Self-Serving Updates Vol. 1

Hello, rare readers. I have even rarer news: I won an award. A series I wrote for the Tyee, published in May, won a gold medal at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards in the best online-only article of series category late last month.

I spent a lot of time in a lot of libraries and coffee shops on this series and there was a time I thought I’d never finish it. The first draft I handed in was oh-so terribly bad. My editor, Chris Wood, had the good grace to allow me a second go rather than stripping the junk down and publishing the scrap. So, thanks for that Chris. And thanks to to the Tyee and its readers for giving me the time, money, and for a while office space, I needed to work this through.

The series started as a piece about John Parker, a man beaten to death in his cell at a remand centre in B.C.. It stretched out from there into a larger look at the remand system in B.C. and Canada. My goal, when I started writing, was to structure the pieces like a series of expanding circles, starting in the cell, moving out to the jail, the corrections system, the politics in B.C. and then to Canada.  I’m not sure how that worked out. The structure got a bit messy along the way, as it always seems to when I go in with any kind of concept other than beginning-middle-end.  Still, I’m proud of the work. You (I’m looking at you, people angry about something I’ve written elsewhere and trying to find my email address) should read it, if you can. It’s free.

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Updates abound

Check out the new “about” section for stuff about me that is slightly more current. Plus, new clips in both “reporting” and “criticism.”

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Topics on which I have written lately, featuring the West Edmonton Mall, Dimitri Soudas and Justin Bieber

Longtime no blog, intermittent readers. But I have been writing elsewhere. Some highlights: a short piece on former Harper spin chief Dimitri Soudas; a slightly longer one on the Edmonton family looking to build a supermall in Jersey; and 200 words on Justin Bieber. Also: the backlash against David Foster Wallace and more trouble in Kosovo.



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Home News

When I was in Kosovo earlier this year I met an American journalist named Nate Tabak. Nate was quite good to me during my time in the Balkans. He introduced me around and let me move into his apartment, saving me from the particular pleasures of Pristina’s lone guest house.

He did this despite what I have to imagine was a pretty poor first impression of me. I was still jet lagged the night we met. After a few too many rakia,  I literally stood up and walked out in the middle of a meal. If I hadn’t, I think I would have thrown up or passed out.

The next morning, I tried to write down what I could remember from the night before. I didn’t get particularly far. I have some details about a cab driver looking like “a cartoon hit man: tan suit jacket and a rectangle jaw, all boxy and huge and tapered at the end.” But not much beyond that.

At the end of that page in my notebook, I wrote this: “That’s the problem with getting that drunk. You forget to write things down. Severe intoxication does not make for a reliable narrator.”

I was thinking about Nate and narrators last week. Along with his other jobs, Nate helps edit a magazine called Kosovo 2.0, which came out with its first print issue on Friday. I have a piece in the magazine — I’m also a contributing editor, which I discovered via GChat — but it’s kind of a weird one.

Everything I did in Kosovo, all the interviews and research and notes, I imagined using in stories for a non-Kosovar audience. When Nate asked me to write something for the locals, I was a bit flummoxed. The idea of trying to tell Kosovars something about their own country seemed a bit daunting. I mean, who the fuck am I, right?

What I did to compensate was kind of deliberately undermine my own credibility as a narrator. I ended up repackaging some of what I wrote in this blog post about travel writing and reading too much into meaningless moments. I’m not sure how well the whole thing worked out. You can read it yourself — I kind of love this part — in English, Serbian or Albanian.

In other home news, I live in Toronto now.

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Kai Nagata, Janet Malcolm and Journalism Today

Just about everyone in Canadian journalism has had something to say this week about Kai Nagata’s now infamous cris de coeur. I don’t have much to add really. But I do think people should know he’s not alone, at least in the quitting part. Many, if not most, of the smartest young (and I mean younger than me) journalists I know have left or are planning to leave the business. I wouldn’t say many are soul searching. They’re mostly in law school or grad school or even, in the case of one established feature writer I know, business school. Me, I don’t really know how to do anything else, so I’m sticking with it.

For another take on the mores and morals of modern journalism, check out the recent titty pinching* between the New Yorker’s Janet Malcolm and Esquire’s Tom Junod.

Malcolm gave a long e-mail interview to the Paris Review where she reiterated the core points of her famed essay, The Journalist and the Murderer: In short, journalism is, at its core, a betrayal, one that relies on a power imbalance between subject and writer.

“I don’t know ­whether journalists are more aggressive and malicious than people in other professions,” she wrote. “We are certainly not a “helping profession.” If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take.”

Junod was not impressed. He fired back in an Esquire blog, calling Malcolm “utterly full of shit.”

Worse, Janet Malcolm is both self-serving and self-descriptive; in her most recent book she writes that “malice remains [journalism's] animating impulse,” when it’s clear to anyone who reads her work that very few journalists are more animated by malice than Janet Malcolm. But the worst thing about her is that anybody who has ever done so much as cover a fire knows her shtick, and no one calls her on it.

Both pieces are well worth reading, whatever you think of Malcolm or Junod.

Incidentally, in the PR interview, Malcolm and the interviewer both reference a similar critique made by Joan Didion. The quote they’re talking about, I think, comes from the introduction to Didion’s first book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It reads:

My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.**


*Yes, I’m reading The Pale King. No, I’m probably not using that term right. Sue me. I like the way it sounds.

**Emphasis hers

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Marching for Gaddafi in Belgrade

I wrote this story from Belgrade for Postmedia News, the wire I worked for back when it was Canwest News Service. As far as I can tell the piece was picked up by zero papers. I blame . . . me?

(Original link here.)

BELGRADE, Serbia — The young man in the old army cap posed theatrically, a cardboard tombstone held above his chest, his black boots thrust in front of him as he lay on the concrete path. Surrounded by a sign-waving mass, he grinned and joined in as the crowd chanted in unison: “Libya! Serbia! Libya! Serbia! Libya! Serbia!”

While much of Europe united last week behind a NATO-led bombing campaign against the Gadhafi regime, reaction here to the attacks has been much more tepid.

Ties between Serbia and Libya go back decades, to the Belgrade-born Non-Aligned Movement, and the wounds from NATO’s strikes against Serbia in 1999 remain fresh in the minds of many here.

Last weekend two separate rallies were organized in central Belgrade in support of the Gadhafi government.

On Saturday, Libyan students joined a few dozen Serbians in Belgrade’s Republic Square to wave green flags and anti-NATO posters while speakers condemned the western-led bombings.

At one point, a Libyan student took to the microphone to unleash a curse-laden rant against the United States, NATO and especially French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

“You are all bull—-,” he said. “F— off forever.”

The next day, a group of Serbian ultranationalists gathered in a nearby park to pose for the cameras and brandish signs accusing NATO of “legal terrorism.”

“They took Kosovo from us, they will probably take East Libya from them,” said Milos, a young man with an adolescent moustache and green Gadhafi T-shirt.

Milos, who would not give his last name, was eight when NATO planes attacked what was then Yugoslavia in 1999.

“I was terrified,” Milos said of the bombings. “I watched the sky turn red.”

The 11-week campaign, designed to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, devastated Serbia’s infrastructure and remains a highly polarizing topic here. Some of the buildings destroyed in the bombing remain crumpled and Belgrade’s military museum still displays the uniforms of U.S. pilots shot down during the war.

Among those at the rally Sunday were supporters of Vojislav Seselj, an ultranationalist politician currently on trial for war crimes in The Hague.

Many in the crowd wore the uniform of the European extreme right: heads shaved, camouflage pants tucked into black boots.

Those protesting were likely a “small fringe,” said Mirjana Kosic, the co-founder of Transconflict, a non-governmental organization in Belgrade.

But online, at least, support here for Gadhafi has been robust. By Tuesday morning more than 62,000 people had “liked” a Facebook page named Support for Moammar al Gadhafi from the people of Serbia.

The page was set up by the far-right Nasi 1389 party, according to a report from the AFP. But membership has spread beyond that small niche.

Zarko Zdravkovic joined the group last week. Like some Serbian students, he also traded his Facebook profile picture for one of Gadhafi with his fist held high.

At an outdoor cafe in Belgrade Sunday, Zdravkovic, a law student, explained his support for the Libyan dictator.

“Gadhafi supported Serbia during the war,” he said. It’s only right that they support him now.”

Zdravkovic was born in Pristina, now the capital of independent Kosovo. Like many ethnic Serbs, he fled the area in 1999. He has lived in Belgrade ever since.

Gadhafi’s government was one of the first to offer aid to Serbia after the Kosovo war. To this day it supports Serbia’s claim to the breakaway province.

Zdravkovic, dressed in military pants, a bomber jacket and a black and white kaffiyeh scarf, said he doesn’t favour dictators, necessarily. If the people of Libya want to get rid of Gadhafi peacefully, he said he would be behind them. But the rebels in east Libya aren’t protesters, he said, they are terrorists.

Back at the rally, a Libyan student arrived in a long wool coat and green scarf. He had a thick stack of glossy Gadhafi posters wrapped in brown paper. The protesters surrounded him and stripped the pictures away.

Another student, Abdussalam Basher, said he came to Belgrade to do a PhD in management.

“I was in America,” he said. “But I hate Americans.”

Throughout the rally Basher tried to prod the crowd into chanting: “Long live Gadhafi!” But for whatever reason it never took. Instead the crowd, old and young, always returned to the same words: “Libya! Serbia!” they chanted. “Libya! Serbia!”

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Review: Travels in Siberia

While I was away, the Journal published my review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. I’ve posted it below.

(Original link here.)

Travels in Siberia

Ian Frazier, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 529 pp; $34.50

At the centre of The New Yorker’s recent food issue was a piece on April Bloomfield, a British chef working in New York who made her name at the Spotted Pig, a restaurant the magazine dubbed the city’s first “gastropub.”

An originally English term for bistros with upscale takes on classic pub fare, gastropubs have been the new big thing for a few years now.

At the Spotted Pig, the signature dish is a hamburger, chargrilled and served with crumbled Roquefort. Other gastropub staples include gourmet grilled-cheese or shepherd’s pie and french fries.

What connects the recipes, at their best, is a commitment to execution over outward innovation. They aren’t simple, but they can be made to look that way.

The point is to impress with flavour, to be excellent within existing forms, not to dazzle with appearance or gilt for gilt’s sake.

There’s something of the gastropub in Travels in Siberia, the new work from Ian Frazier. Both travelogue and history, the book is a little like the perfect hamburger. There’s nothing outwardly flashy to it. No gimmicks. No colon in the title. No counterintuitive theme. It’s just a beautiful book, well written.

For me, at least, it was the best non-fiction book of 2010, a work of astonishing scope made to look simple by one of the true artists of the genre.

Beginning 10 years ago, Frazier took two long treks across Siberia, a land he describes as being without formal boundaries, one so physically vast it encompasses eight time zones and so psychologically imposing as to exist for many not as “the place itself but (as) a figure of speech,” a symbol of exile and emptiness.

Before, after and in-between the longer trips, Frazier dipped in and out of the country on a series of short hops. Sometimes with companions, other times on his own, he explored the crannies of Russia’s hinterlands. He tracked down gulags and museums and retraced, as best he could, the steps of other journeys.

Like Frazier’s 1989 opus, The Great Plains, Travels in Siberia is as much chronicle of chronicles as it is straight travelogue. Frazier seems to have read almost everything published on Siberia and he retells the history here with both remarkable depth and an eye for the absurd.

Through successive regimes, Siberia has remained an exile of last resort. Rebels, intellectuals and others unlucky enough to displease whichever autocrat then ruling Russia have found themselves shipped to gulags and labour camps in the far east for centuries.

Frazier recounts many of those stories here. And while he never shies from the horrors of life in exile -disease, starvation, sometimes torture -he doesn’t belabour the point either.

Frazier’s writing isn’t glib, but he also isn’t afraid of the darkly comic.

About the life of the 19th-century author Nicolai Chernyshevsky, an influential figure in pre-revolutionary Russia, he writes that it “illustrates the unfortunate fact that a writer can hope and strive and suffer, and in the end even give his life, for work that turns out to be not good.”

On the larger subject of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution, he opines that “time spent in Siberia was an important highlight of their resumés, a proof of authenticity just as going to jail has been for certain rappers.”

In lesser hands, entire chapters on subjects such as Siberian exiles under the Romanovs may have bogged down. But written in Frazier’s distinctive voice, they coast.

His retelling of Russia under the Mongols is especially strong.

Frazier believes the Mongol period playing a profound role in shaping modern Russia. In his telling, the centuries of terror and oppression helped craft the central conundrum of Russia today, “namely, how it can be so great and so horrible simultaneously.

“I think one answer is that when other countries were in their beginnings . Russia was beset by Mongols,” he writes. “That is, Russia can be thought of as an abused country; one has to make allowances for her because she was badly mistreated in her childhood .”

Throughout the book, Frazier seems to write almost beneath the surface. When describing his own travels, his sentences flow unnoticed before popping up in sudden, small explosions of humour.

During a long train ride -described as a “hump that must be got over, a central knot to be worked through” -Frazier spies a woman “so large and rumpled she seemed to be part bed herself.”

Later he encounters young men trucking cars from Japan with haircuts that “stand up straight in a bristly Russian way.”

The book slows somewhat midway through Frazier’s second, winter, trek. Frazier himself seems tired of Russia by that point and his observations dwindle. So much of what made the first two-thirds of the book spark -the wit, the detail -fade. But this is a minor quibble. Travels in Siberia is thick -more than 500 pages with footnotes -and Frazier generally keeps the flow alive, not an unimpressive feat in a book that spans more than a thousand years and lacks a single, overarching narrative.

As a writer, Frazier observes and interprets but he rarely draws broad conclusions. When he builds to a larger point, it often seems to be at least half joke, like with the Mongols and modern Russia. So it can be hard to describe precisely what Travels in Siberia is about, or what makes it so good.

It’s a bit like telling someone why one hamburger is better than another. Like April Bloomfield, Frazier isn’t so much an innovator as he is a master of execution. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about his method, but his product is nonetheless peerless.

Frazier takes the travel writing form to levels few others can. It even feels a bit limiting to call this a travel book; it’s like calling the Spotted Pig a diner. There’s so much depth to the book, and such a unique voice. More than 10 years in the writing, it seems destined to be a classic, a book to be read and reread over and over again.

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