Monday, September 29, 2014


During my first year of art college, I moved into a plushy apartment coloured in pastels. The one piece of décor that seemed out of place was a framed print of Alex Colville’s Horse and Train hanging in the living room. To say that it was juxtaposed to its surroundings would be an understatement. Then immersed in superhero comic books, I never considered that the image, or the Colville's body of work, would go on to affect me the way it has.

Completed in 1954, Colville has described Horse and Train as “the skeleton key to all my paintings." It was inspired by lines of prose by South African poet Roy Campbell (1901-1957): “Against a regiment, I oppose a brain / And a dark horse against an iron train”. The horse is turned away from the viewer, inviting the audience to project themselves and their empathy onto it. It becomes an Everyman: a student in Tiananmen Square, a force of Nature opposing an industrial revolution, a general symbol of subversity and struggle. Not only is the image easy to identify with, it is perhaps impossible not to.

A new book has come out on Colville, little more than a year after his death and serving as accompaniment to an exhibit at the AGO. Both book and exhibit are ambitious in that they strive to nail down exactly what gives the artwork such wide appeal. Comparisons are made, correctly, to the writing of Alice Munro. Both creators are essentially telling short stories of small town living, yet speaking with a more worldly perspective. There are parallels made with film as well, with examples that suggest filmmakers lift from Colville, like Wes Anderson in Moonrise Kingdom, or simply share a similar visual palette, such as the Cohen brothers. (Curiously omitted is Michael Mann’s Heat, in which there is an unmistakable tip of the hat to Colville’s Pacific in a scene with Robert De Niro.) And while works of two of Colville’s former students, Mary Pratt and Christopher Pratt, are on display alongside their late teacher at the AGO, little mention is made of the giant sphere of influence he has had on countless painters. I, myself, am one of those countless; I have found it impossible to create my own work without leaning on his influence, sometimes to a fault.

Pacific vs Heat

Doubtless, one could publish a book solely on all the artistic works which bear the Colville stamp, and, thankfully, this isn’t it. This most recent publication is, quite simply, beautiful to look at. The text is concise and one could make a strong argument that the images themselves were made to be read. For all of the accuracy and geometry behind them, the qualities that captivate us most are those of context, narrative, and the “intrinsic symbolism” that Colville was concerned with. The reproductions of the work are as perfect as one could hope for, with colours and crispness being surpassed only by the originals. Roughly half of Colville’s entire body of work was selected for this book. Beautiful photographs of his centennial coins grace the inside covers. We are also treated to intimate glimpses into the life he shared with his late wife, Rhoda, who served as model and muse for so many of his paintings.

Author-curator Andrew Hunter has implied that he wanted to ensure the lasting relevance of Colville’s images. It is doubtful that the Canadian public needed to be convinced of this at all. It is, however, highly probable that the same public will be grateful for the effort.


The musical Wicked has captured international attention and fame since its début. What audiences may not know is that the musical was based on the series of Wicked books by author Gregory Maguire. Egg and Spoon, Maguire’s latest novel, is a fairy tale in the same vein. However, readers expecting a heartwarming children’s story will be surprised to discover Maguire’s literary prowess. Egg and Spoon is unexpectedly shrewd, intricate, and philosophical, taking the reader on a journey that defies both expectation and convention.

Egg and Spoon is a rather different fairy tale. Part fantasy, part reality, the novel is “officially” set in what appears to be late 19th century Russia. Historical figures such as Fabergé, Rasputin, and an unidentified Tsar occasionally make cameo appearances. The novel is a complex intersection of human lives and Russian mythology. At the core, we have Elena and Cat, two girls at opposite ends of the economic spectrum who switch lives. Their mistaken identities set in motion an adventure which involves Russia’s greatest magical guests: a hilariously modern Baba Yaga, an ice dragon, and an enigmatic Firebird. Throughout the novel, Maguire dispenses idiosyncratic tidbits of wacky wisdom and moving scenes of forgiveness and reconciliation that add an unexpected but welcome depth to the story. It is a novel of discovery, coming of age, humanity, children, loss, and the bizarre. Above all, it is a novel that is unabashedly quirky, charming, and fun.

Egg and Spoon’s fairy tale premise is deceptively simple. However, its scope is as vast as Russia’s landscape and the imagery is dynamic and fantastical. Matryoshka dolls, talking animals, snow-swept cliffs, and multi-coloured gowns abound, whisking the reader to a world that is stunning in its conception. Who knows if Baba Yaga is real or if Firebirds still lay eggs? After reading Egg and Spoon, Maguire’s masterful writing convinces us that at the very least, the magic of storytelling and great writing are certainly still very real.

Mike Fan is a Chinese-Canadian classical baritone. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three languages (with a few in progress). He holds degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, but it was obvious from an early age that music would win out. On the literary side, Mike wrote 365 sonnets in his teens and writes for his poetry blog Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.


The debut novel from English broadcaster Caitlin Moran is the coming of age story of 14 year old Johanna Morrigan, who lives with her family in a council house in Wolverhampton. After shaming herself on local television, she decides to re-invent herself as Dolly Wilde, music reviewer for a national music paper. This is the story of how she achieves her goals, grows up, and finally starts living her life. 

For anyone who has been an adolescent girl, this book will strike a chord! Moran gives us an inside view of an adolescent girl's hopes, dreams and aspirations, and the impatience that goes with those lofty yearnings. When you’re 14 years old, you suddenly realize that life is passing you by. When will it be your turn to be in the spotlight? Your parents telling you that you have to grow into yourself doesn’t make sense, and so you try to hurry the process along. This is the basis of Moran’s book, and she captures the essence of the time and sensations exactly right.

Growing up in Britain in the Maggie Thatcher days in an industrial wasteland, with unemployment at an all-time high, and alcoholism on the rise, was not an easy time. This is the world of Johanna, her four siblings, her long-suffering mother trying to make ends meet, and her alcoholic, washed-up musician, on-the-dole father. But everyone had access to the local library where books and music tapes could be taken out at no cost. The story of Johanna, her struggles and determination to make a path for herself are brilliantly written and communicated to the reader. I laughed out loud while reading this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who has adolescent daughters and wishes to gain an insight into their lives, or people who  love coming-of-age stories brilliantly written!

- Catherine McGratton

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Operation Shakespeare is an engaging thriller that delves into the murky and dangerous underworld of the black market arms trade. It starts in the streets and alleys of a city near Baghdad, Iraq, where the members of Outkast Patrol confront the explosive proliferation of IEDs planted by Taliban insurgents. IEDs have killed or injured thousands of soldiers on patrol in Iraq; a troubling irony is that many of these devices are manufactured with control circuits containing US electronic parts, illegally sourced through intermediaries by Iran and smuggled into the field in Iraq.

Author John Shiffman has written a tightly interwoven and superbly crafted thriller that spans the globe. A complex web of entanglements stretches between Iran, Iraq, Germany, Switzerland Dubai, Georgia, Canada, the UK and the United States. Spies, government officials, bankers, brokers, shippers and warehousing firms conspire to enable rogue regimes to acquire classified military technology, weapons, electronics and whole vehicles, including airplanes, Humvees and helicopters. What is most astonishing about Operation Shakespeare, however, is that while it reads like the kind of thriller you would normally expect from Tom Clancy or John Le Carré, every word is true.

In 2009, John Shiffman was a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was one of the reporters who broke the story of an international sting that resulted in the arrest of an Iranian national lured to Georgia and subsequently deported to the United States to face charges of violating laws prohibiting the export of military technology. Amir Ardebili was one of hundreds of Iranian brokers actively engaged in circumventing export restrictions to procure technology on behalf of the Iranian military, negotiating for the purchase of millions of dollars of radar equipment, airplane parts, night vision technology, gyroscopes and computer chips. He leveraged money brokers to route funds through banks in Germany and Switzerland, and arranged transhipments through free ports like Dubai and Georgia, in a complex effort to circumvent trade embargoes and conceal Iran as the ultimate purchaser.

In writing Operation Shakespeare, John Shiffman has done a masterful job of researching the events that led up to the arrest of Ardebili. He conducted numerous interviews with virtually every major player, from US government sources to Ardebili himself. He takes the reader inside the investigation, the sting and the ultimate arrest of a major player in the black market arms trade. Shiffman does a masterful job of describing the shadow world of the black market as it actually exists, and illustrating how prohibited transactions leverage deception, duplicity, ignorance and a willing blind eye to fuel a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars. What I most enjoyed is how Shiffman has leveraged extensive research and interviews to paint a vivid picture of actual events that is more complex and intriguing—and ultimately more disturbing because of it—than some of the best fictional thrillers. 

If you enjoy your thrillers with more than a grain of plausibility, or are curious about the extensive machinations involved in sustaining conflicts on the world stage, then Operation Shakespeare is definitely worth the read.

Mark Mullaly is an avid reader, sometimes writer, enthusiastic motorcyclist and lover of wine (and endeavours to engage in only one of these pursuits at any given time).


Wow. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is such a beautiful book. I truly can’t believe that this is McBride’s first novel. It is written with the talent and expertise of a practiced novelist. I was skeptical of this book at first; it has very serious subject matter, and is written in a very unique way that I have not personally experienced before.

The main character experiences many traumas in her childhood, mostly through her family. Her brother's poor health is one of the main issues. She is extremely close to her brother and his troubling health severely affects her throughout the book. Overall, this is a story of growing up and finding one's self. Every person struggles with difficulties in their life, and this book simply shows a young girl just trying to figure out where she stands in this constantly changing world.

McBride uses her flow of words, spelling and even the use of capitals to bring complex emotion into her writing. At first I was skeptical about the writing style but soon enough I was entranced by the poetic works. For example, when the main character is coping with particularly dark things in her life, the use of capitalization becomes erratic and words are repeated. It makes the reader feel the panic and distress of the character.

I recommend this book to anyone who reads poetry, to anyone who struggled in their childhood and teen years to find who they are, and I do want to acknowledge that the book can be dark at times, so I don’t recommend it for children and young teens. I cannot wait for McBride’s next novel to come out, because her writing is so emotionally driven. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is definitely one of my favourite books I have read so far this year.

Wesley Wilson is a zoology student at the University of Guelph and works on campus at a microbiology lab. When Wesley isn’t studying away, she spends most of her time reading. Anna Karenina is her favourite book, but she enjoys reading a variety of different genres.

Monday, September 15, 2014


Young children are inquisitive and question every aspect their world. Their perceptiveness and curiosity make them at once startlingly profound and naïve. Joseph Kertes precisely captures this paradox in The Afterlife of Stars. Following the two Beck brothers, we enter this dreamlike world of children. It’s a world where everything is new and brilliant and intense. Everything is questioned and becomes an existential experiment – yet underneath all of this innocent joie de vivre rumbles sinister and stark reality.           

The Afterlife of Stars plunges the reader headlong into dark 1956, when Russia crushes the Hungarian Revolution. Surprisingly, we witness the terror and uncertainty of the times through two playful young brothers, Robert and Attila. The boys’ previous generation were Holocaust survivors and unrest rumbles around them daily. Yet, like any children, they are grappling with apparently more pressing dilemmas – their blooming sexualities, family secrets, and parental power struggles. The poignant brilliance The Afterlife of Stars comes from the aching innocence of the boys. Their unassuming self-centredness makes their losses and disillusionments all that much more heartrending and familiar. Opera arias run parallel to their journey of self discovery, heightening the contrast between beauty and brutality.

The Afterlife of Stars is a novel of adventure, coming of age, and change as much as it is about revolution. Kertes’ personal experiences with the Hungarian Revolution are evident in his tender, sensitive, yet unabashedly realist portrait of this violent time. Laced with exquisite intelligence and enigmatic emotion, The Afterlife of Stars is a novel that deceives through its brevity but ultimately astonishes and overwhelms. It’s a story in which see our younger, confused, and wide-eyed selves; yet its world of ferocious flux takes us on a journey both disarmingly familiar and shockingly alien. Perhaps we rediscover our own humanity when we witness blameless youth amidst such terror. Kertes’ The Afterlife of Stars burns with unanswerable questions and truths, revealing more than can be answered. It is a masterwork that forces us to confront the eternal truth that tragedy and loss render even the sagest adult back at square one once more.

Mike Fan is a Canadian classical baritone. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three and a half languages. He holds degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, but it was obvious from an early age that music would win out. On the literary side, Mike wrote 365 sonnets in his teens and writes for his poetry blog Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.


Mitchell Stephens' Imagine There's No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create The Modern World is another superbly written and conceived discussion of Atheism, very much in line with the recent appearance of several books by the pundits of atheist thinking like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.

Stephens' pungent and eloquent style allows him to retain great clarity in discussing this very contentious subject. His characterizations are finely nuanced and there is no sign of any cavalier attitude or sense of superciliousness or assumed superiority. Indeed there is less in this new study of gleefully throwing unanswerable squibs at the beliefs of religionists, that has been the wont occasionally of Dawkins, Harris, and more recently PZ Meyers. But such challenges do also accumulate as the various thinkers and their arguments are considered in their subsequent perspectives throughout history.

Stephens keeps his cool by structuring this new and very informative study on a cumulative articulation of the historical buildup of atheistic reasoning since its earliest traces at the dawn of Greek Philosophy, identifying many of the original framers of the mindset starting with the skeptics. Many examples of atheistic arguments have had to be re-constructed from ancient debates that resulted in an official vindication of spiritual belief, and thus the condemnation of the atheistic author, frequently resulting in his removal or death.

Although he does not dwell on this issue, it is clear that the further we go back in the history of these dissenting atheistic opinions, the more dangerous it was for any individual to be harbouring them. It took the buildup of some sense of tolerance on the subject in any given society to happen before any kind of meaningful discussion could take place. The issue with tolerance becomes a crucial theme here.

Stephens begins to identify virtuous and vicious cycles of historical-social development  that impacted the development in understanding and discussing unbelief. Either a given society was interested in learning, observation and rational discussion, which allowed atheistic ideas to flourish, or a society was closed-minded, authoritarian and ideologically religious which was not only dangerous for such ideas but for the individuals having them.

Although so much ink has recently been spilled over the ideas about belief, even in how belief itself works, Imagine There's No Heaven manages to come up with fresh material and fruitful discussions that help in understanding some complex issues. Stephens' primary position that skepticism of a supernatural reality or afterlife comes from a positive assessment of life and enjoyment of being alive, (which he calls Anacreontic after Anacreon who first articulated this concept : "Eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow you may die…"), avoids the characterization of the atheistic stance as a negative position. The way he puts it makes it obvious it is the religionists who are the first ones to do the denying of the obvious positive presence of subjective earthly life. All thoughts to the contrary remain unprovable.

This study becomes really absorbing during the Enlightenment, especially in France at the end of the 18th Century, with a close description of the various schools of thought that sprang up before the French Revolution in the intellectual Paris salons of Baron d'Holbach, and the writings of the encyclopedist Denis Diderot. Many minor figures are identified in their various contributions and Stephens is always very careful to distinguish each thinker, making it clear if they are deist, agnostic, or atheist, thereby making us appreciate the fine points of those arguments. He also makes it clear that the mayhem of the French Revolution, though informed by atheistic attitudes, was not actually fuelled by atheism, but by complex historical forces beyond its purview. Atheism has often been burdened by linking it with the destructive side of revolutions, but he does not shy away from these political connections and deals extensively with the role of atheism in the development of revolutionary thought especially in the United States. 

Stephens' history finally brings us to our own age, where he cites Dawkins et al for their important popular contributions to the topic. He considers the modern forms of secularism and defines a new form of soft secularism, where increasing numbers of people espouse vague, non-compelling spiritual concepts in the place of old-fashioned, firm, dogmatic beliefs. Beliefs that might as well not really be there beyond wanting to 'do good.'

Through all the vicissitudes of support recorded in various demographic surveys throughout the modern age, he is able to determine a gradual increase in people who try to do their thinking free from supernatural constraints. Any who agree may hope it is a growing trend.

Michael Doleschell keeps mostly to non-fiction, and is deeply devoted to music and culture and never tires of history, and is fascinated by science and the scientific method [as long as they are well explained]. He broadcasts a program of Classical Music for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon from noon till 3 on the U of G's Radio Station: CFRU. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014


I got chills reading the last pages of Michael Crummey's Sweetland. Real chills. Okay, okay, I was outside when I finished it, but they weren't cold chills. They were beauty chills mixed in with the eerie turn of the conclusion of this most excellent novel.

The eerie-ness pervades the novel as our protagonist, Moses Sweetland, after refusing to leave Sweetland Island (yes, they share the name) along with the rest of its inhabitants (bought-out by the smarmy government man), finds himself alone... or is he? Not actually that dun, dun, dun dramatic: the quasi-supernatural elements of the text read as entirely believable, if also wholly unsettling. Another way of putting it: the "realist" portrayal of the Island already reads as magical and out-of-time and so when eerie things begin happening the reader accepts these moments as what they are: eerie and entirely possible in the space/place of Sweetland.

Sweetland as space/place is some great setting. The Island assumes its own character with a personality that is alternately forgiving and vengeful. If you weren't already contemplating a trip to Newfoundland (as I am!), the representation of the expanse and the mystery might well have you planning.

Minor quibble? Descriptions of some of the "action" plot moments were a bit too heady for me to follow. I couldn't quite visualize where people were and what they were doing and so just accepted that Things Were Going Wrong, read the descriptions, then waited for the description of the outcome to really piece together what happened. There aren't many of these moments, but when they do happen this reader felt a little left out of the action, particularly as these moments occurred in climactic scenes.

On reflection, part of my feeling of being left out might be purposeful: I am not from/of Newfoundland. These slightly muddy descriptions happened in boats and on rocks. It's not impossible that my confusion stems from not knowing enough about boats and Newfoundland geography. Perhaps these moments are a way of echoing one of the themes of the novel, that is that those of/from Newfoundland will always have a special connection to the land that others will not. In this way these moments of dislocation for the Ontario-reader are a way of letting me know what it feels like to leave/be forced out of Newfoundland. 

The character, setting and plot of this book are beautiful and magical. Another brilliant read from Crummey. Enjoy!

When's she not reading, Erin Aspenlieder is teaching, running or eating cookies (sometimes all at once). She prefers fiction and books made of paper. She blogs at

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Artists, the American poet Ezra Pound wrote, are the antennae of the race. I had just finished a passage in Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle that describes an environmental catastrophe when, turning on the radio to listen to the news, I was eerily surprised to hear the first breaking reports about the tailings-pond spill at the Mount Polley mine in central B.C. If King is going to show this degree of prescience, I thought, he needs to be very careful what he writes about.

The results of a tailing pond breach at Imperial Metals Corp’s gold and copper mine, which released millions of cubic meters of water and waste. Photograph: Reuters

The Back of the Turtle, King’s much-anticipated new literary novel, echoes some of the themes King explored in his 2003 Massey Lecture series, The Truth About Stories. You may recall that King began each of his lectures with a story about the earth floating on the back of a turtle. Asked what the turtle stands on, the answer is that the turtle stands on the back of another turtle. Asked what the second turtle stands on, the eventual reply is that “it’s turtles all the way down.” That seems a whimsical way of describing the world’s foundation, but these are, after all, not physical turtles, but story turtles, and King’s ultimate point in his lectures is that “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” (Mind you, in the era of virtual reality, credit default swaps, and Bitcoin, “turtles all the way down” can seem as much warning as whimsy.)

What would happen if all those turtles disappeared? That’s the question King explores in The Back of the Turtle, and the question cuts a number of ways. Environmentally, as negligence leads to an ecological disaster that wipes out all the turtles and most other life near the west coast community of Samaritan Bay, including the residents of the now-abandoned Smoke River reserve. Economically, as King shifts his setting to corporate Toronto to explore how skewed conceptions of what the bottom line really is lead to tragic consequences. Ethically, as Gabriel Quinn, a research scientist gone AWOL, returns to the town he helped to destroy for the purpose of destroying himself.

From Yertle the Turtle
And, finally, spiritually. One of the recurring pleasures of King’s works is his gift for interweaving oral tradition and modern narrative, and a motif woven throughout his novel is the creation story of the woman who fell from the sky. After accidentally digging  a hole in the sky, the woman tumbles through space until she falls onto a watery earth, landing on the back of a turtle. There she, the animals she encounters, and her twin sons work together to create the world. Historian of religion Mircea Eliade wrote that creation stories are not accounts of how the world was once created but are in fact descriptions of how it is re-created every moment. But the avaricious contemporary world of King’s novel has emptied itself of both turtles and stories. Lacking those foundations, it’s no surprise that creation begins to unravel.

As in his other work, King here handles things with a characteristically deft touch, a wry sensibility that unfolds these issues through characters that intrigue and affect us: Nicholas Crisp, a salty, Pan-like resident of Samaritan Bay who speaks in an archaic dialect and can’t resist a nautical turn of phrase; Mara, an artist determined to face old ghosts and re-establish her life on the reserve; and Sonny, a reclusive boy whose attention is divided between obsessive hammering, combing the beach for salvage, and building a beacon to call life back to Samaritan Bay (and whose Daddy issues definitely take a capital D).

Even Dorian Asher, the CEO of Domidion, a biotechnology and resource extraction company responsible for multiple environmental crises, is on the one hand a repellant personification of corporate malfeasance and on the other, with his worries about his marriage, his obsession with style and fashion, and his pathetic inability to choose between two thousand-dollar watches, a complex, perhaps even bizarrely amiable embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. But unlike Eichmann, who was embedded in the Nazi system, Dorian is embedded in western consumerism. Like Arendt, King is suggesting that the roots of evil are complex and that evil-doers are perhaps not so different from us as we would wish. The implication is that, faced with environmental catastrophe, what is needed is not merely an easy demonization of someone else but a broad survey of the shared landscape and a penetrating, if discomfiting, look in the mirror.

The Back of the Turtle explores questions of recovery, both environmental and personal, and shows the two to be intrinsically linked to each other and to story-telling. Gabriel and Mara struggle to weave their broken histories into coherent stories they can tell themselves and others, and then to relate their stories to larger narratives that will provide a foundation for rebuilding the world. Like most oral tales, King’s is, to quote Native American scholar and writer Louis Owens, both the telling of a story and the story of a telling.

In The Back of the Turtle an abandoned, rusty barge freighted with deadly cargo drifts randomly through the oceans and the story. Like an ecological Flying Dutchman, it eludes capture and is a constant, foreboding presence. Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once defined reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Fatigued or overwhelmed, we may shut our eyes to the future environmental consequences of our actions, but still they drift out there in the fog, ready to grind up inescapably on the shoals when we least expect it. And when we try to dodge awareness of our actions’ consequences, we also lose the past in which we acted, finding ourselves stranded in an ungrounded present. In Thomas King’s novel, only those characters who stare the past full in the face and bravely tell or sing their stories can hope to re-create the world, for stories, though they are made of air, are the turtles on which the world stands.

Bruce Dadey is a devotee of all things literary, including poetry, essays, fiction, and graphic novels. He teaches in the English Department at the University of Waterloo.