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RBC Taylor Prize 2019 Longlist

By 49thShelf
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December 5 2018: "RBC Taylor Prize 2019 Jurors Camilla Gibb, Roy MacGregor and Beverley McLachlin today shared the longlist for the eighteenth awarding of Canada’s most prestigious non-fiction prize. The jury reviewed over 100 books to reach this longlist and state that “It was no small task whittling down to this longlist of ten, and we anticipate many hours of re-reading and debate before we produce our short list, and, ultimately, the winner. We found the books breath-taking in their range of topics, and happily found so many of them serve as a useful barometer for current issues, from reconciliation to political trust. There is remarkable achievement here and we hope readers will celebrate that with us. "
Son of a Critch

Son of a Critch

A Childish Newfoundland Memoir
also available: Paperback

Winner of the 2019 Margaret and John Savage First Book Award – Non-Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2019 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize
Longlisted for the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize
Shortlisted for the 2019 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour
A hilarious story of family, getting into trouble, and finding one's place in the world

What could be better than growing up in the 1980s? How about growing up in 1980s Newfoundland, which--as Mark Critch will tell you--was more like the 1960s. Take a trip to wher …

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The first thing I remember is drowning.

My mother had taken me swimming at what Newfoundlanders call “the beach.” This is not what the average person would imagine when they picture a beach. There is no golden sand. Emerald water does not dance along the shoreline. Bronzed and toned bodies do not lounge on beach blankets, hiding flirtatious glances under designer sunglasses.

This is not what the Beach Boys sang about. This is more like a beach in the “Allied troop carriers landed on the beaches of Normandy despite the poor weather conditions” sense. In fact, most of my childhood memories seem like black-and-white war footage. The sky is always grey. There’s a lot of shaking and someone is always yelling, “Move! Move! Move!”

When you’re walking on a Newfoundland beach you have to keep an eye out for any large rocks you might accidentally step on. It’s difficult because the large rocks are usually hidden under thousands of smaller, sharper rocks. If you’re lucky you can avoid them by hopping from broken beer bottles to broken pop bottles, tacking left and right around the dozens of pale white bodies lying back to sunbathe and rub their bleeding feet. A Newfoundland sunbather is a sight to behold. It’s best to use protective eyewear. Directly looking at a Newfoundland sunbather can result in snow blindness. I myself am so pale that my skin takes on an almost translucent appearance. It’s known that Newfoundlanders have big hearts. We know this because on the beach you can actually see them beating through our pale skin. Imagine a jellyfish that has somehow swallowed a large fish and chips.

Keep in mind that these people have chosen to swim in the North Atlantic. This is the water the Titanic sunk in. Remember the scene in the movie where Rose is floating on the door and Jack, his hair streaked with icicles, slips below the frigid water into the darkness? Same water. Consider that these are the same beaches that blue whales wash up onto as they die. This is where the largest creatures on earth decide to commit suicide. And yet wave after wave of doughy, cadaverous swimmers playfully dive in and say, “Water’s not so bad today! I can feel my legs!”

Now back to drowning. It actually wasn’t the cold water that almost got me. Nor was it the powerful Labrador current that drags icebergs down from the Arctic. No, it was something much more dangerous. It was that all-consuming, ever-present Newfoundland danger: conversation.
I was three years old and in awe of the sights and sounds. Up until this point, I had led a fairly sheltered life. I grew up about five kilometres from anything. My father was a newsman at VOCM radio in St. John’s. He tried valiantly to fill small-town news with big-city excitement. A typical Mike Critch news report would go:

Late last night, early this morning, a moose was struck on the Trans-Canada Highway. The sex of the moose has not yet been released. Two men were killed, one seriously. Mike Critch for the VOCM news service.

We lived next to the radio station, which was next to a four-lane highway that led into the Trans-Canada. My early childhood was like the first level of the video game Frogger. And there were no other children for miles. The closest thing to other kids for me to play with were the used car salesmen in their plaid suits at the lots down the road.

Halloween was a lonely time. I was a sad sight walking along the Trans-Canada in my plastic C-3PO costume from Woolco. Not that you’d know I even wore a costume under the snowsuit I had to wear to protect me from the snowdrifts along the highway.

Little Me: Trick or Treat.

Used Car Salesman: Hey, Mark, what are you supposed to be? A robot in a snowsuit?

Little Me: Something like that.

Used Car Salesman: You’re a weird kid. Look, I don’t got no candy. How about a pack of Halls and a handful of Rothman’s?

Little Me: Sounds good.

I once thought for a moment that I’d seen another child, but he turned out to be a midget wrestler who went by the name “Little Beaver.” He’d come to the station to promote a wrestling match. He had a Mohawk, wore a three-piece suit, and smoked a cigar that was almost as big as he was. I thought, “That is the toughest kid I have ever seen.” But now, here among the rocks of the beach, there were more kids than I’d ever seen before. Half of them seemed tough enough to last a round or two with Little Beaver, but even still, I was drawn to them. My mother, on the other hand, was drawn into a conversation. That was not hard to do. My father worked at a radio station. My mother was a radio station. She was a news-gathering machine who could spit out gossip at a machine-gun pace. To engage my mother in conversation was to face a barrage of gossip-loaded ammunition.

Stranger: How are you today, ma’am?

Mom: OhI’mGood. Yes,HowAreYouNow,MyDear? MyGodIHeard AllAboutYourMother. Shockin’Isn’tIt? You’reMarjorieChafe’sSon, Aren’tYa? Yes,MyGod. AndHerFullUpWithTheCancer. OfCourse SheSmokedAllHerLifeButSoDidYourFather. HardToSayIfItWasHer SmokeOrHisSmokeGotHerBut,Sure,YouSmokeTooSoCouldHave BeenYou,IS’pose. DiedOfAHatTrick. First,Second,AndThirdHand Smoke. MyGod,SomeShockin’.

Stranger: Do you want fries with that?

My mother had noticed someone she thought might look like someone she thought she knew, and that was enough for her to risk the death-defying journey over the jagged rocks in search of information. I was left to follow the siren call of the ocean and the children being tossed on the waves like seagulls waiting out a storm.

I started to walk directly into the water. The cold didn’t affect me. I was a husky child with a good layer of heat-protective blubber around me. I was made for this. The water came up to my knees and I walked on. It came up to my navel and forward I marched. Then I felt the strangest sensation. The rocks beneath my feet had given way to sand. It felt glorious. Smooth, soft, and grainy. It reminded me of the few moments of barefoot wonder I’d experienced standing in the cat’s litter box before my mother told me to “GetOutOfThatNowBeforeISkinsYa! ForGodSakes,B’y,TheCat’sArseWasInThat!”

I looked over at the children, watching them frolic, and wondered, “How can I be a part of that?” Surely they would notice me and ask me to play with them, like kids did on Sesame Street? We’d sing some song about “the letter C” or something. Maybe they’d like some Halls or some Rothman’s? All I had to do was wait.

I remember looking up at a cliff and seeing the Newfoundland flag. Not the red, blue, and gold flag designed by the famous artist Christopher Pratt. No, I mean the true Newfoundland flag: a plastic grocery bag caught in a tree. Then my gaze shifted to two kids, a boy and girl floating by in a tire. They sat on it, their feet dangling into the water through the centre. It looked like everything that childhood should be. I continued on. The water came up to my neck. The children on the tire laughed together as they spun lazily. I stepped closer, hypnotized by their joy.
The water slipped over my head. I didn’t realize that the ground was on a slope. I’d never been in deep water before and assumed I could just keep walking.

I’d never thought about breathing until that moment. I remember thinking, “Oh, right. I have to breathe.” Try as I might, I couldn’t get my head above the water. I looked back to shore and could just barely make out the image of my mother interrogating a couple about their exact lineage. Nobody knew I was there. I kept going.

With every step I took, I could feel a great weight pressing down inside me. I was walking farther but going deeper. I looked up, confused. I caught sight of the tire children. They were floating above me, still laughing. I reached for a pink Minnie Mouse sandal on the surface, just over my head. With the strength of a panicked child, I pulled her foot toward me with all my might. Next, I latched on to the Six Million Dollar Man sneaker of the boy. “He kept his sneakers on,” I thought. “He doesn’t even know there’s sand here. I should tell him to take them off and feel it squish between his toes. That’ll be a good ice-breaker.”

I pulled them down. I could feel the panic leave my body and transfer into theirs. I grabbed their tire, sending them splashing into the cold water. Exhausted, I lay on the improvised float like a walrus on a rock and sunned myself. It was nice to have friends my own age.

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Just Let Me Look at You

Just Let Me Look at You

On Fatherhood

Shortlisted for the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize
Shortlisted for the 2019 BC Book Prize - Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2019 BC Book Prize - Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize
From Giller-nominated, award-winning Bill Gaston, a tender, wry, and unforgettable memoir about alcohol, fishing, and all the things fathers and sons won't say to each other

Sons clash with fathers, sons find reasons to rebel. And, fairly or unfairly, sons judge fathers when they take to drinking.

But Bill Gast …

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After decades without, I finally bought myself a boat. My dad would approve.
Because of him I grew up on boats. When I was young I fished from them with passion. In my late teens and early twenties I lived most summers on a boat, in small marinas up the coast, starting with Egmont. On Cormorant I fished and guided. I also played lots of soli­taire, partied, and wrote my first two books on board, clunking away on the typewriter as a fluid world moved underneath.
I loved sleeping aboard, likely for what are narcotic or even return-to-the-womb reasons: a dark enclosure and softly rhythmic motion. After we met, my wife Dede, who knew none of my past, saw me fall into a trance if we happened near a marina. I’d have to study the boats, eyeing their features for those I’d like, wondering if they had a writing table or much of a galley. Lately I check to see if they have downriggers, winch-powered cables that send your cannon ball-weighted lure down to the deeps to troll for salmon.
Boats are magic. That metal or fibreglass can float is a marvel, one your life depends on. It’s not a romantic thought, I feel it in my body. It’s easy to find bygone power in the word vessel.
Sylvan is an old fibreglass tub with a big back open cockpit for fishing. Its twenty-six feet include a miniature bowsprit, a railed plat­form shooting off the bow where, if someone else steered, I could teeter onto and declare myself king of the world. It has a small cabin with V-berth, tiny sink and enclosed bathroom, or “head.”
I’ll avoid nautical terms. At marinas you run into people with boats smaller than mine who say “helm” and “starboard” and, of course, “she.” My boat’s an it. Sylvan is its brand name, painted on the stern, like a big Ford. Its navy canvas top highlights the seagull shit. It’s powered by a big, gas-gulping inboard, plus a small outboard, or “kicker,” for trolling. Both motors are old and the big one has begun burning oil. Many of the switches—for instance the horn, running lights, inside heater, windshield wipers—don’t work. I’ve duct-taped rips in the canvas.
I bought the boat on a whim, but one that felt fated. Out of the blue, after forty years, I was contacted by an old high school teacher. I’d had a crush on her, a Texan who’d moved north for political rea­sons. She had prematurely greying hair, wore serapes and went bare­foot. It was she who’d implanted the idea of writing. In any case, she apparently liked my books, and after I blamed her for inspiring them, her next envelope contained a cheque for ten thousand dollars. I tried to decline it but she insisted, explaining that it was something she did every year, sending this amount to whomever she felt like, from Patch Adams to Obama to unknown poets. She told me to use it on “some­thing missing in your life.” After I had two downriggers installed, Sylvan cost exactly ten thousand dollars.
The boat is decent in moderate waves, and once the motor gets going it tends not to quit. I keep Sylvan in Silva Bay (how fitting is that?) at the cheapest marina and the only one without a waiting list. Reportedly my berth bottoms out in extreme tides, but I’m assured it’s soft mud down there.
The transaction that brought us our place on Gabriola felt fated too. When our father and then mother died, my brother and I sold their condo and, not seeing a wiser investment, bought a place here for the exact amount, to the dollar, we got for the condo. Our two families share it. Somehow it felt right, and also practical, both of those. When I sit on the cabin’s sundeck and view the small orchard and pond, or when I walk the hushed trails through the woods, there’s a palpable sense that this is the fruit of my father’s hard work. His imagined link to this land keeps him alive in ways I can feel. Less poetically, I know I bought this place with his money, feel like a spoiled brat, and imaging him liking it here eases the guilt a bit.
I have an image that catches him perfectly. Not an image really, but a mid-eighties Japanese comic book. I came upon it again a week ago, digging through his stuff. Not knowing how to read Japanese, I think of it as The Big Bob of Mystery Beer Fishing Art Book.
I’m about thirty, still living in Vancouver and over for a morning visit. My dad is late-fifties, newly retired. Morning is the best time. I find him at the dining-room table flipping through what appears to be a comic book he’s just got in the mail. Unlike our comic books, this one is thin, fragile paper, including the cover. And it’s in Japanese. My dad looks befuddled.
The captions are all Japanese characters. Every page or two has a sidebar or sometimes a full-page drawing, rough but artful, of various fish. The cartoon boxes depict a young man, an artist, on a fishing trip, sketching everything he sees.
“Hey,” I say. “This is that trip you took last year. That charter out of Egmont.”
“Right. Right.”
“I remember you telling me about some Japanese artist guy? Drawing everything? He got stung by a rock cod?”
“Right, right. Drawing everything. I remember that guy now.”
I recall it was a business perk, my dad and some other executives wooed with a freebie aboard a forty-foot aluminum houseboat. He’d come back from the weekend with stories about “this funny little Jap” who didn’t fish at all but got all excited when a fish was caught. He’d lay tracing paper on the fish and run charcoal over it.
“It was really something,” he’d said. “It showed all the scales.”
Always instructive, I said, “A ‘rubbing.’”
“He sure was a funny little guy.” My dad had sounded almost affectionate.
It’s too perfect that the comic is Japanese. He still hated them. They were sneaky, they weren’t to be trusted. I didn’t blame him for these feelings. He’d been in a war, he’d had friends die. If I occasion­ally wondered aloud that they couldn’t be all bad, that some were forced to fight, he’d turn away. Fine. I’d never been in a war. An American, my father joined up right after hearing the radio broadcast about Pearl Harbor. He tried the air force, was too tall to be a pilot, so he joined the navy.
But he hated whoever he thought was Japanese. Koreans and Chinese and Inuit were “Japs.” It was sadly funny that for decades he lived beside Layton Wing, a shy family man who was unfailingly friendly to my father, who was only reservedly friendly back. After a few beers, in private, my dad would rail against “that Jap” next door. He’d settle down when I explained again that not only was Mr. Wing Chinese, but that the Chinese hated the Japanese probably more than he did. But he’d forget, and he’d grumble about “that Jap” whenever Layton appeared to be trying to keep up with the Joneses, like when he installed a pool. I actually thought it a good thing that Layton’s pool was a bit smaller than ours. Again, I found it more funny than sad. It was the big, American stupidity, that of not learn­ing who your enemies really are.
I can’t say I believe in the more colourful kind of karma, the one that says if you’re a pickpocket you’re bound eventually to get your pocket picked, if not in this life then the next. But I have to wonder about my dad and his hatred of Japs and those he mistook for them. Near the end, when he broke a hip and suffered a stroke in surgery, he could no longer walk or talk and ended up in a facil­ity where he was tended almost exclusively by Asians. Most were Filipina, some Vietnamese. I never saw a Japanese caregiver, but I did see a certain look in my father’s eye as they spooned him his food, plumped his pillow, and all the rest, bantering in halting English. He wasn’t all there but I know his pride remained, and I can’t imagine how he felt when, chirping, “How you today Bob, you look good,” they washed him and changed his diaper. It would have been an odd hell.
And now we’re looking at the oddest comic book. It’s part graphic novel (though I don’t think they existed yet in the West), part natural science guide to Pacific Northwest fish, with those cool charcoal rub­bings. The story boxes show the artist landing at the Vancouver airport, lugging his art supplies, tongue sticking out with effort, cartoon sweat shooting off his brow. It shows a bus ride, a first meal with clumsy knife and fork, mishaps with mysterious money. Egmont scenery in the back­ground, it shows the houseboat, and him stowing his gear. A seagull wanders close, begging. Overleaf the gull is rendered, full-page and fine art. It really is bizarre. It gets more bizarre when, early the next morn­ing, he wakes up as the houseboat lurches, nearly tipping. He rushes out to encounter a giant climbing aboard. In one hand the giant clutches a beer and the other he holds out to be shaken, “I’m Bob!” emblazoned in caps on his T-shirt in such bold lettering I can hear my dad’s basso profundo voice in the letters. In the next box the artist suffers a crushing handshake and falls to his knees under the giant’s shadow.
The only English in the entire comic book is the “I’m Bob!” on his shirt. The artist has nailed my father’s likeness, though exaggerated: twice the height of everyone else, he wears a skewed cap, and loudly gets in everyone’s face. He appears to lurch like John Wayne. His nose is red. It’s hilarious.
Turning pages, my dad chuckles nervously.
The story shows the men fishing, eating, drinking. My dad is never without a beer. Now he wears the captain’s hat, a ball cap with gold braid, and the captain wears my dad’s hat and doesn’t look happy about it. One box is just my dad’s face, his eyes closed and stars and birds circling his head, passed out. But he is also helpful, showing people how to fish. Near the end he’s battling what appears to be a whopper, and then, chagrined, holds up a minnow.
My dad closes the book, snickers insincerely and flicks it so it spins and slides three feet across the dining-room table. Partly he doesn’t recognize this version of himself, this Bob the rest of us have known for years. And partly he just doesn’t remember that weekend, not a thing.

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Jan in 35 Pieces

Jan in 35 Pieces

A Memoir in Music

In his memoir, Jan in 35 Pieces, acclaimed cellist Ian Hampton recounts his years of music and camaraderie, ably capturing his life-long dedication to the history and culture of classical musical performance.

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From "One: Arlequin"


Down London's Baker Street, Jan and his mother, Elf, pick their way around shards of glass and pieces of masonry on their way to Jan's cello lesson. As they pass Madame Tussaud's, Jan notices that a landmark building has disappeared; the skyline beyond Marylebone Road looks different. Instead of the building, there's a gap through which Jan can see a cluster of barrage balloons like giant ears, straining on their ropes.

He walks with his mother in silence. London is often quiet after a bombing. Petrol is rationed and there is little traffic apart from the double-decker buses. They always catch the six a.m. workers' bus from home-the village of Radnage-to High Wycombe. Jan sits with Elf and looks out the window. If his father, Colin, takes him, they sit upstairs where smoking is allowed; the fumes of Woodbines always make Jan's eyes smart. He follows Elf out of the bus and onto the platform, past the poster of a ship sinking under the words "Walls Have Ears", past the old, red machine on the railway platform that reminds Jan of a tomb standing in mute testimony to those golden days of pre-war Rowntrees Chocolate Bar sixpence, then into the 7:15 train from High Wycombe to Marylebone: "Please shew your ticket".

Then they arrive in London and search for breakfast. Jan always makes a game of seeing which café in the district cooks the best dried [powdered] egg. Lyons Corner House is the preferred eatery with their scrambled egg on toast. Once the cashier is paid, Elf and Jan continue on the journey, passing the Royal Academy of Music and turning down Nottingham Place.

Now after Baker Street's gaps and shards of glass, this street is untouched-the same dreary row of townhouses, except the metal railings which used to guide you to their black front doors have been removed to be turned into guns. Jan knocks on 34-the London Cello School.

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Lands of Lost Borders

Lands of Lost Borders

Out of Bounds on the Silk Road
also available: Paperback

WINNER OF THE RBC TAYLOR PRIZE "Every day on a bike trip is like the one before--but it is also completely different, or perhaps you are different, woken up in new ways by the mile."

As a teenager, Kate Harris realized that the career she most craved--that of a generalist explorer, equal parts swashbuckler and philosopher--had gone extinct. From her small-town home in Ontario, it seemed as if Marco Polo, Magellan and their like had long ago mapped the whole earth. So she vowed to become a scient …

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The end of the road was always just out of sight. Cracked asphalt deepened to night beyond the reach of our headlamps, the thin beams swallowed by a blackness that receded before us no matter how fast we biked. Light was a kind of pavement thrown down in front of our wheels, and the road went on and on. If I ever reach the end, I remember thinking, I’ll fly off the rim of the world. I pedalled harder.

The evening before, Melissa and I had carefully duct-taped over the orange reflectors on our wheels. Just after midnight, we’d crawled out of our sleeping bags, dressed in black thermal long underwear, packed up camp, and mounted our bicycles. As we rode toward Kudi, a tiny outpost in western China, only our head­lamps gave us away, two pale flares moving against the grain of stars. We clicked off the lights as we neared the town.

It was three a.m. and moonless. The night air was cool for July and laced with the sweet breath of poplars and willows that grew in slender wands beside the river. No clean divisions between earth and sky, light and dark, just a lush and total blackness. I couldn’t see the mountains but I could sense them around me, sharp curses of rock. The kind of country that consists entirely of edges.

Sometimes Mel and I drifted blindly into each other, our bulky panniers acting like bumpers. We navigated by the sound of our wheels, a hushed whirring indicating the pavement, a rasp of gravel the road shoulder and the need for a course correction. Travelling by bicycle is a life of simple things taken seriously: hunger, thirst, friendship, the weather, the stutter of the world beneath you. I was so focused on listening to the road that I didn’t notice the glint of metal until Mel did.

“That’s it,” she whispered. “The checkpoint.”

A guardrail scissored the road ahead, and somewhere beyond it, mythic and forbidden, was the Tibetan Plateau. Though Kudi isn’t technically in the Tibet Autonomous Region, or TAR, as China has designated the formerly sovereign nation, the village hosts the first and most formidable military checkpoint on the only road into the western part of Tibet, a place foreigners require permits and guides to visit. Mel and I had neither. We didn’t want to subsidize the Chinese occupation of Tibet by paying to go there, and we lacked the money for permits anyway. Plus, we’d just graduated from university and felt young and free and rashly unassailable: never once had we met a barrier we couldn’t muscle past. So we took a deep breath, looked both ways, and biked directly under the raised guardrail.

Nothing happened. Somewhere to my left a river sounded like wind. The stars looked freshly soldered above the dark metal of the mountains, faintly visible now that our eyes had adjusted. Mel was a whim of shadow to my left but I could feel her giddiness, or maybe it was my own, adding a kind of shimmer to the air. The world seemed preternaturally honed and heightened, our vision and hearing sharper. I watched a star shoot to the horizon with an afterimage trailing behind it. “Did you see that?” I whispered. When that same star shot up again, we shoved our bikes into the ditch and ran.

The flashlight scanned the road, moving closer in clean yellow sweeps. Mel dove into the ditch a few metres from our bikes and I bolted senselessly toward the nearest building, where I flattened myself against a wall. I heard footsteps approach, the click of heels on concrete, and regret seared me. I would never be a Martian explorer now. Instead I’d spend the rest of my days in a Chinese prison, desperately wishing I had something to read. With my cheek pressed against concrete, I stared up. If the heavens aligned, I told myself, if a single constellation clicked into place—the Big Dipper, say, or Cassiopeia—we’d be saved. I scanned the night sky for some reassuring sign, any familiar map to orient myself by—ironic, I suppose, when the great goal of my life was getting lost. But the stars reeled and spun and refused all their usual patterns. The footsteps came closer and closer and stopped.

Then I spotted the Big Dipper pouring out the sky. The foot­steps started again, moved closer, and faded away. I didn’t dare move or breathe or glance at Mel, who was still playing dead some­where in the ditch. A few minutes or an eternity later a truck sput­tered into gear and drove off the way we’d come. The night settled back into silence.

We grabbed our bikes and continued racing through Kudi, instantly unrepentant. Fear exhausted itself into euphoria, a sense of irrational hope. The man with the flashlight surely saw us, pathetic and full of prayers in the ditch and against the wall, a couple of dogs with our heads tucked under the couch, believing our whole bodies hidden. At the very least he must have spotted our bikes overturned in the ditch, their wheels spinning uselessly.

Why he decided to move on was a mystery we didn’t question, in part because we were too winded to talk.

But even as Mel and I pedalled hard toward the Tibetan Plateau, I noted the bomb-like ticking of excess reflector duct tape against the front fork of my bike. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick, the sound went, a gentle yet ominous stutter. I should trim that, I thought to myself. That’s when a second checkpoint, the real checkpoint, loomed from the darkness like a bad dream. This time the guardrail was lowered, thigh-high, and secured with chains. Lighted concrete buildings edged the checkpoint on both sides, though we couldn’t see anyone in them.

“Um . . .” I stopped pedalling, letting my bike coast and slow.

“Yeah . . .” Mel acknowledged, but her voice came from some­where ahead of me.

I hesitated for a beat and started pedalling again. If Mel wasn’t about to back down, neither was I. “Throw your heart over the fence,” our Pony Club instructors had always urged us, “and the rest of you will follow. Hopefully the horse and saddle too,” they’d add with a grin. The only way to test the truth of a border is to ride hard toward it and leap—or, if circumstances demand it, crawl. Exposed in the pale light leaking from the checkpoint buildings, Mel and I glanced at each other one last time. Then we scuttled on hands and knees beneath the guardrail, dragged our loaded bikes after us, and pedalled as fast as we could into forbidden territory.

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All Things Consoled

All Things Consoled

A daughter's memoir
also available: Paperback

From Elizabeth Hay, one of Canada's beloved novelists, comes a startling and beautiful memoir about the drama of her parents' end, and the longer drama of being their daughter. Winner of the 2018 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonficiton.

Jean and Gordon Hay were a colourful, formidable pair. Jean, a late-blooming artist with a marvellous sense of humour, was superlatively frugal; nothing got wasted, not even maggoty soup. Gordon was a proud and ambitious schoolteacher with a terrifying …

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     My mother came home the next day. The residence doctor dropped by in the afternoon, sturdy, energetic, reassuring. We had learned he was from Aberdeen, a fact that only endeared him further to my parents, for the Hays traced their origins back to the same part of Scotland. My mother greeted him cheerfully, and he said, “So you’ve come back.”
     She had. She had come back to us.
     Then once again, around the middle of March, she lost her words and twenty-four hours later showed no signs of recovering them. “I’m thinking—throne—thinking—th.” Starting on a word with an opening sound like “th,” she could not escape it, any more than a month earlier she had been able to escape “window—whether.”
     After I got her lying down, I went into the living room to talk to Dad, who was staring out one of the windows that overlooked the road and the canal beyond. Without turning, he said, “I don’t think she’s suffering, she’s just lost.” He choked up, as he did so very easily, before going on. “We just have to hope, or maybe hope is the wrong word. If she doesn’t make it, maybe it’s for the best.”
     The next day, “It’s snowing snowing snowing snowing,” she said, as we sat on a bench in the glowing sunshine.
     Certain words were no problem for her: yes, okay, right, super, thank you, well, son of a gun, really. Over the telephone, I told Sochi about the automatic responses that still issued loud and clear from her grandmother. Sochi laughed and remarked that they were all affirmatives; someone else’s might have been shit, goddammit and fuck. My mother’s “son of a gun” was as close as she came to an expletive and it was always said with good humour.
     Then the next morning, when I walked out of the late-winter sunshine into their living room, exclaiming what a beautiful day it was, my mother stopped me in my tracks by replying from the chesterfield, “Yes, it is a beautiful day.”
     Lazarus was back from the land of the mute. Open in her lap was the book I had brought to them several days before about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, and now she said how interesting she thought it was. Sitting beside her, washed over by relief and excitement, I flipped to the page with the photograph of ice flowers, delicate white rosettes blanketing the surface of newly frozen sea water on February 16th, 1915—four years before she and my father were born. I told her about seeing them in patches on the canal last winter and on a pond at the arboretum. And we made conversation. “Your words have come back!” She nodded and smiled and talked, and everything she said made sense.
     But Dad was less excited by her recovery than he was upset with her for having wet the bed. “And who is going to wash the sheets?” he wanted to know. I asked him what happened to the diaper I had helped her into before leaving the night before. Well, in getting her into her nightgown, he had taken it off. Then immediately on the offensive again, he lit into me about her bone-strengthening medication. Had she had it or not?
     “A nurse is supposed to give it to her early Sunday morning,” I said, “which is today.”
     “You haven’t answered my question!” he thundered, only to back off a heartbeat later. “All right,” he admitted. “Somebody came in and gave it to her.” Only to blast me again, “But then she fell asleep! She’s not supposed to fall asleep after she gets it!”
     He took things hard and he made them harder. There would come a day when he declared that the nursing care in this place wasn’t “worth coon shit.”
     I liked “coon shit.” Never in a million years would I have imagined those words coming out of his mouth. We went down for coffee, and then Mom and I went outside into the open air and abundant sunshine while he remained behind in the library reading Maclean’s.
     In the flooding light we walked to the corner. “Did you have wrens nesting in the garden in London last spring?” I asked her.
     “I am forced to confess that I do not remember,” she said, speaking in her old formal way. Her teachers at Renfrew Collegiate had been sticklers for grammar and well-formed sentences, and my mother had been an excellent student.
     “What was it like for you, the last couple of days, when you couldn’t find your words?”
     “It was unsettling. But it’s been unsettling for a while.”
     We walked on. I asked her what she was thinking about.
     “I’m thinking about what the future holds.”
     “Are you worried about that?”
     She said something vague about no one knowing what the future holds, or perhaps I said that.
     I had pulled from the wastebasket in their rooms another of her efforts at a letter, one she had been working on somedays before, wanting it, she said, to be “a reasonable letter from a reasonable person.” She intended to have it do yeoman’s service for all of the friends she hadn’t yet written to.

There must be a way in the English Landwich to say to
your English speaking friends a great deal more emphatic?
I’ve tried many ways but the best I’ve managed is

Thank you so very much from all of us
The Hays

     Around this time, I remember her taking several bananas—the three on the counter and the one from inside their little fridge—and lining them up on the seat of her walker, then pushing her walker into the living room. I didn’t follow for a moment, washing dishes in their kitchenette. Then when I went into the living room, the bananas were nowhere in sight. “Where are they, Mom? Dad, did you see what Mom did with the bananas?”
     “Sure I did.”
     “Where are they?” Looking around.
     “Well, just don’t sit on the chesterfield,” he said.
     I checked under the cushions and there they were: fourbananas lined up in a row.

They reminded me of characters out of Beckett. A pair of solitaries who had always headed out to the studio, in my mother’s case, or downstairs to his study, in my father’s (each to his own lair) were now sharing two rooms. They were like the aged parents trapped in dustbins in Endgame. Like Laurel and Hardy in another fine mess. Or like old Joshua Smallweed in Bleak House throwing cushions at his imbecile wife.
     “Oh the weather,” my mother said to me, “the weather now is the pits of wet roses.” She had been reading in the newspaper, she said, about a woman in her thirties “who came down under the overburden of blankets and probably isn’t going to live.”
     Her turns of phrase rather confirmed my view that poetry issues from the holes in our head, that whatever faculty produces the startling contractions and coinages and leaps in logic that we call poetry is also available on an unconscious and uncontrollable level to someone suffering dementia. One morning on the telephone, ever solicitous about my sleep, she asked, “How did you severe the night?” Blending the words “fare,” “survive” and “persevere” so deftly that a lifetime of labour in the sleep mines got summoned up and summed up. “Dad’s behind a shave,” she added, “but I think he’ll come to the phone.”
     Later, when I went over to see them, “Do you know what I had for breakfast?” she said to me.
     She leaned forward. “Too much.”
     But that was her sense of humour. Like her abundant hair, it was her lasting glory.

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Twenty Ways to Build a Better Country

From our esteemed former Governor General--and author of the bestsellers The Idea of Canada and Ingenious--a very timely guide for restoring personal, community, and national trust.

Trust is a much-needed manual for the repair and restoration of the social quality on which all democracies rely. One of Canada's most revered governors general, David Johnston mines his long life and varied career to give Canadians twenty ways to make themselves, their institutions, and their country more worthy of t …

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Seeking the Fabled City

Seeking the Fabled City

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In this definitive and meticulously researched account of the Jewish experience in Canada, award-winning and critically acclaimed author Allan Levine documents a story that is rich, accessible, often surprising, and epic in its scope. Relying on an abundance of primary sources and first-hand documentation and interviews, Seeking the Fabled City chronicles the successes and failures, the obstacles overcome and those not conquered, of a historic journey and the people who travelled it.

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Power, Prime Ministers and the Press

Power, Prime Ministers and the Press

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An intimate history of the journalists who covered Canadian history, and made some of their own.

The history of the press gallery is rich in anecdotes about the people on Parliament Hill who have covered 23 prime ministers and 42 elections in the past 150 years.

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Chapter One: In the Beginning

On Wednesday, November 6, 1867, official Ottawa was abuzz with excitement. A nineteen-gun salute from the Ottawa Field Battery greeted Viscount Charles Stanley Monck, the forty-eight-year-old governor general, as he arrived to preside over the first session of the new nation’s Parliament. After the formalities of swearing in MPs and the Cabinet ended, Sir John A. Macdonald, the fifty-three-year-old prime minister picked by Monck for the role, moved the appointment of the first speaker of the House. Seconding the motion was Macdonald’s seatmate, Sir George-Étienne Cartier. Then, Joseph Dufresne, the Quebec Conservative MP from Montcalm, rose in his seat and, addressing the House in French, protested the election of Honourable James Cockburn of Northumberland West. In the words of the Toronto Globe the next day, Dufresne complained, “the gentleman could not speak the French language. He thought it was to be regretted that, at the inauguration of the new system, greater respect was not shown to Lower Canada in this matter. He looked upon this as a matter of national feeling.” Without further discussion, the House then went about its business in English. Along with the report, the Globe, a partisan Liberal outlet in its day, used an adjacent column in the November 7 paper to condemn Macdonald for using the speaker’s office as a reward for a loyal but unpromising follower.

So much for a smooth start for the first Parliament.

The Globe report was significant: it affirmed the vital role of the press gallery in national affairs, since there were no official records of debates — known as Hansard — until 1875. Indeed, the Parliamentary Press Gallery is as old as Confederation. While the great fire of 1916 that razed the Parliament Buildings destroyed most of the official records, the first volume of the House of Commons Journals mentions the “reporters’ room.” In 1872 the Canadian Illustrated News carried artist Edward Jump’s sketch of the press gallery in the Commons. In fact, pre-Confederation reporters covering the Parliament of Upper Canada actually worked out of the still-under-construction Parliament Buildings in 1866 — an anniversary the press gallery marked with the publication of a retrospective, Sharp Wits &Busy Pens, in May 2016.

The tradition of covering legislatures dates back to the colonial days. John Bushell published the first issue of his Halifax Gazette in 1752. Quebec’s pioneering paper, La Gazette, appeared in 1764. Journalists had reported on political debates in Quebec City since 1792 and established La Tribune de la Presse Québécoise on November 18, 1871. .tienne Parent, the young intellectual who was the guiding spirit of the nationaliste paper Le Canadien, later served as a senior Cabinet official for the Province of Canada, moving as the seat of government shifted among Kingston, Montreal, Toronto, and Quebec City between 1843 and 1859 — and submitting occasional articles to his paper. Other pre-Confederation journalists led the fight for press freedoms and reform. William Lyon Mackenzie, destined to mount the Upper Canada Rebellion against the Family Compact, wrote in his Colonial Advocate: “Wherever the press is not free, the people are poor, abject, degraded slaves.”

Halifax editor Joseph Howe of the Novascotian, George Brown of the Globe, and Parent were among the influential journalists who later played strong, controversial political roles in shaping Canada. Of the ninety-eight-member Province of Canada delegation attending the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, twenty-three were journalists. As educator George Grant observed in 1828, referring to Howe’s activities, “At this time in the history of the world, it was almost impossible to be an editor without being a politician also.”

And how the members of the press gallery could play politics. Thomas White Jr., called “the Father of the Gallery” by the Canadian Illustrated News in 1875, bought the Hamilton Spectator and the Gazette in Montreal before getting elected and becoming Macdonald’s influential minister of the interior. Henri Bourassa left Laurier’s Cabinet and founded Le Devoir in Montreal, later turning over direction of the paper to a gallery veteran, Georges Pelletier. In the 1900s, two English giants of journalism — friendly with the party in power — graduated from the press gallery to become editors of powerful newspapers: John Willison of the Globe in Toronto and John Dafoe of the Free Press in Winnipeg. In almost a direct line, Dafoe’s figurative descendants over the decades continued the close association and influence with Liberal governments, including Grant Dexter of the Winnipeg Free Press, Bruce Hutchison of the Vancouver Sun, and Blair Fraser of Maclean’s. For the Conservatives, there was the irrepressible Grattan O’Leary, who rose from poverty in the Gasp. to the editorship of the Ottawa Journal and was a confidant of three Tory leaders. In an era when there was no Twitter, Snapchat, or email, these men wrote diaries and exchanged letters with leaders and each other, providing a trove of archival material for historians about their thinking and their actions.

From all of that, we know that early press gallery members were a highly partisan lot. Indeed, the seating plan mirrored the one on the floor of the Commons below. London Free Press editor Arthur Ford, who covered his first Parliament in 1907 for the former Winnipeg Telegram, recalled in his memoir, As the World Wags On: “When I first went to the capital, the Liberals were in power and sat, of course, to the right of the Speaker. The representatives of the Liberal press sat in the press gallery also to the right.” When the Conservatives won the 1911 election, the Tory reporters swapped with the Liberals and moved over to the speaker’s right. So-called independent journalists were relegated to the cheap seats.

Until Laurier’s time, governments ladled out information — even including election calls — as patronage only to their friends in the gallery, the “ministerial press,” as they were known. Willison, who started in Ottawa in 1886 as a correspondent for the Liberal-leaning Globe, complained about his pro-Tory rivals having access to official documents before they were tabled in Parliament. “Their dispatches would be in the telegraph office before less favoured rivals could examine the reports,” he wrote in Reminiscences, Political, and Personal, his 1919 autobiography. “It was one way a grateful ministry paid newspapers for their support.”

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