Monday, December 31, 2012

Why Translation Matters

I come to Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman as an armchair translator. While I certainly appreciate and admire the work of translators, I am not a professional and perhaps for that reason I cannot see the reasoning behind so many five-star Amazon ratings for this book. That said, for those who are interested in translators and translation studies--likely a very small number who take a passionate interest in the subject without pursuing a career in the field--I myself cannot say that I was moved to rave about Why Translation Matters.
Grossman is an award-winning translator of Spanish literature into English. My own studies of literature and indeed of translation focus on French and German. I spent albeit one year of university doing nothing but translation: from English to French and vice versa, and also from English to German and vice versa. Grossman reminded me of the joyous discoveries of translation I made while in these courses.
Some of my professors were adamant in their belief that the role of the translator is not to enhance the original text, but to translate only what was put in front of you. I can agree with this statement up to a point, but such a standpoint and its limitations lends itself to the translator's downfall of literal word-for-word calquing. I always found such translation instructions terribly restricting. I much preferred to try to capture, as Grossman idealizes, the mood of the sentence, the entire atmosphere around the original language and then the experience in the language of translation.
Grossman captures the feel of Cervantes and seventeen-century Spanish in her chapter on translating Don Quixote. She approaches the novel with the question of what voice to capture it in English:
"Would I, in short, be able to write passages that would afford English-language readers access to this marvelous novel, allow them to experience the text in a way that approaches how readers in Spanish experience it now, and how readers experienced it four hundred years ago?"
I myself wonder how translators of older English works translate them into the second language. How does one translate the works of Shakespeare into French? Should the translator use the French of the late sixteenth century? Or modern French? Grossman had to face this dilemma and after a consultation with Spanish writer Julián Ríos, she realizes:
"All I had to do, according to Julián, was translate Cervantes the way I translated everyone else, meaning the contemporary authors whose works--Ríos's included--I had brought over into English."
As an amateur translator I am awed by those who translate poetry well, and am practically on the floor if the translator has managed to make the translation rhyme. Grossman is well versed in poetic structures and foreign traditions and possesses intimate analytical detail in her knowledge. Her points on syllables and meter were the most interesting. Since English has by far more monosyllabic words than Spanish, she has had sometimes to flesh out her English translations with words to maintain the rhythm while not detracting from the original poem. Grossman explains with care when she added filler, or rhythm words to her translated poems.
Grossman often bemoans the current state of affairs in regards to the dearth of English translations of novels in the United States and United Kingdom. I must distance myself from this statement because as a library worker I see plenty of them in the fiction collection, and since I do have a background in European literature (reading not only French and German, but also Finnish, Romansch and easy-level Breton) I am always on the lookout for English fiction translations from any language. I in fact actively pursue translations in the catalogue, by using the appropriate search terms. Grossman avoids putting on a woe-is-me attitude in expressing, several times in her brief 138-page work, incredulous shock and dismay that book reviewers rarely mention the names of the translators whose work made the books accessible to them in the first place. She will be happy to know that I always credit the translator in any of my book reviews.

While I am certain that I would have sat spellbound as I listened to one of literature's premiere translators such as Grossman present the lectures she shares in Why Translation Matters, I unfortunately found most of the text to be a slow read. When Grossman conveys emotion in her translation analysis, the read flows like a successful translation. I am sorry not to give Why Translation Matters a favourable review, but I will definitely seek out Grossman's translated works of Spanish classics.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton

As Billy Tipton was dying he forbade his son to call an ambulance. He did anyway. As Billy lay on the floor, paramedics attempted to revive him. "Son, did your father have a sex change?" a medic asked. Billy Tipton had taken his secret to his death: that he was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton, and had lived for over fifty years as a man. Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton by Diane Wood Middlebrook tells his story. What would possess a woman barely into her twenties to masquerade as a man for the rest of her life? And even more incredulous, how could she deceive everyone, including five wives?

I had first heard about Billy Tipton after his death, when he had become the talk show topic du jour. Friends and relatives, among them any of his five ex-wives, went on the record to say that they had no idea that Tipton was a biological woman. Dorothy Tipton grew up in Oklahoma City in a musical family and mastered several instruments. Her passion was jazz and she hoped to become a professional pianist and sax player, but in the 1930's, women weren't members of bands. The only women one saw in bands were singers. Dorothy had a solution to this blatant sex discrimination: if she couldn't beat 'em, she'd join 'em. She adopted the name Billy, naming herself after her father and brother, and from 1935 to her death in 1989, became both professionally and privately Mr. Billy Lee Tipton.

Her secret was known however among family members, some of whom disowned her. Two of Dorothy's cousins, Eilene and Madeline, were in on the masquerade from day one:

"'And Dorothy really tried to find work. She went looking for a job and just couldn't find one.'
"She couldn't find one, but the cousins were there the day Dorothy finally figured out what to do about that. 'Some way or another Dorothy heard about a band that needed a saxophone player,' Eilene recalled. 'Back in those days you know they didn't have girls traveling with bands--it was just frowned on. Anyway, she wasn't helpless and appealing-looking like you'd expect a woman to be. So she said, "Well, if I can't go as a woman, maybe they'll take me as a young man!" She took a piece of old worn-out sheet and wrapped it around her chest and pinned it real tight. I never will forget the big safety pin we used in it! Some way she had picked up some clothes. Dressed as a boy, she got this job and left with the band.' Madeline added, 'That's what I admired and loved about Dorothy--she was so innovative! She didn't cry or go around asking for help, she took responsibility for herself, and here she was, just a kid. She chose it out of absolute necessity."

The disguise worked, and the new Billy Tipton became famous touring the American northwest and western Canada with jazz bands and later as the leader of his own trio or quartet. But the questions only multiply: how did Dorothy fool so many people? And five wives? The answer is so complex that one can't give a few sentences and explain it all. The piano- and saxophone-playing of Billy Tipton was legendary, and musicians were in awe of him. His skills on the piano and saxophone brought him the respect and admiration of his bandmates, and although there were rumours about Billy's sexual orientation based on his obviously feminine external appearance, these rumours were immediately put to rest. How disrespectful to talk of our Billy that way! Shame on you if you thought it made any difference. In the jazz world of the 1930's and 40's, if you played as well as Billy did, it didn't matter what you looked like--as long as you were a man. Billy Tipton was a leader both onstage and off, and ingratiated himself with his fellow musicians by always looking out for his fellow band members and lending them money if they needed it. Thus Billy was seen as a caring and generous man who would stick his neck out for you, and you'd be a fool if you persisted in teasing him.

In order to be more convincing in her masculine persona, Billy had to be seen with a female admirer. It solved the problem of dealing with crazy women fans at concerts, for if he had a steady girlfriend or wife on his arm, women fans would be less likely to want to rip his clothes off, exposing her secret. It also killed any rumours about his sexual orientation that were always swirling wherever he travelled. As Billy evolved from a small-town pianist to national jazz bandleader, his choice in women evolved as well. From his first wife, a mannish cross-dressing lesbian to his second (a pixyish singer) to his third (a voluptuous Rita Hayworth lookalike) to his fourth (a call girl) to his fifth (a burlesque artist and stripper), Billy's women became more stereotypically exaggerated as feminine. The more famous he got and the greater exposure he received, the more womanly his wives had to be.

These women accepted Billy's excuses for his disguise. He told them he had to constantly wear tight binding around his chest in order to keep his ribs in place following an accident. I can see the plausibility of this excuse: after Andy Warhol was shot and nearly killed, he had to wear a girdle around his torso for the rest of his life. Billy also claimed that a car accident rendered him sterile: that explained to them in advance why he could never father children. In interviews Middlebrook conducted with his ex-wives, they claimed that they engaged in sexual intercourse with Billy, yet over the duration of a conjugal relationship, wouldn't a wife ever want to see her husband nude? Even if he had to leave his chest binding on? One of Billy's wives claims to have felt his erection through his pants, but this could have been a prosthesis, and he could have used a dildo for intercourse. But still, sterile or not, is it not normal for a married woman to be curious about her husband's nude body? These are questions Middlebrook raises, yet the wives are evasive. They feel that the author's questions are too personal and prying, or they claim that the love and affection they received was all that they wanted, and they were not concerned with the physical side of sex. I can read D-E-N-I-A-L between the lines, and the wives are not being entirely open and honest with Middlebrook.

This reaction leads Middlebrook to wonder if any of Billy's wives were themselves closeted lesbians. In mid twentieth-century America it was common for lesbians in relationships to comprise a "femme" and a "butch". Were Betty, the Rita Hayworth lookalike, Maryann, the call girl, and Kitty, the stripper, all femmes to Billy's butch?

Middlebrook devotes some space to explaining the different clinical classifications of hermaphroditism, in order to disprove the doubts of skeptical readers. It is unfathomable for any of us to understand the extent to which Dorothy had to disguise herself in order to pass as Billy. As he gained fame, his tangled web grew larger and grew more barbs, ready to snare him at any moment. As her cousin Eilene explains:

"Mother always thought she should change back as soon as she got a job and could change back. But I think she was talented and good-looking and had a great personality, and once the ball started rolling, I don't think there was any turning back for her."

Billy was born female; she was not a hermaphrodite or anywhere on the spectrum of intersexual. As a woman, she menstruated, yet explained the blood stains in her underwear as caused by hemorrhoids, an unfortunate side effect of having to sit long hours behind the wheel travelling from gig to gig, and also from sitting while playing the piano. Upon one wife's shocking discovery while packing supplies for their life on the road:

"Betty remembered that the first thing into the trunk was Billy's collection of jazz records, which were nested in a big cardboard box and surrounded by boxes of dishes, pots and pans, extra bedding, first aid supplies, spare cans of motor oil, and a big box of sanitary pads--useful for filtering oil, Billy said."

When Billy retired from touring and accepted a job in an entertainment booking agency, he realized that setting down roots was detrimental to maintaining his secret. Whenever rumours about his true identity started to spread during his life on the road, it was only a matter of time before he and his band would be off again. Settling down was a risk, so late in life he and his fifth wife decided to start their own family. Billy and Kitty adopted three boys, and created an instant traditional nuclear family: a perfect solution to anyone who doubted Billy's manliness or virility.

Suits Me became most interesting as Middlebrook told of Billy's final years. Billy's two cousins, who had been in on his cross-dressing secret from the very beginning, were not afraid to ask him questions that anyone would have had. Billy was always welcome at the homes of his cousins Eilene and Madeline, whose own families looked to Billy as the coolest aunt/uncle who lived--and was still living--an incredibly fascinating double life. They had heart-to-heart talks:

"But Billy told Madeline that she was content. 'She was determined to be happy. That was the night she told me, "Some people might think I'm a freak or a hermaphrodite. I'm not. I'm a normal person. This has been my choice."'
"Yet Billy wanted to keep the secret from her boys. On that visit, Billy asked Madeline to promise that if she got sick, Madeline would come and get her, take her away from Spokane to die. 'Then, after I die, you have my body cremated so I'll just disappear.' And Madeline agreed that she would."


"You don't know what fear she lived under that she'd be found out."

The tangled web would not release Dorothy from Billy's persona. However in her final years, as her ulcers and emphysema worsened, Billy made the following admission to Eilene:

"But at the motel, when we had a chance to talk, I asked her if she was ever going to change back. William [Billy's youngest son] was still at home, and she said when she got him grown she was going to disappear and change back."

Billy never had the chance. He died with his secret intact. Middlebrook has written a scholarly biography of the double life of Billy Tipton, and Suits Me is intelligent and honours the woman who gave up her female identity in order to play the music she loved.

Billy's second album was Billy Tipton Plays Hi Fi on Piano. A collector's item now, I picked it up for a dollar at a charity store:

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Library At Night by Alberto Manguel

Alfred A. Knopf, 2006

"Solid libraries of wood and paper, or libraries of ghostly flickering screens, stand as proof of our resilient belief in a timeless, far-reaching order that we dimly intuit or perceive."

This book is about libraries, but it is much more than a "natural history."  Manguel writes about the history of libraries, but also what they mean for us and our civilization.  The book uses the design and construction of Manguel's own personal library as a framing device, from which he launches off on a magical exploration of what libraries mean to him, and perhaps to all of us. 

He discusses how books are organized on shelves (the Mississauga Library System uses the popular Dewey Decimal System to organize its collections).  But chance also breaks books out of a structured system and gives them new collected meaning - books left on a bedside table or in a pile have their own unintended relationships.  Libraries are also very much about their external and internal space - the overall design and shape of the building, the available space to place books inside, and use of the space for other activities.  Libraries empower their community through knowledge, and can be a repository of collected wisdom and identity.  What is chosen to go into a library collection also by extension defines what is absent by exclusion or removal.

There is even a chapter on imaginary books and libraries, including H.P. Lovecraft's "Necronomicon" and other forbidden tomes of the Cthulhu mythos.  I feel though, that two important mythical libraries are conspicuously absent in this discussion - the great library of Celeano (a Lovecraftian library that happens to reside in outer space), and the library of the Dreaming (from Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics), containing every book ever written, and every book ever imagined or dreamed of, even if they were never actually written down.  That library has many holdings from this imaginary novelist! 

The title of the book refers to an idea expressed by the author that during the day, the books in his library retain their rational order, but at night, they become more furtive.  "Unobserved in the late hours, my eyes and hands roam recklessly across the tidy rows, restoring chaos. One book calls to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries. A half-remembered line is echoed by another for reasons which, in the light of day, remain unclear…the library at night seems to rejoice in the world's essential, joyful muddle."

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you enjoy libraries?
  2. Do you have a library at home, or elsewhere?
  3. What are the essential characteristics of a good public library in your opinion?
  4. What is your favourite library building that you have visited?
  5. If you could design your own library space (at home or elsewhere), what would it look like, and what would be in its collection?
  6. What role do libraries play in society?
  7. Manguel discusses the library's place in history, culture and world events. How did you feel about reading these sections? Would you champion libraries as he does?
  8. Think of books you have seen on a display shelf in a library or book store.  Did you notice any unintended relations between the titles displayed?
  9. How do you think the internet age has affected our pursuit, access, and organization of knowledge?
  10. "It is likely that libraries will carry on and survive, as long as we persist in lending words to the world that surrounds us, and storing them for future readers."  How do you feel about libraries and their survival?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Role Models

Role Models is John Waters's tribute to those who have influenced him throughout his life. I had already read two of his earlier books, Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters and Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, so I knew what I was in for: I was ready to laugh myself silly.

Waters describes himself as "a cult filmmaker whose core audience, no matter how much I've crossed over, consists of minorities who can't even fit in with their own minorities.". One can see how the people who have influenced him the most fit in with this self-assessment.

The first major influence on John as a little boy was "Clarabell, the psychotic clown on The Howdy Doody Show, whose makeup later inspired Divine's, had been my role model.". One can't miss the similarities when comparing the two:

The chapter entitled Leslie is perhaps the most serious piece of work Waters has ever written. In it, he talks about his twenty-five-year friendship with Leslie Van Houten, the member of the Manson family who was sentenced to death for her role in the LaBianca murders in 1969. Waters makes a very convincing case for the parole of Van Houten, who has been incarcerated for over forty years. He also apologizes for exploiting the Manson family murders in his early film career:

"I am guilty, too. Guilty of using the Manson murders in a jokey, smart-ass way in my earlier films without the slightest feeling for the victims' families or the lives of the brainwashed Manson killer kids who were also victims in this sad and terrible case."

This was quite a revelation from Waters: that of guilt. Waters has visited Van Houten on a regular basis at the California Institute for Women and is convinced that Van Houten has been mentally rehabilitated for decades and is in no danger of reoffending. The most surprising thing of all is Van Houten's sense of inner peace in all this. She seems resigned to live her life to the fullest, even though she may never be granted parole. I never thought I'd ever say this, but Van Houten's lawyers should have John Waters testify in her behalf at her next parole hearing. Waters never sweeps the LaBianca murders under the rug, and often identifies with their orphaned children, and how they must feel if they were to see their parents' murderer released. Nevertheless, it is a very convincing case to parole Van Houten, and made me review my own opinions on the matter.

Waters also talks about personalities from his hometown of Baltimore. One of them was the stripper known as Lady Zorro, whom he describes as "[having] a real rage she brought to the stage, which added a demented hostile sex appeal. An angry stripper with a history of physical and sexual abuse with a great body and the face of a man. Now there's a lethal combination...Zorro was so butch, so scary, so Johnny Cash. No actual stripping for her at that point [at the end of her burlesque career]; she just came out nude and snarled at her fans, 'What the fuck are you looking at?'".

Waters fondly remembers a Baltimore bar owner named Esther Martin: "the real reason I loved Esther right from the beginning was her mouth. No one in the world cussed more! She gave the phrase 'cursing a blue streak' a refinement that seemed almost noble. 'That motherfucking cocksucking son of a bitch' was used as a prefix to almost every name she uttered...Just a mention of Esther's foul language makes each sibling go into hilarious imitations of their mother's tirades. 'As my dear sainted mother would say'--Dick laughs and then mimics Esther's voice--'You're as worthless as a cunt full of cold piss.' 'Shit and fall back in it!'". I tell you, reading Waters's reminiscences about Lady Zorro and Esther had me laughing so hard during my work lunch breaks I could barely eat anything at all.

In the chapter entitled Bookworm, Waters writes about five of his favourite fiction authors. After I read this chapter I researched these authors and looked for their books and criticisms. Waters writes about one of his favourites:

"Try reading any novel by [Ivy] Compton-Burnett. She was English, looked exactly like the illustration on the Old Maid card, never had sex even once, and wrote twenty dark, hilarious, evil little novels between the years 1911 and 1969."
The chapter on art, entitled Roommates, was surprisingly boring. It would not have been so tedious to plow through if only Waters had included some photos of the works he was describing. There is nothing more boring to read than pages and pages of descriptions of paintings. Waters did make me laugh at this remark:

"I knew about Richard Tuttle's minimalist troublemaking and respected his early hostile establishment reviews, such as 'Less has never been less than this.' His bare plywood slat pieces nailed flat to the wall with just one thin side of the depth of the wood painted white were so beautiful, so simple, so plain, that I felt exhausted just imagining how complete the artist must have felt when he decided the work was finished."

In the final chapter, Waters tells of his childhood education at Catholic schools. I again felt like laughing so hard I could barely chew:

"I hated my Catholic high school, so I certainly never went back to a reunion, although I did get to comment to The Baltimore Sun, on the school's fifty-year anniversary, that the Christian Brothers and lay faculty there had 'discouraged every interest I ever had.' A friend who attended the reunion that year said he heard me called 'faggot' and 'pornographer' by some of my pissed-off fellow classmates who had read my criticism, but I didn't mind. The only reason to attend any school reunion is to see how the people whom you had wanted to have sex with then look today. And I had already looked up those people's addresses and driven by their homes to stalk them years before."

And when talking about those wacky saints he learned about at school:

"Of course, there are some saints we do take very seriously. Saint Catherine of Siena is without a doubt the most insane of these and we have no choice but to honor her daily. Reading Holy Anorexia by Rudolph M. Bell, the best encyclopedia of deranged saints ever written, we learn that in Catherine's time (the 1300s) she was known as 'a person of considerable reputation for outstanding holiness'--in other words, nuts! At the peak of her career she 'urged the holy hatred of oneself' and advised others to 'build a cell in your mind that you can never escape.' She was a 'bottom' for God."

and I am still laughing over the poor girl who could never succeed here:

"Catherine organized a group of fellow child masochists who flagellated themselves daily. Well, I can understand that, too. I had a Horror House in our garage and I'd charge the neighborhood kids twenty-five cents to enter. After they gave me the money, I'd tell them to wait, and I'd go inside and then yell, "Okay, come in!" The little ticket buyers would grope their way into the darkness and I would squirt them with a fire extinguisher (my dad's company sold them) and then kick them in the leg. They loved it. They even came back for more. I also used to play 'school' as a kid with the little girl who lived next door, and I was always the teacher and she was always the student. Every time we played I failed her, yet she still eagerly agreed to play every time I asked, fully knowing the results."

Role Models is John Waters's most serious written work. Without his name on the cover, one would never believe that the chapters on Leslie Van Houten, art, Johnny Mathis or Little Richard was written by him. If you love Waters's humour, and need a laugh like the original "Hairspray" on the printed page, this book does not disappoint.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Tunguska Fireball: Solving One of the Great Mysteries of the 20th Century

"At 7.14 a.m. on 30 June 1908 a huge fireball exploded in the Siberian sky. A thousand times the force of the Hiroshima bomb, it flattened an area of remote Tunguska forest bigger than Greater London, forming a mushroom cloud that almost reached into space. Six hundred kilometres away, the Trans-Siberian Express rattled wildly on its newly built tracks. Tremors registered in distant St. Petersburg, and the unusually bright night skies seen across England over the next few nights prompted letters to The Times."

So writes Surendra Verma in the introduction to The Tunguska Fireball: Solving One of the Great Mysteries of the 20th Century. I first learned of the Tunguska explosion in a TV program many years ago and have found it fascinating to research.

This book analyzes possible causes for the explosion, and includes photos taken of the vast destruction, including the odd occurrence of both flattened forests as well as forests of tree trunks standing as bare as telephone poles. Something catastrophic happened in Siberia, yet over a century later, we still don't know what burned through the morning sky.

The two main theories are that a comet disintegrated in the atmosphere or an asteroid exploded about eight kilometres above the Earth. No impact crater has been found so there is a lack of terrestrial physical evidence. The author spends a good portion analyzing these theories and the scientific talk gets quite techy and over-my-head at times. The tech talk is countered by the oddball theories that always abound whenever a scientific mystery remains unsolved; one chapter is entitled "Opening the X-Files" wherein Verma devotes a fair share to crazy talk about exploding alien spaceships, Tesla's death ray and aliens beaming lasers at us.

Verma bored me with his scientific talk, but I suppose such talk is necessary in order to explain the physics behind certain theories. I read and reread these passages in an attempt to understand them, yet since I do not have a background in astronomy or physics in many cases I just had to read what he wrote, accept it, and move on. Verma's mock trial in the final "Whodunit?" chapter, where he weighs all the theories with witty lawyerly defences, was just plain annoying.

I liked the bibliography and sources for further reading, and will be sure to check out the scientific and academic web sites on the Tunguska explosion.

Monday, December 3, 2012

28 Seconds: A True Story of Addiction, Tragedy, and Hope

In the summer of 2009 Michael Bryant, the former attorney general of Ontario, was driving along a major downtown Toronto street when he and his wife were confronted by an intoxicated and mentally unstable cyclist. The cyclist, Darcy Sheppard, a bike courier who rarely greeted a new day without a hangover or a glazed look of being stoned, found it perversely amusing to harass motorists. The confrontation between Sheppard and Bryant was brief--only 28 seconds--but by the end of this encounter Sheppard was dead and Bryant was in the back of a police car, handcuffed and a national news story the next day. 28 Seconds: A True Story of Addiction, Tragedy, and Hope is Bryant's account of those 28 seconds, and the aftermath.
The library however classifies this book as a biography, so when I saw the special biography sticker on the spine I knew that the story would not start (barring a brief prologue) with the night of the fatal encounter. Of the book's 337 pages, Bryant doesn't discuss the encounter with Sheppard (euphemistically referred to as "the 28 seconds") until page 121. 28 Seconds starts with Bryant's early years growing up out west, then his legal education in Toronto. As Bryant was moving up in legal circles he relished media attention and loved being the centre of boisterous scrums:
"Pit bulls were inherently dangerous dogs, I believed. Let's actually try to eliminate the problem, not appease a host of voices. The issue came to dominate the media coverage of the government. It didn't matter what we did. Three syllables--Pit! Bulls! Banned!--were the story. I was getting a lot of ink, and loving it."
Bryant was a media whore, no question about it. He loved when his name and picture appeared in the paper, and his young children idolized him when they saw their super daddy on the news. While he was moving up in the provincial government he was also submerging himself deeper and deeper into the bottle. The subtitle of this book refers to addiction: his own alcoholism as well as Sheppard's wasted lifetime on drugs. I found it incredulous that Bryant could have functioned as an MPP as well as attorney general while being so often off the wagon. His colleagues however would subtly inform him that his drunkenness on the job was starting to show. Bryant writes of his addiction recovery program (likely Alcoholics Anonymous yet he never refers to it by that name) and sobriety, which, as all recovering alcoholics attest is a constant, daily battle.
At first Bryant was crucified by the media, the public and especially by the cycling community. He was immediately charged and jailed, and upon first glance it looked as though this was a case of the rich and powerful literally running over the poor and marginalized. He was tried by public opinion and found guilty of murder by road rage. Every left-wing space case, especially those who would eventually bring ridicule upon themselves as part of the comical Occupy movement a couple years later, was ready with tar and feathers to send Bryant clucking.
28 Seconds outlines Bryant's defence in second-by-second detail. Bryant, who by now was several years sober and thus not driving drunk, was unfortunately only in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is all he is guilty of. Sheppard, who had a history of harassing drivers along the same stretches of downtown streets, blocking traffic and confronting individual cars, risked his life every time he grabbed onto the driver's side window and tried to scramble inside. What driver would sit there and let it all happen? Bryant and his wife were terrified and acted as any reasonable people would: they wanted to get the Hell out of there as fast as possible.
All of the evidence (eyewitness testimony, forensics and plenty of video evidence from the ritzy stores lining Bloor Street) shows that none of Bryant's alleged road-rage brutality ever happened. One is so quick to pounce on Michael Bryant because he is so convenient an easy target. Bryant is a heroic figure who deserves praise for his brutally honest encounter with a madman.
In writing this account of the 28 seconds that would change his life forever, Bryant makes it painfully obvious that he is falling over backwards to try to understand the man who died. He talks about his own drunken state of mind and sees where he himself once was, and can at times even put himself in Sheppard's place. For this Bryant is a better man than I am. His sympathetic approach to understanding Darcy Sheppard is one I do not share. I see a drug addict who got his kicks by playing with fire--and finally got burned. That I myself am a careful cyclist who obeys the laws makes Sheppard's behaviour all the more abhorrent. I have no respect for him.
Bryant was wholly exonerated of all charges nine months after the 28 seconds. That he was the former attorney general of Ontario gave him no preferential treatment, not that he should have received any. In fact, Bryant himself knew the legal process and what steps were likely to occur next. He also understood that as former attorney general, the legal process would have to be raised to the highest level of transparency to show that it was not doing him any favours. Bryant knew over the course of the nine months between charges and exoneration that any other person involved in the exact same situation would not have been jailed and charged so quickly.
Since Toronto is the location for the 28 seconds I knew exactly what places he was talking about and what roads he followed as he recounted the run-in with Sheppard. I even knew the ice cream store he visits because it's a local landmark, where I myself have been many times. So I have a warm spot for all the Toronto details he fondly shares. His remark about Toronto streetcars, however, is not my own experience:
"Compared to other world-class cities, the transit in Toronto at times can be embarrassing. The 'streetcars' look like museum pieces: old--really old--beasts of metal that rumble along tracks laid out on certain main thoroughfares, like the one near our house."
Is he talking about Toronto's old PCC streetcars? They're rickety. The modern ones--though thirty years old now--hardly fit his description.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How Music Works by David Byrne

McSweeneys Books, 2012

In case you didn’t know, David Byrne is one of the founding members of the Talking Heads (1975-1991), perhaps one of the greatest musical groups of all time.  But even if you do not share this opinion with me, How Music Works remains a fascinating read - attempting to do as the title suggests - to explain music in terms of artistic creation, technical production, factoring in the relative contexts of the artist, listener and media by which the sound is transmitted.

Byrne describes the artistic processes and ideas behind his music, told through a musical history of the Talking Heads and his own solo career.  We get some insights into how he/they approached music and its production and subsequent performances.  The intent here is to be less of a biography and more of a journey through the creative process.  While this would be of interest to Talking Heads aficionados, it is also relevant to anyone interested in how music groups operate and become more than a sum of their parts.

To Byrne, the context of music is very important - live music compared to recorded, where it is listened to and so on.  He describes how music is shaped by its means of transmission and the intended medium the music is created for - songs written for the concert hall or night club sound different than songs written for the radio, vinyl record, or CD.  He provides an insider’s perspective on the technical aspects of analog and digital media, how music is recorded in the studio, and aspects of the music industry business.  In this latter section, the parts about how the industry has been changed by new technologies and business models are particularly interesting.  

Discussion questions

  1. How awesome are the Talking Heads?  Or, how familiar are you with David Byrne and his music,  and how important is this to the reading of the book?
  2. How does this book differ from other books written by famous musicians?
  3. How does context affect your hearing of a piece of music?
  4. Discuss the different ways you listen to music.
  5. Are there any times when music is an intrusion to you?
  6. What is the difference between a live performance and the same piece of music heard elsewhere?
  7. Listening to music on a portable device (or in a vehicle etc.) is likened to carrying "our own soundtrack wherever we go, and the world around us is overlaid with our music."  How does listening to music this way affect your experience of the world?
  8. How important are visuals to a music experience (album art, music video etc.)?
  9. Why do people create, listen to, and appreciate music?
  10. Have you ever created music yourself? 

Monday, November 26, 2012

North Korea: Another Country

North Korea: Another Country by Bruce Cumings starts off as a very slow read. The book is divided into six chapters yet the first two--about the history of the Korean War and the DPRK's nuclear record--take up the first half of the book just between themselves. It took me so long just to get through these two chapters. They were interesting, yet boringly written if that makes any sense, and I can only say that I am surprised I never fell asleep while reading them. The next four chapters in the second half of the book proceed at a quicker pace and were a breeze to finish. 
Of all the books that I have read so far on the DPRK, Cumings is unlike any other American writer in that he often comes to the defence of the North while putting down the United States. The author makes a sincere effort to understand why the North acts and reacts as it does on the world stage, when other authors would merely find excuses in blaming the North's "despotic dictators". Cumings often portrays the US as ignorant and racist, and having no clue behind its military policies on the Korean peninsula. As a result, Cumings comes across as an apologist, ready to defend the North for its actions while condemning the US and its shuttered view of the world for always getting things wrong in its foreign policy, whether it be its involvement in Vietnam or Iraq. Cumings has taken a lot of heat for his seemingly anti-American, pro-DPRK views, and he shocked me with his constant hammering of American foreign policy and its journalistic integrity:
"Predicting the behavior of crazy people is by definition impossible, and American officials constantly harp on Pyongyang's unpredictability. I would argue, to the contrary, that North Korean behavior has been quite predictable and that an irresponsible American media, almost bereft of good investigative reporters, often (but by no means always) egged on by government officials, obscures the real nature of the United States-Korean conflict. The media has had the wrong stories in the wrong place at the wrong time; the absurd result is that often one has to read North Korea's tightly controlled press to figure out what actually is going on between Washington and Pyongyang."
As seen above, Cumings also has a similar low opinion of Western, specifically American media in their reporting about North Korea. While even I, a self-professed "Friend of North Korea" was shocked by his constant USA-bashing, I have to admit that his assessment of the Western media was bang on: 
"With the occasional exception, most of it [ = the news the Western media report about North Korea] is uninformative, unreliable, often sensationalized, and generally fails to educate instead of deceive the public. Given the mimetic nature of our media, the same stories circulate endlessly; often they are contemporary variations on the same old tales that have been around since North Korea became our enemy sixty years ago: they're about to attack the South, their leader is nuts, their people are brainwashed, the regime will implode or explode. Literally for half a century, the South Korean intelligence services have bamboozled one American reporter after another by parading their defectors (real and fake), grinding the Pyongyang rumor mill, or parlaying fibs that even a moment's investigation in a good library would expose."
There are very dry moments in North Korea: Another Country, which seem all the more to drag on by the copious amount of endnotes. Endnotes are not themselves an annoyance, but they become so when they are not easy to find in the notes section since there are no chapter headings to inform the reader what chapter the notes apply to. Throughout my entire read I had to keep a bookmark or a finger holding the place where my last endnote was explained. 
The Financial Times called North Korea: Another Country "tart and witty", yet these tart and witty moments were few and far between. Cumings wrote about Andrew Holloway's experiences in Pyongyang, where he worked reediting the English translations of the works by the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Holloway, coincidentally, worked at the same job as Michael Harrold, who wrote about his own experiences in his book Comrades and Strangers: Behind the Closed Doors of North Korea, which I reviewed in my LiveJournal blog and also for Cumings writes about Holloway:
"Like the ambassador, Andrew Holloway was appalled and mortified to find out about the depth, ubiquity, and never-ending self-parody of regime propaganda, but he got to know it better than most, because his job was to polish its English representation in various publications. Within just a week or two, he could barely stand his daily portion of hagiography, gross exaggeration, unseemly self-importance, ridiculous excess, profound solipsism, and all-around mind-numbing drivel that it was his lot to put into something resembling English and that is the butt of jokes around the world--when anyone is paying attention."
The only chuckle I got out of North Korea: Another Country was reading about the reaction Cumings received while on a tour outside of Pyongyang:
While in the North Korean city of Kaesong, "I was surprised by the large numbers of people standing around in midday, gaping at us as if we were Martians".
This is not unlike other reactions I have read when North Koreans see foreigners. I myself experienced this when I visited the DPRK in the summer of 2011. While the North is s-l-o-w-l-y opening itself to the outside world, even more so since the death of the Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong Il and with the succession of his son the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, when I was among the crowds in Pyongyang, I and my fellow travellers were gawked at, most often by children. During the one moment where I was given permission to walk the streets of Pyongyang alone, after I had shown my guides over the course of my eighteen-day trip that I was an obedient tourist who could be trusted, I felt that everyone's eyes were burning holes into me as I walked around unescorted.

Monday, November 19, 2012

History of the Acadians

My partner Mark is a native Nova Scotian and I have taken an avid interest in reading about different aspects of Nova Scotian history. Almost all of this reading predates my LiveJournal and Amazon reviews, both of which predate the Mississauga Library System's own nonfiction blog, but two novels by Frank Parker Day, a short novel about Africville and an autobiography by Rita MacNeil are four examples of Nova Scotiana that I have reviewed and published. Whether my reading is about those Nova Scotian topics or the Halifax Explosion of 1917, the Black Battalion or Sable Island, I regard all of this as an intellectual act of love. It is my maritime christening by edification.

A year ago I discovered History of the Acadians by Bona Arsenault. I wanted to read it before an upcoming trip down east. I like to pick a Nova Scotia book just before travelling there; last year I read Rockbound by Frank Parker Day. History of the Acadians is an English translation from 1994 but the translator was not identified. The original work, Histoire des Acadiens, must have been published in the mid-sixties, based upon some references Arsenault makes. Unfortunately it was a poor translation, with humorous spelling errors ("half-bread" for "half-breed") and the repeated eyesore "Britanny" for "Brittany".

Arsenault tells a thorough history of Acadia from its founding settlement of Port-Royal in 1605 to the Acadians' forced exile and resettlement throughout the cities on the American east coast from 1755 to 1762, their journey to Louisiana, and eventual return to Acadia in the late eighteenth century. The Acadians were a hearty people who had adapted to the land and were allies with the Mi'kmaq (Micmac) First Nation. Before the Great Expulsion they had survived past invasions and attempts to force them out. Their tenacity and determination to retain their French language and Catholic religion were viewed as threats by the English, who negotiated to allow them to stay on their land provided they took an oath of neutrality and did not take up arms with the French against them. As a peaceful people, the Acadians agreed to these conditions, and found it quite easy to live in harmony among the English.

It was a tragic story how the peaceful Acadian families were assembled and dispersed in chaos onto ships, bound for unknown American cities. Families were under the impression that they would reunite whenever the ships reached their destinations. Imagine the heartache when you realized your children and spouse were not among the passengers who disembarked, while the rest of the ships had long ago set off. Some states welcomed the Acadian refugees and treated them with charity and open arms. Other states, however, regarded them as delinquents (since they believed the Acadians were exiled after all for a reason) and assigned them to live in squalor. Children who were separated from their parents were sold into servitude and treated like slaves, working side-by-side with those from the African diaspora. Hundreds of families were broken up forever, while others could only reunite decades later.

Arsenault documented Acadian family names to a painful degree of detail; he would list name after name of the settlers who inhabited, or resettled in a specific area. It wasn't annoying to see multiple paragraphs of names listed alphabetically, but I did find the juxtaposition of French and English place names, like "Ile Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island)" to be. Every time he wrote the original French (or native) name of a place, he added the current English name in parentheses next to it: "Ile Royale (Cape Breton)"; "Chibouctou (Halifax)"; "La Hève (La Have)".

On my first visit to Nova Scotia with Mark we visited the Grand Pré National Historic Site, where the Acadians were assembled and deported from. I would like to revisit this site now that I have learned so much more about Acadian history.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton

Readers at my other nonfiction blog sites (my LiveJournal account and also at and .ca) know of my unwritten rule which compels me to finish every book I open. Two book reviews which I posted at these other sites, pertaining to an alive Elvis and lesbian masochists, were tiresome chores to get through. However, regardless of a book's length, how boring it is or how far it is from my first impression of what it might be like, I trudge through it, dreading every minute. I always give these books the chance that they might have some redeeming quality which makes the first couple hundred pages worthwhile to stick it out.
In John Lahr's Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, there was no such redemption. After rubbing the shell of this nut I thought I would be treated to a hidden pecan, but the shell was empty. It took me over three weeks to finish this paperback--and this book is only 361 pages. This book was the most boring read of nonfiction I have encountered in twenty years. Barring three exceptions, I fell asleep every time I sat down to read it. If I didn't believe in my own immortality, I would be worried about wasting my limited life time reading this junk.
I am a big Beatles fan, and I came across the name Joe Orton when I learned that he was approached to write the screenplay for the Beatles' third movie (after "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!"). This never came to pass. When his script for "Up Against It" was returned, Orton wrote:
"No explanation why. No criticism of the script. And apparently, Brian Epstein has no comment to make either. F*** them."
Lahr had unrestricted access to Orton's diaries and quotes from them at length. In the Beatles passages, being allowed into the Fab Four's "inner circle" is quite a hoot to read. When Orton meets Brian Epstein and Paul McCartney for the first time, he writes:
"'The only thing I get from the theatre,' Paul M. said, 'is a sore arse.' He said "Loot" [an Orton play] was the only play he hadn't wanted to leave before the end. ... We talked of tattoos. And after one or two veiled references, marijuana."
Shortly after his Beatles script was rejected, Orton was killed by his common-law husband in the summer of 1967 in a murder-suicide. Lahr talks about this tragedy at the beginning of the book, and goes to great lengths to analyze the psyche of Orton's partner and what drove him to commit murder and suicide. The psychoanalysis is brought up again at the end of the book. Excluding the psych-talk and Beatles anecdotes, the bulk of what fills these two covers is a boring critique of each of Orton's plays. If one hasn't seen these works on stage, one is left in the dark. I couldn't follow the plotlines; the exhaustive dialogue seemed more out of context than having any pertinence to points Lahr intended to make about the playwright; and the general flow was at a snail's pace. The critiques go on and on... I could only get through ten pages in an hour. So much was quoted from Orton's plays and his own diaries, and since all the cited sections were reproduced in a minuscule font, it made poor eyes like mine very tired. I really dreaded seeing more lines of dialogue reproduced as evidence of Orton's personality or reflections of what he was going through domestically.
Orton's diaries were more interesting, especially his tales of trolling for anonymous sex in the public toilets of London and around the world. Orton held back nothing in his own diaries, and he probably would have loved knowing that people are now reading about his sexual escapades. I make this remark because Orton loved to talk loudly about lascivious topics in very public places. He would write about how he and friends would sit in an upscale restaurant and during a crowded lunchtime they would all talk oblivious to everyone around them about a (fictional) gay orgy. He and his friends got their kicks out of other people's shocked reactions. He was just like a little boy in his enthusiastic retelling of how people shuddered in horror at the tales he would tell. This carried over into his plays, as his subject matter often found him in hot water with censors as well as his paying audience. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Judgment Calls: 12 Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right

Thomas H. Davenport & Brook Manville
Published 2012 by Harvard Business Review Press

Judgment Calls is primarily a book about "organizational judgment," looking at the ability of companies or teams to make good decisions collectively.  The authors declare that this book is an "antidote to the great man theory of decision making and organizational performance" - the theory that one individual at the top is needed to drive successful companies forward.  Businesses are currently functioning in tough economic times with lots of competition and uncertainty.  This makes it very challenging for one individual to safely steer organizations on a path to success. 

This book follows twelve organizations that made tough decisions collectively.  Their stories are told as a way to inspire others with positive stories and examples of workplace idea sharing and culture-building.  They show that these environments conducive to good decision-making can be managed and developed within organizations.

The twelve stories within this book are organized into four categories - four themes of organizational judgment: 1. Stories about the participative problem solving process (drawing on the expertise of others within the organization). 2. Stories about the opportunities of technology and analytics (collecting data upon which sound decisions can be based).  3. Stories about the power of (organizational) culture.  4. Stories about leaders setting the right context.

This is a fascinating book telling positive stories of companies who did things right.  This book is highly recommended for anyone who wishes to foster a workplace culture that draws upon the skills and knowledge of its team members, and incorporates sound data collection into its decision-making processes, without relying on one person to magically get things right every time.  This book would make for an interesting book club discussion, especially if the members have any interest in running businesses or teams, or if they are interested in group dynamics and culture. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is a "great man" (or woman) still needed to make businesses succeed and thrive, and is their high pay justified?
  2. How important is the team leader amidst all this collaboration?
  3. Have you ever worked or participated as part of a team that "got things right?" 
  4. Does this book provide any insight about how to change a dysfunctional workplace/team culture? 
  5. How much stock do you put into the value of data and statistics to base decisions upon?
  6. How did the twelve stories read as a narrative?
  7. Did you enjoy the positive tone, or would you rather have seen more horror stories?
  8. Can any of the decision-making methods talked about here be applied elsewhere in life?
  9. Can you think of any other stories that could have been included in this book?
  10. Have you read any other books on business management, leadership or social dynamics?  If so, how does it compare, and would you now want to read more (or less)?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Voyage of the Iceberg: The Story of the Iceberg that Sank the Titanic

Voyage of the Iceberg: The Story of the Iceberg that Sank the Titanic by Richard Brown is a small book unlike any other about the Titanic disaster. Brown, a specialist on seabirds, has written a compact tale about the journey of icebergs, specifically the Iceberg with a capital I, that entered immortality on 14 April 1912. From the Iceberg's formation in the Jakobshavn Ice Fiord in Greenland, to its migration north near Ellesmere Island then south past Baffin Island and the east coast of Labrador to the north Atlantic, Brown paints a natural history of all icebergs of the region. Originally published in 1983, Voyage of the Iceberg was reprinted with a new preface on the centenary of the Titanic's sinking.
Brown writes more than just about the journey of a hunk of ice from Greenland to the time the Titanic collided with it. Brown also writes about the avifauna and the habitat and migration of all arctic species, and how they depend on icebergs as storehouses of vast food reserves. The Canadian and Greenlandic Inuit also feature in Voyage of the Iceberg as they rely on icebergs when fishing or hunting for seals. As European and North American explorers ventured further north than ever before during the early part of the twentieth century, the Inuit were vital for their guidance and expert advice. The native arctic population however could not understand why these strange people would trudge ever northward:
"What Big Nail were they looking for? Old Mequsaq knows the men who went there with Cook and the men who went with Peary, and none of them saw any Nail. All the white men did was to travel so far out on the ice that the Inuit were afraid they would never get back to land. When they stopped, they put up a post with a cloth on it, turned around and came home again. And that was all?"
In this context, the Big Nail = the North Pole (a literal pole). Inuit like Mequsaq saw no point in walking so far north, if there wasn't any practical reason for doing so. The explorers were not hunting for musk ox, fox or polar bear.
I had a laugh when Brown described polar explorer Bob Bartlett:
"This big, tough, horse-faced seaman is oddly shy and sensitive underneath, with an eccentric taste for books and classical music which goes very strangely with his remarkable talent for blasphemy."
Brown provided a valuable map of the arctic and of the Iceberg's migration. I flipped to the map constantly, as I wanted to follow the route as well as see all the places Brown wrote about. The points were all marked on the map and I felt that I was travelling along with the Iceberg as it continued its journey, as it melted and flipped over, as it grounded and as it threatened whaling ships in the region.
The last chapter, on the fateful night of 14 April 1912 when the Titanic struck the Iceberg, kept my eyes riveted to the page. Brown included many illustrations and photos showing not only arctic bird species, but also of whalers and trappers, explorers and of course images of the Titanic.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes is the story of Kamal Al-Solaylee and his family, from the time of his birth as the last of eleven children in Aden, Yemen, to his arrival in Toronto where he currently works as a professor of journalism. I had recognized the name of the author from his columns in The Globe and Mail as well as Xtra!, Toronto's tiresomely whiny gay and lesbian biweekly. Based on what I already knew about the author, I thought that Intolerable would be an interesting read to find out about what it was like to grow up gay in the Arab world, including Yemen, perhaps the most homophobic place on the planet. From an early age Al-Solaylee realized he was different from other boys and exhibited stereotypically girlish behaviour. He hung out with his mother in the kitchen and played dress-up (in dresses) with a little more fashion sense than his own sisters.

Al-Solaylee spent his childhood on the move. As anticolonialism gripped Yemen in the late sixties, the family fled to Beirut, where they only stayed a little while until war there forced yet another move. Cairo became the destination where Al-Solaylee grew up and first acknowledged his gayness. In spite of the personal upheaval and day-to-day uncertainties of living in such a volatile area, Al-Solaylee filled his memoir with humour, most often with tales pertaining to his own life growing up as a gay youth. Ogling his sisters' Tom Jones album covers and seeing repeated screenings of Olivia Newton-John and especially Michael Beck in "Xanadu" were two of his memorable teenage experiences. Cairo also offered him a gay nightlife and the first opportunities he ever had in meeting other gay people (although they were probably in the theatre watching "Xanadu" with him but he didn't know it yet).

The growing movement towards fundamentalist and radical Islam in Cairo and neighbouring nations penetrated Al-Solaylee's family. One of his brothers changed from being a follower of rock music to a follower of the muezzin's call. This brother began to criticize his sisters for not wearing the hijab or niqab, and the entire family for not living according to his own interpretation of strict Islamic laws. Al-Solaylee does not mince words when he describes his brother's criticisms as poison to his family.

Economic necessity sent the family moving again, this time back to Yemen, however to Sana'a, not Aden:

"Whole districts felt like a movie set for a period piece, circa the seventeenth century, perhaps one of those racist Hollywood movies from the 1940s, Road to Morocco, or something with 'Ali Baba' in the title. The feeling of being a tourist in my own land offered temporary relief from the pain of losing Cairo."

Al-Solaylee as a gay man told himself that he could never return to live in Yemen, and sought out ways to leave the country. How could he live within his enormous family of two parents and ten siblings and hide his gayness? How can one keep such a secret from everyone? In cultures where mentioning the private details of one's sexual identity was unthinkable, ignorance was bliss. His family spent his entire lifetime denying the flamboyantly obvious; by not mentioning his homosexuality, it did not exist.

Eventually Al-Solaylee obtained a scholarship to study in England and then emigrated to Canada. Each time he returned to Sana'a he was shocked to see how the repressive state had affected his family:

"It's difficult to explain the feeling I, as an Arab person, get whenever I visit the Middle East, and especially Yemen. There's a sickness in the belly, a nervousness all over. Every trip back could turn into a long-term prison sentence. The prison could be emotional, as I confront a family that has changed and is visibly suffering, trapping me in guilt and uncertainty. Or physical, should the temperamental government declare me an abomination for writing in gay magazines or curating a program of short films for a gay and lesbian film festival."

In each visit Al-Solaylee noticed the health of his family deteriorate, as food and especially water supplies dwindled. The state of Yemen's health-care system was so poor that his family had to leave the country for simple procedures. It wasn't until near the end of the book that the title, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes made sense. While Al-Solaylee conveys his feelings of not belonging in the various Middle Eastern cities he grew up in, I never felt that his state of mind was such that each place (Aden, Beirut, Cairo or Sana'a) was for him utterly intolerable. I only felt that the title was apt after he moved to Canada, experienced a fully out-of-the-closet gay life, and then compared it to the repressed and poor lives of his remaining family members back in Yemen. That life, for him, would have been intolerable.

This memoir is a slight book, at 204 pages with a large font. Plenty of pictures of Al-Solaylee and his family (especially those of him as an adorable toddler) are placed throughout the book. When one has so many siblings--ten of them--it was helpful to have photos to identify who's who. Intolerable was a can't-put-down read because of Al-Solaylee's wide-open writing style, where he often comes across as writing a hip queer psychiatric confession.    

Monday, October 22, 2012

At the Edge of All Things: In Search of Labrador

At the Edge of All Things: In Search of Labrador by Rick Hornung tells the story of First Nations smugglers in northern Labrador. The format of the story resembles a novel, and the abundant dialogue only emphasizes this perception. The storyline is introduced in the prologue, when the central character, Martin Rouleau, tells it to the author after the latter hires Rouleau to take him on a caribou hunt in northern Labrador. In between the tale of travelling to the Labrador peninsula, shooting, drawing and quartering caribou in the prologue and epilogue, Hornung writes about Rouleau's adventures snowmobiling and smuggling to and from remote Labrador native communities. 
Rouleau has a team who pilots the goods in, stores and distributes the contraband, which is mainly cigarettes and alcohol. He has colleagues who score drug deals for him in Montreal and who bring in more money so that he can buy more contraband. The focus of At the Edge of All Things is Rouleau's search for the gang who torched his remote cabin--while he and his girlfriend, also a smuggler, were still asleep in it. While continuing to bring in booze and drugs to the native communities, Rouleau devises a plan to seek revenge on those who destroyed his cabin and all of its stored contraband.
Rouleau shares his own personal history of growing up half Montagnais and half Naskapi in Labrador, at a time when the peninsula was being carved up by mining companies, native groups and the new province of Newfoundland. Multiple new place names are dropped on every page and the map that is featured on the inside cover is regrettably too small and too general to chart most of them. Unfortunately I could not follow Rouleau's smuggling journey across the province, however his final journey, in search of the arsonists, is mapped out.
Hornung describes wintry Labrador with the eyes of a true explorer, and every colour of every rock, each snag in the trail and every snowmobile switchback is painted with precision. The exposed granite and ore are streaked with rainbow hues that change colour as the sun rises and sets, and one can feel one's own fingertips freeze when Rouleau must set up his outdoor tent and tie the stakes together.
The detail does get tiring however when the reader stumbles across, yet again, another reference to an "L-shaped depression" or an "L-shaped jag". Labrador must have been created by God wielding an enormous cookie-cutter shaped like an L. Hornung also uses the verb "zigzag" and "zigzagging" far too often; it is not hard at all to open the book to any page at random and find these words popping out at you.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Universe in a Single Atom by The Dalai Lama XIV

In this book, the Dalai Lama expresses a strong interest in bringing spiritual concepts into the realm of modernity, and is clearly aimed at the general reader with no Buddhist background.  There is a little bit of biographical information about his growing up in exile, where he developed a fascination with the mechanics of technological objects, and science in general.  Throughout the course of his studies, he began to see connections between his two interests of science and Buddhism.  

The book is a good comparison of selected scientific concepts and Buddhist thought, outlining where they share similarities and differences, and how the two disciplines can enhance each other.  Each chapter outlines a scientific concept, then the Dalai Lama takes us through the Buddhist thought that can compared or contrasted with it.

This book had been chosen by our in-library nonfiction book club, as they had an ongoing interest in spirituality and how it fits into modern life.  They came from a variety of backgrounds, and all found the book fairly interesting.  Seeing how Buddhist thought can be linked and compared to certain scientific principles allows the reader to consider their own thoughts and traditions, and develop their own ideas of how science should fit into human life.

The frequent references to Buddhist thinkers and disciplines can be a little bewildering to those unfamiliar with these figures/concepts.  I particularly enjoyed listening to this book on audio CD, as read by actor Richard Gere.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What point(s) do you think the Dalai Lama is trying to make with this book?
  2. What can Science learn from spiritual disciplines (and vice versa)?
  3. Should science be “constrained” by ethical or political ideas?
  4. How important is the subjective world (i.e. feelings, emotions, thoughts and all their attendant spiritual aspirations) to human life?
  5. The Buddhist traditions speak of the theory of Emptiness – everything is connected – nothing has an independent existence.  Do you agree with this idea?
  6. The Dalai Lama asks this question: “What is the relationship between the cosmos and the beings that have evolved within it?”  How important is this question to you? 
  7. How compatible is science with the Buddhist goal of alleviating suffering and the quest for happiness?
  8. To what extent does science consider the role of altruism and compassion in the way nature functions?
  9. Does science pay enough attention to sentience? – ethics, spirituality, overcoming suffering etc.
  10. Does meditation have value outside the Buddhist tradition?  Can we learn about ourselves using meditative techniques as the Dalai Lama suggests?
  11. One of his final questions is – “what should we do with our new knowledge?” 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Lost Paradise: From Mutiny on the Bounty to a Modern-Day Legacy of Sexual Mayhem, the Dark Secrets of Pitcairn Island Revealed

Pitcairn Island, an island that has fascinated me for decades, more so for its isolation and minuscule size and population than its history as the destination of the Bounty mutineers, made international headlines in 2004 when seven of its men went on trial for sexual assault, rape and gross indecency. Decades of silence were lifted when two teenaged girls revealed their stories to a visiting policewoman. Police descended on Pitcairn in 2000 and uncovered a history of sexual assault against children that had been going on for generations, and perhaps from even the earliest days of the island's settlement by the mutineers. How could these crimes, the worst crimes imaginable against children, have been allowed to continue on this "paradise island"? In such a small society, how could the parents of the victims not know about it?
Kathy Marks was one of only six journalists allowed on Pitcairn to cover the sexual abuse trials. Lost Paradise: From Mutiny on the Bounty to a Modern-Day Legacy of Sexual Mayhem, the Dark Secrets of Pitcairn Island Revealed is her account of the court cases and their aftermath on such a small society. Marks also tries to understand how such abuse could have persisted decade after decade, without anyone doing anything about it.
Pitcairn is a closed society, remote and practically inaccessible. Its population of less than fifty has survived for over two hundred years with only infrequent contact with the outside world. Thus when police and media arrived to interview the women and question the men, they were met with a wall of resistance. Outsiders were stepping onto their island and threatening them with who knows what. Many islanders believed the entire sexual abuse scandal was a concoction by the British government in an attempt to "shut down" the island. To close the colony by resettling the islanders would save the government millions. If the seven convicted men were sent to jail and with more men under suspicion, the lack of men as fit and able workers would decimate the island. Thus the Pitcairners genuinely feared that they would lose their families, their friends and the island they knew as home.   
When the sexual abuse allegations were first made, the island was cloaked in denial. Marks writes about a meeting between the journalists and the Pitcairn matriarchs shortly after she arrived on the island:
"We had been summoned to Big Fence, it turned out, to be told that their menfolk were not perverts or hardened criminals: They were decent, hard-working family types. No islander would tolerate children being interfered with, and no one on Pitcairn had ever been raped. The victims were girls who had known exactly what they were doing. It was they who had thrown themselves at the men."
"The talkative ones explained that underage sex was the norm on Pitcairn. Darralyn Griffiths, the daughter of Jay Warren, one of the defendants, told us in a matter-of-fact way that she had lost her virginity at thirteen, 'and I felt shit hot about it, too, I felt like a big lady.' She was partly boasting, partly censorious of her younger self, it seemed to me. Others clamored to make similar admissions. 'I had it at twelve, and I was shit hot, too,' said Jay's sister, Meralda, a woman in her forties. Darralyn's mother, Carol, fifty-four years old, agreed that thirteen was 'the normal age,' adding, 'I used to be a wild thing when I was young and single.' Olive Christian described her youth, with evident nostalgia, as a time when 'we all thought sex was like food on the table.'"
The police and the journalists soon discovered that more than just two teenaged girls had been raped. They uncovered a web of abuse spread across the entire island. Over the course of several years, investigators interviewed every single woman who lived on Pitcairn going back forty years, even women who no longer lived on the island. Most of them had stories like Catherine's:
"Catherine gave detectives a lengthy statement, listing a number of Pitcairn men who she said had assaulted her during her childhood. She added that this was 'a common thing on Pitcairn,' remarking, 'You won't get a girl reaching the age of twelve that's still a virgin.' Although the islanders all knew it went on, she said, it was seen as 'part of life,' and no one complained about it."
Marks, like me and I am sure most readers, was incredulous that no one, not even the girls' parents, was aware of what was happening to their own daughters. Surely if your daughter of twelve--or, tragically, often younger--was raped, you'd know about it. Lost Paradise tells another story, where girls didn't speak out or if they did, their parents didn't do anything about it. In a community with a population of less than fifty, the rapists were men everyone knew (or were even related to). Confronting a rapist would mean rocking the boat of this tiny insulated community, and no one wanted to disturb the peace.
Lost Paradise was full of stories from women who lived the first fifteen years of their lives in fear, afraid of being jumped and raped or being violated as they slept. When you live in one of the most isolated communities on the planet, with only a fellow islander as a police officer who is more an officer in name than in actual practice, you soon realize that there is nowhere to run and no one to turn to. Victims were too scared to tell anyone, even their parents. Since fifteen-year-olds traditionally left the island to pursue secondary education in New Zealand, the only hope of relief was the arrival of one's fifteenth birthday. 
While the sexual abuse continued and was accepted among the adult population as a Pitcairn way of life, outsiders living on the island were less inclined to see it as normal behaviour. However, they too were affected by the sensitive need to keep the Pitcairn community together and to keep their little secret strictly to themselves:
"While Tosen [the Seventh-day Adventist pastor on the island] had long had his suspicions, he was appalled to find out the scale of the alleged abuse. Above all, he was at a loss to comprehend how the older women, the mothers and grandmothers, could have allowed it to happen. It seemed obvious to him that they must have known. He and Rhonda spoke to the matriarchs. 'We said to them, "Where were you when this was going on? You're the elders of the island, surely you must be unhappy?" And they replied that nothing had changed. One of the grandmothers said, "We all went through it, it's part of life on Pitcairn." She said she couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.'"
No one ever had any proof that these sexual assaults were occurring because no one was talking about it. I however still find it hard to believe that a resident pastor, one who had suspicions that sexual abuse was going on, would not alert the authorities in New Zealand. The island's teacher in the late sixties, Albert Reeves, was an outsider and he too should have noticed any changes in behaviour or academic performance of the girls in his class. However, when the teacher himself was charged with rape, you can see why not even outsiders could be looked upon to offer any help to the victims. Marks writes:
"The abuse was hidden, but it was not invisible."
And no one did anything about it until the revelations from a fifteen-year-old girl opened a can of worms two centuries in the making.
If one couldn't even count on one's own parents for support after making these revelations, the teens who told their stories were soon ostracized by their community. Parents valued community unity over justice for their daughters:
"However, as Catherine's and Gillian's experiences demonstrate, the main reason that complainants dropped out was pressure: from their relatives and from the Pitcairn community, that uniquely small, close-knit collection of families, as interlaced as a wisteria vine, and just as strangulating. Pressure had been applied since 2000, when the gravity of their predicament had started to dawn on the islanders. As the investigation gathered pace, they looked around for scapegoats, and rather than blame the men, they blamed the women for speaking out. The unforgiveable crime, in the Pitcairners' eyes, was not sexually assaulting children, but betraying the island.
"The men were not shunned, not even by parents living side by side with their daughters' alleged rapists. No outraged mobs surrounded their houses; there were no fights, nor even harsh words traded. The vitriol was reserved for the victims who had broken the Pitcairn code of silence."
The tightest bond was that among the small Pitcairn community. It was unbreakable. It ranked above all other allegiances, and anyone who threatened to break down this community--by perhaps sending its men to jail--did so alone, at her own peril: 
"Not only are open confrontations avoided, but the pressure to conform to communal norms is intense. And those norms have to be accepted even if they become warped: Anyone who challenges the 'Pitcairn way' risks being made an outcast. A former teacher says, 'The Pitcairners can be incredibly mean and vindictive. If the community turns against you, it is absolute hell.'
"Like a family that is determined to stay together, the islanders have to take whatever communal life throws at them. They have to be able to accommodate any kind of behavior, and that includes their children being abused.
"The interdependence of the community is the key to understanding why generations of parents failed to keep their children safe, and why older women, including those who were victims themselves, insist on defending the men."

Bringing justice to the women of Pitcairn Island meant repopulating the island twofold, with lawyers, judges, media, police and technicians. A new jail was constructed (just in case it was needed) by the only men fit enough to build it--those who were on trial. Since there was so little accommodation on the island for all the outsiders, the defence lawyers slept in the new jail cells. Marks takes you through each trial and verdict. She describes what life was like on Pitcairn after six of its seven men were given extremely lenient sentences. In no other jurisdiction would a man convicted of multiple rapes be given two or three years behind bars. That the sentences were served on Pitcairn, with the only other prisoners one's own neighbours, made it seem to some of the victims that the men were spending their time at the Pacific Hilton. Some felt that the men should have been transferred to a "real prison" in New Zealand so that they might experience terror and fear, and know what their victims are still living with.

Have two hundred years of sexual abuse against girls finally come to an end? Marks wonders. With diplomatic officials and an outside police presence finally resident on Pitcairn, one might be inclined to think so. The public awareness of sexual abuse, as well as the jail sentences handed down to those who were guilty, might be big enough deterrents. However it might not be possible to change Pitcairn men's attitudes by merely a short jail sentence:

"Pitcairn was 'a society where the majority of adult males felt they were untouchable,' says Max Davidson [a police officer on the island]. It was a sexual predators' paradise, and when that paradise crumbled, the men blamed their misfortune on the girls. Brian Young, who had sex with a fourteen-year-old when in his early thirties, protested that 'she was very convincing...I was just like a dog being towed behind.'
"As well as the girls, the men blamed the police. They blamed the British government. They blamed Tom and Betty Christian. And when their lawyers failed to get them acquitted, or to sway the Privy Council, they blamed them, too."

They blamed everyone but themselves. I fear that the sexual abuse of girls on Pitcairn might not be over yet.