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The Best Place to Be by John Lownsbrough

John Lownsbrough’s The Best Place to Be: Expo 67 and Its Time is the ninth entry in the History of Canada series published by Penguin Canada. As the title implies, it is the story of Expo 67, Canada’s centennial celebration held on constructed islands in Montreal. I was born in 1982, so I obviously didn’t attend the festivities and prior to reading this book I knew almost nothing about Expo 67 (except of course for what those Heritage Moments taught me); that is why this book titillated my interest. I learned a lot of interesting tidbits about the fair, but, unfortunately, this book did not live up to the expectations that its History of Canada brethren set up for it.

Among the positives in Lownsbrough’s book were the incredible detail he described and the way in which he tied the events of Expo into the wider context of Canadian culture and world events. I had no idea what Expo was all about and that it was such a large event. Dozens of countries setup pavilions, the various Canadian regions setup buildings, as did corporations, there was a giant amusement park, and, of course, Habitat – the one element of Expo I had certainly heard of and seen. Expo was a celebration of Canada, the world, and, as the Expo theme bluntly stated, “Man and His World.” The impression that I was left with after reading the book and looking up photos, was that this was a venerable artistic paradise. Avant-garde film, in both content and technology, was everywhere; the pavilions were bacchanalias of architectural prowess; and all manners of visual art were never more than 2 minutes away.

In addition to his lucid descriptions of the sights, Lownsbrough also made one point exceptionally clear: the men running Expo were unbelievably dedicated to the event and they knew that they were undertaking something special. The author did a fantastic job of setting the political scene for Expo; this event involved some very bombastic personalities, not the least of whom was Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau and eventual Parti Quebecois leader Rene Levesque.

Unfortunately though, The Best Place to Be could have been better. All of the other History of Canada books follow the convention of single author history books of telling the story in a linear, narrative fashion.  This book instead devoted each chapter to an individual element of the Expo, be it the people, the buildings, the context, VIP guests, etc. While I would not normally be that bother by this, there was no sequential logic to the chapters and the way they jumped around made the book feel disconnected and disorganized. The quality of writing wasn’t nearly as good as many of the high quality history books I have read in the last few years – it felt like the author was trying to be witty, but not very well. Finally, Expo was a very visual, tactile experience – the dearth of photographs in the volume was very disappointing. I read the Kobo ebook and I think there were in total maybe 20 screens worth of pictures (so about 10 pages in print) and there were no maps. This did not do it justice; going online I found thousands of beautiful and rich photos in the National Archives that were far superior to anything included in the volume.

Despite the book’s shortcomings, if you’re interested in Expo 67 or are a fan of the History of Canada series, I would recommend picking this up. It does provide some neat insight into the event and it is a good starting point if you were like me and knew nothing about this important milestone in our cultural history. As a closing note on Expo 67, there are rentals currently available apparently at Habitat 67 (although way out of my price range). Click here.

 
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Posted by on May 29, 2013 in History

 

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CanLit on Film – Volume 6

This is my final post on film adaptations of Canadian literature, and it is the one I was most looking forward to. The National Film Board (NFB) is known for its amazing animated shorts; the three below, all based on Canadian literary classics, are now iconic and are a real cornerstone of Canadian cultural history. Rather than discussing them, I am simply posting them with a link to their respective NFB site – the videos will speak for themselves.

The Sweater (Based on The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier)

 

My Financial Career (Based on the story by Stephen Leacock)

 

The Street (based on the story by Mordecai Richler)

 

And that is the end of my six post series on CanLit on film. My point with these posts was to simply imform my readers that many great adaptations of our national literature, be it movies, TV, or shorts, have been made. I’m sure there are dozens of titles I have left off, but I’m sure I’ve introduced you to a few new ones you haven’t heard of. For the whole series of posts, click here.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2013 in General

 

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CanLit on Film – Volume 5

There have not been a great many TV shows based on Canadian books. Here are a few that I could think of; feel free to add somemore in the comments.

JPod

I haven’t read this Douglas Coupland novel, but it is on my to-read list (I loved Microserfs, and JPod is apparently an unrelated “sequel”). This show was very funny; in a way, it is a Canadian version of The Office. The show focuses on a group of video game programmers who work in JPod – thus named because all of their surnames all begin with the letter J. This show has a great mix of intellectual, low-brow, and awkward humour. Unfortunately, the show only lasted for one-13 episode season in 2008 before it was cancelled due to low ratings by the CBC (who stuck it in the Friday night death slot). | IMDB | DVD

Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures

This is based on Vincent Lam’s fantastic Giller Prize winning short story collection. I have not yet seen this show, but from what I’ve heard, it is well written, acted, and faithful to the source. This 2010 series was produced by TMN and ran for 10 episodes. It is not yet available on DVD, but it is available on many “on-demand” services. | IMDB

Jake and the Kid

There have been a variety of TV series adaptations of this W.O. Mitchell classic over the years. In fact, prior to TV productions, the CBC produced several radio adaptations between 1949 and 1954. The first, and probably best known, adaptation was a single, 13 episode, season produced by CBC in 1961. This show contains all of the warming hallmarks of 1960s family television. There was also a longer running adaptation that debuted in 1995, but this one is so poorly done that it is not even worth discussing. None of the series are available on DVD, but likely can easily be found online. | IMDB

Emily of New Moon

I really really don’t like this show. Everyone on Earth has seen this and its sister show Road to Avonlea. I’m just going to leave it at that. | IMDB | DVD

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2013 in General

 

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CanLit on Film – Volume 4

Here is the second half of made-for-TV movies and miniseries based on CanLit:

The Robber Bride

This 2007 CBC adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s bestselling novel does an adequate job in telling this bizarre story. The movie has a decent cast, starring Mary-Louise Parker and Shawn Doyle in the leading roles. The Robber Bride hasn’t been released on DVD, but that is no great loss to civilization. If it is on TV or is streaming online somewhere it might be worth a watch, but I wouldn’t trip over myself or spend money to watch this. | Trailer | IMDB

Anne of Green Gables

This behemoth, 1985, made for TV epic of Anne with an E was a joint production between CBC and PBS. Everyone in North America has seen this and has been enchanted by Megan Follows’ portrayal of everyone’s favorite redheaded child. There were a few sequels to this miniseries, but unfortunately they didn’t measure up to the original. (Also, I just want to point out that Anne was not from the Island, she was originally from Nova Scotia – take that, tourists). | Part 1 on YouTube | IMDB | DVD

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

In 2012, CBC adapted Stephen Leacock’s best known book into a 1 hour TV movie. I am not sure how they managed to squeeze it in. I am honestly not a huge fan of this book – I much prefer Leacock’s Literary Lapses or Nonsense Novels to this collection. I recorded this on my DVR when it first came out but returned my cable box before I bothered to watch it. It looked like it was well made and starred Gorden Pinsent (who is AWESOME), so I’m sure it was ok. If I get an Indigo or Amazon gift card and I have nothing else to buy I might order this, but honestly I have no driving urge to see it. | Commercial | IMDB | DVD

Last of the Curlews

Fred Bosworth’s short novel The Last of the Curlews is one of my all-time favorite works of Canadian literature. It is heartbreaking on many levels, extremely well written, and has a moral without being even slightly preachy. This 1972 animated adaptation was done by none other than Hannah Barbera (The Jetsons, The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, etc) and has the honour of being the first in the long running series of ABC Afterschool Specials. The animation is filled with that 1970s Saturday morning charm and is very close to the original story. My one problem with this adaptation is the narrator; he falls into the trap of being a snotty didactic preacher. But, I suppose since this is an afterschool special, whose job it was to teach, this can be excused. The whole special is on YouTube and definitely worth the watch. | Part 1 on YouTube | IMDB

The Diviners

Of all of the movies and miniseries I have mentioned in these last four blog posts, the 1993 CBC adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s magnum opus The Diviners is, without question, my favorite CanLit film. The casting is spot on (especially Sonja Smits in the role of Morag), the writing is phenomenal, the pacing is fantastic, and it is quite close to the book (there are a few omissions, but it is a massive novel). One of the great crimes against humanity is that this movie has not been released on DVD; it was released on VHS but is only ever available at academic libraries – and is usually in poor shape. I first saw this on Showcase in 2003 when I was getting ready to read the novel for a Canadian fiction course; it excited me so much that I ripped through the 500 page book in 3 days. In 2007, Bravo broadcast this movie and I recorded it on my DVR and then watched it at least once a month until I returned my cable box a few weeks ago. Losing this movie was one of the great heartbreaks I have suffered in my 30 years of existence. | IMDB

Coming in the next few days are posts on TV shows and animated shorts based on CanLit.

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2013 in General

 

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The Destiny of Canada by Christopher Pennington

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Penguin’s History of Canada series is one of my new favorite collections. I’ve collected all of the paperback releases and have them on a shelf with Oxford’s Wynford books and Penguin’s other fantastic series, Extraordinary Canadians. The Destiny of Canada, Christopher Pennington’s tale of the 1891 federal election, is the second book in the series that I have read (the first being The Last Act). Pennington takes the reader into the backrooms of the Macdonald and Laurier campaign; legends of Canadian history become fascinating characters (Sir Charles Tupper is my favorite). This book is like porn for the political junkie but is written in a way that anyone with even a passing interest in Canadian history will enjoy.

Pennington’s research was incredibly thorough. It is clear that he must have read thousands of newspaper articles as well as previous academic research. The tone of the book is somewhat sardonic; Pennington goes into great depth on the rampant corruption in almost every element of Canadian politics, but, instead of taking a judgmental tone, he simply expounds the details with a tongue-in-cheek wit. The author makes the case that the 1891 election was one of the most important in our history and it has largely been overlooked. Canada never had an election like the 1860 US vote, where the outcome would bring Earth-shattering consequences; the 1891 election was probably the closest to that which we have had. At stake, argues Pennington, was the fate of Canada. Would we travel down a road that would possibly lead to American annexation or would we stay on the current path which was bringing about severe economic hardships?

Sir John A. Macdonald was the star of the book. Laurier was obviously important, but at this early point in his career, he didn’t have the same gravitas as Sir John. I’ve really come to the conclusion, after reading many books on early Confederation, that Sir John A. was a Machiavellian political master. He did have major accomplishments: he was a leader Father of Confederation and under his reign he added all the territory save Newfoundland to the country, completed the railway, instituted the National Policy, and created what would become the RCMP. But, he also manipulated, bribed, “boodled,” and did just about anything imaginable to hang on to power. The author notes in the epilogue that Laurier was the same when he came to power. This behavior has to be taken into context though; this was perfectly normal and somewhat accepted as politics as usual in Canada in the 19th century. These details have simply been scrubbed out of junior high history books.

The book is filled with all kinds of interesting tidbits. It was common for individuals to run in multiple ridings to hedge their bets and running and serving concurrently in provincial and federal houses was common. And, what interested me very much, were the mentions of the insanely ambitious discussions in the 1880s and 90s to build a tunnel from PEI to NB.

The Destiny of Canada is a fantastic entry in the History of Canada series. It is very readable, it has a solid narrative flow, it is incredibly well researched, it is both balanced and thorough and there are several pages of portraits of the important figures and a good number of editorial cartoons. This book would be enjoyed by Canadian history enthusiasts, political junkies, or anyone who enjoys quasi-political TV shows like The West Wing or Veep.

The other titles in the History of Canada series cover Expo 67, the 1981 constitutional debate, the Fenians, WWII in the St. Lawrence, and the Plains of Abraham battle. Get these on you bookshelves. The History of Canada Series

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2013 in History

 

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CanLit on Film – Volume 3

Canadian TV, especially the CBC, has produced numerous TV movies and mini-series based on Canadian writing. It would take forever to list them all, so I have chosen ten highlights (5 today and 5 tomorrow). These are  adaptations that either I have seen or were very popular.

Lives of the Saints

Based on Nino Ricci’s first novel, this CTV miniseries is a very power adaptation of this Governor-General Award winning contemporary Canadian classic. The miniseries has a run time of over 3 hours, so the viewer becomes immersed in the world of this Italian family. This adaptation has a strong cast that is on top of its game, with Sophia Loren in the lead role of Teresa Innocente. It is certainly worth watching and is widely available on DVD. | Trailer | IMDB | DVD

Elizabeth Rex

I saw this TV movie on Bravo about 3 years ago, but I think it was originally produced by CBC. This adaptation of Timothy Findley’s award winning play translated very well onto the small screen, likely because the source is a high-production value stage play. The cast is solid, it is very faithful to Findley’s book, and the movie is, above all, entertaining. | IMDB | DVD

Billy Bishop Goes to War

This 2010 TV movie was one of CBC’s best CanLit adaptations in recent years. It stars the playwrights – John Gray and Eric Peterson – and sticks to the original source script and score. The actors, while getting on in years, can still elevate Canada’s first war hero, Billy Bishop, like no one else. CBC also made an adaptation in 1982, but I have yet to see it. Unfortunately, this has not yet been released on DVD. | Trailer | IMDB

St. Urbain’s Horseman

This 2007 three hour miniseries adaptation of my favorite Mordecai Richler book is an absolute delight to watch. I bought this for myself as a Christmas present last year and have watched it at least once a month since. The casting is perfect (they all have their names above the title on the DVD box, but I haven’t heard of any of them), the pacing is spot-on, and the right amount of liberties are taken to effectively adapt this goliath of a novel for the small screen. If you have a free Saturday and feel like wrapping yourself in the warm sardonic blanket of Mordecai Richler’s wit, watch Duddy Kravitz, this movie, and Barney’s Version (and if you are lucky enough, watch Joshua Then and Now as well). Of the various Richler adaptations, I think this is my favorite. | IMDB | DVD

The Englishman’s Boy

Produced by CBC in 2008 and starring Bob Hoskins (yes, Mario himself), this mini-series adapts Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Governor-General Award winning historical novel. I forgot this existed until I started these CanLit film posts. I have ordered the DVD and will report back once I watch it (it does look quite good). | Trailer | IMDB | DVD

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2013 in General

 

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CanLit on Film – Volume 2

Here is part two of my series of posts on the various adaptations that have been made of Canadian literature. These are the final few theatrical films that I could think of; if I missed any, please feel free to comment (I intentionally excluded Water for Elephants as I have neither seen the movie nor read the book).

The Handmaid’s Tale

The 1990 Volker Schlöndorff adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel was a fantastic film, in my opinion. The screenplay was written by Nobel Prize winning playwright Harold Pinter and the cast is very strong: Robert Duvall, Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, and Aidan Quinn, to name a few. The movie is very faithful to the book and it captures the themes perfectly. I strongly recommend taking this movie in. | Trailer | IMDB | DVD

Field of Dreams

Most random people on the street are shocked when I walk up to them and say “hey, did you know Field of Dreams was based on a Canadian book?” And I understand their shock; it is a very surprising thing to hear. This film was based on the Canadian novel Shoeless Joe by Alberta author W. P. Kinsella and won the then named Books in Canada First Novel Award. This movie is a modern classic and I really have nothing else to add. | Trailer | IMDB | DVD

The Stone Angel

This 2007 adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s first Manawaka novel, penned and directed by Kari Skogland, is an absolute masterpiece of Canadian cinema. Ellen Burstyn becomes Hagar. The film stays reasonably close to the book (the novel is a very “big” story). I was very excited when this was released and I was not disappointed. This was the third adaptation of a Margaret Laurence novel; The Fire-Dwellers is the only Manawaka novel left to be done. Even if you are not familiar with Laurence, you will love this movie. It takes the viewer on an emotional roller coaster, the characters are very well developed, and the acting is phenomenal. | Trailer | IMDB | DVD

Rachel, Rachel

Paul Newman’s 1968 adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s A Jest of God is, I think, the first Hollywood film based on a Canadian book. This movie is marvelous and is one of my all-time favorites. Joanne Woodward masterfully takes on the tragically complex character of Rachel Cameron. Newman crafted a subtle, heartbreaking, and artistic film that is universal, yet very of its time. This was the first film based on a Canadian book to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (as well as Best Adapted Screenplay and for both leading and supporting actresses). | Trailer | IMDB | DVD

The Favorite Game

I saw this adaptation of Leonard Cohen’s autobiographical novel once on TMN in 2004, the year after its limited theatrical release, and have not been able to find it since. This 2003 Canadian film takes today’s award for the most obscure. I cannot find a trailer, cannot find a DVD copy for sale, and cannot find it online. The film is very well done, the acting is well done, and the spirit and themes of the original source are captured. I happened across this film by luck and, honestly, will likely never see it again. It is a pity because it was quite a good movie. If anyone knows where I could obtain a copy, please comment below. | IMDB |

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

The quintessential classic of Canadian cinema! This is one of my favorite movies. Ted Kotcheff’s 1974 film, starring a young Richard Dreyfuss, is a very faithful adaptation of the Mordecai Richler classic. This film is fast paced, hilarious, and filled with memorable characters. This is a movie that anyone will enjoy. Go watch it (it’s on Netflix). | Trailer | IMDB | DVD

Next post will discuss made-for-TV movies and mini-series based on CanLit

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2013 in General

 

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