A Real Story

November 30, 2012

Been reading quite a bit of biography/memoir lately, and, as with biographical films (Man in the Moon, Capote, Iron Lady, My Week with Marilyn), it often seems to be quite hard to capture the essence of a person’s life and make an engaging story. Most have flashes of brilliance (in the movies, the performances are all excellent), but to find one that’s a gem all the way through is unusual.

I didn’t know a lot about Gordon Pinsent. Hap on Red Green, voiceover work, CBC cameos, and the stunning Away from Her (will be making the husband watch it with me, soon, I think). But what I knew, I liked, and the great Newfie grin on the cover sealed the deal, so I took the book home.

One thing I hadn’t known was how much Pinsent is a writer, and it comes across loud and clear, here. It’s not stream-of-consciousness, but it’s very much a personal voice, and at first it takes some getting used to. But once you’re into it, it’s musical and engaging. There are a lot of small moments, but unlike some memoirs, there’s a feeling of the overarching narrative that puts everything in the right place.

A few passages are asides–I shouldn’t say that, they’re really some of the meat of the story–to his wife, actress Charmion King, who died in 2007 (Josephine Barry in the Sullivan Anne of Green Gables, as well as years and years treading the boards). It’s a real love story, and Pinsent’s insight gets richer and richer as he gets closer to the present day.

Great Canadian actors don’t retire, as Pinsent points out (with Chris Plummer and Donald Sutherland as additional evidence). I’m so glad he keeps saying, “Yes, of course.”


March 5, 2012

If you love books, or history, or both, and have a sense of humour, make sure you pick up Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant, a book of cartoons. It’s absolutely hilarious!

One of the best parts is the commentary Beaton offers, aside from the cartoons. Here are some of my favourites:

“InAnne of Green Gables, the plucky young orphan grows from a child with a wild imagination and a tongue she cannot hold into a sophisticated and responsible young lady. If there were no scene where she gets the puff-sleeved dress she pines for, I think there would have been a chapter where she slaughters the whole town.”

“Dynasties the monarchy way are so easy! You have a kid? Great, they are next in line for the best throne in the Throne Room. In America it’s hard because you have to ‘prove yourself’ and maybe people have to ‘vote for you’ and that’s difficult! No one knew that better than Joe Kennedy Sr., who trained his wife to give birth to the United States Senate.”

“Weren’t most superheroes first created to fight Nazis? Guess they had to find something else to do after the war.”

“At Queenston Heights there is a stunning monument to a man who would not order his men anywhere he would not lead them. Somehow, mysteriously, this man got himself shot by a sniper. By mysteriously, of course, I mean that everyone was largely dressed the same, except for the fellow in front with the giant hat, big brass buttons, and, oh I don’t know, rippling epaulettes. And anyway, of course you’re going to shoot that guy.”

“These days Tesla is enjoying a belated surge in popularity. Everyone seems to be on Tesla’s side now, against Edison; whereas before, Edison was the hero and Tesla was some nut job making a different lightbulb. Edison is getting to be well known as the jerk he totally was! But let us never forget: he wasn’t the only one, as Marconi demonstrates for us. I bet there is a ton of shit Tesla invented that got stolen by other people. Probably cool things like skateboards and helicopters. Patent your inventions, kids.”

“Pearson had the Little Minority Government That Could, giving people free health care, pensions, and student loans for the first time, among other achievements. He gave a lot to Canada, which we–correctly or not–like to claim as proof of some national character; he symbolizes the things we like about ourselves. If only we could go back in time now and tell that to the people who made fun of his lisp.”

“Everyone has to read The Great Gatsby in high school because it’s the best example of constructing a novel with themes and symbols, like legos, only not legos but The American Dream and the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. Fifteen-year-olds can really get behind an essay on what the green light means, which is good, because they sure as heck won’t relate to any of the characters, who are all huge jerks with enough money to be wasted most of the time on top of being miserable.”

“Wasn’t it lucky for Henry that disagreeing with the Catholic Church and wanting to get rid of its power also meant pocketing a load of cash? Those monks were holy bros who prayed a lot, but they were also getting their Friar Tuck on in the Party Room of the Monasteries and Henry needed that wine money for wars and probably some wife-related funeral expenses.”

“The play Hamlet is a case study in the behavior of depressed young dudes during the time before your could just let off steam by listening to Morrissey records in your bedroom with the lights turned off. How many monarchs has Morrissey really saved with his music. We may never now. But what is irrefutable is that there are many less regicides these days. A connection??”

And one of my favourite comics:

A Good Man

November 20, 2011

Every time I read something by Guy Vanderhaeghe I’m struck by its beauty and its depth, so I guess the obvious question is why it’s taken me so long to add his books to my definite, “as soon as they come out,” to-read list. His story The Dancing Bear was one of the most memorable we read in high school (we read a lot of Canadian short stories, but not a lot of novel-length fiction, or at least as much as we could have). And yet, while the novels have a level of historical detail, thickly-woven plots, and a depth of characterization that I love, the overall impact for me is often impressionistic–I’m better able to discuss the strong thoughts and feelings they evoke than the detail.

A Good Man, straightforwardly enough, is a meditation on what makes a good man, which is always a more complex exercise than it seems. For some, it’s a position of leadership–here, Sitting Bull, having learned the wisdom in his old age not to confront a raging man, but losing his people’s trust. For some, the love of a good woman–Michael Dunne, wanting to be his “very best self” for the woman he loves. Moral uprightness comes with its own complications, as Joe McMullen, James Morrow Walsh, and the protagonist (although the other characters are so well-realized it almost feels inaccurate to call him so) Wesley Case have learned.

These complications lead, perhaps, to an understanding that forgiveness (and self-forgiveness) is an integral part of goodness, and to the suggestion that joy is key to a proper response to a world of tragedy.

Another favourite series from my childhood is the Anne series (and I’ve been lucky enough to move 5 minutes up the road from the home where L.M. Montgomery wrote most of the books!), and I’d have to say that my favourite Anne book is Anne’s House of Dreams.

If Gilbert is my favourite male character, then the book where he finally gets what he wants should be my favourite, no? In the earlier books, Anne is too flakey for me. By Anne of Windy Poplars and Anne’s House of Dreams her spark and creativity is undiminished but her temperament is improved; and the rest of the cast of characters is memorable and heartwarming.

It helped, too, as someone with an early love of books, that my mother had given me a copy of the beautiful 1917 edition. I was happy to get it on my Kobo so I could read it without being worried about hurting it.

Favourite male character

September 25, 2011

I could make all kinds of noises about my favourite male character being Dexter Morgan or Winston Smith…but the fact of the matter is for sheer memorable-ness and love…

It’s gotta be Gilbert Blythe.

Current reads

February 9, 2011

I’m throwing in the towel on another one: Peter Filkins’ translation of H.G. Adler’s holocaust novel Panorama. I can already tell it’s beautiful. I think I’m just not in the mood, with the cold weather and stress of other things. And on Kobo I’ve been reading the Anne series one more time. So that’s a bit easier to pick up. Mostly looking forward to Anne’s House of Dreams. My print copy’s a lovely first edition, so it will be nice to be able to fall asleep reading it without being scared of hurting it.

I’m very much enjoying Philip Ball’s The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It. Sufficiently technical, sufficiently readable. He has a knack for explaining difficult things.

I’ll go back to Adler in the spring, when I’m ready for another challenge.


February 3, 2011

I’m not sure what to make of this year’s Giller Prize winner, Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists. I usually like stories with shifting perspectives, connecting the present with the past, becoming cohesive only later on. And, at least through Tim O’Brien, I have become a devotee of literature “about” the war in Vietnam.

But I don’t know that The Sentimentalists ever did become cohesive…even within its un-cohesive-ness. I didn’t find it particularly memorable in style or in story. It was almost like an impressionist painting, rather than a novel.

By the end, though, there were a few beautiful lines:

“It made me sad then, and it still does, to think of it. And also not a little afraid. To think that despite our best intentions we may, in the end — and necessarily — leave the people that we love quite extraordinarily alone.”

I love that it could be “love quite extraordinarily”, or “quite extraordinarily alone”. Or both at once. That’s the sort of ambiguity I think the book was striving for, but somehow misses.

And this:

“And so, in these pages, I have also tried to record what I know to be true; the truth, anyway, as it exists at this, my own particular intersection of it; at this singular and otherwise obscure point along its complicated and transitional course. As it pauses here, I mean, almost imperceptibly, and for only so long, before continuing on, in its uncountable directions.

I think now that that’s really the most — the best — we can do: answer the questions that pose themselves to us, and describe, if only to ourselves, the things that we have loved, and believed in, and the actions that we have or would have liked to have taken, and will take now, and do take, over and over again, in the quiet parts of our minds.

But really, I find it hard to imagine any method at all of understanding the events of the twenty-second of October, 1967.  Or of the way that afterwards they repeated themselves, and continue to repeat themselves: in same or in variant forms, charting again their recurrent course. Among those who (long after the events themselves had shuttled into other moments, and other lives; disguising themselves in divergent sadnesses, misunderstandings, expectations and desires) witness them still. And among those who…were not aware of them at all, but likewise witnessed, and continue to witness them. Who likewise still hope to uncover, recognize, and subsequently comprehend their otherwise inexplicable presence in our lives.”

I can’t make up my mind whether that conclusion is beautiful in style and in thought, or whether it’s that the thought is significant enough to carry through the style. But I know that I don’t think the rest of the book lived up to this ending.

Current reads

January 19, 2011

Ebooks and working at a library were both sure ways for me to get into trouble…now everything I read has a due date!

Except one thing: I’m almost done with Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, which is making me very sad that I didn’t take more Can. Lit. in school. It’s beautiful.

On the Kobo, I’m reading the 10th Anniversary ed. of the Dalai Lama’s Art of Happiness, and haven’t yet started Philipp Meyer’s American Rust. 1 week till Art of Happiness “expires” and just under 2 on Meyer.

Physical books: 2 from Annie Proulx, Fine Just the Way It Is, the 3rd volume of Wyoming stories, and the new memoir, Bird Cloud. And also Condoleezza Rice’s memoir Extraordinary, Ordinary People. At least I’ve got 3 weeks to get through those.

Happy New Year!

January 1, 2011

Richard B. Wright’s Clara Callan is precisely the kind of book I should like, and I did, for the most part. It was a good book for the turn of the year, following the very engaging title character through a pivotal four years in her life. Because much of the book is in Clara’s own words (her journal and letters, as well as letters from her sister, close friend, and sundry others), her fits and starts of personal development shine through. As in all our lives, there are significant events both traumatic and joyful. But the book shows that life is more about the living of it than about the things that happen.

And it ended beautifully, perfectly…until the afterword, where a character explained what we’d been reading and what happened to everyone after the book “ended”. I’m reminded again that I don’t have the need for conventional “closure” of a lot of readers. I’ve become much more comfortable treating my books much less like sacred objects, but I can still only wish I was comfortable enough just to tear out that afterword!

So true.

May 21, 2010

G. posted a poem this evening, so I think I’ll do one too. I have some real blogging to do tomorrow morning, but for now I’ll leave you with a prose poem (we can discuss if that’s a real thing) by George Bowering (mixed feelings about him, too). But I like this one a lot.

George Bowering, My Darling Nellie Grey, Talonbooks, 2010. From the March cycle.


I REMEMBER my father and me having competing

teams. It used to make me wonder, to know that he was a fan of

the Giants, say, long before I was born, in his own life story.

My kid brothers are both Montreal Canadiens fans, and I don’t

understand that, because the Canadiens were my father’s team.

I took him to see them in Vancouver, the first time in his life,

which never did get long enough. He was a Canadiens fan, and

I don’t know why, because in rural British Columbia we were

pretty well all Toronto Maple Leafs fans, though my uncle

Gerry was somehow a Boston Bruins fan. So it was my dad’s

Habs versus my Leafs, It was his Giants versus my Dodgers.

My father, who took a bar of soap into the lake. His Indians

versus my Red Sox. No football, no basketball. You had to

have a team, and stay with them and be serious about it. Except

for my mother. She has always rooted for whatever team is

playing against your team, for the competition, even if it was

the New York Yankees.