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)