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Book Club: Ben Ghan’s upcoming novel, What We See in the Smoke

A new novel by a U of T alum on Torontonian apocalypses at the intersection of Bradbury and Bloor

Book Club: Ben Ghan’s upcoming novel, <i>What We See in the Smoke</i>

You would be hard-pressed to find a U of T student who is not painfully aware of the catalogue of accomplishments that the Office of the President shills for the now-retired Boundless campaign: our nine Nobel Prize laureates, our four Prime Ministers, and our engineering and medical marvels.

But our less marketable assets conveniently slip through the cracks of campaigns, newsletters, and student awareness. Not as many students can list the accomplishments of Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, and the other name-droppable contributors to Canadian culture as easily as they can recite the now-trite laundry list of accomplishments from the campaign.

This familiar cultural issue forms the core of one motifs explored by the hand-stitched literary debut of Ben Berman Ghan: What We See in the Smoke. The book, a self-described “patchwork” of interrelated, but ultimately not codependent, stories, leads the reader through increasingly fictional and farfetched plots with the city of Toronto at its center. It is a Bradbury-esque adventure that takes its reader across time and space at the intersection of science fiction and the yearning for a better home.

The vector for each of these Torontonian escapades? Apocalypses. Big and small; banal and fundamental; at times familiar yet oftentimes not.  

The destruction of a standard becomes Ghan’s mandate. True to form, each of the seventeen ‘patches’ that form his quilted narrative eventually destroys themselves. The earlier stories, ones both chronologically and thematically closer to our present time, destruct in forms that are quite familiar to denizens of a city built upon seemingly-constant renewal and construction.

It is upon this concept of familiarity that Ghan seems to base his most successful heel-turns in character development and plot. He wields What We See’s dramatic irony so aptly that the reader rarely expects the destruction wrought in his stories. The later, more futuristic, and certainly more science-fiction-like stories, transition slowly from the familiar bounds of the city we all know, yet remain consistent in motif, providing the reader with a sense of recognizability, despite constant content shifts.

Truly, the whole novel feels like Toronto — all of its tragic and painful moments, which happen more often than expected — are caught up in cherry blossoms, major intersections, and, of course, the unassailable CN Tower.

When the reader begins the novel, Ghan seems to sell his stories short, making them almost too recognizable, too familiar. Certainly, in my first read-through of the novel, I questioned what interest I had in reading realistic stories of Toronto’s grittiness when I was faced with them in one way or another almost every day. I live here.

But that familiarity deceives. Ghan allows you to become comfortable in a surrounding you feel like you know, before making you believe that you never knew it in the first place. This happens to the point of uncanniness, where the feeling of Toronto, despite all the changes each story makes in plot and content, begin to signal something uneasy. For Ghan, there are only two certainties in Toronto: a mild-yet-still-somehow-debilitating winter and similarly enduring business development.

Despite its unique motley demeanour, What We See ends up being a novel rich in motifs that the average Torontonian can recognize and understand. A mixture of the heinous and the righteous, and a spark of constant renewal that keeps it all in flux, Ben Ghan’s debut is a solid underscoring of the Torontonian ethos.

Ghan seems to ask each of his stories, and the reader as well, what Toronto they would like to see. How would you give Toronto the identity it so desperately aches to discover?  

The only way for you to know is to pick up the book yourself.

What We See in the Smoke is set to release on June 6, 2019.

You can pre-order the novel on amazon.

Saving and skimping in Toronto this summer

Using Ka Wei, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Caffiends to your advantage

Saving and skimping in Toronto this summer

Toronto is a city of opportunity, and with opportunity comes temptation. A 15-minute walk anywhere south of Bloor will lead you past fine dining and food trucks, cafes and bars, book stores and record shops — all of which will tax your willpower, strain your attention, and ultimately drain your wallet.

It’s a battle I know all too well; after popping off in the early days of September like some sort of pudgy, pretentious Drake, my lifestyle caught up with me, and I was forced to reform. I sought out the advice of my smarter, thriftier friends, and scraped by for the next five months on eggs, sriracha, cheap coffee, and handouts.  

That episode let me in on one of Toronto’s best-kept secrets: with some luck and resourcefulness, the city can be liveable — you just have to know the right spots.

For food, fifth-year Clara Rutherford recommends Chinatown’s big-time produce vendors: Ka Wei, Hua Sheng, and Lucky Moose. Stocking up on cheap, nutritious grub like kale, beans, and rice will keep you full throughout the day, while dashing into a hole-in-the-wall bakery, like Mashion Bakery on Baldwin and Spadina, is great for loading up on banana bread or pork buns, says Rutherford.

However, flying around these crazy, mosh-pit produce markets can be stressful. The employees blur past you, prefer cash, and have no time to chit-chat. But when you can find a kilogram of quick oats for $3, it’s a trip worth taking.  

On your way back from Hua Sheng, scoop these up and throw ‘em in the freezer: meats, bread, produce, sriracha, whatever. Each are savoury, cheap, and will let you save up some money for your nights out.  

Another food tip: after 3:00 pm, the CityMarkets across town sell ‘enjoy tonight’ products; food that they’re forced to sell because it will ‘expire tomorrow.’

If you’re planning on hitting the town, fourth-year architecture student David Suskin recommends pre-gaming with some cheap alcohol. Pabst Blue Ribbon is always in vogue, while some of the grimier Ontarian wines are sold for around $7. After loosening up, Suskin and I recommend storming into Wide Open, Sneaky Dee’s, the Madison Pub, or Ein-Stein — of meme page fame. All boast cheap beer, and the latter has free cover on Friday and Saturday.

If you’re feeling some cheap coffee after your night out, avoid hitting the more bougie Toronto areas, like Yorkville, Queen West, and King Street. Instead, slip into Caffiends. This tiny, student-run cafe, based out of a shoe closet in Old Vic, sells coffee at a dollar per mug, and offers up one of the best atmospheres in Toronto.

There are other great, inexpensive dives on campus, too. Recent graduate Arielle Mantes recommends Trinity’s The Buttery or Victoria’s Ned’s, but with a few caveats. The drinks there can be pricey, Mantes says, so make sure to bring a reusable mug and tea bag with you to skip the line and cut costs.

If you’re really down and out —think early April, trapped at Robarts, snow on the ground — you can always go to Starbucks. If you’re a Starbucks Gold member, you get a free drink on your birthday. The good news is all it takes to become a member is an email and a few spare minutes to sign up, so make sure to pop by on your birthday for that free drink.

Everyone has their own strategies on how to get by in Toronto. Maybe you sniff out free food on campus: college societies and Frosh week are especially known for this. Perhaps you budget, prep meals, and fast through breakfast. Safe to say, there are hundreds of things you can do, and even more waiting to be discovered.

Top 3 activities to do in Toronto this summer

Twenty degrees, a mild breeze, and Insta-worthy pics — summer in the Six has never looked better

Top 3 activities to do in Toronto this summer

Being a student in the city can be costly, which is why we’ve found three things you can do this summer in Toronto that are both fun and free. 

Miami meets Monaco in downtown’s very own Harbourfront. Where the yachts and water meet the horizon, Toronto’s Harbourfront has one of the most beautiful sceneries this city has to offer. While the Harbourfront is perfect for a pleasant yacht trip, those living on a student budget can enjoy a beautiful summer afternoon here too.

Upon arrival, you will find yourself surrounded by water vehicles of all kinds, from speed boats and sailboats, to yachts and cruises. Following Lake Ontario’s shoreline, the boardwalk is a great place to walk while seeing all the boats, both parked and coasting. Walking further to the west down the shoreline, you can enjoy the sand between your toes, as well as the beautiful view of boats sailing across the water.

Where is this sand you speak of? If you walk far enough along the coast, you will reach Lake Shore Boulevard West and Toronto’s Waterfront. Here, you will find even more boats, but also sand, bikes, and walking trails perfect for those who want to get fit in the great outdoors. 

If you want to feel like you’re in the streets of Europe, check out the Distillery District.

Located in a little pocket of east downtown, the area is known for its cobblestone laneways. At the heart of the District is the romantic love lock sign where visitors are invited to secure their feelings under lock and key. Reminiscent of the Pont Des Arts ‘Love Lock’ Bridge in Paris, the Distillery District provides students with a taste of Parisian romance.

For a little taste of Japan, the famously beautiful cherry blossoms are back for another round. They can be enjoyed for free at  High Park, U of T’s Robarts Library, and Trinity Bellwoods Park amongst other locations across the GTA. These flowers only bloom once a year, so keep your eyes peeled for their bright colours. 

Toronto is such a diverse and vibrant city, and you can enjoy its many perks without breaking the bank. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get that perfect Instagram photo!