Wednesday, January 21, 2015


The last memoir that I recall reading was The Inner Voice, penned by the American operatic soprano Renée Fleming. Dubbed as the “auto-biography” of her voice, it begins in St. Petersburg as her luggage is checked by bomb-sniffing dogs before a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky for a gala. Elena Ghorokhova’s latest memoir Russian Tattoo is altogether a different beast. Interestingly enough, it begins in reverse. In the 80’s, St. Petersburg is called Leningrad and the memoir begins in the air - as a young Elena flies from her native Russia to America. Rather than charting a glamorous professional life, in Russian Tattoo Ghorokhova chronicles her struggles as a culture-shocked immigrant. The result is candidly intimate and deeply moving.

In the Soviet Union of the 1980s, Elena’s life in Russia is not easy. Daily routines include hostile lines for food, a distant mother, and a society in which the word privacy does not exist. In order to escape her constricted life, at twenty-four, Elena, partly impulsive and partly desperate, marries an American who whisks her away to the US. However, this is real life – Elena’s life – and not a Hollywood blockbuster. We witness step by step her poignant struggle through this new American existence. We witness romantic and familial heartbreaks as well as personal failures in the face of a strange new way of life. We see how hard it is to understand the concept of buying new shoes and eating a hamburger. We see how confusing it is to mature into adulthood while comprehending a world which is completely alien. We see her mature into a mother herself, watching the fall of the Soviet Union from afar, seeing rebellion bloom in her own Americanized daughter, and dealing with loss.

At the Bookshelf, I recently I saw two films: The Immigrant and Boyhood. Reading Russian Tattoo paints a reality of immigrating to the US less glamorous and dramatic than The Immigrant yet no less moving. Russian Tattoo also portrays the infinite complexities and temporal scope of coming-of-age that Boyhood deals with; yet Russian Tattoo rings with more of the indescribable nostalgic Russian toska Ghorokhova describes herself in her novel. Ghorokhova’s memoir is a memoir about life, a real life – what could be more moving and bewildering and amusing as real life itself? Ultimately, the last few pages of Russian Tattoo brought tears to eyes, a rarity with books that perhaps should not be such a rarity. It is a profoundly personal and honest memoir which forces us to examine our own relationships and experiences (and perhaps makes us wish we had documented them in such a beautiful and brilliant way). It rings with intelligence, wit, and wisdom yet is also unabashed in its vulnerability, questioning, and searching.

I am a child of two immigrants myself and have often pondered questions of identity, belonging, and homelessness. As I read Ghorokhova’s Russian Tattoo, I saw myself in her passages describing leftover hoarding, cultural ambiguity, and the futility of battling excessive North American waste. How remarkable is it that I can pick up a book by a woman, writer, and professor that I have never met and see myself reflected through the lens of her life? I urge you to read Russian Tattoo and to discover this marvelous person named Elena, perhaps to find that she isn’t so different from yourself.

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.

Monday, January 19, 2015


When Mark Carney, head of the Bank of England, opined on the September 2014 independence referendum in Scotland by saying, “A currency union is incompatible with sovereignty,” he might well have been reiterating the position held by his former employer, the Bank of Canada, during the 1995 Quebec referendum. In fact, the Scottish referendum had many echoes of its Canadian counterpart.

Two books, both published in the fall of 2014, provide vivid reminders of our recent history. Since no statute of limitations expired to cause this dual assessment of a 20-year-old event, what could possibly account for their appearance within weeks of each other? Some speculate that another referendum was being considered, motivating the authors to remind us all of the story that came before. Others disagree, saying support for separatism is clearly at an all time low.

Author Chantel Hébert’s position is that only now, 20 years later – with the prospect of Quebec sovereignty put “on indefinite hold” as the election of April 2014 ousted the Parti Québécois after only eighteen months, giving the Liberals a majority government – only now can the actual experience of the day of the referendum be reflected upon without those reflections also being interpreted as setting the stage for a new battle at the ballot box.

Save for one, Hébert’s collection of interviews conducted in 2012 are all with elected officials (from both sides of the issue), being asked specifically how they planned for a federalist defeat. The result is a straight-talkin’ and fast-paced account of personal experiences, just what we have come to expect of this veteran journalist (and member of the Order of Canada). Now and again, her stringing together of metaphors borders on the hilarious: on a single page it’s not “on the radar” that things won’t “turn up roses” because we have a government that isn’t apt at “walking and chewing gum at the same time” and has a small team of advisors “dropping a few balls” while everyone is “slaying a sovereignist dragon.” One of my other favourite colourful Hébert comments is about Preston Manning, criticizing Jean Chrétien after the referendum had been won: “It is a rare family that welcomes the services of a zealous undertaker after a loved one has come out of intensive care and is undergoing a fragile recovery.” The book’s subject is serious but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun to read.

Robert Wright, professor of history at Trent University’s Oshawa, Ontario, campus, also relies heavily on personal accounts of the event, but from myriad public documents, media accounts and published books, many authored by the key players themselves. The Night Canada Stood Still is much more of an historical tome, with less recent commentary and much fascinating detail. In a way, he sets the dramatic scene, teasing out a fascinating narrative, while Hébert provides the character notes and intense human emotion that brings them further to life. Taken together, the two books, far from repeating each other, only add more nuance and rich detail. The Night Canada Stood Still no doubt took much longer to write than The Morning After, pointing to no other connection than coincidence that they came out together – and were titled in an amusingly compatible way. What they both remind us of is that this critical time in Canadian history is worthy of ongoing attention.

The story of the Quebec referendum also provides some explanation for the Canada we have today, a Canada in which leaders seem more divorced from the populations that elected them, bent instead on personal power – at almost any cost, even if the cost is the very survival of the country they are charged to lead. The intensity of feeling on both sides of the referendum issue seems to have created a culture of personal ambition, one so strong that it takes precedence over listening to the people.


On October 31, 1995, Quebecers went to the polls to answer the following question, stated in both French and English: "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"

The result was shockingly close to a tie: 50.58 voted No while 49.42 voted Yes with an unprecedented turnout of almost 94% of eligible voters. Fewer than 55,000 votes separated the sides out of almost 5 million voters.

Hébert makes the case that 1995 was the culmination of a twenty-year constitutional war that consumed the energies of successive prime ministers from Quebec. This “war” is described in history books in varying ways across the nation and its important signposts can be summarised as follows:

  • It had always rankled Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that Canadians needed Britain’s approval to make changes to their constitution, owing to the fact that it had been a statute of the British Parliament – the British North America Act – that had formed Canada in 1867. Starting in the late 1970s, he proposed “bringing the constitution home”– repatriating it – and adding a charter of rights and freedoms that would protect citizens against arbitrary actions by their governments. Repatriation had broad popular support, including in Quebec where any involvement from Britain was resented. That it became so contentious is, according to most commentators, due to the premiers, especially Lévesque, seeing it as a bargaining tool to get more power for their provinces.
  • In late 1981, in an event that both authors refer to only in passing, but that had long-lasting implications for relations between Quebec and the rest of Canada, all but one premier finally voted in favour of repatriation. Most of them had opposed it for years, fearing it would transfer power from elected politicians to non-elected judges. Over the course of one eventful night, involving all premiers except Quebec’s René Lévesque who was not informed of the discussions, a deal was hammered out. Lévesque felt betrayed, a very moving scene that John English powerfully describes in the award-winning volume two of his biography of Trudeau, Just Watch Me. English quotes Levesque’s wife, Corrine Côté: “He had never been so cheated, and in a way that was thoroughly Machiavellian. He was broken. I believe that Réne died for the first time after the night of the long knives.”
  • “The night of the long knives,” evokes strong emotion. It’s the name given to Hitler’s 1934 purge of those he felt threatened his position, establishing Hitler, as he put it, as "the supreme judge of the German people.” The narrative of supreme betrayal has had staying power in Quebec, but for a surprising reason.
  • During Brian Mulroney’s time as Prime Minister, Robert Bourassa became premier of Quebec (for a second time; in 1985) and relations between the two governments improved. Bourassa gave five key "demands" for Quebec to "sign on" to the constitution. And Quebec’s participation was important: in protest of the constitution being brought home without Quebec’s consent, Quebec premiers (PQ and Liberal) abstained from voting in subsequent key proposals, such as those expanding the rights of First Nations, Métis and the Inuit. Because the new amending formula required the agreement of at least seven premiers representing fifty per cent of Canada’s population, Quebec’s absence meant an ongoing inability to make change – and ever-increasing tensions between Quebec and other provinces.
  • Bourassa’s five key demands made up the “Meech Lake Accord,” the outcome of a 1987 gathering of the prime minister and premiers at Meech Lake in the Gatineau Hills, and an attempt to normalize Quebec’s participation in the constitutional process. Unlike the repatriation effort in 1981, the Meech Lake Accord had very little public support. Hébert calls it “Canada’s most divisive constitutional failure.” But Mulroney, trying to sell it, with its “distinct society” clause for Quebec, revived the narrative of the “night of the long knives.” Ignoring the broad popular support of the time, Mulroney denounced Trudeau’s repatriation efforts as “a collective trauma” for the people of Quebec, one that had “isolated and humiliated” the province, a major error, the worst injustice, not worth the paper it was written on. As Ron Graham in his 2011 book The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada, put it, “By vilifying what had happened in November, 1981 ... Brian Mulroney and Robert Bourassa opened a Pandora's box. Out of it flew the creation of the Bloc Québécois in Ottawa, the election of a hard-line Parti Québécois government in Quebec, and the narrowly defeated referendum in 1995.”
  • After the failure of Meech (Manitoba and Newfoundland leaders did not accept it), Mario Dumont, one of Hébert’s leading characters, took a forceful role in preparing a strongly autonomist position paper, headed by Jean Allaire, then an influential member of the Quebec Liberals – the Allaire report. Dumont, in his early twenties at the time, favoured a reformed federalism rather than outright sovereignty. The report proposed that twenty-two powers would devolve from the federal government to the provinces (and the abolishment of the Senate), leaving Canada to oversee only defence, customs, currency, equalization and the management of the federal debt. This became Quebec Liberal policy in 1991 (modified to a reform, not abolishment, of the Senate). The same month, Jean Campeau and Michel Bélanger (two businessmen with opposite leanings on Quebec sovereignty) handed in the conclusions of province-wide consultations on the constitutional way forward. The report said that failing a favourable constitutional offer from the rest of Canada, Bourassa was to have a referendum on sovereignty in Quebec by fall of 1992.
  • Before the 1992 deadline arrived, Bourassa jettisoned the Allaire Report’s prescription for a massive devolution of federal powers to Quebec and decided to submit a new constitutional proposal. Joe Clark (then federal minister of intergovernmental affairs) and the other premiers had spent the better part of eighteen months trying to hammer out a substitute accord to replace Meech. Bourassa joined in late but signed off on the deal in Charlottetown in the late summer of 1992. Unlike the Meech Accord, this one provided for a referendum across Canada (two actually; Quebec held its own). It failed (Quebec 56.6% against; National 55% against): the majority of Canada's population voted against an agreement endorsed by every first minister and most other political groups, including First Nations and business women’s groups. (Significantly, Pierre Trudeau spoke out vehemently against it.)
  • This stinging rebuke against the "political class" in Canada was a preview of things to come. Having inflamed Quebecers and polarized the country, Mulroney had expended nearly all of his political capital trying to get the Charlottetown Accord passed. He resigned in June 1993. In the federal election on October 25, 1993, a year less a day after the Charlottetown referendum, the Progressive Conservatives under his successor, Kim Campbell, were reduced to two seats (Jean Charest and Elsie Wayne: Charest has the distinction of being the only francophone leader the PC party has ever had) in the worst defeat of a sitting government at the federal level. They were replaced in most Western ridings by the Reform Party and in Quebec by the Bloc Québécois, the parties who had opposed the Accord. The NDP was also decimated, winning just nine seats, partly due to its pro-Charlottetown stance. Many voters in the NDP's western heartland were angered by the NDP abandoning its previously staunchly federalist position, and turned to Reform as the new voice of western discontent. The Liberals, despite their support for the accord, had a new leader in Jean Chrétien, and won a large majority in the new Parliament due to their near-sweep of Ontario. There, only a minority of the voters who had opposed the Charlottetown Accord were willing to vote for the Reform Party.

This is the backdrop to the 1995 referendum events. The population is full of resentment of a “political class” that pursues its own agendas and gets further and further from democratic ideals. As Clyde Wells said, reflecting the view of many Canadians, “We must never again implement this process for Constitutional reform. It is impossible for the eleven first ministers to do justice to the matters they have to consider, and it is grossly unfair to the 26 million people of this nation to have their first minister closeted and making decisions in a secret way without letting them know what was at stake, and the basis of the decisions were made.” At the same time, a Prime Minister is elected who has observed the aftermath of the constitutional negotiations of the previous decades. Is it this experience of the pitfalls of opening constitutional debate that makes Chrétien seem so absent from the drama? 


There is very little in the The Night Canada Stood Still and The Morning After that offers conflicting viewpoints; rather their differences are ones of emphasis. What they both strongly agree on is the impression everyone had that Chrétien had no plan at all. He commented at various times when forced to, usually resorting to the-little-guy-from-Shawinigan quips. When Quebec premier Jaques Parizeau stepped aside to let Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, lead the Yes campaign, the majority insider reaction was one of deep fear that the No side had just suffered a major blow. Hébert says that every person she interviewed called it a “game-changer.” But Chrétien refused to be brought into the debate saying, only that the separatists could “change bus drivers” as often as they liked, but “the bus is going to separation anyway.”

So where was Chrétien? He gave every appearance of being engaged in prime ministerial duties that didn’t involve constitutional talks and certainly not discussions of separatism. When forced to engage with the debate, he played what Robert Wright calls his “master stroke.” Chrétien repeatedly asserted, “I have no mandate. ... I have been elected to protect the whole of Canada and I am the prime minister of all Canadians, including all those who live in Quebec. And I will fight for Canada.” He was also forthright in pointing out that it was not up to Quebec to decide certain things, that on the topics of citizenship, the currency and interest rates, “the Government of Canada will decide.”

It seems a bit surreal that the prime minister, his top ministers and most of the provincial premiers were not busy hammering out a strategy to deal with what had become an existential crisis for the country. But in reading about the Scottish referendum of 2014, it seems similar thinking was at work there. Watching the media coverage from afar, I read many times that to mount a concerted public attack, was paramount to acknowledging that a crisis was imminent, while carrying on as if normal was key to showing confidence in the No side.

One unintended consequence of Ottawa’s failure to focus on the pending Quebec referendum was Finance Minister, Paul Martin’s “hell or high water” budget. In discussion with Hébert, Martin says the referendum “was not on the radar.” Instead they were focused on the Mexican peso crisis and looming financial disturbances in Asia. Hébert suggests the budget may have been the most “positive collateral consequence of Ottawa’s indifference.” And Robert Wright makes the case that Martin’s budget took the steam out of Jacques Parizeau’s argument that Quebec should detach itself from an insolvent Canada. Wright calls this one of the sovereignists’ “most powerful economic arguments.”

There is much analysis to suggest that while the budget was certainly a big and bold action that gained Martin, and Canada, kudos at the time, it also added fuel to a growing movement to let the markets do the work of government, something that looks quite different now as governments have become weak, giving up their regulatory roles, and therefore their ability to protect citizens against massive corporate power. A 2004 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives book, Hell and High Water, an assessment of Paul Martin’s record, describes the case for small government that was already being promoted by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the U.S. Federal Reserve: “by scaling back the role of the state, we can make more room for the market to do what it’s ostensibly good at – making money. Less government leads to more market, which leads to more money, which leads to more prosperity and, ostensibly, reduced poverty. The moral underpinning is that this circuit leads to more prosperity for all, at least in theory. Who could be against that?”

In announcing his budget, Martin said, “[O]ver the next three fiscal years, this budget will deliver cumulative savings of $29 billion, of which $25.3 billion are expenditure cuts. This is by far the largest set of actions in any Canadian budget since demobilization
after the Second World War… Relative to the size of our economy, program spending will be lower in 1996-97 than at any time since 1951.” But in 1951 Canada didn’t have medicare or a comprehensive system of support for seniors. Neither did it have deep unemployment to contend with. While these hard-won social programs were being cut or privatised, Martin’s budget was also downloading responsibilities to provincial and municipal governments. The overall effect was to create disparity among regions of the country and to starve the growing urban areas. And Martin was determined that his changes to the way budgets were done would be lasting: “... the essence of good government is, in fact, permanent ongoing program review. And that is our intention...If government doesn’t need to run something, it shouldn’t. And in the future, it won’t.” One wonders what he thinks today when he sees that the Harper government has taken his lesson to heart and now runs the smallest government ever.

But whether you follow the lines of history alluded to by the two books, or find their analysis thorough enough, is your choice. Most engaging about the writing of both authors are the personal stories of deep emotion. Probably the prize on this front goes to Jacques Parizeau, with both authors providing compelling and often shocking evidence of his determination. He’s a true believer, a term coined by Eric Hoffer to denote the fanaticism that underpins all mass movements. Parizeau drove wedges between groups inside Quebec, if it suited his purpose, was accused of insulting corporate leaders, aboriginals and anyone who got in the way of his plans for separation, as soon as possible. The depths of his feelings are remembered in what has come to be called his "money and ethnic votes" speech, turning his fury on these two groups in his remarks given immediately after the verdict of the referendum was announced.

For Parizeau, the referendum loss was the most painful. But the accounts by both authors, with all their attention to emotion, nuance and factual detail, fails to engender the kind of sympathy one feels for Levesque suffering a similar failure as described in English’s biography of Trudeau. The character of the two men – Parizeau vs Levesque – makes all the difference. Both were dedicated to separatism but Levesque, fighting a similar battle in 1980, foresaw a sovereignty-association and had a quite different relationship with his constituents, and even his adversaries. As one journalist, Don MacPherson, said of him, “They liked him. They didn’t just respect him or admire him. They liked him.”

Parizeau, however, comes across as nasty, appearing to make use of those he represented, or discarding them, if it suited. Wright recounts Parizeau’s response to a Los Angeles Times reporter who asked him how he would achieve a majority vote for sovereignty: “Get me a half-dozen Ontarians who put their feet to the Quebec flag, and I’ve got it.” Parizeau is alluding to an incident that took place in Brockville, Ontario, during the Meech Lake campaign in which a small group of protestors destroyed the Quebec flag after the Canadian flag had been burnt in protests in Quebec. The idea of deliberately provoking nasty situations deepened suspicions and darkened the tone of the campaign. And while the No side worried about Parizeau’s moving Bouchard into the leader of the Yes campaign, Parizeau was actually treating him as a pawn, attempting to hide behind Bouchard’s integrity and skills as a negotiator for the secession process that would follow a Yes victory – not to mention his saint-like status that followed his recovery from near death when he contracted necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating disease) in 1994, resulting in the loss of a leg.

This is where Hébert’s book really comes into its own. The recent interviews bring the action to life again, this time with the personal inside stories most of us never knew. It’s shocking to hear Bouchard say about the day of the vote, “I could not talk with Mr. Parizeau or with people close to him. I simply could not get through to them.” What was the plan for the speeches at the end of the day? There was none. And therein may well lie the key to the loss of the Yes campaign: Bouchard’s plan for the road ahead conflicted with Parizeau’s and while many Quebecers voted Yes because they believed Lucien Bouchard was watching out for their best interests, especially in the areas of such things as currency and citizenship, the conflict between the two leaders meant that Parizeau never allowed this message to permeate the campaign and have the full effect it might otherwise have had.

Hébert asks each person she interviews to start by describing what they were doing the night of the vote. Although many of the answers were more dramatic, I found Sheila Copps’ to be poignant and even shockingly vivid for what it said about the entire scene.

On the night when the fate of Canada was in the balance, what role was being played by the deputy prime minister? She sat at home, watching the results on TV as millions of other Canadians were doing. Throughout the campaign she ended up speaking to the converted and being hobbled at every turn. On one occasion, her Quebec handlers so badly handled her arrangements that only 2 No camp volunteers awaited her, but lots of media attended. Thinking quickly on how to save face, she went to the subway to interview people. And although this had a more natural look to it, she says “I looked like an idiot.”

The role of deputy prime minister is largely honorific; since 2006, Harper hasn’t even had one. Hébert points out that Copps' appointment came in the wake of Kim Campbell’s defeat, just as Audrey McLaughlin (first woman leader of NDP) failed to keep 12 seats, the minimum to retain official party status in the House of Commons. Appointing Copps was a reward for her loyalty to Chrétien and also a signal that the new prime minister intended to bring more women to the corridors of federal power. Hébert’s assessment is that “up to a point” he did deliver. On Chrétien’s watch, “more women were appointed to the Senate, the Supreme Court bench, the upper levels of the diplomatic service and to the select ranks of the officers of Parliament than under any of his predecessors.” The provinces were similarly lacking in female participation at the time. But today the gap between federal and provincial levels in this area is even more striking: while the federal government remains male dominated, in 2013 half the provinces, including the 4 largest, were being run by female premiers. (At time of writing, this has dropped to 2).

In contrast to Copps’ evening alone at home, Paul Martin and more staff than would usually be in the office on any given day were at their desks. In the spring, they had put in place some measures – such as beginning to find some long-term backers for the debt, rather than all short term ones – to help stabilize the markets but there was no all-out contingency plan to soften the actual blow of a Yes vote. But the closer it got to October 31, the more panic was beginning to set in for the federalists.

On October 18, Chrétien addressed the Quebec Chamber of Commerce and in a long speech he told Quebecers that if they voted to break up Canada, there would be no one to negotiate with, that they would have many opposing voices to deal with and he ended with an impassioned personal appeal. But he was still holding on to the status quo, there was no discussion of a new constitutional deal that would convince any Quebecer that things could be better without the most radical change that would come with a Yes vote. As the polls continued to show the No side slipping, and now into the position of losers, one aide said to Chrétien “For god’s sake you have to give us something.”

On October 24, Chrétien spoke to crowd of 12,000 anxious Quebecers at Verdun and used the words “distinct society.” Wright reports that Chrétien had lost his cocky optimism and was visibly distressed, as he was the next day in a taped message to the nation.

Brian Tobin, then minister of fisheries and oceans, also decided it was time for action and pushed for a pro-Canada rally. Held on October 27 in Montreal and attended by approximately 100,000 Canadians from across the country, there is still no consensus on the effect of the rally. Tobin faced strong objections from leaders in Quebec, but he told Hébert that it took him less than half an hour to convince Chrétien to override his Quebec ministers and give the rally his blessing. Tobin called corporate head offices, including those of Air Canada, Canadian Airlines and Via Rail, to find funding and arrange cheap transportation, sparking a controversy over campaign spending (it was later determined that Quebec's electoral laws did not apply to sponsors located outside Quebec).

Hébert’s conversation with Tobin piqued my interest in this event, but Wright satisfied it. He provides a full chapter with a blow-by-blow account of events of the three days before the rally. On October 23, Tobin arrived at his office and was struck by the “eerie disconnect” between mundane fisheries business and the fact that Canada might be breaking apart. The mobilisation of support went beyond moving 100,000 people from across Canada to Montreal. It involved a massive phone campaign (relying on free long distance calls) and a series of “love letters to Quebec.” The latter are captured by Ben Wicks in Dear Canada: A Love Letter to My Country, based on his contribution to the effort: in his syndicated cartoon column he asked schoolchildren to send him their “love letters” for Quebec. Over 50,000 drawings and letters arrived! He quickly produced a selection and published it. I, for one, have it on order.

Wright and Hébert have much more to say about the 1995 Quebec referendum. You will learn some surprising things about life in some of the provinces, about personalities from across the country who played key roles at the time, about their deep feelings for Canada (with a couple of surprising and notable exceptions) and about measures put in place since 1995 to help avoid another such murky situation.

Personal memoirs, like those Wright relies on, and personal anecdotes of times 20 years in the past, as Hébert provides, may be suspect in some way, but they have the advantage of letting people from both sides speak for themselves. Taken together, they tell a gripping tale, a tale that forces you to remember, forces you to think.

Travelling in Europe at the time of the Scottish referendum, I found myself in a dinner conversation about this dramatic event and when I drew parallels with the Canadian situation of 1995, the looks were incredulous. Oh, they remembered Jean Chretien, in a way – “that’s the guy who strangled his own hecklers, right? The one with the wife who knocks intruders over the head with ‘eskimo carvings?’” – as if Aline Chrétien makes a practice of this daily, rather than on just one notable occasion. But a separatist movement that needed to be taken seriously? In Canada?? The country might be a bit boring (three of the five had actually travelled there, once) but it did, after all, survive the banking crisis and seemed to work well.

But serious it was. And The Night Canada Stood Still and The Morning After make for gripping reading. I had to keep reminding myself that I knew the outcome.

Reginald Sauvages, PhD, is the nom de plume of a local bibliophile (read: bookworm) who goes on building bookshelves and buying paperbacks for the beach so sand doesn’t ruin favourite clothbound books, even while owning an e-reader.


Humour, drama, the supernatural, and an awesome protagonist, what more could readers ask for? Evil Librarian is one of those books that captures your attention almost before you even finish the first page, it compels you to keep turning the pages and it never gets boring. 

I enjoyed reading every word of Michelle Knudsen’s debut YA novel, and can’t wait to devour more of her work. Packed with references to The Sound of Music, Les Misérables, Alice in Wonderland and Into the Woods you can’t help but laugh at the distinction between the world of musical theatre and the evil that lurks around the corner in this book. It is witty, dramatic and utterly outrageous. Like really, an evil librarian, pfft! 

This book displays the perfect balance between all you want out of a high school drama, and the supernatural, and it executes it flawlessly! I encourage everyone who even seems captivated by the title or cover of this novel to explore it. Who knows, maybe you will even find yourself comparing demons to Santa Claus soon after finishing this page-turner!

Hannah is a 16-year-old bibliophile with dreams the size of a continent. She blogs at


Every so often you encounter a work of fiction that rolls back the curtain onto life and, suddenly, human beings emerge, real yet in your mind. In Times of Fading Light is such a work, a sweeping saga of an “ordinary” family that reads like a biography of the German Democratic Republic - East Germany. The dramatis personae are four generations of the Umnitzer family – Charlotte and her second husband Wilhelm, communists, exiled during the war to Mexico, returning to “liberated” Germany; Kurt, her only surviving son, who withstood the war in a Soviet labor camp returning with his Russian wife, Irina and eventually, her mother; their only son, Alexander, born under socialism, embittered and alienated, and finally his only son, Markus, raised in changing times by his ex-wife and her various partners.

The novel is intricately and beautifully crafted, each section told from a different point of view, with three main themes – the unfolding of the second half of the twentieth century through family events; October 1, 1989 - the ninetieth birthday party of the much decorated and bemused step-great grandfather and September 2001, when Alexander, searching for his roots, encounters his own mortality. The novel channels Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe and Tolstoy.

The result is utterly amazing! Eugen Ruge conjures each disparate character – whether a demented communist, an illiterate Russian baba, or a three year old child captivated by the amulets of adults – with consummate skill. We observe ageing and unfolding fragilities. Funny, pathetic and fascinating! Here are the myths and metaphors that betoken the quotidian – an extendable table, the Monastery goose, a stuffed iguana - that embody the conflicts and confidences out of which a family is constructed. In The Fading Light is a masterful achievement!

- Brian Ostrow

Monday, January 12, 2015


Sophia Loren: glamorous, seductive, exotic. However, as Signora Loren reveals in her new memoir Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, beyond her great beauty rests self-awareness and down-to-earth simplicity. Readers expecting a glossy, ghost-written movie-star “autobiography” will be shocked at how “normal” Loren truly is. Inspired by a box of treasured trinkets and notes discovered over Christmas, Loren writes from her heart in this captivating yet honest memoir. From her children’s drawings to notes from cinema’s greatest stars and directors, it is clear that Loren’s life has been guided by truth, hard work, and valuing the few truly good people in one’s life that make it all worthwhile.

Loren’s life began in difficult circumstances: her mother had unrequited dreams of movie-stardom and conducted an affair with a man who would never marry her. Loren’s childhood was also marred by the colossal Second World War. Often not having enough to eat, this destitute childhood became formative for Loren, who would revisit the experience for films such as Two Women and A Special Day. Against odds, Loren grew up from a tiny “stuzzicadenti” (toothpick) to a curvaceous, beautiful teenager. Through pageants, Sophia gained notoriety and began participating as an extra in Italian film although at first her unusual features and height confused directors. Through years of hard work, dedication, and versatility, Loren became Italy’s reigning sex symbol. Yet her difficult upbringing gave her the sensitivity and depth to go beyond the bubbly, captivating persona. Loren became an international acting legend due to stunning dramatic incarnations, such as that her Oscar-winning performance of a haunting and astonishingly mature middle-aged mother in Two Women despite being only in her twenties. Among my personal favourites as a classical baritone are Loren’s operatic encounters, personifying Donizetti’s La Favorita and the great Renata Tebaldi in Aida on film.

Loren’s memoir traces her life mostly chronologically through personal memories and recollections. Each chapter is inspired by an object or piece of writing from her collection, leading her into the memories, relationships, and people of her life. Despite being only a teenager when she met him, Loren fell in love with film producer Carlo Ponti, who shared a life together until Ponti’s death. Even through the string of handsome leading men that Loren collaborated with, such as Cary Grant, who very nearly stole her heart, Loren’s heart lay grounded in her moral compass, developed through her tough upbringing. Loren so desperately wanted the normalcy she missed as a child, but her love with Ponti was dogged by legal difficulties, such as Ponti being accused of bigamy and Loren voluntarily going to jail for 17 days. Loren’s desire for children was also plagued with miscarriage. However, through hormone replacement therapy and years of legal struggling, Loren finally achieved a family life that she craved for her whole life. Professionally, Loren’s great memories revolve around her close Italian filmmakers and co-stars, such as director Vittorio De Sica and actor MarcelloMastroianni, frequent co-stars that accentuated her Neapolitan spirit in memorable films such as The Gold of Naples and Marriage Italian Style, which captured her effortless elegance and Italian charm. Loren candidly describes the truly human moments that defined her, beyond her impressive filmography of over 100 movies. She suffered a horrific break-in at a hotel that made her realize that the only precious jewels she would from then on would be her “son’s embrace”. She witnessed her parents and dear husband’s deaths and suffered postpartum depression and anxiety-induced psychosomatic issues while filming.

However, despite her many struggles and successes, Loren’s charm and zest for life are captured beautifully in Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. From beating Richard Burton at Scrabble and meeting a delightful aging Charlie Chaplin to watching her grandchildren excitedly hear her in Cars 2, Sophia’s life, like her career, is full of juxtapositions of great luxury and charming simplicity. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow is a book about memory, youth, aging, and staying present. As the book closes, we learn to see Signora Sofia Loren as all that she is: a meatball-making Italian Nonna, an autograph-signing Oscar and Grammy winner, and an octogenarian whose past laurels only signify the inner beauty residing within. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow is a unique, entertaining, and moving memoir that can only offer a tiny sliver of insight into the complex, alluring, and eternally enigmatic Sophia Loren. Brava!

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.


In response to an online discussion around what poetry really is, Valerie Senyk began to reflect on what she wanted, or needed, poetry to be. Upon learning that this was the premise of i want a poem, I began thinking about my own relationship to poetry. This re-thinking is exactly what Senyk’s poems will evoke in readers. Her privileging of desire newly positions poetry in a way that helps us ask different questions of our art.

Drawing on poets like Rainer Maria Rilke to help frame self-reflection, Senyk’s response is laid out in this collection of poems that feel at once immediate and purposeful. In “memory poem,” she asks of a poem to help her remember. In “changing poem,” she wants a poem to radically change her life. I can’t help but think that articulating her reciprocal relationship with poetry is (importantly) radical.
What is interesting about Senyk’s work is that though some of it can be read literally, as a response to the guiding question of the book, many of the poems play with sound and image in unexpected and delightful ways. Each poem successfully complicates our understanding of poetry by making room for more ways to engage with and be affected by poems.
It is not often we approach poetry reflexively with the intention of centrally situating our desires within it, to call upon the ways our poetry is informed by those desires. What Senyk does by exploring her desire here is enter into a dialogue with form, and yet her poems speak to poetry as lived. She notes that her sons’ lives are poetry. Refreshingly, she asks of poems to bite, to blind, to purr, to sing, to expose.   

Senyk brings to mind Audre Lorde’s assertion that all poetry is revelatory. We get the feeling that she is figuring it out, tackling the intersections of art and desire in real time, while her poems suggest there are infinite answers. With each passing poem, our reading becomes alive with the emergent quality of Senyk’s writing. We are in a joint process of discovery. By asking what she may want or need from poetry, Senyk moves in a direction that is necessary for us as readers and writers if we are to reconcile feeling and thought in art. i want a poem explores desire as it represents it. It never stops questioning even as it answers. 

Fiorella Morzi is a writer, reader, and feminist from Toronto. Find her on Twitter here: @ellafior

Sunday, January 4, 2015



This is the kind of novel I like to refer to as a “rainy day book.” You don’t necessarily have to read it on a rainy day, and the term isn’t restricted to just books – poems and songs will do to. What I means is, The Gallery Of Lost Species is the type of book one reads during those times that sadness seems preferable to entertainment, when you feel a yearning more for bittersweet melancholy rather than satisfaction. 

Nina Burkhout's novel is the kind of book that ages you, that stays with you, that makes you think. On the surface, it’s about a girl trying to deal with life’s challenges and the fact that her family is slowly falling apart. But beneath that, it has many, many layers of interconnectedness that makes it special. Berkhout loops together themes of memory, vicarious living, age, loss, art, and countless other tiny little things that stitched together turn into a definition of life.

Everything in this book is a reflection of something else, all of which connects in myriad ways. The unicorn that Edith sees as a child turns into a symbol of hope and of loss all at once, by being reflected through the lenses of art, cryptozoology, and memory. I really do like the use of cryptozoology in this book – rather than take it from a scientific standpoint, Berkhout takes it from an emotional one, and it’s so much more effective that way. A forgotten bird transforms from mere curiosity into a sense that something wonderful has been irretrievably lost, and that creates a source of sorrow that is so much more impactful than a mere classification.

Like I said, this isn’t a book to read when you’re feeling sunny and warm. It’s for those cold, lonely days when the words written in a good book can make you feel all sorts of things, and can impact, and maybe even teach you, something about life and the way it happens all around us.

Robert Green is a confirmed bibliophile and aspiring writer whose love of sci-fi has caused him to own many more books than he has physical room for. He is also the owner and creator of the up-and-coming company Verity Books, which can be seen at various cons throughout the year. Any questions or comments can be sent to or