Writings / Reviews

Non-Fiction Reviews

Reid McCarter

Breakfast at the Exit Cafe: Travels Through America
by Wayne Grady and Merilyn Simonds
Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books, 2010
317 pp. $32.95

          “We didn’t set out to write a book. We were in Vancouver, intending to drive back to Ontario in our green Toyota Echo, and we decided to take the long way home, down along the Pacific coast, across the southern states, then up the Atlantic seaboard. It was to be a holiday, an excursion.”

            This is how it starts: a journey that takes writing couple Wayne Grady and Merilyn Simonds from Canada to a tour of the United States, skirting the periphery of the country as they head, the long way, towards home in Ontario. The resulting travelogue, Breakfast at the Exit Cafe, has an impressive scope and compelling story that brings the reader through centuries of natural and cultural North American history in an intimate and highly entertaining tale.
            Despite its purview, the book is never overly ambitious and refuses to sink too long into authorial musings or dry descriptions. This is in large part because Breakfast at the Exit Cafe trades between Grady and Simonds writing with every paragraph, a welcome concept that allows the reader to look at almost every situation from the perspectives of two different people. This approach condenses each chapter into bite-sized pieces of story; something that allows both of the authors to craft moments of heavy philosophical or historic thought with regular cut-off points, without overrunning the imperative of narrative movement.
            A fluid pace is essential because, despite its loftier accomplishments,  Breakfast at the Exit Cafe is a traditional travel story at its heart, the kind of story where a sense of motion is paramount. Like any good travel story, it describes the exotic through the cultural lens of its narrators and provides readers (of any national background) with insight into the locations it examines. Grady and Simonds, like most Canadians, have complex feelings regarding our southern neighbour. The couple’s outlook, influenced as it is by their northern home, provides a fascinating context for the trip. The curious fact that Canada exists culturally, politically and even geographically between our constant British and American influences is a central point in the book, and one that is frequently touched upon.
            As to be expected from a modern Canadian look at the United States, there is a degree of outrage (or at least a level of resentment characteristic of our national outlook) present in both Grady’s and Simonds’ descriptions of various American communities — particularly in the latter part of their trip. While travelling in Georgia, days into the Deep South and surrounded by its omnipresent legacy of violent racism, Simonds thinks of America as “a country founded on slavery and genocide and forged in the crucible of constant aggression.” However, rather than opine from an ivory tower, she immediately follows the thought with another: “Not that Canadians were much better. Residential schools, the expulsion of the Acadians, the internment of the Japanese: we both have skeletons in our historical closets.”
            It is this kind of balance that keeps Breakfast at the Exit Cafe from dissolving into the kind of hypocritical tone that would invalidate its worth as a proper examination of our neighbour. Rather, both Grady and Simonds struggle with the sins of our collective North American past throughout the work, never resigning to easy “us versus them” conclusions or the offloading of cultural guilt that so many Canadian and other international examiners are eager to do. Near the end of the book Grady writes of a moment of insight, fuelled by the anti-American journals of Kipling, Dickens and Kafka: “Foreign writers have come and chided or mocked; American writers have stayed and wrestled and burned. As a Canadian, I feel somewhere between, chiding and burning, admiring and, essentially, being irrelevant.” In this conclusion we come to an insight that encapsulates much of the struggle that exists in Canadian attitudes toward our superpower ally — a love/hate mixture that keeps us forever resenting and adoring what is perhaps our closest geopolitical partner.
            Beyond the success of its function as a travel narrative, Breakfast at the Exit Cafe is also an accomplished (and perhaps unintended) study of marriage. It is not often that we are given such a plain and unpretentious view into the relationship of a couple. The book sometimes functions as a commentary on intimacy itself, often showing how two people, regardless of how intimately connected they are, can exist separately from one another. We see the couple in each alternating chapter  witness the same event and interpret it in different ways. While this functions perfectly well on the micro scale, this look at two closely connected individuals, clinging together against the new and strange, parallels the relationship between Canada and the United States in an unexpectedly poignant manner.
            While travelling in Georgia, Simonds observes that “It takes a visitor to object to what locals take for granted as a fixture in the landscape. Travellers may know less about where they are, but they see more.” Nationhood (for better or worse) defines us and the behaviours of other nations. Particularly those as powerful and as culturally near to us as the U.S., can challenge our sense of self through their behaviour and history. Breakfast at the Exit Cafe shows us two visitors who object as often as they embrace. Because of this, the book is a strong contribution to the genre of travel writing — a work of genuine compassion and curiosity that is as thoughtful as it is entertaining.

The Well-Tempered Listener: Growing Up with Musical Parents

by Mary Willan Mason
Toronto, ON: Words Indeed, 2010
217 pp. $24.95

            We all grow up with a sense that our parents are important — that they are somehow more extraordinary or unique than others. As children we discover the world through them, learn how to interpret life through their lessons, and, ultimately, come to revere them as more than ordinary people. This is a common phenomenon that is, more often than not, almost completely unwarranted.
            For most of us, our parents turn out to be regular adults like any other, with the same flaws that we eventually come to see in ourselves and our peers. They become, as we grow older, just as intrinsically human as we are. The premise of Mary Willan Mason’s autobiographical novel, The Well-Tempered Listener: Growing Up with Musical Parents, suggests just the opposite of this, that her parents are, in fact, extraordinary.
Born to two successful English émigrés, composer Healey Willan and pianist Gladys Hall, Mary Willan Mason grew up in a Toronto that was always changing. She came of age amidst the First World War, the Great Depression and the Second World War — all events witnessed by Willan Mason from Ontario’s capital. Her descriptions of Toronto the Good, a city that is geographically familiar but culturally alien to the Canadian metropolis we know today, forms the most interesting aspects of the book. Some of the most captivating passages in The Well-Tempered Listener describe the strict social mores and historical basis of a city that transitioned from a staid population of colonials to the liberal multicultural, hub of today. These aspects of the book are fascinating, but they are the highlight of an otherwise dreary read.
            The central deceit of The Well-Tempered Listener — one made clear by the title itself — is that Willan Mason’s story will focus on her parent’s musicality as a theme that makes the book differ from other family narratives. Instead, it only touches on the passions of Healey Willan and Gladys Hall as points of interest in a tale that is very much focused on the minutiae of a rather ordinary (if unusually privileged) family life. While Willan Mason does go into some details of her parents’ occupations, there is nothing here that separates her text from similar biographies. If we take the narrator’s advice while reading The Well-Tempered Listener, to “accept people on their own, no matter how famous,” and disregard the celebrity of the author’s father, the story quickly reveals itself to be an incredibly plain one. What we are ultimately left with is a book that promises a theme that it doesn’t do a great deal to deliver.
            Willan Mason carries her narrative in the oral tradition of grandmothers and grandfathers everywhere, meandering absentmindedly from central points to diversions on some aunt or uncle, or, strangely enough, an occasional recipe (inexplicably detailed with exact ingredients, preparation steps and even oven temperatures and expected yield) embedded in an otherwise uniform paragraph. The reader is tasked with trying to summon interest in regular anecdotes regarding a series of cousins, friends of family and sundry personalities that we have no point of reference to. With a more judicious editor Willan Mason’s (already slim) narrative could have been refined and turned into a better work. As it stands, there are simply too many diversions and out-of-place reminiscences to make The Well-Tempered Listener an easy book to recommend. Even worse, there are countless moments where Willan Mason serves up stories that seem to serve the purpose only of illustrating just how integrated her family is with 20th century Toronto’s “high society” of artists, actors, musicians and colonial blue-bloods. 
            At times, this name-checking dips into Willan Mason’s own unfortunate habit of introducing casual prejudice to the story. The author often bemoans the social ostracism that divides various Christian denominations in turn of the century Toronto but offhandedly relates the story of her English father firing their Scottish help, Miss Fitzpatrick, because young Mary Willan Mason had “unconsciously picked up a real Glaswegian accent” from her. At another moment, we are meant to find the author’s teenaged self clever because she refuses to send any of her tithe money overseas to assist during India’s famine because the Nizam of Hyderabad wore “a jewel-encrusted turban that would have paid for food for many people”. Never mind that Willan Mason stands behind her father’s lack of support for burgeoning 1930s musician unions — more important is how deftly she contradicts herself only chapters later by describing her joy, in the heart of the Depression, of a visiting Greek Orthodox clergyman in gold finery, and how “in communities where people are anything but rich, I sometimes think of the visiting prelate and the pleasure that his magnificence gave us in a time of scarcity.”
            All of these problems create the sense that Mary Willan Mason believes her life, and her family’s various quirks, are more interesting — somehow more worthy of remembrance — than others. A degree of matter-of-fact entitlement colours the entire text, making it clear that Willan Mason exists in a world of class and decadence that sets her work apart from a modern reader’s empathy. Here we are presented with the “trials” of the Great Depression and two World Wars by a narrator that is hardly touched by them. This is brought together with a stunning lack of narrative focus and the inherent conceit of Mary Willan Mason’s (textually unfounded) descriptions of a family of “extraordinary” people to make The Well-Tempered Listener an uncomfortable and altogether uninspiring read.

About The Author


Reid McCarter is a freelance writer, editor and graduate of the University of Guelph. He has contributed to several print and online publications, including Side Street, blogTO and C&G Magazine, and played bass and guitar in the (now defunct) Guelph/Toronto indie band You Yourselves.

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