What I’m reading this month – August 2019

I was rather shown up at the library a week or so ago. Went in with the kids to update them on their summer reading challenge (six books in six weeks) – get their stickers and wee prizes and whatnot. When signing them up, the librarian on duty invited me to sign up to. Yes, for adults as well: they don’t discriminate. There is no good reason not to sign up to read six books in six weeks, especially when you’re standing next to your six year old child, encouraging him to do the same thing. So I did it.

But when we were updating him (three books, at the time), I was only able to report that I’d finished one: Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The librarian chided me and urged me to get on with it, or no prizes for me. Well, that’s me telt. If I get more grief, I’ll just show them this blog.

Cover of Miriam Toews’s Women TalkingPratchett and Gaiman had muscled their way in on my plans to read this book – a new novel by one of Canada’s favourite flowers at the moment. Miriam Toews has been winning awards and CBC speaking spots since A Complicated Kindness – at least, that’s when she appeared on my radar. I know a certain set of CanLit book readers (likely a small slice of the audience for this particular blog, which doesn’t get much in the way of numbers) is waiting to ding a bell or have a drink when the word “Mennonite” first comes up in association with Toews (or maybe punch a journalist in the face… or maybe just a novelist), but it’s a hard association to avoid. She roots her fiction in the place from whence she springs, and her familiarity, her intense feelings for the tradition and community, and her complicated passion is I think no small part of what makes her fiction so good.

This one is no less rooted in the global Mennonite story, though it has plenty to say to a broader set of ears at the moment. It is a fictional rendering of a community dealing with events that really happened in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. The details are ghastly – fictional and real – and the easy themes to tag it with are violence, male domination, and female agency. Less sexily, it’s about family, loyalty, and fidelity to religiously founded ways of living. This is the kind of subject matter I have a lot of time for, and Toews includes it all fairly and well. Where Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (ding! or, drink! punch!) takes a pretty blunt portrayal of religion, Toews doesn’t think her women are stupid or misguided in giving space for scripture and theology in determining their actions, though the brutal conditions they live in are pretty much on a par with Atwood’s newly refreshed dystopia. Continue reading

Scenes from Islington North

The view from our flat on Tollington Way, HollowayI was hunting through an old diary for possible date confirmations of when I last applied for a particular fellowship – this is really uninteresting to everyone, including me, though it is a small detail in something that could be very interesting for me. And I came across this passage, during our family visit to London to attend a friend’s wedding. We took the opportunity to visit old haunts, including our stretch of Holloway near the North Library in Islington, and a small park nearby. For our kids – at the time 4 and 2 – a perfect park.

Here’s what I wrote:

(Interlude. Went to follow [Plum] in his stomping by the hill and came across a delightful Australian woman cutting grass with scissors. I tell her there’s a more effective way, but she’s snipping and bagging it for her guinea pig. “It’s lovely when it’s long. When I see it like this, I grab it, because when the council comes a long, they just butcher it.” So, not just a civic duty, then. “All the kids think I’m crazy when they see me.” But I bet their eyes just light up when you say “guinea pig”. [Beangirl] mentions Panda + Patch [guinea pigs of Edinburgh neighbours of ours] who, not being London pigs, have their own patch of grass to nibble. She asks if she can help; the woman says no. Her scissors squeak like a rodent. Do pigs squeak?)

(Found: at North Library: Usborne level 3 – Wuthering Heights, based on the novel by Emily Brontë.)

What I’m reading this month: July 2019

It’s been a tight couple of months on the reading front or, more precisely, the writing about reading front. Some urgent work tasks interposed, and the last thing I wanted to do was write recreationally after a fair bit of the professional kind. Some of it has turned out good – article has been accepted (hooray!) – and some of it may yet turn out good. Some of it was comments on other people’s writing: yes, it has been marking season, followed closely and urgently by the season of Exam Boards. But we’re through all that, and the only really big duty in front of me is the small matter of a conference I’ve organised that comes to town this week.

Cover of Annie Proulx’s Accordian CrimesReading becomes a bit of a luxury amidst that, but I did find time to make it through The Shipping News over the last little while. It’s one that had passed me by when it first came out, nor did I catch the film. Not Canadian literary fiction exactly, but in the ballpark – certainly in the right setting – so we feel a bit closer to that one. And after a recent tear on fiction in translation, it was time to return to something intended for my mother tongue.

Clearly, the right place to go afterwards was Accordion Crimes. I actually asked my wife which I should read (the “first” was implied), and she steered me to the Newfie tale. This one, she said, was bigger and sprawlier, harder to capture. Knowing my tastes, she suspected it might not be so much to my liking as a dedicated narrative to a contained story. Nonetheless, I am a musical guy, and it’s about accordions. I’d heard reviews of this one from when it came out that compelled me. So I picked it up, and now I’m nearly through it. Continue reading

Where there’s music and there’s people and they’re young and alive

Had quite a journey to the Yorkshire Dales last weekend. We were camping – meeting friends, old neighbours from Edinburgh. Something like “halfway”, though we all acknowledge that halfway between Edinburgh and Cardiff puts us somewhere around Leicester, which is not so interesting for camping. So we push a little further than they do. It’s okay; I like the north.

This weekend was a doozy. One can never fully predict the weather, but even so, early May bank holiday is still on the dicey side of “it’ll be fine”. But when you’re making plans over such distances that accommodate the schedules of two families of five, you have to just throw yourself in. Weather reports that speak of zero or one degree overnight temperatures must simply be met with additional wool things getting packed. Friends here told us we were mad, and if it had just been the five of us camping, we may indeed have cut bait.

Grim view of cloudy skies and traffic on the M5

“And if a ten-ton truck…” Katie Munnik’s grim shot from the M5

The temptation was stronger still driving up the M5 and M6, with ominous clouds that occasionally chucked heavy rain on our windshield. Our friends texted us from the road, in Dumfries and Galloway: snow.

Then there was the traffic – expected traffic of a Friday before the bank holiday weekend, with an added helping of bridge works in Birmingham. We were late, and our youngest was puking into the bucket.

The sky looked a bit more favourable by the time we left the M6 near Kendal. We weren’t that late, really: we had decided on a pub dinner that first night, since we’d be arriving after a day of school and driving and who knows what weather. Our friends booked a table at the pub just across the beck from our campsite for 8pm. Without the bridge works, it would have been fine, but at this point in the journey, it was just turning 8, and we had only 20 miles to go to Hawes (Hardraw, really, but it was too small to turn up on the signs).

“20 miles,” I said. “Not long til dinner, gang!” Continue reading

I knew where I was going; it wasn’t where I ended up

When I was a young warthog, I had the pleasure and privilege to help found my high school newspaper. Dover Bay Secondary School in Nanaimo, BC was a brand new high school, and I was to be among the first cohort to start there in Grade 8 and go all the way through to graduation. The school board had solicited a few keeners from the schools that would feed into the new place, along with the high schools from which kids in the catchment would be decanted, to form what was charmingly called the “ad hoc student council”. That was my first bit of work in setting up the school’s institutions. It resulted, mainly, in a very poorly attended dance in October.

But I also knew I wanted to do journalism, and I understood from Degrassi that this meant being on the school paper. So we needed to have one of those. And my Grade 8 English teacher, Ted McPherson (of “Old McPherson had some verbs, ee-yi-ee-yi-oh” fame) was willing to guide it. Cue legitimate reasons to skip classes every six weeks or so for the next five years.

The Bastion, iconic tower in downtown Nanaimo, in exaggerated blue light at night

All my high school photos are, like my comic collection, in my parents’ house, one ocean and thousands of miles away. So here’s an eerie crop of the Bastion that I took when I was back in Nanaimo last August.

Ted got back in touch with me and a couple of others back in December. It’s his last year teaching before he retires, and he wanted to take one more go at the paper. (It, like so many of the professional institutions it aspires to, including the Nanaimo Daily News, seems to have shut up shop somewhere along the line. I tell ya, you take your eyes off these things for just a minute…) And he invited me to write a guest column, which I did. I was happy to hear just a week or so ago that it was published, printed (!), and because distribution’s weird for these things, stapled to the bulletin board in the hallway. Probably E Wing. I can see it now.

Anyway, I didn’t want those hard-fought 470 words to be limited to that one audience, relevant though it may be. So here it is, doing that thing whereby print journalism migrates to some free blog in the hopes that exposure is sufficient.


It helps in life to know where you’re going.

When I arrived at Dover Bay in 1992 – a Grade 8 student in the school’s first year – I knew where I was going: journalism. I wanted to tell people’s stories. That’s why I helped start the brand-new paper, The Dover Bay Mirror, which I went on to edit from Grade 10.

Over those Dover Bay years, I refined the plan a little: I would study at Carleton University, in Ottawa, and I would go into radio – specifically, the CBC. 

And here’s the thing: it worked. I got the grades I needed, and with the Mirror, I got experience, and so I got a scholarship. Carleton’s journalism school cuts steeply from first to second year, but I made that cut and carried on to graduate with the Senate Medal for Achievement.

By that time, I was already working for CBC Radio. What started as a two-week internship at the end of third year became occasional on-call replacement work over the spring, which became full weeks of booked work over the summer. I knew where I was going, and I got there.

So why am I writing to you from Cardiff, Wales, in my office at the university’s department of religious studies?

Because although it helps to know where you’re going, that’s no guarantee of where you’ll end up.

I was casually employed at CBC for years. Ottawa was a great station, so I didn’t mind (much). The work was interesting, the people were fantastic, and this was what I always wanted to be doing. Then, just when I got an actual job there, CBC made hundreds of cuts across the corporation, and I was back where I started.

I chose to move to the UK, get a master’s degree, and see where it took me. Maybe back to journalism in Canada with some specialized skills. Instead, it took me to a PhD, a three-year contract, and now another three years. I’ve had to move with my family many times, but it’s been a rich life.

To get here, I’ve had to be resilient. Perhaps your teachers talk about “building resilience”, and in a tough world that’s getting tougher, it’s a good quality to have. As Diana Krall, Nanaimo-ite and student of Bryan Stovell, sings, 

Pick yourself up and
Dust yourself off and
Start all over again.

I knew where I was going, and it wasn’t where I ended up.Really, who’s to say I’ve ended up here? Life is long – I turn 40 this spring. That may seem old to you, but theres a lot of life ahead of me. Things can change again.

What helps me get through it is resilience, staying alert to my circumstances, and setting a direction, even if it’s not the path I continue on.

Assemble, you bastards!

All weekend, my Twitter feed has been flush with people so excited about this new Avengers movie. The hashtag trends; it even has its own little icon. People seem gripped by the storyline, as they were tantalised when the trailer came out. People have been dressing up and going to see it late at night.

If you knew me at age 13, you’d think I’d be one of those people. I read comics – loads of them. I remember appropriating the habit age 10 with an issue of Avengers West Coast, thinking how cool it was that there was a guy dressed in purple who used a bow and arrow. My personal discovery, starting with Issue #1 and carrying on… well, I can’t tell you how long I carried on, but the answer is in a cardboard box in the closet of the spare room in my parents’ house – I digress: my personal discovery was The New Warriors, which had delightful invented circumstances bringing new superheroes and spare casts from other titles together as some teenage world-saving enterprise. (It’s coolness was all but certified when writer Fabian Nicieza quoted lines from the urgent coda of Pearl Jam’s “Rearviewmirror” in a kind of dream sequence about teen physical romance and fear/alienation regarding the parents in the house.)

Cosplay dressed as characters from Marvel's The New Warriors

“Dragon Con 2013 – New Warriors” by PatLoika, CC BY 2.0

Yes, if you knew me then, you’d say to yourself, “If the big studios ever get behind this thing – I mean really behind it, not like those Batman films – and they start filming X-Men and the Avengers, it’s gonna make this kid so happy.” Continue reading

What I’m reading this month- April 2019

This has been a big month for us.

It used to be that I always remembered 4 April as the birthday of my best friend’s younger brother. Why? Can’t really say. Before we all got into guitars and other stringed instruments, Ira and I were into comic books, and there was a comic book fair one Saturday in Nanaimo that we got a lift to from Ira’s mom. His brother came, too, and it was his birthday, and I think that, as a younger brother myself, I was sensitive to the mild injustice of him going along to something his older brother was interested in on his birthday.

Two copies of Katie Munnik’s The Heart Beats in Secret on a tableclothThis year, 4 April has a much closer resonance. It’s the day my wife’s novel was officially published. Like, you-can-walk-into-a-bookstore-and-buy-it published. This is a massive achievement, and one I’m incredibly proud of.

I might say “envious”, too, but that’s not really a dynamic. There was a time that I fancied myself becoming a novelist. I think pretty much all kids who like reading think they could do it. And those artistic pursuits, alongside “actor” and “rock star”, are just so easy for kids to spit out when asked what they want to be when they grow up. “Accountant” and “burger joint manager” don’t roll off the tongue so easily. Though it must be said, at the same time that I was saying “novelist”, I was also saying “journalist” (Hemingway having paved the way for me and so many others), and I was able to maintain that one. Along the way, I kept writing poetry, sometimes stories. I kept the candle burning.

And that burning candle, which was also burning in Katie, was not a small bit of what attracted us to each other. We shared poetry by e-mail before we’d officially declared our interest in each other. And we were well up on discussing writing and literature – it rather nerdily characterised much of our dating life. After we’d married, we had a brief venture in a writers’ group with some neighbours and friends, and at the time both of us were working on a novel. I really liked mine, but I didn’t get deeper than the second exercise book in longhand. She finished hers. Kept it in the drawer. I recall reading a good chunk of the first draft: there was a beaver, and someone’s house burned down. That’s kind of what happens in your twenties. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – March 19

We’re halfway into the month already, and the book I’m reading right now is the same book I was reading this time last month, only it’s a different book.

That’s not just me being cute.

Last month, I had a conference in Vienna. And, as I’ve been getting into the habit of doing, I wanted to read some fiction from or set in the place I was going. Worked swell with The Master and Margarita and Love in the Time of Cholera in a possibly uncappable 2017. With Vienna on the table, I did some research on good Austrian fiction (or, failing that, something new and decent set in Vienna. And I don’t consider The Third Man new, as I’ve seen the film.)

After nosing about, I had a shortlist together and headed to the local bookstores to see what they could supply. No luck at the quality second-handers, but Waterstones came through with, in fact, four choices. Or maybe three. I had found Joseph Roth, who writes more from the hinterland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; I had sort of decided that was good enough, especially as Jeremy Paxman had written the very enthusiastic foreword. Yes, he can be a bit of a blowhard, but I still think his fiction recommendations would be worth exploring. But then I found, at the bottom of the alphabet, three, or possibly two books by Stefan Zweig. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – Feb 19

Cover of Penguin Modern Classic version of Lucky Jim by Kingsley AmisI used to think it funny, all the novels written about novelists. Life must be pretty fascinating, hey? But I believe it’s an admixture of the impulse to write what you know and the desire to have a character capable of making the observations and feeling the feelings you want and articulating them in ways you appreciate. At any rate, when I was younger and certain that I would myself be a novelist, these books were great. A double articulation, as the sociologists might say, representing a way of living that I recognised and also educating me and shaping me to cultivate that very way of living. Deep calls unto deep et cetera.

I’m in a different line of work, now, with a different set of aspirations. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn now – often by accident – to books about university lecturers. It’s a set of micro-politics I recognise, and it illustrates the inner reflections and motivations of people I might become or people I might have to work with to continue becoming what I want to become.

I caught a bit of his before Christmas with Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, which was definitely about a set I knew, though it was also redolent of its time. I didn’t enjoy it much, mostly because I thought Wilson was so satirical as to remove any scrap of pity or interest we might have in literally any of the characters. In Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis writes about a similar world in a more or less similar time, and he is similarly detached and ironic about his own creations. But not to the same degree, and there are a few characters that he is clearly siding with. Even the protagonist – the eponymous Jim who, we are told, is lucky, though we see little evidence of it – is coming across as heroic. We meet him as a reprobate, something of a waster, but Amis suggests enough puzzles and deeper currents to draw us closer to him. As a result, he gains our sympathy in a way no one in Wilson’s world ever does. Continue reading

Learn something new

It’s a new year, and we’re supposed to be improving ourselves. The news tells me about studies that allow me to eat a hamburger a week whilst saving the planet and my own health. The host of the open mic at my local has been on ginger beer this January. And our national politicians have learned to put fractious party politics and petty point-scoring aside to work together for the national interest.

Uhm, anyway…

I thought I’d get enough laurels for posting my “what I’m reading” blog on schedule at the beginning of the month, but maybe I need to do better than that. I made a killer batch of Seville marmalade (what, already? Well, I didn’t force the oranges to grow so quickly. Yes, I was shocked to see them at the greengrocer already on January like the third. But since they’re there, I do.) However, that is most certainly “something old”, and resolving to make marmalade this year is like resolving to breathe. No points awarded.

Whiteboard with a weekly schema for improving courses - stats, German, and bike repairI have therefore taken it upon myself to learn something new. Even put my super duper office whiteboard to work on getting myself organised. Its job since September or so has been to hold my monthly to-do list – not the daily one that fills up scratch pads on my very cluttered desk but the medium-term deadlines that I need to actually monitor but not necessarily actually complete before I go home each day. Now, its bottom half has a new purpose: to keep track of my progress on improvements.

The first one was easy. I’d already digitally committed myself to it. Edinburgh University (my alma mater… <sigh>) has a MOOC on statistics, and I clicked the “yeah, alright” button some time in November. I in fact clicked that same button last year, much more enthusiastically. I’m a quals guy by training, and it is commensurately what I train others in as part of my job. But ignorance repays no one, and this MOOC looked like the right thing to give me some baseline familiarity. I was very enthusiastic in saying “yeah, alright” last year.

You can see where this is going. Continue reading