Tag Archives: the count of monte cristo

Adventures in Russia’s Far East

I’m a sucker for good adventure stories, fiction or non-fiction. From The Count of Monte Cristo, The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights and Heart of Darkness to Herodotus’s The Histories, The Travels of Marco Polo, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Robert Young Pelton‘s The Adventurist: My Life in Dangerous Places, they all have a jaw-dropping story to tell in far-off lands and bygone eras.

But not all great adventure stories are by famous writers or about well-known places like Mt. Everest, Timbuktu or Shangri-La.

Take, for example, Donald Clark’s Living Dangerously in Korea,  easily one of my favourite books on my second home.

Another example is a new literary work to join the ranks of awesome adventure stories, an updated translation from the legendary explorer of Russia’s Far East named Vladimir Arsenyev. While serving in the Russian Imperial Army, Arsenyev travelled extensively throughout the region from 1902-1930, subsequently wrote about his experiences in great detail, and, so I’m led to believe, in beautiful prose devoid of any hubris. (NOTE TO SELF: Does every Russian writer always knock it out of the park?)

Yet Stalin, in all his wisdom, thought it would be a stupendous idea to censor much of Arsenyev’s writing (the original books were finally released in Russian in 2007). However, it was only when a young go-getter from the U.S. named Jonathan Slaght recently retranslated the original account (written in Russian) of Arsenyev’s first book, Across the Ussuri Kray (1921), and published it under the same name through Indiana University Press (2016), that we English readers got a sense of what the Wild East was once like.

Slaght is now the Wildlife Conservation Society’s coordinator for Russia and Northeast Asia, and Michelle Nijhuis wrote a thoroughly engaging piece in this week’s The New Yorker about Ansenyev and Slaght (make sure you check out the photo gallery, which is almost like a journey to another world). If you’re intrigued about what a pre-industrial Russia’s Far East looked like a century ago – the only place on Earth where brown bears, leopards and tigers co-exist because the region was spared from being touched by glaciation during the last Ice Age – take the time to read this article entitled “A Fuller Vision of Russia’s Far East.”


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Paying Heed to Einstein, Cloaking Your Daggers

Albert E. once said, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” I think about that quote almost every time someone asks me about my fiction. “I can’t believe you went through what you did!” readers will say after finishing A Father’s Son. “Your dad seemed like a really good person at heart. I’m sorry it ended the way it did.”

“Whoa whoa whoa!” I’ll say. “Hold the teletype machine. It’s a work of fiction.”

“Oh,” the person will reply, like this has unlocked some convoluted mystery for them even though it says “A NOVEL” right below the title on the cover of the book. “So is it based on truth?”

I was reminded of this anecdote recently when doing some background research on one of my favourite books, The Count of Monte Cristo. I think it goes without saying that Alexandre Dumas was one of the great writers of the 19th century and is a formidable presence in the Western canon of literature. However, the Count was essentially a retelling of what happened in real life to Pierre Picaud. Today, nobody remembers who this Pierre fellow was, but most people can tell you they’ve heard of Monte Cristo, either as the page-turning story of revenge or as a fried sandwich.

What was Dumas’ secret? Keeping his secret a secret! Journalists do it every day in the name of “exposing the truth.” Artists have been doing it since the beginning of time. The fact of the matter is this: No person is an island. We’re influenced and impacted by the events that unfold around us. The key to genius – at least artistically – is how to shape these events in such a way that makes them relatable and enjoyable and inspiring.

I think I’ll keep that in mind this morning as I return to my current work in progress and write about events and people that aren’t real, but will hopefully come across as completely believable to the reader.

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Toronto Hydro, Highway Robbery & A French Novel


You might be wondering what these two images have in common. That is a fair and righteous question. Let me explain.

After receiving my latest hydro bill, I nearly went apoplectic (see going postal in your own mind). Although I’ve been extremely conscientious about power usage at peak hours and using my dishwasher only at off-peak hours, my monthly bill seems to continue growing like a beanstalk into outer space. You know. Or something like that.

Yesterday I’d had enough and decided to go sleuthing. I signed into my personal page on the TH website and looked at my power usage for every single month I’ve been living at my current apartment. Sure enough, things didn’t add up. There was some stinky cheese at play in Denmark. When I phoned up the good folks at TH, I got a very pleasant woman who was kind enough to address my questions. She was intelligent, polite and professional. That, however, did nothing to mollify my apoplexy because it turns out my usage is in fact quite low and that I’ve been using most of my energy at off-peak hours. Why the constant bills in the hundreds of dollars, then? The answer is a plot worthy of an Alexandre Dumas novel.

While my cheapest energy usage has been $18 for the month, and my most expensive about $60, my hydro bills are consistently three figures. The discrepancy? Delivery. It actually costs more to deliver the energy than to produce it. How much more? Between 1.5 and 3 times more to get me the stupid stuff than to actually produce it. Curious as to how this delivery charge is broken down, I was told “It’s complicated. It’s broken down into a lot of different things, you know, like, ah, so many things, you know?” When I asked if that info was on the site like my usage stats, the customer service rep. said, “Unfortunately, it’s not.”

To clarify, cut through and capture the essence of what had just happened (in Gordon Gekko’s parlance): Unless you are lighting up a stadium, the delivery charge is always going to outpace the usage cost of your electricity as a residential customer, making it more expensive than any other household fixed cost. How is this possible? At 369.5 TWh, Canada has the world’s second highest annual production of hydroelectricity (after China) and second highest production rate per capita  (after Norway), accounting for more than 61% of our total energy production because, hey, we’ve got a lot of water here.

So what the Frankfurt is going on? It’s almost like Toronto Hydro, Hydro One (the provincial organization taking part in this dog and pony show), and the provincial government represent the villains Mondego, Danglars, and the double-dealing Magistrate, Villefort, respectively, in The Count of Monte Cristo. And we as Ontarians are collectively represented by Edmond Dantès, imprisoned without trial inside the Château d’If.

The question, of course, is when and how we as tax-paying citizens who contribute to the lavish paycheques of these hydro companies’ employees ($1.5 million a year for the outgoing CEO of Hydro One?), wasted resources, and overpriced electricity will exact revenge. The sad truth of the matter was summed up by Queen’s Park columnist Christina Blizzard last June: “Seniors weep when they open their hydro bills. Often they must make a choice between heating their home or buying groceries. And yet we’re paying millions for neighbouring jurisdictions to take excess electricity off our hands? It’s unconscionable — the outcome of a failed Green Energy Act that’s cost this province billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs.”



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Consciously Uncoupling & Jonathan Franzen

Are you married? Do you have a child/children? Do you find yourself staying with your partner mostly (or completely) because of the kids?

The New York Times ran a thought-provoking article a few months ago that I recently came across. The piece by Cole Kazdin, titled “The Original Conscious Uncouplers,” is the story of two parents who stay together for the sake of the kids. Theirs is a relationship devoid of affection or romance, but replete with love and kindness for their offspring. When the kids are deemed old enough to handle the news, the parents announce they are getting divorced, and what was once a seemingly perfect family where nobody fought or raised their voice quickly becomes a war zone, one in which the mother and father can’t even stand being in the same room together.

I know I’m not alone when I say I can relate to this scenario all too well. For me, fewer things represent (and stain) my generation than divorced parents (twice over in my case), some of whom consciously uncoupled, some of whom just went to blows while the ink was still drying on the marriage license.

In literature, it’s easy to find extreme relationships written about very well. Whether it’s the epic love story of books like The Map of Love or The Count of Monte Cristo, or the doomed love of books like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, it’s harder to find novels that explore marriage from the ground level, so to speak, a more realistic approach.

Reading this NYT article reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The Corrections may have been his coming-out party – and a good book in its own right – but it was Freedom that earned Franzen a place among the pantheon of great American writers. And for good reason. Although it could very well have been 100 pages shorter, it’s one of the most realistic fictional accounts of family life in middle America I’ve ever read. In some ways, Franzen has carried the torch forward from Updike’s “Rabbit” series, which chronicled everyday life, including marriage, in a compelling and believable way like few others.

Fortunately, Cole Kazdin’s article has a happy ending after a tumultuous relationship finally rights itself, one in which love and kindness win out. I guess sometimes there really is a silver lining in real life.

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