Friday, June 28, 2013
On Monday, June 24, Nick Saul, author of The Stop, was in Guelph to talk about some of the ideas in his book, which outlines the inspirational story of how he transformed a food bank into a thriving, dynamic community centre. We've posted a review of Nick's book, but here you can view our interview with Nick and the Q&A with Brendan Johnson of the Guelph Neighborhood Support Coalition that followed his presentation. Nick's actual presentation will be posted at a later date.
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
The Faraway Nearby
Barb and I were having lunch the other day, enjoying the sun and the quiet of mid-day, when she threw a book over to me and demanded that I read the first page. It was lovely. It reminded me of Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Teaching a Stone to Talk), and I took the book captive. The book in question is The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, a companion to her acclaimed essay collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost. As I was reading I was mentally tabulating the people I had to mention it to, knowing that it would underscore an experience they had with clear, poetic intimacy. And really, Solnit's book is all about story and connection:
What's your story? It's all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.Take a glance at the table of contents and you can see the arc of experience mapped via whimsical chapter titles: apricots, ice, flights, etc. The book frees Solnit up to slide all over her life, gracefully weaving anecdotes about self-mythologizing--how we make our own realities pasted against the backdrop of geology, or like an ancient Chinese painter's fluid strokes. Really, The Faraway Nearby is a breathtaking meditation on the stupidity and smallness of human concerns and also the brilliance of our cultural creativity. For instance, if you love stories and how integral they are to us, read Solnit's riff on this bad boy:
A sentence by the Marquis de Sade I read when I was young sometimes returns to me: “Ah, what does it matter to her hand, which is always at work creating, that this or that mass of flesh which today constitutes an individual biped may be reproduced tomorrow in the form of a thousand insects?” It mattered to the individual biped, but the exclamation in the form of a question points out that what is ordinarily imagined as disintegration is also, or instead, metamorphosis.There were times reading when I had to ask, sorry, what are we talking about? But it doesn't really matter when writing is this beautiful, this thoughtful. My copy is now swollen with dog-eared pages; there's so much I want to share with those around me.
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis
It’s so easy to be a naysayer, especially when it comes to social movements. I was reminded of that when a friend and I were talking about South Africa recently. He was saying that not much has changed there and I disagreed, saying that solid integration seemed to have happened in the professional classes but that the majority of poor Africans were still trapped in circumstances that were really very miserable.
But sometimes events or people come along that give you hope, and that hope is on many pages of a new book by Nick Saul titled The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement.
Ironically, Saul spent his early years in a number of African countries, where his parents were best friends with anti-apartheid activists Ruth First and Joe Slovo. His parents are still active in social justice movements. In 1998 Saul became executive director of a Toronto urban food bank called The Stop. Unfortunately, food banks have become important for so many people, but from Saul’s perspective his food bank and many others were often housed in substandard places and filled with dented cans and macaroni. His book follows the transformation of The Stop from a place where the people who used it had very little access to the fresh food that we value so much, and which is so important to our health, to a vibrant, dialogue-based community centre where courses on maternal health, gardening, and cooking have changed lives. The Stop is such a great example to the many naysayers among us.
In The Stop we follow Nick around through all of his struggles, and they are many. The fact that he was obsessed with a vision for change and that this vision included dialogue with users, staff, volunteers, funders, and a board of directors shows how much social capital he has. That’s a lot of different people under the umbrella. Change is much more difficult when the people involved are personally invested. Egos often clash. And yet personal investment is quite often what makes something great. The book is full of examples, but to give just one illustration of the pain in change, Saul describes a conflict with a long-time volunteer. For many years this lovely man went around to restaurants and food stores and gathered up end-of-the-day stuff that would be thrown out. When Saul described the change that he envisioned where volunteers, users, and staff of The Stop would be growing their own food, the volunteer became very upset and threatened. He felt unappreciated and stopped coming for a while, but did eventually come back.
Nick Saul will be speaking in Guelph at Hope House on Monday, June 24 at 7:00 p.m. Do not miss this evening. You will hear more about the push back from traditional food banks, his struggle with corporate donations, his continuous inner dialogue (you can’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good), and further tales of all of the wonderful people who have created a sustainable, lively, and loved institution. I’m really looking forward to the evening. Tickets are $5 or pay what you can and are available through The Guelph Neighborhood Support Coalition and at The Bookshelf.
Please check out our picture gallery! In this case a picture really is more fun than a thousand words. Thanks also to Joni Nehrita and King Neptune and His Tridents for getting us all moving and shaking. Watch out for our anniversary Speaker's Corner videos coming soon!
Friday, June 14, 2013
Dads Are the Original Hipsters
You may have read Christy Wampole’s viral NYT article arguing that the irony-drenched nature of hipster culture gives its members a way of dodging the difficult question of how to live an authentic life. Wampole makes a lot of good points. But hipsterism is cool. Those perky wee fedoras, those coke-bottle glasses and massive frames, those ‘staches like unkempt caterpillars dozing in the shade of the hipster’s nose! So defiantly out of style they define style. But can a person be a hipster without being a symbol of postmodern malaise? Sure—there were tons of people who were hipsters sans irony. They’re called dads, and Brad Getty’s hilarious and oddly moving book is the definitive tribute and field guide to them.
It’s been said (by someone with a particularly cruel take on humour) that laughter is always laughter at someone. And that’s true in Getty's book, but the butt of the joke here is you, the contemporary cool dude who prowls the thrift shops searching for the trappings of individualism, only to become a pale shade of what your dad didn’t even have to try to be. With glorious original Polaroid photos and razor-wire sharp wit, Getty shows how in their day dads dripped attitude like trees drop leaves or cats shed fur—without even thinking about it.
Getty explores the original hipsters in all their glory, from beards to tube socks to BBQs to being apathetic, and, to add to the pleasure, he puts them side-by-side with their contemporary incarnations. Like bow ties? “Your dad kept it crisp in bowties before you did and can still tie a knot so fresh that it would choke the pot smoke out of your throat to prove it.” Into skateboarding? “Next time you’re rolling down the bike lane of some hipster neighborhood in SF, Portland, or New York, remember this…Your dad was so awesome the things he did for fun were made illegal in public places.”
The photos in Getty’s book will make you intensely nostalgic, and the prose will provoke howls of laughter. So for Father’s Day this year, give your dad the ultimate gift. Give him the last laugh.
ps For more nostalgia, check out Getty's Dads Are the Original Hipsters site--it's great! But you don't want to give your dad a URL for Father's Day, do you?
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
To get one thing out of the way at once: no, this book has absolutely nothing to do with drugs. It’s likely you haven’t heard about Stoner even though 1) The New York Times Book Review said it was “something rarer than a great novel—it is a perfect novel” 2) It has nearly 4,000 reviews on Goodreads with an average rating of 4.3/5, and 3) Tom Hanks gave it a shout-out as a favourite read in a recent Time magazine article, saying that “It’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher. But it’s one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across.” There’s no coordinated promotional tsunami building around the novel, but anyone with antennae reaching into the book world over the last little while has been picking up vibrations about it from a hundred different corners.
Written in 1965 and re-released by the New York Review of Books in 2003, John Williams’s novel tells the story of William Stoner, a poverty-stricken Missouri farm boy born at the end of the nineteenth century. Hemmed in by circumstances, Stoner expects to follow in his parents’ soil-stained footsteps, but when he goes to university for training in agriculture he unexpectedly falls in love with literature and eventually ends up as an English professor. But against this rags-to-robes narrative Williams presents the various vicissitudes Stoner is subject to—a tragically unhappy marriage, the death of friends and students in two world wars, an ill-fated love affair, and the grinding battle of academic politics.
I’ve been immersed in a bunch of contemporary writers lately, particularly David Foster Wallace and Roberto Bolaño, so Stoner’s spare, traditional narrative style seems defiant, almost radical to me. After all, Williams was writing at the same time that Pynchon, Fowles, and Vonnegut were exploding the boundaries of the novel’s structure and style, and as a professor of English himself at the University of Denver and a National Book Award-winning author, he must have been aware of the daring literary experimentalism of his time. But Williams demonstrates the strengths of those older storytelling techniques, using his all-knowing narrator to dig deep into the psychology of his protagonist and examine his responses to the sometimes insurmountable barriers life presents to him.
And perhaps there is something radical after all in Williams’s choice of a protagonist who is so unassuming, whose heroism in the face of crises that are mundane and yet profoundly damaging is so restrained and unregarded that only Stoner and the reader really know about it—and maybe only the reader at that, since Stoner hardly regards himself as remarkable in any way. In Middlemarch George Eliot famously wrote that “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Given that most of us live lives where our virtues, happiness, and suffering aren’t the stuff of big-screen blockbusters, it’s especially nourishing to read a story about a person who makes his way through a life of quiet desperation by drawing on a hidden bounty of quiet courage.
Monday, June 3, 2013
If you had thought that you were coming to a movie about the daily drama of a strip club, you would have been disappointed. This was about the reality of life for the Cohen family: the battles they fought running the Manor, an adult entertainment complex, and the normal power dynamics that we all confront inside our own families, but taken to extreme limits. The main characters—the father Roger Cohen, the mother Brenda Cohen, the two brothers Shawney and Sammy—were so relaxed in front of the camera and so brutally honest and articulate that I cannot imagine finding any professionals who could have done a more credible job.
|Shawney and Roger Cohen and film producer Paul Scherzer|
Roger Cohen has been running the Manor since 1985. He is addicted to eating and is so overweight that we even get to accompany him on his stomach-stapling operation. He is also very bossy and opinionated. On the other hand, he runs Sue’s Inn, which provides temporary shelter to people with addictions. His big dream is to develop the land around the Manor into subsidized housing. Brenda Cohen is a devoted mother with a severe eating disorder who is consumed with providing meals for her family. Sammy, the younger brother, is the natural heir to the manor, as he seems to love business, fast cars, and beautiful women. Shawney, the oldest brother and director of the movie, is a tender and philosophical person who stole my heart as soon as I met him.
Food and control, addictions and compulsions: we all have them to various degrees, and they are all alive and in your face throughout the whole movie. I can’t recommend this documentary enough. Some of the most poignant parts for me were the stresses involved in running a business and working with your family. The business really becomes an extra sibling, as the Cohens and the Minetts can both attest to.
The After-Party at the Manor
Shawney invited people from the screenings to the Manor for the after-party, so we headed down just after 10:00. There weren’t too many people there yet but we were amazed by a couple of things: the place is very clean and there were a lot of professional exotic dancers. The service was excellent, and we sat enjoyed our drinks while taking in the ambiance and the crowd. A friend who went to the screening with me is a lighting designer for live theatre, and she thought that the lighting and décor and promo for the movie were pretty impressive.
Roger came and sat with us for a while. He is a very friendly man. He was thrilled that The Manor had opened Hot Docs and said that they were getting calls from around the world to attend festivals. Oliver Stone had called recently. I asked him how the making of the movie had affected the family's relationships. He said that he is closer to his son now than he was before the movie. They really got to know each other. He said that his son didn’t care about money and was a real artist. When I asked him why Shawney was so sweet he said, “He’s just like his mother.”
Shawney arrived with lots of people just before eleven and the place was lively and full. Of course Brenda had an incredible feast laid out for all of her guests and everyone was taking part with gusto. On our way out I thanked them both and told Brenda that she looked well and that her son’s documentary was very powerful. She smiled very ethereally and said, “Thank you.” Roger has lost weight and Brenda has gained weight since the movie has been released. They both looked very proud.
For another view on The Manor, see Andrew's blog on the movie. And you can check out a video of Shawney's introduction and Q&A for the film below: