Thursday, January 30, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About War /
Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety

For Canadians who fear and distrust the steadily growing militarism suffusing the culture of our country, two recent books are indispensable: What We Talk About When We Talk About War, by Noah Richler, and Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift.

Richler's book focuses on the re-writing and re-framing the distant past. And as the title (with its homage to Raymond Carver) suggests, Richler focuses on language. He analyzes how Canada's image of itself, in relation to war-making and the military, has been radically altered, bit by incremental bit.

The book is not a play-by-play of the process; Richler assumes you know the general outline and the major players. It's a deep analysis of the language and symbolism of a right-wing cabal intent on discrediting Canada's history of peacekeeping, and changing its national self-image through revisionist history, from the War of 1812 to Vimy Ridge to Remembrance Day, right on up to the recent "mission" - never a war, merely a mission - in Afghanistan.

The forces behind this movement shouldn't be powerful enough to affect such a massive and wholesale change. But they (a) are unchallenged on a wide scale, (b) are echoed uncritically in the mainstream media, and (c) emanate from government or with the weight of government behind them.

What We Talk About When We Talk About War is a dense book, and not particularly easy to read, but enlightening, and rewarding, and important.

McKay and Swift's book is also dense and veers towards the academic. Where Richler looks to the past of Pearson and peacekeeping with a clear admiration (although with his eyes open, and not uncritically), McKay and Swift see Harper's Canada as exchanging one set of myths for another, more dangerous master narrative.

Both books site the same group of academics, militarists, journalists, and politicians, ubiquitous in the Canadian media to anyone who has followed this shift: Bercuson, Granatstein, Hillier, Blatchford, and so on. McKay and Swift call them "the New Warriors". Both McKay/Swift and Richler decry the same trends. An uncritical view of history, a mass dissemination even of a historical record that has been proven false. A discrediting of the value of discussion, compromise, and peacekeeping. Worship of all things military, coupled with the jingoistic notion that criticism or even questioning is unpatriotic, and that genuine debate about the purpose of a war somehow puts Canadian troops at risk.

Why does any of this matter? This review was originally published during Remembrance Week, when the slogan "Lest We Forget" was everywhere. Yet it might as well have said "Let's Forget". Under Harper and the New Warriors, Remembrance Day has become a collective act of forgetting.

Forgetting that millions upon millions of lives were lost for nothing.

Forgetting veterans and their families suffering from the effects of PTSD and traumatic brain injury.

Forgetting that war has never solved anything.

Forgetting that war is glorious only for those who stay at home and make speeches.

Forgetting that the peace that Canadians enjoy was not won on a battlefield, but hammered out through compromise.

Forgetting that what made Canada a great country, what gave Canada peace and prosperity, was not war. Never was war.

From What We Talk About When We Talk About War:
We have a duty to be honest and rigorous, with ourselves and with others, and to be able to brook contradiction and argument in our discussions of past wars and the present one in Afghanistan. But instead, in today's Canada, we have arrived at a point where the use of any language that is not euphemistic is greeted as an assault on the work of soldiers, on a singular view of our past, and therefore on the character of the nation itself. Ideology thrives. History hardly comes into it. . . .

[The over-emphasis on Canadian military history] distorts and downplays the significant roles that Canadian politicians, diplomats, jurists and a variety of other civilians (such as artists) have had in shaping not just the domestic Canadian polity but abstract, universal ideas about statehood that have served as examples internationally - in Scottish constitutional development, for instance, and of course in the development of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in 1948.

The nature of this contribution is significant specifically because the truth of Canadian history is that our military's stake has not been inordinate. Resolution through discussion and compromise, and the recognition of the interests of others that such an approach entails, is seen to contribute to the greater good and to have characterized not only the relationship between the government and Aboriginals, between English- and French-speaking Quebeckers (and between the British government and the conquered French colonists before that), but those between Aboriginals and the original Canadians and brokers and fur traders of the Company of Adventurers of England into Hudsons' Bay since before the modern nation-state and its apparatus of government was founded. Effectively, the only country Canada has ever sought to colonize has been itself, negotiation mostly the tactic. In 1885, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald sent troops to the end of his incompletely built railroad in order to suppress Louis Riel and the M├ętis and put an end to the Northwest resistance in present-day Manitoba and Saskatchewan, with the aid of Lt.-Col. "Big Tom" Strange and his rapidly assembled Alberta Field Force, though with only dubious results. Today, it can be argued that the colonization effort continues, most notably in the North and in Quebec, though through economic and not military means. This is not an accidental outcome but a consequence of our history.

The legacy of Canada being founded on the back of the business of the Hudsons' Bay Company is that the model of the corporation reigns. Rather than the imperatives of the military and a dynamic of conquest, the forces of pragmatism and regulation (and the monopsonistic power of the powerful company that also, to an extent, provides) are what have shaped Canada today. Canada, once Prince Rupert's Land, is a sum of land claims greater than its parts, a country legitimised in courts and boardrooms as much as, if not more than, through soldiering.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys

The topic of sexism or sexual discrimination against men and boys is a hugely controversial topic, one that raises both ire and ridicule towards those that make this claim. It is not easy to discuss this form of misandry without having one's arguments beaten down as soon as one opens one's mouth. In The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys, author David Benatar repeatedly and almost apologetically falls over himself in trying not to cause offence by merely bringing up certain aspects of discrimination:

"This book is about the second sexism. Accordingly it is not about that sexism of which females are primary victims. This is not because I deny the existence of such sexism. It clearly exists and has existed for a very long time."


"Given the prevailing orthodoxy in the academy and the sensitivity of the issues I shall be discussing, the views I defend in this book will be deemed threatening by many. I am thus under no illusions. My position, no matter how clearly stated, is likely to be misunderstood. Where it is not merely dismissed (sometimes vituperatively, as inconsistent with received opinion), it is likely to be subject to numerous (sometimes overly confident) mistaken objections. Indeed, overly confident objections are very common among those defending orthodoxies. One reason for this is that the responses to those objections by those defending heterodox views is so much harder for the orthodox to imagine, given either the rarity of unconventional views or the rarity of their being openly expressed. Orthodoxies are repeated endlessly and usually go unchallenged. The result is that they acquire a life of their own and become self-reinforcing. Thus those who hold orthodox positions have no felt need to justify their positions, which become entrenched by being shared by so many others around them."

The introduction alone to The Second Sexism is twenty pages long, with five pages of endnotes. Benatar is desperate to make sure his points are taken seriously, and is quick to list the top ways in which discrimination against men and boys manifests itself:

"While the manifestation of sexism against women is widely acknowledged, few people take seriously the idea that males are also the victims of many and quite serious forms of sex discrimination.
"So unrecognized is this form of sexism that the mere mention of it will be laughable to some. Yet women are typically exempt from military conscription even when men are forced into battle and risk injury, emotional repercussions, and death. Males are more often victims of violent crime, as well as of legalized violence such as corporal punishment. Sexual assault of males is often taken less seriously. Fathers are less likely to win custody of their children following divorce."

Each of these points about male discrimination is covered in detail, and each chapter is followed by a generous quantity of endnotes. Let me start off by saying that I myself don't deny that certain aspects of antimale discrimination exist. I see how such discrimination is meted out in the law. Some countries that criminalize homosexuality only have gay male sexuality on the books, while lesbianism is not considered illegal. Granted, there are countries that criminalize both male and female homosexuality. However there are no countries that criminalize only lesbianism, while there are plenty of others that criminalize only male homosexuality. This is unquestionably an example of discrimination against men.

I consider myself a feminist, one whose views follow those of Camille Paglia and Christina Hoff Sommers, the make-no-apologies, we're-not-victims branch that riles those like Gloria Steinem and Catharine MacKinnon. I do not wish to debate these branches of feminism here, but it is in the reader's interest to know where I'm coming from. I love Camille Paglia and her ballsy fuck-you attitude. Feminists on the other side of the spectrum would castrate me for even daring to talk about feminism, claiming I was misappropriating their voice, and that I used "ballsy" in a feminist context would obviously be another form of the dominant sexist patriarchal infiltration of women's space. The reader, however, might be surprised that I also share some suprafeminist views that might be even too radical for MacKinnon. I thus take issue with some of Benatar's claims about discrimination against men in child custody decisions, because in my opinion the overwhelming majority of cases where men lose these decisions is justified. 

Benatar belabours the case about the prohibition against women serving in combat. This serves as his central argument throughout The Second Sexism. Why are only men conscripted? And why are women never sent into combat? Benatar replies:

"A third belief about males has both descriptive and normative forms. It is the belief that males are, or at least should be, tough. They are thought to be able to endure pain and other hardships better than women. Whether or not they do take pain and other hardships 'like a man,' it is certainly thought that they should."

This theory perhaps explains why historically in North America corporal punishment was only on the books for male offenders. Benatar provided numerous examples in international case law where men and women, who committed the same crime together and were both found by the courts to be equally guilty, received different punishments. The male offender suffered corporal punishment while the woman did not. Custodial sentences in the United States are given to men far more often than to women when they commit the same crime. Why are women offenders treated more leniently? Benatar writes:

"While the balance of evidence suggests that females are treated more leniently in the criminal justice system, there is considerable disagreement about what explains this phenomenon. One popular hypothesis has been the so-called chivalry explanation, according to which the benevolent and protective societal attitudes towards women explain why they are treated more leniently."


"In a few countries females are exempt from capital punishment. In such countries females may not be executed even if their crimes and criminal records are indistinguishable from those of males who are executed. This is clearly unfair de jure discrimination on the basis of sex. Those countries that commute the death sentences of pregnant women also engage in unfair sex discrimination. Although some women are not thereby exempt from capital punishment, no men are. If some men but no women were exempt from capital punishment feminists would rightly complain that this constituted sex discrimination. To be consistent, we must say the same about countries that exempt some women but no men."

Barring their use in the Latin phrase de jure above, Benatar's overuse of italics throughout his book in order to make a point made his academic thesis read like a radio script. Perhaps the function of the italics was to create a more flowing read, one that engages the author to the reader as if he was telling us a story. I found The Second Sexism, despite its brevity at 288 pages, to be a very slow read. I find the subject of antimale discrimination highly interesting, and I was looking forward to the book, but didn't think it would take me seventeen days to finish.

Benatar acknowledges throughout the book that discrimination against girls and women exists. In no examples where he discusses male discrimination does he ever deny that females are also affected, whether it be inside prisons, in the courts or in the military. However he cannot deny that some feminists seem to appropriate the entire concept of discrimination. Whatever happens to women is discrimination; whatever happens to men is just too bad. That men might be suffering on the battlefield, sometimes giving their lives (involuntarily in cases of conscription) is lost on these feminists. Women's suffering, it seems, always trumps men's:

"Strangely, people are sometimes driven to vie for the status of being more or most victimized. Yet comparisons of suffering are often invidious. It is often notoriously difficult to compare different kinds of suffering. Is it worse to be raped or to be maimed?...And insofar as one can compare and weigh up different kinds of suffering, the exercise of doing so is prone to trivializing the suffering of those who have not suffered the most."

The topic of discrimination against men and boys brings out a minefield of opinions, scattered across the battlefield. A chill fills the rooms of academia whenever the topic is raised, as it is one of the most politically incorrect topics of our day. Benatar has written a brave and bold book that seeks to give justice not only to men but to all people.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is literary nonfiction of the highest order, a blend of social, cultural, and science history, and a triumph of research and writing.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman, a poor tobacco farmer who lived near and in Baltimore. Henrietta died of cancer in 1951, at the age of 31. She left behind five children, destined for poverty and all manner of abuse. She also left behind, without her knowledge, some cancer cells that doctors at Johns Hopkins University Hospital removed for study. Those cells, and their descendants, would help Jonas Salk to develop the polio vaccine, and would continue to form the basis of cell research around the globe for decades, continuing to this day.

Those cancer cells and their descendants are known as HeLa, short for Henrietta Lacks. While HeLa cells were multiplying around the globe, while students and scientists and doctors were studying HeLa, injecting HeLa cells into every type of test imaginable, the Lacks family had no idea that cells were taken from their mother and that those cells lived on. Twenty years later, the knowledge would rock their world.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is built around several intertwined stories. There's the story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman: her life, her illness, her suffering, her family, her death. There's the story of HeLa, the cells, and their incalculable contribution to medical science. And there's the story of Deborah Lacks, one of Henrietta's daughters, a complicated, troubled, compassionate, striving, indomitable woman who Skloot describes as the most resilient person she ever knew.

There are also the moral, ethical, and legal implications of the HeLa story. Although textbooks referred to Henrietta Lacks as the “donor” of HeLa cells, Henrietta was never informed that doctors were taking her cells, she was never asked, and was never able to give consent. This fact places Henrietta Lacks in the context of a complicated story of race, poverty, genetics, and human experimentation. Skloot unpacks these issues in the clearest and most compelling manner I can imagine.

And finally, there is the story of Rebecca Skloot, and her obsession that drove her to uncover the real story behind both Henrietta Lacks and HeLa, and to befriend Deborah Lacks. The two would form an unlikely and powerful bond that would change them both.

This is also a book full of subplots and minor threads, two of which I found particularly compelling, and unbelievably sad. One of Henrietta’s son, Deborah’s brother, was horrifically abused (tortured, really) after his mother's death. As an adult, he is violent and out of control, unable to master his constant anger. At one point in the book's narrative, he is sleeping on the street, signing up for medical experiments in exchange for food and a bed. In his story, we also get a glimpse of the transforming power of love and respect.

Another of Henrietta's children, and another subplot of the book, was Elsie, the sister Deborah never knew. Elsie had epilepsy, and at least partial deafness, and possibly other mental disabilities. When Henrietta could no longer care for her, the family talked her into putting Elsie in an institution. I'll stop there to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say Elsie's story was, for me, the very saddest part of this book.

One of the book's many fascinating subplots looks at the history of medical experiments on human subjects. Many of us are familiar with some of the more egregious examples of nonconsensual human experimentation, such as the Nazis performed on inmates of their death camps, or such as the Tuskegee experiments. But did you know that medical experiments were routinely performed on prison inmates in the U.S., without their consent? That patients in a hospital for a routine surgery might be injected with cancer cells, but told they were being inoculated against infection? The story of human experimentation without informed consent in the United States is shocking even to those of us who hold no illusions about that country.

The hidden history of how these hideous practices began to change - begun by an act of resistance from three doctors - is also fascinating. Scientists cried that informed consent would be the death of science, that without uninformed human subjects, all medical advancement would come to a halt - just as they claim today about experiments on animal subjects.

By coincidence, I recently read Home, Toni Morrison's 2012 novella, which touches on the so-called "Mississippi appendectomy," the forced sterilization of poor African-American women by white doctors. When the Lacks family fears that the Johns Hopkins doctors did something evil to their mother, those fears must be seen in context of this very painful history. The review in The Guardian notes:
The dark, inhuman face of unpoliced science shows itself throughout this story, side by side with the bright face of discovery and humanitarian advance. The ironies are no less bitter because they are plain: today, Henrietta's descendants cannot afford health insurance. Henrietta was buried in an unmarked grave, in a cemetery with her black ancestors, and with white ancestors who, when the author inquired, would not acknowledge her.
Skloot’s journey with the Lacks family and the triumphant book that it produced are a nonfiction writer’s dream. Here the journalist’s story is not just about persistence and obsession (although it is certainly that) but also about patience, honesty, empathy, and trust. Skloot worked hard to win Deborah Lacks' trust - constantly and repeatedly - and both sides were amply rewarded. (This review was originally posted here, on wmtc.) Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The End of Country

What would you do if someone told you that your unsuccessful farm was sitting on top of one of the world’s largest natural gas deposits? What if this someone was standing at your front door, with the paperwork in hand to lease access to your land for drilling, and promised you unimaginable riches? What would be the many implications of your decision? The End of Country by Seamus McGraw looks at a community of Pennsylvania farmers who struggled with this very scenario.

Without guidance from the United States government or lawyers, and under pressure from the eager natural gas corporation reps at their doorsteps, these homeowners wrestled with this dilemma both individually, and as a community.

What were some of the entanglements of this overly idyllic situation? Environmentally, the cost was extensive; the drilling machinery caused injuries, there was resulting noise and air pollution, and toxic taints to the land and to the water table accumulated as the drilling continued. Water wells even exploded from trapped gas. But the most difficult of the consequences to navigate were the rising tensions between neighbours with differing views on the evolving situation, since each landowner was able to make his or her own decision unilaterally, without consulting the community.

In The End of Country, McGraw goes beyond the predictable cheering for the underdogs. He doesn’t just malign the money-hungry natural gas corporations but looks with a critical eye at the costs of the choices made by all involved. This is a great read, full of humour and affection for all the varied personalities that stepped up in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.

There was one particular part of the book that brought home to me the author’s intent. McGraw, who had grown up in Susquehanna County, met up with Ken Ely, one of the ad hoc leaders in the community. “I remember you.” Ely had said. “You owe me a hundred bucks for gas and bullets.” McGraw recalled:

“I didn’t remember that. As far as I knew, I had paid Ken every cent I ever owed him. But I wasn’t going to dispute it. Ken Ely had a long memory. I didn’t have a hundred dollars on me, but I promised I’d write him a check. ‘Don’t bother,’ he told me. ‘I don’t need the money anymore. Wait till you get rich on the gas and then give it to someone who needs it.’”

McGraw doesn’t even let himself off the hook. He, too, profited from the good and the bad through the writing of this book and owns up to it.  He’s a class act.

 Discussion Questions

  1. There were a few recent films that looked at this and similar issues: feature film Promised Land (2012) with Matt Damon, documentary Gasland (2010) with Josh Fox, and even Erin Brockovich (2000) with Julia Roberts edges in close with big business carefully misleading the affected public. How do these films depict the negative longer term effects on the public? How is the audience made to feel about the decisions made?
  2. In a community, how important is it to consider the implications of your decisions on your neighbourhood?
  3. Is personal gain ever worth the loss of respect of your peers? What would motivate you to make such a choice?
  4. How could the Pennsylvania situation have been better managed? How much power can a community-led coalition wield? Should the government have intervened? If so, what level of government?
  5. How can other communities best benefit from the hard and assorted lessons learned in Susquehanna County through this experience?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Just Kids

Just Kids is a memoir by the artist and musician Patti Smith, about her life and relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The book is a memoir of both Smith's and Mapplethorpe's coming of age as artists, and of the path of their relationships, both with each other and with other people who were formative in their young lives. Just Kids is also a memoir of New York City in the 1970s, especially of certain slices of the art and music scenes.

Although Smith met and hung out with many famous musicians, artists, and writers during the time she writes about, Just Kids doesn't have a gossipy, name-dropping feel. Smith isn't saying, "Look at all the famous people I've known"; she shares interesting interactions she's had with noteworthy people. For example, when Smith takes 55 cents to the Horn & Hardart automat with a craving for a cheese-and-lettuce sandwich, only to find the price has gone up, the person who offers her the missing dime is the poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg, who thought Smith was a boy that he might chat up, asks Smith if she's male or female. We see the scene with sweetness and warmth. When Ginsberg asks, "What will you say about how we met?" Smith answers, "That I was hungry and you fed me."

That is typical of Just Kids. Smith writes with warmth, respect, and love for almost everyone. Even if a relationship went awry or ended badly, Smith finds the positive, not in a strained, Pollyanna-ish way, but out of a genuine appreciation for the many experiences that helped her learn and grow. Smith's voice is modest, sober, respectful, and often innocent, almost naive. The book is intimate, but not explicit, focusing on love rather than sex.

Through most of the book, Smith is not a rock musician, and has no dreams of becoming one. She makes visual art, writes poetry, and doesn't even think about performing. Mapplethorpe creates jewelry and art installations. The man who would become a world-famous photographer cuts photos from magazines and re-purposes them in his own art. Together, Smith and Mapplethorpe support each other as each discovers their true artistic path. This is the story of a joined voyage of self-discovery; as Smith puts it, they were artist and muse, with both playing both roles.

Reading Just Kids, you would never know that Smith was a bold, brash, hyperkenetic rocker, that she was compared to a young Mick Jagger for her stage presence and frenetic energy. For most of the book, Smith is shy and socially awkward; she describes herself as a "skinny wallflower". She frequently mentions The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan as her two primary rock influences, along with the poet Arthur Rimbaud and a host of other artists, such as Freda Kahlo and Edith Piaf. Early on, Smith mentions seeing The Doors' Jim Morrison perform, and thinking, "I could do that." Indeed, she could, and she did. Morrison and Smith, although they never met, are forever linked as the performers who brought spoken-word poetry to hard-edged rock-and-roll.

The stories from Smith's early life are poignant and illuminating. Working in a New Jersey factory, pregnant at 19 years old and surrendering the child to adoption, Smith hungered for a fresh start. She packed her few belongings in a plaid suitcase and boarded a bus for New York City, planning to stay with some friends who had moved to Brooklyn. But the friends had moved, and Smith was all alone. She slept in doorways and in Washington Square Park, scrounging for change, and hungry all the time. She searched for work that would sustain and not degrade her, eventually finding a job in Brentano's, a famous New York bookstore. She learned how to scour New York's many used bookstores for treasures that she could sell to private collectors for a small profit that would pay for food or rent.

Smith and Mapplethorpe meet by happenstance, and become the most important people in each other's lives. They live at the legendary Chelsea Hotel in a tiny room with their art, their dreams, and their hungers, and very little money.

Mapplethorpe was later and famously gay, and some readers might hope for some salacious details of Smith and Mapplethorpe's relationship; they'll be disappointed. There's no explicit sex. Smith refers to "romantic involvements" only obliquely, and keeps her most private life private. She refers to the "dual nature" of Mapplethorpe's sexuality and, later, to the S&M imagery in his work that she accepted but didn't understand.

In an afterward, Smith writes that Mapplethorpe asked her to write their story. She compares the pair to Hansel and Gretel, venturing into the dark and scary woods together, with "temptations and witches and demons we never dreamed of" and "splendor we only partially imagined".

Smith's writing is sometimes clear and precise, sometimes poetic, sometimes a bit mystical. She has the songwriter's knack for unusual phrases, describing someone with "a cowboy mouth" or saying, "He had that human saxophone thing" (whatever that means!).

I was a teen when punk was born, and saw Smith perform several times. I had a poster of the famous cover of Horses on my wall wherever I lived; I was fascinated with Smith, even idolized her for a time. I didn't follow her career as a poet or a visual artist, but she remained an iconic figure to me, especially in her deep connection to New York City, the New York City of my youth. So naturally, Just Kids was very compelling to me. Would this book be interesting to someone who doesn't already know Smith, who isn't familiar with the New York City art scene? Although I can't say for sure, I doubt it. In fact, for readers who aren't familiar with some of the references - if you don't know what the Chelsea Hotel or CBGB is, or who Sam Shepherd is - it might not even make sense.

This is not a book about Patti Smith, rock musician. In a 288-page book, Smith doesn't meet Lenny Kaye, the man who would become her rock partner, until page 179.  (Kaye was working in a record store on Bleecker Street. That's what I mean: if that doesn't strike you as a romantic and beautiful image, this book may not be for you.) When Patti Smith and Fred "Sonic" Smith leave New York City to launch their rock career, the book ends. It is all innocence and awakening and self-discovery, without the harsh realities of compromise and commerce and all that follows. Smith does give you a glimpse into the birth of the punk movement, in this beautiful passage.
We imagined ourselves as the Sons of Liberty with a mission to preserve, protect, and project the revolutionary spirit of rock and roll. We feared that the music that had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity. We would call forth in our minds the image of Paul Revere, riding through the American night, petitioning the people to wake up, to take up arms. We too would take up arms, the arms of our generation, the electric guitar and the microphone.
Just Kids is a quintessential New York story, and there's a subtext that, as a former New Yorker, I find inexpressibly sad. Throughout New York's history, there have always been pockets of cheap housing which enabled artists to live cheaply and focus on their work. The city was a magnet for young artists of all stripes; that was part of what gave New York its energy and edge. Artists would move into a low-income, dangerous neighbourhood, taking advantage of low rents, and they'd revitalize it. Then the neighbourhood would gentrify, eventually becoming too expensive for the people who had put it on the map. Artists would be pushed out, and another part of town would become an art mecca, and the cycle would begin again.

But the cycle sped up. Instead of taking several generations, it began to take only a matter of years. Then it sped up even more, neighbourhoods going almost directly from unsafe to pricey with barely an art scene in between. At the same time, fewer and fewer affordable neighbourhoods remained. Eventually the profit-seeking machine that is New York City cut its own throat. Although pockets of art and music scenes survive, they are tiny shadows of their thriving ancestors. David Byrne writes about it here. Smith and Mapplethorpe's story couldn't happen in today's New York. They would need a much higher income to survive, and that changes the entire equation.

There are some wonderful stories in Just Kids, about Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and Smith's pilgrimage to Paris in search of the ghost of Rimbaud, and how Sam Shepherd bought Patti Smith her first guitar, and taught her the secret of improvisation. I'll end this post with one especially illuminating story.

Smith has accompanied Mapplethorpe to the club Max's Kansas City many times, but she is not comfortable socially, and no one pays much attention to her. Someone makes a snide remark about Smith's hair, which she always wore long, straight, and parted in the middle, like a folk singer. Although Smith tries to shake it off, and although she feels silly for caring, the comment stings. In frustration, she looks at photos of The Rolling Stones and takes a scissors to her locks, trying to cut her hair like Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards'. She shows up at Max's sporting her new haircut, and suddenly, Smith is the talk of the club. Everyone wants to hang out with her. Everyone wants to see her work. Everyone suddenly pays attention. Because she cut her hair. The haircut was not Smith's "big break," but it showed her a lot about the way things work. (This review was originally posted here, on wmtc.)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Curse of the Narrows: the Halifax Explosion, 1917

On 6 December 1917, the Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship collided with the Imo, a Belgian relief ship in the narrow channel of Halifax Harbour. The TNT and picric acid aboard the Mont Blanc caused the worst death toll by an explosion in history: two thousand dead, ten thousand injured and six thousand left homeless. The explosion had always fascinated me as a child, as I had first read about it in the Guinness Book of World Records in its Worst Accidents and Disasters in the World chart, yet, oddly, never heard about it anywhere else. I didn't research the explosion until prior to my first visit to Halifax ten years ago, and I made it a priority to visit the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower and to see the permanent exhibit, entitled Halifax Wrecked, at the Marine Museum of the Atlantic. I have since read many books on the topic before I started writing book reviews in 2010. Curse of the Narrows: the Halifax Explosion, 1917 by Laura Mac Donald ranks among the best of the explosion histories.

Mac Donald used her access to court documents, survivor testimonials, news articles and public archive finds to create a chronological story from just before the explosion to the inevitable court cases that followed it. She profiled several families who were devastated by the explosion and created real-life suspenseful narratives of horror. We followed family members as they dug through their collapsed houses, looking for family members, their children and babies, and finding only body parts and decapitated corpses. The explosion flew people in all directions, and Mac Donald's descriptions of corpses impaled on lampposts and literally faceless people walking around dazed and confused will make you feel the magnitude of the sudden horror that befell the city. That Mac Donald drew upon eyewitness accounts and strung them together to create a respectful story means that what she was telling was not a fabricated dramatization but a true story.

We followed several families, some almost wiped out by the disaster and some who suffered only surface injuries. The Duggans, for example, lost four households with the remaining members of three families living in one house. Mac Donald fleshed out her biographies of those she profiled so the reader got to know about those who perished as well as those who survived the explosion. Billy Duggan was one of Canada's champion rowers and Ned Hanlan was one of his predecessors. Mac Donald however unfortunately misspelled the surname as Hanlon three times on a single page, which was a glaring error to anyone from the Toronto area.

The blast, which occurred at the time of World War I, was not a totally unexpected phenomenon. As long as ships were transporting munitions in and out of Halifax Harbour, they were considered possible targets. Thus, in spite of the collision which was witnessed by hundreds of people who lined the harbour:

"But the first reaction to the devastation--even by those who watched the Mont Blanc's barrels explode and crash onto the deck, who watched the flames turn the sky strange colors--was to search for the German plane that had dropped the first bomb on North American soil. Even the military was unsure of the cause for the first hour, and sought to establish whether they were under attack before sending their men out on rescue missions. The city was so conditioned to believe that the Germans could strike Halifax that they did not make the connection between the burning ship and the explosion."

The devastation flattened the city, and the accompanying photos do not exaggerate. Houses were blown apart, stoves toppled and fires started. The city was not only levelled but set ablaze. When rescue parties started the search for survivors, they found:

"...Tilted, windowless, and doorless houses stared at them like shell-shocked soldiers. Despite this introduction, Cox was still unprepared for what he would see when his party rounded the hill. Richmond [the area of the Halifax peninsula immediately across the harbour from the explosion] was gone. And the detritus that replaced it no more resembled the neighborhood than a pile of unraveled wool resembled a sweater."

Doctors and nurses came by train from the neighbouring provinces and states, most notably Massachusetts. Any large building not blown apart was converted into a hospital, and medical staff worked nonstop for days, literally days, without a break. The damage caused to eyes took the greatest toll on doctors' time. There were hundreds of witnesses standing inside on that December day who watched the Mont Blanc and the Imo collide. The smoke and fire had them all glued to the windows, and the explosion that followed blew those windows into their eye sockets. Glass daggers pierced eyes, faces and cut glass panes became flying guillotines. Doctors worked through the endless lineups of people injured by flying glass. I read of buckets overflowing with excised eyeballs, and of the horror of the volunteers when they were asked to empty them. In many cases, however, no operations could be performed as minuscule glass shards embedded themselved deep into the skin. Doctors advised these patients to let nature take its course:

"Like many survivors, Lottie continued to remove pieces of glass and wood from her face and neck for the rest of her life. It would start as a bump or a black spot and slowly work its way to the surface, until it expelled itself."

Confusion reigned for days as families searched hospitals and shelters for loved ones:

"Displaced children proved to be a particular challenge for social workers because they could neither register themselves nor provide much more than their names and, if lucky, former addresses. Plus children were scattered all over the city and, in some cases, the countryside without anyone to supervise them."

Many of the cases will bring a tear to the eye. Fathers who were serving in the war overseas came home to no one, as their entire families had perished. In some cases, only a baby was the sole survivor, and when the authorities could find no next of kin, not even a relative, the infant was adopted out while the father was still serving in the war. Some fathers never saw their infant children again:

"Others were haunted by missing children and continued to look for them for the rest of their lives."

The end of the book deals with the court cases and appeals that followed. Had the explosion occurred today, the cases and appeals would take years, perhaps a decade, to resolve. A century ago due process was meted out at a far more accelerated pace and even the appeals were resolved within a couple years. The blame game provided an extremely interesting read, with one crew--the only surviving crew, that of the Mont Blanc--laying blame on the deceased crew of the Imo.

The only time I really laughed during Curse of the Narrows was over a case of mistaken identity:

"Life on the wards at the Victoria General was starting to return to normal as well, although Dr. Puttner had collapsed on the floor Saturday afternoon. They put him in the same room as the chief surgeon, Dr. Murdoch Chilsholm, whose condition had improved since Pharmacist Bertha Archibald had helped him up the stairs after the explosion. When she entered the room, he was sitting up and reading the paper. 'There, in striking headlines, was the notice of the death of Dr. Murdoch Chisholm--the old gentleman was reading his own obituary.' His blue eyes peeked at her out from behind his glasses and he smiled with some satisfaction.
"'That man Chisholm. He was quite a man.'"

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, one couldn't even be sure who was alive and who had died. Canadian history is alive with a multitude of books about the Halifax explosion, and no doubt there will be a surge in new editions and reprints of older accounts upon the explosion's centenary in three years time. For one of the most detailed and accurate accounts of the Halifax explosion of 1917, I highly recommend Curse of the Narrows by Laura Mac Donald.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Watch This Space: Designing, Defending and Sharing Public Spaces

by Hadley Dyer and Marc Ngui

Kids Can Press, 2010

As a co-author of this blog, I have been very delinquent in my self-appointed duty to regularly post nonfiction book reviews and book club discussion questions.  One major factor (or excuse) for this is that through a job change, I no longer work in the Sciences and Business Department of the Mississauga Central Library.  To me, this Department has always been a major haven of nonfiction books, and constant immersion lead to many exciting reads.  Having returned to my roots of children's librarianship, I find myself reading far less "adult" books in general, and nonfiction books in particular.  As I get more comfortable in this new career role, I am finding that I can step up and slowly return to my recreational reading levels of years past!

That being said, I should also say that the Children's Department is not a reading wasteland - there are many books (fiction and nonfiction) in the collection that are worth reading, even if you are not writing a grade 4 science project!  One such book is the subject of this post - Watch This Space.  This 80 page book accomplishes much in its brief span, informing children and those adults who have ears to hear about public space - what it means, its societal value, your collective ownership (and responsibility) of the space, challenges, issues, and ways to protect and encourage public space usage and development.

The book is refreshingly clear about the points it tries to make, including a nice and simple definition of public space: "You don't have to buy something or pay an entry fee to be in a public space. You don't need to be a member or explain why you're there. Public spaces exist so everyone can use them. All you have to do is show up."  It takes pains to distinguish true public space from spaces that seem like public space but are not really - malls, coffee shops, and so on which have private owners.

Much of the book revolves around youth, a demographic very much in need of public space - teens hanging out in parking lots seem to be doing nothing, but "...something is happening when you spend time in public spaces. You're figuring out how to get along with people, without adult interference. You're sorting out who you are and how you fit in. You're becoming a part of a community."

The book also talks about the criteria for effective public space, and how public spaces can fail.  This concept is very relevant to those of us who live and work in the Mississauga city centre.  The Mississauga Central Library sits just south of the Mississauga Civic Centre, and for the longest time, the space between the two buildings was basically a failed public space.  During the winter, the central fountain was converted into a popular outdoor skating area, but for the remainder of the year, there was just no reason to go to this space.  Mississauga is very much a suburban city, broken up into zones as described in this book.  One needs to travel by car just about everywhere, and so destinations must be planned out in advance.  Anyone coming to the City centre is either going to the Square One shopping centre, the Central Library, or even the Civic Centre itself.  Each of these sites, and all the other big box stores around it, have their own parking lots or underground garages.  There was never a natural flow of foot traffic through the square, nor any reason that would lead someone to discover it by chance.  The square also had walls and elevated embankments that even prevent people from seeing it at all.

Recognizing this failure, the City of Mississauga redeveloped the whole square, creating a new public space with constant community activities, cultural festivals, and an aesthetically pleasing place to gather.  Initially cynical, I was pleasantly surprised when all of a sudden the new Celebration Square became a destination in its own right and is almost constantly in use.  

Discussion Questions

1.  How do you use public space? How often do you find yourself in public spaces?
2.  How important is public space to your life, and to society in general?
3.  Discuss the book's eight criteria for a great public space.  Would you add anything else? (Shared vision, beauty, sociability, comfort, flexibility, landmarks, accessibility, and safety).
4.  The book compares and contrasts dense urban mixed-use spaces (such as Toronto's Little Portugal neighbourhood) with suburban sprawl, where housing subdivisions are separated from shopping areas (so-called "Smart Centres") and so on.  With a designed dependence on car travel, should suburbs be changed?  What kind of neighbourhood would you rather live in?
5.  This book doesn't really talk about people living in large condo towers.  If the authors were to add a chapter about high-rise apartments, what do you think they would say about residents' need for public space?
6.   Have you ever talked to a stranger in a public space?  If so, did you learn anything through this experience?
7.  How does a public library function as a public space?
8.  How safe are public spaces?
9.  The book includes an exercise for designing a public space.  What would you include?
10.  The book talks about the usage of public space as sites for political demonstrations and protests.  How are public spaces used to initiate social change?
11.  What do you think of "virtual" public spaces?  Is social media interaction (such as this blog) as useful as physical spaces?