Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Girl in a Band: a Memoir

Assuming that the band Sonic Youth doesn't have 100% name recognition amongst our readers, I should start this off by providing a little bit of background - Kim Gordon is one of the founding members of Sonic Youth, a rock band formed by Gordon, Thurston Moore, and Lee Ranaldo in New York City in 1981. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore married in 1984. Their daughter, Coco, was born in 1994. Their marriage, and subsequently the band, broke up in 2011.

Sonic Youth were very influencial in the alternative music scene, with a large repertoire of experimental music using alternative instrument tuning, noise, and feedback. Their songs could range from generally melodic right through to screeching walls of sound (and everything in between).
Gordon describes their song-writing process:
The way the band composed songs was pretty much always the same. Thurston or Lee would usually sing the poppy, more melodic things from riffs one of them wrote; I sang the weirder, more abstract things that came out of all of us playing together and rearranging until everything jelled. My voice has always had a fairly limited range, and when you're writing a melody, you tend to write it for your own voice. Lee, on the other hand, usually brought in songs that were complete and ready to go, then we layered dissonance over. (p. 145)
In case you were curious about what they sound like, see their music video for Kool Thing - one of their bigger hits (1990). Lyrics and vocals are by Kim Gordon at the height of her powers, and is apparently inspired by an interview she did with rapper LL Cool J, where they had a bit of a clash.

While their music may not be to everyone's taste, Kim Gordon's memoir is a very interesting look into being a woman with a family immersed in the world of popular music. We get a sense of her creative process, as she contends with issues of identity, feminism, politics, and society. Although her songs are often abstract in nature, they are always hard-hitting and thought-provoking. It also becomes clear that Gordon identifies primarily as a visual artist in the New York art scene, with her music career as an incidental second. Her music takes her artistic sensibilities and translates them to word and sound.

The book starts with a little bit of Gordon's biography leading up to meeting Thurston Moore and the early years of the band. The second half of the book is a series of anecdotes (rather than a continuous history) detailing significant incidents in her life and career.

Through this collage, Gordon presents the different strands of her life - art, music, marriage and family, and how they interconnect. At times "it was hard, working on art projects, running the house, raising a daughter, and having a full-time music career. I've never had any domestic talents or hobbies." (p. 233)

Central to the book is her relationship with Thurston Moore, across 27 years of marriage and working together in the band - their life together, parenting, working, touring, and so on. It also documents Moore's pulling away from their marriage and their eventual separation.

Coco was seven months old when we did our first two-week tour in England [for one of Gordon's side projects]. Again, thanks to the jet lag and the breast feeding, it wasn't easy, but Thurston came along to take care of Coco. He wouldn't have missed it anyway. He was always a big supporter of whatever I did in and out of the band, and I loved that about him - his generosity. Creatively I never felt any sense of competition with him. (p.206)
I did feel some compassion for Thurston,and I still do. I was sorry for the way he had lost his marriage, his band, his daughter, his family, our life together - and himself. But that is a lot different from forgiveness. (p. 258)

Book Club Discussion Questions:
  1. Does this book hold any interest for readers not familiar with the music of Sonic Youth?
  2. Kim Gordon asks herself this question: "Am I 'empowered'? If you have to hide your hypersensitivity, are you really a 'strong woman'?" How empowered would you say she is throughout the experiences documented in this book?
  3. Gordon quotes some of her lyrics throughout the book. How would you describe her music?
  4. The music world in which she traveled seems rather male-dominated. How does Kim Gordon fit into this world?
  5. What are some of the challenges Kim Gordon faced?
  6. How is Thurston Moore portrayed in this book?
  7. Coco was quoted as saying, "You don't know what it's like to be your daughter." What was Coco's life like growing up, having celebrity parents?
  8. Kim Gordon shows us what her life, and other musicians' lives were like behind the scenes. How does the life of famous musicians look with the glamour stripped away?
  9. The linear biographical structure quickly breaks down into anecdotes. How does this format help convey a sense of her life and inner thoughts?
  10. Discuss Kim Gordon as a potential role model.
Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's online catalogue.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction

A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction by Joel Greenberg was published in 2014, the centenary of the pigeon's extinction. Over a billion pigeons flew over Toronto in May of 1860, yet by 1914 only one was left in the world. Ever since Europeans landed in North America they have been both in awe of as well as at war with the passenger pigeon. I do not cry at movies and rarely when I read a book, but I do get misty-eyed when I hear about language death or when I read about the extinction of a species. The kakapo might still be saved yet the passenger pigeon, whose peak population may safely be estimated at the low end to number at least three billion, has been silenced from the skies. 

In the last fifty years of the species' life the population fell from one billion to none. This seems unbelievable. So much of what Greenberg wrote was prefaced by similar phrases. How could a billion birds dwindle down to zero in only fifty years? The birds' enormous population was their downfall. No one would ever have imagined that the pigeon population would someday diminish when there were millions upon millions of them:

"As amazing as was the abundance of the pigeons, the litany of slaughter dominates the history of this species. People killed them in virtually every way imaginable and for many reasons. And at times, seemingly for no reason at all."

It is not enough that the passenger pigeon succumbed to extinction that is tragic. As Greenberg wrote about the decline of the species into the early twentieth century, the hunting never stopped. Author Edward Howe Forbush wrote:

"From soon after the first occupancy of New England by the whites until about the year 1895, the netting of the Passenger Pigeon in North America never ceased. Thousands of nets were spread all along the Atlantic seaboards" (italics his).

As long as the birds continued to blacken the sky and eclipse the sun for hours (John James Audubon reported one such migration that blackened the sky for three straight days) then hunters saw the pigeon numbers as limitless. Greenberg quoted C. W. Webber who wrote in 1854:

"Is it a tornado coming? What a deep veiled roar!...The full burst of the deafening volume of that vast sound is borne upon you overwhelmingly with a current of fresh air strong enough to swerve you in the saddle. They are over us! We pause in speechless amazement. Half the sky is obscured...When will it cease? Is it one of the everlasting floods? We gaze until the real night is gathering around us."

A visitor to a nesting site in Wisconsin wrote in 1871:

"And then arose a roar, compared with which all previous noises ever heard are but lullabies, and which caused more than one of the expectant and excited party to drop their guns, and seek shelter behind and beneath the nearest trees. The sound was condensed terror. Imagine a thousand threshing machines running under full headway, with an equal quota of railroad trains passing through covered bridges--imagine these massed into a single flock, and you probably have a faint conception of the terrific roar following the monstrous black cloud of pigeons as they passed in rapid flight in the gray light of morning, a few feet before our faces."

Greenberg quoted many other impressions when the cyclone of pigeons was heard in the distance, and then of the cacophonous racket when they flew overhead. I can say honestly that if I had a chance to go back in time to live through any event in history, I often wish that I could see a passenger pigeon migration. 

The pigeons made their home in the greatest concentrations in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and the five small New England states. Southern Ontario was also a prime location and Toronto is mentioned throughout A Feathered River:

"A couple of decades later in York, Ontario (now Toronto), the arrival of the pigeons triggered another outburst of orgiastic firing. For several days, the city took on the character of a war zone, with the nonstop cacophony of discharging firearms resounding everywhere. Police attempted to enforce the ordinance banning the use of guns within the city, but it proved impossible given the sheer numbers of transgressors, including those of such high status as city council members, crown lawyers, and even the county sheriff. The forces of law and order capitulated. 'It was found that pigeons, flying within easy shot, were a temptation too strong for human virtue to withstand.'"

Greenberg also offered up some local history:

"The name of Mimico, a Toronto suburb, derives from the nineteenth-century Mississauga word, omiimiikaa, denoting a place where wild pigeons gather."

Even when the flocks were reduced to the hundreds, and even in single-digit gatherings, the birds were preyed upon. How do you go from millions of birds in one year and then a minuscule fraction the next? Answer: slaughter them during the last massive nesting site as in Petoskey, Michigan in 1878. With the population no longer sustainable to survive, they were doomed. Very few eggs hatched in the coming years:

"From 1870 to 1882 was a critical period in the history of the passenger pigeon. What happened in those years made the bird's extinction inevitable. In 1871, the largest nesting on record occurred, but 1878 saw the final attempt of the birds to breed in vast numbers. Four years after that, the last nesting attempts of any size numbered at most a few or so million birds. By then, there were probably not enough living passenger pigeons to have kept the species going for long even if they had been allowed to breed. But, if anything, these remnants encountered even more ferocious exploitation, and so their efforts to reproduce became virtually futile."

The pigeons were targets for a number of reasons: they were a cheap and easy food supply, for one. Who hasn't chuckled while watching cartoons hearing of "pigeon pie"? The pigeons, when the massive flocks roosted, were also known to leave complete destruction:

"Their sheer volume imposed severe damage on the trees that supported them, sometimes making the timber valueless. Walter Rader, who grew up on a farm in Monroe County, Indiana, in the 1860s, recalled hearing the nightly crash of breaking limbs from a pigeon roost in a nearby maple grove."

Pigeons fed on acorns and beechnuts but were also known to feed on grain and freshly-sown seed. Farmers looked at the pigeons in the same way as they saw a plague of locusts. The killing however never stopped, even when the massive flocks ceased to darken the sky. By 1900 the pigeon was virtually extinct in the wild. Greenberg documented the last birds of the species from the start of the twentieth century. The last wild pigeon was shot in 1902, leaving three flocks in captivity. The last birds of the species were not treated with respect even in death. Time after time Greenberg wrote about the disposal--in the trash--of some of the last birds. The second-last bird, a male, died on July 10, 1910. His gravesite was the trashcan. Martha lived alone for four years as the last of her species:

"It is easy to become anthropomorphic about Martha's situation as the idea of impending aloneness so absolute is heart-rending, especially in light of what had been such a short time before."

I fully agree. How could visitors to the Cincinnati Zoo, where Martha lived, not gaze in awe and sadness at her? Instead, visitors threw sand at her cage in an attempt to make her move. Martha died on September 1, 1914, marking one of the few occasions where we have an exact date of a species' extinction. 

How times have changed. Conservation efforts were in their infancy in the late nineteenth century. Well-meaning legislation to save the passenger pigeon was ineffective as the pigeon population was already mortally low. We have conservation protection of animals and the environment now, and the roots of these preservation measures all go back to those few who rallied to save the passenger pigeon. 

I found two errors in the book: one misspells the actor's surname as Donald Pleasance instead of Pleasence; and a subchapter is entitled "Stilled Wings: The New Millennium and the End of the Passenger Pigeon as a Creature of the Sky". We all know that the passenger pigeon never made it to the new millennium. Greenberg obviously meant to write "The New Century".

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Children Of Paradise: The Struggle For The Soul Of Iran

Even in a small world (getting smaller all the time) there are still countries that elicit a sense of mystery and foreignness. Iran is such a country to those brought up in the West. Iran, that seemingly eternal power in the Middle East, presents to the world an unwelcoming, stern faced Islam. Children of Paradise by Laura Secor is an unflinching look at this enigmatic country.

The book describes events following the Iranian Revolution of 1979. This is a history book but more than just a history. Ideas thread through the whole of the narrative informing much of what the actors do and how the action unfolds. And the actors are the main thing. The major portion of the narrative revolves around personal stories of honourable individuals struggling heroically to guide Iran towards a flourishing, open and just society. Opposed to these voices of reform is the establishment of conservative forces. The upholders of conservative values grow in power as the story unfolds.  The corollary of unchecked power consolidated in the hands of a few is the blight of repression.  Armed with a rigid understanding of Islam and ablaze with fervour for forming a just society—justice defined on their own terms—the conservatives see themselves as at war with the reformers. The battle is expertly described and the book is well organized. The various parts of the book have titles that all begin with the letter “R”: Revolution, Rebirth, Reform, and Resistance. These terms give, I think, a sense of the sweeping quality of the narrative. Not a lot of dates to remember, rather the work unfolds with snippets from the lives of Iranians caught up in the events of their times. On offer at any moment is, for example, a journalist endeavouring to uncover corruption in the government, and then a poet-philosopher stitching together various threads of ideology to create a coherent system of political thought, and then a social worker defending the rights of the marginalized. The work proceeds in this fashion. It makes for good non-fiction reading.

One common theme in the book is the restless desire on the part of the Iranian powerbrokers to unfettered self-determination. This is often juxtaposed by the idea of westoxication, which is defined as the hostile cultural influence of the West. What could possibly be hostile about western culture? Well to the authoritarian leaders of Iran things like liberalism, the rights of women and minorities, a free press and the like are deemed “untraditional”, that is, hostile to their total control of all facets of Iranian life.

The contest between these two forces, the reformist and the traditionalists-conservatives, is fascinating. It is fascinating and also strangely familiar. All the countries of the west, Canada included, have had some experience of resistance to reform. This seems to be the way of things in robust societies; change is constant as is the reticence to change. The difference between a country like Canada and Iran is the means to the end. Transformations can come hard and cause untold disruption and sometimes destruction or change can come soft like velvet. A vibrant society can modernize (adapt may be a better term) without the convulsion of violence. The cultural world described in Children of Paradise seems to this reader one teetering always on the edge of violence because it is having such a hard time dealing with change. Repression sows violence—it is unavoidable. All repressive regimes, whatever the time and whatever the place, have that similar taint of ugliness.

There may be hope for Iran. Hope that change can come without violence. This hope springs up like green shoots on many pages in this work. If you are curious about what has happened in Iran to bring it along on its present course then Children of Paradise is the book for you.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

The editor that I so unabashedly trumpet myself to be is thankful that The New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris wrote Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. In fact, I could have written the same book without any need to change the subtitle. Norris wrote about her challenges while working for the magazine and used her real-life experiences to educate the reader on proper English usage. This book was as much a tale of working for the magazine as it was a grammar lesson, so for those who like The New Yorker, this book is a must-read. 

Since it was written as a memoir, complete with stories about all the beloved yet quirky people Norris used to work with, the grammar lessons sneak up on you. Norris says about her job:

"One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey. And in turn it feeds you more experience. In the hierarchy of prose goddesses, I am way, way down the list. But what expertise I have acquired I want to pass along."

In grade seven and then throughout high school I was taught English grammar, how to parse sentences and the parts of speech. No one in my classes liked it, yet I drank it up. This knowledge served me invaluably when I started to learn German (I had already started learning French) as expertise in that language depends on one's grasp of nouns, pronouns, cases and inflections. Sadly, grammar is no longer taught in English class, definitely not in the same degree of depth as my late-seventies grade seven education. I simply could not have excelled in German class had I not known what the teacher was talking about when referring to indirect objects, the imperative case and dependent clauses. While my fellow classmates were puzzling over what case a verb took, and then trying to distinguish between the accusative and dative and what kind of clause threw the verb to the end, I was happily working away enjoying the Germanness of der-words and stem-vowel changes. Norris makes these same points: that knowledge of English grammar can help you enormously in learning foreign languages. And it should not need to be stated that in spite of the uninspiring lessons, my classmates in junior as well as high school remain better writers of the English language because they had been taught about the underlying structure of the language. 

Norris had to deal with some grammatically eccentric people at The New Yorker. Her coworkers had decades of history working for the magazine and championed certain words and spellings. The magazine is famous for its orthographic quirkiness as well: nowhere else in the twenty-first century will you read the words written as coöperate and reëxamine. Norris is a staunch defender of the gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun he

"I hate to say it, but the colloquial use of 'their' when you mean 'his or her' is just wrong. It may solve the gender problem, and there is no doubt that it has taken over in the spoken language, but it does so at the expense of number. An antecedent that is in the singular cannot take a plural pronoun. And yet it does, all the time--certainly in speech."

Exactly. I use the neutral pronouns hehim and his in place of plural pronouns or virguled monstrosities. However I must admit that our way of speaking and writing is doomed; I do not see future generations using he as a neutral pronoun. Norris and I will continue to use it, however, inasmuch as The New Yorker continues to use antiquated renderings such as coöperate

Norris chose the title of this book to highlight the relatively recent phenomenon of placing the nominative first-person singular pronoun I after the preposition between instead of the correct accusative form me. Her theory why people say "between you and I" instead of "between you and me" is that of a misguided sense of hypercorrection. Educated speakers, or those who strive to be, somehow believe that the accusative pronoun in this expression sounds informal. There is an inbred formality in the usage of the nominative I. I believe this formality is often ridiculed as being too highfalutin in expressions such as "It is I". While grammatically correct, no one really says "It is I" anymore. We substitute the accusative me, and when we do we tend to contract the subject and verb, thus: "It's me"There is another theory why people say "between you and me" which Norris did not touch upon: in English, the nominative and accusative forms of the second-person singular pronoun you are the same. Speakers then don't know what grammatical case they're using since the you that follows between resembles both the nominative and the accusative. If you didn't learn about grammatical cases then you are prone to make mistakes in your spoken and written English. Substitute different pronouns and see if you can spot the difference: would you say "between he and I"? Or would you mix the cases and say "between him and I"? Let's hope you see the logic in using the same accusative case for both: "between him and me".

Grammar lessons may not be cause to laugh out loud, however Norris gave me plenty of opportunities to chuckle. Her visit to the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum gave her such delight that:

"Only a sign warning that the museum is under surveillance twenty-four hours a day kept me from dancing."

You know that if Norris finds such pleasure in pencil sharpeners, chances are she loves to use pencils themselves. If you have a particular fondness for a certain pen or pencil, you will appreciate Norris's quest to find a perfect Dixon Ticonderoga No. 1 pencil. Her box of damaged leads sent her on a frustrated quest to find one whose lead wouldn't break upon sharpening. 

Between You & Me covers punctuation as well as grammar, and gives easy-to-understand instructions on the proper use of commas, semicolons and colons. Norris covers hyphenation as well as the use of apostrophes, and the annoying occurrence of apostrophes in the plural when a simple -S will do. Grammar snobs and closet editors will love this book and will lap it up because we are the choir Norris is preaching to. Other readers not so vigilant with the blue pencil won't realize all the grammar they're learning in between all The New Yorker stories.