Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

Madge’s Mad World

Life with My Sister Madonna by Christopher Ciccone

Christopher Ciccone with Wendy Leigh, Life with My Sister Madonna (2008)

OK, fine, I read it. What can I say? I grew up in the Age of Madonna, and I was curious. I thought this book, being written by her brother, might offer some striking insight into the inner workings of the most fascinatingly self-reinventing pop star since Bob Dylan. (Or should I use the pretentious Greenblattism “self-fashioning” and thus attempt to lend a patina of intellectualism to this trashy pursuit? No, I won’t bother.)

As is always the case with books like this, I was disappointed; somehow, they’re never as shocking and trashy as you imagine. Ciccone (i.e. Christopher, the Lesser Ciccone) is more interested in whining about how Madonna ignores him, bitching about Guy Ritchie and his walk-in closet, and bragging about the time he spent doing drugs with supermodels than in offering insight into his sister. Or perhaps the problem lies deeper – perhaps this is a book written by an author not intelligent enough to comprehend his subject?

The full cover, when you see it, seems to suggest this:

Full Cover of LIfe with My Sister Madonna

The Lesser Ciccone is on the back, while Madonna is on the front but moving out of the frame, as though leaving him behind, slipping from the net of words in which he seeks to entrap her and eluding his understanding. And note her expression, the classic “Come on … Get lost” look of seduction that leads inevitably to rejection. Maybe you can judge a book by its cover.

Whatever; the point is, it mentions Canada:

We Ciccones may be afraid to confront our emotions, but little else fazes us. After all, we have pioneer blood in our veins and are proud of it. In 1690, my maternal ancestors, the Fortins, fled France and sailed to Quebec, then a complete wilderness, and settled there. Quintessential pioneers, they wrested a life for themselves and their families out of that wilderness. (p. 24)

The weak generalization about being “afraid to confront our emotions” is sadly characteristic of the sort of low-grade psychobabble that riddles the book.

What jumps out at me in this passage, though, is the word “then”; that is to say, Ciccone recognizes that Quebec is no longer a complete wilderness, even though it was in 1690. (Quebec City was founded in 1608, population of 550 in 1665, but it would hardly have been a bustling metropolis by 1690, so I suppose he’s right in the main, we won’t quibble.) This is a refreshing change from the opinion, sometimes encountered among Americans, that Canada is still a complete wilderness and buried in snow 365 days a year. So props for that.

Most thrilling of all, Madonna’s relatives lived in Canada before finding their way to the U.S. Madonna is practically Canadian! Think of all the Juno awards she could have won….

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Smuggler’s Choice

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre

John Le Carre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974)

…all I or anyone at the Circus knew when I flew to Delhi was that a man calling himself Gerstmann had been setting up a radio link between Rudnev, head of illegal networks at Moscow Centre, and a Centre-run apparatus in California that was lying fallow for want of a means of communication. That’s all. Gerstmann had smuggled a transistor across the Canadian border and lain up for three weeks in San Francisco breaking in the new operator.   (p. 176)

Ah yes, smuggling across the border from Canada into the U.S.

This idea of Canada will certainly be familiar to anyone who lived through the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., when American politicians suddenly began portraying our country as a haven for terrorists drawn here by our complete lack of border security, which supposedly made Canada an ideal staging ground for anyone wanting to attack the U.S.

(In a historical irony, the U.S. was actually used by William Lyon Mackenzie as a staging ground for attacks on Canada during and after the Upper Canada Rebellion.)

It’s hard to say how widespread this view of Canada is; certainly Canadians seem to have a slightly shameful sense that we’re not as warlike a nation as we might be. For better or worse, Canada has been forged more in compromise than in blood; when the most famous revolutionary battles in a country’s history are known by homely names like “The Battle of Mrs. Sharpe’s Garden” and “The Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern,” you know you’re not exactly dealing with a nation of Agamemnons and Hectors.

Our “undefended border” with the U.S. used to be referred to with pride. That’s how I remember it being presented when I was in grade school in the decade or so after Le Carre’s novel was written: we’re such good neighbours, we don’t need to surround ourselves with the paraphernalia of violence.

Now the U.S. point of view seems to be that we’d be better neighbours if only we were a little more aggressive. Do we, at some level, agree? Do we feel we would be a more impressive and respected nation if our borders bristled with guns, barbed wire, observation towers and searchlights slicing relentlessly through the dark?

Le Carre put his finger on this anxiety of insecurity before Canadians became aware of it, but since the book was published we seem to have gradually absorbed his point of view, and pride in our undefended border has turned to shame.

And so progress marches on.

A Rough Ride in Dallas

Boys will be Boys by Ron Pearlman

Jeff Pearlman, Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty (2008)

I borrowed this book from the library and it had lost its dust jacket somewhere in its travels, so I had to photograph the spine. Here’s the cover image for those who desperately want to see it.

The Cowboys traded up with New England for the top pick in 1991, hoping to land Notre Dame receiver/kick returner Raghib “Rocket” Ismail. When the Heisman Trophy winner demanded a five-year, $15.5 million deal (and threatened to jump to the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League), the Cowboys were again mocked in league offices. Dallas “settled” for defensive tackle Russell Maryland of Miami—then landed six more draftees who would become key additions, including Alvin Harper in the first round and little-known defensive back Larry Brown of Texas Christian in the twelfth.  (p. 101)

This passage illustrates Jimmy Johnson’s expertise in the draft; one can’t help but pity Ismail, thinking the CFL held any promise for him and thus missing out on his chance to be part of a team that won three Super Bowls.

He did, of course, win a Grey Cup with the Argos. Is that a consolation prize?

That’s a minor reference to Canada, but things get better:

Hence, when Aikman went down against the Giants Johnson decided Dallas’s new starter would be a freckle-faced redhead whose resume was highlighted by unexceptional stints with the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League and the San Antonio Riders of the World League. Jason Garrett didn’t even have much in the way of a college background—he played at Princeton, where he was named the 1988 Ivy League Player of the Year…. Garrett took the field at Texas Stadium on November 14, strolled into the huddle, and showed the poise and moxie of a six-year-old…. He attempted six passes in three offensive series, completing 2 for 25 yards. By late in the first quarter Johnson had seen enough.  (pp. 205-206)

I find sportswriters love to start paragraphs with words like “hence,” even if they don’t really make a lot of sense in context. It’s odd that Garrett played for two teams with the word “Riders” in their name, and then for the Cowboys. Horse obsession? Louis L’Amour fan? Yet another illustration of Fate’s bizarre sense of humour?

The point here, obviously, is that experience in the CFL doesn’t really add up to much when you’re on the big stage of the NFL. Our beloved Canadian Football League appears as a home for second-rate players who simply don’t have what it takes to play “real” football. And when you consider that Garrett was “unexceptional” even by CFL standards … that’s most damning of all. A CFL star (is there such a thing?) would struggle in the NFL; an undistinguished CFLer like Garrett doesn’t stand a chance.

And the Ottawa Rough Riders … nothing cries “amateur” quite as loudly as a league where two teams have the same name – it’s the sort of thing that happens in schoolyard pick-up games, where everyone wants to be the Wolves. And yet the CFL tolerated the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the league at the same time. (Pedants will point to the different spelling, but really.)

Even more pathetic, the name is taken from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders cavalry regiment: here we are, supposedly carrying on the proud tradition of Canadian football as distinct from American, and not one but two of the teams in our national league have a name (the same name) that refers to American history. Why not the Ottawa Loyalists or the Ottawa Voyageurs – anything that is, at the very least, ours?

(As a side note, Ottawa does seem to have trouble with team names. To take just the most obvious example, their NHL team is called the Senators, but their logo is a picture of a Roman legionary. If words mean anything it should be a fat man in a toga.)

Hence, I will now demonstrate my taste and sophistication by not making the obvious joke about Garrett having had a “Rough Ride” with the Cowboys.

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