Jack Mitchell (1977-) was born in Sackville, NB and grew up in Ottawa. He holds a Ph.D in Classics from Stanford University and now works as an Associate Professor of Classics at Dalhousie.
Mitchell is a prolific writer and performer. Prior to his Star Wars epic, he wrote an historical poem about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, and performed the poem in cross-Canada tours in 2000 and 2005. He is also the author of three Young Adult novels set during the decline of the Roman Republic, and a book of Aphorisms, entitled D, focused on art, character, friendship, divinity, and politics. His writings also include essays, poems, and academic articles.The Odyssey of Star Wars is Mitchell’s latest, and as he describes it “most ambitious” literary project.
The Odyssey of Star Wars
This epic poem is not a retelling of The Odyssey, nor is it just another packaging of the Star Wars story. The “Odyssey” parallel lies partly in the overall structure: both are about a longing for home, a dangerous quest that takes years through many different and fantastic places, formidable forces of opposition, monstrous monsters to overcome, death possible at every corner, great battle scenes, the deaths of companions. Another parallel is the attributes associated with Odysseus but here exhibited variously by the three main characters of Leia, Luke, Han: courage, wiliness, determination, fortitude, planning, martial skills.
I don’t know when anyone last wrote and published an epic poem, but The Odyssey of Star Wars is a singular achievement. It provides a greater knowing, and appreciation, of the Star Wars story. Drawing on his skills as a poet, and training as a classicist, Mitchell has expanded and deepened the moral themes of the story, along with the depth of the characters and their actions. This modern epic, though set in a far distant future, is part of a continuum of ancient tales, fables and myths that stretches back thousands of years. The themes and structures of Homer and Virgil are evident, but I also hear echoes of Gilgamesh, Oedipus, Herodotus, Beowulf. Mitchell firmly shows the power of epic poetry that is a pleasure to read in bringing to life a rich and complex story with detailed descriptions and actions.
All of this is accomplished through Mitchell’s strong writing. He connects to the ancient world, not just through the structures and rhythms of epic poetry, but through imaginative similes and metaphors that use natural events and images common across the eons. His descriptions of places, events, and actions are immediate and colourful, often better than the movie scene.
Two overarching themes weave through Mitchell’s epic, referenced many times by various characters. One is the interconnectedness of all living things: a sense of fate expressed through individual lives and larger social and historical movements. Another is the tension of the dichotomy of evil and good that exists in everyone even, and especially, in Darth Vader.
Each chapter begins with an “Invocation” that functions as a sort of Greek chorus. They evolve in their focus as the story progresses. Reading through them as a piece presents a guide for the story and the themes Mitchell explores and develops: good, evil, truth, justice, courage, wiles, forbearance, love, friendship, perseverance, time, sacrifice, fate, the levelling effects of hubris.
A word on the production and presentation of this book. The binding is strong and conveys a sense of substance; you don’t see hard-cardboard covers much any more. There are sidebars throughout the text that serve as useful signposts for those of us not as familiar with the plots of the movies. The lines are numbered as one would see in a translation of, for instance, Homer. These are helpful references for readers who like to make notes on the text.
In the end, I can easily imagine a wandering minstrel in a Star Wars future singing Mitchell’s poem of the Force and the foundation stories of Han, Luke, Leia, Vader, etc, etc.
But we can enjoy it today.
“ I have always known that Canada is a special place.
It educated me, taught me my values and gave me a chance in life. When those chances took me abroad, I was able to see through a new lens the true weight of Canada’s place in the world.
We are a magnet for talented, ambitious, caring people who share our values. We routinely transcend the limitations of our size to model values and policies for other countries.
I have drawn on Canadians’ strengths in public education and healthcare, and I have been fortunate to have been raised in an environment where leaders must forge consensus towards a common vision and then take principled, disciplined action.
For these gifts, I owe a great debt to our country.”
Mark Carney, Value(s)...Page 454
A person who subtitles his book “...Building a Better World for All” cannot be accused of lacking ambition. Indeed, the scope of “Value(s)...” is quite substantial, even breathtaking. It is a book about the importance of values in public policy making.
Maaza Mengiste Mengiste (1974-) was born in Addis Ababa, but left the country at the age of four when her family fled the Ethiopian Revolution. She spent the rest of her childhood in Nigeria, Kenya, and the USA. She studied in Italy as a Fulbright Scholar, and earned an MFA in creative writing from New York University.
Emily St.John Mandel
Mandel (1979-) is a Canadian writer, born in Comox, now living in New York City. She has published five novels. Station 11 was her fourth, and best known novel; it was nominated for a number of prizes and won two. Her latest novel, The Glass Hotel, was shortlisted for the Giller in 2020.
The narrative spark of the novel is timely: a viral pandemic wipes out most of the world’s population in no time: catch the virus and you are dead in two days. The spread of the disease is global, rapid, unchecked and uncheckable. Economies and societies quickly unravel. Life becomes constant conflict in a struggle for survival. The superficiality of the modern world is highlighted through memories of what people once thought was important in life. Mandel skilfully manipulates the lives of a number of characters, moving back and forth between the pre- and post-pandemic worlds. The latter principally around the members of a travelling group that performs Shakespeare with musical support. The lives of a number of characters crisscross each other, from their pre- and post existences, usually without being aware of the antecedents. The book was written in 2014, and is eerily prescient about the actions, fears and reactions that we see with COVID.
I found the novel strangely unsettling in its depiction of how easily our vaunted modern world of electricity, transportation, potable water from a tap, food from grocery stores, communications, antibiotics, order, sense of future: all could disappear in a heartbeat, and we could become one of the millions of species that have become extinct, or live in small enclaves where every stranger is feared and where cultish obsessions can take root because people look for ‘meaning’ and ‘reasons’ and think they can pray their way to deliverance, too often at the expense of the lives and rights of others.
The novel ends on a hopeful note, or rather, a few hopeful signs, without veering into simplistic resolutions. A realistic, sobering, well-plotted, and well-written novel.
Stefan Hertmans: War and Turpentine
Hertmans (1951-) is a Flemish-Belgian writer. He has published six novels, two shortstory collections, six essay books, and twelve collections of poetry. He has won a
number of literary prizes. This book was first published, in Dutch, in 2013, translated and published in English in 2016.
Marieke Lucas Rijeneveld
The author is 29. (Rijeneveld is non-binary and uses they/their as personal pronouns). This is their first novel and they are the youngest recipient of the International Booker Prize. Other winners since 2015 have been Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Han Kung, David Grossman, Olga Tokarczuk, and Jokha al-Harthi. The Prize is awarded annually for a single book translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland
Readers who favour tales of espionage and political intrigue will likely enjoy Jonathan Manthorpe’s tract about pervasive and deepening Chinese intrusion into Canadian political and economic affairs. He is highly critical of the Communist Party of China and President Xi Jinging, labelling both as “fascist” and “duplicitous”.
In his memoir, Collateral Damage: Britain, America and Europe in the Age of Trump, ex-British Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch ruefully notes that on 28 February, 2020, the TV quiz show Jeopardy! asked contestants, “Sir Kim Darroch resigned from his post in 2019 after the leak of some comments of his about the US Administration — which post was it?”
No one knew. As Darroch put it, his 15 minutes were obviously over.
When the leaks were published by the scandal-craving Mail on Sunday, they made headlines around the world, precisely because they told the truth about the Trump experience we were all suffering.
There was little in the other leaked factual dispatch cables sent in prior months from the Embassy that had not been amply reported in the media about Trump’s antics and the shambolic performance of his rapidly rotating personnel.
But there was one personal letter from the ambassador, addressed to relatively few need-to-know readers in Whitehall dating back to 2017, reporting on what Darroch saw would lie ahead: “We don’t really believe this administration is going to behave substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction riven; less dramatically clumsy and inept.”
Were truer words ever written?
This was the “money text.” It was the one that the unknown leaker had hoarded. Motive? The intention was presumably lodged somewhere in the toxic culture of ambition and conspiracy surrounding Brexit, perhaps to undermine Darroch, whom obsessive Brexiteers would have seen as a disloyalty candidate. He had been twice on postings in Brussels, most recently as the UK’s permanent representative to the EU. He had been Prime Minister Tony Blair’s top EU advisor and Prime Minister David Cameron’s national security advisor. But for the manic anti-EU devotees of Brexit he “was not one of us.”
And he wasn’t. Darroch went as ambassador to Washington in January 2016, and presented his credentials to Brexit-skeptic President Barack Obama. A year later, he was attending the inauguration of Brexit enthusiast and booster Donald Trump. So it goes for Ambassadors. As Darroch puts it, “Personal views have no place in the professional part of a diplomat’s existence.” It says more about Trump than it does about Darroch’s professionalism that the disruptive president’s behaviour makes it impossible to write an accurate, empirical account of his actions without seeming to denigrate.
Darroch followed Trump’s campaign as he has since with dispassionate attention to the underlying issues of immigration, inequality, and identity that Trump’s candidacy was surfing on his way to power. “The further down the educational attainment ladder one looked the greater was this ‘white flight’ from the Democrats to the Republicans.” This comes not from the pen of an elitist snob but from that of an acute professional analyst.
US friends sometimes caution me that “Trump isn’t the cause of all this; he’s a symptom.” Sure, but the fact is that he has exploited grievances and divisions and has exacerbated antipathies, while disrupting the world order so that, as Darroch describes it, “multilateralism has never been weaker or more disparaged.”
Darroch recognized then as he does now that Trump’s genius in channeling victimization and a sense of exclusion is a political fact of great consequence and few recent precedents in shared democratic history. But an underlying theme of the book is that it has a companion piece in the forces that underlie Brexit.
The parallel surges of nativist populism represented by Trump and Brexit occurred almost simultaneously. Of course, what was going on in the UK (apart from the fortunes of his various golf resorts), was of little real concern to Trump.
Darroch isn’t the critic and all-out opponent of Brexit the malicious leaker probably believed. But he presents an acutely balanced view of the dangers of national exceptionalism that corrode the identities of both the UK and the US. To him, and I emphatically agree, the UK “Never reconciled ourselves to the primary obligation of (EU) membership — pooling of sovereignty.” The British believed the EEC and then the EU was just about markets and trade and never got that that it was really over “ever-closer union among the people of Europe” who had suffered from the Second World War in ways the UK hadn’t.
I share his regret that the accelerated and too-inclusive opening of the EU to 10 new applicants in 2004, eight from Central Europe plus Cyprus and Malta, was a bridge of change too far and too early, especially on the freedom of movement that would make immigration the cause célèbre of Brexit. The Brussels-centric enthusiasm and inwardness were always awkward for outsiders. As Darroch puts it, EU insiders didn’t get UK inside politics any better than vice-versa.
Of course, much of his memoir is about his three years in the US. He was rare in having had no prior US experience to speak of and there is a warm and lively sense of discovery as he visits shrines of his beloved rock-and-roll idols, and the vast and unrivalled natural landscape of the West. (But thank God he spears Vegas as the cheap fraud of desolate and tawdry materialism that it is.)
Being UK ambassador to Washington must be a neurotic ride, constantly striving for acknowledgement and evidence (rarely forthcoming) that the bilateral relationship is indeed “special.” Darroch details how PM Theresa May’s rush to be the first to visit president-elect Trump became the pinnacle of UK geopolitical ambition. I don’t know if he meant it to strike the reader as comic and sort of sad, but it does.
The moment of the leak, of Trump’s intemperate and essentially cruel Twitter dismissal of the Ambassador’s further standing in town, is brilliantly presented. Those of us who have been caught inadvertently in the unstoppable media herd mentality when the taste of blood rushes to its brain, will admire Darroch’s cool and dispassionate account of his downfall. After reading of Boris Johnson’s handling of it at his end, you’ll want to get up to wash your hands.
Kim Darroch is an interesting man. He’s not an entitled, Oxbridge elitist. He studied zoology at the excellent university of Durham, where he met his wife, a teacher, who clearly helped him stay grounded, and offered obvious comfort from a briefly noted, but to the reader, startling childhood experience of maternal desertion.
From the perspective of this long-time diplomat, Darroch rose to the top of British diplomacy by being the sort of unaffected blunt talker and straight-shooter with solid judgment — who factored-in the other guy’s point of view while defending one’s own — that any successful Canadian PM (I think of Mulroney and Chretien) would have viewed as essential to his/her own success.
He’s modest — in his telling, he had his “fifteen minutes.” Not at all. He’s written an important book of insight — by an unabashed globalist who wishes to hasten this “moment for visionary leadership of ambition and imagination, of the kind that rebuilt the world after the Second World War.” Having quit diplomacy, I’ll bet he’s glad to be out of it, but saddened by the politicization of the public service, and by much else.
Contributing Writer Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian Ambassador to Russia, former Ambassador to the European Union, former High Commissioner to the U.K. and former Minister for Political Affairs at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. He is a Distinguished Fellow with the Canadian International Council.
This article first appeared here
Technology and Culture
This book by Allan Batteau (2010), which came up in background research for our next book club meeting, might more appropriately be titled ‘The Culture of Technology’. The author is a cultural anthropologist at Wayne State University, graduate of the renowned Case Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, with a background in aviation engineering. Coming from a classical humanities background, I found it a readable and informative look into the place that Technology (with a capital T) occupies in contemporary Western society, how it has shaped our culture in both the broad and narrow senses, and the risks it presents.
Ancien collègue Paul Desbiens a développé un goût certain pour la recherche historique. Il s’auto-publie sur son site internet et distribue gratuitement ses ouvrages en format PDF. Son dernier livre intitulé « Premières présences françaises dans le Golfe Saint-Laurent » récapitule l’histoire des premiers visiteurs Européens vers l’Amérique du Nord, le premier étant possiblement le moine irlandais St. Brendan au 6 ième siècle. De façon plus certaine il y a les Vikings en l’an 1,000 et les premiers pêcheurs français à partir de 1504. Lorsque Jacques Cartier se présente à Gaspé en 1534, il passe saluer ses compatriotes sur la côte de Terre-Neuve. Cette île fut une possession française avant de devenir Britannique. Sa capitale Plaisance fut avec Québec, l’un des deux piliers défensifs des intérêts français en Amérique du Nord. Champlain disait vers 1633 que la pêche rapportait 10 fois plus au trésor français que la traite des fourrures. Pas surprenant qu’en 1662, le roi Louis XIV ordonne la fortification de la colonie de Plaisance. Peu de gens connaissent l’importance de Plaisance, TN, dans l’histoire de la France en Amérique. Cependant le Traité d’Utrecht, 1713, forçat l’abandon de Plaisance par les français et ils se regroupèrent à l’Île Royale (Cap Breton) la même année où débuta la construction de la Forteresse de Louisbourg. Tout allait bien jusqu’à ce que les Britanniques attaquent Louisbourg en 1758 et Québec en 1759 pour ainsi compléter leur conquête de la Nouvelle-France. Vous pourrez aussi apprendre plusieurs autres faits importants et peu connus sur les débuts du Canada de ce lien : https://www.lerapideblanc.com/docs/Presence_francaise_dans_le_Golfe_Saint-Laurent_sg.pdf
Former colleague Paul Desbiens has developed a certain taste for historical research. He self-publishes on his website and distributes his works for free in PDF format. His latest book, "First French Presences in the Gulf of St. Lawrence", recapitulates the story of the first European visitors to North America, the first of them possibly being the Irish monk St. Brendan in the 6th century. More certainly there are the Vikings in the year 1,000 and the first French fishermen from 1504. When Jacques Cartier appeared in Gaspé in 1534, he went to greet his compatriots on the coast of Newfoundland. This island was a French possession before becoming British. Its capital Plaisance was, along with Quebec, one of the two defensive pillars of French interests in North America. Champlain said around 1633 that fishing brought in 10 times more to the French treasury than the fur trade. Not surprisingly, in 1662, King Louis XIV ordered the fortification of the colony of Plaisance. Few people know the importance of Plaisance, Newfoundland, in the history of France in America. However, the Treaty of Utrecht, 1713, forced the abandonment of Plaisance by the French and they regrouped on Île Royale (Cape Breton) the same year that construction of the Fortress of Louisbourg began. Everything was fine until the British attacked Louisbourg in 1758 and Quebec in 1759 to complete their conquest of New France. You can also learn several other important and little-known facts about the beginnings of Canada from his link: https://www.lerapideblanc.com/docs/Presence_francaise_dans_le_Golfe_Saint-Laurent_sg_EN.pdf