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Blog: Wordplay: September 2011 Archives

Canada Reads opens the door to non-fiction

For the past decade the good folks at Canada Reads have been filling reading wish lists with fiction, but they're trying something different this time around.

The 2012 version of Canada Reads will be all about the non-fiction.

Here's my early list. I'll probably amend it several times over the next couple of months, but here are some of the books I'm thinking about right now.

The Game by Ken Dryden

Still one of the best books about not just hockey, but about sports. Think of it; a smart, literate man finds himself a member of one of the greatest sports teams of all time, and he has the foresight to keep notes of his experiences. Very, very few books have ever given us this kind of insight into the world of professional sports.

On A Cold Road by Dave Bidini

Dave has written a lot of great books, including The Hockey Nomad, but this is my favourite. The stories of bands touring across this massive country to play for almost anyone, combined with Dave's own experiences in The Rheostatics, make this a great read and a real winner. I still reach for it almost once a year.

As Near To Heaven By Sea by Kevin Major

A history of Newfoundland, and a fascinating and funny book. You may think you know a little something about Canada's easternmost corner, but you have no idea how weird and wonderful the history of that place is. Until you read this book, of course.

Baltimore's Mansion by Wayne Johnston

Another book about Newfoundland, this one starts with the story of the colony's first governor. Let's just say things didn't go very well. It include's Johnston's recollections of his own family mixed feelings at joining Canada. Did I say mixed feelings?

Pierre Berton

All right, I live in the Yukon, so there had been be some Pierre Berton in the mix. I did enjoy Arctic Grail, though some people quibble with some of the facts in the book. But I guess I would have to say Klondike should be added. We sometimes get a little tired of gold rush stories here in the territory, but this book really does capture the insanity that gripped the world in 1898. Again, some historians take issue with some of the facts in the book, but you can't take issue with the brilliant storytelling.

A Long Way Gone by Ismael Beah

Ishmael tells his story of being a child soldier in Sierra Leone, and his eventual rescue by UNICEF. It's a heartbreaking book, and the thing that really blew me away is how it changes how you view the news. There are still conflicts erupting every day, children are still being led to war, and you view those stories with more compassion after you read this book.

Saying goodbye to my youth

R.E.M. have been around for more than 30 years, and more often than not shrouded themselves in a bit of mystery. They could be as hard to decipher as some of Michael Stipe's early lyrics.

So it's probably not a surprise they decided to announce the end of their run not with some huge farewell concert, but rather through a brief statement on their website.

They've decided to call it a day.

Some people no doubt think they should have done that a while ago, maybe after drummer Bill Berry left the band. It's true their latest records don't live up to their earlier releases.

But those earlier records? Come on, from Murmur through to Automatic For The People, that's some of the best pop music ever made, consistently excellent and always changing, a good enough run to lead me to wonder if R.E.M. can make a case for the best American band ever.

Mind you, I can't really be objective on the matter. R.E.M.'s music is incredibly important to me.

I was a music fan when I entered university in the fall of 1984, but the music I preferred was heavy metal. The louder the better. For some reason, I had chosen to attend a small liberal arts school in Nova Scotia, the kind of place that handed you a worn black sweater and a Violent Femmes record when you enrolled, just so you would fit in.

R.E.M.'s second record was just out, and there's no way I should have enjoyed Reckoning. Maybe it was because I wanted to fit in, or maybe the record was just really good, but I couldn't get enough of that record. Even today, 7 Chinese Brothers takes me right back to a room in North Pole Bay, the late afternoon sun cutting through the cigarette smoke and bullshit.

Those afternoons made me a fan of the band, and as new records came out and as R.E.M. style and sound changed, I changed along with them. They were never shy of changing their sound, of turning up the guitars when they wanted to, adding strings to their arrangements, and whenever they released a record and it sounded different, I thought it sounded great.

They lost some fans along the way, of course, people who thought the band was selling out. But I don't think that was the case. As more and more people got turned on to their music and they started to play bigger places, they adapted the sound to reach to the furthest corners of those stadiums. It was different, louder in some cases, but it was still R.E.M.

You can make the argument that this band or that band was great, but I think R.E.M. was the greatest band to come from the U.S. in part because of their willingness to change. They didn't remake Murmur or Reckoning, they made new and original music every step of the way.

My one regret? I never saw them live. A bunch of kids piled into a van and drove to Toronto in the 80s to see them at Massey Hall, and I didn't go. Idiot.

Peter, Michael, Bill and Mike, thanks for the memories.

Amateur in name only

A friend of mine recently sent me a link on Twitter to an article in Atlantic Monthly magazine, all about the hypocrisy that is big time college sports in the United States.

Here's a link to it: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/10/the-shame-of-college-sports/8643/

It's a must read for sports fans, obviously, but also anyone who is concerned about where we're heading as a society.

I don't want to repeat the many, many good points made in the article, but it's basically about how college athletes in the U.S. are governed by a huge list of arcane rules that prevent them from making any money, in any way, off their status as some of the best-known athletes in the country. The problem is these same universities, these same "educational institutions," are making tens of millions of dollars off these same people.

I was reminded of a passage I read in a book many years ago, about the Fab Five basketball players at the University of Michigan. One of the players, Chris Webber, who eventually ran afoul of the NCAA's rules himself, was in line at a student cafeteria. He checked his pockets and realized he didn't have enough money to order the food he wanted, so he changed his order. Still in line, he sees his jersey hanging in the window of the college shop nearby, for $100.

That's when Webber decided to turn pro.

These players make so much money for their schools that the schools can't help but compete for their talents, which is where they get in trouble with the group that oversees them, the NCAAA. The schools are rarely punished for these transgressions, but the players are.

I don't see why these players can't be compensated. Sure, they're on scholarship, getting their educations paid for, and in the case of some athletes, like Stanford's Andrew Luck, that's a very expensive bill. But why can't a player receive a stipend, like $5000 a month for every month they're on scholarship, including the summer? And if they graduate, they get another chunk of money, perhaps another $5000 for every month they were on the team.

I realize that means they won't be amateurs, but it also means they're efforts are being recognized. And since the vast majority of college athletes never turn pro, the money would give them a good start in thier adult lives.

And while we're at it, shouldn't someone take a look at how junior hockey is run in Canada? They hold a bantam draft every year, and the kids selected, if they want to keep playing competitive hockey, usually have to leave home. Sometimes they even have to move to another country, as would be the case if a Canadian is drafted by an American team, or vice versa.

These kids are 15, 16 years old.

Does that seem right?

Just asking.