Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

PatternRecognitionWilliam1915_f

Winner of the 2004 Mary Shelley Award for Outstanding Fictional Work

Nominated for the 2004 Arthur C. Clarke Award

New York Times Notable Book ~ 2003

Los Angeles Times “Best of the Best” ~ 2003

Economist Best Book of the Year ~ 2003

Newsday Favorite Book of the Year ~ 2003

William Gibson is a very important writer; he is a pioneer of contemporary sci-fi sub-genres steampunk and cyber-punk, he has coined many terms in popular culture – most notably “cyberspace”, and he was one of the first writers to really integrate our current techno-society into science-fiction, if not fiction in general. Gibson immigrated to Canada in his youth to avoid the Vietnam War draft, although he admits it had more to do with living the 60s counter-culture lifestyle as he wasn’t actually drafted. Gibson is one of those writers who is required reading for those interested in variety of literary topics: sci-fi, contemporary CanLit, and the literature of draft-dodgers. Pattern Recognition is my first William Gibson novel and it was also his first novel to gain mainstream attention and climb up the big bestseller lists. This particular title landed on my shelf because it was on the longlist for Canada Reads 2011.

This is the story of Cayce Pollard, a marketing consultant with an unusual sensitivity to trademarks and logos. She removes all labels and identifying corporate symbols from her clothes and avoids direct contact with them. As the novel progresses, we are drawn into her hunt for the “footage,” a series of mysterious film clips posted online that represent the absolute pinnacle of artistic beauty. Cayce’s employer, Hubertus Bigend, offers her the full use of his company’s unlimited resources to find the “maker” of these clips for an unspecified purpose. This journey takes her and the supporting cast to London, Paris, Tokyo, Russia and, most importantly, deep into the online world.

Pattern Recognition is not a sci-fi novel per se, but it certainly has a sci-fi feel to it. The movement of the story, tone, and characters are very reminiscent of sci-fi, but, really, there is nothing in this book that is implausible for its time. I would argue though, that this is sci-fi, but it is soft, rather than hard sci-fi. It’s steeped in the social sciences rather than hard sciences like physics and engineering. This story plays with psychology, psychiatry, human behavior, sociology, and even criminology.

It’s been two days since I’ve finished this novel and I still can’t really give a definitive answer as to what I thought of it. There were parts and elements that I greatly enjoyed and others that almost made me put the book away. The quality of writing is very literary and the characters are well developed; as I thought about it, I would have to say pacing was the biggest frustration. I have the pocket paperback edition and it clocks in at 367 pages – so it is not a huge book. As I read it though I would alternate feeling like the book was way too long and other points where I felt too much was happening too fast and details were being lost. This is very apparent in the last 15% or so of the novel; it felt like Gibson was about to default on his deadline and needed to wrap things up quick. The books concluding chapters left you felling like you had just spent the last week trying to untangle a ball of yarn, then you got frustrated and asked your wife to do it, she then untangles it in about 10 seconds and says “you saw how I did that right?.” The last 35 pages were way too much story in too short a time.

Pattern Recognition, despite my criticisms, was an interesting read. It’s ahead of its time (2003) in many ways by looking at the concept of viral videos, exploring living in a post-9/11 world, examining online personas and virtual lives, and the seemingly never ending push of global corporatism. Overall though, Pattern Recognition just gets a “meh.”

Book of Mercy by Leonard Cohen

Book of mercy

Leonard Cohen recently released his 13th studio album, Popular Problems, his best release since Various Positions in my humble opinion. So, needless to say, I have been listening to lots of Cohen’s music lately, reconnecting with old favorites and grooving to his hearty baritone rhythms. Obviously I decided it was a good time to read some Cohen. His bibliography is quite extensive, likely more so than most CanLit fans realize: eight original books of poetry, two novels, one collection of selected poems (for which he won, and subsequently refused, the 1968 Governor-General’s Award for Poetry), and one anthology of selected poetry, songs and prose. I haven’t actually read a lot of Cohen’s works; other than a few selected poems in Canadian literature classes, I’ve only read two of his books – his debut collection Let Us Compare Mythologies and, about 10 years, his infamous novel Beautiful Losers. I was up for a challenge this week, so I chose the 1984 book Book of Mercy.

Book of Mercy is collection of prose poems that take the form of devotional “contemporary psalms.” I have always struggled with prose poems and even more so with deeply religious writing, so I knew going into this collection that it would be a tough read. This collection, while frustratingly difficult, was an enjoyable and interesting read. If you’re familiar with either Cohen’s writing or music, you will recognize many of the themes and motifs present in almost all of the poems, especially if you imagine Cohen himself reciting them to you with his haunting deep voice.

All 50 of these prose poems are steeped in Judeo-Christian imagery and Biblical references – to the extent that someone unfamiliar with the basics of the Old Testament would likely be lost. Frankly, if you were to present these to a quality 4th year literature major, they would likely think these are translated 14th century Middle English devotions, not poems from a Jewish Canadian written in 1984. Overall, I would use one word to describe Book of Mercy: sad. The speaker is writing from a place of pain, spiritual torture, and religious uncertainty. At various points, the writing is desperate, angry, dark, but it is always gripping and, above all, sincere. Leonard Cohen is an extreme example of poetry being inseparable from the poet and this particular collection is case-in-point why.

Book of Mercy is not for the casual reader of poetry. It is difficult, confusing, and filled with obscure references. I read more poetry than most, I have a degree in literature and I have studied English at the graduate level, and still, I struggled greatly with this book. But, that is not to say this is a title to be avoided. If you’re a fan of Leonard Cohen, it is a fantastic example of what makes him tick. Just know that you’re not alone when you shake your head and mutter “huh?”

Combat Camera by A.J. Somerset

Combat Camera

Winner of the 2009-2010 Metcalf-Rooke Award

Combat Camera by A.J. Somerset from indie press Biblioasis was one of the novels that lit up the CanLit social media scene a few years ago. I bought it shortly after it came out, but it seemed to perpetually sit on my “to-read” list until I spotted it again while rearranging my bookshelf. This is the story of Lucas Zane, a Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer currently working for a low-end online porn company. But, this is only one of Zane’s many problems, he obviously has PTSD, he has a drinking problem, he’s impotent, and, due to an injury, he can’t eat anything greasy and is essentially restricted to dry salad. The novel centers on Zane’s relationship with Melissa, a young stripper/porn star. Combat Camera is the author’s first book, but you could never tell. This is an astonishingly well written novel and one of the best books I have read in years; it has everything to make it a classic and stand-up against the test of time.

The unfolding of Zane’s story is told in two separate and distinct parts. Part One is a gritty urban portrayal of Zane and how his relationship begins with Melissa. Zane’s internal torment is laid bare for the reader using prose that would rival even the best writers of psychological fiction. We get snippets of his past, his current job at the studio, his troubles, and what makes him tick. In an attempt to regain some credibility as a serious photography, Zane decides to do a story on Melissa. But, after she is assaulted on-set by her co-star Bill, the pair of them decides to take off to Vancouver so that she can make a fresh break with her family. At this point in the novel, Part Two, we have what I think is the best road story in contemporary Canadian fiction. The misanthropic duo makes their way from Toronto to the west coast with the variety of trouble you would expect from two people like Zane and Melissa.

I was not expecting a road story when I began Combat Camera, but I was very satisfied with the results. The book is structured in almost a perfect V: a gradual descent to rock bottom for both Zane and Melissa and a gradual build-up back to some level of normalcy – in their world at least – while they head west (this of course is up-ended in the final few pages which I won’t spoil). Throughout both parts, Somerset seamlessly weaves in Zane’s wild back-story of his rise and fall as a respected photojournalist.

Combat Camera is a character driven novel. Somerset kept the cast small, and I think that in doing so he was able to make each one very memorable and three dimensional: Zane goes from the Scrooge-like shell of a man to a man with a very slight glimmer of hope who was once again able to feel a connection, albeit buried, to another human-being – for better or worse. And Melissa is very complex but ultimately never changes her spots so-to-speak as we see at the story’s conclusion. These are characters that you feel hopeful for, but at the same time are not overly likeable – it’s an interesting paradox that Somerset develops with his two protagonists. For me, the minor characters, particularly in Part One, were perhaps my favorite element of the novel – particularly Rich Barker. Rich is a peddler of low-budget and low-quality porn, but he is truly a very low-brow renaissance man with a highly intellectual opinion of what he has to offer the world. His sister and business partner, Jade, the grounded one, has a more bleak and Machiavellian personality and is equally as entertaining.

This book is also very funny. Somerset’s humour is not topical knee-slapping comedy; it is more of a dark sardonic wit. And finally, Combat Camera is also a fascinating look at the art of photography from a variety of angles. Somerset delves into themes of the role and existence of art, particularly in chaotic places and situations; while doing so, he presents a technical illustration of this craft in much the same way as John Irving did in The World According to Garp with fiction writing. You are not bored or lost in technical jargon; instead you are pulled even further into the world of Lucas Zane because to understand Zane, you must understand photography.

Combat Camera is an immensely enjoyable debut novel that I think will stand out as one of the best Canadian books to come out of the 2010s and could easily stand up to the critical rigors of any advanced university English seminar. It’s psychological, it’s a road story, the characters are memorable and highly complex, the prose is brilliant and written with pinpoint precision, it’s funny, and ultimately it leaves you pondering what’s next for Zane and Melissa.

Rockbound by Frank Parker Day

Rockbound

Winner of Canada Reads – 2005

First published in 1928, Rockbound by Nova Scotian Frank Parker Day was long relegated to the depths of CanLit obscurity, even after it was reissued by the University of Toronto Press in 1973. But, this fantastic novel has been brought back into the canon of classic Canadian literature. Initially, this happened because of its frequent inclusion in Canadian Literature courses at universities – in both survey courses and as a mainstay in Atlantic Canadian Lit classes (and it is typically required reading in the few Island Studies literature courses taught around the world). For the general public, its inclusion and subsequent victory in the 2005 edition of Canada Reads was what brought Rockbound to prominence (Rockbound has the distinction of being the oldest book to win the competition and it currently stands as the only novel from the Maritimes to take the title).

Rockbound is one of the most magical novels I’ve read in many years. I grew up in Nova Scotia and spent a lot of time in the region where this book is set; I had family on the South Shore and my High School’s district included much of the upper half of the shore. Many of the family names in Day’s classic novel reminded me of home – Jung, Kraus, Slaughnwhite, Boutilier, and Born to name a few. Additionally, my father worked his way through school by fishing, and my uncle and father-in-law are both lifelong fishermen. So as I read through this book, I felt a very strong connection to its story and characters.

Rockbound is both a book of its time and a timeless story of the human condition. In the 1920s, fishing in Atlantic Canada was still a very lucrative career and had a certain unspoken romanticism to it. For men especially, hard work and manual labour were valued over all else, especially formal education. Every outport and village had its own unique dialect and set of rules – essentially existing as its own nation in a way. Being a fisherman wasn’t simply an occupation or even a way of life, it was a state of being as natural as breathing. The magic of Frank Parker Day’s novel is how he pulls the reader into this long-forgotten world. His use of dialect would rival Mark Twain and his landscape imagery is equally as good as any of the Confederation Poets from the previous generation.

While the imagery and landscape is essential to Rockbound, this is a character driven novel. Uriah Jung is one of the great not-so-subtle antagonists of early Canadian fiction. The undisputed king of the island of Rockbound, Uriah is the domineering and scheming patriarch of the Jung clan. He has three sons whom he rules with an iron fist and works to the bone, but his world is turned upside-down with the arrival of the novel’s protagonist, his nephew David Jung, claiming a sliver of land he is legally entitled to. Uriah and David are the primary drivers of the drama on Rockbound, but this is an ensemble piece. Uriah’s trio of sons – Martin, Joseph, and Casper, Gershom, the Kraus family, and Mary each lend important elements to life on Rockbound and help make this story what it is.

Rockbound is now part of the public domain in Canada so there are a number of discount ebook copies available, but I strongly recommend dropping the few extra dollars for the UTP publication which includes a fantastic afterword by Gwendolyn Davies of UNB. The afterword provides great historical and regional context and some fascinating biographical background on Frank Parker Day.

This book can be read in so many ways that it begs for deeper critical analysis – the struggle and plight of the working man, island notions of totality and intimacy, familial bonds and social customs, the role of women in a man’s world, and the list goes on. I think this is why Rockbound ultimately won Canada Reads and became a bestseller: it is a fun read that can be taken in by a general audience as a superficially good story and, for the more advanced readers, Day has crafted a thematically complex novel that can pull you in a variety of directions.

As a brief post-script, this novel is just begging to be made into a CBC mini-series.

1996 by Sara Peters

1996

Quill and Quire Book of Year – 2013

Sara Peters and I were both born in 1982 in Canada’s greatest province, Nova Scotia, but alas since we were born hundreds of kilometers apart, we never met. She went on to earn an MFA from Boston University and hold a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, whereas I did not. 1996 is the debut collection from this exciting new voice in Canadian poetry. The description on the back of the book describes this collection using words like desire, violence, sex, beauty, and cruelty; this, along with the endorsement of Robert Pinksy (impressive for a debut collection from a Maritime poet), immediately grabbed my attention and commanded me to buy this book. It was a good decision.

I read a lot of poetry – at least half of the reviews on this blog are of poetry collections, but it is undeniable that, for the most part, volumes of poetry as a whole are less memorable than say a novel or a memoir. For myself, and many people with whom I discuss poetry, it is usually individual poems or smaller sequences that stick with me after I’ve finished a book. There are exceptions to this rule, Let Us Compare Mythologies by Leonard Cohen,The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje and The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood are a few personal exceptions. 1996 is now also one of those exceptions.

I would use one word to describe this collection: dark. Sara Peters has a real knack for crafting short, punchy, macabre lines that just send shivers down your spine as a reader. From the Poem “Cruelty”:

When I was eleven, I watched my cousin cut open a gopher
with the serrated top of a tin can.

From “Camden 14″

He’d been kept awake all night

by snowflakes, so Camden
set himself on fire.

From “Bionic”, discussing the speaker’s mother and brother:

She’s senile and probably dying.
He’s cruel but his cruelty’s probably temporary.

He’s dressed her in a T-shirt that says
I kill everything I fuck // I fuck everything I kill.

And one more example, from “The Last Time I Slept in this Bed”:

I was involved in the serious business
of ripping apart my own body.

Most of these examples are from the opening few lines of their respective poems. Throughout the collection, the author uses these sharp and attention grabbing opening lines to set the mood, so to speak, and then further explore whatever theme or topic it is she’s writing about.

1996 is a very quick read. Most of the poems are in the 2 page range and Peters uses short, staccato-esque, rhythmic verses, with stanzas typically in the 2 to 3 line range. While it is a quick read, it is not an easy read. Peters’ poems are incredibly complex, hardly narrative, and so rife with metaphor, symbolism, and abstract associational imagery, that the very casual or non-reader of poetry may be slightly intimidated or even lost.

Harold Bloom once said something to the effect of “great poetry should make your head hurt.” 1996 certainly does that, and it is a wonderful thing. It pushes the reader’s boundaries of understanding and demands he or she dig deep to soak up every syllable. These poems demand slow reading and re-reading. But, even if you just read from start to finish without digging too deep, you’ll still be pulled into the absorbing dark language and the beautiful sound of the poetry.

1996 isn’t simply read, it’s remembered.

Room by Emma Donoghue

RoomEmmaDonoghue690_f

Winner of the 2010 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Winner of the 20111 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, Canada and Caribbean Region
Winner of the 2010 Salon Book Award
Winner of the 2011 Alex Award
Winner of the 2010 Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award
Winner of the 2011 Indies Choice Book Award
Winner of the 2011 WH Smith Paperback of the Year, Galaxy National Book Awards
Shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize
Shortlisted for the 2010 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize
Longlisted for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Amazon.ca Best Book – 2010
New York Times Notable Book of the Year – 2010
ALA Notable Book – 2011

Room by Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue was one of the hit novels to come out of the CanLit scene in 2010. As seen above, it was nominated for numerous awards and was on countless “Best Book” lists. For those hiding under a rock, Room tells the story of a five year old boy, Jack, and his mother, known only as Ma, who are held captive in an 11′ x 11′ garden shed and their subsequent escape and rehabilitation. The story is told in the first-person voice of Jack, who despite never knowing anything outside what he affectionately calls Room, is very sharp and observant.

I had high expectations when I started this book; reviews were mostly positive, its award pedigree was impressive, and its concept sounded interesting. The idea of a woman being held captive is hardly an original idea – it is a common story that can been seen at least once a month on Criminal Minds or Law & Order: SVU, but Donoghue takes a novel approach to the story. The story unfolds in what is basically a three act structure – from Jack’s 5th birthday in Room up to and including his escape, Jack’s and Ma’s time in the psychiatric hospital, and finally the time Jack spends alone with his grandparents after his mother tries to commit suicide. Each part has it’s own climax, so structurally the story flows quite quickly and seamlessly and is reminiscent of the style of late modernist CanLit writers like Margaret Laurence.

Room‘s most fascinating element was the narration by the precocious and literal thinking Jack. I often have trepidations about reading fiction narrated by a young child. It is very difficult to capture everything the author is going for without making the child seem like some kind of super genius. Donoghue managed to avoid this for the most part, particularly by making the novel dialogue heavy; while Jack relays the dialogue to us as readers, it is clear he doesn’t understand what is going on in many instances. This is very cleverly done and really adds to Jack’s character development and keeps that psychological forward momentum going.

Thematically, Room is very complex. The element of this novel that seems to get the most attention is the resilience of Jack and this notion of the toughness of children. But there is so much more going on. During the first half of the novel before they escape, I was fascinated by the dichotomy of the pure innocence of Jack juxtaposed with the pure evil of Old Nick and how Ma manages to act as a buffer between the two and avoid any contamination of Jack’s purity. Later in the novel, I was quite taken by the parasitic nature of the news media and the pressure on Ma to tell her story – this reminded me of the interviews of the women held captive by Ariel Castro in Cleveland. An argument is often made that Room is itself a larger metaphor for parenthood itself – the sense of isolation, captivity, dependence, etc – but I don’t like this; I find it too simplistic of an analysis of a very complex novel.

Overall, I liked this book. There were a few points that I had difficulty accepting, most notably Ma’s attempted suicide, but overall I was satisfied by Room. The characters are well developed and realistic, the dialogue is effective and well-written, the portrayal of Jack is incredibly effective, there is no over-writing or extraneous detail, and Donoghue focuses on the parts of this family’s story that should be the focus instead of simply novelizing an episode of Law & Order.

As a post-script, apparently a film adaptation of Room is in the works with the screenplay written by Emma Donoghue herself. I am pessimistic about how well a piece of highly psychological fiction that relies so heavily on a 5 year old’s stream-of-conscious  narration will translate to a visual medium. We’ll just have to wait until it’s released to know I suppose.

Ice and Water by John English

Ice and water

After finishing Death on Two Fronts, I decided to read one more title from the History of Canada Series; I bought Ice and Water at the same time as the last book and it was next in the queue on my Kobo app, so I dove right in. I was looking forward to this title mainly because the actual subject matter interested me; I minored in Political Science and my graduate studies were in Island Studies so I was already fairly familiar with Arctic politics and some of the history around it. This is the fifth title in the History of Canada Series that I’ve read, and unfortunately, it was my least favorite so far. It wasn’t necessarily bad, it just didn’t live up to the expectations I went in with based on my experience with the previous four entries.

Ice and Water: Politics, Peoples, and the Arctic Council by John English is a look at the political history of the Arctic. English provides a bit of pre-World War II context, subsequently looks at Cold War era Arctic politics, and then zooms in on the formation and development of the Arctic Council that took place from the mid-1980s through to today. The book explores the relations between the “Arctic Eight” (Canada, US, Russia/Soviet Union, and the five Nordic countries), indigenous peoples (Inuit, Eskimos, and Saami), and NGOs (such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Federation) and how we ended up with the current international Arctic political dynamic. Topics such as sovereignty, defence, the environment, indigenous rights, and economic development are all examined through the lens of Northern politics.

Writing about contemporary history is very difficult – John English admits as much in his acknowledgements. Very little is archived, items may be classified in some way, many of the players are still politically active and therefore reluctant to speak candidly, media accounts that usually make up the primary sources may be unreliable, and most importantly it is hard to draw conclusions from events that have yet to be “concluded.” With that being said, John English must be one exceptionally well connected historian; his book is well researched, meticulously detailed, and leaves no stone unturned. I think it may be this meticulousness that made this title less enjoyable than previous History of Canada titles.

Ice and Water read more like a Master’s thesis than it did a general audience history. It wasn’t written in social science-ese but was very steeped in the conventions of political science and historical academic writing. This caused the book to be very heavy and dense; I usually read in bed at the end of the day and found myself exhausted after about the equivalent of 20 pages – making this is a very slow-read. I read this on my Kobo but the hardcover is almost 400 pages (which I’d argue is a lot for such a topic as Arctic politics).

I don’t want to leave the impression that I didn’t enjoy the book. I liked it, I just didn’t love it. If you have an interest in political history, international relations or Cold War politics, then you may enjoy this, even though it is a bit of a slow slog to finish. If, on the other hand, you like Canadian history but are not interested in any of the aforementioned topics, I would skip this one.

I’ve read only histories and academic titles for over a year now and it was fun while it lasted. But now, my brain needs a shift in my reading list. May 2013 was the last time I read a novel or book of poetry. The time has come to delve back into the exciting world of hardcore CanLit. Here we go…

Death on Two Fronts by Sean Cadigan

death two fronts

It’s been over a year since my last book review and what a year it’s been. I started a new job, completed a year of graduate studies in the fascinating, yet obscure, field of Island Studies. And, last but not least, my wife and I had a baby; our little bundle Gavin was born on November 4th, 2013. He needed heart surgery when he was just a week old and has been growing like a champ since. Now that he’s almost ten months old and actually sleeps through the night, and since I’ve completed all of the academic pursuits I’ll be pursuing for a while, I’m able to start pleasure reading again; so of course, that means new blog posts. Hopefully I haven’t forgotten how to review books, but surely you’ll forgive me if this first one in 15 months seems a little rusty.

For my first book read in almost a year, I decided to start with another title in Penguin’s History of Canada Series that I seem to lust after (in the literary sense). Death on Two Fronts: National Tragedies and the Fate of Democracy in Newfoundland, 1914-34 by Sean Cadigan is one the latest additions to the series. This book charts two decades of political culture in Newfoundland, spanning the years 1914 to 1934. The history is book-ended with the infamous Newfoundland sealing disaster of 1914 (which Kent Stetson dramatized in The Harps of God) and the end of responsible government culminating with the defacto return to crown colony status in 1934. The focus during the intervening years is obviously World War I and its effect on the Dominion of Newfoundland. Cadigan works his story around Newfoundland’s two fronts: the war front in Europe and the domestic political struggles at home.

Cadigan chronicles all of important events during this period with the vivid details and meticulously researched insight  – the Newfoundland disaster, WWI battles like Beaumont Hamel and Gallipoli, and the rise of progressive politics and its subsequent collapse. The major political players during the time are the primary figures and Cadigan often uses contemporaneous newspaper editorials to set the stage and situate the contrasting views prevailing in the Dominion at the time.

Newfoundland, during the period Cadigan explores, is a perfect example of “the island” acting as a microcosm of what was, and currently is, taking place in larger states. What I most enjoyed about Cadigan’s book was how relevant it is to today’s political and economic situations. Newfoundland was faced with an extremely polarized political culture and media (a la Fox News and MSNBC), a populace that increasingly demanded publicly funded services with no thoughts given to the cost, public debt that was completely unmanageable, and rising disillusionment with the political process and liberal democracy as a whole. While it is obvious to the reader with a century of hindsight how desperate the government was becoming (selling Labrador was considered a viable option to raise cash) and what the ultimate fate of Newfoundland would be, it was not clear to those involved until the very last moment.

This book worked for me on many levels: the writing was fabulous, the book was well researched, the selection of photographs were wonderful, the subject matter is as relevant today and it was in the early 20th century, the history was analyzed intelligently without being written in social-scienese (which is a challenging task) and the author masterfully balanced details with wide-lens scene-setting. Death on Two Fronts is a fantastic addition to The History of Canada series.

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.

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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