The art of Strange Things Done

I love mystery novels, and northern mysteries in particular. My sister, Ellen Wild, has a new book Strange Things Done coming out this September. The lead character of the novel is Jo Silver; after a body is found in the Yukon river, she is drawn into a mystery that leads her to fear for her own life. You can hear about the local reaction to the body’s discovery in this brief video. I love the visual look of the website for the book, with the superimposed photos of an old Yukon building and a cemetery. This aesthetic carries through to the trailer for the book, which she filmed in the Yukon. The imagery -the woman’s hair in the river, the ice, Brandy Zdan’s music, the quirky northern bar, the barking dog- create an atmospheric glimpse of a town with secrets. Think a northern Twin Peaks. The book already has won an impressive set of awards:

2015 Unhanged Arthur Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel ― Winner
2014 Telegraph/Harvill Secker Crime Competition ― Shortlisted
2014 Southwest Writers Annual Novel Writing Contest ― Silver Winner
2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award ― Longlisted

You can find preorder the book (in the United States for October 18, 2016 or Canada for September 24, 2016) before “the freeze-up hits and the roads close.”

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Strange Things Done, quote by Ian Hamilton

David Groulx, Wabigoon River Poems

David Groulx is a poet of Indigenous and French-Canadian heritage who was raised in Elliot Lake, Ontario in Canada. His recent book of poetry, Wabigoon River Poems, has Canada’s Indigenous experience at its core, but places this history into a global context. A single poem can leap from Algeria to Vietnam, always within the context of a post-colonial viewpoint. The name of the book comes from the Wabigoon River near Kenora, Ontario, which suffered mercury pollution from a pulp and paper plant, with tragic results for local peoples.

The final poem in the first section is a meditation on a picture of the poet’s mother taken at the “St. Joseph Residential School for Girls.” In Canada, perhaps 150,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in Church-run and government-financed schools, which were designed to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture. They failed, but caused immense suffering. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has sought to document this history, and has issued recommendations to address this legacy. Still it remains to be seen whether these findings will be truly embraced by the federal government, educational institutions, churches, and average Canadians. Although Canada is a developed country with a progressive reputation, the nation has always had a curious blind-spot regarding its own history of colonialism, as though colonialism was a European sin eradicated with Confederation. …

Ghost Fleet: a book review

F35 on training flight. Wikicommons. U.S. Navy ID number ID 110211-O-XX000-001
F35 on training flight. Wikicommons. U.S. Navy ID number  110211-O-XX000-001

P.W. Singer and August Cole have written a techno-thriller based on a Chinese invasion of Hawaii, in a strange replay of Pearl Harbor. As with Tom Clancy’s work, there are multiple points of view, moral black and whites, and the technology is at times as much of a star as the main characters. Yet this work creates a pessimistic twist to Clancy’s upbeat vision. In Ghost Fleet America’s reliance on technology makes the country so vulnerable to attack that it must draw (spoiler alert) on irregular warfare tactics that its armed forces learned fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is a contradiction within this work. At times some scenes come across as unrealistic, and the analysis of international politics seems simplistic. Some plot devices, (another spoiler alert) such as the discovery of new resources leading to a surprise invasion, are so common in the genre as to be exhausted. In contrast, the focus on technology is all too convincing, and this detailed look at possible scenarios for future warfare (the book has extensive endnotes) is fascinating. The work is also carefully plotted, and the climax is deftly handled. …

Book review of Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa, 1926-1939

Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: 1926-1939 is a graphic novel that intertwines two stories: 1) the chaotic history of Japan during the 1920s and 30s and 2) the author’s childhood during this same period. The author is remarkable in that he is now 91, but he has a vivid memory of his own childhood during this period. Tragically, he would ultimately lose his arm while fighting for the Japanese army, although this book (the first in a three volume series) does not cover that period in his life. This book is a staggering achievement, both artistically and intellectually, which everyone interested in Asia should read. …

Spies of the Balkans: A book review

Heinkel He 111 during the Battle of Britain. This file comes from Wikipedia Commons.
Heinkel He 111 during the Battle of Britain. This file comes from Wikipedia Commons.

We live in a time obsessed with spying. Wikileaks and Snowden have shown that non-state actors are now important actors in espionage, while also raising fundamental questions about the right to privacy. Now the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are talking about building their own undersea cable, in order to evade U.S. eavesdropping on their transmissions. This would enable South America to communicate directly with Europe without passing information through the U.S. We now know that the U.S. recorded even German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone conversations. Other nations are outraged, but they might do the same if they had the capability. Spying seems to flourish more now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. In this context, the espionage genre is not fading away. …

Machado de Assis: A new translation by John Chasteen

Machado de Assis at the age of 57, Wikipedia.
Machado de Assis at the age of 57, Wikipedia Commons.

One of my favorite ways to engage students in thinking about another part of the world is through literature. For this reason, I’ve been reading the short stories of Machado de Assis in John Charles Chasteen’s new translation, which is named after perhaps the author’s most famous short story, the Alienist. It’s often said that Brazil is the sepulchre of great literature. There is still no English translation of Taunay’s, A Retirada da Laguna, an epic first hand account of a disastrous retreat during the Paraguayan War, which is widely hailed as a literary masterpiece. And even people who know the work of Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are likely to be unfamiliar with Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), likely the greatest Brazilian writer of all time.

Machado de Assis was born into the Brazilian empire, which largely escaped the widespread conflict that Spanish America experienced after independence, despite a host of regional rebellions. His father was the son of freed slaves, and his mother was Portuguese. He had an irregular education, but managed to learn four languages, and become a great novelist, poet, and writer of short stories. He was the first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. …

In Honor of Halloween: Japanese Books on the Supernatural

"Japanese Paper Lanterns" by coward_lion at
“Japanese Paper Lanterns” by coward_lion at

Last Halloween, I discussed my three favorite authors of ghost stories and the supernatural. This Halloween, I want to talk about works on folklore and the supernatural in Japan. Because folklore reflects the fears, ideas and beliefs of a society, it allows us to have insight into social issues difficult to access by other means. For example, the Mexican legend of the Lost Island of Bermeja, which I covered in an earlier post, has reflected that nation’s perception of the United States. Similarly, Japanese beliefs in demons, monsters and ghosts have been reinterpreted by each generation, to give insight into the stories and issues that are meaningful for people of that period. …

Cultural Globalization and Canada

Blue Ice Cave courtey of puttsk at
Blue Ice Cave courtey of puttsk at

I’ve recently been reading Michael Crummy’s Galore, which tells the story of generations of families (the Sellers and Devines) in a remote village, Paradise Deep, in nineteenth and early twentieth-century Newfoundland. The entire novel is characterized by bleak humor and beautiful language. It’s also not for those who might be scandalized by bawdy scenes. Father Phelan, for example, is a renegade priest who comes to comfort a widow haunted by her dead husband’s ghost, and stays to torture the phantom by making love to his widow. But what most struck me about the work is the extent to which it reflects cultural globalization, because Crummy was clearly inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Year’s of Solitude. This much would have been clear even without the quote from Garcia Marquez at the book’s start. The entire novel is patterned after the Colombian novelists’ classic book, including the conclusion. …

The State and Brazilian literature: A Retirada da Laguna

Map of Brazil courtesy of Gualberto107 at
Map of Brazil courtesy of Gualberto107 at

In the early 1990s, when I was doing fieldwork on the history of military terror in Brazil, an academic told me about his “projetos da gaveta.” I didn’t understand this term, which he explained referred to projects that one starts but neither completes nor abandons, hence the term “projects in the drawer.” I think that most people, and certainly not only academics, have such a project. One of mine was a study of a Brazilian book about a disastrous retreat during the Paraguayan war called A Retirada da Laguna. I started this project perhaps 15 years ago, and now realize that I’m unlikely to ever finish it for publication in an academic journal, especially as I am happily working on the second edition of this textbook. But for anyone curious to learn more about this marvelous book, and the film that it inspired, I’m posting a copy of my paper below:

Book Review of Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach

Image of Winter Forest courtesy of Evgeni Dinev at
Image of Winter Forest courtesy of Evgeni Dinev at

As I discussed in an earlier post, I am currently working on a project about Algonquian peoples and religion in the Canadian north. In Australia, Canada and the United States the media generally depicts First Nations with reference to a distant past, while little attention is given to questions of colonialism and postcolonialism. As a result, indigenous peoples are often made invisible in Global and International Studies. People typically think of peoples such as the Kurds when they refer to stateless nations, but less attention is given to indigenous nations. With the “Idle No More” protests sweeping Canada, and the deplorable conditions in Attawapiskat gaining national attention, these issues have now gained global media coverage. …

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