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Sunday, July 31, 2016

"Love with a Chance of Drowning" by Torre DeRoche




As the “Amazing Grace” sets sail for a voyage to the South Seas, Torre DeRoche looks down and contemplates one of her toenails. It bears a remnant fleck of nail polish, a last shred of her former life as a two-feet-firmly-on-terra-firma graphic artist from Australia about to embark upon a life at sea. Until this point, DeRoche’s greatest adventure has been to leave her big, boisterous family in Australia for what was meant to be a three hour tour—whoops-year—in San Francisco.

But when Torre meets Ivan, an Argentinean IT project manager with an unwavering dream of sailing the South Pacific, her best laid plans go through the proverbial porthole. Soon enough, DeRoche takes the plunge, with anxiety, humour and a darn-good putty-knife.

Some days are better than others en route to French Polynesia. Postcard sunsets and unspoiled tropical islands are interspersed by knocking about in squalls, seasickness so severe it has Torre bunk-ridden for days or bailing a bilge that fills faster than it drains. And while Ivan is not exactly Gilligan, he’s about as accident-prone as they come. No sooner has Torre patched him up from one mishap than he’s gone on to the next one and coco-bonked himself all over again.

Love With a Chance of Drowning acts out many a marine metaphor for relationships as Torre and Ivan take theirs all the way from smooth sailing to choppy waters right up to on the rocks. Where they is land, stronger, wiser, and, at least in Torre’s case, confident that a person can be fearful, funny and adventurous all in one.



Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy" by Judd Apatow


“Look, only a few people get to die peacefully in their sleep after a wonderful life. So that’s like not making the football team. There’s lots of things you don’t get to have.
That’s probably one of them.
Thank God, I consider myself lucky that I live after anesthetic.
Can you imagine those days? ‘Sit down. Tuesday, we’re taking off your arm.’”
--Albert Brooks in Judd Apatow's Sick in the Head

Let’s be smart about this. You could spend the next year reading through the bestseller list on anger management, business, collaboration, creativity, living for the moment, marriage, mentorship, parenting, perseverance, rejection, self-help and the spiritual feeling that comes from writing. Or, you could find all that and more in Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy. First released in 2015, this collection of conversations had its origins in the early 80s, when 15-year-old Apatow, a self-described “comedy geek”,  was interviewing up-and-coming comedians for his high school radio station.

Sick features over 30 thoughtful conversations with some of America’s funniest people. Some of them had perilous career beginnings: Jay Leno recalls doing a set in a strip club in the early 70s, when a guy jumped him brandishing a Heinz ketchup bottle. “Split my head open. I got eight stitches on that one.” Comic magician and Night Court judge Harry Anderson ran a shell game on the street in New Orleans for about three years—until he got his jaw broken by an irate player.

Several revealed their what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-funnier-childhoods. Anderson’s mother was a prostitute (“We traveled. We never stayed anywhere much”). Roseanne Barr’s parents and grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Barr was raised in an apartment building with other tenants who had survived concentration camps. (“I mean, who’s going to live through the Holocaust and not be f——d up?… “I kind of remade the world so it made sense.”)

Louis C.K. credits Chris Rock for being the voice inside his head that would get him over his stage fright. “…when I did Lucky Louie I was really scared…I called him and said, ‘I have a feeling this might go badly,’ and he said, ‘You’re damn right it might. It’s very likely to go badly and all those people are working hard and you better f—ing step up. You better do something to not let that happen.’ And I was like, ‘S— that’s right.’”

Tough crowds, comedy doldrums and just plain fear of failure are all too common. For Jon Stewart, it helps to think like a baseball player. “If I’m not hitting, at the very least I’m going to run out every ground ball as hard as I can. Or I’m going to do the best I can in the field. I’m going to try to make up for my lack of creativity until, hopefully, I hustle my way out of that slump.”

If they stay in the game, it must be because the home runs are worth the slumps. Albert Brooks puts it this way when Apatow asks him if he gets a spiritual feeling when he’s creative. “I used to hate it when people say, ‘I feel it come through me,’ but there are moments when two hours go by and you don’t know what happened, and you got all these words, and it’s the highlight of my life.”

"Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy" by Judd Apatow


“Look, only a few people get to die peacefully in their sleep after a wonderful life. So that’s like not making the football team. There’s lots of things you don’t get to have.
That’s probably one of them. Thank God, I consider myself lucky that I live after anesthetic.
Can you imagine those days? ‘Sit down. Tuesday, we’re taking off your arm.’”
--Albert Brooks in Judd Apatow's Sick in the Head

Let’s be smart about this. You could spend the next year reading through the bestseller list on anger management, business, collaboration, creativity, living for the moment, marriage, mentorship, parenting, perseverance, rejection, self-help and the spiritual feeling that comes from writing. Or, you could find all that and more in Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy. First released in 2015, this collection of conversations had its origins in the early 80s, when 15-year-old Apatow, a self-described “comedy geek”,  was interviewing up-and-coming comedians for his high school radio station.

Sick features over 30 thoughtful conversations with some of America’s funniest people. Some of them had perilous career beginnings: Jay Leno recalls doing a set in a strip club in the early 70s, when a guy jumped him brandishing a Heinz ketchup bottle. “Split my head open. I got eight stitches on that one.” Comic magician and Night Court judge Harry Anderson ran a shell game on the street in New Orleans for about three years—until he got his jaw broken by an irate player.

Several revealed their what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-funnier-childhoods. Anderson’s mother was a prostitute (“We traveled. We never stayed anywhere much”). Roseanne Barr’s parents and grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Barr was raised in an apartment building with other tenants who had survived concentration camps. (“I mean, who’s going to live through the Holocaust and not be f——d up?… “I kind of remade the world so it made sense.”)

Louis C.K. credits Chris Rock for being the voice inside his head that would get him over his stage fright. “…when I did Lucky Louie I was really scared…I called him and said, ‘I have a feeling this might go badly,’ and he said, ‘You’re damn right it might. It’s very likely to go badly and all those people are working hard and you better f—ing step up. You better do something to not let that happen.’ And I was like, ‘S— that’s right.’”

Tough crowds, comedy doldrums and just plain fear of failure are all too common. For Jon Stewart, it helps to think like a baseball player. “If I’m not hitting, at the very least I’m going to run out every ground ball as hard as I can. Or I’m going to do the best I can in the field. I’m going to try to make up for my lack of creativity until, hopefully, I hustle my way out of that slump.”

If they stay in the game, it must be because the home runs are worth the slumps. Albert Brooks puts it this way when Apatow asks him if he gets a spiritual feeling when he’s creative. “I used to hate it when people say, ‘I feel it come through me,’ but there are moments when two hours go by and you don’t know what happened, and you got all these words, and it’s the highlight of my life.”

"Terrorist" by John Updike




"I have the American dream — I had a dream of becoming a writer! I was little — not rich, or not anything really, but I did have this hope and faith and it kind of has come true for me. So I wouldn't say the American dream is all hokum.
Not in my case, at least."
—John Updike*

“Writer’s and Company” recently aired an encore presentation of Eleanor Wachtel’s 1996 interview with John Updike. Feeling remiss in never having read even one of Updike’s 60 books — two of them Pulitzer Prize-winners — I went in search of Rabbit, Run.

I found Terrorist instead.

Inside 18-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Mully, something terrible is churning. On the surface, he is a high school senior. A solid student. He runs track every spring. And wears a crisp, white, buttoned up shirt every day that does nothing to conceal the contempt he feels for his classmates at Central High School in New Prospect, New Jersey.

Through the lens of detachment, Ahmad observes—and is offended at every turn—by the consumerism, hedonism, and misogyny that he sees in American culture. He rebuffs the outreach of his high school guidance counsellor, his self-absorbed mother and even the girl at school who shows a flicker of interest in his brooding persona. He does have one devotion, however, nurtured by an imam with an agenda, that is an intense spiritualism and study of the Qur’an.

With so little to live for, Ahmad latches on to the promise of paradise. All it will take to get there is one catastrophically murderous act. In a truck loaded with explosives, he drives towards the Lincoln Tunnel. Martyrdom may have to wait, though, when a familiar passenger takes a seat beside him, and begins to wedge a detour of doubt in Ahmad’s way.

Updike’s characters in Terrorist are not the stand-up-and-cheer variety. New Prospect is no suburb of thriving American dreams. Surrounding Ahmad are adults wrestling with their own private despairs. When tested, though, the choice of life, despite its disappointments, is powerful enough to hold the slightest advantage--perhaps the only reassurance Updike was able to offer at the end of a dark tunnel.


*Updike, John. Interview by Eleanor Wachtel. “Writers & Company”. CBC. Encore presentation Toronto: 27 March 2016. Radio.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

“Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me” by Patricia Folk


“‘When my great-grandparents die, one right after the other, I’m little and can’t figure it out. Where did people go?
‘How can they just disappear?’ I asked my mother.
‘They don’t,’ she said. ‘They’re in you. Every generation that precedes you. Sometimes in ways you don’t even know. It could be anything, darling. A turn of phrase. Not liking nutmeg. People don’t disappear. Look how you hold your pinky.’
I looked down. ‘It’s just like Poppy!’
‘Exactly.’” 
—from Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me by Patricia Volk
Once upon a time in Manhattan, a daughter is born to an “outrageously” beautiful mother. When she is 10 years old, the daughter, Patricia Volk, discovers a book so compelling she feigns a sore throat to stay home from school and finish reading it. But really, there is no rush. She will come back to it, time and again, to understand that it is possible to be someone other than the ideal of Audrey, her beloved, complex and beautiful mother. The book is Shocking Lifethe autobiography of the legendary designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

Though Elsa’s New York office is around the corner from Morgen’s, one of the Volk family restaurants, it is unlikely that the designer and Audrey ever met. Audrey’s style is ever crisp. Audrey does not wear Schiaparelli’s daring, imaginative clothes. She doesn’t have leopard print bowling shoes; she doesn’t carry an accordion handbag. Likely she would have considered Schiaparelli’s lamb chop hat an abomination of epic proportions.

But in bringing Audrey and Elsa together on the pages of Shocked, Volk discovers what they have in common. Both are “brilliant and opinionated”, “secretive”, “generous”, “moody”, and, in their own ways, “crazy about clothes.” Both are superstitious, too. S is Schiap’s lucky letter. It adorns every scent she bottles, including “Shocking”—her most famous perfume. “Shocking” is Audrey’s signature scent and for luck, she adds a drop of it to her handkerchief as part of her ritual for leaving the apartment for the day.

"Always the perfume comes gift-wrapped. My father makes the paper himself. He uses as many hundred-dollar bills as it takes to get the job done."

Audrey marries into, and works alongside, a family of successful restauranteurs, Schiaparelli is self-made. Audrey and Schiap are both working mothers, readers, late-in-life learners. But where one is “fierce opponent of invention” the other is a risk-taker who carves out a place for herself in fashion history.

"Being original, being yourself to my beautiful mother was not safe. Being original, being yourself to Elsa Schiaparelli was life-giving. She made a hat out of a shoe. Reading that at ten, I knew: Anything is possible."




Friday, December 11, 2015

"My Salinger Year" by Joanna Rakoff


“‘Follow me,’ he said and I trailed him down the main hallway, past a row of dark offices. As on the day before I longed to linger over the books lining the walls. My eye caught some thrillingly familiar names, like Pearl Buck and Langston Hughes, and some intriguingly foreign ones, like Ngaio Marsh, and my stomach began to flutter in the way it had on childhood trips to our local library: so many books, each enticing in its own specific way, and all mine for the taking. ‘Wow,’ I said, almost involuntarily. James stopped and turned. “I know,” he said with a real smile. ‘I’ve been here six years and I still feel that way.’ 
—from My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Everywhere else in the world, it is 1996. But in “The Agency”, a pseudonym for New York’s “oldest and most storied” literary agency, at least a couple of decades seem to have gone by unnoticed. Books line wood-panelled walls, reading lamps spotlight desktops (the flat, wooden kind upon which you put stuff other than computers). The telex machine was retired for a fax, but “sat in the office for years just in case such technology should be called into service again.” Email is non-operational——at least not at the beginning of My Salinger Year. Telephones, dictaphones and Selectric typewriters are the means of correspondence between The Agency, its authors, their publishers and the outside world.

It may be the office that time forgot, but it is also the place where Joanna Rakoff, newly hired as an agent’s assistant, is given “the best first job a girl could have.”

Not that she knows it at the time. In the process of wading through stacks, bundles and boxes of correspondence to The Agency’s consummate author-client, J.D. Salinger, Rakoff types one form letter after another to advise senders that their mail will not be forwarded. That is how Salinger wants it, her boss insists, and under no circumstances, no, no, no, is Rakoff to forward “Jerry” this mail.

It’s no small feat. War veterans write to “Jerry.” So do grieving parents, and seemingly no end of adolescent Holden Caulfield-sound-alikes who claim to be surrounded by “phonies”. There are solicitations for speaking engagements, film deals, commencement addresses, publishing offers, strange declarations and galling demands. It falls to Rakoff to read them all.

In My Salinger Year, Rakoff gradually discovers how much more there is to books than the words between the covers. That the business of books is all about relationships. And that before every book, there is the manuscript, and, if an author is very fortunate, there are agents who believe in them enough to send them out in the world.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

"A Power Christmas Special" free for you on iBooks (and here in a PDF)





Merry Christmas everyone! My gift to you and your family is A Power Christmas Special (6-10 year-olds especially), illustrated by Marc Mongeau--where Mimi and her family find all the chaos the season has to offer. Broken gingerbread, the TV log fireplace, a Wise Man behind the wheel, elves with their own trading cards and a very hungry Santa Claus...

It's free to download from the iBooks store right here:

If you don't have an iPad, you can link to the PDF version from here. Go ahead, give it a try!

I hope you enjoy it. It was fun to write. I think I figured out about half the story standing in a two-hour line-up to get a balloon poodle made at a Santa's Breakfast two years ago. Anyway, you can let me know what you think anytime at victorianunuk "at" telus "dot" net or on twitter @victorianunuk

Merry Christmas, and remember, "It's not what Santa can do for you..."

Friday, November 13, 2015

"Peace Pipe Dreams: The Truth About Lies About Indians" by Darrell Dennis



If you've ever wondered why "Native people just can't get over it" or what the fuss is about faux headdresses at folk festivals, well, allow Darrell Dennis to explain. Dennis is an original--and not just in the First Nations sense of the word. An actor, comedian, playwright, screenwriter, radio host, and member of the Shushwap Nation in British Columbia, Dennis is also the author of Peace Pipe Dreams: The Truth About Lies About Indians (Douglas & McIntyre, 2014).

In busting through the myths and misconceptions surrounding First Nations people, Dennis leaves no stone unturned. Sports mascots, substance abuse statistics, the Christopher Columbus narrative, movies featuring the noble savage ("Always-Helps-The-White-Man"); movies featuring the nasty savage (think eat-your-heart-out Magua from "The Last of the Mohicans") are all ripe for a rethink. Then there's Canada as the ultimate "deadbeat dad" when it comes to honouring treaties and land claims, band chief and council paycheques; what the heck's in those peace pipes anyway; and the "most annoying and derisive of all Native stereotypes… that Aboriginals don't pay taxes."

There is also the no-small-matter of residential schools, where children were "told that their parents were ignorant savages, their communities were irrelevant, and their culture, religion and language were the work of the devil. The children were to renounce everything Indian or burn in hell for all eternity…. Now I ask," writes Dennis, "if the residential school legacy had been inflicted on non-Native children instead of Aboriginal children, how many people would still insist that they should just 'get over it"? I'm guessing not too many."

Just when it all gets too heavy, Dennis spurs things along with his trademark irreverence and helpful hints for all of us in "regular-people Canada" trying to bridge the gulf created by a 400-year history of First Nations relations that's been more or less written, up until now, by the dominant culture. Case in point: "For best results, try to call Native individuals by their original name in their original language. There are over 350 of these names in Canada alone, so if you want to go this route, you should start cramming." Thank you, Mr. D.

Consider Peace Pipe Dreams a timely primer to the 2015 release of the 500-plus page Executive Summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's 94 Calls to Action. The Actions are nobody's idea of a cake walk, but #10  (asking the "…federal government to draft new Aboriginal education legislation with the full participation and informed consent of Aboriginal peoples…" and "Developing culturally appropriate curricula.") would benefit from a major boost if Peace Pipe Dreams were introduced to secondary schools nation-wide.



Friday, September 04, 2015

"Andrea Martin's Lady Parts"


Friday, September 4, 2015

Stage and screen star, SCTV alumnus and Tony/Gemini/Emmy-winning actress, comedienne and now memoirist Andrea Martin has a few confessions to make. She hasn’t read The Goldfinch (she’s a little off books these days) she’d rather chat with telemarketers than write, and every two months she flies to Atlanta to get her hair done. She knits, likes using the F word, is pretty sure that she wasn’t a perfect mother, hates being called perky and nothing, but nothing, makes her laugh like a rumba-dancing dog in a pink tuxedo.

Oh, and one more thing. Brace yourself. She. Is. Not. Canadian.

She’s not Greek, either. And she’s not even a little bit Jewish (she’s just “good at it”). But take a few deep yoga breaths and let it go. Because it’s hard to be mad at “Canada’s favourite illegitimate child” for even a sentence or two of Andrea Martin’s Lady Parts. And why would you even want to be? After all, she’s been making us laugh for over 40 years. We practically owe her a passport and a vote in the upcoming election. Just don’t call her perky or you’re likely to get a swift swat on the arm with Edith Prickley’s handbag.