Tag Archives: Canada

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

Yann Martel’s brilliantly entertaining blog, What is Stephen Harper Reading, is a treasure trove for booklovers.

If you are a writer in a country run by a man who does not care about the arts – and certainly does not give them enough money – how do you change his mind? Lobbying would be ineffective. Whiny columns will be predictable. And megaphones and placards are dull to a novelist who can dream up an ocean-going Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Yann Martel, whose Life of Pi won the Man Booker prize, has come up with his own form of direct action: every second Monday, he sends a book to the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper. If the PM will not follow the arts, the arts must come to him – by post.

These are not just any books, mind; Mr Harper is a busy man, so what he gets is short and accessible. As light reading, they can still be pretty heavy: Tolstoy, Hindu scriptures, Strindberg. Such texts, the writer says, “expand stillness” – just what a head of state needs after an infernal day’s politics.

When is he meant to read them? “Everyone can do a page at bedtime,” says Mr Martel. “Or his aide could get a book to him when he visits the toilet.” Each second-hand paperback has an introductory note from the sender (“Om Shanti” ends the letter accompanying the Bhagavad Gita).

An ice-hockey fan, the PM has not commented on his gifts. But to give is better than to receive, and the unrequited novelist will continue his campaign until Mr Harper leaves office. “If I knew he liked thrillers,” says Mr Martel, “I would send more of those – perhaps a Chinese thriller.”

Martel explains:

On March 28th, 2007, at 3 pm, I was sitting in the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons, I and forty-nine other artists from across Canada, fifty in all, and I got to thinking about stillness. To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Just gazing upon a still lake, upon a quiet winter scene—doesn’t that lull us into contemplation? Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, yet we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important, and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by.

I was thinking about that, about stillness, and I was also thinking, more prosaically, about arts funding, not surprising since we fifty artists were there in the House to help celebrate the fifty years of the Canada Council for the Arts, that towering institution that has done so much to foster the identity of Canadians. I was thinking that to have a bare-bones approach to arts funding, as the present Conservative government has, to think of the arts as mere entertainment, to be indulged in after the serious business of life, that—in conjunction with retooling education so that it centres on the teaching of employable skills rather than the creating of thinking citizens—is to engineer souls that are post-historical, post-literate and pre-robotic; that is, blank souls wired to be unfulfilled and susceptible to conformism at its worst—intolerance and totalitarianism—because incapable of thinking for themselves, and vowed to a life of frustrated serfdom at the service of the feudal lords of profit.

The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute, certainly not. I don’t think he even looked up. The snarling business of Question Period having just ended, he was shuffling papers. I tried to bring him close to me with my eyes.

Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts.

But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness.

For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness.

~~ From the Globe and Mail, April 14, 2007

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Canada’s Melancholy Bard

Poet, musician, novelist, ladies’ man, monk, actor… Leonard Norman Cohen, one of Canada’s most influential cultural icons was born on Sept. 21, 1934 in Montreal. Whether from a mountaintop at a Buddhist retreat in California, on the Greek island of Hydra or strolling along the streets of his beloved ville d’amour, the melancholy bard of popular music has delighted fans worldwide with his poetry, novels and music.

Leonard CohenLeonard Cohen’s towering songbook fits no category save its own, but they finally found a house big enough to hold him. Cohen’s overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came during Monday night’s ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.

Between the inductions of Madonna, John Mellencamp, the Ventures, Gamble & Huff and Little Walter, Lou Reed took the podium to offer a generous tribute to his fellow rock poet.

Reed mentioned William S. Burroughs and Cohen as contemporaries, citing Naked Lunch and Beautiful Losers, and saying “one of them got more attention. I was always surprised by that.” Reed then quoted lavishly from the Cohen oeuvre from typewritten remarks, from First We Take Manhattan, Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, Anthem and Cohen’s latest work Book of Longing. It was, appropriately, a most writerly induction for Montreal’s greatest living artist.

Cohen pronounced the induction “such and unlikely event” and “not a distinction I coveted,” while joking that music critic Jon Landau once said “I have seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll, and he is not Leonard Cohen.” Then came the perfect recital of Tower of Song before Damien Rice serenaded the hall with Hallelujah.

The evening was doubly celebratory for Montrealers as it was accompanied by the announcement of Cohen’s first live dates in Montreal in 15 years, with three shows at Place des Arts – June 23, 24 and 25 – as part of this year’s Montreal International Jazz Festival. There is also talk of an album.

Details at Montreal Gazette

CBC Digital Archives

Leonard Cohen website

There Is No City That Does Not Dream

There Is No City.

Canadian literature has largely centred on rural and wild spaces. Cities are often viewed as a blight on the landscape, encroaching on its imagined pristineness.

Toronto writer, Anne Michaels has documented the intersection of Canada’s largest city, and time, memory and imagination in her poem, “There is no city that does not dream.” This poem is the centerpiece of her third book of poetry, Skin Divers.

I first came across this poem one day on the subway, possibly as we were crossing Shaw Street. It was hidden among the subway car’s advertising, and it was part of the “Poetry on the Way” series which made my commute bearable. I had no notepad with me at the time, and I was afraid that I might not come across it again, so I memorized it and wrote it down as soon as I got home.

In the poem, the city unfolds, not in its brick and mortar sprawl this time, but as real and imagined remembrances over millions of years.

In a city so familiar that we hardly notice it, we read rumours of lost lakes such as glacial Lake Iroquois whose shores define the Niagara Escarpment; ravines which conceal lost rivers, long paved over, such as Taddle Creek, which still runs under Philosopher’s Walk; and dinosaur bones unearthed with the building of the subway – all part of our city’s geologic garden.

Our present day experience of the spring air and the ferry ride in the rain intertwines with this unread page of love charting where we came from, drifting away from us on the wind.

The line, “The lost lake/crumbling in the hands of brickmakers/the floor of the ravine where light lies broken/with the memory of rivers” transports me into a past where I no longer hear the quotidian hum of the city, but walk through the wild and secret marshes from another time.