Sunday, January 25, 2015


I was looking for another Irish writer after finishing the incomparable Tana French when I read Ian Rankin quoted as saying that Adrian Mckinty “blew my doors off.” That was good enough for me so I ordered Mckinty’s The Troubles Trilogy and enjoyed many cold January nights in the company of Sean Duffy, a Catholic cop working for the Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary in 80s Belfast. Not just a bit of cognitive dissonance here.

Mckinty blew Rankin’s doors off not just because he has to check under his car for explosives each time he drives but because he has created a complex, sophisticated loner (as all good detectives are) who is just trying to make the world a better place but keeps on stepping on the wrong toes.

And the wrong toes are everywhere in Northern Ireland in the 80s. There are so many factions, rules and regulations inside the terrorists (or shall we call them freedom fighters) that it makes Al-Qaeda and Isil (or is it Isis?) almost understandable. I realized very early on that I basically knew nothing about "The Troubles" and appreciated Mckinty’s fictional map of a very fractured land.

In The Cold Cold Ground (Book One) Duffy is tracking down a serial killer of gay men. Homosexuality was illegal in Northern Ireland then and a really big no no for the IRA. I Hear The Sirens in the Street (Book Two) finds Duffy investigating an IRA assassination with ripples in big business and in In The Morning I'll Be Gone (Book Three) Duffy has to find an escaped IRA master bomber who also happens to be an old school friend.

Duffy is a busy guy but when he’s taking time out he listens to opera and reads critical theory. His take on popular culture of the 80s also brings back lots of music and Margaret Thatcher things – very entertaining in hindsight. You’ll find your time with Sean very hard to resist!

- Barb

Monday, January 19, 2015


In Montreal, in the summer of 2005, women were being attacked in my neighbourhood. It was the first time that this stuff that happens all the time was tangibly happening in a place I was. Young and naive (read: a dumb boy), this rash of specific, directed violence only showed up on my radar when it effected me. Walking home after hours, I'd sometimes fall behind a woman on an otherwise empty street. I was just some regular tipsy dude minding his own tipsy business, as the person in front of me was surely minding hers, but suddenly we were snared in a scenario, cast in roles. Behind someone, I felt immediately like a threat, felt perceived to be something I wasn't.

With everyone on high alert that summer, friends of mine were urging me to cross the street if I found myself coming up behind a woman alone. Anyone following them was a potential attacker. But then other friends would insist that, no, whenever a man scurried to the other side of the street, they worried the dude was flanking her. I was to stay where I was, but keep a safe, consistent distance. Whatever my behaviour, I imagined the woman in front of me tensing. I knew I wasn't a threat, but this person didn't. Or maybe she wasn't concerned at all, and the the worry (as it often is) was all just in my head. I was always tempted to call out "Don't worry! I'm one of the good ones!" Except isn't that what one of the ones who wasn't one of the good ones would call out?  

Paranoia, whether it's justified or misplaced, has a way of turning a banal situation into a charged scenario, of turning a regular person in the world into a character in a book. Elisabeth de Mariaffi's The Devil You Know is a tense read, but what sets it apart from most taught thrillers is the nature of its core tension. About Evie Jones, a rookie reporter initially compiling a history of missing girls in Ontario on the cusp of the Bernardo case breaking, this first novel taps into and keeps a hold of the the real-life, palpable fear and doubt created by ambient, cultural paranoia. 

A teenager when the Scarborough Rapist was active, Evie is no stranger to being on high alert. "You think about how scared you can make yourself at night on a dark, lonely street," she remembers about that time, when any girl was a possible victim. "There's a way of listening in the dark that's so intense for girls. You can feel the insides of your ears." As Evie begins to professionally explore the bottomless history of crimes against women, like feelings of being followed and observed begin to creep in. From a thriller narrative standpoint, de Mariaffi brings the alone-and-hearing-things-in-your-house feeling to a slow boil before shifting The Devil You Know into high gear, but -- more importantly -- she uses this build up to establish the reality of crime, of fear.

Early on in the book, Evie and her mother are browsing true crime books at a flea market and, picking up a copy of Helter Skelter, Evie points out: "Here's a stat for you... Women are voracious true crime readers. No word of a lie. Much more so than men." "So," her mother sorts, "the men are doing all the serial killing, but the women are reading about it." Later, mother prompts a conclusion that sits like a lump in the throat of The Devil You Know: "You know why women read that stuff... It's so we learn how to get away."  

It's a gut-bothering ouroboros: sensationalism is based on reality, and we begin to experience and worry about reality based on those sensationalized versions, but then real life is irrefutably sensationalized when the worst kind of real life actually happens to you. This complexity at work in The Devil You Know is never didactic or annoying, but rather de Mariaffi puts such a sure finger on her subject matter that you might need to just lie down on the floor for a few minutes. As one character puts it: "It's an old story... And a sad one."

Of course, de Mariaffi seemingly paints herself into a bit of a corner. The visceral, sad fact of the world we live in -- or, rather, the world we're from time to time forced to inhabit, possibly by the person coming up behind us on an empty street -- is so effectively evoked that the idea of introducing a mystery runs the risk of cheapening or exploiting the real emotion. To go into exactly why this isn't the case would blow a great read, so I'll leave that for you to discover.

The timing might seem prime for the kind of eyes The Devil You Know looks at the world with. With 2014's Ghomeshi and Cosby revelations, and more recently the Dalhousie debacle, it seems like the log's been toed over and the gross, wriggling mess underneath has been exposed. But this misery is not news. Women being on the receiving end of such ceaseless-feeling repugnance is a fact, not news. Like the dummy 20-something I was when women, peers, were being attacked around the corner from me, it took me being even slightly effected to take notice. At the book's outset, Evie is tasked with using the history of damaged and deleted women in Ontario to prove that has been getting worse. "But I wasn't sure that was true," Evie admits. "I'd already learned that I could pick any year, any time, any place, and run a search that included the term 'missing girl' with good success. With the history of national news wide open before you, all you need to do is close your eyes and let your finger fall on a random date."

- Andrew

Sunday, January 4, 2015


In a 2010 piece for Wired, Patton Oswalt declares "I'm not a nerd. I used to be, 30 years ago when nerd meant something." Oswalt goes on to chart his own obsessions growing up, describes his interest in sci-fi and role playing games and the trappings that generally snare kids we think of — or thought of — as nerds. Interests that are not — and here he quotes Poe — "passions from a common spring." But by 2010, everyone was declaring themselves "nerds" and "geeks" and "otaku" — a Japanese word referring to "people who have obsessive, minute interests." Now everyone "considers themselves otaku about something—whether it’s the mythology of Lost or the minor intrigues of Top Chef. American Idol inspires—if not in depth, at least in length and passion—the same number of conversations as does The Wire."

Nerd or geek or otaku or — relevant to us here, as we are talking about Oswalt's new book — fiend are tricky appellations. It's not just the interest that garners the pre-2010 distinction, but the depth of interest. A nerd knows their chosen subjects more thoroughly than the creators. But then the question is begged: what sets a nerd apart from a highly regarded person who likewise fishes passions not from the so-called common stream?

Silver Screen Fiend is ostensibly an addiction memoir, detailing a period of 4 years in the late 90s where seeing as many movies as he could was all Oswalt was living for. But it's also, and fundamentally, a critical and creative coming-of-age story. A young Oswalt begins his addiction under the auspice of education. He'll become a filmmaker and the program at The New Beverly will be his syllabus. The idea is that consumption will eventually turn into production. I won't spoil the book for you, but you can check out the Writer and Director credits on IMDB. But these four years as a fiend also run alongside personal and professional maturation, with Oswalt's stand-up interests getting spun by a scene of "alternative" comedy in LA as well as getting his first job as a writer for MADtv. It's a period where the notion of responsibility begins to creep in — not in any civic sort of way, but creative and intellectual responsibility.

Compulsive consumption of culture can be like eating without tasting. "I... had to learn to look for the moments of substance and impact in the everyday," writes Oswalt, describing a personal pivot. "I was sitting in a minimall Subway having a sandwich one evening, on my way from work to go to Largo, when I read a quote by Italo Calvino: 'seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.'"

Here's the sad fact: when you eat without exercising, you just get fat. (This is a realization Oswalt makes a little too late, as his 4 years of devotion come to a close with the discovery of "shelves" of chub hammered into the wall of him.) Food has little purpose unless it's turned into energy. This is similar with entertainment and media. And perhaps this is when one officially stops being a nerd. What's the point of accruing knowledge for knowledge's sake? Silver Screen Fiend is ultimately about a young Oswalt's transition from a passive experiencer of culture into an active one. Patton burns his intake, turning it into energy as opposed to just hoarding it.

His written voice is recognizably Patton Oswalt here, but it's not a transcription of his stage delivery. On the page, there's a gentleness and earnestness to Oswalt's voice. Untethered from what's usually about five or seven minute bits, his prowess as a nuanced experiencer and long-game connector blossom. His previous book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland went a little ways to distinguish his stand-up from his prose, but Silver Screen Fiend makes some serious threats towards an autonomous career as a man of letters.

- Andrew

Thursday, January 1, 2015


Since 2003, The Eramosa Institute has been holding The Guelph Lecture - On Being Canadian, adding, they say, "a new voice to the ongoing conversation of what it means to be Canadian and what role our country could and should play in a changing world." Past speakers and contributors have included Lee Smolin, John Ralston Saul, Alexandre Trudeau, Tom King, M.G. Vassanji, Sheila Heti, and Eleanor Wachtel. This year's keynote lecture will be given by Janice Gross Stein and Brigitte Shim, with musical guest Basia Bulat and author Miriam Toews.

Amidst a flurry of holidays and last minute preparation for this year's installment on Friday January 9th at the River Run Centre, The Guelph Lecture - On Being Canadian Team (amalgamated responses from Douglas McMullen, Valerie Hall (President of Eramosa Institute), Shawn van Sluys, Michael Barnstijn, Marva Wisdom, Tarah Walsh, and Joy Roberts) took the time to field a few questions.

How was The Lecture hatched? And, in over 10 years, has it strayed from its animating intentions?

The Guelph Lecture - On Being Canadian was originally an attempt, by some of us who had just moved to this area (or moved back) and were thinking about how we wanted to live, to make a contribution to the aspects of this area that had attracted us here: its strong arts and culture offerings, its concern for a tolerant just society, and its openness to ideas. We thought we could showcase some of those strengths to other areas of the country and also make available outside influences to further inspire the mix here.

Now there is a large group of organizers, and new young volunteers, and I’d say the reasons for putting on the Lecture have stayed pretty much the same. If anything, there is a greater sense of urgency to keep the discussions alive in the face of increasing societal challenges.

What do you guys look for when choosing a Lecturer?

We look for people at the top of their fields. Then we look to see how well they can articulate what’s going on in that field and whether they can link it to the world around us. After that we see if they are approachable. If they have some name-recognition, that’s a bonus. But Guelph has come out for evenings where the participants were not well-known. The audience is just as much a risk-taking one as our organizing group is. Also, we try to cover a wide variety of fields. We are always learning ourselves as we plan and that’s personally rewarding to us as volunteers.

When choosing the year's full roster of participants, do you begin with a theme in mind, or do you let who you've chosen lead the way?

Our overarching theme, “On Being Canadian,” serves as a guide in our selection of speakers. We have given thought to having a “theme in mind” but it seemed to get too contrived. We have a lot of parts to the evening, so what if one didn’t fit the theme and looked out of place for no other reason than that? It seems more meaningful to us to choose each participant for what they have to offer and let them make the best contribution they feel capable of. It is often a bit nerve-wracking, but that’s really the thrill of the whole endeavour. There is the risk that comes with relinquishing control. Because no matter how many conversations we have with participants about the evening and what we hope to accomplish, someone invariably surprises us.

What's the importance of having more than one voice or one means of contribution on stage? Is there a curation at work when deciding who will be on stage? A specific conversation you hope to create?

As Alissa Firth-Eagland at Musagetes would say, as long as “curation” harkens back to its origin, meaning “to care for,” then we do curate. We try hard to put our own plans and ideas in the background once the participants are chosen and see what happens. Alissa quotes author Karen Love when she says curators “create and contribute to public dialogues about ideas and artistic strategies that address the world in all its complexities.” Because the world is complex and the important thing for deciding how one wants to live is to hear as many intelligent and informed voices as possible, to be inspired by the possibilities.

In your time with The Guelph Lecture, have you seen much aftermath? Have you seen the ideas raised live outside of the night itself?

We are really impressed with the media coverage of the evening, and that gets the ideas out to many more than the 500-700 who attend. It’s not that we get lots and lots of advertising, although we do get our fair share. What’s really rewarding to us is that the reporters who have covered the event actually thought about it and tried to get to the core of the messages. Sometimes that takes some doing! 

We had one very dense keynote presentation, for example, and one literary participant who got a bit risque — might have been more appropriate to shock a junior high school audience into more tolerant views but seemed a bit over-the-top for the 500+ people in the audience –– anyway, we could have been massacred in the press and had all our work of years undone, but on both occasions, the reporter saw through to the intentions, found the nugget of inspiration, and combined it with the evening as a whole. The result is that what we offer on stage for those who can attend gets amplified in the community through honest, thoughtful coverage. 

As for aftermath in a bigger society sense, well… as we always say, there are some powerful forces out there right now that seem to be polarizing issues, rather than bringing us to common ground so we can find a way forward together. We see anecdotal evidence of positive influences of the evening but clearly we can’t claim any responsibility for massive improvements! What we do see, that’s hopeful, is more conversation. People talk about the ideas, starting at the reception right after the event, which often goes quite late and is quite animated. They buy the speakers’ books and the musicians’ music. They stop us on the street to opine on our last effort or to suggest others for our stage. There does seem to be a life gathering around the event and integrating it into other actives as well. One final indication of the possibility that ideas may be living outside of the night itself is that in the past we had to explain what the event is; now we have many individuals and groups looking forward to the evening and inquiring about the speakers

Canadian's seem to be constantly striving towards self-definition - which in itself becomes a sort of definition, I think. As the Lectures build up, are we starting to get to the bottom of anything? Have you found yourself in the audience thinking, "Yep. This is who we are”?

Yes! We are people who don’t mind bombastic titles and goals but we defy attempts at specific details around those. Although some of our audience members object, and some of our speakers ignore our suggestions, we don’t ask, or even want, anyone to address directly what it means to be Canadian. Those on stage should just demonstrate who they are and how our society looks from their point of view. Then we, as audience members, can ponder these many situations, and the values that create them, decide what we want for ourselves and our communities.

There are quite divergent views around the organizing table, but one thing unites everyone who has been involved in the Guelph Lecture - On Being Canadian: we all think Canada’s links with the rest of the world are our most important feature.

Any stand out memories from past Lectures?

Oh, definitely. Some for good reasons, some not so. For the latter, I’m thinking of the episodes I mentioned earlier. The positive are myriad:

  • Lee Smolin, maybe our next Einstein (although he would object to that title), backstage trying to play with the musicians
  • Sacha Trudeau jumping in his Volkswagen and driving here from Montreal, crashing in one of the volunteer’s guest room, and really mentoring another young participant who needed the help
  • an author who wouldn’t let his publisher cancel his visit to Guelph just because another offer came in that might have sold more books
  • all the participants who win major awards between the time we invite them and the time they come to Guelph, and who don’t try to renegotiate for a fee
  • our first sponsorship, which came from Knar Jewellery, and they have given every year since.
  • Peter Mansbridge popping in from the theatre next door where he was doing election coverage to say “hello” and “what a great event."
  • all the participants who are in touch after to say nice things about how Guelph treated them and how meaningful the evening was for them, in spite of their being on stage for only a portion of the evening.

Any hint of what attendees can hope from this year's?

All we organizers have are hints right now too. A couple of our volunteers have met with the speakers, Janice Stein and Brigitte Shim, who indicate that they are excited to be on stage together. That’s our first big relief. They’ve pointed out that the condo boom in Toronto is going to be the site of our next slums. That’s pretty provocative so we are sure there will be lots of discussion. Basia Bulat and Miriam Toews have both been winning awards. We are hearing comments that indicate this “will be the best yet.” So we are hopeful! But there will be those surprises…. As one repeat audience member says, “I always buy a ticket and just sit there to see what will happen!” 

For ticket info, contact the River Run Centre.