Monday, May 25, 2020

RIP Chamsine/Kababana, 2017-2020

In addition to the mounting death toll from the current COVID-19 pandemic, we've started seeing a restaurant death toll. Among the more prominent examples in Toronto are Vesuvio's, a family-owned Italian restaurant near High Park that was in continuous operation from 1957 until April 19, 2020; and Prohibition Gastro Hub, a notorious hangout for Raptors fans with a hankering for happy hour deals at Yonge and Eglinton or in Leslieville.

Now there's a casualty at the corner of St. Clair Avenue West and Vaughan Road.

April 13:

This morning:

Chamsine, and then Kababana (you can see the red Kababana sign over the old bright orange Chamsine menu) served some of Toronto's most delicious Middle Eastern takeout food at affordable prices. For $5, including tax, you could have a falafel wrap. $6.19 got you a chicken shawarma wrap. $7.08 got you a shish taouk. I can recall those prices from memory due to the sheer number of times I went. Their fries with garlic sauce were a great Canadian side.

I ate from Chamsine/Kababana at home, on the 512 streetcar, or walking to Wychwood Barns. Given the propensity for takeout there, as the tables were frequently vacant despite the lineup at the counter.

Gone but not forgotten.

I worried about this exact scenario on Quora over a month ago.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Things in Life

On this blog, I have a history of cataloguing things. From the books I review, the soup I eat, listing virtues and sins, or even my laundry (that last one was admittedly early in the blog's history), I make lists and diaries that challenge me in some way.

I've also taken to an oddball COVID-19 pandemic diary. Rather than the usual detonator blast of Instagram stories (although there's nothing wrong with those), I've tackled some very specific issues that are not usually covered on the same blog but that work fine right here: cooking a shelter-in-place-friendly menu, archival book readings, even more shelter-in-place-friendly cooking, and my inhalation of The Last Dance, starring none other than Michael Jordan.

Today, I combine the two: a life catalogue that can make you thankful even in these trying times.

None of the categories should overlap.
  • ·Things I Love Doing are non-competitive. For example, drinking coffee or walking in the park.
  • ·Things I Am Good At are either competitive or have some capability to outachieve. For example, a sport or a game.
  • ·Goals I Have are experiences in life. They are neither competitive nor non-competitive. For example, visiting a certain historical site.
Love, be good at, and set goals away! My responses are mine alone.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Last Dance, Episodes I-X

I finished watching The Last Dance today. As a huge NBA fan, I have a lot of thoughts. As someone born in 1987, whose hometown got its NBA franchise in 1995, I have a lot of thoughts. (Full post on Quora, linked below.)

I wore my Mitchell and Ness Bulls shirt while watching Episodes IV-VI.

The format is perfect: a chronicle of the 1997–1998 Chicago Bulls season, in which they finished 62–20 en route to their sixth NBA championship in eight years, interspersed with a chronological account from Michael Jordan’s youth until the season right before. The prominent Jordan interviews combine with interviews of Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson, Jerry Reinsdorf, Horace Grant, and many of the other protagonists. The back-and-forth was easy to follow thanks to a number line-style segue whenever the documentary changed time periods.
The first topic that comes to mind for as fan who’s watched over two decades of basketball since the Bulls’ last championship is how close most of the games were. The Bulls frequently won and lost multiple games in the same playoff series by 1, 2, 5, 8 points. (Watch Episode IX, about the epic 1998 Bulls/Pacers Eastern Conference Final, for the best example.)
The second topic that comes to mind is that the Bulls never won a Finals in four games or in seven. There’s a uniquely “never in doubt, but never a complete blowout” about the team.
My favourite moments (basketball) were the early contending and championship years, from about 1988–1992.
  • The Bulls/Pistons rivalry
  • The first championship: Jordan over Magic
My favourite moments (other) were the sports business aspects behind Jordan’s rise to stardom and the Bulls’ near fall from grace.
  • The development of the first Air Jordan shoe
  • The inside material on the Scottie Pippen contract dispute
What I thought the series needed more of was detail on the 1996 and 1997 seasons. Only four teams have won 69 or more games in an NBA season; the Bulls won 72 and 69 games in those consecutive seasons. At the time, a couple decades before the 73–9 Warriors, you had to go back to the 1971–1972 Lakers in order to see that kind of production.
Although there was a great discussion about the 1996 NBA Finals (against the 64–18 SuperSonics, who in many other seasons would have had the best record in the league), most of the 72–10 flies by. The 1996–1997 season, in which the Bulls went a blistering 69–13, appears as a glossed-over prelude to the first Jazz Finals. The Bulls/Heat Eastern Conference Finals is not even mentioned, or else was so briefly I missed it entirely while getting up for a drink of water.
What I didn't enjoy as much was when the biopic sections on Michael Jordan steered too far away from the team’s story. The section on the rumour of David Stern suspending Jordan for 18 months(!) could have been shorter. I didn’t need to hear from Barack Obama, although he’s always good for ratings. Some of the praise toward Jordan felt obvious more than anything.
A final, mischievous thought: Neither the Rockets nor the Spurs ever played against the Bulls in the Finals. To win it all, Jordan never had to knock off Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson when it mattered most. We’ll never know what would have happened.

See my full post on Quora here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

May's Book: Battle Cry of Freedom

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
History (1988 - 867 pp.)

Battle Cry of Freedom, 32 years after its initial publication, is still widely considered the leading book on the American Civil War. For an academic text, it is gripping. For such a fast read, it is supremely well sourced, drawing from hundreds of primary sources and a wealth of secondary sources.

Fortunately for McPherson and his North American audience, the Civil War may be the best-documented event to ever have such a high percentage of its historiography written in English. It has been reviewed by so many leading professors of American history that I will not attempt to displace their scholarship. Instead, I will highlight a few of the major issues that may entice new readers, surprise old ones, and look at the book from the perspective of 2020. Due to the extensive nature of the material, which I am sadly unable to cover in full in such a short review (my apologies to Battle of Antietam enthusiasts), I am also taking the uncommon (for me) step of adding subheadings.

McPherson's Retelling, 1847-1861

Surprisingly for a book about the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom starts not at Fort Sumter or at the 1860 Presidential election, but in Mexico City in 1847. (3) Manifest Destiny, and with it the Mexican-American War, led to the United States's massive territorial expansion. This expansion brought a minor difficulty and a major difficulty; the minor difficulty was how to outfit and supply ports on the United States's new western coastal state of California,* (49) whereas the major difficulty was whether these new states would be free states or slave states. This major difficulty sets up McPherson's extensive discussion of the America of the 1850s, which is itself crucial to the book for two reasons. One reason is that it was arguably the most disastrous decade in American history, so full of sectarian divisions that civil war seemed inevitable by its end. The other reason is that Battle Cry of Freedom is part of a ten-book series covering all of American history; with so few volumes to cover so much ground, if McPherson had not written such a definitive history of 1850s America, one might not exist.

In the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln's stunning 1860 election victory, and the Southern slave states' subsequent secessions,** it becomes easy to forget that those states more or less on the Mason-Dixon Line were in a uniquely poor position: they had enough slaves to be antagonized by abolitionism, but not enough to be willing to fight for the institution. (284) This was the heartland of John Bell's Constitutional Union party, which won Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee; Kentucky would remain in the Union, Tennessee would secede, and Virginia would be rent in two with the independence of West Virginia in 1863. No slave state voted for Lincoln, even the ones who would send troops to die for the Union.

A Long War

Like World War I half a century later, each side thought it would win quickly: "With such confidence in quick success, thoughts of strategy seemed superfluous." (333) In retrospect, that was the only outcome that might have favoured the South.^ David Farragut and Benjamin Butler's capture of New Orleans came early in 1862, Butler leading "unscathed troops" into the city, (420) leading diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, who McPherson quotes extensively, to state: "New Orleans gone--and with it the Confederacy. Are we not cut in two?" (422) Popular culture's relative emphasis on Robert E. Lee's march north to Pennsylvania understates just how devastating the Western Theater was to Southern interests, including (as Chesnut implied) cutting Texas off from the rest of the South. Later Southern incursions into Kentucky, for example, would find the local populace so indifferently resistant toward Braxton Bragg's invasion force to the point that he considered his brief military successes in that state pointless. (518) More decisively, occupied Louisiana and Tennessee were permitted to collect votes in the 1864 Presidential election; both states voted for Lincoln, which would have been unthinkable in 1860. Even Lee's laurels he carried into Gettysburg in 1863 were elusive, as his and James Longstreet's^^ defeat there quickly ended the ongoing mediation discussions to have a consortium of European Great Powers resolve the war. (664)

Everything from poor-quality uniforms to disease outbreaks ravaged both sides, but no one was ravaged worse than the Confederacy. The Confederate medical corps, for example, was full of capable people who lacked the resources to heal wounded troops. (485) Similarly, even in Lee's Virginia Theater the Southern soldiers frequently looked so bedraggled, such as during the Battle of Spotsylvania in 1864, the local civilians were appalled at their appearances. Then there was General William Sherman, oft-cited as the inventor of modern total war, whose victory at Atlanta in 1864 and subsequent March to the Sea caused McPherson to note: "'War is war, and not popularity-seeking,' wrote Sherman in pursuance of his career as Georgia's most unwelcome visitor." (755) Philip Sheridan would bring a similar mindset to the Virginia Theater during his Burning of the Shenandoah Valley, as would Ulysses S. Grant in ordering the use of a ground mine in the assault on Petersburg, Virginia, "a tragic fiasco" that resulted in part of the Confederate line plummeting to death in a makeshift sinkhole. (758) Worst of all, perhaps, was the sack of Columbia, South Carolina, by Sherman: "Units from two of Sherman's corps occupied the capital on February 17; by next morning almost half of the city was rubble and ashes." (829)

The Book Itself

There are so many cities, rivers and other locations, with the only maps being extreme closeups focusing on individual hills or plains. Battle Cry of Freedom could have used more maps, especially zoomed-out maps of entire states or even the entire United States of America. Maps of the old South would have been especially useful considering how much of it was destroyed. Regarding one of the war's more prominent examples, Grant's capture of Vicksburg, (map on 632) I have never seen Vicksburg mentioned once outside of a Civil War context; a non-North American might not even realize that Vicksburg is in Mississippi.

Battle Cry of Freedom, already at almost 900 pages (a contender for longest book I've reviewed on here), could have used an expanded epilogue briefly introducing the Reconstruction. Although Battle Cry of Freedom is part of a series, so the Reconstruction is presumably covered in the following book, the end of the book does not even get as far as the infamous barn burning of John Wilkes Booth a mere seventeen days after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. The Ironclad Oath, first promulgated in 1863, does not appear in the book's index. For a book that starts with an overview of the Mexican-American War, it ends so suddenly the reader is flummoxed by the lack of explanation of what happened in the defining first few months of Reconstruction.

A frequent mention by McPherson, which I have seen echoed by other authors, is the frequent use of the word "conservative" to describe Southern Democrats. This raises the question: what, precisely, were Southern Democrats attempting to conserve? Although Jefferson Davis is quoted once as self-identifying as a conservative, both sides far more frequently referred to themselves as the heirs of the Revolutionary War generation. The comparison between the rapidly industrializing, navally dominant, abolitionist North and the United Kingdom was not lost on Southerners, who called Abraham Lincoln "his Majesty Abraham the First". Northern Democrats accused Lincoln of passing "aristocratic legislation" from which "The rich are exempt!" (italics in original, quoting Robert Sterling's 1974 PhD thesis on Midwestern Civil War draft resistance) for the commutation laws that allowed Northerners to pay a fixed sum of $300 to evade conscription. (602-603)

As always, I give credit to authors for teaching me new words where it is necessary. In the case of McPherson, it is enfilade, "a position of works, troops, etc., making them subject to a sweeping fire from along the length of a line of troops, a trench, a battery, etc." It is effectively the infantry version of a broadside.
The Civil War: A Conflict That Takes Time to Digest

By complete coincidence, I reviewed Ward Moore's 1953 alternate history novel Bring the Jubilee a month ago. It's been a Civil War-inspired spring. Perhaps this is due to my planned trip to Harpers Ferry, cancelled amid coronavirus concerns. Perhaps it is due to the fact that sheltering in place, with all the activities that entails, finally gave me the time necessary to read an 867-page academic tome. May this opportunity for more mountainous reading fare you well.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 10

*In an otherwise thorough book, the establishment of the early US Pacific Fleet (Pacific Squadron until 1907) is completely unexplained despite the fleet's critical role in American expansion during this period. Prior to a railway to California or the Panama Canal, how did the US get the necessary manpower, supplies and infrastructure to the Pacific? Ideas from my general knowledge of 19th-century world history ricocheted through my synapses, from a perilous journey around Cape Horn to a purchase agreement with the Russian Empire. Thankfully, this is researchable. As early as 1821, when the Pacific Fleet was founded, some ships did go around Cape Horn, and at least some ships went all the way around the Cape of Good Hope.

**Among McPherson's gifts is a tendency toward being just literary enough to keep the reader interested without drawing too much attention to the form of his prose. I write this alliteration in that spirit.

^Any scenario in which the South wins the Civil War is pure speculation at this point. The most likely discussed scenario is Generals Joseph Johnston, Pierre Beauregard and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson leading a force north from the First Battle of Bull Run up to the poorly defended walls of Washington, D.C., where they could have induced Abraham Lincoln to sign a surrender document acknowledging the independence of the Confederacy. (344-349)

^^I fear I do not give Longstreet enough credit here, as he was one of the Confederacy's finest generals during the war. In Gettysburg in particular, he opposed the disastrous Pickett's Charge, only ordering it due to direct orders from Lee. (656, 662) After the war, Longstreet joined the Republican party, showing a willingness for at least some prominent Southerners to make the best of the restored Union. Nonetheless, if my great sin in discussing this book is not giving enough credit to Confederate generals, I can sleep soundly.

Thursday, May 7, 2020 - it's mathematically worth something!

As you know from reading this blog, I launched my website,, last December. I've been quiet about public appearances ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but apparently my website is appreciating in value anyway.

I appear to be in the good company of self-employed musicians and, of all brands, a line of watches with the same name as a popular clothing manufacturer.

The word "books" raises my domain name's value.

"Someone" owns that domain: me!

Saturday, May 2, 2020

In Honor of the Books I Read Before 2012

As all you devoted readers of this blog know, I've posted about books religiously since March 2012, based on the dare a fellow RateYourMusic user sent me (and her, but she never completed it) to read a book a week in 2012. It's not as though I went from being a non-reader to being a power reader overnight, though. Here's one of many examples I'll feature on this blog of a fantastic book I read before that fateful January 2012 date:

A Great and Fateful King: Edward I and the Forging of the British Empire by Marc Morris

My post on Quora:
Edward I of England (1239–1307; r. 1272–1307) was destined for greatness. He scored an early victory while crown prince in the grisly Battle of Evesham (1265), which established him as the main force standing between rebellious nobleman and his father, Henry III. Edward became king while on the Ninth Crusade, which he aborted early in order to attend his own coronation ceremony. From there, he went on to conquer substantial portions of what is now Southwestern France, conquer Wales, land a decisive blow against the Scots at the Battle of Falkirk (1298), and set off reforms of the English legal system. Refreshingly for the time, his marriage to Eleanor of Castile appears to have been a genuine love match.

More controversially, he increased the use of drawing and quartering, especially in the wake of the conquest of Wales. He also expelled the Jews from England in 1290, which modern historians have understandably listed as the worst act during his reign; to show how much times change, it was one of his most popular acts at the time.

If you want a lengthy but fast-reading book that follows one of England’s most iconic rulers through swashbuckling battles and diplomatic tensions, this one’s your bet.

I read this book 12 years ago, but it’s still so vivid to me I just wrote the above summary off the top of my head. It’ll be available on pretty much any online retailer.
If you want a biographical slice of medieval England, Morris's book is a great place to start.

Friday, May 1, 2020

A Word on New Literary Journals

As someone who's considered launching a literary journal from time to time, who follows a number of them, and is generally active in Toronto's literary community, I have a thought on new journals.

When authors look to submit to a literary journal, whether it's fiction, nonfiction, poetry, a one-act play, or a photograph they took of their favourite peony, there are only three ways to tell whether a journal is worth the effort (and/or cost) to submit:

Past issues.

Ultimately, literary journals live and die on the content they produce. While this may seem obvious, it's not as simple as saying "this journal is a SF journal, and I write SF, so I should submit" or "this journal publishes stories about the Pacific Northwest, and I write stories set there, so I should submit". Everything from the typical word count (which is often different from the maximum word count on Submittable) to the author bio format play into whether a submission is the right fit for that particular journal. There's also the niggling background question, constantly out there, as to whether any given literary journal is publishing material that is good.

The submitter's question here, that the journal has to answer, is: Do I want my story to be one of these stories?


Website design, layout and visuals are even more important in the artistic (including literary) world than anywhere else. A website like Pro Football Reference or Basketball Reference doesn't need to look good because it's an aggregation of data meant to be used by sports analysts, bettors and fans. That said, the Flash attack approach of a website like is enough to crash a laptop. I've used sports websites here to avoid drawing attention to any particular literary journal. A good literary journal website, in its layout and its art, will draw in the reader. An additional stylistic point: typos look especially bad when you're telling your prospective authors to submit their best, most edited, work.

Self-plug time: my website, Matthew Gordon Books, is a good example of the balance between stripped-down and spiffed-up.

The submitter's question here, that the journal has to answer, is: Do I want my story to look like one of these stories?


The editor(s) of a literary journal are presumably living people, not bots. Their names should be on the website, either under a Masthead heading or on the submission page. Being able to Google the editor(s) allows a prospective author, or even a prospective reader (literary journals get purchased sometimes!), to see what else the editor has written and what else the author likes. For example, if I were listed on a masthead somewhere, you could quickly see, from my Quora posts and from my short story "The Aviary", that I like experimental, punchy fiction that gets straight to the point and is at or under 1,000 words. My educational and professional backgrounds are also easy to find if you dig a little. If you graduated from my alma mater, tell me that!

The submitter's question here, that the journal has to answer, is: Do I want my story to be published by these people?

The above three criteria are especially important when a literary journal is either set to release its first issue, requires payment along with submissions, or especially both.

If you have no past issue to show, and no one can tell who you are, yet you are expecting money along with submissions... I can't imagine who would even fork over $5 because some unknown person might publish a literary journal at some point. You can buy a sandwich for that.