Us Wheatsheafers on Us Conductors

On May 1, 2015, in Good reads, by John Ellis

9780345813343_0Strange title but a nice little book regardless

The Wheatsheaf Literary Society met to discuss the Giller Prize-winning novel ‘Us Conductors‘ by Sean Michaels. Reviews were mixed but positive – somewhere in the neighbourhood of a 4-pint score (out of a possible 5 pints).

According to the publisher, the novel is inspired by the true story of the Russian scientist, inventor and spy Lev Termen – creator of the theremin – and of Clara Rockmore – its greatest player.

If you don’t know what a therimin is, geek out and watch this groovy video.

Michaels has managed to orchestrate (get it?) several stories into one. There is a love story, a spy story, a technology story and a long thread of misfortune. Yet, the book flows easily and the story lines merge well. It’s quite an accomplishment and a joy to read. I came away feeling sad for the main character. I read it as the story of a man who never got the chance to be in total command of his own creativity because of his obligations as a spy. He didn’t get the girl. He didn’t get to decide how his intellect would serve society. He didn’t get paid for his intellectual property. Without the spy stuff, he could be an intern at an ad agency.

Conclusion: 4 out of 5 pints from the Wheatsheaf Literary Society is one more reason why you won’t be disappointed by this year’s Giller Winner.



“Geologically, a T-Rex is closer to a Miley Cyrus concert than he is to a Stegosaurus” Wow.

Over a long enough time horizon, most of what we do is relatively insignificant. Make the most of today, love the people who are close to you, don’t add to the burden of others and never underestimate your ability to make the world a better place here and now.

This lovely little video puts time in perspective.

Guest post: Content is king

On February 11, 2015, in Writing for the web, by John Ellis
winni 2

Illustration by Fred Greiner. Yes, it’s an illustration. This guy is really good.

Today’s guest post is courtesy of Egan Louis, a former Sasquatch scholar and reporter who now earns a living writing online content. Below, he describes his familiar-sounding shift of occupation.

Writing Bad

There ought to be more guys like me. By that, I mean guys who manufacture high-quality product for a thirsty market of user who are accustomed to low-quality, street-level mediocrity. I mean an entire community of buyers accustomed to backroom brews and the underwhelming results of high-school-grade product, whipped up in makeshift labs. To be clear, I didn’t set out to sell this stuff. Economic necessity drove me into this life. I had a mortgage, car payments and a penchant for decent whisky. Time wasn’t on my side and I had nothing to leave behind as a legacy or inheritance. If I had children, they would have inherited gout and whatever happened to be in my chequing account that day. I had been self-diagnosed with a rare case of existential dyslexia as a child. By my best guess, I would be dead in about 43 years. There was no time to waste. I had to use my specialized knowledge in new and risky ways. Before long, I was in too deep. I couldn’t walk away. Last year I made twice as much as the average cop without breaking a sweat. I made more than a high-school principal working even fewer hours. My system was pure. I knew I’d never spend a day in jail and I’d pay less tax than a bus driver.

I have competitors but they aren’t out to kill me. I hook them up with deals when I can’t handle the volume so I’m more valuable alive. I started out as a naïve supplier, focusing on the product that I thought was sexy. I mostly sold H1s, H2s, sometimes H3s a ton of body copy. But that was gateway stuff. It simply wet my appetite for financial success. My best clients were web developers. As long as the quality was high, they didn’t care about the price. It was like they were spending someone else’s money. They would approach me all the time, saying “Hey man. I hear you’re the guy.” I didn’t care where they got my name. If they found me, they were legit. Those guys didn’t go looking for it unless they needed it bad. “I gotta go live man.” That’s what they all said. Like going live was going to solve their problems. I didn’t care what they did with my product as long as they came back for more. And they always did. “Go live and prosper.” I always said. They loved the Star Trek shtick and it made it seem like I was one of them.

I couldn’t believe that more guys weren’t doing what I was doing. It was like having a legal weed stand in the arrivals lounge at a Jamaican airport. Everyone wanted to buy and I was the guy with inventory. Sometimes I’d meet a rogue who would claim that his own, homegrown crop was just as good as my finest blend. I’d see him a few months later and ask “How’d it go man? Did you go live? How was the feeling?” He’d always admit that making his own was a colossal mistake that made him feel worse, not better. I loved those guys. They were converts. After messing up their first batch, they never questioned my prices or the results they got.

It didn’t take long to establish a reputation for quality product and I saw the chance to expand. I knew from experience that the best stuff had sexy names like Panama Red, Purple Mic (short for micro dot) and Acapulco Goldie (made famous by the members of Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show). I called my gift ARIAL.

“Like the girl in the movie? The Little Mermaid?” They asked.

“Sure.” I said. “Whatever turns your crank.” If they didn’t get the joke, it wasn’t my problem. I started doling out top-drawer coach marks, button labels, FAQs and error messages. I could even sell the same batch twice by calling it Alt. Text. Business boomed. Developers, project managers and web designers were lining up. As long as my product fit in the XML code and didn’t exceed the character counts, there was no limit to how much I could sell. They’d stand right beside me, with their hands out, expecting me to pull in out of my pocket and hand it over on the spot. “I don’t have it on me.” I would say. “But wait. Give me an hour, or a day, or a week. Then I’ll get you some great shit man.” That was my standard answer. The more I made them wait, the more they looked forward to the thrill of going live.

Every month, my operation became more efficient. I abandoned my Winnebago-sized office and disappeared into the wind, showing up here and there, hoteling, working out of coffee shops and virtual offices, sometimes even renting a meeting room at the local Board of Trade. When people asked about my occupation, I said I was an instructor of hatchet throwing at a hipster retreat in Orillia, Ontario. No one would make up a job like that, so everyone believed me.

Today, I’m at capacity. Expanding my operation would mean hiring staff and sharing my secret recipe. I prefer to live a simple life, serving a select clientele and writing the kind of online content that lets my clients go live and experience the exhilaration of success. I’m what they used to call comfortable. I’m what I call, content.

Sweet reading

On January 31, 2015, in Book recos, Good reads, by John Ellis


The story of Moses Sweetland is wonderfully conceived and masterfully executed. I was to have read it for a meeting of the Wheatsheaf Literary Society but I didn’t. So, I had the advantage of sitting through its review before I later broke the spine with some knowledge of what to expect. I thank Bill Coristine for insisting that I read this book. He gave me his copy and said, YOU will love this book. I think he did it because we both loved “Suttree” by Cormack McCarthy. Moses Sweetland will stick with me as a character. Thanks for the nudge Bill. And thanks for the great work Michael.

Sweetland is both the name of the main character and the name of the island where he lives, which bears his family name. Moses Sweetland is a stubborn holdout that won’t accept the federal government’s voluntary relocation deal and so he comes into conflict with all of the residents (of Sweetland the island) who want the deal (the cash). It’s a simple and compelling plot driven by the questions: why is he so stubborn and why won’t he leave? Below the surface are darker themes of aging, craziness, loyalty and inevitability. The life of Moses dissolves at the same rate as life on the island of Sweetland. Perhaps it’s a little sad. But don’t we don’t all want to die in our bed, so to speak? (Not a plot spoiler.)

Michael Crummey shows great respect for his readers by providing clues throughout the ages and letting the reader ponder Sweetland’s motivation at his or her own pace. Nothing is rushed or spoon-fed and all is revealed in a beautiful and believable conclusion.






Powerful street art

On July 10, 2014, in Artists, by John Ellis

Companionship, hope and art

One of my favourite days in London included two hours hiking through Shoreditch, observing the ever-changing gallery of graffiti art. My guide was a member of the tour group Street Art London. Here is its tribute to the street artist John Dolan (reprinted with the hope that they won’t mind because this post is solely intended to inform my readers and promote this fabulous tour in London).

Street Art London is pleased to be supporting notorious Shoreditch artist John Dolan’s return to Howard Griffin Gallery with a landmark exhibition entitled John and George. John Dolan is east London’s most notorious artist. For three years, he sat every day with his dog George on Shoreditch High Street. In the past, Dolan had been in and out of prison and often found himself homeless. Sitting on the street every day and watching the world go by, he became part of the community, speaking to passers by about his life, his experiences and George. Dolan began to draw the buildings on the street to document his day, elevating the old, decrepit buildings that are so often ignored and under appreciated. He also drew portraits of George as he sat beside him, and began to sell his drawings to the people he saw walk up and down Shoreditch High Street every day.

Howard Griffin Gallery met John Dolan a year ago. His debut exhibition in September 2013 focused on his unique cityscapes, and saw Dolan collaborate with some of the world’s biggest street artists, including ROA, Thierry Noir, RUN, Steve ESPO Powers, Know Hope, Pablo Delgado and many others. His next exhibition, John and George, moves away from his documentation of the street and turns inward, centring on the unique relationship between the artist and George.

The story of John and George is one of companionship and hope. Dolan was on the streets when he was given George in exchange for the price of a strong can of lager. Since that time, George has been Dolan’s most loyal companion, ultimately enabling him to change his life. With George at his side, Dolan managed to escape a twenty year cycle of homelessness and prison, establishing himself as one of east London’s most recognisable artists.

John and George will present viewers with an immersive microcosm of the street in which visitors will be surrounded by hundreds of drawings of George. The repetition in Dolan’s work stems from the years of working on the street where each drawing he made of George marked the passing of another day and George’s presence was the one thing in Dolan’s life which he could rely on totally. In the chaotic world in which we live, Dolan uses repetition to encourage viewers to take a moment and see things in a different way. The subtle variations in each drawing tell a story and document a quiet and unassuming friendship that for one month will be shared with visitors to the gallery.


Hello, who just joined Ellisism

On May 13, 2014, in I wish I thought of this, by John Ellis

Me and my dog feel you need to see and hear this

We’ll be here, on mute, if you need us.

We’ve all been here. Nuff said.

Born Weird – not a confession

On February 28, 2014, in Good reads, by John Ellis

If you have siblings, this won’t seem so Weird

Andrew Kaufman’s novel “Born Weird” was nominated for the Steven Leacock Award in 2013. It’s the most recent book selection at the Wheatsheaf Literary Society – the oldest, established, permanently floating, men’s book club in Toronto. I’m one of 7 children and I found the sibling relationships well developed, pretty indicative of life in a large family and a little familiar in places.

I recommend this novel as a highly entertaining work of fiction with a happy ending although it has been dogged by a few lukewarm reviews. The Quill & Quire offers a nicely balanced review that shouldn’t prevent you from supporting Mr. Kaufman and his weirdness. He seems like a funny and talented guy. You can read the Quill & Quire review or just buy the book. The Wheatsheaf Literary Society will be interrogating this work on humour in mid-March. I may revisit this post with an update.

The meaning of happiness – for busy people

On January 10, 2014, in Good reads, by John Ellis

Too busy to read? Flickr to the rescue.

You could read all of ‘The Cossacks‘ by Leo Tolstoy or you could  just search the Web for the book’s real meaning. If you opt for the second, easier, lazier alternative, you could end up on this dude’s Flickr page. He’s scanned the one page that sums up the nature of happiness for Olenin, the “wealthy, disaffected Muscovite who joins the Russian army and travels to the untamed frontier of the Caucasus in search of a more authentic life.” Let’s hear it for the Internet!

What’s really funny is that this dude (in a rush to wisdom) was in too big of a hurry to generate a decent scan.

Now – what to do with all the time you’ll save by not reading all those old Russian novels?

BTW – Anna throws herself in front of a train. You can skip that one too.

Pretend you read it.

Great read. All Quiet on the Western Front

On October 19, 2013, in Good reads, by John Ellis

100 years later and little has changed

This month the Wheatsheaf Literary Society is tackling the war classic “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque. Advertised as The Greatest War Novel of All Time, this is an account of a young soldier’s struggle to understand why he should be killing other young men who are just like himself at the request of an administration. These ideas are as poignant today as they were  in 1933, when it was published and during WW1, in which it is set.

With so many wars being fought on the ground today, I have to imagine that many young soldiers struggle with the same issues. Remarque’s young character Paul Baumer could be a combatant in any army, anywhere on earth, right now.

This is a powerful, well written account of humanity. Certainly worth the read.


For lighter fare, check my portfolio of not so heartbreaking material at Hire John the Writer.

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