Friday, December 26, 2014

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Katha Pollitt's new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, is a thorough, no-holds-barred takedown of the hypocrisy of the anti-abortion-rights movement - not only in the most obvious sense that people who claim to be "pro-life" also (usually) support war and the death penalty, oppose gun control, and encourage lethal terrorism against abortion providers and clinic staff, and of people who claim to care about women and children, but oppose all social supports that might improve the lives of actual living children. Pro also exposes the perhaps less obvious hypocrisy of how the anti-abortion movement has created conditions that result in more unwanted pregnancies, more abortion, more later abortions, and less safe abortions. Using unassailable logic and facts, Pollitt exposes what the real agenda of the anti-abortion movement is and has always been: punishing women for trying to live modern, emancipated lives.

Pollitt exposes, too, the contradictions in how the current abortion debate is framed, and how the majority of people - not the vehemently pro-choice or the vehemently anti-abortion, but the "muddled middle," as Pollitt calls it - thinks about abortion. The vast majority of North Americans, it appears, believes abortion should be safe and legal, but also regard the procedure with distaste, discomfort, and shame. Pollitt makes it sparklingly clear why "legal, but..." doesn't work, why it can't work, and why we shouldn't want it.

This book is about something many people might find a strange contradiction: reclaiming abortion as a social good.
First, the concept of personhood, as applied to the zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and at least until late in pregnancy, fetus, makes no sense: It's an incoherent, covertly religious idea that falls apart if you look at it closely. Few people actually believe it, as is shown by the exceptions they are willing to make.

Second, the absolutist argument that abortion is murder is a mask by which people opposed to the sexual revolution and women's advancement obscure their real motives and agenda: turning back the clock to an idealized, oversimplified past when sex was confined within marriage, men were the breadwinners and heads of families, Christianity was America's not-quite-official religion, and society was firmly ordered.

Third, since critiquing what came before does not necessarily help us move forward, I want to help reframe the way we think about abortion. There are definitely short-term advantages to stressing the anguish some women feel when facing the need to end a pregnancy, but in the long run presenting that as a general truth will hurt the pro-choice cause: It comes close to demanding that women accept grief, shame, and stigma as the price of ending a pregnancy. I want us to start thinking of abortion as a positive social good and saying this out loud. The anti-abortion movement has been far too successful at painting abortion as bad for women. I want to argue, to the contrary, that it is an essential option for women - not just ones in dramatic, terrible, body-and-soul destroying situations, but all women - and thus benefits society as a whole.
For anyone deeply involved in the pro-choice movement, as I have been, Pollitt breaks no new ground. You'll be familiar with all the ideas, trends, and arguments. But to read them all gathered together, laid out logically, backed by impeccable research, and pronounced without apology in Pollitt's lively, witty style, is thrilling.

For people who think of themselves as "pro-choice but" - the muddled middle, the majority, who say abortion should be legal and permissible in certain circumstances - this book is for you. Pollitt argues in the clearest, most convincing manner: none of your restrictions make sense. All of them must go. If that seems extreme, read this book with an open mind, then see how you feel.

Pro is written in an American context, and it's important for everyone in the United States to read it, especially moderate liberals who adopt the "safe, legal, and rare" position.

But this is an important book for Canadians to read, too. Without directly referencing the history of abortion rights in Canada, Pollitt shows us why Dr. Henry Morgentaler and the movement that grew around his work were correct to insist on no abortion law, and why Canada's courts were correct to realize that was necessary. The arguments in Pro explain why the pro-choice movement in Canada kicks up such a loud and sustained noise every time proposed legislation threatens to restrict abortion rights. (The Harper government has tested the waters many times under the guise of private members' bills. Rights don't protect themselves.)

Pollitt argues for abortion as a basic human right: necessary to women's full participation in society, necessary for her survival and her safety, not just in extreme circumstances, but in all circumstances. She excoriates the hypocrisy of a society that worships motherhood as an abstract concept, but in reality, so belittles and minimizes the experience of parenthood as to imagine that a woman can simply have a baby and raise a child any time she becomes pregnant, no matter her current life circumstances - then dismisses the notion that she must do otherwise as abortions "for convenience".

Pollitt also widens the lens to include all aspects of reproductive justice, including access to affordable and reliable birth control, free and affordable childcare, paid parental leave, and working hours designed for working parents. She places abortion in an historical context - it has always existed, in all societies and in all eras - and reminds us what happens to women who live in Ecuador, Ireland, most of the US, and other countries where women's access to this basic, necessary health care has been denied.

After teasing out the many sacrifices, the pain, the accommodation, the compromises, that women routinely make in order to bear children, Pollitt writes:
To force girls and women to undergo all this against their will is to annihilate their humanity.
And that is the bottom line. (A version of this review was originally published on wmtc.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Use and Abuse of Literature

“No one who is not deeply corrupted will think of making learning a form of commerce for his own enrichment.” (37).

Marjorie Garber, in her book The Use and Abuse of Literature, examines all of the ways the written word has been promoted, performed, presented, plagiarized, and consumed by the public. It is a wide ranging work. A big swath of what we might call the literary universe is discussed in non-academic terms. The guiding question that fuels all the explorations is definitional: what is literature?  Garber keeps both edges of her chosen title close together. Literature of every kind has by turns been used in a myriad of ways and abused in just as many. The work doesn’t just examine the highbrow stuff. The philistine stuff gets plenty of room to disco. The literary world, Garber argues, is constantly evolving. Literature is a living breathing thing and we will continue to talk and absorb literature in all its different guises. For example, Shakespeare will always remain new because every generation has to absorb him, comment on him, praise or complain about him. The same goes for comics.

The Use and Abuse of Literature reads like a cultural history of literature, the ways that people and society have responded to literature and how it has shaped us over the centuries. Literary studies—from the exercises of the great critic-connoisseurs to the essay writings of high school kids—is a process. It is an ongoing discussion with the works of the past reinterpreted and digested in new ways with each successive generation. There is no ultimate, true once and for all time, reading of any literary work (prose, poetry or otherwise).

This is a fine study but I have one criticism. The narrative is choppy. So much that orbits the literary sun is given space to move between the covers of this book, the views of Samuel Johnson, poetic artifices, the idea of an English major, deconstruction and the culture wars to mention just a few, and at times I felt the celestial satellites were unconnected, or rather I would have benefited from a clearer indication of the mysterious force holding the whole thing together. As a final comment, I would say you have to be in a particular mood to read this book. It is intellectual history, a socio-cultural look at the written word and fortunately the book never descends into overly erudite exploration. The opening quote captures the style well. It is like conversing with an articulate and knowledgeable literary culture critic. Each chapter opens a new perspective on some aspect of literature and this particular book’s merit rests in its abundance of little insights any one of which might lead a reader to take up once again a familiar title with a changed perspective or to give some hitherto unexplored type of presentation, say memoir, a chance to work its magic.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein, is incredibly difficult to write about. I've been putting sticky notes beside important paragraphs as I read, and my copy now looks like an art project, bristling with coloured paper squares. I can say without exaggeration that this is one of the most important books you'll ever read.

In her clear, readable prose, Klein demonstrates exactly what is destroying our planet: unregulated, unchecked capitalism, brought to you by the scourge of our era, neoliberalism. (US readers may be more familiar with the term neoconservatism.)

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Klein showed us how corporate interests exploit crises to enact policies that enrich a small elite, using the holy trinity of neoliberalism: privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and lower corporate taxation, paid for with cuts to public spending. Now Klein widens her lens to demonstrate how that same orientation actively prevents us from taking the necessary steps to halt and reverse climate change, and with it, the impending destruction of a habitable Earth.

Klein succinctly and precisely diagnoses the root problem. In order to challenge climate change, in order to reverse a course that threatens billions of lives and is ultimately suicidal for humanity, radical change is required. We must stop living as if infinite growth is possible on a finite planet. This goes way beyond separating our trash into different bins and using more efficient light bulbs. It means dismantling the fossil-fuel industry, powering our entire society with renewable energy sources (it is possible!), and ultimately, abandoning the idea of growth as the basis for our economies.

Tackling climate change means, ultimately, dismantling neoliberalism itself.
A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.
This means rethinking the false notion of "free" trade. Ontario, for example, would be decades ahead in wind and solar production, not to mention good, green jobs, but for the crippling mandates of free-trade agreements. "Free" deserves scare quotes.
Not only do fossil fuel companies receive $775 billion to $1 trillion in annual global subsidies, but they pay nothing for the privilege of treating our shared atmosphere as a free waste dump.
Klein reminds us that if free-trade regulations block our ability to disrupt our dependence on fossil fuels, then those regulations must be rewritten. And so it goes for any number of policies that express the neoliberal ideology, which, as Klein writes, "form a ideological wall that has blocked a serious response to climate change for decades."

Of course, nothing is free; the question is who pays the price. The price may be unemployment, or jobs that can't sustain a decent life, or overcrowded classrooms, or a generation condemned to poverty-stricken old age. The price may be flammable drinking water, or whole villages beset by rare cancers. The neoliberal agenda wreaks its havoc in ways seen and unseen. Shell's Arctic oil rig ran aground when it braved impassable winter weather, attempting to beat a timeline that would trigger additional taxes. In Montreal, the MM&A rail company received government permission to cut the number of staff on its trains from five to a single engineer: thus the Lac-Megantic disaster. However measured, it's a price paid by ordinary people, while corporations wallow in profit.

In turn, dismantling neoliberalism would mean rethinking our governments, too, as democracies driven by lobbyists, corporate donors, and industry interests - valuing profits over people - pave the way for policies that are killing us all. Can a society where this can happen be rightly considered democratic?
...the most jarring part of the grassroots anti-extraction uprising has been the rude realization that most communities do appear to lack this power; that outside forces - a far-off central government, working hand-in-glove with transnational companies - are simply imposing enormous health and safety risks on residents, even when that means overturning local laws. Fracking, tar sands pipelines, coal trains, and export terminals are being proposed in many parts of the world where clear majorities of the population has made its opposition unmistakable, at the ballot box, through official consultation processes, and in the streets.

And yet consent seems beside the point. Again and again, after failing to persuade communities that these projects are in their genuine best interest, governments are teaming up with corporate players to roll over the opposition, using a combination of physical violence and draconian legal tools reclassifying peaceful activists as terrorists.

....Only two out of the over one thousand people who spoke at the panel's community hearings in British Columbia supported the project. One poll showed that 80 percent of the province's residents opposed having more oil tankers along their marine-rich coastline. That a supposedly impartial review body could rule in favor of the pipeline in the face of this kind of overwhelming opposition was seen by many in Canada as clear evidence of a serious underlying crisis, one far more about money and power than the environment.
When reviewing the proposed solutions to climate change, Klein skewers the chimeras that don't and can't work, from the corporate boondoggle known as cap-and-trade, to various technological fixes that would take our fantasy of controlling nature to bizarre new heights.
Indeed, if geoengineering has anything going for it, it is that it slots perfectly into our most hackneyed cultural narrative, the one in which so many of us have been indoctrinated by organized religion and the rest of us have absorbed from pretty much every Hollywood action movie ever made. It's the one that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us (the ones that matter) are going to be saved. And since our secular religion is technology, it won't be god that saves us but Bill Gates and his gang of super-geniuses at Intellectual Ventures.
Klein also heaps contempt on the so-called partnerships between large environmental organizations and the fossil-fuel industry, which are something like the partnership between the pig and Oscar Mayer. As Klein puts it, "the "market-based" climate solutions favored by so many large foundations and adopted by many greens have provided an invaluable service to the fossil fuel sector as a whole."

This Changes Everything illuminates an impressive array of activism, introducing most readers, I'm guessing, to a new expression: Blockadia. Blockadia represents the global, grassroots, broad-based networks of resistance to high-risk extreme extraction. From Greece to the Amazon to New Zealand to Montana to British Columbia, the resistance is in motion. Taking many forms - the divestment movement pressuring institutions to sever economic ties with the fossil-fuel industry, the towns declaring themselves "fracking free zones," the civil disobedience that physically slows the building of pipelines while court challenges continue - Blockadia is creating space for public debate and the possibility of change.

In many places, Blockadia is led by people from indigenous communities. Not only are indigenous peoples often the first victims of climate destruction - witness, for example, the off-the-chart cancer rates of First Nations people living downstream from Canada's tar sands - but their worldviews may form the basis of our way forward. On a Montana reservation where young Cheyenne are learning how to install solar energy systems - cutting residents' utility bills by 90% while learning a trade, creating an alternative to a life spent working for the coal industry - a female student makes this observation.
Solar power, she said, embodied the worldview in which she had been raised, one in which "You don't take and take and take. And you don't consume and consume and consume. You take what you need and then you put back into the land."
I want everyone to read this book, and because of that, I hesitate to share this unfortunate truth: ultimately, This Changes Everything filled me with hopelessness and despair. I wouldn't say it made me pessimistic, as I am optimistic about humankind's ability to change ourselves and our systems, if we choose to. Rather, the book filled me with outright hopelessness, because I don't believe we will even have the opportunity to make that choice. The forces aligned against the necessary change are massive, and massively powerful. Untold profits depend on the system not changing, and what's more, gargantuan profits are being reaped off the destruction itself. The oligarchs who profit from climate change are associated with the most powerful tools of violence every known - the mightiest armies and the greatest amorality.

Adding to the difficulty, our society clings to what Klein calls "the fetish of centrism": of the appearance of reasonableness, of "splitting the difference, and generally not getting overly excited about anything". This is the illogic that dictates we must "balance" the interests of the petroleum industry with our need for clean water, or the profits of real estate developers with the human need for shelter. This fetish of centrism allows the government and its partners in the media to label as "extremists" people who want to protect water and land from catastrophic oil spills.

Added to this, huge numbers of ordinary people, led by corporate media and astroturf faux activists, align themselves against their own interests, stoked by fears of imagined foes (be they communists, immigrants, or feminists) and cling to notions of a supposedly free market, which in reality is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. This global market is anything but free: the risk is socialized in every way possible, but the returns are strictly privatized.

If you've read Jared Diamond's Collapse, you are familiar with the concept that societies don't always do what's best for them. Societies make choices that ultimately chart their own demise. I do not despair of our ability to remake our world, but I know that the forces aligned against us will stop at nothing to prevent us from doing so. The most powerful people on the planet can shield themselves from the effects of climate change until it is too late for the rest of us.

And yet... and yet. I feel hopeless, but my feelings don't matter.

What matters is this: we have little time, and we must try. Resistance movements have changed cultures. Resistance movements have brought mighty empires to their knees, have ended deeply entrenched systems: slavery, colonialism, apartheid. For centuries, there was something called the Divine Right of Kings, a concept which must have seemed permanent and immutable. Now it does not exist. Capitalism, as currently practiced is killing our planet - killing us. We cannot shrug our shoulders.

If you agree - and more importantly, if you disagree - read this book. (This review was originally posted at wmtc.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

I never know what interesting book I might read next. In my pattern of alternating personal books with library books, my library tastes are all over the Dewey map. I could read a book by Duran Duran's bassist then follow it up with a book about cod. Yes, as in Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky. I had already read two books by Kurlansky. The first was The Basque History of the World from 1999 which was long before I started to write reviews. Earlier this year I read Salt: A World History from 2002. Cod predates them both, as it was written in 1997. I could see the thematic similarities in each of the three books, and now that I have read Cod, I could tell how Kurlansky progressed first from writing about the fish, then to Basque traditions which included fishing for cod, and finally to the method that the Basques used in order to preserve the fish: salt.

Kurlansky is an excellent storyteller, who can make a school of fish seem like a hot topic. I could not put Cod down, and read the book from cover to cover, including the final chapter devoted to forty pages of cod recipes. The addition of recipes is typical of Kurlansky, as I recall Salt had recipes and The Basque History of the World featured many from the Basque kitchen. Cod played a vital role in the advancement of trans-Atlantic exploration. Who living in North or South America today would have thought that cod would be the reason they are there now? For it was because of dried and salted cod that crews could sustain themselves across long oceanic passages. The Basques made countless trips to North America before Columbus because:

"They were able to travel such distances because they had found huge schools of cod and salted their catch, giving them a nutritious food supply that would not spoil on long voyages."

However the Basques were not alone in their pre-Columbian expeditions across the Atlantic. Norse explorers settled on the island of Newfoundland over a thousand years ago:

"How did the Vikings survive in greenless Greenland and earthless Stoneland? How did they have enough provisions to push on to Woodland and Vineland, where they dared not go inland to gather food, and yet they still had enough food to get back? What did these Norsemen eat on the five expeditions to America between 985 and 1011 that have been recorded in the Icelandic sagas? They were able to travel to all these distant, barren shores because they had learned to preserve codfish by hanging it in the frosty winter air until it lost four-fifths of its weight and became a durable woodlike plank. They could break off pieces and chew them, eating it like hardtack. Even earlier than Eirik's day, in the ninth century, Norsemen had already established plants for processing dried cod in Iceland and Norway and were trading the surplus in northern Europe."

Yet Kurlansky has a soft spot for the Basques. So do I, in fact, yet in regards to their exploits at sea, the Basques reigned far and wide:

"The Basques, unlike the Vikings, had salt, and because fish that was salted before drying lasted longer, the Basques could travel even farther than the Vikings."

The Basques kept many secrets to themselves, including of course where their people came from, yet they never divulged the location of their mysterious cod supply. They likely sailed to the area now known as the Grand Banks. Once this location was discovered in the 1500's, the Atlantic Ocean was wide open. There was no idea of depleting the stocks much less thoughts of conservation. Ships would fill themselves up to the point where they came perilously close to submerging. As ship technology developed, likewise the cod catch increased:

"Steam ships with otter trawls were reporting catches more than six times greater than those of sail ships. By the 1890s, fish stocks were already showing signs of depletion in the North Sea, but the primary reaction was not conservation. Instead North Sea fleets traveled farther to richer grounds off of Iceland."

I found Kurlansky's excessive use of off of to be distracting. This is more an American idiom than what we say or write in Canada, which is without the of. I could have let this matter go however Kurlansky used it to annoying excess; in one single paragraph I counted the superfluous of after off five times, as in "In the dark waters off of Iceland" and "the cod off of Massachusetts".

Cod catches were becoming noticeably smaller at the start of the twentieth century:

"Were there any limits to how much could be caught, or was nature inexhaustible, as had been believed in the nineteenth century? Fishermen were beginning to worry."

The two World Wars gave all fish stocks a chance to replenish, as fishing ships were taken out of service and reassigned military duties. Thus only one country in Europe was left to continue fishing: Iceland:

"For six years, it was the only major fishing nation of northern Europe."

These years gave Iceland a sustained sense of confidence in its new independence. Iceland felt young and powerful. It proved to be the mouse that roared when it declared its fishing limits to be extended into international waters. Over a period of twenty years, these limits were extended bit by bit, causing conflict among the other north Atlantic fishing nations. This time has become known as the Cod Wars, where Iceland faced off versus Europe:

"The Icelandic government was shockingly tough. It refused to allow injured or sick British seamen into Iceland unless they arrived on their vessel, which would have meant surrendering the trawler. It blocked British NATO planes from Icelandic air traffic control and even threatened to cut diplomatic relations. Unlike Britain, Iceland depended on fishing for its entire economy; fishing was the miracle that had lifted its people from the Middle Ages to affluence. Despite a history of warm feelings between the two nations and a close alliance, Iceland was not going to yield on its only resource. NATO, concerned about this conflict within its ranks in the middle of the Cold War, began pressuring Britain to back down."


"Negotiations were also intense. 'The Icelanders are, by any standards, very difficult to deal with,' reported the London Financial Times. Iceland was not going to compromise. At one point, the nation actually severed diplomatic relations with Britain."

Cod had plenty of Canadian content, as no book on this fish species can exist without mentioning Newfoundland and the Canadian moratorium on fishing in the early nineties. Kurlansky however was quick to label the Newfoundlanders as ignorant where they considered themselves blameless in regards to stock depletion:

"Whatever steps are taken, one of the greatest obstacles to restoring cod stocks off of Newfoundland is an almost pathological collective denial of what has happened. Newfoundlanders seem prepared to believe anything other than that they have killed off nature's bounty."

The fishermen know it all too well, and many are pessimistic that the cod will ever return. Cod ends with a warning about greed and the fallacy that the ocean is a bottomless watery pit of riches:

"It is harder to kill off fish than mammals. But after 1,000 years of hunting the Atlantic cod, we know that it can be done."

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death & Duran Duran

I am a huge fan of Duran Duran. I have thirty years of their records, seen them in concert three times, interviewed Roger Taylor for the Toronto Star and even posted a book review of a band biography here. Thus when I heard about bassist John Taylor's memoir, I wanted to read it. In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death & Duran Duran is Taylor's story (written with Tom Sykes) about growing up in Birmingham and forming Duran Duran with Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor. It was indeed a speedy read, with 74 short chapters spread out over 392 pages, so there was always time to read a few pages more. Taylor kept his own diaries from before the founding of Duran Duran, so he relied on his actual writings instead of rose-tinted nostalgic memories. Taylor fortunately did not dwell long on his early childhood, and made his earliest memories relevant as antecedents of major events that would occur much later in life. He also wrote journals during the Duran years and also during his time out of rehab, so he provided short yet valuable insights that were always in perspective.

Taylor, whose birth name is Nigel John Taylor, used his real first name up until the start of Duran Duran. He decided to change it and go by John:

"It was more than just taking a stage name. I needed to reinvent myself. Not be Mom and Dad's son. I didn't want to be called Nigel by anybody; the band, my friends, my family. It would take Mom years to get with the John plan."

Taylor may have had the reputation of being Duran Duran's most popular member, always leading the other four in decibels from the scream factor. Although he could have any girl he wanted, insecurity kept him from using his natural charms to ask women out, so he always supplemented his style with booze and drugs. Once he was tripping on cocaine, Taylor wrote that he could just wink and raise his eyebrows and he could be in bed with any woman in half an hour. Yet now that he is clean, he no longer needs a crutch of self-confidence, whether that is drugs, alcohol or a new name:

"If I had had a greater vision for myself, I would have kept Nigel and been the only Nigel in a music business crowded with Johns and Johnnies. But I wasn't that confident."

Duran Duran has lasted for over thirty years because of many factors, one of which is the decision by the band members to credit songwriting with all five members' names:

"It gave us all an equal stake in the band, and we each had to respect the others. It's the reason we are still together today."

Taylor takes the reader on tour and into the recording studio and to video sets. I especially liked the local reference to the Duran Duran concerts in Toronto in 1984, where they shot the footage that would eventually become the live video for "The Reflex". I was at one of those shows at Maple Leaf Gardens. Taylor also spent a chapter discussing the decision to remix "The Reflex", which he felt was necessary in order to make it a hit single. Duran Duran's work has stood the test of time, and I can't agree more when he asserts:

"Rio was a masterpiece."

I could have drunk in a lot more than the three- and four-page chapters, and I was disappointed whenever I turned the page and found the first page of the subsequent chapter facing me. As a diarist myself, I appreciated Taylor's candour in facing his truths by not sugar-coating his boozy and druggy past. One must face one's past in recovery, and Taylor realizes that recovery is an ongoing process. Denial of the truth is one step closer to falling off the wagon. None of Taylor's reminiscences had the air of sensational exaggeration, and his depression, sleeping around and drug scoring all seemed entirely real. When Taylor's own source material was his personal diary, he just wrote about what he knew, although I would have liked a longer book with fleshed-out chapters. In the last chapters he talked about the death of his mother and father. It was quite sad to read about the passing of Mr. Taylor, who lost the will to live after his wife died. His increasing forgetfulness and dementia struck me as I recalled the decline of my own maternal grandmother.

Now in his early fifties, Taylor is married with one daughter and two stepchildren. He is very happy to be part of a reunited Duran Duran, "the reunion of the snake" as he calls it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl

This may be a first for the Nonfiction Book Club blog, but I’m throwing caution to the compost—and perhaps tossing humiliation into the cinnamon buns—but I’m doing it. I’m reviewing a cookbook.

Now, in my opinion, this particular book is no ordinary cookbook. You know there are books out there masquerading as cookbooks but really are not. They’re often a forum for a writer to go beyond the cooking experience; to experiment and surmise about wider issues. Authors like Michael Pollan, Jen Lin-Liu and Julie Powell are ones that come to mind, who have looked at the social implications of food, social history and the psychology of cooking.

Alright, this book doesn’t fit into those categories, either.  What I like about this book is that it makes me laugh. And it makes me want to eat. And bake and cook. All of those things I often like to do, but this one also makes me want to invite author Ree Drummond over to hang out at the same time.

Drummond is a very funny albeit humble writer. Her book catches you charmingly off-guard right from the get-go, with her descriptions of favourite ingredients and cooking apparatuses:

“Butter. I’m not afraid to use it. It’s flavourful, versatile and a necessary component in most of my recipes.”

“Iron Skillet. If properly seasoned an iron skillet will become not only your best friend in the kitchen but also your uncle, cousin, grandmother and brother. Iron skillets get nice and hot, perfect for searing a juicy rib-eye steak.”

“Commercial baking sheets. My family considered an intervention this year because I collect these 18 X 12-inch babies the way some women collect Marie Osmond dolls. They’re the perfect size for my Chocolate Sheet Cake and hold more cookies than your average cookie sheet.”

You want to just keep reading, which is a wonderful twist on a “collection of recipes, instructions and information about the preparation and serving of foods.” (Definition from ) Most cookbooks are an essential reference book, used only when you need it and only for particular items of interest: I need to find how many cups of sugar to put into strawberry freezer jam; how do I know when the cream sauce is beyond hope; how do I tell when the brownie is done? How many cookbooks have you read that you just want to keep reading for pure enjoyment?

It isn’t just the entertaining writing style that makes you want to turn the pages. Drummond photographs each step of the cooking process, so it is visually wonderful, too. Many of these step-by-steps are punctuated by groupings of witticisms that could only have been inspired by an accompanying glass of wine:

“2. Place the hot potatoes on a cutting board and dice them into 1-inch-ish pieces. Inch-ish. Say that five times fast. Just for kicks. My goal in life is to tack ‘ish’ onto as many words as possible. Possible-ish.
3. Heat a skillet over medium low to medium heat. Next put a little vegetable oil in the pan. A tablespoon is good.
4. Scrape the pan you used this morning to make bacon. You made all the bacon this morning… right?
5. Then, because I usually straddle the fence between ridiculousness and utter foolishness, I add a tablespoon of bacon fat to the skillet. ‘Cause it tastes good, that’s why.
6. Go ahead and make peace with yourself then add the onion.”

But it was her preamble on the cinnamon buns—sorry; rolls--that killed me:

“If you begin making these for your friends and family for the holidays, I promise you this: you’ll become famous. And, on a less positive note, people will forget everything else you’ve ever accomplished in your life. From that moment on, you’ll be known—and loved—only for your cinnamon rolls. But don’t worry! You’ll get used to it.”

With the pressure of doom upon you, how could you not want to try making them, let alone eating them? Better yet, find some unwitting baker-friend to make them, so you escape the fate but you enjoy the food! 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America

I have long known about the story of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered on the streets of Queens in New York City in 1964 while 38 people watched and did nothing. The story, when I first heard it, shocked me. I thought about it for days afterward, and could only wonder what riveted three dozen people to their windows without so much as picking up the phone to call the police. Over the years I read more about the murder, yet trickles of information seeped into the story that told me that the reality was tainted by sensational urban mythmaking. On the fiftieth anniversary of Genovese's death, Kevin Cook published Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America. Cook retold the story marking Genovese's last minutes. The most shocking aspect of her story will always be the number of people who were said to have witnessed her murder: 38. Cook found the sources that first revealed the number of "38" witnesses and he spoke to those who, half a century later, were there on that early March night at 3 a.m.

Cook described New York life in the early sixties and set the scene for the brutal crime that would fall upon its streets. I felt that Cook went overboard in providing the historical context, as sometimes there would be pages devoted to the music scene, such as the folkies versus Bob Dylan. In spite of this, Kitty Genovese was a rapid read, as Cook delineated the final actions of Genovese as well as those of her killer. The reader followed Genovese home after her late shift tending bar. We knew what was about to happen--a savage stabbing of a young woman, followed by a second attempt after the first stabbing didn't kill her--and then we waited for nothing to happen in response:

"After going viral, 1960s-style, through newspapers, magazines, television and radio editorials, Sunday sermons, dinner-party conversations, schoolyard rumors, and back-fence gossip, the Kitty Genovese story prompted months of local and then national soul-searching. Over the years the story became a fixture in thousands of high school and college psychology classes despite the fact that the version of it taught in those classes, the version almost everyone accepts, isn't true. Maybe that view of the crime endures because it isn't true, because it boils a complex, troubling story down to a single simple question: How could all those people watch what happened to her, and do nothing?"

Fifty years ago, the truth obscured the facts from coming out. The murder was so shocking yet the reaction of the witnesses--their non-reaction--occupied the news media. How could the media resist such a story about witness apathy 38 times over? What was going on in the witnesses' minds to stand there and do nothing? The truth didn't matter when the witnesses were the story. The press descended onto the area where Genovese was killed, asking the residents if they had been witnesses. Residents were interrogated and harassed, and some moved out because they felt like criminals by the press as well as by onlookers who came to gawk. Decades would pass before the truth came out about the actual number of witnesses and their calls to police. Genovese did not die while a roomful of bystanders watched:

"Wainwright [a columnist for Life magazine] portrayed Kitty as dying in full view of more than three-dozen neighbors who watched like a crowd in an auditorium. In his column the number of witnesses the Times' Gansberg got from Commissioner Murphy returns as exactly 'thirty-eight heedless witnesses.'"

Yet where did this magic number of 38 come from? Cited so often, but from what original source?

"Within days of starting work on the case, the prosecution team had doubts about the now-famous number thirty-eight. Thirty-eight was the number of people the police considered witnesses in the days following the crime. It was the number Commissioner Murphy cited over lunch at Emil's, the number that shocked editor Rosenthal, Times readers, and the world. Martin Gansberg had followed up on the work Murphy's detectives did, but neither Gansberg nor anyone else spent time ferreting out the source of the official number. The number thirty-eight came from the police; that was enough. Nobody identified the thirty-eight witnesses or counted the witnesses in the detectives' reports."

The number of 38 most certainly did not refer to people who stood by their windows watching Genovese die, as Wainwright wrote. That is the myth that will not go away. Yet there were witnesses, weren't there? How many? Cook's investigation found out that among all the 38 people who were reported to have seen the stabbing, only two had actually witnessed it. Two. Many more heard Genovese's screams. Yet at three-thirty in the morning, these were people who had been roused from sleep to the point of awakening. In their groggy state they had heard something, yet they could hardly be called witnesses as Wainwright reported. Most were earwitnesses roused from sleep, versus those who had already been awake and had heard screaming. Those that did get up to look out their windows saw nothing, as the first stabbing had already ceased, and the killer had fled (only to return later) and Genovese had by then staggered around the corner, away from street view. It was not unreasonable for these earwitnesses to dismiss the murky sounds that roused them from their sleep, which upon further investigation from their windows yielded nothing that could have been their source. It would not be surprising if most of these witnesses went back to bed. When Genovese was attacked a second time, it was within an apartment vestibule, away from the open street. Cook devotes chapters to debunking the 38-witnesses myth, and by interviewing those who did hear the screams and asking what they had thought at the time.

The two witnesses who saw the attacks take place did not take direct action towards the assailant. One simply went back to sleep, and the other, who witnessed the second stabbing in his vestibule when he opened his front door a crack, panicked and crawled out his window to take cover with a neighbour. The second witness, or rather his neighbour, did call the police, as did another who had heard the screaming. So the myth that 38 people witnessed the murder yet none of them called the police is not true, as Cook uncovered police records that showed when both telephone calls were logged, and acted upon.

The state of urban sociology would not have evolved--if such a concept was even in existence fifty years ago at all--if this murder hadn't occurred. If there was one watershed moment in urban sociology, or even in social psychology, the Genovese murder was it. Sociologists Bibb Latané and John Darley, in response to Genovese's murder, wrote The Unresponsive Bystander in 1968:

"According to The Unresponsive Bystander, 'The number of people who stand and watch is what shocks us; it also may be the key to their behavior.' While the number of witnesses 'determines to a very important degree what they will do, it does so in a way opposite to what is usually assumed. The presence of others serves to inhibit the impulse to help.' Rather than strength in numbers, weakness."


"Their work suggested a social dynamic that may have worked against Kitty on her final night. Diffusion of responsibility, they called it--a phenomenon that distributed guilt like a firing squad in reverse. If one person sees trouble, 'he will feel all the guilt for not acting. If others are present, responsibility is diffused, and the finger of blame points less directly at any one person.'"


"The Unresponsive Bystander suggested that the tragedy of the Genovese case wasn't that dozens of people witnessed Moseley's attack on Kitty, but that more than one or two did. If the psychologists were right, most of us can summon the courage to act if there is no one else who could do so, but not when there are others who might take action. If somebody else is in a position to help--someone who might be stronger, braver, or more level-headed--we want him or her to go first. Even if we only think or hope others might help, we expect them to go first."

Fifty years have passed since Genovese's murder yet Kitty has never been forgotten. She was never yesterday's news. Her death led to the development of Good Samaritan laws throughout the United States and a rethink of crowd dynamics in urban sociology. I am troubled by the points raised by Latané and Darley about crowd apathy, and know that over the past half century history has repeated itself on the late-night streets of Anytown.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions it Aroused

Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions it Aroused by Mike Dash chronicles the hysterical reaction tulips aroused in the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century. It is not an exaggeration to say that tulip bulbs at this time were worth far more than their weight in gold. How could a country be so captivated by this flower? Who in his right mind would pay so much for a single bulb?

There is such a strong association with tulips and the Netherlands that it surprised me to find out that the flower was not originally from there. The Dutch may be the most famous for their luxuriant flowerbeds and for sending their tulips all over the world, including to our nation's capital, yet the tulip wasn't introduced in the lowlands of northern Europe until the mid-1500's. The flower originated in Turkey, and when it arrived in the Netherlands, it created a sensation. The tulip was unlike any other flower the Dutch had seen, and was in demand by all those rich enough to maintain a flower garden. Tulipomania sprung forth by the ceaseless demand for these rare bulbs:

"Nevertheless, the number of bulbs available at the turn of the century remained somewhat limited. Most of the new varieties had so far produced only a handful of tulips, and largely for this reason, the flower remained the passion of the privileged few. It was grown principally by rich connoisseurs, who valued it for its beauty and the intensity of its colors."


"The flower was still comparatively rare, and some of the most highly sought-after varieties were hard to obtain at any price. Only in the coming decade would this scarcity be properly addressed."


"The scarcity of tulips in seventeenth-century Holland is central to a proper understanding of the bulb craze. To a Dutchman of the Golden Age, the tulip was not a mundane and readily available flower. It was a brilliant newcomer, still bearing something of the allure of the exotic East and obtainable only in strictly limited quantities. Because the most superbly fine varieties were scarce, they were coveted; because they were coveted, they were expensive."

Once Dutchmen realized the going price for star bulbs, they wanted a piece of the pie. Many sold the equipment of their livelihood--farmland, cattle, looms--to get into the flower trade:

"In greater measure, though, the interest that many Dutchmen now developed in the flower trade owed less to the tulip's natural beauty than to the dawning realization that money could be made in bulbs. That was something worth investigating. For money, despite the enormous wealth now flowing into the republic, was something many of its citizens saw all too little of."

The craze however was not as widespread as myth has made it out to be, as Dash pointed out that only tulip connoisseurs, or those whose wealth could afford the bulbs regardless of their price, actually paid thousands and thousands of guilders per bulb. It was a case of keeping up with the Dutch Joneses and instead of comparing cars or swimming pools, the rich Dutch looked into each other's gardens. If my neighbour had a Semper Augustus variety, I wanted it too. Yet no amount of money could pay for bulbs that simply weren't there. One can't fertilize a garden with gold nuggets. So bulb dealers practised an early form of speculation and futures trading. They would sell the bulbs before they had even sprouted yet, and the bulb and future offsets as well. It got to the point where one couldn't really be sure who owned what part of the tulip plant since dealers were selling multigenerations of bulbs and offsets. All the dealers cared about was selling off the tulip, the bulb or the offset as fast as possible, raking in the money and doing it all over again.

The most prized variety, the pièce de résistance of all tulips, was the Semper Augustus. Yet demand had grown so high for tulips that for the common Dutchman, any variety would do:

"Prices had reached such high levels that the most desirable bulbs became all but unobtainable, and less fancied varieties appreciated to the point where they cost far more than they were worth to any real flower lover."

Dealers had a slow but growing sense that rocketing prices for substandard tulips was not a normal economic situation, and that a crash was imminent. Dash conveyed that the collapse of the tulip trade was not as unexpected as myth has suggested. The extent of the economic collapse was also not as widespread nor as devastating as the Great Depression, for the simple reason that the number of tulip buyers was still so few. The common Dutchman could not afford tulips no matter what price the cheapest barrel variety was going for. Furthermore, only the very rich could afford the most expensive tulips, and no one, regardless how rich, had sunk his entire fortune into this single floral commodity. Tulipomania has the makings of great mythmaking, but no Dutchman jumped off the top of a windmill because he lost his entire fortune in bulbs.

Tulipomania was a rapid read, yet Dash was repetitious in some sentences, using the same word unnecessarily, such as:

"...and within a few weeks a few of the growers..."

where a synonym for "few" would have sufficed.

Gold, oil, diamonds...who would have ever expected that tulip bulbs could rival these prime commodities and create a trading frenzy? Tulip bulbs at one time were indeed worth more than their weight in gold.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Juggler's Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us

Unlike most people I know, I have little or no interest in my family's genealogy. I know the general outlines of my family background - where some of my forebears hailed from, and where they settled and what work they did when they emigrated to North America - and that's enough for me. Despite this, I very much enjoyed The Juggler's Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us by Carolyn Abraham. If you have a keen interest in family-history searches, you will want to read this book.

The Juggler's Children is part travelogue, part quest, and part science lesson, and Abraham is masterful at all three. The travel descriptions - to both India and Jamaica - sparkle, and the search is laced with suspense. But Abraham is a Canadian science writer, and that's the area where she most flourishes. Abraham explains complex concepts of genetics with clear images and metaphors that render them understandable to the non-scientist.

Abraham's search for her family's past coincides with the emerging science of using DNA samples in service of genealogy. Through cells gathered from a person's inner cheek, DNA tests are able to determine, within a degree of a certainty, that that person's ancestry is (for example) 25% Western European, 35% sub-Saharan African, 30% South Asian, and 10% Aboriginal North American. Each of those percentages can be further broken down, and the accuracy and certainty of these categories further enhanced, as more DNA samples are entered into more databases. The Juggler's Children unpacks the many implications of this testing - ethical, social, familial, questions of both personal and group identity.

Abraham's personal quest hinges on two men: her great-grandfathers, who she dubs The Juggler and The Captain, names as evocative and enigmatic as the scraps of information her family possess about them. The Juggler, the paternal great-grandfather, was a circus performer from China, who traveled - or perhaps fled - to India, converted to Christianity, and took an Old Testament last name. Then he vanished. Was his disappearance an altruistic act, as a recently widowed man could not care for his own children, and they were best raised by relatives? Or was there a darker, less charitable interpretation of his sudden absence from the record?

The Captain, a maternal great-grandfather, was a storied seafarer from Jamaica, who died in India. That makes at least two points where the family history intersects with India, although Abraham's relatives insist that there are no Indians in her family. Was The Captain a runaway slave... or was he a slaveowner?

As Abraham's search continues, it becomes increasingly clear that no matter how we identify ourselves - no matter what cultural and ethnic groups we belong to - we are more diverse - more mixed - than we think. And if you go back far enough, we humans are all related.

Many years ago, I read a book called Origins Reconsidered by Richard Leakey, son of the world's most famous paleontologists, Mary and Louis Leakey. I found reading about the first humans surprisingly moving, as I contemplated the fact that they were the ancestors of every human. In other words, all humans share a common ancestry. I found The Juggler's Children fascinating in the same way. For readers with an interest in genealogy - especially with roots in India, China, or Jamaica - this is a must-read. (This review was originally published on wmtc.)