Tuesday 27 December 2011

Blatch vs. Gopnik: Why The Walrus owes Christie Blatchford an apology

I keep trying to get beyond my feminist programming. It makes me touchy and it surely is a hindrance to my getting ahead in the world. I do know all this but, try as I may, on paging through the front sections of the morning papers--old school print: The Globe & Mail, The Montreal Gazette, and La Presse--I can't help but notice how few of the articles feature women. And by 'feature,' I mean women as newsmakers, the central subject of the article.

As opposed to the usual silicone & stiletto eye candy.

Some days, particularly in The Globe, NONE of the A section articles feature women...my heart collapses just a little more each time.

But recently, it was The Walrus that got me.

Their crime was in their treatment of Christie Blatchford in the November 2011 back page, "Chalk It Up," in which they tore a (comic) strip off her for having criticized the late Jack Layton when his body was barely cold. Blatch's "Layton’s death turns into a thoroughly public spectacle," a National Post Full Comment article, was published on the day Layton died.

The NERVE of Blatchford to criticize Saint Jack! She took on the CBC for overplaying the story: "...even serious journalists like Evan Solomon of the CBC repeatedly spoke of the difficulty 'as we all try to cope' with the news of Mr. Layton’s death.

"By mid-day, after Prime Minister Stephen Harper had offered a few warm words about Mr. Layton’s death...Mr. Solomon even expressed sniping surprise that 'Jack Layton wasn’t the sole focus' of the Prime Minister’s remarks."

The NERVE of Blatch to take a swipe at the emperor's nakedness, as reflected in Jack's final communiqué:

"And what to make of that astonishing letter, widely hailed as Mr. Layton’s magnificent from-the-grave cri de coeur?

"It was extraordinary, though it is not Mr. Solomon’s repeated use of that word that makes it so.

"Rather, it’s remarkable because it shows what a canny, relentless, thoroughly ambitious fellow Mr. Layton was. Even on Saturday, two days before he died, he managed to keep a gimlet eye on all the campaigns to come."

For these crimes, Blatch was portrayed by Jason Sherman and David Parkins as a cross between a bat, a gargoyle, and Cruella Deville. And, for good measure, a "c-word," and an "ugly glasses-wearing soldier lover," in the eyes of Jack's NDP faithful.

Blatch goes on: "Who thinks to leave a 1,000-word missive meant for public consumption and released by his family and the party mid-day, happily just as Mr. Solomon and his fellows were in danger of running out of pap? Who seriously writes of himself, 'All my life I have worked to make things better'?

"The letter was first presented as Mr. Layton’s last message to Canadians, as something written by him on his deathbed; only later was it more fully described as having been 'crafted' with party president Brian Topp, Mr. Layton’s chief of staff Anne McGrath and his wife and fellow NDP MP Olivia Chow."

Frankly, I don't think Blatchford went far enough. I think Layton should have resigned when he first became ill. He didn't, maybe not so much because of his ego as because he knew what happens to a cult of personality when the personality in question exits stage left.

I also have a problem with his having died of a 'new' cancer that's remained nameless to avoid depressing cancer sufferers more (as if!).

But maybe that's just me...and I digress.

Contrast the treatment of Blatchford with the treatment of Adam Gopnik in the following month's issue, the positively fawning article by Daniel Baird "The Observer, Observed."

Okay, Adam's a big success, writes for The New Yorker, and just released a treatise on winter:

"At fifty-five, Gopnik stands at the peak of his career. He has written six books to date (two of them for children), including the acclaimed Paris to the Moon and Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, as well as countless articles of varying length for The New Yorker. This fall, he is publishing two new books, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food and Winter, which he is delivering across Canada this fall as the 2011 CBC Massey Lectures."

Listen, I'm as admiring of Gopnik as the next person, but he moved away from Canada 30 years ago for NYC. And Paris.

And he's prancing across Canada lecturing CANADIANS about...WINTER??!


And that photograph of Gopnik by Jody Rogac--what were they thinking? He looks like Snoopy impersonating a vulture.

Baird's final paragraph is, albeit possibly unintentionally, hilarious:

"...[Gopnik's] son Luke appeared, a lithe and handsome seventeen-year-old with thick brown hair. He went to the kitchen and came back with a dog treat, as Butterscotch [the little dog that now obsesses Gopnik after a lifetime of refusing to have dogs] practically spun in circles on her hind legs. Then he began slowly waving the treat over the stack of unsold copies of Through the Children’s Gate, and soon Butterscotch followed, leaping with her stubby legs fully extended, with surprising grace, over the wall of books, back and forth, back and forth. Gopnik looked on, rapt, amazed, and absolutely beaming."

All I can say is, where is Mordecai Richler when you need him?

This is most of what Baird has to say about Winter: "..a diffuse and eclectic book, straining at times to sustain its theme with no chance to fall back on the quirky, heartwarming personal narratives that propel Paris to the Moon and Through the Children’s Gate. But in the end, Winter is also deeply personal: it is about finding a sense of home and rootedness and meaning in a fragmented postmodern world; it begins with and ultimately returns to the city of his formative teen years and early adulthood, Montreal. 'Practically everything important that has happened to me happened in Montreal,' he said: 'The first time I fell in love, the first time I fell out of love, the first time I made love.'"

Frankly, The Walrus owes Blatchford an apology. I think Blatchford is amazing, not least because she actually stayed in Canada, not to mention travelling halfway round the world, to bring us Canadian stories. And, for the record, as a kneejerk leftie, there are many of her positions I disagree with.

I know, I know: "Chalk It Up" is supposed to be satire. Still, Blatch is a writer of stature in this country, a writer of gender, a feminist writer. She deserved better than to have her appearance slagged and to be called a 'c-word' in what passes in Canada for The New Yorker.

Maybe Gopnik's next book will be a series of lectures about the essential Montreal.

As a Montrealer, let me tell you how much I'm looking forward to that.

Thursday 22 December 2011

A Writer's Gratitude, part 2: TMOC makes ANOTHER Top 10 List

You may recall that The Meaning Of Children made the CBC - Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers' Choice Contest Top 10 List.

Well, today I received more great news:

made Chad Pelley's Top 10 Canadian Books of 2011 Short Fiction

Here's an excerpt from today's Salty Ink blog:

"Hey! Read more short fiction. Novels are like a nice intimate chat over a pint, but shorts are like a wild, unexpected night out. You want more of those, right? Really, ask any writer: from a writing standpoint, shorts are more fun to write. From a reading standpoint, they’re more potent because they’re all punch and no filler.

I hereby declare, with absolute authority, while knowing I’ll inevitably forget at least one or two collections, that these titles are the official top 10 books of short fiction by Canadians this year. If you can read and not like books like And Also Sharks, The Beggar’s Garden, Once You Break a Knuckle, or Up Up Up, then you have poor taste in modern literature. Sorry. But you do. I can’t even offer you any condolences, as it must, simply, be unfortunate to be so afflicted. And those wild Vancouverites Zsuzsi Gartner and at Matthew J. Trafford, talk about breaking down some walls with short fiction. All 10 of these (11 if you’re counting) made me want to be a better writer..."

Chad Pelley

Congratulations also to the following book/author/publisher combos:

And Also Sharks by Jessica Westhead (Cormorant)

The Beggar’s Garden by Michael Christie (HarperCollins)

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives
by Zsuzsi Gartner (Hamish Hamilton)

The Big Dream
by Rebecca Rosenblum (Biblioasis)

The Divinity Gene by Matthew J. Trafford (Douglas & McIntyre)

The Meagre Tarmac by Clark Blaise (Biblioasis)Moonlight Sketches by Gerard Collins (Killick Press)

Once You Break a Knuckle
by DW Wilson (Hamish Hamilton)

The Reverse Cowgirl
by David Whitton (Freehand)

Up Up Up
by Julie Booker (Anansi).

Tuesday 20 December 2011

The Hardboiled Stress Of Being Santa

Encore Presentation, and just in time for Hanukah!

What's the connection between dirty letters written by Santa, cash payments to former Prime Minister Mulroney, the Guess Who reunion tour, randy goats, sustainable development and Gilbert Gottfried? Join intrepid tabloid reporter Renta Yenta as she narrates my funny Christmas Valentine for Canadians...originally published on Joyland.ca. 

Hope you enjoy & season's greetings!


Abridged Timeline:

1. CBC News, The Fifth Estate: November 8th 2007: German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber files affidavit alleging he negotiated a $300,000 lobbying deal with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at the prime minister's Harrington Lake retreat two days before Mulroney stepped down as prime minister in 1993.

2. Canadian Press, December 14, 2007: Canada Post investigators and Ottawa police narrow the field of suspects behind letters from Santa containing curse words and descriptions of lewd acts.

3. MSN News, September 16, 2009: Questions of credibility and wrong-doing continue to dog Mulroney. His relationship with Schreiber becomes the focus of further concern as the businessman makes public documents showing where and when Mulroney took cash payments for lobbying government. The allegations result in a commission called by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, headed by Justice Jeffrey Oliphant. Earlier this year, Schreiber is extradited to Germany to face charges of bribery, tax evasion and fraud.

It's the story that refuses to die, and so, yours truly, intrepid tabloid reporter and all-round diva Renta Yenta, has decided to come clean, to cough up the ganze megilla—that is, to fill you in on the whole pungent, sordid tale…

WARNING: rated X for explicit content (rutting goats, sweaty reindeer, Santa Claus, Brian Mulroney, Karlheinz Schreiber, political corruption)...


Perhaps it was inevitable, given the pressure on him and all, but still, I was shocked when, just days before Christmas of 2007, the world was confronted with Santa's strange behaviour—writing letters to kids filled with swearing and descriptions of lewd and lascivious acts…After I roused myself from my daydream, I realized this wasn't the Santa Claus the world knew and loved.

I smelled a rat.

And so, partly to cope with my own devastation (some of my best friends are Christian, see?), I decided to apply my particular perspicacity and get to the bottom of it. After all, I know a good story when it bites me on the ass. And sometimes a newsgal's just gotta make a living.

No matter who gets hurt.

Soon as I pulled myself together, I jumped on the blower. And before you could say “Merry Christmas,” bingo! I discovered good ol' Santa was on a publication-banned court-ordered stress leave that stretched from the middle of December to 5 p.m. Christmas Eve. All provided, of course, courtesy of the Canadian taxpayer.

I couldn't reach Santa himself but after much tsuris(1) and tuml(2), managed to make contact with his arctic NGO, AGI(3). I knew they'd be running spin big time on this baby and that odds were good they'd be looking to play me…but then I thought, what the hell, couldn't hoit.

What follows is a worldwide exclusive, a transcript of the conversation I had with Santa's personal representative and communications consultant, PR person Caspar Flack, his psychiatrist, Dr. Mel Chior, and his accountant-cum-aroma therapist, Balt Chazzer(4).

Dateline Montreal, December 20th 2007:

“First off,” Flack said, “you gotta promise never to refer to this here situation with Santa Claus as a nervous breakdown, okay? And, uh, we're still off the record, right?”

“Not a snowball's chance,” I said, scribbling gleefully.

“My God, what a fucking nightmare!” he shrieked. I heard a repeated smacking sound, suspiciously suggestive of someone banging the telephone receiver against his forehead, which was followed immediately by the click of a disengaged line.

Now Dr. Chior, the psychiatrist, jumped right in. “Ms. Yenta, you'll have to forgive our Mr. Flack. He's monitored over fifty thousand reports from around the world in the six days since the news of the rude letters broke. He's exhausted, I'm afraid, hasn't slept a wink. But you're the first journalist to have uncovered Mr. Claus's court-ordered rest period, so before we go any further may I just say some hearty congratulations are in order?”

“Thanks very much,” I said. (Don't think yours truly can't tell when she's being buttered up!) “But can you tell me what exactly precipitated this extremely unSanta-like episode?”

“Well, any number of things, I suppose. But I guess it all starts with the information revolution.”

“Really,” I said, thinking WTF(5) doesn't? I figured he was looking to brush me off, to tempt me with some wild goose chase. (Little did I realize just how wrong was my choice of livestock…)

“Think about it this way. Before Al Gore invented the Internet, most of the world's people had never even heard of Mr. Claus. So he served maybe one, one-and-a-half billion people. But now, what with broadband, everyone on the mother-lovin' planet knows of him, and demand for his services has skyrocketed. Unfortunately, his funding hasn't nearly kept pace.”

“Not nearly,” Chazzer chimed in.

“Uh-hunh,” I said, still scribbling like mad.

“I mean, we've been writing Can Con grants till our hands cramp—let's face it, Mr. Claus is a performance artist of mythic proportions--but with this tight-fisted Conservative regime, he might as well be pissing into the wind. If you'll excuse my French.” Mel Chior cleared his throat. (I was getting the distinct impression this guy was in love with the sound of his own voice.) “Since Google and Wikipedia came on the scene, Mr. Claus has been forced to do much, much, more--and all of it without one thin dime of increased support.

“Burnout was only a matter of time.”

“But why now, exactly?” I persisted.

“I blame the Boomers myself,” Chazzer, the accountant and aroma therapist, chipped in, “and their inflated sense of entitlement.”

That sounded pretty promising (editors love stories that appeal to a broad demographic, and if you've seen a Baby Boomer's hips lately, you'll know they're about the broadest demographic going!). I encouraged Chior to keep talking.

“Well, they can be so demanding. It's as though they never outgrew their infatuation with Mr. Claus. Children in earlier generations, they cease and desist after the age of ten or so, but these Boomers…well, they're in their sixties now and they still haven't stopped with their endless requests. Lower taxes, free health care, Viagra in the drinking water, a Guess Who reunion tour…it just never ends. And when Mr. Claus realized there could be another thirty years of this…” His voice trailed off.

“But why an aroma therapist? Mr. Chazzer?”

“To cope with the unexpected side effects of the push toward sustainable development,” Chazzer said.

“Huh?” I said (again thinking like, WTF???).

“You know, all those websites where you can give mosquito nets, chickens, or a goat on behalf of a loved one to a family in the third world."

“So well-intentioned but--my goodness—the consequences. Heartrending, really,” Mel Chior added.

Flack had finally made it back on the line, and now he pitched in, too: “This year, Santa had twelve thousand goats on order. Twelve frickin' thousand! Imagine what we were faced with, trying to keep them all under control up here at the North Pole. I tell you, the shit was flying! It was like being held at gunpoint during Question Period--with Gilbert Gottfried filling in for Rhona Ambrose! And you know that expression, ‘randy as a billygoat?' Well, it's true! The butting and rutting going on up here--it was just like being on Parliament Hill--or at the Assemblée nationale! The poor elves were beside themselves.

“Not to mention,” Flack added darkly, “what happens to the bleedin' reindeer when they start making all those tropical deliveries.”

My spidey sense kicked into overdrive. “Why, what does happen to reindeer when they make all those tropical deliveries?”

“Well, they're cold-weather animals, innit? In the tropics, they'd be sweating incredible-like, wouldn't they?” Flack said. “And do you think anyone ever bothered to give just the teensiest, tiniest THOUGHT to what nine sweaty, overworked reindeer SMELL LIKE?! No, of course not! None of those green revolution types ever consider the consequences of their little gift-giving fads on poor old overworked Saint Nick!”

“And that's where the aroma therapy comes in,” Chazzer added.

They kept on tryin' but I wasn't buyin'. “I hear what you're saying, but to tell you the truth guys, while all this sounds like a bit of a pain, it hardly explains why Santa's gone off the deep end. Writing pornographic letters to children? Is this Santa's workshop we're talking about or the Christian Brothers? Why now? And why Ottawa, of all places?” (Your intrepid reporter may be a Yenta, but I wasn't born yesterday!)


“Flack,” said the psychiatrist finally, “it's not working.”

“Don't do it Mel Chior,” Flack shouted, “For God's sake, man, don't! We've got to stick to the communications strat--” He was cut off mid-kvetch.

“I can see we're just going to have to level with you, Ms. Yenta,” Mel Chior said, and his voice dropped a mellifluous octave. “It's about the Conservative caucus. And Brian Mulroney's grandchildren.”

“What?” I said, in consternation. “Mulroney's grandkids? What do they have to do with anything?” (That the Conservatives were mixed up in this was a yawner but I knew this new youth angle would make my editor pish(6) himself.)

“For the past month, Mr. Mulroney's grandchildren have been sending letters daily, asking Mr. Claus—begging him—”

“Imploring him,” Chazzer interrupted.

“--to restore their grandfather's reputation. Ditto for the government caucus.”

I chewed on that for a sec. “That'd be a tough one,” I said. “I mean, he IS Santa Claus 'n all, he does some amazing things, but a miracle-worker he's not. Those poor kids.” (I'll never have it in me to feel sorry for the Cons(7).)

“You still don't get it, do you?” the aroma therapist interjected. “Karlheinz Schreiber has grandchildren. And a great-grandchild, too. Don't tell me you've forgotten what Santa's main responsibility is?”

“His raison d'être, as it were,” said Mel Chior.

Being of the Chosen persuasion, I puzzled this for a few ticks—was this some kind of goyische(8) trick? “Bringing presents?” I finally offered.



“No!” (Flack was back again and now all three of them were at me.)

Jews!” scoffed the aroma therapist.

“OH. MY. GOD,” Flack roared. “Chazzer, will you just go somewhere and stifle your damn self?” (There was a strangled sound and for a moment there I thought I heard him doing that thing with the receiver again.)

“Santa's most important job is to figure out who's been naughty!” Chazzer exclaimed.

“I tell you, the stress on Mr. Claus has been unimaginable,” the psychiatrist continued.
“Downright intolerable! And then, seeing all those Ottawa postmarks…Mr. Claus just… blew a gasket, as we say in the trade. He's not been trained to deal with anything even remotely like this. As the DSM-IV would describe it, he's gone completely round the bend.”

“That's terrible,” I said. “That really stinks!” (You should pardon the expression.)

“Indeed,” the psychiatrist said. “Unfortunately, no matter what Mr. Claus does, I expect Mr. Mulroney's grandkids--not to mention the Conservative party--are just going to have to suck this one up.”

“Isn't there anything you can do?”

“I doubt it,” said the accountant-slash-aroma therapist. “We've wracked our brains and come up with nothing. Nada, zip, zero, zilch! And we can't even get any high-priced advice. The big boys at Navigator(9) won't even take our calls. And The Strategic Counsel(10)? They won't touch us with a 10-foot pole.”

By now, Flack was audible sobbing in the background.

“Too tragic,” said the psychiatrist. “No, nothing more to be done, I'm afraid.

“This is one of those things, I fear. Mr. Mulroney's just going to have to take this one on the chin.”


1. Aggravating trouble
2. Confusion
3. AntiGrinch International
4. Pig
5. What the fuck
6. Piss
7. http://www.guncontrol.ca/English/Home/News/Clinov2.hilltimes.pdf; http://www.nwlc-clfn.ca/story_17091_e.aspx; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/new-rules-a-big-big-hit-to-cana... and so on…
8. Gentile
9. Canada's Arnold Schwarzenegger of the communications industry.
10. Canada's Dwayne Johnson of the polling industry.

Review of ‘Arrhythmia’ by Alice Zorn

Posted December 20, 2011 at The Winnipeg Review.

Reviewed by Beverly Akerman

Though set a mere decade ago, on the cusp of the new millennium, Arrhythmia is an impressively old-fashioned novel based on the ancient and captivating geometry of the triangle.

The love triangle, that is.

Perhaps only a science nerd gone literary would find it peculiar that a book about a gastroenterology department secretary would employ, as its central motif, a dysfunction of the heart. But that’s just one of the mysteries of Alice Zorn’s second book and first novel, which follows on the heels of her 2009 debut story collection, Ruins and Relics.

Zorn, who hails from Ontario but has lived in Montreal for years, has written an English book about multiple overlapping relationship triads in French Montreal.

Her main character is Joelle, a blond ditherer of exceptionally mousy temperament. Joelle is married to Marc, whose meticulous nurse’s heartbeat is probably set via OCD. As the novel opens, in the winter of 1999, Marc is about to cheat on Joelle, his wife of 12 years (no kids), with Ketia (I am not revealing any more than the back cover blurb does).

Ketia is a nubile young nurse-in-training from a Haitian diaspora family.

Meanwhile Diane, Joelle’s somewhat bossy BFF, happily plays house with her Moroccan lover Nazim. The third side of their triangle is Nazim’s family. Zorn takes pains to explain the far-away family’s point of view, but we’re still left with the politically incorrect truth that, in their universe, by living with Nazim sans marriage, Diane would be considered a whore. So he simply neglects to mention her. This omission loses its lustre when Nazim’s sister Ghada announces she’s coming to Montreal to procure a bride for him.

Despite its brace of female protagonists, virtually the entire plot of Arrhythmia is put in motion by the male characters. Marc, the older man who should know better, pursues Ketia with a single-minded lust that would turn the head of the most chaste of romance heroines. Diane’s life is plunged into chaos by Nazim’s decision to keep their relationship from his family. And Joelle, despite noting that she and Marc no longer engage in marital relations, apparently hasn’t a clue that whatever love Marc felt for her has flat-lined. His feelings for Joelle (we are informed) oscillate between irritation and disgust.

These women are reacting, not acting. Things are done to them, done despite them. They are no more the stars of their own life stories than are Austen’s governesses. More...

Monday 19 December 2011

Shame, Mr. Harper: Conservative Party Bullying of Irwin Cotler

(As seen in The Montreal Gazette Dec. 8th and 9th, 2011)

Dear Editor

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Here is my picture of your Dec. 8th editorial page, “The Conservative Party’s dirty tricks against Irwin Cotler” just above almost a half-page of letters on “What to do about bullying in schools.” The lies and intimidation shown toward the people of Mount Royal riding is surely an adult example of bullying run amok. Aren’t there already laws against that? Shame, Mr. Prime Minister: when will you speak out against such dishonest and unstatesmanlike behaviours practiced in your name? You have allowed party zealots to dishonour our political process. Again.


Beverly Akerman MSc

Happy Hanukah!

It's that time of year, again.

Made the first latkas (number one son took them to a party last night--they were devoured!)

Hope you all enjoy the holidays...here's a little number to put you in the mood.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Beverly Akerman Wows Quebec City Bibliophiles

LifeInQuebec.com December 12, 2011
This was first published on www.anglostore.com.

On Wednesday 7th December, 2011, author Beverly Akerman (a Montreal anglophone) visited AngloStore to read her from book “The Meaning of Children’, meet the audience and sign copies of her work.

An appreciative crowd of 30 or so gathered in the Quebec City English bookstore at Place Naviles to hear Beverly read ‘Paternity’, one of the fourteen short stories contained in her first book.

In this particular short story, we see the drama unfold as a father deals with whether or not to go for a paternity test following his wife’s affair.

Is the child his? Does he go through with it? Does his love for his wife and (possible) child override his initial feelings?

Having read for 20 minutes, Beverly was kind enough to answer many questions, some of them quite searching, due to the content of the book. Not once did she shy away from any question posed, answering each one honestly and thoughtfully.

In places, ‘The Meaning of Children’ appears quite dark. This is what makes it eminently readable and leaves you thinking about the topic of each short story.

Beverly, a 50-something mother of three, research scientist and Canadian award winning writer, is currently writing a novel.

Please come back once it’s published and read that one for us too.

The Meaning of Children is published by Exile Editions, is priced at $19.95 and is available from AngloStore, Quebec City.

Beverly Akerman signing another book during her recent visit to AngloStore, Quebec City

Beverly with AngloStore owner, Andrew Greenfield

Another ‘Meaning of Children’ fan with the author, Beverly Akerman.
Useful Links:

The Meaning of Children

Beverly Akerman’s Blog
Place Naviles
3400-SS2, chemin des Quatre-Bourgeois
Québec (Québec) G1W 2L3
Tel: (418) 204-4325
Email AngloStore

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Logic in harmony with passion

Concordia professor Fred Szabo takes the Socratic Q&A approach to math instruction

Anyone who listens to Fred Szabo, a full professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, talk about teaching, quickly realizes that he embodies the adage: do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

For Szabo, teaching is not a job, but a vocation. His dedication has resulted in him receiving a number of teaching awards, including a recent President's Award for Innovative Excellence in Teaching.

Fred Szabo | Photo by Concordia University
Fred Szabo | Photo by Concordia University
For Szabo, the challenge has been to create “teaching vehicles that reach individuals in a group setting.” He has been working at Concordia for 46 years but, far from feeling burned out or jaded, he says his mind is clearer than it has ever been.

“I feel more excited and more committed,” he says. “My long-term plans are evolving faster than I can cope with, and I’m really having the time of my life.”

Szabo is particularly inspired by newer technologies that take math instruction out of the classroom and into the real world. Szabo has so far created three online mathematics courses that are available through eConcordia: linear algebra, business math, and business calculus.

His goal for the next five to 10 years is to significantly contribute to global education, especially to making the instruction of mathematics more available in Latin America. A Mexican university will be the first to offer one of his online courses on a trial basis. He hopes to expand access to the online offerings so that they can reach people anywhere, anytime. It would make the online courses more like the one-on-one tutorials he experienced as an Oxonian undergrad.

Szabo is similarly enthusiastic about convincing the university to obtain a site license for the Mathematica software and install on 100 laptops available at the university’s library. The easy-to-learn software has a myriad of applications for design, education, biotechnology, engineering, science and technology uses, and students no longer have to be tethered to a math lab.

These days Szabo teaches linear algebra, an introduction to math course offered through online technology, and a math course for non-math students that he proudly relates is “fully subscribed every year.”

He strives to make learning mathematics “accessible, relevant, and fun,” and says some of his students are stunned when he canvasses them to discover what it is they’d like to learn. “To get them to be self-motivated, though, you have to teach them what interests them,” he says.

Szabo believes in the Socratic method of asking and answering good questions to stimulate critical thinking. Students work on projects they find intriguing. Recent projects included the calculations involved in Ponzi schemes, finding out how a radio works, the mathematics of music, and investigating search engines.

Szabo obtained his undergraduate degree at Oxford University in a course of study called the Modern Greats — “replacing the Classic Greats of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew,” he says. Much of the teaching was done one on one, with tutors. Szabo discovered his calling after one of his tutors involved him in writing about the papers of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher who dealt with the foundations of mathematics and logic.

Szabo came to Montreal to pursue logic and its applications at the graduate level, obtaining his PhD at McGill University. He’s been teaching at Concordia for 46 years.

“I love and respect my students,” he says. “Most students are smarter than they have to be to succeed at university.”

Szabo has always been a passionate tennis player and might take up his beloved violin again, after a holiday in Mittenwald, Germany – a place renowned for its violin makers – but he has no plans to retire.

“This is a great time to be alive and teaching,” he says. “You’re still at the point where you can be a pioneer, so it’s really exciting.”

Related links:
Szabo discusses Mathematica’s application in many courses of study at Concordia
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Originally published Dec. 14th at Concordia NOW.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Teaching is his week's highlight

Martin Pugh is busy, athletic, generous and an excellent teacher of engineering materials

They say if you want to get something done, ask a busy person. That person is Martin Pugh.

Pugh plays squash, cycles to the Sir George Williams Campus from his West Island home (“except in winter”), and keeps track of three dogs, two cats, two kids, more than 1,000 undergraduates, and several hundred graduate students.

The professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering is busy, sporty and a good sport. He recently kept his promise to shave his head if the Concordia chapter of Women in Engineering raised $1,000 to support research into cancers affecting women.

Martin Pugh is in his sixth year as chair of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. | Photo by Concordia University
Martin Pugh is in his sixth year as chair of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. | Photo by Concordia University
Pugh was appointed a Fellow of the Canadian Society for Mechanical Engineering (CSME) earlier this year. He’s also an award-winning teacher, being the 2011 recipient of the President’s Excellence in Teaching Award for Full-Time Faculty in Engineering and Computer Science (ENCS). Pugh additionally won the CSME (Concordia student chapter) 2007 Teaching Award, and the Faculty of ENCS Teaching Excellence Award in 2005.

The key to successful teaching “is to be enthusiastic about your subject,” he says. “I like my subject and I like to transmit that to my students.”

If enthusiasm is what it takes, Pugh has it in abundance. His subject is engineering materials “that make up everything around us – iPads, kitchen knives, cars.” He is an expert on the properties, processes and failure of engineering materials, including ceramics, plastics, composites, as well as joining processes such as soldering and welding.

Though an Engineering professor, Pugh isn’t married to high-tech classroom toys, preferring to “pick and choose what works well.” He still uses the blackboard, but also employs Power Point and a tablet PC to annotate and draw while diagrams and tables remain on screen.

He likes to bring to class “failed parts and bits, like the gas-turbine blades out of jet engines, to discuss how and why they’re broken.” It drives home the lesson to students that failure may be due to abuse, poor design, or improper manufacture. “They’ll be better engineers if they know how and why things break,” he says.

Pugh is as interested in a classroom discussion about how to pick a good squash racquet as he is talking about a robotic space arm.

He did his Bachelor of Science and doctoral work at the University of Leeds, and a post-doctorate degree at McGill University. He arrived at Concordia in December 1998, following a stint as a lecturer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. In his sixth year as department chair, Pugh also served for four years as undergraduate program director.

“No time off for good behaviour,” he quips. “Teaching is the highlight of my week.”

Originally posted at Concordia NOW on November 30, 2011.

Related links:
“Pugh Shaves to Save” – November 15, 2011
Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering
Women in Engineering Concordia

Friday 9 December 2011

Fate of Royal Vale School has communities squabbling

Screen image from a video of a Nov. 23 march against a proposed move of Royal Vale's high school from NDG to Côte Saint-Luc. (http://youtu.be/sZxqzjYbNaQ)

Reported on

December 5, 2011

Against a backdrop of declining English Montreal School Board enrolment, attempts to re-establish a public high school in Côte Saint-Luc are getting ugly.

A resolution to transfer the high school component of Royal Vale School to the former Wagar High School building, renamed the Giovanni Palatucci Educational Centre, was proposed in April 2011, to be voted on early in 2012. Wagar, Côte Saint-Luc’s last public secondary school, was closed in 2005 due to low enrolment.

But Côte Saint-Luc Mayor Anthony Housefather said his is the third largest city on Montreal island, with thousands of kids eligible for English schooling but no public high school. He points out that Côte Saint-Luc citizens pay school taxes and have been lobbying the English Montreal School Board for a new school for years. “I believe we have the right to a mainstream public high school in our community,” Housefather said.

The Palatucci facility is near Côte Saint-Luc’s new $18 million Aquatic and Community Centre, in an area featuring arenas, a gymnasium, and an auxiliary branch of the renowned civic library. It’s ideal for student activities, according to Housefather, who’s even pledging to resurface the school’s six tennis courts to sweeten the deal.

But Royal Vale parents and students are massively against a move says Karen J’bari, a Royal Vale School governing board member for about seven years. Her son graduated from the high school in 2010.

J’bari says her board voted unanimously against the proposed move because 88 per cent of parents and 75 per cent of students reject it. The parents’ survey had a 37.5 per cent response rate, which she calls “good for industry standards.”

She also says Royal Vale principal Chantal Martin has worked hard the past few years to improve the cohesiveness of the school’s kindergarten to Grade 11 program. “It blows my mind that they are thinking of splitting the school,” J’bari said.

In addition to rending the Royal Vale School social fabric, J’bari calls the school board’s proposal fiscally irresponsible, and lacking in costing or market analysis. Last spring’s attempt to gauge demand for a new Côte Saint-Luc public high school garnered interest from only 45 families, she points out.

Housefather is convinced that, to paraphrase W.P. Kinsella, if you transfer it, they will come. Local school commissioner Syd Wise concurs. He says the English Montreal School Board must meet the challenge from private schools in the area. The best way to do that is “to present parents with an enriched program like Royal Vale’s.” Wise says a school board consultation showed Côte Saint-Luc parents are looking for a more challenging curriculum than a regular high school provides.

Housefather agrees that the high school at Royal Vale “is just what parents in Côte Saint-Luc want.” He lists the fact the school accepts students regardless of where they live, has French immersion, and math and science programs.

J’bari insists that “there’s no proof a new high school would attract families” from the private schools.

On Nov. 7, Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges/Notre-Dame de Grace borough council voted unanimously against the school board’s proposed move of Royal Vale high school. Public discussion subsequently took a turn for the worse after borough Mayor Michael Applebaum, was quoted saying, “I can tell you that we wield a big stick. … If [the move] happens, there will be consequences.”

School board chair Angela Mancini demanded an apology, calling Applebaum’s remarks “inflammatory, offensive and threatening.”

The school board’s commissioners are to hold public consultations on more than 10 major school change resolutions Dec. 5 to 8; the Royal Vale School discussion is scheduled for Dec. 6. Resolutions will be voted on Jan. 11. All meetings will take place at the English Montreal School Board’s Administration building, at 6000 Fielding Ave., at 6 p.m.

Beverly Akerman was involved in a parent movement to prevent the EMSB relocating Royal Vale School to Wagar in 2005. She is the author of The Meaning Of Children

Originally posted at OpenFileMTL.

Friday 2 December 2011

Sowing a farm in the city

Greenhouse becomes a hotbed of urban agriculture

The greenhouse on top of Concordia’s Henry F. Hall Building boasts an eagle’s eye view of the city, but it’s no ivory tower.

Increasingly, the greenhouse is a hub of community building and a hotbed of urban agriculture. Last week’s City Farm School was the latest manifestation of this growing role.

Over the past couple of years, the greenhouse has become increasingly active in community outreach, creating workshops and supporting the burgeoning curiosity about the cultivation, processing and distribution of food in and around the city. But an overwhelming number of volunteer applications — there are over 500 names on the listserv — has made volunteer training an issue in itself.

The week-long City Farm School (April 26-30) was designed to help manage and respond to the needs of this abundance of human resources. Mornings featured theory-based lectures — delivered simultaneously in French and English sessions. Afternoons were for activities such as building vermicompost bins and guerrilla gardening walks discussing “how to use space that isn’t technically yours” for growing. The 40 graduates of the City Farm School were then assigned internships with some 15 diverse community groups, including Westmount High School and St. James the Apostle Church, all clamouring for assistance in organizing new agricultural projects.

Volunteers learn how to set up their own worm compost systems with instruction from Noémie Messier (crouching in red dress below) responsible for vermicomposting in the greenhouse. | Photo Concordia University
Volunteers learn how to set up their own worm compost systems with instruction from Noémie Messier (crouching in red dress below) responsible for vermicomposting in the greenhouse. | Photo Concordia University

Marcus Lobb has been Education Coordinator at the greenhouse for 10 months now. He explains that the greenhouse community is also creating new projects of its own on the Loyola Campus, building on the success of The People’s Potato (the vegan soup kitchen) garden: tea and herb gardens, another small garden plot, and outdoor mushroom growing.

A student in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, Lobb says he, like many young people, combined his interest in travel and organic farming by travelling through WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Participants learn about organic growing and other sustainable living practices, and experience a unique cultural exchange. “They find opportunities on five- to 10-acre family run farms, where they work, learn and share their knowledge.”

Back in the city, many WWOOFers make their way to Concordia’s greenhouse through programs like the Sustainable Food Festival, held in September 2010 and built around the university’s role in the sustainability movement, ensuring food sources remain diverse and productive over the long term.

Kim Fox, the administrator who handles the logistics and organization of greenhouse events, says, “People want to learn how to garden again. They want to learn how to cook, how to grow their own food, and to understand the politics around food. Why not have gardens in the city?” Over 1,000 people came through the festival’s food fair, held on the Hall Building terrace. The point was to raise awareness of food: “where it comes from, and connecting people with local farmers and food issues.” Interest is growing, she says, adding, “the more people find out, the more they wish to reclaim food,” to produce it themselves rather than having it brought to them over great distances.

Fox, finishing up her BA in political science, is “really inspired by helping people understand what is in our food supply and how it is produced. I want them to understand the burdens of monoculture and agribusiness.” With its diverse programming — speakers, food festivals and now the farm school, the greenhouse is well on its way to filling this growing community need.

[Originally published May 2, 2011 in Concordia NOW.]

Related links:
City Farm School
Concordia greenhouse

Friday 25 November 2011

Forty years and $1.5 million later, McGill Book Fair bites the dust

Book Fair coordinator Victoria Lees unloads boxes at Redpath Hall. Photo: Owain Harris

The volunteer-run sale of books, CDs and DVDs, which has raised over $1.5 million in endowment funds for student scholarships and bursaries, just doesn’t have enough volunteers to keep going.

The Book Fair committee took a vote on the question of whether or not they could continue on Sept. 13th.

“It was a sad decision but it was a unanimous one,” said Victoria Lees, a Book Fair volunteer for the past eight years, and coordinator for the last four.

Many tears were shed said Lees, a former Secretary-General of McGill, but in the end, it all came down to the fact that “younger people aren’t that interested in volunteering.”

The Book Fair committee is composed of 23 women and one man. Most are retired McGill employees, with many in their mid-seventies and some in their mid-eighties.

Another 150 or so volunteers are recruited for the three-day sale itself, to be held this year from Oct. 18 - 20. The best recruits are the friends of other volunteers, Lees said, but at this point their network has been exhausted.

Books, CDs, DVDs and albums, new and used, are donated and collected at depots around Montreal. The committee starts work each year in February, receiving and sorting through thousands of donations. Last year’s sale raised $85,000.

Lees says many of the books that come her way are from people who are closing up their parents’ apartments or homes. The work can involve the unpacking of “often filthy" boxes.

“For every 50 to 55 thousand books we put on sale each year, we must process about 10 times that number," Lees said. "There’s a tremendous amount of sorting and moving of heavy boxes. Redpath Hall is a great location but there are lots of stairs involved.”

The promise of a rare find has attracted amateur collectors and book dealers come from Ontario, New England, and throughout Quebec over the years.

Occasionally, there are incredible finds. One year, Lees recounted, two first-edition James Bond novels in mint condition were uncovered—hard covers with their dust jackets. They fetched $11,400. There’s a lesson in that, Lees said.

“Never throw away a dust jacket. Ninety percent of the value of a book from the 20th century is in the dust jacket.”

Another year, Lees came across a first edition of Samuel Johnson’s "Dictionary of the English Language." It went to the Rare Books Collection at McGill for $1,800, a sum Lees calls “a real bargain. That’s the sort of thing that makes me saddest about all this. What will happen to all these books? That’s the thing that breaks my heart.”

Besides volunteers, about 20 students are hired to work as cashiers or security agents for the Book Fair. Jonathan Haines has been the hiring manager for the past three years; for two years before that, while a McGill linguistics student himself, he was one of the student hires.

Haines said he’s sad about the Book Fair’s demise, “as are a lot of the students I’ve mentioned it to. It’s a loss not just for McGill but for Montreal, and also for the regional community.”

Customers are from all walks of life, though they are mostly students, according to Haines. Books are available in English, French, and foreign languages.

Parents would bring their children and spend hours together at the Book Fair. “It’s an opportunity not just to buy books but a way of being around books that’s completely different,” Haines said.

McGill University administration officials did not respond to OpenFile's request for comment, but Haines said he’s “been hearing a lot of people talk about what can be done.

“People are thinking about this. It’s not a totally lost cause.”

Beverly Akerman is author of the story collection, "The Meaning Of Children."

Originally reported on October 18, 2011 at OpenFileMTL.

The final McGill Book Fair took place:

Tuesday, October 18, 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Wednesday, October 19, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Thursday, October 20, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Location: Redpath Hall (east side of McTavish Street, one block north of Sherbrooke)
3461 McTavish (McTavish Gates)
Montreal, QC, H3A 2K6

Thursday 24 November 2011

Keeping Students Engaged is Key

Engineering lecturer and first-year program coordinator Nancy Acemian

If students find Nancy Acemian sometimes feels like a big sister, it is probably because she’s been a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of West Island for almost three years now.

She finds mentoring preteen girls very gratifying. “I’m a role model they can come to about issues in their lives.” She uses her love of painting and crafts — knitting, crocheting, jewellery making — to help connect with the girls.

Nancy Acemian was honoured with the President’s Teaching Award in 2010 for Innovative Excellence in Teaching. | Photo by Concordia University
Nancy Acemian was honoured with the President’s Teaching Award in 2010 for Innovative Excellence in Teaching. | Photo by Concordia University

This desire to connect drives her achievements in the classroom, too.

Acemian received the President's Teaching Award 2010 for Innovative Excellence in Teaching for her classroom performance and leadership in developing innovative teaching in the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science (ENCS). The year before, she was recognized by the Faculty with the Teaching Excellence Award.

A native of Montreal, Acemian earned her bachelor’s from McGill with a major in Mathematics and a minor in Computer Science. She then obtained her master’s in Computer Science from Concordia and is working on a PhD in Educational Technology, also at Concordia. She taught at Marianopolis College for 11 years before arriving at Concordia in 2000. Plus she teaches in her third language, giving her unique insight and a deep appreciation of the diversity that’s the heart of Concordia.

“At Concordia, we give everyone a chance, with kids straight out of cegep alongside young adults back at school after several years at work,” she says.” The multicultural diversity of the student body is also way up on her list of Concordia pluses.

Acemian is the first-year program coordinator at ENCS, and shares her knowledge and expertise through the Centre for Teaching and Learning Services; however, her passion is teaching introductory level courses in computer science, which can be difficult. “Classes are large and the students are very diverse. Some have never programmed before.”

Keeping students engaged — ensuring they’re active participants in classroom discussions — is paramount. Acemian believes in a very interactive class: “Teaching is a two-way street.” She needs to know right away if students have problems with the material.

That’s why she uses the i>clicker classroom response system. Like the “ask the audience lifeline” from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the i>clicker lets Acemian pose multiple-choice questions and get instant feedback. Because it’s anonymous, “everyone participates, even the shy ones.” And she can zero in on unclear concepts in real time.

She also uses i>clicker to get students interacting. “Sometimes, the answer will split 50/50 in the class. I’ll tell them ‘find someone who doesn’t have the same answer as you and talk about it, try to convince each other.’”

Acemian also relies on the tablet. “Students can have the teaching slides ahead of time and we can figure out the problems in class. And because I’m always facing them, I can see when the light goes on,” she laughs.

Sometimes attention spans are short, especially when it comes to teaching on a Monday morning at 8:45 a.m. “You can’t be passive. You have to challenge the students, to keep them involved. Programming isn’t a spectator sport.” Breezing in, doing a lot of talking, and then walking out again is what doesn’t work. “The challenge is to keep from boring them.”

Respect is also very important. Acemian cultivates an open-door policy, encouraging her students to consult her, and not just about course content. “Life can be tough. There are career decisions and sometimes problems in their private lives. There’s the juggle of kids new to Montreal, living on their own for the first time.”

And Acemian likes being there for her students. Just like a big sister.

Related links:
Centre for Teaching and Learning Services
Slide show of the 2011 Mascot Design Contest Acemian organized as first-year program coordinator at ENCS

(Originally published in Concordia NOW.)

Thursday 17 November 2011

Jordan LeBel's Recipe for Success in the Classroom

One part real world, one part no nonsense, and one part fun

Jordan LeBel, an associate professor at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, calls upon his experience as an executive chef in some of Canada’s food service organizations and a top restaurant to teach The Marketing of Food and Experience Marketing.

Currently on sabbatical, LeBel has twice received the Dean's Award for Teaching Excellence. In 2010, he was a recipient of a President’s Excellence in Teaching Award for full-time faculty. Recently, he was the first recipient of the student-created award for MBA Elective Professor of the year for his course on Experience Marketing.

Marketing professor Jordan LeBel is studying ways to encourage consumers to make healthier food choices. | Photo by Concordia University
Marketing professor Jordan LeBel | Photo by Concordia University

A Montreal native, LeBel has taught at the Norwegian College of Hotel Management, the École Hôtelière de Lausanne, as well as Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s of science from Cornell and a PhD from McGill.

He co-developed the award-winning online course Marketing Yourself and its accompanying textbook. One of his latest undertakings is the online ‘edu-tainment’ course, The World of Chocolate: Explore, Experience, Enjoy.

LeBel’s research focuses on consumption for pleasure or aesthetic reasons, and the impact of related marketing on consumer choice and behaviour. His expertise and findings have been featured by NBC, CBS, PBS, the Discovery Channel, CTV, Global, Glamour, Self, Washington Post, New York Daily, Globe & Mail, National Post, Toronto Sun, The Gazette, La Presse, and Le Devoir. He has written for publications such as Commerce, and starting next February he will sign a branded column in the glossy Le Must Alimentaire, titled Parlons plaisirs.

What is it that makes him such a successful teacher? “That’s like trying to pin down the indefinable ingredient that makes a recipe sing,” he offers with a laugh. But when pressed, he says “it’s human interest. I care that the information I share will be useful to students, not just for the exam but in their work and in their life. We reflect on concepts larger than just the textbook concepts and theories.”

LeBel describes his approach as “very real-world pragmatism” and “no-nonsense grounded theory.” Fun is another valid descriptor, if the year-end student presentations, which follow the format of the popular CBC TV show Dragons’ Den, are anything to judge by.

His engagements outside class, such as his vice-presidency on the board of Youth Employment Services (YES), enrich his pedagogical approach. He says activities such as co-chairing the annual fundraiser for the not-for-profit organization help to make what he says to students more relevant.

LeBel has also been involved with the McGill World Platform for Health and Economic Convergence (MWP), which brings together representatives from business, government, academia and other organizations to brainstorm about improving health worldwide through better standards of living. MWP has given LeBel the opportunity to meet such innovative thinkers as Mohammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist who founded an institution to provide microcredit to people who want to start a small business but have no collateral. The organization has enabled LeBel to share a global outlook with his students.

He says his students “ask the kind of questions that make me a better volunteer,” and he admires that so many of them manage to balance part-time work with their studying. He praises the university as blessed with “an incredible vibrancy, energy and multi-ethnic diversity” that keeps him and other professors on their toes. Even on sabbatical, he likes to stay in touch with students, recently giving a sold-out talk to help raise funds for the MBA student's International Community Outreach Program.

Students give him grief about being old-school for his short quizzes on assigned readings, but he is determined to ensure his students learn the basic lingo and culture code of the discipline.

LeBel’s teaching is most likely celebrated because he so clearly values its role. “I know research is important and that we have to do it, but we are a higher education institution,” he says. “We all have to develop our own approach, I just hope that my work inspires others as I have been inspired by gifted teachers.”

Related links:

John Molson School of Business
Jordan LeBel’s bio
“The Skinny on Bulging Waistlines” — NOW, February 14, 2011
“Dragon's' Den, Concordia-style” — NOW, April 18, 2011
Marketing Yourself
The World of Chocolate: Explore, Experience, Enjoy.

(Originally Posted on Concordia - NOW, November 14, 2011)

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Mordecai makes Charles Foran a Governor General's Literary Awardwinner

Congratulations to Charles Foran, Winner of the 75th Governor General's Literary Awards for Nonfiction. Mr. Foran is honoured for his recent biography of Mordecai Richler, a double GG Award Winner himself (for fiction in 1968 and 1971), Mordecai: The Life & Times.

For my look at the book, please see "A Feminist Jewess on Charles Foran's Mordecai: The Life & Times."

From the press release:

The Canada Council funds, administers and promotes the Governor General's Literary Awards, Canada's oldest and most prestigious awards for English- and French-language Canadian literature. In addition to the monetary award, each winner will receive a specially-bound copy of the winning book, created by Montreal bookbinder Lise Dubois. The publisher of each winning book receives $3,000 to support promotional activities. Non-winning finalists receive $1,000 in recognition of their selection as finalists, bringing the total value of the awards to approximately $450,000.

His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, will present the Awards on Thursday, November 24 at 6 p.m. at Rideau Hall. Media representatives wishing to cover the awards presentation should contact Christelle Legault at the Rideau Hall Press Office, (613) 998-7280 or christelle.legault@gg.ca."

Also from the GG website, all the winners & the committees that chose them:



Patrick deWitt, Portland (Oregon) [originally from Vancouver Island], The Sisters Brothers
(House of Anansi Press; distributed by HarperCollins Canada)

Brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters are at the centre of this “great greedy heart” of a book. A rollicking tale of hired guns, faithful horses and alchemy. The ingenious prose of Patrick DeWitt conveys a dark and gentle touch.

Perrine Leblanc, Montreal, L’homme blanc
(Le Quartanier; distributed by Diffusion Dimedia)

In L’homme blanc, Perrine Leblanc invites us to travel to a period in history in which a profoundly human character achieves universal status. This novel teaches us that we can never predict destiny, and that even white itself can have varying degrees of whiteness.


Phil Hall, Perth (Ontario), Killdeer
(BookThug; distributed by Literary Press Group)

Killdeer by Phil Hall realizes a masterly modulation of the elegiac through poetic time. It releases the personal from the often binding axis of the egoistic into that kind of humility that only a profound love of language – and of living – can achieve.

Louise Dupré, Montreal, Plus haut que les flammes
(Éditions du Noroît; distributed by Diffusion Dimedia)

Plus haut que les flammes is a collection of admirable restraint, where the everyday is interspersed with memories of the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Louise Dupré explores and questions the experience of pain evoked by places of extreme horror, and uncovers a deeply human truth.


Erin Shields, Toronto, If We Were Birds
(Playwrights Canada Press; distributed by University of Toronto Press)

If We Were Birds is a bold and brilliant retelling of a classical myth. The language is poetic and contemporary. Erin Shields creates a haunting and viscerally impactful play about the sexual politics of war. She invites us into a world of complicated family relationships, dangerous sexuality, revenge and fierce loyalty.

Normand Chaurette, Montreal, Ce qui meurt en dernier
(Leméac Éditeur / Actes Sud; distributed by Socadis)

With Ce qui meurt en dernier, Normand Chaurette creates disturbing and mysterious moods in a polished, chiselled language. His almost surgical style paints the portrait of a woman who struggles with her desire to please. The beauty of the writing serves the play’s thesis wonderfully.


Charles Foran, Peterborough (Ontario), Mordecai: The Life & Times
(Alfred A. Knopf Canada; distributed by Random House of Canada)

Mordecai: The Life & Times by Charles Foran is biography as high art, illuminating not only the character of Canada’s most provocative writer, but also, in the most vivid and compelling fashion, the times and places in which he lived. This is a grand, sweeping work that sets the standard for future literary biography.

Georges Leroux, Montreal, Wanderer : essai sur le Voyage d’hiver
de Franz Schubert
(Éditions Nota bene; distributed by Socadis)

Almost a year after Beethoven’s death, Schubert, suffering from a concealed affliction, saw his own death approaching. Winter Journey is the pretext for a fine requiem in white that Georges Leroux has penned in a lovely, pitch-perfect book. Musing on human suffering as a philosopher, incorporating poetry and photography, the author gives us a sumptuous meditation on existence.

Children’s Literature — Text

Christopher Moore, Toronto, From Then to Now: A Short History of the World
(Tundra Books; distributed by Random House of Canada)

From Then to Now: A Short History of the World, by Christopher Moore, is a fascinating examination of the evolution of human civilization that is global in its span and inclusive in its outlook. The energetic narrative tells a story that rivals the very best fiction.

Martin Fournier, Québec, Les aventures de Radisson - 1. L’enfer ne brûle pas
(Les éditions du Septentrion; distributed by Diffusion Dimedia)

With Les aventures de Radisson, Martin Fournier skilfully measures the suspense of his tale, and more than succeeds in transcending the dryness of a historical character. He depicts the adventures of Radisson, the rebellious adolescent who will pay for his boldness. An almost ethnological initiation into the Iroquois culture of the time – the French language at its best.

Children’s Literature — Illustration

Cybèle Young, Toronto, Ten Birds, text by Cybèle Young
(Kids Can Press; distributed by University of Toronto Press)

Ten Birds is a whimsical, surreal visual riddle. A disarmingly simple story becomes a complex discussion of the adjectives used to
“pigeon-hole” individuals in society. Cybèle Young’s beautifully crafted pen and ink images describe a journey to simply cross a river. Ironically none of the birds can fly, but ultimately the simplest answer may be the best.

Caroline Merola, Montreal, Lili et les poilus, text by Caroline Merola
(Dominique et Compagnie, a division of Éditions Héritage; distributed by Messageries ADP, Groupe Sogides)

By playing with a familiar theme, Caroline Merola succeeds in drawing us into her universe filled with astonishing contrasts. She stages simply-drawn characters in a lush, generous forest. Lili et les poilus is a work full of dynamic compositions, with profound and luminous colours that are applied with unbridled energy.


Donald Winkler, Montreal, Partita for Glenn Gould
(McGill-Queen’s University Press; distributed by Georgetown Terminal Warehouses)
English translation of Partita pour Glenn Gould by Georges Leroux
(Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal)

Partita for Glenn Gould, Donald Winkler’s translation of
Georges Leroux’s brilliant essay, shines with the musicality of language that reflects Gould’s life and creative discovery. Winkler expresses the depth of feeling and baroque complexity of the original text with impressive sensitivity, dexterity and precision. A masterful performance, at once learned and lyrical, it is a tour de force.

Maryse Warda, Montreal, Toxique ou L’incident dans l’autobus
(Dramaturges Éditeurs; distributed by Diffusion Dimedia)
French translation of The Toxic Bus Incident by Greg MacArthur

Toxique ou L’incident dans l’autobus is an effective and deftly-honed translation. The language is incisive, imbued with an oral character that is perfectly suited to the theatrical text, and skilfully renders the dense and sober style of the original. Maryse Warda says a great deal in few words, in language that delivers the essential.

The peer assessment committees

The winners for the Governor General’s Literary Awards are chosen by peer assessment committees (seven English and seven French) appointed by the Canada Council. The committees, which meet separately, consider all eligible books published between September 1, 2010 and September 30, 2011 for English-language books and between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011 for French-language books. This year, 1002 titles in the English-language categories and 682 titles in the French-language categories were submitted.

English-language committees

Fiction: Douglas Arthur Brown (Ross Ferry, N.S.), Peter Oliva (Calgary), Kerri Sakamoto (Toronto)
Poetry: Joanne Arnott (Richmond, BC), Stephen McCaffery
(Buffalo, New York), Douglas Burnet Smith (Antigonish, N.S.)
Drama: Christian Barry (Halifax), Lisa Codrington (Toronto),
Eugene Stickland (Calgary)
Non-fiction: Emma LaRocque (Winnipeg), Philip Lee (Fredericton), John Terpstra (Hamilton
Children’s Literature – Text: Maureen Hull (Pictou Island, N.S.), Richard Scarsbrook (Toronto), Darcy Tamayose (Lethbridge, Alta.)
Children’s Literature – Illustration: Murray Kimber (Nelson, B.C.), Susan Tooke (Halifax), Ange Zhang (Toronto)
Translation – French to English: Jo-Anne Elder (Fredericton),
Hugh Hazelton (Montreal), Maureen Ranson (Calgary)

French-language committees

Fiction: Salah Benlabed (Montreal), Nadine Bismuth (Montreal),
Alain Bernard Marchand (Ottawa)
Poetry: André Brochu (Montreal), Nadine Ltaif (Montreal),
Alain Raimbault (Longueuil)
Drama: Sounia Balha (Montreal), Marc Prescott (Winnipeg),
Pierre-Michel Tremblay (Montreal)
Non-fiction: Joël Des Rosiers (Charlemagne, Que.), Daniel Jacques (Québec), Claudine Potvin (Vernon, B.C.)
Children’s Literature – Text: Bertrand Laverdure (St-Liguori, Que.), Diane Carmel Léger (Moncton), Hada López (Québec)
Children’s Literature – Illustration: Naomi Mitcham (Whitehorse), Janice Nadeau (Montreal), Pierre Pratt (Lisbon, Portugal)
Translation – English to French: Laurent Chabin (Montreal),
Patricia Godbout (Sherbrooke), Louise Ladouceur (Edmonton)

(Of course, Patrick deWitt would be from Portland...if any of you have read my essay "Six Pixels of Separation," you might understand to what I refer...)