Recommended Reading: The Disappeared

In May I’m going to be visiting Cambodia for the first time, to see my daughter Katie, who is doing good work there.

I’m doing all of the usual preparation things (or, more correctly, I’m saying, “Sounds good” when Jane suggests two nights at this hotel, then three nights at that one). But past experience shows that a layer of familiarity with a place is much better acquired from a good novel than from  a tourist guidebook. (London I’m sure, is different if you have never read Dickens.)

So I have been very pleased to read Kim Echlin’s 2009 novel The Disappeared. It’s set originally in Montreal, where a private school girl (from Miss Edgar and Miss Cramp’s School) named Ann Greves meets a young Cambodian musician/student named Serey. Over the objections of her father, they get together and live on the Bleury Street fringes of the music world.

Serey was able to get out of Cambodia before the killing times. But when, after four Khmer Rouge terrible years, the Vietnamese army moves in and opens the border again, Serey moves back home, alone, in search of his family.

Anne hears nothing from him, year after year. Then she sets off in search of her lover. Miraculously, she finds him. But she also finds Cambodia, a country suffering post-traumatic stress. And the reader — and tourist-in-preparation – learns about the horrors of the Killing Times. “Year Zero” was the slogan shouted by 14-year-olds with guns as they forced the entire population of Phnom Penh to leave their homes and start walking to the country: anyone who asked, “Why?” was shot down. And so it went, year after year.

I’ve seen the Killing Fields, but The Disappeared brings the history of the Pol Pot times alive. Whether it also catches the sense of life in Cambodia’s streets today, is a question I won’t be able to answer until I return.

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Recommended Reading

Now, a new book, where I played no role in the publication.

But my admiration for Robert Levine’s Free Ride (with its gentle and understated subtitle How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back) led me to jump at the invite from my friend Duncan McKie to attend the recent music industry convention on March 23 at The Royal York, where Levine was the keynote Breakfast Speaker.

The key message of his Fall 2011 book, published by Doubleday, is that every single part of “the culture business” – newspapers, magazines, television, movies, books and music – is under siege from the “information wants to be free” online economy. And the preference for consumers to get online stuff free . . . and to regard copyright as an outdated concept that interferes with true freedom . . .  is driving every single one of these industries, and the creators they represent, over the cliff. Meanwhile technology companies build billion-dollar businesses on content that belongs to others . . . like authors, to give one example.

Common wisdom tells us that the music industry’s problems with pirates like Napster were solved by iTunes, and that it provides a useful model to solve this problem in other industries. Right?

Wrong.

Clearly iTunes is good for Apple, and for consumers who feel good about paying something for their music. But it’s bankrupting the music industry. The people working there know it.  The artists who are getting less studio time, as quality suffers, know it, too. And that’s why Robert Levine (with whom I chatted before his speech) was invited to confirm the crisis to a deeply worried Canadian audience.

Robert Levine deserves great credit for demonstrating that “we can’t go on this way” . . .  this means you, writers and publishers. Sadly his book is weaker in the area of providing solutions. But reading it makes us aware of just how big a problem creators now face, as the big Internet players fund advocacy groups that  frame the debate about “freedom” as opposed to fair return for copyright holders.

Serious stuff.

Stories About Storytellers Companion Reading (#7)

Many early readers of Stories About Storytellers have remarked that they finish reading it only to rush to pick up one of the other books Doug has so lovingly described. So to make it easier, this recurring feature revisits some of those books and reminds you why they’re worth a read. Last time, we revisited The Game by Ken Dryden, and this we’re featuring . . .

Where the Wagon Led: One Man’s Memories of the Cowboy’s Life in the Old West, by R.D. Symons (1973)

The success of War Horse, both the movie and the play, reminds me that my very first author, R.D. Symons, wrote about his experiences with horses at the front in the First World War. Here is what he wrote in Where the Wagon Led: One Man’s Memories of the Cowboy’s Life in the Old West: “A lot of horses couldn’t take the shock of high explosive shells, and we’d often find one dead after a bombardment, without a scratch on him. One early morning when I went to the transport horse lines I found the colonel’s mount – a good horse, too – dead as mutton, and the nearest shell had exploded over a hundred yards away. I suppose his heart had just stopped with the fright.”

And later . . .  “Yet the smell of our own horses, live horses, always had a steadying effect on me. It somehow seemed to make a sense of sanity in a world otherwise quite mad. I’d often linger at the horse lines after evening ‘stables’ just to talk to our wagon teams and get the mingled smell of horses and hay and oats as the nags munched away. Sometimes the transport sergeant would stick around, too. He had been a cowboy in Alberta, and we’d talk about horses, and it was he who said one night, as a star shell burst over German lines. ‘Gee, don’t that look like the shooting stars we used to watch on night herd!’”

Bob Symons writes of a cavalry charge that he saw close up, when Australian Cavalry went at the German lines “at full gallop, and with drawn swords”:
“It wasn’t long before we saw the boys, still with drawn swords, herding a bunch of prisoners in our direction. . . .
“The way was now open for our infantry, and we soon moved forward, doing what we could for the cavalry casualties till the stretcher-bearers got into action. When a couple of our Canadian boys stopped to put a field dressing on one young chap, the only thing he said to them was ‘Is my horse all right, mate?’ They didn’t know, but someone said, ‘He sure is, Digger.'”

For Doug’s tales of R.D. Symons see 43-50 of Stories About Storytellers.

Stories About Storytellers Companion Reading (#6)

Many early readers of Stories About Storytellers have remarked that they finish reading it only to rush to pick up one of the other books Doug has so lovingly described. So to make it easier, this recurring feature revisits some of those books and reminds you why they’re worth a read. Last time, we revisited Paddle to the Amazon by Don Starkell, and this we’re featuring . . .

The Game by Ken Dryden (1983)

The CBC Canada Reads competition was won last year by my friend Terry Fallis and his political satire The Best Laid Plans. (Try to catch up with it and its successor, The High Road. Terry has a gift for easy, funny writing with distinct and memorable characters who make the events of the plot fly by, with the good guys winning in the end. Yay! And this fall there will be a new Terry Fallis book, Up and Down, also edited by yours truly.)

This year I had hopes that books edited by me would win Canada Reads two years in a row, since Ken Dryden’s The Game was a hot contender. My emotions were split, because I was the publisher (although not the editor) of my good friend Dave Bidini’s book On a Cold Road. But when Dave’s book fell by the wayside in the harsh voting, I was able to root wholeheartedly for the book that Ken and I worked on way back in 1983.

Looking at my copy today, I’m impressed by the confidence that led me to write on the book’s back cover, “You are about to read one of the best books ever written about any sport.” I still believe that to be true. And I remember that the late Trent Frayne wrote in the Globe that it was “the sports book of the year, and of the decade, and even of the century!”

Ken and I (as readers of my book know) are such good friends that I was able to play a practical joke on him, involving a Preston Manning imitation. I am still touched by what he wrote in my copy of The Game: “For Doug . . . We have gone through a lot for a long time. I hope you’re as satisfied with the end result as I am. Thank you for all your help and patience.”

I’m delighted that Canada Reads (and Ken’s book lost narrowly in the last round, although it won the popular vote) has brought The Game to the attention of a whole new generation of readers.

For Doug’s tales of Ken Dryden (including his Preston Manning prank) see 311-314 of Stories About Storytellers.

Stories About Storytellers Companion Reading (#5)

Many early readers of Stories About Storytellers have remarked that they finish reading it only to rush to pick up one of the other books Doug has so lovingly described. So to make it easier, this recurring feature revisits some of those books and reminds you why they’re worth a read. Last time, Doug reflected on The Golden Spruce by John Valiant, and this he features . . .

Paddle to the Amazon, by Don Starkell (1987)

Paddle to the Amazon brought me in touch with the amazing Don Starkell. I was saddened when Don passed away some weeks ago, in Winnipeg, his home town. Readers of the best adventure travel books know that it was in Winnipeg that Don put an open canoe in the Red River, with his two teenage sons, and paddled it all the way to Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon. Along the way they took on the whole Mississippi, drug smugglers, sharks, alligators, drought, starvation  and sickness, and benefitted from the kindness of strangers.

One of his sons (the sensible one) quit when they were being swamped again and again by incoming waves broadsiding them as they crept along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Yet Don and young Dana kept going, completing the longest canoe trip in history. And the book (assisted by the editorial hand of Charles Wilkins)  still provides very exciting reading. A real classic.

Later Don found it hard to settle back into everyday life, and devised another adventure . . . taking a kayak north from Churchill at the base of Hudson Bay all the way through the Northwest Passage, dragging the kayak across the ice when the sea froze. He almost made it unscathed, and lived to write Paddle to the Arctic, another classic.

I thought that he was super-human, and would live forever. But when he struggled out to attend my show in Winnipeg in October, it was clear that the cancer was winning. Still, he was in many ways super-human. I am very glad that, like all authors, he found a way to cheat death.

For Doug’s tales of Don Starkell see pages 178 and 268-269 of Stories About Storytellers.

Stories About Storytellers Companion Reading (#4)

Many early readers of Stories About Storytellers have remarked that they finish reading it only to rush to pick up one of the other books Doug has so lovingly described. So to make it easier, this recurring feature revisits some of those books and reminds you why they’re worth a read. Last time, we revisited Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe, and this we’re featuring . . .

The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant (2005)

Not only did I fail to edit this book, I failed to publish it. But in my book I mention it as One That Got Away.

That’s because my visit to James Houston’s cottage in Haida Gwaii (then the Queen Charlotte Islands) had left me so impressed that I had a proprietorial view of the islands, and their stories. So if I had caught wind of the fact that an unknown Vancouver writer was at work on a book about the legendary golden spruce that had been felled at night by a confused conservationist making an obscure point (then disappearing at sea, before his trial exposed him to the wrath of the Haida nation) I would have snapped it up, sight unseen.

Not that the book suffered by being published elsewhere, going on to win the Governor-General’s Award, and just about every other non-fiction prize available. I’ve since visited the scene of the crime, and am sad to report that the once-golden spruce (a freak of nature that made it a source of reverence to the Haida people) is now a grey, shrunken felled tree rotting away quietly in the water where it fell. But the book, which encompasses a history of the Haida, and of the islands, and of resource logging in B.C., is a superb piece of work.

For Doug’s tales of Haida Gwaii see 176-178 of Stories About Storytellers.

Stories About Storytellers Companion Reading (#3)

Many early readers of Stories About Storytellers have remarked that they finish reading it only to rush to pick up one of the other books Doug has so lovingly described. So to make it easier, this recurring feature revisits some of those books and reminds you why they’re worth a read. Last time, we revisited Broken Ground by Jack Hodgins, and this we’re featuring . . .

Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe (1982)

I did not edit this collection of Guy’s stories, which won the Governor-General’s Award in 1982, but I did publish it. In fact I remember being flu-struck at home when I took the chance to read this manuscript sent in by an unknown writer that my colleagues had recommended, and even through the fever it was clear to me that this was a remarkable book from a fine new voice.

Impressed by Guy’s new book, A Good Man, I’ve just re-read Man Descending, and it continues to delight me. If you’ve skipped over it, for whatever reason, run to catch up to it. The tough, clear prairie voices (often of working-class young guys who are rarely heard in “Literature”) ring out from each page, and from the start you know you’re in the hands of a real writer. Like Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod and a few others, Guy has shown that Canadian readers (more than most) will respond to short stories, and make them commercial as well as artistic successes. This remarkable book is both.

For a bit more on Guy Vanderhaeghe see page 274 of Stories About Storytellers.