Recommended reading and listening - Fall-Winter 2011

The Long Way Back by Chris Alexander, BA’89

Few westerners have a better grasp of the steep challenges that stand in the way of a stable, peaceful Afghanistan than Chris Alexander. The recently elected Conservative MP spent six years in that country, first as Canada’s ambassador, then as a senior UN representative.

In his new book, The Long Way Back, Alexander acknowledges that many in the west are growing weary of the grim news that seems to flow out of Afghanistan on a regular basis, but he worries that the real, tangible progress that has been achieved in the country over the past decade is being overlooked. Millions of Afghan ex-pats have returned; roads and schools have been built; incomes have improved; sectors of the economy, including agriculture and telecom, are beginning to flourish. “This investment is not only worth protecting; it is worth celebrating,” he writes.

Mistakes have been made along the way. Almost everyone badly underestimated the resilience of the Taliban. Afghan leaders, too often, have been willing to turn a blind eye to incompetence, cronyism and corruption. But Alexander is clear that the biggest problem, by far, lies across the border in neighbouring Pakistan, which has not only provided sanctuary for Taliban fighters, but weapons and training as well – all the while denying everything. He cites one memorable meeting with former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf as a “tour de force of self-serving chutzpah.”

Daniel McCabe, BA’89

Space Cadet by Kid Koala (aka Eric San, BEd’96)

Moody and melancholic, Kid Koala’s Space Cadet is an artistic experiment nearly a decade in the making. A graphic novel about a heartbroken robot and his human daughter, the book is executed entirely in scratchboard and comes with a CD of original Koala compositions intended to be listened to while reading the book.

I’ll be honest: I typically find this sub-genre of comics/music experiments tedious. At best, one element is usually stronger than the other—at worst, it’s a misdirected messy mélange done as a gimmick to move records (or books). This is not the case with Space Cadet.

What Koala has done here is create a modern adult storybook about love, loss and parenthood in which the music actually elevates and enhances the wordless images. The end result feels like you’re reading a silent movie.

While the pictures are painstaking, the narrative is uncomplicated: a bittersweet metaphor for child-rearing that will resonate for those with young children. The music is layered and haunting (think Sigur Rós with samples) and may be San’s most mature work to date.

If you choose to buy Space Cadet I suggest you do what I did: set aside some quiet time, put on a good pair of headphones and experience it as San intended you to—as a sublime, bittersweet whole.

Brad Mackay

The Big Dream by Rebecca Rosenblum, BA’01

Five years ago, Rebecca Rosenblum established herself as a young writer on the rise with her first short story collection, Once. Her latest collection, The Big Dream, provides further testimony to Rosenblum’s storytelling talents.

In particular, Rosenblum has a knack for authentic-sounding dialogue (even when the speakers are awkwardly struggling to think of things to say to one another) and for capturing the resigned ennui of young urbanites who have no illusions about happily-ever-afters. They’ll settle for getting dental insurance or avoiding the axe at work.

The stories revolve around an imperiled magazine publisher, but the characters and situations vary widely. The best stories are the ones that veer the furthest away from standard narrative.

“How to Keep Your Day Job” starts off with a nameless narrator offering advice that’s both droll and shrewd, until an unexpected tumble steers the story to darker terrain. “Research” focuses on the lone fact-checker who, to her mystification, dodges the pink slips that wipe out the rest of her department. Uncertain about how to adapt to this new status, she soon decides to focus her skills on the people who populate her workplace. Like Rosenblum herself, she adopts an intriguing approach to determining what makes people tick.


Soundcheck Ben Wilkins by Ben Wilkins, BMus’06

Ben Wilkins might soon grow weary of receiving so many comparisons to Ben Folds, but he is earning them for all the right reasons— his clear tenor voice, his delicately crafted, piano-driven songs, his clever bittersweet lyrics. Burt Bacharach is another name that comes up when considering Wilkins, and that’s no accident. Wilkins has a soft spot for the straightforward pop of the late sixties and seventies, music that didn’t hit you over the head with how skillfully it was assembled, trusting that you’d appreciate its rich, understated textures on your own.

The multi-talented Wilkins has just released his first full album and the contents, including the biting “The Back of My Head” and the poignant groove of “Soup for One,” should appeal to anyone in the market for smart, sharply produced pop.