Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Yoko Ono: An Artful Life

Yoko Ono: An Artful Life by Donald Brackett was a short biography (249 pages) and, although I was familiar with the life of Yoko Ono, this was a slower read than I expected. Dewey classified the book as an artist biography (at 700.92) yet our library system preferred 782.42166 (rock musicians biography). I would say that Dewey got it right (and even the Toronto Public Library thinks so) and will let my library’s cataloguing department know about my assessment. That said, the author is from the art world and is a curator, art dealer and critic, so he came to the subject matter with exemplary credentials. I found his writing about Yoko’s early years as an artist to be slow reading, but such is the state of academic literature.

Early into the book he analyzes Cut Piece, Yoko’s most famous piece of performance art. In this piece, she sits silently on stage after inviting members of the audience to come up and cut off pieces of her clothing. She has performed this piece numerous times on three continents, most recently in 2003 at the age of seventy. Here is a woman who had no issue whatsoever with public nudity, as only three years after the clip below, she was posing nude with John Lennon on the cover of Two Virgins. Brackett’s examination of Cut Piece was poignant and spot-on:

“Now considered a classic of feminist art, Cut Piece was possibly Yoko’s most daring public performance piece ever. Her chief raw material for the act was ‘some anger and turbulence in my heart,’ she later told Record Collector magazine. The intensity of feeling generated by the piece would stay with her: ‘That was a frightening experience, and a bit embarrassing. It was something that I insisted on–in the Zen tradition of doing the thing which is the most embarrassing for you to do, and seeing what you come up with and how you deal with it.'”

Brackett provided a history of Ono’s early performance pieces, happenings, gallery shows and written works. Readers who were led to believe that Ono only started to get into art and music after she met John Lennon would be shocked to learn how far back her art history goes. Lennon was still a teenager when she was starting to make a name for herself.

However when he examined Ono’s musical oeuvre his writing was less inspired and, his alleged facts, at times, were unfortunately incorrect. He often got dates wrong (the photos insert was rife with anachronisms) and he assigned songs to the wrong albums, however two specific errors ruined the overall academic tone of the book, such as referring to Gibraltar as an island, and the misspelling Ghandi (embarrassingly, twice).

If Brackett was more qualified to critique Ono as an artist, at least he sought others to evaluate her as a musician, and even then sometimes erred when he himself was praising her. For example, in his critique of what I consider to be Ono’s single best song ever, “Why” (from her debut album Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band), Brackett is mistaken in claiming that John Lennon is playing, of all things, a slide guitar:

“The first song on the album, ‘Why,’ is an extended vocal exercise in which Yoko screams, cackles, howls, and laughs the title word over and over, with John playing a haunting slide guitar in the background. ‘Even we didn’t know where Yoko’s voice started and where my guitar ended on the intro,’ he shared. ‘It became like a dialogue rather than a monologue and I like that, stimulating each other.'”

Brackett quotes a musician who does know a lot more about guitar playing in his own review of “Why”:

“Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas was most impressed with Lennon’s musicianship on the album: “[He] was always able to make his guitar talk. He was one of the most visceral from-the-gut rock guitarists of all time. But never more so than on ‘Why,’ where his guitar spits lovely, processed shards of metal to inspire Yoko Ono’s uninhibited caterwauling. This is some of the most radical guitar soloing of the era, rivaling Lou Reed’s ‘I Heard Her Call My Name,’ Syd Barrett’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive,’ and Robert Fripp on ‘Cat Food’ for sheer conic bravado.’ But Yoko’s voice is without a doubt the star of her album.”

Cashbox magazine reported:

“Yoko Ono sums up the philosophy of the age as succinctly as anybody yet has in her first two sides here, ‘Why’ and ‘Why Not.’ Mrs. Lennon’s voice is the most interesting new instrument since the Moog Synthesizer and she uses it throughout.”

Duncan Fallowell reported in the Spectator:

“The first track is the most ferocious and frantic piece of rock I’ve heard in a long time and sets the pace for much of the rest. The most extraordinary feature of all is Yoko’s high-pitched voice which she uses not for singing but for producing stream of vocal effects. This produces a whole new territory of sound which, in pop, she is alone in exploring with any thoroughness, and unless her voice has been fed through electronic modulators she has quite remarkable tonsils. But I doubt this album will receive the attention it deserves, such is the antipathy toward Yoko Ono that she can do no right. Yet why she should be the object of such derision and plain insult I have never been able to understand. A couple of odd films and odd records hardly explains it.”

In 1970, when this album was released, these few critics responded to it favourably. Most of them treated it as a curiosity and shrugged if off as another example of Ono’s banzai banalities. But even now, 53 years later, it is still way ahead of its time, and has grown in public appreciation by both critics and the public. I find that I can never listen to the one single song, “Why”. I am drawn to listen to the entire album. Follow the instructions on the label of the original UK LP: PLAY IN THE DARK:

Ono has remarked facetiously that she already knows what the newspapers will write about her as an epitaph. She has lived through more negativity in the press than any other artist or entertainer, and sadly the hate levelled against her was often tainted with racism and misogyny. However I believe that the public opinion of her has changed since she made that prescient statement about her own demise. I like the way Brackett ended the book:

“She has been both a brave individualist who lived her life as art, and a sometimes savvy, sometimes naive creator of a Warholian public image that has taken on a life of its own. If recent years are any indication, she will be appreciated in both dimensions as an enigmatic, gifted, generous, quirky, surprising, thought-provoking, paradoxical, and thoroughly mesmerizing presence, and a mirror not only of her own times but of times to come.”

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Too Many Men on the Ice: The 1978-1979 Boston Bruins and the Most Famous Penalty in Hockey History

Too Many Men on the Ice: The 1978-1979 Boston Bruins and the Most Famous Penalty in Hockey History by John G. Robertson is the second sports book I have read in the past month written by a member of the Scrabble community (following Wild and Outside). When I first saw Too Many Men on the Ice, a large-format paperback at 202 pages, I wondered how Robertson could write about a penalty for that long. While he certainly wrote about the penalty that likely cost the Boston Bruins the Stanley Cup in 1979, he also provided an extensive backstory, outlining the Bruins’ rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens and how the American team almost always tanked against them in the playoffs. I like how Robertson prefaced this fateful game:

“It also encapsulated the immense frustration that the Bruins’ players, coaches, management and fans have felt for decades over their team’s infuriating inability to upend the Habs in the playoffs and win critical games at the Montreal Forum.”

With the semifinals tied at three games apiece, Boston faced Montreal for game seven at the Forum. A late penalty in the third period against Boston for having too many men on the ice gave Montreal the opportunity to tie the game, and indeed Guy Lafleur scored on the power play with 1:14 left in regulation time. The Habs scored in sudden death and proceeded to the finals against the much weaker New York Rangers. The Canadiens defeated the Rangers 4-1 and were Stanley Cup champions once again.

I had never known about this infamous game or penalty, and Robertson made the game, as well as all the games he covered with play-by-play commentary, read as exciting as they could be without being there in person. The Bruins’ coach, Don Cherry, was the most colourful of hockey personalities for his wardrobe as well as his banter and he provided insightful game analysis and always a quotable line. It was never a boring read whenever Cherry was on the scene. I will admit that the double-page spreads of solid text looked daunting, especially since I am not usually a reader of sports books, but with this one I couldn’t put it down. The writing flowed so fast, just like the action in a hockey game. It was a pleasure to read.

Robertson researched this book like mad and the chapter notes were bursting. I used his endnotes to find Toronto Star articles on-line.

 Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue 

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Brown Boy: a memoir

I know Omer Aziz from the Mississauga Central Library and also from the nextdoor YMCA. I admired his passion for books as I always saw him reading in the library as well as in the gym. He was genuinely interested in what I was reading too. I am always enthusiastic to talk about books and while my tastes, as seen in my blog reviews, are all over the subject map, Omer kept more to the classics. I could see that he was reading from the panoply of world literature. He even took books into the Y’s sauna and I worried that dripping sweat would damage them. How could you read comfortably when the pages were turning into wet tissue paper? We also chatted about publishing and the sorry state of self-published works; thus I am glad that his memoir was published by Simon & Schuster [1].

Omer wrote about his life as a Canadian of Pakistani origin, growing up in Scarborough and then in Mississauga. His father is a secular Muslim (whom I still see every day at the Y) while his mother is strictly religious, so he was pulled in different directions all his life. After the world changed on 11 September 2001 Omer’s world changed too, as I am sure it did for all Muslims and for anyone whose skin colour was brown.

After years of unimpressive grades Omer had an epiphany during the 2008 presidential campaign. The leading Democrat candidate was Barack Obama, and seeing a man of colour speak so eloquently gave Omer inspiration to refocus his life on his education. He started an impressive campaign of his own to read the classics. He would eventually became a star student and won scholarships to Queen’s University, University of Cambridge and then to Yale Law School. I liked this memory he shared about how he found room for all his books:

“My father and I soon got to work building a study in the house. Since leaving for college, I had accumulated hundreds of books and had nowhere to put them. Together, we tore down a room, painted the walls light brown, and built a bookshelf. It was like I was back in those childhood days watching my father work under the hood of the car, me handing him tools. When the room was done, I finally had a place to study with my books surrounding me, each one a special purchase I had made from a used bookstore.”

This is the Omer I know: the voracious reader. His scholarships got him into good universities where he excelled (as in the above three locations) or failed (he wasted his time at the Paris Institute of Political Studies). In spite of the prejudices around him, where brown boys were considered threats and not academics, Omer worked tirelessly to prove himself as deserved of a higher education. The passages below show what he was up against. They also show that in spite of what others may have done to keep him down, he was also fearless in his pursuit of academia:

“What kind of dream had I been pursuing all these years, trying to educate myself out of my own skin, reading every book I could get my hands on, separating myself from my past, that in a single instant this stranger could put me right back into the box from which I sprang?”


“Dada had never been close to anyone, but I realized how my father and I were not that different. He was the brash immigrant who was fearless in sharing his opinions, even if he valued safety above all else. I was the son of immigrants born on this soil who was willing to look beyond the safety nets and take risks in pursuit of my dreams. We were mirrors of each other in certain ways, both of us with big imaginations that could be not curtailed by those around us.” [2]

Brown Boy was written in a conversational style with reimagined dialogue. It was a seamless read where his jumping from continent to continent, as well as from university to university, never seemed to be impulsive. He shared his reasons for choosing each institution, weighing the pros and cons over other locations and we eagerly awaited the mail delivery containing each acceptance letter. It would have been far easier to create a memoir that stuck to a timeline: first I went here, then there, then dropped out in Paris then did this… and it would have ended up a boring read. With Brown Boy I was always looking forward to Omar’s next academic adventure and professional success. He is an inspiration to us all.

[1] Reputable publisher that it is, yet the proofreaders still let Adolph Hitler get by (instead of Adolf) and left adjacent alternate spellings of Grandad and Great-Granddad. Omer alternated spellings of imposter (p. 147 and p. 253) with impostor (p. 251).

[2] The final line in the passage above was quoted verbatim, thus could be not curtailed when I believe it should have been could not be curtailed.

 Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue

Thursday, June 8, 2023

The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps


I have always loved poring over atlases and maps, and The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps by Edward Brooke-Hitching was different from all others in that the places depicted in it never existed. It was a pleasure to look over all the ancient maps to see the places–especially the islands–that fooled explorers and cartographers, sometimes for centuries. The maps, densely illustrated with both geographic features as well as the mythical monsters supposedly dwelling within, were not easy to read or look at without a magnifying glass, and I read the entire 256-page book with one. The size of font and especially the page numbers were illegible without magnification. I did like the thick quality of paper as it gave my fingers the feeling of handling genuine old maps.

Several of the phantom places or cartographic blunders I had heard of, such as Sandy Island in the Coral Sea, the “island” of California and the African Mountains of Kong. It was funny to read about the lies, which were often imaginary places that ambitious explorers claim to have discovered–and subsequently named after their generous benefactors–to ensure future sponsorship. Brooke-Hitching explained how natural phenomena, such as clouds and icy waters can create illusions or mirages, which were responsible for many of these sightings.

In the chapter about Atlantis, the author included this revealing quote:

“In Reflections of a Marine Venus (1953), Lawrence Durrell writes about discovering a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, ‘and among these there occurred the word islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people…who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication. These born “islomanes”…are direct descendants of the Atlanteans.'”

So my frequent vacations to islands (Åland, Ile de Batz, Bornholm, Christiansø, the Faroes, Grímsey, Iceland, McNabs, Nightingale, Pelee, Tristan da Cunha, Vardø, Vestmannaeyjar and the Isle of Man) can only mean that my DNA is Atlantean.

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Bright Signals: A History of Color Television


Bright Signals: A History of Color Television by Susan Murray was a weighty book generously supplemented with colour photos (as it should) yet it was a slow read as I felt it was bogged down with excessive technical language. Perhaps a book such as this isn’t meant for pleasure reading, as the endnotes were populated sometimes with more than one hundred per chapter, and the book was only 257 pages long. However as the book progressed from tech talk about how TV’s worked to a history of how colour television was introduced–surprisingly, with reluctance–into American living rooms, it became more of an interesting read.

From the plentiful notes and citations I noticed immediately that Murray relied mainly on women experts and scientists to tell this history. Women are often overshadowed in their contributions to science and Murray ensured that if a point had to be proven, she sought a woman whose work or text could be cited. Many of the networks’ first colour consultants were women, hired to ensure that the colours on the set worked in harmony and did not clash. Murray outlined the psychological studies conducted about the effectiveness of colour and how it might affect the hues projected into the home. I found all this psycho-colour talk to be overkill, but it was considered important at the time when all people had to look at was black-and-white. Colour also influenced advertising and sponsors loved it as they felt it enhanced their products and made them more sellable.

One reason the viewing audience did not at first embrace colour television, aside from the obvious high price of the sets themselves, was on account of the poor quality of the colour reception. Colours bled or did not transfer properly, so the viewing experience was an expensive muddle of finger paints. Murray cited Cynthia Lowry in the Los Angeles Times:

“Sometimes, it seems, we spend more time in deep knee bends adjusting the set than sitting back enjoying the show. It is obvious that the three networks have not gotten together to synchronize their palettes. On a Sunday night if one adjusts his set–as directed–to flesh tones on the suntanned face of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. on ABC’S The FBI and switches over to CBS’ Ed Sullivan, the latter often looks as if he were suffering from an advanced case of yellow jaundice. That requires some more emergency knob tuning.”

Murray’s history ended with the various moon landings, so she took colour TV to outer space and wrote about the special equipment and transmission needed. For such a slow read–I felt it would have taken me longer to read this than it did–the book did pick up and I embraced all the vibrant photos of colour TV ads, no doubt printed that way to entice potential customers to ditch their B&W sets and take the plunge into the colour pool.

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics by Tim Marshall is the 2015 edition dealing with Russia, China, USA, Western Europe, Africa, The Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America and The Arctic. The first chapters were more relevant to the thesis: how a region’s geography confines it in ways that are unavoidable, such as dealing with mountain ranges, rivers, deserts and oceans. I felt that the author drifted from the “prisoner” relationship in the later chapters, but that may only be because the first regions, namely Russia, PR China and the USA are so vast and are among the most vital to international politics and economics.

Marshall covered how a country’s terrain could render it vulnerable to attack, and outlined past wartime strategies that sent troops into Russia and the Chinese mainland, and why these two nations desire buffer zones to keep them protected. In spite of their sporadic antagonism, India and PR China will never go to war because they have a little hurdle called the Himalayas straddled between them. I appreciated the explanation about the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan. In spite of their single instance of glacier warfare, these two countries cannot engage in any kind of long-term ground conflict in Kashmir. I had memories of my university political geography class whenever I read about the slashing straight lines of colonial borders. Africa and the Middle East are full of them. They divide people indiscriminately and conflicts brew when people find they have to show a passport to go into an area that they and their ancestors have visited for generations. The author devoted a single paragraph to the Canada–Denmark dispute over Hans Island, yet misplaced the tiny speck on the Arctic map. Maps were essential to each chapter and it was helpful that Marshall included all the minor bodies of water and landforms that he was talking about.

I had to laugh at what Marshall wrote about the European Union:

“What is now the EU was set up so that France and Germany could hug each other so tightly in a loving embrace that neither would be able to get an arm free with which to punch the other.”

Map geeks will love this book and will wonder when the next edition will come out, as there are plenty more than just ten regions where geographic prisoners are incarcerated. I see that the junior version of this book includes two additional maps: that of Canada and Australia, so Marshall has at least covered two of them.

 Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The Sun Tyrant: A Nightmare Called North Korea


JP Floru spent nine days in the DPRK in early 2016 and The Sun Tyrant: A Nightmare Called North Korea is his travel diary. It was irresistible to compare travel experiences since I spent nineteen days travelling throughout the country in 2011 yet saw far more than Floru. His book seemed sorrowfully lacking and rather dull since tour companies do offer more extensive packages which unfortunately he didn’t take. I did recognize many of the sights and could anticipate what would happen next, as the museums and war memorials are mandatory stops on any tour. To compensate for his lacklustre experiences I found that he dramatized the mundane, overcompensating for what he didn’t find elsewhere. Thus every landscape he saw was treeless and grey, all pottery was mud-coloured and all the locals unsmiling automatons.

Tourists to the DPRK are informed beforehand what will happen when they visit the statues of the Great Leader Marshal Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong Il. The protocols can become pretty tedious but one does not go to the DPRK without doing any homework in advance. You go there knowing what is going to take place, and if you object to bowing before the statues of the leaders and laying flowers at their feet, then you had better stay home. The same goes for visits to any buildings or so-called tourist attractions. You can’t really act surprised when your group is herded through museum rooms while being fed propaganda about the Korean War. That said, Floru never seems to get his head around it, and bemoans again and again having to endure the Northern spin on things. His description of his minders and hosts was eye-rolling unfunny, as he introduced each one the same way every time:

“Our minder, in a long, black velvet robe with diamanté sequins and regulation socialist perm, welcomes us.”

I get why he did this: to emphasize the lack of individuality in the country and their painstaking verbose way of referring to people (as when I made a facetious reference to the two Kims in the second paragraph). But to introduce each host the same long-winded way? Definitely not funny.

Floru was in an obligatory group tour, and he learned the secret to taking verboten photos:

“Then again, however, it’s a pretty good idea to travel to North Korea in a group as you meet far more people than on an individualised tour; your fellow travellers are a support network in case of trouble, and they can distract the minders while you take illegal photos.”

In my case, however, I didn’t have to rely on distracting the minders. My group had its share of delinquent photographers who were always being followed by the minders. That left the rest of us free to photograph whatever we wanted when we realized no one was watching us.

I travelled to the DPRK in 2011–before the death of the Dear Leader Comrade General–when all visitors had to surrender their cellphones before departure. Floru and his group had the luxury of bringing their phones with them, and, while visiting the DMZ:

“What I didn’t observe at the time and heard only later is that virtually everybody else in my group uses this moment to send text messages to their loved ones across the world using the South Korean mobile phone network.”

Policy at the time of his visit precluded a visit to the Joint Security Area blue huts that straddle the actual border. I was able to go inside one of them.

I can understand that with so many Koreans sharing the surname Kim, keeping track of people might get confusing. He mixed up the birthplace of Kim Jong Il, incorrectly assigning him to Mangyongdae, and much to his embarrassment, identified Kim Jong Il’s mother as Kim Sŏng-ju, which is not the name of his mother (that’s Kim Jong Suk) but rather the birth name of Kim Il Sung. Floru made other Kim errors, and some of them weren’t even cases of mistaken identity. On two occasions he referred to King or Kin instead of Kim.

A nine-day trip to the DPRK that excluded some Pyongyang sights and other cities outside of the capital did not make a very interesting read. The author didn’t even include any photos. I found the footnote text too small to read without a magnifying glass and the asterisks indicating them within the page text were so small my eyes always passed over them. Thus when I got to the end of a page I always had to reread it in order to find the place where the footnote referred. For a longer DPRK country-wide tour, visit my blog.

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue