Sunday, September 28, 2014


Michael Jackson was a lot of people to a lot of big things. Fashion, Film, Entertainment, Design, Business, the Media, the Law, Dance, Music, American History - each of these narratives held a pressurized place for a perceived side of him. Many of the supposed views overlapped into mystifying images, weirdly magical accounts, seemingly perverse illuminations of his true essence. At times the vast tally of speculations threatened to match combined albums sales, ticket stubs, and diehard fans. Ultimately, following 1991s Dangerous his career faded against these astronomical standards. He was rehearsing for 50 shows in London when he met his now anatomized death. Michael Jackson became a thing to a lot of proportioning people a freakish star caught in fame's prism, bleeding colour out.

Somewhere along a dispersive line of light moonwalks an artist of inter-spatial  and multi-generational significance. Dazedly, one could get stuck gawking at the surface chimeras of the general pyrotechnics involved, but retrospectively some critics and scholars are reflecting past the flashbulb bubbles and pixelated pixies to focus on the mature body of the work the man in the mirror left behind. Susan Fast is one of these focused people. She is the author of Dangerous, the latest, and hundredth, volume of the 33 1/3 series signalizing albums for further study. I asked her to share some of her critical moves with our book-lined dance circle.

- Brad de Roo (who in 1991 bought Dangerous as the first entry in his new allowance sponsored cd collection, chosen on the strength of the bitty soundtrack to Sega Genesis Moonwalker video game which he sometimes was allowed to play in his pal Pooks basement).

BRAD MJ was one of the most popular musicians ever. Period. Why have serious studies of his oeuvre been so absent? Why has Dangerous - a monster international hit selling tens of millions of records, spawning short films, books, and world tours - been widely overlooked?

SUSAN There are a number of reasons for this. As I wrote in an obituary essay, Jackson's difference gendered, racialized, generational was too great for most people to really understand. When he was younger with a squeaky clean image, these differences could be overlooked, or perhaps people found them interesting and charming. But as Jackson got older and he began to find a more directly political voice, I think many people became confused and frightened by his difference. The focus was almost exclusively on the events in his life, on his perceived strangeness. Of course, once the allegations of child molestation were made, many were convinced that their suspicions about his difference had been confirmed. His career never recovered (let alone his soul). I think his work might also have been neglected because he was such a commercial artist who was brilliant at crafting music that sounds, on the surface, effortless and accessible. You might think there's not much to say about it. But if you start looking a little deeper there's in fact a lot to say. Few critics took the time during his life. Jackson wasn't hip, or indie, or overtly intellectual. He didn't say much about his music.

Why does he get such censure when someone like Woody Allen is widely considered to be a great filmmaker worthy of much aesthetic analysis - despite similar allegations against him?

Someone like Woody Allen is more easily readable; not as confusing, not messing with so many cultural codes all at once. That being said, there is an enormous respect for Jackson as a musician and dancer by his peers. And critics and academics are coming around, albeit slowly. It's still easy to take many of the ludicrous things that were said about him at face value.

In the book you speak of Jackson's continuation of R&Bs Soul Man persona, carrying on from where Wilson Pickett and James Brown left off as accented by glamorous Hollywood divas (glitzy clothes, hair, and makeup with bubbly voice) and perceived adoptions of white culture (straightened hair, classically oriented ballads, lightening complexion). Is this hybrid part of a greater tradition?

Musicians have always borrowed from a number of sources but Jackson is particularly interesting to consider in this respect. he was such a gifted musician that he could move effortlessly among disparate musical styles. Not all musicians can sing Broadway tunes and gritty R&B and sound convincing in both styles.

You choose to analyze the album in a chronological track by track order - organizing the chapters in sequential sections clustering songs by theme or feel. Chapter 1 is Noise, 2 is Desire, 3 is Utopia, 4 is Soul followed by a brief coda entitled Dangerous. What brought you to this form?

I think the songs on the album lend themselves to this kind of grouping. Jackson seemed to be interested in exploring a theme through a group of songs on this and later albums, examining an idea from a number of different musical perspectives.

Do you think the chapter subcategories apply beyond the album to MJ's larger artistic career?

Yes; I think the chapter headings do pertain to Jackson's life more broadly, and I explore that. For example, in the chapter called desire, I talk about the ways in which Jackson's sexuality, was, and still is, called into question by critics not only his heterosexuality; he was regularly called asexual or, by one critic pre-sexual, whatever that means. This is very different from the ways in which many fans understand him as a very sexy guy. I explore this in some detail because there are many songs on this record that deal with love, romance and sex many more than on previous albums.

Does pop cultures move away from long-play statements complicate a critic's attempts at locating historical or cultural identities?

The great thing about the 33 1/3 series is that it offers an opportunity to go back to albums as a whole. Many of us dont listen in this way anymore. This is neither good nor bad - there are many ways to listen to and appreciate music - but artists often had, or still have, and overarching idea for an album and it can be interesting to take that into account.

What do you think of the posthumous releases, Michael and Xscape? Are these after death hybrids of old tapes, new guests, and modern production in keeping with the artistic force of Dangerous?

I'm not fond of them. The demos that were released with the deluxe version of Xscape are wonderful to hear; many of them have been floating around on the internet for years. I think Sony should have released them as part of, say, the 25th anniversary re-issue of Bad, or the re-release of the one of Jackson's other albums. The contemporized versions of the demos leave me cold. That's in part because I don't think the producers really captured the essence of a Michael Jackson song, especially his nuanced sense of rhythm. I'm not interested in what L.A. Reid or Rodney Jerkins thinks a Michael Jackson song should sound like; I'm interested in what Michael Jackson thought they should sound like. But it's also clear that Jackson despised Sony and wanted nothing more than to be free from that company, yet here they are making money off his name when he's dead (and when he died under enormous pressure to make these big companies a lot of money).

What's your ideal post-industrial wasteland desert island holed up against Thrillerish schizo-nomad zombies 5 song MJ playlist?

Wow, that's difficult! Really, I can only bring 5?

I created a playlist shortly after Michael's death that never seems to get old; I'm still listening to it five years later a lot. It's my go to mix. The first five songs are: Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)- extended; that's a Jacksons' song, written by Michael and Randy Jackson; Wanna Be Startin' Something from Thriller; Another Part of Me - live version from Wembley, 1988 (ok, I guess that's been added more recently; Smooth Criminal and Dangerous. The next song on that mix is Blood on the Dance Floor, which is pretty wicked too and part of his later, less well-known, repertory that deserves a listen. Of course, that doesn't include any ballads; I have a different mix for those and because Jackson's ballads are so amazing, I'm going to take the liberty of cheating and listing five of those as well: Human Nature, Smile, Stranger in Moscow, Earth Song (not really sure this counts as a ballad) and Speechless. Really, if you haven't listened to Michael Jackson beyond Thriller and Bad, you're missing out on a tremendous amount of amazing music.

Monday, September 22, 2014


This Sunday at 8pm, Vocamus Press will be holding their annual Book Bash in the eBar, a chance to celebrate, meet, and learn more about the literary community of Guelph. Book Bash 2014 will also be the launch event for The Rhapsody Anthology 2014, the annual collection of Guelph poetry and very short prose that Vocamus Press is publishing to increase public awareness of our authors.

The evening will include performances by local spoken word artists and music by Mo’ Kauffey and by The Rolling Blackouts. Former Bookshelfer and host of CFRUs Book's For Breakfast (B4B) Dan Evans will host the bash. Dan and Vocamus co-founder Jeremy Luke Hill pumped each other up with a back-and-forth over email.

DAN EVANS You and the Vocamus team have programmed a little literary festival in September. Many would see this as the territory of the Eden Mills Festival. Are you going for the same crowd, or are you counter programming to that larger, more CanLit festival?

And, also: Book Bash offers audiences a taste of the homegrown literature that is for the most part otherwise hidden. Are you hoping that this event introduces readers to new authors, or is this more a celebration for the writers and their ilk? Isn't there a tension in programming a books- and reading-based social event for readers?

JEREMY LUKE HILL Book Bash is less a literary festival than a party for the books that Guelph authors have written. Where Eden Mills is interested in Canadian literature, Book Bash is interested in Guelph writing of all kinds and genres. Where Eden Mills targets the traditional literary crowd, Book Bash wants to engage the community of Guelph, even people who wouldn't usually think of themselves as interested in literature. Book Bash is about building community through local books.

We do hope to introduce local readers to new authors, of course, but we also hope to introduce authors to other authors, readers to other readers, authors to their readers, authors to publishers, publishers to readers, and so forth. We believe that a robust literary community or literary public is comprised of readers and writers and publishers of all kinds.  We're trying to make those elements aware of each other so that they can push each other to read, write, and publish better.

As a counter question - truthfully - what did you think when I first sat down on B4B and described our project? It seemed nebulous even to me at the time (it still does in some ways), and I often wondered what impression our first fumbles at self-definition made on people.

DE You have a nice speaking voice. There's a bit of gravel to its texture. (Is sonic texture called "Timbre"?) When you first joined me in studio on a Thursday morning Books for Breakfast broadcast, I thought: Neat dude. I bought into your promise of literary industry; I wholly expected to see the fruits of your musings, both in books built and distributed, and community gathered around the web portal. I believe in you, man.

I also thought: I don't really want to read many of those books you're describing. I was interested to tour through the titles you'd published, and to sip at the bios of the authors you were supporting, but it was a pretty slim roster at that time (I think it was your own book; your mother-in-law's poems; and one of John's books...?). I'm not proud of that voice, but that's me aiming for a "true" snapshot of what I thought. You also lost me a bit with the technical details of your layout software.

Keep in mind, I comfortably label myself a book nerd. And not with the cool parts of nerdery. It's amazing to rally a gaggle of like-acting people around any activity. I commend a bunch of fiction writers in a terrestrial room, over booze and snacks, for coming together to be at least slightly vulnerable with one another. Seeking the vulnerable moment of asking for honest feedback, and mining it for useable advice. You run with a brave set. No wonder books get made.

The allure of writing for me is the quiet, lonely epiphany of creation that offers answers to general confusion. When I'm with other people, I'm distracted from my own strange flow of questions and worry. But I don't think I could be a full-time writer, because, though I fantasize about it, I've never accepted how hard it is to be alone for long periods of time with those worries and questions.

How do you do manage?

JLH I'm really amused by the account of your reaction, and I think it's how many people react -- 1) cool idea, 2) not so sure about your catalogue yet, 3) please don't try to explain that whole LaTeX deal. We're working on number two, and I'm learning not to bring number three up in the first place.

The contrast you're describing between the solitary act of writing and the communal act of writerly conversation is an important one I think, and I would add to it a third category as well, the taking on of a public writerly persona. I find that managing these different roles is a major hurdle for many writers. Some occupy the persona very well -- they read interestingly in public, relate well to readers, and so forth, but really struggle to do the work of writing, even if they have some talent there. Some are by nature more solitary -- they are disciplined writers, often quite productive, but find speaking in public frightening and talking with readers uncomfortable. The transition between solitary writer and public author is one that many people find difficult. 

This is why I think writerly conversation is so important (though it can also be difficult for the reasons that you mention). Ongoing conversation with a community provides resources for writers both to write and to engage the public better. So John can (and often does) offer me advice on a particular passage I've written or on my writing process in general (though I often ignore him), while Valerie can (and did) offer to help me with the performance aspects of my reading (which I confess are deeply lacking). This kind of community takes vulnerability -- a willingness to speak truthfully and a determination not to be offended -- but I think the benefits are very much worth the effort.

Your last comment, about being alone with difficult questions, touches on the reason that I think writing (and other arts also) are so important (more so perhaps than ever), because in a culture that is increasingly dominated by technologies that demand our time and our attention, there is less and less time for quiet and solitude and reflection on any questions, never mind the difficult ones. To the extent that the creation and enjoyment of art forces us to make space for this kind of reflection, the artist plays a vital role in keeping us human, coming to occupy almost alone the role that also used to be played by the priest and the elder.

This is my complaint with much contemporary literature, that it does not seem to come out of serious and sustained reflection, out of real wresting with the problem of being human.  It is not moral in the sense that John Gardner talks about "moral fiction", as a kind of writing that never lets go of the questions troubling the human experience. 

I could get way more philosophical here, but I won't, because the format of the conversation doesn't have the space for it, but it leads me to a question I want to ask of you -- As someone with experience in a range of bookish roles (The Bookshelf, PS Guelph, Books for Breakfast), how do you see the cultural role of books developing, and how could we at Vocamus contribute to that role best in a local context?

DE Thanks for your generous answers. It's late on a Sunday, and I've been procrastinating with my answer because you've softly sucker-punched me. (Sucker-nudged?) I'm feeling cautious. These are the moments I retreat into style, so permit me to introduce (or forgive me for doing it) headers:

Public Writerly Persona
This is good. Thanks for bringing this up. Writerly Persona is tough because it can be the thing that alienates a reader. Inasmuch as a reader is a non-writer. The writerly persona can come off as attractive, but also pompous, and condescending. Maybe part of your role through the Vocamus community is to work on helping create a readerly persona in prospective readers. The total protein of a literary community must rely as much on readership (the rice, if you will) as it does on writers (the beans, no doubt).

And so maybe Vocamus is a laboratory and a workshop for the development of a healthy Writerly Persona in its members.

Performance Aspects
A good literary reading is rare. A good book launch is less rare, and there are things that can be done to make a launch exciting and nourishing, even if the reading is poor, or mediocre. Forms of interactivity with the audience like moderated Q&As, or facilitated conversations. Game show stuff. A small crowd gathers for various reasons to honour a book's existence, and the stage is perfectly set to introduce the readers to one another, in order that they might share, criticize, negate, argue, and enthuse collectively.

Literary readings could stop aspiring to affect audiences the way cinema does. No need for post-event introspection. The lighting isn't as low at a reading, and there's beer instead of popcorn and skittles.

Determination not to be offended
I'm with you. The skin thickened against editorial suggestion. A good tool for all artists. And at the same time, I feel like "being offended" is the perfect state for the artist to exist within. It might just drive a writer back to the keyboard, to attack that moral question you're rightly pointing to. I think offense is one of the rich conditions for an artist when it comes to serious reflection about the human experience.

The Cultural Role of Books
Geez. This is the sucker-nudge, right here.

What can I say? I want people to have access to the wildness, the mind-expansion, the language blooms, the strangeness, the affirmation and the permission that I've been privileged enough to experience through books and stories. I still believe in the book ("the codex", whatever,) as an inspiring and effective information technology. Books can be so good with mood, voices, safe quandaries, and salvos (among so many other things); and they are such pleasures to the senses, on top. (I smell books, and hear them, besides touching and seeing them.)

You Vocamus folks are waving a bright flag, and peeing in the appropriate corners -- I'd say you're already doing the job you should do: rally the troops; sharpen the skates; unpurple the prose; and engage the masses... one thoughtful book, one inclusive event, one true engagement at a time.

Monday, September 8, 2014


Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste was released in 2007, the 52nd book in the 33 1/3 Series. Up to that point, the series had produced in-depth, fairly straightforward biographies of classic albums. With its funny, thoughtful, wonderfully unironic look at Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love, as well as the people who loved and loathed the album, Wilson's slim exploration made a great guide for anyone seriously interested in navigating a popular culture rife with cynicism and hyperbole. This spring, Wilson’s book was reissued in a new and expanded edition (resubtitled Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste), flushed out with another book’s worth of essays penned by contributors from all walks of culture.

Along with Sean Michaels, author of Us Conductors, and musicians Scott Merritt, Sandro Perri, and Jeff Bird, Carl will kick of this year’s Eden Mills Writers’ Festival with “Taste and Transmission.” Bookseller Brad de Roo will help out with the night’s conclusive Golden Throats Karaoke and chatted some with Carl in advance of the whole deal.

BRAD: There has been some recent talk of Céline Dion retiring indefinitely to focus on some family issues. Despite the sad circumstances, this undoubtedly comes as good news to some people. What do you feel about it?

CARL: I think that what's really going on is her husband René's illness - given their age difference this moment was always going to come. But I have no doubt she'll come back and be back for a good long time to come, and I wouldn't wish anything else. Not to be morbid, but if he does pass away, there is a part of me that wonders how that will effect her work. He's been such a Svengali-like, near-father-figure, and I can't help wonder what she might explore absent his influence. But of course I don't wish that on her and her children. You can't spend such a long time thinking about someone without developing an attachment and fondness, so I want only the best for Céline, personally and musically. 

If you wrote the book today would you choose a different musician to defend from virulent criticism? Are there currently popular artists unfairly loathed to the extent that Céline was then, and maybe, still is?

Things are a little more fractured in pop culture now than they were in the 90s, so there are fewer figures capable of drawing widespread scorn. People who don't like certain kinds of pop can more easily avoid them. That said, a few years ago I might have answered Nickelback. But those jokes have died down, and a book about Nickelback would be more about the death of rock than about the kinds of taste questions that preoccupy Let’s Talk About Love. One could also choose some teen-pop diva, à la Katy Perry, and talk about the history of disrespect for those figures, even though they've always been part of the driving force of pop music. But actually that's so true right now that I think it's more widely recognized, and they are in less need of defense than usual.

I guess part of the point is that there is no such thing as a "right" assessment in pop culture, or even in culture generally - that our diversity of perceptions is a good thing, and that respecting each other's affections is more productive than attacking them. 

How important is a direct dialogue of disagreement between critics in a healthy critical climate? In your book, you write a lot about the lack of balance with which critics often assess popular music. Historically, critics of the arts have been quite caustic in their assessments of each other.

Today there is a bit of that echo-chamber effect, where critics - because there are more of us than ever, if you count non-pro's and semi-pro's - tend to follow and dialogue more with the like-minded. But there are also huge pile-ons, such as the two recent ones against Ted Gioia for his columns on poptimism and critics' supposedly deficient musical knowledge. I agreed with everyone that he was wrong, but also thought the reaction ran to excess, as Internet reactions tend to do. 

So I don't think there's much danger that the conversation is at an end. I don't think disagreement needs to be artificially stimulated. 

I included the response essays in the new edition because there has been a lot of dialogue sparked by the book, positive and negative, but a lot of it has happened in kind of specialized forums where a general audience wouldn't see. So I wanted to share that part of the book's life and my experience with readers, particularly where I thought there were reactions and extensions that filled out gaps in my own original argument - which, after all, ended with a call for more democratic conversation and respectful disagreement.  

Those supplemental essays collect a wide-range of authors, academics, musicians and other artists including Nick Hornby, Krist Novoselic, Owen Pallett, James Franco, and Sheila Heti. How conscious was the decision to include a combination of critics and artists? Have you been especially tempted to respond to any of the essays, whether to counter or extend certain arguments?

Partly I wanted to include artists' reactions as an indirect response to people who've told me that my whole argument, and really by extension criticism in general, is neurotic over-worrying, that no real people and certainly no musicians ever bother with these ridiculous questions. Experience has told me otherwise, that critics and artists are in many ways often thinking about the same issues. I also think criticism can be an art - and traditionally many people have done both. The hyper-separation of the two is a kind of recent fetish. 

Initially I thought that I might respond to some of the essayists' points in my afterword, but in the end I didn't feel the need to. I was happy to let them stand. There was no shortage of "my say" in the book already. There are extensions of some of their points in that concluding essay, though, whether directly or by implication.

Do you think there could ever be a time when music releases are packaged with critical assessments in this nearly phenomenological manner, or would this be a conflict of interest that breaks a critical code of disinterest (financially or aesthetically speaking)?

Some music releases are packaged with critical commentary - reissues, box sets, etc. And even new albums have press releases that are frequently written by critics commissioned by artists or labels. In the vinyl days this was even more common - look at sixties jazz and folk records in particular, with back-cover essays that are far beyond blurbs, but often mini-biographies and interpretations. But generally I think it's better for people to form their own initial reactions and then turn to the critics for context and consideration. No matter how good they were, those back-cover essays (like today's press releases) end up being part of marketing instead of criticism - and they also pre-empt spontaneous reactions from listeners, and thus overdetermine the framework for subsequent discussion. (So much bad criticism paraphrases the press release.) Criticism is instantaneous enough now online, but at least there it's multivarious.  

Daphne A. Brooks’ essay “Let’s Talk About Diana Ross,” which discussed the concept of ‘American Schmaltz’ in the genealogy of African-American pop music sent me on an investigative Diana Ross playlist-assembling kick to see how the author’s observations were embodied in sound. I was left with two outwardly pressing questions: a) Does ‘schmaltz’ (perhaps you could give a small definition?) look markedly different in the unique cultural diversity of Canada?; b) Someone following Brooks’ field of inquiry could write an amazing book about Prince, no?

Daphne's is one of my favourite contributions to the book. To correct you a little bit, she talks about "African-American schmaltz" in particular - most of the schmaltz I discuss is American too. (Quick definition: Schmaltz is music of a particularly over-the-top, lush, heart-tugging sentimentality, often calling back to music of the past, whether for mass or niche-audience appeal. Arguably a subset of cheese, or perhaps just its own greasy-foodstuff family.) But she is counterbalancing my claim that schmaltz tends to be an ethnic-immigrant product in the Americas, pointing out to me that this is true only if you're looking for particular flavours - i.e. there are WASP schmaltzes and black schmaltzes, too, but they differ from the Euro-schmaltz (Irish, Italian, French, Jewish, Polish etc.) that I focus on - which probably does have to do with my Canadian biases. 

Prince? Maybe, sure, yes. He has his romantic power ballads just as white metal bands do. I'd love someone to write a whole book on African-American schmaltz. Especially if it were Daphne. 

Speaking of amazing books, real and hypothetical, what would you suggest as essential reading for music-minded customers of the Bookshelf? Noting the fact that you will be sharing the stage at the e-Bar with recent novelist Sean Michaels, can you suggest any favourite musical fictions? Does fiction offer a timbre of critical musical exploration different from more traditional essayistic criticism?

The books question is a little too broad for me to manage right now, but I'll combine it with the fiction question, because yes, I think fiction is a great way of showing how music fits into lives, characters, histories in a way that a lot of criticism doesn't (though I would not say it can't): Along with Sean's book, for example, I'd recommend Geoff Dyer's book about jazz, But Beautiful; Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man; Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad; John Darnielle's novella in the 33 1/3 series, Master of Reality; several of Jonathan Lethem's recent books (Fortress of Solitude and Dissident Gardens), and Nick Hornby's High Fidelity and Juliet, Naked of course; the 2011 novel Charles Jessold,Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stacie (aka the singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding); Nathaniel Mackey's "Bedouin Hornbook" series of books of poems; Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia ... There are so many others I'm sure I'll think of in ten minutes. 

Guelph often describes itself as a music town. Do you have any distinct musical impressions of the city?

Guelph has a great musical sensibility, rooted a bit in the local folk-songwriting scene whose children and their friends went on to make rock bands - a communal, bohemian, exuberant, but poetic, handmade and patient aesthetic that really influenced everything that happened in Toronto in the early 2000s. And I am a very frequent visitor to the Guelph Jazz Festival, that surprising cauldron for a daring open listening you don't expect to find in a small town.

“Taste and Transmission” will involve some Golden Throats Karaoke presented by local musician Jenny Mitchell. What are your thoughts on karaoke? Do you have some patented power-ballads? I have co-hosted with Jenny a number of times, and have been consistently surprised by the number of moving performances I have witnessed, whether I like the song being interpreted or not. There can be something very charming about someone finding her voice for the first time in front of a supportive audience.

Karaoke is fantastic participatory music culture. I am a hesitant and only-after-five-drinks karaoke singer. There's a lot more to be said about it, but for that you might want to check out the fine music memoirist Rob Sheffield's Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke. (Although his earlier Love is a Mixtape would be my first recommendation.)

Tickets for "Taste and Transmission" are for sale in the bookstore. Scoop up all the event details and participant info HERE.


Sunday, September 7, 2014


I gallop’d, Dirck gallop’d, we gallop’d all three 

This line from Robert Browning’s How They Brought the Good Newsfrom Ghent to Aix has stayed with me for years. It releases feelings of glee and freedom which I can’t really explain. Must have something to do with metre. But this state also accompanied me on my reading of The Children Act by Ian McEwan. Could it have been the fact that I gallop’d through the book in one day? Can’t remember doing that for at least 40 years. What a pleasure.

Our hero, Fiona, is a very successful 60 year old family court judge who is serious and sophisticated, hardworking and philosophical. Of course, she lives in McEwan`s stomping ground, London, and has many McEwanesque interests and habits – classical music, reading, love of food and alcohol, socio-political awareness and an interesting ironic detachment from her life with her husband.

The book opens with Fiona mulling over a case that demands an almost immediate decision from her. An almost-18 year old young man who is a Jehovah Witness will die unless given a transfusion. He is refusing and his family supports his choice. Had he been 18 there would be no issue, but the hospital has appealed to the courts because he is not yet an adult. Fiona decides to visit him in the hospital to probe his state of mind. She comes across a very unusual and erudite young man who challenges her mores and her station in life. McEwan understands how chance compromises or enhances life and Fiona really shines as a full -fledged philosophical character. In other words, there`s a lot going on inside!

Over- or underlying everything that is happening to Fiona in those few crucial days is the admission from her husband that he is urgently in need of consummating an affair. Whew, a few very stressful pages ensue and her reaction is surprisingly unbecoming. For a few months Fiona lives a very rational and robotic life while she and her husband navigate a new reality. Very painful and so guilelessly truthful. But then something else happens to rock her world (you’ll have to find out for yourself) and, because McEwan is such a master builder, it rocks our world, too...

We gallop’d all three.

- Barb

Friday, September 5, 2014


In the summer of 2014, which marks the 35th anniversary of the 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, two Canadian writers embarked on a conversation about their memories of Sandinista Nicaragua in the 1980s. Carrie Snyder is the author of The Juliet Stories (Anansi, 2012), a collection of linked stories that recount the narrator’s childhood experiences in Sandinista Nicaragua; her new novel, Girl Runner (Anansi, 2014), is about a revolution of a different sort, charting the course of a groundbreaking (fictional) Canadian athlete. Stephen Henighan has published many short stories set in Latin America, and is the author of the recent non-fiction title Sandino’s Nation: Ernesto Cardenal andSergio Ramírez Writing Nicaragua, 1940-2012 (McGill-Queen’s, 2014). Their discussion explored their different experiences with and commitments to Nicaragua from the 1980s to the present day—experiences that proved powerful, and perhaps even life-changing.

This is their conversation:

CARRIE SNYDER: I lived in Nicaragua as a child in 1984 and 1985 during the Contra War, and also the first election post-revolution, which was won by the FSLN, better known as the Sandinistas. My parents worked as peace activists for an American group called Witness for Peace, and I remember it as a very exciting time and place. We seemed to be surrounded by people who were wildly optimistic about the future of this country, though when I think of it, few were Nicaraguans—like us, they’d come from other countries, mostly the United States, to support the Sandinistas’ socialist ideals (which was not, I’d argue although Ronald Reagan would have disagreed, the same as supporting the Communist cause) and to expose the misery being caused by both covert and overt American foreign policy. It was a complicated time, politically. Yet it seemed simple to me, as a child.

Tell me a bit about yourself. How did you come to be in Nicaragua during that time? When were you there? How long did you stay? Where did you live and what specifically did you do while you there?

STEPHEN HENIGHAN:  Like you, I got to Nicaragua via the USA. I think I’m about a dozen years older than you. I’m pretty sure my Nicaragua obsession would not have developed if I hadn’t left my home in the Ottawa Valley to do my undergrad work in Pennsylvania. I was already fascinated by Latin America, so I had read about the Nicaraguan Revolution in an Ottawa newspaper, but when I got to my college, Nicaragua was one of the two or three hot campus issues. It was on the front page of the New York Times every day. I fell in with a group of like-minded students, who were supported by activist profs. We learned everything about the Sandinistas: we knew all the debates and the ideological tendencies of the major figures, and read their essays or speeches or fiction or poetry. I came to the revolution through a mixture of literature and campus activism. I helped invite prominent Central Americans to campus (many were denied visas to enter the U.S.) and organized marches on Washington, D.C. to protest Reagan’s funding of the Contras. Finally, it became obvious that I had to make the trip myself. I went to Nicaragua in early 1984. By this time, I had studied literature and politics in Bogotá, Colombia and spoke fluent Spanish. My political science professor helped me get accredited as a foreign journalist by the Nicaraguan government, even though I had never published any journalism outside the campus newspaper!

I spent time in Managua and in Estelí, in the north. In Managua I encountered the world of optimistic activists that you capture in The Juliet Stories: at rallies there were as many “Sandalistas”—hippie foreign radicals—as Nicaraguans. But the north was different. Very poor people there told me that thanks to the Sandinistas they had food and a house and health care and their children were learning to read. At the same time, the Contra War was much closer. You could see the hills where the fighting was happening. Another important event during my stay was my discovery of the Sandinistas’ policy of  making books available to all at low prices. In Managua, I went to poetry readings by writers like Carlos Martínez Rivas and Gioconda Belli. I bought my first copies of books by Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramírez, the two writers whose careers form the narrative of Sandino’s Nation.

CARRIE:  Our family also travelled north, to Estelí, Ocotal, and to Jalapa, even going to the Honduran border, a rural road essentially, where I remember putting my fingers into bullet holes left in trees from recent fighting. My Spanish was not yet very strong, but I had the distinct sense that the Nicaraguans whose homes we were visiting were nervous to have us there, and that we were being watched. That was the only time our parents took us that far north. We would stay in the homes of nuns or houses rented by Witness for Peace when we travelled, so even in places like Jinotega and Chinandega, I was surrounded by Americans or other ex-pats.

Did you work as a journalist while in Nicaragua during that time? How long did you live there, or did you leave and return over a period of years? Did your opinions change during your time in Nicaragua?

STEPHEN:  With my journalist’s card from the Sandinista government, I was able to attend debates at the National Assembly and interview whoever I liked. I did lots of interviews, including one with the Minister of Education, Fernando Cardenal. Unfortunately, I was still a really bad journalist. None of my articles got published. As often happens, I processed the experience better through fiction. Years later I wrote three short stories about the ideological contradictions of foreigners in Nicaragua that appeared in my first collection, Nights in the Yungas.

In fact, I was only in Nicaragua for about two and a half weeks in 1984. It seemed like much longer because my daily engagement with the country, in my reading, in my activism, in my discussions with friends, extended over the whole decade. I arrived there with a lot of prior knowledge: everything I saw seemed significant, from slogans to bullet-holes in walls to the profiles of the volcanoes and the smells that blew in off the lake. My impressions from that visit are indelible. I had lived in Bogotá, Colombia, a chilly, repressed, conservative society riven by civil war, where people trembled at the sight of a man in uniform. Nicaragua’s tropical exuberance blew me away. I gaped at the sight of young women in uniform necking with civilian boyfriends on street corners, of ordinary people chatting in a friendly way with soldiers on the country buses that I rode, of peasants lecturing me on their political opinions rather than remaining hunched and fearful. The only place where people seemed more muted was on a cooperative I visited near Estelí. I wasn’t surprised to learn, years later, that the cooperativization of agriculture had lost the Sandinistas supporters among peasants who had been hoping to receive private plots of land.

Sandinista mural in Estelí
After I left, a lot of my friends went for shorter or longer stays, so I continued to feel like I was in touch through their reports and anecdotes By 1990, when the Sandinistas were defeated, I was living in Montreal. I felt as though an essential element of my imaginative universe had dissolved. I couldn’t imagine “returning” to Nicaragua because in my mind there was no longer a Nicaragua, as I had known it, to return to.

I guess it’s time to talk about post-1990 return visits to Nicaragua. When did you first go back?

CARRIE: We must have overlapped in Nicaragua in 1984, Stephen. My family stayed for 14 months, a length of time that was significant, but yet did not seem long enough to explain the intensity of the hold that time and place had on me. In retrospect, it seemed like I got to experience the excitement of a post-revolutionary environment while escaping the terror in the campo, the grief, the letdown, the encroaching cynicism and doubt. I think I still feel guilty about that. It was something I struggled with while researching and writing The Juliet Stories. I remember watching military vehicles leave from outside our school in Managua, loaded with teenagers—students—who were being taken north to help harvest the coffee crop, very dangerous work due to regular Contra incursions into that area. The students were singing pro-Sandinista songs and seemed excited, but I don’t think they had a choice. This is exactly the kind of consequence of the revolution from which I was exempt, and would have been no matter my age, by virtue of my American citizenship; but those young people weren’t. It was sobering, even at the time.

I returned to Nicaragua as a university student for a term as part of my Peace & Conflict Studies coursework, fall 1994, and lived with a pro-Sandinista family in a relatively poor barrio of Managua, and volunteered at a nearby community centre. Arnold Alemán was then mayor of Managua, already known for his corruption. The country was struggling terribly from the effects of World Bank and IMF-imposed cuts, and it was not the same country I remembered, at all. I was often depressed by what I saw. But, then, I was also 19, and still strongly attached to my youthful idealism and beliefs. When an older man I met in the countryside expressed nostalgia for the rule of Somoza, I was shocked. But his family had lost land in the revolution—why shouldn’t he have been nostalgic for their former wealth?

In 2006, I travelled there again to research The Juliet Stories, and things had changed yet again, as the country opened up to tourists, surfers, backpackers. A large modern mall had been built in Managua, and luxury vacation spots were being developed on the west coast, although it still felt wild and off the beaten path. I was travelling with small children, and I felt safe. (I’ve always felt safe there, come to think of it.) I haven’t been back since.

What has your ongoing connection been to Nicaragua, post-1990? How often have you been back? Do you think that brief but intense immersion in 1984 changed the course of your own life, work, and research?

STEPHEN:   I think one of the choices I’m most grateful I made in my life is that I actually went to Nicaragua during the Sandinista years. Even though my exposure was pitifully short by comparison with yours, my stay cemented my commitment to the country, giving it a place in my emotional life that was more grounded and meaningful  than the place one reserves for foreign causes that one supports without personal exposure to the country. This helped me realize the importance of getting past long-distance fascinations with faraway countries and engaging with the world more fully. This in turn led to various crazed trips to other countries in subsequent years. Going to Nicaragua also made me realize how different Central America was from South America, where I’d studied. I became a bit of a Central America fanatic. Between 1994 and 2003, I visited Guatemala several times. I did doctoral research there, wrote short stories set in the country and later coordinated a semester abroad in Antigua for University of Guelph students.

Sandino statue.
Yet I didn’t return to Nicaragua. The idea of encountering it as simply another downtrodden Central American country, rather than as one of my imaginative touchstones and a place that offered hope, was unbearable. I finally rode into northern Nicaragua on a bus from Honduras in February 2006. One of the first things I saw was a pole on a deserted hilltop that flew the shredded remnants of  a red-and-black Sandinista flag. It was as though the country was warning me that I’d better face the reality of how it had changed. When I arrived in Managua and walked down the street from the Ticabus station, the wind took me by surprise: the same dry evening wind I remembered from 1984; it still dragged leaves down the streets and rained twigs and fruit on metal roofs. I realized some things didn’t change. Like you I was startled by Nicaragua’s conversion into a backpacker and surfer dude hangout. I went to the Granada Poetry Festival, an experience that turned into an article for The Walrus. I taped long interviews with Sergio Ramírez and Ernesto Cardenal. By this time I knew I was going to write a book, though the shape of it wasn’t clear. The transcripts of my interviews became crucial to Sandino’s Nation. I stayed for a month and visited places I hadn’t been before: León, Granada, the Pacific Coast. No one knew it at the time, but the sixteen years of right-wing rule were about to end. I was put off by the tacky commercialism. I loathed the Metrocentro shopping mall that Arnaldo Alemán had built to give Managua a “modern” core; yet Ernesto Cardenal’s statue of Sandino on the Tiscapa Mound that overlooked Managua remained intact, suggesting that some nugget of the revolution endured. I met 19-year-old backpackers who didn’t know that Nicaragua had ever had a revolution, and anti-Sandinista older Nicaraguans who had come back from Miami after 1990. My conversations with both groups were fractious, but after this visit I knew I wouldn’t hesitate to return again.

My most recent visit was a three-week trip in November and early December of 2013. By this time, Sandino’s Nation was into final edits and I wanted to make sure I hadn’t got anything wrong. I went to regions I hadn’t visited: the Atlantic Coast, the San Juan River, the Solentiname Archipelago, a few places in the far north. I sent in corrections to my editor from internet cafés in the jungle. I did a couple of last-minute interviews. When I met travellers who had been in Nicaragua in the 1980s, they seemed ancient, making me wonder whether I now seemed ancient to others.

The biggest change in the country was that Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader from the 1980s, had been re-elected to the presidency at the end of 2006, then elected again, with a bigger majority, in 2011. His party was still called the FSLN, but now it was a populist machine that nobody expected to bring dramatic change. I was troubled by how 1980s revolutionary slogans were being recycled even though globalization had ruled out “revolution” as a political option. Some FSLN members too young to remember the 1980s were under the illusion that they were participating in decisive social change that simply was not happening. Since the writers whose stories I was telling in my book had been important figures in the revolutionary government of the 1980s, who had then split from the FSLN in 1995, I arrived in the country very influenced by their critical view of the Ortega regime. I have to admit that, in spite of my horror at the potential environmental carnage that Ortega’s project of building a trans-isthmian canal will wreak, I left Nicaragua with a more nuanced outlook. Ortega re-established free education and health care, both of which the right had abolished after 1990; he spread electricity into rural areas and provided free seeds and chickens to poor peasants. In contrast to Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador, narcos, gangs and random violence felt far away. Except for Managua after dark, nowhere seemed excessively dangerous. In recent weeks I’ve been thinking about how the Central American children who are now fleeing for the U.S. border come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—all countries that imitate the U.S. model—but not from Nicaragua, which rejects it. Ortega’s government has betrayed many of the hopes of the 1980s, it is very corrupt and it’s perverted the electoral system. Yet some of the social gains of the 1980s have survived and been consolidated. Overall, Nicaragua is poorer than any of its neighbours, yet the poorest of the poor are in somewhat less dire straits than the poorest Hondurans, Guatemalans or Salvadorans.

By publishing Sandino’s Nation, I feel I’ve latched a part of myself to Nicaragua in perpetuity. Though it’s a scholarly book, it’s also a way of assessing and acknowledging my youthful allegiances, and even who I am today. And you? Do you think you will go back again? Do your Nicaraguan experiences influence books you write on non-Nicaraguan topics, like your new novel, Girl Runner?

CARRIE: I was troubled when Ortega won again in 2006. It seemed predictable, as you write in Sandino’s Nation, an “inexorable return to immemorial patterns of caudillismo and family dictatorship,” and not what I’d imagined the Sandinistas and the revolution had been about. On the other hand, like you, I’ve been watching the news of Central American children flooding the American border this summer, noticing that they aren’t coming from Nicaragua, and wondering what Ortega has done right, how on earth he’s kept the drug cartels out. Your book fills in a lot of holes for me.

I’ve been reflecting on a few of the points you’ve raised. The first is that you strongly resisted returning to Nicaragua for many years, even while you visited other Central American countries. To my knowledge, my dad has never returned either, although his work took him on many occasions to other Central and South American countries. My mom came along on our 2006 trip, along with one of my brothers, but my other brothers didn’t want to go back either. I’ve often wondered why some of us wanted to return, and others didn’t, or even actively avoided returning. Maybe there are different ways to preserve the past, and one is to prevent it being disturbed or trampled by subsequent experiences. My own version of preservation has been to go back in search of what was, knowing I wouldn’t find it, not literally, but believing I would find something else as transformative. Nicaragua has been a touchstone for me, too.

I would like to go back again. I keep saying that. I’ll wait for the pull.

I have no doubt that time, which still seems almost magical, left an imprint on my work. Probably because I moved often as a child, and lived in unfamiliar cultures, I’m an observer, always reading under the surface, puzzling out the meaning of everything that’s left unspoken. For a long time, I felt ashamed of myself for not being an activist. But I’m just not. I resist ideologies. I’m not rigid about rules. I don’t like being told what to do. I see many sides to one story and rarely assume I’m right. Conflict fascinates me, and I’m not afraid of stepping into it and feeling strong emotions, but only if it serves a purpose: to further connection rather than sever it. For a long time, I worried that I wasn’t doing enough to fight for justice; The Juliet Stories was, in some sense, how I came to terms with that. Girl Runner is what comes next: it’s me at peace with not being an activist. Because all of what makes me a not-very-good activist makes me a better writer. 

And there’s power in stories, too.

Carrie Snyder will be appearing at this year's Eden Mills Writer's Festival, Sunday September 14th. Stephen Henighan will be launching Sandino's Nation in the Greenroom, Tuesday September 16th at 7:30pm.