Friday, March 28, 2008

A Season on the Brink

Did you see #10 Davidson almost take down #1 Kansas? The last remaining underdog in the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, down two points, had the ball with just seconds on the clock. Guard Jason Richards, at the top of the key, put the ball up for a 3-point shot to win. The ball seemed to hang in mid-air before it crashed the glass to the left of the rim, the buzzer went and the overdogs won. Davidson would have been only the third double-digit underdog to make the Final Four. Instead this year is the first time all four number one seeds are in the Final Four.
American college basketball? Who cares? In the US the process of filling in a tournament bracket is an established officeplace ritual. Up here - not so much! Basketball in general hasn't really clicked with Canadians as a big spectator sport, even with the MVP heroics of Victoria, BC's Steve Nash. As well, it is a bit of an East v West thing in Canada. Suburban Ontario driveways have kids playing basketball at the hoop Dad installed. Suburban Alberta driveways may have a hoop but the kids will be playing road hockey. And I know more kids who play organized lacrosse than basketball, or baseball for that matter. But some St. Albert kids are certainly playing basketball, for in our own local happy underdog story, Paul Kane High School won their first provincial championship in 45 years in men's basketball earlier this month!

The appeal of March Madness is the underdog story. Everyone loves the archetypical David beats Goliath tale. And the NCAA tournament almost always throws up a Cinderella story of the little team from Unheardof College in Nowhereville USA taking on the Big Rich College. It is even better when the underdog team is literally smaller, a la 5 ft 8 Steve Nash! Davidson is certainly not unheralded, and many have written that they were seeded too low, but it was still exciting to see them defeat #2 Georgetown and #3 Wisconsin.

English soccer's FA Cup has the same appeal, with the possibility of a little team defeating a big team. And this year is a banner year for the underdog, with only one of its final four teams from the top tier of soccer, the Premiership. The closest we have in hockey might be The Memorial Cup tournament, where the winners of the three junior hockey leagues play, but so too does the team from the host city (which may or may not be a competitive team that year).

There are a plethora of books about NCAA basketball, about March Madness, the legendary coaches, the Cinderella stories. How March Became Madness (2006) by Eddie Einhorn promises to tell "How the NCAA Tournament Became the Greatest Sporting Event in America". Many of the big name coaches (John Wooden, Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski) speak of their own experiences in the tournament. And a slightly odd bonus - a DVD of the first nationally-televised regular season college basketball game: UCLA vs Houston in 1968!

John Feinstein is a one-man sports book industry, notably with college basketball. His career began with his classic book, Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers (1987). Feinstein had full access to Coach Knight and the Hoosiers' team during the 1985-6 basketball season - practices, team meetings, games. The result was an excellent inside look at big time college sports. The book was a huge bestseller and created a subgenre of sports book - the 'year in the life' tale. And Feinstein keeps going back to the well! - 2006 saw Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four, a look at 2005's teams. 2000 saw a look at NCAA basketball in the lower echelons - The Last Amateurs: Playing for Glory and Honor in Division I College Basketball. 1999 saw A March to Madness: A View from the Floor in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a look at the 1996-7 season of the powerhouse ACC (which includes North Carolina, Duke, NC State etc). And in 2005 Feinstein even set his first crack at fiction, a teen mystery, at the Final Four tournament: Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery.

Oh, and by the way, my bracket has Kansas winning!

(Photo of Paul Kane Blues celebrating Provincial Championship courtesy Lyle Aspinall and the St. Albert Gazette)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Childhood's End

Arthur C. Clarke, the last of the Big Three of Science Fiction (Robert Heinlein, d. 1988; Isaac Asimov, d. 1992) died March 19th at age 90. He is most well-known as the author of the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, due to the success of the Stanley Kubrick-directed film. Clarke co-wrote the screenplay of the film with Kubrick. And the novel grew from a story, "The Sentinel", Clarke published in 1948.

Somehow over the years I missed seeing 2001, the film, or reading 2001, the novel. But Clarke was one of my favourites when I went through the teenage boy sci-fi reading phase that I think many of us Generation X'ers went through in the 70s. A splendid obituary/tribute to Clarke by Andrew Leonard in Salon speaks to exactly this demographic - about the cheap, yellowing paperbacks of Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama or Asimov's I, Robot and Foundation.

Childhood's End (1953) is considered his best, and I agree. I received a hardcover edition of it when I was 12 or so, and I vividly remember that novel blowing my young mind!
It set the bar for the aliens-invade-Earth genre, with its vivid opening scene of giant spaceships appearing one day over all Earth's cities. Its tale of humankind evolving into a new life form was thought-provoking, and was marred only slightly by my Grade 10 English teacher pushing Christianity into the story. Of course, now I wonder if it influenced the writers of the Left Behind series about "The Rapture".

The Library has a good selection of his books, including the giant The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke - from 1937's "Travel by Wire!" to "Improving the Neighbourhood" from 1999.

Monday, March 17, 2008

At Swim-Two-Birds

It was delightful to pick up the Globe & Mail book section on Saturday and see a favourite and pretty obscure book suggested for St. Patrick's Day: At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien. John Brady recommends all of O'Brien's books, and calls An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), published in Irish/Gaelic only, "his funniest, I believe, and his best". But on this side of the pond most know him for his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1938):
"a riotously comic deconstruction of narrative voices and character. With three different openings, the book was a blow of savage glee aimed at the novel form. With its extensive use of Irish mythology and stories, it was also a lit firecracker rolled under the dining table of the arrivistes of the new Ireland, marinating in the leftovers of Celtic Revival, and exchanging pieties ladled from a witches' brew of Irish Catholicism and tribal nationalism."
Or as I would put it: it's quite funny. Our Library copy is a battered Penguin paperback, but I'm glad we have a copy at all. Only Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge public libraries appear to own a copy of this classic. By the way, the cover pictured above is not from the Library's edition, and it is quite a wretched looking cover, but I liked the cover blurb by Dylan Thomas: "This is just the book to give your sister if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl!"

Globe TV critic and writer John Doyle - a funny man himself - called At Swim-Two-Birds the "second-greatest Irish novel of the last century" next to Ulysses, in a glowing review of At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill. Doyle wrote that this big 2001 novel is "the great Irish gay novel".

John Doyle's 2005 memoir, A Great Feast of Light: Growing Up Irish in the Television Age is another fine choice for St. Patrick's Day reading. Doyle, born in the small Irish town of Nenagh (near Limerick) in 1957, wrote of how TV changed Ireland when he was growing up, bringing the world to isolated rural Ireland and loosening the steel grip of the Church upon the land.

At Swim-Two-Birds reviewer John Brady is the author of the Matt Minogue mystery novels. Brady is a Canadian of Irish heritage, and he sets his Minogue novels in Ireland. Matt Minogue is a detective with the Dublin Garda who readers first met in 1988's A Stone of the Heart. The Minogue mysteries are very well-written but dark looks at the new Ireland of today. About the latest, the 8th Minogue novel, Islandbridge (2005), the Globe's crime fiction reviewer, Margaret Cannon, noted: "takes his talent to new heights, and this is sure to be one of the top books of the year, must reading".

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Natashas

"No, seriously - the guy's a total spitzer."
Disgraced ex-NY governor Eliot Spitzer may be out of a job but he may be providing a new word for us all. According to Kaganoff's Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History "Spitzer" simply means "from Spitz, a town in Austria". But it has the sound and feel of a word from last century, a Yiddish word in the same neighbourhood as shlemiel (a loser), shlep (someone unkempt), shmo (a fool) and of course shmuck* and putz* (a fool, a jerk). Already the online slang dictionary, the Urban Dictionary has a few suggestions for spitzer, including my favourite:
"To unexpectedly -- and spectacularly -- destroy your career in a single act so obviously wrong that having someone tell you "you should know better" would be blatantly redundant."
Missing from the above definition is any reference to the specific "single act" that destroyed Spitzer's career, namely hiring a prostitute. And Mr. Moral Crusader hiring a prostitute! Oy!

Despite the yawning chasm between his words and his deeds, Spitzer has defenders. Harvard law professor prostitution is a victimless crime. He argues that "these may be sins, but there are no real victims..." in a piece entitled "Spitzer Has Sinned, But It’s Our Sex Obsession That’s Criminal" in the Jewish Daily Forward.

Dershowitz enjoys the role of iconoclast I think, and his opinion is outnumbered by those who may not care so much as to the criminality of the situation, but certainly do care about a man holding high office that apparently considered the buying of women no big deal - just another object to be packaged and shipped.

One of the strongest pieces in this respect was "The Myth of the Victimless Crime" by Melissa Farley and Victor Malarek in the NY Times. They noted:
"Whether the woman is in a hotel room or on a side street in someone’s car, whether she’s trafficked from New York to Washington or from Mexico to Florida or from the city to the suburbs, the experience of being prostituted causes her immense psychological and physical harm. And it all starts with the buyer."
And Victor Malarek knows what he is talking about. He is the well-known Canadian investigative journalist, with years as reporter on CBC's The Fifth Estate. In 2003 he published the results of four years of research into the global prostitution business in his book, The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade. The Natashas is an angry polemic about the thousands of young women from Eastern and Central Europe lured and forced into prostitution with the economic chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1991. Malarek focuses on the buyers and traffickers of these women, and decries the complacency of western governments in this widespread abuse of human rights.

In Canada, especially in Vancouver and Edmonton, we are well aware that prostitution is not victimless, with the number of missing and murdered women in both cities. Maggie de Vries gave one of these women a face in her award-winning 2003 memoir of her sister, Sarah de Vries - Missing Sarah: A Vancouver Woman Remembers Her Vanished Sister. Elizabeth Hudson's 2004 memoir Snow Bodies: One Woman's Life on the Streets describes her years as a prostitute in 1970s Calgary and Vancouver.

Variants in the so-called oldest profession are described in other recent books. Legalized prostitution is covered in Brothel: Mustang Ranch and its Women by Alexa Albert (2001). Albert spent years interviewing and researching the lives of the women at the now-closed Las Vegas brothel, and in this book presents the women as real people with lives and dreams like the rest of us. The high-priced "call girl" world of Mr. Spitzer is covered in Jeannette Angel's 2004 memoir, Callgirl: Confessions of an Ivy League Lady of Pleasure.

While the Alberta boom must be pulling more people into the trade, James Gray's ground-breaking 1971 book, Red Lights on the Prairies shows that it goes back a long way. The settlement of the Prairies was not all "peace, order and good government" presided over by upstanding Mounties. Gray's social history looked at the unspoken-of side of the early history of cities such as Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton, focusing on alcohol and prostitution. I wonder if the map of pre-First World War Edmonton, showing the brothels in Old Town, around Jasper Ave and Kinistino (96th), Nayamo (97th) and McDougall (100th) streets might still be accurate here in 2008?

* Yes, I realize that the origin of these two words makes them vulgar, even obscene, to some. But I think here in 2008 they have become normalized and have lost some of their offensive power. Or at least I hope so! Check out Leo Rosten's Hooray for Yiddish! for a discussion of this.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Big Screen Country

Hollywood on the banks of the Sturgeon River - that's St. Albert this week. No, really! An episode of an upcoming NBC TV series, Fear Itself, is being filmed at sites downtown, near the Library. At lunch today they were filming a scene across the St. Albert Place lobby from the Library's front door. The TV show is a suspense and horror anthology, with each episode directed and starring different people. The episode filming here, Community, is about a young couple who find a perfect house in a seemingly idyllic town (St. Albert!) but soon find out the niceness of the town comes at a cost.
The episode is directed by Canadian-born Mary Harron (American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page) and stars Brandon Routh and Shiri Appleby. Routh starred as Superman in Superman Returns (2006).

Edmonton and Alberta have had their place in the sun of late, with the The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt, out last year, and Brokeback Mountain in 2005. But in general it has been a bumpy road for the Alberta film industry since the government cuts of the 1990s, notably the 1996 termination of the AMPDC (Alberta Motion Picture Development Corporation) by Dr. Steve West, Alberta Minister of Economic Development.

An inside account of the rise and fall, the boom and bust of the Alberta film industry is told by Bill Marsden in his 2004 memoir, Big Screen Country: Making Movies in Alberta. Marsden's involvement with Alberta film goes back to "Alberta's first homegrown feature-film project, Wings of Chance", filmed in Edmonton and Jasper in 1959. In 1981 Marsden was appointed Alberta Film Commissioner, and during his tenure helped build the industry, including bringing major Hollywood shoots like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) to the province. Marsden writes about important Alberta films through the years, like Why Shoot the Teacher? (1976) and Bye Bye Blues (1988).

Why Shoot the Teacher? was the result of Edmontonian Fil Fraser's epic work in producing an Alberta film, from financing to writing to casting to filming. Fraser continued on as an important cultural maven in Edmonton and Canada. He wrote about his experiences in his 2003 book, Alberta's Camelot: Culture & the Arts in the Lougheed Years. Fraser looks back fondly on how the Lougheed government supported arts and culture in the 1970s and 80s, not just monetarily - although that was crucial - but personally, morally.

Perhaps our newly elected premier has read Fraser's book? At the announcement of a new Alberta cultural policy ("The Spirit of Alberta") just before the election call, with Peter and Jeanne Lougheed in attendance, Premier Stelmach noted that the new policy would build on what Lougheed started (an implied criticism of the intervening 22 years of Getty and Klein). The expanded definition of "culture" is somewhat ominous ("
heritage, the environment, sports and recreation, and even innovation in business ...") but the Premier did promise to increase the funding for the Alberta Foundation of the Arts by 30% and - coming full circle on this post - an additional $1.6 million for the Alberta Film Development Program.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Baltimore's Mansion

Great Big Sea were playing at the Calgary Folk Fest years ago ('97?), before I moved back to Alberta. I had one or two of the early CDs from trips to PEI and thought they were a fairly obscure Newfoundland Celtic band. But as the time approached for GBS to appear on the main stage, more and more people kept crowding in, many directly from the beer tent at the back of the listening area. And when GBS hit the stage it was like the Rolling Stones had arrived, with people rushing to the front and dancing from the first note. I figured it out when singer Alan Doyle yelled something like "Is there anyone from Newfoundland here today?" and an enormous, thunderous roar rose from the crowd. Yup, those expatriate Newfoundlanders and Labradorans (aka Newfies) really, really know how to support their own!

Perhaps the Canadian Literature Centre at the U of A hopes to get a little of that legendary Newfoundlander support with the second annual Kreisel Lecture tonight, March 5. Presenting will be noted Newfoundlander novelist and non-fiction writer, Wayne Johnson. And Johnson will be talking about Newfoundland in particular, speaking on "The Old Lost Land of Newfoundland: Memory, Family, Fiction and Myth."

The Kreisel Lecture is presented on March 5, 2008 at 7:30 pm at the Timms Centre (located at 87 Ave and 112 St - across from the campus Earl's). A reception and book signing will follow.

Johnston is well-known as the author of many fabulous, including the novels: The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998), The Navigator of New York (2002), and The Custodian of Paradise (2006). Closest to the theme of his lecture would be his excellent memoir, Baltimore's Mansion (1999).

The Dark Side

Politics is a helluva way to make a living. The pay is crappy, the hours are long, and the abuse is constant. And no matter how great a job you may be doing or how hard you are working, you could be out of work at the next election if the wind blows a different direction.

The harsh reality of political life was shown on Monday with the landslide win of Ed Stelmach and the PC party. The overwhelming wave took out some effective politicians from the opposition benches, in particular Dave Eggen (NDP) in Edmonton-Calder and Rick Miller (Liberal) in Edmonton-Rutherford. Both good people who worked hard to make a difference both for their constituents and more broadly, for Albertans. Good luck to them and all the defeated incumbents from all parties in the future.

Given the vagaries and difficulties of political life, why do people continue to offer themselves up? Ontario journalist Steve Paikin looked into this very question in two books. In The Life: The Seductive Call of Politics (2001) he wrote about the lure of politics - the upside. He spoke to nearly a hundred politicians about their motivations, including Peter Lougheed, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell and William Davis.

In a followup book, The Dark Side: The Personal Price of a Political Life (2003), Paikin wrote about the downside of politics, the crushing lows that have devastated some politicians. He talked to dozens of politicians and writes fascinating profiles of many of them, including Albertans like Nancy McBeth (former Alberta Liberal leader) and Joe Clark (former Prime Minister).

Joe Clark is an especially interesting case, for he saw some great highs and deep lows in his long career in Canadian politics. And by the time he retired (for the second or third time I think) from active politics he was one of the most-respected of Canadian politicians.

Anyone interested in hearing more about Joe Clark and the political life should attend the second session of the University of Alberta's Prime Ministers Conversation Series, coming up on March 12th at the Horowitz Theatre on campus. The first session, with Jean Chrétien, was excellent. It is great that U of A is showing our former prime ministers some respect, for we're generally pretty hard on our former PMs (certainly compared to the US where former Presidents are demi-gods who are asked to play useful roles from time to time). Just look at the title of a recent book about the Prime Ministers for an example: Bastards and Boneheads: Canada's Glorious Leaders... by Will Ferguson.

Joe Clark has yet to write his memoirs, but his wife, Maureen McTeer touches on Joe's career in her memoir, In My Own Name (2003). Did you know Joe is 13 years older than Maureen? 2007 saw memoirs from two PM giants: Memoirs: 1939-1993 by Brian Mulroney and My Years as Prime Minister by Jean Chrétien. Time and Chance (1996) are the memoirs of Kim Campbell, Canada's first woman Prime Minister. Pierre Trudeau's Memoirs (1993) was much too light for political junkies certainly compared to the triple volume memoirs of the PM that hired Trudeau, Lester Pearson: Mike: the Memoirs of the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson (1972).