Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Tuesday February 27 started out as Messier Day in Edmonton and St. Albert. But it ended differently, as The Day "Captain Canada" was Traded. That's long-time Oiler star Ryan Smith. Poor Moose - his special day overshadowed by the ruthless business of modern hockey. Before the trade with the Islanders shifted from ugly rumour to sad truth, former St. Albertan and St. Albert Saint, Mark Messier, was feted here in St. Albert at the new gigantic rec centre, servus place, which contains Mark Messier arena. A nice ceremony, with hockey historian/St. Albert Mayor Paul Chalifoux presiding and Messier saying all the right things.
Many St. Albertans of a certain age have a Messier story or two. Many of them involve Mark, the Stanley Cup and the (sadly missed but not forgotten) Bruin Inn. The Bruin was the legendary beer barn, located right next door to the Library and St. Albert Place until someone redeveloped it into the ground. So too with other infamous sites of Oiler's celebrations: Edmonton's Sidetrack Café, which moved to a new location to make way for some crappy condos, but finally expired last week. And the Grinder on 124th St burned down a few months ago. Mark will need to find a new place to celebrate his #11 sweater being hoisted to the rafters!
There are some Messier stories in Jeff Z. Klein’s well-written biography, Messier. But Klein, an American, and a New Yorker for heaven’s sake, focuses a fair amount on Messier’s post-Oilers career. We prefer to ignore this part of his career hereabouts. Yes, yes, he guaranteed a win. Yes, he won the Cup for the Rangers. But he won 5 for us.
Messier’s Oilers career and some of his off-ice antics are covered in several earlier Oilers’ books. Most recently our own St Albert Gazette reporter, Peter Boer, came out with The Edmonton Oilers: the Players, Games and Stories behind Hockey's Legendary Team in 2006. The Edmonton Journal published a reverent coffee table tome in 2003, Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club: Celebrating 25 Years in the Heartland of Hockey. But for Messier tales, look to The Glory Barons: The Saga of the Edmonton Oilers by Douglas Hunter and Edmonton’s Hockey Knights: 79-99 by the Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones.
Here's an apropos quote from the Jones' book, Kevin Lowe speaking (as a player) in 1991 about the impending trade of Mark Messier:
"The old Oiler flag better be lowered to half-mast, they're taking away the blood and guts of the organization. It's a very sad day in Oilers history."
Substitute "heart and soul" for "blood and guts" and you have exactly what you hear in coffee shops all around town today about Lowe's trade of Ryan Smyth!
Perhaps on this day of cold-hearted hockey trading, the best salve is The Game of Our Lives - Peter Gzowski’s classic look at the young Oilers of the 1980-81 season. Before the Gretzky trade, before the Tampas and the Carolinas, before the strike/lockout, there was a special bunch of talented youngsters right here in Edmonton that would soon set the world of hockey on fire. Gzowski followed the team for that season, right on the bus, and wrote one of the best hockey, best sports books about those Oilers, many of whom were on the Northlands Coliseum ice tonight to applaud Mark Messier, the menacing thug from St. Albert who cries at the drop of a hat and apparently reads philosophy.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The House of Meetings

Martin Amis is larger than life. Controversies seem to follow in his wake, whatever he’s up to. Not too long ago there were his remarks about Islamic extremism (“horrorism”). Recently The Guardian newspaper referred to him in passing as "Britain's greatest living author . . .", which caused a ruckus in the blogosphere. The Guardian published a follow-up today, in which Stephen Moss asks, if not Amis, then “Who is the greatest of them all? Moss puts forward Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, V.S. Naipaul and Doris Lessing as his top four. But he weasels out in the end, refusing to choose one, saying “. . . don't be silly: that really is up to posterity”. I’d put Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and David Mitchell on my own list (in that order!)

But anyway, Amis has a new book novel out, The House of Meetings, which has received the usual divergent reviews from critics. On Metacritic these reviews range from “Outstanding” raves like The Economist:

“Martin Amis has suddenly - and unexpectedly, even to his publishers - turned in a work of real worth, a novel that not so much makes the spine tingle as the heart race at its passion and richness...A singular, unimpeachable triumph.”

All the way down to outright trashes, like Tim Martin’s review in The Independent:

“... comes to read like a wicked parody of the Amis style.”

There’s much Amis-animus out there. No doubt he may well be an arrogant jerk. A recent interview in The Independent makes that clear. But there is no denying Amis is unfailingly interesting, even if one eventually throws his books against a wall. Money and London Fields remain stand-out reads for me.

The House of Meetings is a novel about the Soviet gulag, narrated from the present-day by a survivor. Clearly Amis is still in thrall to the historical sources that brought about his memoir/history, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. Koba made the point that the crimes of communism were horrific, killing millions, yet the criminals seem forgiven or forgotten by the world in a way that the perpetrators of the Holocaust have not.

Robert Conquest brought the crimes of Stalinism into the light with his classic 1968 book of history, The Great Terror [re-issued in 1991]. But it wasn’t until the 1972 publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s oral history, The Gulag Archipelago, that the Gulag really entered the West’s consciousness. The collapse of the Soviet Union opened the floodgate of Eastern Bloc archives. This new historical information brought about the astonishing 1999 compendium of the crimes of communism, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. With this new archival access, Anne Applebaum was able to write the excellent, quite readable Gulag: A History.

But the Gulag and other crimes like the Ukrainian Famine/Genocide of 1932-3 still have never captured the popular imagination. As Anne Applebaum notes in Gulag, intellectually people know what happened in the Soviet Union, but “the crimes of Stalin simply don’t inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler”. Perhaps The House of Meetings is an attempt by Amis to bring a human face to the victims of communism, much like many classic works have done for the Holocaust:



Graphic Novel

There are some great books from Soviet crimes, but the list is pretty small:


Know any others? In English? Please leave a comment if you have suggestions!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Love is a Mix Tape

Running into my local grocery store last night I bumped into a pal from ball hockey. He’s a bruiser with a bad slashing habit. It was one of those odd out-of-context moments when you see someone where they don’t fit. He was way back in a long line of sheepish-looking men at the flower counter. I said, “Hey, howse it goin” but then quickly walked back to the dairy section. It was an awkward moment, but I’m not entirely sure why. Buying flowers for Valentine’s Day is entirely manly after all. Perhaps buying flowers the night before V-day shows a little too much thoughtfulness for a guy fond of chopping players down in front of the net. And buying carnations at Safeway is maybe a secret he needs to keep. I’ll never tell dude.
But I applaud all middle-aged men making the effort today. When it is -20 degrees outside and the car makes a weird noise when you try to start it, keeping love and romance alive in a multi-year marriage can be an effort! New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin shows how you do it in his new memoir about his late wife, About Alice. Trillin was pretty much everywhere last weekend, at least twice on CBC Radio, talking about the book. One review noted that "About Alice is so suffused with love that readers may want to give it as a wedding present with the note, “This is how it's done””.
A Generation-X version of a memoir/paean about a late wife is Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time. Sheffield, now a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, uses mix tapes to describe how a shy rock geek managed to meet and eventually marry a beautiful, cool punk rock girl. And how music helped him through the sudden loss of that girl from a pulmonary embolism in 1997. Rock writer Chuck Klosterman says, “Love is a Mix Tape is the happiest, saddest, greatest book about rock'n'roll that I've ever experienced."
Thinking about mix tapes and women will lead you inevitably to Nick Hornby’s classic novel of record geeks, mix tapes, Top Five lists and romance: High Fidelity. Some deep thoughts on life, love and loneliness wrapped in a hilarious tale of love-gone-bad and music obsession.

The Republic of Love

Is there anything less romantic than -20° Edmonton in mid-February? How about Winnipeg? But Carol Shields wrote a delightful novel, The Republic of Love, about finding love in middle-age, in frozen Winnipeg. Fay and Tom are likable people, she a folklorist, he a talk show host, both unlucky in love. They meet and sparks fly, but can romantic love conquer rationality in these workaday times?

Canadian film-maker Deepa Mehta, of Water fame, adapted the novel into a 2003 film that starring Bruce Greenwood. Unfortunately Mehta changed the setting to Toronto and filmed there. I haven't seen the film but reviews tend to feature the word "underwhelming." A classic "the book was better" situation I think.

Where is the the Great Edmonton love story? Or St. Albert! There was Lynne Van Luven's witty essay, "City of My Groin" in the Edmonton centennial collection, Edmonton on Location (about her adventures in Garneau in the 1980s). But this doesn't count. Neither does Robert Kroetsch's The Studhorse Man! Or Brad Fraser's play, Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. Please leave a comment if something comes to mind...

Here are some books about love, set in non-Edmonton places, that won’t rot your teeth with sweetness:

Love Walked In By Marisa de los Santos
A warm and witty love story about three people: thirtysomething coffee shop manager Cornelia, charming, divorced Dad Martin and his eleven-year old daughter Clare. This sweet story about knowing what you love and why is being adapted into a film, produced by and starring Sarah Jessica Parker. Check out the author's website for some her suggestions of love songs.

The History of Love By Nicole Krauss
A complex, brilliant novel about love and loss in which two compelling stories, past and present, merge. New Yorker Leo Gursky is an old man, tapping his radiator each evening to let his neighbour know he's still alive. But sixty years ago in Poland, Leo fell in love and wrote a book. Leo doesn't know it, but his book survived, crossing oceans and changing lives.

** Cool romantic factoid: Nicole Krauss is married to the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. Some have even grumped about similarities between The History of Love and Foer's novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I suspect it is more a matter of jealousy. It is easy to resent young, pretty, talented, successful writers living the life in writer-saturated Brooklyn.

My Wedding Dress Edited by Susan Whelehan & Anne L. Carter
A collection of personal essays by Canadian women writers in the tradition of Dropped Threads. Contributors, including Anita Rau Badami, Ami McKay, Edeet Ravel and Kerri Sakamoto, write movingly about the emotional baggage associated with “my wedding dress”.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

This Is My Country, What's Yours?

As one shouldn’t visit the sins of the father upon the son, don’t blame Noah Richler for the unkind comments his father, Mordecai Richler, wrote about Edmonton back in the day. Way back in the day now. It was a New York Times piece in 1984 entitled “Gretzky in Eighty-Four” (collected in the book Belling the Cat: Essays, Reports & Opinions) that Richler père wrote:

The capital of Alberta is a city you come from, not a place to visit, unless you have relatives there or an interest in an oil well nearby. On first glance, and even on third, it seems not so much a city as a jumble of a used-building lot, where the spare office towers and box-shaped apartment buildings and cinder block motels discarded in the construction of real cities have been abandoned to waste away in the cruel prairie winter.
Ouch. Especially painful as it has the ring of truth, even now!

Noah Richler is in Edmonton tonight to talk about Canadian literature – and perhaps defend the rather light presence of Alberta and Edmonton in his recent book, This Is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada. Richler, Alberta writers Todd Babiak and Aritha van Herk plus U of A writer-in-residence Catherine Bush (a Torontonian) will discuss “Whose Story Now: Noah Richler's Search for a National Literature” in an evening organized by U of A’s new Canadian Literature Centre.

The event takes place at 7pm at the Art Gallery of Alberta (Churchill Square, downtown Edmonton). Free-of-charge, with reception to follow (snacks?!)

Richler’s book is based on three years of research, criss-crossing the country, speaking to writers. Before the book there was the CBC Ideas radio documentary, which is available on CD at the Library [I note that St. Albert is the only library in Alberta with this available!].

Richard Helm spoke to Richler recently, with an article published in the Edmonton Journal yesterday. Richler responded to Helm’s suggestion that the book is light on Alberta:

On the phone from Toronto, he disagreed with the suggestion that Alberta writers seem under-represented in his book -- Fred Stenson is among those few quoted -- while acknowledging there's not an explicitly Edmonton contingent on the pages.

"I don't mind if there's a bit of a fight about that," Richler said, pointing out that he talked with Thomas Wharton and several other local writers without actually quoting them.

But this city is one he knows quite well, Richler maintained, having worked a seismic crew out of Edmonton several years back (and watched his Montreal Canadiens defeat the Oilers).

"Probably the most important idea of the book, which is the idea of work, came from my experience in Alberta," he said.

"That's where my experience of being Canadian was actually forged. I'm not trying to be corny and please anyone but it was from this job that took me literally by foot from Manitoba to the Rockies."

Richler said he's long felt Alberta is "one of the least understood but also worst represented places in Canada," the fault for which lies as much with Albertans themselves -- and Alberta writers -- as with people beyond its borders. "The rest of Canada doesn't particularly get it partly because Albertans haven't been the best at presenting who they are."