Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Well, this one was a long time coming. But I just got my first copy of Desiring the Kingdom! The official release date is August 5.

This book has been with me (and with our family, I'm afraid) for several years. In fact, it was just about a year ago that my wife headed up to Canada with the kids, leaving me with an ultimatum: finish the book (there were a number of "or elses" implied, none of them inviting). I camped out in my office for 4 days, finally finishing a complete draft in the first couple of days, and then undertaking the hard work of cutting 20,000 words for the final draft (which still put me 20,000 words over the contracted length!). The good folks at Baker Academic were graciously patient as the project morphed and percolated (and expanded).

In a way, this feels like "my" first book. So many of my other books have been commentaries of one sort or another--explicating, explaining, unpacking and illustrating the ideas of others. But Desiring the Kingdom, while by no means original, feels like its written in my voice, bubbling up from some of my passions.

Of course, now begins the hard part: watching one's little child be thrown to the wolves in the world of reviews! But in preparation for that, I found this little litany for authors to be helpful! (H/T: Comment's Friday Newsletter)

[And yes, the photo above is a lame, narcissistic attempt to see my work alongside Wharton, Waugh, Updike, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Suffice it to say that my bookshelf is the only place in the world where that could happen. The same doesn't even happen in my imagination.]

Monday, July 20, 2009

Remembering Frank McCourt

I did not grow up reading books. In fact, I avoided them like the plague as if not reading was some kind of badge of honor. This ridiculous code was absorbed from a combination of "jock" mentality and the "country boy" image we absorbed in my small-village upbringing that was rural in its essence. I didn't even read the books assigned for school. The only book I can honestly remember reading up to grade 12 was a 1982 edition of Don Cherry's Grapes: A Vintage View of Hockey.

That changed after my conversion to Christian faith when I was 18. At that point, I became a voracious reader. But I was devouring a very particular strain of "non-fiction" that was a long ways from "creative"--books in biblical studies and theology, and later, works in philosophy. My waking hours were spent trying to inhale all that I could, trying to make up for my readerly sloth up to that point. As I progressed through my undergraduate studies into graduate work, my interdisciplinary interests multiplied my reading obligations but still restrained my universe within a narrow sector of the world of books, a million miles from "literature." Indeed, during this phase I would have looked askance at a novel as "soft." I was doing "serious" reading and refused to be distracted by "stories." Sitting beside the pool I'd be reading Heidegger; on the beach I'd exhibit my "rigor" by reading Derrida; rocking the baby in the basinette I'd be paging through Augustine or Foucault. Little did I realize how small my world was.

Today, almost the exact opposite is true. Reading philosophy and theology is, for the most part, my "job"--an obligation I discharge at the office. I don't bring those books home. Instead, my home library is filled with Julian Barnes and Evelyn Waugh, Updike and Flaubert, Ted Hughes and Charles Wright. But not until last week had I given much thought to what had changed.

And then it hit me: it was Frank McCourt.

It's strange: for almost all of the books in my library, I can recall where and when I got them. But for the life of me, I can't remember how these first two volumes of McCourt's memoirs made their way to my shelf (Teacher Man was a gift from my mom). I know from the dates inside that I read this in my last year of grad school. What would have prompted me to do so is lost in the sands of my aging memory. And yet, as I try to trace this shift in my reading habits--this expansion of my reading world that took me into the environs of literature--the paths seem to stretch back to Angela's Ashes as a sort of fulcrum or hinge, a turning point. McCourt's enchanting style, suffused with the religious in the most sacrilegious ways (all that "wanking!"), coupled with the power of Irish story-telling had me hooked. And his explorations of his own psychic life were, for me, like new adventures in a foreign territory. (Indeed, his persistent description of that experience of a "clouding" of his mind--a dark, swirling interior storm--has stuck with me for years, giving me a picture to name realities.)

All of my "serious" reading to that point had worked with a reductionistic fixation on a certain kind of truth--reading for "information," for "knowledge," for propositions and ideas. Not until I dove into McCourt's memoirs did I come to appreciate the truth of story, the revelatory capacity of narrative, the ability of literature to not only "make up" worlds but to break open our own world. I owe Frank McCourt more than I realized.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

O, Canada: A Collection of Hymns by Ex-Pats

I appreciate that the New York Times was even cognizant of Canada Day. In fact, their little collection of testimonies from Canadian emigrants reads like a hymnal that proves absence makes the heart grow fonder. I suppose this is the experience of most emigrants, particularly Canadians, for whom "Canada" doesn't really appear as a definable entity until one has left. But with distance and the cultural contrast, aspects of Canadian culture come into focus. I suppose only a fish out of water begins to reflect on the nature of water.

In response to the query, "What do you miss about Canada?," an array of authors, actors, and comedians weigh in. Sean Cullen's pining is succinct: "Back home, hockey highlights lead off SportsCenter. That is the height of civilization."

Malcolm Gladwell doesn't miss taking a shot at his host country (a favorite pastime for Canadian ex-pats):
In history class, in seventh grade (or as we like to say in Canada, grade seven) we learned the story of the American Revolution — from the British perspective. Turns out you were all a bunch of ungrateful tax cheats. And you weren’t very nice to the Loyalists. What I miss most about Canada is getting the truth about the United States.
Sarah McNally laments the disappearance of a distinctly Canadian literature while Bruce McCall pens an encomium to Coffee Crisp candy bars (sorry, "chocolate bars" in Canadian-ese). But it is perhaps Rick Moranis, of Second City and "Strange Brew" fame, who most lyrically captures some of my own memories (minus the prairie wind):
I remember singing “God Save the Queen” every morning in school. “Long live our noble Queen!” we belted, thousands of us tubby little obedient Canadians. I guess it worked. She’s still alive. Now they sing “O Canada” in schools and at most sporting events; usually in French and English. Around the time we were changing anthems, dumping ensigns and renaming holidays, the official use of both languages became mandatory, except in Quebec where the required use of English is a bit fuzzy.

Canada Day comes and goes modestly every year. Sure, there are retail sales promotions and a long weekend. But there isn’t bluster or commodity in Canadian celebration. Canada isn’t big on bunting. Or jet flyovers, fireworks, marching bands or military pomp.

Canadians defer. We save our loonies and don’t jaywalk. It’s illegal, eh. We stand on guard at red lights, even when there is no traffic. We wait for clear, green governing lights to signal our turn and lead us on. Then we tuck our heads down, under wooly toques and worn-out scarves, one eye barely open, squinting headlong into the harsh prairie wind, cautiously, quietly, demurely Canadian.
I was in Canada last weekend and was struck by how much it had become foreign to me--enough that I could see it as "other." The accents and lilts of Canadian diction are so noticeable now, and it seems to me that there is a Canadian "look" that is discernable. My kids can pick Canadians out of a crowd. Of course "Canada" shouldn't be confused with or reduced to the rural, small-town sectors that we inhabit when we return to Ontario. And while there is much to praise in its best moments--a charming humility ["Sorry"]; Alice Munro; socialized medicine (despite the horror stories Americans want to hear, universal healthcare is still a good thing--just ask the rest of the civilized world)--Canada has its dirty little secrets, too: its submerged racism that can perversely pride itself on never having had slavery as an institution; its bland cultural offerings which have always seemed parasitic on other national cultures; its ressentiment vis-a-vis the States, all the while eagerly assimilating and appropriating the trinkets of American 'culture;' the vengefulness bred into young men by hockey; the disempowerment of the delapidated First Nations territories that dot the land; the militarism of both our anthem and our history; Kim Cattral. I could go on.

It's an easy sport for Canadian ex-pats to idolize their homeland--and demonize their host country. I'm not about to quit either, but I've got just enough distance to see what I'm doing--and to recognize it as quintessentially Canadian.