Book Review: Speculation Now


Vyhayanthi Venuturupalli Rao (editor), 272 pgs, Duke University Press and the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, $29.95 

The Vera List Center for Art and Politics, part of the New School in New York, has produced this experimental political almanac on the theme of speculation out of one its recent series of exhibitions and roundtables. It’s an exploratory and transdisciplinary assortment of texts and art, captured and designed to reflect myriad approaches to speculation, a theme chosen in response to Barack Obama’s generic call for “change”.

There are 60 or so contributions. Lize Mogel’s appropriation of distorted satellite images critically examines the irony of high tech map imaging rendered in maxi-pixels, useless to the common user. Satya Pemmaraju’s texts contrasts what speculative action ought to look like (a mind-set of the work-in-progress involving “…anxiety, nervousness, tension, and the relentless not-knowing that accompanies birth.”) with case studies of standard financial market practices. Laura Kurgan’s collaboration on the Exits project is an insightful hybrid of refugee activism, computer art and statistics.

These nuanced works are complimented by sidebars on almost each page, bits of an experimental glossary distributed throughout the book. For instance the word models is entered twice, each by a different author, each providing their own definition and anecdotes. Also among the texts and the artworks are blue-framed postcards with questions arising from roundtable discussions, ordered by participants’ birthdays, an in a sequence that acts as an arbitrary and destabilizing discourse within the project.

At first glance, the reader may feel some uncertainty about approaching such a seemingly complex collection. The intentional conceptual randomness is set against a remixed visual and typographic style (don’t miss the ingenious use of type in the page numbering.) However the editors manage to avoid that slapped-together visual construction which anthologies sometimes suffer from. Rather, the book is an eloquent and intricate political work of art and writing. (Marc Tremblay)

Book Review: How to Breathe Underwater


Chris Turner, 288 pages, Biblioasis,, $22.95. 

No, Chris Turner’s latest book will not teach you how to breathe underwater (damn!), but it will reaffirm the crucial importance of long-form journalism in a Canadian media landscape that’s increasingly devoid of venues that are willing or able to publish it. Actually, that’s the first thing that grabs you in How to Breathe Underwater — Turner’s impassioned argument in its introduction for more feature-length narrative non-fiction in this country: “We’re in danger of losing a whole art form by attrition and commercial myopia. Because on dark days I feel like I spent 15 years honing an obsolete craft.” You and me both brother; you and me both. Underwater collects Turner’s best previously published pieces and proves just how powerful the best narrative non-fiction can be.

Turner has a striking ability to put you in the centre of the action. Witness him poolside at a hacker convention: “You could do a detailed anthropology of this scene simply based on what’s written on people’s t-shirts. Don’t get caught. Go away or I will replace you with a very small shell script. I will not instigate revolution. And so on.” On hiking in The Great Bear Rainforest: “The river around us was mildly pitched, growing steeper by the yard and so thick with salmon in their final spawning death dance that sometimes they bumped our boots.”

Turner is the consummate observer, constantly seeing things no one else picks up on, and always making profound connections between many seemingly unrelated phenomena. For example, the titular makes the case that to save what’s left of the Great Barrier Reef, we must save the sport of scuba diving.

Turner’s real gift is attacking things from a different angle, and while I mourn his loss as a cultural commentator the way he was early in his career (Planet Simpson, anyone?), what the world has gained is an environmental reporter who prefers to focus on what’s working rather than all doom and gloom.

That’s the greatest thing you take away from this collection — a case for hope in humanity and our amazing capacity to adapt to our greatest challenges. Turner is one of Canada’s greatest chronicler’s of the human response to radical change. There certainly should be more room in Canada for long-form features, and Turner’s output alone offers ample justification for this in his career-spanning anthology. (Aaron Broverman)

Canzine Toronto Vendors: Ad Astra Comix


Toronto-based Ad Astra Comix is comprised of Nicole Marie Burton and Hugh Goldring, who came together in the winter of 2013 to demonstrate how comics can be used as a form of activism. Their personal project DOGS, about the slaughter of Inuit sled dogs at the hands of the RCMP, was crowd-funded and released last April. Besides producing their own comics, Burton and Goldring’s social practices extend to educational workshops, tabling at festivals, publishing and promotion. They tackle social justice concerns across a wide range of subjects including mental health, race, gender and transphobia. 

As of September, Ad Astra Comix has been producing a political comic each week for Arthur, the Trent University Newspaper. Check out their latest instalment above!

Book Review: The Joy of Missing Out

Christina Crook, New Society Publishers,, 216 pgs, $17.95 

It is a well-known fact that technology has seeped into our everyday lives, making us dependent to the point where there’s now a named phobia for missing texts on your phone. Author Christina Crook wanted to see just how dependent humans are on our phones, laptops, iPads and the holy grail that is the Internet by quitting cold turkey and documenting her experience. After 31 days, she remerged enlightened and decided to write about it in her book, The Joy of Missing Out. Combining personal experience with research, Crook takes the reader through the history of human communication, how technology has changed our interactions, and what we can do to find balance in our everyday lives.

I found myself wanting to delete the Facebook app from my phone as I began to calculate just how much time I actually spent on it, thinking it didn’t count if my laptop was closed. Crook addresses this use (or waste, depending on how you look at it) of time: “In our accelerated culture, we complain about having no time, all of the time, yet we impulsively spend what free moments we have submerged in the never-ending drama of email inboxes, social media feeds and reality television shows.”

There did seem to be a constant battle of whether or not technology was helping or hindering throughout the book. For example, what of the elderly gentleman who is able to communicate with family via Skype, where he may have otherwise missed out on big events? Cut to Crook discussing the sense of loneliness experienced by internet-addicted children in Japan. While she was providing a well-rounded view of technology, this back and forth sensibility sometimes made Crooks stance seem unsure.

The Joy of Missing Out, while sometimes conflicting, is an excellent resource for anyone who feels they are too immersed in the tech realm. Questions are posed at the end of each chapter to help the reader better understand their own relationship with technology, and figure out if they need to take a break. (Carissa Ainslie)

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Book Review: Jim Guthrie – Who Needs That

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Andrew Hood, pgs 106, Invisible Publishing,, $14.95 

It would be hard-pressed to find someone who lives more wholly with the mantra “Home Is Where The Rock Is” than Jim Guthrie. From humble beginnings to his continuingly modest life, Hood narrates a documentary style-biography of the life and musical journey of Jim Guthrie. In what plays like a trip down memory lane, Hood’s interviews with Guthrie and the people around him paint the backdrop for the man he would become.

Like most biographies, Jim Guthrie: Who Needs What is a very nostalgic text. The interviews are primarily composed of Guthrie and his companions reminiscing on events with a tinge of reverence. For instance, they wistfully recall how, in the early days, he composed a majority of his music from his broom closet like room, with a four-track perched on his knees, using the MTV Music Generator for PlayStation. The book is filled with awe-inspiring stories of the like, showing Guthrie’s skill and determination. It makes for an intriguing tale of perseverance, which entices you to learn more.

But Guthrie himself did not like to be “the centre of attention”. This text perfectly encapsulates this quality. As the opening quote by Guthrie states, “Is there any way you can write me in as a supporting character in my own biography?” Hood masterfully crafts a biography about Guthrie without forcing him to become the sole centrepiece, while still respecting and paying homage to an amazing musician who was at the forefront of Canada’s indie rock renaissance. By doing this, Hood captures the essence of Jim Guthrie. (Brandon Daniel)

Book Review: The Death of Small Creatures


Trisha Cull. 240 pgs, Nightwood Editions, $22.95 

Victoria-based writer and poet Trisha Cull lays her soul bare in this jarringly beautiful memoir detailing her struggles with bulimia, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse along with her subsequent hospitalizations and electroshock treatments. “For years my life has been a nightmare,” she tells us, and her story is surely not an easy read by any means. To cope with her ongoing depression, she gets high on a cocktail of NeoCitran, Ativan, and Wellbutrin, and eventually experiments with crack and crystal meth. When those don’t work, she turns to cutting and self-harm as a way to find solace and emotional release as she continues to fall apart. As she spirals even further into dissociative episodes, her relationships with her friends and family begin to suffer: her marriage ends and she is admitted to hospital.

The book brings together excerpts from blog posts, journal entries, letters, and clinical notes collected from the last ten years, all of which are woven together by Cull’s exquisite dream-like prose. The writing is lyrically crafted, both urgent and meandering at the same time. The clinical notes in particular offer brief flashes of objective realism to a work that is otherwise very inwardly focused, providing sterile medical impressions that contrast highly with Cull’s eloquent descriptions of her lived experience of mental illness.

Medical notes like “Impulsive cutting of self” and “Very poor impulse regulation” feel cold and abrasive when read adjacent to her highly expressive journal entries.

The Death of Small Creatures sheds light on the harrowing struggles that individuals with mental health issues face, never glossing over the difficult details. It takes a truly brave individual to provide us with such honest, uncensored reflections, and for that Cull is to be commended. (Melissa Hergott)