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Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World

by Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is one of the original founders of Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press (known as Pulp Press in the 1970s). He is the publisher of Geist magazine, and Ice & Fire is the first title from Geist Books, a new imprint dedicated to exploring Canadian ideas and culture.

The essays in Ice & Fire – many of which first appeared in Geist magazine – are drawn from a 10-year period; but they span a lifetime, a continent, and a culture. The shortest takes up but a page and a half while the longest is 30 pages long. There are 31 pieces clumped together under five seemingly arbitrary headings, with subjects ranging from negotiating an ice storm on the highways around Moncton, New Brunswick, to reflections on Timothy Eaton. All involve searching in some way; the most concrete one,“Looking for Columbus,” concerns the author’s search for a neglected statue of Columbus beneath train tracks in Vancouver, while others are more abstract and focus on a search for a different perspective on the world.

The best pieces offer the delightful sense of a gentle soul drifting through the world, yet viewing it in a completely novel way. All, according to Osborne, are “true in the ordinary sense” and all deal with the past and remembrance. An old man recalls being taken to view the body of the murdered Austrian prime minister in 1914 in “Anatol,” a man remembers how he almost went to fight in the Spanish Civil War in “Wandering Boy,” and the author reminisces at length on his youthful literary travels in Europe in “The Life of the Mind.” Several essays deal with Osborne growing up in Pangnirtung on Baffin Island.

Osborne’s contention is that the places we go and the people we meet are all waiting to be discovered, just as the New World was a rediscovery of an old one that had been inhabited for thousands of years. His ideas are refreshing, funny, and, sometimes, surprising – but never dull. The writing expresses those ideas entertainingly and leads the reader gently into the thoughtful depths of the author’s perspective.