John A: Birth of a Country is a CBC film with a sharp script and excellent performances, currently streaming on the CBC site (and available from the Toronto Public Library). At only 90 minutes, it’s adept at covering various significant political and personal moments leading up to the curious turn of fate that changed a pipe dream — joining various British colonies together — into a reality.
But where did it come from? In a good review of the film, Macleans has wondered why it wasn’t promoted more. It was produced in 2011 and I’d never heard of it, though having discovered it I’m impressed, and wish we had more films that dramatically present — and as a result, help us to mythologize — our own history.
It’s a somewhat overdone score that strives for quite a bit, and it could use a few sweeping shots of the landscape to break up character discussions (likely, this was simply not in the budget), but it’s a breath of fresh air for a Canadian pestered to see the upcoming Ant-Man film, the upcoming Avengers film. I hope the CBC can arrange to bring Shawn Doyle back for another film, perhaps covering the creation of the railroad and later events. The Macleans article suggests it was part of a planned trilogy and the CBC has never followed up. Perhaps it’s fair to say this is how we deprive ourselves when we can’t be troubled to support the CBC, but certainly our history deserves better than to be a cult classic. And if the trouble is its almost relentlessly male focus, surely this can be balanced by some biopics of some of our remarkable women, which would be just as fascinating.
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Note: I wrote this for a fan-made Doctor Who publication called Enlightenment, and thought I’d post it here after the recent passing of Leonard Nimoy. It may be a piece about why I ultimately prefer Doctor Who to Star Trek, but it’s also about how Spock is the heart of the show. As I suggested on Twitter, Nimoy’s graceful portrayal of a thoughtful, curious character made life a little easier for me as a young introvert. For the uninitiated, a Doctor-lite episode is an episode of Doctor Who that doesn’t feature The Doctor very much.
For years, I instinctively felt Doctor Who was somehow even more open-minded than other science-fiction shows, including Star Trek, but for years I only thought of the more obvious reasons: Star Trek has themes of acceptance, but it’s ultimately using the narrative framework of a military ship in space. The show boils down to something along the lines of “We think all you life forms are really great but here, put on this uniform.” Even if the world of Star Trek clearly has millions of characters who aren’t in Starfleet, they’re marginalized non-characters, and anything remotely significant or that we’re allowed to see happens to a character in Starfleet. We love and care about the characters in Starfleet. Deep Space Nine is the one exception. As an ongoing drama, it blended Starfleet characters with others who’d never sign up in a thousand years. And arguably, it’s one of the more mature, dramatic Treks (Voyager was supposed to have a blended crew, but someone made the unfortunate decision to have the whole crew put on Starfleet uniforms in the pilot).
The Doctor, however, is the ultimate individual. He wears what he wants, travels where he wants and does it with the people of his choice. He even sheds his appearance from time to time, along with shifting the emphasis within his personality. In a way, he’s not even an individual as much as he’s assorted individuals. Personally, I’d rather have a cup of tea with the eleventh Doctor than the hard-nosed, UNIT advising third Doctor. He’s more in favour of preserving the status quo: the next time you have a look at The Time Warrior, notice how the third Doctor is interested in keeping the power in the hands of the upper-class character. Other than this particular incarnation, it’s safe to say the Doctor isn’t much of a joiner, except for a loose collection of people he thinks are pretty great. At best, he has an informal collection of friends and former companions.
So, let’s all pat ourselves on the back and go lecture some people dressed as Romulans, shall we? Wait, there’s more. For a long time, it struck me as somehow worthwhile that as a program, Doctor Who brought the viewer to a space station, a planet or a ship for at least a brief period before The Doctor arrived. Why? I wasn’t quite sure. But recently, I’ve sorted it out. There’s a respectfulness about an attempt to establish another culture, however briefly, before a central character arrives to introduce his or her viewpoint, and that’s quite different from beginning every story with a captain’s log and not meeting any aliens unless they appear on the viewing screen or Kirk and company have already arrived. It’s a subtle thing, but I think for Star Trek to use this particular format contributes to the Americanism of the show because the feeling on some level is that nothing much matters until the crew of the Enterprise gets there.
The only possible criticism here is that the foreign cultures on Doctor Who aren’t frequently established particularly well. It’s a group of British actors on a set establishing they’re on an old mining ship, or about to inherit an alien kingdom, and frequently trying to give a certain amount of natural feeling to explanatory dialogue that goes out of its way to create a setting. Potentially, the various planets in Doctor Who are all fragments of British culture, or are at least somehow a reflection of British imagination. But I think this is a reasonable conclusion for any science-fiction show, and that Star Trek reflects American culture, and American imagination. A character like Neelix, the relentlessly cheerful cook on Voyager, is alien only in appearance.
If the viewer arriving before a main character it creates a distinct difference – it gives the impression of a lasting universe with a nearly endless amount of variety, with the Doctor inspiring people to make whatever difference they can, whenever they can. He’s pretty much the ultimate example of a life well lived. He isn’t trying to get people over to his viewpoint or organization as much as improve worlds, communities, and lives.
None of this is to suggest Star Trek hasn’t done anything over the years for tolerance, or a love of diversity. Growing up, it gave me hope, and was a remarkably colourful, entertaining show with memorable characters. Kirk trying to find the middle ground between the logic of Spock and the passion of McCoy is one of the great character setups in popular entertainment today. It’s probably up there with Holmes and Watson. The sequel Star Trek shows have only been able to recreate it in fragmented ways, and now that the original characters are back it doesn’t seem, sadly, that it’s going to be about much more than making popcorn movies. Ultimately, the original show and Deep Space Nine remain my favourites, because of McCoy (who somehow manages to seem like he’s barely in Starfleet) and the blending of military and non-military characters on DS9. These are the Trek shows with a dramatic edge, a less narrow perspective, and a greater foothold in reality than the rest of them, simply because society will always be changing, and struggling through the process of integrating a variety of cultures and viewpoints.
If anything gives Star Trek heart, it is a fondness for the character who’s an outsider: Spock struggling to balance his human and Vulcan side, Data struggling to be human, Odo having next to no idea why he’s so different. If you’ve never noticed, Spock finally does “find himself” in the subplot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where he learns through the example the V’ger entity, discovering that “for all its knowledge, V’ger is barren, cold. Logic and knowledge are not enough.” In a later film, the now more peaceful Spock will admit, “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, but not the end.” I’m talking about the Leonard Nimoy character here, not the Spock who’ll smooch with Uhura in the transporter room later seen in the 2009 film. But to return to the point, logic and knowledge are not enough, and neither is it enough to have a single, more or less inflexible viewpoint and travel the universe encouraging people to conform. If there are any Trek characters the Doctor would appreciate, it’s likely these outsider characters, and I’ve no doubt any crossover stories written by fans instinctively pay attention to this.
Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, and I contain multitudes.” The Doctor quite literally contains multitudes, and encourages nothing else. He isn’t flawless: people die, and there’s always struggle and loss on the way to a universe that’s a little safer for a sense of openness and inclusiveness. At the same time, the narrative framework of the show has quietly, and for a long time, helped by creating a less egocentric perspective. It’s a wide universe with the Doctor popping up here and there, not a series of events that only happen when he’s around. If anything troubles me about the revived Doctor Who series, it’s the lack of longer, two-part stories. I’d like to see more of them, at least partly because a longer Doctor Who story allows for a better look at this more distinct, less egocentric perspective I’m talking about, and multiple-episode stories help set Doctor Who apart from Trek, which is probably best known for single episode stories. It has been a long time, but there’s even an episode without the Doctor appearing at all (Mission to the Unknown, designed a prelude to The Daleks’ Master Plan, back in the 1960s), and even if it was done then to give the cast a week off or for some other reason related to production, it would be an interesting experiment to repeat, if only to help further establish the idea that it’s a tremendous, complicated universe the Doctor is travelling. As Philip Sandifer suggests in an essay for one of his collections, Mission to the Unknown is an occasion the Doctor simply doesn’t make it, and surely that happens sometimes? The Doctor is already scarce in occasional stories, but could the series go from a Doctor-lite episode to a Doctor-zero episode? Stranger things have happened.
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Recently, I couldn’t get through the introduction to Cultural Amnesia without wanting to write down a quote on every page. It’s a collection of essays that fairly briefly (but so far, very thoughtfully) covers dozens of different historical figures, literary and otherwise, with the loose premise that while historical shortcuts might be easy and convenient, they’re also problematic. In theory, it’s a book to help prevent this, specifically written for current and later generations. Here’s a quote from the introduction:
“As the late Edward W Said wrote after the attack on the World Trade Center, ‘Western humanism is not enough: we need a universal humanism.’ I agree with that. The question is how to get it, and my own view is that it can’t be had unless we raise our demands on ourselves a long way beyond decorating our lives with enough cultivation to make the pursuit of ambition look civilized.”
And I thought this quote combines humility and wisdom, which can only be said to be a rare combination:
“I have always loved the title of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I hope this is a book of laughter, at least in places. But it is everywhere a book of forgetting. I am not urging young people to follow me on the path to a success. I am showing them the way to a necessary failure: the grim but edifying realization that a complete picture of reality is not to be had. If we realize that, we can begin to be realistic. Thinking otherwise, we doom ourselves to spinning fantasies, which might well be fluent, but could equally be lethal. Stalin and Hitler both thought that they could see the whole picture, and look what happened.”
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100 years ago: For a general history of the war I picked up The Guns of August (Barbara Tuchman) and found it to be full of fascinating detail. I revisited The War Poems (Siegfried Sassoon) and found them as potent as ever: “O German mother dreaming by the fire / While you are knitting socks to send your son / His face is trodden deeper in the mud.” The Robert Graves memoir Goodbye to All That begins with his childhood but soon moves into the war and it’s an invaluable, personal account. There are endless good quotes but here’s one that shows how routinely young lives were pulled into the war, and for years: “Bumford, for instance, who gave his age as eighteen, was really only fifteen. He used to get into trouble for falling asleep on sentry duty, an offence punishable with death, but could not help it. I had seen him suddenly go to sleep, on his feet, while holding a sandbag open for another fellow to fill. So we got him a job as orderly to a chaplain for a while, and a few months later all men over fifty and all the boys under eighteen got combed out. Bumford grew old enough by 1917 to be sent back to the battalion, and was killed that summer.” Regeneration (Pat Barker) is a novel that looks unflinchingly at the horror of the war, and as many will know by now it makes use of various war poets as characters. The Return of the Soldier (Rebecca West) is shorter, more subtle and elegant, but nevertheless also powerful. If you have Netflix and sixty minutes The First World War From Above literally changed my perspective on the war.
Graphic Novels: I’ve read dozens of graphic novels this year and find it to be a genre with some impressive work, though it sometimes needs to remember being grotesque is not the same thing as being mature. It’s a criticism that doesn’t apply to the following brief list of my favourites: Berlin (two volumes by Jason Lutes) totals about 400 pages and provides some insight into the volatile period in Germany between the world wars, when literally dozens of political parties struggled for power, including the Communist and the Nazi party. So many characters arrive and leave I’m sure I lost occasional threads of the plot, but it’s a tremendous accomplishment that must have taken years, providing a portrait of the city, its daily struggles, and the assorted reasons people eventually put their faith in the Nazi party. It was produced independently and can be hard to find but True Patriot: All-New Canadian Comic Books Adventures was a blast. I’d also recommend Through the Woods by Canadian Emily Carroll, and The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft (Richard Kleist).
Older Fiction: Stoner (John Williams) is the most immensely satisfying novel I picked up all year. Originally published in the1960s it has been rediscovered and championed, but lives up to the hype, in my opinion. And don’t be led astray by the title, it’s simply the last name of the central character. Jane Eyre is among my favourite novels, but I found Villette to be not nearly as engaging, and a book that adopts something of a self-consciously epic and indirect style. Death in Venice and Other Stories (Thomas Mann) was another book I’d been meaning to read for years, and I’m glad I finally did for its poignancy and lines like this: “There could be no doubt that this gentleman rejoiced in the wonderfully happy conceit of himself.” The Age of Innocence (Wharton) was elegant and engaging in a quiet, intelligent way. I began Near to the Wild Heart (Clarice Lispector) enthusiastically enjoying the poetic language, though it ultimately became a little exhausting.
Older (shorter) fiction: A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor) was a hard-hitting and flawlessly written collection of stories. As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories (Macleod) felt overwritten on very rare occasions, even as it also found its way to brilliant, perfect moments, so it also comes highly recommended. I enjoyed the quality of writing in Man Descending (Guy Vanderhaeghe) even as I found I needed to brace myself for the story of one emotionally hopeless man after another.
Newer fiction: I Was There the Night He Died (Ray Robertson) is poignant and meaningful, even as it has both feet firmly and unpretentiously planted in the present day. That’s harder to do than it sounds, and Robertson would be better recognized in a country that didn’t tend to believe novels should be historical to be literature. The Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers) concerns the war in Iraq, and struck me as a novel with the right amount of poetic language: power and clarity at the same time. The Road Home (Rose Tremain), about the struggles of a newcomer to England felt realistic and yet not cynical. I’m currently really enjoying The Bees (Laline Paull), set in a beehive, and clearly from an intelligent, talented writer.
NYRB Classics: Stoner led me to discover various other titles in the well-designed New York Review Books (Classics) series, where they appear to specialize in overlooked books. I loved Young Man With a Horn (Dorothy Baker) concerning a self-destructive jazz musician (again, just the right amount of poetic language), and The Summer Book (Tove Jansson), a gentle set of linked stories about an elderly artist and her granddaughter. Chess Story (Zweig) is a sharply written novella that finds a clever way to note the horrors of war, and A Month in the Country (JL Carr) is a brief but sadly beautiful novella concerning a veteran of the First World War employed to restore a church painting.
Essays: It was good to spend some time with the voice of the late Roger Ebert reading Awake in the Dark, selected reviews and articles. I’ve blogged below about enjoying the essays of Jerome K. Jerome, who combines an easygoing intelligence with humour. I’m only sorry there’s nothing left to read, having read both Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, and Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. I found The Empathy Exams (Leslie Jamison) to be an articulate, emotionally intelligent collection of essays. Here’s a line she has about Frida Kahlo: “Hers was a body pulled almost gravitationally toward injury, but her paintings point ceaselessly at grace.” The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin) is a fascinating historical document, and Pathologies: A Life in Essays (Susan Olding) feels somewhat closer to a memoir than a collection of essays — the story of her adopted daughter takes over the book — but more importantly it’s articulate and honest.
Other Non-Fiction: Swing Low (Miriam Toews) is a moving memoir and I can only imagine her father would’ve felt honoured by it. While slightly repetitive at times, there’s much to be found in Meditations, Marcus Aurelius: “Letting go all else, cling to the following few truths. Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant: all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed. This mortal life is a little thing, lived in a little corner of the earth; and little, too, is the longest fame to come – dependent as it is on a succession of fast-perishing little men who have no knowledge even of their own selves, much less of one long dead and gone.” It’s easy to see why A Night to Remember (Walter Lord) was a bestseller, as a well-researched, gripping account of the Titanic sinking. Carefully crafted to be accessible and influential, I nevertheless really enjoyed Never Cry Wolf (Mowat) as a sincere and valuable (not to mention very entertaining) introduction to wolf behaviour (and on a somewhat similar note, the documentary Sharkwater helped clue me in to the idea Sharks are also fairly reticent creatures, not the monsters we routinely see in films and on TV).
Genre books: The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester) was wildly inventive for a novel from the 1950s, and seemed like it could have been published today. Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card) is both compelling and imaginative. While full of remarkably dated attitudes, I enjoyed The Beetle (Richard Marsh), which was originally more popular a horror novel than Dracula in its day, for the elegant, nineteenth century language: “I’ve never seen a man more in need of the good offices of soap and water.” Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Verne) has an intriguing central character, and, interestingly, never troubles to reveal his exact origins. The Nine Tailors (Sayers) is an intelligent mystery novel with a dash of history, and I’ve been given the impression her books are always more than simply a good mystery.
Poetry: I read assorted poetry books, but it was particularly good to read books by some friends this year. Yaw (Dani Couture) is a spare, precise and powerful collection. I also found much to admire in Tangle (Julie Cameron Gray) and Old Hat (Rob Winger). I enjoyed Probably Inevitable (Matthew Tierney) for many reasons, but certainly for the freshness of the modern imagery: “It’s a solace to know the World’s Simplest Remote includes mute.” I’m about to start reading my not-so dog-eared copy of Dog Ear (Jim Johnstone), selected as one of the best covers of 2014.
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For the Maissoneuve blog, I’ve done an interview with Julie Cameron Gray about her new book of poems Tangle, and the darker side of domestic life.
Also, the first poem I’ve written about my daughter will be in the new issue of Taddle Creek dedicated to childhood. It looks like I’m in some very good company, and I encourage you to subscribe, because only $18 gets you a stylish, semi-annual dose of literary goodness.
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Still in uniform, but one of earth and tar:
coral epaulettes, strings of sand for hair,
a longtail for a screaming, out-of-focus hat.
Weary, but with discombobulated grin,
he passes with your annual epiphany,
learned to love French like one of his brothers.
He was between bonfires and church bells
on Confederation day – allowed himself
to be hung with Riel, for the experience,
stowed away to stand with Billy Bishop
when he looked up at an azure sky to say
“Bet you don’t get mud and horseshit
on you up there.” Brock shook his head
over church-run schools meant to take
the Indian out of the Indians, the ban on
the sun dance, the potlatch, three Chinese
lives per mile of railway. His warm smile
grew into a laugh at the wind-slap of a subway
train arriving, and he thought “You and your
journey back and forth. It isn’t that you
can’t stay, it’s that you don’t know how to cling
to anything.” His hands behind his back,
he walked in the snow with Trudeau.
He still slumbers in parts of the land,
a song and a bullet in his heart.
from The Least Important Man
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