In the grand spirit of Twitter’s Follow Friday I figured I’d shed some light on three blogs maintained by close friends.
The Can-Lit Project
Written by my girlfriend Katy and her sister Tory, the Can-Lit project is a series of book reviews and essays about Canadian literature.
It all began when Katy decided that she wasn’t familiar with the Canadian canon, so she and her sister dedicated themselves to reading as many books from this great country of ours as is possible. The result has been intriguing, with both of them exploring classics of the genre as well as some titles that are less popular.
In their eight months of blogging they've put up 43 reviews of Canadian books. Most are fiction, but some are non-fiction.
This may be the Canadian studies graduate in me, but I think this is a very worthy pursuit. In particular, I’ve enjoyed the debates over titles like Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I’ve never read the novel myself, but I miss this kind of heated discussion from undergrad and it makes me want to read the book so I can weigh in as well.
If anything, this blog shames me into being better read and also reading more high quality books. One of my favourite blogs to read and not just for obvious personal reasons.
The Writer’s Pet
Speaking of debates from undergrad, my friend Lija also maintains a literary blog called the Writer’s Pet. Although we used to talk about CanLit in our glory days at the University of Toronto, she’s now moved on to sunny London, England where she continues to toil in the writing game.
It’s a great website to check in on regularly since Lija always has something interesting going on, whether it be a new review or a discussion on unorthodox bookmarks.
My girlfriend’s brother-in-law (the husband of Tory, co-writer of the Can-Lit Project), is a professional mixed martial artist who fights out of Edmonton. He recently started a blog to record his planning and training for a tournament at the end of April that will feature fighters from across Canada in an elimination tournament, much like the original Ultimate Fighting Championship.
There’s only a few posts so far, but that handful has been enlightening. Victor’s talked about his entrance into the sport, his experience fighting at The Fight Club 10: High Octane and coming up with a strategy for his next bout.
It’s a good read for anyone interested in seeing what it takes to be a high-calibre professional athlete or for any fans of MMA.
Although the playoffs (hockey and/or basketball, take your pick) still sit between us and the summer, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has already begun to promote their coverage of this year’s World Cup of Soccer in South Africa.
There’s a growing an air of excitement surrounding the tournament. After all, it’s the biggest sporting event in the world, even more popular than the Olympics.
Unfortunately, this time around I’m going to be watching the World Cup with a pretty sceptical eye.
My disillusionment began in Dec. 2008 as I read Declan Hill’s The Fix, an investigation into the world of sports fixing by a journalist who used to work with the CBC and the British Broadcasting Corporation.
I reviewed the book on my now defunct blog, but in short: Hill uncovered a far-reaching criminal underworld that exerts its influence over many sporting events. Hill chose to focus his investigation on soccer matches and his findings were startling.
According to him, there are two kinds of match-fixing scenarios.
1) Internal – When a member of a team gives incentives to officials or the players on opposing clubs to give his team an advantage.
Author Joe McGinniss details this kind of fix in The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro when he overhears several players discussing throwing their final game of the season against Bari. They had been asked to do this “favour” to insure that Bari would be promoted to Serie A.
2) External – When an outsider influences the outcome of a match for personal gain.
Obviously, this is the more typical kind of sporting corruption, with the Black Sox scandal, when the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series at the behest of Arnold Rothstein, serving as a sterling example.
In The Fix, Hill uncovers evidence of many professional matches being thrown world-wide. The climax of the book is when a mobster assures him that the World Cup itself is fixed. The gangster predicts the results of a handful of matches, down to when the goals are scored.
Hill watches with growing horror as each one of the games ends just as described.
Why is this pertinent now? Because last November German police arrested 15 people for fixing more than 200 games. Two weeks ago, Turkish police detained 40 people, including former international Arif Erdem, for their involvement in thrown matches.
Germany’s Bundesliga and Turkey’s Süper Lig are not the best professional soccer league’s in the world, but they are hardly fly-by-night organizations. In fact, the German national team is one of the best sides in the world and a contender for the 2010 World Cup.
With all this in mind, it will be hard to not be cynical when one of the favourites struggles against an opponent this summer. I simply can’t help but be a little jaded after reading The Fix and hearing about recent events in European soccer.
Paul Quarrington’s novel King Leary is a funny, insightful look at the world of professional hockey in the early 20th century that would be enjoyable for fans of the sport or someone looking for a quick read.
It regained prominence in 2008 when the Rheostatics' Dave Bidini championed it for the CBC’s Canada Reads program. Bidini’s campaign saw King Leary become a best-seller and win the award 10 years after it first appeared on book shelves.
Narrated by Percival “King” Leary, one of the greatest professional hockey players to ever live, the story follows him as he travels from his retirement home to Toronto to shoot a ginger ale commercial with Duane Killebrew, the National Hockey League’s current scoring champion.
During the trip Leary recalls how he learned to play while at reformatory school and his complicated friendships with Clay Bors Clinton and Manfred Ozikean. He also touches on the fractious relationships with his sons Clarence and Clifford, as well as his wife Chloe and her sister Jane.
For the reader less familiar with hockey, King Leary will entertain with its amusing anecdotes and poignant moments. Quarrington is a masterful storyteller, subtly hinting at darkness that seeps into an otherwise humorous narrative.
At the same time, many of the characters are clearly based off other historical figures. Clinton is a mix of Conn Smythe and Harold Ballard. Killebrew is clearly meant to be Wayne Gretzky, with a passing reference to a player “down in Pittsburgh” that hints at Mario Lemieux.
Leary himself resembles a number of players, especially Toronto Maple Leafs great Francis Michael “King” Clancy.
The one disappointing aspect of the book is that although Quarrington is deft at the characterization of all of the main characters, supporting characters like Leary’s nurse Iain or the advertising executive Claire are painted with an extraordinarily broad brush. Their dialogue seems forced and unnecessarily flamboyant to the point that their characters are a distraction that clutters the page.
Aside from that, King Leary is a fine story. A quick reader could blow through Quarrington’s work in an afternoon, and would enjoy it regardless of their attachment to Canada’s favourite game. Definitely worth picking up.
I received Bret “the Hitman” Hart’s autobiography as a Christmas present two years ago, and put it on my ever-growing reading list. Well, its turn finally came around and I’m glad it did – it’s a fascinating, although somewhat disturbing, read.
Hart has had one of the most successful careers in professional wrestling history, starting in Calgary with his father’s Stampede Wrestling and rising through the ranks of the business to win the top titles in both the World Wrestling Federation and the rival World Championship Wrestling.
His memoir is very family-centric, looking at his relationship with his parents Helen and Stu, his 11 siblings, their spouses and his wife Julie. He also discusses in great detail the end of his tenure in the WWF, when promoter Vince McMahon and some of Hart’s co-workers conspired to strip Hart of the World Championship belt before leaving for WCW.
One of the last of the truly old school wrestlers, Hart always maintained the professional wrestling code of honour –kayfabe – that the fact that the matches are pre-determined never be revealed. When he was an active wrestler, he and his brother Owen did not speak to each other in public for years because in the storylines they were enemies.
However, the Harts broke kayfabe for the filming of the documentary Wrestling with Shadows, which coincidentally covered the abrupt end of his career with the WWF.
This event, known to wrestling fans as “the Montreal Screwjob” is the climax of the book’s third act, bringing to a head simmering professional and sibling rivalries that sink Hart into a deep depression. Ultimately, it leads to a life-changing stroke that paralyzes the athletically gifted Calgarian.
Hart’s writing is striking not just because of the content, but also the tone. His family settles most of its squabbles through violence. His fellow wrestlers indulge in performance enhancing and recreational drugs at an alarming rate. Hart writes candidly about his many extra-marital affairs that wreck havoc on his already tempestuous marriage. Somehow, Hart has a nonchalant tone about the dysfunction that surrounds him throughout the book.
Even then, Bret seems dowdy compared to some of his brothers like Smith, who has fathered countless children out of wedlock, or Dean, whose drug use exacerbates his Bright’s Disease, eventually leading to kidney failure.
The tragic death of Owen, the youngest member of the Hart clan, is the final straw as the family implodes. The family becomes divided as various siblings turn on each other, trying to publicly embarrass their rivals or force them into bankruptcy.
As the Hart’s are at war, Bret’s wrestling family also turns on him. In particular, Vince McMahon, Shawn Michaels and Hunter Hearst Helmsley align against him to oust him from his position as the face of the WWF.
It’s an emotional, dark read that will shock the reader with its graphic descriptions of Hart’s lonely, violent and nomadic life as a professional wrestler.
I’d recommend Bret Hart’s memoir to anyone, professional wrestling fan or not, for its candid look at what amounts to office politics as well as the tragic undoing of the Hart family. There are lessons to be learned from Hart’s life that go beyond how to take a chair to the head or how to make yourself bleed.
Gretzky’s Tears is the latest book by the Globe and Mail’s Stephen Brunt. It examines the controversial trade of Wayne Gretzky from the Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, almost bringing an end to Edmonton’s Stanley Cup dynasty and launching the National Hockey League’s sputtering Sunbelt Expansion.
Brunt is one of Canada’s foremost sports journalists, and one of the best “big picture” writers in the newspaper business today. Unfortunately, Gretzky’s Tears does not meet Brunt’s usually high standards, particularly in contrast to his own body of work and other media on the subject.
The closest comparison is Brunt’s previous book, Searching for Bobby Orr, which I reviewed on my old blog . Indeed, in the Acknowledgements section of Gretzky’s Tears Brunt says that it was intended as a sequel to Searching.
Both books spotlight the greatest hockey player of their generation, both address the theme of innocence lost and both subjects shy away from the limelight. Orr was always intensely private and Gretzky is big on controlling his own public image.
As a result, Brunt was unable to interview either player for his books. Instead, he focuses on interviewing the people around Gretzky and Orr, painting a picture of the circumstances and personalities surrounding these prominent Canadian figures.
It was a very effective method in Searching for Bobby Orr, but falls flat in Gretzky’s Tears.
The difference is that Orr’s entourage has maintained an omerta-like silence around the former Boston Bruin. Even former business associates like Alan Eagleson and Harry Sinden, both of whom have fallen out with Orr, did not participate in Brunt’s research for Searching.
However, in Gretzky’s Tears, two of the principals in the trade, former Oilers owner Peter Pocklington and former Kings owner Bruce McNall, submitted to extensive interviews. The result comes across as a rather jaundiced account of the deal. Pocklington and McNall (and to a lesser extent former Edmonton General Manager Glen Sather) all get to say their piece, wheras Brunt, and therefore the reader, are left to guess at Gretzky’s state of mind before and after the move.
This would be fine if Gretzky’s Tears was created in a vacuum.
Unfortunately for Brunt, Pocklington wrote (with the help of Terry McConnell and J’Lyn Nye) a book of his own called I’d Trade Him Again that includes a forward by the Great One.
Worse yet, ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary Kings Ransom also looks at the trade and filmmaker Peter Berg spoke extensively with Gretzky.
A smaller problem with the book is that it seems as though the editors backed off of Brunt’s copy. This might be because of the success of Searching for Bobby Orr, but Gretzky’s Tears suffers without a firm guiding hand.
The first chapter of Gretzky’s Tears is a ponderous exploration of loss of innocence that could have been cut completely. Further, Brunt has, for whatever reason, begun to copy sentences from one chapter to the next almost verbatim.
For example, towards the end of the book Brunt discusses Canada’s Olympic gold medal in 2002 and the rousing speech Greztky made at a press conference early in the games.
“[Gretzky] suggested that Canada was all alone, that the rest of Planet Hockey wanted it to fail, that it was us against the world. Standing in the room listening to him that day, it was difficult to tell how much was honest emotion, how much was a contrived attempt to inspire his team.” (p. 245)
Interesting commentary, except that just 45 pages earlier Brunt had described the same incident:
“Gretzky without prompting launched into a tirade – spontaneous or contrived – about how the whole hockey world wanted Canada to lose, it became a natural call to arms for both the country and the players.” (p. 200)
I only used excerpts, but aside from sentence structure the passages are almost identical.
It’s not an isolated incident either. There are several paragraphs throughout the book that repeat information and use similar phrasing. It’s a distracting habit and one that Brunt or his editor should have picked up on.
And that is the most disappointing thing about this book.
Stephen Brunt is an excellent writer who, in my opinion, is one of the best sports columnists in Canada. Searching for Bobby Orr was thoroughly researched and did a wonderful job of explaining the magic of Orr. On the other hand, Gretzky’s Tears is a flawed book that suffers by comparison to Brunt’s earlier work and the work of others.
By any other author this would be a solid book, but Brunt is a victim of his own success.
I was wandering through my local library when I saw the name “Satchel Paige” on the spine of a graphic novel and was immediately intrigued. The legendary pitcher has always interested me and I wanted to learn more. Even though it was written for young adults I borrowed it, figuring it was worth a look.
It turns out that I’d picked a fantastic piece of work by independent comic stars James Sturm and Rich Tommaso. In their hands the plight of African American sharecroppers in the Jim Crow south and the magic of Satchel Paige comes to life.
If you’re not familiar with Paige, then you’re missing out on a nearly mythical figure in American history.
Argued by some as the greatest pitcher of all time, Paige claimed that he had pitched in 2,500 games and won 80% of them. Of course, his claims can’t be verified since, as an African American, he couldn’t play in the major leagues until Jackie Robinson had broken the colour barriers, and Paige was in his 40s. Baseball historians have since confirmed that he won at least 291 games between various leagues across the United States and Carribbean.
Tomasso uses sepia tones picked out with heavy black ink to render the tale of Emmet Wilson, his son Emmet Jr. and, of course, the legendary Paige. His style is reminiscent of children’s illustrators of the 40s and 50s like H.A. Rey of Curious George fame or Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day.
Relying on a straight forward six panel frame for most of his pages, Tomasso’s art is well-paced. In particular, the baseball games are very exciting and are a nice mix of extreme close-ups, expansive double-wide panels and reaction shots. (Click here to read the first ten pages online)
At first, Tommaso’s plain, two-toned artwork seems too simple for the subject matter. However, he handles graphic images like the lynching of a sharecropper with great sensitivity. Tomasso deservedly won an Eisner Award in 2008 for his work on the book.
Sturm’s script draws the reader in and creates a real sense of tension, particularly surrounding the menacing Jennings twins who seem capable of anything.
He also does a good job of differentiating between the latent racism of Southern society represented by segregated baseball fields or the paternalistic Mr. Jennings and the blatant hatred of his twin boys who engage in violent hate crimes.
Most impressively, Sturm handles the enigmatic Paige with a rare touch that maintains his mystique while making him into an early champion of racial toleration. The penultimate scene where Paige faces down the bigotry of the Jennings brothers is a slow, simmering burn that the reader can savour.
The Center for Cartoon Studies commissioned this book, and they deserve full credit for putting together a wonderful package that includes online resources like samples of Tomasso’s draft work and other tools for teachers. Of course, they also put the Sturm-Tomasso tandem together which is what makes the book great.
Although geared towards adolescents, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow is an enjoyable, light read that doesn’t shy away from some tough subjects. Sturm and Tommaso are deft storytellers that express a myriad of emotions with minimal words and art.
Three years ago, as a lark, I challenged my friends, family and co-workers to try and read as many books as they could in a calendar year. The idea was to encourage reading more and better books and broaden literary horizons.
As a group we laid out some general guidelines:
- Reading for work or for school doesn’t count. Books shouldn’t be assigned, but chosen for fun.
- Any book counts, as long as it’s for ages 9-12 or up. This designation was to allow for the Harry Potter books which fall into that age category.
- If you’re learning a new language books written for younger children count too.
- Graphic novels, plays, and poetry all count.
The Book Challenge, as it came to be called, was all about setting reading goals. Most people settled on 50 books per year (a book per week with two weeks of vacation). Smaller goals were also encouraged like “10 of my 50 books will be poetry,” or something to that affect. My personal caveat is that I only count 10 graphic novels per year. Otherwise I'd only read comics.
It’s been a pretty big success, with monthly reads discussed on our Facebook group. (Please, feel free to join!) Most people take it on as a New Year’s Resolution, but we have people coming and going all the time.
In part, the Book Challenge is popular because, unlike a book club, the reading isn’t assigned and you can move at your own pace. Also, it’s reassuring to see other avid readers apologize for not being able to read books for months at a time.
Last year I completed just 29 books, a disappointment since I’d planned on doing a full 50. But now that I’m done school I feel that I can definitely reach that golden mark.
I’m off to a good start as well, getting through four books in the month of January:
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Captain America: Winter Soldier vol. 2 by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting
- Gretzky’s Tears by Stephen Brunt
- Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso
Personally, I’ve found that the Book Challenge keeps me focused on maintaining on an ongoing reading list and motivated to keep plowing through it. And as Run DMC said, “From the front to the back, as pages turn, reading is a very fresh way to learn.”
Stephen King’s On Writing is one of the best books I’ve read on how to become a writer. Not necessarily a professional scribe, but how any author can hone their craft until their work becomes readable and entertaining.
On Writing is full of King’s wit and charm as he explains how he builds his stories from the ground up. His encouraging voice is directed at fiction writers at the start of their careers, but his advice can be applied to anyone who wants to pursue their creative passion.
The book is divided into four parts: C.V., Toolbox, On Writing and then On Living.
C.V. is a short memoir that focuses on King’s life. As King says in the introduction: “This is not an autobiography. It is, rather, a kind of curriculum vitae – my attempt to show how one writer was formed,”
Some of the moments are tough to get through, particularly King’s upsetting history of drug and alcohol abuse. Fortunately, the entire section is spiked with his self-deprecating humour. Any fan of King’s work will enjoy reading this portion of the book.
Toolbox discusses the skills that every writer needs to be readable. Things like grammar, vocabulary, form and style. It’s the shortest part of the book, but still important and King, a former high school English teacher, makes it as entertaining as anyone could hope.
On Writing is the real meat of the book, where King explains how young writers should put their skills to good use. His ideas about drafting, story composition and research are all informative. In particular, I like how blue collar he is in his approach.
“[I]f you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful that you have even that much to fall back on,” King says in the introduction to the section.
According to King, his theories about writing and what it takes to succeed as an author are not popular with certain literary circles, but they appeal to me. Not just because it means there’s hope for the novice writer, but because I think that analyzing and honing one’s craft (whatever it may be) is the best way to succeed in any field. To see it applied to writing by one of the most widely read authors of the 20th century only confirms this.
The entire tone of the book is light-hearted and informal, with King making funny asides and offering insight and commentary about his canon, as well as the work of an array of authors including Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Elmore Leonard and H.P. Lovecraft.
In On Living, the book’s postscript, King recounts the events surrounding the car accident that nearly took his life during the composition of On Writing. I say ‘surrounding’ because he can’t remember the actual event – his head smashing through the oncoming windshield of a van took care of that.
It’s the most moving part of the book, and possibly the most stomach-turning writing of King’s accomplished career. His description of what happened to his body, particularly his right leg which was broken into “so many marbles in a sock”, literally had me squirming on my couch.
On Writing will appeal to two groups of people: Stephen King’s fans will be attracted to the C.V. and On Living sections where they can learn about their favourite author. Aspiring novelists will prefer the Toolbox and On Writing sections for King’s insight into his craft.
For everyone else though, it can still be a quick, fun read that will make them think twice about Stephen King and the art of writing.