Author Archives: harrisrh

Summer Reading 2023: The Mixed Bag Edition

A Heartfelt Bibliophile of Books

Summer. Sun. Sand. Suds. Salaciousness. Books.

Q. Which of the above words does NOT belong there?

If you fell into the oldest trap in the, er, book, then you are guilty of alliterative fever. Don’t worry. There’s a cure — and it ain’t more cowbell (close second). It’s books!

Kudos to Deborah Dundas (@debdundas), Books Editor @TorontoStar, for putting together an eclectic list of books to read this summer in your hammock…while not portaging, reupholstering your chesterfield, escaping a black/brown/grizzly/polar bear attack, or tapping for maple syrup (just kidding…it’s not winter, duh!).

Check out her article, “Summer is here, and the reading is amazing. These are the 20 best books to pile by your hammock,” for more details aboot (wink, wink) the list, which has offerings in the categories of Fiction, Non-fiction, Diversions, Mystery & True Crime, and Beach Reads.


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Iceland: Fire & Ice & Books

As many people know, Canada has an intimate relationship with Iceland. Aside from that fact that we can obviously see the Land of Fire and Ice from our backyards in the Great White North, the country’s president, Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, is married to a Canadian woman from Ontario, Eliza Reid.

However, did you also know that some Icelandic towns have a curfew for cats? Well, according to, there may be something else you didn’t know about those wild and crazy Icelanders: they love them some books! Per the aforementioned website:

Iceland is often called “the land of fire and ice,” a nickname describing two of the nation’s most prominent geological features — volcanoes and glaciers. But in recent years, the world’s 18th largest island has gotten a new reputation as a destination for readers and book lovers, and it’s because Iceland has more authors per capita than any other country in the world. It’s estimated that on an island with a population around 372,500 people, one in 10 will publish a book. There’s even a phrase in Icelandic that relates to the popularity of writing — “ad ganga med bok I maganum,” which roughly translates to “everyone gives birth to a book.” Many writers reside in the island’s capital city of Reykjavik, a major publishing hub that in 2011 was named a UNESCO City of Literature.

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Why Artists Love Ireland So Much

Short answer — taxes. Long answer — taxes and a new pilot program in which Ireland’s federal government supports artists financially.

So I have a friend. He’s a writer. Although he wasn’t born in Ireland, he’s got one of those flashy blue EU passports. Said friend decides years back to move on over to Ireland and keep pecking away at his Underwood. Aside from lovely stout beers and charming accents, Ireland also has something called the Artists Tax Exemption Scheme, which “allows earnings made by artists from the sale of original and creative works to be exempt from income tax. It applies to visual artists, sculptors, composers of music, and writers.”

However, the same aforementioned friend started running into trouble when he began selling a lot of books. Why? Because of the High Income Individuals Restriction which came into effect in 2007. Since then, the amount an artist can claim as tax exempt has been steadily declining. Today, the Artist Exemption stands at €40,000 anually, which, if you think about it, is still better than nothing.

But there’s another reason to love Ireland these days! (Wait, isn’t there always?) And that’s because “A government pilot program in Ireland is sending artists a weekly $350 check with no strings attached, allowing them to concentrate on creative pursuits without the pressures of a day job.”

I says pardon.

Per The New York Times, “Ireland’s program stands out because of its rigor. Officials will study the 2,000 recipients’ finances, work patterns and well-being and compare them with those of a control group of artists getting no payments.”

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TPL Book Sanctuary Collection

There is a reason why I am a proud supporter of the Toronto Public Library (TPL), the busiest urban public library system in the world. Yes, you read that correctly. With its 4 million branch visits and 33.3 million visits to TPL online platforms in 2021, it is extremely meaningful on a worldwide scale that the TPL has established The Book Sanctuary Collection, which “represents books that have been challenged, censored or removed from a public library or school in North America. The 50 adult, teen and children’s books in our collection are available for browsing and borrowing in our branches and online.”

Among the 50 books on this TPL-protected list: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (profanity, sexual overtones, being anti-religious, 2SLGTQ+ characters and for being morally bankrupt), Atonement by Ian McEwan (poor grammar and sentence structure), The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (portrayal of childhood sexual abuse), The Diary of Anne Frank (Anne’s discussion of her sexuality and genitalia), and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (sexual content and situations dealing with alcoholism and abuse).

I’d like to rant and rave about the idiots who tried so hard to have these works of art excised from our libraries and education systems, but in truth I’d rather use my time to read a book. Perhaps one of the books listed above.

P.S. For all the bibliophiles out there, I highly recommend two feel-good books about books — and most definitely for bookish bookies — by Alberto Manguel that are not banned (to my knowledge) in any library: A History of Reading and The Library at Night. Oh, and for all the other bibliolaters and bibliophages, be sure to check out this list of wicked-awesome book-related words.

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The Book of Eels

This past month, I read Swedish author Patrik Svensson’s The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World along with my fellow book club members. Strangely enough, not everyone in my book club thought it would literally be about eels. Well, it is and it was. In fact, Svensson has accomplished something I never thought I would say: He has written an enthralling, highly informative, and (dare I say) enticing book about the snake-like fish you (possibly/probably) find gross.

What makes the book so special is not just the facts about eels that will kinda/sorta blow your mind; it’s also the father-son story behind every chapter and the thought-provoking inclusion of, among other things, politics, philosophy religion, psychology, and literature. Or, as the publisher puts it: “Blending memoir and nature writing, Svensson’s journey to understand the eel becomes an exploration of the human condition that delves into overarching issues about our roots and destiny, both as humans and as animals, and, ultimately, how to handle the biggest question of all: death.”

Oh, and in case you were wondering, of the ten book club members who read this book, every single person gave it a thumbs-up, something we have done fewer times in fourteen years together than you can count on one hand.

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The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney

Although people sometimes misquote Winston Churchill as having said that we can judge the level of civilization in a society by the way it treats its prisoners, it was actually Fyodor Dostoyevsky who said: “The degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.” What Churchill, in fact, said is that a society’s attitude to its prisoners, that is, its “criminals,” is the measure of “the stored up strength of a nation.”

If you put stock in what Dostoyevsky believed about prisons being a reflection of a society’s level of civilization, then we have a serious problem here in Canada. For those interested in learning what life is actually like behind bars (at least what it’s like in Canada), you should give The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney a read. Jason Demers, the book’s editor and an assistant professor at the University of Regina, has done an exceptional job of putting together a book about a Canadian man who spent more than three decades in several prisons across the country. Per the publisher’s description of the book:

“Rik McWhinney spent thirty-four years and four months in Canada’s federal penitentiaries–sixteen of those in solitary confinement. His incarceration began in the 1970s, as a system-wide war was raging over the implementation of penal reforms…The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney collects his poetry, essays, grievance forms, letters, and interviews to provide readers with insight into the everyday life of incarcerated individuals, amplifying the lives and voices of a demographic that society would rather ignore. McWhinney relays the horrors of solitary confinement and provides a vivid account of the violence and psychological turmoil that he endured while incarcerated.”

While The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney is not for the faint-of-heart reader, it is nonetheless important reading and will certainly teach you a thing or two about a thing or two. For, as the great Barbara Tuchman once wrote, “Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible.”

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Ontario Arts Council Literary Grant

Ontario Arts Council - ICF Logos and Acknowledgment

Yes, the cheque was in the mail. Literally. For a literary grant! My profound thanks to the Ontario Arts Council (OAC) for believing in this old dog. It was, umm, not my first kick at the can. However, I am pleased to announce that an upcoming novel of mine, Perfected in Love, was the recipient of an @ONArtsCouncil literary grant last week. Aside from the financial cushion, it means so much more than that — despite what writers may claim, they still want vindication for all the time and soul-crushing effort they put into their little engine that could. For me, this grant is particularly meaningful because it completes the Canadian literary grant trifecta for me; I have now received literary grants from the Toronto Arts Council, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Canada Council for the Arts for three different works of my fiction. Thank you, Ontario and Ontarians, for supporting your artists. #ArtsAddValue

While I can verify that it’s not easy to get an OAC literary grant, it certainly does feel nice when you do receive one, even if you did have to try for over a decade (#finally). Cough….cough cough cough. I, like most of us, enjoy complaining about where our tax dollars mysteriously disappear to every day. Well, I can now confidently say that at least part of that friendly 13% HST goes to support the Ontario Arts Council and the myriad programs they support through grants in the fields of Dance, Literature, Media Arts, Multi and Inter-Arts, Music, Theatre, and Visual Arts.

Furthermore, they also offer specific assistance to a wide range of Ontarians, including Artists of Colour, Deaf Artists and Artists with Disabilities, Francophone Artists, Indigenous Artists, New Generation Artists, and Artists Living in Regions outside of Toronto.

Thank you once again, OAC, for all that you do to lend artists in this great province a helping hand. It does not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

A great title for a great book. Although the title (presumably) comes from one of the many propaganda signs found ubiquitously around North Korea (세상에 부럼 없어라 – We have nothing to envy in the world.), it could very well be a welcome sign at the “international” airport in Pyongyang, the country’s capital city.

The author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick, does a commendable job of getting six North Korean defectors from in and around the Chongjin (청진) area to open up about their lives, the lives of their family members and friends, and the lives of those around them while they were citizens of the Hermit Kingdom 2.0 and then after they arrive in South Korea. Even the most uninterested non-Koreaphiles will be turning the page and wanting more because it’s no different than reading a (real-life) modern-day version of Orwell’s 1984.

What really sets this book apart is the way the author constructs the narrative of the North Koreans who have escaped the ravages of life under Kim Il-sung and subsequently under Kim Jong-il. The fancy way of putting it is that Demick combines a Greek approach to tragedy through the predicaments these people face and the weaknesses which hold them back from successfully overcoming these challenges with a more modern tradition of making them human, fettered by flaws that are relatable and evoke anguish-filled empathy, with irony dripping over it all at pretty much every turn.

We want to scream out loud as these victims of a state-run campaign to destroy them in every facet of their lives keep telling themselves how great Kim Il-sung is, how great life is in North Korea, and how great everything will be once the rest of the world catches up to them technologically, politically and morally.

Even as people are dropping dead all around them during the Great Famine of the 1990s, it’s “Let’s stay strong on this Arduous March!” Just go! we want to tell these people. Get the hell out of Dodge! Cross the bloody Tumen River and then find a way — any way — to South Korea.

The most memorable revelations in this book are simple everyday moments that make you, the reader, pause for a few heartbreaking seconds and go, Holy shit. There really is a hell on Earth. For me, some of these moments included a woman collapsing as she entered China, falling to the ground, and discovering that the Chinese feed their dogs better, more nutritious food than the North Korean government did its own citizens; a highly educated defector getting to South Korea, reading 1984, and wondering how Orwell nailed it so perfectly years before this nightmare unfolded in North Korea; and hearing Kim Jong-il’s real voice through an illegal TV broadcast and realizing exactly what the Japanese did on August 15, 1945 — that small, tiny, weak voice was what we cowered under for a lifetime?

If you like learning and you enjoy a good ol’ tragedy, you will love this book. It is replete with so many of the most human of traits: through its pages we find first love, we please our parents and strive for the very best, we work hard and have big dreams of success and children and food on the table — and then we have it all obliterated. At the very least, it’s proof that the best of humanity does triumph in the face of unimaginable adversity. And while love may not always conquer every foe — real or imagined — it does propel us to new heights, it does inspire us to achieve the unachievable, and even when it does die a sad, lonely death, we are left with an enduring feeling that we are better people for having loved at all.


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Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje: The divided man | Michael Ondaatje | The Guardian

Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human. Meander if you want to get to town.

If you spend enough time outside of Canada as a Canadian, you’re bound to have a conversation with an American that goes something like this at least once in your life:

– “So where you from?”

– “Canada.”

– “No way! Do you know a guy named Tom? I forget his last name, but I think he’s from Saskatoon. Or…wait. No. What state is Saskatoon in?”

In any event, I may have inadvertently proven that stereotype true last week when I ran into Michael Ondaatje while out for a walk in my neighbourhood. Of course I ran into the 1992 Booker Prize winner, nay, the 2018 Golden Man Booker recipient. Just another day at the office here in the Saskatoon of Ontario. And of course I reminded him that he had won both those awards. You know, in case those trivial facts had slipped his mind

For those who know me, they will also know how much I venerate Mr. Ondaatje. I like to think — think — I keep my shit together with the best of them in stressful situations, but the author of what I have openly declared the most important work of fiction in the 20th century (The English Patient) brought out the ohmygodshootmeinthefacerightnow shakes in me. And he’s all cool, like, Ya, I’m a good-lookin’ dude and write like the badass yo’ mama told you to stay away from ’cause there’s a trick with a knife I’m learning to do. (I think he wrote something along those lines in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.)

But I digress. After sheepishly asking him if he was indeed Michael Ondaatje, and he confirmed said fact, we talked for a few minutes. I gather he sensed my excitement (i.e. I was going slightly insane in the membrane) and he rewarded me for this boyish ebullience by showing off his dashing smile now and again as I basically listed off his accomplishments to him like a humanoid version of LinkedIn. Before we went our separate ways, he extended his hand for me to shake. Two equals we are not, but shake my hand like an equal he did.

Later, like a teenage dickwad fresh off his first date, I played the conversation over in my mind a million times when I got back home. Was I too direct? Did I come off too macho? Too lame? Did he notice that I’d had my hair cut yesterday? And why the hell did I wear those piece-of-crap shoes otherwise known as Zellers Specials from the 1980s!

It goes without saying that he noticed none of this shit. Why? He’s Michael god damn Ondaatje. As one of my hockey coaches used to say to us young fawns when we got caught in the proverbial headlights of life: “Get yer head outta yer ass and keep yer fackin’ stick on the ice, man!”

Here’s the thing. I don’t look up to a lot of people. Fewer still if them being alive and kicking is a prerequisite. It’s not likely Michael and I will ever be BFFs, which in my own brain seems incongruous because I know so much about him. And that’s because we form a different relationship with authors than we do with other artists. We don’t, for example, spend four minutes listening to their genius or two hours watching them weave their magic on screen or consider their message in those fleeting seconds or minutes we take in their brilliance at a museum.

No, we spend days and weeks and months and years with authors. They carve a unique pattern into the complicated fabric of our hearts and minds, distinct niches where no one else gets to go but them. Well, them and us. ‘Cause we’re a team. Together, we intimately know the “bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.” Then we share these feelings and memories with friends, loved ones — even strangers on the Internet.

This relationship is more than special and beyond reproach. And that’s because we’ve gone through so much together! We totally get it when Patrick says he “never believed that characters lived only on the page…Each character had his own time zone, his own lamp…” Shit, me and Ondaatje carried Katharine Clifton’s body out into the desert together, “where there is the communal book of moonlight.” We got behind the wheel of a car with Hana, “under six stars and a moon,” because “Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story.” And guess what (we want to whisper to Hana)? Your turn is about to come up in an Italian monastery.

Along the way we even came through slaughter together before having a bunch of “conversations” with Walter Murch about a film that would take home nine Academy Awards. Man alive, we’ve been on more than one tour through World War II together, smelled the Cinnamon Peeler’s Wife, and returned to Sri Lanka, where our guide and author was born, after being away for many, many years, thank you very much, Anil.

We bums from the slums will always question how we come across to those whom we gaze at through refracted beams of broken sunlight. We know we’re idiots and usually do a pretty convincing job of coming across exactly that way to the person in question. Why do we do this? I have a feeling somebody already has the answer: “New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything. For the heart is an organ of fire.”

Did Ondaatje think I was mentally unfit and in need of some serious electroconvulsive therapy when I whipped off his “We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes” segment of The English Patient to his face? Me, the god damn reader, reciting the author’s own words to him on a moonlit street like we’re a couple of long-lost chums out for a poetic riff off. Seriously, who does that?

But I digress. Yet again. I’m good like that. I’ll leave this horrible attempt at a love letter from afar by quoting someone with a lot more mileage in the world of literature than I, George Bowering. In Jean-Michel Lacroix’s Re Constructing The Fragments of Michael Ondaatje’s Works, the 87-year-old Bowering penned a chapter titled “Once Upon a Time in the South: Ondaatje and Genre.” Aside from being a worthy read and wonderful insight into Ondaatje’s writing, George Bowering starts with an introduction that, in the opinion of someone who excels in douchebaggery, captures the wonder and paradox of a true national treasure here in Canada:

Michael Ondaatje is the plainest of men. He never has a decent haircut. He wears jeans that look like two blue bags. His favourite movie is a spaghetti western. It takes him years and years of painstaking assembly to write one of his elegant novels. His lyric poems are the envy of lazier poets for their meticulous wonder. He writes as if the fragile balance of our universe depends on every sentence he accomplishes.

And that’s precisely why Michael Ondaatje is so epic for us, our very own modern-day Gilgamesh. It’s also why our universe never implodes upon itself — because when we are in his wise, gifted hands, we are all safe and free to dance lyrically among the rumour of wells, in the palace of winds.


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Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories

Today, many youth will most likely know of Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) through covers of what is arguably his enduring claim to fame among Gen Zers and quite possibly his most famous song worldwide, “Hallelujah.” (Though as William Logan commented when writing for The New York Times in 2019, “At any moment of the day, [Cohen’s] ‘Suzanne’ is probably playing in an elevator somewhere.”)

However, the Westmount boy was so much more than just those two songs. Of course, he did write and perform music for the better part of six decades, but what many of his generation would probably say they remember him most for was his words. As someone once wrote for The Boston Globe after Cohen published his first novel, The Favourite Game, “James Joyce is not dead. He is living in Montreal under the name of Cohen.”

The truth is that terms like “poet” and “wordsmith” don’t really do justice to his ability to shape the written language. Perhaps something Walt Whitman, one of the iconic Canadian’s inspirations, wrote more than a century ago best sums up the person Leonard Cohen would eventually become, that is, someone whose “very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

Well, good news for all the Leonard Cohen fans out there. Michael Posner, author of the acclaimed The Last Honest Man, an oral biography of Mordecai Richler, has a new three-volume series out called Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories. In fact, Michael’s third instalment in the series, Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: That’s How the Light Gets In, Volume 3, came out today. Congratulations, good sir!

As an oral biography, readers are taken behind the scenes and into the life of Leonard Cohen in ways that most people will not be familiar with. In the books, Posner explores Cohen’s life through his many friends, enemies, lovers, associates, and colleagues that include, among the hundreds of people featured in the three volumes, a cast of Cohen relatives as well as other notable personalities like Robert Altman, Adrienne Clarkson, Allen Ginsberg, Pico Iyer, Robert Lantos, Janis Joplin, Irving Layton, Joni Mitchell, and Moses Znaimer.

On a personal note, I am very fortunate to call Michael a friend. His daughter, in fact, before she made the move to Tinseltown to conquer Mt. Filmdom, was a member of my book club, and is just as kind, sincere, and sharp as a tack as her (still playing tennis) father. Last week, Posner the Elder and I had coffee and a few laughs together. For example, we talked about Leonard and his difficult relationships with women and family members, the decline and fall of reading in modern society, aching body parts, a brief history of nuclear war threats (MacArthur/Truman, Khrushchev/Kennedy, Putin/NATO), and other similarly uplifting subjects to be featured in the next entry into the Chicken Soup for the Soul canon: Let the Good Times Roll (Like a Bagel)! Yakking It Up in Forest Hill. Like I said. A few laughs. Old school style.

For anyone who happens to be in Toronto between December 7, 2022, and April 10, 2023, drop by the Art Gallery of Ontario, as it is currently holding an exhibition on Leonard Cohen titled Everybody Knows. Per the AGO’s website, “The first museum exhibition to present the holdings of the Leonard Cohen Family Trust, Everybody Knows immerses visitors in the many facets of Cohen’s creative life. Rare concert footage and archival materials, including musical instruments, notebooks, lyrics and letters are featured alongside photographs, drawing, and digital art created by Cohen across several decades.”

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