Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success

How did Donald Trump’s German grandfather, Friedrich Drumpf, come to settle in America, and change the family name to Trump? How did the family make its first dollars? How did they build their wealth into billions? What of Donald Trump’s mother, Mary Anne MacLeod, who emigrated to the U.S. from the Scottish island of Lewis? What sort of father is Donald Trump? How has Donald Trump treated people? Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success by Michael D'Antonio delves into all that, and much more. It does not cover Trump’s current run for President of the United States or subsequent developments.

This is a juicy and entertaining biography, told largely in a non-judgemental and matter-of-fact style. D’Antonio is clever and lets Donald Trump’s actions speak for themselves. Readers may find this book amplifies their view of Trump. As his son, Donald Jr., says, “He’s a very polarizing guy.” Those who like him will enjoy reading of his many successes. Those who dislike him will read between the lines and enjoy the amusing parallels drawn by D’Antonio. For example, the author compares one of Trump’s speaking tours across the U.S. with that of the young and flamboyant Oscar Wilde in 1882. One can imagine Trump’s concealed annoyance over such a comparison.

A selection of photos and an index complete the book.

Friday, December 18, 2015

To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Express, the World's Greatest Railroad

To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Express, the World's Greatest Railroad by Christian Wolmar was a brief history and a fascinating, speedy read. I came across it, as I often do, since I am in charge of the new book arrivals in my department. I like trains and transit history and To the Edge of the World served as my first formal introduction to the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest railway in the world. 

For a nation as vast as imperial Russia, the country embarked on a system of railroad construction relatively late, when compared with Europe, the United States and Canada. Such a lengthy railway would link Moscow to the Pacific coast, bring raw materials out of the heart of the nation's central Asian mining region and bring products and services to the people of the interior. It could unite the country in a way that the Canadian National Railway linked Canada from coast to coast, an achievement that did not go unnoticed by those in power in tsarist Russia. However the main reason the Trans-Siberian Railway was built was not economical:

"The military imperative was also given a boost by the completion of the Canadian transcontinental in 1885, given the shorter journey time between England and Japan, which was seen as a potential military advantage. Psychologically, for the Russians, the construction of the Canadian transcontinental proved more important than its American predecessor completed sixteen years previously. Canada was a similarly vast, rather underpopulated country and its furthermost province, British Columbia, could well have seceded had it not been for the construction of the line across the new nation. The Russian Far East, like the Canadian West, was remote and semi-detached. If the Canadians could use a railway line to bind their country together, so could the Russians."

Thus imperialist Russia was compelled to build its transcontinental railway for militaristic reasons. By the end of the nineteenth century the country had already suffered a rebellion and tsarist Russia was showing signs of instability. A railway would strengthen the tsar's hold over the country from Moscow to Vladivostok. Yet with Alexander III as tsar, there was haste to complete the job. Workers and engineers risked repercussions by questioning him, and the earliest work on the railway was slipshod, requiring repairs or replacement almost as soon as it was completed. Wolmar wrote of two Trans-Siberian Railways being created at either end: the new track being laid down on its stretch eastward, and the replacement of track at the beginning of the line. The rush to complete the railway left minimal time to plan its route. Yet with 9288 km of track to lay down, you don't have to be an engineer to realize it would require years and years of planning and surveying:

"The survey work undertaken before construction began had been cursory in the extreme. There was no attempt to select an optimum route, but instead a four-verst belt was haphazardly drawn on the map by the administration in St Petersburg and consequently the surveyors in the field examined only this small swathe, irrespective of whether it appeared suitable."

The ten-year job to create the railway seemed like a daily comedy of errors, as workers stumbled across uneven ground, mountains, rivers and lakes. It took a century of corrections to realign the track so that it skirted around these natural hazards and features, instead of going directly through or over them. When the track reached a lake, like the massive Lake Baikal, a ferry carried the train to the other side. In winter, the frigid Siberian temperatures permitted track to be laid across the ice. I would be sweating bullets if I knew my train was crossing a frozen lake. I would not be confident that the most voluminous lake on the planet would be sufficiently frozen to support a train. Laying track in the Siberian permafrost posed the greatest problem, for when the disturbed permafrost melted, the tracks as well as the structures built around them like train stations quickly started to sink. 

Finding workers to build the railway was not easy since Siberia had such a sparse population. From imperialist times to the communist era under Stalin, prisoners deported to the Siberian gulags were sent to work. In the time of the tsars, however, prisoners received reduced sentences for their efforts. Conditions were unbearable, working six days a week in the coldest temperatures with nothing more than a tent as shelter. Working conditions were indeed primitive: 

"The true story, however, is that day after day, week after week, tens of thousands of workers mostly armed with little more than pickaxes and shovels created this monumental railway."

A century after the construction of the railway shows a necklace of large cities across Siberia. Where did these people come from? One aftereffect of railway construction was not foreseen:

"While the railway may have been conceived by its principal promoters as an imperialist and military enterprise, the impact on Siberia was no less profound. For all its failings and inadequacies, the Trans-Siberian had a transformative effect on the region, beyond even the expectations of its most ardent supporters. The clearest change was the rapid increase in population, thanks to increased migration from European Russia. The Siberian migration was, according to its chronicler Donald Treadgold, the greatest movement of people in history up to that time, other than the arrival in the United States of vast numbers of Europeans during the nineteenth century. While the increase in Siberia's population started before the railway was built, the pace of immigration rose dramatically as a result of its construction, and for a decade or so after the completion of the first section in 1896 there was a virtual stampede to settle in Siberia."


"Not surprisingly, this stream of people led to the transformation of the region; the very look and feel of Siberia changed forever through rapid urbanization and widespread settlement near the railway. This was inevitable given that settlement, with few exceptions, was confined to a swathe of land about 125 miles either side of the tracks."

To the Edge of the World was an exciting read about one of the world's engineering triumphs. After all the kinks had been ironed out and the track properly relaid, the Trans-Siberian Express became a land route to crisscross Asia taking originally from as long as six weeks to as little as six days. Wolmar took such a trip and added his impressions to the text. It was humorous to read that many of his impressions (especially complaints) were identical to travelogues from a century ago.  

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Bar Mitzvah, A History

Bar Mitzvah, A History by Rabbi Michael Hilton is a 2014 publication which answered many questions I had about the Jewish ceremony. I noticed that this new book had arrived in our library and it looked inviting: it was a new publication, from 2014, had extensive endnotes, a lengthy bibliography and even a glossary for goys like me. I spent two weeks reading this, and took many notes for this review, which showed that I learned a whole lot of stuff about bar mitzvahs.

Rabbi Hilton starts by stating that bar mitzvah history is not as old as most people--even Jews themselves--think it to be:

"Both Jews and non-Jews attending a bar mitzvah ceremony or party imagine they are witnessing an ancient ritual."


"It is striking to discover that bar mitzvah is not as old as people imagine it to be; the evolution of such a misperception is interesting in itself. Partly it comes from a thought process that says that because it is Jewish, it must be ancient, and partly from a related idea that festivals and popular Jewish celebrations have survived unchanged through the centuries."

I have had the same reaction from the half dozen people I have asked about the age of bar mitzvah. All but one of the people I asked believed the ritual to date from biblical times. And had I been asked the question myself, I would have said the same thing. Rabbi Hilton uses the historical record to date bar mitzvah, and while he realizes that many traditions developed in stages over time, before one even considered them to be incorporated into future rituals, it was rare to write about their origins. He is aware that the origins of bar mitzvah likely predate their first historical recording, that from the mid-thirteenth century, in northern France.

A ceremony spanning over seven centuries constitutes what some might nonetheless still call an "ancient" ritual, but not as old as some people, including myself, originally thought. The format of the bar mitzvah ceremony has remained the same, with the boy of thirteen years being presented on a bimah (a word I learned from Scrabble, meaning a platform or form of podium) by his father who absolves himself of any future sins committed by the son. The ceremony developed into a ritual of voluntary acceptance of the age of religious majority. In preparation for the day the bar mitzvah boy, or simply the bar mitzvah, attended Hebrew school. Hebrew language instruction was offered in order to read from the Torah scrolls.

Religious instruction was meant to continue after the bar mitzvah ceremony:

"The simple ceremony of bar mitzvah marked the transition not to adult life but to the next stage of scholarly achievement."

Yet the opposite occurred:

"The concentration on the ceremony as the main motivator for Jewish education has led to an undue focus on a one-time performance, rather than enculturation to a unique way of life. This has led to an unacceptably high dropout rate after the ceremony, a degradation of Hebrew language learning, and too many celebrations taking place outside the traditional congregational framework, as part of a vacation or on a cruise."

So while the first bar mitzvahs took place in synagogues with a small luncheon afterward--yes, the emphasis on small--in time they spun out of control with the size of the parties and the families' preoccupation with guest lists, menus and themes:

"The gradual spread of the celebration across Europe was accompanied by controversy and tension between those who thought of it as a purely religious celebration and those who promoted its social aspects."

The focus of the bar mitzvah turned from a coming-of-age ceremony in the framework of one's lifetime of religious instruction to a single compulsory performance, the preparation for which was abruptly dropped once it was over. By the start of the twentieth century, rabbis and congregations from all Jewish sects looked at the ceremony with loathing. I could not believe that this ceremony, now regarded with such honour and respect, could have been reviled by the rabbis themselves. The tradition almost died out:

"The twentieth century witnessed the most remarkable changes in the history of bar mitzvah, with the tradition in steep decline up to the 1920s. At that time it could easily have disappeared altogether from non-Orthodox synagogues; indeed, it really had been dropped by most Reform congregations."

Why the decline? The event lost its religious significance for the families who participated in it. Rabbi Hilton wrote of the frustration many rabbis felt over the overall petty regard families had for the service, while focussing all of their attention on the party afterward. Congregations saw the bar mitzvah as just an excuse to hold a lavish party. It became the Jewish equivalent of keeping up with the Cohens:

"After World War II increasing affluence saw the start of themed parties, with lavish decorations and expensive entertainers. The 'bar mitzvah cake' with thirteen candles became a popular feature. Lavish parties in the United States provoked a good deal of criticism from 1950 onward, especially from Reform rabbis. Some critics were concerned with the disastrous effect on poorer Jews, who might feel they had to get into debt to host a bar mitzvah; others were concerned that the social aspects had eclipsed the religious significance or spoke out against irreverent behavior they had witnessed as guests at such parties."


"There was an underlying difference of approach between community officials, who were determined to regulate the celebrations, and wealthy families, who were equally determined to show off their sons to their friends."

Even by the start of the eighteenth century, rabbis were shaking their heads and sighing at the deplorable behaviour on display when you fill a temple full of thirteen-year-old boys:

"By the eighteenth century the social nature of many celebrations could lead to bad behavior by groups of children, as a Yiddish regulation from Hamburg-Altona makes clear: 'New regulation of 24th Sivan 5472 = 28th June 1712. Every time a lad is bar mitzvah there is a great commotion among the lads, which creates a bad impression. So from today onward no party may be held in the synagogue and no treats for the lads at all. Any transgression will incur a fine of 20 Reichstahler for the welfare fund, with no exceptions.'"

I can just imagine a frustrated rabbi trying to keep a group of rambunctious thirteen-year-old boys in check. No party! No treats!

Bar Mitzvah, a History was only 225 pages long, but it was printed in a small font which I am happy to say I was able to read without a magnifying glass. Thirty-three pages were devoted to endnotes, which got tiresome to have to constantly flip to in order to see the source the author cited. I would often wait to flip to the end after passing ten endnotes, then play catchup, in order to retain the flow of reading. I was intrigued by someone I thought to be a supercentenarian when Rabbi Hilton wrote about Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, giving his birth and death years as (1884--1996) but in fact he died in 1966. Rabbi Hilton provided a glossary but one word I had to define elsewhere. I learned the Yiddish word ungapatchka, which means "overly ornate, busy, ridiculously over-decorated, and garnished to the point of distaste", according to the Urban Dictionary. Rabbi Hilton used it when citing a description of modern-day bat mitzvah parties.

And it is that ceremony, that of the bat mitzvah, that I found most interesting in its history. Bat mitzvahs are a recent development, yet didn't spring up out of nowhere. Girls and boys were at one time confirmed at a later age, usually fifteen. It was believed that young Jews got more out of their religious instruction if they were older. I read plenty of stories in this book about boys who stood on the bimah in tears, or unable to remember anything they had been taught in Hebrew school, so I can understand why rabbis felt a later ceremony was appropriate. Keep in mind that after the bar mitzvah, a boy's religious instruction was meant to continue, and a confirmation was the ceremony to commemorate his latest completion of religious studies:

"The nineteenth century in Western Europe saw the decline of ceremonies for boys and the beginning of ceremonies for girls. Boys and girls often celebrated confirmation together. This ceremony, devised by teachers and modernist rabbis, emphasized belief rather than practice and becoming a good citizen rather than a traditional Jew. There was no need to learn Hebrew to have a confirmation, and therefore girls who had little or no Hebrew education could fully participate. But a heavy price was paid by the acceleration of the decline of Hebrew learning and Jewish knowledge. The history of bat mitzvah can only be understood in conjunction with the history of confirmation, a story that has been well studied but largely forgotten. Few today realize that confirmation was once common in Orthodox synagogues. Today's bat mitzvah grew so gradually out of the group confirmation ceremonies that no single date can easily be assigned to the change."

The ceremony of confirmation does seem to have been forgotten, as Rabbi Hilton suggests. No one I had asked in my informal bar mitzvah survey had even heard of it. There is plenty of evidence that proves confirmation was adopted from the Christian model, and Rabbi Hilton exposed some shocked reactions when Jews found out about its origin. Yet Reformers were quite open about copying Protestant models, so there was no sweeping of history under the rug when the ceremony was introduced.

The last fifty years have seen a revival in the religious aspect of bar mitzvah, while bat mitzvah is still a relatively new tradition that is still evolving. A higher proportion of Jewish boys is celebrating bar mitzvah than at any time in the past. The revival of bar mitzvah can be explained by a reevalution of the ritual by different Jewish sects:

"A clear turning point in the history of bar mitzvah came when many American communities in the 1930s decided to introduce formal educational requirements. This move was by no means inevitable; they could have allowed bar mitzvah to continue to decline and promoted confirmation as a modern alternative. But this was a time when Conservative and then Reform Jews began a long slow return to more traditional practices, which was boosted and reinforced by Zionism, the founding of the State of Israel, and the new usefulness of Hebrew as a living language."

Bar Mitzvah, a History was written for Jews and non-Jews alike, just as Rabbi Hilton stated. It has a lengthy bibliography and the endnotes are full of secondary sources and research material, so I know where to turn to find further answers.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle

The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle by Joanne Huist Smith is the feel-good easy-read Christmas story I needed. Smith lost her husband suddenly to an unforeseen heart ailment, and The 13th Gift is the story of her family's first Christmas without him. I myself was dealing with my first Christmas without my mother last year, so I was hoping to start reading this book before Christmas and not after the holiday. Amid all the Christmas preparations I was happy to find the time on Christmas Eve to start, and practically finish in one sitting, The 13th Gift.

Smith is the mother of three children who were between the ages of ten and seventeen when the story took place in 1999. She, more than her children, was dreading the approach of Christmas. The music, the shopping, the crowds and the universal happy mood all were too much to deal with when all she could think of was her dear husband Rick:

"I absolutely understand Scrooge now. I want to go to bed tonight and wake up on December 26."

While Smith was preoccupied with the quick coming and going of Christmas, hoping at least to give her children a happy day while leaving herself out of it, a daily succession of twelve gifts arrived at their front door. Accompanied by notes set to a verse like "The Twelve Days of Christmas", the gift-givers left Smith and her children small surprises like one poinsettia plant, then two days later three rolls of gift wrap, followed by eight cookie cutters then nine candles. Over the course of twelve days the Smith family grew to anticipate each gift, wondering when it would arrive and always wondering who the mysterious gift-giver was. The Smith children even camped out and devised various spying techniques to catch the givers in the act. These twelve days provided everyone with a festive distraction from the grief of losing their father or husband. The twelve gifts were not expensive, yet the response they generated was priceless. The Smiths were given the gift of joy, and an anticipation of Christmas when they would receive the twelfth and final gift.

The thirteenth gift in the title pertains to learning the identity of the gift-givers. The Smiths did not learn who these people were until thirteen years after their act of generosity, yet I won't be spoiling any part of the story by revealing that the family who secretly dropped off twelve gifts at the Smiths' door was in fact not the originator of the deed. The Smiths' gift-givers were themselves the recipients of twelve mystery gifts after they had endured a family tragedy. That family learned to overcome its grief and restore joy in the Christmas season when the various members discovered their own twelve gifts, and provided joy to many other families in addition to the Smiths.

The 13th Gift was a joy to read over Christmas, providing a quick pick-me-up and enhancing my feel-good spirit.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America

When we think of gun violence in the United States, chances are we think of mass shootings. These horrific events which occur with such regularity seem, to much of the world, mostly preventable. The public nature of the shootings, and the often tragically young age of the victims, capture headlines and a good portion of the 24-hour news cycle.

Yet murders occur every day in the US, and no one hears about them, except the grief-stricken loved ones and those who fear they may be next. Jill Leovy's Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America is about those murders - both one specific tragedy and what Leovy calls "the plague" itself.

Part sociology and part detective story, Ghettoside is a triumph of reporting, of analysis, and of compassion. This book is disturbing and extremely compelling, and it may change forever how you view both violence and the criminal justice system's response to it.

Leovy is a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and the plague she investigates is the murder of mostly African-American men mostly by African American men. It is this "black on black" violence that the media ignores, that the public never hears about, and of which thousands of people live in fear. It's a subject that's difficult to talk about, ignored for reasons both admirable (not wanting to be racist) and abhorrent (actual racism). The racism that often underlies any discussion of this epidemic draws two conclusions: one, that black people are inherently violent and cannot be controlled, and two, that the victims are not important. Leovy demonstrates how this pattern has been repeated throughout American history. While both conclusions are obviously wrong, few alternate theories exist, so the subject is largely ignored.

The murder of African American men is justly called an epidemic. African Americans make up just 6% of the US population, but are nearly 40% of all homicide victims. Homicide is the number one cause of death of African-­American males ages 15 to 34. And that statistic doesn't count the victims left paralyzed, or with traumatic brain injury, the cases known in this world as "almocides".

In a time when attention is finally being focused on police violence against African Americans, Leovy makes a bold assertion: African Americans suffer from too little criminal-justice resources. And what resources are devoted to their homicides are the wrong kind, with the wrong focus.
This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.

African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation's long-standing plague of black homicides. . . . The failure of the law to stand up for black people when they are hurt or killed by others has been masked by a whole universe of ruthless, relatively cheap and easy 'preventive' strategies. . . . This is not an easy argument to make in these times. Many critics today complain that the criminal justice system is heavy-handed and unfair to minorities. . . . So to assert that black Americans suffer from too little application of the law, not too much, seems at odds with common perception. But the perceived harshness of American criminal justice and its fundamental weakness are in reality two sides of a coin. Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.
Leovy guides the reader on a journey through a culture sure to be foreign to most readers, by following the solving and prosecuting of one murder, a murder that struck the heart of the L.A. police community: a homicide detective's son.

Along the way we witness the unending and almost unbearable grief of families who have lost loved ones to the plague. Their pain is compounded by the near-total absence of media attention, the reflexive victim-blaming that labels these deaths "gang-related violence", and the useless platitudes that surround this epidemic.
People often assert that the solution to homicide is for the so-called community to "step up". It is a pernicious distortion. People like [a key witness] cannot be expected to stand up to killers. They need safety, not stronger moral conviction. They need some powerful outside force to sweep in and take their tormentors away. That's what the criminal justice system is for.
In Ghettoside, the potential of this "powerful outside force" is personified by a few homicide detectives for whom the words dedicated and hard working are grossly inadequate. They are obsessive and heroic. The book's central hero is a detective named John Skaggs.
Skaggs bucked an age-old injustice. Forty years after the civil rights movement, impunity for the murder of black men remained America's great, though mostly invisible, race problem. The institutions of criminal justice, so remorseless in other ways in an era of get-tough sentencing and "preventive" policing, remained feeble when it came to answering for the lives of black murder victims. [Detective Skaggs'] whole working life was devoted to one end: making black lives expensive. Expensive, and worth answering for, with all the force and persistence the state could muster. Skaggs had treated the murder of [one young black man] like the hottest celebrity crime in town.
Seeing these men at work, it becomes obvious that if their vigor and determination were replicated at all levels of the criminal justice system, the plague would wither and die. Yet so few resources are devoted to this endeavour that the detectives are forced to buy their own office equipment.

One persistent and eye-opening theme of Ghettoside is how many homicides cannot be solved because of widespread witness intimidation. Witnesses fear for their own lives, and very rightly so, but fear more for the lives of their parents and children. Retaliation killings are commonplace. Again, the lack of resources devoted to African American homicides, as the legal/judicial system utterly fails the courageous witnesses who do testify. So unsolved murders give rise to more unsolved murders, and on it goes.

Another poignant theme are the scores of young men who desperately want out of the gangs, but who - literally - cannot get out alive. Many of them never wanted to join gangs in the first place, but were forced to choose an identity for survival. This way, Leovy shows us that every murder victim is an innocent victim - every single one. As a detective, standing over the body of a murdered sex worker, says: "She ain't a whore no more. She's some daddy's baby." [This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Monday, November 16, 2015

Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World

Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World by Billy G. Smith tells the story of the Hankey, a British ship that circled the Atlantic in the late 1700's. It gained notoriety as the ship of death when it brought mosquitoes--transmitters of yellow fever--from west Africa to the Caribbean and mainland USA. Smith told the history about an idealistic group of 118 Britons who in 1792 sailed to the island of Bolama, off the coast of what we now call Guinea-Bissau, to establish a community of liberated slaves where black and white would live and work together as equals. Their constitution was noble yet their plans were lacking, even woefully so, for in their haste they neglected to pack construction materials with which to build such a community. If it wasn't for the fact that an overwhelming majority of the settlers died from yellow fever, one could look upon them and their scheme as an eighteenth-century comedy of errors. Without tools or even official permission to settle on the island, they were doomed. The local population, who did not live on Bolama, regarded the island as their own, and viewed the settlers suspiciously at first. After a cautious scouting of the settlers, the native population attacked them, murdering several. The idealism of setting up a free society vanished instantly for some of the abolitionists, with them clamouring for a return to England as soon as possible. 

What made Ship of Death such a suspenseful read was knowing the path of destruction that yellow fever would wreak--from Guinea-Bissau to the Caribbean to Philadelphia and back to England--with the passengers having no idea what was killing them off in massive fatalities. Overnight entire families would perish, and as long as they stayed on board the ship, it was only a matter of time before they themselves got infected by an infected mosquito bite. When the settlers abandoned their plans of establishing a free society on Bolama after two hard years, they travelled across the Atlantic to the Caribbean on a long convoluted route back home. The infectious mosquitoes hitched a ride from Africa and lived and bred among the barrels of fresh water stored on board. Since yellow fever was not contagious, passengers were perplexed. What was killing them off so suddenly? Was it the state of sanitation? Were noxious miasmas circulating on deck? In the late eighteenth century, science was still years away--a century, in fact--from discovering the cause of yellow fever transmission. Doctors could not agree on the cause of yellow fever, or "yellow jack", so named because ships carrying infected passengers had to fly a yellow flag:

"The sheer lack of knowledge about the causes, spread, and treatment of yellow jack also created extreme unease. Was it contagious, spreading from neighbor to neighbor? Did the miasma, the foul air, in Philadelphia account for the blossoming of the disease? Was it an entirely new disease, imported on ships from the Caribbean or Europe or Africa? Medical men couldn't answer the questions definitively, so rumors and folk cures ran rampant among ordinary people."

and, after yellow fever plagued Philadelphia:

"That same day, at the mayor's request, the College of Physicians met to analyze the crisis and suggest an appropriate response. This group of prestigious Fellows disagreed from the outset, mostly because their explanations of the causes (or even existence) of the disease differed so fundamentally."

While the slave trade had brought outbreaks of yellow fever to the Caribbean and several American cities in the past, no outbreak killed as many people and instilled as much fear as the plague aboard the Hankey. The ship was shunned, and its passengers quarantined during its ports of call. Smith to his credit spent minimal time discussing the etiology and transmission of the disease. For a while I wondered why the book was even given the Dewey classification assigning it to yellow fever, as Ship of Death seemed more about British abolitionist history (itself one of the book's Dewey subcategories). 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway

Siobhan Roberts’s latest book, Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway, brings her subject to life: John Horton Conway, the endearing and eccentric Prof. Emeritus of Mathematics at Princeton University.

You may already be familiar with Prof. Conway, or at least with some of his work. Although perhaps best known for inventing “Game of Life”, he also created FRACTRAN (a simple universal computer  translation programming code for arithmetic), and discovered the Conway groups and surreal numbers. Roberts highlights these and other notable achievements and reveals how Conway feels about them and about numbers generally. 

Along the way, Roberts shares stories gleaned from interviewing not only Conway, but also many of his friends, relatives, colleagues, and students. His sister, Joan, for example, recalls how at age 4, he would sit on the floor and recite the powers of two. Illustrations, such as the odd cartoon or photograph, and quotations, also add interesting dimensions.

Even the math-phobic may delight in this entertaining and informative book – one of the best biographies published so far this century.

This book is available from the library in book and eBook formats.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Just My Type: A book about fonts

Just My Type: A book about fonts by Simon Garfield was a dream to read for typeface nerds like me. As Garfield states, a generation ago no one would have given a second thought to typefaces. Now with modern computing and word processing, everyone has dozens of types to choose from. People pay attention to the appearance of their work like never before. The biggest revelations in Just My Type were the dates when some of the most popular typefaces were invented. I had thought that some of them would have been invented only in the past thirty years, yet many of the most famous typefaces we use today are decades (more like a century) old. He also cleared up the difference between the terms typeface and font. A typeface is a style of letter design, like Times New Roman or Verdana. The font is the representation within the typeface, like letter size, boldface, serifs or italics. 

Garfield, whose later On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks I reviewed last summer, asks a question at the beginning of the book that I certainly wondered about:

"Typefaces are now 560 years old. So when a Brit called Matthew Carter constructed Verdana and Georgia for the digital age in the 1990s, what could he possibly have been doing to an A or a B that had never been done before?"

Even type nerds gotta wonder about this. Why are there so many typefaces? How do they differ? Garfield discusses this in Just My Type, and his analyses and comparisons of individual letters were often filled with emotional, oftentimes maudlin, outbursts. I could tell that Garfield liked writing about typefaces even more than I liked reading about them. As seen in the above rendering, Garfield employed the font in question whenever he mentioned it. This did not make for a sloppy page design or a confusing read. The author supplied illustrations which were crucial to have with the descriptions. Unfortunately, he didn't employ enough illustrations to the text. I found that the majority of the notes I took were not for quotes that I wanted to comment on, but references to typefaces that he discussed but did not show. Thus after I finished reading the book I was left with many unanswered questions about certain forms of type and why they should matter. For example, he referred to a Cheltenham typeface "capital A with a misaligned apex" that I would have liked to have seen while I was reading about it. I suppose the average reader would just take out his cellphone and look it up whereas readers such as me who don't have the Internet on the go have to make notes to check stuff out later. Same for the Interstate g "that cuts off its bottom tail very early" and the Baskerville g with its "curled ear and its lower bowl left unclosed". It would have been nice to see these letters as illustrations within the text. 

It was interesting, as well as funny, to read about so many typeface anachronisms in modern films. Type nerds can tell if a movie is true to life by the typefaces it displays. All too often typeface is given no consideration at all. For example, a period film showing World War I army recruitment posters may display a typeface that wasn't invented until the 1950's. 

Does your preference for a certain typeface reveal anything about you? Garfield raises the issue of personality types and typefaces, and I wonder where I would place on the Freudian font-o-meter. I prefer slim sans serif fonts, anything in condensed or narrow capitals. Garfield sums it up by saying:

"In fact, there seems to be something about type design that lends itself to philosophizing."

to which I agree. Garfield wrote about the foundation of the Gutenberg printing press and the earliest printed books. In the late fifteenth century, printing was prone to many errors, and an English phrase originated in the inability of printers to keep their p's and q's apart:

"In his Vocabulary in French and English (c. 1480), Caxton or his compositor not only confused his 'p's and 'q's, but even more frequently muddled his 'b's and 'd's and his 'u's and 'n's, so similar did they appear in his small typefaces. The Vocabulary has so many misprints that you feel like writing in disgust to the publisher."

Modern books about typography were also discussed, and I have my eyes on FontBook and A View of Early Typography Up to About 1600. I would love to read a 1916 study entitled Typographical Printing Surfaces by Lucien Alphonse Legros and John Cameron Grant on the optical adjustments that are required of a typeface to aid readability and achieve visually balanced characters. Fortunately I have found it on-line. Just My Type is another fascinating can't-put-down read from Garfield. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

On May 7, 1915, the gigantic luxury ocean liner Lusitania - an engineering marvel, the fastest ship of its era - was hit by a torpedo shot from a German "U-boat" submarine. The ship had nearly completed its crossing from New York and was in sight of the Irish coast.

Eighteen minutes later, the Lusitania had sunk. 1,198 passengers and crew, including three German stowaways, were gone. Only six of the ship's 22 lifeboats had been launched. Many passengers drowned because they had put their life-jackets on wrong, so their feet waved in the air while their heads were held underwater. The passenger list included an unprecedented number of infants and children, including several large families. 764 people survived, including the ship's captain.

Before reading Erik Larson's Dead Wake, I knew nothing about this incident. I might have vaguely known that it had something to do with World War I, perhaps not even that. So for me, this book was a revelation, and I think most readers would agree.

Larson tells the story through multiple perspectives, cutting in short chapters between the ship, the U-boat, Woodrow Wilson's White House, and the top-secret British naval intelligence office. Despite the known outcome, Larson builds suspense masterfully. The first-person accounts of Lusitania passengers, and dozens of perfectly placed details, paint a very vivid picture.

I found the chapters on the German side particularly fascinating. Most of us know something about travel on the glorious ocean liners of that era, from all the Titanic lore. But I'm sure I'm not alone in knowing nothing about submarine technology of that time. The conditions on the U-boats were beyond grueling, and so dangerous that early forays were suicide missions. Reading Dead Wake, I developed an unexpected sympathy for the U-boat captain and crew, despite knowing that they were preying on undefended civilians. This is a tribute to Larson's considerable skill.

Larson is an absolute master of literary nonfiction. He established his reputation in 2003 with Devil in the White City, about a hunt for a serial killer during the Chicago Exposition of 1893. I haven't read his other books, but White City is a true page-turner, and Dead Wake is even better.

Many things about the sinking of the Lusitania remain unsolved and controversial. To those ends, Larson presents new evidence suggesting that British naval intelligence knew, and possibly even expected, the attack, but allowed it to happen to give the United States a pretext for joining the war then raging in Europe and elsewhere. According to this review, Lusitania buffs will encounter nothing new. But how many of us are Lusitania buffs? For everyone who is not, this book will be richly rewarding. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus

Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus by David Quammen was a short read about the notorious microscopic killer bug from Africa. Ebola is the third book I have read about the disease, yet the first since I started writing book reviews in 2010. It was a speedy read, and I learned more from its 111 pages than from either prior title. Quammen accompanied researchers throughout central Africa and interviewed survivors of the disease. It was indeed a page-turner, but without the Hot Zone dramatics (now disproved) of patients' bodies liquefying and bleeding out. The greatest mystery is finding the host where the Ebola virus incubates. Ebola kills primates and has a high mortality rate in humans. But a virus needs a host to survive, and throughout the book Quammen in his explorations and interviews tries to determine what this host is. There is leading evidence that the host may be various species of fruit bat.

While the most famous strain of the virus was named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there are in fact five known species of the virus. The author cites a scientific paper written by a team headed by Jonathan S. Towner from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the five strains of Ebola that have been discovered:

"Viruses of each species have genomes that are at least 30-40% divergent from one another, a level of diversity that presumably reflects differences in the ecologic niche they occupy and in their evolutionary history."

Ebola outbreaks have occurred in Africa as far east as Uganda and as far west (and most recently) as the cluster of western nations of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Each location experienced a different strain of the virus, and some strains are more deadly than others. One of the risks of working with Ebola either in hot zones where outbreaks occur, on in Ebola research, is that one might unfortunately contract the disease. Doctors and nurses are exposed to infected patients in field hospitals and scientists have contracted the disease via laboratory accidents like needle pricks. Viral researcher Kelly L. Warfield accidentally pricked herself in 2004 and during her quarantine she received the news that she had tested positive. This was suspenseful reading, and Quammen wrote of her deathly anguish. You can almost see her bloodshot eyes darting back and forth as she says:

"'If I die, I want you to learn everything you can about me'--everything they could about Ebola virus disease, she meant. 'Store every sample. Analyze everything you can. Please please take something away from this if I die. I want you to learn.'"

Fortunately Warfield received a false positive, which was not unusual in certain Ebola tests.

For a brief and balanced analysis of Ebola from its first outbreak in the mid-seventies up till its latest outbreak in western Africa, I recommend David Quammen's Ebola. In it he debunked Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, but at the same time was grateful for it. That earlier book scared so many people that scientists received a sizable bump in grants to research the disease.

Monday, October 5, 2015

QR Codes Kill Kittens: How to Alienate Customers, Dishearten Employees, and Drive Your Business into the Ground

QR Codes Kill Kittens: How to Alienate Customers, Dishearten Employees, and Drive Your Business into the Ground by Scott Stratten is a small book outlining pitfalls of information technology in modern marketing. Its title is based on the QR (quick response) code that seems to be applied, more often than not thoughtlessly, to every advertisement--or even to individual bananas, as Stratten shows. The author maintains by the title that QR codes do not work. The enhanced features QR codes supposedly provide are rarely exploited. One should not link a QR code back to a company's website, for example. Stratten regularly tested codes to discover that far too many of them led to dead links. Stratten wrote this book to tell us "what not to do--with advice that's easy to digest on mistakes that are easy to avoid" and QR codes are the number one marketing mistake.

The book was formatted to feature a screen capture or photo on each page, illustrating a marketing ploy that went horribly wrong, often to the company's ignorance or late discovery. I nodded in recognition of the "kiosk circle of shun", so named to describe kiosks shaped like squares, often found in the middle of walking corridors in malls. These are ostensibly four-sided counters, where customers can be greeted in all directions. The "kiosk circle of shun" however describes the unfortunate situation customers encounter when all of the kiosk's employees have their backs to the public, and they are engaged in a conversation among themselves. Nothing has sent a clearer message to me that a company doesn't want my business than the "kiosk circle of shun". 

Stratten also offers advice to presenters, who risk losing their audience by what they put on screen. Who hasn't sat through a slide show and nodded off because the slide presentation is only text? And too much of it? The author advises in "A Kitten Has Died During Your Presentation If..." the following kitten-killer points:
  • Everything you say is on the screen
  • You need two hands to count the number of bullet points on a slide
  • You bring in all your bullet points at once and pretend people don't read ahead
When I read those points I laughed, and then I cried in memory of all the kittens who had died at presentations I had attended. 

Stratten filled his 196-page book with many other marketing disasters, such as: those who schedule E-mails and then never think to cancel them (especially if the E-mail followed a national tragedy); disgruntled employees blogging about their company dissatisfaction (and later firing); QR codes posted in subways or on the sides of trucks or being towed on banners by airplanes; and snickery Twitter announcements such as the one announcing the newest album by Susan Boyle #susanalbumparty.

The Right to be Cold: One Woman's Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet

by Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit woman born in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik (formerly Northern Quebec), tells her story of growing up in the Arctic and being raised by her maternal grandmother. At age 10, she is sent to Nova Scotia for further schooling, followed by residential high school in Churchill, Manitoba.

In narrating her story, Watt-Cloutier paints an informative picture of her Inuit community. She relates her memories of family and school life; explains the supportive economic role of the American military stationed at Fort Chimo during WWII, and how the assassination of John F. Kennedy deeply affected the community; and uncovers the little-known truth behind the disappearance of the Inuits’ husky dog teams. After years away at high school, she returns home to work as an assistant at the local health clinic, and later as a school guidance counsellor. Here she observes signs of social breakdown – violence, alcohol and drug abuse, even suicide – and endeavours to set up support systems for Inuit students struggling with such issues.

Watt-Cloutier also shares a number of refreshing insights on such critical matters as global warming, economic development of aboriginal communities, and stewardship of the Arctic. She looks beyond the short-term economic gains from natural resource development, to the long-term effects of climate change. Through her work on climate change (for which she was co-nominated along with Al Gore for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize) as well as through writing this book, Watt-Cloutier has made a significant contribution to the discourse on global warming.

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System on-line catalogue. 

This book review was first published in The Business Bridge, the eNewsletter of the Central Library Sciences and Business Department. To read the latest book reviews on business and related topics, why not sign up for The Business Bridge, at:

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World

I received Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter as a Christmas present about six years ago, yet in spite of it being on my Christmas gift list, I hadn't read it until now. That is not unusual; all too often I buy or acquire books but don't read them until years later. And so I waited all this time to read such a touching story about the kitten who was tossed into a library dropbox in Spencer, Iowa one frigid January evening in 1988. Myron, the director of the Spencer Public Library, found the freezing kitten the following morning and nursed him back to health. I would say that most stories that are tear-jerkers open the reader's waterworks at the end, with the final pages a sobfest. While that was certainly true with Dewey, I was getting pretty misty-eyed from the very first chapter, when Myron described first seeing the kitten huddled in the dropbox. It broke my heart that someone could be so cruel to a kitten, and to hear how Dewey suffered. The dropbox wasn't even protected from the cold, as the slot had been wedged open, leaving Dewey exposed to the cold all night, as well as all the books falling through it and onto him.

After a meeting with the library board, the decision was made that Dewey could remain at the library. He would be the resident cat, which was not unheard of in libraries. A precondition of Dewey becoming the resident cat was for him to be declawed, which Myron did not write about. I only found out about it on the Spencer Library's website. I can understand how any mention of declawing could backfire on Myron's selfless benevolence. Myron wrote of Dewey's antics in the library and I laughed as I read about Dewey's fondness for empty tissue boxes, especially getting inside and wedging his head through the narrow plastic slit. Dewey loved to engage with library patrons and be petted and carried around. While there was some opposition to having a cat in a public library, the overwhelming response was positive. As a library employee myself, I took great pleasure in reading about Dewey's adventures among the stacks, riding around book carts and sitting and playing with patrons. I could picture it happening at my own library. Without anyone's foresight, Dewey ended up bringing the people of Spencer closer together. This little cat over the course of his nineteen years in the library got people talking to one another, and not just library patrons but the whole city. Dewey became the unofficial symbol of Spencer and as word spread about the friendly cat, the library received more visitors. Visitors came from across the US to see Dewey, and Myron had to cope with the ongoing demands for news stories in print and on television. Reporters and TV crews regularly ran stories on Dewey, and thankfully I was able to find many of the TV features on YouTube, including one from Japan.

In spite of the increase in local library visits that Dewey generated, this did not translate to an increase in circulation, as Myron cited the statistics that were typical of libraries in the twenty-first century:

"After the technology update of 1994, people began using the library differently. Before computers, if a student was assigned a report on monkeys, she checked out every book we had on monkeys. Now she did research online and checked out one book. Patron visits to the Spencer Library rose between 1994 and 2006, but only a third as many books were checked out. In 1987, when Dewey arrived [sic], it was common for the book drop to overflow with books. We haven't had a full drop box in a decade. Our most popular items for checkout are classic movies on DVD--the local video stores don't carry them--and video games."

Thus the library became more of a social hub with Dewey as its focus. People who had never set foot in the library started to come, and Dewey made the less frequent visitors come back more often. Dewey did not just tell the story of a library cat. Myron wrote of Spencer's economic troubles as well as her own personal and health issues which made the value Dewey provided for Spencer and its citizens all the more poignant. You felt for Myron as she battled breast cancer and you were heartbroken at the end when Dewey's health failed him at the age of nineteen. Shortly before Dewey's death, Myron described him:

"He was like a shadow moving among the guests, often unnoticed but somehow there at the end of a patron's hand each time someone reached to pet him."

A shadow that is still felt in the Spencer Library today. Dewey was a rapid read yet contained two errors, embarrassingly both on the same page: "I had sneaked a peak" and "Ten minutes late the crowd was shouting" (very easy to miss).

My heart was touched by Dewey, as well as by the life of the woman who saved him.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain and How It Changed the World

The ancient Egyptians, when preparing a body for mummification, carefully preserved the heart, liver, lungs, and other vital organs in special canisters, now known as canopic jars. The brain was yanked out and throw away as trash. A millennium or two later, human knowledge of the workings of the brain was every bit as erroneous and incomplete.

Until the 1600s, no one knew what the brain did or what function it served. Even William Harvey, the pioneering British scientist who discovered the circulatory system, believed the heart was the centre of human thought and consciousness. Less enlightened but highly influential schools of thought postulated that the human body contained four souls: animal, vegetable, rational, and material. Other theories counted up to seven souls. Descartes and Hobbes, those pillars of the Age of Reason, believed in an anatomy that contained at least a few souls.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, no one knew what the brain did, and no European had ever seen an intact human brain. By the time the century had ended, the most common conceptions of man, god, and the universe had been upended and replaced.

Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain and How It Changed the World by Carl Zimmer is the story of that scientific revolution, a fascinating, complex tale of the birth of neuroscience. The relatively unknown and unheralded Thomas Willis, part of the group of scientists and philosophers known as the Oxford circle, brought the brain and its functions into the fore, and began scientific method into the bargain. Zimmer tells the story against a historical and social backdrop of English civil war, regime change, and religious persecution.

Willis was the first person to accurately draw the brain and other organs, and the book is illustrated with reproductions of Willis' original drawings. He was the first person to draw connections between the brain and conditions such as epilepsy and migraines. He was the first person to bring scientific method to bear on human illness.

People frequently say "The more things change, the more things stay the same," expressing the belief that throughout history, the details may change, but basic humanity does not. Soul Made Flesh exposes the fallacy in this thinking. In a pre-scientific age, people interpreted their world in completely different ways than we do now. The questions they asked, and the arguments they defended, were as different from the questions of our time as those of the believers of Zeus or Quetzalcoatl.

I recommend this book with one caveat. Seventeenth century Europeans had very different ethics and mores than we do. Willis and his fellow scientists performed experiments on live animals, and more than a few humans whose lives were not thought valuable, such as condemned prisoners. I am not squeamish about medical details, but my compassion for animals made parts of this book difficult to read. (This review was originally published on wmtc.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk is a book with an ending that the reader truly regrets.

Helen Macdonald's book has a good ending, don’t get me wrong. The conclusion is well-constructed, bittersweet, and possesses a definite point of change in the perspective. The ending is perfectly satisfying, just like the book itself, and yet I am not ready.

A poetically rendered memoir of a woman whose father has died suddenly, the book documents beautifully—and I mean beautifully—her struggle with this great loss. She fails to cope, and withdraws from her job, from most of her friends and family, and gives herself a noble excuse.

She will train a hawk.

Now, for most of us, this would be an outlandish venture. Not for Macdonald, who had been interested in falconry all her life and had even owned falcons herself. Falcons are rather “friendly”, trainable birds; in fact, for Macdonald, “my books all assured me that the peregrine falcon was the finest bird on earth.” Hawks, on the other hand, are “psychopaths”, “bloodthirsty” and have a tendency to become feral even after extensive training. In other words, hawks are a true challenge.

Macdonald knew this. At eight years old, she became acquainted with T.H. White’s The Goshawk, which outlines a spectacular, solitary failure to train a hawk. Even as a child, Macdonald could see the myriad mistakes White inflicted upon his poor hawk, and the book stayed with her as a wrong to be righted. Now was the time.

The presence of White reappears frequently throughout the book, as Macdonald purchases and begins to know her hawk. She is fascinated by the language of archaic romance that historical, and particularly male, austringers (the practitioners of falconry that specialize in hawks) use when referring to hawks. Hawks must be wooed and their “sulkiness” tolerated, "requiring more the Courtship of a Mistress than the Authority of a Master."

Macdonald’s bird, Mabel, becomes an excellently trained hawk, largely due to her owner’s single-minded patience and all-consuming devotion.  While getting to know each other, Macdonald and Mabel learn to play together—an aspect of hawking that was never addressed in any of Macdonald’s books. Even her “goshawk guru” Stuart had never heard of playing with your hawk. Macdonald finds herself in her own kind of romance with her hawk, and is desperately attracted to the wildness that remains in Mabel. Their relationship is a perfect kind of solitary escape.

Now it is apparent to the reader, with Macdonald’s hindsight, that this is not altogether healthy. But this is where the relationship between the reader and the writer tightens. Macdonald is fiercely solitary but we are at her side for the journey. We are her solace, we hear her loneliness. We become the family and friends to whom she is having difficulty reaching out.

This is why it is hard to let her go at the end of the book. She has shared so much with us and with such eloquence that it is almost like shutting a door on a friend. And it is Macdonald that shuts it, not us. Wistfully, I hope to read more by Helen Macdonald.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland

Sarah Moss and her family moved to Reykjavík when she got a job teaching at the University of Iceland. Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland is her memoir during her family's year on the island shortly after the country's economic collapse in 2009. I chose to read this book shortly after my own trip to Iceland, and chuckled over similar reminiscences about shopping and the peculiar ways stores position their goods. Where else but in Iceland do you step into a store like Hagkaup, and find not bread and vegetables near the entrance, but cosmetics and children's toys? Moss and I embarked on similar adventures across the country and our experiences differed as often as they were the same. Moss taught in English and communicated with her students outside the classroom in her native tongue. Even so, she was exposed to the Icelandic language everywhere, yet was terrified of ever using it for fear of being misunderstood or ridiculed:

"On bad days, I still choose to go hungry rather than go into a shop and have to talk to Icelanders. I am ashamed to require Icelanders to speak English and too embarrassed to try to speak Icelandic, even though I know the words. I am afraid I can't pronounce them properly, afraid people will laugh at me, afraid of the paralysing horror of standing there in a shop making incomprehensible noises."

That was a perfect example where our two experiences differed. Where Moss avoided speaking in Icelandic at all costs--except in one brave interaction upon a later visit--I never shied away from trying out the language (although I probably annoyed everyone with my inevitable question "Did I say it correctly?" afterward).

Moss's two young sons picked up the language and she joked about sending her three-year-old to act as her interpreter on occasion. These boys, Max and Tobias, had the kind of fun in Iceland that seems to have disappeared for North American or British children. There is too much regulation here, where everyone from babies to adults has to be protected from the unexpected. In Canada--less so than in the US, I believe--warning signs are everywhere, protecting the populace from anything and everything: traffic, falling rocks, surges of waves, errant deer and so on. You name it: if you can sue Mother Nature over it, there's gonna be a sign warning you about it. Visitors to Iceland will see how brave the authorities expect their citizens to be. Moss points out with incredulity that in Iceland, you can walk right up to the edges of waterfalls without a warning sign or even a symbolic rope barrier. Children play in the lava rocks, around the glacial edges and next to the seething sea, all oblivious to any harm that might come their way. Moss learns to relax and let her children play without hovering over their every move. Her children, and she herself, are happier and healthier for letting her kids be kids. 

In an attempt to learn more about Icelandic culture, Moss embarked on an ambitious project to read as much fiction and see as many Icelandic movies as she could (albeit in English translation or with subtitles). She was confounded by what she read:

"I simply don't understand why the characters do what they do, can't see the connection between speech and action. In apparently gentle novels of bourgeois life, characters rape and kill with no warning, no reflection and little reaction from anyone else. I find the violent episodes entirely unpredictable, never know at the beginning of a paragraph if the person coming through the door is bringing coffee or a crowbar to the person sitting at the table. I wonder why a society distinctive for its low crime rate should produce novels and films in which ordinary family life is invariably punctuated by bloodletting."

and felt the same after seeing many films:

"Two or three times in each film, one of the men says something like 'the folk over the fells are fleet of foot' and then stabs his brother or son with a butcher's knife or clubs him with an agricultural implement."

In spite of my multiple trips to the Nordic countries, even to the high Arctic in January, I have never seen the northern lights. The people must hear that I'm coming and switch them off. Moss stood in awe as she watched these lights, and her descriptions of them made my mouth water, waiting for the day when I see them for myself:

"The bath was hot and I am able to stand there for nearly half an hour, watching the green curtain reach across the sky and contract, like the convulsive grasping of a palsied hand."


"The northern sky, dark over the sea, is mottled with green that spreads like spilt paint, disappears and spreads again."

What vivid descriptions! As Moss travelled around the island she met various experts in all things Icelandica: troll experts, knitters and storytellers, and was transfixed by the views of the northern lights from their rural homes. In Iceland, anyone not living in Reykjavík is rural, yet some of the homes she visited were indeed as isolated as you can be. 

The narrative progressed like an oral travel story and not like a clinical work diary. It was fun to travel with Moss and make discoveries with her, whether they were about the banal or the general psyche of the Icelandic population:

"Nevertheless, it has been clear to me from the beginning that Iceland is a place where the most intricate and important things are unarticulated, partly because intricacy doesn't need to be spelt out in a place where everyone has always known how things are done, and partly because it is unIcelandic to explain yourself."

Explaining yourself--as when signalling or indicating when driving. Moss could never steel herself when behind the wheel on Icelandic roads. 

I looked forward to the chapter entitled Eyjafjallajökull, the name of the volcano that erupted in 2010. Its ash cloud spread all over northern Europe, disrupting air traffic for six days. Moss talked about the initial rumblings of the volcano and her and Max's visit to it, half-ashamedly to a "tourist eruption". Native Icelanders feel trembles and even eruptions as a regular part of life. They would never trek out to see a live volcano; only tourists would do such a thing. The chapter however ended with a longer yet far more interesting first-person account of the evacuation of Heimaey during its overnight eruption in 1973. Thus the title of the chapter was inappropriate. She wrote more about the consequences of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption later in the story when she applied for a teaching job in Singapore yet couldn't leave Iceland to fly there. She settled for a job in Cornwall instead. 

Names for the Sea was full of observations that I myself could have made (and certainly did make, in my own travel blog) about Icelandic scenery, weather, culture and people. I took many notes of passages from the text that were exactly my own experiences as well. Moss kept her diary humorous yet most of all it was real. This was not a comic tale of a bumbling Brit feeling out of her depth clumsily plodding along the lava landscape. You can tell that she would love to come back. Her final line was "I'm still not ready to leave Iceland." and I know she means it.

I shall be giving a photo presentation documenting my sixteen-day tour around Iceland at the Mississauga Central Library on Tuesday, September 29 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. in meeting room CL3. Please call 905.615.3500 extension 3589 to register. Admission is free but registration is required. Come see my photos of volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers and the most beautiful green scenery on this remarkable island.