Monthly Archives: January 2010

Yann Martel’s thoughtful, thankless mission

What is Stephen Harper Reading? by Yann Martel

R.K. Narayan’s The Financial Expert is the 71st of a series of titles selected by writer Yann Martel to provide to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to encourage an appreciation of the arts and literature in particular in the PM, and to also help Harper with his stillness and thoughtfulness. Martel has regularly sent books from a wide range of literary traditions to Harper. Martel has devoted a Web site to the reading list and his kind, considered and often poignant covering letters with each volume. (All of his letters can be read at They are also now in printed form, in a book entitled, not surprisingly, What is Stephen Harper Reading?)

Martel’s thoughtful persistence in this quest, started in April 2007, is both heartwrenching and highly commendable. He has never received a direct acknowledgement from Harper, and only some fairly form-letter responses from Harper’s staff, and even one from Industry Minister Tony Clement (although it wasn’t directly related to any of Martel’s book selections).

I’m sure Martel will continue to send well-considered choices (although if I was him, I’d be tempted to send “Going [Pro]Rogue” …) accompanied by articulate letters. I so admire his steadfast commitment.

P.S. Congratulations to Yann Martel for the inclusion of Life of Pi in the National Post’s top 10 Canadian books of the past decade.

Another P.S. There’s a great interview with Yann Martel about the What is Stephen Harper Reading? project on the January 9th episode of CBC Radio’s The House, at

Yet another P.S. (added February 1, 2010) – Yann Martel has outdone himself, recommending the amazing Eunoia by Christian Bok:…. For some reason, that just gets me utterly jazzed, although it’s no more likely than any other book presented by Martel to actually attract Harper’s attention.

Yet another P.S. (added March 1, 2010) – Stephen Harper might not have the good graces to acknowledge Martel, but someone else does.

Another delighted P.S. (added March 17, 2010) – While Yann Martel is off promoting his new book Beatrice & Virgil, Steven Galloway, author of The Cellist of Sarajevo, is keeping up the momentum, with the exquisite choice of Paul Quarrington’s King Leary.

The Journals of Susanna Moodie, by Margaret Atwood and Charles Pachter

The Journals of Susanna Moodie, by Margaret Atwood and Charles Pachter

Margaret Atwood’s poetic reimagining of the hardscrabble life of Susanna Moodie, a British settler who emigrated to Canada in the 1830s, is vivid unto itself. It groups Moodie’s experiences into three sets of poems: the first covers her arrival in Canada and primitive subsistence on a farm near what became Peterborough, Ontario, the second covers her somewhat more civilized existence in the town of Belleville, and the third is actually a posthumous set of reflections that concludes with her spirit inhabiting that of an old woman on a bus travelling along St Clair Avenue in Toronto in the late 1960s. Throughout, Atwood gives Moodie a grittier and more emotional voice than what comes through in Moodie’s prim accounts in “Roughing it in the Bush” and her subsequent memoirs.

While Atwood’s poetic account of Moodie’s adventures and experiences is vibrant by itself, it is further enhanced and animated by the typographic and graphical innovations of artist Charles Pachter, a longtime friend and collaborator of Atwood’s. Interestingly, Atwood and Pachter originally applied for a grant in 1970 to allow him to design a special edition of the collection of poems, but the application was turned down by the Canada Council. Atwood went ahead and got the poems published by Oxford University Press, but she and Pachter held onto the hope that they could one day collaborate on a more fully realized rendition incorporating his ideas and work. Several years later, the University of Toronto Library financed a venture that saw Pachter and two Spanish master printers, Abel and Manuel Bello-Sanchez, bring Atwood’s poems to life in a 120-copy limited edition that combined complex silkscreening, calligraphic and typographical effects. In the early 1980s, examples of this unique work were exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada. By the early 1990s, it had also been translated into French.

Finally, in 1997, an edition was produced capturing the original text and graphics, with an account by Charles Pachter and a foreword by noted University of Ottawa English professor David Staines. This edition effectively encapsulates the history and collective heft of this work, and puts it in context with Staines’ enthusiastic framing of the work as a uniquely Canadian livre d’artiste. Topping it all off is Pachter’s ebullient account of being inspired by the genius of his friend Margaret Atwood to produce a work of genius of his own, to which the poems are inextricably linked.