On My Projects

Rather a lot of my professional writing, outside of academia, has been focused on the pulp and paper industry in Canada, with a specific focus on that industry’s attempts to integrate bio-refining in an effort to diversify. It’s an interesting topic, one I didn’t expect to get into when I dreamed of writing as a child. Lately, I’ve been expanding into the entire forest industry, not just pulp and paper. I’ve written about pellets, tree planting, the industry in the east of Québec, Ontario forest tenure reforms, and the sustainability of the industry. I’ve also written about the recent attacks on the industry by radical environmentalist groups. I’ve learned more about forestry in Canada than I ever thought I would. Importantly, I’ve learned about some of the people in forestry in Canada.

I haven’t had a chance to write a story about it yet, but one of the things I’ve been struck by most in all the research and interviews is the people I talk to. Mill managers, or executives at small companies, or the Mayors of northern Ontario towns. They all share a passion for what it is they do, and a real concern for the people who are under there care, be it employees, or citizens. I’ve seen big men nearly tear up at the loss of jobs in their mill; not jobs for them, but people with families, in small communities, where their children likely go to school together. People who have worked together for years. Or citizens who have been out of work for years, because of the downturn. Or whose jobs are threatened by false claims and misinformation about the industry in general. Real concern, and real passion.

I know someone who told me that when you’re dealing with a small company, you need to pay as much attention to who that company is as to what it does. The small companies depend on their people in a way a large corporation doesn’t. And when you speak with those people, it shows: in their faces, and in their voices.

I’d like to get a story out of this idea one day, and meet even more of these people. I feel like that would be nice.

I’m also working on a project over at Idiosyncrate. It’s fun, and I like it. I hope you do to. Be sure to let me know.

On Reading (Part One)

Any faithful reader will by now recognize in me a habit to read rather a lot of one thing at a time. This had lead to some interesting observations for me, a sense of immersion that is powerful and attractive.

In the end, though, as a general strategy, I found it lacking. Long binges of single authors left me tired, and unwilling to pick up the next book. As a researcher, it was a fine system. As a reader, less so.

I recently saw an article, somewhere on this great wide internet, in which a media writer explained how they chose what tv shows to watch. It was part of their job, and they needed a system. The writer (and I have lost the original reference – mea culpa) linked back to a writer who used a similar system for reading. I was not amused.

However, the longer I thought about it, the more sense it seemed to make, as I ran out of things to read and the will to read them. I decided to give it a try.

Essentially, the system is this: One reads (or watches) one book (or show) from a list of categories, until one book from all the categories has been read, at which point, one starts over. Its simple, arbitrary, and quite flexible.

I started with these categories:

Contemporary non-fiction

Classic non-fiction

Contemporary fiction

Classic fiction

Horror/suspense

Sci-fi/fantasy

Detective/genre fiction

Food Writing

How-to/self-help

I’m nearly finished the first round. This time, I’ve read On Writing by Stephen King, Mr. Mercedes by King, As I Lay Dying by Faulkner, Child of God by Cormac McCarthy, An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek (a Kennedy biography), Cooked by Michael Pollan, Hyperion by Dan Simmons. I’m planning on reading Walden by Thoreau, but my detective fiction is still up in the air.

I’m happy with the system thus far. It helps push me out of my comfort zone, and already some themes are emerging. I look forward to round two.

How do you choose what to read, Gentle Reader?

Exercises in Writing: The Cookie Post

Lately, I’ve been looking for any opportunity to write. Tumblr posts—which I often left uncaptioned—Twitter, grocery lists. I figure writing all the time can only help hone my skills.

Recently, a friend asked me to describe a cookie I had mentioned in passing. They did so via Facebook, and I saw the notification as I retired to bed. I left it, unanswered, and drifted to sleep, contemplating how one would best describe a cookie.

I like writing about food, and so I thought it would be fun to put some effort into describing what was in fact a very good cookie.

This is what I came up with:

The cookie, eh? It was round, and had the diameter of a biggish grapefruit. It was straight out of the oven when I got it. 15 minutes or so by the time I began to eat it. The cookie had a deep caramel color, and was spotted with chocolate chips. At least that’s the impression I got. I couldn’t really see the cookie. It was too fresh, too soft, to really handle, held together only by the waxed paper cookie sleeve it came in. It had a fine balance of salt and sweet, and a rich flavour which struck me at the time, and which I can still recall quite clearly. Chocolate came through quite strongly, but not overwhelmingly. A well balanced cookie indeed. The pockets of chocolate were just coming back to solidity, on that strange cusp of states of matter one wants so badly in a good cookie. It was one of those cookies, as you so clearly have divined, that needed some thinking about, some contemplation after consumption, a process I am still working through, some days later. A good cookie, a well balanced cookie. A cookie to be proud of, and to be remembered.

What’s your favourite cookie, gentle reader? Why don’t you describe it to me?

On Gratitude

It is, of course, Canadian Thanksgiving, by and large a rootless sort of holiday, but an enjoyable one at that. I often take the opportunity to ponder the things in life I am grateful for, albeit rarely in a public forum. I won’t dwell on specifics here, except to say that I am grateful for a good many things, and that I am indeed a lucky, lucky boy.

My wife’s aunt, who according to Greek custom is also now my aunt, has invited us to a Thanksgiving dinner, at which we are to perform an original work of poetry. I’ve been meaning to post here about the process and pain of writing, about how short posts about unessential things are easier, about how weighty subjects are much harder. It would have been a helluva post.

Instead I will offer you my poem:

A Thanksgiving Poem, by S. Leslie Turriff

Roses are pink,
Violets are blue.
This poem isn’t
the poem you
expected.

Flowers are nice,
Turkey is too.
Thanksgiving is
a good time to
be grateful.

That our lives are
really quite good.
Except for bad
winters, and odd
politics.

Ebola world wide,
War in Iraq,
Syrian bombs,
Russia all whacked
out on Ukraine.

Eurozone crise,
Scotland stayed in.
Catalan out,
France all right wing
fascists.

Typhoons, Blizzards,
climate change floods.
Apocalypse,
Summers are duds.
July was OK.

Colonialism,
sad reality.
Deep rifts in the
world, and too many
syllables.

Canada could
be better, OK.
But I’m grateful,
plus there’s hockey.
Go, Habs, Go.

We have family,
friends, cats, and food.
Social safety net,
Medicare, dude.
Cheap daycare.

Pedantic words
in awkward rhyme,
can’t take away our
Thanksgiving time.
Gratitude.

On Doyle, Sherlock, and the BBC

Inspired in part by rumour that John Milton blinded himself by reading every book known in his era, I’ve recently set out to read in chunks. Big, unwieldy chunks.

So my modus operandi these days tends towards reading groups of works in their entirety. Anyone who knows me has likely heard of last year’s consumption of all (or very nearly all) of Stephen King’s short fiction. A big, unwieldy chunk of Stephen King.

There is something to be said for reading really shocking amounts of work by the same author. Patterns, themes, and voice emerge, and one becomes incredibly intimate with them. Authors revisit old ideas, either for better or for worse, and the reader gets to revisit them as well, in light of the intervening intertextuality of the entire corpus. Although I didn’t read King’s short fiction in order, I’m not sure it matters, and it might be better that I didn’t.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock canon, of course, is a good choice for this type of reading. Conveniently, the popularity of his stories ensure that ‘complete works’ collections are easy to come by. And as a character, he is immensely popular right now, in no small part due to the recent BBC series. Also, my fiancée is a fan, and likes to use me as a sounding board for her own ideas, so it helps to be informed. I’ve read worse for lesser reasons.

The best thing about marathon reading of the Holmes stories is the subtle surprises. A serious student of Holmes might think me odd, but as a casual Holmes reader, the whole taken together was a bit of an eye opener.

Immersing myself in the literature allowed me to divorce myself from the rest of the portrayals that have accrued around Holmes as a character. You can’t entirely forget these, but all Doyle all the time certainly helps. Doyle’s voice and intention really come to the fore. I had no idea Holmes was as funny as he is, nor that we were ever granted a point of view other than the good doctor’s. Indeed, later stories give the reader access to the mind of Sherlock himself. I was also surprised to find how little role Moriarty has in the stories as well, appearing only once, although mentioned briefly a few other times. I’m still not sure I understand the appeal of the character, or why he is so important to latter presentations of Doyle’s work. He clearly had his impact on Holmes, but less so on the reader. This reader, in any case.

All this is especially important given the popularity of the recent BBC adaptation. It’s a wonderful series, and they interpret the corpus in interesting ways. I watched them first with only a passing knowledge of the canon, and my appreciation of them has deepened now that I’ve read more.

The eBook version of the complete works that I got my hands on happened also to include Doyle’s Tales of Terror and Mystery. I had had some vague notion that Doyle must have written something besides Holmes, but I had not idea just how different some of these stories could be. Many treated similar themes, but some where positively Lovecraftian, and I was thrilled by the Poe-like ‘The New Catacomb’. Late 19th and early 20th century horror has become increasingly interesting to me of late, and finding it where I wasn’t expecting it was awfully nice.

There’s a certain joy to reading all of something, I suppose. I’ll allow that not all of everything ought to be read, but Holmes (and King) work well.

What say you, reader?

“Once handsome and tall as you”

My grandfather died when I was 14 or so, in the early summer, or late spring. I don’t recall when, exactly, and it doesn’t bear much on the narrative here. My grandmother had passed away almost exactly a year earlier, so the whole affair felt familiar, and yet horribly strange. In both cases, my mother had to leave me home alone to be with them in their final days. They lived in my mother’s hometown Gaspé, while we summered in my father’s hometown, Métis, some 350 kms away. My eldest sister, 11 years older and living away in the big city, came through to attend the funeral, intending to take me with her to Gaspé. That night, between her arrival and our departure the next morning, she went out with our cousins, and feeling bad for me, lent me her book to read, as I was too young to join them in the bars.

My sister’s reading has always had a profound effect on my own. I learned to read from books she had left behind, Hardy Boys mysteries, and Nancy Drew. And it was her copies of Neuromancer and Heinlein that cemented in me a life long love of science fiction. Our tastes have since diverged somewhat, but we still talk books, and she occasionally still appears holding one, thinking I should read it.

On the eve of my grandfather’s wake, hoping to ease the sting of not joining in the evening’s festivities, my eldest sister handed me her copy of Consider Phlebas, the first of Iain Banks’ Culture novels.

It remains, to this day, some 20 years later, one of my favorite books. I have read and re-read it, returning after absences long and short. It remains my favorite of all Banks’ science fiction, although there is still one I have yet to read. I very much doubt it will displace Consider Phlebas, however.

It could be that it was the first SF novel of such scope. At least, the first I could fully grasp. Banks write openly, accessibly. Herbert may very well be a genius, but at that age I was hopelessly lost in the first few pages of Heretics of Dune. Not so with Banks. His vast and sweeping constructs remain grounded in individual characters, and his wit lightens the load considerably. Banks’ genius is approachable.

I suspect it was the surreality, or perhaps better, the hyperreality, which surrounds both adolescence and death, that allowed Banks’ novel to make such a lasting and profound impact. It is a strange thing to watch others you love grieve, and to grieve oneself. Consider Phlebas itself is a rumination on death, and grief, and memory, albeit on a scale much larger that that of a grandson mourning his grandfather.

I have owned no less than five copies of Consider Phlebas, four of which I’ve given to people I hoped might enjoy it as much as I, who might be changed by it as much as I. I never checked to see if they were, but I like to think so.

Recently, I visited Scotland, where Banks is from, and happened to see the Forth Bridge, spanning the Firth of Forth. It features prominently in another of Banks’ works, aptly titled The Bridge. As I stared out the train window at the massive structure, it dawned on me that it was indeed that bridge, the bridge. I’d not read The Bridge in years, and hadn’t realized I would be seeing the Forth Bridge during my travels. Unprepared, I felt a nearly physical connection to one of my favourite authors. Of course, I knew that Banks was terminally ill at the time, and the feeling of connection was undergirded by a deep sadness.

Iain Banks died on the 9th of June, 2013.