I Don’t Love You, Toronto: On Books and Cities
The first time I saw the apartment building that I live in, my heart crumpled. I was moving in with my partner, D. We’d fallen in love in my hometown, Kathmandu, and had kept up a long-distance relationship after he moved to the U.S. Then he’d moved to his hometown, Toronto, to be close to his children, who lived here with their mother. We decided I’d move, too, and we’d set up together. I didn’t know Toronto, and its name evoked nothing, though my family had lived in Ottawa when I was a child, and I had fond Kodachrome memories of snow and sunshine and the Rideau Canal. When I landed in Toronto, at Pearson Airport, I noted with bemusement how very flat the surroundings were. D assured me that I’d like the city, but when we turned off at Allen Road and drove up to our building, the sheer ugliness of that pile of brick-and-mortar shook me. D had rented an apartment here for its proximity to his children. A decade on, we’re still in this building, a low-budget rental in a stretch of other low-budget rentals on Bathurst Street, which stretches north from Lake Ontario through the entire length of Toronto, ending in the farmlands of Holland Marsh, 57 kilometers away. I find it helpful to remember that Ernest Hemingway and Northrop Frye once lived in our neighborhood, since there’s nothing to say about our building. Built in the 1930s, it is squat, with not a single folly or flourish. Whoever painted the doors and windows didn’t bother to use masking tape. The windows are grimy with age. The backyard is cluttered with the lawn furniture of tenants past. Inside our apartment, the paint is chipping, the caulking is cracked, and all the fixtures are shoddy. The building has always struck me as a teardown, best suited to young, transient populations, such as students; yet everyone who lives here has, like us, stayed for years, making a go of it after divorce and other family reconfigurations. I’m now fond of our building. Like Toronto, its charms were un-obvious to me at the start: they came into focus only gradually, after I learned how to look for them. I have come to value our indoor garage in the wintertime, our backyard in the summertime, and our landlord, a soft-spoken, philosophical Lubavitcher who has never once raised the rent. Our building has sheltered us from Toronto’s housing market, boosted by the city’s status as one of the most "livable" in the world. It has more than met our needs. Yet I still don’t love it, and I don’t love the city it’s in. I do, however, love D, and this love both pleases and confounds me. I had only ever had one- or two-year relationships before, and had resisted settling down—though I did, naturally enough, want love. If you are an independent Nepali woman, Kathmandu is not an easy place to meet people, not unless you want an arranged marriage with a Nepali man of the "right" caste: and then it’s all too easy. All of my relationships there had been ground down into joylessness by the inescapable Nepali imperative to marry. In my mid-30s, I’d given up on love when I met D. It can strain a relationship when one partner moves—in our case, across the world—to be with the other. The task of orienting me to Toronto fell squarely on D, who was capable enough: he is one of the few Torontonians who were also born here. (More than half this city was, like me, born abroad.) When I wasn’t going to government offices to fill out the paperwork of the newly-arrived, D showed me the sights, starting with the flamboyant Honest Ed’s, a discount shop whose founder had lavished funds on the theatre, polishing up Toronto’s image as a center of culture. Over time D took me to Kensington Market, Toronto Island, Queen Street West, the Danforth, the Beaches, the Junction, Parkdale, St. Jamestown, Roncesvalles—all the on-trend neighborhoods. So much about a city is explained by its hinterlands. On weekends we took road trips through Ontario’s rolling farmlands and small towns, and we swam in the freshwater of Georgian Bay in the summertime. In time I came to see how Toronto arose out of a patchwork-quilt of glass, concrete, asphalt, and brick, and rivers, lakes, escarpments, and glacial moraines. There are still neighborhoods in the city I’ve never been to, including Cabbagetown, whose working-class history I’ve read about in the eponymous novel by Hugh Garner. I simply haven’t had the time or a reason to go everywhere. In his book Frontier City, Shawn Micallef points out that Toronto is more Los Angeles than New York: it sprawls on for 44 kilometers. Right from the start, I relied on books to help me imbibe the city’s spirit: when I first took the subway line over the Don Valley, I conjured up Michael Ondaatje’s diaphanous lost world from In the Skin of a Lion. I saw Alice Munro’s sharp and individuated women in downtown Toronto. As a newcomer, I shared the disorientation of the 19th-century protagonist of Michael Redhill’s Consolation. Madeleine Thien was the only Canadian writer I had met before moving here. I felt Canada’s worldliness in her novel Certainty. Micallef became my go-to writer on matters Toronto. I used his book Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto to venture into unfamiliar terrain. It helped me look past the city’s surfaces: even the University of Toronto’s bewilderingly hideous Robarts Library seemed less so once I learned of Toronto’s flirtation with Brutalism. I found the city’s pretty parts charmed, and yet there were many plain, and even jarringly unattractive parts in between. They always stopped me, and prompted me, futilely, to speculate: was this because all of Canada’s funds went into healthcare? Was there a Protestant aesthetic at work here? Was this the legacy of some essential Canadian frugality? One year, at a party at the publisher Coach House, I came across Full Frontal T.O. by Micallef and Patrick Cummins, a picture book on Toronto’s houses in their full eclecticism and unsightliness. I loved that book so much I took it to Kathmandu, so I could puzzle over it when I was there. That book altered my view of the building that D and I lived in. What I had initially found ugly now revealed itself as, if not beautiful, then at least endearing. “Where would we be if we hadn’t met?” D sometimes asks me. I suppose I would still be in Kathmandu. I have held on to an apartment in a family home there, going back at least twice a year to spend a few weeks or a month to write and catch up with family and friends. The apartment is sunny, with windows looking onto a garden dense with tropical plants: camellia and poinsettia flowers, guava trees and kumquat shrubs. The city beyond is overcrowded, and bursting out of its rickety infrastructure; but it contains many of the people I love most in the world. And Nepal—troubled, dysfunctional and full of friction—gets under my skin in the way that, by comparison, orderly Canada doesn’t. Also, it has mountains. I miss D when I’m there. But on clear days, I can see the tall blue hills that ring the Kathmandu valley, and if I’m lucky, a Himalayan peak or two. By comparison, Toronto is flat to the point of insipid. In Cities of the Interior, Anaïs Nin’s characters feel at home when a city matches their inner geography. Toronto’s geography does not match my inner geography. The flatness here makes me desperate, and drives me, some days, to fantasize about leaving: heading north to some small lakeside town, or striking west to the Rockies, or settling in close to the ocean out east, or even leaving Canada entirely and going back to Nepal. I crave sightlines, topographies, geographical markers: some drama. Our building is near the Cedarvale ravine, and I walk through it regularly, seeking reprieve in its few slopes. D and I also walk the Bruce Trail, and once, in the woods near Kolapore Uplands, summited Mount Dhaulagiri, a 459-meter hummock named after Nepal’s 8,167-meter Mount Dhaulagiri. For someone from Nepal, that does not even feel like a hill. But such are the decisions we make in life: the decision to exchange something valuable for another: in this case, love. Love is a rare enough thing. The longer D and I stayed together, the more precious our relationship felt. Life is, after all, fleeting. We can’t hold on to anything for too long: everything slips away soon enough. Over the years D and I lived large, scrapped, made up, got along like a house on fire, introspected, questioned, debated, comforted each other, and grew older. We learned to put up with each other’s most irritating habits, and remained strangers enough to enjoy some intrigue. Time did what time does. D’s children grew up, and a few years ago D became a grandfather. I lost my brother to a heart attack. My parents in Nepal aged and grew frailer. Through all this I felt enlivened by being with D, by touching him, feeling his breath, and taking in his intelligence and brightness and sparkle and wit. It felt like great good fortune to be able to revel in our relationship, and to revel more, and even more, to the end of our days. Yet no matter how fulfilling, a relationship does not extinguish the world. When anyone asked me why I was in Toronto, I’d say, “Love,” and then muse over the love I didn’t feel for the city after all these years of living here. “User-friendly” was how I described the city to family and friends abroad. When you have lived in Kathmandu, you do not take electricity or running water, or public transport, libraries, and parks, or clean, breathable air, for granted. I was grateful that Toronto was so "livable," but did not know how to further deepen my feelings for it. Then, walking down Davenport Road one day, I came across a memorial to what was described as an "ancient trail" along the shoreline of a lake that no longer exists: the Iriquois glacial lake from the last ice age, which used to span over all of today’s Great Lakes. The trail once connected the rivers marking Toronto’s boundaries: the Don in the east, and in the west, the Humber. This memorial struck me as rare. In my years here I’d noticed that Canada had a penchant for celebrating its brief colonial history and ignoring its much longer Indigenous, Métis and Inuit pasts. This marker moved me, it stayed with me. I asked others about it afterwards, and read more about it, and realized, with a pang, how acutely I missed living with a larger sense of history here. At more than 250 years, Nepal is the oldest extant nation in South Asia. It was founded on nations that predated it. Though Kathmandu is now overrun by outsiders, as happens in any capital city, the Indigenous Newar community, who bequeath the city its distinctive art, architecture, culture, and language, remains central, even existential to the city. Markers of even older civilizations abound. Not far from my family home is Andipringga, a town dating back to the first century B.C., the city’s oldest site of archaeological significance. It lies buried beneath Handigaun, a neighborhood of middle-class homes, some built traditionally, with brick and wood, and others renovated along modern lines, with iron and glass and concrete. Andipringga is not visible on the surface. But archaeologist Sudarshan Raj Tiwari, author of The Brick and the Bull: An Account of Handigaun, the Ancient Capital of Nepal, talks of how often artefacts are unearthed when families renovate their homes. Handigaun also has a stone marker with an inscription from the first century A.D., when the Licchavi ruled Kathmandu: they were the ones left behind records about Andipringga’s builders, the Kirat. In Kathmandu, I always got a measure of my brief lifetime to be surrounded by reminders of the nations that predated Nepal. This does not happen in Toronto. Canada is in its 150th year of confederation. Toronto is built on the traditional lands of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca and the Mississaugas of the Credit River nations. The latter two nations remain in the area—displaced to territories of another nation, the Six Nations of the Grand River, 100 kilometers away, in Brantford. The displacement of the Mississaugas of the Credit River remains deeply controversial, though newcomers can be forgiven for not realizing so. There is little indication that the First Nations are still around, much less that they are regenerating from centuries of exploitation by a far more powerful settler-colonial state. Toronto’s name is itself a Mohawk word that means ‘where the trees stand in the water.’ Years passed before I learned this. In those years I read up on CanLit, as Canadian literature is called, gravitating towards Indigenous authors, whose work most moved and educated me. I fell in love with Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach, a spiky contemporary story that invokes Haisla myths from the Pacific coast. Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse imbued me the romance of hockey, a game I’d never much cared for, and showed me the losses of residential schooling. Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie showed me how healing can take place after individual and collective violence. Waubgeshig Rice’s Legacy gave me an in into areas I’d traveled to blindly in the summertime, near Parry Sound, north of Toronto. It made the entire area, and Toronto’s hold over it, come to life in my mind. One day, D told me about a Toronto-based project by Hayden King and Susan Blight, to give Ojibwe names to the city’s streets: Spadina Road, nearby us, became Ishpadinaa, or "a place on a hill," in the street signs that these Indigenous activists erected in 2015. I went to see the street sign and followed the project as Davenport Road became "at the old portage," or Gete-Onigaming. College Street, near the University of Toronto, became Gikinoo‘amaagegaming, or "place of learning." Both D and I wished the city would make those street names permanent. “Why couldn’t they?” we asked each other. “Yes, why?” This larger sense of history was helpful, and orienting, and humbling. It taught me how we—all of us—were positioned here; and I saw my own complicated placement as an immigrant in a settler-colonial state. A fourth-generation Canadian, D was as much of an outsider to Indigenous Toronto as I. Once we came to frame Toronto, in our minds, as a city of Indigenous, settler-colonial, and immigrant communities, we both wanted to be "allies" to the Indigenous communities, but did not know how to do so, beyond educating ourselves and staying open. Meanwhile, our landlord suddenly decided to move, with his family, to Israel. He sold our building and disappeared from our lives this spring. By summertime, our new landlord, a developer, had posted notices about the permits he had applied for to replace our building with six million-dollar townhouses. We began scouting, half-heartedly, for another apartment. “Should we buy?” I would ask D from time to time, and we’d slip into that most Torontonian of conversations, about buying or renting or moving away entirely. Our new landlord was uncommunicative to the point of hostility. We couldn’t find out how much longer we had to stay on in our—his—building. So I went to City Hall on the day he was scheduled to apply for permission to carve up the building’s lot into six. My downstairs neighbor also showed up. Late in the afternoon, we sat through a dozen other applications—most of them swiftly approved—before city officials asked if anyone needed a deferral. Two applicants asked for three-month deferrals; then a lawyer representing our landlord asked for one too—not for three, but six months. City Hall’s planners, our local representative, and our neighbors had all asked for consultations, she said. “Even after all that, it’ll take more time,” she huffed, before breaking off. Upon obtaining the referral, she stomped off. My neighbor and I followed, consulting among ourselves, and confirming that we had at least a year, possibly more, left in our building. There was time enough to plan our next move. I was relieved, strolling away from City Hall. Offices were letting out. The streets were crowded. I made my way to the commercial heart of the city, Dundas Square, where D and I had arranged to meet. There was a market going on there: booths were set up, and I could hear music coming from a stage on one side of the square. D sent a message: he was running late. I wandered through the booths, which were selling jewelry, beadwork, t-shirts, moccasins, all around Indigenous themes. A sign announced that this it was Indigenous History Month. The Native Canadian Centre of Toronto had a booth to provide information about their programs, including Cree language classes and drumming socials. At another booth, I overheard a woman saying that that she was from the Six Nations of the Grand River. At another booth, I saw a baseball cap with an intricately beaded emblem of the Toronto Blue Jays. A 20-something woman was manning the booth. “Where are these beaded caps from?” I asked, assuming that her booth, too, was affiliated with a particular nation. My question puzzled her. “It’s—it’s just something I made,” she said. “Oh,” I said, wondering where she was from—meaning, which nation. Then I realized she was from here. She was just—from here. I wandered around some more, then ran into an acquaintance from Nepal, and we chatted awhile. D texted, saying he was on the way. We were going for a drink to the bar in which he’d wasted his youth—the Imperial, almost certainly among the least renovated bars of the past 50 years. It was one of those places that had stopped me when I was new to Toronto, a place that had prompted me to speculate: why so drab? I now found that drabness endearing. Perhaps that is what love does to us, I mused, waiting for D. It imbues what is foreign with personal significance. It makes our affections radiate outwards. It softens us. I ended up near the stage, tapping my feet as the singers sang to the tune of the fiddle. Dundas Square was beautiful that evening. I was glad to have come across this celebration of Indigenous History Month. Toronto’s deeper history almost made up for the things the city lacked—hills, for example. This city would never reflect my inner geography. But being able to see the troubled friction underlying it made me not quite love the city, but relate to it, understand it, and even, as I did that evening, feel quite tenderly towards it. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Sea and the Mirror: Reflections and Refractions from a Voyage by Ship in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table
“It’s like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, circling...at those familiar moments of emotion,” writes Anna, the literary historian who narrates Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje’s last novel. “We live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.” The kaleidoscope as a metaphor for the concinnity of memories, the process by which an adult narrator frames and makes sense of her past is, I venture, the cornerstone of Ondaatje’s fiction. Coming Through Slaughter married biographical and sonic details from jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden’s career and tales of louche Storyville portraitist E.J. Bellocq’s mutilated photographs of prostitutes with fictionalized accounts of internecine love affairs that drove Bolden’s character to paranoia and death. In the Skin of a Lion and its sequel, the Booker Prize-winning The English Patient, introduced readers to the chthonic world of Caravaggio, a morphine addict and thief notorious for art heists, and his friend’s daughter, Hana, a Canadian Army nurse and caretaker for a burn victim whose scars and stories, recounted while he recovers in an Italian villa in the wake of the Second World War, belie his identity and his past as a Hungarian desert explorer. Ondaatje’s distinctive signature — the use of metanarrative; the graceful integration of historical filaments and intertexts; the quiescence, compassion, and ardor resonating from within luminous yet temperate prose — has won him a broad international readership, as well as doyen status on prize shortlists. In tenor, his new novel, The Cat’s Table, evinces a similar elegance. Its masterful rendering of time and memory, too, echo the part-fictional memoir, Running in the Family, and the novel Anil’s Ghost, in which a forensic anthropologist returns to her native Sri Lanka for the first time since adolescence to investigate crimes perpetrated by pro- and anti-government factions alike. The life experiences of Michael, or Mynah, the narrator, dovetail with the author’s. Both were born in Ceylon (presently known as Sri Lanka), raised in England, and are now naturalized Canadian citizens and novelists. Mynah deftly weaves the novel from a series of vignettes, character sketches, and episodic journal entries drawn both from his voyage, at the age of eleven, from Colombo to England on the ship Oronsay in the early 1950s, and from present anecdotes and reflections. This is no mean feat with a cast of characters ranging from Mynah’s equally lowly neighbors at the Cat’s Table, to the middling passengers, to the blue-blooded characters aboard Emperor Class, noble enough to be seated at the Captain’s Table. We meet Emily de Saram, his beloved, enigmatic seventeen-year-old cousin, en route to England to finish secondary school; Mr. Daniels, an admirer of Emily’s, who cultivates a secret garden aboard the ship; Mr. Mazappa, the ship’s pianist, who impresses Mynah with his knowledge of musicology and jazz history, his “ongoing mythology,” and, in memory, the recognition that “the future would never be as dramatic and joyous and deceitful as the way he had sketched it”; Mr. Fonseka, an English teacher who gently ministers to Mynah’s loneliness and intellectual curiosity; Niemeyer, a manacled prisoner whose crimes the passengers try to surmise; and his deaf daughter, Asuntha, a former acrobat of whom Emily grows increasingly fond and protective. Mynah’s two closest friends are Ramadhin, a sensitive but effete boy who takes precautions for his weak heart, and Cassius, a guarded rogue who renounces his past and masterminds the boys’ antics, including tying themselves to the ship with rope so that they can experience a storm from outdoors, and sneaking into the ship’s hold. While the autobiographical contours enrich the novel’s sense of realism, its most beautifully wrought element is the integration of time present with time past — Mynah’s arrangement of shards of kaleidoscopic memory, of the atavistic with the prophetic, the hazy with the crystalline, the childlike with the adult. Mr. Fonseka and Emily are its most vivid embodiments. Visiting the former one night, Mynah observes: It was the anonymity of the stories and poems that went deepest into me. And the curl of a rhyme was something new. I had not thought to believe he was actually quoting something written with care, in some far country, centuries earlier...He had a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live...I am aware of the pathos and the irony that come with such a portrait...I did realize that people like Mr. Fonseka came before us like innocent knights in a more dangerous time, and on the very same path we ourselves were taking now. This evocative sketch nicely refracts what Mynah learns of human character both on the voyage, and, broadly, in his adult life. The precise histories, traumas, experiences, and dreams of his fellow passengers are ever discernible, yet partially opaque, anonymous, accessible only through subtleties of physiognomy and gesture, which Mynah sagely intuits and weds to his own sense of foreboding. When, in a later chapter, he reflects on the fate of a ship being destroyed in a breaker’s yard, there are echoes of his depiction of Fonseka, and of the other characters whose lives he discerns through impressionistic, deductive understanding: “in a breaker’s yard you discover that anything can have a new life, be reborn as part of a car or railway carriage, or a shovel blade. You take that older life and you link it to a stranger.” This form of linking, the reshaping of metal, or the mapping of observations onto lives, is one way to understand the valences of Emily’s character, too. Mynah’s only kin, she offers him security, enfolding him in her embrace and letting him fall asleep in her bed when an inexplicable grief seizes him. Yet darker sensibilities inflect even this fey moment: Emily’s allure, Mynah’s nascent attraction to her, the palpability of secrecy and danger as she becomes part of the underbelly of maritime life, engaging in criminal activity to protect Asuntha, and channeling her own yearnings into romantic involvement with a disreputable performer. “Who or what caused this darkness in her? At [...] times she had an unreachable face. But when she returned to you, it was a gift,” Mynah lovingly recalls. She is a quintessentially Ondaatjean character, an Anil or a Hana, whose nature and grace one can only understand by suturing details. Like Salman Rushdie’s narrator in Midnight’s Children, Mynah is “a swallower of lives,” navigating both the intimacy of and the demarcations between passengers, the ship the apposite vessel on which to experience the picaresque joys of childhood, the vertiginous beginnings of adolescence, and the furtive discoveries of the nuances of adult behavior. Seeing his reflection in a mirror early on in the novel, he recognizes only “someone startled, half-formed, who had not become anyone or anything yet,” but stochastic glimpses and profound emotions heighten his sensitivity to human frailty and strength, to the “story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.” So beautiful a novel, drawing these phases of life into a web of prose calibrated and lyrical, phlegmatic and passionate, could only flow from the hand of Michael Ondaatje.
Context is everything: Lit City in Toronto
Millions readers in the Toronto area should check out the Lit City exhibit at the Market Gallery (second floor of the St. Lawrence Market, on now through the spring, free).As part of the ongoing festivities marking Toronto's 175th birthday, the Market Gallery, occupying a room that served as council chambers in the mid-late 1800s, marries the visual with the literary. The gallery divides up Toronto neighborhood by neighborhood, presenting paintings and other visual expressions of each particular neighborhood, and pairing the art with excerpts from literary texts.So, there's a painting of the Viaduct on Bloor Street, paired with an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, which explored the world of the immigrant worker who broke his back building the viaduct in the early part of last century. A painting of Chinatown sits next to an excerpt from a Cory Doctorow story about the neighborhood. Margaret Atwood, Paul Quarrington and Dennis Lee are among the novelists and poets whose works are excerpted and placed in a neighborhood context.It's fascinating to see literary works take on an alternate existence. Stripped of storyline, stripped of principal characters and themes, the short excerpts here serve a different purpose, a new context. Like the paintings they're paired with, they provide eloquent commentary on the specific neighborhood.Overhearing my fellow gallery-goers, I discovered that none were extolling the quite evident artistic virtues of the paintings or texts. Instead, they were discussing the depicted neighborhoods themselves, inspired by the excerpts to draw on their own memories, creating there, on the spot, their own sense of community.
Canada Reads and Rocks and Rolls
Canada's national airwaves took on a decidedly literary tone last week with the latest installment of Canada Reads. This annual, week-long competition began in 2002 when five celebrity readers went to bat for the Canadian book of their choice. The panel would convince and cajole each other and at the end of each day, they would vote one of the contenders off the literary island. At the end of the week, one book survives.The 2007 winner is Lullabies For Little Criminals, by Heather O'Neill, and championed by Winnipeg songwriter and poet John K. Samson.In O'Neill's novel, the 12-year-old narrator, neglected by her junkie father, "collects and covets the small crumbs of happiness she finds as she navigates the streets of Montreal's red-light district."Lullabies beat out Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis, (championed by Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page), The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani, (pitched by writer Donna Morrissey), Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy (defended by journalist Denise Bombardier), and Timothy Taylor's Stanley Park (whose praises were sung by Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy).This year's contest was an all-star competition, as each of the panelists had successfully championed the previous five winners:Page's pick in 2002, Michael Ondaatje's wonderful In The Skin of The Lion, set in the immigrant communities of Toronto between the two world wars, won that year's contest.In 2003, Bombardier's pick Next Episode by Hubert Aquin, was victorious. Cuddy outsung the competition in 2004, giving victory to Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing. In 2005, the crown went to Rockbound by Frank Parker Day, and pitched by Donna Morrissey. And John Samson's first taste of victory came last year with his winning defense of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.Note that these books (and their contenders) include novels, short fiction and poetry, and are as likely to be drawn from Canada's rich literary tradition as from the latest offerings from publishers. I might quibble with some of the choices (that Leonard Cohen's second novel Beautiful Losers lost in 2005 still irks me, and I sided with Scott Thompson in his pitch for Mordecai Richler's Cocksure in 2006). Still, sour grapes aside, it's tremendously healthy for a country to be occasionally reminded of its often-overlooked literary past.Those of you who have read my bio or my Millions contributions over the years know that I don't shy away from slipping a mention of my favorite songwriters and musicians - past and present - wherever I can possibly fit them in. So with that in mind, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that this year's and last year's championing defender, John K. Samson is himself, one hell of a songwriter, and three albums by his band, The Weakerthans, sit proudly in my record collection. Samson is also a founding publisher of Arbeiter Ring Publishing, specializing in social and political works.