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According to Jake and the Kid

By W.O. Mitchell

(This is about: telling a story from different perspectives).

“I saw him crying often - he’d get so homesick,” my mother once said recalling her family’s 1930’s hired man. “A boy forced out of his own home -  he came to our farm from England.”

My father, who worked as a teenage hired man on the prairies, also lived the experience more as a “boy” than a man.  But he had a different perspective.  He saw the job as an adventure and loved it.  My parent’s hired-man stories framed my own thoughts of leaving home with the balance of two points of view. 

They also gave me an image that conflicted with the steady, older man in W.O. Mitchell’s first Leacock Medal book, Jake and the Kid.  But their recollections aligned better with Mitchell’s 1990 medal winner, which had a slightly different take on Jake.

Like the first book, According to Jake and the Kid explores the hired man’s bond with a boy on a prairie farm. Jake’s worldliness comforts the Kid, and his skill with animals and machinery helps the boy’s mother manage the farm after her husband joins the fighting in World War II.

In the first book, CBC radio hooks the boy up with his father for a conversation that the Kid calls “the best Christmas present Ma and me ever got.” This second book opens with “my dad got killed just a week after we talked to him ... Maybe I haven’t got a father any more, but I got Jake.”

Jake now seems, despite his years, less like a father though and more like an older brother, playing games and getting into trouble.   As Mitchell explains, “most hired men seemed to have one foot in the adult world and the other in the boy’s world.

This book makes the boy within the hired man clearer because it features a few stories told by Jake himself.  The Kid was the sole narrator in the first Jake and The Kid book, and because Mitchell drew Jake from his own recollections, the picture of a big older man reflected “the low vantage point of a boy.”

Mitchell, the teacher and university lecturer, surely told countless students “that’s a good story, now rewrite it from the perspective of another character,” and he may have been using the exercise to breathe fresh air into his own work.

But this takes skill if you want to maintain a tone while viewing events from different angles.

When the Kid talks, Jake becomes a wise counselor and the stories are told with young boy references: the colour of the little colt is like “pull taffy” and two fighting roosters remind the Kid of “those toys you wind.”  When Jake tells a story, he’s a guy who goofs around with friends and compares things to barn doors, trucks, and combines.  Jake takes the Kid goose hunting contrary to Ma’s orders, and he and his Rummy-playing friend Gate sound like bickering children when a storm forces them to spend days together. 

Yet the chapters, whether from the perspective of the Kid or that of Jake, all share the same feel and readers recognized them simply as “Jake and the Kid” stories.   The consistency comes in part from the farm, the town of Crocus, and the locals[4] common to all stories.

But another reason they all have the same feel comes from the core personality.  Whether they’re told by the boy or the man, the central character really rests in the transition between the two.  The Kid inches toward it, and Jake reaches back.

That was the space and perspective occupied by others, like Huckleberry Finn, Oliver Twist, and the hired men of my parent’s memories, who helped me make sense of the world when I was the Kid.

From time to time, I can still use a little support and inspiration to figure things out and to transition to something new.  Maybe, I haven’t got a Jake, but I got this book.


Writing in the Rain

by Howard White

(This is about: How to write regional histories that win a national humour award)

For a year and a half in the mid-seventies, I’d leave work every day, walk to a warehouse near Granville Island, enter a closet, close the door, and talk to myself for a couple of hours.  There in darkness, I read and recorded stories about steamships and B.C. history for the blind.[5]  The hypnotic experience changed my life,[6] stamped me forever with images of the west coast, and haunted my thoughts this year as I read about a truck load of fish guts. 

When the year 1991 and Writing in the Rain by Howard White floated to the top of my Leacock Medal reading list, I assumed its stories of salmon, steamboats, and rainforests would remind me of how much I miss British Columbia.  Yet, despite White’s enthusiasm, it didn’t.

When it comes to passion for the west coast, it’s hard to match him.  Howard White has pretty much dedicated his life to a celebration of the Province and its people.  After school and a few years of bouncing around on bulldozers and backhoes, White[7] settled on the coast near Pender Harbour, where he not only started a family, but also gave birth to Harbour Publishing, the enterprise that, in turn, brought hundreds of B.C. authors and thousands of B.C. stories into the world. The Order of Canada, the Order of B.C., and many industry awards have recognized White, the publisher, as the champion of B.C. regional histories. 

 Writing in the Rain exemplifies the subject matter, but differs because publisher White wrote this stuff himself.  It’s an anthology of essays that do exactly what I assumed.  They  serve up starfish, hermit crabs, and otters, and use terms like “throw it out in the chuck,” “gyppo loggers,”  “haywire,” and the “big cumpney’s running the show” that I don’t hear elsewhere and always associate with B.C. 

But instead of making me wistful, the stories usually prompted thoughts of places and people that I encountered after moving away.  Now being more elsewhere than B.C., I see White’s coastal characters as just a particular flavour of personalities found in many parts of Canada.   

White’s comical story of trucking fish guts around the coast, which recalled my west coast experience, could be easily recreated with the entrails of other animals in other locales; his essay on astronomy and tides, while important to the B.C. coast, touch a global curiosity; and his encounters with aboriginal youth in the B.C. Interior could be easily restaged in Northern Ontario or Quebec. The loggers and fishermen who wrote poetry, sang songs, and told stories reminded me of “versifying” Ottawa Valley farmers, and White’s story of the Easthope marine engine sounds a lot like Farley Mowat’s adventures off the east coast.

Yet Howard White would have a hard time accepting the suggestion that B.C. is anything but unique.  He found little parallel, for example, in Newfoundland: “one of the bleaker places human beings have chosen to stand” with towns “like lichen clinging to the crevices of a huge windswept boulder.”  In the rocks, trees, and ocean of the B.C. coast, on the other hand, he saw beauty that gave him a “shivery old feeling” of “mystery and wonder.”   White has probably eaten more than his share of lotus fruit.

Of course, writers in many genres aspire to stories about a specific locale that speak to universals, and this feature of Writing in the Rain probably points to White’s strengths rather than a parochialism or fault.  I don’t think you can find a technique or trick to achieve this effect.  It probably flows, when it flows, naturally from a writer’s fascination with regional history and caring about the people.  This leads into a humanity that can touch everyone everywhere and, in this case, a national audience.

Another challenge I had in studying Writing in the Rain was the question of how it rated a humour award.  By his own admission, White was not particularly funny in this book.

The chapters that brought me closest to laughing were those that relied, not on White’s words, but Oral history interviews with old timers.  I’d never think of terms like “booze kitten” or “Holy Mexican Jesus” unless I’d first heard them from these mouths. Their stories reminded me to quote other authors when I can - and that none us is as funny as all of us.

But, as with several other books, the humour of this one may be found in something unspoken.  It’s the presumption that B.C. does not have a culture and history worth documenting: a hypothesis that does not do well in the face of this book and constitutes a pervasive incongruity.   If such a view ever held sway among eastern elites, it’s been disrupted over the decades in large part by the work of Howard White and Harbour Publishing, which, in turn, makes the book less humorous now and its award more ironic.

Those thoughts give me a headache, yet they’re all I have.  Perhaps, I should go back into the closet, talk to myself, and think of the B.C. coast some more.


Prayers of a Very Wise Child

By Roch Carrier

(This is about: the humour the comes from telling the truth).

“Well - Kawlin-da-bin - that’s just weird, and that’s just a weird kid.”

My father-in-law’s reaction was funny, but honest.  He struggled with the suggestion that a French Canadian kid might not want to play for the Montréal Canadiens and could find writing “a lot more fun than winning a hockey game.”  Weird - particularly since this kid came from the imagination of Roch Carrier, the author of "Le chandail de hockey."

Funny, but honest - pretty well sums up Carrier’s 1992 Leacock Medal winner, Prayers of a Very Wise Child, a collection of questioning messages to God delivered in the words of a boy in 1940s rural Quebec.[8]

Prayers like these have a lot of potential.  A conversation with Someone who knows all of your thoughts and deeds invites candor and the discussion of difficult issues: a combination that often feeds humour.   With World War II, poverty, and religious constraints, the times did not lack difficulties, and the boy’s prayers tap many.

Some humour comes from the interplay between the church and child.  When a local man hangs himself in the wake of his wife’s infidelity and a fire that killed his children, the priest determines that the body should be buried outside the graveyard with the dogs explaining that the man didn’t die like a Catholic, “he died like a dog.” 

“God, I’ve never heard of a dog that hanged itself  ... Is our religion the best, God, because it’s the one where you suffer the most?” the boy asks.

Carrier’s boy doesn’t sound authentic all the time. He uses too many adult expressions, comparing a saint to “a raving lunatic,” fearing that his “grandfather got screwed,” and quoting the newspaper Action Catholique.

But Carrier did this intentionally and had an impact mixing those references with thoughts like “Sometimes I wish I knew less about grammar and more about (bare)bums” and even sillier stuff from adults: “Our grandmother’s greatest hope for the War in Europe is that our French Canadians (fighting there) don’t swear too much. Their bad words would scandalize the French, who only know fancy words”. 

In the end, the little boy sounds both adult and child, and his prayers mix genuine concern for others and self interest. In his outpouring over the plight of children in concentration camps (“They look like skeletons, with only enough skin to hide their bones. They have hollow eyes; they’re scared. They look like little dead children, but they’re alive;” the boy pleads with God to “make a miracle to stop all that suffering.” 

Then, in the next breath, he announces plans to head to the rink  - asking “Please, God, don’t forget me. I’d be really glad if Your holy finger could push the puck into the net.”  

Maybe, he’s not that weird after all, just honest and more like the rest of us and the hockey sweater kid than we might think.


Waiting for Aquarius

By John Levesque

(This is about: the mystery of why I like John Levesque’s essays)

Over the fall of 1970, still living at home, in un-cool small town Ontario, I climbed out of my too-small bed each morning, dressed up in a blazer, and drove my embarrassing 1964 beige Chev station wagon to catch the GO Train.  On the commute into college, I stayed alert to read my textbook, prepare for classes, and look at the cute girl who got on the train in Scarborough every day.  I knew who she was.  She was cool.  We were never formally introduced, and we never ever spoke to each other.  But she made an impression on seventeen-year-old me because, at our first encounter, she was naked.

 She was a performer in HAIR, the Broadway musical that came to the Royal Alexandra Theatre for a long run that year.  Seeing HAIR combined rock music, rebellion, and, oh yeah, female nakedness with my ambition to grow up and get away.  Inexplicably, forty-three-years later, I still think of commuter trains, repeatedly, when I see the word “Aquarius.”   I can’t help it.  I don’t think I want to help it.

My story hasn’t got much to do with Waiting for Aquarius, the 1993 Leacock Medal winner by John Levesque, but I don’t think I could give an honest account of my experience reading the book without getting that GO Train admission out of the way first.

Waiting for Aquarius pulls material from Levesque’s column in the Hamilton Spectator.[9]  My catalog of admissions now includes not knowing of John Levesque before reading this book.  But I really like his stuff and found it consistently funny.

I am not sure why.  

Levesque echoes a number of the Leacock Medalists I admire.  He sounds like a gentle humorist in the Eric Nicol fashion, but like Pierre Berton, he takes on politics, bureaucrats, the media, war, and finance.  He also talks of his family in the style of Gary Lautens.  If I had to file his columns, I would put them under “Leacock Medal Miscellaneous.”

His book is a pretty loose collection for sure, matching the physical character of my copy of Aquarius.  I have lots of Leacock Medal books that are older, but this one shows the most wear. The glue on the binding has given out, and I’ve stuck in packing tape that bunches up and pushes the pages out in a jagged pile that begs to be wrapped in an elastic band.  I’m not sure why I’ve been so hard on it.

The book’s cover doesn’t help the overall appearance much.  It features a cheesy photo of the twinkle-eyed, grinning, bearded author.  In it, he pours water Aquarius-style, but the liquid hits the table and misses the glass: just as we humans and the other residents of the universe keep missing the mark in the quest for the perfect, harmonic galactic convergence and planetary alignment needed to end the age of chaos and usher in the Age of Aquarius.   I like it, and when I call the photo cheesy, it’s meant as a compliment.  I’m cheesy.  I have been the subject of several twinkle-eyed, grinning, bearded author photos as well.  I’m not sure why I like Levesque’s style.

As I said, there’s not much holding the book together.  Levesque jumps around a lot, regularly starting off his columns with unrelated reminiscences drawn from his childhood and teen years. When he reports on changing demographics, he leads into it with the story of a six-year-old friend who had to keep a back pocket list to remember the names of his sixteen siblings; he talks about office politics by recalling a grade school exchange of Valentines; and he ties Descartes to his Dog, physics to sentient trees, and diapers to inventions. 

For me, the personal stories are engaging and give the pieces a genuineness that makes the facts that follow more human and effective.  His humour and humanity reach a peak in the closing entry which lists all the things that give him “Happiness.”  Like me, Levesque avoids resolutions on New Year’s Day and, instead, pauses in the gratitude month of October to reflect.  I’m not sure why I like his thinking.

All those personal recollections somehow work, and Levesque knows that he has no control over them anyway.  When he reflects on the sacredness of Good Friday, he says playing football with his high school friend and “the arc of a football against a ceiling of deep blue” comes to mind more than religion, adding “I can’t help it. I don’t think I want to help it.” 

Hmm. That’s funny.  


Bachelor Brothers Bed and Breakfast

By Bill Richardson

(This is about:  finding time and space to read and write)

For many years, my one persistent, non-monetary, fully clothed fantasy has been to invent a gigantic “Pause” button to put the universe on hold.  With no one growing older, no problems worsening, and no swelling of my in-box, I could dream up new ideas, catch up on emails, take more time reading books, and write.

We will not likely see such a time-and-space Pause button in the near future, but I’m able to imagine it more easily after reading The Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast, the 1995 Leacock Medal winner by CBC announcer Bill Richardson. [10]   An idyllic, Pause-button place “located on one of the islands that populate the Strait of Georgia, between Vancouver Island and the mainland,”[11] the B&B gives guests space to disengage from pressures, relax utterly, and read.  Hector and Virgil, the bachelor proprietors, take turns documenting stories about their guests and celebrating written words in their journal-like book.

Helen, one guest who returns to the B&B every year, rereads Treasure Island because her first husband carried the name of the central character Jim Hawkins.  He went off to war and his death immediately after their wedding.  Other notes, lists of books, mini-reviews, and the brothers’ random thoughts make up the rest of the book.

Many of the Leacock Medalists muse about writing and make allusions to great literature.  But the Brothers come closest to the format I want for my account of this year of reading humour.  It intertwines the readers, their anxieties, and their experiences with the literature in a way that makes you want to read more books. 

It also shows you how to write them.

In imagining the Bed and Breakfast for himself, Richardson not only created a place where people can enjoy books, but also a space where two men could live together as life partners,[12] dress up as roosters, collect flowers, play musical egg cups, use moisturizers, cook, keep cats, and feed birds without their other orientations defining them. 

Part of being themselves involved finding time to write their book.  They, like many other writers, real or imagined, have busy lives.  The B&B can be a dawn to dusk drone of domestic duties: “cooking, cleaning, mending, marketing.”  But the brothers compartmentalize the day and get it all done.

“The satisfying and consuming rigours of housekeepery rarely allow us time for reflection or inward looking,” Hector says. “So, of necessity, these little accounts of our goings-on are set down late at night when the dust of the day has settled; or first thing in the morning, before it has been stirred up.”

This year, I experienced a bit of a breakthrough when, like Bill Richardson’s Bachelor Brothers, I decided to commit to writing every day. Instead of setting dispiriting goals of quantity or quality, I resolved to sit at the keyboard for at least sixty minutes trusting that I could always squeeze out an hour from my day even if it meant getting up early or staying up late and that this would translate into progress.   It was hard at first, but eventually it became much easier to find the time, sit down, and put the universe on pause.


Fear of Frying

By Josh Freed

(This is about: how to laugh at the fear of failure and to learn).

In my darker moments, I fear that there are only two options for a later-life writer.

I could assemble a mountain of text books and study all the rules so thoroughly that I not only become elderly in body and mind, but spirit too.  In this approach, expanding knowledge would reveal the hopelessness of the enterprise and keep from ever writing anything other than anonymous, encrypted, untraceable emails to illiterate strangers on other planets.  The other frightening option exploits the world of blogging: posting anything and everything that comes into my mind without the filter of editing or education.  My unfettered blog would, like many others, only attract a few hits, possibly from illiterate strangers on other planets.

Josh Freed explores such irrational thinking in Fear of Frying and Other Fax of Life, the 1995 Leacock Medal winner. [13] A number of Leacock Medal books mock things that scare us – war, poverty, and disease.  But this book ridicules the act of being scared.  

The book can be therapeutic for anyone anxious.

Fear of Frying attacks unfounded anxiety from many directions.   Allowing for the reality of the Gulf War and economic recessions, the book shows how silly some of our 1990s “crises” were - Constitutional Reform, the Goods and Services Tax, and the lingering impact of Metric Measurement, and it reminds us that we can always find something to worry about and that many issues melt away with time. Frustrations with fax machines, programming VCRs, and setting up answering machines are a few.  Freed also points out that seemingly bad events, like minor hotel fires, baldness, and bagel wars, can turn out for the best and often create a feeling of community that did not exist before. 

 The “Frying” in the book’s title refers to food fears that have a flavor of the month quality today, but were a new phenomenon when this book was written.

Freed undercuts fear most by making fun of himself.

 “I hate takeoff, I hate landing and I hate what comes in between ... And I listen. I listen to the drone of the engine, the creak of the wing flaps and the clunk of the landing gear alert for sounds the captain may have missed,” he says of a common anxiety.

A less common one rises from his desk.

“Imagine a ceiling-high pyramid of paper: a leaning tower of yellow newspapers, leaky pens, unpaid parking tickets, bailiff notices, old pizza boxes and petrified coffee cups. All that’s missing is a sign that says: DANGER: LIFE-THREATENING MESS,” he says.

Although Freed, who wrote part of the book while living in L.A., takes shots at Americans and  the U.S. biggest-and-best culture, most often he targets Canadian cautiousness, which even extends to learning a language: “ANGLO 1: This person knows all 276 French tenses, and is determined to get them perfectly ... determined not to speak another word until he has finished five more years of intensive French.”  Freed prefers “ANGLO 2 (who) has a vocabulary of 15 words and one tense, usually the present, and talks like a cave man  ... (and goes around speaking) French with the confidence of Moliere.”

He encourages us “to plunge ahead and fill the air with words ... (for) ...  If you speak French badly for long enough, you may eventually learn to speak it correctly.”   We should not, however, speak in a vacuum and need to interact with those who know what they are doing.

Sounds like a plan for writers too.  We should plunge ahead knowing we might doing it badly as long as we listen to others who do know what they’re doing and as long as we can park those irrational fears. 


Letters from the Country

By Marsha Boulton

(This is about: Writing from the caring yet practical perspective of farmers)

Our family christened my sister as “the caring one.” When her lamb died, we dug a grave by the barn, held a funeral, and tried to comfort her.  When my pig “Herkimer” left the mortal world, we put him in the freezer and then ate him. That was fine with five-year-old me, “the practical one.”

From that time, my sister was not destined to be a farmer because she was seen as too sensitive and squishy for necessary dispatching livestock. I too was not-farmer material because I, on other hand, did not seem to care enough for animals.

We learned at an early age that farmers need a perfect blend of caring and practicality.  Farmers should also have a sense of humour, and great farmers know how to share these characteristics with others.

By all these measures, Marsha Boulton makes a great farmer even though she did not set out to be one as her first career choice.  Sometimes caring, sometimes practical, and always seeing the humour in the presumptions about farm life, the 1996 Leacock Medal winner could also communicate it all well.

Letters from the Country, the medal-winning work, describe the routine events of rural life in central Ontario, but with the amusement and awe of someone who came from the city.  Boulton moved to farm there after years of glamour as editor of the People section of MacLean’s Magazine, where she spent her days interviewing “celebrities, actors, writers, musicians, poets and politicians.” Her farm stories read like a series of reports to former colleagues and friends in a magazine article/ CBC feature way.

Her transition to the farm was not direct or obviously preordained. Although her book mentions a brush with cancer, it doesn’t link this to the change in lifestyle. 

The practicality and caring combo comes through clearly in reports on her sheep. She shears the wool, cleans hooves, and measures scrotums.  She oversees hundreds of births, cradles young lambs in her arms until they fall asleep, clears their noses, and helps them wean.  Then, she takes pride in seeing her babies listed as “Lamb from Marsha Boulton’s farm” on the menu of Toronto restaurant Bistro 990.[14]

Although she identifies herself as a shepherd and her sheep are the most common subject of her stories, Boulton’s collection covers a range of rural experience from snakes to porcupines and cats to cucumbers.  Non-farmers learn that geese have bad breath, turkeys are so dumb they drown drinking rain, hermaphrodite sheep are money makers, and chickens caught in fly paper are hard to manage. Anyone from a rural area will nod at her stories about skunks and local auctions and the analogy with fish stories.

She says rural experience has a dark side too. It includes vandalism and theft beyond worm rustling, mailbox smashing, and Christmas tree thieving. But Boulton mitigates these stories with an ambiance of caring for two-legged animals, her neighbours and friends. 

She can even see humour in that practical, caring construct.

“City people often live under the fantastical notion that the kindly farmer always has room for another dog,” Marsha Boulton says with charity of “dog dumping” in her book. “When they have an unwanted puppy, they drive out into the country and drop the animal off near the end of a laneway for the kindly, anonymous farmer to find.”

Of course, before someone finds the puppy, it has to dodge traffic, hawks, and other hazards.  If the dumped puppies and kittens live long enough, they join other wild animals that harass the livestock. This usually means that “the kindly farmer ends up having to get out the varmint gun” and do the practical thing. 

Boulton wrote this book about a decade after her move to the country, and while her writing, radio work, and editing of a local history suggest she could not leave her first self behind entirely, you get the feeling that she has settled on the farm for good.

I am glad that no one told Marsha Boulton that she was not suited to farming and writing about it or if they did, she ignored them.  

She certainly seems better suited to living and celebrating the two-pronged requirements of rural life than either my sister or me. 


Black in the Saddle Again

by Arthur Black

(The Lesson: Why Google-era writers still collect trivia).

Forty years ago, the radio station in Oshawa, Ontario had a teletype machine that rattled out something like three lines per hour, typewriters that jammed continuously, and a subscription to one newspaper.  Interesting printed words were scarce, and my colleague Disc Jockeys and I gnawed on every scrap of trivia like starving rats.[15]   

Someone with an iPhone™ and a head of coloured hair may think of trivia as an overflowing stream to be scooped up with a flick of the finger.  But 1997 Leacock Medalist Arthur Black,[16] who began his radio career in 1970s Thunder Bay, [17] would know what I am talking about, and I’m sure that this explains why he became a trivia stalker and compulsive “Idea Thief.” 

In the opening of his medal-winning book Black in the Saddle Again, [18] Black admits to stealing from “books, magazines, TV programs, things I see on the street, conversations I deliberately overhear in the supermarket.”  He sounds just like another guy formed in the atmosphere that attached great value to information tidbits, factoids, and odd expressions, and all of the essays in this book profit from his obsession.

The Table of Contents might be one of the funniest sections because it earnestly tries to categorize a grab bag running from dumb criminals, snoring, weird music, and worm eating to pirates, hot dogs, Shakespeare, and hockey sticks.

Mostly repackaged rants from his CBC show,[19] Black in the Saddle does not have the aura of great literature.  Black doesn’t sweat over transitions, usually resorting to some form of “which reminds me of the story ...” or even “which for some reason reminds me.”   Often, the essays read like one-sided arguments after the third or fourth round at a bar.

But they make you laugh because Black finds reason for outrage in the trivial, loves words, and always makes bizarre connections. [20] Sometimes he uses tidbits to lead into a personal story, sometimes he tells a personal story to introduce a news item, sometimes he pulls up trivia from history, and other times he tells about something that happened that day.  Sometimes, he does none of the above.

He can act the straight man simply rattling off absurd facts for our consideration or he can question a world of diets, tummy tucks, and corsets paralleled by the kind of starving that goes on in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh.

With blogs that feature bullet lists, 140-character messages on Twitter™, and email jokes, we now swim in a tsunami of information that has no context or purpose beyond momentary amusement.   Arthur Black recognized trivia as having this power as well and sometimes seemed satisfied with that. Today, there might be little market for an Arthur Black who merely hits us with more odd facts and trivia even if skillfully knitted together.  

But Black, when he produced award-worthy material, made trivia the starting point not the goal and packaged it within a ball of original thinking – “ideas.”  This might be the reason he called himself an “Idea Thief” not a collector of trivia.

Whether plucked from newspapers, TV, or eavesdropping at the coffee shop, odd information has more worth when wrapped in personal reactions, feelings, thoughts, and associations – our own “ideas,” the stuff we can’t find with GoogleÔ.

We should probably collect and save those things, whether on our iPhonesÔ or in our heads, not just the trivia that spawns them, and that’s the idea I will steal from Arthur Black.


 Barney’s Version

by Mordecai Richler

(The Lesson: The role of an unreliable narrator)

A cancerous kidney and surgery in a Montreal hospital forced Mordecai Richler to cancel his trip to Orillia for the Leacock Medal banquet in June 1998.[21]   He died three years and one month later,[22] cementing the similarities between his medal-winning book Barney’s Version and the classic that inspired it.  Richler wrote Barney’s Version as his final novel and as his own version of Don Quixote, a book ranked as the most influential in history by Nobel Laureates, literary scholars, and me.[23]  The motivation for using the Quixote structure might have come from the intellectual test or the seduction of a great story idea.

But I would guess, given Richler’s personality, that he liked the format’s capacity to tease and challenge. 

Richler has fun with his readers in many ways.  He twists the characters and the plot, and he tries to hide his model.  The narrator Barney Parnofsky, for example, cites dozens of novelists and thinkers -   Faulkner, Twain, Joyce, James, Shakespeare, and many others - but he purposely leaves out Cervantes, an author who also fell ill and died shortly after finishing the final version of his book. 

The sleazy, cigar-and-scotch Barney might not seem much like the righteous Quixote, but both men are driven by a quest and by the love of a woman.  Quixote dedicated himself to the ethereal Dulcinea.   Barney engages in the impossible dream of winning back Miriam, his third wife.   Just as Quixote saw the world rose-tinted, Barney has his own take on people.  His first wife Clara, dismissed as a flake by others, enchants Barney, who sees her and his drinking buddies as virtuous as Quixote perceived ladies of the evening and inn keepers. 

Barney’s best friend, the addict Boogie Moscovitch, does not map perfectly onto Sancho Panza.  Yet both sidekicks have a dependent relationship with their protagonist, act as foils, and fluctuate between common sense and the silly.

 Barney, like the Cervantes classic, uses a huge cast of characters.  Quixote and Sancho encounter and spoof all elements of religious, cultural, and economic life in 16th century Spain.  Barney’s Version pokes at 1990’s separatists, Jewish Montreal, and hockey while passing through a crowd that includes wives, children, foreign friends, conniving businessmen, Barney’s policeman father, and Duddy Kravitz. 

Don Quixote often followed other characters without the hero, thus splitting the book into different stories.   Barney also pursues separate narratives, a murder mystery and a love story; it loops back and forth from flashbacks to leaps into the future and recitation of letters written as vengeful pranks.[24]  Even the love story is divided into distinct parts around Barney’s marriages: first to the bohemian Clara, second to a Jewish princess, and finally to Miriam[25] whom he meets on the night of his wedding to Wife No. 2.

Aging writers might find cheer in a story populated with forgetfulness and misstatement that still engages.  Barney also helps those racking up the years with a reminder of the impact that bitterness can have when not mollified with imagination.  Don Quixote carried this message as well.  Other parallels reside between the lines and in the details of the two books, but none of this fully describes the inspiration Richler pulled from the pages of Don Quixote

The CanLit icon wanted most of all to exploit the interplay between the real and the imagined through the mind and voice of an ultra-unreliable narrator.  Barney, whose unreliability flows from creeping Alzheimer’s, alcohol, age, and a weakness for irony, put his story in writing as a reaction to the memoirs of his former friend McIvor.  Miguel de Cervantes narrated Quixote in the guise of a translator of Arab text based on secondhand accounts and, in the second volume, in reaction to a fake Quixote sequel.  Not surprisingly, both stories jump around and digress. 

More than other writing formats, the unreliable narrator forces readers to think for themselves, to assess the validity of information, to do their own research, and to read more.

This makes Barney’s Version and Don Quixote worthy of repeated reading and study. 

It’s also a good idea to look at them again now because I see Don Quixote in every novel, and I made up some of this stuff about Mordecai Richler.[26]


Home from the Vinyl Cafe

by Stuart McLean

(The Lesson: why we like “boring” stories).

The protagonist of the 1998 Leacock Medal book[27] marries three times. His first wife commits suicide after providing ideas for bizarre porn. The second drains his bank account and has sex with his best friend, and the third leaves for a younger man.   Alcoholic hallucinations and a murder investigation envelop the mess.   Stuart McLean’s Home from the Vinyl Cafe, the next medal winner, tells a different story.[28]

McLean’s book features Dave and Morley, a devoted couple who suffer mild misunderstandings and commonplace experience. They meet at a skating rink, correspond, get married, settle down, have kids, go on road trips, rent a cottage, send the kids to school, organize birthday parties, worry about teenage dating, and, at the beginning and the end, celebrate Christmas.[29] 

By the drugs, murder, and porn standard, the stories can seem bland and even boring. Yet humdrum Dave and Morley have comforted listeners to McLean’s radio program for over twenty-five years and have made the Vinyl Cafe books, like the 1999 Leacock medal winner, bestsellers. 

McLean’s radio delivery adds a lot, and although his voice floats faintly in the back of your head, a book will leave some fans of the CBC program flat.  But for the humour student in me, the text in isolation made it easier to consider the patterns and analyze the appeal.

After putting the book down, I realized that many readers could probably recite the story line, characters, and incidents of each episode in greater detail than they might recall burn-into-your-brain dramas designed to titillate and traumatize.   One reason for this lies in the Canadian flavor of what writing scholars call “profluence,”[30] the cause and effect sequence of events that readers willingly buy into.  For many, the simple Vinyl Cafe tales have a familiarity that gives the flow of events a logical feel and that slips easily into the average Canadian mind. 

Because Dave, the husband and father, usually screws up in the Vinyl Cafe, I shudder thinking that McLean’s stories could be popular because there are so many men out there like Dave with partners who see themselves as Morley.  But maybe.

In each story, McLean describes intentions and decisions that make it easy to cast thoughts ahead in anticipation while, at the same time, making readers turn pages in anxiety.  Canadians feel anxious because they care about what is going to happen next.  They care because Dave and Morely are so darn nice.

When Dave locks his keys and kid in the car, it is the consequence of the desire to keep his daughter safe and to save time.  He sticks his tongue to the frosty TV antenna when boyhood curiosities blend with adult defiance.  Dave feigns illness to spend an amorous day with Morley after fifteen years of marriage, and this decision leads to a visit from his concerned mother-in-law.  Perhaps, people laugh because they can laugh at themselves, and if this quality defines Canadians, it’s not such a bad thing. 

Still, even with this cause-and-effect flow and ability to pull readers along, more drama and action would enliven these stories, and maybe McLean should conjure up at least a few that mix Dave and Morley with alcoholic hallucinations, murder, and bizarre porn. 

While I reviewed these questions and wondered how far to pursue the issue, an admitted Vinyl Cafe listener, who identifies with one of the characters and who happens to share my bed and bookcase, provided me with guidance.  I asked whether one could explain the phenomenon by describing Vinyl Cafe fans like her as typical, “boring” Canadians.

“Well, I suppose,” she said, adding “so, what then do you call someone who spends his time analyzing and deconstructing the Vinyl Cafe?”


Black Tie and Tales

by Arthur Black

(The Lesson: why humorists mix facts and fancy to tell a truth).

My mind will forever associate orgasms with humour thanks to Black Tie and Tales, the 2000 Leacock Medal book by Arthur Black.  In this, his second medal winner, Black quotes a number of authors.  But the observation that “laughter is an orgasm triggered by the intercourse of reason and unreason”[31] lingers.  It haunts me, not only with the image, but because Black’s entire book, directly or indirectly, argues for the concept.

In his earlier book, Black, a confessed “idea thief,” showed how odd information can stimulate thinking and ranting.  Black Tie collects and presents more of the same, but it takes readers further with musings on how interactions between the unreasonable world and the rational can make us laugh. These interactions also, according to Black and those he quotes, bring us closer to the truth.

In the 1990s, when Black generated many of the essays in this book, literary critics were still picking at the merits of creative non-fiction and a lot of the debris fell on Leacock Medalist Farley Mowat.  Arthur Black defends Mowat with the author’s own words (“Truth I have no trouble with. It’s the facts I get mixed up”)[32] and amplifies the point with Saskatchewan writer Sharon Butala’s explanation of how all good “non-fiction is fiction” anyway.   Butala suggests that in “The backward search through happenstance, trivia, the flotsam and jetsam of life, to search out a pattern, themes, a meaning ... is by its nature an imposition of order onto what was chaotic ... what is true are thoughts, dreams, visions.”[33]

The idea of mapping imagination onto flotsam appeals to Arthur Black.  Even though he recognizes the power that tidbits have to engage (“Any storyteller knows that the first thing you’ve got to get from an audience is attention”), his better rants cruise along on those waves of thoughts and dreams sailing toward a truth.  As many humorists, including Leacock medalists, believe that “truth lies at the root of much humor”[34] and that humour rises from the incongruities of life, truths that make us laugh may be those revealed by thoughts in conflict with fact. 

Such incongruity can be achieved in two ways: with humorous thought spread upon dull facts or with sound thinking in the face of unreasonable fact.  Black’s curmudgeon persona prefers the one that rails at reality.

To this end, he seeks stimulus and trivia from everywhere he can, using a brain that operates on “the same principle as the lint mitt. It picks up fluff, dust, stray hairs like a magnet ... and lets the big stuff slide right on by.”

Arthur Black serves us best when he moves on only using that flotsam for orientation and a hint at what is coming. Going from the particular to the general, Black links his own experience to broad issues and ties trivia to his feelings. The death of his aunt leads into an essay on gift-giving.  The story of a biologist in the Brazilian rain forest revives memories of Black’s father.  His experience wrestling with a tangle of battery cables sends him into a study of neuro-functioning. 

The interjection of other trivia and factoids ensure that personal opinions do not plug up his essays with the tedium of indulgence. 

Arthur Black would chuckle at the incongruity of all this seriousness around the subject of humour.  In his book, he cautions that “Trying to define exactly what is funny is like trying to braid a rope out of smoke.”  Still, I am convinced by the notion that the intercourse between the odd and the thoughtful can reveal a truth and make us laugh.   Not all truths fit this mold though.  Too bad.  It would be a different world if truth telling always induced an orgasm.


Vinyl Cafe Unplugged

 by Stuart McLean

(The Lesson: why a Canadian would try to make a living in creative writing).

My den looks like a furnished dumpster. I love books, real books, not pixels on a screen, and I have too many.  Pages bound together, inside a cover, and in my hand make me feel things inside, and they pile up around my home.

Yet when I decided to read the Leacock Medal winners, I resolved to search out and buy more and add to the pile.  Although e-books and scans make better instruments for searching, referencing, and e-reading, I wanted bound-paper books for souvenirs as well as study. This irrationality led me into a treasure hunt that not only brought treasures into my hands, but brought me into bookstores and homes where I met other enthusiasts.

It also made me a better audience for Vinyl Cafe Unplugged, the second book to win the Leacock Medal for CBC radio host Stuart McLean.   The first winner, Home from the Vinyl Cafe, did not really talk much about the Vinyl Cafe, Dave’s record store.  It focused on domestic life - being “Home” – “From” the store.

Unplugged, a term that is to music as books are to electronic text, on the other hand, devotes a lot of attention to Dave’s store, his career choice, and his back story as a rock group manager.  The 2001 medal winner reflects an evolution of the Stuart McLean series with a move into general themes – such as the wistfulness we feel over life choices - practical, career and money oriented or dreamy, used-record-store type.  This question can trouble anyone who has deigned to pursue a career in creative writing or, alternatively, has rejected the idea as absurd.

The issue surfaces in many of the Unplugged stories: those about Morley’s seemingly successful university friend Susan, Dave’s exchanges with neighbour and chartered accountant Mary Turlington, and the visit from “Overweight and overbearing” Cousin Dorothy, from the village of Hawkhurst, South Kent, England.  Comparisons make Dave and Morley writhe over their priorities as embodied in the commitment to the Vinyl Cafe.

Dave has the hardest time.  He strains “to open his record store ... more or less on schedule every morning” and bristles at official processes. The story of his late Uncle Jimmy, a razor held together by twisted wires and duct tape, and airport security typifies his tension with the rigid world.

Despite their Vinyl Cafe tendencies, Dave and Morely try to maintain a rational side. They save $200 per month despite not having any idea of how they are going to use the funds.  Morley has practical ideas.  But Dave dreams of buying an Austen Healy. He tries to do some electrical work to preserve the nest egg and in the process induces renovations that consume the money for responsible purpose.

Together the stories suggest that life is a struggle to find a balance. I saw this tug of war in the musings and decisions in almost every book I read this year.  We all have to find our own balance between the rational and irrational - the dreaming and the practicality.  Dave and Morley's success rests on a Canadian compromise.

My pile of old books now makes me think of my Leacock medal whimsy, of how hard it would be to sell old records or write for a living, and of the possibility that the time has come to tidy up the den and do some chores.



By Will Ferguson

(The Lesson:  How authors can stay sane within the book publishing business).

“This is brilliant - too bad it was written by a Canadian.”

When I first heard about Will Ferguson’s novel Generica, I liked the idea but thought the book would fail.  It describes the devastation caused by a self-help manual that really works.  The concept appealed to me because it took advantage of the craze without buying into it.  But I thought that sales would plod along under the yoke of the Canadian literature brand.

In 2001, people like me could still assume that a first novel by a Canadian, no matter how clever, would flounder, and the Ottawa Citizen could still regard Will Ferguson as neither an “A-List” nor “B-List” writer and presume that any book he wrote would be “uninspiring.”[35] 

None of these presumptions would endure beyond 2002 and the success of Generica.  The book ultimately made it onto store shelves in thirty-three countries. [36] I can pinpoint when I first learned about the book because I remember being confused when another based on the same concept came out. That second novel, entitled HappinessTM, appeared in late 2002, had the same author, and almost exactly the same content.  Eventually, I figured out it was the same book, different title.[37] 

In time, HappinessTM took over the book’s cover throughout the world, but Generica persisted in Canada long enough to make this the name of the 2002 Leacock Medal winner.   The award celebrates that original title, the one that was about to disappear.  The Leacock Medal can be proud of its prescient association with the book’s Generica phase.

But Ferguson must have suffered in the irony.  The award for a disappearing title could have been a scene from the novel, [38] which mocked book writing, publishing, editing, marketing, and consumption even more than the subset “self-help” industry.

Funnier than many others on the Leacock medal list, this book has an edge that probably flows from Ferguson’s years of stewing over his subject: how to sell books in quantity into the baby boom bubble and the U.S. market.

The book business can dispirit anyone who has made it their life’s purpose.  Even with the liberation of e-books and print-on-demand, works that are innovative, thoroughly researched, and well written by respected standards (like this one) never find a publisher let alone a market; whereas formulaic novels, the autobiographies of professional wrestlers, books written within days to exploit hot news, and 21st century snake oil sell in the millions. 

Generica/ HappinessTM not only puts these trends on steroids but also satirizes the society that feeds their success and feeds off them.  For this reason, Ferguson sets his story in a large U.S. city, unnamed but New York-like, of “scurrying office workers  ... on a merry-go-round where the horses have emphysema.” Those scurrying through the streets to their giant “filing cabinets” include Edwin Vincent de Valu, slush-pile editor at Panderic Inc., a publishing house that relies on an author known as “Mr. Ethics.”  When Ethics[39] flees from charges of tax fraud, Edwin’s boss, a boomer with a Chihuahua’s penis pony tail, puts pressure on Edwin de Valu to find a replacement book of the self-help ilk.

Edwin had just skimmed What I learned on the Mountain, a manuscript submitted by the unknown Rajee Tupak Soiree.  Soiree’s book presents the world with a manual for losing weight, quitting smoking, getting rich, enjoying great sex, and achieving eternal, blissful happiness.  After episodes that put Edwin in a trash compactor and seagull feces, the self-help work finds its way into publication, triggers the collapse of world economies, causes a cultural upheaval, and reduces almost all of humanity to a generic, vacuous personality.  Soiree becomes a cult leader whose worshipers include Edwin’s wife Jenni and his true love Bea.

Edwin, his boss, and Ethics, unaffected by the plague of happiness, see the darker side.  They set out to kill Tupak Soiree, learning in the quest that the true author, a trailer park hermit in Paradise Flats, Texas, invented Soiree and hired an actor to play him.

Through these characters, Ferguson laughs at authors, editors, publishers, and promoters while, sometimes, weeping inside.

Today, the reprinted HappinessTM opens with dozens of rave reviews from around the world.  But when it first came out as Generica, Canadian critics were the only ones paying attention and were not so kind.   Several complained that Ferguson took too much time to move the story along, went overboard in pounding his pet peeves, and was at his weakest in putting long philosophical speeches in the mouths of his characters.  Yet even those most critical admitted to finding the book, at least in sections, very funny.[40]

The humour bubbles out of the un-Canadian, un-kind, unsophisticated bits: the breaking of Edwin’s finger - on principle, the severing of Soiree’s nose-picking digit while it was at work, Edwin musing a miserable death for his co-worker Nigel, the guru’s devotion to lots of sex and the recruitment of fawning underlings, and the parody of the Seven Habits, In the Name of the Tulip, and Chicken Broth for Your Aching, Needy Heart style.

Ferguson does, however, beat the novelty out of the happiness-linked-to-sadness idea. He starts it on page 11 of my copy of Generica with mono-no-aware, the Japanese term for “the sadness of things” - the ever present pathos that lurks below the surface of life.  He repeats it periodically throughout and then again in the closing confrontation.[41]   The repetition of this idea made me laugh at my evolving “insights” on humour and its link to “the pathos lurking below the surface” of my life.  It reminded me too of something Ferguson said at an Ottawa book event this year: “Everybody thinks they’re deep – everybody - we all think we have profound thoughts.” [42]

Ferguson’s book not only shows Canadian writers how to laugh at the frustrations of their context and at themselves, but also how to do something about the situation. 

Will Ferguson succeeded in doing what he ridicules in this book, purposely feeding the U.S. and international markets.  But he also induced people to part with their money at the book store cash by writing about something that interested and motivated him personally.[43] 

Writing satire requires such a balancing act.  You want to make a point, but equally you want to be funny.  Those early CanLit critics, who wanted Will Ferguson to move the Generica story along more quickly and edit out the obvious jokes, were probably ignoring the importance of the second objective: the funniness of the journey.

If Ferguson had taken such advice and listened to the “everybody thinks they are deep” voice in the back of his head, he would not have written Generica.  He could have produced another proud, well written work of literature; one that was neither funny nor popular beyond our borders; and one that might have melted into the generic mass of nothingness - too often coupled with that phrase “it’s written by a Canadian.”


With Axe and Flask: The History of Persephone Township
from Pre-Cambrian Times to the Present

By Dan Needles

(The Lesson: how to put the humour in our history.)

My Uncle Ed worked as the Fire Chief in a Northern Ontario town that burned to the ground four times.[44]  His fire crew resigned en masse when Ed took the pool table away, and Ed’s wife died in a house fire while he was out promoting fire safety. He and I share ancestors who believed they descended from a Celtic King.[45]

Lots of writers could tell this story with an ironic twist.  But when I wrote about the town and Ed’s life a few years ago, I focused solemnly on the persistence and dedication angles to encourage community pride.[46]  

I don’t think I did justice to Ed’s memory, the story, or readers by running away from the perversely funny perspective.  Intent on doing better in the future, I hoped to learn how to tease the humour out of history by reading the 2003 Leacock Medal winner - With Axe and Flask, The History of Persephone Township from Pre-Cambrian Times to the Present by Dan Needles. Opening up the book, I braced myself because I knew the exercise would make me itch.  With Axe and Flask parodies local histories like mine on Uncle Ed.  

Dan Needles has been working at funny pretty much since Pre-Cambrian times, and he has small town storytelling credentials as well.  After university and other work, Needles took a job as editor of the weekly paper in the fiddle-contest community of Shelburne, Ontario.  The barrage of school boards, soccer tournaments, and sewers often leads small town editors to seek diversions and into questions like “why does this place exist?” and “who decided those people deserve respect?”  

Such thoughts make us laugh at ourselves, and if we can, we make others laugh too.  With this goal and his power at the paper, Needles started a regular feature in the early 1980s as Letters to the Editor from the fictitious Walt Wingfield.  Walt, a stockbroker turned farmer, amused readers with naiveté and an outsider’s perspective. 

After a few years, the popularity of the invented Walt took him to the stage in plays that continue to run thirty years later. The plays have morphed into television productions and DVDs, making Needles a two-pronged oddity as a Canadian writer who earns money at it and, indirectly, as a farmer who actually makes a living from agriculture-related activity. [47]

All this suggests I could learn a bit about how to mix history and humour from Needles even though With Axe and Flask stands apart from his portfolio as a story not by and about Walt but about the Township around his farm. 

In this book, the narrator, another man from the city, finds time on his hands to study a 1930s manuscript written by his late grandfather.  The old book also carried the title With Axe and Flask, The History of Persephone Township from Pre-Cambrian Times to the Present.  This means Dan Needles wrote a book about other books and coupled it with the narrator’s personal interpretations, experiences, and bits of stumbled upon trivia. 

It felt kind of familiar.

With two imagined authors and one real one at work, digression threatens and Needles suggests the book falters at times.  But it generally holds tight to a retracing of the Township history that, as expected, made me smile and scratch at the same time. 

In looking for history humour, you can usually rely on a politician or two to grab more than their due when things go well, and when things go badly, a scoundrel or two can usually be found hiding in the bushes.  The challenge comes when nothing much happens. Needles tackles it with a Sarah Binks-style effusiveness. 

The technique underpins most of the book, but you have a really hard time missing it when the narrator tells us that his grandfather devoted a chapter of the source manuscript to “The Economic Inactivity of Persephone, 1870 to 1900.” In another, “The Modern Era,” the narrator’s grandfather paints a “picture of a community that has dwindled into calm resignation at its fate as a quiet backwater in the Ontario countryside.”  With this as substance, words like “greatness” have a particular impact.[48]

History with hyperbole will resonate with anyone who has studied small town Canada.  But the sections that might make Canadians twist most deal with more recent developments such as “the invention of the pickup truck ... (which) relieved a great burden on the local ecosystem ... (as it) gave the men much greater range for hunting and a greater carrying capacity for weapons and beer ... (as well as) a measure of independence and privacy to young couples ... (that) ... considerably reduced the need to abduct women by force.”

Biting stuff, but I don’t know if Needles can help me much until I’m ready to cross the line and satirize rather than celebrate. 

I might be looking for too much in thinking I could do both at the same time.

Even in fiction, one-liners can test a community’s sense of humour.   Stephen Leacock enjoyed a prickly reception in Orillia after Sunshine Sketches first appeared, and the imaginary With Axe and Flask book within a book was remembered as an “unfortunate foray ... into the realm of literature” and a deviation from an “otherwise unblemished life.”

“It was a different time,” the narrator is told. “In those days, people just didn’t think it was seemly to discuss in public where a person’s family came from, how they made their money, or, worse, how they lost it. It made everybody squirm.”

“But how do they feel now?”
“Probably the same.”

Assuming they and their Canadian counterparts still do, the dependable options for humorous history would include the mode of parody chosen by Needles.  The satire can still smart when real events and personalities are sprinkled throughout.  They destabilize any reader who wants to think of the whole book as a yarn.[49]  Still, I might have to keep looking to find a model of “true” history with humour.  Perhaps, it lies in writing that includes humour, but ghettoizes it and keeps it separate from the factual.

Regardless, any foray into humorous history, when personal and local, carries risks beyond how others might react.  As the narrator of With Axe and Flask notes: “When you examine your own history properly, it does offer a rich source of speculation about why you have turned out so badly.”  

Those remarks and the implicit call for courage have a particular sting for someone descended from a Celtic King.[50]


Village of Small Houses

by Ian Ferguson

(The Lesson: how writers can create an effect by not saying things.)

My parents stayed in the same home for almost four decades, cradled me in a sense of security, and always furnished the essentials. Their behaviour really limited my opportunity to build character and an interesting life story.

Ian Ferguson never had that problem.

His parents dragged him through bone-chilling experiences while he was still a fetus. Lucky Ian had the kind of childhood that forms personality and aligns well with a creative life, and he exploited this advantage to win the 2004 Leacock Medal with Village of Small Houses.

Ferguson’s “Memoir of Sorts” begins in the late 1950s when his parents flee Edmonton with the unborn Ian.  The group settles in the bitter cold and minimal plumbing of Fort Vermillion, and Ian’s father works as a teacher on the local Cree Reserve until his lack of credentials comes to the attention of the school superintendent.  Dismissed from his job, Hank Ferguson takes the expanding family, which eventually numbers seven, eight, or more depending on how and who you count, on another road trip, eventually settling in Regina where Hank wrestles with the bottle and disconnects. 

Ian’s parents end their marriage there, giving their children motive to make Regina jokes decades later.  Their mother, a nurse, takes her children back up to the Fort where they have a house and she finds work.  The kids rarely see their father again.

Proximity to the Indian Reserve, Ian’s health problems, and the small house-like tombstones in the Fort’s graveyard add to the potential for tales of insecurity and woe.  But Ian Ferguson rejects this route. 

He never comes close to assuming the guise of victim.  Early in the Small Houses, Ferguson mentions his mother’s exposure to L.S.D. treatments and Thalidomide, but he paints her as the wounded one, not the unborn son.  At the end of the bookFerguson touches on his own battles with alcohol, but distances it from anything that might point to paternal culpability.  I admire this, but I was a little surprised, given the Leacock award, that Ferguson also declined the option of spinning the recollections as comic even though he had experience in this arena. 

A playwright, actor, director, and producer, Ferguson had a well honed imagination as well as a reputation as a joker.  He ran a comedy club in Edmonton for a while and made money with How to be a Canadian, a book of jokes and rants on history and culture, which he co-authored with his Leacock Medalist brother Will.[51]  Those who knew his career might have understood had older brother Ian chosen the mode of blatant comedy for his memoirs.

Instead, Ferguson tells his experience in simple terms and stresses the family and friendships more than the adversity.

You sense that he wrote the book as a tribute to his mother, his siblings, and even his father and that he cared more about this message than book sales or reviews.  The disadvantaged native people, who walk in and out of Ferguson’s sort-of-remembered childhood, also appear as uplifting and cheery figures.  The Indian community adopts Ian formally to make legitimate his treatment through aboriginal medicine, and the personalities of Bud, David, and Lloyd brighten his life despite their issues and their destinies.

But again, in this book, the most intriguing parts come between the lines in what Ian Ferguson does not do.  We can always find something to mock or complain about - even seeing a downside to a stable and secure “waste of time” childhood like mine.   But Ferguson tells of long winters, outdoor bathrooms, illness, his dad’s departure, and Christmas with no presents without any hint that he considered his childhood as anything but a joy. In the last lines of his book, the guy I called “Lucky Ian” with irony says “I was born lucky.”

Against Leacock’s formula for humour, you can easily see the influence of a kindly contemplation in Ferguson’s account.  The incongruity takes a longer stare.  It sits in that simple retelling combined with the absence of the obvious clichés of either comedy or sorrow that normally surround rugged childhood stories.  It makes you smile, but you aren’t completely sure why.

When the book came out, a few critics suggested that Ferguson fell short in the “artistic expression thereof” side of the humour writing equation.

But they usually presumed one of those clichés which Ferguson did not use and they missed the things unsaid. [52]


Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw

By Will Ferguson 

(This is about: how to inject humour into travel writing.)

Looking across the surface of bluish grey and swirling green, I feel the breeze brush my face, listen to the flapping sounds, and watch the tumbling leaves.  I’m flipping through a book and wondering if I have it in me to become a travel writer.

The bluish-grey-green paperback contains Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw, the book that brought Will Ferguson his second Leacock Medal in 2005.[53]  It encouraged thousands to learn more about Canada and prodded me to learn more about grammar.

I like to see new places, meet different people, and research both, but travel writing as an enterprise has always intimidated me.  I’ve avoided it like timeshare seminars and resorts under quarantine because I have a problem with verbs.  

When I read travel articles, I can never figure out how or why the writer has chosen a specific tense.   Some stories are told as if events are unfolding as the traveler transcribes them.  But too often they also project analysis and provide information that could only be obtained later.  Other travel articles tell similar stories, differing only in location and decoration, completely in the past tense, but sometimes with the air of reportage.  It seems writers can set their own rules, which I wouldn’t mind except that I’m easily confused.  The disorder usually reaches cruise ship proportions when the writer tries to be both funny and factual.

Will Ferguson, however, has it mastered. In Beauty Tips, he uses verbs to choreograph the travels, humour, and first person narratives in a way that cues his readers, avoids confusion, and makes a better book.

Beauty Tips, subtitled Travels in Search of Canada, follows Ferguson through a selection of tourist sites across the country. The adventures fall on the mild side of travel, not too far from hot showers, warm beds, and grilled cheese sandwiches, but Ferguson makes each place interesting with his personal accounts, information on geography, the local lore, and, mostly, the history, which he shares with zeal.  He also makes you chuckle.

He travels sometimes alone, sometimes with one of his brothers, sometimes with his wife, and regularly with his infant son Alex.[54] 

Ferguson tries to tie all this together by picturing Canada as an assortment of “outposts,” which may seem like weak analysis, but serves the purpose here because his style and his skill with those verbs holds the stories together better than any umbrella image.   

He starts each with humorous thoughts or an experience, like the poetry night that bookends his overview of Victoria, B.C., using the present tense, then slips into the past tense and its variations when sharing the facts of history.  A past tense description of the Underground Railroad and the Henson settlement sits within a comic road trip with his brother Ian.  In the title chapter set in a Moose Jaw spa, Ferguson tells of his first-ever massage in funny terms, [55] but he turns serious and invokes the past tense when railing about distorted local history and misinformation.   Pooping-and-peeing Alex provides the ambiance for the real time drive to the Republic of Madawaska and the venue of an almost-war in Northern New Brunswick.  Similar dual-tense stories tell of Ferguson’s search for the polar bears near Churchill, his stop in the Saguenay region of Quebec, and his tour of the Viking settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows.

A single -tense incongruity within this collection comes in his visit to St. John’s which is dominated by present day human interaction and less history than usual, and his recollection of his childhood in Fort Vermillion, which seems to be dropped into the book as an afterthought, has its anomalous feeling amplified by the almost exclusive use of the past tense in its telling.

But even these examples do not break with the pattern picked by Ferguson to tell his stories: when he really wants us to laugh, he talks in the present; when he wants us to learn, he sticks with the past.  This may be the lesson for those who aspire to write humorous travel stories. Be consistent whatever you decide to do with your verbs.

My effort to reduce Ferguson and his book to verb tense technique threatens to bleed all of the beauty and humour out of Beauty Tips.  But the pencil notes on the flapping leaves of my blue-grey book suggest I’m not imagining it.

If I was, Ferguson might forgive me anyway. He thinks that Canada exists as a function of our imaginings and “is a sum of its stories:” stories that are easier to share when you know what to do with your verbs.


Pitch Black

By Arthur Black

(The Lesson: the need for continuous learning and curiosity).

Like fermenting wine, some humorists improve with age, but you don’t get that effect by just stuffing a cork in their mouths and putting them away in the cellar.  They have to breathe and swish around in the real world like post-retirement Arthur Black. 

The fear that age equates to an inability to keep in touch with human events and the issues that interest others can be challenged in lots of ways, but a potent one would be to point to Black’s third Leacock Medal book, Pitch Black, which won the award in 2006.  Four years earlier, Black took official leave from his CBC job where he had developed his style and produced material for his earlier medal winners.

Now settled in the B.C. Gulf Islands, he could have pulled back a bit.  But instead, he stayed curious and connected, contributing to newspapers and giving speeches.  In many ways, the post-retirement Black reads a lot like the pre-retirement one.  His pieces still ran around 700 radio friendly words and over a wide range of subjects running from animal rights, public nudity, and marijuana to coffee drinking as a profession, talking toilets, and the invention of macaroni and cheese on a stick.  

If anything, he may have broadened the scope of his preoccupations and peeves with rain coast references and his stories about Salt Spring Island life. 

Black did not mellow either.[56]    In this book, comments like “this is nuts” or “Does it get stupider than this?” routinely introduce his rants.  Black sounds, in fact, like someone who has decided that the time had come to take a few more risks, go out on a limb, and lob a grenade or two with jabs at people that may not have survived the political correctness requirements of a CBC script.   

He likes the terms “nutbar” and “Right-wing nutbars” and uses them on those who see The Simpsons as a threat to family values and “the Amurrikan way of life.”  He calls Howard Hughes the “Famous nutbar,” and lists then U.S. President George W. and a string of European royals as inhabitants of the “nutbar department.”  The federal Cabinet is “a collection of submissive human sock puppets” and “nutbars.”

He also throws around the “Nazi” label, identifying his childhood dentist by name and saying he “had the forearms of a longshoreman and the compassion of a Nazi.” Diet guru Atkins leads the “Carbo Nazis.” 

Finally, Black delivers a tirade at the missing Al Kaida leader saying how much he loathes “Osama bin Hidin’ and his venomous pack of psychopathic lunatics.”    That may not seem harsh given the subject - unless you know that Black’s rant was actually inspired by Bin Laden’s chin whiskers which, he says, have “given beards a bad name.”

Together, these might suggest that Arthur Black crossed over into the fermented-in-wine, old-man phase.  But read in context, they come across as amplifications of the personality Black always had, maybe with a touch more pluck.  One way to write naturally, to be yourself, and to express feelings without concern, of course, lies in basic goodwill and dedication to coherence and quality.  Black shows this when he talks about writing style and words.

He mocks those who think of writing as effortless typing by quoting Stephen Leacock: “Writing is simple: you just jot down amusing ideas as they occur to you. The jotting presents no problem; it’s the occurring that is difficult.”

He was open to learning from any source, admitting to admiration for Tabloid newspaper journalists “because writing even a mediocre tabloid story is fiendishly difficult. You have to deliver a maximum amount of impact with a minimal number of words—and simple words at that.”  Black definitely doesn’t consider writing for publication to be a hobby or something to pass time in retirement.

On the never-ending need for hard work and study, he repeats the Margaret Laurence story of “An eminent Canadian brain surgeon (who) once made the mistake of telling ... Laurence over the hors d’oeuvres that when he retired he planned to become a writer. ‘What a coincidence,” responded Laurence sweetly. “When I retire, I plan to take up brain surgery.” 

Maybe Laurence, the novelist, could have pursued neurosurgery if she had lived long enough and had Arthur Black’s inclination to keep learning, working, and jabbing at people. 


Secrets from the Vinyl Café

By Stuart McLean

(The Lesson: the secret of Stuart McLean’s story telling success).

In mid-December 2012, with the Vinyl Cafe Christmas concert coming to the National Arts Centre, CBC radio challenged listeners to write 300 words in the style of Stuart McLean’s “Dave and Morley Stories.”  My entry drew on an experience chauffeuring a semi-famous person around Ottawa,[57] but in the story, I became Dave and my guest was Morley. The show picked it as a runner up.  Many people heard my name announced, listened to my story read on the air, and assumed I had won something.  Several asked how I managed to imitate McLean so closely.

“I know the secret of the Vinyl Cafe,” I would say. “Just take real experiences from wherever you can and then squeeze them into the ever-so-sweet Dave and Morley format - easy.”

Now, all you have to do is repeat the process hundreds and hundreds of times over decades and in a way that resonates whether as text, radio broadcasts, stage performances, or presentations on rolling trains.  That’s all Stuart McLean did. Easy.

With enough pharmacology, I might have maintained this delusion through the first two Vinyl Cafe Leacock Medal books, but not the third.

The first two were pretty well rooted in the Dave-and-Morley soil.  The third book, Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe, which took the medal in 2007, presents a different collection, which, more often than not, features a protagonist that is neither Dave nor Morley.  A few stories follow their children: teenaged Stephanie, who comes of age as a tree planter, and Sam, who navigates schoolyard sports.

But most revolve around previously peripheral characters:  Dave’s mother Martha, Italian neighbour Eugene, Carl the retiree, Kenny Wong, and Mary Turlington for the requisite Christmas story. The book was promoted under the “Secrets” theme with the pretense that each of them had a secret to hide.   Most of the secrets are mild embarrassments that beg forgetting, but can be Vinyl Cafe funny and maybe, together, show the progression of McLean’s skill as a fiction writer.

Even admitted fans of the radio program find the stories predictable and confess that part of the appeal flows from the comfortable normality of it all.  This perception likely caused many of McLean’s writing students to assume that he had a predictable, learnable pattern.

He has been pretty open about it all and in acknowledging that, particularly as a fiction writer, he spent years trying to fix on an approach to build his Dave and Morley franchise on.   As someone who regarded himself as a journalist, McLean started out writing his stories by interviewing people, conducting research, and then pushing his material into a fictional framework: not too much different than my 300-word CBC contest approach.

By 2007, too many sober people were touting McLean as a great story teller and creative writer to attribute it to a such a technique.  If he did achieve such greatness, his persistence and the experience of those hundreds of stories in hundreds of venues probably played a role in it.  But McLean also had a couple of other forces working on his writing hand; his humility and associated willingness to learn and his work as a teacher and its obligation to observe other learning.

The poor student who failed in high school became, during a short sojourn from CBC, an instructor at Ryerson University (then Polytechnical Institute) in 1984 and later the Director of its Broadcast Division.  Eventually, Ryerson granted him status as a tenured Professor.  Trent University also picked him as its first Fellow for Teaching, Writing and Research.

It’s pretty hard to evaluate others without evaluating your own writing, and it’s pretty hard not to want to walk the talk when you have students watching you, as a high profile Prof, closely. 

Yet as I read the last-to-date McLean Leacock Medal book, I was still searching for the magic bullet secret to his success.

Finally, the answer jumped out, not from his book, but his Secrets promotional tour.

When being interviewed, McLean always, always tried to divert the questioner from the subject of his new book, his show, and his life.  He wanted, more than anything else, to tell another story. It’s impossible to watch Stuart McLean on stage or listen to him speak without sensing that this is a person who just really loves stories.  Oh yeah -  and Christmas


The Best Laid Plans

By Terry Fallis

(The Lesson: seeing the humour under your nose.)

Terry Fallis and I might not get along.

I wish it wasn’t so.  He seems like an interesting and friendly guy.  But if Terry got to know me, he’d probably see me as an irritating evil twin to be avoided.  He already has a twin, whom he likes and looks like, and probably doesn’t need an older one.

My resumé looks like a cracked reflection of his.   As an engineering student at McMaster, Fallis got involved in campus politics and fell in love with words.  Just down the road in Guelph, my math studies were being disrupted by politics and campus radio.

In the 1980s, when he haunted Liberal backrooms; I toiled as a Conservative Party drone.  He supported Jean Chrétien’s first Leadership bid in 1984, the year after I devoted hours to the Mulroney Leadership Campaign.  We then worked on opposing sides in testy elections. He once scurried around as an aide to a Liberal Cabinet Minister; I did the same thing a few years later for Conservatives. 

He founded a public relations company with the accounting firm-style name Thornley Fallis; I had a PR business that specialized in clown-delivered balloon-a-grams and operated under the name Hot Air from Ottawa. He moved away and now mocks government city, which is my home of over thirty years.  I look forward to our first formal encounter.

Actually, Fallis is probably not inclined to loathe too many people.  He sounds, in his public comments, like one of those “progressive and enlightened” Canadians who is all about “tolerance and acceptance” - you know, the way Liberals like to think of themselves.

He might even count me among those whom he hoped to amuse when he pod-casted and self-published his first novel The Best Laid Plans, the 2008 Leacock Medal winner. For those of us who’ve spent time bumping around the buildings between Wellington Street and the Ottawa River, the book was a kind of obvious chronicling of all the facts of political life.  It regurgitates the talk that can be overheard any day of the week in bars and boardrooms around Ottawa.

Everyone in politics has fantasized that a reluctant maverick might come from behind to take another party’s stronghold or that their opponent’s star might get caught in an awkward vote-crushing scandal on election eve.  These have been the damp dreams of Canadian political hacks since Confederation was consummated.

But the dream is more often nightmare-ish - the tug of war between what Terry calls “the cynical political operators” and “the idealist policy wonks” that plague every party from the roots to the crown; the problems with polls; the theatre of Question Period; toeing the party line against all reason; the incest and dirty dancing of politicians, journalists, and pundits; and the partisanship that transcends even the inanity of ideology and policy in its destructiveness. 

 It can get really, really stupid and begs a lampoon. So, if it was right under our noses, why didn’t someone write a book a like this before ?

Well, some tried, but PR savvy Terry Fallis succeeded in communicating it more effectively than most others by stringing all those oddities together in a readable narrative - a real story with a beginning and an end and other parts.

 The Best Laid Plans has both a Terry Fallis-like protagonist, Daniel Addison, and a hero,  future MP Angus McLintock.  Unfortunately, many early reviews and even some publisher promotions present the book as a simple story about Addison’s adventures as the suffering aide of a wild man, goof ball incompetent.  Yet Angus clearly embodies Terry’s idea of a great politician and the ideal boss; quirky, but thoughtful, inspiring, and full of integrity.

I’m pretty sure that Fallis did not base his idol on a Conservative Cabinet Minister. But I’m struck by how many people have suggested that McLintock was inspired by my old boss.[58]  Interesting to me and maybe no one else, yet I take this to be a reflection of the Ottawa resonance of The Best Laid Plans and more evidence of material that was always under my own nose
You don’t have to be associated with politics to recognize Ottawa in the book.[59]   Despite the emphasis on stereotype and political cliché, this book, like King Leary, also treats Ottawa like a place in which real people live - people who are not preoccupied with policies, polls, and media spin and are more focused on groceries, mortgages, weekends in the park, and getting the kids to school.

The book celebrates the rivers, the Village of Cumberland, the Ritz restaurant, the Canal, the universities, the bilingual ambiance, the Chateau Laurier, the museums, and the enlightened part of Parliament, the Library.  Even the slipping in spring-time dog dung story speaks to quintessential Ottawa.  As I mentioned in reference to Leary, after 31 years, I am starting to see this town as my home and, like Terry’s protagonist Daniel Addison, as the place where I fell in love.  These other elements of The Best Laid Plans were also sitting under my nose.

I am even looking more charitably upon my life in the public service.  In fact, when I read political theories that talk of cynical operatives and policy idealists, I always think there is something missing – the people who take those airy policies and make them real - civil servants.  Governing flows from a formula of three variables, but usually, politicos and journalists dismiss the latter group as irrelevant or worse. 

Terry Fallis was typically “liberal” in portraying government officials in his novel, further ingratiating him to me.  Add to this, Daniel Addison’s recurrent musing about “Canadian comedic novels” and his desire to study writing, and you have the full picture and the reason why I might have been more than mildly intrigued by this book. 

 So, while Terry Fallis may not want me trailing along behind him as his embarrassing evil humour-writing twin/triplet, I hope he understands why I might do that.


Never Shoot a Stampede Queen

by Mark Leiren-Young

(The Lesson: How to write the fish-out-of-water story).

You breathe heavily all the time, flail around in angst, and hope someone will intervene to put you out of your misery.  A fish does that when pulled out of water, Mark Leiren-Young behaved much that way while living in Williams Lake, B.C., and I usually do that when I read a journalist’s memoirs.

Leiren-Young’s account of his mid 1980s time in the Cariboo, as told in the 2009 Leacock Medal winner Never Shoot a Stampede Queen, amounts to what reviewers called the standard “fish-out-of-water” story.  Playwrights and movie scriptwriters, who like the form for its comic get-your-hero-in-trouble potential, have pretty well gutted it over the years, and Leiren-Young’s book doesn’t break from the ordained pattern. But I liked his stories despite the formula and their journalist-memoir air because I believed them, learned a bit, and laughed.

His publisher calls his book the tale of “a city boy” in “a cowboy town,” and the title promotes the tenderfoot in the Cariboo image.  But when you read it, the floundering fish you see laying on the page has the body and soul of a playwright and performer trying to survive in a weekly newspaper job.  He could have been anywhere, even in the big city.  The cowboys and Stampede setting have less to do with his stories than his personality and perspective.

I say this with confidence because I lived in Williams Lake around the same time as Leiren-Young, knew all of the places he cited, and floundered around as a reporter in small towns and big ones.[60]  Please accept my word on that because an elaboration would flip me into old journalist’s aggrandizement, the kind that makes me wheeze.

Leiren-Young’s stories don’t do that, in part, I think because they mix the fish-out-of-water format with the newsroom memoirs and his own bent.  Mixing genres always blows air on a story, but first you have to master them individually 

Stampede Queen has all the fishy elements for anyone wanting to study them.  (1) You have to set up the protagonist and his point of view, and Leiren-Young does that by telling us how he recognized the theatre as his enthusiasm during his UBC and University of Victoria days.[61]

 Next, (2) the book pulls the fish out of the water.  Leiren-Young’s post-graduate appointment as artistic director for a children’s theatre falls through and the job offer from the Williams Lake Tribune presents itself as the only alternative to $6 per hour in an Ontario cookie factory.  

Now with empathy for the fish and its waterless situation established, comes (3) the flailing.

Abuse and assaults, car accidents and robberies, bikers and bears, municipal politics and Stampede Queen photo shoots thrash him around for about a year. Leiren-Young’s accounts have an authentic ring for anyone who has had a police scanner next to his pillow or covered dog shows in the morning and murders at night, and they might still be a good primer for journalism students.  But they make others laugh because of Leiren-Young’s imagination and outsider’s perspective as someone who looked back on the experience as an anomaly and not the path to glory.  As usual, I’m awed by stories that make something out of nothing like the explosion that doesn’t happen but had so much drama and appeal that Leiren-Young used it to open his book.

In another illustration of how oddly personal humour can be, I laughed most at the problems caused by his hard-to-spell, hyphenated, half-Anglo/half-not name.  A Vancouver paper makes his cheque out to “Neil Leisen-Young,” and irate Stampede Queen contestants complain about  the “Horrible (photographer) Mark Leiner-Young.”

His stories feel bright because they were written, not like faded and fabricated memoirs, but while still fresh.  Mark Leiren-Young fell ill with mono shortly after leaving the Cariboo.  Housebound, he put the stories to paper in 1988 and did not change them much even though a publisher did not pick them up for over twenty years.  The stories remained vivid and clear, but with a touch of perspective and bemusement.

The final phase (4) in the fish story flows from hoping someone or something will intervene to either pull the fish back into its natural habitat or to help it grow legs and live in the new one.  In fact, the typical Hollywood exercise ends with the out-of-water hero learning to adapt to his new surroundings, usually enough to mate and spawn.

Leiren-Young, however, left the Cariboo and went on to a career as a screenwriter, playwright, performer, and comedian.  Yet he still sometimes describes himself as a “freelance journalist” and did manage to mouth “... maybe living in a small town’s not so bad after all” before swimming away from Williams Lake.   The sum makes you want to jump out of the water, take a chance, and maybe even read more journalism memoirs.


Beyond Belfast

By Will Ferguson

(The Lesson: the benefits of plotting and plodding.)

Earlier this year,[62] in an old stone church overlooking the Rideau Canal, I went up to a table by the altar and converted.  There, in the sanctuary of Southminster United, I broke my vow to only buy used copies of the Leacock Medal books and paid full price for Beyond Belfast, A 560-Mile Walk across Northern Ireland on Sore Feet, the 2010 winner by Will Ferguson.  Ferguson was in the church for the Ottawa Writers Festival, and I had a chance to get a book signed if I bought it on site.

After a brief exchange, he wrote out his signature, a salutation, and the note “Funny is as Funny does.”  I read a lot into that comment, probably more than warranted, because I associated it with something he told the audience that night. [63]

Earlier in the evening, Ferguson said he doesn’t like stories that feature introspective characters and that he always tries to reveal character through dialogue and action. 

“I believe deeply that our character is decided by the choices we make,” he said in reference to his Giller Prize novel 419. “I think character in fiction and in life is defined by the actions that characters do and not who they think they are or the slights and the grudges and regrets that they dwell on.”

The comments echo standard writing text advice to tell stories through vivid experience, action, and deeds.  If you wanted to extend that notion to writing humour, you might express it as “funny is as funny does.”  

When I got home that night, I looked down at the scribble in the front of my new book and broke another pledge.  I started reading this 2010 winner out of chronological Leacock medal order, keen to find words that would illustrate Ferguson’s point and make that the theme of my review of his book.  I saw a few examples, but not enough.

Beyond Belfast follows Ferguson on a solo journey along the Ulster Way, the long looping footpath around Northern Ireland. The book documents action - the action of walking across streams, up mountains, along cliffs, and over dung filled pastures - and it presents dialogue - in dank pubs, dank B&Bs, and dank city streets.  But Beyond Belfast also contains more than a bit of dwelling and thinking. 

Fewer people had completed the sore-feet feat than had climbed Everest at the time Ferguson set out on it just over a decade ago, but he was not entirely motivated by the physical challenge.  He wanted to understand his ancestry, which he saw, not in the Fergusons, but in the Ulster line leading to the single mother who raised him in Fort Vermillion, and I don’t think that Ferguson could suggest that this book kept entirely clear of introspective thoughts and feelings. 

He mused not only about his orphaned grandfather, but also about the history, politics, and religion of Northern Ireland.  In the front end, he frames his journey with the basics of William of Orange, the 1916 Easter Uprising, and the 1969 events that sparked the more recent terror.[64]  Although Ulster issues defy understanding, Ferguson wades in, perhaps feeling he had earned a connection with his blisters and research on personal history.  As he flops his cowshit covered hiking boots around Northern Ireland, he passes all the points of sadness: Armagh, Derry, Enniskillen, and, of course, twice into starting and end point Belfast.

I don’t know what kind of person could avoid introspection on that route, and I don’t blame Ferguson for failing to provide me with an easy, exemplary book of telling by showing.

Still, I felt a little dejected. As I pondered this hurdle, I thought about my decision to buy a new book just because of the convenience and wondered if I was giving up.  Having read the 2010 Leacock Medal winner out of sequence, I knew that when I put Belfast down, I would be slipping back to 1992 and would be facing twenty more books.

Maybe in part to put off the backward slide, I started flipping through Beyond Belfast again, and I took greater notice this time of the maps and charts that introduce each section, thought about the plans and preparations, the plodding along in the pastures, and remembered something else Ferguson said in the Ottawa church.

He told the pews that he puts more time into planning and working on the plot for his books than writing them.  He spent over a year and a half on the outline for 419.

“I should have brought the actual outline - it’s about 80 pages,” he said. “It’s a scene by scene break down -- the trick is to outline and outline and outline ... before you start.”

Ferguson said that he thinks that a detailed plot ensures that a writer doesn’t follow ideas into a corner or get swept up into the fog of endless possibilities.  He told the audience that this applies equally to fiction and travel writing.

“My sister is a sculptor - she prefers to work in marble, but it is quite expensive and so she also works in clay,” he said in what seemed non-sequiturial. “She says with clay you build something up ... with marble you cut something down.”

Ferguson said travel writing like Beyond Belfast is sculpting in marble because you typically have this huge block of experience, history, and destination information.  You have to make choices and cut away.

“But with fiction it’s like writing in clay ... you are building things up from something,” [65] Ferguson said, adding that you can be overwhelmed in either genre - in one by information and in the other by ideas.  Then he repeated his belief that a detailed plot or outline can be the answer.

 “With a good plot outline, you can skip ahead and work on a scene out of sequence and then come back to your plan,” he said. “Don’t worry about themes – themes come out of the story” - if you stick to the outline.  Maybe, I jumped ahead in reading Belfast, but I did it within an outline -  my Leacock medal book reading plan.  Now, I just need to do the same kind of planning with my writing.    So, I plodded along thinking back on Ferguson’s varied advice, his 560 mile walk, and this book.  I visualized his sister’s work with chunks of marble, the towers and castles of Ulster, the rock of the Mourne mountains, the stone walls of the Ottawa church, and then the craft of writing; a unifying theme emerged - “this stuff is hard.”

Practical Jean

By Trevor Cole  

(The Lesson: How a creative idea sparks a story.)

In April 2005, I tried to kill my father.

We declined permanent life support and wanted his pain to end.  Teeth out, struggling for every breath, and mouth contorted, he looked like a grey version of Munch’s Scream.  My attempt to bump him off with lies for more morphine failed, and he came back to life long enough to grab my collar and remind me of what he wanted.  I laughed nervously and said “I’ll do what I can, Dad.”  I told that story after his funeral with the same confliction.

That memory and the nervous laugh visited my head again this year as I read the 2011 Leacock Medal book, Practical Jean by Trevor Cole.  The book tells the story of Jean Horemarsh, a woman who cared for her mother on the way to a horrible death.  Jean vows to spare her friends the same fate and sets out to kill them in a prophylactic way while they’re still relatively young and healthy.

Sometimes, it seems that everyone, save a few newly born babies, has a story, like me, of a loved one who suffered too long and has likely thought about the issues raised by Practical Jean.  But Trevor Cole takes those thoughts just one step further into a twisted, but also kind of honest realm that does what all good story ideas do.  It touches on a universal in an unusual way.

When you’re struck by the creative spark, you feel an energy and flow of other ideas or, at least, that’s what I’ve read.   Reflecting on the idea of Practical Jean and the book that sparkled out of it, I have a guess as to why this happens.

An unusual thought, contrary to a usual one, raises questions.  Who would think that way ? Why would they do that ?  How would they pull it off ? And what will happen as a consequence?  The implied questions excite your mind.

So, when you seize on this notion of proactive euthanasia, you would naturally try to think of a sensitive protagonist who has attended a bad death and doesn’t want to endure it again.  Jean, a ceramic artist with a bland, but comfortable husband and home in small town Canada, fits the requirements.  Then, you need a back story that makes euthanasia an accepted approach to such problems, and this produces Jean’s childhood at the ringside of her mother’s veterinary business and multiple puppy terminations.

Jean, the sister of two police officers and daughter of another, has lived all her life labeled as the one incapable of doing the “practical” thing when required.  Then, the death of her mother pushes her to take action.  As a caring person, she sees the plan to end the lives of her closest friends as the means of saving them from the “ruthless” and “pulverizing” experience of age and the bleakness of a “slow and agonizing” death. 

Trevor Cole sticks with this portrait by having Jean give each of her victim/friends one last bit of happiness and beauty.  One time, this beauty comes as sex in a car with a youth; another time, it’s sex with Jean.  She hacks with a shovel, strangles with wire, and poisons with overdone drugs.

I could easily imagine how Cole generated each element from the dead puppies to the murder mystery-style climax building on his initial ember of an idea.  But the trait that makes Cole’s words better than a pile of clay comes from his execution, if you can excuse that word here.  A one-time journalist with decades of experience in magazines and the daily newspaper business as well as fiction, Cole was recognized as a talented and literate writer in many quarters before the Leacock Medal.

Practical Jean impressed me because it sought to get into the heads of middle aged women.  As a mouth breathing male, I may be a poor judge of how well Cole does in this but I can say for certain that he twists the mind, details characters, and dialogues with thought that doesn’t go on too long.  For this reason, I was surprised by some not-so-great comments in the early reviews of Practical Jean.  Most of the negative stuff struck me as conflicted.[66]

It made me think again of my conflicted feelings about my Dad, his suffering, and his sense of humour, and it gave me a twisted, but creative idea on how I could spare humorists like Trevor from the “vicious, ruthless ... grinding ... pulverizing ugliness” of confused reviews in the future.  I’ll work on it after this project is over.


The Sisters Brothers

By Patrick deWitt

(The Lesson: the humorous effect of an incongruous setting).

At the Leacock Medal award banquet this year, the regular attendees at my table told me that they found Patrick deWitt’s 2012 acceptance speech to be the funniest and most memorable one ever.   They laughed because the speech was exceptionally short.   Some of them recalled his remarks as being limited to a modest and soft “uh... uh ...thank you .”  But that exaggerates – just a modest and soft bit.  DeWitt did add a few crumbs on the subject of creativity for those listening closely.[67]  But that was about all.  My tablemates thought this was funny and kind of cute because of their own expectations.

The annual bunfest, always held in or around the presumed Mariposa town of Orillia, gives locals a night out that includes a cocktail hour, book signings, and a chance to meet current and past medalists.   Although not a precondition, the performances of previous winners have created the anticipation that the medal recipient’s speech will be funny and thought-provoking and will help justify the $65 per ticket cost of the evening out.  Patrick deWitt is funny and thought-provoking when writing books, not so much when asked to perform on stage – unless, unintentionally, because of the setting.  

Patrick probably finds it more comfortable in the spotlight now after close to two years of picking up honours for his dark, but comical novel that 2012 medal winner The Sisters Brothers.  Still, I suspect he remains most at ease in the context of written words. 

In another way, the issue of context probably constitutes the greatest factor in the humorous effect of his medal winning book.   Please allow me to illustrate with the following lifeless summary of The Sisters Brothers, which I prepared as an exercise.

The Sisters Brothers, the second novel by Canadian-born, Oregon-based Patrick DeWitt describes a transforming journey made by Eli and Charlie Sisters, two men who are different in many ways, but have a fraternal bond that keeps them together as business partners.  They do contract work, now exclusively for a powerful entrepreneur identified as “the Commodore,” who has asked them to travel to California on his behalf and negotiate with Hermann Kermit Warm, an inventor with  a special process for mineral exploration.  The brothers are to deal with Warm through Henry Morris, an intermediary in the Commodore’s employ.

 The Commodore puts hard-nosed Charlie in charge.  Eli, the sensitive narrator of the story, thinks about leaving the business because of all the travel and the tense interactions with customers.   Eli also worries about his weight, his teeth, the lack of female affection in his life, his widowed mother, and his brother Charlie’s taunts.  Charlie drinks heavily and focuses clinically on work.

Whew !  That was tough - trying to outline the story of The Sisters Brothers without the 19th century context of cowboys, gold rush prospecting, horses, guns, knives, and killing.  I pulled those elements out of the description to try to evaluate the impact of the incongruous setting and the writing style.  

The book teases us into compassion for the brutal and reminds us of the universality of human concerns in the tradition of recognized literature.  It has carried off so many literary prizes[68] that any comment on the quality of the writing seems redundant, and literary critics in Canada, the U.S., and abroad have detailed the book’s literary merits many times.

So, I focused my thoughts on why the book made me laugh, always coming back to the gun-slinging, the dirty work of mid-1800s hit men, and the brutality of the Old West in contrast with clowning and bickering brothers.   When Eli confesses a fear of spiders, cares for his one-eyed horse, fusses over toothpaste flavours, or feels hurt over his brother’s teasing, we might not find it funny if he wasn’t also an assassin ready to blow a stranger’s head off or do what was “necessary” to extract information from an old woman.  Because Eli, the narrator, relates all this in same sort of formal, but old time western “that’s some nice shooting, brother” way, the incongruity is enforced in almost every passage.

Patrick deWitt definitely knows the importance of setting and context, and he may have been more aware of the expectations at the Leacock Medal Banquet than it seemed.

In verifying the facts of the 2012 event, I read that Arthur Black and Dan Needles bookended deWitt’s acceptance speech.  Both are polished speakers and hard to match.  In similar circumstances, I too would have limited myself to “.. uh ... uh .. thank you.”


Dance Gladys, Dance

By Cassie Stocks

(The Lesson: Caring about your characters).

I felt a gush of relief after reading the 2013 Leacock Medal winner Dance, Gladys, Dance.  Having completed the last book on the list may have contributed to the feeling.  But it flowed mostly from knowing that I could look Cassie Stocks straight in the glasses, should we meet again, and say “I really liked your book.”

I hoped for that because I like Cassie and know she has a well tuned bullshit detector so I would be bound to the truth. 

She’s not hard to like.  A down-to-earth, sort of Albertan, now Saskatchewan dweller, Cassie makes fun of herself, laughs a lot, and has the background for connecting with lots of people. She lists retired biker chick, one-time actress, gardener, waitress, office clerk, aircraft cleaner, fowl farmer, and Eston Co-op store worker in her author’s bios.   When she added award-winning novelist, it gave her more opportunities to write and to promote her work.

But when addressing the June 2013 Leacock Medal Banquet, she said that she enjoyed the profile most because it brought her in contact with other people, particularly young women who identify with the characters in her book.   Cassie said many of the women “don’t feel they fit in, don’t think they’re like everyone else, and don’t feel normal.”   She really liked the thought that the book may have helped them. 

 “Women are by and large more likely to give up on their art and less likely to believe in themselves as artists,” Cassie, the first woman to grab the medal since Marsha Boulton’s win in 1996, said. “And when an artist loses hope and gives up their dreams and gives up their work then we’ll never know what we have lost.”

Cassie Stocks cares about people - including fictional dead ones and people who only exist in her imagination. 

In a banquet speech that went on a lot longer than Patrick deWitt’s thank you, she described her characters saying she not only loved fleshing them out as an ensemble, but loved them individually.

“I like to call them freaks; they are odd and a little bit outlandish … strange … and I think they’re beautiful all of them.”

Frieda, the narrator, an artist, lacks self-esteem, dwells on imperfect decisions, and shares some elements of Cassie’s curriculum vitae.  Frieda decides to give up on her art, to get a “real job,” and to become “ordinary.”  She stops seeing the world as a “series of potential paintings” and starts talking about the weather. 

A classified ad for an old phonograph ending with the message “Gladys doesn’t dance anymore - She needs the room to bake” launches Frieda’s adventure and her encounters with the other characters including her disembodied mentor.

“I made Gladys a ghost because I wanted her to be able to tell her own story and I wanted her to be able to tell it in her own words rather than, you know, through someone else or someone reading a diary,” Cassie said showing how much she cared about her dead and imaginary friend. 

For many readers and reviewers, the characters make Dance, Gladys, Dance work.

Caring about your characters makes for a pretty good starting point if you’re writing fiction.  With no exception I can recall, characters are the vehicle for moving a story along and exercising all those techniques of action, dialogue, and thinking.  To be effective, they have to be believable and tap into something human, usually that something comes from a bit of the author no matter how disagreeable or charming the character.  

The new Leacock medalist spoke openly about her connection to all of her characters, one by one.  Sometimes, a character had little to do with Cassie Stocks, but enough for a connection.  In Frieda, the relationship was glaring but the superficial details were tweaked to make for someone separate with her own energy.  All of them had their own interests and motivations.

“Kurt Vonnegut said make your characters want something ... right away … even if it’s just a glass of water,” Cassie said, adding that even characters paralysed by the meaninglessness of modern life are human and have to drink water.  Her central character wanted something.  To be ordinary and get a real job.

I have a real job of sorts, and this made the trip from Ottawa to Orillia and back difficult to justify.  But attending this year’s Leacock Medal event struck me as something that would be good for me to do given all the time I’d spent studying Leacock Medal books this year, especially after my wife said “this would be a good thing for you to do given all the time you’ve spent on this this year.”

 It was a five and a half hour drive each way.  So I decided to stay overnight at the Geneva Park Conference Centre on Lake Couchiching.  It’s not much of a hardship. 

But because most people at the banquet live in Orillia, only a handful stayed overnight - mostly people from far away.  People like Cassie Stocks and me.  We had breakfast together, and it was great.  For me.

Cassie was down because she thought her long, sometimes rambling speech was a flop, and she wanted to “crawl into a hole like a gopher.” 

She couldn’t have picked a better bacon and eggs partner.  I pumped her back up by telling her how much I enjoyed the talk and connected with it. 

“Don’t worry only a few hundred heard your speech,” I said. “Millions will read my glowing account of it someday.”

She laughed again, and we talked about the craft of humour writing and how funny it is to study funny.

In her speech, she cited E.B. White’s “dissecting the frog” notion and other sources including the Humor Reference Guide: the Comprehensive Classification and analysis, which indentifies some 97 different types of humor or flavours of incongruity.  These include the liar paradox, the deviation from the ideal, the unexpected honesty, and anti-humor humor.

“Now anti-humor humour is known as the intentional violation of the expectation of the joke: the joke turns out not to be one, and it is funny because ironically it is not funny,” Cassie said citing her Grant MacEwan University paper. “Now, I think that definition is totally hilarious !”

She also shared humour-writer advice from Marsha Bolton: “wear tight pantyhose at readings ‘cause it makes you stand up straighter.”

So, I like Cassie Stocks.

I’m not sure if you could codify the need to like every author that you study, but I think that, like working on characters for any book you might write, you need to see a humanity and connection that makes their mistakes yours, their humour something you might appreciate, and their lessons something you might want to write down and remember.

[1] The title refers to the out-of-place plastic tulips that poke through the snow at Diane’s Greek-Canadian home.

[2] There was some tweaking.  Kertes, for example, was not a product of Montreal and a Czechoslovakian ancestry like his protagonist.  The author was born in Hungary in 1951, came as a child to Canada after the uprising of 1956 and straight to Toronto.  The book reflects this background by being less Montreal and more Multicultural Metro.

[3] Kertes is today the Dean of Creative and Performing Arts at Humber College in Toronto.
[4] Like the barber Repeat Golightly, Old Man Sherry, and teacher Miss Henchbaw as well as visitors like poetess Belva Taskey, hypnotist the Great Doctor Suhzee, and medicine man Professor Noble Winesinger.  One story recounts the drive by women curlers for equality. One cited often by reviewers, “the Face is Familiar,” features a slander suit against the editor of the local paper who compared a local with a goat.   The goat is brought to court as evidence.
[5] I recorded Whistle Up the Inlet – The Union Steamship Story by Gerald Rushton for Vancouver Talking Books for the Blind.
[6] The contacts and experience led me into a job in Vancouver radio.
[7] He was born in Abbotsford in 1945.
[8] Prières d'un enfant très sage, rendered into Leacock Medal eligible English by award-winning translator Sheila Fischman
[9] A daily paper with a history of great writers and of punching above its weight class, likely because its comparisons have been with The Toronto Star, The Telegram, The Globe and Mail, and other heavies down the road in T.O.  
[10]  Richards earned a Master’s in Library Science at UBC and worked as a librarian for a while, but had his greatest book reading promotion impact through CBC radio; Bachelor Brothers B&B segments aired on the Vicki Gabereau show in the early 1990s.  Later, CBC gave Richardson his own arts and letters program to replace her.  Nice bio from his publisher here
[11]  The fictional B&B sits in a green valley near the Well of Loneliness coffee bar, the Rubyfruit Jungle, a service station run by New Age lesbians, and other Gulf Island-style amenities. 
[12] Richardson left this issue to the imagination as well as the possibility that the fictional, fraternal twins, with “few superficial resemblances” and a paternity that is difficult to corroborate, may have invented their own narrative to live their lives in peace. The closing chapters explore male bonding, the cultural and culinary intricacies of baking a fruitcake, and the inspiration of Liberace who took “his mellifluous and unabashedly fruitcake voice” on a prideful visit to the rougher side of Vancouver.
[13] A collection drawn from Montreal Gazette newspaper columns written by Freed in the first half of the 1990s. 
[14] A once trendy, but now closed place.
[15]  I worked at the then CKLB and its sister CKQS-FM from 1973-1975 as my first job after university. 
[16] Arthur Raymond Black was born in Toronto on 30 August 1943.  After dropping out of Radio and TV Arts at Ryerson, he travelled  working in different jobs overseas.  
[17]  Black hosted the CBC show Radio Noon in Thunder Bay, Ontario, from 1976 to 1985 before advancing to CBC Toronto and programs that established his national profile.
[18]  Today, Black can look at three Leacock Medals on his mantelpiece - for this one in 1997, for Black Tie and Tales in 2000 and  for Pitch Black in 2006.
[19] By the late nineties, his show Basic Black had been on the national airwaves for over a decade. It ran until 2002.  Black received a number of awards for his radio work.
[21] P. 646-647, Mordacai: The Life and Times, by Charles Foran, 2010

[22] Richler died at the age of 70 in 2001.

[23] “Don Quixote is the world's best book say the world's top authors,” The Guardian, 8 May 2002
[24] Barney’s prank letters and fantasies include painful ways for his nemesis McIvor to die: nibble by nibble consumption by sharks or suffering paralysis within a burning building. 
[25] Richler also met his third wife at his earlier marriage.
[26] The parallels in the two books are real, but I found no references to Richler and Don Quixote to support the notion that he did this by design. 
[27] Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version.

[28] Andrew Stuart McLean was born in Montreal on 19 April 1946.  He began his career with CBC radio in the 1970s as a freelancer, moving on to become a regular contributor to programs like Sunday Morning and Peter Gzowski’s Morningside leading into the launch of Vinyl Cafe in 1987.
[29] For many, the opening Dave and the Turkey story and closing chapter on Polly Anderson’s Party epitomize the Vinyl Cafe brand.
[30] As described by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.
[31] Attributed to American writer and critic Jack Kroll (1926-2000).

[32] Mowat, as quoted by Black, was responding to a critical 1996 cover story in Saturday Night Magazine

[33] Taken by Black from Batula’s book The Perfection of the Morning.

[34] Fully “The love of truth lies at the root of much humor” as attributed to Robertson Davies.
[35] Turning the page on 2001: This year's non-fiction lineup has a disappointingly familiar ring to it, while this spring's new fiction lacks big names. Paul Gessell.The Ottawa Citizen 03 Jan 2001: F6 / FRONT
[36] And 26 different languages as per the Penguin Canada note in its 2003 edition of HappinessÔ  by Will Ferguson.
[37] The mid-stream title change responded to marketing feedback, particularly from Britain where people mistook Generica to be science fiction or fantasy. 
[38] In the book, characters debate the importance of title selection at length, citing statistics that showed the optimum number of words for a title as 4.6 and debating how to generate 0.6 words for this purpose.
[39]  Mr. Ethics is author of the popular Seven Habits of Highly Ethical People.
[40] I must have liked it a lot.  In spite of the personally imposed pressure to move on the next Leacock Medal book, I read the thing three times and bought five copies (one Happiness for me, two for gifts, the entertaining audio version read by American actor Jim Frangione, and an old grey one that I could not pass up: a 2001 Canadian-published Generica signed by Will Ferguson).

[41]  Edwin accuses the hermit and author of murder because bliss is not true happiness and the Soiree books make people disappear into a mass of nothingness bereft of the things that make them sad.
[42] Will Ferguson, Ottawa Writer’s Festival, 18 April 2013
[43] The now three-time Leacock Medalist and Giller Prize winner insists, in response to the routine audience question, that he does not try to chase the market or try to write what people want, rather he  says “What I write about is for me, how I write is for the reader.” (Ferguson at Ottawa Writers Festival 18 April 2013)
[44] Cochrane, Ontario in 1910,  twice in 1911,  and 1916.  Mostly due to forest fires.
[45]  Cassivellaunus, a British Chieftan who fought Julius Caesar in 54 B.C. - according to the groundless family lore.
[46] Stubborn: Big Ed Caswell and the Line from the Valley to the Northland, General Store Publishing House, by Dick Bourgeois-Doyle (2010).
[47] Now best known as the playwright, Needles kept up his small town editor self over the years with columns in publications like Harrowsmith Country Life, before its demise, and other regional and national publications with a rural bent.  He also produced a couple of books drawing on Walt’s Letters.
[48]   Wikipedia proudly describes the Shelbourne economy as follows: “Major local employers have included automotive part manufacturers Johnson Controls (until 2009) ...  A recently zoned industrial area has been established in the south end of town ... (Roads) have been constructed to provide access to potential industries ...  Shelburne is also home to a small retail sector.”
[49]  With Axe and Flask  brings the real and unreal worlds together with War of 1812 references, John A. MacDonald, William Lyon Mackenzie, and the 1859 visit of future King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, touted in local headlines as “H.R.H. to Make Pilgrimage to Persephone l”
[50] Needles invited me to give him a few shots, but the best I can do is to suggest that he might have done more of this.  You could accuse him of having found a format in the Wingfield Letters that worked and of being just too comfortable to ever abandon it completely.  But my spirit wouldn’t be in it because I know that it’s more challenging to stick with something, sometimes beyond reason, and to follow it through.  As consumers of food and drink, Canadians are better off because so many farmers don’t consider other options.
[51] Fans of Ian’s better known sibling might look to Village of Small Houses for a window on Will’s childhood.  But from beginning to end, the book tells Ian’s story.  Will or Little Billy was about five years younger than Ian, and this alone distinguished their experience.  The older Ferguson brother also had unique health problems, friendships, and memories of his parents.
[52] For a bit of wordy presumption and a review of a book that doesn’t exist - see -  Phinn, Gordon, The Various Fictions Of Autobiography [Village of the Small Houses: A Memoir of Sorts] Books in Canada, Vol. 34, Issue 4, Pages 16-17, Year 2005, May 2005, Canadian Review of Books Ltd.
[53] Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw: Travels in Search of Canada, the book draws upon three years of travel across Canada.  While Ferguson still managed to eat and pay the bills during this period, he was focused on this project and did not produce any other works other than stories for MacLean’s magazine and other publications that drew on travels that  fed into Beauty Tips.
[54] He dedicates the book to Alex.
[55] The Temple Gardens Spa is a two decade old effort  to revitalize a piece of the city’s history and recall the Moose Jaw spa, which reached its zenith in the 1930s when people came from afar to bathe in the city’s not-too-hot hot springs lined with marble and underwater lights.
[56] Quill and Quire described Black as “sort of like your favourite crank uncle,” a role that the late “Andy Rooney tries to play the same role on 60 minutes,  but he’s not as good at it.”  Harbour Publishing Review quotes accessed December 5, 2013
[57] Federal Cabinet Minister Kellie Leitch
[58] Former Minister of Defense, Indian Affairs, Fisheries, and Science, Hon. Tom Siddon, who, like Terry’s hero, (1) was a mechanical engineer and a university professor, (2) who was uncomfortable in politics, (3)  who was keen about aerodynamics and liked to tinker in his shop on motors, (4) who broke into  Parliament when the popular incumbent dropped out unexpectedly, (4) who confronted his own  supporters and own party over issues of values and the future of Canada, (5) who is an expert in water systems and a passionate advocate for the environment, (6)  who won his upset election victory only to be thrust immediately into another campaign when a minority government was brought down by a budget-related vote in the house (1978, 1979,1980), and who made a memorable entry into the House . I worked as his Chief of Staff (1985-1987).

[59] Part of Terry’s fictional story features a woman entrepreneur and engineer, whose description could have been clipped and pasted from the online bio of a former National Research Council colleague of mine. 
[60] I lived in bunkhouses as a forestry worker around Williams Lake a few years earlier - I was a reporter in Richmond, B.C. and Vancouver, and also worked for a spell as Legislative Assistant to the Cariboo Member of Parliament Lorne Greenaway. I will stop my memoir here to maintain credibility
[61] He worked at the UBC Student Paper, The Ubyssey, that trained other Leacock Medalists (Birney, Nicol, and Berton) and for a term at The Vancouver Province.
[62] Thursday April 18, 2013
[63]  A few months earlier, Ferguson  won the Giller  for 419, a  novel of murder and internet scams, set in part in Nigeria.
[64] In 2008 when he was wrapping up the traveling part of his project, a decade had passed since the Good Friday agreement.

[65] The example he cited was the story of C.S. Lewis who had an image of a fawn under a snowy street lamp from which he built a  universe – Narnia.  A week later, I would read in Beyond Belfast of Ferguson’s surprise encounter with a stag on the trail in the midst of the Mourne Mountains, which the author describes as being the place that inspired Lewis’s vision of Narnia.
[66] Dave Williamson in the Winnipeg Free Press (2 October 2010) “A woman running around killing her friends ? Funny Right?” calls the book “morbid and silly” (I think he meant that was a bad thing) and says “It just ain’t funny”;

In the generally positive “Mordantly murdering the middle class” in the 18 September 2010 Globe and Mail, Randy Boyagoda says the book is “faltering” and has “a series of flat chapters.”
[67] In those brief  remarks, he mused a bit about the craft of humour writing noting some people think “life itself is a joke” adding that “if that is true, it is a complex one.”   The author also managed a hint at his inspiration in quoting the British playwright Joe Orton.  Orton, who was brutally murdered in his mid-thirties about the same age as Patrick deWitt was when writing The Sisters Brothers, was a champion of black comedy who called the genre “a weapon” and a “dangerous” one. 
[68] The Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize as well as the Leacock Medal and  spots on the short list for the Man Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Prix des libraires du Quebec, and the Walter Scott Prize.