July 12, 2012

Do You Watch the CBC More Often than Say 10 Years Ago? Here’s Why

Gosh I remember the fun times I had watching The Friendly Giant, Mr. Dressup and Sesame Street while growing up in a typical 70’s suburban home in Montreal. With its lively characters and amusing stories the CBC programs taught me English without any inkling on my part that I was being educated.  I can’t say I watched the CBC during high school and afterwards.  Other than the Olympics and hockey games, I don’t have any nostalgic CBC recollections.  I was hooked on American offerings like All in The Family and Mary Tyler Moore. Why was that I wondered? 

The answer dawned on me after reading “The Tower of Babble” by former CBC executive Richard Stursberg. I devoured this book in a weekend and it's my favourite read so far this summer.  I loved it for 3 reasons. First, it’s one of the best memoirs for an insider’s view of executive decision making in a large bureaucratic corporation. I was shocked by how candid he was.  There’s no sugar coating here. I know there are 2 sides to every story but the conflicts, frustrations and reflections seemed sincere and well balanced. The clarity with which the author presents the issues at hand and his strategic proposals to turn the CBC around is top notch.  Memoir? Cripes I’d recommend it as a business book for lessons on change management.  
Second; it deals with Canada and its culture. I don’t live in Quebec anymore but as a French Canadian I’m always fascinated by the ongoing French/English battles in the media and how political parties use it to their advantage.  It’s no secret that there’s been a rise in public opinion questioning the CBC’s existence.   The author recaps the key turning points in Canada’s media landscape within the last 15 years and does not hesitate to explain their root causes. He even takes a stab at predicting its future. It’s a very timely book considering how quickly the media business is changing these days. 
Lastly, it’s well written and an entertaining read. I was stunned to read in his acknowledgments that it’s his first book.  Any reader with an interest in Canadian cultural identity, the CBC or politics would appreciate it. I’ve read many memoirs from former business executives and unfortunately many of them bear a resemblance to a resume dressed up by a ghostwriter with a passionate divorce or love affair thrown in for good measure. This one feels authentic and sticks to the topic of business. Bravo for that!
Nowadays I regularly watch George S., Rick Mercer and even get sucked into Heartland every once in a while. My CBC viewing is a lot more than it was 10 years ago, a substantial increase considering I have access to hundreds of channels instead of the four I grew up with.  What can I say? I enjoy stories based on Canadian lives and landscapes.  I can’t get that on HBO.  It’s remarkable to discover that these programs exist due to plans drawn up by the author and implemented under his leadership.  His approach was simple really. Put on shows that Canadians want to watch but the US doesn’t deliver. Let’s hope his vision will continue despite his voluntary exit from iconic cultural institution. Otherwise I’m switching channels and hanging on to my tax dollars!
5 stars out of 5 (*****)

April 17, 2012


Yes! I won a contest from the good folks at Book Club in a Box. My review of A Visit from the Goon Squad beat all the others. I was pleasantly rewarded with a guide for The Paris Wife.
Here's my winning entry; 


February 27, 2012

The Book Thief Steals Our Hearts

Several of us couldn’t find “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. We didn’t realize that it was categorized as young adult literature. One had to head towards the teen section at the library or bookstore to get a copy.  That’s what’s wonderful about book clubs. They expose you to books you don’t usually consider. The Book Thief was a pleasant surprise to most of us however some readers thought the blurbs on the back cover didn’t serve it well and it tainted their experience. Although the story is set in Germany during WWII, it’s not fair to compare it to The Diary of Young Girl by Anne Frank. If your expectations is a detailed historical account of the struggles faced by innocent German villagers during WWII you will be disappointed. The book is much broader in its themes of love, hate, conflict and death.

The writing style is unique throughout. It starts with the narrator’s voice. To explain further would ruin it for you so you'll just have to trust me. The layout of the words is peculiar and there are drawings throughout the text. The extensive use of imagery is breathtaking. I still look at the sky differently now. Many passages were so beautiful I had to take a break and reflect for a few minutes. The book club members doubted that a teenager would enjoy reading it because the pace is slow and the subject is quite depressing.  No shirtless vampires here.  Since the meeting however many moms have told me their kids loved it! For its unique style and great storytelling we gave it a 4 out 5.
Overall Rating (*****)

February 17, 2012

Canada Reads - Final Day - All the Books Are Winners

I know I know, I'm late posting my comments on the finale for Canada Reads. A dear relative passed away this week and my mind was left numb and my heart filled with sadness. My relative loved books but due to illness she was no longer able to read. During her stay in hospital I read newspaper articles out loud for her to keep her abreast on the world's activities. I'm not sure why one cares about news when one is dying but the distraction was providing her some comfort so I proceeded with the readings, carefully omitting articles on miracle cures and nuclear war. The first to avoid false hope, the latter to avoid losing hope altogether. I scanned the pages quickly and focused my attention on trashy gossip and celebrity clippings. 

The Canada Reads debates were particularly controversial this year so there was lots of material for me to play with. Frankly it was more interesting than my recaps of Coronation Street. You see, TV watching had ceased as well, mostly due to the abhorrent fees for televisions in hospitals, slightly less than the ridiculous parking fees. Who knew parking in Ajax could cost more than central Toronto? But I digress. Together my relative and I decided our favourite panelist was Arlene Dickinson. She was articulate, classy and smart throughout the debates. Her book didn't win but she sure won our respect. The winner was a book called "Something Fierce" which was brilliantly defended by Shad. I haven't read it yet but the title describes my relative perfectly. She was fierce till the end.

February 07, 2012

Canada Reads Day 2 - Dignity Restored

Yesterday's broue ha-ha at Canada Reads made headlines in today's national papers. Fortunately a sense of calmness was restored in today's session largely in part to Alan Thicke's folksy humour and Shad's pragmatic "enough with the drama and let's talk about books" refrain. The Tiger was voted off today because Siberia is not in Canada, it had too many detailed passages irrelevant to the story and works that include tigers expressing thoughts and feelings shouldn't be considered non-fiction.

This skeptic thinks it was payback for yesterday.

February 06, 2012

Canada Reads Day 1 - Artists as Ruthless as Wall St. Bankers

A surprising result at Canada Reads today. The most popular book according to a CBC poll, Prisoner of Tehran, was voted off on Day 1. Arlene's passionate and articulate defense failed to ensure a spot through the next round. What happened? The initial vote was a tie between The Tiger and The Prisoner of Tehran. Stacey held the cards. Since she had voted for neither, she would decide which one was to go. She chose to remove her biggest competitor in order to save her book. I'm sure Kevin OLeary would have done the same. Will her strategy backfire? We'll see.

January 30, 2012

2012 Kickoff

The year 2012 promises to be an exciting year for the book club.  First there's the CBC CanadaReads competition in a couple of weeks. I'll be attending the live tapings and posting pics.  I haven't picked a favourite yet among the finalists. The selections are all non-fiction books and I'm having difficulty being honest with my feelings. Is it OK to prefer a book on hockey instead of a young girl's account of her imprisonment? I'm curious to see how the celebrity panel will handle these types of questions.

The next big news is the club picked its January read. We'll be discussing The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak in mid February. Look for a review by Valentines Day.

November 24, 2011

CBC CanadaReads 2012 Launch Party

It was quite a turnout at yesterday's launch party held at the CBC atrium in Toronto.  The lobby was filled with loyal fans of CanadaReads. Here's how it works.  Five celebrities pick a book from a list of 10 chosen by the public. They debate their merits live on air to claim that theirs is the best book. It can get quite passionate at times for the panelists as well as the numerous twitterers and bloggers that follow the event.  CBC's official blogger this time will be Terry Fallis. The author won last year's competition with his book The Best Laid Plans.  
It's the first time the competition features non-fiction writing. There's a huge range of topics; hockey, imprisonment in Iran, revolutionists in Chile, rock stars on tour and a Siberian tiger. Something for everyone.
Learn more about the books and the panelists here.

November 11, 2011

Louis Riel - A Must Read For All Canadians

The graphic novel is particularly effective when used to cover historical events. Unlike your typical history textbook, the graphic novel facilitates the breakdown of complicated subject matter into a series of engaging cartoon drawings.  The flow of images and limited text accentuate the root cause of historical events and their aftermaths.   The result is a story that separates the forests from the trees.  Louis Riel by Chester Brown is one of the best examples of this genre.  
The author describes the events leading up to Louis Riel’s arrest for treason and eventual execution in 1885.  The careful notes and bibliography are proof that the author researched his subject extensively.  Along with the accurate account of events, the eye catching drawings, Brown captures the human emotions.  Many times I felt anger, shame and dismay as the story unfolded.  The author didn’t tell me to feel this way. It was the manner in which he presented the facts.  He allows the reader to make his/her own judgement call as the events unfold.  A must read for every Canadian and sure to stir debate in any Grade 9 history class. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will be for picked for the CBC’s CanadaReads program in 2012. 
Overall Rating *****  (4 stars out of 5)

October 23, 2011

Where There's Smoke... There's No Fire

A colleague of mine said “Memoir writing is the new scrapbooking. “ It seems everyone has a story to tell.  The problem is not everyone’s story is interesting, at least not to your average reader.  The cover of this book is meant to attract X-File fans.  What fan could resist learning more about the iconic Cigarette Smoking Man, a character full of mystery and intrigue? Let me warn them right now that the bulk of the book is dedicated to Canadian and British theatre which oddly enough is why I was attracted to it.  And contrary to the X-files, there is nothing paranormal or alien oriented about the growth of theatre in Toronto and Vancouver.  At worst a few office tantrums and extra marital affairs are exposed but they are real and in the author’s mind explainable.  Intermixed is the never ending name dropping.  You know how boring actors are on Oscar night when their speeches list every director, producer, hair stylist they ever worked with? Well try reading 200 pages of that, except Davis wouldn’t finish his speech by thanking God.  All kidding aside, the memoir does offer some insight on acting and the importance of developing networks to succeed.  I only wish it read more like a novel instead of a resume.  Pictures of family, theatre groups and ski races would have helped to personalize it.  Overall Rating ***** (2 out of 5)

September 16, 2011

Business Lunch in Lux

Smithsonian Magazine posts one of my articles. It's not related to books. It's about enjoying food in a cafeteria in Europe. I wish all cafeterias were like this one.


August 19, 2011

The Convict Lover Needs to go Back to Jail

The book club read only one book this summer and I'm sorry to report that despite all the awards it received, the majority of us didn't like it.  The Convict Lover's concept is intriguing.  An author buys an old house in Kingston, Ontario  and finds a bunch of letters in the attic.  They are notes written by a convict serving time at the penitentiary just after WW1.  The author invests years researching Canada's penal system, the convicts history and the recipient of the notes, a farm girl, to form a story.  Sounds promising right?

Here are some of the comments ;
"The prose was not alluring. It was like reading paint dry, never mind watching it dry."
"There was no plot, no character development. A boring Laura Ingalls story."
"It's not a love story.  I did appreciate learning more about the prison.  My favourite part was the map at the very beginning."

Overall Rating ***** (1 star out of 5)

July 23, 2011

Interview with Author of The Social Animal

In case my review didn't sway you to read The Social Animal perhaps this interview with Charlie Rose will. Enjoy!

July 15, 2011

The Social Animal Will Make You Happy

Are you the type who enjoys psychology articles but can’t stand the complicated medical lingo? If so, you might want to check out The Social Animal.  Author David Brooks presents the latest research on the subconscious mind as a fictional story.  The narrative tracks the lives of two characters from pre-natal birth, young adulthood, marriage and parenthood till old age.  Periodically there is an injection of research studies using plain language to help explain their behaviour.  Brooks does an excellent job at convincing readers on how powerful the subconscious is.  
I have to say that since I’ve read the book I’m far more willing to question my opinions on education, poverty and relationships.  My favourite concept was the notion that man doesn’t have free will but has free won’t.   I can attest that this statement is an excellent conversation starter at parties. Along with the navel gazing you'll find out why dinner parties with friends is a huge part of happiness. Social animals we are indeed!
Overall Rating ***** (3 stars)