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Weston Writers’ Trust Prize Shortlist
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Weston Writers’ Trust Prize Shortlist

By 49thShelf
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In the 1960s, Kamal Al-Solaylee’s father was one of the wealthiest property owners in Aden, in the south of Yemen, but when the country shrugged off its colonial roots, his properties were confiscated, and the family was forced to leave. The family moved first to Beirut, which suddenly became one of the most dangerous places in the world, then Cairo. After a few peaceful years, even the safe haven of Cairo struggled under a new wave of Islamic extremism that culminated with the assassination o …

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Solar Dance

Solar Dance

Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age
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In Solar Dance, acclaimed writer and scholar Modris Eksteins uses Vincent van Gogh as his lens for this brilliant survey of Western culture and politics in the last century.
The long-awaited follow-up to Modris Eksteins' internationally acclaimed Rites of Spring and Walking Since Daybreak. Now he has produced another thrilling, iconoclastic work of cultural history that is a trailblazing biography of an era--from the eve of the First World War and the rise of Hitler to the fall of the Berlin W …

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The face is soft and pleasant, the forehead high, the brow clean. This man in his early thirties has wavy auburn hair and a mouth, small and gentle, poised on the verge of a smile that nonetheless never comes. The eyes, too, have a tentative look— perhaps ready to dart fawnlike side to side. The hands, however, are prominent and purposeful. Hands of a pianist? A painter? Perhaps a dancer, designed to lift, suspend, and suggest? This is Otto Wacker. He is on trial in the old Moabit courthouse in central Berlin. He stands accused of knowingly selling forged art. It is April 1932.
Wacker has made a name for himself. Within a few short years he has risen from provincial obscurity to national prominence. First dancer, then art dealer, gallery owner, and publisher, he has turned heads. In March 1928 the Gallery Schulte on Unter den Linden, Berlin’s famous promenade, home to libraries, embassies, a university, and the Imperial Palace, holds an exhibition of celebrity portraits from the world of film and theatre. One of those select images is of Otto Wacker.1 There he is in full glory on a wall of achievement. He represents youth, vitality, success. With his good looks and energy he embodies the aspirations of that postwar generation, enveloped as it is by the odour of death—some nine million had died in the Great War and at least twice as many in the influenza epidemic that followed— and yet exuberant about life.
Suddenly, in that same year, 1928, Wacker’s world implodes. He is accused of fraud, of selling forged pictures purportedly by Vincent van Gogh, an artist who lived in provincial obscurity akin to Otto Wacker’s experience as a youth but who now, nearly thirty years after his death, has shot like a comet to stardom. The trajectories of artist and dealer have striking similarities. Four years later, in 1932, Wacker’s case finally reaches the courts. He pleads innocence.
In the courtroom the young man is beset by a different generation, stooped and grey, bespectacled and earnest. All its members are primly attired, in legal garb or dark suits. The tone, among judges, lawyers, and witnesses, is sombre. Credibility is on the line—the integrity of experts, dealers, the art market, and even the legal system of the postwar German Republic. But beyond that, an entire world is called into question, a world of fixity, defined values, and acknowledged standards. Mired in an ever-deepening depression, the German economy is in shambles. In politics the rise of Adolf Hitler is the talk of the day. In the Moabit courtroom, legitimacy and authority are on trial, along with Otto Wacker.
That Vincent van Gogh is central to this drama is no coincidence. His life story and his art are key evidence of the mounting existential crisis that marks modernism—that spiritual journey of the Western world from a vision of moderation and progressivism to a culture of ever greater extravagance. By the early 1920s his fame is on the rise. His work, with its colour, energy, and implicit tragedy, obviously speaks to people, not just critics and collectors but the broader public. Many feel a deep kinship with this man who, in any conventional terms, was a complete failure in his life and in his art: he sold but one painting; he hurt people deeply; he spent time in an asylum; and he committed suicide. Yet, within a few decades of his death in 1890, his story is well known and the demand for his work far exceeds the supply. At the same time, as the acceptance in some quarters verges on worship, elsewhere the denunciations multiply. For his detractors, Van Gogh represents disintegration and collapse, the very death of art, of beauty and truth. Vincent van Gogh has become a symbol of the modern condition that some see as an eruption of life, a birthing, and others regard as a hysterical move from stability to excess.
The trial of Otto Wacker lasts for the better part of two weeks. Emotions run high: reputations are at stake, worlds in conflict. The defendant could have been the subject of a Van Gogh portrait— his eyes give him the look of a naïf, a victim. He would fit alongside Armand Roulin (F 492), The One-Eyed Man (F 532), Young Man with a Cap (F 536), or even the iconic Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (F 527). Wacker’s life itself is plausibly a modern work of art: truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness, all in one, with categories blurring and collapsing.
If modernism and postmodernism, the two dominant cultural “isms” of the past century, have had a unifying motif, it is the quest for authenticity and the concomitant breakdown of previous distinctions. The tale of Otto Wacker and Vincent van Gogh takes us to the very heart of that quest that confronts us all. What is real? What is true?

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The Measure of a Man

The Measure of a Man

The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit
also available: Hardcover

FINALIST - Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction (2012)
FINALIST - Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction (2012)
FINALIST - Governor General's Literary Award - Non-Fiction (2012)
FINALIST - BC Book Prize's Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize (2012)
A son’s decision to alter his father’s last surviving suit for himself is the launching point for this powerful book – part personal memoir, part social history of the man’s suit – about fathers and sons, love and forgiv …

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There is a suit in the back of my closet. Over the years dust has gathered on its shoulders. I own other, better suits but I hold on to this one because, for me at least, it is special.
The suit attracts and repels me. It came to me under the saddest of circumstances, and I’ve dared to wear it in public only once. I wore it to test myself, to see if it would fit – not only in its cut and dimensions, but to prove to myself I could bear the mantle and wear it without feeling like an impostor, a boy posing as a man. Most of the time I try to ignore it, and so years can go by without my touching it. But even so, I always know it’s there.
Once in a while, I feel compelled to run my hand along its lapels and think of the man who wore it. I see the line of his jaw, his broad torso and its incipient roundness. I see the pores on his fleshy, bulbous nose. I remember the feel of his thick skin and the dryness of his hands, and I wonder if I look like him.
This is my father’s suit.
The coat is single-breasted with a notch lapel. A boy would say it is black; in fact, it is dark navy. I lift the hanger off the rod and turn the suit this way and that in the morning sun breaking through the blinds. When the angle is just right, the colour has more depth than I remember, flashing with casts of royal and cerulean blue. Perhaps it is only my imagination, or a trick of the light.
Even without putting the jacket on, I can tell it won’t fit me, although I have grown heavier and thicker over the years. The chest is too full and the shoulders are too wide. My father was always the bigger man, but the exaggerated proportions are as much a by-product of dated tastes as the measuring tape. The button placement is low and swaying, evidence of Giorgio Armani’s early louche influence on menswear. It has been decades since it was considered stylish to button jackets below the natural belt line (think of the days of Miami Vice).
Contemporary fashion dictates the crucial fastening point must be closer to the sternum, far above the belly button. (The higher “button stance” creates the illusion of longer legs.) In nearly every detail – the broad shoulders, the low notch on the wide lapel, the two heavy brass buttons hanging at a low, testicular altitude – the suit is old, outmoded. Why does it matter? If it doesn’t fit, why not throw the suit out and buy a new one?
Outside of a Konica camera he gave me as a wedding present and a pair of metal eyeglass frames I found in his apartment after his death, this suit is the only thing I have from my father. Though I have been tempted to abandon it by the back door of the Salvation Army store down the hill, the suit won’t let me.
A suit is never just a suit.

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