Monday, 22 May 2017


What does Marx and Bram Stoker have in common? According to Globe &Mail book reviewer John Semlet, they were both commenting on capitalism: Dracula allegorized a cautious ambivalence toward the emerging capitalist order. Come on, let’s not ruin a perfect gothic horror story by giving it redeeming value. I want to enjoy my shlock without the guilty feeling that I’m reading a social commentary.
What next? Zombies as allegories of Facebook’s addictive power? Superman as allegory of the airline business? Lego as allegory of failing infrastructure? Is nothing sacred?

No, next thing they’ll tell me the Bible is an allegory for sloppy fact-checking.

Thursday, 4 May 2017


Next month U of T Press will publish my translation of their correspondence under the title A Nobel Affair (no, I don’t like the pun, but they twisted my arm).

From the blurb: Alfred Nobel made his name as an inventor and successful entrepreneur and left a legacy as a philanthropist and promoter of learning social progress. The correspondence between Nobel and his mistress, Sofie Hess, shines a light on his private life and reveals a personality that differs significantly from his public image. The letters show him as a hypochondriac and workaholic and as a paranoid, jealous, and patriarchal lover

Saturday, 29 April 2017


I hope all you pastors out there realize that you need retraining to meet the needs of your congregation.  Sure, a degree in theology comes in handy, and a couple of courses in psychology are helpful, but a recent church bulletin made on thing clear to me: what you really need is a degree in business administration. Here are excerpts from St. Basil’s  annual report which will provide you with some handy jargon:

It is hard to believe how much we have accomplished…though it did not occur exactly how we planned. We saw a 10% drop in attendance, but never mind attendance, the collection went up by 1.2% and the overall operations revenue increased by 27%. And that’s what counts, right?

Let us give thanks to God for the resources we have stewarded. You see, dear brothers and sisters, that’s where it’s at: We stewarded our resources and look what we got: new washrooms, air conditions, new furniture, technology, all at code compliance.

Why do we need  new furniture and washrooms, you ask. To live the hospitality to our neighbours, of course. You don’t understand that phrase, live the hospitality? I personally think it’s a neat new coinage and not as crass as “throwing a party”.

Oh, by the way, we also deal in faith. And that’s part of a much larger strategy of investment. The goal of our work is to create new and more stable revenue sources.  So we have decided to charge you for your faith. New revenue sources include fees for sacramental preparation programs and vigil candles and soliciting significant donations targeted for specific ministries.

Now there is a pastor who knows what’s what. I wish I could steward my resources like that.

Thursday, 23 March 2017



Friday, 17 February 2017


Fake news, fake media, and now: Fake experts.

A friend of mine was in the hospital recently, waiting for expert opinions on his condition when he caught an eye infection. I brought him an over-the-counter remedy but checked with the nurse on duty to make sure it didn’t interfere with the medication he was taking.
She turned to her computer and Googled the answer to my question. It’s fine, she said. You can go ahead. There’s nothing on Google about that..
Whew. I’m glad I consulted a medical professional – Dr. Google, I mean.

The other day I developed tendonitis in my wrist. I checked the array of available wrist supports and read the descriptions on the back of the packages. In case of doubt, they said, consult your pharmacist.  I did.
I handed him two products and asked which one was better.
He turned over the packages and started reading the descriptions. I pointed out, in the mildest possible way, that I was literate and had already perused the description, thank you very much.  But now I wanted his expert opinion.
He gave me a confused look. For a moment I thought he would turn to his computer and consult Dr. Google, but he decided to fake it and said with sudden confidence:
Take this one. This will do it for you.

So I bought the thing, and what do you know – it worked. Better a fake expert than no expert at all – or what do you think?

Friday, 20 January 2017

#AMREADING: Patrick Modiano, The Black Notebook

Paris, 1960s. Jean, a young writer, falls in love with an enigmatic woman. Is Dannie her real name? Who are the menacing men she associates with? What is her connection with Morocco? Jean jots down his thoughts about her in a black notebook, but the parts don’t add up to a whole.

Among those masses of notes, some have stronger resonance than others. Naturally, many signals are garbled, and no matter how hard you strain your ears they are lost forever.

Anyway, the truest encounters take place between two people who ultimately know nothing about each other, even at night in a hotel room. Jean never recorded the name or address of the hotel, the way we tend not to write down the most intimate details of our lives, for fear that, once fixed on paper, they’ll no longer be ours.

Driving through Paris he senses the streetlights signaling to him. It was the same feeling you get from staring at a lit window: a feeling of both presence and absence.

It was hard to remember the places where he and Dannie met because each time we had to leave fast, on tiptoe. I’m sure we left a light on, so that a trace of us would remain, a signal that we weren’t really gone and that someday we’d return.

Jean never made a date with Dannie, and he felt sorry for people who prearranged everything. They would never know how time throbs, dilates, then falls back again when you wait, how it gradually gives you that feeling of vacation and infinity that others seek in drugs, but that I found just in waiting for Dannie.

One time he waited for her in a park. Only a few passersby, owing to the cold. But it was still sunny, and the blue of the sky was my confirmation that time had stood still. I needed only to sit there until nightfall and study the sky to discover the few stars I could name, without really knowing if I was correct.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Louisville, KY, Water tower

Louisville, KY Vote here if you think that the Louisville water tower is the world’s most glamorous pumping station.  What do you call this type of architecture: Belle epoque? Roman empire revival? Epic kitsch?

Midland, TX The architecture of the Midland Super 8 is less spectacular, but if you want to see men with ripped muscles, this is the place. It’s a hotel for oil workers. In the lounge, men in hardhats are eating their dinner out of Styrofoam boxes. They leave their dirty boots out in the corridor – does the hotel have a shoeshine boy who comes around nightly? You know those angelic voices in the elevator announcing the floor. Well, in Midland, it’s something between a drill sergeant and a construction foreman’s  snarl.
El Paso crossing

El Paso, TX I WALKED to Mexico from El Paso. You pay 50 cents at the border, no questions asked. Walking back into the US is another story: line-ups, short for American pedestrians with documents, very long for visitors with or without papers. No line-up in the bicycle lane. Yes, there is a bicycle lane, and we were considering turning back and buying a used bike so we could use that lane.

USA Today. I had a hard time getting that paper en route (I love their continental weather map). I thought  tabloid news had a large market in the land of Trump, but I guess print is dead, and those news are now on Tweet.

American coffee culture: I am Casablanca shocked. Starbucks is everywhere now, and I mean everywhere, right next to MacDonald’s and Super 8 in the most godforsaken little places.