Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Old Books

After my recent post on The Maul and the Pear Tree I came across this article which relates to my thoughts on history and its meaning for the reader.

Neil Postman writes,
There is no escaping ourselves. The human dilemma is as it always has been, and it is a delusion to believe that the future will render irrelevant what we know and have long known about ourselves but find it convenient to forget.

In quoting this passage from Postman’s Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, Ronald Arnett says that history is “the metasubject needed in a good education.”

This contention is a correlate of C.S. Lewis’ opinion that old books are critically necessary to learning. In his introduction to an old book (Athanasius’ De Incarnatione), Lewis writes, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Where Postman praises the study of history for what is constant in human nature, Lewis praises historical study for providing us a perspective from which to judge what is transient and contextual about our own times. Lord Acton, himself a greatly learned and distinguished historian once wrote, “History is a great innovator and breaker of idols.”

In my post yesterday I noticed what Postman did - The constancy of human nature. Lewis had a different view and I do like Lewis. Perhaps what a reader sees in history depends on his/her "mood" or "situation" at the time. I do think history valuable, or perhaps I should say invaluable perhaps because while human failings through the ages are similar it is easier to see them exposed as they are in a different era, where we have less attachment.

The article goes on to say that Lewis stressed the importance of primary sources. I certainly have no argument with him there.

That is, when we have a question about Plato or Platonism, the reader should first consult a book by Plato or a Platonist rather than “some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”

It seems self evident but it is a lesson many journalists would do well to take to heart!

Monday, November 26, 2007

History as a reminder

They say that history is valuable to teach us what mistakes not to repeat. I have thought for some time now that what it teaches us instead is that human nature doesn't really change much, that the flaws we see in the present - in individuals, in our community and in the world - have always existed and likely always will. These human weaknesses persist over time although they may present themselves with different trappings. My present reading has only confirmed this belief. But I like reading history nevertheless.

The Maul and the Pear Tree
is an early P. D. James mystery but it is non-fiction and co-authored with T. A. Critchley. It tells the true story of several gruesome and seemingly senseless murders which were committed in a dockside area of London in 1811. I had read the book many years ago but had forgotten the plot and the conclusion completely so it still read like a mystery to me.

The first murder took the lives of four people in a household - a shopkeeper, his wife, their infant son and a servant boy. The second set of murders took place nearby and not long after. An older publican, his wife and a servant woman were similarly bludgeoned to death and their throats cut. Who committed these horrific crimes? The authors take us through the maze of clues to be considered by the amateurish "police" forces of the times and documents the mostly ineffective reactions of the government of the day.

We can understand that the forensic methods we have now were not available to the authorities then, but what strikes me is the similarity in the lack of communication, the lack of thought and a deficiency of what I can only call "intellligence" or common sense by authorities that we often see missing today in incidents like the tasering of the poor Polish man at Vancouver International Airport.

What is also similar is the reaction of the public. The morbid interest in the gory details of the crimes, the speculation, the fear aroused in the neighbourhood, the criticism of the authorities when no solid arrests were made (although several unfortunate men were held on rather flimsy evidence for some time) and the lurid press - none of this is unfamiliar although over a century separates us from the residents of Wapping.

I won't spoil it for anyone by disclosing the ending. P. D. James is an excellent writer and a certain humour and irony shows through her account of the somewhat keystone cops like investigation. If you want to get a flavour of what this book is like you can read excerpts of it online.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Did you Guess the Giller?

Last week they announced the winner of the Giller Prize so I am too late to enter the Guess the Giller Contest.

Those of us who are readers might have loved to have a paid trip to a Literary Festival as well as the autographed set of books on the Giller short list. Did you vote?

The Guessthegiller.ca contest ran this year in over 20 public library systems and was promoted through Scotiabank’s 950 branches across the country. A recent electronic tally of on-line votes show nearly 4,000 people have cast ballots for who they thought would emerge the winner on Nov. 6. The contest offers a grand prize of an all-expense paid trip for two to one of Canada’s pre-eminent literary festivals. The runner-up prizes are complete sets of this year’s shortlisted books autographed by the authors.

I wonder if this was promoted at our local library? They haven't yet drawn for the winner of the contest. The draw is Nov. 20th.

If you haven't read the books you might still like to see the excerpts they provided on the Guess the Giller site.

The end ranking of the listed books on the voting site is:

1. Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights on Air - The winner!

2.M. G. Vassanji's Assassin's Song

3.Michael Ondatje's Divisedero

4. Daniel Poliquin's A Secret Between Us

5. Elizabeth York's Effigy

If I have one criticism of the setup on the Guess the Giller site it is that the print in the excerpts is too hard to see. They should provide a zoom. Love the way the pages turn though just like a real book. They had this in NANOWRIMO too when I did it and it was neat to see your words as if they were published!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

I've been away

Sorry to all you faithful readers (all 3 of you)- I have been away. Mostly I have been mentally away, although I was also away physically a couple of times since my last post here in July (hard to believe it was that long ago!).

I was focused elsewhere. Not on reading, not on writing, not on ideas but on just getting through "stuff" - mostly other people's "stuff". I just haven't felt I had much to say in this forum. My reading has been minimal and hasn't inspired me to much thought. I have also left my book circle so I have been less pressed to keep up my reading or to think seriously about what I do read.

But I don't want this blog to just die so I came back - to read a few past posts, and to say I am still here.

I have finished a few books since my last entry. The most recent was Wanderings: The History of the Jews by Chaim Potok. This was a repeat read. I read the book many years ago and wanted to refresh my memory. Of especial interest to me was the early history of the Middle East, full of bloody, tribal jealousies, bitterness and long memories. Since it was published in 1990 I wondered what he might have written as an additional chapter if he had revised it before he died in 2002. I have read, also many years ago, several of his novels - The Chosen, My Name is Asher Lev, The Book of Lights. Great novels they are too, full of insights into not only the Jewish soul but humanity.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Women in art

I saw this a while ago on you tube and passed it around to some friends who I thought would enjoy it. I think it is so neat I want to post it here.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Bible blogged

I could have titled this Blogging the Bible but that is the name of David Plotz's contribution to blogdom. The Bible is a great work of Literature, it is the foundation of several religions, it is the history (with all its biases and myths) of a people. It is worth reading. But not many of us read it. As Plotz says we tend to be lazy in the west about our religion and even lazier about reading what we perhaps see as a boring document that we already know a lot about. If we go to church on a regular basis we get excerpts -chosen for us by the powers that be. But what about the rest - the dark corners of the book that we never pull out into the light of our reading lamp? Plotz decided it was time he took a look. His goal, he says

... is pretty simple. I want to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based. I think I'm in the same position as many other lazy but faithful people (Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus). I love Judaism; I love (most of) the lessons it has taught me about how to live in the world; and yet I realized I am fundamentally ignorant about its foundation, its essential document. So, what will happen if I approach my Bible empty, unmediated by teachers or rabbis or parents? What will delight and horrify me? How will the Bible relate to the religion I practice, and the lessons I thought I learned in synagogue and Hebrew School?

Don't expect academic commentary, only fresh eyes on the old text, some humour and often some original insight. Here's a sample from his look at Genesis:

First murder—that didn't take long. I never realized there was a vegetarian angle to Cain and Abel. Cain offers God the fruit of the soil as an offering, while Abel brings the choicest meat. God scorns Cain's vegetarian platter, so Cain jealously slays his brother.

Here is a more charitable reading of what kind of father God is. He's not indulgent or lax. He's laissez faire. His job is to push the children in the right direction, but in the end, He understands they must be free to make mistakes. When He rejects the vegan special, God chastises Cain with this advice. "Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master." This is just about the best advice you can give anyone. It is conservative idealism, compressed into a sentence: We must decide for ourselves to do right. Not that Cain pays attention: He kills his brother in the very next verse.

Later, Plotz considers the story of Noah:

6:13-7:5: God's specific commands to Noah about how to build his ark and what to bring on it. As an inveterate reader of owner's manuals, I find this passage compelling in its specificity and precision. Now I know why people are always building replicas of Noah's ark—it's perfectly clear what it looked like.

Chapter 7
The grimmest verse so far: "All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. All existence on earth was blotted out—man, cattle, creeping things, birds of the sky; they were blotted from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark."

What a chilling account of the flood, and of the loneliness of Noah. Even the good man, even the righteous man, is alone in the world, and always subject to God's awesome power. This is pretty raw. It also seems to me to offer at least a clue about why God destroyed the earth. It seems clear that the Pre-Deluge evils were not crimes of men against other men, but crimes of men against God. As men mastered agriculture and metalwork and built cities, which earlier verses suggest they did, they felt they didn't need God. They came to see their laws, achievements, and prosperity as their own, accomplished independently of God. So, perhaps the point of the flood was not to restore ordinary moral behavior—day-to-day decency, law, etc.—but to restore faith, or at least fear. We thought we didn't need God, and that was what angered Him. The Flood—this verse in particular—reminds us (or at least the one righteous man who is permitted to live) that we are never independent of God, but always floating alone, vulnerable, at His mercy.

There is some interesting discussion about Plotz's posts too.

I haven't read the whole series yet but I would like to. I should, of course, also get out my bible and read along with him.

Reality trumps fiction

When my book circle discussed Never Let me Go there was some discussion about whether the scenario imagined by the author would be tolerated in our "progressive" society. One of our members had the rosy view that no, we, our society, would never contemplate such a donor class. I think I mentioned at the time that it was already happening in China where prisoners' organs were being "harvested" but my argument I think was discounted because after all that was China not "The West". Well, here is a story from the Netherlands ( often touted I believe as being very progressive) about a reality show where people are competing to be the recipient of a donor organ. Only a hop, step and a jump from there to Ishiguro's vision.

I think that organ donation and other "practices" such as abortion and euthanasia are ones that can be easily rationalized in a society where pressures (whether governmental or societal) are exerted beyond individual conscience. And we live in an increasingly pressurized mono- culture where our thoughts and opinions are subtley shaped by our media. We know we are being manipulated but we rarely resist it as we should. It feels so comfortable, even peasurable.

But one reviewer (in the Guardian) thinks Isiguro's book isn't about the cloning or the donor issue at all but about something else. I think perhaps it was both. I have to share these wonderful insights:

Ishiguro's contribution to the cloning debate turns out to be sleight of hand, eye candy, cover for his pathological need to be subtle. So what is Never Let Me Go really about? It's about the steady erosion of hope. It's about repressing what you know, which is that in this life people fail one another, grow old and fall to pieces. It's about knowing that while you must keep calm, keeping calm won't change a thing. ...

This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn't about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It's about why we don't explode, why we don't just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Never Let me Go

A sad book. Everyone agreed on that.

I re-read The Remains of the Day -also a sad book-before reading Never Let me Go and at first I thought the books were not at all similar. But thinking more about the main characters and their "place in life", their dedication and resignation to it, I realised that the attitudes of the products of Hailsham were in many ways like the self abnegating dedication and resignation of the butler of Darlington Hall who was of such great service to his various masters.

It is not surprising to me that people can be socialised in this way. I see it every day. In myself even. People can be moulded by society's expectations to do thing that are not at all in their self interest, or to do things that at another time and place they would never guess they would be capable of doing. Think of slave traders, or Nazi Germany, or suicide bombers. People have also been encouraged by society to do what we (at least sometimes) think of as good or helpful things in a self sacrificing way. I think of nuns, missionaries, volunteers of all kinds, firemen, doctors, people like Wilberforce, and yes, even soldiers. So the idea of a donor class you might say, a donor cult of parentless clones, is not so outlandish. Not to be wished for but not beyond the imagination.

In Never Let Me Go Ishiguro doesn't shed very much light on the society that raised and used the donor clan he created in his mind's eye. That is left to our imagination. What would it be like? Would it be hideous? Perhaps only in foresight or hindsight. If you were raised in it of for it it would probably seem quite natural and ordinary. The ability to recognise evil when you are part and parcel of it is given I think to few of us. Ishiguro seems to have the gift.

Monday, May 14, 2007

I was cleaning up

... and found what I managed to write for my last writing circle meeting, inspired by Colville's Horse and Train painting. I thought since I had talked about it here I might as well post it.

Society’s train of thought is not my thought.

The world - friends, relatives, children- are aboard, helpless passengers on that train,

Engineered by unwitting enemies, fueled with black lies, chugging, now slower, now faster, but headlong down a seemingly inexorable track into the future.

There are no signal lights, no switches leading to some safe siding,

No station in sight where one can rest, change trains, just get off.

This dark, man-made, man centered creation proceeds mindlessly with much noise and only one eye, leaving black smoky smudges of itself in the air, on the news I hear and read every day.

But I am the dark horse, of course,

Not a passenger.

I am constantly offered a free ticket but I will not go along for the ride

And now having refused would I even be allowed aboard?

Perhaps. Not in the club car but

Relegated to the cattle car, destined for the ovens.

I can only be an outsider,

alone, separated from the herd,

a horse of another colour,

a creature of different design,

made of God, not man.

I want to be off the track, oblivious, in some sunny upland meadow, ignoring this behemoth.

Let it be upon their heads.

But should I not, following many before me, confront it? Charge it?

Foolish courage. Foolish duty. Foolish fool.

Put action in the picture, run the tape forward, there can be only one conclusion. The same conclusion we have seen countless times before. Vimy, Dachau, Dunkirk, Sarajevo, Rwanda. Bones not even remembered or mourned by descendants.

But I would rather die the beaten dark horse than live a passenger on this train.

Monday, April 09, 2007

I oppose a brain

Another piece of art that was suggested as an inspiration for our writing group excercise was Colville's Horse and Train. Somehow this appeals to me more although it seems a more difficult subject than the Wyeth. It should be easy to think of a story for Christina. She has been crippled somehow, left to die perhaps some distance away from help and is crawling to this house where perhaps aid or perhaps her attacker waits, or she is trying vainly to hide in the short grass from something sinister in the dark house or bird infested barn.

But the theme of the horse and train attracts me more.

The picture was inspired by a poem published in 1949 by the South African writer Roy Campbell. Words by Wilfred Owen serve as the poem's epigraph: "None will break ranks." The poem itself includes the lines: "Against a regiment I oppose a brain / And a dark horse against an armoured train."

First there is a symmetry in the idea - I write something inspired by a painting that in turn was inspired by writing. Perhaps a poem would be fitting?

Secondly I like the theme of the painting. "I oppose a brain" I feel like that right now, as if the whole world, an unconsciously regimented world, is hurtling somewhere at break neck speed and I am heading at an increasing gallop in the opposite direction. I have something to say about that.

Finally Colville was a war artist and right now, with thoughts of Vimy and deaths in Afghanistan it seems fitting that I write something as an observation on war and the forces at work that lead to it. I don't think my thoughts would conform to Colville's, nor should they. I oppose a brain.

Writers Block

This is what I have and I have it big time. My writing drought has been long and prolonged and strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, started after my gargantuan writing effort at Nanowrimo. It is tempting to think I wrote out everything I had and there is no more.

I have been thinking about our writing group challenge (for Friday) which is to write something inspired by a piece of art, perhaps particularly Christina's world. I have been trying to get enthused enough to cobble something together. This should be easy. Two years ago I would have found the idea interesting and been keen on the challenge. Now I just can't seem to get motivated. I think I just don't want to write small pieces any more, and my inner self has just shut down, refused. A little voice keeps saying "Why are you just fooling around. Buckle down and finish your book."

The same thing happened with my painting. I got tired of going to classes and thinking about painting. I wanted to just PAINT. Not just little excercises but a canvas. Since then I have finished two and I am working on a third. My friend helped keeep me on track by providing goals and a deadline to meet. (Thanks Mamie!)

I know I have some good writing in me, I am not tapped out. It is all there just waiting to bubble out when the time is right. But that time is not now it seems.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


In my post a month ago I discussed 3 Day Road and my sense or suspicion that the author had got much of the colour and imagery and even little vignettes for his book from other sources which he had not acknowledged. Bernice Morgan in comparison was assiduous in recognising the material that influenced her writing.

In the back of Waiting for Time in her acknowledgements the author writes: "The following is a very incomplete list of books by writers living and dead to whom I am deeply indebted." A list of 18 books and their authors follows. She also specifically adds this thanks: "I want to especially thank Paul O'Neill who kindly gave me permission to use the maid's whipping as described in his book The Oldest City and Isobel Brown for her stories about women who crossed the Atlantic as war brides."

I applaud and respect Bernice for these tips of the hat although one would hope it is the least to be expected of a responsible writer. This has been an issue with me before. I remember particularly John Ralston Saul's book The Unconscious Civilization, a non-fiction effort which made many claims which were unsupported by even minimal references.

Saturday, March 24, 2007


Waiting for Time was our last book circle book and it was not at all a bad read. This book was a sequel to Random Passage which had been used as a base of the mini series. What came across most clearly in our discussion was the strength and determination given by the author to her character Mary Bundle which was in some contrast, we thought, to the character of Lav who seemed to drift into situations without much direction .

I have been thinking about this, trying to think about what the author was trying to say. Perhaps she meant to contrast the change in times, how we as a culture have become soft and self indulgent? This fits. Think of the scene on the beach near the end where poor Lav was terrorised by yahoo type young folk on their morotcycles and ATVs. And yet she was also trying to indicate -perhaps- that while times change the strength of the people to adapt is still there? There is the character of Alf in support of that. Or is the determination and strength of Mary a mirage? Was she and her life - as Ned said- just a product of fate and not really in her control at all?

The best part of the book was definitely the central story of Mary and her life on Cape Random with all its hardships and clashes of personality. The contemporary first and end chapters didn't have the same impact.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Watching writing

Would that be interesting? Somehow I don't think so but someone does and if you do then you should attend this event.

Word nerds, bring your pyjamas and your procrastination. And don’t forget your thesaurus.

Dalhousie University embarks on a unique experiment today designed to expose the usually solitary act of writing.

The event, called Write Here in Plain Sight (the apt acronym is WHIPS), is meant to help students and others witness the actual writing process.

Five professors from Dal will engage in academic writing and one other writer, Chronicle Herald columnist Gail Lethbridge, will exercise her creative writing powers.

"You will see among the six people some very different approaches, and I hope that might encourage students to think through the question of what processes work for them and which ones don’t . . . so they can modify their own writing behaviours to get better outcomes," organizer Sunny Marche, associate dean of graduate studies and a professor of management, said in an interview.

The event, which is open to the general public and goes from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., will happen in the Scotiabank Auditorium at the Marion McCain Arts and Social Sciences Building on University Avenue and at the Kenneth C. Rowe Management Building up the street.

Each writer will be in one room all day, while onlookers will be free to float among the six rooms. The writer’s words, warts and all, will be displayed on a large screen for the audience. They’re also being asked to do the things they normally would while writing. That includes bringing any accoutrements or items of comfort they usually have at their disposal.

I won't be going. I just don't think I would learn much. I would be better off staying at home and trying to write myself which is something I have had great trouble doing lately.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Three Day Road

I am of two minds about this book. I started it and liked it immediately, getting quickly into the story and a third of a way into the book. It had an authenticity in most of the parts dealing with the James Bay Cree and vivid and moving descriptions of WWI trench warfare. The author, Joseph Boyden, had included detailed vignettes which were graphic and human which would be difficult to imagine for someone who had not experienced them himself. Wonderful acheivement I thought for a young and first author. I was impressed.

And then something happened. I read something else that tinged my impression of the book, or rather of the author and affected my evaluation of his work. Let me tell you what happened. My sister, by happenstance just at this time, sent me a detail she had found among my recently deceased great aunt's papers about the death of my great uncle. He died Sept 2, 1918 - so close to the end of the war- and was buried "in the vicinity of Noreuil which is North North East of Bapaume, between Amiens and Cambrai in northern France". So I googled these names hoping to find out what battle his regiment fought on the day he died and came upon an online book written by a WWI war correspondent Phillip Gibb. When I started reading this I was struck by the similarity between this work of non-fiction and the wartime parts of Three Day Road.

Also by happenstance I had just read this piece by Brian Bethune who wrote :

In December it came out (passive voice, because I can’t remember how it came out) that McEwan had found such compelling war-time material in the autobiography of romance novelist Lucilla Andrews, that he used some 450 words of it in his 2001 masterpiece, Atonement. Trouble is he didn’t change much at all, just pulled a quick cut—and—paste job. McEwan was able to shrug it off—he is, after all, probably the world’s greatest English-language novelist. A horde of big-name peers rallied to the cause, fellow lords of creation who adhere to the novelist’s first article of faith: we have the right to utilize as we wish the scribblings of lesser mortals (i.e. non-fiction writers), just as we have the right to play with the lives of real people (at least those who are safely dead and unable to establish lucrative relationships with libel lawyers)

And I so liked Atonement. I went to Boyden's book looking in the back or front for a bibliography or acknowledgement of any research he did. There was very little. He credited one person for help with the northern Cree language, and one WWI historian - R. James Steele ( who will not come up on a Chapters or an Amazon search) and his brother (for attention to military detail). His profile says that his father served in WWII and a grandfather and uncle served in WWI

I am not saying that Boyden lifted Gibbs words but I would be willing to bet that he read Gibbs memoir and picked out many of the images (changing them slightly) and this gave his book that veracity I sensed. What other sources did he use I wonder. Why didn't he mention them? It was obvious that he did a lot of research. How would he know about "duckboards" and "estaminets" unless he had. But more than just little details there was a similarity in the writing, the mood between the two pieces, although I found Gibbs account much more moving as one might expect from a piece that was so highly coloured by emotional memory and profound experience. Here is a small excerpt from Gibbs' first chapter:

In Dixmude young boys of France-- fusiliers marins--lay dead about the Grande Place. In the Town Hall, falling to bits under shell-fire, a colonel stood dazed and waiting for death amid the dead bodies of his men--one so young, so handsome, lying there on his back, with a waxen face, staring steadily at the sky through the broken roof. . . . At Nieuport-les-Bains one dead soldier lay at the end of the esplanade, and a little group of living were huddled under the wall of
a red-brick villa, watching other villas falling like card houses in a town that had been built for love and pretty women and the lucky people of the world. British monitors lying close into shore were answering the German bombardment, firing over Nieuport to the dunes by Ostend. From one monitor came a group of figures with white masks of cotton-wool tipped with wet blood. British seamen, and all blind, with the dead body of an officer tied up in a sack . . . .
"O Jesu! . . . O maman! . . . O ma pauvre p'tite femme! . . . O Jesu! O Jesu!"
From thousands of French soldiers lying wounded or parched in the burning sun before the battle of the Marne these cries went up to the blue sky of France in August of '14. They were the cries of youth's agony in war. Afterward I went across the fields where they fought and saw their bodies and their graves, and the proof of the victory that saved France and us. The German dead had been gathered into heaps like autumn leaves. They were soaked in petrol and oily smoke was rising from them . . . .

And a little further on:

In the very early days we lived in a small old house, called by courtesy a chateau, in the village of Tatinghem, near General Headquarters at St.-Omer. (Afterward we shifted our quarters from time to time, according to the drift of battle and our convenience.) It was very peaceful there amid fields of standing corn, where peasant women worked while their men were fighting, but in the motor-cars supplied us by the army (with military drivers, all complete) it was a quick ride over Cassel Hill to the edge of the Ypres salient and the farthest point where any car could go without being seen by a watchful enemy and blown to bits at a signal to the guns. Then we walked, up sinister roads, or along communication trenches, to the fire-step in the front line, or into places like "Plug Street" wood and Kemmel village, and the ruins of Vermelles, and the lines by Neuve Chapelle-- the training-schools of British armies--where always birds of death were on the wing, screaming with high and rising notes before coming to earth with the cough that killed. . . After hours in those hiding- places where boys of the New Army were learning the lessons of war in dugouts and ditches under the range of German guns, back again to the little white chateau at Tatinghem, with a sweet scent of flowers from the fields, and nightingales singing in the woods and a bell tinkling for Benediction in the old church tower beyond our gate.

I would like to read some of Gibbs other book, also online, titled The Soul of the War. And I would like to re-read 3 Day Road and pick out the parts which compare to Gibbs memoire and put them side by side. I might just do that.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Another foray into non-fiction

I like more non-fiction as I age. I almost always have one on the go in the stack by my bed. The last one I read before this was A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. It's a great book for people who are interested in science as I am, although it is not really about the science but about the scientists, their flawed humanity, and how science is viewed or scorned or ignored or twisted by society- humans again. So it was a very human book and humourous too.

But now I am reading a book about a politician. My science interest apart, my field of study way back when was political science and history and then international affairs. I have a collection of books on politicians - Winston Chruchill, Diefenbaker, Pearson (I took a course from him at Carleton), Trudeau, Chretien, to name a few.

I probably should be reading Johnson's Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada but this one is Stephen Harper, the Case for Collaborative Governance by Lloyd Mackey. I have to say that it is not terribly well written. I find it rambling, repetitive and unfocused. But in spite of its literary flaws I am finding it worth reading.

Harper's grandparents came from New Brunswick and he spent some summers there as a boy. He was born and grew up in middle class Toronto, his parents voted Liberal and he was raised United Church (Some people I know would say that was enough to turn anyone off the left) and then Presbyterian when his parents moved. He admired Trudeau. He graduated with a gold medal for highest marks from his high school. He then went to the University of Calgary.

Of special interest to me is Harper's religious bent, painted as he often is in garish religious right colours. This quote was arresting because you can tell a lot about a person from what they read. "Harper had no social background in the turbulent changes occuring in Canadian evangelicalism. His move from scepticism to faith had come through a revisiting of his own religious background with the help of the writings of C.S. Lewis and Malcolm Muggeridge." Huh? Anyone who reads C.S. Lewis seriously can't be all bad. When he went to Ottawa as opposition leader he attended East Gate Alliance church a small evangelical parish in a French working class area. " Besides English the languages of worship are Filipino, Spanish and French."

The author has this to say about faith in politics and Martin (who attended Blessed Sacrament Church, a large charismatic RC parish in Ottawa) and Harper: "Both men could be considered 'customising' Christians... Customising Christians attend church fairly frequently but not because they feel they need to. They listen pretty carefully to their pastors but they do not necessarily take the word of those pastors as ultimate truth. Positively stated they are critical thinkers. They appreciate what the pastor has to say but they use the minds God gave them as well.... Customising Catholics show up in similar proportions....People who try to detract from Martin's or Harper's faiths are doing no justice to the political process." A little further on the author notes: "It was not until after his death that the public became aware of Trudeau's spiritual commitment and discipline within the framework of Catholic thought."

Here's another comment: "There was another religious factor that Harper had to face, in the form of the "social gospel" which had been at the base of Douglas's New Democratic Party and its predecessor. If the various evangelical denominations represented the "Conservatives at prayer" much the same thing could be said of the United Church -especially its more liberal social justice wing. It was like "the NDP at prayer".... Harper gradually formed the conclusion that mainstream Protestant leaders in their embrace of the social gospel and more particularly liberation theology, were becoming more Marxist and less Christian." Hmmm. "In that sentiment, he probably found considerable agreement from Malcolm Muggeridge, who when converted to Christianity, jumped straight across the religio-political spectrum from left to right." I am going to have to read some Muggeridge. The author interviewed Muggeridge once the results of which were never published. He says: "It was a bit of a barn-burner in its critique of the contemporary liberal church which he believed was thoroughly apostate and corrupt. "

Harper is described as a voracious reader. He apparently asked his thesis advisor which classic economics texts he should read. His advisor told him he didn't have to read them, no one else did . But Harper did anyway and his bibliography ran to 10 pages plus 2 pages of other sources.

There is a really good analysis of Harper's speech to the Fraser Institute in Calgary April 29 2005 which reveals a lot about his policy direction. Lots of good stuff to mull over. He is our Prime Minister. After reading this book I know more about him now than I did and am less likely to be swayed by political hyperbole on either side.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Saving Fish

Ah, good intentions. The Burma Road is paved with them in Amy Tan's Saving Fish from Drowning. This is a book about illusions and unintended consequences. It is about lies we tell ourselves, lies we tell each other, and lies told to us. Life turned into a reality show. Survivor Burma.

The title is the clue to this main theme. We justify our actions as doing good for others -saving the fish - but so very often, whether intentionally or unintentionally we are self serving- fishing for ourselves. In the interview with the author in the Reader's guide at the back Tan answers a question about blurring fact and fiction with this response: "Which kind of fiction is most harmful : the fiction masquerading as truth or the fiction that contains truth?"

I love Tan's acerbic, politically incorrect narrator, Bibi Chen. Through her eyes we see cross cultural confusion and clash of cultures and religions, media spin, government corruption genocide and oppression, all laced with witty commentary and irony.

There are some good shots -via Bibi- at the shallowness of the media, the eagerness to use and be used, for the sake of a good story.

"The worst of the newshounds in my opinion was Philip Gutman of Free to Speak International. That megalomaniac contacted GNN and dangled bait in front of them and they bit... he was proud that a member of Free to Speak was among the missing. He added in dramatic fashion that this person has now joined the tens of thousands of people now missing in Burma." ... Naturally this led to a flurry of guesses about who this activist might be... Who was the troublemaker they wanted to know... The punishment for spies in Mayanmar was similar to that for people who were caught smuggling drugs: death. Wendy may have been an immature nitwit but that did not mean she deserved to have her head lopped off simply because her former housemate seized any opportunity to promote his cause. " ...

This book is laugh out loud funny in places, black humour sometimes but mostly based on human behavior and foibles-which Tan makes clear is not a function of just one ideology, religion or culture. A policeman asks a Burmese witness who claims to have seen the missing tourists: "Did you see them before or after they disappeared?" How many times have we seen a reporter ask a similar silly question for the camera.

The GNN bureau chief in Bangkok coordinated with headquarters in New York on interviews. At the Bangkok airport, reporters from GNN and other media outlets swarmed the tourists arriving from Mandalay and Rangoon. Had they been frightened? Did they leave early? Would they ever go back? The people from New York and Rio de Janeiro gave wearied and disgusted looks as they pushed past... But a few travelers were easily stopped, because they were from some cities like Indianapolis, Indiana or Manchester, England where is it was considered rude not to acknowledge someone who asked you a question. Those from Los Angelos also willingly stepped before the camera since it was their civil right. " It was so hard to spend time in a country" a woman from Studio City commented "where eleven people wind up dead. "She was reminded that no one was confirmed deceased so she added , "Well it still gets to you."
"Were you scared" a reporter shouted to a couple emerging from a set of doors. "This one was" said a sunburned man, in a flat tone, and he jerked his thumb toward a woman behind him. "She went hysterical." The woman gave him a smile of annoyance. She turned to the reporter and said, her stony smile still affixed. "To be honest I was more concerned we'd get stuck if they shut down the airports." Her response - plus that gritted smile meant for her husband- was replayed each hour, making it seem to millions of people that she was a coldhearted bitch.

There are lots of moral morsels to chew on.

"I'd be uncomfortable," she said, "putting them [their abductors] at risk."
"But we're already uncomfortable, "Dwight retorted. And we are at risk. Don't you realize where we are. We're in the f---ing jungle. We already had malaria. What's next? Snakebite? Typhus? When do we factor us into the equation for what we do."
He had brought up their unspoken worries and a series of morally ugly questions. Whom do you save? Can you save both? Or do you save only yourself? Do you do nothing and risk nothing or die from whatever happens to come along as you sit on a log waiting for whatever comes?"

And further on: "But how did you know whether your intention would help, or whether it would only lead to worse problems? Sanctions or engagement? How could anyone know what approach would work? Who could guarantee it? And if it failed, who suffered the consequences? Who took responsibility? Who would undo the mess? Would anyone be around to care? No one had any answers...."

And some lyrically beautiful passages:

"With the Mind of Others I could see where they [The Karen] were. There is a place in the jungle called Somewhere Else, a split that divides Life from Death, and it is darker and deeper than the other ravine. They lie on their mats, all in a row, and they stare at the tree canopy that hides the sky. When the sun is gone and there a4e no stars above, they turn to their memory. They hear a hundred bronze drums, a hundred cow horns, a hundred wood gourds in the shape of frogs. They hear flutes chirp and bells echo. They hear the gurgling brook music any god would love. Together they sing in perfect harmony. We are together and that is what matters."

There are two kind of books in my estimation. Ones you know you will reread some day and those you know you won't. The first I keep, the second I eventually get rid of. Saving Fish has much to say in its wacky way and it is a keeper.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

No New Years resolutions for me

I have resolutions every other day and I don't do any better on those than I do on the ones I make Dec. 31 so I have pretty much given up on New Years resolutions. Which doesn't mean I don't have them. I guess I will just continue to resolve things - like post more on this blog!- and fail or not fail to some degree with them. I might change my blog template if I can figure out how. A new look for a new year might not be a bad thing.
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
Dorothy Parker, Not So Deep as a Well (1937)