The Week's Conversations: Stoner, Musings of the Very Old, Combating Trumpism, World's 50 Best Restaurants, DAMN., Mount Eerie, Menstruation

A weekly conversation between friends.

The Challenging Wisdom of Stoner, by John Williams

Every few years, a novel makes its way through my group of friends, stoking our collective enthusiasm for literature, and producing the rare joy that comes from reading as a group, however spread apart we are. This happened with Steinbeck’s East of Eden, with David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World. It’s happening again with Stoner, an underappreciated novel written in in 1965 by John Williams.

Stoner tells the story of William Stoner, a man born into poverty at the end of the 19th century in rural Missouri, and his transformation into a teacher, a husband, and a father. Stoner’s life, spanning two World Wars and the Great Depression is wearisome, featuring an endless string of personal disappointments and professional failures. His marriage is a loveless one, he becomes estranged from his daughter, his friends and accomplishments are few.

When Stoner was published in 1965, a mere 2000 copies were sold, and it quickly went out of print. This is perhaps unsurprisingly, given the novel’s bleak story arc and grim conclusion, which is outlined from the outset in the brief prologue:

An occasional student who comes across the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

And yet there is something about the “terse, obit-like prose” that pulls you in — that provides the narrator with a knowing, and authoritative voice. It beckons you, and pulls you close. In recent years, Stoner has made such an impressive comeback. It was republished by the New York Review of Books in 2003, and has become a bestseller in Europe. In what lies its appeal?

“You could almost describe it as an anti-“Gatsby”, Tim Kreider suggests, in his essay titled “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of”:

Gatsby’s a success story: he makes a ton of money, looks like a million bucks, owns a mansion, throws great parties, and even gets his dream girl, for a little while, at least. “Stoner” ’s protagonist is... a failure. The book is set not in the city of dreams but back in the dusty heartland. It’s ostensibly an academic novel, a genre historically of interest exclusively to academics. Its values seem old-fashioned, prewar (which may be one reason it’s set a generation before it was written), holding up conscientious slogging as life’s greatest virtue and reward. And its prose, compared to Fitzgerald’s ecstatic art-nouveau lyricism, is austere, restrained, and precise; its polish is the less flashy, more enduring glow of burnished hardwood; its construction is invisibly flawless, like the kind of house they don’t know how to build anymore.”

There is an early scene in which a young Stoner is asked to explain the meaning a Shakespeare sonnet in a mandatory English literature course. Deeply moved by the poetry, but unable to comprehend its larger meaning or ‘purpose’, Stoner’s lifelong passion for literature and language is ignited: “...the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print.”

Stoner’s love for literature — a quiet, private love — endures throughout his many hardships, as the single constant that provides his life with meaning and coherence, however unglamorous. As Kreider explains: “His life has not been squandered in mediocrity and obscurity; his undistinguished career has not been mulish labor but an act of devotion. He has been a priest of literature, and given himself as fully as he could to the thing he loved.”

Perhaps it is this old-school idea of ‘devotion’, or the idea of dedicating oneself to an ideal as an end unto itself, that connects so deeply with the contemporary reader (indeed, this is one of the the main themes explored in the fiction David Foster Wallace, though using very different means). In a hyper-connected, hyper-secular world, brimming with information, this type of life seems elusive, or distant — we’re more likely to spend our lives ‘searching’ for meaning, and questioning our paths, than to throw ourselves headlong into whatever it is we ultimately choose to believe.

Stoner’s life is imperfect, grueling, and ultimately insignificant. But presented as a whole, “without delusion yet without despair,” it is imbued with meaning and wisdom.


Musings of the Very Old

The world’s oldest person, Emma Morano, died in her home on Saturday, sitting in an armchair at her home in Verbania, a town on Italy’s Lake Maggiore.  

In moments when there’s a struggle to figure out adult life, success, and everything in between, memoirs from the very old offer a calming reflection.

In the New Yorker essay, “This Old Man”, Roger Angell talks about self-satisfaction and taking pleasure in the nostalgia of life, being able to preserve and re-live memories of the past.

Our children are adults now and mostly gone off, and let’s hope full of their own lives. We’ve outgrown our ambitions. If our wives or husbands are still with us, we sense a trickle of contentment flowing from the reliable springs of routine, affection in long silences, calm within the light boredom of well-worn friends, retold stories, and mossy opinions. Also the distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise outside our night windows.

Angell also talks about the never-ending wish for intimacy that remains.

Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming home at night.

Ashraf is 100 & her husband, Mohammad, is 110. This CBC short doc follows the story of the geriatric couple through their years of bickering and loving each other. The real small world tensions of criticising the salt level in the soup to wanting moments of silence from each other make for comical tale for these two:

It’s the moments of not being able to take yourself seriously but enjoying the small moments make these reflections on a life lived memorable.


Combating Trumpism

By Neil Hollands

If you want to have influence in the American political process, Michelle Obama in 2014 advised an audience, there's only one thing to do: "Write a big, fat check...Write the biggest, fattest check that you can possibly write."

Why is it that 75% of Americans believe corruption is widespread in their government? Nancy Pelosi earned an annual salary between $174,000 to $223,500 during her time as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Yet her personal wealth in 2015 is on public record as $29.35 million.* Assuming Nancy earned the 2017 top rate for her entire time in congress, never paid tax and never spent a penny, she would have to work for 103 years to earn her 2015 wealth from her salary.

Ms Pelosi is by no means unique or unusual in this regard. The list of top 50 wealthiest members of the U.S. Congress is equally populated with both Democrats and Republicans. Personal wealth runs from a low of $7.28 million to $254.65 million.

Where does this money come from? It’s worth noting that the top seven wealthiest presidents in history “earned” their wealth primarily through inheritance. Aside from inheritance, there are many legal ways a politician in power can earn vast sums beyond their salary. One is through speaking fees. Hillary Clinton made $2.9 million speaking to banks from 2013 to 2015. Others are given big bonuses before leaving their private sector job for public office: Haliburton gave Dick Cheney a $34 million severance package when he left to become vice-president. 79% of the 352 members of Congress that left office since 1998, have gone on to work as lobbyists. Then there is the indirect corruption of foundations and/or perks for the family as typified by the Clintons.

The elephant in the room is campaign finance corruption. Supreme Court decisions such as Citizen’s United and McCutcheon have resulted in unlimited dark money that can be pumped into an election. This of course does not include the untraceable money funneled into Super PACS.

Of course, it is possible that all the money lavished on politicians by billionaires and corporations has no influence as most politicians’ claim. Alas that doesn’t appear to be the case.

According to a Princeton study of 20 years of public policy decisions, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near zero, statistically non-significant impact on public policy”.

Indeed, the majority of Americans… tighter gun control. Never happens.

…want increased regulation of Wall Street. Yet are consistently told major reform is impossible by both parties. They get deregulation and public bail-outs of the banks instead.

… still say the rich pay too little in taxes. Tax load for the rich has been consistently decreasing.

…support the idea of a federally funded healthcare system that provides insurance for all Americans. You can see how well the public will is being represented in congress on this issue right now.

… favour cuts to defense spending. You’d never know this listening to presidents and politicians though…

75 percent of Americans and even 76 percent of Tea Party supporters oppose Social Security cuts to balance the budget, yet leaders in both political parties have met to negotiate these cuts.

In other words, the U.S. is an oligarchy. When it comes to major economic policy, it doesn’t really matter that much which team or celebrity you vote for. Both parties have been captured by money from powerful interests. This is the reason why bridges are collapsing and some cities no longer have potable water. Why the use of food stamps is increasing at a time when banks are bailed out with public money and inequality is skyrocketing.

Have a look at the stunning non-effect elections have had on the financial well being of the majority of Americans since 1973.

Wages for 90% of Americans uncoupled from productivity growth in the 1970’s. However it’s not hard to see where the benefits of the continued growth in productivity went. What’s important to understand is this dramatic change wasn’t the result of market forces or technological change. What happened in America didn’t play out exactly the same way throughout the developed world. This change was the direct result of neo-liberal policies put in place by BOTH Republicans and Democrats. From 1973 to 2017 the Democrats have held the House 63% of the time, the Senate 63% of the time and both houses for a total of 12 years. The biggest drop in household income for the 1% top earners occurred during a period when both houses were controlled by the Republicans.

Free trade, something initially suggested by Ronald Reagan, was made reality by Bill Clinton. Both parties continued to support international trade agreements right up to the end of Obama’s presidency when he tried desperately to ram through the TPP.

These “trade deals” are largely written in secret by teams of corporate lawyers with very little input from civil society. They contain Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions that allow corporations to sue and overturn sovereign law that impinges on their bottom line.

This chart by Branko Milanovic clearly shows who have been the winners and losers of globalization. Overall globalization has been good for the world, but for Americans the story has been mixed. The American blue-collar worker has been devastated, whereas the technocratic class has fared reasonably well and the top 1% has made out like bandits.

The chart goes a long way towards explaining why the rust belt voted for Trump. For only Trump was talking about the effects of free trade and at least promising not to enact more of these deals. The Democrats, in the meantime, were talking about very little. Their main point was that their candidate wasn’t Trump.

In my opinion, the Republican party is less likely to promote the interests of the common man than the Democratic party is, but the difference between the parties is much, much less than it appears. Certainly on major economic issues neither party has represented the will of the majority of Americans nor is there any demonstrable reason to think this is about to change. There is simply too much money legally corrupting the political system.

If Americans want true democratic representation, if they wish to stem rising inequality and all the dangers this entails, then they must abandon these corrupt plutocratic parties and promote the policies they demand directly.

With a mainstream media that presents all issues within a hyper-partisan framework, it’s understandable that Americans continue to support this false dichotomy. Looking into the actual actions of politicians requires time and effort, it’s far easier to pick a champion and simply follow their flag, to fixate on political wrangling or cultural differences and ignore the big economic realities.

Which leads us to the two forms of Trumpism we have today. Those who voted for Trump hoping this non-politician will break the cycle of corruption, and those who believe that Trump is the source of all problems.

Trump is neither a savior nor is he the source of all evils. He is a harbinger of a nascent revolt against political elites. “Impossible” change, fraught with danger and potential is brewing in all Western democracies.

Blindly following flags without regard for the many who were being hurt got us here. Real change is coming… make sure you know what you are fighting for.

*These figures can never be entirely accurate, because the “financial disclosure requirements for the United States Congress are approximate by design.”


World's 50 Best Restaurants

You can tell I no longer live in NYC because I failed to take immediate note of the release of the latest World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Incidentally, the top ranked restaurant is Eleven Madison Park in NYC, a place where I once drank the most sensational tomato tea (and had some not so exciting desserts, but who am I to judge?). The Best Pastry Chef, also based in NYC, is Dominique Ansel of cronut fame (which I have not tried but I can vouch for his kouign amann and eclairs which I have eaten many times).

One question that I was immediately struck by while reading the list: is the food scene in Lima really that good, or is it just a city that many of the list’s judges are willing to travel to in order to eat? I mean it merits 3 entries… Anyways, in case you were wondering, no Canadian restaurants made the cut.  

Those of you who watch Chef’s Table will recognize many of the names on the list by this point, including Ana Roš of Hiša Franko. Actually wait, she’s not on the list, but she did win Best Female Chef -- a special category created after the list was accused of not including enough women. The tokenism is apparently necessary since this year only three restaurants with female head chefs were found worthy of entry, and all of those are kitchens co-run by males. I mean Pia Leon’s picture isn’t even included on the website and she is head chef at the no. 5 restaurant, Central (in, yes, you guessed it, Lima!).

It’s no surprise that women continue to face an uphill battle in the restaurant world. Just this week, a Toronto Life review of the new wine bar Grey Gardens was published that essentially suggests restauranteur Jen Agg, who has been on a tireless crusade against misogyny in the industry, should smile more, adopt a whisper, and stop tweeting about her accomplishments if she wants patrons to enjoy her establishments. Wow.

Further reading: “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Get By With a Lot of Unpaid Labor




Mount Eerie's Devastating New Album

Phil Elverum is one of those indie-folk artists that come from various small towns in the Pacific Northwest. Listening to his music, it’s easy to imagine him wearing heavy flannels, dwelling in the woods, crafting things out of lumber. Like Elliot Smith or Sleater-Kenney, his music, with The Microphones and Mount Eerie, is serious, lo-fi, both quiet and loud.

Last year, just four months after the birth of their first child, Elverum’s wife, Geneviève, was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. During her treatment and in the weeks following her death, Elverum wrote a series of devastating notes, addressed mainly to his wife, describing with blunt detail the experiences of his grief.

He recorded these notes using just a guitar, a microphone, and his laptop. The result is A Crow Looked at Me, a tragic meditation on the nature of death, and the unfathomable effects of loss. “It is a profoundly detailed dispatch from grief’s rawest place,” writes Jayson Greene, “the moments still inside the blast radius, when your ears are ringing and you feel the shock of mortification slowly spreading to new corners of your existence every day.”

Listening to these songs is a difficult, but powerful experience. The lyrics are literal, and stripped-down — Elverum checks his mail, drives to the ocean, comes across a couple of ravens in his yard — providing listeners with a glimpse into a personalized prison of grief, one that suffuses each moment.

“This new album is barely music” he explains. ‘It’s just me speaking her name out loud, her memory.”

Perhaps most striking for the listener, however, is a simple theme that is repeated throughout the album — one that we spend most of our lives trying to ignore or forget: death is real.

Death is real
Someone's there and then they're not
And it's not for singing about
It's not for making into art
When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb
When I walk into the room where you were
And look into the emptiness instead
All fails

My knees fail
My brain fails
Words fail


A Reminder (brought to you by McSweeney's and this week's episode of Anne)

An excerpt from “Anything Men Can Do I Can Do Bleeding”:

Hello men! I thought this would be a good time to remind you that anything you can do, I can do bleeding. That’s right, whatever it is you did today, I can probably do it while hemorrhaging from the most sensitive part of my body. And I won’t die! Remember that when you’re standing on the train in the morning surrounded by bodies — roughly half of them female bodies. They could be bleeding. Standing and bleeding. Walking and bleeding. Smiling and bleeding.

Think about it. A mortal being, walking the earth, shedding her blood continuously for a week, all while looking totally normal and smiling through eight hours of continuous meetings to avoid workplace discrimination. And the whole amazing process is partially controlled by the gravitational patterns of the moon. That’s right, my body is controlled by a giant space rock. A floating rock in the depths of space decides when I bleed. I think nine out of ten horror movie writers would agree that that alone makes me about one mutation shy of needing to be killed with a stake.


Links From This Week's Thread

A must-read from the emerging genre of food critics slamming fine dining restaurants: “The cheapest of the starters is gratinated onions ‘in the Parisian style’. We’re told it has the flavour of French onion soup. It makes us yearn for a bowl of French onion soup. It is mostly black, like nightmares, and sticky, like the floor at a teenager’s party.”
See also Pete Wells on Per Se or Ryan Sutton on L’Arpège (of Chef’s Table fame).

Badass video of a woman parkouring through the rooftops of Paris.

Torontonians survived Rob Ford. What can they tell us about Trump? "The press turned up every corner of his life. The police spent nearly a year and, reportedly, a million Canadian dollars investigating his connection to the crack video and the gang members who appeared in it. A judge convicted him of a conflict of interest for a deal involving his family’s company. Key staffers deserted him. Taiwanese news animators and Jimmy Kimmel mocked him nightly. But nothing stuck. He was shameless, and that shamelessness coated him like Teflon."

Did you know — Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining: “a Cadillac with no engine in it.”

A Globe Editorial argues that Turkey’s recent referendum resulted in the decision to replace the country’s liberal-democratic system of government with a dictatorship: “Thousands of these people were out on the streets on Sunday night, celebrating the fact that they had just demolished the institutions that protect their freedoms.”

Where was the first NHL game played? Ottawa or Montreal?

How pickin' cans with my dad shaped my view of Canada: “As we continue to open the dialogue around reconciliation in this country, I hope more people take the time to question their first impressions of us. We are not a single story.”

A Sean Spicer takedown for the ages (or sufficient for this week anyways).

If you’re curious as to why you don’t encounter more spam and inappropriate photos online, watch this 20-minute documentary called The Moderators, which introduces you to some of the 155000 people employed to protect our eyes.

Bread birds! 

Amy Sanderson