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Letterbox: Bookish & Filmish
Edition 15: Cozy Mysteries, The Exumas & Film Recs
The Cozy Mystery of Spirited Ex-Pats
This weekend we watched the first episode of Murder in Provence, a cozy mystery series produced by ITV, airing on BritBox.
Set in Aix-en-Provence, France, the scenery will leave you drooling, nose pressed against the television, as cars wind through breathtaking lavender fields, or pull up in front of 16th century chateaus. Then there’s the restaurant scenes where middle-aged characters (yay!) drink rosé and eat charcuterie during long lunch-time meetings, while the sun beams beatifically on the nearby coastline.
Just what the doctor ordered, a brief respite from sitting glued to the unbearably grim news. A contained ninety minutes where bodies are dead because of knowable facts, not because a legacy-crazed barbarian believes blowing up maternity wards is a justifiable act of war.
For some inexplicable reason, only British actors play French characters in the show, using the French pronunciation of names AND English idioms like ‘bollocks’ and ‘bless.’ And no, the plot resolutions won’t leave you dazzled by their ingenuity. But frankly, what cozy mystery does? The audience is there to be entertained, not scared witless that something will crawl out from under the bed (or the Kremlin) once the lights go out.
And all the power to them. We all need a little light right now.
Photo Credit: Dominique Cappronnier
A Google search revealed that Murder in Provence, a US-UK co-production, is the first pan-territorial series commissioned by BritBox, adapted from the popular mystery novel series by M.L. Longworth.
Who, I was surprised to find out, is Canadian.
Knowledge is uneven, and though I’ve spent twenty-five years working around publishing and book reviewing, it hardly makes me an expert. Also, I’ve tended to read dark mystery/thriller novels, not cozy or locked room stories.
But still, I’ve never heard of Mary Lou Longworth. Another (quick) Google search failed to turn up any coverage of her books in the past decade by the Star, Globe, or CBC, other than a brief, syndicated mention of the show adaptation, which failed to mention she is Canadian.
It’s true that reviewing space has decreased substantially over the years, and book editors are pressed to give adequate coverage to the huge volume of books published each year. Choices must be made, and one could see a logical argument for privileging books authored by those living in Canada.
But just as I get frustrated that attention seems to primarily coalesce each publishing season on the same few handfuls of well-marketed titles, I’m eager to know more about what Canadian writers are doing out there in the wider world. There are some bigger names like Emily St John Mandel or Rivka Galchen – both fantastic writers who live in New York – whose books always get covered in our media.
But, beyond that, we don’t hear enough for my liking. And so I’ve started to dig into it, making lists. I will profile the occasional writer here in Letterbox, but I also intend to launch a new monthly newsletter in May profiling ex-pat Canadian writers of books, film and tv and their work, primarily contemporary but also the occasionally historical.
Photo: Mavis Gallant
Please email me with any suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org, especially of those who live somewhere other than NYC or London. I’d also love to be proven wrong about how well-known ML Longworth is here in Canada!
As a child of parents who emigrated to Canada – and my sisters, too, I’m the first one born here – I’ve long been fascinated by the stories of people who leave their country of origin, for whatever reason, and how that experience shapes them, the country they settle in and their perception of the world. It’s why I started the literary organization Diaspora Dialogues.
As a dual citizen (Canadian + Irish/EU), I’m a firm believer that hyphenated identities are rich ones. That a loyalty doubled is not one divided.
And while I’m generally wary about nationalism, at least the full-throttled variety that covers up failings for the sake of sentimentality, I’m also cognizant of the human drive to define and belong.
In the Irish context, given colonialism’s footprint and the ongoing conflict in the North, there are complicated questions to ask about to whom a country belongs – those who live there currently, and form community day in/out? Or those who historically did? And if the latter, at what point in history do you draw the starting line, given the reality of human movement across millennium.
Of course in Canada, we’re beginning to more fully reckon with the violence upon which the ‘country’ was formed and its treatment of, and relationship with, Indigenous Peoples. The same country that gave succor to tens of millions of immigrants, including my family, was ‘settled’ based on the attempted extinction of others.
For me, a country is a messy mix of legal entity, keeper of cultural history, and present-day community. I think too often as Canadians we’re quietly suspicious about our fellow citizens who choose to build their lives or careers outside our borders, as if they turned their backs. I’m uninterested in narrow definitions of anything, including what it means to be Canadian. So very excited to dig in and unveil the cozy mystery of who these Canucks are.
(PS – I can’t think of a great name for the new newsletter. Any suggestions welcome.)
Delighted to have several events coming up over the next few weeks. Please join me!
Arts & Letters Club, Toronto – March 22, 2022, lunchtime. Open to any current members of the club, or those who want to become one. This is an in-person event.
Los Angeles Launch, Piccolo Santa Monica – March 28, 2022, 5-7pm. My US book tour dates last fall got postponed due to Covid restrictions. The LA date has been rescheduled for March 28th. It’s in-person, at an outdoor venue. Delighted to be partnering with Diesel Books, a great independent bookstore with locations in Brentwood and Del Mar. If you’re going to be in LA then, please email me for details as would love for you to come.
And a big thank you to the Consulate General of Canada in Los Angeles for their generous support.
AfterWords Literary Festival, Virtual – April 14, 2022. This great Halifax-based festival takes place in the fall, this year Sept 28-Oct 2, with a hybrid line-up. But they’ve also launched off-season virtual programming; this spring that includes Stephens Gerard Malone, Michelle Good and me. You’re all very welcome to join us digitally when I’ll be in conversation with writer, journalist, and festival co-director Stephanie Domet. Free registration HERE.
The festival bookseller is another great indie bookstore, BookMark, which has locations in Halifax and Charlottetown.
I’ve also just returned from a trip to Exuma, where I was working on revisions to a follow-up novel including a series of interviews. I also found the US Drug Enforcement Agency military complex hidden mid-island – the only setting in the novel I didn’t know. It was as scary as I had imagined it would be. I drove the barbed wired, electrified perimeter – the only car – taking surreptitious photos as I spoke reassuring words into my phone about being a lost Canadian tourist, assuming they were listening.
(I was going to share those photos in the newsletter, but suddenly realized maybe having Search Engine Optimization pick those up might not be the smartest move…)
Exuma and Grand Isle Resort was as gorgeous as ever. Santana’s still serves up the best breaded grouper on the island and Mom’s bakery next door the best rum cake. Mom herself is 90 this year and was seated outside under the tree chatting away on her cellphone to her son. Some fancy new restaurants have opened in the past couple years, including BLU on the Water and The Grill House at 23° North, but the old favs were all there, too.
News & Gossips
I was so delighted to see Catherine Hernandez’s film Scarborough, an adaptation of her 2017 novel, pick up several Canadian Screen Awards including a best screenplay nomination for Catherine herself. (Winners announced April 10th.)
The book was a huge success – and is currently short-listed for Canada Reads 2022. The film, directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, is currently playing at TIFF Lightbox as well as other select cinemas.
I’m currently making my way through the Oscar nominated movies I haven’t seen. (Sadly, many of them.) I recently watched Summer of Soul, a remarkable documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural festival.
“This ‘Black Woodstock’ thing existed almost on a level of the Great Pumpkin or Santa Claus or something,” says Thompson. “Nobody believed it actually happened, so when they came by just to talk about it, I was skeptical. When the meeting was over, I thought, ‘I’m never seeing them again.’”
The documentary includes clips from 40 hours of rarely seen footage by musicians including Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, BB King, the 5th Dimension and more. Footage that had sat literally in a basement all these decades, erased from the wider cultural history as so much of the Black experience has been.
But no longer. The film contains important historical information – cultural, political, artistic. It’s also hugely compelling. I bet you’d enjoy it as much as I did. (I watched it on Netflix.)
It also led me to Google what happened to Sly & The Family Slone, whom I adored as a child in the 70s.
Very sadly, he seems to be living in his van in California, victim to his own demons as well as financial mismanagement. He launched a breach-of-trust suit against his former manager Jerry Goldstein, claiming he was cheated out of more than a decade’s worth of royalties. He was awarded $5million by a LA Supreme Court jury in 2015 but later that year a judge ruled that Stone could not collect because he sold his royalties to a production company in the 1980s.
The rights to that music catalogue is a varied tale, and they eventually ended up owned by Michael Jackson’s estate.
Whatever the legal in/outs, though, I find it nauseating that a talented musician ends up unhoused while everyone else makes money off his art. I remember when the story broke about Leonard Cohen’s manager embezzling his money, a senior editor I worked with at the time said, “Leonard should have kept his eye on the ball.”
Seems to me the focus should be on predatory business practices, not blaming artists for the fact they’re not good money managers.
NEXT UP: NAVALNY, the documentary about the Russian opposition leader poisoned with nerve agent novichok, a favourite method for silencing critics of the Kremlin.
I’m also currently reading Moneyland: The Inside Story of Crooks and Kleptocrats, by British journalist Oliver Bullough (who lived and worked in Moscow for years).
It’s a stunner of a book that traces the shadowy world of the super rich, including leaders who pilfer their country’s assets for personal gain (such as the Russian-based Ukranian president Viktor Yanukovych, 2010-2014 ) and the systems that help them protect their wealth. (Hello, Swiss Banks and UK government. We’re looking at you.)
The book was published in 2018, and like many articles and books on the subject, there’s a resigned sense of about what little can actually be done to combat money laundering in a world where capital flows unrestricted across borders but laws do not. I started reading it before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and am considering it now in a different context, given that the West has seemingly decided coordinated economic action against laundered money is actually possible.
Long, fascinating read in the Sydney Review of Books debating the proper recognition for translators, including the Twitter storm that broke out last September after the Society of Authors in London called for the names of literary translators to be acknowledged on the covers of all translated books.
Are the efforts of translators to achieve greater visibility ‘presumptuous’ and ‘hubristic’? Or, given the months or years of careful re-writing involved, is a translator essentially a second author of the work whose contribution is unjustly minimized, in what is fundamental an issue of power?
“So it comes as no surprise that it is primarily women translators, queer translators, and translators of colour who are leading this newest iteration of the pro-translator movement. And they are doing it on social media – the one place where it is (sometimes) possible to evade the gatekeepers and undermine the hierarchies of the old literary guard.
For a lighter take on the same issue, I recently watched a rom-com, Book of Love. Its commentary on books and authors made me laugh (sometimes uncomfortably), even if the movie has more than its fair share of cliches.
Also on Twitter, ongoing threads about who actually makes money in publishing. Not most Canadian authors, as the satirical new anonymous @ILoveCanLit account joked in its "$500 two-book deal” tweet. (Sadly, poet/author Fawn Parker revealed herself to be the person behind the satire and the account disappeared last night.)
Not juniors editors at big American houses, four of whom very publicly resigned last week including Molly McGhee of TOR, who posted this resignation note. She’d had enough, after being refused promotion, despite carrying the administrative burden of senior editors and her success repping a book that landed on the NYT bestseller list. (The argument of all four has been that record sales and corporate earnings of large publishers the past couple years has not been reinvested back into staff.)
And not many agents, working second jobs to support their calling, and for whom editorial resignations have a profound effect, given the months and years spent establishing those relationships.
Publishing’s a business, except, sadly, not so much a profitable one for many.
Bye for now. Thank you for joining me for this fifteenth issue of Letterbox. Please remember to: