Our Hero Disbelieving

Our Hero Disbelieving

Friday, July 17, 2015

Writing a book is tough work . . . but someone has to do it?

Here we see the Ocean Endeavour. Come September 5, we'll board that vessel in Kugluktuk (Coppermine) and sail east through the Northwest Passage . . . all the way to Greenland, there to climb into a zodiac and wend among the most spectacular icebergs in the northern hemisphere. As the Adventure Canada historian on board, I'll give talks and presentations while we sail. Gotta love that!
Before we head out on that voyage, we'll spend two weeks in Halifax at University of King's College, where I'll do some teaching in Canada's first MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. Ready, aye, ready to entertain a new cohort of writers.
On September 22, Celtic Lightning hits the bookstores. Subtitle: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation. Spreading the word will involve a series of events that looks something like this: -- Sept. 27, Toronto: Word on the Street. -- Oct. 1, Toronto launch: Ben McNally Books (bagpipes + kilt). -- Oct. 3, Westport, ON., Writers Reading; -- Oct. 6, Calgary: Owl's Nest bookstore. -- Oct. 8, Winnipeg: McNally Robinson. -- Oct. 23, Fort Erie, Ontario: Ridgeway Reading Series. -- Nov. 12, Toronto: Eh List, Toronto Reference Library. -- Nov. 15, Montreal: Paragraphe Bookstore -- Nov. 18, Halifax: Central Library. -- Dec. 1, Hamilton: Different Drummer Books. If you've read this far, can I hope to see you at one of these events?

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Franklin-search tempest: adding pieces to the jigsaw

A few social media threads are following the Franklin-search tempest whirling around Paul Watson, Jim Balsillie, John Geiger, and The Lost Franklin Ships. This documentary, full disclosure, includes riveting footage of yours truly talking history (see left). Since the story broke, one researcher (Wolfgang Opel) turned up the Jim Balsillie letter that Watson quoted to Canadaland. Here's a link:  http://aptn.ca/.../4/2015/07/Arctic-Research-Foundation.pdf

John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (F.D.: yes, I am a Fellow), has stated that the RCGS had no editorial control over the documentary.
"We saw it for the first time when it aired on CBC," Geiger told the Canadian Press, "just like the rest of the viewing public."I believe any concerns or comments are best directed to the filmmakers." 

Those film-makers, Andrew E.M. Gregg and Gordon Henderson, stand behind their documentary. In a Facebook post, catching up, Gregg wrote that he knew some some partners in the Erebus search were upset because "they didn't get as much attention as some others did. We've already addressed the stuff Watson trudges up in the Canadaland interview and much of it is not accurate. If you think back to our film our main characters were the two principal underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada. No one else. To claim otherwise is nonsense. . . . To be honest I'm not exactly sure what the story is here -- the PMO reportedly tried to meddle in how the Erebus discovery was rolled out to the press? Should that shock anybody? I'll be interested to find out more over the next few days but we stand by our doc and challenge anybody to poke holes in how we told the story."

And in that same thread, Gordon Henderson wrote: "Our film focused on Marc Andre Bernier and Ryan Harris from Parks Canada. They were the stars. They drove the narrative. Not John Geiger. Not anyone else. The film was about the search and the story. What happened to Franklin and his men. The accuracy of the Inuit testimony. Watch the film -- it's on The Nature of Things website -- and judge for yourself."

In a parallel universe, exploration expert Randall Osczevski noted that Balsillie's letter "refers to studies of ice flow as key information. This was not mentioned in the video, or since." He recalled posting a link and noted:  "At the time, my response and that of others was that we had never heard of this man . . . or his contribution." He and all the rest of us went about our business. But now he wonders.

So, here is the article, which tells us that Tom Zagon, an ice climatologist with expertise in remote sensing, made an important contribution to locating the Erebus by analyzing satellite images. Zagon works for Environment Canada, and as we all know (Old News alert), the Harper regime has muzzled government scientists. To me, it looks like Zagon deserves more kudos than he has received. So that would be one puzzle piece. But is that all there is?

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

This Franklin-search "scandal" looks like sour grapes and grandstanding

Several people have nudged me to comment on this latest Franklin-search “scandal.” Journalist Paul Watson resigning in a huff? Complaining that the Toronto Star has been suppressing a story of great public interest. I get the Star delivered to my doorstep every day, and I have to admit that the response of publisher John Cruickshank resonates with me: “Let me publicly deny this extremely odd idea. . . . Suppressing stories of public interest is something the Star has never done and will never do.”
You have to admit that Watson is positioning himself brilliantly. Champion of the little guy. Voice of the voiceless. But I’ve perused and parsed the long interview published in Canadaland and have to admit that I am still scratching my head. Apparently Jim Balsillie is quite upset. A Russian-flagged vessel was highlighted in the documentary when the CCGS Laurier led the search and carried the crew? A robotic sub was “presented as a key technical help” instead of “the Gannet and the Kinglet launched from the CCGS Laurier.”
Somebody is getting a medal when some other deserving soul is not? Wow, that’s the first time that has ever happened. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m having trouble finding the great public interest in all this . . . much less evidence of witchhunt-worthy wrong-doing. Apparently, that’s what the Star editors told Paul Watson. And he didn’t want to hear it. What I see here is sour grapes and grand-standing . . . and maybe a touch of hubris.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

When will Franklin searchers discover that dead body on Erebus?

The next step in searching the Erebus, according to Parks Canada's chief underwater archaeologist, is  "to start exploring the inside in more depth, because that is where 97% of the artifacts are, where all the information that is going to tell us what happened is going to be.” Quoted in the digital magazine Tabaret, based at the University of Ottawa, Marc-André Bernier drew attention to interviews collected in 1879 by American searcher Frederick Schwatka (pictured right).  One of the Inuit Schwatka interviewed, Puhtoorak, "had been on the wreck. He recalled seeing the deserted ship ‘in complete order … seeing many spoons, knives, forks, tin plates and china plates.’ The plates that we recovered would have been close to where sailors had their mess tables, really close to the stove … It kind of corresponds to, ‘things were left in order.’ The fact that these things were found together with the medicine bottle," Bernier said, "in that little niche in that part of the deck, we can already link it to the Inuit accounts and testimony.” What Bernier does not mention is that, according to Schwatka, who conducted interviews with the help of (Joe) Ebierbing, Puhtoorak also came upon a white man dead in a bunk: "The body was in a bunk inside the ship in the back part." Other accounts put the dead body on the floor. We can only wait and wonder.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Rachel Dolezal inspires renewed call for a book-world revolution

Some of my writer-friends are (rightly) irritated that Rachel Dolezal "admitted" to indulging in "creative nonfiction." She lied, damn it. Writers of creative nonfiction tell the truth. But Dolezal's "admission" reminds me of why, a few years back, writing in the Globe and Mail, Our Hero called for a book-world revolution.
C'mon, surely you remember that? Going forward, I wrote, requires a slow-motion, two-step action plan. First step: we divide fact-based literature into two broad categories -- narrative nonfiction and polemical nonfiction. The first includes biography, memoir, travel, popular history, true crime, you get the idea; the second comprises thesis-driven works, artful jeremiads – political, scientific, philosophical.  Along these lines, we reorganize our world.
Second step: we abandon "nonfiction." Yes, I take a hard line. We cease to define countless literary works by what they are not, and in relation to some other genre. As a corollary, we recognize that, as a concept, "creative nonfiction" has taken us as far as it can. We let it go. End result: we will be left with two fact-based literary genres, Narrative and Polemic, both on par with Fiction. So: biographical narrative, historical narrative, true-crime narrative . . . .
Alas, this well-conceived insurgency attracted few followers. But you never know. If we get a few more Rachel Dolezals "admitting" to creative nonfiction, we may yet change the narrative. We may yet see literary types embracing the book-world revolution.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

150 Canadian authors illuminate a triple-whammy extravaganza

OK, this one has me clasping my head. We're looking at a multi-media project two years in the making. It's going to showcase photo-portraits of  150 Canadian authors. Yup: 150 from across the country! The photographer, Mark Raynes Roberts, traveled 20,000 km to take 22,500 photos . . . and the story hasn't hit the mainstream media? Picture me clasping AND reeling around the room. Roberts is renowned for his intricate, hand-engraved crystal art . . . and a dozen
pieces will turn up at one of the three Toronto venues slated to showcase Illumination, as the show is called. Those crystal masterpieces will form part of the exhibit at the Gardiner Museum (Oct. 26 to Nov 11).  More author portraits turn up at the Toronto Reference Library (Oct. 11-Nov 1) and the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront (Oct. 22 to Nov. 1). But look around: here we have Sarah Sheard (on horse), Miranda Hill (thinking), Dave Bidini (hat and piano), Jonathan Kay (on stairs), Ray Robertson (hat and stare) and Michelle Berry looking Scandinavian for good luck . . . AND there are 144 more where these come from (143 if we count that one in the lower left). Find out more from the man himself: info@markraynesroberts.com. Honestly, I think we should spread the word.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Portrait of Evan Solomon as a thirty-one-year-old novelist

(Big shout-out to Linda Richards at January Magazine. She went into her files and turned up an interview she did back in the day with Evan Solomon. Made me think, gee, in 1999, I spun a yarn myself when I was working as a literary journalist and Solomon published a novel called Crossing the Distance. Does it shed any light?. Voila, thanks to the wonders of the digital universe, you can judge for yourself.)

Evan Solmon heard two conflicting voices in his head. He was travelling by bus, a 26-hour journey, between Katmandu and Darjeeling. The year was 1992. Solomon was 24 years old and he'd recently done some volunteering at Mother Theresa's mission in Calcutta: "Grunt work. Anybody could do it."
There, Solomon met people, he said this week [May 15], "who'd dedicated their whole lives to helping others. I knew I'd never be able to spend my life that way. But the experience kicked off an internal debate."
Hence, the two voices -- that of an overzealous relief worker and a too-detached observer. In Solomon's impressive first novel, Crossing the Distance, the two have become flesh-and-blood adversaries -- and brothers. The one has gone beyond self-righteousness into bloody-minded activism; the other beyond detachment into callousness.
As a radical environmentalist, the first brother, Theo, causes the death of a logger in B.C. The second brother, Jake Jacobson, is reminiscent of Jerry Springer -- a TV personality who hosts a sensationalistic talk show called The Jake Connections. He's also the novel's main narrator. And as the story begins, he discovers his girl friend, a celebrity author, shot in the head and bleeding to death.
Jake provides Solomon with an entry into the world of network television, and the author makes the most of it. He paints a broad- strokes portrait of shameless, shallow and exploitive media types ready to abandon any principle, exploit any tragedy or betray any relationship if such action will move them up the careerist grease pole.
Solomon lays on it on a bit thick -- oh, these people are despicable -- yet includes enough authentic detail that the characters and melodramatic narrative become almost believable. But, hey, this is satire, after all: the characters are meant to be overblown. The Toronto-based Solomon, who co-founded and edited Shift magazine, comes by his vision honestly. He has worked for almost five years as a CBC-TV NewsWorld host -- first of Future World, lately of Hot Type.
And before that? Born and raised in Toronto, Solomon attended McGill University in Montreal, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English and religious studies, and a master's in religious studies, focusing on myth and ritual. He also wrote short stories, acted and had three plays produced. After graduation, Solomon and a friend co-founded Shift -- " we wanted to be part of the storytelling culture" -- originally as a quarterly.
Solomon then went travelling for a year, mostly in Asia, though he continued to serve as a long-distance editor. Back in Toronto, he turned Shift into a monthly, landed his first TV job and turned his attention to articulating and dramatizing the internal debate that had begun in India.
Solomon doesn't see his take on TV as being entirely dark, and he refuses to apologize for writing serious fiction while working in television. "We live in a culture that doesn't support writers," he said over lunch. "Writers have to make a living somehow."
Not incidentally, the TV milieu in which he earns his daily bread also provided relatively fresh material for this ambitious novel -- the fast-paced, urban lives of nasty people on the make.
Solomon sees Crossing The Distance as "a redemption story -- not like in Hollywood, but redemption the way a river runs, meandering like a choked-up creek. There's no Niagara Falls at the end of it." What Solomon is driving at, without giving away the plot, is that Jake moves from being the quintessential witness, and nothing else, to becoming "the author of his own life."
And, surprise, the narrator has already announced this theme on the first page of the novel: "Betrayal isn't something you choose, it's something that chooses you. I know that more than ever now, especially when I think about the events that came together to destroy the people I love. Of course, my memory of things is different from that of the police or the newspaper reporters or the producers making a movie of the week; that's no surprise. We're all spinning out versions of the truth until the facts disappear and everything becomes a matter of belief."
There's authority in that opening. And, in everything that follows, a seriousness of purpose, as well as an obvious willingness and ability to wrestle with large themes. Solomon hasn't written a great novel here. But he's 31 years old. And he's announced his arrival with panache. This is no one-book author. Solomon's here to make a mark.
- Crossing the Distance, by Evan Solomon (M&S, 373 pages, $30).