Staff Pick: John Fowles’ The Tree


Thirty years ago, the late British author John Fowles, who spun such imaginative tales as The Magus, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Collector, wrote The Tree, recently reissued by Ecco to commemorate its anniversary, a thoughtful essay on the natural world and man’s relationship with it. In its ninety pages, Fowles takes the reader on a journey through the wild and untamed. He takes to task the Victorian obsession with categorizing and trying to tame the wild, and makes a case for experiencing nature and “green chaos.”

He also trains his eye back on himself as a novelist and creator. He lauds the 18th century attitude viewing nature as a mirror for philosophers and poets, evoking emotion. Art and nature, Fowles asserts, are two branches of the one tree.

The first chunk of The Tree doubles as a fascinating family memoir, with Fowles taking us back to his boyhood before and during the Second World War. In particular, he writes of his relationship with his father, who, in his tiny suburban London back yard, created an orchard. Fowles writes of the gulf that lay between father and son, with the young man rebelling against the precisely pruned suburban tree garden and beginning a lifelong love of the woods, of the forest. Trees, countlessly plural and wild.

Nuit Blanche Toronto: Finding Inspiration After the Sun Goes Down


My friend Morry and I reached Nathan Phillips Square after sunset, long after several hundred had scattered themselves in front of Toronto’s City Hall. Somewhere among the curious and cold was Daniel Lanois. We could hear him; we could even see him projected in a dozen different places – on screens where no screens had been before, even in the reflecting pool. There was no obvious stage, but eventually we found a ramp leading up to a platform on which a few dozen had congregated. They were peering down into a pit. We did the same – and there he was, at the controls of an audio-video installation. And there he would remain until sunrise. And half the fun was finding him.

Lanois’ all-nighter was one of the hyped attractions of this year’s Nuit Blanche, an all-night free art festival held in early October at dozens of venues in and around downtown Toronto. Over the course of five years, my feelings have swung from amazement to irritation and back again. I’ve been bemused and bored. I’ve been caught up in curious crowds, and I’ve loathed the drunken hordes.

The first year was a delight. I knew nothing about Nuit Blanche. There had been some chatter about it, but it was largely word-of-mouth that drew a few hundred thousand night-owls into the streets – looking to be inspired. The high point for me was an outdoor fog installation in a leafy stretch of the University of Toronto, where I and dozens of others walked – sightless – on a meandering path drenched in fog. All other senses were heightened – the bumps of the earth beneath us, the sounds of chatter around us. Behind me, a guy telling everyone within earshot how the mushrooms he’d taken were just then kicking in.

I’ve never managed to last beyond three in the morning, and in the second year, the high point came at about 2 a.m. Exhausted, my friends and I ducked into the Music Faculty of the university, plunked ourselves down in the auditorium, and were treated to the quiet and cool sounds of a live jazz ensemble.

The following year, in front of an old downtown building known for its galleries and studio space, a small crowd had gathered for a guided tour of the building. We joined. Ten minutes into the tour, it dawned on me that this was no ordinary tour. We were, in fact, part of a performance piece – the tour guide a performance artist leading us, her audience, up and down staircases, into hidden rooms, basements and rooftop gardens. Like a general leading troops into battle, she marched on, regaling us with stories. I would have followed her anywhere.

Last year should have been the best. I knew the city inside out. I knew which areas promised inspiration. I had visiting guests and was anxious to show off the city. But the crowds from previous years had suddenly mutated into hordes. And where the leafy university area and fascinatingly dodgy outer edges of downtown had been the focus of the earlier years, now the downtown commercial strip and the financial district had suddenly become the focal point. And we were swept up, and let down, by the masses.

This year was a targeted approach. One glance at the throngs on Yonge Street, and we made for the infinitely more interesting strains of Daniel Lanois at City Hall. Curious crowds over partying hordes.

Then it was on to the newly-opened film centre, Toronto’s year-round cinematheque. In one small screening room, a handful of us filed past the empty audience seats, to the edge of the stage, where we sat, looking out into the seats. Above the seats, suspended from what appeared to be clotheslines, were sheets of varying sizes and suspended at varying heights. On each, a different looped segment of Fellini’s played. Apparently curated by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Fellini’s fragments were hypnotic.

You create your own Nuit Blanche. With so many venues, inside and out, in so many neighbourhoods, you chart your own course. And with a bit of timing and luck, moments of inspiration might just be around the next corner.

Image credit: City of Toronto

The Novella is Alive and Well and Living in Canada

- | 8

Susan is taking it all in. The stories are more than she had hoped for. She was discovering the tales that I had hidden from her, but disturbingly they were changing my own memories of those events. Uncle was changing what I remembered.

In The Cousin, the latest novella from John Calabro, our narrator is a reluctant explorer, bringing his Canadian wife Susan with him to a Sicily shifted in his memories from his childhood. He’s detached, reluctant, full of loathing for his Sicilian uncle, and haunted by past events. His wife is more enthusiastic, more engaged, connecting the reader with the setting, while our narrator goes from harboring some hang-ups to dealing with his demons. In the last act, The Cousin turns twisted and surreal, as the narrator takes the astonished reader on a mind-bending journey unlike anything I’ve read.

The Cousin is one of a series of novellas released last fall by Quattro Books, a Toronto outfit which counts Calabro himself as a founding publisher, and which mandated itself to champion the Canadian literary novella. They’ve even come out with a manifesto outlining six rules that must apply to any novella that they publish.

Some of the rules are structural: the qualifying novella must be between 15,000 and 42,000 words long and between 60 and 150 pages. Other rules deal with the time-frame covered within the story, the number of characters, locations, and as Quattro is championing Canadian literary novellas, the author must be Canadian and Canada must factor in the plot or setting or character.

The most interesting rule is that there must be either a reversal of fortune or some kind of realization or revelation. From Quattro’s manifesto:

It is a narrative that draws heavily on a geographical and cultural landscape, real or imagined, or on the concept of a journey, physical or metaphysical, to carry it. It must be of a form and content that excites and surprises while exploring the underbelly or fringe of civilization where savage instincts and/or extreme otherness lie hidden.

These rules are reflected in other novellas released by Quattro last year. In A Pleasant Vertigo, Egidio Coccimiglio tells the story of Gerard, a New York-based artist longing to make a comeback, and suddenly being wooed by rival dealers. The writing style is fast and free-floating, culminating, in the second half, in a dark and comic set-piece along the shores of the Mississippi.

Brenda Niskala’s Of All The Ways To Die is an inventive ensemble ghost story. A missing girl is the catalyst for Urma to summon (actually invite to dinner) an eccentric group of departed souls, to help shed some light on the whereabouts of the girl, and on life itself. Throughout the dinner, we learn not only their stories, but their connections to Urma. The dinner, by the way, is pot-luck, and each guest shares with the reader a special recipe.

Harbour View is Binnie Brennan’s lovely and amusing story of a Halifax nursing home. Characters – the residents and workers of the home – bounce off each other, their stories revealed as we briefly see and hear the world through each of them. There’s warmth to the wit. Here are Buddy’s thoughts on assorted nursing home staff:

Sam speaks softly, unlike Muriel and the others who are trained to speak so that the deaf may hear them. Sam’s quiet is a relief, like the silence when an aircraft cuts out: you don’t really notice the racket until it’s over.

The novella has always been a favorite literary form, and while writers have never stopped writing short forms of fiction, Quattro is to be commended for giving this literary form some formal shape and focus. And there’s plenty of room within the structure for all sorts of tales to be told, and voices to be heard.

Home Away from Home: Philip Graham’s The Moon, Come to Earth

- | 1

The first thing I broke was the cream-colored ceramic sugar bowl. Smashed to bits. I’d been at my friend’s flat in London for less than a day, and left to my own devices, I innocently placed a cup in the dish rack, and like a collapsing house of cards, the contents of the rack began to shift, and through an unnoticed gap in the front of the rack, the sugar bowl escaped and smashed onto the floor. My first-day settling-in disaster.

But I wasn’t done. My destruction cut a path from the kitchen to the bathroom where I didn’t fully comprehend that the shower fixture didn’t want to turn the way I wanted it to turn, and with superhuman strength, I bent it, rendering it unusable. It took hours, and a toolbox, for me to fix it.

Then it was on to the den – my bedroom for the visit – where I thought I’d broken the TV. I’d switched it off with the remote, and no amount of maniacal and increasingly haphazard button-pressing would turn it on again. (It took my friend all of two seconds to locate the on/off button on the side of the set – a button that I swear wasn’t there earlier – and bring the BBC back into our world.)

Then back to the kitchen a few days later where I desperately tried to open the clothes-dryer door after the cycle had ended, unaware that the door would not, could not, open until a full minute had passed. A minute filled with thoughts of wrenches and hammers and whatever I may require to force open the door and rescue my clothes.

That’s me, staying with a friend for two weeks in London, a city I’m somewhat familiar with, in a country whose language I share.

So Philip Graham and his family can be excused for their “first-day settling-in disasters” at the start of their year in Portugal, alone in a Lisbon apartment struggling with the flat’s lighting system. Dispatches, detailing their disasters – and triumphs – previously appeared in McSweeney’s online, and now the wonderful collected memoir of the Graham family’s year in Portugal The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon is available in print.

In 2006, author and teacher Philip Graham uprooted his family – his anthropologist wife Alma and their 12-year-old daughter Hannah – and transplanted them to Lisbon. Reading the dispatches, I felt as if I were with this family every step of the way, through every day-to-day adventure and every settling-in disaster, as they walked that fine line between fitting in and remaining on the outside.

“I do and I don’t feel at home here,” Graham writes. “I oscillate between comfort and unease.”

Language of course is a big barrier and while the whole family does its best to learn and communicate in Portuguese, it proves to be a challenge.

“There’s so much to remember in building a Portuguese sentence,” Graham writes, leading in to an account of a morning reading of a Portuguese newspaper, and how a single word – andar (to walk) – can be used in so many different ways. “One lousy verb, so many subgestures.”

A recurring theme in Graham’s book is “Saudade,” a complex emotion “that combines sorrow, longing and regret, laced perhaps with a little mournful pleasure.” Saudade colors all aspects of Portuguese life – from its fado music to its soccer matches to its underdog sensibility.

This being a family memoir, food and drink naturally have a strong presence and the wines and fish and other delicacies linger on the tip of the reader’s tongue. When I finished reading The Moon, Come to Earth, I asked my parents – who had spent a few days in Lisbon some years ago – what image lingered the most. Without missing a beat, my mother replied “the grilled sardines.”

Here is the opening phrase of the opening line of the opening dispatch in Philip Graham’s book: “The grilled sardines, lying in my plate…”

The Moon, Come to Earth lifted me up from my humdrum life and transplanted me into the Graham family’s Lisbon adventure. It was a day-to-day adventure, full of the familiar, full of new routines and small struggles. It was a bit sad to leave it all, a bit of saudade creeping into my own life.

A week or so after reading it, I was in London, wreaking havoc in the flat, and trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. Fighting the good fight. And delighting in the small triumphs.

Father, Son, and Silver Screen: David Gilmour’s The Film Club

- | 1

With the Oscars just around the corner, here’s a wonderfully curious memoir of a father, his son, and their shared love of film.

A few years ago, Canadian novelist and occasional CBC arts commentator David Gilmour was faced with a family crisis. His teenage son Jesse was struggling with school and with life. A deal was struck. Gilmour would let his son leave school on condition that they watch three films together, at home, each and every week. Running the gamut from classics to popcorn, these films – or more accurately, the shared experience of watching them together – prompted discussion where there had been no discussion and generated inspiration to fill a void.

The Film Club is David Gilmour’s memoir of this period in his life. Written with a novelist’s attention to detail and a film buff’s ear for dialogue, this is a gripping tale of a father and son and the desperate desire to get a loved one’s life back on track, to inspire and be inspired by.

Linked by Words: Uncovering a Piece of Family History

- | 1

In my parents’ home, tucked into the bottom drawer of the dresser in the spare room, there’s a small stack of papers bound together with a rubber band.

I stumbled upon this last week. The rubber band virtually disintegrated as I began to flip through the pages. There, in my hand, were long, hand-written excerpts from all sorts of books. Plays, poetry, philosophy, science, history. Fully attributed, with annotations on the side. I was holding a bit of family history, notes that my grandfather had made to himself as he devoured plays by George Bernard Shaw and writings by Bertrand Russell, meticulously written half-page excerpts, with his own comments here and there. There were also bits of history and science – all transcribed when my grandfather was about 80 years old, during the final couple years of his life.

My grandfather, a pharmacist in his younger days, lived with us in his final years until he died at age 81. I was six years old when he died. House-bound in those final years, these must’ve been library books that my mother brought home for him, which he read and then made these detailed notes on the back of whatever scraps of paper he had handy.

I knew that in those last few years of his life he’d written a half-dozen short stories – children’s stories, each centered on the fantastical exploits of a five-year old named Andy. Lots of secret gardens and magical lands. Those I knew about. I remember them at the time, and I’ve stumbled upon them since. But I had no idea that at the same time he was intently reading, transcribing, and making detailed notes on Shaw’s Androcles And The Lion. I had no idea that he was so immersed in Bertrand Russell’s humanism. There were also bits of verse, quite a bit of science, even a few unattributed jokes and riddles.

I was moved by not only the breadth of his interests but the many similarities to my own. Also his thought process, his attention to detail, his humanism, even his appreciation of the cryptic, the clever, the silly.

And I was suddenly in a role I hadn’t assumed in decades – a grandson. By the time I was nine, all my grandparents had passed away. I haven’t thought of myself in that way in a lifetime.

I was flooded with memories of him. Though I was a small child when he died, I remember his presence. I remember the kindly, gentle man who lived with us. But one thing I don’t have is any memory of his voice. Long-since drowned out by decades of noise, I don’t remember what my grandfather sounded like. And unless a mystery tape-recording suddenly surfaces, I guess that detail is lost forever.

But in these hand-written excerpts and notes, tracking his reading habits in those last few years – perhaps marking his attention to detail, perhaps an attempt, near the end, to make sense of it all, to put things in perspective, perhaps all these things – I’ve been given a sudden and surprising connection to my past. To a part of my past that I thought was fixed and limited. A part of my life which has suddenly expanded, and now reaches into the present and into the person I’ve become.

Mythbusting: An Inside Look at the Last Days of the Moveable Feast

- | 3

Two authors walk into a room. One – brooding, macho, fixated on war, fighting, hunting, and conflict in general. The second – driven to drink, floating above the revelers, with a crazy wife to deal with. If the mythmakers have done their job over the decades, you know exactly who I’m talking about. Even if the facts deviate from, or even contradict, the myth.

Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald – two pillars of early twentieth century fiction. Two fixtures of 1920s Paris. Two writers whose actual lives weren’t quite what the mythological line would have us believe.

Morley Callaghan’s That Summer In Paris, written in 1962, reveals Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s true nature, and offers an insider’s view of the events in Paris, in the summer of 1929.

Callaghan in the mid 1920s was still years away from being the Canadian literary lion that he would become. A college student in Toronto, Callaghan had written a handful of short stories and was employed as a reporter for the Toronto Star. Returning to the newsroom after several years writing European dispatches for the Star was another writer of fiction, a few years Callaghan’s senior. That correspondent was Ernest Hemingway, and for the next few months in Toronto, Callaghan and Hemingway struck up a friendship. Recognizing a kinship, they became sounding boards for each other’s fiction.

Fast forward to 1929. Hemingway had by then left the Star, had decamped and returned to Paris to focus on his fiction. Already established, with In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises behind him, and A Farewell to Arms well underway, Hemingway was already a legendary figure in Paris, at times helping to cultivate his own public persona.

He’d stayed in touch with the young Canadian and helped him get some attention from publishers when, in 1929, 26-year-old Callaghan and his wife moved to Paris. It was a heady time, but one which seemed to be entering some kind of  transition.  Scott Fitzgerald – wealthy and established – was there, but his legendary friendship with Hemingway was fragile, and when Callaghan arrived, they weren’t speaking. Ford Madox Ford was in town. So was James Joyce. These were the closing months of what Hemingway would dub the “moveable feast.”

Callaghan, becoming a hot young writer, became part of the scene, and his encounters with these legends make for a fascinating memoir. More fascinating still are the close friendships that he developed – separately – with Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In private moments, as they read each others’ manuscripts, we see glimpses of their lives away from the glare. We realize that the myths that surround them – then and now – are only a small part of a bigger picture. Not that they didn’t propagate their own myths, but their quieter selves shine through – sometimes sweet and shy, sometimes arrogant – but often surprisingly insecure.

Fitzgerald, in particular, comes off as a gentle – and gentlemanly – sort. Eager for Hemingway’s friendship which had gone off the rails, Fitzgerald always remained Hemingway’s biggest fan, and took it personally when others slighted his old friend Ernest.

Hemingway was a bit harder to get a read on. He could be thoughtful and sweet, and he was a good companion – and sparring partner in the boxing ring – to Callaghan during his early weeks in Paris. But as his strained relationship with his old friend Scott demonstrates, he could also be remote, withdrawn.

Morley Callaghan’s memoir covers much the same ground as Hemingway’s own masterpiece of memoir A Moveable Feast – a set of perfect vignettes, each reading like a short story.

Callaghan’s memoir is more conventional in style, but its insider’s view makes is essential for anyone interested in Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the closing moments of 1920s Paris.

Returning to Ilium: Unlatching the Vonnegut Vault

- | 2

The first mention of Ilium comes in the second paragraph of the second story. Ilium – that fictitious mill town in upstate New York, where plenty of Kurt Vonnegut characters – major and minor – have lived out their lives. To the casual reader it may just be a point on an imaginary map. To a Kurt Vonnegut fan, it is a single word that tells us we are back in that post-Second World War era of opportunity and opportunism where idea and invention are the currency that just might – if your powers of persuasion are strong enough – let you trade up from Main Street to Easy Street USA.

A world away from the savvy sellers of Mad Men, these dreamers and schemers from upstate New York – and from New England and from the Mid-west  – are basically decent strivers, still sorting out what their American Dream will look like. Meanwhile, tugging at the sunny optimism of the day are the fresh memory of 30s austerity and 40s rationing. And the Cold War cloud above everyone’s head. And secrets. And loneliness.

Welcome to a Kurt Vonnegut story.

Look at the Birdie, a new collection of previously unreleased short fiction seemed immediately familiar. I mean that as a good thing. After all, as the dust jacket tells us, these stories were all written “just as he was starting to find his comic voice.” My guess would be 1950s, when Vonnegut was beginning to populate Ilium, and when he was framing his satire in sci-fi structures and beginning to play with the dynamics of human relationships.

“Confido” introduces us to Henry and Ellen living their humdrum routine. Ah, but Henry has an invention which will shake up their and everyone else’s lives. It’s a fantastical tale of science at odds with intimacy.

“FUBAR” introduces us to Fuzz and Francine. Fuzz, you see, is a forgotten, misplaced cog in a complex organization in Ilium. A shrunken, emasculated man. Into his life comes Francine to remind him that he has a beating heart. It’s a lovely story of  “a freak to those he was among, a ghost to those he should have been among.”

We meet a salesman in Vermont who cold-calls a romance novelist to find that she and her husband, inspiration for her stories, are light years away from their fictionalized depictions, and longing for a return to anonymity.

From one tale to the next, fresh characters are introduced to us in that familiar voice. There’s Weems, a hypnotist in Indianapolis. We meet Lowell the linoleum salesman. There’s Red the bridge tender, back in town after being on the high seas for eight years. Watch out for Larry the serial lover and the discarded Ellen, tenacious as she insinuates herself into Larry’s daily routine. And then there’s Felix Koradubian – he’s a lunatic you won’t soon forget. There’s Henry and Anne. They live a charmed, sheltered life that gets a shake-up when they encounter Stanley Karpinsky at night in the park. And perhaps the centerpiece of the collection is “Ed Luby’s Key Club”, an Ilium tale of success and failure, with Harve and Claire as two innocents caught up in a corrupt town.

It’s hard to say whether a non-Vonnegut fan will be won over by this collection. Such a reader should really begin with Welcome to the Monkey House, one of the finest short story collections I’ve read. Those stories are more fully realized. And then the uninitiated should read all the novels. But a fan will welcome this glimpse into the mind of the young Vonnegut. His voice can’t be heard too often for my tastes. Two-and-a-half years after his death, it’s a treat to be in the presence of his wit – whether a friendly wink or some darker satire. And to return to the humanity that underpins all his writing. And to visit Ilium once again.

Staff Pick: Graham Greene’s The Captain and the Enemy


“Sometimes I think he lies just for the sake of lying. Or perhaps he wants to keep everything hidden.”

A curious late-career entry from Graham Greene, The Captain and the Enemy was published in 1988 when the master-storyteller was the tender age of 84. In it, our narrator recounts how, as a boy, he was whisked away from his boarding school by The Captain, a sly, adventurous sort who claimed to be acquainted with the boy’s much-loathed father. The boy winds up in the care of Liza as the Captain disappears for months, years at a time, seeking his fortune and seeking to provide for Liza.

Years later, the boy, now grown, seeks out the long-gone Captain in Panama, and falls into the middle of the Captain’s most dangerous scheme yet.

Truth and lies, family and belonging are all woven together the Graham Greene way – with plenty of Englishmen abroad. And plenty of scoundrels.

A Life Laid Bare

- | 5

Logan Mountstuart. Born 27 Feb. 1906. Montevideo, Uruguay. Father: British. Mother: Uruguayan. 1914, Mountstuart family returns to Britain. Schooling: Abbeyhurst, then Oxford. Logan moves to London. Marries. Pursues a career in letters, where he becomes a minor writer of the first half of the twentieth century. Supplements his income with proceeds from reportage from Spain during the Civil War. Is recruited as a spy by MI5 during the Second World War.

Those are the broad strokes of the rising arc that is Logan Mountstuart’s early life. That, and the fact that he’s fictional. Born of the fertile mind of master storyteller William Boyd.

Any Human Heart is structured as a series of journals which Logan keeps throughout his life. At school, then at Oxford, then in London, then during the war, and on through the years. Never revised, Logan’s musings are presented as written, often with footnotes added by an older and wiser Logan to clarify comments that his younger self had made. But never to deny his earlier misjudgments, or his cocky foolishness. It is the document of a human, his life laid bare.

If the first act of Logan’s life fills the reader with youthful promise, the second act reminds us that rising arcs don’t rise forever. After the war, life for Logan, as for countless others, changes so drastically that you – the reader – quickly recalibrate your expectations for him. Okay – this is where his life is leading him now. These are his new hopes. This is what he’s left behind, this is what he’s accepted, and this is what matters to him now. You know all that stuff when he was young and aspiring? Forget it. He’s a changed man. He’s been damaged. And this is where his heart is leading him now.

It’s frustrating to abandon youthful hopes, and you hang onto them long after Logan himself has abandoned them. But you’re no fair-weather friend so you cling to his journals because you hope he finds contentment. And you shift your expectations to match his because this is his show and you can either adapt or leave. And Logan’s journals are too damn interesting to abandon.

After all, as a minor published author and scholar, Logan meets Hemingway (whose early work Logan appreciated) in Paris and later in Spain, and he golfs with the abdicated King Edward and Mrs. Simpson. After the war, working in a New York art gallery, he meets Jackson Pollack (who Logan dismisses), and still later, much later, he has a bizarre but ultimately plausible dalliance with the English cell of the Baader-Meinhof gang.

Far from being a Gumpian set of coincidences, Logan’s life follows its own internal logic. Reading it, it all makes sense. There’s nothing that isn’t true to Logan’s behavior as we know it. And while the historical figures add a spark to Logan’s tale, there’s no getting away from the longing and the heartbreak at Logan’s exposed core.

One of the great pleasures of the Millions over the years has been exposure to authors I didn’t previously know. Emre Peker, a fellow-contributor back in the early days of the Millions, wrote eloquently and often about William Boyd. The first Boyd novel I read was Armadillo, which inspired this early Millions essay. Since then, I’ve read half-a-dozen of Boyd’s novels – each introducing me to a fascinating and flawed human, and drawing me into his ruptured world. Any Human Heart is the most epic in scope, but it’s intimate to the core. A wild, wandering story brought into focus and pushed forward by its pulsing heart.