Robbie Robertson’s “Testimony” – A Review

The guitarist and chief songwriter of The Band, Robbie Robertson, released his memoir Testimony late last fall, amidst the usual media fury. The book had to compete with Bruce Springsteen’s lumbering autobiography in the rock book sweepstakes, so Testimony was a tad overshadowed, which is unfortunate, because it is by far the better read.

Robertson concentrates on the period from roughly 1958 when he joins Ronnie Hawkin’s backing ensemble to the final performance of The Band at The Last Waltz in 1976, (the film and the triple album were finally finished two years later in 1978). He charts the ups, downs and in-betweens of a dubious and difficult industry that expanded with the 1960s counterculture, only to crash back to earth in the 1970s due to an excess of a growing drug culture that took its toll on The Band and their contemporaries.

Testimony bears all the hallmarks of Robertson’s songwriting: intelligence, taste, restraint and integrity. The end result is a terrific book and an essential read for anyone interested in music and cultural history, documenting a bygone era of high hopes, shattered dreams, and beautiful music.

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Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

Bruce Springsteen’s new memoir, “Born to Run,” tells the tale of a man consumed by ambition and tough clawing towards the goal of making a living in music. There are plenty of hard lessons, as band-mates get tossed, nameless girlfriends appear as pit-stops along the way, and friends are measured by how they can be used to build up a career, but what dominates is a drive to succeed, rather than any particular insight.

While the book disappoints in one way, it does cruise onward with an unstoppable sense of forward motion. There’s a powerful therapeutic reasoning behind Springsteen’s writing, as he tries to understand his father’s inarticulateness that rode the edge between the repression of the 1950s and the growing counterculture of the 1960s.

In between various levels of success, the book details a battle with late-onset depression. It seems something of a sideshow to the main narrative of the music, but the tension involved does provide for a sense of ongoing drama.

At times, like in his artistic career, Springsteen strains for significance. I always preferred his throwaway pop material, like the stuff he wrote for the Pointer Sisters (“Fire”) and the two albums for old-school rocker Gary ‘US’ Bonds, where music is fun, disposable and untethered to stories about lost dreams and crummy economies. But Springsteen himself clearly wants to be taken seriously, hence the epic reach of the tome.

Still, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” is a gripping page-turner that rates as essential reading for any and all of his fans. Those interested in popular culture and autobiographies in general should find it both satisfying and illuminating.

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Fact, Fiction and Flying Saucers – A Review

Fredericton may be best known as New Brunswick’s capital city, but it is also the home to one of the world’s best-known UFO researchers, Stanton T. Friedman.

Friedman’s lifelong pursuit of the truth has lead to a stream of fascinating books, of which Fact, Fiction and Flying Saucers, written with Kathleen Marden (they previously co-authored Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience and Science Was Wrong), is the latest entry.

Even for the most hardened and knowledgeable UFO buff, Fact Fiction and Flying Saucers should be essential reading. Both Friedman and Marden have built their reputations on solid research rather than rampant speculation. The result is a storytelling style that is both informative and rigorous. Fascinatingly, the book, in its final third, takes on portions of the pro-UFO community itself to expose fakers, frauds and dodgy claims.

Fact, Fiction and Flying Saucers is a provocative and powerful entry in a controversial field. Whether you are a true believer or not, it’s a great reminder that there are still many more questions than answers to the UFO mystery.

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Lance Woolaver Launches Full-Length Maud Lewis Biography

Friday, October 14th, 2016 witnessed the official launch at Zwicker’s Gallery in Halifax of Lance Woolaver’s full-length biography of Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis, published by Spencer Books.

Woolaver’s book is the culmination of a lifetime’s work on the subject. More than two decades of research went into this landmark 450 page tome. He grew up near Maud Lewis’s house, and his father, Judge Philip Woolaver, was one of the legendary folk artist’s two patrons (the other was her physician).

With the release of the Newfoundland / Irish feature film co-production Maudie this year, interest in the life and work of Maud Lewis is cresting again. Fifteen years ago, a national tour of her paintings, along with the publication of the best-selling coffee-table book The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis by Woolaver and Bob Brooks, and sellout performances of Woolaver’s play on the same subject, brought the iconic folk artist’s work to national and international audiences. The new feature film and Woolaver’s indicate a further revival is underway.

While the film sugar-coats many aspects of Maud Lewis’s difficult life (no doubt a necessity for a commercial release), Woolaver’s book dives in and brings available light to the painter’s true lifelong sufferings. That she managed to concoct such bright and cheerful paintings under such dire social and personal conditions is something of a miracle.

While the film works hard to humanize her husband Everett, portrayed by the great actor Ethan Hawke in a vivid performance, the facts of the story, laid out in Woolaver’s book, are simply horrifying.

Woolaver, in his introductory remarks at the book launch, was unflinching. He calls it a ‘very dark book’ – and it is, as befits the true story of its subject.

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Howard Epstein’s “Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks” – A Review

Howard Epstein’s Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks is part idiosyncratic political memoir and part bitter philippic from someone who was both in the Nova Scotia government from 2009 until 2013, in the sense that he was an MLA of the governing party, but also never really part of the government during the Dexter years due to his exclusion from cabinet – something that clearly still rankles Mr. Epstein, despite his frequent assertions to the contrary.

The book does contain information and perspectives that historians will find useful, and for that reason alone it merits a spot on the shelf of anyone interested in Nova Scotian political history, but when it comes to his central thesis Mr. Epstein singularly fails to make the case that he prosecutes against the 2009 – 2013 NDP government as a sell-out of progressive values. Furthermore, the vision that he offers for rebuilding the party is one rooted in the ideological battles of the 20th century, and not the realities and the very exciting possibilities of the 21st. In a no doubt unintended irony, this self-defined champion of “true” progressive values actually emerges from Rise Again as the most reactionary of all the former members of the NDP government. He is looking backward with a mixture of bitterness and self-righteousness, as opposed to forward with the hope and optimism and spirit of true cooperation that Nova Scotians need now more than ever.

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Impact to Contact – The Shag Harbour UFO Case Re-Examined

A strange anniversary is coming for Nova Scotians in 2017. You might even say that it’s “out of this world.”

I am referring, of course, to the 50th commemoration of the Shag Harbour UFO Incident.

Steeped in controversy and the subject of debate by debunkers, believers and those undecided people somewhere in between, Canada’s most famous UFO event has been the subject of various seminars, presentations, and a continued discourse spread across several documentaries. It’s even been blessed with an official stamp from Canada Post!

For anyone who would like to dive into the subject, Impact to Contact: The Shag Harbour Incident, is the definitive book available. Veteran UFO researchers Chris Styles and Graham Simms have collected up all the available evidence, including a dive report from 2009 by David Cvet, to make a powerful case that something very strange indeed happened in and around Nova Scotiaès South Shore on the night of October 4th, 1967.

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“Shooting From The East” – A Fundamentally Flawed Misfire

The back jacket blurb for Shooting From The East, NSCAD Associate Professor’s Darrell Varga’s new book on East Coast motion picture making, states that “until now, there has been no comprehensive history of this diverse body of work.” Unfortunately, despite Varga’s claim otherwise, this is not the book that provides that study.

His dismissal of the Glace Bay-born director Daniel Petrie is particularly unfortunate. Petrie returned to Nova Scotia to make three features. One of them, The Bay Boy, is the only example of a successful Canadian filmmaker who went to Hollywood and then came home to make a film about his origins. None of Petrie’s contemporaries – Norman Jewison or Arthur Hiller, for example – ever did so. Further, Varga states that the Atlantic Filmmaker’s Co-op and the Atlantic Studio of the National Film Board were created in 1973 after a paucity of film activity on the East Coast – ignoring the fact that in the previous year Petrie shot The Neptune Factor in Halifax, in the process providing some of the impetus for the creation of both organizations.

For the various interviews found in the book, one must grant Varga at least a little credit. As for the rest of Shooting From the East, however, it rates as a fundamentally flawed misfire, and a real lost opportunity. Filmmakers who got profiled might want to request a copy for their own archives, but everyone else will probably want to give it a pass.

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Philip Glass: Words Without Music – A Review

As satisfying as Bob Dylan’s wonderful memoir Chronicles, Philip Glass’ Words Without Music charts the relentless ambitions and risk-taking of one of the world’s most important musical and aesthetic figures. The narrative drives steadily forward, attempting to catch up with his own prolific nature, where his works – operas, symphonies, and chamber music – seem to pour out continuously in a rapid stream of inspiration. It’s a great read, by any measure.

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Graham Steele’s “What I Learned About Politics” – A Review

After a life in politics where he might have been considered the ultimate party man, Steele comes off as remarkably unsentimental, with some industrial-strength insights into Nova Scotia’s rote inability to change. Railing against the “Status Quo,” the former Finance Minister provides an extraordinary portrait of practical politics in a period where the old-line parties are creeping back to the unsavory ways that got us into our current mess. Steele’s vivid and focused view of his time in government from 2009 to 2013 is marked by a refreshing candor that can only help our understanding of the massive challenges Nova Scotia faces, not least of which is a dysfunctional political culture.

For anyone interested in Nova Scotia politics, it is absolutely required reading.

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Chrissie Hynde’s “Reckless” is Essential Reading

Rock legend Chrissie Hynde’s autobiography is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of modern rock music. Her prose is vivid and telling as she details how ‘60s counterculture swept everyone and everything before it into a miasmic mess. Once she gets to the punk and new wave years, she provides an insider’s view of yet another seismic cultural shift that is still sending reverberations down the spine of Western culture.

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