One More Thing

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One More Thing (Photo: Random House)I was really excited to learn that BJ Novak (you know, Ryan from The Office) was coming out with a book of short stories. He was a writer and co-executive producer of that show for years and he’s really, really talented. Also, did you see him in Saving Mr. Banks over the Christmas break as one of the young Disney songwriters working on Mary Poppins? Brilliant.

Also, Novak made a really silly trailer for this book with his pal Mindy Kaling (I listened to her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? back in November), which is really worth checking out.

So when One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories came out a few weeks ago, I instantly ordered it and put it on my to-read list for the February break. I’m so glad I did, because it’s genuinely my favourite thing I’ve read so far this year. There’s a really comprehensive New York Times review of the book here, but the book is basically made up of 64 vignettes, or short stories. They range in length from two lines to several pages, which makes it a quick, fun read.

Some are funny, some are touching, some are silly and some are quite thoughtful. All of them are very, very clever. My favourites were “Everyone Was Singing The Same Song”: The Duke of Earl Recalls His Trip to America in June of 1962 (in which the actual Duke of Earl doesn’t understand why everyone seems to be humming the same song when he introduces himself), and A Good Problem to Have, in which Novak imagines the frustrations of the man who invented the style of math problems in which two trains pass each other while travelling at different speeds in opposite directions.

I’m not normally drawn to short stories, but I’m so glad I bought this one. I have a feeling I’m going to be lending it to a lot of people.

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An Evening With Neil Gaiman

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This isn’t a book post, but tonight I had a lovely surprise. Neil Gaiman is the University of Calgary’s Distinguished Visiting Writer for 2014 and when tickets went ‘on sale’ (really they were free, but you had to reserve them because demand far exceeded supply) last October, they were all snapped up in less than 60 seconds.

But this afternoon when I checked Facebook after class, I found a message from Susan, who I spent most of last summer working with. She had come into a spare ticket for Neil Gaiman for tonight, and if I could be back at the university in about an hour, it was all mine. I’m so glad I didn’t have to work!

Neil Gaiman was absolutely fantastic. He was warm and funny, and his stories were just the right amount of creepy and spooky. He read quite a lot, including a number of short stories (Feminine Endings, Click Clack the Rattlebag and – what I think was – My Last Landlady) and a couple of good poems. But my favourite part was when he talked about a recent Q&A he did where a little kid asked him what stories are for?

Of course, he gave the kid an age-appropriate answer about how people are ‘hardwired’ to tell stories, but for the adults in tonight’s audience, he told a moving story about his grandmother, who lived in the Warsaw ghetto (and escaped just before it was burned). It was punishable by death to own books, but somehow, she had a Polish translation of Gone With The Wind (which also happens to be my very favourite book). Every night, she blocked out the windows and read for hours by candlelight – and the next morning, all the girls would rush into the room to find out what was happening next in the world of Scarlett O’Hara and Ashley Wilkes and Rhett Butler.

“Stories are important enough that you’d risk a bullet to the head,” he said.

Drama High

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Drama High (Photo: Penguin Group US)Full disclosure. I didn’t buy Drama High for myself. I picked it up for Matt, who is directing a spring play, a couple of weeks ago as a Valentine’s Day present. It’s a fascinating portrait of one of America’s best drama teachers, Lou Volpe, who has been asked to pilot high school versions of big-ticket Broadway shows (Rent, Les Miserables and Spring Awakening, to name some of the more controversial ones) from his unassuming school auditorium in Levittown, Pennsylvania during his 40 years on staff.

But of course, I got curious (I’m a huge musical theatre junkie) and started reading. I read all but 70 pages, and then it was Valentine’s Day, so I stopped reading, wrapped it up, gave it to Matt and then promptly asked for it right back so I could finish it (I also got him some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, so that did soften the blow of me stealing his present just a little bit).

I think maybe it’s partly because I feel like I’m in a much calmer headspace about my career shift than I was last semester when I was still figuring the ins and outs of returning to university as an adult, but I find myself gravitating to a lot of ‘teacher’ books right now (case in point: Tony Danza’s I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had. I’m still talking about it to anyone who will listen). It’s not conscious, but it’s something I’m noticing about myself right now. I guess maybe I’m looking for a little bit of inspiration.

Luckily, Lou Volpe has inspiration in spades. Michael Sokolove is a former student of Volpe’s from his earliest years of teaching, and he’s managed to paint a sensitive, respectful and compelling portrait of a beloved educator. Drama High follows Volpe’s class at Harry S Truman High School during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years with sharp observations. “Confidence is a funny thing in high school. Almost everyone has it in the wrong measure – either too little or too much,” Sokolove writes. Unassuming Volpe has the gift of bringing out the best in his students, which is one of the things that makes him a great teacher.

The New York Times did a really nice review of Drama High when the book first came out. It points out that Sokolove’s personal connection to the story is another reason why it’s such an excellent read. He’s not only a former pupil of Volpe’s, but his kids are also high school-age, which means he has a vested interest in arts education and the impact of heroic teachers.

“What Volpe’s students gain from him is a passion and sense of self unrelated to anything having to do with money, power or status, Sokolove continues. “Nothing matters except what they do together.” Isn’t that what every person, regardless of their profession, should want to achieve in their work? I hope so.

Crazy Town

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Crazy Town (Photo: Penguin Canada)I was so, so excited to learn in the fall that Robyn Doolittle was writing a book on Toronto’s Rob Ford saga.

Some context: Robyn started one year ahead of me in the Bachelor of Journalism program at Ryerson University (she began in 2002 and I arrived in 2003), and while she wouldn’t know me if we bumped into each other in the street, I would certainly know her. I would have known her even before this whole #Crackgate scandal blew up. I wouldn’t say we ran in the same circles – it was more like a Venn diagram. She was the editor-in-chief of The Eyeopener, one of Ryerson’s two weekly student newspapers. She was kind of a big deal on campus. I specialized in television and radio reporting and spent a semester overseas. I was less of a big deal on campus. But we have a number of mutual friends and acquaintances, and I remain a loyal Toronto Star reader, in spite of the fact that I left the city in 2007. In my opinion, it’s one of the best newspapers in the world. Plus, the world of Canadian journalism is pretty small, and it’s fun to see what the people I went to school with are up to. Ryerson grads can be found at pretty much every major news outlet in the country.

I really started paying attention to Robyn’s work when some friends started tweeting about an article she and her colleague Kevin Donovan wrote for the Toronto Star about Ford’s conduct at the Garrison Ball last March. I already had my eyes on Ford after that whole May 2012 fiasco with Daniel Dale outside the mayor’s property, which I followed from Sydney, Australia. But the Garrison Ball story was strange and sad, and I thought the reporters were fair and sensitive in their work.

I knew – and I would wager a guess that my fellow Ryerson alumni knew too – that from the second Robyn said that she had seen a video of the Toronto mayor smoking crack cocaine, it had to be true. Canadian newspapers don’t publish allegations like that unless they are certain of their information – and added on top of that is the fact that I know that like me, Robyn had to adhere to a strict policy known as Truth Telling: An Iron Rule for the Ryerson School of Journalism while she was an undergraduate. The reporting professors present it to students on their first day of classes in their first year. Fabrication, inaccurate and unverifiable facts, plagiarism and violations of the reporter-source relationship would result in zeros at best, and expulsion at worst. It is taken very, very seriously by faculty and students. To be perfectly frank, it terrified the heck out of me as a first-year student, even though I’m not prone to fabrication or inaccuracies. There’s no way you’d make anything up after you agreed to it. The stakes are too high, and it’s scary, especially when you’re 18 and in a brand new – and very big – city.

As for the book, Crazy Town is a great read. It sheds a lot of light on the fascinating and troubled Ford family, and details Robyn’s experiences covering his time in office. There are a lot of sleepless nights, midnight stakeouts, anonymous sources and all the things that make for a great journalism tale. Robyn only had a few months to complete her manuscript, but because she’s been reporting on the mayor since before he even took office, she draws on her extensive insider knowledge of the city, the man and the three-ring circus that has made Toronto a fixture of international headlines for the better part of the last year.

I don’t know about other Ryerson grads, but when I read about all the Rob Ford coverage, I think less about the mayor and more about Robyn. You’ll hear her say in interviews that it was never her intention to become part of this story. City Hall is a pretty standard beat for a young reporter, and – in my opinion, anyway – probably a pretty boring one in most cities. But most cities aren’t Toronto, most mayors are not Rob Ford and most reporters aren’t Robyn Doolittle. In the past year, she’s had to keep a heck of a secret (as her book reveals, it is agonizingly lonely to have seen a video of your city’s mayor smoking crack cocaine and not be allowed to tell anyone) and face intense public and media scrutiny – first as everyone tried to ascertain whether or not she was telling the truth, and then as a key player in the revelations and aftermath of the crack video scandal.

I’m no Toronto City Hall reporter, but when I explained to my mom about Robyn’s role in the whole situation, she told me that she was very thankful that it wasn’t me. I’m thankful it wasn’t me, too! For starters, I’d be a terrible City Hall reporter, but I also know I’d crumble under all the pressure Robyn has been under. We have similar training, but I wouldn’t be brave enough to ask the questions that Robyn asks. I would NEVER have gotten into a car with a stranger in the dead of night (and no purse!) to chase a story. And all of the aftermath?I’d be headed straight for a nervous breakdown.

Robyn Doolittle is made of strong stuff. She’s handled the whole situation with tremendous grace and dignity, and an unwavering commitment to the truth (her interview with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC’s Q is well worth checking out, if you have a spare 30 minutes – and did you catch her on The Daily Show too?). I found out via a former professor, Jagg Carr-Locke, on Facebook today that Robyn spent most of this morning with journalism students on the Ryerson campus, which was really, really cool of her.

Torontonians are lucky to have her, and she’s an inspiration to journalists everywhere. She’s certainly an inspiration to me.

 

Sin Eater

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There are a lot of nice things about being in a book club. For starters, because my book club is small (there are only three of us, and we’ve known each other since we were 15), it’s a great opportunity for us to have a good catch-up on each others’ lives every few weeks. In the past year, we’ve celebrated family milestones (Courtney’s daughter’s first trip to Disneyland), new relationships (me) and a baby-to-be (Monique). It’s great to see how far we’ve come and so exciting to look forward to everything that’s going to happen next!

The other great thing about being in a book club is that because we take it in turns to pick our next read, we’re often exposed to titles that we may not have chosen for ourselves. It’s because of my book club that I’ve not only found the spectacular young adult novel Eleanor & Park, but also Daughter of Smoke & Bone and Divergent.

This month, however, we decided to do something completely different. Courtney’s mom Dee Van Dyk is a writer, and so we agreed to give the manuscript of her teen-horror novel Sin Eater (a working title) a try. This is the first time I’ve ever been involved with a book that hasn’t been published yet – and the first time I’ve ever been asked for feedback – so it was a pretty cool experience.

I popped the PDF manuscript onto my Kindle and polished it off in a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning reading extravaganza so it would be fresh in my mind for book club. I wouldn’t say that horror is a genre that I’m naturally drawn to, and there’s no denying that Dee’s subject matter is a little darker than I would normally choose for myself, but I had such a great experience reading Sin Eater. It was a really pleasant surprise! Dee’s clearly done her research when it comes to mythology and she’s managed to weave together a compelling tale that explores the themes of good and evil in both present-day and historic settings.

There’s a reporter who plays a crucial part in the plot of Sin Eater and I happen to have some experience in this area, so my main feedback points for Dee were suggestions about how to develop him more fully. I think it would be really cool to insert some more of his ‘voice’ into the story by including some of his newspaper articles, which would also provide additional context for some of the other events that take place as the plot moves forward.

I don’t want to say much more, because this is a work in progress, but I’m so thrilled that Courtney and Dee felt comfortable sharing this book with our group (I know both of you read this blog – thank you). Book club is going to take a short hiatus for a few months while Monique enjoys being a new mama, but rest assured, we’ll be back. And in the meantime, I’m not going anywhere!