Recommended reading and listening – Spring-Summer 2012

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What We Talk About When We Talk About War

by Noah Richler, BA’83

National myths are curious things, muses Noah Richler, vulnerable to manipulation. Are the sacrifices made by Canadian troops during the First World War a symbol of Canuck toughness or a cautionary tale about the madness of war? For Richler, the fact that the first interpretation is actively championed by an influential coalition of government officials and opinion makers, while the second is largely ignored, is deeply distressing.

In Richler’s view, the Harper government, having inherited the commitment of Canadian forces to the war in Afghanistan made by their Liberal predecessors, seized the opportunity to target Canada’s image of itself as a peacekeeping nation. In this, they were abetted by an “eager, irrepressible” group of academics and journalists, who declared that respect on the international stage would only come to Canada once it embraced a warrior’s role.

The result, says Richler, is that Canada has succumbed to a view of war as “a noble opportunity rather than a deplorable show of human and societal failure.” When the late NDP leader Jack Layton called for a “comprehensive peace process” in Afghanistan with all combatants at the table, he was branded “Taliban Jack.” We now face the prospect of leaving the country to the mercies of a still potent Taliban, unencumbered by any agreements.

Richler’s passionate polemic offers much to think about, including how we can prepare to deal with future conflicts.

William Greer

*****

Everybody Has Everything

by Katrina Onstad, BA’94

A deadly car crash. A mother in a coma. A childless couple unexpectedly thrust into parenthood. The plot for Katrina Onstad’s new book might sound like a weepy TV movie of the week, but the novel is far more sober-minded and subtle than that.

Onstad’s real interest here is in exploring a marriage under pressure and how a relationship that seems solid at first glance might actually be pockmarked with papered-over fissures. The couple in question — aging hipster James and neat freak Ana — has been struggling to have a child of their own, so the arrival of two-and-a-half-year-old Finn into their lives might be expected to be the answer to their prayers. It doesn’t quite work out that way.

While Onstad sifts through the tensions that threaten to tear the couple apart, she also reveals the reasons why James and Ana were drawn together in the first place. At one point, Ana contemplates how some of James’s less admirable qualities have grown only more annoying over time, but she’s also caught off-guard by the depth of her feelings for him. “She felt something shift inside of her, as if, to make room for all this love, she would
have to rearrange her insides.”

As Everybody Has Everything deftly makes clear, marriage can be a complex mix of push and pull.

Daniel McCabe, BA’89

*****

Halbman Steals Home

by B. Glen Rotchin, BA’86

Part whodunit, part Richleresque Montreal Judaica, part meditation on the limits of nostalgia, B. Glen Rotchin’s Halbman Steals Home straddles genres in a manner that’s sometimes frustrating, but which ultimately satisfies thanks to a pleasing set of twists at the end.

Mort Halbman, the hero of the novel, is a man defined by the past. In Halbman’s Montreal, sold-out crowds at Olympic Stadium cheer on the boys of summer, neighbours know each other by name, families remain close, and friendly corruption rules the garment industry. The 21st-century city — impersonal, diverse, riven by divorce, and, worst of all, cruelly deprived of baseball — serves mostly as fodder for Halbman’s weekly kvetch sessions with his old buddies at the Snowdon Deli.

Unfortunately for Halbman, the present makes an unwelcome appearance in the form of a police officer investigating the suspicious fire that destroyed his former family home. Without giving away the surprise conclusion, suffice it to say that Halbman’s relationship to the past — his own and that of the city he lives in — is somewhat more nuanced than it first appears. Sometimes home is not what we think it is, Rotchin tells us, and memory can become a way
forward rather than an anchor to the past. These themes will resonate even for those who have never set foot in Montreal.

Dianne Fagan, MA’97

*****

Stalin’s Man in Canada: Fred Rose and Soviet Espionage

by David Levy, BA’60

Fred Rose, born Fishel Rosenberg, arrived in Canada after leaving Lublin, then under Russian occupation, in 1920. Thanks to a parochial-school education, he was already fluent in French. In the decades that followed, he gravitated toward the Communist Party of Canada—which would later rechristen itself the Labor-Progressive Party—and in 1943 he won a seat in the House of Commons for Montreal’s Cartier riding. Three years later, he was convicted of spying on behalf of communist, Joseph Stalin-controlled Russia.

Stalin’s Man in Canada: Fred Rose and Soviet Espionage explores this unique episode in Canadian history, tracing Rose’s rise from a largely Jewish and working-class Montreal neighbourhood to his imprisonment and, ultimately, his death as a stateless resident of Poland who longed to return to Canada.

What emerges is a complex, though sympathetic, portrait of a figure who, through shrewd campaigning, galvanized French-Canadian and Jewish voters, and whose political career sank when documents chronicling a vast Russian spy operation in which he played a part surfaced.

Levy’s exhaustive research offers a compelling glimpse of a man who remains our country’s only Member of Parliament to be found guilty of espionage.

Lucas Wisenthal, BA’03

*****

Opus Jazz

by Julie Lamontagne, BMus’98

Julie Lamontagne has established herself as one of Quebec’s top jazz pianists and musical directors — her last album won an Opus Prize (Quebec’s most prominent award for classical and jazz music), she trained with five-time Grammy nominee Fred Hersch, and she regularly collaborates with some of the province’s best-known musicians, including Isabelle Boulay and Bruno Pelletier.

It turns out, though, that Lamontagne’s first love was classical music (as a 13-year-old, she earned first prize at a national competition for young classical musicians). On her latest CD, Opus Jazz, Lamontagne blends her musical passions, offering up understated, jazz-flavoured arrangements of familiar works by Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Bach, Chopin and others. Thanks to her confident performing, the end result is a deeply satisfying synthesis.

Daniel McCabe, BA’89

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