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Leacock Medal Finalists 2019

By 49thShelf
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tagged: humour, funny, comedy
Congratulations to the finalists for the 2019 Leacock Medal, recognizing the best in hilarious Canadian literature.
The Woo-Woo

The Woo-Woo

How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family


Shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust of Canada Prize for Nonfiction; Winner, Hubert Evans Nonfiction Prize; Longlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour


In this jaw-dropping, darkly comedic memoir, a young woman comes of age in a dysfunctional Asian family who blame their woes on ghosts and demons when they should really be on anti-psychotic meds.

Lindsay Wong grew up with a paranoid schizophrenic grandmother and a mother who was deeply afraid of the …

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Trickster Drift

Trickster Drift

also available: Hardcover

Following the Scotiabank Giller Prize-shortlisted Son of a Trickster comes Trickster Drift, a national bestseller and the second book in Eden Robinson's captivating Trickster trilogy.

Jared Martin, seventeen, has quit drugs and drinking. But his troubles are not over: the temptation to slip is constant (thanks to his enabling, ever-partying mom, Maggie). He's being stalked by David, his mom's ex--a preppy, khaki-wearing psycho with a proclivity for rib-breaking. And Maggie, a witch as well as a …

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The clouds finally broke into a sullen drizzle after a muggy, overcast day. Jared Martin flipped up his hood as he turned the corner onto his street. His mom’s truck was in the driveway. The house he’d grown up in was two storeys high, white with green trim. The large porch was littered with work gear. His mom rented out two of the rooms and the basement to pay the bills. Most of her tenants were sub-subcontractors, in Kitimat for a few weeks and unwilling to shell out for a pricey furnished one-bedroom or a motel room. Or they were hard-core smokers who wanted to be able to light up in their rooms and found a kindred spirit in his mom, a dedicated two-packer who hated being forced outside.

He paused on the sidewalk, listening. Things seemed quiet. Which didn’t mean it was safe to go in, but Jared went up the steps and opened the front door. Not visiting his mom before he took off for Vancouver would save him a lot of grief, but it would be such a douche move. She’d never let him forget it.

“Mom?” Jared said.

“In here,” she said, her voice coming from the kitchen.
The kitchen windows were all open and moths fluttered against the screens. She was frying a pan of meatballs, her cigarette tucked into the corner of her mouth.

Her hair was in a ponytail. She wore her favourite ripped Metallica T-shirt over jeans and flip-flops. He could see all the little muscles working in her face as she inhaled. She was losing weight again. He hoped it was just coke.

Jared put his backpack down by the table and then hopped up to sit on the counter. His mom salted a pot of boiling water and cracked in some spaghetti.

“Nice of you to show up,” she said.

Jared swung his feet, staring down at them. “Where’s Richie?”

“He is where he is.”

Her boyfriend sold the lighter recreational drugs. They used to get along, but Richie seemed suspicious of Jared now that Jared was sober, like he had suddenly turned into a narc. When they were forced together by his mom, Richie wouldn’t talk to him for fear of incriminating himself.

Jared watched her resentfully making him dinner. She hated cooking. He wished she’d just ordered a pizza. He tried to think of a safe topic of conversation. His Monday night shift at Dairy Queen was normally dull, but his new co-worker had kept stopping to sob into her headset. “Work was nuts. I had to train my replacement. She does not handle stress well.”

“Not many people survive the soft-serve ice-cream racket.”

Ball-buster, his dad called her when he was being charitable. His adoptive dad? His dad. Philip Martin, the guy who had raised him when his biological dad turned out to be a complete dick.

She stirred the pasta. “What? No snappy comeback?”
“I’m tired.”

“Yeah, looking down on all us alkies and addicts must be exhaust­ing.”

“Are we going to do this all night?”

“Get the colander.”

Jared hopped down and grabbed the colander from the cupboard above the fridge.

When he handed it to her, she stared at him a moment. Then her lips went thin, the lines around her mouth deepening. “I don’t want you staying with Death Threat,” she said.

Death Threat was the nickname of one of her exes, Charles Redhill, a low-level pot grower who said it would be okay if Jared bunked in his basement while he was going to school in Vancouver, if he didn’t mind working a little security detail in exchange.

“People aren’t exactly lining up to let me sleep on their couches,” Jared said.

“He’s a fuckboy with delusions he’s Brando.”

“Stel-la!” Jared said, trying to make her laugh.

She ignored him as if he wasn’t standing beside her. She took the cigarette out of the corner of her mouth and let the pasta drain in the colander in the sink and then dumped it back in the pot. She poured in a jar of Ragú spaghetti sauce and stirred and then added the meatballs. She crushed the last bit of her cigarette out on the burner and tossed the butt in a sand-filled coffee can near the sink. He carried the pot to the table. She pulled some garlic bread out of the oven.

They ate in silence. Or, more accurately, Jared ate in silence. His mom smoked and picked at a meatball with her fork, slowly mashing it into bits.
“Where’s Death Threat’s place?” she said.

Jared shrugged. He was hoping against hope that Death lived near his school, the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Didn’t matter, though. Nothing beat free.

“Nice. I’m your mother and you don’t trust me enough to know where you’re fucking staying.”

“He’s away in Washington State right now. I’m booked at a hos­tel for the first week. Just text my cell.”

“He told you where he lives, right?”

“He’ll show.”

“He’s a fucking pothead. He’ll forget you exist. He forgets where his ass is until someone hands it to him.”

“I can handle myself.”

His mom sucked in a great impatient breath.

“Can we just have a nice supper?” Jared said.

“Can you not live with the spazzy fucktard who calls himself Death Threat?”

“Chill, okay? I just need a free place until my student loan comes in, then I’ll find a room or something.”

“Buttfucking Jesus on goddamn crutches.”


“Don’t Mom me, genius. This is a crap plan.”

“It’s my life,” Jared said, pushing the plate away.

“Jared, you can barely manage warding. What’re you going to do if you run into something really fucking dangerous?”

His mom was a witch. For real. As he had found out definitively, just before he swore off the booze and the drugs. He’d always thought she was being melodramatic when she told him witch stuff. Then he was kidnapped by some angry otters and his shape-shifting father/
sperm donor stepped in to save him, along with his mother. He only lost a toe. Her particular talent was hexes, though she preferred giv­ing her enemies a good old-fashioned shit-kicking. Curses tended to bite you in the ass, she’d told him, and weren’t nearly as satisfying as physically throttling someone.

“Who’s going to bother me?” Jared said. “I got nothing anyone wants.”

“You’re the son of a Trickster,” she hissed.

“There’s a billion of us.” On one website he’d found 532 people claiming to be the children of Wee’git. Either Wee’git couldn’t keep it in his pants or a lot of people wanted to appear more exotic.

“You think you’re so fucking smart,” his mom said.

Jared recited the Serenity Prayer in his head. She shook another cigarette out of the pack and lit it off her butt before crushing it out on the full ashtray in the middle of the table. The TV went on in the living room. The recliner squealed.

“I’ll be out of your hair tomorrow,” Jared said. “You can forget you ever had me and party yourself to death.”

“You are testing my patience.”

It was always a bad sign when his mom stopped swearing. Jared focused on the tick of the kitchen clock to stay calm.

“You think I don’t love you,” she said. “Is that it?”

“I don’t think I’m high on your priority list.”

She got up and stood over him. She took her cigarette out of her mouth and he half-expected to get it in his face. He must have flinched, because her eyes narrowed dangerously.

She grabbed his chin. “You shoulda been a girl. Wah. Mommy doesn’t fucking love me. My feelings. My feeeeeelings.”

He shoved her hand away. “Get off me.”
“Are we done emoting?”

“I am.”

She backed up a step. “So I asked my sister if you could stay with her.”

Holy crap. Jared was stunned. His mom hadn’t spoken to her sis­ter since . . . forever. God. She really didn’t want him to stay with Death Threat.

“I dunno,” Jared said.

“Mave’s willing to put you up,” his mom said. “But be careful. She’s deaf to magic. Don’t bring it up around her. She’ll think you’re nuts and try to get you on antipsychotics.”

“I thought you hated her.”

“I do.”

She took a piece of paper out of her jean pocket and handed it to him. His throat tightened when he saw the name and number. His aunt, Mavis Moody, had tried to get custody of him when he was a baby, figuring her sister would be bad for any baby. His mom had married Philip Martin to avoid losing Jared. He couldn’t meet his mom’s eyes knowing how much of her pride she’d sacrificed to find him a safer place to crash. He dropped his head.

“Don’t say I never did anything for you,” she said.

Jared reached down, rifled through his backpack and gave her his grad picture.

She frowned. “Are you throwing it in my face? I only have grade eight and you’re a fucking high school graduate? You think that makes you special?”

“It’s just a picture,” Jared said. “Toss it if you don’t like it.”

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Rick Mercer Final Report

Rick Mercer Final Report

also available: Paperback

Canada's pre-eminent satirical commentator brings down the curtain on his hugely successful show in this instant #1 national bestseller.

Rick Mercer can always be relied on to provoke a strong reaction--but what he said one fall day in 2017 truly shocked the nation. In a rant posted on social media, the great Canadian satirist announced loud and clear that the current, 15th season of the Rick Mercer Report--the nation's best-watched and best-loved comedy show--would be the last. After more than 2 …

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Pierre Berton: That's How He Rolled
They were called Celebrity Tips—a series of instructional videos starring Canadian icons.

In the early years of the Mercer Report, some of the nation’s most famous people appeared on the show, demonstrating simple, often mundane but crucial skills.

How does one safely boost a car battery? Every Canadian should know how to do that. And who better to teach the nation than the most glamorous woman I have had the privilege of knowing: Ms. Shirley Douglas.

Shirley was thrilled to take part. And so the daughter of Tommy Douglas, the famous actress, activist and member of the Order of Canada, grabbed the booster cables and taught the nation.

It was thirty below, her hair was impeccable and she refused to wear a hat. It should be noted for the record that she needed absolutely no direction when it came to the issue of which cable went where.

When she finished, she said, “While we are here, would you like me to show you how to change a tire?” 

Celebrated novelist Margaret Atwood appeared in a Celebrity Tip to teach Canadians how to stop a hockey puck. I will always remember standing on location, in a hockey rink, with the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, explaining to her that her line about “protecting your five-hole” was an actual thing and not a double entendre.

Geddy Lee, the lead singer of Rush—considered by millions of Canadians and Latin Americans to be the greatest rock and roll band in the history of the world—taught us the importance of toboggan safety.

Yes, thanks to my job, I got to go tobogganing with Geddy Lee in the park by my house. Scratch that off the bucket list.

The problem with the Celebrity Tips, I discovered, was that in order for them to work, the celebrity had to be much more than a celebrity. They had to be an icon. And the thing about icons is that there aren’t a lot of them around. We were running out fast.

And then there was the matter of convincing these people to do something perhaps outside of their comfort zone—NHL enforcer Tie Domi gave tips on how to set a pretty Thanksgiving table. Tie is the kind of guy who is up for anything, but not everyone is quite so self-deprecating.

Ever since the tips began, we had always tossed around the notion of producing one entitled “How to Roll a Joint.” We never put any real thought into the logistics because, for the life of me, I could not think of a single Canadian icon who might be prepared to go on TV and roll a joint.

As I said, Celebrity Tips was an item in the early days of the show, as you can tell from the fact that we were even considering including one on joint rolling. This was before we realized that with our high ratings, we had inadvertently become a family show. We were thrilled when we got the data that showed college students were watching in droves.

And we knew adults were watching too. But when we found out that entire families and small kids were a part of our growing audience, that changed a few things.

We loved the idea that families were watching together, and Gerald and I decided that while we wouldn’t change the show, we would be careful to avoid embarrassing parents or kids while they watched together. That meant no jokes that might lead to conversations like “Mommy, what does autoerotic asphyxiation mean?”

These are the sacrifices we make for prime-time television.

But in the early days, I did find myself saying with regret, “We are never going to find someone famous to go on TV and teach people how to roll a joint.”

It was Gerald who said, “Pierre Berton might.”

I have long since given up figuring out how Gerald knows some of the things that he knows. He has better show business instincts than anyone I have ever met. But in this instance I was pretty sure he had taken leave of his senses.

Pierre Berton was not just an icon, he was an icon’s icon.

He was Canada’s first celebrity author. He wrote important books. A lot of them. I had four feet of them on my shelf. He was the reason I became enamoured with Canadian history. If it weren’t for Pierre Berton and the Heritage Minutes, most of us in Canada would be like goldfish—no idea where we came from or where we were going.

I said with authority, “There is no way Pierre Berton is going to come on the show and roll a joint.”
Gerald said, “Give him a call. I heard that back in the day he liked a puff.”

Remember, while this was no longer “back in the day,” this was still thirteen years before any credible political figure in Canada was actually using the phrase “legalize it.”

The prospect, no matter how slim, of booking Pierre Berton was too tempting. So at the risk of embarrassing myself in an encounter with someone I admired so much, I gave him a call.

Tracking famous people down to ask them a favour involves breaking through the lines of defence—publicists, managers, husbands, wives and protectors. It takes time and patience.

Reaching Pierre Berton was not hard. He was listed in the phone book.

I had remembered reading a profile on him years earlier in which he talked about his days as a columnist for the Toronto Star. For many years he was the most-read opinion columnist in Canada’s largest newspaper. He was often controversial, often cantankerous and wildly opinionated. He wrote the kind of columns that made people angry. And when he wrote something he knew people would complain about, Berton would say, “You don’t like it? Call me. I’m in the book.”

Throughout his entire career this most famous Canadian was reachable by any Canadian who could read or dial 411.

That was a different time. The drummer for Great Big Sea has an unlisted number to this day, and they broke up six years ago.

It was the end of the day and I went downstairs and got in the van. A young man by the name of Nik Sexton was driving. Nik was a new addition to the team. How he came to be with us is a classic Newfoundland tale. I knew Nik’s mother. Gerald knew Nik’s mother. Gerald had worked with Nik’s uncle, the late Tommy Sexton, on the CBC comedy show CODCO. Tommy was one of my comedy idols. I had known Nik since he was five.

Nik had come to Toronto from St. John’s to attend film and TV school. For whatever reason, Nik decided it wasn’t for him and dropped out before the tuition cheque cleared. Nik admitted that he was somewhat embarrassed that he hadn’t stayed in school, and rather than head back to St. John’s he decided he was going to stick around and make it on his own in the big city.

In that classic St. John’s way, Nik’s mother, Mary, said, “I’ll call Rick and Gerald,” which she did. Gerald said, “There is always a place for Nik,” and he came on board. He started as a production assistant. In television this can mean many things, but it is almost always what is politely called an “entry-level position.”

On this day I sat in the van and prepared to contact Pierre Berton. Nik was behind the wheel.

I dialed 411. “A number for Pierre Berton, please. Kleinburg, Ontario.”

Nik said, “Pierre Berton? Dude with the bow ties?”

This is when I knew that Pierre Berton and only Pierre Berton would be perfect for this tip. It was too good. He was a ninety-year-old historian and the nineteen-year-old skateboarder sitting next to me knew who he was.

The robot voice gave me the number and I dialed.

He picked up on the first ring.


“Hello, it’s Rick Mercer calling. Is Pierre Berton there, please?”

“Yes, Rick, hello. This is Pierre. What can I do for you?”

“Well, Mr. Berton, first of all, let me tell you I am a huge fan. I read Tales of the Klondike in high school, and then Dieppe, and then Vimy. I have many of your books. I just bought your latest a few weeks ago. But the reason why I am calling is, we have a segment on our show called ‘Celebrity Tips.’ Famous people come on and teach Canadians how to do things—”

“I am aware of the segment,” he said. “I saw June Callwood kick a field goal last week.”

“Yes, why yes, you did,” I said. “I was hoping you would come on the show and . . . well . . . do a tip.”

“I see. And what would I be teaching people to do?”

This was the make-or-break point.

“Well, Mr. Berton, you would be teaching Canadians how to properly roll a joint.”

Nik gave me a thumbs-up.

There was a pause.

“Go on,” he said.

“Uh, well, honestly, that’s it. I mean, that’s the whole bit. You are Pierre Berton and you teach us to roll a joint. Nobody would ever expect you to do that, because, well, you’re Pierre Berton.”

He said, “I like it. Come to my house tomorrow around ten.”

This was the best news and the worst news. The best in the sense that he was actually going to do the segment. The worst in that he said he wanted to do it the next day. TV doesn’t work like that.

“Oh, Mr. Berton, no. We couldn’t possibly do this tomorrow. I was simply checking to see if you would consider it. We need to book a crew, and I need to write the thing, and we have to figure out how to get people to the location. We can probably arrange a time next week.”
“Well, there’s no guarantee I’ll be here next week.”

I realized he wasn’t talking about perhaps taking off for Florida. This was what is called a cultural emergency. Extraordinary measures were necessary.

“Mr. Berton, you are right. We will figure it out. We will be at your house tomorrow at 10 a.m. It should take a few hours at most.”

“Okay,” he said. “One thing, though: you bring the weed.”

Now, this I hadn’t thought of. The weed!

“Right, of course. Well, I guess I will talk to our props department or our art department and we will figure something out—”

“No,” he said. “If I’m going to roll a joint on TV, I won’t be rolling oregano. People will know the difference. It will look ridiculous.”

Well, far be it from me to allow an icon to look ridiculous on my show. Part of my entire philosophy was ensuring that anyone who ever appeared on the show looked great, be they an icon or an oyster fisherman.

“One second, please,” I said.

I covered the phone and said to Nik: “Nik, when you pick me up tomorrow morning, it will be like eight or something. Do you think you could, I don’t know, bring a bag of weed?”

Nik didn’t bat an eye. “I can do that,” he said.

Nik fixed problems from the moment he showed up. He was an excellent hire. He stayed with the show for fifteen seasons, working his way up to associate producer. He also directs and writes feature films.

The next day, the very next day, at exactly 10 a.m., I knocked on Pierre Berton’s door.

He opened it and he looked just like himself. Elegant, somewhat frailer than I had expected, but resplendent in a jacket and bow tie.

“Welcome to my home,” he said.

It was a lovely house. Bright, airy, very comfortable and very lived in. Dripping in books and art. It was exactly where you would imagine a famous author would live.

After the warm greetings, Burton got down to business. He said, “Did you bring the weed?”

Pierre Berton was amazing to work with. He was a gracious host. He welcomed me and the small crew with open arms. There is an adage in our business: “Never let a film crew in your home.” I guess, as with the listed phone number, Pierre Berton never got that memo.

The finished product is my favourite celebrity tip. In it, he teaches Nik (now promoted to special skills extra) how to roll the perfect joint. As his rolling surface, he chose the cover of his latest book, Prisoners of the North. No fool he. Pierre Berton was always a master at selling books, and he had not lost his touch.

He never once forgot his lines. He was sharp. He entertained us with stories. And he was complimentary about the show and the rants. As he was one of the original great shit disturbers, this meant the world to me.

He signed all the books I had dragged along from my bookshelf and posed for pictures with everyone on the small crew. He told me that he was thrilled that his last TV appearance would be on the show and that it would probably cause some controversy.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said, “that so many young people have had their lives ruined because of small-possession charges.”

I, of course, assured him this would be far from his last TV appearance. But as so often before in his life, he was right. It was his last TV show. He passed away six weeks after it aired, Prisoners of the North still on The Globe and Mail’s best-seller list.

On my list of people that I was truly thrilled to meet, Pierre Berton is at the top.

And on the front porch as I was leaving, I got to thank him not only for the day, for being a gracious host, but for everything he did, including opening my eyes to Canada’s history.

“You are very welcome,” he said.

And I will never forget the last words this true Canadian icon said to me. He looked at me dead in the eye and said:

“Rick, leave the weed.”

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Boy Wonders

Boy Wonders

A memoir
also available: Paperback

"The most fascinating things about life are the banalities we so rarely discuss amongst ourselves but that we devote most of our energies to navigating. How did that day you've forgotten look? What did it feel like? Were you lonely? Did you have the sense you were progressing anywhere? Probably not. Yet string a few thousand of them together and that's a life." —From Boy Wonders
Cathal Kelly grew up in the seventies and eighties, decades when dressing like Michael Jackson seemed like a goo …

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Into my late twenties, I carried around a series of diaries listing every book I’d ever read—how many pages it contained, when it had been started and finished, and a mark out of five stars. I loved reading, but I got a special thrill from being able to pad the list.

Life is not orderly, but a list can make it so. As you change, so do your lists.

I no longer believe that The Breakfast Club is one of the ten best films ever made. But there was a younger version of myself who did. An astrophysicist once told me, “You cannot properly consider a system of which you are a part.” (It’s one of the Top 20 Aphorisms I’ve Encountered in Conversation.)

So while I remember the iteration of myself who thought Molly Ringwald dancing on a staircase and Emilio Estevez talking about ripping the hair off some guy’s ass was right up there with La Règle du Jeu, I’m not sure I would recognize him now.

However, I can make certain assumptions about him because I have the list as a reference point. If the list is long enough, you can make good guesses about someone’s personality and approach. You can tell if this is someone you’d like.

In journalism, lists are considered the lowest form of literature, tucked in behind streeters and notes columns. A list is what you print in August when everyone’s on vacation and you can’t come up with anything better.

I’ve never understood that pervasive opinion. I defy you to read past a list on a printed page. It’s impossible. Because you know that while ten thousand words of explication may tell you nothing about the author, a list can’t help but do so. It lets you flip through the filing system of someone’s brain. It’s a form of mind reading.

It’s my book so I get to inflict just a few of my lists on you.

I apologize in advance if they do not offend you. That was my intention. I’ll try to learn from this and do better in future.

1. Being unreachable
2. Ignorance of the daily news cycle
3. Rotary dial
4. Remembering phone numbers
5. Silence
6. Darkness
7. Smoking on subway platforms
8. Music videos as destination television
9. Aerosol deodorant

1. The middle seat
2. Cleveland after dark
3. Disney World/Land
4. Cleveland in daylight
5. Any hotel room facing a highway
6. O’Hare Airport at Christmas
7. A twenty-four-hour coffee shop between 2 and 5 a.m.
8. The front row at a movie theatre
9. Any lineup for any reason
10. Budapest

1. Picnics
2. Being there
3. Concerts in arenas
4. Canoeing
5. The Louvre
6. Theatre in a park
7. Cross-country skiing
8. Opening night
9. Pop-up anything
10. Cooking over an open fire

1. None. Nobody cares about your excuses.
2. “I apologize unreservedly.”
3. “Is that really what you wanted?”
4. “This is news to me.”
5. “Are you sure you gave it to me?”
6. “They didn’t have it.”
7. “What can I tell you?”
8. “I feel like I did that already.”
9. “That’s not what he told me.”
10. “I think you’ve got it backwards.”

1. New York
2. London
3. Berlin
4. Prague
5. Florence
6. Nairobi
7. Vienna
8. Johannesburg
9. Zagreb
10. Minneapolis

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Ayesha At Last

Ayesha At Last

A Novel
also available: eBook Paperback
tagged : humorous

Soon to be a major motion picture by Warner Brothers Entertainment and Pascal Pictures

Pride and Prejudice with a modern twist—a feel-good, laugh-out-loud comedy of love where you least expect it

Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her one hundredth …

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Here So Far Away

Here So Far Away

by Dyer
also available: eBook Hardcover Hardcover

George Warren (real name: Frances, but nobody calls her that) is well aware that she’s sometimes too tough for her own good. She didn’t mean to make the hot new guy cry—twice. And maybe she shouldn’t have hit the school’s mean girl in the face. George’s loyalty and impulsiveness are what her friends love about her—they know she’s got their backs.

On the cusp of her senior year, though, everything starts to change: a fight with her best friend puts an irreparable rift in George's s …

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Woman World

Woman World

tagged : literary

The hilarious and wildly popular instagram comic about a world with no men

With her startling humor, it's no surprise that Aminder Dhaliwal's web comic Woman World has a devoted audience of more than 120,000 readers, updated biweekly with each installment earning an average of 25,000 likes. Now, readers everywhere will delight in the print edition as Dhaliwal seamlessly incorporates feminist philosophical concerns into a series of perfectly-paced strips that skewer perceived notions of femininity …

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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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