Book Review: Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page

Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page

Author: Stuart McLean

Publisher: Viking & Penguin Canada Books Inc.

Hardcover, 294 pages

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Author

Stuart McLean was a best selling author, award-winning journalist and humorist, and host of CBC Radio program, The Vinyl Cafe. Stuart began his broadcasting career making radio documentaries for CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning. In 1979 he won an ACTRA award for Best Radio Documentary for his contribution to the program’s coverage of the Jonestown massacre.

Following Sunday Morning, Stuart spent seven years as a regular columnist and guest host on CBC’s Morningside.

Stuart’s ten Vinyl Cafe books have all been Canadian bestsellers. He was a three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. Vinyl Cafe books have also been published in the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.

In December 2011 Stuart McLean was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. He was a professor emeritus at Ryerson University in Toronto and former director of the broadcast division of the School of Journalism. In 1993 Trent University named him the first Rooke Fellow for Teaching, Writing and Research. He was also honoured by Nipissing University (H. Ed.D.), University of Windsor (LL.D.), Trent University (D.Litt.), Saint Mary’s University (D.C.L.), University of Calgary (LL.D.), Concordia University (LL.D.), and McMaster University (LL.D.). Stuart served as Honorary Colonel of the 8th Air Maintenance Squadron at 8 Wing, Trenton from 2005 to 2008.

Since 1998 Stuart toured with The Vinyl Cafe to theatres across Canada and the United States, playing towns from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Whitehorse in the Yukon; from Bangor, Maine to Seattle, Washington.

Stuart McLean passed away February 15th, 2017, at age 68. McMaster University is the home of Stuart McLean’s extensive personal and literary archive.

The Genre

This volume consists of 19 fictitious short stories. The main characters, as in otherVinyl Cafe volumes are a family of four: Dave and Morley, and their two children Stephanie and Sam. The stories focus on, among other subjects: husband-wife and sibling relationships, growing up, aging, death, grief, change, historical tidbits.

McLean had the incredible gift of describing the beauty, the preciousness, the holiness of life in what others would regard as boring, mundane and far too ordinary.

Insightful Examples

Motherhood, she (Morley) thought, as she stood there between the display racks of men’s underwear, was a poorly planned journey. It wasn’t a sailing trip. It was more like a race (p. 4).” Morley’s thought while buying underwear for her growing son, Sam.

There are moments in every life when things change…forever (p. 59).” An observation in the context of an aging shopkeeper and Sam growing up and taking on more responsibility.

Jimmy Walker, from Newfoundland, loved to share tidbits of history that were forgotten by most people. “Well, the thing is that margarine was outlawed across the Dominion of Canada soon after Confederation (p.115).” Jimmy then told folks how Newfoundlanders would smuggle it into Halifax.

Commenting on the reality of children becoming more independent and parents needing to accept this reality, McLean shares the following insight in the story “Home Alone.” “It’s a tricky thing to negotiate, the war of independence. Both side approach the battlefield full of righteous conviction—but righteousness always conceals uncertainty, and conviction is never far from doubt. (p. 172).”

In the short story “Crushed,” photographer Tommy (Stephanie’s boyfriend), took pictures of crushed wildlife run over by vehicles. People thought they were artistic and poetic. However, Tommy and Dave said they made them feel sad. They didn’t regard them as beautiful as some did.

Then McLean observes: “Like poetry, you can find beauty in the most unexpected places: in a snowy wood and on the wings of butterfly, yes, of course. But in sorrow as well as in happiness. In death as well as in life (p. 259).”

I’ll tell you what I think,” said Tommy. “I think it means that beauty trumps morality. I don’t think it should be like that. That’s the way of the world (p. 260).”

Humour

McLean includes some humorous stories in this volume. My favourite one is “Yoga.” It is absolutely hilarious. Daughter Stephanie had planned on a yoga retreat with her friend Becky. However, Becky cancelled out. Stephanie then asked if her mother Morley would go with her, she had a previous commitment. So, by default, her dad, Dave went with her. The retreat had three categories: gentle, intermediate, and vigorous. Stephanie chose intermediate, and Dave chose vigorous. The attendees were given three treatments to choose from as part of the retreat. Dave chose Happy Hour, three honey-mint-refresh-colonic cocktails.

For this reviewer, “Yoga” was almost worth the price of the book!

Book Review: When The English Fall

When The English Fall

Author: David Williams

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

257 pages, including Acknowledgments, An essay-The Root Of Apocalypse, and Questions For Discussion, paperback

David Williams is an American Presbyterian pastor, and this is his debut novel. As a first novel, it has gained considerable acclaim by various reviewers, and rightly so. Williams writes in a brilliant way, simple yet profound.

He describes this work as “Postapocalyptic Amish fiction,” (p. 247), and “an epistolary novel,” (p. 255). It is written as a journal by an Amish farmer, husband and father of two children. The daughter is afflicted with seizures, yet is given what some believe to be divine visions or insights.

Williams tells readers that the novel was inspired by at least three things: i) his study and curiosity of the Amish as a university student; ii) reading about the solar storm called the Carrington Event, which occurred in 1859; iii) and his personal daydreams and creative imagination about the Amish.

The novel is set in rural Pennsylvania, in an Amish community. All is going reasonably well among the Amish, until an apocalyptic-like event occurs, which knocks out almost all of modern technology—everything from household appliances, to vehicles, machinery, etc. Banks are impractical since all the financial records were kept on computers. Martial law is imposed, travel is limited, the military does its best to keep law and order and oversee the distribution of goods and services. The weather wreaks havoc with high winds and heavy rains and flooding—damaging and destroying property.

More and more people are carrying guns and turning to violence. In one scene, Jacob the writer of the journal, thinks about his gun, which he uses only for slaughtering animals on the farm. These thoughts lead him to others concerning “the English,” a term the Amish use to describe all non-Amish people. He thinks the English keep many guns for very different reasons than the Amish. “It seems to me that it is all based on a feeling of fear. To keep a gun because you are afraid of dying, and because you want to be ready to kill another human being, it just feels like such a strange thing. So filled with pride, and so dead to God. I do not understand it. Why would I fear dying, when we all die?” (pp. 136-137)

As the violence of the many English moving into the Amish community becomes more threatening; Jacob agonizes over whether he and his family should continue to stay in the community or leave for what some Amish hoped would be a safer place to live in Ohio. Jacob consults with his daughter Sadie about it. “Which is God’s will? Both. Neither. And the many ways between. There are so many ways in between.” (p. 232)

I hope this spiritual-ethical dilemma serves to spark enough interest in those reading this review to find out for themselves what happens in the end.

I was impressed with the thoughtful way in which Williams emphasised the complex relationship between the Amish and the English. It was not a black and white one for certain—both were influenced for ill and for good by one another. One lesson to be learned from this novel is that we are our neighbour’s keeper, whether we are Amish or English. We all need one another as members of the human race, and we all have things to learn from one another.