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book review

From the Archives of Vidéo Populaire

By Anne Golden, Pedlar, 260 pages, $22

Emerging in the mid-1970s from the post-Centenary primordial soup – that potent mix of nationalism, Marxism, feminism, pacifism and, in la belle province, a wallop of Quebecois identity politics – the (fictional) Montreal video production group Vidéo Populaire was inspired and repeatedly almost undone by the creative tension between art and agitprop. Videos for the revolution. Forty years after the group's inception, with VidPop's history now shrouded in myth (there's a murder, ghosts, inexplicable phenomena, notorious blowups), the author interviews 38 people associated with the group, including its four founders, some of whom no longer speak to one another. Their spliced-together transcripts tell the story of Vidéo Populaire and in the process bring into question the nature of this archive referenced in the title. In its style (pure voice), narrative arc and all-in commitment to the book's conceit, Vidéo Populaire brings to mind Michael Winter's The Death of Donna Whalen. A smart addition to the genre of documentary fiction.

Today I Learned It Was You

By Edward Riche, House of Anansi, 224 pages, $19.95

"Comedy is tragedy plus time," goes Steve Allen's formula. The necessity of tragedy to comedy and its relationship to time was on my mind when finishing Today I Learned It Was You. An entertaining story of municipal politics gone awry, Edward Riche's novel turns around the consequences of a former actor possibly turning into a deer. Through multiple perspectives, Riche provides a nuanced and creditable portrait of St. John's in which almost no one – from the former-NHLer-turned-mayor to the Toronto trustafarian in search of a cause – is safe from a ribbing. My complaint about this book is that it took each of its characters to the edge of tragedy but went no further. Imagine Wile E. Coyote hurtling towards the cliff's edge only for the scene to cut. I enjoyed this book, but not so much as what I imagined it could be once Coyote went off that cliff.

The Poet is a Radio

By Jack Hannan, Linda Leith Publishing, 168 pages, $14.95

Earlier this week, while decrying the literal-minded reception to Beyoncé's latest project, a friend reminded me of that Marshall McLuhan joke: "A man's reach must exceed his grasp or what's a metaphor?" A timely quote as I considered two books about poets published this month, both titles containing those grasping metaphors: Jack Hannan's novel, The Poet is a Radio, and Ken Sparling's This Poem is a House. The former opens with an old man, Li Bai (as in eighth-century Chinese poet Li Bai), recently moved to present-day Montreal, who one evening discovers a duffel bag of cash. It's clearly not intended for him. He takes it anyway. From there the story spirals outward to Li's associates, three couples. Meanwhile, two hooligans hunt for that bag of dough. One couple's storyline receives too much emphasis in my view, but over all this is a charming story about the place of poetry in everyday life.

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