December 17, 2012 12:03 pm

The best-selling success of E.L. James’ 50 Shades erotic trilogy has raised the profile of erotic romance fiction. Although extensive attention is being paid to it now, erotic romance has been around for years, and is one of many subgenres that fall under the romance banner.

Romance is frequently dismissed, but someone is reading it—romance is one of the world’s top-selling genres, commanding 14.3% of the U.S. consumer book market in 2011 and representing over 50% of all paperback books sold. In 2011, when almost all other publishing profits were down, romance fiction sales increased slightly to $1.37 billion. Its products span everything from religious/inspirational to science-fiction/romance to historicals, to bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM).

It also pays off as a writing career choice for many authors, the vast majority of whom are women. Former Ottawa resident Kathryn Smith, whose Kady Cross young adult steampunk novel, The Girl in the Clockwork Collar, is the latest in a long string of
successful novels, makes over six figures annually. She is one of many authors who once belonged to the Ottawa Romance Writers’ Association (ORWA), which usually has about 50 members, about half of whom are published.

Members range from the wildly successful and famous historical romance author Jo Beverley, who was a charter member of ORWA, to recently published e-book authors still waiting for slim royalties, to every situation in between, including profitable erotica.

Local author Sharon Page had written several historical romances before creating an erotic romance set in the hidden orgies of the Regency Period. The result was her first sold manuscript. Since then, she has published 16 books, won the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award twice (and is nominated again this year), and a National Readers Choice Award.

Opal Carew started in contemporary romance then switched to contemporary erotica. Her newer books go deep into the realm of kinky, but like all good romance novels, end with a satisfying and happy romantic resolution. Smith, Page and Carew are prolific
writers, producing several books per year.

Other ORWA members past and present have written in a variety of genres. Joyce Sullivan wrote nine books for the Harlequin Intrigue line, which is a cross-genre blend of romance and thriller. Nonnie St. George wrote two traditional Regency historical
romances, charming readers with the witty repartee that characterizes the genre. Her first book was nominated for two Rita Awards, which are the romance novel equivalent of the Oscars. Jo Beverley has won several Ritas.

Romance is one of the only art forms that treats female sexual pleasure as healthy and a woman’s right. So it is no wonder romance authors also consider themselves feminists, although not the commonly perceived stereotype. They tend to champion women’s reproductive rights, literacy, freedom of expression, and the need for men and women to benefit from a committed relationship. The worldwide phenomenon that is Romance Writers of America (RWA) is also one of the largest and most supportive writing associations in the world.

Although romances tend to be hotter than they were even 10 years ago, they’re not all about sex. Love scenes cannot be gratuitous but must be essential to the character-driven story. Some books contain nothing beyond a kiss, others describe threesomes,
but the vast majority fall into sweet, spicy or hot. Romance can also cross several subgenres. For example, Page’s latest book is Blood Fire, an erotic Regency-set vampire tale.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Write a quick romance, sell it to Harlequin and spend days eating bonbons. It doesn’t quite work that way. While Smith and St. George sold to New York publishers early in their careers, they had spent considerable learning the art of commercial fiction writing, and had read reams of books in subgenres before putting pen to paper.

Other authors wrote for years before getting “the call” from an editor. Debbie Mazzuca had started writing romance with an eye to publication 25 years before her first sale. Madelle Morgan, an engineer, worked full-time, raised her son, and spent years learning her craft before Diamond Lust was published.

As for the big money, Beverley and Smith were receiving royalties for many books before being in the position to command large advances. Many authors, like Annette McCleave, who won several writing awards before publication, are still working full-time.

A lot of time and resources go towards marketing and administration. Being an author is a business like any other and the non-creative time spent can be frustrating. Any career in the arts has its risks, but the rewards are plentiful, not least working in pyjamas while creating fantasies loved by thousands.

Potential romance authors can check out ottawaromancewriters.com or rwa.org. For those who are just curious about the genre—maybe a hot romance novel would be a perfect Valentine’s Day treat.

…Insightful Reading on Urban Sustainability

November 22, 2012 4:45 pm

The University of Toronto Press has published Urban Sustainability: Reconnecting Space & Place, edited by Ann Dale, William T. Dushenko and Pamela Robinson.

Given ongoing concerns about global climate change and its environmental and economic impacts, the need for urban sustainability has never been greater. Urban Sustainability: Reconnecting Space & Place explores concrete ways to make cities more sustainable through integrated planning, policy development, and decision making. It is the first book to provide an applied inter-disciplinary perspective on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in this area. This volume sheds light on the theoretical underpinnings of urban sustainability through narrative case studies. The contributors provide fresh perspectives on how issues related to sustainable urban planning and development can be promoted through collaborative partnerships and community engagement.


Freedom and Darkness in Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton

November 14, 2012 1:37 pm
joseph anton a memoir

Salman Rushdie begins his brilliant new memoir Joseph Anton (Knopf Canada, 2012) by describing a phone call from a BBC journalist in February 1989 in which she asks what it’s like knowing that he’s going to be killed. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, she went on to tell him, had issued a fatwa calling not only for his death but for the death of anyone knowingly associated with the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. According to Iran’s supreme leader, the work of fiction was blasphemous. Ever since that fateful day people have speculated on the Ayatollah’s motivation. Was he as outraged as he declared by The Satanic Verses? Did he actually read the book? Or, as Rushdie himself suggests, was the fatwa likely a cynical ploy on the part of Iran’s leadership to divert attention away from the country’s faltering revolution? Whatever the reason for it, the threat the fatwa posed was very real. Many Muslims the world over were prepared to mete out the punishment of death they felt Rushdie had coming to him. One of the most obnoxious characters in Rushdie’s memoir is a high profile British Muslim leader who took every opportunity to publicly declare that the author must die. (When we learn late in the book that he died of a heart attack it was impossible to feel any sympathy for the man.) Rushdie obviously lived to share his tale, but many others did not. Some guilty of nothing more than working at a book store in which the book was sold were killed. Others survived attempts on their life but suffered grievous physical harm. Rushdie tells of how a Danish publisher of The Satanic Verses emerged from his house one morning to discover a tire on his vehicle had been slashed.  As he approached to investigate he was shot three times. He survived, much to the dismay of all those who believed he should die by virtue of his association with Rushdie. Although the fatwa was recently lifted, it remains a most shameful episode for which those responsible must answer.

So what was all the fuss about? What did Rushdie write that could possibly upset Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and the country’s mullahs and Muslims the world over so much that they believed that his death was the only appropriate response? One of Joseph Anton’s many highlights comes early when he reveals The Satanic Verses are part of Islamic lore.  Rushdie traces them back to the religion’s early days. Islam’s initial appeal was shared among the most underprivileged in rapidly urbanizing environments. These early adherents were persecuted by Mecca’s elites. Around this time the prophet Muhammad was apparently visited by an imposter of Gabriel and asked about three goddesses that were important revenue sources to the city of Mecca. They wouldn’t have the status of Allah, but could they be worshipped nonetheless? Muhammad was tempted.  The words spoken became sura 53 in the Quran. At some point in the not too distant future the real Gabriel informed Muhammad that the verse in question was not real and thus ‘satanic.’ It would have to be replaced by the godly verse.

The episode, Rushdie goes on to suggest, raised a thorny question: why was Muhammad tempted to elevate the status of the goddesses? Rushdie proposes that he might have been prepared to enter a bargain of sorts. Mecca’s elites were prepared to end their persecution of Islam’s followers if the goddesses so important to the city’s financial well being could be incorporated into the new religion. Muhammad, he adds, might have been tempted if it meant endearing himself to Mecca’s elites. In the end, Muhammad didn’t succumb to the temptation.

How does imagining and writing about such a proposition constitute ‘blasphemy’ or a grave insult to Islam? It’s hard to know. As Rushdie says, if he knew he’d be sentenced to death for writing The Satanic Verses, he would have really criticized Islam.

But sentenced to death he was and thus forced to exercise every precaution to keep his assassins at bay. Rushdie details how every aspect of his life suffered as a consequence of the fatwa. He assumes an alias – Joseph Anton, a hybrid derived from two of his favourite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Checkov – to conceal his identity. He was forced to live a life both on the run and in perpetual hiding. For years living in Britain he couldn’t so much as go to a corner store without planning it with the team forced to protect him. Airlines refused to allow him to fly on their planes. Publishers refused to publish the paperback version of The Verses. India, his native country, banished him. Indeed, he discovers first-hand what it’s like to have your freedom ruthlessly stripped away. If there can be said to be one benefit to his ordeal, it’s that he draws on it to write often beautifully and poignantly about the theme of exile.

Salman Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi PHOTO: FishbowlLA

Salman Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi PHOTO: FishbowlLA

Rushdie’s emphasis, however, is on his relationships with those closest to him.  Relationships sometimes buckled under the strain of constant threat to not only his life, but his family’s as well. His depictions of the women he loved and married are often generous and sympathetic, but were also often characterized by bitterness and acrimony. The effect on the reader is curious. On the one hand, you appreciate the author’s vulnerability. The reader senses his desire to be loved. On the other hand, although he does not spare himself from criticism, one still wonders if his version of tumultuous events with the women in his life are one sided. Was he as magnanimous as he sometimes portrays himself? It’s hard to know, especially given that for a time he was publicly vilified as volatile and egotistical and with a fondness for younger and strikingly beautiful women. He admits to leaving his third wife and mother to his younger son for Padma Lakshmi, a woman 23 years his junior who gained notoriety when she posed for Playboy magazine. He acknowledges it wasn’t his finest hour. Nevertheless, after reading the memoir, that sort of characterization seems more than a little unfair. Rushdie demonstrates too much insight into the world, too much sensitivity for the suffering of others and too much love for his two sons to be as selfish as he was sometimes made out to be.

There are stretches of the book when it is sometimes difficult to discern its arc. One feels anecdotes described in chapters 5 and 6 are too often the same in tone and substance as those in chapters 1 and 2. For this reason, the reader may have to contend with occasional bouts of tedium. But he is rewarded for his patience. The slow transformation to Rushdie’s character and life are eventually manifest. He writes movingly about his readiness to succumb to the relentless pressure to admit his folly and his sin. Repent, he was told more than once, and perhaps the Iranian authorities will lift the death sentence. Tell them you were wrong to write what you did about the prophet Mohammad. His desire to live freely and his declared need to be loved conspired to make him to do just that. Yet even after he made such a gesture the fatwa wasn’t lifted. Muslims everywhere insisted he still had to die. From that moment forward he writes of his growing defiance against the tyrants who would kill him for using his imagination to creatively engage with Islam. He uses his considerable prowess with the written word to expose their hypocrisy, their extraordinary capacity for cruelty and the danger such fanaticism poses to freedom.

Indeed the book soars when he writes less about himself and more about the ideas and principles at stake throughout the entire ordeal.  “How does newness enter the world?” he asks early in The Satanic Verses. Literature at its best is meant to explore this question and, in so doing, stretch and challengethe reader’s experience of the world. History is littered with examples of writers facing the wrath of holy institutions who oppose this sort of impulse. The same tension between newness and authority is often at stake in the world of science. Rushdie alludes to Darwin’s radical thesis of evolution and how the Church derisively characterized him as a menace to society. As for Islam, Rushdie is hardly the only person to suffer at the hands of its most conservative adherents. Challenging the faith can indeed pose grave risks. Rushdie refers to the brutal murder of Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker who dared to depict Muhammad. If he were writing the memoir now, he would undoubtedly lament the Taliban’s attempt to murder Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who so publicly, courageously and eloquently declared her and every other young girl’s right to an education. She was shot in the head by a Taliban sniper for promoting ‘secular’ values. Mercifully, she survived. But the response to this latest outrage has been ineffectual and tepid. As Rushdie warns, we’re losing the nerve and the basis on which to criticize the ideas that fuel this sort of monstrous violence.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Knopf Canada) is out now.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Knopf Canada) is out now.

Ottawa Writers Festival: One on One with Jian Ghomeshi

November 6, 2012 12:08 pm

Jian Ghomeshi, the host of CBC Radio Q (a national arts magazine show), was in town on October 27 to discuss his 1982 memoir.

1982 is the story of Ghomeshi’s life in grade nine while living in Thornhill, a Toronto suburb. Ghomeshi tells stories of girls, concerts, school, parents and how he wanted to be David Bowie. Wendy, his dream girl and a female version of Bowie, played a very dominant role in his life in 1982. Ghomeshi said it was difficult having a crush on a girl who was two years his senior and “way cooler” than he was. While his relationship with Wendy never lasted beyond high school, Ghomeshi recalled what an important influence she had on him during his early adolescence. Ghomeshi met up with his dream girl years later. While writing the book, Ghomeshi realized he would need her permission before publishing the story. He contacted her and she said she remembered a very different version of the events he described. But, she still gave Ghomeishi permission to publish the story, telling him to write the book however he wanted, since it was his story to tell.

While he didn’t repeat anecdotes already related in the book, the author reminisced about his life before a large audience at Knox Presbyterian Church. When the floor was opened to audience questions, Ghomeshi shared more about his life after 1982, including his assessment of his infamous interview with Billy Bob Thornton.


One thing I really admired about Ghomeshi was how much he praised the arts. His parents immigrated from Iran a short time after the Iranian hostage crisis of the late 1970s. Ghomeshi talked about his difficulties with his parents, who wanted him to be a successful doctor or engineer. Ghomeshi candidly told the audience that this was a path he never wanted to follow and was thankful for the opportunities he had in contributing to Canadian arts and music. Ghomeshi believes that his interaction with artists, actors, musicians and authors allowed him to become a critical thinker, never taking answers for granted and questioning the accepted norms of society on a regular basis. This is one of the reasons Ghomeshi has become such a successful interviewer on Q, and now, such a successful author.













John Ralston Saul’s Dark Return to Fiction

November 2, 2012 12:00 pm
John Ralston Saul

On October 28, Canadian author, essayist and public intellectual John Ralston Saul spoke to a full crowd at the Knox Presbyterian Church as part of the 2012 Ottawa Writers Festival fall line-up. Saul, who is known for his celebrated novels and essays, being twice elected as the President of PEN International, and his marriage to former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, came to the Writers Festival to speak about literature, Canadian and global politics, and his newest novel, Dark Diversions: A Traveller’s Tale (Viking Press Canada), his first fictional work in nearly two decades. After his appearance at the festival, Ottawa Life Magazine got a chance to talk with Saul about his new book and his thoughts on the role of the writer.

Speaking about his hiatus from the world of fiction, Saul said he’s “always had these ideas about Canada and I needed to write them,” but they could not be expressed in fictional form. Through his essays and non-fiction books, Saul found himself in a period of transition from “writing novels to influence people” to “explaining ideas” directly to his audience. Saul described his earlier non-fiction works, like Voltaire’s Bastards (1992) and Reflections of a Siamese Twin (1997) as “half critique and half proposition,” while his later works, like On Equilibrium (2001) and A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada (2008), offered him a chance to share more singular arguments about his own propositions for Canada and the world. Saul believes his essays and the open discussions he’s held have “opened a door for the return of the oral argument,” an art form that helped define Canada throughout its history, but has nearly been lost in the present day.

To Saul, fiction and non-fiction writings are part of the big puzzle. “Philosophy has always been like fiction . . . [because] novels contain the ultimate truth.” For this reason, Saul has always seen himself as a novelist first and foremost. “Every day of my life, I think that I need to be writing novels. Eventually, I felt it was the right time to come back to the novel, which unlike non-fiction, allows you to create this world that people can find themselves in.”

During his absence from the world of fiction, Saul became president of PEN International, a global community of writers who promote freedom of speech and help free imprisoned journalists and authors. Through his role as PEN president, Saul has travelled the world and worked with publicists, academics, prominent writers and world leaders to promote the organization’s cause and raise awareness and sympathy for unjustly incarcerated writers.

Through his travels, witnessing a wide variety of social spheres and community classes, Saul found the inspiration for many of the characters in Dark Diversions, his first fictional work in 15 years. The narrator, whose name and identity are left unknown through most of the book, chronicles a series of stories while he moves among aristocrats in America, elites in Europe, and dictators in the developing world. He chronicles the passion, malaise, depression and self-destruction of the upper classes as he witnesses murder, infidelity, attempted suicide, the double lives and broken lives of the privileged persons and plutocrats in the highest echelons of society.

Dark Diversions is in part a continuation of the themes of Saul’s last novel, De si bons Américains, a black comedy about elites. Saul didn’t think Dark Diversions “would be so dark” when he started writing it, but the book’s use of composite and pastiche characters based on real-life personalities Saul has encountered led to the dark comic and ironic tones that reflect the present era. “I like black comedy,” Saul said. “[Dark Diversions] is funnier and darker because this is an era for dark comedy. When you look at something like the recent financial crisis and how the very people who started the entire collapse were rewarded for what they did – that’s comedic in a very dark way.” Saul believes that while events like the economic crisis of 2008 are not funny in a serious way, they are in part “comically serious.”

Saul took many real-life individuals he had met and transformed them through the novel. “I used, and I don’t want to call it the ‘lens’ of fiction, but more of the ‘metamorphosis’ or transformation, if that makes any sense. You can tell stories about real people, but through the transformation of fiction, you can really see them. It’s hard to explain, but you can see things entirely differently in fiction.”

Dark Diversions is in many ways a call-back to the early days of modern fiction. “I’ve always believed that the beginning of modern fiction is (Joseph) Conrad. In Heart of Darkness and many of his other works, the narrator is caught… being the witness and not knowing what to do about it. Dark Diversions is in part a picaresque, as the narrator tumbles into disorder, wandering through the different events of the novel.” Yet Saul’s anonymous narrator struggles with his place among the desperate and melancholic people he encounters and what he chronicles starts to affect him in tangible ways. The trials of the narrator reflect Saul’s own thoughts on how the author and the novel should interact. “Novels are driven by something… very muscular in society. When you’re writing a novel, you can’t just rely on the character of the narrator driving the novel.” To Saul, “a good novel allows you to enter in and control a world,” while the novelist disappears to allow the reader to experience the reactions of the characters personally.

In Dark Diversions, Saul’s narrator attempts to stay distant from the people he encounters, taking the time to observe but rarely interfere with the lives of the rich and influential. Saul wrote his narrator to be more distanced partially in reaction to what he saw as a growing trend in contemporary fiction in which the narrator is presented as more important than the plot. Saul saw many instances where the author uses the character of the narrator for wish-fulfilment purposes, in both detective novels and serious fiction. To Saul, this trend of the authors confusing themselves with their narrators and personally intervening in the events of the novel is very “pornographic.”

“I never liked novels where the author gets in the way… the author takes readers to a place to peek in on the action, without any consequences. I believe the author should take the reader to a place to go in and feel those consequences.”

Saul thinks authors invade their works in fiction and non-fiction. “There is a big confusion about how do you establish what truth is, and in non-fiction, many authors try to marshal facts to prove things; this doesn’t answer the real, big questions because you can prove almost anything with facts.” Saul believes that in relying solely on facts, writers create what he calls a “false neutrality,” where the author attempts to look unbiased, but still displays a prejudice through the information that is presented. “I believe an argument has to hold its own. Facts are just illustrations. I don’t rely on facts in my writing, but I still use them. In writing non-fiction, you have a role of getting the reader to think about how ideas work, not just telling them how to think.

To Saul, fiction and non-fiction writing is an important part of being human. “I don’t think novels and essays are that different. (A book) is the most powerful weapon. The first time a child discovers he or she is an individual is by reading a novel.” The biggest threat to a person’s identity is the removal of those works and the silencing of the freedom of expression that comes through writing.

As President of PEN International, Saul has been working tirelessly to promote freedom of expression on a global scale. PEN is currently working on the Declaration on Free Expression and Digital Technology, which will be released shortly. The Declaration is an attempt to generate a consensus among writers and governments about restrictions imposed on online interactions. “The digital world has created all sorts of opportunities, but we’ve seen an explosion in government security forces observing people through the digital domain.” In many countries, governments do not need judicial permission to obtain private information online and use it to convict and imprison their own people. “Governments are now getting an enormous amount of detail without this permission. We’re seeing this all the time with people constantly prosecuted over what is digitally published.”

Saul and PEN are very concerned about the dangers that could arise if the restraints on what governments should have access to go unchecked. “If you look at the victories that have been won for freedom of expression in the last 100 years, most of them have been lost in the past 20. The question needs to be asked, ‘Do we have to have rules to define what is acceptable and unacceptable?’ and [the Declaration] is an attempt to do that.”

Saul cited the example of Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for his defence of human rights in China and was imprisoned for his activism. The defence of his cause on the internet, as well as any online mentions of him or his work, have been entirely censored in China. Xiaobo’s imprisonment is not only an example of the repression of free speech, but of the failure of the Chinese government to address the nature of digital publication. “You need to read the case [against Xiaobo] to see how the Chinese government interprets what it thinks the internet is,” Saul noted. “We aren’t just defending journalists, authors and members of PEN anymore. Whether you’re a Nobel Prize winner or a volunteer announcer at a community radio station, and everything in between, we are here to defend your rights.” One of the most important things is for PEN to “not be divided by authorities attempting to make judgments on what a bona fide writer is.”

Saul firmly believes that free expression is not simply exercised by writers. “Freedom of expression belongs partly to the writer and partly to the reader. When you read something out loud or share it with friends, that is an example of freedom of expression.”

John Ralston Saul’s new book, Dark Diversions: A Traveller’s Tale, is available now in bookstores everywhere.



Well, That’s The Kind of Life It’s Been — Lloyd Robertson at the Ottawa Writers Festival

October 30, 2012 11:20 am
Lloyd - Featured image

On October 26, Knox Presbyterian was filled with people excited to once again hear the familiar voice of former CTV News chief anchor Lloyd Robertson. Robertson appeared to do a talk about his impressive career as the longest-serving news anchor in Canadian and international history. Over his 59-year career in broadcasting, Robertson has covered Expo 67, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the death of Princess Dianna, Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope, the September 11th World Trade Centre attacks and the War in Afghanistan, as well as numerous elections, referendums and Olympic events. Robertson has also won the Order of Canada and was the first journalist to be inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.

In spite of his impressive accolades, Robertson focused his talk on his own personal journey. He joked about being in a church as a “slightly lapsed Presbyterian.” Robertson then read an excerpt from his new book, The Kind of Life It’s Been (HarperCollins Canada), which is about the trials of growing up with a mother who suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness and a father who had severe stomach disorders. Robertson shared personal anecdotes about his “dreary home life” and the images of hospitals “forever etched in [his] mind.”

Despite the morose aspects of his upbringing, Robertson explained that his early life experiences gave him a deep compassion for the sick and unhealthy, and a “lifelong commitment to help those with mental illnesses.” On stage, he recalled one of the most memorable things his father said to him about the mentally ill: “You’ve got to learn, boy, that these people deserve a life too.” Those words have stuck with Robertson to this day, influencing him throughout his lengthy career to approach all those he encounters with sympathy and compassion, regardless of their physical or mental predispositions. Robertson’s book is dedicated to his father, who taught him the importance of wisdom and compassion.

Early on in his life, Robertson felt a pull towards broadcasting. “News was always an interest of mine,” he told the audience. “As a child, I knew the names of all the local radio personalities.” In school, Robertson asked his teachers if he could read the public announcements every day, and later became the narrator for a number of school plays to work on his voice projection. He started his broadcasting career working for his local Stratford radio station, CJCS, but quickly moved up to CJOY in Guelph. He started working for the CBC in Windsor, but was eager to move to Toronto, which was “the apex of quality in [the] industry at the time. One you’d got there, you’d made it.”

Robertson worked as an announcer for CBC in Toronto until he began encountering difficulties with the corporation. Not being allowed to edit his articles, Robertson became frustrated because he “could report, but couldn’t write.” Eventually, he was offered a new position at CTV, but was still conflicted over leaving, due to his loyalty to CBC and its broadcasting mission. However, CTV gave him his first opportunity to go out in the field to write and broadcast his own reports, and Robertson stuck with CTV for 35 years.

Robertson talked about the challenges of maintaining a “public personality” while on the air, which sometimes conflicted with his true feelings on a subject. Robertson talked about the difficulty of reporting on 9/11, which was one of the most memorable days of his career. Robertson recalled being woken up early in the morning by a call from his boss, saying “Get your pants on, Robertson, turn on the TV and see what’s going on.” He rushed to work and got on the air to report on the attack, trying to channel what Peter Jennings described to him as “an absence of emotion” in order to keep composed. “There are some moments when you have to remain composed,” Robertson said, “but you instinctively know when you reach your audience emotionally.” Robertson remained emotionally stoic in public until three days later, when he attended the memorial service on Parliament Hill. Robertson described the absolute silence of the crowd and how it caused him to weep for the first time since the attack.

After a lengthy career working in radio and television, Robertson retired in 2011. As he described it: “I wanted to get out while the voice was intact and the looks were relatively still intact.” Robertson described feeling simultaneously grateful and saddened on his last day at CTV. “There was a sense of emptiness during my last broadcast, but I certainly don’t miss being there at 11 o’clock every night.”

Reflecting on his career, Robertson concluded that there was very little he would change. He regrets never attending university, yet “working in news, in a lot of ways, was like getting a Liberal Arts Degree. I was never held back in my career because I continued to learn on the job.” He always felt at home in broadcasting, and turned down the offer of a Senate seat. “I had fought so hard to be this newsperson who spoke from outside all the political parties… I wanted to maintain the independent voice of the service.”

For Robertson, the independence that comes from journalism is essential. He briefly discussed the problems of the all-news channels in the US and how they confuse people by intermingling talk shows with news broadcasts. According to Robertson, politicians and pundits are given “the bias of their choice,” leading to polarization full of “rants, but no talking.” Despite this growing trend, Robertson maintains hope in the tradition of the professional news broadcast. “There will always be room for the professionals. People always need reliable sources to know what is really going on. People are smart enough to know that what they get [on all news channels and the internet] is just gossip.”

 Robertson’s memoir, The Kind of Life It’s Been, is now available in bookstores everywhere.



New Children’s Book Takes Readers on Arctic Adventure to Discover Polar Bears

October 5, 2012 6:08 pm
Michelle Valberg

A one-of-a-kind children’s book takes readers on a captivating adventure to Canada’s Arctic.

Ben and Nuki Discover Polar Bears, written by nationally renowned photographer Michelle Valberg, tells the story of two boys – one from the south, the other from the north – as they learn about each other’s culture, embark on a northern adventure, and discover one of Canada’s most majestic animals – the polar bear.

Photographs of the Arctic, taken by Valberg, provide a stunning backdrop to Ben and Nuki Discover Polar Bears.

“I wanted to bring the beauty of Canada’s north to life for children across Canada, and abroad,” said Valberg. “The landscape, its people, and its animals are all absolutely breathtaking. I wanted to share this with children in a way that captivated their attention and took them on an exciting adventure.”

Already, the charming tale of the two young boys and their northern adventure is gaining traction in Canada’s literary world.

“Unique, spectacular photos of polar bears, Arctic life, and the true friendship between young Inuit Nuki and southern boy Ben… this is a delightfully informative story for children around the world,” said Dorris Heffron, the Canadian-based author of City Wolves.

This is Valberg’s first children’s book. She has previously self-published two books, Look Beyond… The Faces & Stories of People with HIV/AIDS and Dare to Dream… A Celebration of Canadian Women.

Proceeds from the sale of the book will support Project North – a not-for-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of Inuit children by providing sporting equipment and educational opportunities to youth in northern communities.

Founded by Valberg in 2009, Project North has successfully delivered more than $350,000 of hockey equipment to 14 Nunavut communities, with nationwide support and recognition. Chris Phillips of the Ottawa Senators has acted as the organization’s Honourary Captain since its inception, and earlier this year, Project North was thrilled to welcome Laureen Harper as its Honourary Co-Chair.

Valberg’s book was released October 16th, 2012 and can be found at the locations listed here: http://bendiscovers.com/?page_id=84

For more information about Ben and Nuki Discover Polar Bears, contact: Jennifer Stewart at Jennifer@jscommunications.ca; 613.401.1097 or visit www.bendiscovers.ca and www.projectnorth.ca


The Facts About Writing Fiction

August 10, 2012 4:05 pm
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A good writer creates a short story or novel based on what he knows – what he has experienced. Something in his past or present state of affairs affects him deeply. The story he writes may be about a person that has made some kind of impact on him – not just a family member or friend but a stranger, as well.

Sometimes, writers see a face and create a character behind that person. For example, a woman I once saw standing at a bus stop interested me. My imagination went into full gear, and out popped a short story. It was called The Powder Case. This story introduced a woman in her eighties, who while applying her makeup in the bathroom, passes out for reasons not told – until the end of the story. The reader may think she has died – until her husband gets to her in time. It is a study in character that expands into themes of love and devotion. There is a fair bit of suspense and irony.

This character was named Mrs. Jilasi. The simple act of seeing this little old lady at the bus stop triggered a story that resonates with readers. When I read it at a writer’s club two months ago, we discussed its impact. How could a piece of fiction be so real, and why did it hold interest for listeners? After much discussion, we concluded the story involved health, a near-tragic incident, relief and love. These are themes that come into everyone’s life sooner or later. These listeners felt emotionally invested in Mrs. Jilasi. They also wanted to hear what the outcome would be and how the plot twists would resolve.

A piece of fiction must include more surprise than predictability, and create believable characters we understand and embrace.

A piece of fiction must include more surprise than predictability, and create believable characters we understand and embrace. We may love or hate these characters, but it is crucial that as character development occurs, we recognize their humanity. They must seem real. We react to their emotions and experiences, even cry, as one listener did during my reading of The Powder Case. This listener empathized with the situation, along with the vanity, anguish and love that defined the actions in the story. She said it was so real. Yet, it was pure fiction.

This can often run a writer into danger. If the novel is about characters or events within a family context, a reader can assume it is biographical in nature; a family member or friend can take the story to be about them. They are right in so far as some aspects of their lives may have provided the story seed.

I have written a story based in a real setting and on a relationship about siblings. Only one element in the story is true; the rest is fiction, formed by a multitude of brain synapses throwing up mental images and emotions that live in a writer. A writer can reinvent reality as real events and people known to him become morphed into a new reality – shaped anew by the mysterious talents and ideas percolating in his brain. Mixed into a boiling pot, these disconnected fragments are formed into a fluid piece of poignant fiction. But here is the real truth: most writers wing it as they write. The characters take on a life of their own as do the events.

Writing is not for control freaks.

Writing is not for control freaks. You have to let it all happen; you are the conduit through which the story is created. You are the stylist and ‘plot chaser’, for often the plot runs away on you, guiding you, and that is magical.

Some writers have no idea how the story will end. The creative thread of words flows to create a tapestry of truths that are all fictional. So, if someone ever tells you he is in the novel you have written, you can reply by saying: “Thank you for inspiring me to mutate you into something you never were or will be with events that never happened or will happen.”

The fact is great fiction confounds; fact and fiction blur into one.

To the Sea, a Book Review

August 8, 2012 5:54 pm

Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans

By Brian Fagan

Bloomsbury Press, 2012, 313pp.

Newfoundland and Labrador 1700: in the morning dawn, boat crews are setting off the southeastern coast for another day of cod fishing. The water is calm, the skies clear. The fishermen travel steadily out to sea before bringing their vessels to rest. Hand lines are tossed into the water, the tips covered with squid or capelin, the favorite bait used to draw cod close to their boats. The fish are plentiful, which is why these sailors originally made the long voyage across the Atlantic to the shores of Newfoundland. Towards the day’s end, storm clouds drift across the sky. Before long the winds pick up, the sky darkens and the ocean swells rise to formidable heights. A dense fog falls like a curtain over a stage. The landscape, previously visible in the distance, is now impossible to see through the thickening mist. Boats are filled with cod, but the journey back to shore will be difficult to navigate through the gathering gloom. A single wave could topple a boat. Most will make it back, but some will perish at sea.

This is the sort of story Brian Fagan likes to tell in his latest in a long line of remarkable books, Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans. The stories are more often than not imagined. Fagan masterfully paints scenes depicting life thousands of years ago. Other stories are of his personal adventures on the high seas, which he’s experienced in seemingly every part of the globe. Whatever the type of story, Fagan’s telling of it is always infused with a sense of joyful discovery and is designed to transport the reader to a particular time and place. Once there he draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of history, climate and anthropology to explore the questions and themes at the heart of the book. How and why did the earliest human civilizations engage with the oceans? To use Fagan’s own terminology, how did ancient civilizations ‘decode’ the oceans’ secrets? How did communities learn to travel enormous distances on water with nothing remotely resembling modern technology? Fagan’s answers are fascinating and very much in keeping with the underlying theme of so much of his work. Climate is the key to understanding the nature of a civilization’s relationship to the sea. Indeed, perhaps better than any other living writer, Fagan makes the case for climate as a vital and sometimes decisive factor in human history.

Climate is the key to understanding the nature of a civilization’s relationship to the sea.

The monsoon system dictating weather patterns off the Indian coast provides a dramatic example of how climate shaped early civilizations’ ability to engage with the sea.  Fagan demonstrates how predictable monsoon generated trade winds made traveling to distant shores possible. Understanding the monsoon winds meant the ability to time the length of return journeys. By 2000 B.C.E. travel originating on India’s west coast was common, but was largely in response to Mesopotamia’s demand for vital commodities. Mesopotamia was without the sort of timber required for the construction of vessels capable of long distance travel. Timber as well as gold and certain foodstuffs were thus among the commodities arriving on ships sailing from the Indus Valley. The strength and the predictability of the monsoon winds also meant ships traveling from India reached far down the East African coast, otherwise known as Azania. Contact would typically lead to trading relationships. Africa was rich with commodities – ivory, timber and iron ore among them. Timber was especially valuable to peoples inhabiting semi arid and often treeless regions. Another effect of ocean based trading was to better connect interior and coastal areas and to foster density in coastal towns. Fagan refers to Shanga, Manda and Ungwana as Azania based coastal towns that might have had as many as 10,000 inhabitants. As he remarks, they acted as “ports of call for oceangoing dhows engaged in the monsoon trade.”

The type of conditions that drive the monsoon winds are in stark contrast to those that prevail in the north west Pacific, where the Aleutian islands are to be found off the coast of the Alaskan Peninsula. The islands are often characterized by their gray, austere beauty. Water this far north is frigid, wind and storm patterns unpredictable. Distant travel like that facilitated by the monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean would be precarious and unadvisable in these waters. Such conditions dictated the manner in which the communities living in the region engaged with the sea. Aleutian crews rarely went too far off shore. Exploratory voyages were uncommon. Yet, as Fagan wonderfully illuminates, it is here that the earliest mariner communities were to be found. Fresh water lakes in the area featured plentiful marine life. Boats were ingeniously crafted out of available raw materials and were designed to accommodate the ice laden waters. These were largely treeless environments, with the exception of driftwood. But even driftwood was in short supply, which meant it had to be slowly collected over time. The hulls of the vessels were made of sea lion hide and sea mammal bones. The vessels were thus flexible enough to absorb collisions with ice and light enough that they could be easily transported on land. Fagan tells the story of the Aleutians beautifully.

Author Brian Fagan

For all of Fagan’s remarkable learning, however, there was a curious omission from his analysis. He promises to describe “how the earliest mariners uncovered the secrets of the oceans.”  Yet much of what he writes describes why mariners uncovered those secrets. In many cases, the reasons were to meet the human needs for commodities and food and to satisfy the basic human impulse to explore. But answering the question why is not the same as answering the question how. To be sure, Fagan does address this basic question by documenting the types of vessels used on the high waters.  But what about those systems of knowledge that allowed mariners to navigate treacherous waters over vast distances? Fagan himself, for example, refers to the incredibly elaborate and subtle knowledge system the Polynesians developed to travel enormous distances on the Pacific. The swell of waves would yield vital information about approaching weather. The night sky was a map used to guide them to distant shores. Bird flight patterns were used to gage distances. Fagan’s passing reference is not, however, the prelude to any sort of detailed overview. Nevertheless, this omission hardly detracts from the quality of the book.

In the end, adaptability is the theme that binds together the vast array of human communities Fagan investigates in Beyond the Blue Horizon. Even in the most severe environments, these communities and civilizations were able to skillfully and ingeniously engage with the sea. In the book’s final chapter Fagan ruminates on a potential paradox relevant to our own time. Does our relentless drive to master the oceans ultimately compromise our ability to understand the sea? The question seems counterintuitive. Fagan’s point is that supertankers and cruise ships are designed to distract and disengage passengers from the sea. But like those on the Titanic, feeling totally immune from the sea’s unpredictable and unforgiving nature puts us at risk of underestimating its extraordinary powers. Although fascinating, this question strikes me as less important than others that might be posed, especially given Fagan’s subtle understanding of climate. For it is the potentially accelerated pace of climate change that may render us unable to adapt to the sea’s changing conditions. How, for example, will coastal communities adapt to an accelerated rise in sea levels? The question highlights an elementary truth: land and sea are intimately interconnected and thus changes to one will have echoing effects on the other. Fagan makes clear that many ancient civilizations treated the oceans as another part of the landscape they inhabited. It is a lesson we would be wise to remember.

Living In the Past: Review of The Chemistry of Tears By Peter Carey

July 4, 2012 9:00 am
Chemistry of Tears

In an interview at this year’s Toronto Luminato Festival the author Peter Carey suggested that in many ways we’re still living in the 19th century.

The remarkable technological advances that were cause and consequence of the industrial revolution did not, in the 19th century, produce any real awareness of their long term implications for the planet’s health. On the contrary, technology combined with the facile promise of endless economic growth was to be our salvation. Carey went on to remark that most writers at the Wall Street Journal today still think this way. For the benefit of his Canadian audience, he could have said the same of The National Post and The Globe and Mail. There is still little sense, in other words, that our ceaseless preoccupation with technology and growth is today producing potentially dire consequences for the planet.

The climate crisis is among the themes in Carey’s latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears. The peril in which the planet finds itself serves as a backdrop to the story of the novel’s two main characters, one from the 19th century and the other living in the present.

The peril in which the planet finds itself serves as a backdrop to the story of the novel’s two main characters.

Henry Brandling is a 19th century Englishman whose daughter has died from illness and whose son may suffer the same fate. His marriage is buckling under the strain of their shared loss. In a desperate bid to save both his son and his marriage, Henry sets off for Germany in the somewhat strange hope of finding a German clockmaker who will build an automaton in the form of a duck. He is convinced the duck will help to restore his son’s health and redeem his wife’s love for him.

Catherine Gehrig is the novel’s other main character. The story begins with her grim discovery that her married lover and colleague of many years has died suddenly. She is overwhelmed with despair and an unanticipated loneliness. No one, or so she thought, knew of their affair. So she is left to endure the pain of his sudden departure alone. She cannot even attend his funeral. But one sensitive colleague at the museum at which she works knows of their relationship and understands the depth of her grief. He takes it upon himself to ensure she will have a productive distraction to help get her through the dark days ahead. The distraction is in the form of a project: reconstruct the automaton that Henry endeavored to have made for his sick son so many years ago. The past and the present are thus linked and much of the novel is an attempt to explore their complex connection.

The discovery of the automaton includes Henry’s detailed account of his travels. He kept a diary, documenting not only his progress, but his love for his son and his hopes to renew his wife’s love for him. There is something quietly heroic in the way Henry carries himself. The notion that an automated duck would do much to save an ailing child might, at first glance, appear Quixote like. But Carey’s aim does not appear to have been to create a delusional character. On the contrary, he strikes the reader as well grounded even as he encounters a strange, unpredictable and occasionally threatening array of Germans in whom he must place his trust. In any case, Catherine grows obsessed with Henry and to a lesser extent, his ailing son.

It is on this level that the novel works best. The written word is a source of mysterious power connecting the two characters over space and time. Henry’s diary – written more than a century earlier – not only survives the past but acts like a bridge to it. Reading of Henry’s lonely quest stirs to life a complicated set of emotions in Catherine. The diary doesn’t relieve Catherine’s pain: she remains distraught, vulnerable and irritable throughout the entire novel. Nor does it always inspire noble impulses: Catherine jealously guards the diary from other inquiring minds. But it somehow leaves her feeling less isolated in the world. “I sought Henry, Henry alive, good-hearted Henry. How essential was his company in this endless night. I read. He wrote.”

That the written word is a source of mysterious power is to be expected in a Carey novel. He is regarded by many as one of the greatest living novelists in part because of his inventiveness with language. He writes concisely, but playfully and often beautifully.

 Their door might spring open, slamming rudely against the wall, and next would appear that wheaten-haired child, laughing, hippity hoppity. I confess it hurt my heart. Soon I would observe him from a window, leaping across the fallen stooks, like a lucky hare recovered from the trap, speeding strangely across the harvest stubble, on his way to places I could not pronounce. He was surely an immensely clever, little fidget, returning with his oily secrets wrapped in handkerchiefs or rags.

Lovers of Carey’s prose will not be disappointed with his latest offering.

Lovers of Carey’s prose will not be disappointed with his latest offering.

In other ways, the connections Carey establishes between the past and present are less satisfying, at least for this reader. The death of Catherine’s lover occurs on the same day as oil begins to spread like a cancer in the Gulf of Mexico. Catherine occasionally refers to London’s blistering late April heat. In another passing reference, the reader learns drought is threatening parts of Africa. To be sure, in works of fiction no explanation is required for these sorts of oblique references. Yet one feels that there is a point Carey is attempting to convey, but what is far from clear. Is it that we are still living in the 19th century insofar as we still don’t appreciate the extent to which the climate is in peril? Or is that the technological boon that took off in the late 19th century has led us to the point of crisis today? Others will insist Carey deliberately and necessarily leaves any such questions unresolved. They too would have a point. It would be in keeping with one of the character’s embrace of ambiguity. We must learn to live with ambiguity, Catherine’s boss Henry Croft, reminds her as she struggles to make sense of her life. Not every question can be answered, not every mystery is meant to be solved.

Covering Humanity at War

May 15, 2012 9:05 am
Nahlah Ayed Penguin/Jet Belgraver

Nahlah Ayed will never forget the day she looked into the eyes of death.

She stood still, the gun pointed at her. The man was ready to shoot her. She stood on a street in Iraq and kept repeating that she was just a journalist, she was just doing her job. A foreign correspondent with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Manitoba-born Ayed says if journalists claim they are not scared to report from war zones – they are lying.

One has to be brave, Ayed says, to report from the front line. She still can’t forget the stories she has covered, the images she has seen: mass graves of people who were lined up and shot, Iraqis digging amid piles of dead bodies, hoping to find their loved ones.
And that day when the suicide bomb exploded, the day when amidst panic and people dying, Ayed and her cameraman were beaten and separated in the crowd; the day when Ayed luckily escaped her death from the gunman. These memories still haunt her.

That day, CBC News called her and asked if she would go on the air to tell her story. Ayed, beaten and bloody, refused to go on the air. Ayed says the tragic event was not about her – the story was about Iraqis who died and were wounded: as was the case on a regular basis, ever since the war started.
“Because around me, I saw hundreds of people die on this day – and I got a bloody nose and some bruises… so what?,” Ayed says.

Thousands Farewells

Journalists – who travel around the world and witness wars, death, poverty, injustice and corruption – are reluctant to insert themselves into the story. Yet, after seeing so much blood and horror, Ayed discovered that writing a memoir became her revelation, a form of therapy to help her cope with her horrible experiences as a foreign correspondent reporting from hot spots for over a decade: Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Palestinian territories, Haiti and Pakistan. The book has surprised her family and friends, because Ayed kept so much to herself for many years.

“While I was writing this book, I realized that it affected me far more than I admitted to myself, writing helped me to deal with that,” Ayed says. “In a memoir, it is appropriate to talk about your story, but it’s still uncomfortable. I didn’t even want my picture on the front cover.”

In the book, she could tell a more profound story than just hard news. Ayed wanted her readers to understand that politics and people are separate. This book is about her life and about people for whom war is not an evening news item, but reality.

By writing a book, she also wanted to break a common stereotype that the Middle East is just a violent part of the world, Ayed says. It is also a region with beautiful nature, and with welcoming people who want nothing but peace.

“People over here are unaware of it, partly because of the way the media covers it. When you see Arabs on the news, it’s usually [mobs] denouncing the West,” Ayed says. “Extremists and politicians get all the attention. Regular people are lost in the shuffle. So, I think, there is a misunderstanding. Arab people are very warm.”

As Ayed recalls the Arab uprisings, her eyes shine. She says it was one of the best stories she ever covered – the opportunity that comes “once in a lifetime.” She was “so lucky” to be there “because I watched the Middle East that was so stagnant show signs of change. It gave me goose bumps the whole time I was there.”

There is still a long way to stability for the troubled region. But seeing hope in the eyes of protesters who have been repressed for many years under authoritarian regimes as they find courage to voice their dissatisfaction and show their resistance, inspires Ayed to keep doing what she does well – to report from the front lines.

Many people who watch news broadcasts from the comfort of their couches don’t realize how hard it is to be a journalist nowadays. Sometimes a journalist is a reporter, a translator and a cameraperson. Yet, despite everything, Ayed says she is destined to be a foreign correspondent.

“It’s an addiction to be on the road, it’s a way of life.”

Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery, and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age

May 3, 2012 5:40 pm
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Today Vincent Van Gogh is everywhere. Prints of the Dutch master’s most famous paintings adorn student dormitories, living rooms and cafes.  Many paintings feature the moon and stars or the sun hovering over landscapes. Van Gogh’s ubiquity, however, has undermined our appreciation of his role in helping us understand some of the last century’s most painful chapters. Why then did a painter who died in 1870 exert such a profound influence on our understanding of the 20th century? What accounts for the enormous appeal of his work? These are among the questions that run through Modris Eksteins’s wonderful new book, Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age. In exploring them, Eksteins tells the story of not only Van Gogh but Otto Wacker as well, a German who in 1932 was tried and convicted for peddling Van Gogh forgeries. Both men in their own way yield profound insights into the zeitgeist of Europe in the opening decades of the last century.

Solar Dance is interesting in part because it’s so hard to classify. The book is part biography, part cultural history and even part mystery. Of the two men at the heart of Eksteins’s study, Van Gogh’s story is the more compelling. As Eksteins wonderfully makes clear, Van Gogh’s life was characterized by poverty, isolation, estrangement and eventually madness. He fell in love with different women, only to be rebuffed at each turn. Friendships were volatile. As the story goes, he cut off his own ear. Although why he did so or how exactly it happened remains in question, the incident is clearly rich with symbolic possibilities. The most interesting offered by Eksteins is that Van Gogh’s successful attempt at self mutilation reflected his identification with victims of Jack the Ripper, who at the time was terrorizing London. Jack the Ripper mutilated his victims, many of whom were prostitutes. In keeping with his life as an outsider, Van Gogh sought intimacy through his relationships with prostitutes at a local brothel.

Modris Eksteins

Outside of that local brothel, Van Gogh’s art became his refuge. He writes to his brother about only feeling alive when he was engrossed in his work. He relished the opportunity to walk seemingly endlessly with his paint brush and easel. Some of his most famous paintings feature exaggerated images of landscapes bursting with colour. Yet his immersion in his art might also have accelerated his descent into madness. He not only allowed his health to deteriorate, he believed that doing so heightened his experience of painting and ultimately the quality of his work. Moreover, although his art is priceless now, it brought little re-numeration to him while he was alive. Van Gogh died poor, his work only dimly appreciated by a precious few.  Why was this so? Ekstein locates the Expressionist school – of which Van Gogh was its most vital member – as a response to the perceived limitations of Impressionism.  The impressionists put a premium on ‘precision and detail.’ Van Gogh and other Expressionists were less interested in faithful depictions of the natural world and more committed to exaggerated images as a way of the “mind exercising its autonomy over the experience of nature.” His art also constituted a form of ‘spiritual rebellion’ against the growing dominance of science, law and other sources of authority. Van Gogh, according to Eksteins, both personally and through his art anticipated the storms gathering over Europe.

Otto Wacker, for his part, was somewhat of a chameleon. He dabbled in dance and art and was gay. He created a sensation when he claimed to have in his possession an extensive series of hitherto undiscovered Van Gogh paintings. A Russian fled Bolshevik Russia with his treasure trove, or so told Wacker to the rest of the art world. The mysterious Russian entrusted Wacker with the paintings on the condition that his identity never be revealed. Throughout his trial and the rest of his life, Wacker insisted his story was true and that he would never reveal the identity of the Russian in question. It was thus impossible to verify. Various experts had sharply conflicting opinion as to the authenticity of the paintings Wacker sold to unwitting buyers. In the end, he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to two years in prison. But the origin of the forgeries has never been definitively determined. Who painted them?

Van Gogh's Self Portrait

Has Eksteins stretched too far the apparent connections between this case and the turbulent times in which it unfolded? He insists it is symptomatic of the much wider malaise characteristic of the times. Wacker’s scheme typifies, according to Eksteins, a crisis of authenticity. But we are talking about forgery in the pursuit of money – a type of crime that surely didn’t begin in the aftermath of the Great War. As far as criminal activity goes, it seems relatively benign. That various connoisseurs of the art world were confounded by Wacker’s claims may suggest more about the undeveloped science of forgery detection than it does about the crisis of truth in post World War Europe.  Moreover, Eksteins stretches the connection between art and society even further: Wacker’s attempt at forgery anticipates our own culture’s fascination with celebrity and stardom.

Nevertheless Eksteins skillfully creates a sense of dread when he places Van Gogh’s work and appeal and Wacker’s attempt to profit from it in the context of the day. Van Gogh was Dutch, but his initial rise in influence and popularity happened most dramatically in 1920s Germany. According to Eksteins, his appeal had as much to do with his lonely, marginalized existence as it did with his art. Germany was suffering through the aftermath of the Great War and the Treaty of Versailles that was its most consequential outcome. The economy was in tatters, much of the country in ruins.  People increasingly identified with those living their lives on the margins of society. Otto Wacker – among countless others no doubt – was prepared to find innovative and shadowy ways to survive. Apparent truths were shattering all around. Authority was collapsing. The climate was one of uncertainty and foreboding. As Hitler’s rise makes clear, people were susceptible to messages of hate and intolerance as a way of restoring a lost order. In telling this part of the story, Eksteins shows he’s a master at tracing the connections between culture and the political currents that led to some of the previous century’s darkest episodes.

Van Gogh's Sower

Although the world is now a much different place, the modern condition remains one of flux and impermanency. In many key respects, truth remains elusive.  There are countless numbers of people, like Van Gogh, who suffer from loneliness, estrangement and mental illness. Unlike Van Gogh, their art isn’t something in which they can take refuge. Similarly, Otto Wacker’s willingness to redefine himself anticipates the very common inclination today to do the same. But that prospect no longer inspires existential dread. Both men, from this perspective,   anticipated the future, but it’s Van Gogh’s ghost that haunts us still.   

Book Review: Behind The Bank Counter

May 2, 2012 8:55 am
You Can Bank on That

Brian L. Coventry’s You Can Bank on That: The Early Years, a second sequel to the author’s first book Adopted at Age Four, will give its readers a perspective on how the credit business operates inside and out.

In this book, the main character Leslie Swartman – – who was previously bounced between foster families, at last adopted by a good family – – starts working in the Canadian banking system.

It’s late 1960’s. Leslie is just out of high school, works as a sales representative for the shoe company. But for Leslie, it isn’t the job he dreamt about. At last, he sees a job ad for a credit trainee, and encouraged by his friend, he applies for the job. Without any higher education, but being able to relate to his previous experience,  Leslie gets the job.

As Leslie climbs his career ladder, he becomes friends with the managers of big Canadian banks. They share with him stories that will make you laugh and think. With Leslie, the reader will witness conversation at the workplace; and even more – those that are held behind the closed doors.

You Can Bank on That: The Early Years was released in February.

Coventry is a Canadian author, a retired bank manager with over 40-years experience in the banking system. He owns a mortgage consulting business and is actively involved in the community. Now, Coventry is  writing a third book for this sequence.

192 pages, ISBN  9781467849333, AuthorHouse 

Sin: The Russia You Never Knew

April 24, 2012 9:17 am

Book Review by: Damira Davletyarova 

Zahar Prilepin’s  book Sin is a collection of short stories written in non-chronological order. Yet, by the end, they merge into a full complex picture, giving the novel its unique form. The main character of the stories is Zahar, who incidentally, has the same name as the author. Zahar lives in the post-Soviet Russia – in a broken country, one involved in the war with Chechnya and struggling to keep its unity. People are impoverished, unemployed and angry.

Amid chaos, instead of complaining or joining criminals, Zahar keeps his human dignity and integrity. He enjoys what he has and life as it is. He loves and is being loved. For Zahar, under the veil of male toughness and physical strength, there is also a caring and tender heart.

SIN. Photo from Amazon

Sin builds Zahar’s compassion right from the beginning. In the first chapter, for instance, Zahar takes out the last remaining egg, some milk from the empty fridge, finds flour in the kitchen cabinet and makes pancakes in order to feed four abandoned puppies that live outside of his apartment.

In the various stories throughout the book, readers will journey with Zahar from his childhood to his eventual adulthood, which helps to both shape the character and endear him  to his readers. In the last story, however, Prilepin’s character is unable to escape grim reality, and sadly he embarks on a journey as a soldier in the Chechen war.

The book has shaken the Russian literary world with a bold and honest description of post-communist Russia’s past, becoming a national bestseller. Sin, has already earned multiple literary awards. This April, Canadians will be able to discover the Russia that they never knew existed.

Prilepin is a renowned Russian author, a publisher, a journalist and a political activist. In the past, he served as a soldier in the Russian Special Forces in the anti-terror campaign in Chechnya. Prilepin is happily married and a father of three sons. He lives in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.

Sin is now available on Amazon; the Russian version of the book can be ordered from the author’s website  at zaharprilepin.r

A True Story of Marriage Fraud and Justice Found

April 6, 2012 8:35 am
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Lainie Towell’s new book How to Catch an African Chicken – A Canadian Woman’s Outrageous but True Story of Marriage Fraud could be making history. Towell’s ordeal prompted Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to get cracking with new marriage fraud laws.

The story begins in 2004, when Ottawa dance artist Lainie Towell traveled to Guinea West Africa and fell in love twice. First with the country’s dance, and then with a Guinean drummer named Fodé Mohamed “Akra” Soumah. After several trips to Conakry, a few bouts of malaria, countless hours apprenticing in an African ballet, and some visits to a witch doctor, Towell and Akra got married. She then sponsored him to come to Canada. Twenty-nine days after he arrived in Canada, Akra disappeared. It seemed he had gotten what he wanted from the marriage – his Canadian permanent residency status.

Lainie Towell

Refusing to remain a victim, Towell took matters into her own hands. She launched what would become an international media campaign and exposed her broken heart – along with Canada’s lax immigration laws – to the public. When a Canadian Border Services Agency enforcement officer saw her story in the news and launched an investigation, Towell discovered first-hand that one woman’s courage and tenacity can help change the system.

Towell’s book reveals the painful human story behind immigration marriage fraud. It has been suggested that Towell’s efforts to bring attention to the issue may have contributed to tighter laws currently being introduced in Parliament by Minister Kenney. The proposed changes would require spouses to live with their sponsor for two years after receipt of their permanent residence status. Failure to do so could result in losing that status, and possible removal from Canada.

How to Catch an African Chicken is now available electronically on Amazon for Kindle, and at Smashwords in several popular e-book reading formats including for IPad, Kobo, Sony, Nook, PC’s and most e-reading apps.

Visit www.howtocatchanafricanchicken.com for links to where you can buy the book.

Book Review – Civilization: The West and the Rest

February 10, 2012 9:23 am

The combination of economic stagnation and political paralysis in both America and among European Union member countries makes any book about the fate of the West timely reading. The potential for western civilization’s slow demise is one of the themes of Niall Ferguson’s latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest. But Ferguson is a historian and so before he explores the West’s future fate he sets out to explain western dominance over the past 500 years or so. Why was it, Ferguson asks, that a continent comprised of small, conflict-ridden states was able to spread its dominion over the entire planet? His thesis is that western power can be traced back to a set of advantages, competition, science, property, medicine, consumption and the work ethic.

Ferguson’s analysis is occasionally compelling, especially when he discusses the important differences between 15th century China and Europe. As he explains, following centuries of innovation, China ceased sea voyages of exploration and instead sought to establish ‘internal harmony.’ A centralized authority combined with the absence of external threats eliminated the sort of incentives that might have propelled further exploration and innovation. In Europe, by contrast, it was precisely the lack of political unity and the constant threat of war that created the conditions for military, scientific and navigational advances. China stood still. Europe set out to see the world and this, Ferguson contends, made all the difference.

Author Niall Ferguson

For all his learning, there are some serious flaws with Ferguson’s analysis. The most obvious is that western dominance would have been impossible without conquest. Any credible historian wouldn’t dare deny that imperial Europe conquered and brutally subjugated different peoples. Ferguson is no different, but he underestimates colonialism’s importance and repeatedly comes perilously close to rationalizing this endeavour. He does so overtly when he suggests that colonization inspired vital advances in the understanding and treatment of various communicable diseases and therefore improved health among colonized peoples. But he does so in a more subtle way by not really engaging with the history of those continents – North America and Africa especially – prior to their first contacts with the West. Ferguson’s story is therefore more than a little one-sided and is reminiscent of those history books that treat European-discovered continents as little more than blank slates. Yet so much recent historical writing is meant to correct this misperception. Basil Davidson, the great historian of Africa, made it his life’s work to reclaim the continent’s history before its initial contact with Portugal and the long history of colonization and dispossession that followed. As Davidson’s scholarship makes clear, when Portuguese ex-plorers first set foot on Africa’s west coast, the continent was comprised of kings and kingdoms and featured trading relationships between different countries. Egypt was one of the cradles of civilization. Yet Europeans essentially removed Egypt from their understanding of the rest of the continent. The effect was to enable European claims that Africa was “without civilization” prior to their arrival and therefore hardly worthy of independence. Ferguson’s analysis of Africa demonstrates no such nuance.

Is Western civilization in a process of decline?

Is Western civilization, Ferguson wonders in the book’s final chapter, in a process of decline? Here too, Ferguson’s answer is interesting but incomplete. He correctly takes issues with those theories of collapse that insist on a predictable trajectory of rise and fall. Nevertheless, he insists we are witnessing the erosion of the institutions and the ideas that served to give rise to western dominance in the first place. Western governments are bankrupt and fiscally irresponsible. Western consumers are so indebted that there may be little capacity to sustain continued economic growth. The western capacity for hard work and thrift celebrated by the German sociologist Max Weber is waning. Asian peoples, by contrast, demonstrate an unrelenting drive to work hard and save money. Asian students consistently score higher than their western counterparts on science and math literacy tests. Most Asian governments are awash in revenue.

Also available as in audio book format.

Yet Ferguson again underestimates the more fundamental sources of, say, China’s ascendency and the West’s relative economic stagnation. China’s rise and the West’s decline cannot be properly understood outside of the context of globalization. Western governments are heavily indebted, to be sure, but that has much more to do with eroding tax bases and rising costs as with poor fiscal management. China’s workforce does indeed display a heroic capacity to work and save, but China’s sustained growth has as much to do with western industry’s perpe-tual search for cheaper labour. What’s more, conceiving of globalization as an ongoing process allows one to anticipate China’s future challenges. Indeed the country is beginning to contend with some of the same tensions that are more characteristic of western democracies. Workers’ demands for increased wages and better working conditions have started to facilitate the flight of capital out of regions of the country. What happens to China’s export model of growth when the country’s currency rises in value, as it some day must? China, for all of its current advantages, will soon discover more of globalization’s discontents.

Civilization: the West and the Rest by:Niall Ferguson is available through The Penguin Press, 2011, 402PP.


A Dragon’s Persuasion: Book Review

January 25, 2012 4:30 pm
Arlene Dickinson

Back in November, Arlene Dickinson was in Ottawa to launch her new book, Persuasion: A New Approach to Changing Minds. Although I unfortunately missed the book signing event, I did rush out to buy a copy and devoured each page.

A mother of four who values family above all else, Dickinson is better known as the CEO of Venture Communications and is the only female entrepreneur on CBC’s Dragon’s Den. It is in this role of co-host that she has won over many Canadians who now revere her as a business icon and a national treasure.

The book explores Arlene’s theory that success is a direct result of your ability to persuade an audience, whoever that may be. Despite her lack of formal education, the evidence throughout the publication is tangible and convincing because it is based on her own life, business experiences and overall success, which certainly speaks for itself. Arlene embodies motivation and perseverance. At the age of thirty-one, she was newly divorced, battling for custody of her children while living on her father’s couch. One year later she was a partner at Venture Communications, one of Canada’s most successful marketing and communications firms.

Book Cover

Dickinson advocates authenticity and integrity, whether you are a homemaker or a CEO, and shows how principled persuasion can help get you where you want to be in your professional and personal life. She admits that her unwillingness to stray from her core values may translate into some lost opportunities to make more money, but is proud that the success she does relish has been achieved honestly and without compromising her integrity.

The first part of the book is based in common sense theories and the advice seems somewhat self-evident to any reader who respects basic ethics. However, as you progress into the second half, this female dragon shares concrete tips and methods to: approach an employer about a raise or promotion; pique the interest of prospective business investors; seize the possibilities put before you; learn from your mistakes; and, achieve success.

My favourite parts of the book were Arlene’s personal experiences (she shares many); especially her father’s teachings recounted through the narrative, referred to as ‘commercials’. For instance, he reminds her to appreciate where she is at any given moment instead of always having her mind set on the future. A profound teaching imparted during their move from South Africa to Canada when she was only three years old. Clearly these nuggets of wisdom were well-integrated into her intellectual makeup and have contributed to her own prosperity.

Dickinson advocates authenticity and integrity.

Despite the book’s lack of ground-breaking revelations, what makes Arlene Dickinson’s approach to business attractive is her belief that as in business, so in life. There exists no false front when it comes to Arlene and she advocates the same authenticity for her readers.  Many lessons in the book are those we could benefit to learn as individual parts of a societal whole, such as reciprocity. Meaning, you must not solely focus on what you have to gain from any given situation, but instead should present an argument in a way that proves advantageous to others. Other teachings are as simple as listening to (and truly hearing) what people have to say and using each encounter as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Overall, Persuasion is an inspiring book that will teach you that success in business is within your reach because it has so much to do with common sense. Dickinson’s writing and tone are familiar and comfortable and deliver a clear message to her readers: your dreams are within your grasp if you can master the art of principled persuasion. We are all capable of that.

Persuasion: A New Approach to Changing Minds, Dickinson, Arlene, Collins. 2011.

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