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A Little Heartbreak, A Dose of Literary Reality

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I’m hoping this was just a speed bump on the road called Jack Reacher.

I just finished Lee Child’s latest addition to the Jack Reacher series, Past Tense, and was…What’s the word…Saddened? Untitillated? Underwhelmed?

JR is once again the middle of Nowhere, USA. He’s kinda/sorta looking for his father’s birthplace. He gets into a few fights. He wins them all handily. The end.

Of the roughly 3,454 books I’ve read by Mr. Child, this was the first time I felt let down, something many of us have experienced at one time or another with authors/artists we love. We are, after all, human. No artist can remain at the top of their A game forever (although a solid argument could be made for Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, Mr. Picasso’s baptismal name).

I remember the first time this happened to me as a reader of fiction, feeling somewhat crestfallen, that is. I fell in love with Tolstoy at a young age, starting with War and Peace, moving onto Anna Karenina (which his old comrade Dostoyevsky called “the greatest love story ever written”), and culminating in his last novel, Resurrection, in 1899, which had a great premise but ultimately fell flat.

Then it happened with Murakami Haruki. I loved A Wild Sheep Chase. What followed (in English translation) was Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Norwegian Wood, Dance Dance Dance, South of the Border, West of the Sun, and then his opus, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. From there, things went south for me (but not west of the sun), including Murakami’s choice for his new translator. It began with Sputnik Sweetheart and Kafka on the Shore, and then — contrary to what some believe — 1Q84.

Alternatively, there are some “red wine” authors that seem to get better with age, like Ayn Rand (I know, I know…This will be controversial with certain readers), who went from We the Living (amazing, with a terrific ending) to The Fountainhead (profound, nearly led to a complete nuclear meltdown for Ms. Rand) to her true opus, Atlas Shrugged (which had a profound influence on philosophy, politics and social movements). The same could be said of Somerset Maugham, who started relatively early with Of Human Bondage, then The Moon and Sixpence and then, at the tail end of his career as a novelist, his opus, The Razor’s Edge.

Finally, there are the yo-yos of the literary world. Take Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He broke out to wild acclaim in 1846 with a novella called Poor Folk, and didn’t get 15 minutes of fame; he got, quite literally, 15 days of being what Guardian contributor Daniel Kalder called a “cause celebre.” It would be 20 years (of being pissed on and heckled) until Fedya D regained his rightful place as a master of fiction after the release of Crime and Punishment in 1866. His last novel, seen by many to be his opus, was The Brothers Karamazov.

As a final note, and as it pertains to the genesis of this post, 61 Hours and Worth Dying For are my two favourite Reacher novels to date.


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Beware: Artistry Kills

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As Fantine sings so gloriously in Les Miserables upon being left alone, jobless, and utterly destitute:

There was a time when men were kind
When their voices were soft
And their words inviting
There was a time when love was blind
And the world was a song
And the song was exciting
There was a time…

Then it all went wrong

Indeed, sometimes it goes horribly wrong, especially for artists who pretty much throw their souls into their work with (apparently) no interest in whether they pop up the better side of Mt. BreakMyHeart.

Emily Temple has put together a little list of authors that all you HSP writers out there should heed. In a piece titled “6 Famous Writers Injured While Writing: When Making Stuff is Hazardous to Your Health,” Ms. Temple gets straight to the point with these tragic stories about six famous writers, most of whom you know and probably respect.

Here’s the brief version of who you’ll see on this all-star ballot.

  1. If you could even begin to imagine the pain George Orwell was in as he penned the final pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four, you’d go back and read it with a lot more sympathy (not the anger that your high school English teacher aroused in you for making you read it). I don’t like using the word “literally” literally, but Orwell literally spent the last two months of his life bed-ridden with tuberculosis, coughing up blood and figuring out how to bring an end to Big Brother.
  2. If you know anything about Moby-Dick the book, then you already know a lot about Herman Melville. If not, read Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex to see the definition of bad luck played out in slow motion. Sunk at sea? Check. Survivor of the longest rescue mission in maritime history? Yep. Forced to resort to cannibalism. See previous said book. Sunk at sea a second time while captaining a ship? Hells yeah, only to return to Nantucket and basically kill himself writing Moby-Dick.
  3. You might not know the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, but to reference Dr. Andrea Dinardo from yesterday’s post, the guy had a serious case of the HSP. I mean, here was a dude who lived to write – and only write, it seemed – describing himself thusly as a result of his literary predilections: “I have woefully and incurably ruined myself for the rest of my life, rendering my appearance terrible and despicable to most people.” He’d write himself dead before his 40th birthday.
  4. Are you reading this whilst enjoying a cup of morning Joe? Do you presently find yourself at a coffee shop? Then obviously Honoré de Balzac is your man. Here’s a guy who loved coffee so much, and grew so addicted to it, that by the end of the show he was eating coffee beans on an empty stomach to maximize the uptake of its caffeine. No surprise that by the age of 51, Balzac was dead of – you guessed it! – caffeine poisoning.
  5. Oh, Ayn Rand, where art thou? Rand’s dependence on Benzedrine (amphetamines) grew so severe during the writing of The Fountainhead that she was basically an eight-car pile-up of a trainwreck by the end of it, with one biographer stating that “by the time the book was complete Rand’s doctor diagnosed her as close to a nervous breakdown and ordered her to take two weeks of complete rest.”
  6. Okay, here’s a look at the daily schedule of one Franz Kafka: 8:30 am-2:30 pm (job); 2:30-7:30 pm (lunch and sleep); 7:30-11 pm (exercises, family dinner); 11 pm-1/2/3…6 am (write like a MoFo); repeat until death. As Ms. Temple writes: “This weakened state may or may not have played a role in his contraction of laryngeal tuberculosis and its subsequent ravages on his body, so it’s too much to say his work killed him, but it certainly seems relevant. His throat closed up, precluding the ingestion of any food, and so he technically died of starvation, working on his story “The Hunger Artist” to the very last.” WTF?

So there you have it. If you have plans to become a writer, get some kind of insurance policy in case you starve to death, end up on a diet of coffee beans, or need to relocate to your bedroom because you can’t stop coughing up blood.

All I have to say is this: Where have all the great writers gone! Notice that Hemingway didn’t even make that list. Man up, Papa!


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Quote of the Day

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“Who is John Galt?”

Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

In the pop culture of modern fiction, there is perhaps no other opening line to a book that is so famous and yet so perfectly captures the true-to-life meaning behind it. “Who is John Galt” is almost like an inside joke that certain readers have among themselves, something akin to the secret handshake or password for fraternity/sorority members.

Ayn Rand is a towering literary figure of the 20th century, Atlas Shrugged remains one of the century’s most enduring novels, and “Who is John Galt” has today become one of the most quoted lines from literature.

If you’ve read Atlas Shrugged, then you know that John Galt is a “real” character, the inventor and businessman who formed a utopia of like-minded individuals in the booming metropolis of Ouray, Colorado. With the intention to “stop the motor of the world,” Galt organizes a strike of the world’s most important and influential creative thinkers.

First published in 1957, at the height of the Cold War, Atlas Shrugged is still one of the most divisive works of literary fiction. This leads to an important question: Does that line about John Galt – and Ms. Rand’s book as a whole – continue to have any relevance in today’s world?

As Mr. FIRST NAME Wiki, LAST NAME Pedia has written, “The book’s opening line, ‘Who is John Galt?,’ becomes an expression of helplessness and despair at the current state of the novel’s fictionalized world.”

If that’s the simplepedia answer to what the fork John Galt is, then the answer to the previous question is a resounding YES!

As Steve Paikin wondered aloud last night in an interview with Ramesh Srinivasan (@rameshmedia), author of Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World, “Is the world going to hell in a handcart?”

Events over the last year or so would certainly lead one to at least consider this as a possibility, which I think makes the opening to Atlas Shrugged as timely and poignant today as it was 60 years ago. Ironically enough, Ayn Rand – founder of the Objectivist movement, staunch anti-communist and anti-Soviet (just read We the Living for one of the more depressing endings you’ll see in literature) – feared what communism could do to creativity and mankind in general if it survived long enough, and lo and behold China is set to become the world’s largest economy and global superpower within the next decade according to many experts.

Perhaps our own real-life John Galt will soon come along and save us from the perils we seem to be so successfully heaping onto ourselves. One can still hope.

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Affordable Housing, Meet John Galt

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HO             PE?


“Who is John Galt?”

The Toronto Star ran a heartbreaking article on Friday, February 26 entitled “Months to live, but a longer wait for housing.” Part human interest story about 41-year-old terminal abdominal cancer victim Lisa De Medeiros, a single mother of a young son and a teenage daughter, part statistical nightmare about affordable housing in Toronto (and Canada as a whole, really), I felt compelled to write something on the subject, if not for the moral imperative then for my mother, who for decades has fought for greater funding to be directed towards rent-geared-to-income housing in this grossly overpriced city.

In Toronto, there are currently 95,280 households (or 238,200 people according to the latest Stats Can numbers) on the two-bedroom waiting list for subsidized housing. However, the city has only 70,000 units to go around, so the length of time someone has to wait for one of these units is, on average, 8.5 years.

Not months. YEARS, baby!

There is one exception (in theory), however. Victims of domestic abuse and the terminally ill shoot to the top of Housing Connection’s list. The average wait time for a two-bedroom unit for these people is said to be 9 months, but that’s a load of hooey. De Medeiros applied two years ago and has still not been accepted. Is Housing Connection, caretakers of Toronto’s social housing wait list, an evil empire of doom? No. The mortifying reality is that they could only move in 145 households last year and – even more horrifying – there were “emergency” applicants on the list who had been waiting longer and/or had a more severe situation than De Medeiros.

Toronto has built 2,848 affordable housing units over the last five years, about 570 units a year for a city with 2.6 million people, or roughly one new unit for every 4,500 Torontonians annually. Compare that with the more than 80,000 private condos waiting to be built/waiting for approval from Toronto City Council.

Here’s the real problem: Approximately 604,000 of us in Canada’s wealthiest city live at or below the poverty line ($18,759). Put another way, 23% of Toronto citizens are poor and the city has enough rent-geared-to-income units to accommodate 7% of the city’s households (not individuals). Furthermore, according to the City of Toronto Urban Development Services, Toronto’s population is expected to grow more than 15% by 2031, while the population of the GTA is forecast to grow about 35%, to 7.45 million.

It’s not much better at the provincial or federal levels. Ontario’s population is 13.6 million and cities and towns around the province have built a meager 18,030 subsidized housing units over the last 10 years, or 1 home for every 7,500 Ontarians a year. Perhaps the most troubling statistic is at the federal level. In the Netherlands, 33% of all homes are subsidized. In England, that number is 17%. In Canada, the second largest country in the world, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, and a land blessed with much bounty and seemingly infinite natural resources, 5% of homes are subsidized nationally.

Today, Doris Riker, the mother of Lisa De Medeiros, has raised a thought-provoking point in her ongoing letter campaign to officials, the mayor’s office and her local MPP: “If they can help find all these Syrian refugees find affordable apartments, why can’t they help my daughter find one?”

Indeed, while we (the “haves” Canadians) like to pat ourselves on the back for being such kind, gracious global citizens when it comes to assisting refugees, the rest of us (the “have-nots”) can’t help but sit back and wonder, Why are we spending an estimated $678 million over six years on the expected 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada when we can’t even properly care for our own nationals? Is a feather in our political cap on the international stage worth more than providing adequate housing – a basic human necessity and integral element to our dignity – to the 4.9 million Canadians who currently live in poverty?

In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a novel as controversial in many ways as our housing policies, the story opens with the American economy falling apart and workers being laid off in staggering numbers. Just as worrisome, the country’s brightest lights and top talent are literally disappearing, one by one, and crippling the fields of commerce, science, and the arts. Not long after the brain drain begins and the impending demise of the American economy looms morbidly on the horizon, a phrase starts creeping into the lexicon of people’s everyday banter: “Who is John Galt?”

It’s almost used in a pejorative way:

A: “The economy’s going down the crapper, eh, Billy Bob?”

B: “Yeah, but who is John Galt?” (i.e. Yeah, and what the hell are we supposed to do about it, genius?)

As Dagny Taggart, the novel’s heroine, opines, there’s a tangible despair that John Q. Public feels and ultimately expresses through this apparently banal – and unanswerable – question. Yet those four words still manage to capture the hopelessness of a bitter, frustrated society.

It’s only later in the novel that we learn there really is a John Galt, the “invisible everyman” floating undetected throughout society, and he has been spearheading the brain drain since establishing his utopian home of Atlantis, a remote valley where the country’s smartest, most gifted minds now live in a valley somewhere deep among the Rockies in an effort to escape the incompetent and dictatorial government they don’t wish to live under any longer.

And that brings us to our present housing dilemma in Canada, especially in the country’s most populous city. Is there any chance that we will have the foresight and compassion to provide affordable accommodation to our poorest citizens?

Perhaps that question is best answered by Lisa De Medeiros, who has been forced to leave her current apartment because the landlord wants it for his own use and will, 12 days from now, on March 10, 2016, be homeless. As the terminal inflammatory fibrosarcoma mother of two put it, “By the time I get affordable housing, I’ll be dead.”

Let’s pray the answer to the above question lies not in the rhetorical nature of the former Atlas Shrugged parable, but in the hope offered in the latter one, a scenario whereby society’s wealthiest and most intellectually able can come together to find a solution to our present-day subsidized housing quandary – and not in the middle of nowhere, but in cities and towns across our great country.

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