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Shannon's blog

Posted by Shannon

When the video of Prince Harry hitting up the head of Disney to hire his actress wife began circulating, I was struck by what an old-fashioned guy he is. Princes and Showgirls have always been a thing and he was on the well-worn path of his royal ancestors who had helped Lillie Langtry and Nell Gwyn tread the boards. It was obvious!

How had all the Meghan & Harry brouhaha failed to put his ideas about modernizing the monarchy into historical context, I wondered? So I approached the Toronto Star with a remedy and a column. It was such fun that I'm thinking I should take-up SussexWatch full-time. 

"The Sussex Royal enterprise seems to be just a new twist on a traditional scheme: use royal influence to raise an actress’s profile, obtain opportunities, and make a fortune. I think the merching Markle would have admired Lillie Langtry: she was one of the first celebrity product endorsers, parlaying her glowing complexion into promoting Pears soap in the 1880s." 

Although, if I really think about it, the former Suits actress with the knack for blogging has more in common with one of my favourite literary characters, the clever Becky Sharp. The column can be found at the Star's site. 

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Professors who tweet

02 Nov 2016
Posted by Shannon

 I reviewed Mark Carrigan’s book Social Media for Academics. Unlike the digital marketing guru types who exaggerate the wonders of the app du jour, the University of Warwick sociology prof has a pragmatic approach. He suggests you think long and hard about what you’re hoping to get out of social media before wasting time on it. 

His well-researched book is treasure trove of books and articles that will help SM novices understand why and how to develop an online presence. Or skip it. 

I’ve been recommending the book to would-be-networkers in every industry. ~END~

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Posted by Shannon

As someone who has spent much her life with her nose in a book, I’m quite happy to pass on reading suggestions as a public service.  But I was delighted to learn that it could also be a career. 

The idea of bibliotherapy falls in and out of fashion, but since therapeutic reading has become all the rage again, I’ve decided to hang out my shingle as a Literary Apothecary. I announced my intentions earlier this month in The Tyee

I’m still looking for an appealing space for my clinic. I fancy a Victorian house with a bookshop on the lower floor, where we will fill the prescriptions. I need bright airy rooms on the upper floors where patients will be able to read in peace, preferably while lolling about on chaises longues. In the afternoons we’ll serve cake. 

Now how could that sort of intellectual spa fail to be therapeutic? ~end~

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Posted by Shannon

Canada is undeniably a (public) radio nation, as I argued over at two weeks ago, and the poll of more than 800 people proved it. Sort of. 

What the Tyee poll lacks in science it makes up in passion, and the comments are far more interesting than the numbers.

I learned two things.

The first is that I really should be watching Murdoch Mysteries, since the enthusiasm for this show is right over the top. And the second is that while the respondents agree with me two-to-one that we should preserve radio over TV, if push comes to shove, the remaining third wrote an enthusiastic defence of TV. Many support it just on principle. They acknowledge that much of CBC -TV sucks, but they don't want it cut; they want it improved.

It appears that the public -- or as much of it as is willing to respond to polls --  wants a genuinely Canadian alternative to the tsunami of crap content hitting our airwaves from the south.

In terms TV lovers can understand: they want a little more Orphan Black and little less Two-and-Half Men with niqabs. 

And judging by the shows they defended most and loudest, it struck me that it would be as much as the lives of CBC managers were worth to kill the superb TV documentaries including shows like my personal fave, Marketplace

So I was surprised at this week's announcement that management is proposing to cut CBC TV news and docs as part of its investment in "digital." That means they're going to concentrate on technology's bells and whistles -- the delivery system -- and give up on producing the stuff to be delivered. 

Let's call it the broadcasting equivalent of a smart bomb strategy. Save the buildings; kill the people. 

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Posted by Shannon

oleannaoleannaThe Mamet on Main collective's production of Oleanna has turned the controversial two-hander about the clash of power and gender politics into a thrilling three-hander. The audience functions like a subtle Greek chorus in the confines of the Little Mountain Gallery theatre. 

And I'm so sorry you'll never see it. The last show is on Sunday night. Maybe you can bribe someone to hand over his reservation? 

The 50-seat theatre-in-the-round setting puts the audience in that claustrophobic office with the professor and his female student and the show pulls some of its energy from us.

When the vile professor says he loves teaching, you can hear a skeptical chuckle. When the action turns angry, there's a gasp. And throughout the intense 80 minutes you can feel sympathies shifting from teacher-to-student and back again as David Mamet's carefully weighted script reveals fact-after-damning-fact about both characters.


This production made me see the play differently. Director Quelemia Sparrow draws out the nuance in the 22-year-old text, which has a reputation for misogyny. Many (most?) versions pit the feminist student against the male professor and make him the victim of political correctness. That's not what we see here. 

John and Carol are more like a couple of rats in a bag. Vicious, sure. But it's not personal or political; it's their nature. The play becomes less about political fashions than about power and its abuses. The real villains of the piece are the institutions on both sides of the debate that grant some people the power to turn their self-serving whims into law. 

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Posted by Shannon

The hazard of being on the trend-spotting beat is that my editors often cast a skeptical eye my way. 

"Artisanal toast at $5 a slice? Really?" one of them asked in January, when I filed my prediction that Toast Will Be the New Cupcake. Browning gourmet bread is all the range in San Francisco, so it was a safe bet that soon Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver would be embracing the carbs. 

This week I'm delighted to report that it really is a thing. Matchsticks Coffee Roaster on East Georgia launched a new cafe with a menu featuring a toast bar. Their own naturally leavened organic bread will be turned into classic cinnamon toast, or slathered with seasonal preserves and walnut butter. 

Ah, the sweet taste of vindication and the right to say, "I told you so." 

I emailed an editor that we should add a tagline to The Tyee: "Now with prognostication." 

So far, no word back. But now maybe they'll take me and my crystal ball seriously. 

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Nostalgia & Moonshine

10 Feb 2014
Posted by Shannon

Are we reliving the 1920s and '30s all over again? I suspect so, and I wrote a think piece -- Awash in Nostalgia and Moonshine -- about our weird society-wide fetish for that era, at Swerve magazine last week.  

I've long had vintage tastes, and at 20 I could quote Cole Porter lyrics along with the Clash, but I thought it was odd when the rest of the world began to share my enthusiasm. Oh sure, the period from roughly 1912 to 1940 delivered innovative dance, brilliant literature, and stylish clothes. Not to mention a roster of great films and ukulele tunes. 

And no one in journalism could fail to see the parallels between the explosion of broadcast radio in the 1920s and the growth of the Internet. Even the complaints are the same, as artists grouse about how the new tech gives away their old art form free. (Not so. It's called advertising. And it also began as an industry in the 1920s.)

But I think it's fair to say that we feel just as overwhelmed by technology as our great grandparents who coped with cars, phones, movie palaces, and mass media in the space of a few short years. And I suspect there's also a secret, nagging question at the back of our collective unconscious: given all this technical disruption can another Depression and Nazis be far behind....

No wonder we all have the urge to bring on the moonshine. 

By the way, that fabulous illustration for the piece was done by Toronto artist Blair Kelly and you'll find his website here. 

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Posted by Shannon

Well who knew that a piece in praise of philosophy would be such a hit? 

My piece for Salon magazine, "Be Employable, Study Philosophy," just went viral with more than 24,000 social media pick-ups and a surprising number of interview requests from all over, including American Public Radio. It’s my warning to would-be journos to stay out of the J-skools and get themselves a proper education in a real discipline. 

It’s a highly contrarian view in this age of universities selling credentials in all sorts of trendy subjects. And philosophy is often dismissed as a useless degree by the sort of people who think the business of education is to train tomorrow’s workers for yesterday’s jobs.  But as one of my former instructors noted, if you teach people to think first they can do whatever else they want.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find it hugely reassuring that so many people seem to be in favour of our universities delivering real education instead of certificates in nonsense. 


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Try out an idea

20 Mar 2013
Posted by Shannon

My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum
Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith
Sex and the River Styx By Edward Hoagland
Against Joie de Vivre by Phillip Lopate
The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders
The Solace of Open Spaces, by Gretel Ehrlich
Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens
I feel Bad about My Neck by Nora Ephron. To which I would add, Crazy Salad; Scribble, Scribble; Wallflower at the Orgy; and I Remember Nothing. 
Thirteen Ways of Looking at A Black Man, by Henry Louis Gates Jr. 
Teaching a Stone to Talk, by Annie Dillard
The Common Reader, by Virginia Woolf
Against Interpretation, by Susan Sontag. 
Naked, by David Sedaris
Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin
Consider the Lobster, by David Foster Wallace
The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan
The Book of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon (a writer I’ve never heard of)

Essays are my favourite prose form so I welcomed a pop culture website offering a quirky, mostly American list of the 25 most interesting essay collections. Alas, they’ve put it together with one of those ultra annoying slide shows that so many of us hate. 

So for your convenience, here’s my list of 31 essay collections  – my choices plus Flavourwire’s 25 nominees -- featuring writers trying out an idea. 

Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin. Two collections of essays about the meaning of life cleverly disguised as recipes. Colwin, one of my favourite writers, is often overlooked and I’m not sure why. Perhaps because her gentle comedies seem, like Jane Austen’s novels, too concerned with the domestic doings of women?  

The White Album and  Slouching Toward Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum
Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith
Sex and the River Styx By Edward Hoagland
Against Joie de Vivre by Phillip Lopate

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What’s in a Name?

28 Feb 2013
Posted by Shannon

A Rose by any other name might be just as cute, but she won’t be quite as trendy. 

Last month I looked at the curious baby-naming fads that have led to “Brooklyn” being a Top 10 choice for Alberta parents and North America’s ever-growing enthusiasm for names inspired by 19th century servants. Downstairs names like Abigail, Violet, and of course Rose, are all the rage with a certain sort of Upstairs parent. 

It ran in Calgary’s Swerve magazine, which is one of my favourite outlets because my editor Val Berenyi is less an overseer than a partner-in-crime. On noting that “Mason” was ranked on the boy’s list she wrote a slyly funny hed for the sidebar: “As in the jar or the profession?”

And here’s the full list of Alberta’s chart-toppers. Boys:  Liam, Ethan, Mason, Lucas, Jacob, Alexander, Benjamin, Noah, William, Logan. Girls: Olivia, Sophia, Emma, Emily, Ava, Chloe, Abigail, Lily, Brooklyn, Sophie.

B.C’s list is similar with Nathan and Owen replacing Jacob and Noah for the boys. And on the girl’s list there’s no reference to New York’s hipster borough but Isabella is still a Top-10er. 

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