Read All About It

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a huge fan of the CBC. To be honest, I can’t even remember the last time I turned on either CBC Television or Radio. How about you? I imagine if you enjoy hockey or The National or some of CBC’s radio programs, you can count yourself as a supporter. Certainly, I’m not an advocate of disbanding either service, as it’s always nice to know they’re there if you ever need or want them.

On the other hand, I receive several daily news summaries from CBC in my email, which help give me their perspective on what’s going on in the news, arts, etc. So, it’s not like I’ve shut the Corporation out of my life entirely.

There’s one initiative they’re involved with that does excite me, however. It’s called Canada Reads and it’s been operating on CBC Radio since 2001. Each year, the program covers a different theme and involves narrowing down a list of Canadian books that listeners and a panel choose as best representing that theme.

For Canada Reads 2014, they’re looking for the one novel that could change the nation or, perhaps, even the world. A long list of 40 books chosen by Canadians was revealed last October 24th. People voted to narrow that number down to a Top 10.

That list was given to the 2014 panelists, who have the task of defending their choice during a series of debates that air on CBC Radio and CBC-TV from March 3rd to the 6th. They’ll also be streamed online. One at a time, the panelists will narrow the list down until only the winner remains.

In the past, I’ve only glanced briefly at the nominees. However, this year I seem to have a little more invested. That’s probably because I had already read two of the five novels and was actually reading a third at the exact moment when the list was released. Since then, I’ve completed a fourth.

So, who are these mysterious nominees?

In alphabetical order by author, the first is The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood, who is by far the most famous and recognizable name on the list and generally regarded as Canada’s finest novelist. This is the only one of the five books I haven’t read, as it’s in a genre, science fiction, that I have a lot of trouble getting my head around. Atwood’s book about a future world that emerges following a manmade pandemic will be defended by Stephen Lewis, a longtime leader of Ontario’s NDP, but now known as one of Canada’s most prominent philanthropists.

The second nominee, The Orenda by Joseph Boyden, is also the most recent, having been released last September. Boyden is probably my favourite current Canadian novelist and this is an interesting and controversial book set during the early history of Canada and involving the crossed paths of three characters: a Jesuit missionary, a Huron elder and a young Iroquois girl. It’s been attacked by segments of the religious community, the native community and just about everyone else, so you know what you’re getting into. And there’s a lot of violence, so be forewarned. It will be defended by Wab Kinew, a journalist, aboriginal activist and hip-hop artist.

Next on the list is Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues. It’s not often I remember exactly where I was when I read a book but, in this case, I recall being on vacation in the sunny south and absolutely loving this novel, which tells the story of young, black German jazz musician’s disappearance during World War II. It’s written in a “jazz language,” if that makes sense and is a wonderful piece of literature that deservedly won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Two-time Olympic gold medal winning runner Donovan Bailey will defend the book.

It’s been a long time since I read Cockroach by Rawi Hage, but it’s managed to stick with me pretty well because of its dark, unsettling nature. It captures the life of a recent immigrant during one bitterly cold month in Montreal. The lead character, who imagines himself a cockroach, lives on the edge of society as a petty criminal eking out a marginalized existence. While searching out some summaries of the book, I noticed it was described as a black comedy for teens and young adults, but I’m not sure it’s a book that youngsters would necessarily be drawn to. In any case, it will be defended by comic, actor and writer Samantha Bee, who’s been a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for more than a decade.

Finally, there’s Annabel by Kathleen Winter, which I just finished reading a couple of weeks ago, so I can offer a very fresh perspective on it. This is a heart-wrenching story of a child who is born hermaphroditic (both boy/girl), but raised as a boy, with disturbing and sad results. It’s a book that has moments of both extreme tenderness and ugly brutality, but one I also think will remain with me forever. Sarah Gadon, a young Canadian actress who’s starting to make a big name for herself in Hollywood (with five movies set to come out in 2014), will champion Annabel.

It will be interesting to see how each of the celebrities defends the book they’ve chosen. It’s one thing to enjoy a novel, but to debate how that book might change Canada or the world is something entirely different. Excluding Atwood’s book, which I haven’t read, I’d lean towards either Boyden’s or Winter’s, mainly because the issues of native rights and sexual equality will continue to play huge roles in our country’s future.

In any case, the choice in this battle of the books will be an interesting one, as each of the novels speaks in an entirely different voice and, without a doubt, definitely has the potential to change Canada. Read on!


Declining Grammar Skills Are No LOL Matter

Most people would agree there’s no shortage of problems with the Internet, social media and all the technology that’s associated with them – viruses, scams, pornography, phishing, cyberbullying, identity theft – we could go on all day. Now there’s another evil to worry about: declining grammar skills among teenagers.

If that doesn’t sound nearly as dangerous as some of the previously mentioned issues, consider the fact that, unlike most adults who have already acquired a good writing foundation before they start texting or using e-mails, teenagers are still learning the fundamentals of how to write properly.

The problem starts with a whole new language called “techspeak” that’s been created using a variety of abbreviations, acronyms and emoticons in place of traditional words and phrases. That’s all fine within the context of e-mails, text messages and social media, but now it’s starting to spread to students’ essays and exams, a troublesome sign that the barrier between our actual language and techspeak is already starting to disappear.

In the new language, entire words are turned into letters, numbers or combinations of both (e.g., “are” becomes ‘r”, “to” turns into “2” and “great” morphs into “gr8”). On top of that, a dictionary’s worth of abbreviations have been created, including the popular “LOL” (laughing out loud), “TMI” (too much information) and “OMG” (oh my god). Hyper-savvy kids have hundreds of these at their fingertips, including ones like “POS” (parents over shoulder), which alerts teens who are sending messages about the presence of adults lurking near the recipients.

The problem is especially critical among teenagers, an age group where students are in the midst of learning proper grammar use and starting to compose more formal papers and write more involved exams. In a recent study, noted by, it was discovered that students who use techspeak frequently have difficulty switching to proper grammar when it’s needed. That’s very troublesome.

Not only are 13-17 year olds more than twice as likely to send text messages than any other age group, they’re also inclined to respond in the same way their friends send them messages. In the study, 64% of teens admitted to using techspeak in their writing assignments and 38% say they’ve used abbreviations like “LOL” in their papers.

The study concluded, “A decline in grammatical skills is attributed to the use of techspeak in most daily communications.” In particular, teens are more prone to making punctuation errors, using sentence fragments, inserting emoticons (such as ❤ for heart), misusing apostrophes and using inappropriate abbreviations.

Still, you may be asking yourself, what does it all matter? Does anyone care if students can’t spell or write properly or compose complete sentences? Yes, they do, especially post-secondary institutions that frequently ask students to submit written material as part of their entrance requirements. An article in The Globe and Mail said recently that texting is actually killing students’ grammar skills, not just harming them. Students themselves realize there’s an issue, with 86% saying that proper writing skills are essential for success in life.

But, how can you solve a problem that’s so widespread? Kids aren’t going to give up sending texts and they’re certainly not going to stop using techspeak and risk looking uncool to their friends. On top of that, e-mails and text messages have an inherent problem, in that they often don’t communicate someone’s mood or tone, something that is often solved by using “LOL” or a similar interjection. Without these abbreviations, a “conversation” can run seriously off-track and lead to major complications – friends breaking up, couples splitting, etc. – all because someone got the wrong impression from a text message.

In the end, parents and teachers have to make students aware that there are two languages and that the real one, not its techspeak counterpart, should always be the default when it comes to doing schoolwork, applying for a job or completing any other task that operates outside the realm of cyberspace or text messaging amongst their peers.

Years and years ago, the common belief was that proper spelling and grammar would gradually become a thing of the past. Although language has continued to evolve over the last two thousand years, that prediction has never become a reality. You can LOL all you want, but proper writing is here to stay.

Buffy The Cabin In The Woods Slayer

Joss Whedon is red hot.

Right now, his latest directorial effort, The Avengers, is smashing worldwide box office records – $650 million worldwide in just its first week of release – and making critics foam at the mouth, too.

While hardly in the same stratosphere, Whedon’s co-written April release, The Cabin In The Woods, also generated good box office returns (over $50 million worldwide) with absolutely no stars, but lots of good buzz.

Where did this sudden success come from? After all, this is a guy who’s barely been heard from in the past few years. Personally, I think his mojo’s back because he’s returned to what he did so well earlier in his career.

While watching The Cabin In The Woods, I was instantly transported back to the most creative period of Whedon’s career – the days and nights of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. When it first arrived, there was simply nothing like it – and the features that made Buffy the best thing on television are also what make TCITW so enjoyable.

Without spoiling anything about the movie, it brings together semi-misfit young people, fantastic otherworldly creatures, horror, action, and the perfect dosage of humour, while kicking a gigantic hole in all the tired clichés that have made most recent “horror” films so insipid. What’s not to love?

Although Whedon came up with some intriguing interludes like Firefly and Dollhouse in the last decade, they were definitely missing something, some little Whedon-osity that truly captured our imaginations and made us root for the scrappy underdogs.

With Cabin, he reached far back into his past and discovered those missing elements.

I haven’t seen The Avengers yet, but from everything I’ve read, it’s another labour of Whedon love, culling the best of his lifelong fascination with comic books and combining it with many of his other passions. The result? More Whedon magic.

So, what does it all mean? From my perspective, it indicates that Whedon’s at his best when he works from the heart. Or maybe it just indicates that the masses have finally caught up with his genius, a unique combination of fantasy, humour and humanity.

All that leads me to wonder how his next project will fare – a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It sounds like a stretch for Whedon, doesn’t it? Come to think of it, though, Shakespeare was also a master of fantasy, humour and humanity.

So, what am I worrying about?

What’s your opinion on Joss Whedon’s “newfound” success? Does your appreciation go all the way back to Buffy days – or are you a newcomer to his unique style? Let me know – it’s always great to hear from you.

Fantasy For Unfantastic Times

With the recent release of the movie Mirror Mirror, the revival of the Snow White & the Seven Dwarves tale has shifted into high gear. In June, the second big-screen retelling of the story arrives with Snow White & The Huntsmen. This follows the appearance of Once Upon A Time, a small-screen adaptation, which has already built a rabid following, along with Grimm, a darker program offering weekly modern twists on classic fairy tales.

Many people have wondered about the curious timing of this Snowmania. Certainly, the tale has been retold many different ways over the past century, but this definitely seems like fairy tale overload. After watching Mirror Mirror with my wife recently and seeing the audience’s strong reaction to a fairly average and, frankly, poorly reviewed movie, I began wondering what the sudden attraction was.

I honestly believe it’s a reaction to the nasty economic times we’re living in. It’s not exactly an original thought. After all, everyone’s aware of the proliferation of musicals and comedies during the Great Depression and similar genre spikes during other ugly times in recent history. There definitely seems to be a strong parallel right now.

It’s not just Snow White who has been resurrected from her historic trance to help us escape the daily reports of collapsing economies, job layoffs, and real estate foreclosures. The total media takeover by zombies, vampires, wizards, and other fantasy creatures makes me scared to go out at night, let alone turn on the TV, go to my local megaplex, or wander a bookshelf aisle.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s some strange coincidence and I also don’t believe all these writers and producers are jumping onto some supernatural bandwagon. I just believe the timing provides the perfect opportunity for people to escape from this over-caffeinated, bad news world for a few hours to a place that offers an otherworldly alternative.

Is this a bad thing? Of course not.

Anything that helps people cope with all the snarkiness and smarminess and other evilosities of the world certainly can’t be a bad thing. On the other hand, when the movie ends or you finish the book, all that ugly reality is still going to be waiting to spoil the rest of your day.

In the meantime, though, you might as well enjoy your ride on the fantasy coaster as long as you can.

How do you take a break from reality? Don’t be embarrassed! We all have our own fantasy escape hatch. What’s yours?