Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Ever since I can remember its existence Greg Denton has been happily enframed by the renewing people and places of Guelph’s arts and culture scene. Known downtown as longtime musician, bookseller, and painter; he is also a painting instructor on campus. His practical and theoretical know-how combined with his daily commitment to the overlapping and busy fields of local artistic expression made him a natural choice as this year’s City of Guelph Artist in Residence. According to the city’s description, the residency ‘is a cultural initiative that embeds artists in a variety of public spaces’. Each year

artists are asked to engage the community in creative experiences. Engagement may include hands-on creative activities, collaborative creation of temporary works or exploration of broader community stories. The public space selected for 2015 is the core area of Downtown Guelph.
This year’s applicants to the position were asked to ‘draw inspiration from Lt.-Col. John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields, and the theme of remembrance’. Correspondingly, this summer Greg submitted, then swiftly completed a ‘100 portrait paintings in oil, depicting living military personnel, cadets, and veterans from the Guelph area, in uniform and wearing a poppy on their lapel’. Entitled ‘100 Portraits/100 Poppies: Sitting in Remembrance’ Greg’s work begin its exhibition on Nov 2 at Boarding House Arts and shows until Monday Nov 30th.

Having barely any knowledge of painting, and thankfully not having any direct experience of war, I was eager to get a civic understanding of how paintings inform the public remembrance of such a complex, even controversial topic. The following is an excerpt from the recording of a conversation I had with Greg at the Boarding House on Nov 1st at a solid wooden table facing his paintings. For what words are worth, it’s a single sitting portrait of a bigger picture.

- Brad de Roo, who after watching Greg paint one of 100 poppies last few portraits during his final stint painting in City Hall, was surprised to learn that the uniformed gentleman Greg was painting had been part of liberation of the Netherlands in WW2, thereby helping to spare Opa & Oma de Roo any further formative hardship.

Could you describe how you paint?

There is a process that I think I go through as a painter. And there is a process as representational painter. I have an interest in light and shadow and how that’s constructing the form. I have an interest in how colour works within the field of light that I’m painting. I have interest in the space of the painting. You know, I tend to work technically, so that I am usually working with a rough gestural sketch to try to get a sense of scale and placement. And then I’ll tend to start mapping in warm and cool colour relationships and tonal relationships. And then I’ll start to elaborate from there on more particular things. And I tend to work as a single session painter. I’m working wet in wet and with a fairly direct painting style, and with a fair amount of body and brushiness to the paint. I mean, it’s not the way to paint. It’s one way and it’s the way I tend to approach the construction of things.

Is this style of painting prone to any mistakes? Does it allow for surprises?

Oh absolutely. One of the formative things for me in painting was thinking that they’re improvisational. Being a single session painter, there’s somebody sitting in front of me and I am trying to look at it in the here and now and make a painting. The painting is a record of those decisions. I used to love Francis Bacon, a British painter, and he talked about painting as a process of courting accident. And he was interested in also subverting what he called the illustrative aspect of the painting. So he would be trying to find ways of realizing the representation through the process and through the paint and in a sense have the paint itself invent the image, rather than the painting be a material through which you render the image.

So it’s almost like there’s a greater texture to it?

Yeah, well texture or surprise. Or accident, right? I tend to think that’s what’s really interesting about a painting and I often will argue that these are fictions, rather than representations of people. I’m usually pretty critical about the role of portraiture as the idea that I’ve interpreted somebody’s personality, or tried to distill it, or represent it. You know, I’m looking at somebody. I’m looking at their face. I’m aware that there’s a psychology in action and I think a psychology gets enacted any time you see something that looks like a face. You know, like the front of a car looks angry or placid. So I am looking for readable psychology in painting, but I tend to think that there is so much accident in process; the paintload, the contrast that happens – you didn’t cover something adequately or the edge of the paint rolled of the brush in a funny way and it will create a kind of mood and expression and in fact likeness and I’m really interested in that. One of my other projects was the three hundred and sixty five self-portraits and that was an attempt to track however many different likenesses of the same person that process could generate. And in a sense when I do this sort of ensemble projects they’re often narratives of that process.

This one effected that narrative because I think there was a higher demand on it as likeness, on not giving myself permissions. I was working to a set schedule.

This would be somewhat of an emotional experience. People are coming in representation of someone or embodiment of someone etc. Did the emotional side of the project ever come to the fore while painting?

Absolutely. One woman started crying when I painted the poppy. She didn’t expect that. She didn’t expect it to be such an emotional punch. The symbolism of it hit her. Some people seemed to be very proud and some people seemed to express a lot of gratitude that the culture they are apart of us is being honoured. I was painting a lot of living veterans. There was a lot of emotion. There were times when I teared up.

People were probably telling you stories too…

That’s it. I’m painting some 96 year old guy who was 17 years old and on the frontlines going into Holland in the war or on Juneau beach on D-Day and you think about who you were as a 17-year-old and you realize the history of this person – the history that they embody.

Has this project changed your understanding of remembrance or memory?

This project allowed me to address something that I think has been happening over the last few years. I’m getting older and meeting older people and have more friends who have passed away and mortality and the images I have of these people in sketchbooks and paintings bears a different meaning to me now than it did when it was more of just a chance to do a formal exploration.

The likeness and recognizability of a person, and the portrait as an emblem of that became something more significant.

How do the individual portraits interact with your piece’s overall form?

I was interested in meeting them as people, rather than symbols. But also this was a chance for me to take what I do in terms of a repetitive form and in terms of trying to find a motif that repeats in the painting that isn’t the portrait but ascribes a different meaning to it.

The idea of a hundred people wearing poppies and the chance to make that a field of poppies appealed formally to me. Military I think of as a predominantly green culture, if I had to ascribe a colour to the idea of the military. So it seemed this was a real opportunity to make a green field with red poppies, which are contrasting colours and would give a chance for the poppy to be vivid. I realized if I am gridding them on a wall with spaces between them than I will want a white wall because it will make white crosses and that will extend the field as well.

I was also looking for a certain scale. I had to decide what size to make the paintings in order for the work to be sizeable and I wanted something mural scale.

Something that you cannot necessarily take all in a field of vision?

Yeah. Something that’s going to fill a wall. It’s 15 feet long and that seemed like a reasonable expanse. And I think there is an allusion to colour field painting. Barnett Newman, and that sort of thing; in terms of the scale and the fact that your vision is absorbed with colour. It fills your periphery. You’re not looking at it as a picture - it really is a field that you are absorbed in. It’s a green field. It can be seen as an allusion to colour field abstraction or an allusion to landscape.

Did the political landscape around the time of painting this complicate things?

It wasn’t ever an explicit part of this. There was a huge diversity of opinion in the people who were sitting. Some people very supportive of the Conservative Party.

There’s always this debate around Remembrance Day when people complain that its celebrating war and you’re always trying to position how you feel about that – are you celebrating war or are you honouring sacrifice and remembrance and what exactly that role is and I think this project sits in that territory. I think it can generate that debate, but I don’t think there is anything about it that is politicized in terms of taking a position on that.

Your piece is illustrative of the space of remembrance, rather than divisive?

What I think is really interesting about it is that when I’ve encountered military portraits historically I’ve often thought they are paintings of the uniform, paintings of the idea of valour, of dignity. I was focusing on their faces in a public space.

I tend to think I painted these people as people and as vulnerable people.

What would you like to be asked about your artwork that is normally overlooked? Are their every any misconceptions about it?

People get engaged with what I do in terms of an individual portrait - and I am interested in these as individual portraits - but I think that my work comes at it from two angles. I feel like people aren’t adequately engaging in what I do as a format and as a form and may not see they colour-field references or the fact that this is a representation, that it’s an ensemble.

They are interested in the figurative side of it more. I’m interested in context.

I’m up against a tradition of figurative painting. People can look at it and understand what I am doing within a set of readymade standards, and what I think I am doing is actually trying to reframe that and shift that, so that it's put into a context and seen as a kind of contrivance that establishes it as being a portrait rather than a figure painting. People see that I am portrait artist, but they don’t see that I am an installation artist.

What books would you recommend to get a fuller view of painting?

Frank Stella’s Working Space. A phenomenal study about the idea of what space is in a painting, and what pictoriality is, and looking at it from a historical viewpoint. I think it’s a beautiful book for his lucidity and his knowledge as a practicing artist.

Francis Bacon’s interviews with Sylvester were huge for me as student, even more so than his paintings.

Clement Greenberg, always. Even though he can be really prescriptive and problematic.

Ross King’s book on The Group of Seven, Defiant Spirits.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


There's an old saying where I come from: You can bring a bud to Ween, but you can't make them dig it. It was a lesson that took me a while to learn. Between the ages of 15 and 25, I did my damndest to buffalo friends and partners into listening to the New Hope, Pennsylvania duo: cranking up albums during parties, monopolizing the tape deck on road trips, striving to put the perfect song in the perfect context on a mix tape. After years of reactions ranging from the confused, to the disinterested, to the offended, I gave up. To retrofit a line from Bruce McCulloch's "Doors", Ween fans aren't made – they're born. Ween made sense to me immediately. I was on board with their pitched up or down vocals, their sometimes-sacred, sometimes-profane, sometimes-bonkers lyrics, and by their donning and doffing of any genres and the denizen narrators of those genres. I didn't sweat whether or not they were a joke band, because I got that – to boost another line, this one from Lorrie Moore nothing is a joke with Ween. It all just comes out like one.

The point people seem to miss with Ween is how ironic they're not. When they dally in one genre or another, they're not making fun of, say, Prince or Billy Joel or The Beatles. They're a pair of weird dudes with major roots in punk and DIY and lo-fi and small town idle redneckness and when they fool around with whatever style, with whatever points of reference, what comes out is both familiar and sui generis. 

The catalog Dean and Gene Ween accrued over 25 years is, by turns, far-reaching, far-flung, and far-fetched. Ideally, there's something in there for everybody. Bookshelfer and citizen Brad de Roo certainly hoped so when he challenged local musicians to try their own hands at songs of their choosing. The result, GUELPH WEEN SATAN, is available now for download. The cassette release of the compilation will take place Friday November 20 at 8:30pm at the ANAF Club, featuring a Ween open mic, followed by karaoke.

- Andrew

What about Guelph jibes with Ween? Why not a compilation of Guelphies pulling off Spin Doctors or Jesus Jones?

I don’t know how much Guelph is a paradigmatic Ween-town. It definitely has its share of oddly pitched voices and lyrically unsettling characters. I imagine there are maybe more Weenish places in Canada that have yet to compile their Weenishness. What Ween lurks in Stephen Harper’s backyard, I wonder? Or in some of our other post-industrial wastelands?

But there is a long history of home recording in Guelph, and there continues to be a splattering of cool home studios and bedroom projects. Some of these sweaty setups and close-knit relationships remind me a bit of what I’ve read of Ween’s early days making tape upon tape of lo-fi music in shacks. There is also an interest in lots of different genres of music in the Guelph indie scene (for a lack of a better thing to call it). There is a jumbling spirit which associatively calls to mind Ween’s genre-shifting ways. It is not strange to find musical-minded folks I know playing in garage rock bands while making homemade hip hop beats between participating in a free jazz improve sessions and crooning standards on karaoke nights.

Compilationally, Tyson Brinacombe (my co-conspirator on GUELPH WEEN SATAN) and I had the initial plan of putting out a Spin Doctors/Jesus Jones split tribute LP, but it seems we don’t live in the right here, right now as much as KW - in some circles known as the Two Princes of Ontario – who’d already beaten us to this poppy punch. I haven’t searched for the Bandcamp yet, but I’ve heard it’s not quite heavy enough on the funk rock.

What sort of Guelph sampler does GUELPH WEEN SATAN amount to?

I think it is an intriguingly incomplete one. This being my first kick at the release can (with the absolutely necessary/awesome technical and organizational help of veteran releaser Tyson), I underestimated a few things. I attempted Liberal-style gender parity of the recordings early on, only to be politely denied songs by almost every woman I asked, thereby underestimating how many women in Guelph that I know would want to cover Ween for free. I attempted to stay out of the way of the song selection process almost entirely, underestimating that certain representative albums would be missed. The comp features 4 songs from The Pod, 4 from Pure Guava, 2 from Chocolate and Cheese, 1 from The Mollusk (one of the best named & designed psychedelic albums in my mind), 2 from White Pepper, 2 from Quebec, 1 from Shinola Vol 1., and 2 from La Cucaracha. This unfortunately leaves both GodWeenSatan: The Oneness (from which this comp steals its name) and 12 Golden Country Greats (their Nashville country album) totally untouched (as well as some early recordings, collabs, EPs, and demos). Ween simply have too many songs that would be fun challenges to cover. Lastly, I attempted to console myself along the mishap-laden way by thinking that this was just Volume 1 and a future Volume 2 could rebalance the musical scales with an almost all-women compilation of what was here missed. I underestimated how much work it was getting this done in the first place, and how much I’d be listening to only charting early nineties funk rock by the time GUELPH WEEN SATAN was finished.

Having grieved so, I got to meet some new nice people, I got to chat with some old pals, some new collaborations were born, and some cool sounds were created for a good time in a home-made fashion.

How would you describe Ween to some jerk who'd never heard them?

Immediately lapsing into clichéd music hybridizing, I’d say that Ween sound like a better-voiced, worse mannered "Weird" Al teamed up with your somewhat jocky high-school buddy who can play anything on guitar, both Al & Buddy boozed up and high and backed in a fit of surreal reference by all the (usually classic rock) bands they are parodying, who are slightly misplaying, often rewriting, and consistently adding piss-taking, exaggeratory flourishes to their own songs. Ween are all these things while being willing and able to burst into sudden noise or break into genuinely beautiful love songs. Maybe they are also a slacker Zappa clone split into two mysteriously compelling, temporarily co-balancing figures – with much catchier songs than their imaginary sci-fi forebearer. Alternatively, you could say they are the weirder cousins of Prince & Beck and have spent some odd times trying to inject the alien tone of the Residents into rich melodies. They are also, at times, troublingly politically incorrect (a fact worth further study and criticism).

A lot of Ween is deceptively simple. What challenges does a musician come up against when attempting to make a Ween track their own?

I can’t speak for everyone else on this comp, but my challenges were many. From a technical side, some folks here play some pretty complicated guitar (see "Ocean Man") and do some layering, multi-instrumental playing and singing (see "Falling Out" by Matt Monoogian, as well as too many others to list) that is far beyond my limited musical know-how. I found it tricky to get the Weeness into the song without being weird for weirdness sake. Ween’s recordings, especially a lot of the early recordings from GodWeenSatan, The Pod, and Pure Guava have very strange tones, odd pre-programmed rhythms, and manipulated vocals (whether acoustically or via pedals, tape manipulation, mic effects etc). So even if the chords and melodies are simple, the textures, tones, timbres are distinctly askew. It would be hard to mistake these recordings for another band. So the run on question becomes how to capture this unsettling quality while understanding the element of parody in their genre recreations (that you find on songs like the Thin Lizzy sounding "Gabrielle" awesomely covered here by Gregory Pepper and his Problems) and reworkings (like "Fiesta"’s cheesy electro mariachi, covered in fully midi glory by AM Brooks) and touching on the unseemly characters or personas that seem to come out in some of vocalizations and lyrics - all while trying not to overthink it.

For the songs I sang, I tried to select songs (with the help of my collaborators) in a style that I could see myself attempting to vocally replicate (I could never belt out "Captain Fantasy"), but that also had room for some of the dissonance I favour as a distorting accomplice to melodic sweetness. I also found it helpful to interpret the song like a text and to try to pick up latent themes to sonically and lyrically reframe. "Lullaby", for example, which is a stripped down piano and orchestra ballad in the original recording, seemed lyrically and melodically ripe for a psychedelic, cultish remake. The New Agey lyrics about ‘floating’ and ‘life flowing’ combined with the religious images of infants and the Rapture to me called for a bit more chaos and disorientation which I naturally tried to communicate via phasing, disembodied vocals, and a swallowing noise loop followed by a sample of a Jim Jones’ recording from the final moments of Jonestown. Jessy Bell Smith, who collaborated on the song with me (and contributed an awesome version of "Sarah"), added churchy yet distorted organ and layered spectral choir-like harmony vocals, which I felt further developed my cultish interpretation. The original song also has hard to make out (maybe intentionally ambiguous lyrics) which I maybe sacrilegiously sang as ‘friends’ and ‘utopia’ to bolster my fictional cult view. I also liked that "Lullaby" was a lesser known coda-ish song that wouldn’t have too many ideas about it from the get-go. I also liked the idea of recording lo-fi with a Mac and some snacks in my robe. I also liked the idea not fixing the vocals parts I did not sing quite right. These things all felt Ween to me. Considering everything, I’m sure I fucked it up.

"Hey There Fancy Pants" I did with Tyson (smoothly playing most of the instruments –banjo, bass, drums, percussion – as well as recording) was mostly just fun to old timey sing. It was also fun to try to replicate an impossible Les Paul-style guitar solo on a kazoo and to rip some noise guitar for no good reason other than further shadowing "Fancy Pants"’ hoping for ‘sunny days’ (to riff off the silly lyrics and peppy tone of the tune some). It was also fun to try a song that sounded much less serious than my previous selection - to get to explore a fuller sense of the kaleidoscopic chimera that is Ween.

I look forward to discussing how all the contributors approached the finer details of their songs over drinks. I’m seriously interested in exploring how members of a community interpret sound in very different ways over drinks.

Anecdotally, "Freedom of '76" by Encyclopedia included on GUELPH WEEN SATAN references Ween’s love of reference and randomly samples a small a part of every song on the compilation (if anyone wants to play spot the sample). It also destroys a perfectly good straight ahead reading of the song by Tyson. For comparison sake, we’ve at this very moment added Tyson’s original version to Bandcamp for free (along with a scrapped demo recording by "Demon Sweat") as an audio bonus to your curious readers.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution by longtime journalist and onetime editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail, John Stackhouse, offers an immersive look into how newspapers have had to adapt to the cultural, technological, and financial conditions of the digital age. Using his time at the Globe as a narrative pivot, Stackhouse moves between case studies of classic print powerhouses (like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, & The London Times), and explorations of popular digital models (from BuzzFeed to Facebook to Twitter). Run-ins & sit-downs with Harper, Bono, and Ford make fascinating interludes, while assignments in Russia, Ethiopia, India, & Afghanistan provide a global heft. Through all the sights, diversions, innovations, and inevitable editorial controversies, Stackhouse makes the survival of serious journalism his business. Only, he argues, by balancing flexible fiscal and digital models with factual, well-written, accountable (often long-form) stories will the fourth estate remain a reliable source of democratic disputation.

- Brad de Roo, who would often get the urge to yell ‘Stop the Presses!’ as he passed by his local paper in production, not knowing that in his lifetime he might be better received if he texted ‘Delete the Posts!’ 

Was it at all strange to apply journalistic practices to a book about journalism?

Any book about journalism, by a journalist, faces a few inherent challenges. First, and this is pretty obvious, there should be no pretense of objectivity. I tried to say, up front and actually in the title, that this book is a single person's perspective. I set out to write the book because I felt I had been given a ringside seat to a critical moment in journalism's history, and had both an obligation and desire to share that with current and future readers and producers of journalism. There were more nuanced challenges, though, stemming from various topics that aren't central to journalism, or at least weren't until recently. Digital reading habits, mobile advertising, technology platforms – these forces are reshaping journalism in profound ways, and I wanted to understand them, as a journalist and as a user. For some of those questions, I put on my reporter's hat and explored new fields and other companies. But again, it had to be woven into a narrative structure that was both chronological and first-person.

What are the biggest challenges ahead of newspapers?

The biggest challenge is advertising. The controlled model of advertising that dominated media when I entered the business in the 1980s has been shattered. Newspapers, magazines and broadcasters simply cannot guarantee the sort of consistent audience that they once were able to deliver to advertisers. Ironically, most media have bigger audiences than ever, in raw numbers, but most of us spend fraction of the time each day with a particular news source - and so, advertisers won't pay the big dollars that media used to charge for access to those audiences. I'm a paying subscriber to the Economist, for instance, and I love it. But instead of an isolated hour of immersive reading that I used to spend with the magazine, I now visit its mobile app and email feeds every morning for 5 minutes or so. So they still have me; they just don't have as much of my attention.

Throughout Mass Disruption, you note that many big newspapers almost willfully ignored the digital changes and challenges to come. Is there something inherently careful about the newspaper industry?

The Harvard management guru Clayton Christensen wrote The Innovators Dilemma in the 1990s, and it holds true today. In any industry, established firms - the so-called legacy operators - find it very challenging, perhaps impossible, to disrupt themselves. They're usually making good money off the old model, and therefore have a strong incentive not to blow it up. That's been absolutely true for newspapers. Perhaps a few papers, entering the 21st century, might have said, 'Look, it's obvious we're moving to a purely digital media world. Let's catapult ourselves into the future. Shut down the paper. Go all digital.' But we were all making money off the newspapers, and not off our websites, at least back then. Thus, the innovator's dilemma. There's also a mindset. Newspaper operators - owners, publishers, editors - tend to have ink-stained fingers. It's harder for them to become digital pioneers than, say, for a 25-year-old with a new concept and some venture capital to play with. And then there's the question of caution, which is raised pointedly in the question. Yes, newspapers tend to be cautious. I've wrestled with that question for years, because on one level newspapers - and their journalists - take heroic risks every day. They go to war zones. They print stories that may incite lawsuits. They run columns that infuriate loyal subscribers. That all takes courage. And yet, they stick to the same format, most of them at least, year-in, year-out. Most subscribers and advertisers want that predictability. Perhaps it's because the daily newspaper is one of the last constants in a widely variable world. And as a result, a lot of newsrooms tended to stay close to home in the early days of digital disruption.

What do newspapers offer readers that new media formats like Buzz Feed, Huff-Post, and Vice do not? Do newspapers increasingly run the risk of becoming what they are trying to differentiate themselves from? How will newspapers attract the younger audiences that these outlets boast? 

The book explores a few case studies of newspaper journalism - lively ones like the Rob and Doug Ford stories - to show some of what is required to produce significant journalism. These kinds of stories take a team: reporters, of course, but also handling editors, lawyers and, most critically, sources who trust the newsroom. Purely digital outlets can do this, and a lot of them are. But most serious journalism still comes from traditional outlets, newspapers in particular. Despite their challenges, they have the newsrooms, the trained, professional reporters and legal resources to carry out and defend critical work. There's a lot that new media outlets can learn and borrow from that model. This is not all about the old adopting the new; there's a great need for the new to adopt a bit of the old, too.

You mention the growing role that social media companies like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have had in shaping, reporting, and disseminating stories. How would stories like the G20 protests, the Parliament Hill shooting, and the Ghomeshi affair have been covered differently had they happened when you entered journalism?

What a great question! In the book, I explore our own coverage of the G20 debacle in Toronto, because it was apparent, in hindsight, that social media played a critical role in shaping the media's coverage and the political consequences of that riotous weekend. We all witnessed the beating of civilians by police - on the grounds of the legislature! - thanks to citizens with smart phones. The story also shifted from a focus on anarchists to one on police tactics in part because that's what millions of people were talking about online. Would that have happened in the 1980s? I think police tactics would have become the story but in a more measured, and perhaps slower, way. Then there's the case of the Parliament Hill shooting, which I explore in the book. Many of us were able to follow that news live via Twitter. I think, in the main, that's good. But there was also a lot of inaccuracies circulated via Twitter that morning, and that's not good. To me, it shows the need for moderating.

Have any of these technological developments improved reporting? 

Reporting today, generally, is better than a generation ago. Reporters have access to more information and more sources than ever. And they can work with informed audiences to develop their coverage. Journalists no longer have to work in isolation. Twitter is like having your own newsroom - a cast of many who want to help explore, build and test ideas. Social media also holds us all to account, more effectively than ever. Reporters can't hide behind the walls of a newsroom, nor can editors or publishers barricade themselves behind the printing press. Power has been diffused. For journalism, ultimately that's good.

In your career as a journalist, were there any stories that you had to shelf or couldn’t cover? If so, what about not getting these stories most bothered you? 

I always regret, as do a lot of correspondents, not being able to get closer to Osama bin Laden and his training camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. I spent a fair bit of time in Pakistan in 1997 and 1998, and developed a pretty good sense of what was in the works, in terms of a jihadist movement. Of course, I had no idea that the movement was as big as it was, or determined as it was to attack the West. I spent some time pursuing the Khadr family, following their tracks to Peshawar, after I met and interviewed the father, Ahmed, in a Pakistani hospital. But I never again found them - they had crossed the border and lived in Jalalabad - and regret that. It had just become too dangerous for journalists in Afghanistan in the late '90s. We soon learned why.

You’ve played hockey with Putin, provoked the sensationalistic ire of Doug and Rob Ford, and lived for a week as a homeless person on the frigid streets of Toronto – has your position as a journalist ever make you fear for your personal safety? 

There were times when I feared for my safety, but those were mostly when I lived and worked overseas. I was with group of journalists in Lahore, Pakistan that was attacked by an angry mob following a court decision that favoured a Christian. We had to run for our lives, down some dark alleys, and were saved and sheltered by some very decent Pakistanis. Probably my gravest concern came when the Tamil Tigers killed a friend of mine - the human rights lawyer, Neelan Tiruchelvam - in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in the summer of 1999. I wrote a critical piece about the Tigers following that assassination, and was told by one of their sympathizers to be careful.

In the book, you reflect on being central the Globe and Mail editorial board that endorsed Harper for the 2011 election. What do you make of recent controversies around such endorsements - like the Globe’s support of a Harperless Conservative party this election or Andrew Coyne’s resignation as editor at the Post after he disagreed with their political stance? Considering the results of this election, do such endorsements have much sway these days? 

It's intriguing that newspaper editorials continue to ignite so many political passions. Whatever their position, it gives me hope that people see the institutional view of newspapers as important and worthy of debate. It would seem their influence on voting decisions, however, is limited. I don't think that's bad. Editorials should not be seen as a newspaper trying to instruct readers how to vote. I see them as a position - well-argued - against which people can form their own decisions.

What did you think of this election’s coverage, in general? 

I thought the coverage was generally quite good. A diversity of professional news outlets covered all three major campaigns from tape to tape, and provided important and valuable fact checking and criticism. If there was a gap in the campaign coverage - and the blame for this rests with the Conservatives - it was in a more thorough exploration of the government's record and platform. There were important policies, from taxation to immigration, that were reduced to divisive sound bites. But I don't blame the media for that; the Conservatives didn't provide a very thoughtful or engaging explanation of their polices, and obviously paid the price. It's a healthy reminder that, whether you're a political party or corporation or citizen movement, you need to engage the mainstream media.

What personal attributes does a journalist need to thrive today? 

The most important attribute for journalists continues to be curiosity. No algorithm has yet to supplant the art of questioning. Added to that ancient skill, journalists today need to understand digital audience behaviour - how we all move around the Internet and mobile apps, and how to engage this new world of digital nomads. Social media is a major part of that. And I'd suggest that journalists who understand revenue will have leg up. That doesn't mean selling your soul. It simply means understanding how new revenue sources like events or customized publications can help pay the freight of journalism.

Would you ever consider making a return to the field? 

I was incredibly lucky to be a reporter, foreign correspondent and editor during some of the most remarkable moments of our time, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11 to the Rob Ford phenomena, and to wrestle with how media approached those moments. I'm now lucky to be working for the chief executive of RBC, helping the bank, its clients and, to some extent, the country understand the big social, economic and technological forces around us. And I'm still writing for media, including the Globe, and will continue to write books. So I haven't left the arena; I've just moved seats.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Village Podcast From The Bookshelf

Welcome back to our show! We've settled it, we are going to be titled The Village Podcast. You will be able to subscribe on iTunes very soon.
In today's episode Steph and Candice take on the topic of awards and what purpose they serve to the industry. 
You can find a complete list of the 2015 Governor General's Awards (pdf), and the Scotiabank Giller Prize's 2015 long list and short list online to choose some books to pick up for the holidays.
The winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize, Marlon James with A Brief History of Seven Killings , is strongly recommended by the lovely book sellers in the store.
You might remember earlier this year when the Hugo Awards were handed out. There was some controversy over it and give some thought to whether they were right to handle it how they did. 
See our cinema calendar for the full list of films playing this month, including films mentioned He Named Me Malala, The Reflektor Tapes, Blue Velvet and Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
Some other upcoming events with The Bookshelf include:
Margaret Atwood reading and signing on November25th at War Memorial Hall. Tickets are $8. If you're a member or a student, tickets are $6. Save $3 on either ticket with the purchase of Atwood's new book, The Heart Goes Last.
Emily Richards book launch of her cookbook Per La Famiglia on November 17th in the eBar.
Are you taking part in NaNoWriMo? Join other writers in The Writing Room every Monday from 9am to 12pm in the eBar.
Books discussed in this episode:
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
The 52 Lists by Moorea Seal
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Per La Famiglia by Emily Richards
Follow the Bookshelf on Twitter and Facebook. Stay up to date on what's happening around the store at http://bookshelf.ca. Send us feedback at podcast@bookshelf.ca
Theme music from the Free Music Archive, by The Underscore Orkestra

Have a listen to our podcast:


I had the pleasure of Ian Brown’s company on Thanksgiving weekend. I cracked open Sixty: The Diary of My Sixty-First Year thinking that I would only spend a few minutes with it because, after all, I already know a few sixty year old men and, as they say, enough is enough. But as with his last book, The Boy in the Moon, which is about his life with his very debilitated son Walker and which I was also hesitant to read, I was immediately taken prisoner. I took a break for Thanksgiving rituals but other than that my head was in the book.

Brown wears all of his neuroses in bright pinks and lime greens. This is initially refreshing, as many men keep theirs silently in their pockets, locked in their cell phones, or played out on the squash court. He is constantly vibrating about sex and whether he is a noticed commodity anymore. And we thought that it was only women who obsessed about their body image. Of course this does get tedious, as does his other fixation – money. Is there enough to retire, redo the kitchen, keep up with his friends? He is in the media and book business which are, like him, in decline.

These are the mildly irritating and yet funny parts of his year long diary. The exhilarating parts shine brightly because he is and always has been a reader. He can't scramble over rocks in cottage country anymore but his mind brushes with greatness throughout. He integrates Pliny, Shakespeare, Hocking, Larkin, Vanier, Boswell, Olds, Atwood, Winnicot, Woolf and many more as if they are friends on Facebook. What they are saying resounds with him and it will with you also. I had to get out my notebook to write these well considered thoughts down. How about this one by Jean Vanier? "Purgatory is the stretch before death when you regret all of the chances you missed to be human."

At the same time, Brown, like all of us, is stuck in the body. He has a litany of irritations which he hilariously recounts throughout. Glaucoma, plantar fasciitis, deafness, allergies, bronchitis, hemorrhoids, which he describes as "a rich, lustrous, steamy affair, full of itching and compulsive scratching, a Satyricon of the perineal world. Christ knows what's going on down there, but it feels like the intersection of highway 410 and the Trans-Canada highway." These are all signposts to aging but they are lit up with humour and gutsy candour!

I'm not sure if you have seen the movie My Dinner With Andre. It is one of the most interesting that I have seen, just a conversation about life between two men in a restaurant. It was so simple and natural that I naively thought that it must have been easy to make. Then I read an article that said how may takes were involved in the movie. Many, many, many to create an elegant, simple movie. This is what I feel about the way Brown writes. Everything flows, but behind it all is hours of research and a lifetime of love with the written word. Thank you, Ian Brown. My weekend with you was a pleasure.

- Barb

Sunday, November 1, 2015


Sometimes it takes reading a study of Nicolas Cage to realize that you wanted – even needed – to read a study of Nicolas Cage. Being a youngster into indie cinema thanks to an older brother, my initial experience with Cage was in stuff like Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart, and Leaving Las Vegas. These are vehicles perfectly suited to Cage's seemingly erratic driving. In these, Cage performs like a capital-A Actor, with the sort of seriousness and intensity that actors playing serious actors on TV usually project. But thanks to being young, I didn't really think there was anything wrong with Cage also taking rolls in action movies like Face/Off or The Rock or Con Air. (In fact, Con Air is still an odd little action flick, featuring Actor-actors John Malkovich, John Cusak, and Steve Buscemi.) The last work of Cage's I took notice of was Adaptation, which felt like career defining stuff in capital-A category. 

But I stopped paying attention for a few years and when I looked up again in the late 2000s to see stuff like this:

Cage is perfect fodder for the internet, with its bored, often cruel penchant for sampling and recontextualizing. With performances so big they can be seen from space and his own odd personal life, the actor makes for an especially malleable target. Of course, the internet is more often than not just an exaggeration of ideas already out there in the world. The that Nicolas Cage is a horrible actor and weird person is not new, not an invention of the internet. All his career he has been divisive, covering the range between subtle, avante garde, and flat-out horrible. When Cage was admitted to internet, however, that idea of him overwhelmed the fact of him and now it's hard to see the man for the memes.

National Treasure: Nicolas Cage (ECW) is an apposite response to Cage's meme-ification. The problem with the internet and memes (yes, I know how that sounds...) is the purchase they're increasingly gaining on our reality. The adolescent and oddball perception of stuff online feels like it's starting to leech into the real world. You might never be able to see Cage without hawk hair ever again. That this stuff gets discussed virologically is fitting. A spin gets put on some static thing, and if it it catches – ermahgerd! – that spin spirals out of control, finally distorting and mangling that initial noun. I've started thinking of internet virology as being like Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room, in which the composer reads a short statement and then begins to layer the recording of that statement on top of itself. "I am recording the sound of my speaking voice," says Lucier,
and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech.
The result is an eldrich metallic ambiance, which is pretty much how I experience exhausted-but-somehow-tireless memes now, gags and absurdities repeated so many times that the lot of it become inarticulate. All of which is to say that once a thing is distorted in the mocking fun-house-echo-chamber of the internet, returning the thing being memed to itself feels impossible. 

Lindsay Gibb's National Treasure manages to retrieve Nicolas Cage from the internet's perverting spiral. And she does so by taking him seriously – calm intelligence being, of course, the internet's mortal foe.

"Having to consistently defend something you like can make you love it more fiercely," Gibb writes, in her introduction, of her interest in Cage being treated like an affectation. "And being accused of liking something ironically was, at least for me, infuriating." That lack of irony is key here. What seems to be most risible about Cage is just how earnest he is. When he's doing work that's seen as important, he's giving it his all. When he's doing work that's perceived as fucking bonkers, he's giving it his all.

Gibb doesn't make a case for Cage being the most important living actor or anything, but over the 75 page monograph, employing a wide range of sources, she roots out the logic of Cage's performances and his roll choices, all of which can appear so wildly illogical. The portrait of Cage which emerges is that of an eccentric person with eccentric ideas who is out to explore the limits of performance, to take rolls outside his wheelhouse, and work with people that he can constantly be learning from. Gibb argues and establishes consistency and intention in a career easily perceived as manic and impulsive.

Increasingly, I've been feeling pretty grim about the meme-y ambiance that is more and more turning from how we interact on the internet into how we interact in real life (IRL). One isn't obviously connected to the other, but Gibb's National Treasure: Nicolas Cage feels hopeful. That a subject which has been nearly obliterated by online weirdness can be treated with and withstand a thoughtful kind of respect augurs well for all of us, I think. 

- Andrew

Monday, October 19, 2015


2015 marks the 100th anniversary of The Best American Short Stories series as well as the first year of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy.

The centenary feting comes along with a best of the Best, 40 stories that represent a 100 years of the form. Over 700 pages you can see the progression of the short story from "a predictable plot tied up neatly with a happy ending... the literary equivalent of the Norman Rockwell paintings beside which they sometimes appeared" to more artful expressions of deeper emotional and intellectual truths exploded by smaller, more contained experiences and interactions. Between the 20s and the 60s, the form was honed by the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Salinger and O'Connor, only to then be recalibrated and complicated by the likes of Barthelme and Carver and Moore. Over the century, short stories became less about an experience and more about the experience of an experience; meanings gradually take the place of happenings.

The tome of shorts ends with George Saunders' "Semplica Girls", a story about Third World women shipped to the US to be used as status-enhancing lawn ornaments. Squeaking in at the end of the century, the presence of this story points out what might be termed a "genre-bias" in the previous 98 or so years of The Best American Short Stories. Beginning in 1915, the anthology can't help but leave out the forefathers of the form, the Irvings and Hawthornes and Poes – forefathers, too, of science fiction and fantasy. But the fact that The Best American Short Stories doesn't include the likes of  Lovecraft or Bradbury or Sturgeon or Ellison™or Heinleine or Le Guin or Willis is disappointing, but is also not surprising. As the short story became more self-serious over the century – more "literary" – science fiction and fantasy more and more became the redheaded step-children of the form. Of course, "literary" is a genre like any other. It's not a mark of quality, but a summation of conventions. Just as there are heaps of rotten, cheap science fiction and fantasy stories, there is literary dross – god, it seems like there's so much of it.

I've been recommending this inaugural Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy to anyone who'll listen, and the response has mostly been the same: No way this can be the first year. Championed by John Joseph Adams and edited by Joe Hill (Adams read basically every weird story published in 2014 and recommended a list of 80 to Hill, who chose his favorite 20), the resulting anthology is the best of its kind that I've read in a long time. In Karen Russell's "The Bad Graft", a woman becomes possessed by the seed of a Joshua Tree; in Alaya Dawn Johnson's "A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i", humanity has been conquered by vampires and turned into feeding slaves; in Theodora Goss's "Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology", a serious nod to Borges' classic "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", academics visit a land of their own creation; in Adam-Troy Castro's "The Thing About Shapes to Come," a mysterious plague has most of the world's women given birth to spheres, cubes, and pyramids; in Sam J. Miller's "We Are the Cloud", the brains of orphans are used as wi-fi ports; in T.C. Boyle's "The Relive Box", people become addicted to a devise which allows them to revisit the past. 

As a sort of happy accident – accident because Hill's selection process was "blind", meaning he had only the stories, not knowledge of their authors – The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy turned out also to be an impressive showcase for women writers. Whether there's a connection between marginalized writers excelling in marginalized genres can't be answered here, but it's certainly worth a think. I've always used – as I think many readers do – the Best American series as a way to find out about new authors, and it just so happens that this particular iteration is crawling some amazing writers you may never have heard of who just happen to be women.

The leg up that sci-fi and fantasy writing has always had on literary fare is that, even if the writing's poor, a crackerjack concept can sustain a story. But in the case of this collection, great premises are supported by the kind of storytelling chops that usually lands writers in The Best American Short Stories anthology. We're living in a literary landscape where a writer like Stephen King (Hill's dad, don't'cha know), either ignored or reviled by literary critics for the first half of his career, has been awarded the National Medal of Arts. The fact is that much of the great work being done today is being done in previously maligned genres. My sense is that both readers and writers have grown a little tired of strictly "literary" conventions and are beginning to seek, in their short fiction, the sort of entertainment that used to be the hallmark of the form. With this in mind, I can't wait to read – as a head in a jar – the next centenary collection of The Best American Short Stories 2015 – 2115.

- Andrew