers. One of the largest encampments is established in the park and school grounds across the street. But soon even they are drawn in.  Tim opens his home as a temporary shelter from a storm, and even as an ad hoc medical station, after things turn dark.  Shannon, for her part, becomes the target of a mysterious stalker, parading as a journalist.

In response to the Tarstoppers another anomalous group forms at the edges of town.  The Wildcatters are right-wing radicals and local rednecks looking to crack heads, initially.  But things grow quickly out of hand once mob mentality sets in.

There is a lot of talk in the opening scene of this novel – perhaps a little too much exposition – as the author seeks a way to lay out the intricate setting, both temporal and psychological, which might realistically give rise to such a spontaneous congregation, as well as the incidents and beahviours which eventually flow from it.  However, once the story gains traction – and it does – Tarstopping is a compelling and suspenseful read.   

Horne approaches the thriller the way Henning Mankell approached to crime writing.  Her protagonists are intelligent, refined, and well-educated.  They are victim to marital issues and parental anxieties.  Their jobs are at once fulfilling and, at times, all-consuming and problematic.  However, Tim and Shannon do not check these lives at the door once the Tarstoppers arrive.  If anything, the protest and its spinoffs play second fiddle to their more personal stories.  As with Mankell’s detective, Kurt Wallander, both Tim and Shannon dispatch with the plot “in the midst of life – of work and family and the intrusion of tensions from the outside world.”  They grapple with the events unfolding around them at the same time as they tackle their personal difficulties.  And sometimes the two are indistinguishable.

As such, the ideological struggle taking place between the Tarstoppers and the Wildcatters is eventually mirrored in the lives of Tim and Shannon, their friends and family members. What is most frightening in this, is that their reactions are often no less polarized or violent.  A close family friend says to Shannon, “The last thing those people have is balance.  I wouldn’t have realized how many unbalanced people there are in the world.”

If there is a central theme in Tarstopping, this is it.  We can marvel at our ability to come together and fight for what we believe, but sometimes we must recoil from the petty sight of our own self-interest and the extent to which we might go to protect it.

Tarstopping interweaves the personal and the global with a deft hand. 

Comment on this post below, before November 14th, and automatically enter for a chance to win a free copy of this book -- courtesy of the publisher.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Rust: a poem

This poem is for my friend monna; you can read her excellent poetry here.


Everything eventually
human plumbing

don’t, she said, speak that way
or other forms of hunger

the ferrous quality of
              to blame
oxygen and water to the heart

given sufficient time  
a corroded
will disintegrate with the redox loss

of electrons, friable
              it starves
on what it feeds, red teeth

the texture of craving

exacting everything eventually

The Winter Family by Clifford Jackman

The Winter Family, by Clifford Jackman (Random House 2015)

You will not find many sympathetic characters in Clifford Jackman’s debut novel.  But then again, sympathy is hardly an accurate litmus test for good literature.  Hateful characters can still be good characters.  And the Winter Family has plenty of both.
                The Winter Family traces the trajectory of a loose band of outlaws over the course of three decades. Chronologically, it begins in Georgia during the last gasp of the American Civil War. Sherman’s troops are blazing their historic path through the state after the fall of Atlanta.  A small advance army, headed by the psychopath, Quentin Ross, contains the seed which will become the Winter Family. Their horrific penchant for violence – particularly their actions in Planter’s Factory -- is what causes the Union Army to disown them, sending the group north and west to Chicago in 1872 on a bizarre quest for pardons. 
By now, they have all become hardened criminals.  Stories of their intervening years and the vicious trail behind them percolate to the surface. But all tales pale when compared to that of Augustus Winter – a bit player in Quentin Ross’ early band, now among the most feared and depraved. The very glance of Winter’s yellow, cat-like eyes is enough to instill terror. His arrival in Chicago with the fiendish Lukas Shakespeare – a teenage murderer -- causes a rift among the outlaws.  And his dissolute dispatching of his foes forces one member to fall “to his knees, among startled, scampering pigs” and begin to throw up. “We’re building something here,” he tells the man.
                But “building” is a misnomer.  Driven by a nihilistic worldview, Winter is really tearing things down. He has moved beyond simplistic notions of society, justice, and order.  He has transcended them. He says, “This is how everything works.  Everything they tell you is just a lie to hide it.”
Having peeled back the gloss of civilization, Winter leads his gang south to Phoenix in 1881. They have now become scalp hunters and guns for hire. Casual slaughter follows them. But here, Augustus Winter is shaken by an encounter from the past. His convictions are challenged by an unlikely opponent. And the unstoppable wickedness which is the Winter Family runs up against a force of nature equal to or greater than their own.
Ten years transpire before we pick up their scent again in Oklahoma, and this time it is they who are hunted. Reduced by death and desertion, The Winter Family is on the verge of extinction. The world, and members of his inner circle, has turned on him.  Cataclysmic violence, apparent throughout, erupts in an almost cinematic showdown.
Jackman’s writing has been compared to the American author, Cormac McCarthy. On the surface, similarities do exist.  Both write about hard-scrabble men cutting swaths through various incarnations of an amoral, lawless West. But where McCarthy’s prose is sparsely elegiac, Jackman’s is more grounded and straightforward. The emphasis is on action. Jackman’s characters are also not as archetypal. The Judge, for instance, from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is practically cloven-hoofed – a metaphor for the evil in the world. Winter, a scalp-hunter like the Judge, for all his savagery, is still a man.  We witness the twisting of his soul through upbringing and experience.
Therefore, as a man, he is subject to his own mortality.  Or is he?  

There is nothing overly redemptive about the conclusion of this novel. If anything, the brief epilogue in California, 1900, reminds the reader that malevolence endures. But like the hateful characters of Quentin Ross, Lukas Shakespeare, and Augustus Winter himself prove, redemption isn’t necessary in a good novel.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Daddy Lenin by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Daddy Lenin, by Guy Vanderhaeghe (McClelland & Stewart 2015)

Guy Vanderhaeghe built his early reputation as a short story writer.  His debut collection, Man Descending, secured him the first of two Governor General Awards in a career that has also garnered him shortlist nods for both the Giller and the Dublin IMPACT, among his many accolades. Arguably, his current reputation among readers is staked upon his more recent loose trilogy of novels, which terminated in The Last CrossingDaddy Lenin marks Vanderhaeghe’s return to the short story genre after a twenty-three year hiatus.  Evidently, time has not blunted his purpose.
              The measure of a good short story should be how easily it can be held in the hand.  Like a cut stone, the reader should be able to turn it over and hold it to the light – to enjoy the unity of purpose each facet contributes to its fashioning.  The short story stays with you in a way the novel, in its length and complexity, cannot.  A good short fits in the pocket.  In this way, the nine stories of Daddy Lenin might be a master class in the genre.
These are the stories of men, primarily.  Men searching for purpose.  Men struggling for relevance.  Men reflecting on lives lived and not lived.  Men all too aware of the “tick tock” of their own mortality, and how their passage will be weighed or found wanting in the end. Even the teenaged Troy, in the collection’s opening story, “The Jimi Henrix Experience,” is forced to take a long, hard look at the abyss of an old man’s photo albumn.  An experience which leaves him thinking, “It’s no different from staring into the blank television screen.  The snow shifting, forming faces of famous people locked in the circuitry from old programs.  The hiss of static turning into favourite songs, guitar chords whining and dying.”  An experience so bleak and frightening that it leaves him “running through the late-afternoon stillness of an empty suburban street…where the sun is either coming up or going down.”
In similar fashion, the collection’s title story examines the recently retired, Jack Corbin – failed academic and disgruntled husband – who rediscovers an old mentor and professor whom he holds responsible for his unhappiness.  Jack sets out to redeem himself, bolstered by a late opportunity to seek a revenge of sorts – against the man, against his wife.  But Jack’s disappointment is foreshadowed in his inability to win a mid-story “staring contest” he unwittingly enters with a mysterious stranger.  “Heart banging, he lowered his eyes, and before he knew it his feet were carrying him away…he couldn’t say why this Disney-enchanted-kingdom nightmare filled him with such anxiety and apprehension.” Like Troy, who had seen his future measured out in another man’s photo albumn, Jack comes face to face with his past and his present, “the place to which every step and misstep he had ever made had been leading him for years.”
In spite of these bleak endings, Vanderheaghe’s stories offer both humour and stoicism, as well.  The former is best evident in the aging, acerbic tongue of Uncle Ted, in “Counselor Sally Brings Me to the Tunnel”; the latter, in the attitude of Billy Constable, who in “Live Large” catches “again the bird-like cloud on this morning’s horizon, when everything seemed salvageable.” But most importantly, these stories offer courage.  In worlds where media and the working-class father figures of a bygone age have left Vanderhaeghe’s protagonists bereft of applicable role models, in steps Charley Brewster.  The climax of “Tick Tock” should bring back images of Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino.

If you read short stories, this collection will confirm your faith in the genre. If you don’t, this just might convert you. The stories of Daddy Lenin are ultimately brilliant bits of prestidigitation, satisfying and full blown in their revelations.   

Blurbs: Passing Through by David Penhale

Passing Through, by David Penhale (Cormorant 2011)

Why you should read it:

The sudden redundancy of Penhale's protagonist, Daniel Foster, is a metaphor for the modern world.  A man who rode the wave of shady banking and investments finds himself abandoned and bereft by the corporate culture which originally "fostered" him. The writing is wry and the characters unsentimental in this quest for relevance and reinvention.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Friendly Fire

Friendly Fire, by Lisa Guenther (NeWest Press 2015)

To call Lisa Guenther’s debut novel a mystery is a bit superficial, and possibly reductive.  At the heart of Friendly Fire there is indeed a secret, but it is only the engine which drives her story – the vehicle she uses to reveal the complex dynamics of family and small town relationships.  And Guenther, an agricultural journalist from Livelong, Saskatchewan, knows a thing or two about both.
              When Darby Swank, a university dropout, accidentally discovers the body of her beloved aunt floating in Brightsand Lake, the veil through which she viewed her tiny rural community is lifted to reveal the violence and wilful ignorance that may always have existed just beneath the surface.  The comfort and safety she sought in leaving school and returning home are pulled from beneath her, and Darby is forced to re-examine her relationships with family and friends, including her on-again-off-again lover, Luke, her silent father, and her fun-loving uncle Will.
              In spite of the fact that Darby’s lucid dreams may be subconsciously leading her toward the killer, she is a reluctant protagonist.  Like the community around her, Darby prefers to let sleeping dogs lie.  She tells a friend, “Things don’t usually work out too well for the whistle blowers, you know.”
              The strength of Guenther’s story is its characters.  They are – all of them – flawed in very human ways, including the novel’s protagonist.  And the author does her best to skirt stereotypes while maintaining the truth which sometimes lies at the heart of stereotype.  In a thumbnail sketch, Darby exposes the distrust and fear she harbours for outsiders at her aunt’s funeral:

Women in dark bootleg jeans, tailored blouses, and pointy heals, big sunglasses hiding eyes.  Men in sports coats and ties, one of them subtly checking his PDA … I want to smash his gadgets, break the women’s sunglasses.  Drive the strangers out of the lobby like rats from a grain elevator.

At the same time, this juxtaposition reveals everything she and her community are not – stylish and urbane.  Both things Darby perhaps desires to be herself, had she the courage to leave town and pursue her music in Edmonton.
              In many ways, Darby is stifled, as much as protected, by the illusions of rural life. “Families, relationships, they literally mark our landscape out here,” she says.  “You don’t say, ‘Turn left at the green house.’ You say, ‘Turn left at the old McNab house.’  It is these attachments to family and landscape that pin her down and stop her from pursuing her music.  But it is also these entanglements that stop her from uncovering the mystery of her aunt’s murder, even when the answer lies before her in plain view:

I was missing something.  It was like sitting in a boat and watching jackfish swimming.  You can never figure out exactly where they are because of the way the light bends when it hits the surface.

              However, the truth cannot stay buried forever.  Like the brush fire that burns literally and metaphorically throughout this novel, threatening the community, “smouldering deep in the muskeg,” the truth must eventually “flare up.”

              In the end, Guenther’s novel is a well-paced character study with a strong sense of place.

Comment on this post below, before October 31st, and automatically enter for a chance to win an 'advanced reader's copy' of this book -- courtesy of the publisher.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Mountain Love Affair

Last week, author Lauren Carter was kind enough to host a stop on my recent blog tour for The Road to Atlantis.  As she was in the planning stages of a walk/hike in the Hebrides next summer -- and because she discovered that I am an avid hiker --  we settled on the connection between hiking and writing as a theme for my post.  The resulting essay reminded me of my first hike in the Adirondacks -- the tale of which you can read below. While not as pastoral as my subsequent experiences in the mountains, it is nonetheless... a good story.

Halfway up the south-east spine of Algonquin Peak, my wife asks me for a divorce.  No.  She demands it.
            We are more than five hours and 10 km into our ascent of the second highest peak in the Adirondacks, and the only other mountain in the state over 5000 feet (1500m).  We are stopped next to a pristine mountain pool into which cascades a waterfall, level by level, like a wedding cake.  Behind us is Lake Colden and the scarred, silent presence of a four-thousand-seven-hundred-fifteen foot (1437m) peak that bears the same name.  The setting is nothing short of extraordinary.
            And yet, Caroline, on the day of our twelfth anniversary, is close to tears, and visibly shaking with rage.
            “Why don’t you go out and get yourself a twenty-eight-year-old blonde,” she nearly spits.  “If this is what you want to do with the rest of your life, you can count me out.”
            I don’t think that she is kidding.
            While both of us are avid hikers, our habitual playground is back in south-eastern Ontario where the Shield meets the St. Lawrence lowlands.  Algonquin is our first real climb.  And we have taken the long way.
            The hike begins pleasantly enough from our campsite in Heart Lake.  From there, the VanHoevenberg Trail winds gently up MacIntyre Brook for more than a kilometre, and then bears east to Marcy Dam – a wilderness camping Mecca scattered around a magnificent split-log levee over Marcy Brook.
            In spite of variable skies, we are in high spirits and making good time over terrain not unlike that of our favourite hikes in the Shield.  Skirting the small beaver pond behind the dam, we follow Marcy Brook further south like a polished stone path.  In August, water levels are low, revealing foreign moonscapes.  We cross the brook using a foot bridge whose height provides us with some sense of just how much the flow here changes from season to season.
            The next stretch of this trail, known as Avalanche Pass, is acknowledged by locals as one of the most spectacular in all the ‘Daks.  The valley floor slims to the width of an axe-wedge between the mountains, so that the forest and the rock walls close in upon you.  It is cooler here and damp.  The sun cannot penetrate for more than a few hours each day, and the surface of everything is covered in luminescent green moss.  At certain points on the rubble-strewn floor, where boulders gathered generations earlier, and exposed root systems close like fists over rocky outcrops, it is all we can do to squeeze past with our packs.
            And then the story behind the trail’s name becomes clear as the pass opens slightly and Mount Colden’s exposed flank is made visible for the first time.  An actual avalanche of matchstick trees fills the valley floor – sullen and grey – but for an anorexic footpath that has been carved through at the end of a chainsaw.  In examining the history of this accident we can only imagine the force of the original landslide.  The trees are piled more than twice my height in places, and the slope where they once grew is denuded but for a few hardy tufts of grass growing among the crevasses.
            Even more awe-inspiring, however, is Avalanche Lake on the far side of this disaster.  It is here, on the shoreline mud flats of late summer, amid skeletal tree trunks, and surrounded by towering rock walls that we stop for lunch.  It is also here that things begin to go awry.
            In fact, my wife – an amateur photographer – has since framed and hung a black and white photograph she took here.  It is lovingly titled, “The Gates of Hell.”
            We strike up a conversation with a group of boy scouts huddled on the banks, tossing stones into the lake and awaiting the preparation of their own lunch – a process handled by a man we assume is the troop leader.  A pimply youth in his late teens, and most likely second in command, asks us if we intend to camp at Lake Colden, farther down the trail.  When we relay our plan to tackle Algonquin, he simply nods.
            Something in his demeanour forces Caroline to enquire, “Have you ever climbed it?”
            “Once,” he answers.  And then adds, “It’s really steep.  From this side.”
            I can feel Caroline’s eyes bearing down on me, but I do not look over.  Instead, I demonstrate abnormal fascination and unprecedented interest in my energy bar.  Keep my eyes lowered.  And chew.

There is not much room on either bank of Avalanche Lake for hiking.  In fact, the trail is little more than a series of scrambles up and over boulders – facilitated at times by rustic, wood-beam ladders.  One section involves walking a “Hitch-Up-Mathilda” – a two-plank bridge, pinioned to the side of Avalanche Mountain and hanging over the glacial lake below.  The going is extremely slow.
            “This isn’t hiking,” Caroline says at one point as I help haul her up over a particularly large boulder.  “This is dangerous.  If I were to fall, I’d die.”
            Months earlier, when I selected Algonquin as my destination, I had intended to climb it alone.  However, my wife noticed the research I was compiling, and decided that she would like to join me. 
“Are you sure?  I mean ... it’s a mountain.”
            Shortly thereafter, through a process of decision making that I cannot recall, we determined to celebrate our anniversary on the summit of Mount Algonquin.  Mistakenly, I choose this moment during our hike to remind my wife that she had asked for this.  Surprisingly, this morsel of information does not improve the situation.
            It is two kilometres of difficult hiking from Avalanche Lake to Lake Colden, where the trail meets a junction, veers north-west, and begins a slow climb.  Caroline and I fall into an uneasy silence, hiking single file, crisscrossing a stream coming off the mountain.  Waterfalls, large and small, abound here even in late summer.  About a kilometre farther, panting and sweating, we come across the ADK signpost indicating the direction of the summit.  Over the next 2.4 kilometres, it warns, the trail will gain more than 2100ft (650m) of elevation.
            My near divorce occurs shortly after this.
            While physically demanding, to be sure, mountain trekking has much more to do with mental preparedness.  It requires commitment, like a marriage.  You have to be in it for better or for worse.  As is the case with most hikers, I enjoy the wilderness for its relative serenity; its absence of noise; and, of course, its scenery.  However, tackling a mountain adds another dimension to the equation.  The wilderness becomes a challenge – both physical and mental – that the majority of the urban, industrial world does not experience every day.  On the side of a mountain, you cannot simply decide to bail, throw in the towel, or call up a cab.  There is no eject button.  You must depend on yourself, and the others with whom you are hiking.  For this reason it is imbued as well with a sense of elation, akin to victory, for those who persevere.

The Boundary Trail from Lake Colden to the summit of Algonquin is a grueling hike, requiring occasional scrambling and grappling to reach your goal.  But the rewards are equal to the effort.  The claustrophobic trail opens occasionally onto swathes of stripped rock-face thirty feet wide and a hundred feet long, beset by mountain runoff and offering up vistas of incredible beauty, including the omnipresence of Mount Colden like a humpback sentinel – or a measuring stick upon which you can assess your ascent. 
            Even my wife in her funk of near despair could not help but be awed by this last stretch.  Slowly, as the peak neared, and the terrain pushed toward the sublime, she reached her backpacker’s wall, and successfully scaled it.  To train for this climb, alongside hiking, we added daily stair-master and elliptical machine workouts at the local YMCA.  For six months, I showed Caroline trek photos and read to her from snippets of on-line summit posts.  So when we broke the treeline at 4800ft, and entered the alpine world of rugged juniper and lichen covered stone, I turned and shook her gently by the straps of her pack.
            “Tell me this isn’t amazing.  Tell me you’re not going to make it, now.”
            We walked the last few hundred feet together past stone cairns in the whipping wind.  The sun came out and a 360 degree vista unfurled around us for hundreds of miles.  To the north and west, Mount Wright, Phelps, Boundary and Iroquois – and further off, the Western High Peaks Zone.  To the south and east, Mount Colden, Gothics, Basin, and Saddleback.  And beyond Colden’s shoulder, Algonquin’s big sister.  Mount Marcy.
            To say that the summit of a mountain is silent would be a lie.  The howling wind alone is almost impenetrable.  However, what a peak does offer is a space free of noise.  And your eyes absorb so much distance from a summit that events unfolding miles away give the impression that they create no sound – a vulture catching thermal updrafts in the valley below, hikers crawling over distant peaks.  Silent films. 
            Ensconced in stone at the top of Algonquin there is a small brass stamp from the geological survey designating the exact summit, 5115ft (1,559 m).  Caroline and I took turns standing on it.  We rested a while, snacked, and even met a few other intrepid hikers who had come up the north side of the mountain.  It had taken us seven hard-fought hours over twelve kilometres of rugged terrain.  We would spend another three hours descending the far side back to Heart Lake.

            But already in that moment of elation the seed was sown.  It would mark the beginning of a love affair with the Adirondack Mountains.  And just another day in ours.          

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Bury the Hatchet

Photo by Leo Brent Robillard
A writer must have thick skin.  This is among the first things I tell my students.  Rejection is part of the game.  Send out ten submissions, expect nine to come back with a form letter.  Oh, but how sweet the one that comes back positive. 

Writing and publishing is tough a tough racket.  The story of J.K. Rowling’s repeated rejections are now the stuff of literary legend.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was turned down by twelve British publishing houses, before it went on to break sales records around the world.  Louis L’Amour claims to have been turned down 200 times before Bantam picked him up.  William Golding, Margaret Mitchell, William Faulkner, and Stephen King are just a few of the other literary giants to have been put off.  This only speaks to the vagaries of the modern aesthetic. 

But these rejections slips are private affairs – shared in retrospect. These writers can now look back with a smug shrug, history having proven them right.  What about the far more public rejection of the dreaded negative review?  Or worse, the ‘hatchet job’? 

Better to buy armour.

As a writer and teacher of writing, aesthetic vagaries and negativity are often on my mind – and never more so than in the wake of a newly published book.  I count myself lucky to have been on the receiving end of a hatchet job only twice in twenty years of writing and publishing – both times made bearable by the timely appearance of better tidings.   But over these same years, I have also found myself on the flip side of this story.  I have written more than fifty reviews, myself – many of which appear on this site.  Others were published in small press journals and newspapers. For a time, I even edited two such journals – assigning books sent from literary presses across Canada to other reviewers.  In neither of these roles did I ever pen or publish a hatchet job. 

Perhaps I have a weak stomach. 

No.  It’s not that.  I have been critical.  I have been negative.  But I have been fair.  I suppose that I espouse Jan Zwicky’s philosophy of reviewing.  Like Zwicky, I believe that reviews should be “appreciative.”  This is not to be confused with blithely ‘positive.’  To review a book is to weigh and to evaluate.  As Julienne Isaacs writes in The Puritan, “The reviewer must be allowed to retain the option of proclaiming some books superior to others in the canon.”   In her thoughtful essay, “In Defense of the Negative Book Review: Can Hatchet Jobs Build Strong Literary Culture?”, Isaacs sifts both sides of the argument, but eventually concludes: “Should the literary critics throw out the hatchet? Very probably, if it means discarding the vitriol that occasionally clogs the valves of otherwise reasonable negative reviews.” 

I consider the review as the beginning of a discourse.  It is a public conversation concerning a book’s aesthetic.  However, the hatchet job is not a discourse.  It is a diatribe.  The author of a hatchet job sets himself up as ‘the’ authority.  This authoritative voice is thuggish and brokers no disagreement. In a Bookends column for the New York Times Book Review, James Parker writes, “The reviewer desires not-quite-consciously to ‘master’ the text, to prove his superiority to the book under review…and this desire, unless acknowledged, warps his lexicon and inflates his language.”

It can be argued that the author of a hatchet job is doing the public a service by warning off unsuspecting consumers; however, in a strictly Canadian context, it seems unlikely that there are hordes of duplicitous small press authors hoping to wrest hard-earned dollars from a blinkered public.  Isaacs says:

In the limited confines of Canadian literary culture, damning reviews matter.  To small-press writers who must already work much harder than writers with mainstream presses to promote their books, negative reviews add insult to injury…Why should reviewers take the time to lambaste a book that likely isn’t going anywhere?

Essentially, then, reviewers should follow the advice their parents gave them as children, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

              Review outlets are disappearing in Canada in some respect.  Column inches and newspaper space have been greatly reduced.  It is true that these traditional outlets have been unofficially subsidized through public domains such as Goodreads and Amazon, to name a few.  And I believe that public taste is a valid litmus test.  However, if the traditional review outlets, such as the Globe & Mail, National Post and Quill & Quire, are to differentiate – and therefore continue to legitimize -- themselves from the public domain, they should do so by eliminating the hatchet and the rant in favour of the informed and the reasonable.  Why fill the small space devoted to review with contempt?  Better to focus on those books worthy of attention, which might otherwise be ignored.  This ‘appreciative’ method will get us closer to the aesthetic we desire.

              Perhaps as a teacher of nineteen years, I understand more viscerally the impact of delivering a less than exemplary evaluation.  Criticism must be delivered with respect to the author.  Reviews, like books, are an integral part of a healthy literary landscape. We must push each other to do better.  Not batter the other into submission.


Read thoughtful reviews of my most recent novel, The Road to Atlantis, from Quill &Quire and Wednesday Book Review – or watch the 49th Shelf on September 28th for my “Short-Changed List” – Canadian books that deserve a second glance.

You can weigh in on the topic in the comment section below with your thoughts and stories.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Blurbs: Caught by Lisa Moore

Caught, by Lisa Moore (House of Anansi 2013)

Why you should read it:

Moore's writing has a sixth sense. There are moments in this novel that are so real and so raw that reading it is like staring at a Polaroid -- striking for its immediacy and voyeuristic in its candour.

Blurbs: Just Beneath My Skin by Darren Greer

Just Beneath My Skin, by Darren Greer (Cormorant Books 2014)

Why you should read it:

A sense of dread descends like a curtain over this novel the deeper you delve into it. And yet, like a bystander at an accident, the reader cannot turn away. Greer pulls no punches.

Blurbs: Interference by Michelle Berry

Interference by Michelle Berry (ECW 2014)

Why you should read it: 

Berry captures the quiet desperation of her suburban characters in this claustrophobic, deftly plotted novel. Interference seethes with sinister possibilities.