From Paris to under Stephen King’s dome and back.

So, let’s write about books.

After another successful haul of books thanks to Christmas, I have an incredible amount of prose to add to my already excellent haul of books from last year. Slowly but surely that pile is being whittled down- the classic mantra of all book readers.

Books are little wonderful collections of art in my opinion. All that energy and work, hours of angst and blissful inspired glory, spilled page after page, all neatly bound, ready to be lost in…if you are ready to take the plunge.

Recently I finished two books that appear far apart on the literary spectrum but they were worth the slow coffees, teas and snacks I had as I flipped through them.

Each book is rated on the typewriter (remember those?) scale from one to five. The more the better.

PARIS 1919: Six Months that Changed the World

By Margaret MacMillan

Take a peek at the world map, see it all divided up by borders, both manmade and natural. If you ever wanted to know how most of those pieces of this great puzzle were created, read this book.

Paris 1919 is internationally renown so it won’t mean much to heap further mounds of praise on it but rest assured, the accolades are all well deserved. The research and writing which went into this political history book, which centres around the Paris 1919 peace conference, is incredible and a joy to indulge in.

As the world reeled from the end of the First World War its prevailing powers were bent on justice, acquisition of power, land expansion, global positioning and control. The strength of MacMillan’s research and style really delivers “fly on the wall” moments again and again as she unfurled those six months in Paris.

If you love history and politics, add this to your bookshelf ASAP. If you ever wanted a better understanding of Germany pre-World War Two, the Middle East, the Armenian genocide, Italy’s inability at political stability, Japan and U.S. relations pre-World War Two…and there is more, read this book. One thing I can tell you is this…the butler did not do it.

5/5

Under the Dome

By Stephen King

This 1,074 word opus by the master of fright, scream and all things macabre was a workout to carry around for its sheer size alone. For the record, I am a huge fan of Stephen King’s Darktower series, if you are ever going to read some King, read this series first. Under the Dome has nothing to do with that awesome series though it is the longest King book I have read since finishing the Darktower journey.

What continues to amaze me about King is, love him or hate him, he has an incredible imagination and impeccable story-telling capabilities. He is not lavish and technically great as a writer, according to some, but that does not matter. Dear reader, the man knows how to spin a tale. Under the Dome is about a sleepy town which becomes enclosed in a massive dome, essentially becoming the world’s biggest snowglobe.

How quickly does this town go to rot “under the dome”. Who is the first to crack? Who is the first to try to capitalize? And…who will stand up and fight? As King explores the small-town psyche of Chester’s Mill, Maine, you at times get the feeling that his descriptions of people in crisis, even under these fantastical circumstances, might not be that far-fetched.

A good read for a long book, not one of his best but it is worth getting lost in for a bit. I only have one issue with the book but I won’t ruin it for you, if you commit to this opus, you are in it for the long haul!

3.5/5

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Goodbye Gentleman Jack

Goodbye Gentleman Jack

Thousands of worthwhile words will be penned in these days and hours after the passing of NDP leader Jack Layton. These words will all have merit and they will paint a picture of man who transcended politics and connected with the common man. These words will still not be enough. Gentleman Jack, you were one of a kind.

Jack loved Canada, loved Toronto and ultimately, loved life and believed in the good we can all achieve. His political legacy will be the story of a fighter, of persistence and of wading political shark-filled waters with wit, optimism and savvy. Remember, this is an NDP leader who helped guide the party from the brink of obscurity to one which played wedge politics with decisive success. During Canada’s recent minority governments it was Jack and his NDP which carried the biggest hammer at times.

Then, the culmination of those efforts reached epic heights in the 2011 federal election…official opposition status. However, the  fates have a cruel sense of humour, this opposition status came with the Conservatives scoring a majority government. Nevertheless, it was the NDP and its “orange wave” which slayed the separatist Bloc Québécois menace in Quebec. Jack won by representing and connecting with the social democratic values of the Québécois. Jack won by being kind and genuinely enthusiastic. Jack won by being Jack.

In his farewell letter to Canadians Jack showed the political acumen which served him so well from city hall to Parliament Hill. It also provided that final brush stroke which helps define the man.

In his closing words he wrote, “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

Let’s change the world indeed Jack for you changed ours.

Goodbye Gentleman Jack.

Saying goodbye to the old girl: so long Pontiac

Her name was Edie and now I have moved on.

No, this is not about a long lost or unrequited love. This post is about a car, my Pontiac Grand Am in fact, the one I chewed up many a kilometre of asphalt with, just over 285,000 km when we parted ways.

If you are “the driver” in your circles and enjoy it, if you smile wide when you hear the words “roadtrip” or “take me for a drive”, you will understand about the connection between a vehicle and a driver.

Ultimately, the memories that you make, as I did during my almost 11 year “relationship” with that car are about the people, places and things experienced along the way and not the actual vehicle itself. However, having it there as the one constant did add an extra layer of sentimentality when it was time to trade it in.

Now, Edie was not a high-end sportscar or luxury sedan. She simply was a four-door SE mid-sized sedan, ocean blue, with a great heart of an engine at 3.4 litres and a V6. When I told her to go, she went and when her ride was smooth and quiet, it was as regal a chariot you could find for a GM vehicle.

Chicago, Atlantic City, Buffalo, Ottawa, Montreal, London, Windsor, Detroit, Parry Sound, Parry Island, Minden, Hunstville, Kingston, Killbear Provincial Park, Campbellford, Niagara On The Lake, Cobourg, Port Hope and on and on. The first roadtrip in it was to Montreal, fall 2001; the last was to Hill Island last month. The number of reporter assignments I drove to in it must be in the tens of thousands, from murders to raging industrial infernos, from council meetings to Junior A hockey games.

This award winning photo I snapped during Cobourg's Horizons Plastics fire unfolded just a few feet away from my Grand Am. PHOTO BY: VINCE VERSACE

Some of my favourite car memories are poignant, such as seeing a child’s safety seat as a permanent fixture in the backseat for the first time, hearing a five year old giggle and squeal about “we’re having a picnic in the car” while on Lake On The Mountain as rain poured down outside, roadtripping to Chicago in the dead of winter to see The Cult, listening to post 9-11 car radio broadcasts days after buying it, photo roadtrips just because, knowing I was safe when I got to it after covering the G20 Toronto riot insanity, moving to Cobourg in it and the new friendships forged there, parking on the Cobourg pier as waves crashed against it, late night backroad rides in Northumberland, starry skies overhead and hilly, winding roads just beyond the headlights and on and on.

The last few years were far less poignant and frankly a pain including getting towed three times last year alone. In the end, way more repairs than the car was worth resulted.

If she could talk, what would Edie say? Likely they’d be tales that could make a sailor blush, leave a lump in your throat or have you in stitches shaking your head.

I’m not sad to see the old girl go; she was just a car…

If you’re a “driver” you just may understand.

Japan tsunami: heartache for a nation

A sakura in full bloom during a sakura festival in Yoyogi Park 2009. PHOTO BY : Vince Versace

Heartbreak.

As images and stories continue to increase about the tragedy, despair and faint glimmers of hope emanating from Japan this author’s heart aches a little more.

The March 11 earthquake that rocked Japan, pegged at 8.9 on the Richter scale, has left a trail of devastation that is hard to comprehend. This was not a third-world or underdeveloped country with poor infrastructure or lack of planning and preparedness for a natural disaster, this is one of the world’s leading nations (though economically suffering for sometime now) physically brought to its knees.

Over the last few days I’ve quietly thought about what to write about in light of what Mother Nature’s runaway water locomotive did to a country and culture I admire deeply as if it were my own. Japan has been a lifelong fascination of mine and a fantastic trip to the Land of the Rising Sun two years ago was a dream come true for my travel mates and I.

A flame outside the Great Buddha Temple in Nara. PHOTO BY: Vince Versace

Since the earthquake and tsunami danced their deadly two-step on Japan so many memories have flooded back, I can still smell the sakura of Yoyogi Park, hear the soles of Tokyo’s “salarymen/women” on a Shibuya station tiled-floor and feel the warm morning sun on Mount Koyasan…Japan left me with memories to last a lifetime:

“I miss the pace, the people, the culture which felt so foreign yet oddly comforting and familiar all at the same time. It did feel like I was on another planet but in a good way.” I wrote on May 2009, in a post called My Japan Blues.

Catastrophic may come close as the word to best describe the damage which ravaged Japan’s northeastern coast (which I did not visit) but it could be an understatement. There are many ways to donate to help, here are a few:

  • Canadian cellphone users can text ASIA to 30333, to donate $5 to the Canadian Red Cross Japan Earthquake/Asia-Pacific Tsunami fund at no charge for the text.
  • Canadian Red Cross donations can be made at redcross.ca or call 1-800-418-1111.

An old Japanese proverb comes to mind:

“A single arrow is easily broken but not 10 in a bundle”

Just as we come to the aid of other nations, come together and complete that bundle of arrows to help Japan recover, for as wounded as she is, her people will not break but sure could use the help.

A statue of samurai Kusunoki Masashige, a national patriotic hero known for his loyalty and courage. PHOTO BY: Vince Versace

The Saturday Six: November 20, 2010

Our first prime minister takes a break on a downtown Charlottetown bench where many a thing is Anne of Green Gables, such as the store he is looking back at. PHOTO: VINCE VERSACE

Here are some random items to start your weekend. Here are your Saturday Six:

GOODBYE PAT : Pat Burns, former coach of the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils, where he won a Stanley Cup, has passed away from cancer. A true sports leader of men, his style and honesty was refreshing. The timing of his passing is hard to ignore, he left this life the night before his two beloved teams, the Habs and Leafs, square off in Montreal tonight.

WARTORN 1861-2010: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has ravaged thousands of soldiers during and after their tours of duty worldwide. This doc was incredibly insightful into the cross many a government leaves brave soldiers to carry once they return home. The doc’s focus is on American soldiers but remember, PTSD knows no borders and is something Canadian soldiers are also afflicted with, learn how it impacts their families and lives.

BABY HEARS MOTHER’S VOICE: About as poignant a video as you can get. Watch as an eight month old baby hears his mother’s voice for the first time thanks to a cochlear implant.

WHAT’S THE RUSH? : First the disclaimer, I am not a Rush fan. I have always appreciated their music and contribution to rock and like a handful of their songs. However, if you watch Rush:Beyond The Lighted Stage, that could change. This doc definitely paints a clearer picture about this iconic Canadian band that has remained cool by not trying to be and creating some progressive music along the way.

AGGRESSIVE PAT-DOWN AT AIRPORT: Heightened security at airports always draws long lines and headlines. However, asking a cancer survivor to remove her prosthetic breast just seems wrong.

A BLACK HOLE IS BORN: NASA recently announced the birth date of a black hole. The first flash of it was noticed 30 years ago by an amateur astronomer and the rest is now reality….

Hole in My Jacket – Remembrance Day 2010

Hole in My Jacket – Remembrance Day 2010


That poppy, it’s worth the hole in my jacket and more

Weathered old hands hold a box of vividly red poppies

The young and old pass the veteran, he stands proudly and waits

“Buy a poppy?”a passing kid says, “I don’t want to put holes in my jacket.”

 

From Vimy Ridge to Kandahar, that poppy’s glow grows

From dusty boots in Afghanistan to the muddy shores of Juno Beach

Young souls lost, greater causes fought for

That poppy, it’s worth the hole in my jacket and more

 

From small town to big city Canada they serve

Under one flag they fight, under that same flag they perish

An enemy we never see they face, an ultimate sacrifice given

That poppy, it’s worth the hole in my jacket and more

 

A silhouetted soldier at sunrise salutes

Another comrade dead, another life taken too soon

On foreign soil they fall, what hell those final moments must be

That poppy, it’s worth the hole in my jacket and more

 

Flag draped coffins walked off hulking military planes

Brothers and sisters in arms salute, proud families tearfully wait

From highway overpasses the words “thank you” rain down

That poppy, it’s worth the hole in our jackets and more

 

Remember that poppy

 

Remember

 

 

– Vince Versace

One dinger at a time: LaMacchia memories

Al Lamacchia during his St. Louis Browns days.

When I saw the headline that Al LaMacchia had passed away recently I quietly enjoyed recalling the few chats I had with the former Toronto Blue Jays executive.

LaMacchia was a former Toronto Blue Jays scouting co-ordinator and vice president. He was with the Los Angeles Dodgers when he recently died at the age of 89. I was lucky enough to meet LaMacchia a handful of times during the early 1990s because he would drop my parent’s supermarket on St. Clair Avenue to shop.

Sometimes he picked up tangerines, other times chestnuts. He had a friendly customer-shopkeeper relationship with my father and typical to the Italian culture(likely other immigrant ones as well) everyone is a ‘paisan’ when you speak the same language, even a little.

There are no tear-jerking memories of grand conversations or life-changing advice that I recall between LaMacchia and myself. However, what I do recall was a kind, sharp dressed, older man who took the time to talk baseball with an Italian-Canadian teenager wearing a white apron selling fruit.

Back then, the Jays were a baseball juggernaut and were on the cusp of winning back-to-back World Series championships. The SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre) had opened in 1989 and getting a ticket to a game was like striking gold.

Carter celebrates hitting the 1993 World Series clinching homerun. "Touch'em All Joe," great Jays broadcaster Tom Cheek quipped.

The Jays owned this town from 1985, when George Bell dropped to his knees after catching a fly ball to cinch up our first American League East pennant to Joe Carter’s dramatic, heart-stopping World Series winning homerun off of ‘Wild Thing’ Mitch Williams.

During my first baseball conversation with LaMacchia we talked about how good was the flamethrowin’ Juan Guzman and could Duane Ward be a full-time closer. I was talking ball with a Blue Jays head honcho and he was actually listening to me, what an impression he left.

Then, when he handed me his office phone number before leaving and said to call him if I ever wanted tickets…well I almost passed out into the tangerine crate display right then and there.

Another conversation I recall was about how base stealing wizard Rickey Henderson could help in their 1993 World Series run. I also remember talking about the serene Cito Gaston and his merits as a manager of the Jays.

Once I stopped working at the family business I never did run into LaMacchia again. I remember a couple of years ago, while stuck in traffic commuting into the city, hearing baseball guru writer Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun talking about how great Blue Jays scouting used to be and he mentioned LaMacchia among the other Toronto scouting stalwarts.

I looked up LaMacchia’s stats on baseball-reference.com before I started typing this post. First thing I noticed was a picture of a younger version of the face I met over grocery produce a few times.

Lamacchia had 16 appearances with the St. Louis Browns and Washington Senators. Sure, his numbers were not distinguished but he had made it to “the show”, which counts for something.

Also, the fact the Blue Jays renamed their top scouting award in his honour a few years back shows what an impact he made as an executive and scout.

In the end, for one former grocery store kid, LaMacchia’s classy demeanour, kindness and love of the game made for Hall of Fame-like memories, as brief and fleeting as they were over a bag of chestnuts or handful of fruit.