Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Santa Claus: A Biography

In Santa Claus: A Biography, author Gerry Bowler explores the history behind the Santa Claus myth, tracing it to Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra of Turkey in the fourth century. Bowler also looks at modern appropriations of Santa Claus iconography to suit specific means, such as Santa in wartime and in advertising. He concludes the biography with a look towards the future and if Santa Claus will have a part in it among today's tech-savvy tots.

During the Reformation, Protestant leaders despised the cult of the saints, and Saint Nicholas the gift-giver was substituted by the Christ child as the sole great provider. While Saint Nicholas may have been abolished, the spirit of mythical and fantastic gift-giving remained. This explains the sudden new generation of gift-givers across Europe such as Befana, the witch from Italy.

One of the more common myths about the evolution of Santa is that the Coca-Cola Company single-handedly invented his modern-day portrayal. I'm sure the folks at Coke like to hear others perpetuate this myth year after year, knowing that those who tell it probably are reaching for a refreshing beverage while reminiscing about their beloved childhood Christmases:

"It is far too frequently believed that Sundblom's work for Coca-Cola created the familiar red-and-white-clad Santa of the modern era. In fact, the Coke Santa was in no way groundbreaking; illustrators for the Saturday Evening Post such as J. C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell had already helped fix the Santa in the public's mind."

Santa Claus was not a trademark and as a public domain any company could use his image to promote its products, no matter how incongruous the connection. Bowler writes of ads at the beginning of the 1900's where Santa is shilling rifles:

"No smoke, no noise and perfectly safe in the hands of any boy."

Companies may not have gained any actual sales from employing Santa as pitchman, but they would have gained some positive publicity and goodwill having the jolly old elf as an endorser. Who would doubt the testimony of Santa Claus? Would he lie to you about the safety of firearms in the hands of your child?

I found the chapter about Santa in the movies and in popular songs to be a boring list of titles. This opinion is influenced by my prejudice that I am not a movie person. Bowler listed dozens of silver screen moments featuring Santa Claus, be they from a specifically Christmas movie or not. The section on songs about Santa was slightly more interesting, and the author certainly covered all the crushingly awful Santa songs written in deliberate bad taste. I was disappointed that Bowler didn't write about "Santa Claus Has Got the AIDS This Year" by Tiny Tim, one of my (and John Waters's) favourites.

This book included many black-and-white illustrations showing the evolution of Santa Claus, although the majority of these images were print advertising. I especially liked the first print ads, where Santa didn't look anything like the red-coated rosy-cheeked morbidly obese elf we know him as today.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mysterious Islands: Forgotten Tales of The Great Lakes

Mysterious Islands: Forgotten Tales of The Great Lakes by Andrea Gutsche and Cindy Bisaillon is another book I have had kicking around for years yet never got around to reading in its entirety. I acquired the book, which came with an accompanying 72-minute VHS video, when it first came out in 1999. I was fascinated by the often forgotten, if not entirely unknown tales from the Great Lakes islands, yet I only read about the islands I was immediately drawn to (for example, Middle Island, Pelee Island, Manitoulin Island, and Isle Royale). Mysterious Islands is divided into five chapters, one for each Great Lake, moving from east to west. The book is filled with black and white photographs throughout its 296 pages, but unfortunately many are too small or of poor quality to make much of them. At times I even stood holding the book directly under a lamp, or worse, shining a flashlight on certain pictures in order to see what they depicted. The book was surprisingly heavy, but that was due to its high quality of glossy paper. Ever the armchair editor, I was struck by the number of typographical errors in Mysterious Islands. That the authors named no less than two proofreaders in the Acknowledgements only made me roll my eyes heavenward. I do wonder what it is that proofreaders actually do.

On to the islands. Middle Island, the speck of Canada lying south of Pelee Island lays claim to the title of being the southernmost part of Canada. It was the hub of a thriving bootlegging and smuggling ring during the time of Prohibition. The chapter even had a photo of the Middle Island clubhouse, where all the boozing and gambling took place. A closeup of Middle Island and its crumbling clubhouse can be found here. There was plenty to read about Pelee Island, but I was shocked to find only four pages devoted to Manitoulin. Wouldn't the largest island in the Great Lakes merit more than this? Manitoulin also claims several lakes of its own. I have cycled around these lakes within a lake, and even seen the islands within these lakes. I thought that the authors would surely give at least a cursory mention to Lake Manitou, the world's largest lake-in-a-lake.

Sugar Island, located in Lake Huron, has an unusual claim to fame: it was one of twenty-two spots in North America selected as a possible site for the new United Nations headquarters. Former Michigan governor Chase Osborn proposed the site based on how it was peacefully acquired by the US in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. Osborn believed Sugar Island fulfilled the spirit of the new UN pledge, "to settle international disputes by peaceful means, to refrain from the threat or use of force". The UN instead settled on another island to build its headquarters: Manhattan.

I love to read lighthouse stories and Mysterious Islands had plenty of them. Caribou Island, the most remote of all the Great Lakes islands, lies in Lake Superior, 100 km from the nearest port. It thus had the most isolated lighthouse. Caribou was uninhabited, although the rock 1.6 km offshore where the lighthouse was actually located housed only the lighthouse keeper and his family. Imagine living on a rock--quite literally--with no one else around for 100 km. There wouldn't have even been other land to visit, unless you rowed out to Caribou. This might be the closest an Ontarian can come to feeling what it's like to live on Tristan da Cunha. See Caribou Island here, and the speck of white on the offshore rock which is the lighthouse.

In 1917, the government stopped transporting lighthouse keepers and their families back home in December. In effect, their employer just abandoned them. Lighthouse keepers had to make their way back to the mainland themselves. I read this time and time again, and sometimes the keepers suffered tragic results. The Caribou lighthouse keeper refitted a sailboat yet was trapped for eight days in Lake Superior's ice and storms. It was another five years before the government reintroduced winter transport home.

Mysterious Islands spent an admirable time reporting on the history of the Great Lakes islands before European settlement. The authors reported on the alliances and treaties made between settlers and the First Nations. The islands were home to mines, cults (more than one), prisons and countless shipwrecks. It is my hope to visit some of these islands and I am glad to have had the opportunity to learn so much of their history.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas! 101 Joyful Stories about the Love, Fun, and Wonder of the Holidays

I always start decorating my house for Christmas the week of the Toronto Santa Claus Parade. It takes me several weeks to get my house in the festive spirit and I am happy to say that I finished decorating this year rather early (early for me): the entire house was done by November 30. I was filled with Christmas spirit and wanted a light, leisurely feel-good Christmas read so I grabbed the latest Christmas collection in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. I had never read such a collection before, yet I knew what they were like. Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas! 101 Joyful Stories about the Love, Fun, and Wonder of the Holidays was 406 pages of delightful Christmas stories covering a variety of topics, such as Christmas miracles, Christmas and pets, bittersweet Christmas memories and holiday hijinks. Whether a happy story or bittersweet, the tears flowed copiously in It's Christmas! It did seem overwrought, how much crying there was in all of these stories. The humour was however more abundant and I had a chuckle over the following spelling error:

"There were candles in the widows." (from "Clay Baby Christmas").

One of my favourite stories told of the generosity of neighbours at Christmastime. In "It Takes a Village", after the family dog ate the twenty-pound turkey meant for a feast for thirty guests, neighbours went up and down the streets asking families for dinner donations. Some donated a drumstick, a wing and so on, each family giving up a turkey part so that one family and their guests could enjoy a Christmas dinner of their own. I also enjoyed "The Stinky Gift that Kept on Giving", about a joky exchange of a jar of limburger cheese that lasted for eighteen years.

The stories in It's Christmas! were not long, only three to four pages each. Cartoons separated each themed chapter. For a lightweight read to put you in the Christmas spirit, read this or any Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas collection.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Island: How Islands Transform the World

Island: How Islands Transform the World by J. Edward Chamberlin tells of the impact islands have made on human history. I have taken many visits to islands as holiday destinations: Prince Edward Island, the Åland Islands, Vardø, the Faroes, Bornholm, Newfoundland and Tristan da Cunha, so I thought Island would be a book I'd want to take with me as a desert-island classic. This book was only 242 pages long but when it takes eight days to get through as short a book as this, there can only be one reason: it bored me to sleep. Even though it covered a subject matter that seemed directed to me personally, for 2013 was the year I announced would be devoted to reading books about islands in homage to my upcoming trip--now past--to Tristan da Cunha, Island never caught my interest as I thought it would. Perhaps Chamberlin's brevity was the problem; for example, I would have preferred to learn much more about the history of sailing and the development of sails in their role in both settling islands as well as getting people off them. At least provide me with more than just a few pages on these topics, as Island, to its credit, covers an enormous range of subject matter. In addition to sailing, Chamberlin discusses island formation and continental drift, the earliest days of European exploration, Darwin's theory of evolution, flightless birds, the role of islands in literature...so much to cover yet so little between the covers. I jumped around Island like an island-hopper, taking in only a little bit of information about each new train of thought.

When it came to the specific islands themselves, instead of entire chapters on specific island groups, there were only a few pages on each. Unfortunately for me, an island-lover as it is, these pages told me things I already knew, although I am sure that readers who had never read about the Faroes or Rockall before would have enjoyed their brief sections. He also wrote longer passages about Iceland, the Galápagos and Newfoundland.

Chamberlin covers the differing opinions of what constitutes an island. How big should it be? Or rather, how small? Chamberlin, as a Canadian, filled Island with Canadian references such as the following definition of an island:

"To qualify as one of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River bordering Canada and the United States, an island should be over one square foot in size, be above water three hundred sixty-five days a year, and support at least one tree.".

Yet there was a different opinion in Scotland:

"The definition of an island in a Scottish census taken in 1861 required that an island must support at least one person and one sheep. In this case, trees were not a requirement."

Chamberlin quoted the poetry of E. J. Pratt often, as well as Rex Murphy and Northrop Frye. I was pleased to find so many Canadian references.

Tristan da Cunha, by the way, was mentioned twice in Island. The first was merely a name-drop in the introduction, The second was a paragraph about the evacuation of Tristan in 1961. While I was on the island I let my isolation fantasies take over. At times when I want to be alone, or when I have the dictatorial fantasy of banishing those who annoy me, I will think of this, the best line in the entire book:

"Islands are good places to send people you never want to see again--and they are also good places to go if you never want to see people again."

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Dionnes

I started reading The Dionnes by Ellie Tesher while in the Cape Town departure lounge waiting for my flight to Johannesburg. Since I did nothing but read this book while flying back to Toronto, I almost finished it on board. I have always been attracted to the Dionnes' story yet this is only the first book I have ever read about them. When I read a book I start from the front cover, and I mean it. I am interested in the bibliographic and publishing data and I like to see how the book is catalogued. The first page of cataloguing information credits one of the cover photos to Peter Powell of the Toronto Star. Yet on the first page of the Acknowledgements it says:

"I thank Peter Power of the Star for the powerful photo that helped connect me to the surviving Dionne quintuplets and their story, and that so appropriately graces the book's cover."

So I rolled my eyes at the shoddy editing job even before I got to the official page one. Tesher herself works for the Toronto Star so I wonder how that mistake could have been made.

The Dionnes' story is nothing less than tragic. The quintuplets were removed from their northern Ontario household shortly after their birth and under the pretext of maintaining their fragile health they were isolated from their parents. What may have been a noble yet necessary precaution to protect five premature infants turned into a circuslike freakshow where five toddlers were exhibited at scheduled times in a grotesque human theme park known as Quintland. The girls never knew their own parents or their siblings, and by the time they were reunited as a family the estrangement had already set in. The girls were regarded as pariahs in their own family and Tesher reports that to this day their many siblings shut them out of their lives.

At the time The Dionnes was published in 2000, three of the quintuplets were still living (Annette, Cécile and Yvonne; Yvonne died in 2001) and Tesher was given rare access to them for this biography. The Dionnes usually shun the media but needed Tesher's help as they sought publicity in their threatened lawsuit against the Ontario government for pilfering their trust fund. Tesher exposed how the girls' fund was emptied as it paid for the means of their own blatant exploitation, for it was the quintuplets' own money that funded Quintland, not the government's, even though the government was raking in millions of tourist dollars in the years immediately following the Depression:

"The commercialization had turned the sisters into a flourishing industry instead of five members of a family. And it was all made possible by the unique legal structure the provincial government had set up to exploit the situation."

Legislation was rushed through parliament to give the government some veil of legitimacy behind its money-making exploitation of the Dionnes. The doctor who assisted in their birth, Dr. Alan R. Dafoe, was portrayed as a self-obsessed egotist with a God complex, who wrested the sisters from their parents and put them under his care in a facility specially built for them named not after the Dionnes but after himself: the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery:

"What was really wrong in all of this was the official stamp of approval given to Dafoe's belief that he had more rights as regarded the five girls than did their real father and mother."

Numerous medical and psychological tests were conducted on the Dionnes and it was also their own trust fund money that funded these dubious tests, as well as paid for the doctors and nurses:

"A 1937 scientific paper that [Dr. William E.] Blatz and his associates coauthored in Collected Studies on the Dionne Quintuplets for the University of Toronto openly enthuses that 'for the first time in history five children are growing up in a restricted social atmosphere of multiple contemporary siblings.' In its conclusions, the paper also points out fairly proudly that 'for the past two years they have been on display almost daily.'
"Although Blatz is still revered by some as the father of child psychology in Canada, none of the tests he administered was necessary for the healthy development of the five little girls. The children received no counselling or treatment with regard to their unusual upbringing, or as a result of his findings."


"If anything further was needed to confirm the sisters' feelings that they were part of a sideshow, it was the fact that they were treated as laboratory specimens by scientists, with the government's blessing."

I did not like Tesher's overwrought maudlin tales of woe as she reported how Annette, Cécile and Yvonne were stricken with health problems and couldn't work any longer, or couldn't work at all in the first place. The sisters are portrayed as pathetic figures without any sense of inner strength to triumph over past tragedies. Ironically, it was hard to have any sympathy for these sisters since Tesher made them out as cowardly weaklings afraid to set foot outside their own front door. In spite of this portrayal, by the end of the book they found the resolve to make the Ontario government right its past wrongs against them by awarding them $4 million in compensation. Without a lawsuit, and only through the negotiations between the sisters with their lawyers and the government, they found the strength and confidence to turn down smaller offers, some of them as high as seven figures, until they reached a figure they felt they deserved. The sisters can stand tall knowing that they will live the rest of their lives proudly vindicated, and not as victims of the exploitative Ontario government.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Be My Guest

I picked up Be My Guest by Conrad Hilton when I stayed at the Milwaukee Hilton several years ago. Guests of Hilton hotels in addition to finding the standard free soap and shampoo also receive a complimentary copy of Hilton's memoir, originally written in 1957. I started reading Be My Guest while aboard S. A. Agulhas II en route from Cape Town, South Africa to Tristan da Cunha. I finished the book on board and while I wanted to leave it in the ship's library when I had finished it, the lack of Internet on board, both on my way to Tristan as well as coming back, precluded me from posting this review from the ship. Thus I have waited until my return to Cape Town to post this.

Be My Guest was an engaging story that I enjoyed reading each night. It was a can't-put-down book, wherein Hilton documented his family story, often with humorous anecdotes, from the courtship of his parents and his boyhood growing up in New Mexico to his founding of one of the greatest hotel chains worldwide.

Each of Hilton's parents instilled in him a guiding principle that he has followed all of his life. From his mother, Mary Laufersweiler Hilton, he learned the power of prayer and from his father Gus he learned the value of work. In addition to these principles Hilton added his own: that one must never be afraid to dream. And to dream big . And big is exactly how Conrad Hilton dreamt.

Hilton got his first taste of the hotel industry when a currency panic in October 1907 left his father nearly broke. His family soon realized that they had been literally sitting on a moneymaker:

"We had the biggest, ramblingest adobe house in New Mexico directly facing a railroad station on a main line. And we had my mother's cooking. This added up to only one thing--a Hilton Hotel."

Be My Guest had plenty of humorous moments and I can imagine Hilton himself laughing out loud as he recalled some moments from his childhood. I'll bet he had a good time writing (or dictating) his story. Having such a devoutly Catholic mother kept a young Connie always on his toes:

"Almost as much as going to church or playing hooky, I liked going down the road to talk with Charles Hislie, the carpenter, or Carl Jenks, the village blacksmith and dentist. Mr. Jenks shoed horses or pulled teeth, whichever service was required at the moment. My brother Carl, after an extraction, claimed that he used the same instruments for both operations, but I have no first-hand knowledge of that.
"As I seldom had a toothache I loved to hang around Mr. Jenks' emporium and smell the pungent hot smell and listen to the hammer ringing on the anvil. I also liked to hear Mr. Jenks cuss. He was very talented in that direction and to this day I believe he had as extensive a vocabulary as any man I ever met.
"This hero worship was rudely interrupted when an unsuitable word escaped my lips at dinner table. Mother was shocked. Gus paused in carving the roast only long enough to glare at me and say, 'You stay away from the smithy.' From that time I did, except on dental business when I was accompanied by my lady mother."

Mrs. Hilton also features in an amusing story after her son had made his fortune in the hotel business. She could not accustom herself to having others do for her what she had proudly always done herself:

"My mother, I might add, never did modernize her views on tipping. When she lived for some years at the El Paso Hilton, this was a source of some amusement and much conniving on the part of her children. I, myself, would take her twenty or thirty quarters with specific instructions that she was to give one or two to any bellboy, any waiter, anyone, indeed, who gave her special service, depending on the extra amount of trouble it gave him.

"'I'll try, Connie,' she'd say.
"And I would find out from my sister Helen that, as soon as my back was turned, she'd trot down to the cashier and have the quarters converted into dimes, with which she reluctantly rewarded any service she absolutely could not do herself. Ten cents remained all her life the most she could bring herself to tip."

Be My Guest traces Hilton's shift from buying banks to buying hotels. At first he took over older hotels and transformed them according to his vision. The Hilton empire of new hotels was not his immediate intention. Only after his frustration in having to renovate yet another older building did he consider starting to build his next hotel from the ground up.

It was however not a new hotel but the palatial Queen of all hotels, the Waldorf Astoria, that was his prime target for many years. Its prestige as the height of luxurious hotel accommodation and reputation for unparallelled service made it the diamond in the eye of the Big Apple. He dreamt of owning it one day, and this big dream of his would one day become true. Hilton wrote of his many offers and counteroffers, and offered his insights into the skills of negotiation and the honour in keeping your word with a handshake.

The Waldorf Astoria may be the Queen of his "dowager" hotels, yet he still had to revitalize it to meet Hilton standards. However even when confronted with a rather unfortunate reality of hotel ownership, Hilton can still elicit a smile:

"A wire from Carl at the Waldorf pinpointed this vague feeling. 'Fellow in 202 bumped himself off last night. After looking at his room I don't blame him. We have got to fix up those rooms.'
"I somehow doubted that the décor in 202 had driven the poor fellow to suicide. Unfortunately tired people, discouraged people have sought the impersonal solitude of a hotel for their unhappy business since time immemorial."

One of the pleasures of reading Be My Guest were its stories away from the wheeling and dealing and cornerstone laying. I was absorbed not only in the stories of Hilton's boyhood but also in the tales about his wives and children. Hilton's second marriage was to Zsa Zsa Gabor which in retrospect he could see "was doomed before it started". He recounted with heaving exasperation the countless times he tried to curb her spending habits:

"Glamour, I found, is expensive, and Zsa Zsa was glamour raised to the last degree. She also knew more days on which gifts could be given than appear on any holiday calendar. And then, of course, you could always give gifts because it was no special day at all and thereby transform it."


"I have tried to instill sound business principles into my beautiful Circe, but I might as well have practiced on a statue in the park."

Be My Guest , being that it was published in 1957 at the end of the communist red scare of McCarthyism, ends its final chapters with Hilton vowing to fight communism. The anti-communist tone seems like a time warp of a read for today's reader, yet at the time the red menace was seen as a legitimate threat and proud Americans showed their patriotism by publicly fighting against it. To Hilton, his hotels bridged cultures by bringing the peoples of the world together as a united front against communism.

Hilton ends his book by listing his ten ingredients for successful living. His words of wisdom may help others realize their dreams. Herewith are the Hilton top ten:

Find your own particular talent.
Be big.
Be honest.
Live with enthusiasm.
Don't let your possessions possess you.
Don't worry about your problems.
Don't cling to the past.
Look up to people when you can--down to no one.
Assume your full share of responsibility for the world in which you live.
Play consistently and confidently. 

Never Say Never: Finding a Life that Fits

I fell in love with Ricki Lake when I first saw her in the John Waters production of "Hairspray" in 1988. I saw that film over and over in Toronto's second-run cinemas and even bought the all-too-brief soundtrack. What endeared me more than her performance was the way she seemed in real life when she appeared on talk shows, especially her initial appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman". I loved how real she was, totally unaffected by fame, and she was in awe of Letterman as of the adoring attention she received from the audience. Close to a quarter century after the original "Hairspray" I still do not believe there is a phony bone in her body. What you see is what you get with Ricki Lake, and her memoir Never Say Never: Finding a Life that Fits (written with Rebecca DiLiberto) is an extension of herself:

"I can't help but be honest all the time, wearing my heart on my sleeve. Even though I've been on this earth for forty-three years, I'm so naive that every time someone I get close to turns out to be two-faced, I'm shocked. Please do not think I'm trying to take any moral high ground here--I wish I were capable of being sneakier, of concealing my motives--but I'm incapable of acting like a convincing phony, and it never ceases to amaze me when people I think I know well turn out to be acting their way through real life.
"I hate the idea of living in a world where everything I say and do is calculated rather than natural. Performing your way through life is exhausting and no fun at all."

Lake shares her life story yet keeps the pre-"Hairspray" tale brief. The book's focus before she was cast as the first Tracy Turnblad was her childhood ordeal of sexual abuse at the hands of a family handyman. Lake believes, as do most psychologists, that overweight girls who were sexually molested learned to view food as protection, as a way of making them deliberately overweight in order to seem unattractive to future abusers. The molester was never caught and Lake's own parents did nothing to comfort her when the truth came out. Her parents hoped everything would go away, yet Lake remains crushed in that she was never given any support from her mother and father.

After enrolling in two performing arts schools, Lake gets her big break when she responds to an audition for a happy fat girl who can dance. She gives credit where credit is due, calling John Waters her "fairy godmother" and saying that she "wouldn't even have a career if it weren't for John". Lake spends several chapters talking about the filming of "Hairspray" and of her loving but unfortunately brief friendship with her on-screen mother, portrayed by Divine. Divine died just days after the movie's premiere.

Lake's next big project was the TV movie "Babycakes". I remember when this movie was being filmed because it was shot in Toronto and the media were all over Lake. I had even hoped to run into her downtown since I was attending the University of Toronto at the time. Lake however errs in the photo captions (if in fact she wrote her own captions) for although she does tell the story about shooting the movie in Toronto, the caption in the photos section reads "With Craig Sheffer, my love interest in Babycakes, on a New York City subway platform."

It was after shooting "Babycakes" that roles for loveable fat girls dried up. Lake could no longer find work in a leading role. Throughout her life Lake battled her weight and when there was no longer good work she decided to reinvent herself in an attempt to remain in show business. She writes:

"My need for personal reinvention had never been this intense. This time, it wasn't about being healthier, or happier, or finding some other sane, emotionally sound reason to lose weight. It was about taking care of myself financially. I knew I needed to get a job, and soon."

I remember seeing Lake's first appearance on "Letterman" after she lost well over half her body weight. When asked what motivated her, Lake replied that she at first lost all the weight to try to attract a guy, but then confided that she really did it because she got so sick and tired of having to rest in order to catch her breath after climbing a flight of stairs. She had thus lost the weight for herself, not for another person. In Never Say Never, Lake tells the background of the guy part of the story:

"It's a teensy bit disingenuous for me to claim that 100 percent of my motivation in finally losing weight was financial. I also did it to get this guy to like me."

The guy though was not interested in Lake because he was gay and in the closet. Lake did not need to diet in order to please a man, and she learned to appreciate her body for herself. When she learned the right motivation to embark upon a drastic weight-loss program, she writes:

"Truth be told, I should really be grateful that Aidan was gay. It was because he wasn't sexually attracted to me that I finally decided to lose weight."

Lake looks at her life's disappointments as learning points and no matter how tragic the circumstances, she finds the lemonade within. Even her third-place finish in "Dancing with the Stars" was a triumph. She looks at herself now, and imagines her former fat self squeezing into some of those dresses and being lifted aloft by another man on the dance floor. That show gave her a confidence boost like no other. With an attitude like this, none of Lake's brain space is used to hold on to negativity or grudges:

"How could I so easily forgive someone so inconsiderate? When I think about what my ex-husband Rob and I had to go through with our divorce--how hard it was--I just think life is too short to hold on to negative feelings."

This is one reason why I love Ricki Lake. We both do not hold grudges. I am all too willing to give people second chances, and to forgive those who have wronged me. Why pollute my mind with negative feelings, and allow poisonous thoughts to live rent-free in my mind? Go Ricki!

In Never Say Never Lake seems to discuss her milestones as a series of rebirths: her new self as a movie star; as a wife; and as a mother and filmmaker. The latter two could be considered one and the same, for Lake used the occasion of the birth of her second son as the starting point behind a campaign for the rights of all women to choose the method of birth best suited for themselves. Instead of looking at pregnant woman as patients and at the birthing process as a clinical procedure, Lake regards childbirth as natural, primal and earthly, an event that should be made with educated choices versus being made to feel like a pawn in the medical establishment, going through the motions at the convenience of doctors and pharmacists. Lake used the birth of her second child in her film "The Business of Being Born", a documentary which analyzes all birth options and supports the right of a woman to have the education to choose the best birth option for her.

Ricki Lake has triumphed in Hollywood, in the dog-eat-dog world of daytime talk shows, and in her battle with remaining thin and being healthy. Ricki has the loves of her life in the form of her two sons, Milo and Owen, and at the time of writing she had just become engaged. (Ricki has since remarried.) Ricki's smile, her giggles and her honesty are traits that made me love her for over twenty years, and I am thankful that she opened up her life with no holds barred to her fans in Never Say Never. She would never consider herself as a role model, but she is, for she is living proof that you can realize your dreams. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire

I fancy myself as another Simon Winchester. For not only does he have a passionate interest in dictionaries, as seen in his remarkable story The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, but Winchester is also a geography nut who likes to travel the world to the most unlikely tourist destinations. Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire is Winchester's travel diary written over the three years he spent travelling the world, in his attempt to visit the remaining bits and pieces of the British Empire.

By 1985, though, when  Winchester wrote Outposts, the empire had shrunk to only a handful of inhabited islands plus Hong Kong and Gibraltar. Not counting all the empire's rocks, skerries, uninhabited islands, Pitcairn Island and British Antarctic Territory, Winchester visited all the remaining relics of Her Majesty's empire. He started off with British Indian Ocean Territory, which happens to be the most tragic of all empire stories. The entire population of two thousand was forcibly evacuated from all the BIOT islands in order to convert the territory into a high-security air and naval base. Over five years and often without any advance notice, the citizens were uprooted and resettled, many to Mauritius. I had read about the forced depopulation of BIOT before, and Winchester has written the most personal account from the perspective of a tourist.

I took the greatest interest in the chapter on Tristan da Cunha. His experience there with a local family seemed pleasant, yet after he left the island and wrote about his experiences in the 1985 edition of Outposts, he discovered that there were repercussions. Winchester wrote in the introduction to the 2003 edition (which is the edition I read):

"For what I wrote in this book about the island of Tristan da Cunha I have been banned, and have never landed there since. I have been to the colony's territorial waters a number of times, but the local police have kept me away--the islanders still vexed that I had written about the war-time romance of one of their number, now an elderly (and contentedly married) lady. Whenever I have since visited I have had to content myself with lying offshore in a boat, gazing at the black rocks and the potato fields I liked so well, from a floating vantage point half a mile away." 

His journey to Tristan is unfortunately typical of many travellers: they get so close to the island, but the ocean is so rough that they cannot land. Thank goodness my trip there this autumn is aboard a vessel that has a helicopter on board, ensuring the passengers a landing. Winchester details the ordeal his ship, the St Helena, endured in its attempt to land at Tristan:

"Bows down and shoulders hunched, St Helena rammed her way around the island, which was illuminated by sudden shafts of sunlight, instant rainbows, and over which streamed veils of cloud. We reached the southern edge--a cape where the three-masted barque Italia had been wrecked in 1892, bringing the surnames of Repetto and Lavarello to the island, where they still survive--but the wind refused to calm. In fact, as we pummelled our way further and further around, it became clear that this, unique among all islands I have known, is a place without a lee--there is nowhere to shelter. The gales either blow around the island in some devilish spiral, or else pour as a katabatic torrent up and over the mountain, striking anything below, no matter at what quarter of the compass."

I have long been fascinated by Gibraltar's smallness, where close to thirty thousand people are crammed into less than seven square kilometres. A good portion of this land area is dominated by an uninhabitable rock (uninhabitable for humans, not for Barbary apes). Winchester got the feeling from many that he spoke to that life on the rocky peninsula was claustrophobic, and that living there was like being in a muggy prison. He explained the history of Gibraltar and Great Britain's ongoing dispute with Spain over the territory, and I appreciated his extensive histories in each chapter behind how these areas became colonies, such as the colony-no-longer, Hong Kong.

Upon arriving via a heart-in-throat landing at Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport, Winchester noted:

"It is a mesmeric, intoxicating sight, a view to make one gasp. A hundred years ago there was almost nothing: just a thin line of warehouses, a few church towers, the mansions of the taipans up on the slopes, and Government House on Upper Albert Road with the Union flag waving lazily in the steamy air. Today a vast white winding cloth of concrete, steel and glass has been bolted on to the hillsides, obscuring the contours, turning a world once dominated by the horizontal and the gentle diagonal into a pageant of the vertical."

Winchester was in the south Atlantic in early 1982 just prior to the Falklands War. He flew to the Falklands when Argentina, at first, occupied the island of South Georgia, but was never on the Falklands themselves when war eventually broke out there. Winchester and I certainly share a love of islands; after he first set foot on East Falkland he wrote:

"Everything, so far as I was concerned, was exactly right. It was a place of islands, and I loved islands. It was cold, and I loved cold places."

His time in the Falklands capital, Stanley, was a tense experience owing to the invasion of South Georgia to the southeast, but one without any sense of impending danger. He writes that no one was aware of the Argentine invasion, and if the stationed military did have any advance warning of it, they were keeping it top secret.

Winchester's observations were often occasions I would want to reread. His descriptions of scenery captured a snapshot that seemed high-resolution and always panoramic:

"There may be no native trees on the Falklands, but the twentieth century's sterling efforts to allow the colonists to talk to the outside world has left many rusting iron masts and rotting hawsers that, from a distance and in a mist, look much the same."

Winchester ends his book as he begins, with a stinging belt to the behind to the empire for its devastating forced eviction of the citizens of British Indian Ocean Territory:

"And we deal--or rather we dealt--with horrifying callousness with the people of the Indian Ocean, when we evicted them from their homes, transported them to a foreign country against their will, and lied and evaded our responsibilities for years before a writer discovered the scandal, and told it to the world. Of all the events of post-Imperial British history, those of the late 1960s that occurred in the archipelago we customarily call Diego Garcia remain the most shabby and the most mean. No excuses can be made, by politicians of any persuasion: Diego Garcia is a monstrous blot on British honour, and shames us all, for ever."

Monday, July 8, 2013

North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics

I have read many books about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, those that were printed in the west from both anti-DPRK authors and as well as DPRK sympathizers, by authors who don't resort to anti-DPRK sensationalism, and books which I had purchased in the DPRK itself. A book about the DPRK is almost always an entertaining read, even if I had to give the book a failing review. North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics by Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung failed to make a "friend of North Korea" such as myself the least bit interested in the country. I have never read a book about the DPRK that was as boring as this one. At 219 pages it was however a lot longer than it might at first seem. The library received it in July of last year yet I put off reading it for months because the typeface was so small. Pages of solid bricks of text in tiny print without a paragraph in sight didn't make the book look appealing, although some of the chapter headings certainly did ("The Great National Bereavement, 1994", about the mass wailing that overtook the nation after the sudden death of Great Leader Kim Il Sung, "The Graves of Revolutionary Martyrs", "Gifts to the Leader").

Kwon and Chung analyze the politics behind the Kim dynasty since the creation of the DPRK. They talk about the power of the Kims' charisma, and how national propaganda has had to reinvent itself in order to keep the charismatic element relevant. This was of particularly grave concern to the regime at the time of the famine that devastated the entire country in the mid-nineties:

"The centralization of power, because of its primary reliance on political cultural means and the mobilization of the population to this activity, came with an increasing negligence and ineptitude on the part of the state in the sphere of economic sustenance and growth. The cumulative effects of this failure in all spheres of state life other than the sphere of cultural production were made brutally clear by the tragic crisis of the mid-1990s, which devastated the single most important foundation of any modern state: the economic and moral integrity of its civil society."

Beyond Charismatic Politics was belaboured with repetitious phrases embedded in lugubriously long sentences. I have to confess that I loathed reading this book where I couldn't wait to finish it. Sentences quoted above and below, wherein the authors discuss the political expedience of rewriting history, were typical:

"The succession from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il was 'the communist world's first hereditary transfer of power' and began as early as the start of the 1970s. Contemporary North Korean accounts extend the origin of this process further to the outset of the 1960s and even as far back as the time of the Korean War (1950-1953). These claims represent the powerful efforts in North Korea, as in other socialist polities, to appropriate and rewrite history in the service of a specific political goal. These historical revisions are intended not merely to bring greater honor and dignity to the country's iconic leader but also to appropriate the authority and majesty of the leader's persona to facilitate a desired future--particularly, the continuity of the political order free from the risk of a rupture in the political life of the charismatic authority. In this respect, the evolution of North Korea's statehood has been an epic struggle against the impermanent nature of charismatic authority and against the mortality of this authority, to which all other charismatic personas of the twentieth century eventually succumbed."

I acknowledge that Beyond Charismatic Politics was an academic read more for a student of political situations and conditions, versus for a student of Korean history, which might explain why I was so turned off by all the politicobabble. Even so, I have read many such books about North Korea before which never made me feel like throwing it at the wall. Any book about North Korea is of course going to be full of political theory and analysis of the Kim regime. I would like to read a thoughtful review from a scholar of political science who favoured the book so I might appreciate if from a different perspective.

The chapter entitled "Gifts to the Leader" discusses the diplomatic act of presenting gifts to the Great Leader and Eternal President Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong Il. Leaders and diplomats from around the world, as well as delegations from international socialist institutions, and even private citizens the whole world over have presented the Kims with elaborate gifts. There must be a place to store them all, and the International Friendship Exhibition Hall was built to display thousands of these items in a dazzling and luxurious representation of international esteem for the Kim administration. I visited this exhibition hall and walked down its kilometre-long corridors as my tour group saw room after room after room of often garish and ostentatious examples of folk art. No wonder the Kims didn't want to put such kitsch in their own homes. There is one such piece that has acquired mythical status among North Korea watchers. I had heard about it before I left for my trip yet had never seen a picture of it. My roommate during the trip warned our group about what we were going to see in the exhibition hall, this one kitschy item in particular, and that as hard as it might be we had to keep a straight face or run the risk of offending the authorities. One must not laugh in the International Friendship Exhibition Hall:

"The gifts to Kim Il Sung include a bulletproof automobile from Joseph Stalin; a large handicraft depicting a roaring tiger from Mao Zedong, sent in November 1953 in celebration of Kim Il Sung's victory in the Korean War (these items are 'tributes' to Kim Il Sung made by Comrades Mao and Stalin, according to the labels next to the gifts); and a gigantic porcelain vase offered in 1978 by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party specially for the opening of the Hall of Gifts. Most of the gifts are displayed according to their geographical region of origin. Gifts from Latin America include a silver machete and a machine gun from Nicaragua, decorative plates from Ecuador and a Peruvian university, an oil painting of an Andean market from Guiana, and a briefcase made of crocodile skin from Fidel Castro. A stuffed, standing crocodile holding a plate of wine glasses, a gift from the Sandinista leadership, is a favorite for many visitors to this section."

I appreciated the trip down North Korean memory lane when the authors talked about the cult of gifts in the International Friendship Exhibition Hall in this one chapter, but I cannot recommend North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics to anyone but post-graduate scholars of North Korean politics.

Monday, July 1, 2013

C'mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark

To commemorate Dominion Day, I am posting a review of a Canadian book.

C'mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark is Ryan Knighton's second memoir, written after the birth of his daughter, Tess. I posted my review of Knighton's first book, Cockeyed: a Memoir in mid-June. In his latest book, Knighton writes of his experiences as a blind father raising a daughter.

C'mon Papa is divided into three parts. The first part deals with the conception, where Knighton's wife Tracy suffers a miscarriage as a result of a molar pregnancy. Tracy goes through chemotherapy and the Knightons must wait a year before trying again to conceive. The second part is about the birth and Knighton's trials with an infant. The third part deals with blind life with a two-year-old. I did not find this story as funny as Cockeyed, although it still was a book I couldn't put down. Knighton writes of his failures at diaper-changing and baby-minding. After a heavy snowfall, Knighton loses his daughter while they are playing outside and there is a sense of panic that infects the reader until they are reunited. More tales of near-disaster, or even near-death, are included. The toughest time for Knighton is trying to care for Tess while she is a baby. It gets easier for him when she is a toddler since she, even at the age of two, can walk and see and lead her father around.

Unfortunately I missed seeing Knighton at an author appearance in Toronto while I was in Halifax. It would have been a pleasure to meet him; even more so now that I have read his latest memoir. I am hoping that he will continue to write about his experiences as a blind man and father.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Trailblazer: An Intimate Biography of Sarah Palin

I read Sarah Palin's memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life before I started writing book reviews for the Mississauga Library System's Nonfiction Book Club. Palin impressed me with her political history, going from city council to mayor to governor to Republican Vice-Presidential nominee. The story of her climb up the political ladder was exciting to read, and I looked forward to a different perspective in Trailblazer: An Intimate Biography of Sarah Palin by Lorenzo Benet.

Benet, an assistant editor at People magazine as well as a coauthor of a number of pop biographies, unfortunately has written a boring book that reveals absolutely nothing about Palin that the public doesn't already know. Trailblazer relies on news articles and televised media stories for its sources, and anyone who has read the newspaper or watched Palin's media appearances will find nothing new here. Benet, to his credit, did interview Palin for People, when the magazine did a story on the then governor shortly after she gave birth to her son Trig, who was born with Down Syndrome. There however mustn't have been a lot of substance to that article as he only touches on his actual meeting and interview with Palin. Benet relies on many quotes from an interview he had with one of Palin's sisters, but the calibre of quotes he culls from her are all fluff, ranging from how good she was at high school basketball to how fabulous she works at juggling her time between her work and family. He also interviews Palin's hairstylist and all that she can say is how she changed Palin's hair colour and that she and Palin love to chitchat about their kids. All the quotes he gets out of people are fluff like this, which makes a very boring read indeed.

Trailblazer, written in 2009, seems out of date already since Palin has lived a lifetime of activity in the four years since the book first came out. Most glaring are the references to the upcoming wedding between Palin's daughter Bristol and future Playgirl model Levi Johnston. Benet speculates about Palin's future and while he could not have known that she would resign as Alaska governor later on in 2009, or that she would star in her own TV show, he was prescient in thinking that she would write her autobiography. For more in-depth information about Palin's rise up the political ladder, read Going Rogue.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Cockeyed: a Memoir

The subject of my latest book cuts close to home: Cockeyed: a Memoir is Ryan Knighton's own story about his gradual loss of vision by retinitis pigmentosa. On a personal note, in 1988 I lost the central vision in my left eye by toxoplasmosis, a diagnosis I still don't understand yet eye specialist after specialist told me the same thing. Twenty-five years ago I was given the dreadful news that I might lose all the sight in my left eye. Since then I have lived my life by the eye doctor's adage "Never take your eyesight for granted". I have also developed a sensitivity towards and activism on behalf of the blind and visually impaired. It was after conducting some on-line research that I discovered Cockeyed.

Knighton received the diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, on his eighteenth birthday. His memoir, which is laugh-out-loud funny in places, tells the story of his voyage into darkness.

As a mosh-pit dancing punk his limited sight didn't matter; he discovered with pleasure that he didn't even need eyesight while flailing himself into people in dark clubs. Knighton even managed to teach English in South Korea, only to find that the faculty and his students didn't even notice he had very low vision.

Funniest of all was his tale of going to adult "blind camp" with thirty others on an island in western British Columbia. I quote the following passage:

"I expected, of all places in the world, this would be the one where sighted habits were dropped. They weren't. People sat around the breakfast tables and spoke to one another without identifying themselves or whom they meant to address. Cheryl might have asked something like, 'Are you going to glue macaroni owls at the crafts table this afternoon?' Everybody would carry on chewing until somebody said the obligatory, 'Are you talking to me?' All six dining tables sounded like a rehearsal from Taxi Driver. You talking to me? You talking to me? ...
"Likewise, you'd think of all places in the world, this one would have been gesture-free. Nope. Everybody, me included, carried on flagging and pointing, and as you'd expect, none of us followed. We were so used to living with sighted people that we couldn't even be blind with one another."

I had never read an account of a person's loss of sight before. Knighton never gets mad at God or goes on a destructive rampage, however his three car accidents while he had failing eyesight, before he got the RP diagnosis, come close. The one part in the book that will stop your heart and make you cry is how he found out about his younger brother's suicide. It was written with such vivid detail, I felt as though I were in the same room when he got the news.

Knighton did not write about learning Braille, so I am making the conclusion he can still read the printed word, albeit with 1% vision. He did write about learning how to use the white cane, or the "stick", as he calls it. Cockeyed was mostly a fun read, in spite of the subject matter. Near the end of the book Knighton waxes philosophical and seems genuinely at peace with his eventual total blindness.

Monday, June 10, 2013

What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal

Laina Dawes is a heavy metal journalist and fan, who also happens to be a black woman. What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal is her personal account of dealing with being the only black woman in the concert hall. Dawes also covers the history of black women in rock music from the early days of pre-rock with Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday to Tina Turner and Skin of Skunk Anansie.
For a black person, male or female, one often faces a crisis of identity when drawn to heavy metal music. Dawes and the many women she interviewed for What Are You Doing Here? all revealed that they had to hide their record albums and when they were found out, had to face accusations from friends and family that they were somehow betraying their black heritage by their musical taste. Dawes states:

"As a black girl into metal, I had nobody with whom I could share my adoration for Rob Halford or my crush on the late Steve Clark from Def Leppard. While listening to music and perusing music magazines became a great form of escape, I always felt a bit of residual guilt. After all, black people--real black people--don't listen to metal."

However she was drawn to metal for the same reasons it attracts many of its fans:

"There was a lot of rage around me, and I knew it could be channeled into the positive energy that I found through metal."

How do other black women metal fans reconcile their musical taste with the criticisms they hear because of it? Music journalist Keidra Chaney told Dawes:

"'I didn't fit in,' she says, 'but I wasn't going to fit in anyway, so my loving metal was just another reason to be that weird chick. It wasn't a black identity issue, like me wanting to be like white folks because I grew up around only black folks. It wasn't an issue like I needed to choose. I just happened to be a weird black chick that happened to like weird music.'"


"'It's extremely confusing as a black teenager,' adds singer Camille Atkinson from Empire Beats. 'Who knows who they are as a teenager? You are trying to assert your identity, but at the same time, you feel that you are being separated from your black identity.'"

Dawes deals with the negative reaction to her musical preference expressed by other blacks in the chapter entitled "So You Think You're White?". As a music journalist Dawes is well educated in the history of modern rock. When her critics--people who really ought to know better than to make an issue out of someone else's musical preferences--berate her for liking loud metal music played by white men, her revelation that it was black musicians who invented rock music in the first place always seems to grab their attention and build bridges of understanding.

In the chapter entitled "'The Only One' Syndrome", Dawes shares testimonials from other black women metal fans and their experiences at concerts. It takes an enormous amount of courage for a black woman to attend a metal concert, and some of the women she interviewed simply do not attend live events because of the attention they draw upon themselves simply by being there. Dawes herself often doesn't find support even from other black women concertgoers:

"I have felt the disheartening chill of making eye contact with the only other black girl at a metal show, and receiving a death glare in return that says, 'In no uncertain terms may you even try to talk to me and embarrass me.'"

This reaction reveals to me that the women Dawes sees might themselves be insecure about being at a metal show, and might feel more comfortable trying as hard as they could to be invisible, versus joining another black woman for a chitchat wherein they share their mutual love of metal.

Heavy metal music may have an unfair reputation for being sexist and racist, and Dawes confronts these issues in the chapters entitled "Too Black, Too Metal, and All Woman" and "The Lingering Stench of Racism in Metal". Metal journalist Sameerah Blue sums up both issues with this observation:

"As a black female journalist covering metal myself, sometimes it seems like there are more haters than supporters. 'Just like with most women musicians and fans in metal, you would have to work twice as hard as a guy, that just goes without saying,' says Blue. 'Even if you take color out of the equation, women in metal have to work harder. And if a white woman has to work twice as hard, a black woman is going to have to work four times as hard. You will ultimately get the same acceptance, but you have to work for it.'"

What Are You Doing Here? is perhaps the first book of its kind, giving a voice to black women who love heavy metal. I recommend this book but future printings should see the eyes of an editor. There were many grammatical errors, with repeated words, or repeated infinitives, or often missing words like the "to" when preceding an infinitive. I am led to believe that Dawes typed this at her computer, possessed with intelligent rapid trains of thought. An editor's keen eye, or even her own slow re-read, would have caught these mistakes. Dawes does make the same observations over and over, and at times What Are You Doing Here? seemed frustratingly repetitious. Yet at 206 pages Dawes's work seemed unfortunately too short; it is a sign of a hungry reader and perhaps a wider readership to wish to read more on this topic.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Moab is My Washpot

I had never heard of Stephen Fry before I got this autobiography as a gift over a decade ago. I finally got down to reading Moab is My Washpot, Fry's personal story up until the age of twenty, and it was one of the most enjoyable autobiographies I have ever encountered. Fry grew up in British prep and boarding schools and his tales of all-boy antics and pranks had me laughing aloud, even while reading Moab on the subway. Fry's writing style is stream-of-thought, and although the pages may be at times solid blocks of text, the flow is so rapid, even with elongated tangential clauses (and sometimes even parenthetical asides) that I found that I could read everything in one attempt, not having to go back and reread the passage as I obsessively do in order to make sure I understand everything. 

Fry grew up a lying, pranking, thieving urchin. He stole frequently from his schoolmates, teachers and from strangers, and I won't spoil the end of Moab by revealing what the consequences of his thievery had in store for him in his late teens. His school pranks had me snickering out loud and it is not often that I am vocal while I read. My favourite prankish tale was his readjustment of a church organ's preset buttons, and the on-the-floor uncontrolled hilarity that ensued when Fry and his friends heard the organ "fart out of tune" the following Sunday.

Stephen Fry grew up gay and, except for a brief moment of rebellion in his late teens when he dated and lost his heterosexual virginity to one (and only one) girl, was only interested in boys. He was enraptured by a boy named Matthew (lovingly nicknamed Matteo) and his stories of being unrequitedly in love with him will have bittersweet memories for all of us who have ever had feelings of attraction unreturned. 

Near the end of Moab is My Washpot we learn of Fry's suicide attempt and his successful rehabilitation. Not a long portion of the book is devoted to his suicide attempt, and one is not led to believe that it was forthcoming. Fry's suicide attempt came after a failed academic year and a life of thieving and self-perceived failure. Once he was released from the hospital he didn't turn his life around--not yet anyway. More thievery was in store for Fry, and he had the time of his life doing it too, living a life of luxury until...

Saturday, May 25, 2013

As Near to Heaven By Sea: A History of Newfoundland and Labrador

Last summer I visited Newfoundland and had such an enjoyable time exploring the Avalon peninsula and Cape Bonavista. I would love to go back and see more of this vast island. Almost a year after this memorable trip I chose to read As Near to Heaven By Sea: A History of Newfoundland and Labrador by Kevin Major. This 498-page history was published in 2001. From the geological prehistory of the formation of the eastern Canadian land mass to the dawn of the twenty-first century, Major has written almost five hundred pages that kept me engrossed for hours on end. I could not put As Near to Heaven By Sea down, and Major made each time I opened the book feel like a fun, yet still serious history class.  
Major covers the history from both parts of the province, the island of Newfoundland as well as the mainland of Labrador. Often the mainland is forgotten or given short shrift in provincial histories. Major has written about both parts of the province and treats each as an equal. The first few chapters were about Norse exploration and the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows by Leif Ericson at the turn of the second millennium. Major also discussed several other pre-Columbian exploration theories. The Island and Labrador were both inhabited by native peoples before the arrival of Europeans, and we learn about these peoples' migrations across the east coast. The chapter entitled "Where Once They Stood" was a sad account of the extinction by decimation of some First Nations, such as the Beothuk.

St. John's is the oldest city in North America, and typical of Major's writing was his injection of humour into his history. I would sometimes burst out laughing at his asides or parenthetical opinions:

"At the beginning of the [eighteenth] century King William's Act had let it be known that 'all the inhabitants shall strictly keep every Lords Day.' And that 'none keeping taverns shall sell wine &c. on that day,' as if everyone would pay attention to laws governing their intake of alcohol once the navy vessels set sail for England in the fall."


"By day the fishermen caught cod from small boats, then salted and sometimes dried their catch. They slept aboard ship or in temporary dwellings on shore. At the end of the summer, their holds full, they headed back home, often with a stop in St. John's Harbour on the way.
"The eventual capital city of the Island had its beginnings as a place for a little rest and relaxation, and the occasional brawl--an international port city in the making."

In regards to modern St. John's, Major has no affection for the city's Atlantic Place shopping and parking complex:

"Even in the mid-twentieth century the downtown looked as if it could be out of the nineteenth. Not content to let well enough alone (where such a visage could only be a magnet for sightseers), the business vulgarians brought in the wrecking balls and raised something they called 'Atlantic Place.' With the profile of a brick box and a personality to match, it's a blight at harbourside, only to be redeemed with the return of the wrecking ball. Such architectural idiocy along Water Street is not now without competition, of course (the prerequisite mirrored tower of Scotia Bank its stiffest rival). City councillors (and no city has had a more curious lot of these) seem forever prone to err on the side of commerce. St. John's claims to be the oldest city in North America. At times it has looked bent on destroying all evidence to support that claim."


"Visitors entering the harbour (and able to turn a blind eye to Atlantic Place) will look skyward to see the two forces that have most shaped our society--the fishery and the Church."
For centuries, the Island's fishing grounds were fought over between the English and French. In 1702, English Rear-Admiral John Graydon was given orders to battle the French settlement at Plaisance. When he met with his captains, they "whined about the thick fog shrouding the bay. In the end the attack was called off 'since it might tend to the dishonour of Her Majesty's arms.'"

They were all obviously strangers in a strange land to make complaints about the fog of all things:

"Graydon was either displaying a streak of cowardice or acting on lame advice. Word of the strength of the garrison at Plaisance was no more than rumour. And in Placentia Bay no one puts off the business at hand because of fog. If they did they'd be hard pressed to ever get much accomplished."

Newfoundland and Labrador were the targets of pirates and many shady characters in the first few centuries after colonization. Fishing vessels or other ships full of cargo from the new world were vulnerable on the return voyage:

"Legend has it that from 1740 to 1760 Sandy Point in Bay St. George was home to the notorious husband-and-wife pirating duo of Eric and Marie Cobham. It is said they attacked ships heading out of the St. Lawrence, and were especially keen on any bearing cargoes of furs from New France. They were known for massacring all on board and then scuttling the vessels, with Marie often taking the lead in the heinous goings-on. 'She poisoned one ship's crew, had others sewn into sacks and thrown overboard alive, still others tied up and used for pistol practice,' says one modern account. Newfoundland seems to have brought out the worst in her."

Since the island of Newfoundland was first settled on the east coast by Europeans, Major puts forth a valid question if settlement had occurred first on the west by the Gulf of St. Lawrence:

"This was a very different picture of Newfoundland. And leads one to speculate on just how prosperous the Island might have become had its settlement evolved from the more fertile west coast, rather than the barren headlands to the east. Had population growth centred on Bay St. George rather than St. John's, we would most likely have become a part of Canada with its Confederation of 1867. Labrador would certainly have felt more closely tied to the rest of the province. And by now there might well have been a bridge between it and the Island, connecting the Canadian mainland to the west coast, to a million or so people..."

In the late 1800's to the first few decades of the twentieth century, the Island became the focus of international importance in the field of communications. The chapter entitled "Communications Central" told the stories about the laying of the first trans-Atlantic cables, Marconi's experiments with wireless technology and Amelia Earhart's trans-Atlantic flights. The development of the international airport in Gander in northeastern Newfoundland both as a refuelling stop, as well as for military purposes in World War II, made it one of the most interesting chapters.

Newfoundland didn't join Confederation until 1949, when it became Canada's tenth province after securing 52% of the vote in a referendum. The campaign to join Canada was led by Joey Smallwood, a bespectacled bow tie-wearing orator schooled in American evangelism. Much of the Island's outports, as well as virtually the entire of Labrador, were inaccessible by road. What led to a victory for Confederation were the endless road trips led by Smallwood to every remote fishing village or Labrador coastal community. These small places, some of barely a hundred residents, had never been visited by anyone in government before, much less the man who would eventually become the new province's first premier. He had this audience all to himself, and promised them Canadian wealth and a more prosperous life. How could they say no?

"Smallwood went where politicians rarely pitched before. If there were roads he eagerly suffered the mud and potholes for a few minutes with a loudspeaker. Where there were none (by far, most of the country) he descended in a decrepit seaplane, shook every hand while proclaiming deliverance into the guarantee of Canada's social programs."

As Near to Heaven By Sea ends with a political history after Smallwood left office and covers all the premiers who succeeded him. A lengthy bibliography is included which guarantees I will be seeking more titles. Some of the books Major mentions in his bibliography I even purchased during my trip last summer. Newfoundland and Labrador has a fascinating history and I am so glad that my first lengthy read on the topic was As Near to Heaven By Sea.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Lips Unsealed: A Memoir

Belinda Carlisle wrote Lips Unsealed: A Memoir after five years of sobriety. It doesn't read like a written memoir and resembles a transcribed interview. Carlisle's story was a burning page-turner for the first half of the book, as she recounted the punk scene in Los Angeles which led to the formation of the Go-Go's.

Carlisle was stoned on cocaine and booze for the first 47 years of her life. Her cocaine addiction was no secret to her fans (I count myself as a strong Go-Go's and Belinda Carlisle fan) who knew of her drug addiction over twenty-five years ago. What was surprising to discover were the countless times Carlisle fell off the wagon, only to sober up again then fall deeper and deeper into a coked-up Hell. Unfortunately Lips Unsealed suffers in its second half because Carlisle tells the same story over and over again. The last twenty years of her life were about going on tour, sniffing out coke dealers as soon as she was in a new town, then going onstage blasted out of her mind and partying for days afterward. It got pretty tiring to read the same story over and over again.

Belinda must have been sober during the making of the Go-Go's' and her own solo albums, because the accounts of her studio session time and the dynamics that were involved in songwriting and production were extremely interesting. Carlisle's later solo albums did not do well at all in North America, yet they were consistent Top Tens in Europe. I found it very interesting to read about her experiences making these lesser-known albums (such as Live Your Life Be Free and her French-only album, spelled mistakenly without the accent grave, Voila) since the local press all but ignored them.

After having a coked-up epiphany when she realized that if she snorted one more line she would die, Carlisle sobered up through AA and by adopting a healthy lifestyle of exercise and yoga. As far as I'm concerned, after reading her life story, Carlisle seems fragile enough to go off the wagon again any second, yet I will be the first to admit that a former addict is always an addict and will always have these demons looking over her shoulders.

I was glad to read that Carlisle and the four other Go-Go's, Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock and Kathy Valentine long ago built bridges, forgave each other and put all their bickering behind them. They certainly took a proactive role in the inevitable post-breakup record company reissue of hits packages. Instead of letting the record company release these compilations on its own, they decided to reform, give all their input, and tour to promote these new albums.

However, since I read this book when it first came out in the summer of 2010, the Go-Go's have burned those bridges and will be touring without bassist Kathy Valentine, citing the parting of ways due to "irreconcilable differences".

Monday, May 13, 2013

The ADD Myth: How to Cultivate the Unique Gifts of Intense Personalities

I do not find any mental diagnosis to be as controversial as that of attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. To me, ADD is this generation's buzz of an affliction. The medical community is divided whether or not such a disorder even exists, and I have my own prejudices about this alleged condition. The ADD Myth: How to Cultivate the Unique Gifts of Intense Personalities by Martha Burge attempts to explain ADD and devotes most of its pages to analyzing the ADD patient's brain in a different light and to developing programs to nurture this different brain.

The first chapter, entitled "There Is No Such Thing as ADHD", grabbed my interest immediately. For those who doubt the existence of ADD, this is the most important chapter in the book. Its subsections had such headings as "Why Schools and Parents Seek Diagnosis", "Not All Distress or Difference Is Mental Disorder", "Too Common to Be a Disorder", "There is No Proof of Disorder" and "If Not Disorder, Then What?" which clearly revealed the author's intentions. Burge states, on page one no less:

"I know I have very few standing beside me in my stance that there is no such thing as ADHD."

Before however we become acquainted with Burge's work, we are greeted by a foreword written by Allen Frances, MD and Chair of the DSM-IV Task Force, who writes:

"Burge describes ADD as harmful 'myth.' I see it more as an overdone fad. We both agree that ADD is currently being wildly overdiagnosed, but Burge would get rid of it altogether, while I endorse ADD as a useful diagnosis when cautiously and correctly applied to the small percentage of people at the far extreme of the Bell curve in their hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention."

Frances is not as convinced as Burge is in regards to the mythical existence of ADD, yet he does agree to its transitory state in medical history. It is one fad that will be supplanted by another come the next generation. In the meantime, Burge as well as Frances are trying (I believe in vain) to put the brakes on the ADD bandwagon. ADD diagnoses are increasing among young children year after year. Why is there an ADD epidemic?

People want answers. Parents and teachers want a simple explanation for their children's or students' increased states of restlessness and inattention. Find the reason Johnny can't sit still because it's not his fault. An explanation is not enough, for once parents find the reason for their child's zero attention span, they then want someone to do something about it. This is a phenomenon of our times, where no one takes responsibility for life's bad news and everyone believes anything can be cured by a magic pill:

"I'm not one of those antidrug advocates. I believe in better living through chemistry; it's just that this should be done with a solid understanding of the risks. Drugs should be used only when there are no other options. To prescribe such strong psychotropic drugs to children for an illness that cannot be proven seems irresponsible, particularly if the intent of the prescription is only to improve performance in school."

Popping pills is apparently easier than finding the source of the problem. According to Burge, at least 5% of young children are taking some kind of prescription drug (like Ritalin) for their ADD, and a higher percentage among boys:

"Once there was a description of ADHD as a mental disorder and a pharmaceutical treatment option available, the disorder seemed to go in search of patients."

Burge spends the remaining fifteen chapters of The ADD Myth talking about different kinds of intensities, or ways of perception. ADD is not a neurological disorder, she says, but merely a state of relative intensity. Those diagnosed with ADD are more intense in feeling, in absorbing information and in expressing themselves. They do not need drugs, psychiatric counselling or faddish excuses of diagnosis. ADD itself may be misdiagnosed based on sexism:

"Although I believe 100 percent of the ADHD diagnoses to be misdiagnoses, I think the reason that boys are diagnosed more than twice as often as girls is that girls are more likely to express 'hyperactivity' vocally."

Thus while girls may be just as hyperactive as boys, they tend to manifest this hyperactivity in the form of stereotypical loquaciousness. While excessive talkativeness is an intense behaviour in itself such that it causes disruption and reveals the speaker's distraction and inattention, it is not viewed in as negative a light as restlessness or loud complaining, which is more typical of the behaviour of boys. This is one of the subjective and spurious characteristics of ADD, having one trait for girls and one for boys.

Burge has done her research and finds no consistency on standard ADD testing. All such testing is based on subjective modelling, which leads to erroneous diagnoses of ADD and a convenient deus ex machina for parents who want a cure in the form of a pill named Ritalin:

"Treatment options for these 'disorders.' which may be nothing more than intensity, are medication and therapy. If you've been down this road, you have probably found the treatment to be less than ideal. Years can be spent on a path that cannot provide much help because the underlying condition isn't understood. If intensity is treated like a mental disorder, the outcome is a sensitive person who now believes herself to be disordered. Instead of understanding and taking advantage of the growth possibilities this condition affords, she changes her self-image to fit that of a person with a disorder."

After the profound claims Burge makes in chapter one, she spends the rest of the book outlining exercises to train the brain by managing one's intensity. She teaches how to take in and process information and how to express oneself and live as a healthy individual. There are many exercises in meditation and imagination, as well as instructions in self-talk and in keeping a journal of one's dreams. I had wanted to read The ADD Myth mainly for its first chapter, so it is ironic that I found the rest of the book, on Burge's often new-agey methods for dealing with one's own personal level of intensity, to be rather boring. However if anyone knows me as a book reviewer, I read every book to the end, no matter how spacy or boring it becomes.

Burge did not discuss a cause that I attribute to the epidemic of ADD diagnoses among children: that of our click-happy on-line world, where nothing can happen fast enough. We expect things to happen as soon as we think of them, and grow impatient if whatever we click on takes more than one second to load. Children do not have to wait as long for information as those of my generation. When I was a child, we had to change channels by getting up and walking to the TV. To make a phone call, we had to be at home or stay at home to await a call. Then we had to use a dial; we didn't have a push-button phone till I was twenty years old. If we needed to find out information, we had to pull out the books or make a trip to the library. Today's generation of young people have their television, their telephone, their encyclopaedia, their camera and every conceivable game in the palm of their hand. It does not surprise me that children have decreased attention spans if they grow up never having to wait for anything. Their brains are not evolving as fast as technology is, thus creating a neurological "lag" that leads to attention deficit, hyperactivity and restlessness. I would be very interested in finding out the prevalence of ADD among children in societies that are not as technologically progressive. Would Amish children show traits often attributed to ADD? Would poor rural households, those without the money to pay for their child's cellphone or high-speed Internet, be less likely to produced ADD-afflicted children?