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ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
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Home > McGill News > 2000 > Fall 2000 > Reviews

Storied Streets: Montreal in the Literary Imagination, Macfarlane, Walter and Ross, 2000, $45, by Bryan Demchinsky and Elaine Kalman Naves, BA'67.

This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn't throw a brick without breaking a church window." So goes the infamous remark by Mark Twain upon his visit to Montreal in 1881. "A heart burning town," said Charles Dickens in a cryptic moment.

Bryan Demchinsky and Elaine Kalman Naves have had no trouble turning up many more writers, most of them homegrown, in their literary tribute to the 350-year-old city, and the result of their extensive research is a fascinating historical tour. Storied Streets winds its way from the origins of Montreal (as the mysterious and possibly mythical Indian village of Hochelaga) to the present-day multicultural metropolis. It's a view of the city's evolution through the words of some of our best known -- and some completely unknown -- raconteurs and writers. Not literary history but history filtered through literature, and the able prose of Demchinsky, the Montreal Gazette's Books, Visual Arts and Architecture editor, and Kalman Naves, a literary columnist for the same paper, both of whom have previous books about Montreal under their belts.

For those Montrealers whose knowledge of hometown history is embarrassingly slight, the book will come as an entertaining makeup class on their city's heritage, geography, and some of the historical figures whose names can be found on streets, parks, monuments and buildings. One can remind oneself that Jeanne Mance Park was named for the 17th-century nurse who set up the colony's first hospital, Hôtel-Dieu on St. Paul Street, or that Pointe à Callière is named for a French governor who built his residence in the current Old Port area, among many other historical tidbits.

Along the way, one is treated to visions of Montreal from the obvious literary suspects -- Mordecai Richler, Michel Tremblay, Irving Layton and Gabrielle Roy -- to the downright obscure: excerpts from a 19th-century potboiler by a local journalist named Hector Berthelot; the memoirs of a Victorian midwife peeking into the sexual habits of anglophone Montreal; and scores of early and amateur historians, such as Marie Morin, the first Canadian-born nun, who dabbled in social studies and penned a history of Jeanne Mance's Hôtel-Dieu.

Many of the writers are given short biographical sidebars that are scattered throughout the book, though why two of the city's most important writers, Richler and Hugh MacLennan, are not afforded bios while much lesser writers are, is a minor quibble.

Demchinsky and Kalman Naves take us on tours of Westmount, Outremont, St-Henri, Point St. Charles, Plateau Mont-Royal, Pointe-aux-Trembles -- the whole of Montreal island past and present, seen through the eyes of an assembly of writers that is impressive indeed when grouped in one volume like this. The book is also full of fascinating illustrations and photographs: views of the old city and Montreal residents, archival shots of St. Lawrence Street, Monkland or Boulevard Pie-IX, as well as portraits of the writers whose words fill the pages of Storied Streets. While these images are all in black and white, the large format still makes for a fine coffee-table book, and one with a difference. With such a fascinating city as the subject, coupled with content from some of Canada's best writers, you'll actually pick it up and read it.

aLIVE!, Independent, 1999, Noah Zacharin, BSc'81, DDS'83.

Talk about your split personalities: dentistry graduate Noah Zacharin has been ekeing out an alternate life as a successful folksinger in Toronto for about 12 years now, having moved there from Montreal in 1988. Before you run screaming into the night at the thought of a singing dentist, check this guy out. A talented guitarist and songwriter, Zacharin is also a published poet with a long history in the Montreal poetry scene and was included on Earlicks: Poets as Songwriters, released by Coach House Press. He's performed and recorded with Canadian folk musicians like Penny Lang, Douglas September, Linda Morrison and Lori Cullen, and has two previous CDs out.

This third release was recorded live in Toronto's Free Times Café, with nothing but Zacharin's warm vocals and deft guitar-picking on 11 original tunes, as well as covers of songs by Canned Heat, Willie Dixon and Bob Dylan. Comparisons have been made to Canadian songwriter extraordinaire Ron Sexsmith, and it's easy to see why. He has an accomplished way with melody, writing deceptively simple songs that avoid the pretty but pointless meandering one often finds in the singer-songwriter vein that Zacharin is mining in part.

Some of the appeal might be a bluesier edge to much of the material. Zacharin cites bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt and Dave Van Ronk as early influences: his choice of Willie Dixon's version of "Spoonful," an adaption of Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago" (with, perhaps a bit too audaciously, new lyrics by Zacharin), Canned Heat's "On the Road Again" and a folkified version of Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited classic "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" show that those influences still exert a strong hold, despite the other more lilting folk-pop stylings on the record.

What we really have on this CD are two different Zacharins: one a folk blues player, the other a skilled tunesmith. The latter comes through in material like the opening cut, "Didja Feel It," the James Taylor-ish "Moon On My Side," and the gorgeous ballad "Reflection." Zacharin has a nice light touch with the lyrics of his original songs, mostly avoiding overburdening them with too much poetry but keeping each turn of phrase fresh.

It's hard to pick just a few songs from aLIVE! as standouts, since the whole album is eminently listenable. It's also nice that it's a live album, stripped down to bare essentials -- it allows Zacharin to draw listener and audience into his world, and leaves behind the more dressed-up elements that can detract from acoustic music when a pro-ducer gets a hold of it. A great record for a lazy day or quiet evening at home.

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