Articles by Jamie
My favourite books of 2013 are two books that I started 2012 but am still reading due to technical difficulties.
I started reading Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon last November. I was on an early morning Friday flight home from New York having been away for the week on business. I needed to do class prep for a class I was teaching that afternoon so naturally I went to the newspaper stand for some procrastinatory reading material for the six hour flight. Both the New Yorker and New York magazine had picked Far From the Tree for their lead extended reviews. I was in tears reading both articles (fortunately I had no seat mates) and when I landed in Vancouver I downloaded the book. When I saw my son that night I squeezed him especially tight.
Because it was digital I didn't know the book is a doorstopper. Yet Solomon is a rare thing; a double National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize shortlisted genius. It is the best book on ethics I have ever read. Or almost finished reading.
Most parents have children with the expectation they will form what Solomon calls “vertical relationships.” That like the proverbial apple, your children will not fall far from the tree. What happens when they don't? Solomon maps the contours of "horizontal relationships” where children are different from their parents in ways that are sometime shattering and analyzes the communities that form around disabilities and differences that sometimes rival or replace parental bonds. Deaf children, blind children, Downs’s children, children of rape, autistic children, gifted children. It is debatable whether all these situations are as thematically similar as Solomon would have us believe, but his thesis about horizontal communities allows Solomon to catalogue some of the very best of human behaviour and the very worst of what can happen to the most vulnerable.
And you are surprised. One mother of severely disturbed boy states she copes with his violent fits because in their house with few amenities he has smashed all that there is to smash and all that they have left is each other.
The second book is War and Peace which I am also reading on my Kobo. I had been given a copy as school prize years ago and never progressed too far but thanks to digital readers and public domain it was easy to start again. It is said that part of the success of Penguin Paperbacks is that they fit into the pocket of solder’s uniforms in the Second World War. It is the same for the Kobo reader. Very handy on buses and in coffee shops.
And it fits in the inside pocket of my jacket.
War and Peace seems far less intimidating on a digital reader, as you never really have any idea how much more text you have in front of you and soon you are caught up in the storylines and the miracle of immersive reading. I find it strangely comforting that the Tolstoy’s characters can’t get beyond the chaos of the incidental and the see the grand sweep of history. Who can? And the scene where the Russians are trying to fire a bridge to stem the French advance and where clearly the colonel in charge has no real control over events but has the supreme confidence to appear to have control over events seems to me a potent lesson on both the strength and futility of human leadership.
I broke my Kobo last summer alas, with a quarter of Far From the Tree to go and on the eve of the battle of Borodino, when the haughty Austrians are convinced that victory is in their grasp. (Spoiler alert: it isn't). But I just bought a new reader this week and so Andrew Solomon and the Napoleonic Wars will continue for me over Christmas. They will be excellent company.
Jamie Broadhurst, VP Marketing
“I always hoped that Canadians would take it as a kind of delicious literary revenge on the US.”
We have just passed the 50th, terrible, anniversary of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, and images of Camelot our fresh in our minds. We are perennially fascinated with the personalities and images of the age: as the American Century morphs from the conventions of the Cold War into New Frontier and then beyond. It has me thinking of beguiling new novel that paints the period an entirely new way.
What if there has been an innocuous Canadian spy at the heart of the great events who was covertly titling the balance of history? What would his story look like? The American writer and publisher, Peter Warner, answers that question in his new novel; The Mole: The Cold War Memoir of Winston Bates.
Peter kindly consented to an email exchange over the last few months. Here are some highlights.
JAMIE: I loved The Mole. One of the smartest books I have read in a long time. The texture of Washington seeps through every page and the dyspeptic and very funny pace at how great events unfold struck me as entirely believable. Winston Bates is the classic anti-hero. He’s sad, but not really—Forest Gump meets George Orwell meets The Hundred Year Old Man Who Fell Out of the Window. Is this a sly joke about Canada?
PETER: I really never envisioned Canada as the butt of the joke. One of the jokes is surely about a kind of American negligence, in which Canada is taken so for granted, not really thought of as a foreign country, that it could never be imagined Canada would spy on the US or that Winston is a Canadian mole. But I didn't see this as a joke about Canada. A Canadian mole at the heart of the US manages to turn the so-called American Century into a series of mishaps. I always hoped that Canadians would take it as a kind of delicious literary revenge on the US.
In light of the NSA scandal, could you have imagined the Canadian government bugging the President’s telephone, or would that be too wild even for fiction?
Peter: Yes, I can imagine Canada listening on the US president's phone calls. My guess is that it would be opportunistic rather than a large scale project like the NSA, especially since Canada, as part of the Five Eyes, seems a little implicated the NSA's large scale surveillance, if not the direct spying on world leaders. And I think it would be done with great trepidation, but if opportunity and necessity collided, yes. As for the idea that it is far-fetched to think of close allies spying on each other I have a two word reply: Jonathan Pollard. He’s the American intelligence analyst, who was convicted of spying for Israel in 1987.
The Suez Crisis and the Cold War are distant memory for many people, were you concerned that readers wouldn’t relate to the events in the book?
I take your point about Suez being a distant memory for some people but I don't think this is too different from any historical novel about distant events. My job is to make it plausible and give it a believable context. Also I am frequently and happily surprised at how much the Cold War is still part of the conversation, what with Russian moles living in the suburbs of New Jersey and Snowden reviving Russian/US tensions and even movies like Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy getting wide acclaim.
Have you read Charles Ritchie’s diaries? I kept thinking about his account of being Canadian ambassador during the days of JFK’s Camelot. In his first volume, he says that Canadians love to feel quietly superior to our American cousins (so brash, vulgar and successful!), yet we become very protective of our American cousins whenever any other country mocks the United States. I think his observation goes some way to explaining the dynamic of the Canada and the US, and your book sits on the fault line.
I did read in the Ritchie diaries, as well as several other memoirs by distinguished members of External Affairs. (And then there was that memoir by Sondra Gotlieb, Wife of…,the sort of thing novelists love because it makes diplomacy seem so personal.)
A ‘real life’ Winston Bates—a Canadian who infiltrated the US government—doesn't immediately come to mind. Was there a reason the mole is from Canada?
I came up with the idea partly because I was thinking about the kind of person who could hide in plain sight. And that leads to one of the essential themes of the book, which is identity. Winston is someone whose major rubrics of identity are all a little compromised: he is half Jewish, half-Canadian (or half-American), his sexual identity is also ambiguous (at least to other people).
Also, I am of that generation of American men for whom Canada was a potential refuge from the draft during the Vietnam War. I have occasionally reflected on the fact that if I hadn't belatedly lucked out on the draft, I might be a Canadian. My own personal experience in Canada is not extensive, just 25 years of going a couple of times a year to sales conferences. But I always found the Canadian sense of irony attractive, both about Canada's own identity but also about Canada's relationship with the large, often oblivious, always impending entity to the south.
What are you working on now? Will you be returning to this fictional territory in the future?
I have been doing some research about the amazing collection of cultural figures, mostly refugees from the war, who gathered in Los Angeles in the 1940s—Thomas Mann, Stravinsky, Brecht, Jean Renoir, Bunuel, Dali among many others. I am thinking of some sort of comic but noirish fiction about their awkward encounters with their strange New World. But a couple of readers of The Mole have asked if I have a sequel in mind. I didn’t when I finished writing the book, yet the way it ends does seem to suggest that Winston could go on to wreck havoc in the 80s and 90s….
Thank You, Peter.
Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery has been acclaimed everywhere: “Penny is Canada's best contemporary crime writer, among the best in the world, and one of our best writers, period"—said one reviewer this fall. She and proves it withThe Beautiful Mystery. I won’t spoil the story by giving away the plot, it is mystery after all, but it is special kind of mystery; an extended play on the locked-room genre of detective stories, now moved to a locked monastery in the wilds of Quebec. Yet like all of Penny’s writing, it is the telling emotional details that give The Beautiful Mystery such resonance...
And something that Louise said at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival has stuck with me. When asked a question about technique, Louise answered by explaining the journalist rule of naming the dog – Louise was a CBC journalist for many years before turning to writing fiction. When writing story of a story of something horrible like a child being struck by a car while chasing after their dog, the journalist should try and find out the name of the dog. The detail, far from being trivial, in fact deepens our understanding of motivation, the child ran out not to save a dog, but to save “Rover” or “Goldie”, not just a pet, but someone the child loved. It also brings the reader into the tragedy, beyond the shield of abstraction. The right details lead to greater empathy.
My non-fiction pick has little in common with Louise Penny except that Peter Beinhart in his The Crisis of Zionism has the same eye for the telling moral detail. And I guess the politics of the land west of the Jordan River is like a locked-room mystery, the protagonists cannot leave their confines and the ending is far from certain.
Beinhart, a former editor of one of my favourite magazines,The New Republic, is asavvy publicist for renewed liberal voice in Jewish and Israeli politics. In The Crisis of Zionism he calls for a new ethic of Jewish Power that recognizes the post-1967 reality of Israel as the regional superpower and return to Zionism’s democratic and leftist roots. There is a lot of policy and some (selective) history packed in, but it is the personal anecdote that registers most with me.
In the introduction Beinhart describes a video of a Palestinian man, Fadel Jaber being arrested for stealing water (Settler water usage is five times higher than it is for non-Israelis in the Occupied Territories). As he is being led away his five year old son Khaled rushes up to him crying “Baba, Baba!” Arabic for father. The video (shot by an Israeli peace activists) triggers an emotional connection. Beinhart writes;
“… my son is Khaled’s age. He attends a Jewish school, has an Israeli flag on his wall, and can recount Bible stories testifying to our ancient ties to the land. When he was younger, we thought he would call me Abba, the Hebrew word for father. But he couldn’t say Abba, so he calls me Baba; the name Khaled calls his father.”
Beinhart goes to say he is working for world where Zionism means place of refuge for his older relatives of the Diaspora who want to know an Israeli state is waiting should they need it and at the same time a Zionism that can allow for dignity and a meaningful state to a Palestinian man whose son calls out using the same term of address as Beinhart’s boy. A simple word choice and the hard choices of Middle Eastern politics won’t be solved by personal word associations alone; Abba and Baba, but it is a start.
Abba is also used in the New Testament and as the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch observed few years ago (in one of my favourite books of 2010); the use of Abba has a more intimate tone than we think; more like “dad” than “Father”. Abba is used three times to refer to God in the Gospels including Jesus at Gethsemane. It hints at a different sensibility than we understand today when we think of patristic religion, a world of dads not Fathers.
Sometimes real understanding comes from the small details.
Jamie Broadhurst, VP Marketing
Results are in this year's National Book Count and the results are very good. Books sold and circulated in Canadian stores and libraries are up and for the first time e-book sales are counted too. All the results are here.
- The library community in Canada is truly amazing, especially the Canadian Urban Libraries Council. Jefferson Gilbert at the council worked with 28 public library systems across Canada to individually tabulate their weekly circulation. Jefferson is polite friendly and efficient, just the same tone you find at your local library.
- The independent book store community is alive and well. Over 260 independent bookstores helped out in the book count this year and they sold a lot of books. I was at the BC Winter Book Fair in Victoria last weekend where the keynote speaker Oren Teicher from the American Booksellers Association spoke about the renaissance in independent bookstores. His comments came on the heels of reports showing a 15% increase in indie sales over Christmas. Bodes well for a healthy book ecosystem.
- The large chains were extremely helpful, especially Indigo. They do so much every day to ignite a passion for reading and hot books this is not too surprising. And BookManager, BookNet and la Société de gestion de la Banque de titres de langue française (BTLF) the aggregator folks who work behind the scenes. They provide weekly reporting on book sales and they found time in their hectic schedules to follow up on queries and double check numbers. They are like the accounting firm who count the Oscar votes... without them we have no Oscar show.
Fernand Braudel once said that the study of the Middle Ages is very difficult because the eighteenth century gets in the way. So much of what we take for granted today, our habits unspoken assumptions, our mentalités, were shaped by the profound change that the eighteenth century brought. As a result the period before the 18th century feels impossibly foreign to us.
David Frum does something similar for contemporary culture and politics by excavating the shift in mentalités brought about by the nineteen seventies. He argues in How We Got Here: The 70's: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—For Better or Worse that our current attitudes about authority, equality, work, ambition, sex and politics were shaped in the crucible decade of the nineteen seventies and the backlash that came after. The sixties are the glamour decade, but really the influential decade on a mass level is the seventies.
As a right-wing thinker Frum has an obvious agenda; he pines for world before the tumult of the seventies, and sees the Age of Jimmy Carter as the time when the Keynesian consensus finally snapped to be replaced by the ascendancy of the Right. But the book is no less enjoyable book for his politics. His politics are not mine, but he put forwards his position with such clarity and eloquence, it can only help me to sharpen my own thinking. And as a child of the seventies it is good fun to see my own personal attitudes and foibles historicized.
How We Got Here is neither our book nor a new book, but I heard an interview with Frum on CBC's Ideas a few months back and was struck by (a) CBC interviewing at length someone who sits so far outside the moderate consensus of Canadian conventional wisdom and (b) how well Frum speaks. I popped into central branch of the Vancouver Public Library and picked up a copy.
Public libraries are a great thing. My New Year’s resolution is to find myself in a library at least once a week all year. And for what it is worth, public expenditure on libraries in Canada peaked in the nineteen seventies. So it was far from a lost decade.
Do any movie studios still have any heart? Anthony Lane in recent profile in The New Yorker magazine (May 16, subscription required) thinks so and the answer is Pixar Studios, the makers of Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monster’s Inc. , Finding Nemo The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille. Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3 and coming to theatres on June 24: Cars 2.
“Most of us, as we leave the theatre, can no more remember which company produced the film we just saw than we could tell you who manufactured the hand dryer in the men’s room. The exception is Pixar, the only studio whose products people actively seek out. Everyone knows Pixar.”
Pixar is based in Emeryville a small town just across the bridge from San Francisco, hometown to Chronicle Books, another company jammed full of talented people who march to their own tune. As with earlier Pixar films, Chronicle is releasing The Art of Cars 2 a gorgeously illustrated book that is filled with storyboard and original art from the new film. Thumbing through the pages of The Art of Cars 2 is the perfect visual accompaniment Lane’s of Pixar.
I am the father of four year-old and so know the Pixar “oeuvre” pretty well. Our favourite is Cars; for my son because he is lover of all things with wheels and for me (who doesn’t even have driver’s license) because the film is about making connections. My son thinks I am over reading the film (“stop talking daddy”), but I will stick to my guns on this.
The friendship between Lightening McQueen and Mater the rusty dump truck is replay of the archetype of the 'Prince and the Pauper' but also what it means to have best friend. While (endlessly) re-watching Cars I am reminded that in the western cannon far more pages have been filled by theorizing about de amicitia or “friendship” than on Eros or sexual love, because in many respects it is more essential. The film connects — race car and dump truck, small town and metropolis, old and young, red states and blue through the social capital of friendship. Wonderful stuff. Or as Doc Doc Hudson says to Lightening McQueen at the end of Cars: “You gotta a lot of stuff Kid!”
The National Reading Campaign is a devoted group of publishers, librarians and educators. Their site is treasure trove of reports and analysis on the state of reading in Canada — reports on everything from reading programs for parents and babies in Quebec to First Nations programs in the west.
The NRC recently posted some video from their second conference that took place in Montreal back in January, and I want to recommend two that are worth watching.
John Raulston Saul gave a speech on reading and new Canadians in which he declared that reading for kids is "a Declaration of Independence" and than goes on to show why business managers and educational bureaucrats claim to support reading, but actually discourage independent reading. He makes the observation that in the many years he has spent visiting schools he can always tell which schools have teacher librarians and which don't (owing to budget cuts). In schools with a librarian, the kids speak in complete sentences. In other schools the don't. Reductive yes, but it does frame the issue pretty starkly.
The other video from Jon Scieszka is very funny, seemingly very off the cuff and full of practical experience about how boys and girls read differently. His topic fits in beautifully with a book we have on our list Why Boys Fail Saving Our Sons From an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind, which is well worth a read.
Jon also use a memorable image when arguing that boy and girls often like different types of books. Imagine if you could only read the books that are sitting on the bedside table of your spouse and vice versa. I know my wife would quit reading pretty quickly...
The third and Final National Reading Summit is scheduled for Vancouver in 2012 stay tuned for more developments.
I picked up this month's Walrus Magazine on the newsstand. I'm a passionate magazine reader and was struck by the provocative cover tease: 'Where Are All the Big Bold Canadian Novels?'
It delivers a little less than promised as the article in question is actually 'Supersized: How Mordecai Richler Taught a Generation of Writers to Think Big', by Charles Foran.
Foran riffs off his very well regarded biography Mordecai: The Life & Times and argues for an speculative literary history: What Solomon Gursky Was Here had won the Booker prize in 1990 instead of A.S. Byatt's Possession? What if Solomon Gursky Was Here went on to become the template for what we think of a the successful Canadian novel? Canadian novels could have become known as large sprawling stories of history and ideas instead of carefully observed novels of the domestic and the interior life that seems to predominate today. I am grossly oversimplifying Foran and in fact his own argument is a simplification of reality (there are over 14,000 trade books published in Canada every year, so it stands to reason that all sorts of novels get published).
But what I like about the article is that it displays the health of Canadian letters today. Our literature is mature enough that establishment writers like Foran, writing in establishment magazines like The Walrus can take a run at conventions, try and gore some sacred cows and generally shake things up a bit. My wife and I have completely different takes on the article, again a good thing. She has an advantage over me because she has actually read Solomon Gursky Was Here.
What do you think?
Yesterday we announced that we are moving to a new location in January next year. We’ve been at our Shaughnessy Street home ten years and it was time for a change. We process over 11 million books a year and even though we already have the largest book distribution facility in western Canada, we need more space.
As the Canadian distributor for Moleskine, we are always looking out for information on people who love Moleskine. It is truism is that if you do creative work in your life you are probably a fan of Moleskine.
Richard Florida, theorist of the Creative Class, has a good post over at The Atlantic Monthly that discusses a recent study on the Boho Index for major North American cities (with populations over a million). Florida cites work from the Bohemian Index from the Martin Prosperity Institute that tracks cities with the highest percentage of working artists, musicians, writers, designers, and entertainers. Turns out that Canada is a Boho Haven.There are three Canadian cities in the Top 10; Vancouver is # 2, Toronto # 4 and Montreal rounds out the top ten. While flattering, none of this is hugely surprising.
But one of the major knocks against Creative Class theory is how can creative people actually afford to live in Creative Class cities? Most artists can't afford a fair-trade, organic, shade-friendly coffee at 49th Parallel in Kits let alone buy a house, condo or rent a single room apartment in Vancouver. This is what is cool about this index--it ranks smaller cities too, and here, Canada does very well: Halifax, Victoria, Peterborough, and Guelph all who have Boho Index values above the norm.
Lesson from all this? Grab your Moleskine Notebook and move to Peterborough, you will be very happy.