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June 10, 2016

Book Review: Magic In Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight


Don't be fooled by the title of Michael Muhammad Knight's newest book. Magic In Islam, published by Penguin/Random House, does not have him doing for magic what his first novel, The Taqwacores did for Islam and punk rock. Rather this is a serious, well mostly serious, academic study of the history and antecedents of the Muslim religion.
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Knight has gone from being an outside the box, iconoclastic, but always reverent, convert to Islam to an academic teaching and writing about his chosen faith. However, this doesn't mean he no longer pushes the definition of Islam beyond what most, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are willing to accept. What he sets out to prove in this new book, via his examination of magic in Islam, is how there is no definitive version of Islam which can be used as the basis for saying this is right and this is wrong.

In order to prove his thesis Knight takes us on a history of not only Islam, but the region in which the religion was born. This enables him to show us how the faith did not grow in a vacuum but was influenced by everybody from mythological figures in ancient Egypt (Thoth) and Greece (Hermes). The prophet Enoch of the Jewish/Christian bible evolved into Idris in the Qur'an and Knight traces this figure back to ancient times.

At one point Knight says this book sprung out of a desire to write a response to all the "What Is Islam" books that have been published since September 2001. Most of those books have looked to only one source for their definition, the Qur'an. Knight's argument is that while the Qur'an is obviously an important source of information for understanding the faith, it can't be the only one we use to define the religion.

Not only are there countless other writings which are used to define the belief and practices of the faith, like other religions there also exist a myriad of different ways in which its expressed. From Mali to North America the various cultures who have adopted Islam have done so through the prism of their own needs and desires. In other words they have made it work for them.

While many would argue against Knight's thesis that Islam allows for this variety of interpretation, he builds his case carefully with impeccably footnoted sources and documentation. If parts of the book read like an academic dissertation, it's no wonder, as Knight has recently completed his doctorate. However, while it makes parts of the book drier than what we have come to expect from him, it also makes his points far more creditable.
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Of course Knight being who he is can't help but let his idiosyncrasies peak through. These not only lighten the tone, but also give the facts a human face. Knight is also pretty straight forward about where his personal prejudices lie when he says "... I have no interest in attempting to patrol the limits of Islamic authenticity or "orthodoxy"; if anything, I want to dig secret tunnels or find holes in the fences." In other words he's perfectly happy with Islam being the glorious mish-mash it is today.

From China, India, North America, and across Northern Africa Islam comes in all shapes and colours. From the Sufi mystics of Pakistan to the 5 Percenters in Harlem, New York - they all consider themselves Muslim even though their practices are widely different. In Magic In Islam Knight has done a fine job of proving the religion's history give precedents for this variety of interpretations.

Like all of Knight's writings on Islam, this is a thoughtful and intelligent book. Not only does it offer insights and observations we rarely hear, they are substantiated with historical facts and references to legitimate sources - a refreshing change from the constant barrage of poorly researched and badly sourced information we normally receive via the internet and television. Sure, you're going to have to make a bit of an effort, and maybe even use your brain a bit, in order to appreciate this book - but isn't it worth it to be properly informed?

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Magic In Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight)

April 28, 2016

Book Review: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay


There are very few authors who manage to create fictional worlds of depth and beauty but are also able to people them with complex and real characters. In his latest book, Children of Earth and Sky to be released May 10 2016 from Penguin/Random House Canada, Guy Gavriel Kay, demonstrates the deft hand of an artist through his abilities to bring both people and place to life.
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As is his wont Kay has taken an era from history as his starting point and extrapolated his story from the events of that time. In this case he's focused on what we'd know as the region from Venice to Istanbul - with especial attention paid to the Baltic and Eastern European regions - during the tumultuous times of the Ottoman Empire's expansion into the region. While countries, city states, and regions have been re-named, they're described with enough detail the discerning reader should have no problem identifying, if not their exact identities, their geographical locations. (Readers of Kay's previous books The Lions of Al Rassan, Sailing to Sarantium, and Lord of Emperors will not only recognize the place names but find poignant references to the latter two scattered throughout the book.)

While the earth shattering events of the time are important to the story, Kay's focus is on how their reverberations spiral outwards to impact on lives everywhere. From the proud merchant city states of Seressa and Dubrava to the small fortress town of Senjan and even to far away Asharias, home of the Khalif of the Osmanli Empire. It's these events combined with fate, circumstances, or simply pure chance, that bring the four central characters together initially. From seemingly random beginnings, their fates are irrevocably intertwined.

Danica Gradek is a young woman from the fortress town of Senjan. The Senjans are condemned as pirates by the Seressa and Osmanli, for their practice of raiding merchant ships travelling between the two, while praised as heroes by the Holy Emperor for their willingness to fight the heathens whenever required. A warrior in a society where women aren't supposed to be fighters she would seem to have little in common with those who become her companions; Marin Djivo, the youngest son of a Merchant family from Dubrava, Pero Villani, an impoverished artist from Seressa, and Leonora Valeri, a young woman being sent to Dubrava as a spy for Seressa.

When Villani is commissioned by the ruling council of Seressa to travel to Asharias in response to the Khalif's desire to have his portrait done in by a Western artist, the first stage of his journey is aboard a ship owned by the Djivo family which Marin has accompanied as the family's representative. It also happens to be carrying a doctor and his wife travelling to Dubrava, although Leonora Valeri is only pretending to be the doctor's wife as a way to enter Seressa's rival as a spy.

When the boat is boarded by a Senjan raiding party, including Danica on her first raid, events conspire to change the lives of these four people, and their companions, forever. While each of their tales began some time earlier, this is the moment when they all converge. The first of a series of seemingly random happenings, which will seed all of what is to come. There are many more chance encounters upon each of their roads that will cause both convergences and divergences in their paths.
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What's wonderful about Kay's books is how he builds to each of these moments. We see how nothing, and nobody, exists in a vacuum. Not only does he give us each character's story, showing us how a particular twist or turn brought them to a point. Kay brings us into the council chambers and courts of Emperors, Dukes, and Regents to demonstrate how decisions made in these lofty circles have ramifications for people perhaps thousands of miles away.

Kay's books are a delight to read because he never rushes anything. Stories unfold in an elegant dance with all the elements choreographed. What at first might appear as random and unconnected steps gradually reveal themselves to have been the opening movements in a grand ballet. When you step into one of his books you find yourself surrendering to his pace and then being caught up in the sweep and turn of events to the point where you've read over 400 pages without even noticing.

Accenting his artistry as a storyteller is the fact the language he uses compliments the tone and nature of his work. Elegant, descriptive, and evocative of time and place, it somehow manages to not only capture the beauty and splendour of the Khalif's court in Asharias, but the horror and brutality of a battle scene. At the same time he is also able to convey the thoughts and emotions of his characters with such a clarity of detail they become more than just sketches on a page. These are living, breathing people with complicated motives which even they sometimes fail to fully comprehend.

In Children of Earth and Sky Kay works on a very broad canvas. Though he captures the scope of historical events, it's his attention to detail which makes the book captivating. While a painter might consider these details peripheral to the main subject matter of a work, Kay brings his picture alive by his ability to bring them to life. Through his examination of those who appear on the edges of history we gain a better understanding of what the world was like during this time than we would by reading a book about the rulers and their generals.

Everything about this book, from the characters to the world created - including the subtle elements of fantasy that imbue it - makes Children of Earth and Sky a wonder and a joy to read. Having read it once I can guarantee you'll want to read it again and again.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review - Children of Earth and Sky - Fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay)

April 29, 2014

Book Review: Irenicon by Aidan Harte


What if? Two of the most important words in any fiction writer's arsenal, take on special meaning to those who posit realities alternate to the ones we experience in their work. While some would regulate works of fantasy to a lower tier of literature than what they refer to as serious fiction, some of the world's greatest writers have taken us into alternate histories and realities. From the works of Shakespeare (what would you call The Tempest or Midsummer's Night Dream if not fantasy) to the work of the late great South American magic realists Jorge Louis Borge and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, fantasy when properly executed can be every bit as creative and literate as any other writing.

Which isn't to say there isn't a great deal of dreck being published under the fantasy label. Like all the romance novels being passed off as fantasy because the authors have thrown in a vampire or a werewolf as the dark brooding hero in place of the man with the mysterious past. Thankfully there are enough authors working at the other end of the spectrum to offset the piles of crap being dumped on us by publishers. Some of the better ones can be found penning the books which can be found slotted under the sub-category of either world building or alternative histories. While you can still find escapist fodder among these, the book equivalent of a Home Box Office mini-series, others are intricate and sophisticated works which not only bring a particular era of human history to life but also postulate fascinating ways in which a particular civilization could have evolved differently under the right circumstances.

Sculptor and author Aidan Harte's Irenicon, published by Quercus Books, is a particularly fascinating example of this style. The first book in his The Wave Trilogy, introduces us to a world based on Italy and Europe in the early days of the Renaissance, but with some key cultural and scientific differences. Unlike our world the son of God did not survive to be crucified and his mother Mary was tasked with the job of spreading the word of the new religion. While the new creed has still managed to become dominant across Europe, over the course of the book we gradually begin to understand how this difference has impacted on the philosophical underpinnings of this world.
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Much like our world at this time, the majority of this Europe is made up of independent city states. However, looming over them all as a constant threat is the Concordian Empire. Having conquered or subjugated most of the city states they are now bleeding them dry through annual tribute payments. The Empire's rulers are past masters of the divide and conquer mentality and have successfully managed to quell any potential resistance to their rule by turning their fiercest opponents against each other. No better example of this can be found in the city state which was their biggest obstacle to rule, Rasenna.

The Empire split the city in two by unleashing The Wave. They had learned how to harness and control water through a combination of science and technology and force it to obey their commands. They literally sent a wave through the middle of Rasenna which created a river dividing the town in half. The physical division successfully broke whatever unity existed in the city and set the various districts and their controlling families into conflict with each other in an effort to control the remains of the city. Similar to the Contrade (or districts) of renaissance Siena, each family and their followers guard their borders jealously. Occasional raids across the river via ropes and roof tops result in casualties on all sides and ensure the rivalry between the districts never abates.

Sofia Scaligeri, while residing and fighting with one of the main families embroiled in the conflicts, is also the heir to the title of Contessa of Rasenna. While the city's equivalent of a general assembly or town council continues to meet, factionalism has rendered it useless. So even if Scaligeri comes into her title she can't see much hope in bringing her people together under one banner. However aid comes to her from two very unlikely sources, The Empire itself and the aging Mother Superior of the local equivalent of a convent. The Empire has sent one of its infamous engineers, the same group of men who utilized the Wave technology to split the city, in order to build a bridge spanning the river.
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They need a bridge in order to facilitate the movement their armies in an attempt to consolidate their power in the region. However, the building of the bridge is also seen by some in Rasenna as an opportunity to reunite the two halves of the city. While some see it as a threat to their power base, the Mother Superior, who belongs to no faction, understands this could be the chance for the city to recover itself. However in order to do so they will need a leader who will be able to counter the Empire's technological control of water. For the nuns are the diametrical opposites of the engineers, they don't seek to dominate the natural forces of the world, instead they teach a practice of working with an element's innate power to give one strength.

What elevates Irenicon above the usual run of the mill fantasy read is Harte's ability to bring his vision of an alternate history to life. Instead of bogging the story down with explanations and descriptions of the world he's created he allows us the opportunity to gradually become immersed in its realities through his characters and the plot. While this might require some patience on the part of readers as we try and piece together the conflicting philosophies underpinning the various factions motivations and actions, the technique also allows readers to become completely immersed in the world.

Somehow Harte manages to combine a series of intricate plots lines, intriguing characters and the creation of his version of renaissance Europe without ever becoming confusing. At the same time he doesn't insult a reader's intelligence by spelling anything out for us. While there's always an element of escapism inherent to any work of fantasy, Harte proves the genre can be as thought provoking and intelligence as any other work of fiction. Anyone with a fascination of European history, in particular the Italian renaissance, will take great pleasure in his attention to detail involving all aspects of his creation. From its religion, its nascent technology and all the way through to its social structure, he has created a world that could have easily stepped out of any history book, but which is infinitely more interesting.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Irenicon by Aidan Harte)

March 10, 2014

Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub


I guess it's appropriate blockades have gone up again on the Tyndengia Mohawk reservation in South Eastern Ontario Canada as I begin to write this review. Here in Canada the First Nations people are usually out of sight and out of mind unless they manage to capture the media's attention with some event which inconvenience the population at large. While the fact the majority of them live in conditions equivalent to the destitution most in the developed world equate with the poverty of the developing world should be news enough in itself to keep them in the papers on a daily basis, we only read about them when anger and resentment over conditions reach the boiling point and spill over into angry protest.

Last winter's Idle No More grass roots movement pushed First Nations issues into the spotlight temporarily, but the government has done its usual good job of simply ignoring, it understanding if they say nothing the media will soon move on to something else. Canada, and by extension North America, aren't unique for their mistreatment and ignoring of the indigenous populations whose lands we now occupy. Around the world, from the South Pacific to the High Arctic, indigenous people are marginalized, starved, pushed off what little land we leave them and generally continue to face bleaker and bleaker futures while nobody seems to give a shit. We give them the worst land available and then pollute or steal it when we discover natural resources beneath it ripe for exploiting.

However, a grassroots collective of writers, activists, visual artists and musicians from indigenous communities around the world have started taking advantage of the communications tools offered them by the Internet in an attempt to get the message out. The Fire This Time (TFTT) has been facilitating the bringing together of musicians, poets and lyricists from indigenous communities around the world via their web server. Individuals can upload music tracks, songs, poems and beats for others to download and create new songs with. These dubs are then released on TFTT's record label, Indigenous Resistance (IR). To date 29 recordings featuring music from The Solomon Islands in the South Pacific to Brazil, mixed by artists from India to North America have been issued. This year they have also released something a little different, the book IR 30 Indigenous Visions In Dub, a collection of writings and images which have provided the lyrical content and visuals used in many of these recordings.
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A number of years ago I had reviewed one of the earlier recordings on the IR label, but somehow or other I lost track of their releases over the years. Which is what makes this book all the more interesting and valuable. For the texts they've selected to include not only deal with the major themes and stories from the indigenous world they've been trying to cover over the years, they also bring the words of some of the more insightful minds among indigenous people together in one volume.

Like the recordings the words gathered in this book come from all parts of the globe. They've included lyrics/quotes from musicians from the Solomon Islands (Tohununo and Pesio), stories about an incident which occurred in Brazil where an indigenous man was burnt alive by four wealthy youth (who received only minimum sentences), articles exploring the ties between the indigenous people of North and South America and African Americans, and quotes from two of the most interesting minds among the North American indigenous population, architect Douglas Cardinal and musician/poet/former chair of the American Indian Movement (AIM) John Trudell. While the story of the murder of the Pataxo Galdino in Brazil is sickening in the way it reflects the indifference of the Brazilian population at large to the indigenous peoples whose land the Portuguese stole it makes valuable reading, if only for the contrast it provides to how we normally see these people. Instead of being gaudily dressed props for pop stars' photo opportunities, these are flesh and blood people barely eking out an existence in some of the biggest and roughest slums in the world.

I have to admit while the points about there being common cause between the situation of African Americans and indigenous people through out the Western hemisphere are valid, some of the attempts to tie their spiritual practices together did stretch my credibility. To my mind the writer was making the same assumption far too many do of believing there is a universal "Indigenous" belief system, when not only would you find radically different beliefs among each nation, but from village to village within the same language group. However, there can be no denying the writer's points about the intermarriage between the two groups or the fact many indigenous populations in North and South America share many of the same physical characteristics of African Americans - the indigenous people of Puerto Rico for example.

To my mind the most fascinating readings in this book are the quotes from Douglas Cardinal and John Trudell. Cardinal's words on the nature of power and the way women are treated are stated so matter of factually it makes you wonder how anyone could act any differently. On women he sums things up very succinctly, "One has to state that all the premises that men have of women are basically wrong and you start from there. Even the language is wrong". He uses the same directness of language in his discussion on the nature of power, "I have learnt...that the most powerful force is soft power, caring and commitment together. Soft power is more powerful than adversarial or hard power because it is resilient".
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Trudell's words resonate with a different kind of power. He is someone who knows the power of the mind and the power of words (The FBI once referred to him as one of the most dangerous men in America simply because of the power of his oratory). In a poem quoted in the book he speaks out against the frameworks of European society imposed upon his people as being the instruments of their destruction. Why should he support purported democracy when all it has done is make of his people (along with African Americans and women) second class citizens who are treated like chattel? "We live in a political society/Where they have all power/by their definition of power/but they fear the people who go/out and speak the truth".

Trudell summation of his oppressors attitudes is spot on. Why, if they believe themselves to be so powerful by their own definitions (money and societal position being the two we value the most) are they so scared of those who speak out about injustice and the poverty of the few? Are they afraid people will see how insubstantial their claims to power truly are?

Our governments give occasional lip service to the plight of Native Americans and Canada's First Nation's people, but their policy of doing nothing and hoping the problem goes away has now become official. New acts passed in both the Federal legislations of Canada and the US are designed to ensure the numbers of registered, or status, indigenous people decline to the point where they can take back the reserves and reservations because there will no longer be enough "Indians". Yet anyone who dares speak this truth is called paranoid and deceptive. Who in fact are the more paranoid and deceptive - the ones cynically trying to get rid of "The Indian Problem" or the ones who are the subject to these draconian laws? (For anyone interested in reading about these new acts I recommend Thomas Kings's The Inconvenient Indian)

From the Sahara Desert to the Australian Outback, the rain forests of Brazil to the tundra of Siberia, the Black Hills of Dakota and northern Alberta Canada indigenous people are seeing the land promised them by treaties gradually stolen away from them. What lives they've been able to carve out for themselves in this post-colonial world are gradually being eroded and destroyed. Their culture is appropriated and turned into a commodity, they are depicted as stereotypes not humans and more and more government policy is being directed towards their destruction as distinct societies.

One of the few means at their disposal to remind people they are living breathing cultures is to find the way to speak with a unified voice - one that is loud enough to be heard around the world. Through their record label IR, TFTT is doing its best to provide the opportunity for those voices. IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub gathers together some of the most powerful words and images used during the creation of the label's 29 recordings in a single volume as an intense collage of ideas and visuals. It offers a far different perspective on indigenous life around our planet than that offered by either governments or your New Age book store. Isn't it about time you read the truth?

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub)

February 12, 2014

Book Review: Hijos de la Selva/Sons of the Forest


In the early part of the 20th century photographer Edward Curtis was funded by American businessman J. P. Morgan to undertake the extensive task of making a photographic record of Native Americans across the United States. While some of these photos are undeniably powerful and poignant, the motivation behind them of creating a portrait of "a vanishing people" resulted in him either doctoring the photos or dressing them up in "costumes" in order to eliminate any traces of so called civilized influences. While this does nothing to diminish the quality or scope of his work, when compared to the work of genuine cultural anthropologists or ethnographers, it does call into question their historical authenticity.

This becomes especially obvious when comparing his work his contemporary, the German ethnographer Max Schmidt. While Schmidt's work has languished in obscurity for years, its now been brought to light again through the publication of Hijos de la Selva/Sons of the Forest by Perceval Press. Edited by Viggo Mortensen and with text provided by scholars Federico Bossert and Diego Villar, this book not only reproduces many of the photos Schmidt took among the people of Paraguay and Brazil, it also goes into detail about his background, the philosophy upon which his work was grounded and how this differed from the more Eurocentric (or Amerocentric) approach taken by others working in his field at the time.

The book is divided into two parts; Bossert and Villar's essay on Schmidt, his work and its philosophical and academic underpinnings and a selection of digital reproductions of his original glass plate photographs taken of the peoples of the Brazilian and Paraguayan Amazon basin. Mortensen, Bossert and Villar, with help from people at the Museo Etnogafico Andres Barbero of Asuncion, Paraguay where Schmidt's original photographs are archived, began work on this collection back in 2009. In his introduction to the book Mortensen explains how after they had made their initial selection the original glass plates were shipped to California for digitalization and that the book's objective was to be a mixture of an academic appraisal of his work and an artistic appreciation of his photography.
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I have to admit the academic part of the equation gave me some concerns as I've been removed from the world of academia for close to thirty years and have memories of reading works which sucked the life out art. So I was pleasantly surprised upon reading the essay composed by Bossert and Villar to find it informative but not the dry as dust type of thing I had grown accustomed to reading years ago. Firstly, and most importantly, they placed his work in its proper historical and cultural context by going into both his background and the academic environment surrounding ethnography in his native Germany in the late 19th and early 20 centuries.

After they established a context within which to place Schmidt's work, they proceed to delve into his actual explorations and study. We learn about his first trips into the Amazon basin and his initial contacts with the indigenous peoples of the region. Here the author's have gone right to the source for their information as they quote substantially from Schmidt's extensive and exhaustive diaries. Unlike what was usual for the times Schmidt travelled simply, accompanied only by two guides and a mule. While this left him more at the mercy of the environment than was usual the impression I received from reading was it made him far less threatening a presence then any of his predecessors.

While the writing and descriptions of Schmidt's life and work were fascinating my understanding suffered from a lack of knowledge of South American geography. This is not a complaint directed towards the work's authors, rather a warning to anybody reading this they should make sure they have a good atlas or map of the region to hand. In fact reading Bossert and Villar's essay make one wish there were more written about this fascinating man who took it upon himself to make a record of the isolated people of the regions. For after 1929, he retired from his position at the Berlin Museum of Ethnography, and moved to South America where he continued his work independently.

While the academic part of the book makes for interesting reading, and gives us knowledge of the person behind the lens, for me it was the pictures making up the second half of the book which were most intriguing. For not only have the photos been reproduced, so have Schmidt's original captions and explanations. Unlike other photos of this type I've seen, most obviously Curtis', Schmidt's images not only tell you who the subject is and where they were taken, they often give you details of the person or the situation depicted. As a result these are real people, not some idealized, romantic version of the "nobel savage".

Even more intriguing is how Schmidt makes no effort to disguise any modifications his subjects might have made in their behaviour or dress due to contact with the outside world. As a result we see the rather odd juxtaposition of an image showing children in uniforms attending school next to images of naked adults going about their business. While they might have been taken among different people, it shows us their's was a world in transition. To our eyes the pictures might depict a life minus the comforts of civilization we can't imagine living without; primitive and deprived. However, when compared to images shot on the reservations and tribal lands of North America at the same time, these people don't have the same aura of defeat or loss about them as their northern counterparts.
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Which isn't to say they weren't under threat from civilization. As the text points out even in the 1920s and 1930s industrial expansion in the form of rubber tree tappers were making inroads into indigenous territories and killing anyone in their way. However, the images in the book also show people who still hadn't been defeated or overwhelmed. We also see from the photos how their geographical location made it far easier for them to avoid the advance of civilization than people in North America. Schmidt's accounts of the difficulties involved in travelling to where most of these people lived confirm the isolation depicted in the images.

However, all other considerations aside, the images are also a testament to Schmidt's skill and artistry as a photographer. He seems to have had some sort of innate ability to put his subjects at ease as the photos come across as a mixture of those one would see in a family album and documentary style shots of people going about their daily business. While that might not seem like a great accomplishment to us today with digital cameras, remember he was shooting glass plates which required a great deal of preparation and set up. It was very hard to be unobtrusive with the kind of equipment required for taking these kind of photographs, yet even in the obviously posed pictures there is very little of the formality we've come to expect from this era of photography.

Before reading Hijos de la Selva I knew nothing of the life and work of Max Schmidt, little of the study of ethnography and almost nothing about the people of the Amazon Basin. While one book can't, and this one doesn't claim to be, a definitive work on these subjects, it introduces the reader to them with intelligence and compassion. The carefully prepared essay gives us both an academic and personal history of Schmidt and places his body of work in its proper context so we can fully appreciate the significance of the accompanying photographs. Even more important, as far as I'm concerned, the book makes clear how Schmidt, unlike so many of his contemporaries in the same field, saw his subjects as fellow human beings, not just objects of interest to be studied. An example many of us could stand to learn from even today as indigenous people the world over still struggle against various types of stereotyping.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: Hijos de la Selva/Sons of the Forest)

January 22, 2014

Book Review: How Music Works by David Byrne


We all listen to music. Maybe we only have it playing in the background, use it to help us sleep or meditate, or perhaps you sit and listen to it carefully. However, no matter how or why you listen, it can't help but have an effect on you. The majority of us just take it for granted that we enjoy the music we listen to and never really stop to think why. While we can talk about the song's lyrics or how the combination of melody and rhythm make us feel good, we usually don't take it much further.

While this passive approach to music may be sufficient for the majority, philosophers and scholars have been fascinated with the why's and wherefores of music since the time of the ancient Greeks. While most study through the centuries has focused on either the physics, the psychological or emotional nature of music, hardly anybody has combined those fields with the more practical aspects involved with the creation and appreciation of music. That is until David Byrne wrote How Music Works. Originally published as a hardcover, a revised paperback edition has just been published by McSweeny's (distributed in Canada by Publisher's Group Canada) allowing Byrne to include new material reflecting the ever increasing nature of the way music works.

Byrne, who is probably best known as the former frontman for arguably one of the most interesting bands to come out of New York's 1970s so-called punk scene, Talking Heads, comes at his subject from all angles. As might be expected he talks about how "music works" in terms of its creation, but he doesn't stop there. He covers everything, from the variety of business models available to musicians today, the effect of technology not only on how we listen to music but how its produced to the correlation between the basic music scale and planetary orbits. Now, in case any of you are feeling a little overwhelmed by the latter, let me reassure you, as somebody who washed out of a basic physics course dealing with light and sound, that Byrne has the amazing ability to render every subject he discusses into language both accessible and intelligent.
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Naturally, as a performer and songwriter, he spends a large chunk of the book talking about the whys and hows of music creation. Right off the top he shows he's not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom about artistic creation by stating there's more than just moments of inspiration or whispers from some transcendental figure like a muse that goes into the writing of any piece of music. He posits the theory that context is as much a factor as anything else, and lays out a pretty convincing argument to support this hypothesis. He examines the history of Western music and the way it has evolved as the acoustics of the space it was played in changed from the massive concrete edifices of cathedrals, whose echoes made it impossible to play music with multiple parts and complicated phrasings, to the concert halls of today where the complicated melodies of orchestral music can be discerned.

Of course when the technology which allowed music to be recorded and listened to at any time entered the picture that provided a whole new context, a context which is continually evolving as the technology improves and grows easier to use and becomes financially more accessible. Byrne talks us through recording technology from the earliest days of Edison's wax tubes to today's digital equipment. He carefully details how each development not only changed the way music is listened to, but how it affected those who created and performed it. He talks of musicians, most famously Glenn Gould the Canadian piano genius, who stopped performing live completely. Instead they turned their energies into trying to produce perfection in the studio instead of having to live with the imperfections of live concerts. Thus the context changed from seeking to entertain people in a public setting to how to create note perfect reproductions of a piece using both personal abilities and technology in the pursuit of this goal.

However, it's not just the creation of music Byrne talks about, he also talks about the practicalities of making a living in the music business. How the odds are almost impossibly stacked against the musician who doesn't sell millions of copies of his or her record to ever really come out ahead if they sign a traditional deal with a record label. Again he takes us through the history of popular music in the recording age as musicians began to be signed by record companies in the early part of the 20th century to the situation in the present day. While much has been made of how people like Amanda Palmer have been able to fund recordings and tours through crowd source funding, Byrne points out they are still the exceptions to the rule.

While it's true advances in technology have made it easier for bands to record their own music, manufacture, distribution and touring still require outlays of money most of them don't have access to. He outlines the various types of deals available to musicians today, including the pros and cons of each, showing just how difficult it is for them to make a living wage. While digital download sites are now able to sell an artist's work without having to recoup costs such as shipping and manufacturing of product, none of these savings are being passed along to the musician in the form of increased royalties. i-Tunes, and others, still take the same percentage the big record companies used to take off the top before a band see's a cent.
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No matter what aspect of music Byrne talks about, his approach is wonderfully conversational. It's like being given the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about everything there is to do with the subject. On top of this he is able to illustrate each of his points with examples from his own career and experiences with the creation, science and business of music. Even when he starts talking about the physics, (and metaphysics) psychology and the various philosophies behind what music means to us as human beings and how it impacts us on emotional and spiritual levels, he manages to maintain this same tone.

The fact that he can make chapters about subjects with the potential to be as dry as the desert sands as enjoyable as his discussions about the early days at CBGBS with Talking Heads is one of the truly remarkable and wonderful parts of this book. True it's not a book you're going to sit down and read in one go, there's just too much information to be assimilated. However, at the same time, How Music Works makes some incredibly difficult and complex topics accessible without ever once talking down to its audience or assuming we share any of its author's experiences or inside information.

If you've ever had any interest in music, especially popular music, beyond listening to it, but haven't really had any idea of how to find out more about it, How Music Works is like owning your very own personal encyclopedia. Not only can you sit down and read it from cover to cover, you can also look up information on specific topics without having to wade through a great deal of extraneous detail. This book should probably be on the curriculums of all post secondary music programs, but can also be read with ease by anybody with even just a casual interest in the subject.

David Byrne has created some of the most interesting and intelligent popular music of his era, and this book he proves he's equally adept as a writer. Witty, insightful, thought provoking and always interesting, How Music Works isn't just for musicians, its for everyone who loves music.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: How Music Works by David Byrne)

August 19, 2013

Book Review: Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali by Andy Morgan


Can you imagine what life would be like without music? If somehow it became illegal to listen to CDs, i-Pods and even cell phone ringtones in public. Or, if you were a musician, to live in constant fear of having all your equipment taken away from you and destroyed in front of your eyes and the threat of torture, prison or death hanging over you all the time? Maybe you could still play music in the privacy of your home, but only if you made sure all the windows and doors were shut and there's no way the sound would leak out into the street where somebody passing could hear.

Sounds pretty far fetched doesn't it? There's no way it could happen. Well that's exactly what happened in Northern Mali from around March 2012 until very recently. For Malians what made this even worse was how large a role music plays in their culture. Not only does music provide them with the same pleasure it does everybody else in the rest of the world, it is also a significant part of their cultural identity. From those who rely on traditional bard type figures known as griots, oral historians to their people whose songs can recount everything from the history of a family to a listing of the significant moments in a nation's history, to people like the nomadic Tuareg who rely on music to pass on cultural traditions, music is the backbone of their cultures. If music were eliminated for any length of time it would result in cultural genocide.

So how did this atrocity come about? How did music, and Mali has become famous for producing musicians of international calibre, end up being made a criminal offence and being a performer meant risking your life? The story is both simple - Northern Mali was taken over by Islamic Jihadist who imposed their version of Muslim religious law - and incredibly complicated - there are real problems in Mali which paved the way to make the take over possible. However, a new book written by Andy Morgan, Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali published by Freemuse ( a kind of Amnesty International for musicians) does a wonderful job of not only detailing what happened during that awful period, but explaining why it did, and how it could easily happen again if things don't change.
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Morgan is able to provide information from first hand sources you're not liable to read elsewhere because of his personal connection to the area. He was the manager of the first Tuareg (or Kel Tamashek as they refer to themselves) band, Tinariwen to become well known outside of Mali, for seven years. Through them he not only became known and trusted by the Kel Tamashek, he established relationships within the musical community throughout Mali. So, unlike reports you'll have read in the newspapers which have only told the bare minimum, Morgan is able to not only give us first hand accounts of people's experiences during these events, he supplies us with information about the various factions involved with the uprising, the details of what happened and the historical, political and social context which made it possible to begin with.

Mali, while its population is predominately Muslim, is a secular country, meaning the church has no influence over its governance. The majority of the people follow an Islamic tradition heavily influenced by their own tribal beliefs. They don't adhere to any of the restrictions on men and women associating, the prohibitions against alcohol or any of the more repressive tenets of the conservative fundamentalists. So it doesn't sound like a country ripe for an Islamic government of the kind normally associated with groups like the Taliban. However, over the past fifteen years there has been a gradual increase in the presence of foreign financed and taught pressure groups trying to influence public opinion in favour of this kind of society.

Mali has been victim, like many of the poorer African nations, of corrupt governments and military coups during its short lifetime since independence in the early 1960s. This has led to the type of unstable social and economic atmosphere history has show us is how groups promising stability and order are able to gain power. Of course its only once they gain power anybody finds out their version of order is to take away everybody's freedom. In Mali, they have been working just this kind of campaign - advocating a return to traditional Islamic values as the cure for everybody's ills, without actually saying what that means. Thus they've been softening up the ground for a potential takeover.
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The other important thing needed to know about Mali is the longstanding dispute between the central government and the Kel Tamashek people. Nomads whose territory once stretched from Algeria in the north to Niger in the South, their way of life has been seriously impacted by the encroachment of cities and industry into their lands. A series of rebellions over the years finally resulted in a treaty being signed between the Malian government and the Kel Tamashek in 2006 which guaranteed them certain rights and economic assistance. Unfortunately the Malian government has reneged on the majority of the treaty. As a result early 2012 saw another Kel Tamashek uprising in the North. By March they had succeeded in capturing the three major cities in the region and send the Malian army packing which precipitated the military overthrown of the Malian government.

Unfortunately for the forces fighting for the Kel Tamashek, one of their more powerful factions was led by a convert to radical Islam and had established ties with Jihad groups in Algeria. As soon as the battles were won, he and his allies ousted the Kel Tamashek nationalists and set up their own fiefdom. While the Kel Tamashek's goal was to create a homeland for themselves in Northern Mali, their usurpers saw it as a springboard for taking over the whole country.

Morgan does an excellent job of outlining all the players and the details of what happened in Northern Mali in 2012. However, more importantly he shows us how susceptible developing nations are to this type of take over, with or without the general populations support. As one of the people interviewed said Malians have become so used to being pushed around by the military and corruption they have reached a point where they're just grateful to be alive and have forgotten they deserve more than just survival.

Morgan's connections to people in Mali, both in the music business and otherwise, gives him a perspective on the situation few others can offer to the outsider. Not only do we learn the details of how the music ban has affected culture in the country, but how the uprising has brought disruption into the entire region. While the combined forces of France, Chad and Mali have been able to retake the major cities in the north, the future remains uncertain as the terror groups have simply retreated to their bases outside the country or into the desert.

While there are reports of a new treaty brokered by the French between Mali and the Kel Tamashek it remains to be seen whether the Malian government will be any better in honouring this accord than the ones previously signed. As Morgan so astutely points out, as long as conditions throughout Mali, and by extension the Sahara region as a whole, do not improve, there's no saying we won't see a resurgence of terror activity.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Music, Culture & Conflict in Mali by Andy Morgan)

June 29, 2013

Book Review: The President And The Provocateur by Alex Cox


Its a conspiracy theorist's dream. Forget UFOs, the assassination of John F Kennedy, (JFK) the 35th president of the United States, on November 22 1963 remains to this day the most pored over, talked about and controversial event in modern history. No matter how loudly the official version stating Lee Harvey Oswald fired the only shots and acted on his own is shouted from the rooftops, there have always been other voices shouting other theories almost as loudly.

Depending on who you talk to JFK was killed because of a communist plot hatched by a combination of KGB and Cuban interests or a right wing conspiracy of anti-segregationists, the Secret Service, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and right wing members of the military. Of course there are various offshoots of each and even wilder and more outlandish theories to be heard as well. One goes as far as saying Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the 36th and 37th presidents respectively, were principal movers behind the plot. Trying to the various scenarios straight, let alone judge their credibility, is next to impossible. It's just too much to sort through on your own. Without some kind of semi-objective overview there's not even much point in even trying to make sense of it all.

Amazingly enough, that's exactly what Alex Cox has done with his new book The President And The Provocateur published by Feral House Press. Best known as the director of the films Repo Man and Sid and Nancy Cox is also something of a conspiracy theorist himself. However, anybody coming to this book hoping he will reveal some brand new theory on who killed JFK will be disappointed. Instead what Cox has done is do his best to unravel tangled mess of information and weave it into something resembling coherency with an eye towards as an objective a view as possible. The only slightly subjective note he strikes in the whole book is his scepticism of the official view, Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating Kennedy, as expressed by the Warren Commission.
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Instead of starting with any pre supposed theory about who killed JFK Cox has written a combination history/biography of the era the events took place in and the two men who have become the central protagonists, Kennedy and Oswald. Starting with their early years Cox switches back and forth between the two men in relating their childhoods, education and service records. Of course the differences in their lives are obvious from the start. The Kennedys were and still are the American equivalent of aristocracy and JFK's life was one of privilege from the moment he was born. Oswald on the other hand was born into a poor family in New Orleans and would have lived out his life in anonymity if not for a couple of decision as a young adult.

As the book moves forward we not only learn about the details of each man's life, we are also treated to a history of events occurring the States which end up being relevant to the matter at hand. It's once we hit the 1950s the action for both men picks up. Kennedy's dad, Joe, starts buying his son's political future by bankrolling his campaigns for Senate in preparation for the big push at the presidency in 1960. Meanwhile it was during the 1950s Oswald, a Marxist, defected to Russia where he renounced his citizenship and took up permanent residency in Minsk. As a Marine he had been stationed at facilities where operations involving the U2 spy planes were planned. However, it does not appear as if he was ever debriefed or even questioned by Soviet intelligence, the KGB. He merely took up the life of a factory worker in Minsk where he met the woman who would become his wife. However, while Kennedy was prospering back in the States, Oswald was discovering life in the Soviet Union wasn't all he had hopped for. Claiming he was bored and missing the material pleasures of the States, he negotiated with the Russians for exit visas for him and his wife and permission from the Americans to return home.

It was also during this time, the Eisenhower presidency of the late 1950s, things were starting to heat up domestically in the US. The slow progress towards the end of segregation had begun in the southern states and in reaction to the baby steps taken by the federal government attempting to ensure voter rights extreme right wing groups began organizing and bolstering their memberships in order to fight back. This was also the time America began stockpiling and testing nuclear weaponry, including early Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching targets in Russia.

By the time Kennedy took office in 1960 the ultra militant right wing had established not only various organizations through out the South, including armed militias, the Ku Klux Klan and other even more shadowy organizations, but had established a network of well placed operatives in the military, intelligence and police communities, including most members of the White House Secrete Service team. Cox's book, drawing upon FBI records and other reputable sources, does a very good job of not only detailing and offering credible proof as to their funding, power and influence, but detailing their memberships as well. Serving army generals, police chiefs, CIA field officers and millionaires who made their fortunes from oil were all on record as supporting one or another of these groups advocating violent opposition to government interference.

However, while this information is vital for establishing there were plenty of people with the motivation to kill Kennedy, Cox explores the even more intriguing way Oswald seems to have been able to be in two places at once many times over the course of his life. While the discrepancies in the accounts of where he and his mother lived when he was a child are easy to understand and explain away, the same can't be said for accounts of his movements in the weeks leading up to November 22nd 1963. According to the CIA Oswald supposedly made a trip to Mexico where he visited the Russian embassy. However, according to what J. Edgar Hoover told LBJ after the assassination, no one matching Oswald's description was seen near the premises. As the FBI routinely photographed everybody entering and leaving the embassy they would know. In fact there is no record of Oswald having ever made a trip to Mexico when he's supposed to have been visiting the embassy.

Cox raises all sorts of other questions about Oswald which not only calls into question his ability to be the assassin but also makes it look like he was set up to take the fall for whoever actually carried out the job. How did Oswald get from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository down to the lunch room on the fourth floor where he was seen shortly after the assassination took place so quickly after the shooting when there was no elevator to the top two floors? Why, out of all of his employees, did the manager of the Depository mention only Oswald's name to the police as being someone who left the scene when he had sent half his employees home? How is it the police knew in advance Oswald would be involved in the shooting of a police officer in a suburban Dallas neighbourhood shortly after the assassination? Why would Oswald, after shooting the president and then a police officer in two separate incidents, go and see a movie? Why was Oswald never allowed to speak to a lawyer after he was arrested?

Of course those questions are nothing as to the ones Cox raises about the actions of the people who were supposedly there to protect Kennedy on November 22 1963. Dallas had been the last stop on Kennedy's tour through what he and his advisors considered key states he would need to win to be re-elected in 1964, Texas and Florida. In each city prior to Dallas the president's motorcade had an escort of police motorcycles riding on either side, and secret service agents walking either beside the car or standing on the running boards. Why were neither in place for Dallas?
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Motorcades were not supposed to travel along any route requiring the president's car to slow down or break speed significantly, making it an easy target. Why was the motorcade taken on a route which saw it having to navigate both severe left and right turns, making Kennedy an easy target for a shooter? If the president's car comes under fire the driver of the vehicle is supposed to immediately accelerate out of the location. Why did his driver on hearing the first shot ring out bring the car to a complete stop?

These are only samples of the types of questions Cox's raises about the assassination. They are more than enough to raise reasonable doubts about Oswald as a lone nutter theory. Even if you can somehow swallow he was lucky enough to kill Kennedy using a cheap rifle he supposedly bought through the mail, with no previous experience as a sniper or any military records indicating he was any sort of sharp shooter, the idea he was able to carry it off without help is ridiculous.

Now some might be tempted to dismiss Cox's book as the ramblings of yet another conspiracy theorist. However, the only conspiracy he sees is the one which has kept the truth of the assassination from the world until now. He has been incredibly scrupulous in his research and nothing he says or claims is idle speculation. The footnotes for each chapter are in some cases nearly as long again as the chapters themselves as he makes sure to point out the sources for all his facts and quotes. He will on occasion give us his opinion of the source or let us know if he thinks information is suspect. However he is equally sceptical of the wilder claims made about who was in on the conspiracy to kill Kennedy as he is of the Warren Commission and other official reports on his death.

Anyone who has seen one of Cox's films know he is a great story teller, and this book is no exception. He lays out the history of events leading up to and after the assassinations of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald in a clear and easy to understand manner. He not only does a remarkable job of bringing the charged political atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s to life on the page, but does his best to be as objective as possible. However, what I found most impressive was how he concluded the book. He doesn't end by accusing anyone, or even hinting at where the finger should be pointed. What he does say is the American public deserve the truth. Not just the truth about the Kennedy assassination, but the truth about every contentious issue which has ever captivated the public's imagination.

The President And The Provocateur is not another book postulating some wild and unfounded conspiracy behind the assassinations of President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Instead Cox has taken the killings and put them into their historical context. He has also assembled what seems like every scrap of information ever reported on or recorded by a human being concerning the murders. While he makes no claims to know what exactly happened, who or how Kennedy was killed, the points he makes calls into question what currently stands as the official explanation for his murder. If reasonable doubt is grounds for acquittal in a court of law, shouldn't it also be grounds for a careful re-examination of history? The evidence Cox provides in his book is more than enough to raise reasonable doubts about the findings of the Warren Commission and any subsequent official inquiry into the killing of the 35th president of the United States of America.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The President and the Provocateur by Alex Cox)

May 19, 2013

Book Review: W.A.R.P. Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer


What is it about the Victorian era that fascinates so many modern writers these days? Not only are people setting novels in the time period, a whole sub-genre of science fiction/fantasy has developed out of it, steampunk. While the stories are set in England of the 19th century, anachronistic elements from our time period are introduced to create a kind of alternate history. What makes the best of these stories work is when the author finds a way of taking the technology of the era and giving it either abilities equivalent to what we have in our world or imbuing it with fantastical gifts equivalent to magic.

This era also saw changes in the way people thought and the things they believed possible. For the beginning of the technological age also saw the beginnings of science fiction writing. Jules Verne and H. G Wells speculated about traveling to distant planets, under the oceans and through time long before the first two were considered possible. In fact, such was the nature of Victorian society, spiritualism and other marginal sciences flourished during the time, they would have been more willing to believe in time travel and other magical events more than either travelling to the moon or delving into the earth's oceans.

In the first book of his latest young adult series, W.A.R.P. Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin published by Disney-Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Publishing Worldwide, Eoin Colfer (creator of Artemis Fowl) has opted to collide the 20th century with the Victorian era. Along the way he gives readers the chance to experience the differences between the two societies and a taste of steampunk by transplanting some modern technology and ideas into the past through the book's plot.
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The letters WARP are the acronym for an Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) top secret witness protection program, Witness Anonymous Relocation Program. Even most of the FBI's agents have never heard of the program. The only reason young Chevron Savano finds out about it is because she has been sent to London by the bureau after the trial program she was a part of blew up in their faces. Recruiting high school students to monitor potential terrorist recruits their own age had seemed like a good idea, until Savano actually had to take action to protect her suspects. It was only then the bureau realized the shaky legal and ethical ground they were on utilizing underage agents. So Savano finds herself whisked out of the country guarding a basement full of equipment which looks like its straight out of a cheesy science fiction movie in order to avoid being questioned by the United States Congress.

It turns out to be the WARP program's nerve centre. Unlike other witness protection programs which create new identities, WARP transports people back in time to Victorian England to keep them safe. Savano only finds out its true nature when the machinery comes to life one evening and accidentally transports 14 year old Riley into the future. The apprentice of a Fagin type figure, Albert Garrick, ex-stage illusionist and now the 19th century equivalent of a contract killer, Riley was transported forward to the present because his master's latest target was the inventor of WARP. At the moment of his death he activates the machine and transports both his corpse and Riley into the basement where Sayano is waiting to receive them.

When Garrick highjacks the FBI team, including Sayano's direct superior, sent back into the past to pick up the pieces, he not only follows his young charge into the future, in the process his body absorbs the consciousness and knowledge of the agent in charge of the program. Something about the mechanism changes him on a molecular level resulting in Garrick obtaining superhuman powers. Not only is he still a murderous devil, but he now possesses the ability to change his appearance and assume the identity of the agent whose thoughts he's absorbed. This not only gives him access to all the bureaus' secrets, but allows him to put the blame for the deaths of the team sent into the past on Savano.

At first Savano and Riley's main preoccupation is staying alive and free. Fleeing both the FBI and Garrick they manage to slip through both their fingers and jump back to the Victorian era with Garrick in hot pursuit. It's while in the 19th century they start to uncover the secrets of the WARP program and unravel Riley's strange life story including the secret behind his relationship with Garrick. In the process Colfer takes us on a tour of London featuring stops not on most tourists agendas. From a seedy bar, the hangout of a criminal organization know as the Battering Rams, the well appointed mansions of the mysterious spiritualist Tibor Charismo (advisor to the Queen and the Duke of Westminster and author of such wonders as the symphony "Another Brick In Yonder Wall" featuring the crazed lutist Pinkus Floyd) and finally the horror of the city's slum life in the form of the Rookery, home to the dregs and castoffs of society.
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While the story clips along at a fairly rapid pace with Colfer switching between Garrick's and Savano's perspective of events, he still manages to find the time to fill out his character's history and personalities. As Savano and Riley get to know each other we begin to learn more about each of them until they become fully developed characters.We not only learn the particulars of their lives prior to them meeting, we start to find things in them we can identify with. The same holds true with Garrick, the more we spend time with him the more we begin to understand him. While his life story raises our sympathies, unlike the two young people he chases who have chosen to rise above their troubles, we see how he took the opposite path and chose to lash out at the world.

Colfer has also done an admirable job in bringing both the modern world and the past to life. By showing us 19th century London through Savano's eyes and its modern counterpart through Riley's and Garrick's eyes they both turn into strange and wondrous places. From the way the city smells to the sounds of daily life he reminds us how much we take for granted about our own existence and creates an extremely vivid picture of what life would have been like 120 years ago. Colfer does such a good job with his depictions the past starts to feel as familiar to us as the present and we feel equally at home in either era.

W.A.R,P, Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin is first and foremost a fast paced adventure story with enough twists and turns to keep readers on their toes from the opening chapters to its close. Colfer also manages the rather tricky work of making the two worlds his story takes place in, and each setting's respective characters, believable. While the contrasts between the two eras and the character's reactions to the culture shock of shifting time adds an extra dimension to the story, it's the way Colfer manages to integrate all the elements of plot, atmosphere and character development into one cohesive unit that makes it a pleasure to read. What he's created in this first book bodes well for the rest of the series and will have his fans awaiting each new instalment with the eagerness of those who used to anticipate the next edition of The Strand and further adventures of a certain pipe smoking detective.

(Article first published as Book Review: W.A.R.P. Book One: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer on Blogcritics)

April 23, 2013

Book Review: The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman


Whenever I've wanted to learn something about a culture I'd read the stories the people told each other. Not the stories others tell about them, or what's been written about them in history books, but the ones which have been passed down from generation to generation. They could be anything from myths to family histories, but they all contain elements of what a people believe in and their view of the world's history. The more stories you read the clearer a picture you begin to develop of how a people live and what matters to them.

In this era of globalization and cultural homogenization I think its even more important than ever to understand the things which distinguish various peoples from each other. It's become far too easy to make pejorative statements about an entire race or creed because we've not taken the time to understand the various nuances and distinctions among the wide variety of people who make up the population of a country let alone a religion. In the West we are especially guilty of making these types of generalizations when talking about countries outside North America and Europe. One of the most glaring examples of this is Afghanistan.

If ever a country has been the plaything of Western powers it's been this remote country bordering Pakistan and Iran. From the British and Russians manipulating its rulers back in the 19th century to the Russians and Americans using it to fight the Cold War in the 1980s and today's supposed ongoing war on terror being conducted by occupying NATO troops, peace is something that breaks out between what has been an almost constant state of war in the country for almost two centuries. Yet in spite of our countries direct involvement with the affairs of this nation, we know little or nothing about it.
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In the hopes of learning more about the country and its people I requested a copy of The Honey Thief written by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman published by Penguin Canada. Mazari immigrated from Afghanistan to Australia in 2000 escaping the Taliban. Technically speaking this book isn't about the people of Afghanistan, mainly because there is no one group of people who can be said to be Afghanistan. The country is divided along ethnic lines both geographically and socially and Mazari is Hazara. The Hazara now live, predominately, in the central mountainous region of the country known as the Hazarajat.

While the Hazara are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, one of the first things we learn from Mazari is they have been one of the most persecuted. From the 19th century well into the 20th century they were the victims of what amounts to systematic genocide by the ruling Barakzai family of Afghanistan. When whole villages weren't being exterminated by government soldiers their land was been taken from them. When the members of the royal family weren't busy plotting against each other, they were buying the loyalty of their soldiers and friends by giving them Hazara land.

While the history of persecution obviously colours and shapes the lives of the Hazara people it's only one thread running through the narrative of the people. The stories in The Honey Thief are filled with details which will never find their way into history books. We learn about their ingenuity and their will to survive in spite of what the world throws at them. In "The Snow Leopard", a British photographer is taken into the mountains by a Hazara guide in search of Snow Leopards to photograph, we are given a guided tour of the environment they live in. We learn how the valleys in mountain ranges are used to grow food and how if a valley doesn't have good soil, they will carry soil from other areas into the valley in order to grow crops.

We also learn a little of their philosophy regarding the world around them. In the book's title story, "The Honey Thief", a young man is apprenticed to a bee keeper to learn the delicate mysteries of collecting honey. His new master tells him how he became a bee keeper after he was caught stealing honey by the young man's grandfather. It was thought, he explains to his new apprentice, since he was able to steal honey from the bees without being stung he would make a good bee keeper because bees hate it when people steal the honey they've worked so hard to collect. The bee keeper goes on to explain to his young charge bees, like all domestic animals, are slaves to men, and we steal from all of them.

This tale isn't meant as a morality lesson, rather a lesson in the realities of existence. Be aware of exactly what it is you're doing in order to survive and you will understand why others act they way do in response. Is it any wonder chickens will attempt to hide their eggs or bees attempt to sting us when we keep them enslaved and steal from them as well? This is quite a bit more sophisticated and honest understanding of the relationship between man and the beasts we use for food and domestic work than we hear expressed by most people.
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While the stories are both profoundly beautiful and moving they also serve to fill in the details of everyday life among the Hazara people outsiders would only learn after years of observation. While they might have a natural mistrust of strangers, especially those from other ethnic groups, once a person has shown his or herself to be harmless they will be accepted. Or, unlike other subsistence people whose lives depend on what they can produce from their fields or by the labour of their own hands, they understand the value of education. If the chance arises they will send their children, both boys and girls, to school.

While every Hazara child learns from their parent basic precepts of respect and obedience for their parents and their God, they also recognize there are exceptions to every rule. In the story "The Music School", a mute teenager learns how to give voice to his thoughts with a musical instrument. He is desperate to tell the young woman he loves how he feels about her, but his teacher has forbidden him to play in public until four years have passed from when he began his lessons.

Fearing she will have found someone else in that time he disobeys his teacher, plays for the young women and wins her heart. When he goes to return his instrument to his teacher's house he fully expects to be punished and probably be forbidden from studying anymore. Instead his teacher gives him six gold coins to help him start his new family and tells him to take the instrument home and bring it back the next day for another lesson. As the young man is leaving, stunned by his good fortune, his teacher says to him "God is patient with the obedient, but he treasures the disobedient".

Trying to write out stories which have only previously been told aloud is one of the hardest tasks facing a writer. However Mazari and Hillman have done a remarkable job with this collection of capturing the immediacy which exists between the storyteller and his or her audience. In fact there are times when reading these stories you can hear them being told to you in your mind's ear. There's something about the writing style they've employed which makes them read like they're being spoken aloud to you. The more you read, the more this world comes alive until you can almost picture yourself amongst a community as they gather to hear their stories.

Mazari finishes the book off with a collection of recipes for various Hazara dishes. The instructions for preparing the dishes are stories in of themselves as the various asides offer us even further insights into the people's attitudes towards life. The Honey Thief goes a long way towards belying the impression we've been given of the people of Afghanistan as either savages or ignorant peasants desperately needing to be saved by the West. Stories like this collection should be required reading for every journalist or politician prior to them making public statements about Afghanistan.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman on Blogcritics.)

March 30, 2013

Book Review: River Of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay


When I was making my first tentative steps into the world of the arts it was the writers who used words to create works of wonder and beauty who inspired me the most. I remember being filled with awe at their abilities to make even the grotesque seem wondrous and amazing. But somewhere around the middle of the 20th century elegance and beauty began to be supplanted by harsh terse prose posing as realism. It was if we had become convinced the only way to convey the human experience was by sucking the beauty out of it and reducing it to its base elements. While it's true the excesses of romanticism needed to be checked, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

There was a time when writers like Dickens and Poe were considered popular fiction. Now, those who would strive to be their equals are relegated to the seemingly elitist genre of literary fiction thus deterring the average reader from experiencing their writings. As a result the publishing industry groans under the weight of the equivalent of fast food it produces each year and wonders why they are losing money. When someone rises from the dining table feeling stuffed but unsatisfied, not only is their health put at risk, but they gradually lose interest in what's set before them. With nothing to hold their attention they will only pick at their plates or be easily diverted.

The sad part is that most of the time we don't know what we're missing. When there's almost nothing to hold up as a standard against which to judge everything else, it's easy to think there aren't any options. However, there are still the occasional authors out there writing popular fiction able to create approachable work while aspiring to make reading an inspiring and special experience. As soon as you open the pages of Guy Gavriel Kay's latest book, River of Stars published by Penguin Canada, you know you'll have such an author.
Cover River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay.jpg
This is Kay's second book set in Kitai, a fictional version of Imperial China. Its predecessor, Under Heaven, was set in the period when the empire's borders were protected by the Great Wall and the world flowed down the Silk Road to fill its cities with splendour and wealth, a few hundred years have passed since then and much has changed. The Wall has long since fallen and the barbarian hordes it once kept at bay control much of what was the empire. Instead of deciding which of the tribal leaders they should prop up in order to best serve the empire, the Emperor's advisors must now ensure they placate the powerful among them with annual tribute payments.

In some ways Kitai has become a mockery of its former glory. In reaction to what were deemed the excesses at the heart of the civil war which tore he empire apart (see Under Heaven for details radical policy changes were instituted by the court. As it was a military governor responsible for the civil war martial competence is seen as dangerous and discouraged among high ranking officials in the court. The contraction of the empire's borders is the price they have paid for instilling the belief a person of breeding is above such earthy concerns. After all if the barbarian hordes are so adroit at warfare, than it ill behooves those at the centre of the universe serving the Emperor, the son of heaven, to sully their minds with with such lowly thoughts. So what if the empire send armies off to die when their commander in chief forgets to bring siege engines when ordered to conquer the capital city of another country.

The conservatism, or fear, which dictates policy in Kitai has also seen changes to the way women of higher rank are treated. More and more daughters and wives are pushed into the background. The idea that a respectable family would educate their daughter, teaching her to read and write, to have opinions and think for herself is unheard of. What use would that be to her when she is destined for a life of service to whomever she is lucky enough to marry..

This is the Kitai both Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are born into. The former is the son of a clerk to a provincial magistrate and the latter the only daughter of a scholar. Both are ill suited to the new realities of the empire. Ever since he was a boy Daiyan has dreamed of leading the armies of Kitai in reclaiming the territories they've lost to the barbarian hoards. Shan is equally ill advised in her ambitions as she writes poetry and even sets it to music. While she would not be considered a threat like Daiyan, her abilities have made her a figure of oddity in her social circle.
Guy Gavriel Kay by John MacDonald.jpg
Aside from their having unconventional behaviour in common, Daiyan and Shan are also fated to come to the attention of people of influence. While this helps Daiyan in achieving his dreams of becoming a military leader and allows Shan to be recognized for her abilities as a poet - even by as an exalted a figure as the Emperor - attention, intelligence and success aren't necessarily a winning combination in this world. When those in power notice you, they make use of you for their own ends and you may end up wishing you kept a lower profile.

While Daiyan and Shan are important to the story they are still only two figures on a crowded canvas in the elaborate painting of events Kay has brought to life. With great care and skill he draws our focus to events and characters at its furthest reaches. What happens on the periphery might at first seem inconsequential and have no bearing on the lives of those at the centre. However, as every brush stroke relates to the one next to it when the artist lays ink to paper, everything is interconnected. Over the course of the book Kay carefully brings together the disparate elements of plot and character to form a cohesive, multi-textured and vibrant image.

Through the careful attention to detail he uses to bring even the most minor characters and their environments to life, Kay is able to bring home to us the reality of what it must have been like when the empire was in its death throes. From the arrogance of the high court officials, the peasant who suffers the consequence of their leader's actions to the vengeful barbarian hoards intent on pillage and conquering we see the world through a multitude of eyes. Each of these perspectives is another layer of reality and serves to make Kay's work all the more vivid and arresting.

While he doesn't stint from depicting the brutal realities of the world, men think nothing of ordering someone beaten to death with bamboo cane or enjoy watching their enemies heads being eaten alive by fire ants, neither does he glory in them or sensationalize them. They are facts of life, nothing more, nothing less. However, and in some ways more importantly, he doesn't glorify the opulence of the Empire either. While we are given lovingly detailed descriptions of beautifully decorated chambers and the resplendent garden the Emperor has built, we are also given carefully detailed descriptions of their costs in lives and money. These are not the symbols of an Empire's glory, they are signs of its dissolute nature and arrogance.

Kay has the uncanny ability to depict the grand sweep of historical events through the eyes of those living through them. In doing so he lets us see how history is never the cut and dried thing it appears in history books. He shows us how seemingly unrelated events, both large and small. build upon each other until they finally reach a tipping point from which there is no return. While on the surface it may appear there was one pivotal moment upon which everything depended, no moment stands completely alone or is unaffected by what came before it.

What's even more amazing is how through his careful rendering of character and environments we are drawn into this history. The people and the culture they live in become more than just descriptions on the page as he manages to capture those elements of each which make them vital and alive. Yet there is more than just simple realism at work in his depictions. There is an emotional depth to Kay's work which takes it out of the realm of the he did this and then followed it up with that action we find in most fiction. Nor is there the hyperbole, melodrama or emotional manipulation which too often passes for "depth". His work is a delicate balancing act between 19th century naturalism/romanticism and the realism of the modern era that satisfies all of our emotional and logical needs.

River Of Stars is an exceptional piece of work. Right from the start we are drawn into a rich and exotic but very real world. The people populating this world are multi-dimensional individuals with an emotional depth one hardly ever sees in popular fiction anymore. While the book describes the grand sweep of major historical events, because we experience them through the eyes of his characters we never lose sight of the those who are caught up by their turmoil. History has never felt or been more real and reading about it such a pleasure.

Book Review: River Of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay on Blogcritics.)

Author photo John W MacDonald