Monday, January 28, 2013

Titanic Lives: On Board, Destination Canada

One of the many new books published on the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic is this account of the Canadian connection on board. Titanic Lives: On Board, Destination Canada by Rob Rondeau tells the story of ten individuals, some of whom were Canadian and some who travelled on the Titanic headed for Canada. Not all of the passengers Rondeau profiles survived, yet he tells their stories leading up to the disaster as well as the survivors' stories afterward. At 112 pages, Titanic Lives is packed with photos and is supplemented by additional chapters talking about such themes as the ship's cuisine, the White Star Line and early twentieth-century fashions. That there are so many supplementary chapters--annoyingly inserted in the middle of the chapters about the Canadian passengers, forcing the reader to stick a finger in place so as not to forget to backtrack--meant that the length of each biography was quite short and left me with a lot of unanswered questions.

Some stories broke my heart, especially that of Bess Allison, seen in the lower right of the front cover, who was already aboard a lifeboat with her two-year-old daughter yet scrambled out when she heard that her husband Hudson was being loaded into a lifeboat on the other side of the ship. She never found him, and she and her daughter, as well as her husband, all perished. The Allisons' infant son Trevor, unbeknownst to either Bess or Hudson, was rescued by his nurse. Their baby was the only family member who survived, but he too met a premature end, when he died at the age of eighteen, likely of food poisoning. The title of Bess Allison's chapter is subtitled "Tragedy Personified", and when you read her story, you realize, sadly, how true it is.

Rondeau could have used another editor, as he made frequent errors in the story of William Edwy Ryerson, a former professional soldier who was trying to make ends meet by working as a second-class dining room steward on board. Ryerson had plenty of experience specifically as a mounted soldier, fighting in southern Africa and India. Rondeau though transposes "cavalry" with "calvary":

"His next foray would take him even farther afield, fighting in India with a British calvary unit."

and in the end uses "calvary" more often than the correct term.

The Titanic's senior wireless operator was Jack Phillips, yet Rondeau misspells his surname with only one L every time except, oddly, when listing his sources (i.e., RMS Titanic and the Jack Phillips Story).

The final glaring errors occurred whenever Rondeau attempted to write a possessive plural. He always added a superfluous final S:

"What is known is that upon reaching New York aboard Carpathia, the Allisons's nursemaid lied to authorities when she was asked her name."

Titanic Lives tells the stories of the rich and famous (Harry Markland Molson, of Molson Brewery) as well as the scandalously infamous (showgirl of questionable repute Berthe de Villiers) and the accompanying photos make for an experience as if you were looking through the passengers' century-old photo albums. Titanic Lives is a fine introduction to the Canadian side of Titanica.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel

HarperCollins Canada, c2009

At first glance this looks like it should be an engaging narrative nonfiction book along the lines of something by Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell.  But beyond its catchy title, the book was a rather dry economics treatise.  That being said, the basic issue of how much things should be worth is an interesting question.  

We place economic value on goods and services, which are usually out of sync with their true costs.  The author delves into costs incurred by companies (i.e. the generator of the good or service), and additional costs that are passed (intentionally or not) to others - usually to the Government (and taxpayers).  These costs include environmental damages and cleanup, corporate subsidies, and social costs.  

There is also a disparity between assigned economic prices for things artificially considered "valuable," and things that are critical to life (air, water, shelter, food etc.).  How valuable is water?  Can you assign it a price?  How do you balance the rights of people around the world to clean water, with the "right" of corporations to extract water to sell to others?

Discussion Questions

  1. How easy was this book to follow?
  2. What is a “market society,” and do you think we live in one?
  3. Does money buy happiness?
  4. Is there anything we can do to bring attention to the real cost (ecological cost etc.) of goods?  How should these be paid?
  5. Should society compensate people who contribute to society/the human species, but aren’t a part of the market or labour force as such?
  6. What in our world should remain in common hands?  Food, water, shelter etc?
  7. What are the problems of assigning a market price to things we value?
  8. If our society is unsustainable, how and when do you think things will crash?  Has this process already started? 
  9. The author kind of danced around this question, but, what is your opinion of private property?
  10. Is there anything that this book should have discussed, but didn’t?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden is the third account I have read about life in North Korea's prison camps, after The Aquariums of Pyongyang and Eyes of the Tailless AnimalsUnlike those two accounts, however, Escape from Camp 14 was not written by a prisoner. Shin Dong Hyuk was interviewed by Harden after he escaped to South Korea and then after he moved to the United States. Using the preceding two books as a reference, I have my doubts about the veracity of the testimony made by Shin. Harden writes:

"In writing this book, I have sometimes struggled to trust him. He misled me in our first interview about his role in the death of his mother, and he continued to do so in more than a dozen interviews. When he changed his story, I became worried about what else he might have made up.

"Fact-checking is not possible in North Korea. Outsiders have not visited its political prison camps. Accounts of what goes on inside them cannot be independently verified. Although satellite images have greatly added to outside understanding of the camps, defectors remain the primary sources of information, and their motives and credibility are not spotless. In South Korea and elsewhere, they are often desperate to make a living, willing to confirm the preconceptions of human rights activists, anticommunist missionaries, and right-wing ideologues. Some camp survivors refuse to talk unless they are paid cash upfront. Others repeated juicy anecdotes they had heard but not personally witnessed."

So caveat emptor. Although any eyewitness story to the horrors of the North Korean prison camps should not be denied, I nonetheless found Escape from Camp 14 the least believable. The story was lightweight and since Harden and Shin needed to communicate by interpreters, I got the impression that much was missed and padded by Harden's own imagination. Since the story was told in the third person, it actually detracted from my own sensitivity toward the horrors of the camp. I would have had a dripping heart had the story been told by Shin himself.

Unlike the authors of the two preceding books, Shin was actually born in a prison camp. He was the product of a "reward marriage", a rare privilege awarded to exemplary prisoners. Shin's mother and father were selected to marry by prison officials and although they were not allowed to live together, they were given a few conjugal visits per year.

Shin and an older brother lived with their mother in Camp 14 in central North Korea. Unlike all the other prisoners, the Shin boys never knew life outside the brutality of the prison camp. This was their life from the day they were born: starvation, witness to executions, beatings, sleep deprivation and unbearable labour.

As Soon Ok Lee says in Eyes of the Tailless Animals, the prisoners were like animals, acting without feeling or compassion for anyone. It was a constant fight for survival, and no one was exempt from being a victim, not even one's own mother: 

"When he [Shin] was in the camp--depending upon her for all his meals, stealing her food, enduring her beatings--he saw her as competition for survival."

Shin despised his family, and when he discovered that his mother and brother were planning to escape, he sneaked off in the middle of the night and reported them to a guard. Instead of being rewarded for his vigilance, Shin was taken to an underground prison and tortured for seven months as the guards sought his role in their planned escape. When he was finally freed he hated his mother and brother even more. Once taken outside to see daylight for the first time in seven months, he was led to the camp's execution ground, where he was forced to witness in the front row the executions of his mother and brother:

"When guards dragged her to the gallows, Shin saw that his mother looked bloated. They forced her to stand on a wooden box, gagged her, tied her arms behind her back, and tightened a noose around her neck. They did not cover her swollen eyes.
She scanned the crowd and found Shin. He refused to hold her gaze.
When guards pulled away the box, she jerked about desperately. As he watched his mother struggle, Shin thought she deserved to die.
Shin's brother looked gaunt and frail as guards tied him to the wooden post. Three guards fired their rifles three times. Bullets snapped the rope that held his forehead to the pole. It was a bloody, brain-splattered mess of a killing, a spectacle that sickened and frightened Shin, But he thought his brother, too, had deserved it."

Not a single tear shed.

Fellow prisoners Shin meets give him ideas of what life is like on the other side of the electric fence. Shin learns about his own country--he had never even heard of Pyongyang--as well as other countries and foods. He never tasted meat except for rats and frogs he would catch in the camp to quash the constant hunger pains. One new prisoner tells him about the delicacies of meat, which took on a different meaning for Shin:

"Freedom, in Shin's mind, was just another word for grilled meat."

Shin latches on to a new yet much older prisoner and they devise their own plan to escape. The escape is the best part of the book. It is suspenseful and I will not spoil the story of their flight from Camp 14, other than to say you will be riveted to each page and your eyes will not blink as you read how they got past the deadly electric fence. Shin then makes his way through the northern part of the country and into China. Harden left a chunk of the story on the editor's floor as he does not inform the reader how Shin managed to get into South Korea from China. It was one sentence he was in China, and the next sentence Shin was in Seoul. Harden did write about other defectors' travels from China through Asian nations like Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, and he did write about defector-smuggling organized rings. Perhaps he did this in lieu of reporting Shin's own story. Shin has a habit of clamming up during Harden's interviews and it is possible he never told him any of these details.

A lifetime since birth of being in a cruel, loveless society as a prison camp causes untold harm to a human being. Shin may be living in freedom but he still sees himself as a prisoner:

"I escaped physically. I haven't escaped psychologically."

He has difficulty trusting anyone, as trust always betrayed him in Camp 14, nor can he look anyone in the eye when speaking to them. Shin acknowledges that he is on a slow road to recovery, yet his current role as a speaker for North Korean human rights groups is helping him seize control of his life.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Unbuilt Toronto: A History of the City that Might Have Been

For those who love Toronto history, Unbuilt Toronto: A History of the City that Might Have Been by Mark Osbaldeston is a book unlike all others. Instead of telling the story of Toronto's past as we remember it, Unbuilt Toronto tells the story behind the plans and blueprints that never saw the light of day. How might our city have looked had these architectural proposals been carried out?

I enjoyed every single page of this book. I truly did not want to put it down. I grew up in Toronto and reminisced as I looked at the photos of the city from the late sixties and early seventies. Unbuilt Toronto is full of photos--147 to be exact--and there isn't a double-page spread among its 255 pages where there isn't at least one photo included. Some space-age ideas floated their way past city councils and the Toronto that we now know could have been extended out to sea where a sprawling Harbour City would have taken shape, as in Dubai. In Project Toronto, Buckminster Fuller proposed a twenty-storey pyramid and a harbour city that floated. I'd hate to have moved into a floating Fuller condo only to find out that it made me seasick.

Reasons for all of these projects never coming to fruition, and remaining unbuilt, are easy enough to imagine: lack of funds, changes in government (where new administrations later nixed the ideas), and economic downturns. The voice of the people in the form of protest was also a factor behind sending some projects' blueprints to the shredder; the most notorious example being the cancellation of the
Spadina Expressway

Some construction proposals, such as a bridge or tunnel to the Toronto Islands or the Toronto City Centre (Island) Airport, have been in the works off and on for years. At the time of publication in 2008, Osbaldeston writes:

"Proposals for island bridges (and tunnels) have come up regularly since Lennox's time. David Miller swept to office on the promise of defeating the last proposal in 2003. It would seem then that that idea has been put to rest. But who knows? The century is still young."

Too young. In early 2012, work commenced on a pedestrian tunnel, which would spell the end of the island airport ferry service.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Is Eating People Wrong? Great Legal Cases and How They Shaped the World


I came across Is Eating People Wrong? Great Legal Cases and How They Shaped the World by Allan C. Hutchinson while reading the reference sources in another book. I always read a book cover to cover, starting with the cataloguing information and ending with the bibliography, where I peruse all the titles to find out more to read on the topic. Hutchinson, whom I have met a number of times since he works with my partner Mark, has compiled a collection of eight legal cases which have had a fundamental effect on western law to this day. 

I had wanted to read Is Eating People Wrong? based on the case that inspired the title, R v Dudley and Stephens. This case, which put two men who were stranded on a lifeboat without any provisions on trial for murder for killing one of their dying shipmates in order to cannibalize him, tested the theory of the law of necessity. This case had fascinated me and so did its legal outcome. Does one have the right to kill another in order to save oneself? What precedent might this case set if one did?  
The background circumstances leading up to each case are described in exciting detail. That's the point I liked best about Is Eating People Wrong?; the legal talk afterward I could not always grasp or agree to, although it was rare that I finished a chapter feeling this way. Hutchinson states that the tenets of common law are not carved in stone. They aren't waiting to be chipped at to be exposed by lawyers via court cases. Common law is ever-evolving and changes with the times. What might have been acceptable and supported by judicial rulings, such as segregation in schools, is now viewed as a relic from the dark ages.
Hutchinson also made very interesting reading out of property law in his analysis of Pierson v. Post, wherein one has to assign ownership of a deceased wild fox that one man was in pursuit via hunting (Post) while another man not involved in the hunt ended up killing (Pierson). Hutchinson ended Is Eating People Wrong? with an analysis of the Miranda warning ("You have the right to remain silent...").
Is Eating People Wrong? was written with a minimum of legal jargon and is a compact introduction to some of the cases that have shaped the common law we know today.