Thursday, December 06, 2007

Life of Pi

Yann Martel is a bit of a nut. I mean this in the nicest of ways - he is after all a brilliant thinker and a fabulous writer. But really, what kind of person that has lived all over the world, from Paris to India, that has sold 6 million copies of a novel, would move to Saskatoon? (Yes, yes - the Paris of the Prairies, the City of Bridges - whatever, it is -30°C there today with the wind)
It was Saskatoon-style cold Wednesday night when 600 of us showed up at the Edmonton Westin to listen to Yann talk about the new illustrated edition of Life of Pi, a new book he is working on that focuses on the Holocaust, his advocacy project What is Stephen Harper Reading? and a discussion on the theme of "The artist as activist" with CBC Radio's Peter Brown.
When Yann used Don Quixote to illustrate a point he was making it struck me: that's it - Yann Martell is Don Quixote! Could there be a more quixotic quest than Yann's attempt to get Prime Minister Harper to read classic works of literature? For that is the aim of What is Stephen Harper Reading?, in which Yann mails a literary classic to the PM every two weeks, along with an essay promoting and explaining the book and why the PM should read it. The 17th book (The Island Means Minago - a book of poetry by the late Milton Acorn) was posted on November 26 and joins the 16 others in getting no response from the PM.

When I first heard about the project I thought it was presumptuous. Yann was ticked that Harper appeared not to give gathered cultural worthies celebrating the Canada Council's 50th anniversary their due in the House of Commons. Not the biggest slight ever methinks. And presuming that Harper doesn't read literature may be unfair, given that he is a smart guy with a couple of university degrees. Lit blogger Nathan Whitlock gained some notoriety, at least in the blogosphere, for his sharply worded criticism of Martel's project. But as time has gone by and the PM has chosen not to respond, I think Yann is right - the PM doesn't read anything beyond briefing papers and the National Post. Even George Bush has mentioned books he has been reading, most notably the novel, The Outsider (aka The Stranger), by Albert Camus.

As Yann noted at his talk, the Prime Minister may be like a lot of middle-aged men who claim they are too busy to read and if they do read it is facts, non-fiction, yessir, none of that made-up stuff. I know a lot of the middle-aged men I know feel novels are unmanly somehow. One of the good side-effects of the Harry Potter phenomenon was that it made it okay for men to read fiction. I remember listening to an older man go on and on about how much he enjoyed the Potter books. What he didn't really key into was that he was experiencing the joy of reading fiction, of experiencing STORY and narrative! And there is so much more of it available beyond Potter!

So Yann's project can remind us all that reading is important, that fiction and literature are important, even to the Prime Minister of Canada, and that we should all make some time to do it no matter how allegedly busy we are (c'mon, the TV writers are on strike!).

However, I don't know if Yann would make the best librarian, as it is important to find out what someone enjoys and suggest books along that line. We don't know what Harper might enjoy reading but I doubt it is The Bhagavad Gita, Voltaire's Candide or Strindberg's play, Miss Julia. I know the PM is a hockey fan - apparently he is even writing a hockey history book. While hockey doesn't have the associated literature like baseball does, there are still a number of books the PM could try:
  • King Leary by Paul Quarrington. This 1987 novel, which won the Leacock Award for Humour, is about old Percival Leary, once King of the Ice, one of hockey’s greatest heroes. From the the South Grouse Nursing Home Leary looks back on his tumultuous life, including using the “St. Louis Whirlygig” to score the winning goal in the 1919 Stanley Cup final. Out of print for years, the novel has been selected for the 2008 Canada Reads contest and will be reprinted.
  • The Good Body by Bill Gaston. This 2004 novel by acclaimed BC writer Gaston is a poignant and funny story about a minor league hockey goon who never managed to stick in "the show" of the NHL. He retires to his New Brunswick hometown, scams his way into university and trys to re-connect with the family he ignored during his career.
  • Finnie Walsh by Steven Galloway. This 2000 novel is narrated by Paul Woodward. Paul’s best friend is Finnie Walsh, a fellow hockey fanatic. Finnie is rich, Paul is not--Paul’s dad works the night shift at the mill owned by Finnie’s dad. One day the boys noisily prepare for the hockey season, keeping Paul’s dad awake when he should be sleeping, triggering a chain of world-altering and amusing events.
  • The Uninvited Guest by John Degen. A 2006 novel, nominated for the in Canada First Novel Award, which weaves together hockey, Canada, backgammon, Romania and the story of “Two-Second” Stan Cooper, a humble timekeeper whose slip-up during the 1951 playoffs in Toronto almost cost him his job. Degen noted that Hockey Night in Canada's Ron McLean mentioned the Giller winner, Late Nights on Air, before a Leafs-Senators game in November. He has started a campaign on his blog and on Facebook to get HNIC's "Hot Stove" segment to talk hockey novels ["Novel Night in Canada"].
  • Canadian rock legend Dave Bidini (The Rheostatics) branched out from writing occasional hockey-themed songs ("The Ballad of Wendel Clark") years ago to writing books about hockey. Most recently was The Five Hole Stories, billed as "the book that brings Canada's two favourite pastimes - sex and hockey - together at last". Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit theatre company created a play around the stories, performed at their High Performance Rodeo festival earlier this year. If that makes the PM's communication people nervous, there is Bidini's 2000 travel memoir, Tropic of Hockey: My Search for the Game in Unlikely Places. Disillusioned by the commercialization of hockey, Bidini set out to find the heart of hockey in odd places like Romania, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates. The book was the basis for his award-winning hockey documentary, Hockey Nomad. Or last year's homage to the game, The Best Game You Can Name.
  • Finally, there is my friend Dale Jacobs' 1999 collection, Ice: New Writing on Hockey. An Alberta boy exiled in balmy North Carolina due to work, Dale used the hole in his heart from missing hockey to edit this collection of essays, poems and stories about hockey. Of course, years later Dale is back in Canada and the Stanley Cup has resided in that same balmy North Carolina recently.
Not having sold 6 million books, I can't afford to send these titles to the Prime Minister, so I direct him to the Ottawa Public Library or his hometown Calgary Public Library.


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