Thursday, December 27, 2012

The de-legitimization of art

Sheila Heti argues that this is what's happening in America. Or as she eloquently puts it ...that this activity is privileged, narcissistic and childish; something permitted to those at university, maybe, but even then, a bit far-fetched as an activity of real importance. Certainly to be put away – along with the other “childish things” – once one becomes a man...A funny thing is that much of this criticism came from very smart people in populous American cities, where (it is implied) the more mature, less narcissistic, and less privileged thing to talk about is money. Money is a conversation for adults. Art, for undergrads."

Seems to me that what she's picking up on in this compelling, passionate essay is a pervasive ignorance that exists particularly among the 'educated' and wealthy. I know it sounds strange to call the so-called 'educated' ignorant, but it's true in a society that defines education in narrow terms. There is no doubt that we are the most educated society that has ever existed, at least in terms of producing individuals holding university degrees. But we are also the most blinkered. We stream our children early, and promote specialization because it affords the best potential for translating acquired skills into high-paying careers. "Money is a conversation for adults" because it's the one subject most every adult has the capacity to talk about. It does not require 'specialized' knowledge the way art does. Heti's essay made me think about a time when the wealthiest in society could talk about art, and needed to. In fact, talk of money was considered uncouth. The wealthiest considered being educated in the arts absolutely essential, as a critical component of taste, prestige, status, awareness and intelligence. It was also an important aspect of noblesse oblige, the responsibility of those few who could afford to be patrons of the arts to support this greater good. Today this role is fulfilled by governments and universities. When I think of the chasm that exists between wealth and knowledge (responsibility, awareness), Duck Dynasty comes to mind, a TV show about a millionaire family of yokels who seem to epitomize the ignorance Heti is talking about. The Robertson 'clan' wears the 'yokel' emblem with pride; a backwoods family that drives Cadillac Escalades and lives in mansions, who are rich enough not to care less about life beyond the boundaries of the swamp. They represent an anti-elitist credo that is elitist in its own ironic way ie. they own all the symbols of American success without being affected (read: tainted) by outside cultural influences, thereby supposedly retaining authenticity. The thrust of Heti's main argument is that knowledge of art is essential for knowledge of life in the broadest possible sense, because art speaks for the pockets of our culture and our hearts that the mainstream, commercialized world does not want to hear about; art elbows its way in. It’s about balancing – about justice. It allows our deepest grievances and sorrows to take centre stage. Art is an example of human freedom and striving. It defines and stretches our humanity, it clears the world of convenient lies, it touches the loneliness that plagues us all and replaces it with fellow-feeling. It creates models of possible worlds in opposition to the worlds we live in, which we cannot imagine our way out of without art.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Cat’s CradleCat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Vonnegut is always a unique, and undeniably curious read, compelling in ways that defy the standard literary experience. For many, he's an acquired taste, heady as opposed to emotionally rewarding. His concerns in this absurd, satirical, dystopic tale about an author's quest to document the events surrounding the founder of the atom bomb's last day on earth, are as large as they come; the contemporary political, social, cultural and religious landscape. And as a satire he walks a fine line between a narrative that is hard to take seriously (characters are caricature, plot and dialogue carry little veracity) and an underlying message that is deadly serious. You never know whether to laugh or cry and I spent most of my time doing neither. I shook my head instead. As the story shifts to the tiny Carribean island of San Lorenzo, and with the injection of faux-spriritual Bokonist aphorisms, the novel began feeling somewhat dated, recalling a time when Cold War ideology ruled the decisions of regimes and men, the US supported South American dictators in a bid to stave off Soviet expansionism in the Western Hemisphere, and the threat of a world-ending nuclear war peperpetually hung in the air. Then again, the ideological machinations of leaders still appear to hold sway, as the disastrous effect of three decades of neo-conservative fiscal policy in the US has shown. But is this a novel we're talking about? Well, yes and no. That's just the kind of book Cat's Cradle is. When you want to talk about the book it's not actually about the book.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Confederacy of DuncesA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three and a half stars.

This novel reads as if Moby Dick were written by the staff at Mad magazine or the National Lampoon. The whale in this case is Ignatius Reilly, an obese, slobbering, slovenly, self-centered, uncouth, pretentious, over-indulged, utterly incapable, clueless, ne'er-do-well and unemployable buffoon. A verbose Bluto (from Animal House) with a degree in medieval philosophy, a walking disaster zone who talks like an Oxford Don, if you can imagine that. The action reminded me of the 1972 Barbara Streisand - Ryan O'Neal comedy of errors What's Up Doc? a film in which an initial miscue triggers a series of other mishaps and misunderstandings affecting a variety of characters tangentially connected, including Ignatius, his long-suffering mother, an incompetent police officer, the owner of a pants manufacturer, a strip-bar owner and her black employee. The New Orleans setting is fittingly over-the-top for this kind of social satire of American excess and vain overindulgence, where the crazies are running the insane asylum. Favourite parts were Ignatius's masochistic penchant for rushing to see movies he knows are pure shlock. He relishes chortling at the overdone, trashiest parts and hurling insults at the screen, just as we can't help ourselves from flocking to the theatres to consume the over-hyped substandard cultural garbage that supports the entertainment industry. Although there are plenty of laughs the reader detects a pervasive underlying seriousness and sadness. Where this novel lacked was with Ignatius himself, who is so pathetic as to be unsympathetic, and whose lack of evolution can not be forgiven. The tone of underlying sadness comes from the fact that the author committed suicide over a decade prior to the novel's publication and it's impossible not to read the novel as his helpless plea to be rescued from himself, which is exactly what happens to Ignatius in the end. There is no redemption, only excuses, and the goddess Fortuna driving the bus to hell.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

MoneyMoney by Martin Amis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Perhaps the best piece of writing I've ever read on the subject of money is, strangely enough, a poem by the American poet Dana Gioia. You wouldn't think money and poetry could go together, but they do. After all, we say that we 'coin' a new phrase. Poetry and money are both currencies embodying significance within them. Poetry has rhythm and musicality, meaning and feeling. Money, one might observe has similar properties, it's own music, and lifeforce that expresses many fundamental human qualities on a variety of levels depending on who possesses it and how it's used, it expresses what we value, from our highest aspirations and dreams to our basest desires. In his poem Gioia captures our deeply human connection to cash brilliantly and simply through all the words and phrases we have for it, our multifaceted obsession with it, and the mystery that exists at its core. Money doesn't lie. If you want to know the truth just follow the money. This is essentially the stance of Martin Amis's 1984 novel Money, in the guise of degenerate pornography-loving, alcoholic ad-man and aspiring film director John Self, as he flies back and forth from Manhatten to London trying to get his first feature-length motion picture off the ground. This is not a novel that the reader escapes into, and that's intentional. It does not have characters that we can relate to or sympathize with. There is no sense in describing in any detail the characters or plot (both rather thin) in a novel in which these conventions are secondary. This is a novel about money in the same way that Seinfeld was a TV show about nothing, the difference being that Seinfeld's characters were narcissistic but still likable while Amis's are unremittingly egomaniacal and debased. But it doesn't really matter, because as with money itself, this is a novel in which style is substance and content is form. Like someone teetering on the edge of suicide the narrative balances along a precipice, lowlife as high concept. The tone is decidedly ironic and the novel's juices are in its language, a bold, clever, jazzy, riffing, extravagant style as robust and exhilarating as it is disturbing. The novel's self-reflexiveness - the author introduces a novelist character named Martin Amis - was a reason why his famous novelist father Kingsley lost patience and launched the book across the room complaining, "Breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself." Amis (son) does have a point to make, an insight into the way we've allowed markets to be the ultimate arbiter of value, morality and taste. I'm generally not a fan of the approach, and picked this one up because it immediately predated one of my all time favourite novels, his stunning and important Time's Arrow. That novel combines a virtuosity and experimentation in literary technique with a soul, literally and figuratively. It's a book about the Holocaust and probes the darkest recesses of mind and heart in a surprising way that turns the world upside down (actually backwards) and manages to be profoundly moving, even uplifting. Time's Arrow is compressed and restrained, the exact opposite of Money, and for that reason I think a more successful book. Money feels like it gets lost along the meandering way. There are brilliant moments and the writing is compelling (it kept me reading to the end) but it's not moving, which is too bad, because as Gioia's poem shows, money does have its own poetry and because of, not in spite of, how money reveals us at our worst. The experience of reading Amis's Money is the experience of being toyed with. Money is the supreme fiction the narrator remarks, but the reader doesn't always want to be reminded that fiction is all it really is.

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Monday, September 10, 2012

Aruna Papp and Barbara Kay at the JPL

I have the pleasure of introducing Barbara Kay at the Jewish Public Library for what will certainly be a fascinating evening. Join us! Here are the details.

JPL Presents: Lecture and Book Launch
with authors Aruna Papp and Barbara Kay

Please join us for a special evening with authors Aruna Papp and Barbara Kay as they speak about their new memoir Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi Daughter's Memoir of Honour, Shame and Love on Thursday, Sepember 20, 2012 at 7:30 p.m. at the Jewish Public Library, 5151 Côte Ste-Catherine Road, Montreal. Admission: $7 JPL members/students, $12 general. To reserve tickets call (514) 345-6416, or for information call (514) 345-2627 ext. 3017, or visit

The memoir of a South Asian immigrant to Canada, this book traces the author's lonely, poignant struggle to free herself from the oppressive code of her former land. The book chronicles her courageous battle to help other South Asian girls and women in Canada step out of their kinsmen's ancient patriarchal cycle and claim their gender rights as fully equal Canadian citizens.

Aruna Papp was born and raised in India. After immigrating to Canada, Aruna acquired two graduate degrees, a second, loving and mutually respectful marriage, and a pioneering career in counselling.

Barbara Kay, award-winning columnist with The National Post, helps tell Aruna’s story.

Books and autographs available.

Reception following sponsored by Barbara and Ronny Kay.

Sponsored by the Rebecca & Jacob Grossman Foundation of the JPL

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Jewish Winnipeg view of Halbman (Richler, and Montreal fiction)

...“Halbman Steals Home” is a thoroughly enjoyable read for the most part. The author is a master at describing so much of what makes Montreal such a compelling city in which to set a story... anyone who enjoys seeing much of the hypocrisy in Jewish life made clever – and usually gentle fun, of, should get a kick out of this book.

Mixed review but blurbworthy nonetheless. Enjoyable with reservations seems to be the consensus. Read more.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Rabbit Redux Rabbit Redux by John Updike

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

At the beginning of the summer I set myself the goal of polishing off the first four of John Updike's five Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom novels. As I near the end of book #2, Rabbit Redux, I might have to admit defeat. I don't think I'll make it past this one, for now. I wasn't expecting light summer fare, but these novels drag. They are virtually plotless, completely character and relationship driven. The aspect that rankles most is the uncanniness of the main character, by which I mean that he is both there and not there at the same time. Two novels in and I still don't have much of a sense about what makes the guy tick. Turbulent relationships swirl all around him as in a storm, and he appears to be like the empty vortex in the centre. I want to hate, or love, or feel something for Rabbit, even pity, but ultimately all I feel is indifference. If he can't commit emotionally to what's happening to him how is the reader supposed to? Rabbit spends most of his time evading, which is Updike's point of course. But he can't go on running forever. At some point he has to face up to his problems, and two novels in, he still hasn't and it's as frustrating to the reader as to him. But Updike's ultimate goal was less to chronicle the trials and tribulations of an American man then to write a novel that pronounces on the zeitgeist of the decade in which he lives, in this case the 1960s. The central character is actually America herself and Updike wants to describe how she's being ravaged by social upheaval. So characters become representations instead of real people. Harry is the befuddled and bewildered American middle-class white suburbanite male who supports the war in Vietnam (more for patriotic reasons than for political ones) and carries around some of the lingering racial prejudice and misogyny that characterized white America prior to the civil rights revolution. Contrast Harry as emblem to: Jill, a Porsche-driving spoiled little rich kid junkie who uses sex to gain acceptance, and her dealer, a black Vietnam vet with a messianic complex on the lam named Skeeter. The war, check. Sexual revolution, check. The dissolution of traditional bourgeois family values and the American dream, check. Updike has lined up all his ducks in order to take aim at the social and political issues he wants to address. The novel has that deliberate contrived feel to it, with lots of dialogue, frequently monologue (rants), especially from the oratorically-flamboyant Skeeter. The other relationships of importance to Harry are with his 12 year old son Nelson, his parents, and his estranged wife Janice, who ran off with a car salesman work colleague. Tellingly, the closest Harry comes to making a genuine emotional connection is with his dad (his mom is suffering from Parkinson's and for most of the novel Harry can't muster up the courage to visit her.) The domestic vacuum left by Janice's departure is filled by Jill and Skeeter, which is to say, that it's not filled at all except to add further instability and a sense of impending disaster. Everyone seems to be using everyone else, Jill trades on sex with Harry to gain a roof over her head and the approval of a father figure, and uses Skeeter to get drugs and allay her white bourgeois guilt. Harry uses Jill for sexual pleasure and comfort. Skeeter uses Harry for refuge and as an audience to mouth-off about the injustices done to black Americans from slavery onward. Harry uses Skeeter to allay his guilty feelings for supporting the war. It's a pathetically dysfunctional square-dance; partners coming together to trade-off their guilt, shame, victimization, self-righteousness, bigotry, misogyny, immaturity and irresponsibility which is how Updike seems to see the way the 'new' America works (or rather doesn't work). Not much genuine tenderness is in evidence, except in the relationship between Jill and Nelson, which is its own special recipe for disaster, he seeing a sister/mother-figure in a lost, self-destructive, immature girl not much older than him. As social commentary - and given Updike's own objectives, I believe it's the only way to see this novel - it doesn't offer much hope, let alone balance. As a novel, well, let's just say I'm tired of seeing Rabbit run.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

The deceptively easy read

Reading Krystal’s subtle and savvy piece, it struck me that our talk of guilty pleasures involves two controversial assumptions: that some books (and perhaps some genres) are objectively inferior to others and that “better” books are generally not very enjoyable.  Combined, the two assumptions lead to a view under which, to pick up Krystal’s metaphor, we think of books the way we often think of foods: there those that are “good for you” and those that merely “taste good.” 

Just as I'm posting a comment (admittedly a self-justifying one) below which tries to make the case for books that are enjoyable, entertaining and easy, I happen upon this piece on the NYT blog. I don't agree with the author's contention that we prejudice physical work over intellectual work ie. Running marathons, climbing mountains and competing at high levels in tennis or basketball are very difficult things to do, but people get immense enjoyment from them.  Why should the intellectual work of reading “The Sound and the Fury” or “Pale Fire” be any less enjoyable? The  intellectual equivalent of recreational sports are puzzles and games; crosswords, Sudoku, and the ultimate calisthenics of the mind chess etc. which are very popular and can be difficult. I think people get as much pleasure (maybe even more) from an intellectual challenge as a physical one. My contention about the value of a so-called 'difficult' read versus an 'easy' one would be that it's essentially a false dichotomy. Very often books initially dismissed as 'easy' eventually, over time, turn out to be, sophisticated and influential eg. Raymond Chandler, while books respected for their so-called complexity and influence end up being unreadable and more talked about than actually read eg. Joyce's Ulysses. Books considered masterpieces in one era end up forgotten, just as others are re-discovered as long-forgotten masterpieces. Wasn't Shakespeare once considered popular theatre, the soap opera of his day? It seems to me that there is a difference between suffering through a book and enjoying the challenge of one (as one might do with a good crossword). Even so-called complex novels have a responsibility to the reader, and that is never to bore him. Admission: I couldn't finish \The Sound and the Fury. It bored me to tears.

Well, they can't all be positive reviews

Rotchin is great at evoking the deep sense of ambivalence we all feel for some of our family members; those towards whom we feel a duty, rather than a genuine bond.

Which goes to show that even from a pretty negative review you can glean something blurbable.

Of course, the reviewer misses the mark in a half dozen ways; for one, the protagonist is not middle-age (unless you consider 65 middle-age). She criticizes the book for being from his "warped and bitter" point of view, writing that the omission of other family perspectives as "relief" were a "missed opportunity." This is meant to be Mort's side of the story, period. It's meant to be unrelenting. Nevermind that other reviewers found the narrative charming, to criticize a book for what it should have been instead of for what it is or tries to be, is like saying Szechuan doesn't taste enough like pizza. Clearly, satire is not to this reviewer's taste. Read more.

And one comment which has been common to almost every review, which I find very interesting. They've all said that the book was "entertaining" or "enjoyable," even the negative ones, also that it's a "quick" or "easy" read. For me, an enjoyable, entertaining and easy read are enough, and exactly what I was after in writing the novel. In terms of my objectives, I'd add "funny," which thankfully, many reviewers have perceived. Much of the critical comment on the book stems from whether the reviewer thinks this is enough. It's certainly not if you come to a novel with preconceived notions about what a novel should do, which, in the case of this reviewer is to offer "deep insights into human nature," and explore "ethnic segregation and tension." This was never my goal or intention. I'm at the stage in life where a thimble of laughs is more valuable than a vat of "deep insights." I wanted to write a novel for readers not reviewers. Comparing the reception of my two novels, reviewers were generally very positive while readers tended to be mystified by my first. With the second, the reverse seems often the case. It makes me wonder about the difference, and the challenge of writing something that bridges the gap, or even if that's necessary. Maybe the reviewers will eventually catch up to the general readers.

Monday, June 18, 2012

WildlifeWildlife by Richard Ford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a classic coming of age story, a young man on the cusp of maturity who learns that life is fundamentally uncertain and unpredictable when his father decides to leave home to join the teams of men (and some women) heading off to fight forest fires in the mountains surrounding their town. Ford masterfully conveys Joe Brinson's feeling of being caught somewhere between knowing and not knowing what will happen next as he is thrust into the middle of the fire that is the dissolution of his parents' fragile marriage. This is a novel that derives its power from simple unadorned language and an unstinting attention to detail. The story behaves like the fire it describes, with white hot embers of emotion seething beneath the surface, threatening to flare up and destroy at any moment. And like a fire, once on the surface, it's difficult to control.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A little love for Halbman from my Alma Mater

Sometimes home is not what we think it is, Rotchin tells us, and memory can become a way forward rather than an anchor to the past. These themes will resonate even for those who have never set foot in Montreal. Read more.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Rabbit, Run Rabbit, Run by John Updike

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There were times reading this novel when I was reminded of the musician who has great chops but doesn't know when to stop; he plays five notes when two tastefully executed would've sufficed. I guess it should be expected from this early novel in what was to become a long, illustrious and prodigious career. Rare is the talent that charges out of the gate fully mature, and Updike was no exception. I never did develop any sympathy for Harry - which is a major problem for a novel's readability - nor did I ever arrive at any genuine understanding as to why he walks out on his pregnant wife and young son in the first place. And perhaps that's Updike's main point: Harry's ambivalence leads to moral obtuseness. In the context of its publication at the end of the 50s ie. the United State's post-war economic boom and middle America reveling in an Ozzie and Harriet Protestant suburban fantasy, I can see how a character like Rabbit, the ambivalent rebel, might seem outrageous. Unquestionably, the tragic price paid for Harry's ambivalence is heart-wrenching. But nowadays, when thirty is the new twenty, youth are in no hurry to grow up and leave home, and ambivalence is the order of the day, Harry's 'rebellion' strikes me as rather quaint. I'll still read the next book in the series to see if both Updike the writer and Harry mature. 

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Halbman in Toronto

If you happen to be in Toronto next week, I'll be appearing at the Jewish Book Festival to read from Halbman, a program the organizers are calling "New Takes on Jewish Montreal."

Wednesday, June 6th - 5:30 PM ($5 at the door)
The Bram and Bluma Appel Salon
at the Toronto Reference Library
789 Yonge Street (at Bloor), Toronto

New Takes on Jewish Montreal

Authors Sara Ferdman Tauben, Seymour Mayne and B. Glen Rotchin will each discuss Jewish life in Montreal, its history and its people.

Sara Ferdman Tauben is the author of Traces of the Past: Montreal’s Early Synagogues. She will discuss the architecture and social history of the rise and fall of Jewish communal life in Montreal’s old centre.

Seymour Mayne’s latest book, The Old Blue Couch and Other Stories, gives rise to hilarious predicaments that are endearing and deliciously comic.

B. Glen Rotchin, author of Halbman Steals Home, enters the same Yiddish Montreal we have come to love through the words of Mordecai Richler and pulls it off with humour and warmth.

Sponsored by Ronald P. Frye & Company and Co-sponsored by the Vered Jewish Canadian Studies Program, University of Ottawa.

More details here.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Letters of A.M. Klein and what they say about writing today

I also wonder, with the diminishments of email, where do we write this type of one-to-one writing now? Where the image of one single person is kept in mind while typing? It’s hard to figure. You might keep a journal, and even expect it to be read by one or two people posthumously, but this is not the same as writing to one person. You might unload in consecutive, endless tweets and blogs and confessional columns (hello!), but this is writing to a solid mass of “everybody,” and this, too, is very different. We don’t do the audience of one so much anymore — the audience of one is a lost audience. Read More

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fifth Business (Penguin Modern Classics)Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A wonderful story told with wit, sensitivity, economy and insight. Dunstan Ramsay, war hero, loner, dreamer, bystander, is a character that will stay with me for a long time. Are we truly center stage in the performance of our own lives? Or are we characters, part real and part myth, in the life stories told to others? What matters more, hard fact or meaning? The world is magic; what we see and what we choose to believe. By the end I was torn about Dunny. He spent his life trying to justify his choices living according to traditional moral standards, and he pays a heavy price, wifeless and childless, and with his personal integrity only partially intact. He never truly stands in the spotlight, except in the reader's imagination.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Halbman on CKUT radio

In case you're still undecided about purchasing Halbman Steals Home, hopefully this interview with Jeffrey Mackie on CKUT radio will tip the scale.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Prophet in my own town... not really.

...Halbman makes for entertaining company, and the book breezes along. Rotchin’s prose flows with a nice comic edge, his dialogue is crisp, his evocation of place unerring. This kind of writing, with its unassuming view into a very specific world, is too often undervalued.

I'd call it positive, with reservations. Read more.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Harper Steals Home

Rookie sensation Bryce Harper of the Washington "formerly Montreal Expos" Nationals did the unthinkable in the first inning yesterday against the Philadelphia Phillies. He stole home. And makes it look easy.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

CosmopolisCosmopolis by Don DeLillo
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A cold, heady journey that was reminiscent of an art-house film nightmare, a dystopic American Bergman, all dark and symbolic and hyper philosophical, with explicit violence: a limo ride through capitalist hell. Be prepared for dialogue that has little connection to the way people actually speak, and action that only glancingly mimics the way people actually act. The highpoint is atmospheric; descriptions of the Manhatten cityscape that are more colourful and alive than the swarming mass of humanity that fills the buildings and boulevards. You won't feel anything for the characters - which is, of course, by design and the whole point. DeLillo may have captured an aspect of the alienating and desensitizing effects of society on the brink of implosion. But as a portrait of what we have wrought, a time when currency is more alive than we are, it feels both excessive and incomplete. Kafka understood that when you write about alienation you must at least make the main character sympathetic. A novel like this that doesn't have one, makes for a tough slog. And yet you'll keep reading, if only to know if there's an aftermath to this ugly, bloody car wreck, and who dies. You need to have the stomach for it.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Halbman takes flight!

The official Montreal launch of Halbman Steals Home at the Jewish Public Library, pics care of cousin Sonia. Over a hundred and fifty in attendance, mostly family, friends, acquaintances and book lovers all. My mom surprised me by coming in from Florida earlier than scheduled. Except for the absence of one special person who would have kvelled had he been able to make it (and my brothers, one in Florida and the other in South Africa), it could not have been a more perfect event. And the highlight? Well, that prize goes to cousin Larry, who had vowed to me at our Passover seder that he would show up in an authentic Expos uniform. He made good on his word. A lifelong athlete, one year Larry attended the Expos spring training fantasy camp in West Palm Beach. The venerable JPL, never saw a literary soiree like it. Kudos and special thanks to Roxana Brauns for making it all happen so smoothly.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Ezra Rotchin z"l (1928 - 2012)

On the evening of March 31st my father passed away at the Jewish General Hospital. I may post some personal thoughts (or not), but in the meantime I thought I'd share the eulogy which we composed and was so ably delivered at the funeral by my older brother Randy. The eulogy begins with Rabbi Ron Aigen's introduction at 2:10 after the cantor's chanting.

Ezra Rotchin was born Israel Rotchtin on February 14th 1928. He was the youngest of nine siblings, eight of whom survived to adulthood. Born with one ear to a mother in her mid-forties, Ezra grew up in the hardscrabble neighborhoods of the Plateau where he learned to resist the taunts and teasing of his peers, and learned quickly that blood was thicker than water. If he lived by any one credo for the rest of his life it would be this: Family above all else.

He was the ‘baby’ of the family, loved all his older siblings (Sarah, Ida, Charlie, Jene, Hy, Florence, and Marcia) and admired his mother Leah for her strength, business acumen and strong-mindedness. But as a child who was regularly victimized for his perceived inadequacies; it was with his father, Abraham affectionately known as Popsy, with whom he developed a special bond. Popsy was a peddler and a young Ezra would often accompany his father on his neighbourhood rounds to take orders and collect monthly payments. Popsy sold well, but when it came to collecting he wasn’t as adept. Leah complained that not enough money was coming in. So one day when Popsy was too sick to make the rounds Ezra went in his place. When Ezra returned home with pockets full of cash, more than Bubbie had ever seen before, Popsy - the big-hearted Socialist that he was - was horrified. “How can you take the money from those poor people?” he protested, “They need it more than we do.”

The experience with Popsy would be one that dad would never forget for the rest of life. Family comes first, but never forget those less fortunate than you. As an adult Dad was involved in several philanthropic organizations including the Knights of Pythias, Camp B’nai Brith and, more recently, as a benefactor of the Montreal Oral School for the Deaf. The people he empathized with the most weren’t his golfing buddies at Elm Ridge, or his ski buddies - though he certainly loved skiing and playing golf with family and friends - it was the buddies who’d fallen on hard times, guys like his dear friend the late Joe Saad who he brought into the business after Joe had suffered business and personal setbacks, and in the last decade, his neighbor and close companion Emile Annatone who loved Crown Royal almost as much as dad did, and watched out for dad through his years of declining health like a blood brother.

After Popsy died in 1949, Ezra was devastated. He ran off to California but soon had to return when things didn’t work out as planned. He was immediately taken back into the family garment business founded by Hy, no questions asked. Aside from Popsy and Bubbie, no two people were more important in dad’s life than Charlie and Hy. He loved them, felt indebted to them, and ironically, fought with them more than anybody else.

Being a Rotchin meant many things to dad. It meant taking care of one another. It meant absolute loyalty. It meant you drove to work together, you worked hard together, you fought for what you believed in, and at the end of the day, you resolved your differences and drove home together in the same car as you came.

In the business, Charlie handled sales, Hy took care of styling and production, and Ezra was the numbers man. He was the innovator, the one who convinced the brothers that they had to adopt new production and costing methods to meet the changing times, and to invest in technology; they had to adapt if they were going to remain competitive. Adapting, staying a step ahead of the competition, creating new strategies, these were skills that might have come in handy to a one-eared boy trying to make his way on the unforgiving streets of Montreal in the 30s and 40s. Whatever the recipe, part innovation, part love, part battle, the brothers somehow made it work, and the company, now in its third generation, has been in continuous operation since 1947, an astonishing 65 years. Billy, Michael and Jeremy's choice to enter the business, and their commitment to continue it - an achievement not often seen in family businesses - is a testament to the legacy of family devotion and loyalty. The cousins always appreciated what the 3 brothers built, and they were appreciated in return. I was fortunate enough to be a part of it for a time. I worked with my dad for more than a decade, and shared lunch with him together with my uncles and cousins nearly every day for the past 25 years.

Dad loved business almost as much as he loved the family itself. He started several different businesses during his lifetime, some more successful than others. And he involved family in each and every one. To him, there was no benefit unless the family benefitted together. He never forgot the break given him by Charlie and Hy, and the moral and financial support he’d enjoyed from his sisters and parents.

Dad possessed an odd mix of hope and cynicism. He believed there was always an angle; if you were creative enough, you could always find a way to get things done. For instance, two years ago, when his legs were failing him and he relied on his wheelchair to get around, Glen took him to get his driver’s license renewed. Before getting into the car to take his road test, Glen caught sight of dad secretly slipping the examiner a rolled up $50 bill. He told the examiner with a wink that it was a token of his appreciation, and he suggested the examiner take his wife out for a nice dinner. Of course, the man refused. As the test began, Dad admitted to the examiner that he had limited movement and sensation in his legs, was unable to turn his head to look behind him, and had hearing in only one ear. He passed the test anyway, and his license was renewed for five more years.

The point is, that for dad, trying and failing was admirable. Not trying at all was inexcusable. He knew that whatever you chose to do in life, it was not going to be easy. He understood that everyone had shortcomings, and felt that focusing on them was fruitless. There were no free rides in life. You had to earn every inch.

When he finally left home at the age of thirty-three, Ezra knew that above all else he wanted to be a father and a family man. Weeknights, he coached the neighborhood hockey teams on Hampstead's outdoor rinks, and every weekend he took us skiing to Jay Peak. He took us on fishing trips to such exotic places as the Maritimes and northern Quebec. Our home at 92 Hampstead Road boasted the town's first driveway basketball court - attracting kids from around the neighborhood and beyond. His greatest joy was to spend time with his children, and growing up we felt loved, wanted and respected. He fought for other kids too, briefly getting involved in municipal politics, battling with the mayor and town council to acquire the vacated Heather curling club because he felt the kids deserved a community center and indoor rink.

Our parents worked as a team, during those years. We did everything together. One summer dad reasoned that for the price of expensive summer camps, a family car trip could be afforded and then some. With my brothers and I, ages 8, 9 and 10, the station wagon was packed up and our parents took us across the continent on an unforgettable six-week 5000 mile journey covering central and western Canada and more than a dozen states in the US.

Dad was an extraordinary family man, and it was one of the great disappointments in his life that our parents’ marriage was ultimately unsuccessful.

But dad knew that when you threw yourself wholeheartedly and passionately into any endeavor – and that was the only way to do it - you always risked disappointment. You had to keep going. And he was rewarded for his effort. It wasn’t long after his divorce from our mother Arleen that dad met Shirley.

In Shirley, dad found a truly remarkable individual and mate. They cared for each other through decades of ups and downs, physical difficulties, and many, many family celebrations, including the birth of seventeen grandchildren. In Shirley, he found someone who not only had an abiding capacity for love and devotion, but someone who he admired as an accomplished individual in her own right; who had overcome adversity, worked and raised a family singlehandedly, and possessed initiative, independence and fearlessness. She valued his strength, forthrightness, honesty and loyalty, and he respected that she was traditional, hardworking, loving and caring to a fault. In Shirley, dad met his true match, his basheret. Shirley gave dad renewed hope, not to mention a new family and sense of home. Shirley also gave dad Elana, the loving daughter he never had, but always wanted. Dad's devotion to Elana and her devotion to him was reciprocal.

Dad was a man of contradictions. He could be awkward in social situations and yet knew how to enjoy himself and relished the company of his closest family and friends. He was a man of few words, and yet had a lot to say, and when he spoke, he was direct, no mincing words. He was skeptical of organized religion, was never a shul-goer, and yet, I think appreciated the beauty of our ancient traditions. He viewed others with some cynicism and yet, never lost sight of the beauty of the world, particularly its natural beauty. He was never more at home (and spiritually at peace) than when he was at the top of a mountain, or skiing down it, and yodeling at the top of his lungs to the rhythm of his perfect ess-turns.

Dad enjoyed his crown royal. So much so, that he was convinced that his daily dose was lowering his blood sugar levels, reversing the effects of his emphysema, and reducing the inflammation caused by arthritis. If you were a betting person, you would have shorted crown royal stock when you heard of Dad's passing.

Dad was rock solid, an anchor. He commanded respect and expected others to earn his. He didn’t have much tolerance for outward sentimentality (although on the inside he was a softy), and so I’ll not dwell on the final weeks of his life; I’ll only say that his days ended just as he lived them, with courage, dignity and strength. He put up a great fight. And when it was time to stop fighting, he chose the moment, sparing his family the pain of witnessing it.

The final word must go - as he would have wanted - to family. Dad took so much pride in the accomplishments and achievements of his many nieces and nephews. We always knew it when the Gellers were excelling in sports, or how the Halperin boys were becoming doctors. He supported the business decisions made by Billy and Michael, even while pushing them to move the company in new directions, and when cousin Audrey struck it big with her illustrated children’s books a couple of years ago, dad planned to go into business with her on a line of children’s clothing.

How he would have loved to make it to this year’s edition of our legendary family seder. He was planning on it. He fought hard, but it was not to be. He was well aware that in life, you can’t win every battle.

The seder was all about family to dad. His greatest joy was to see the new generation of kids running around. Spending every Sunday with his grandkids in Florida was the highlight of his winter, and when he and Shirley bought their house in TMR, they knew it had to have a backyard pool, so that the Montreal grandkids would come over to swim on the weekends, which is what we did countless times.

Dad would want his main legacy to be the strong ties that bind family together; his children to each other and to their chosen spouses, his grandchildren to their parents, grandparents and cousins. And if that’s the ultimate measure of your life dad, you can rest easy: Mission accomplished.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

CJN: Rotchin Satirizes Montreal

An older generation of the Montreal Jewish community will see itself mirrored in an unsparing light...Unless they are hyper-sensitive, however, they should get a good laugh... More here scroll to page 22.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Wellsprings of Freedom

Sumptious for the eyes and nourishing for the mind and heart, Rabbi Ron Aigen has done it again with his new haggadah, offering not just insight on beloved Passover rites and rituals but a guide for personal renewal that links ancient texts and traditions to a modern sensibility. More here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Rotchin-Richler comparison... I'll gladly take it

In final summary on the Richler comparison, if you love Mordecai Richler you’ll like B. Glen Rotchin; if you like Richler you’ll love Rotchin...It’s a very enjoyable novel, like visiting the memory of an old friend.

Yes, the elipse is there because what this reviewer had to say is not all gushing praise.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Irving Layton Observed

Give yourself a treat and celebrate the centenary of Canada's greatest 20th century poet by watching this wonderful 1986 film made available by the NFB for the first time.

Friday, March 9, 2012

I swear I didn't bribe this reviewer

Halbman Steals Home will surely earn countless accolades and Rotchin will no doubt become recognized as the storyteller of Jewish Montreal for our generation.

Never read Friday Night Mag but
now I'm a fan.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Jewish Tribune

The Jewish Tribune seconds (literally) the verdict on Halbman.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Gold Star

Words of praise arrived unexpectedly from the somewhat reclusive, legendary Montreal novelist and playwright Seymour Blicker. Receiving this note I felt the thrill of being in elementary school again and getting a gold star from the teacher (which didn't happen much when I was a kid).

...Regarding HALBMAN STEALS HOME – Once I began reading it I didn’t want to put it down. It is a wonderful novel, suspenseful, dramatic, and filled with pathos and humour and some artfully executed surprises. It is also an excellent tour of contemporary Jewish Montreal as seen through the eyes of our guide, Mort Halbman. Congratulations on having crafted an insightful and unique work. I’m looking forward to your next one.

Is the book up for the Leacock Award? It should be!...

Anyways, I’ll be touting your book to all and sundry and I hope it will be a best-seller.

Monday, February 27, 2012

One more for the scrapbook

Rotchin’s latest novel, Halbman Steals Home, is one that anyone with a sense of humour won’t be able to put down. While the story is set deep in the suburbs of Montreal, the storyline is one that can be appreciated by any reader for the characters described could live just about anywhere.

The rest here.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Toronto Star Review of Halbman

She liked it!

Rotchin is adept at sketching character and creating convincing dialogue. He’s one of those writers I want to read in gulps, resisting the need to put down the book for a minute. Halbman’s cronies, his children, his wife, his city are immediately recognizable and Rotchin has an uncanny ability to draw us in with the clarity of his prose and charming narrative. It makes me yearn for a Fairmount Bagel.

The rest here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Irving Layton Centenary

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Canada's greatest poet of the 20th century. There are a couple of celebrations planned that I know of, the first in the nation's capital. Looks like a very interesting event to attend if you happen to be within 100 kms.

Irving Layton: A Centenary Celebration

Poets and Members of Parliament celebrate Layton’s legacy

Sunday, March 11, 2012, 2:30 p.m.
University of Ottawa
Room 129, Simard Hall
60 University Street, Ottawa, ON K1N 6N5

The Vered Jewish Canadian Studies Program
and the Department of English welcome you to a celebration
of the writings and legacy of Irving Layton (1912-2006),
with readings from his works by Ottawa poets
and brief reminiscences from friends and associates who knew him.
Participants will also include Members of Parliament
Irwin Cotler and Mauril Bélanger.
The Centenary Celebration will be hosted by Professor Seymour Mayne.
Reception to follow. Admission to the event is free.
For further information: Professor Seymour Mayne,

Friday, February 3, 2012

Online author interview

The good folks at Open Book: Ontario have posted an online interview with yours truly in advance of the release of my new novel Halbman Steals Home. Read it to find "why writing a novel is like driving at night, why humour matters and how life can imitate art in the most uncanny ways."

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Road to Thunder Hill by Connie Barnes Rose

I recently heard a novelist declare that a great novel achieves three criteria: It's unputdownable, it's unforgettable, and it's timeless. Seeing as only future generations can attest to whether a novel attains the third criteria, I'll concern myself with the first two, which seem valid enough, if not to determine a novel's greatness, than at least as to whether it's worth recommending. By this standard Road to Thunder Hill by Connie Barnes Rose more than succeeds. There are many ways to fashion an unputdownable, unforgettable story. Barnes Rose does it by creating a setting and characters that are so deeply authenticate, honest and affecting it is hard to imagine they aren't as real and present as the folks living next door. The story is told by Trish Kyle, forty-something and at a crossroads in her twenty-year marriage to Ray who spends his weeks working several hours away in salt mines. A freak April snowstorm hits, blocking roads and knocking out power, which exacerbates Trish's loneliness and fragile state of mind. The storm that rages outside is nothing compared to the one wreaking havoc in her heart. Trish is convinced that Ray is having an affair and she's at her wit's end. On Thunder Hill, seeking refuge has always been a way of life for its inhabitants, whether it be in the arms of friends, family, lovers, or escaping in booze and narcotics. Trish has done it all, particularly the latter. Now she has strong memories and emotions to contend with, including an attraction to rugged Bear James, Thunder Hill's 'failed hermit' and Ray's best friend, and resentment toward her alleged half-sister Olive, who now lives in her childhood home and is apparently bent on making Trish feel inferior. When the refugees all find themselves around Olive's kitchen table to ride out the remainder of the uncertain weather, the question Barnes Rose beautifully conveys is when and how - it's never really a question of 'if' - love and forgiveness will finally emerge on Thunder Hill, like the first crocuses of spring.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A New Year Poem by Dave Margoshes

A New Year poem from Dave Margoshes in my inbox is becoming an annual event. It's a way to start the year for which I'm grateful.


“We are not alone!” So the tabloids say,

just below the latest on the Mayans,
the bleak countdown. Not alone,
without indication of God or just some gods
or curious travelers from far abroad.
Well, yes, there are stars, supernovas,
black holes. Clouds cumulous
and cirrus, gamma rays, ozone holes,
the rank odour of modernity and progress.
All around us, evidence of intelligence
and stupidity, the betting not yet settled.
Sunrise, sunset and the heart-piercing cry
of a loon, the hungry wail of a cat in an alley,
a speeding siren, more heartbreak.

And back to those stars, blinking

down with neither passion nor compassion,

nor comprehension. No, we are not alone.

- Dave Margoshes, copyright 2012