The Sadness of Beautiful Things

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What a great title.

I’m not usually a fan of short stories, but I got a signed copy of Simon Van Booy’s The Sadness of Beautiful Things not long ago, and cruised through it at breakneck speed. Thanks to Michelle T. for the heads-up on a writer I probably would have not otherwise come across.

One prolific reviewer on Goodreads named Angela M summed up my thoughts perfectly when she wrote:

I don’t always get the significance of book titles, but this is one that fits this small collection of stories so perfectly, every one of the eight beautifully written sad stories. I was amazed that in such few sentences, in such a short time that I could come to know and care about all of the characters. These stories are not connected in the way that some collections are that make you feel as if you’ve read a novel. These are distinct stories, yet they have much in common. Smooth, even writing that in its sparsity reveals so much; each is filled with love in some way making even the saddest thing about each of them somewhat more bearable.

This collection of deeply relatable tales is especially poignant if you have even a cursory knowledge of the State of New York, but is not essential in feeling the power of Van Booy’s words through the eight short stories that long resonate after you’ve finished the last page.


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The Golden Man Booker Prize

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Consider this: Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient won the Governor General’s Award and the Booker Prize. The film adaptation was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won nine (including best picture). It also won five BAFTA Awards and two Golden Globes.

However, it wasn’t until last year that Ondaatje received what is arguably the most prestigious honour in the English-speaking world of fiction. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize, a special judging panel was put together to name the greatest Man Booker Prize of them all. And wouldn’t you know it? They named The English Patient the Golden Man Booker. (How did I not know this fact until today???)

Friends of mine who know my reading habits have grown bored over the years listening  to me wax poetic how The English Patient is quite possibly the greatest novel of the 20th century. Well, at least I know I have some like-minded friends over at the Man Booker Prize.

As an aside, if you’re curious which books Michael Ondaatje enjoys re-reading time and time again, check out this piece from Goodreads.

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(One of my favourite scenes from the film)

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A Cracked Egg, Eating Disorders & Pigs

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It’s a busy week. On the heels of Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Day last week, which aims to help end the stigma surrounding mental health, that ridiculous Instagram egg is apparently feeling the effects — and pressure — of social media. The egg, it would seem, has cracked. It is also further proof that with each new social media site that goes up, we seem to be further devolving as online consumers. Click here to watch the video and accompanying article from the BBC.

We’re also at the tail end of Canada’s national Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW). Although many of us associate eating disorders with ultra-skinny models trying to reach that elusive -1 size waist, it’s actually a lot more pervasive throughout society than you might think (and something I wrote about through Ali in A Father’s Son). In fact, I was surprised to learn that 1 in 4 people who suffer from an eating disorder are male.

Finally, today marks the first day of the Lunar New Year, and unless you’ve been buried under a huge egg, you know that this is the Year of the Pig. I don’t put too much stock into horoscopes, but for that it’s worth, the pig is associated with winter, the energy of yin, and the element of water. It’s closest Western zodiac signs are Scorpio and Sagittarius.

Cat lovers will probably not be big fans of the pig. According to Chinese mythology, after the first 11 animals raced to greet the Jade Emperor, the rat riding in on the back of the ox before slyly jumping ahead at the last minute (which is why the rat is numero uno in the Chinese zodiac and often considered the cleverest of all the animals), the Jade Emperor sent the rat to fetch a 12th animal.

Originally it was supposed to be a cat, but the rat had other plans, tricking the innocent feline while ushering the pig to meet the Jade Emperor. A sad day, really, for cats everywhere.

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The 50-page Rule: “Tension Is Important!”



Years ago — a time when men were kind, when their voices were soft, and their words inviting; a time when love was blind, and the world was a song, and the song was exciting — I would muscle my way through books I didn’t even really like. The point was: I had to finish it.

By the time I was thirty, I narrowed it down to 200 pages for an author to grab my attention. (In fact, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible was the only book I finished after almost giving up at the 200-page mark.)

Then came forty and I scaled it down to 100 pages. Today, you’ve got 50 pages to capture my resolve to slog through more words.

Which brings me to the book I was reading until earlier last night, Rachel Cusk’s Kudos. If agents, publishers and arts councils give you anywhere from 1-20 pages (double-spaced) to catch their eye, then why should we the public have to invest so much more time?

As Mr. Bob (above, Bill Murray) is told in Lost in Translation by his Japanese director for the Suntory whiskey ad, he needs “more intenshitty” and “more tenshun.” The same is true for fiction. You’ve got to bring something to the table early on, or else fogetta ’bout it.

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The Only Story

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“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question…Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives; there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine.”

So the reader begins their journey down the rabbit hole of Paul and Susan’s relationship. However, this is no ordinary love story that focuses on rainbows and “notebooks” and happily-ever-after endings. It’s a searing look at how we love/hate ourselves — and our partners.

Julian Barnes, the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sense of an Ending, does a masterful job of documenting a fictional story about a nineteen-year-old English student back home for the summer after his first year of university. Paul joins a local tennis club and is soon teamed up with Susan, a mid-forties housewife and mother of two, for a mixed doubles tournament, and a romance quickly blossoms.

Unlike The Graduate (film) or Cougar (TV show), The Only Story is neither an intergenerational story that begs the question: mother or daughter? Nor is it a superficial glimpse into the lives of a young man with an older woman.

Instead, it is a beautiful tale of how disastrous we as individuals can be in the pursuit of love and the deflection of hardship. It also happens to feature some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read since Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. Case in point:

“An entry from his notebook which had survived several inspections: ‘In love, everything is both true and false; it’s the one subject on which it’s impossible to say anything absurd’. He had liked this remark since first discovering it. Because for him it opened out into a wider thought: that love itself is never absurd, and neither are any of its participants. Despite all of the stern orthodoxies of feeling and behaviour that a society may seek to impose, love slips past them. You sometimes saw, in the farmyard, improbable forms of attachment — the goose in love with the donkey, the kitten playing safely between the paws of the chained-up mastiff. And in the human farmyard, there existed forms of attachment which were just as unlikely; and yet never, to their participants, absurd.”

The book is set in three parts, starting in the 1960s and culminating sometime in the 21st century (dates aren’t used, so the reader needs to be astute to cultural markings and historical events). What’s also interesting is how Barnes fluidly switches between the first, second and third person in the narrative. Rather than confuse the reader, it provides a unique angle to the words being written: subjective or objective? Heartfelt or surgical in precision? Real or imagined?

One of my favourite quotes from the story comes right near the end, when Barnes writes the following:

“‘We’re all just looking for a place of safety. And if you don’t find one, then you have to learn how to pass the time’. Back then it had sounded like a counsel of despair; now, it struck him as normal, and emotionally practical.”

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I had no interest in figure skating before Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skated into my life.

Maybe this is why we need the Olympics. To reach higher. To aspire to greater heights. To be the best we can be. To bring art and dance and sport together.

To elevate us.

And that’s what these two decorated Olympians did. They  made us better as people because they showed us, through a figure skate dance, how and why we can do more. As humans. As people.

This is what the Olympics is about.

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Real-life Superheroes: Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir

Canada’s sweethearts

When I lived in South Korea between 1997 and 2007, Koreans would often ask me, “What’s the difference between Canadians and Americans?”

It’s a fair question. Many people around the world have asked me that same question. I won’t pretend I have the one answer that will make people go Ohhhhhhhh…so that’s it!

Instead, I will offer something from today’s Toronto Star that pretty much encapsulates one of the fundamental differences between our two great countries, the melting pot and the mosaic.

In an article titled “Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir to pay tribute to Gord Downie in Olympic gala skate,” we have now learned that Canadian Olympic superstars Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who just captured gold for their second time in figure skating, will skate to The Tragically Hip’s “Long Time Running” on Sunday for the Pyeongchang figure skating gala.

Which brings us back to the original question: What separates our two remarkable countries?

We in Canada are a country of people who love to say “Soooory.” We apologize to others when they are in the wrong. We hold the door open for strangers without expectation of being thanked.

Canadians have been accused of being somewhat bucolic and provincial at times compared to their American brethren, and while that’s true (now and again), Sunday’s skate by Virtue and Moir will capture the very best of why I am proud to be Canadian.

They are unrivaled Olympians in their discipline, loved by an entire country, and will honour a near and dear Canadian who passed in 2017 who, it just happens, was a good friend of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. I can guarantee you that more Canadians will watch that skate live than have watched our men’s or women’s Olympic hockey teams.

Why? Because we love to be united in Canada by the sentimental. We revel in it. We’re flawed and imperfect as a country because, by definition, we are composed of human beings. But we try really, really, really hard to rise up past the shit that so often sinks other countries.

This comes in stark contrast to (yet another) horrible mass shooting at a school in the United States, where the Second Amendment will continue to plague and divide an incredible country, one in which its president needs a bullet list of questions to come across as empathetic when meeting with survivors of the latest massacre in Florida.

In Canada, we celebrate diversity and honour that which unites – not divides – us, even if it’s something as silly as a poet, a hockey game, or a prime minster weeping in the House of Commons because our country lost a beautiful person that brought out the best in all of us.

If that stands as provincial and bucolic, then I guess that’s what we are as Canucks. And I’m proud to be one.

On a side note, and for all those who love the Hip, I think Virtue and Moir could have chosen two other songs to skate to, “Wheat Kings” or “Nautical Disaster.” But they didn’t. They chose “Long Time Running.”

Whatever. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that these two rock stars, our national sweethearts, are bringing us closer together as a country in a time when nations, kind of like the one just south of us, are being ripped apart by violence, hate and propaganda.

Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir, my love for you is boundless, my gratitude eternal. You are real-life superheroes.


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New Murakami Film Set for 2018 Release

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Lee Chang-dong, one of Korea’s most celebrated film directors (Peppermint Candy, Oasis, Poetry), is set to release an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” which was originally published in The New Yorker in 1983 and subsequently as part of a short story collection called The Elephant Vanishes.

The movie, titled Burning, is a mystery thriller that follows two men, one of whom is a novelist, and a female model after they get involved in a “strange incident.” It stars Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, and Jeon Jong-seo.

Click here to read the full article and learn more details about Lee Chang-dong and the movie itself.

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How It Feels to Write a Book

Love, love, LOVE this little diagram! Thanks to @thelaceylondon for tweeting this out earlier.


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By Endurance We Conquer

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Or in Latin, Fortitudine Vincimus: “By Endurance We Conquer.”

Writing for @NewYorker, David Grann has an article titled “The White Darkness: A solitary journey across Antarctica” that is nothing short of mind-blowing, breathtaking and inspiring.

The piece follows the journey of Henry Worsley, a 55-year-old British Army officer, who attempted to become the first person ever to trek the entire continent of Antarctica on his own, without the aid of animals or servants or, I don’t know, valets.

A thousand miles. Up 10,000 feet to the summit of the Titan Dome and then down to the other side, from the bottom of South America to the bottom of New Zealand.

Why would someone do this? The reasons are many and varied, but Mr. Grann does a thorough job in exploring the historical background, both of Mr. Worsley and his family as well as one of the continent’s most legendary explorers, Ernest Shackleton.

The story is captivating in and of itself, but for me it brought to mind one of my favourite pieces of CanLit, Wayne Johnston’s The Navigator of New York,  a work of historical fiction set at the turn of the 20th century as (mostly) Europeans and Americans attempted to “conquer” the Arctic. Johnston, the author of another brilliant novel called The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, has long been compared to Don DeLillo, so if you’re a fan of the Underworld author, definitely check out Wayne Johnston – and David Grann’s piece from The New Yorker!

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